Chuck Connor (Joel McCrea) is a carefree cowboy on his way to California when he visits an old friend who meets an untimely demise. Whereupon Chuck finds himself saddled with the widower's four orphaned boys: Tommy (Orley Lindgren), Robbie (Jimmy Hunt, of Invaders from Mars (1953)), Johnnie (Gordon Gebert) and Butch (Gregory Moffett). With the kids homeless and penniless, Chuck is ridden with guilt since his own unruly horse was responsible for throwing their pa. So the kindly cowpoke takes a job at a ranch run by grumpy Jess Higgins (John McIntire), an old man who unfortunately hates kids. As a result Chuck hides the children in the woods, sneaking food out to them every night, but soon ends up with more trouble on his hands.
We live in a post-Unforgiven (1992), post-Deadwood world where the only makers of westerns anyone name-checks anymore are Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone. So it is easy to forget that westerns were once a family friendly genre. Saddle Tramp is a thoroughly amiable relic of an era when cowboys were clean-cut heroes adored by children across America but also illustrates how family films can convey potent socio-political messages. Written by Harold Schumate, an incredibly prolific western scribe with around one hundred and eight screenplays to his credit for film and television, the central conceit of the lone wandering cowboy having to lay his guns and settle down to raise a family was aimed squarely at the post-Second World War audience. Chuck is a man who loves the freedom of the open range above all else: “It's responsibilities that kill a man, young. Give me a horse and a quiet stretch of country.” Schumate's lyrical, keenly paced script gets off to a fine start as an old codger takes a shot at Chuck just to spark up a conversation. “That's the problem with people nowadays, everyone minds their own business.”
No man is an island. This theme was eloquently explored in the westerns James Stewart made with director Anthony Mann. Yet in its own charming way Saddle Tramp illustrates how the American West needs the vitality of young families to sustain it. The film argues that raising a family is every bit as heroic as taming the West. Schumate's script manages to yoke a great deal of emotion out of situation without crossing the line into saccharine territory, which is always a risk when children are involved. However, the four boys are well drawn, appealing characters and director Hugo Fregonese injects a welcome streak of knockabout comedy. Indeed the film is often laugh-out loud funny including a ridiculous running gag wherein Ma Higgins (Jeanette Nolan) mistakes the children for leprechauns. The Argentinean-born Fregonese had an eclectic, some might say erratic, career encompassing crime thrillers and westerns like the Gary Cooper-Barbara Stanwyck team-up Blowing Wild (1953), Jack the Ripper thriller Man in the Attic (1955) and Decameron Nights (1953) – a Boccaccio adaptation starring Joan Fontaine. In the Sixties he left Hollywood for Europe where he made several Karl May westerns in Germany, co-directed The Devilish Dr. Mabuse (1964) and Assignment Terror (1970), one of the early Waldemar the Werewolf vehicles for Spanish horror icon Paul Naschy a.k.a. Jacinto Molina Alvarez, before settling in his native Argentina with a run of Seventies melodramas.
Wisely the filmmakers do not settle on “cowboy raises kids” as their one and only plot thread. One day Chuck discovers the boys have been joined by pretty runaway Della (Wanda Hendrix) who is out to escape a lecherous uncle (Ed Begley). Hendrix gives a winning performance as her character slowly blossoms from teenage tomboy into a capable, beautiful woman who of course becomes Chuck's love interest although the big galoot is slow to admit his feelings. Additionally Chuck finds himself caught in the midst of a feud between Higgins and Mexican ranch boss Martinez (Antonio Moreno), although his instincts tell him there is something more shifty going on orchestrated by the former's foreman Rocky played by John Russell whose snake-eyed villainy graced scores of westerns from the Forties to the Eighties. Both plot strands play into the overall theme of old men grumbling about ungrateful children when it turns out they are the ones at fault. Fregonese throws in plenty of hair-raising action to counterbalance the soft edges but the message overall is one that embraces community and family and the whole idea of settling down to make something out of yourself and, by proxy, your country. Interestingly decades later when Joel McCrea came out of retirement to make his final film, Mustang Country (1976), it dealt with similar themes that were likely close to his heart. One of the great western actors, though his versatility remains much underrated, McCrea is incredibly affable here as the hero so tough he never pulls a gun on a villain. Just knocks 'em flat.