The Hal Roach team went serious with this western starring Rex the Wonder Horse and Charley Chase (as Charles Parrott) as the reluctant villain.
Hal Roach is known for producing comedies and rightly so. The crew on the Lot of Fun created some of the most iconic moments of onscreen humor and some of the most iconic teams. However, Roach felt the need to diversify his product and his brand also made adventure features and serials.
King of the Wild Horses was meant as a showcase for Rex, a stunning Morgan with a notorious temper. That temper became part of the picture’s marketing campaign with Rex’s infamy as a man-killing brute becoming bigger and better with every telling. For what it’s worth, I looked up the name of Rex’s stable in Colorado and could find no references to this allegedly world famous killer horse prior to the Roach publicity tour.
Rex’s most famous accomplishment really isn’t in any movie. He was one of the creatures, along with Clara Bow and Antonio Moreno, declared to have “IT” by author Elinor Glyn. Glyn was another master of ballyhoo, so successful that “it girl” is still in our vocabulary. It horse, not so much. But in any case, Rex is generally remembered as the sexy horse of the silver screen.
Publicity around King of the Wild Horses made much of Rex’s alleged stint as a horsey runaway, not exactly presenting the picture as the real story of its equine star but not exactly denying it either. All I can say is that the human cast doesn’t look entirely comfortable around Rex. In fact, there is one scene in which the horse shoves one of the male stars and it looks a little to rough to be fake.
There is really nothing to the plot, it’s essentially a two-reeler stretched out to feature length with intertitles by Roach regular Beanie Walker. Walker was famous for his clever turns of phrase and he slips a few into this picture but most of the cards are just waxing poetic about sexy Rexy.
Rex plays the Black, the untamed leader of wild horses. Since mares love bad boys, they have been sneaking away from their ranches in droves to join him. This pleases the ranchers not at all but there’s nothing they can do because the Black is wily and impossible to catch.
The Fielding family has moved from the big city to a ranch but the reason for their missing horses is different. The son of the family, Boyd (Charley Chase billed as Charles Parrott), has been passing the horses onto the ranch foreman, Wade Hartigan (Pat Galvin), in order to pay off a gambling debt. His sister, Mary (Edna Murphy), suspects something is up but their father (Sidney De Grey) is in the dark.
Meanwhile, local cowboy Billy Blair (Leon Bary) is riding to call on Mary when he sees the Black fighting a rival horse called the White. Billy becomes obsessed with the idea of catching the elusive horse.
The rest of the picture is pretty much taken up with Billy trying to befriend the Black and Boyd hemming and hawing about getting involved in worse crimes at the behest of Hartigan. I think just about anyone will see where the picture is going but there are interesting elements.
Modern viewers probably know Leon Bary best for his role as Athos in Douglas Fairbanks’s Three Musketeers pictures and the romantic lead in the 1920 version of Kismet. It took me a moment to recognize him since I am used to see him in ornate brocade but he does well enough given that he is playing second banana to a horse.
Edna Murphy is similarly capable but I found it interesting that the “girl” behavior of this western is divided between Murphy and Chase. (Spoiler, I guess.) For example, the film ends with a chase between Hartigan in a wagon and Billy in pursuit riding the Black. I would have expected Hartigan to grab Mary if he was after a hostage (he earlier tried to chase Billy away from her) but he takes Boyd instead. I am not sure if this was because Chase was meant to be a more comedic character but the balance of funny and drama doesn’t really work. Perhaps Roach’s team didn’t want to go too far onto the comedy side of things.
This speaks to one of the major issues modern viewers will have with this picture: we have to let go of the idea of Hal Roach’s team always meaning comedy and this is challenging with the Chase and Beanie Walker’s titles.
However, it is obvious that the real draw is Rex. I won’t complain too much about the glistening, pristine coat on this allegedly wild horse because, well, what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander and plenty of two-legged stars parade around in pristine hair and makeup in allegedly wilderness settings.
For cinematic mounts, my gold standard is Topper, the gorgeous white horse ridden by William Boyd as Hopalong Cassidy. Topper was a star from head to hoof and knew it. He would muscle his way in front of other horses that were hogging the frame before galloping off with a sassy tail flip. Boyd treated him like a king and loved the horse’s calm nature. Overenthusiastic young fans would sometimes move suddenly or try to touch the famous tail but Topper took it all in stride and never once was a danger to his public.
While Rex is indeed a lovely horse (at least in my non-expert opinion), putting him with people was not much a favor to either man or beast. Nobody in the picture looks particularly comfortable and Leon Bary openly bribes him with sugar and is shoved off a fence for his troubles.
According to the publicity (so take it as you will), Rex was tormented by cruel children to the point that even making a face at him would dangerously enrage him. Quite understandable if true. Children must be supervised when they make contact with animals and the best gift a parent can give a child is to teach them how to safely interact with common companion and working animals.
I was also highly uncomfortable with the fight between the Black and the White, which basically seemed to consist of setting Rex on another male horse he didn’t like and letting him chase and bite him. (Horse bites are no joke!) The reason why I skipped the 1933 version of King of the Wild Horses is that, if anything, Rex is even more violent and actually kills his onscreen rival. (I don’t believe the other horse actually died in the 1933 picture and please do not tell me if you hear anything different.)
The film was a handsome success and Rex continued to star as the bad boy of wild west horses. In fact, a poll of American theater owners put it slightly ahead of The Iron Horse as a big moneymaker for them.
As amusing as it is to see Charley Chase and other Roach veterans in this western, I was highly uncomfortable with the use of Rex. I do not find stories of filmmakers endangering their casts to get the perfect shot or added realism to be at all charming or impressive. Rex should have been in a sanctuary, not on a set. I have no doubt that some amount of exaggeration has crept into the narrative over the years but if Rex was even half as violent as advertised, that’s still too much for me.
Where can I see it?
Only available on DVD from Alpha. Here’s hoping a higher quality edition becomes available.