Two B westerns, two years apart with the same title. Both are off the beaten path and good in their own way.
First is the 1932 Mystery Ranch, atmospherically directed by David Howard and starring George O’ Brien. This Ranch might be aptly described as a Gothic western, often looking more like an early thirties horror film than a western. Charles Middleton is a tyrannical land baron and a piano playing, manipulative sadist who is holding his dead partner’s daughter, Cecilia Parker, hostage in order to force her into marriage and seize control of the Arizona valley. Middleton is so chilling, so slimy that he leaves a trail and, in the process, steals every scene he is in. Joseph August’s expressionistic camerawork certainly helps when the villain is so moodily lit. You know from that outset that any villain who would stoop to bullwhipping a deaf-mute native American henchman is going to mean trouble for O’Brien, and our hero has his hands full trying to save the fair maiden from her evil guardian.
Mystery Ranch (1932) is suspenseful to the nail-biting level, has a great action sequence, is aptly scored, and climaxes with a great end for the villain. Many of O’ Brien’s westerns were a notch above (of course, quite a few were several notches below) and the star holds his own with Middleton. The scene in which the two are riding side by side, playing a suave cat & mouse dialogue until Middleton lays it all down, has a quality similar to the best James Bond/villain scenes.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is Mystery Ranch (1934), directed by B.B. Ray and Starring perennial “B” favorite Tom Tyler (who also played a strange Mummy in Universal’s The Mummy’s Hand).
This Mystery Ranch opens with a bizarre scene in grotesque, high melodramatic, grand stand vaudeville style. The added-on, delivered dialogue is just as flowery and absurdly theatrical. It turns out that it’s just a scene from the latest book of pulp novelist Tom Tyler. Tom’s daddy lectures his son for trivializing the west. Soon, an opportunity comes, in the form of a invitation by letter, for Tom to get a glimpse of the real west. Tom goes to visit The Mystery Ranch. Only, it’s a scam to get some publicity for the ranchers, who, at first see Tom merely as a hack dime western novelist. They stage a fake lynching, hold-ups, and a duel. Tom gets wise and decides to turn the tables on his pranksters. Of course, a real hold-up takes place and it’s a case of “the boy who cried wolf.” The real hold-up scenario gets mixed up with Tom’s fake hold-up, which in turn gets another “one good gag deserves another good gag” gag. One halfway expects Tom to shout out, “Let’s go play hide and seek!”
This film plays, at time, like an unintentionally surreal sitcom comedy filtered through B-western sensibilities. Of course there is a pretty girl and the obligatory fight between the real bad guys and Tom, in tight jeans,over some stolen gold bullion. There is even a spanking and, of course, a happy ending, with Tom proudly proclaiming “Now I have a great idea for new story,” getting the pretty girl and a last line of comedy relief. A real curio.