During the 1940s, Roy Rogers rightfully earned the title “King of the Cowboys” for starring in a jolly series of B-Westerns in which he successfully fought a variety of black-hatted bad guys with the help of various music and comedy sidekicks and the four-legged input of his trusty horse Trigger. Yet it wasn’t until 1944 and the film “The Cowboy and the Senorita” that Rogers was matched with a reel-life love interest who later became his real-life partner: the vivacious Dale Evans.
Originally running 77 minutes, “The Cowboy and the Senorita” was later cut down to a too-tight 53 minutes when the film was made available for television broadcast in the 1950s. Although the substantial slicing made a mess of the film’s continuity and pacing, the film remained a staple for viewing in the early days of television. But for reasons that no one could ever entirely explain, the negative and all prints of the original 77 minute version later became lost and all that remained of the film (which Dale Evans always stated was her favorite performance) was the heavily edited version. Remarkably, the last known print of the original uncut version was only recently located during an inventory check of the Rogers-Evans family film archive and it is now being presented for the first time in nearly 60 years.
By contemporary standards, “The Cowboy and the Senorita” is rather quaint and a bit on the hokey side. This is not the intellectually shadowy world of a John Ford Western, but rather the unique never-never land of B-Westerns where the characters seemed to be living in two epochs at once: the Old West where everyone rode horses and hung out in saloons and the New West where the latest automobiles and electronic gadgetry were called into use as the plot saw fit. Nobody ever lost their cowboy hat, no matter how fast their horses galloped or how hard they were punched by an enemy desperado. And, of course, there was plenty of opportunity for everyone to break into an occasional song, whether sitting around the campfire or riding off into the proverbial sunset. To their credit, these films never pretended to be sophisticated…they only wanted to provide diversion and entertainment. For the audiences in the 1940s, who were pre-occupied by the horrors of World War II and the various crises and deprivations on the home front, these sunny B-Movies offered much-needed and much-welcomed escapism from the unpleasant real world.
“The Cowboy and the Senorita” finds Roy Rogers and his oversized dum-dum comic sidekick Guinn “Big Boy” Williams (referred to as “Teddy Bear”) riding about the range in search of employment. They just lost a job at a fancy restaurant thanks to “Big Boy” being tripped by an obnoxious fat child and dropping a tray full of food on a sputtering malcontent (the little chubby is an unbilled Spanky McFarland, past his “Our Gang” prime); Roy was the entertainment at the restaurant, but no one seemed to like his singing. Any way, these two characters ride into town and somehow get pegged as being the kidnappers of the missing teenage daughter of a recently deceased miner. Roy and “Big Boy” escape from the sheriff in a terrific fight (complete with swinging off chandeliers) and escape to the woods, where they find…the missing teenager! It seems she believes her father had buried a treasure in a played-out mine that her half-sister is about to sell to the local evil businessman (he has a black hat and a sneer, which helps the audience understand where he’s coming from). Needless to say, Roy and “Big Boy” help this poor kid and her rather sexy older half-sister (played by Dale Evans) find their father’s buried treasure and give the local villain his much-needed comeuppance.
Okay, this isn’t “Stagecoach” or “Duel in the Sun,” but so what? “The Cowboy and the Senorita” is a wonderfully breezy nostalgia trip from a time when audiences were only interested in entertainment and diversion. What the film lacks in art or surprise, it more than compensates with good humor and gentle charm, and it is a refreshing pause from this day of cynically vulgar filmmaking to enjoy a peek back to a time when on-screen characters treated each other (and the audience) with intelligence rather than contempt.
For anyone who never saw a Roy Rogers film, this is a perfect introduction to the star: he was a handsome young man equally adept at physical comedy, action/adventure, singing a cowboy tune or two, and a nicely old-fashioned brand of romancing. His star level was not by default or accident…he was clearly a great and often underappreciated talent. And it is obvious from her first scene here that Dale Evans was Rogers’ perfect partner: she was a natural screen presence, truly beautiful in appearance and personality, and her when she is on-screen here it is difficult to pay attention to anything else that shares the camera range with her. Had she not teamed with Rogers on-screen and off-screen, she would have easily been a major star on her own.
On a sociological level, “The Cowboy and the Senorita” is one of the rare films of its time to present Mexican-Americans with respect. Dale Evans character in this film is of Mexican heritage, yet the film is mercifully free of the negative stereotypes which plagues the depiction of Latinas during this era. Also surprising is the inspiration for this film: producer Herbert Yates was reportedly captivated by the then-popular Broadway musical “Oklahoma!” with its stage full of singing and dancing cowboys and cowgirls and decided to create a musical Western of a similar vein. However, “The Cowboy and the Senorita” and “Oklahoma!” have as much in common as “Rashomon” and “Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster”…but never mind that. (Actually, “The Cowboy and the Senorita” is a lot more fun than the later film version of “Oklahoma!”)
The restoration of “The Cowboy and the Senorita” may not be of the same newsworthy stature as the restoration of some overblown Hollywood epic or European art film, and that is actually a shame. For many years, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans brought a high level of happiness to millions of people, and their devoted fans should be glad to know that this nifty little film can now be seen as it was originally produced. Happy trails to you, Roy and Dale!