I love the classic Christmas movies as much as the next person, but familiarity with them over the years tends to breed….not contempt, but a mild kind of ennui. I need to take a break from watching titles like “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) or “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947) and return to them a few years down the road so I don’t tire of them.
But I still adore Christmas movies and an always on the lookout for new ones to savor. Last year I saw for the first time the delightful “Holiday Affair” (1949) with Robert Mitchum and Janet Leigh, which I will be returning to with much happy anticipation.
One title that doesn’t sound like a Christmas movie but is one is “Trail of Robin Hood” (1950), a Republic B-western starring Roy Rogers as a U.S. Soil Conservation worker going after Christmas tree rustlers.
Christmas tree rustlers? Scoff if you must, but it’s a most pleasant 67-minute film that left me thoroughly entertained and brimming with holiday cheer.
Filmed in TruColor, an admittedly lesser though acceptable color process, “Trail of Robin Hood” is set in Republic’s contemporary western fantasy land, where six shooters and buck board wagons share the scene with convertibles and televisions.
In one of his last films Jack Holt plays himself, a retired screen actor and now tree farmer who has earned enough money that he wants to sell Christmas trees to needy families and the local orphanages for 75 cents each, rather than the much higher prices charged by J. Corwin Aldridge (Emory Parnell), a businessman from the big city who possesses a monopoly on Christmas tree sales in the area, save for Holt’s farm.
Aldridge’s daughter Toby (not Dale Evans, but Penny Edwards) volunteers to head down to see what the hold up is with Holt not signing on with her father.
She meets with Roy Rogers and soon throws in with him, especially since Aldridge’s main muscle Mitch McCall (Clifton Young) has gone from stealing Christmas trees from Holt’s farm to acts of vandalism, arson and beating up Holt’s drivers, all in an attempt to cut out Aldridge and keep all the profits to himself.
With the drivers too scared to deliver their wagons of Christmas trees to the orphans, who comes to the rescue but a slew of past and present cowboy stars playing themselves. Riding into town and volunteering to drive the wagons full of Christmas trees are current cowboy stars Rex Allen (Republic’s other singing cowboy), Allan “Rocky” Lane and Monte Hale. Matinee cowboy stars from previous eras include William Farnum, Tom Tyler, Ray “Crash” Corrigan, Kermit Maynard (Ken’s brother) and Tom Keene.
This being a Roy Rogers movie, there are plenty of songs. There are no Christmas standards on hand – I guess Roy felt there was no way he was going to compete with Gene Autry in that field – but the songs are very pleasant. They include such titles as “Get a Christmas Tree for Johnny” and “Every Day is Christmas in the West.”
(You may not have heard of them but they are very likeable, hummable and are infinitely preferable to Paul McCartney’s “We’re Having a Wonderful Christmas Time”, my vote for the most execrable Christmas song of all time. End of aside.)
Director is ace action expert William Witney, a great favorite of Quentin Tarantino. He knows how to keep a good balance between the songs and the action, and anyone bored with the songs still have their fill of horseback chases, rescues from burning buildings and fist fights. Concurrently, those bored with the action have pleasant music interludes to enjoy.
The climax is an exciting one, involving all those great cowboy stars racing their wagons full of Christmas trees across a burning railroad trestle, while on the ground below Rogers and McCall duke it out in the best Republic fist fight tradition.
I don’t think I’m giving anything away that the Christmas trees are safely delivered. Aldridge decides to team up with Holt to provide affordable Christmas trees to everyone. In the last scene it starts snowing and Roy Rogers and Trigger ride off, accompanied by his dog Bullet.
To be sure “Trail of Robin Hood” will never make anyone list of great Christmas movies, but I had a most enjoyable time watching it. I can only imagine how kids in 1950 flocked to see this one, seeing Roy Rogers and Trigger take on a gang of meanies hijacking Christmas trees meant for the local orphans.
I would imagine adults enjoyed it too, and despite its modest pleasures, I look forward to re-visiting this one, along with George Bailey, Kris Kringle, Dudley the Angel, Mr. Matuschek and so many others.
It also made me wonder how many other cinematic Christmas gems are out there waiting to be unwrapped.