Red River Valley
Black and white, 1936
Directed by B. Reeves Eason
Runtime: 59 minutes
Starring: Gene Autry (Gene Autry), Smiley Burnette (Frog Millhouse), Frances Grant (Mary Baxter), Boothe Howard (Steve Conway), Sam Flint (George Baxter), George Chesebro (Bull Dural), Eugene Jackson (Iodine), Edward Hearn (Sheriff Ed), Frank LaRue (Hartley Moore)
The movie opens to scenes of a large, modern dam on the Red River and the office of the Red River Land and Irrigation Company. A black boy named Iodine rides up to the office and breathlessly passes along the news that someone has blown up a gate on the dam, killing the ditch rider who was inspecting it. A train car full of workmen head out to repair the damage.
Gene Autry and his guitar-playing sidekick Frog then arrive in town, driving a herd of cattle that will be beef for the dam workmen. Autry sings and yodels while Frog strums.
As they corral the cattle, a steer jumps the fence and runs down the main street. As Autry and Frog chase the animal, it nearly tramples two young children playing in the street. At the last moment, Autry ropes the steer and wrestles it to the ground while Mary Baxter, the boss's daughter from the irrigation company, rushes out to sweep the children from harm's way. Mary sharply criticizes Autry for not keeping his cattle under control, while Autry attempts to flirt with her to no avail.
When he enters the irrigation company office to get his pay for the cattle, Autry overhears concerned ranchers discussing the recent dynamite incident. They are worried that the dam project will not be completed in time and that their ranches will fail for lack of water.
Autry volunteers to be the new "ditch rider"-- the man who will oversee the dam construction. He learns that five men have already been killed in the line of duty. Bull Dural, one of the men working on the dam's construction, decides he dislikes Autry and gives him a hard time about taking the job. Mary, however, has softened toward Autry and offers to show him around the project.
As Autry inspects a portion of the dam, a man hiding on the river bank shoots the hat from his head. Playing dead, Autry drops in the water and watches as the man rides away. Autry later spots the horse of the man who shot at him parked outside the local saloon. Inside the saloon, Autry looks around as the audience is treated a some musical numbers by a jug band.
Steve Conway, the office manager for the irrigation company, meets with Bull and two other men to plan a sabotage on gate 9 of the dam. The group rigs the gate with dynamite so that it will blow up when Autry closes it for inspection.
Later, while Autry and Frog close gate 9, the fuse to the dynamite is triggered and lit. Autry notices the lit fuse and shoots it off in time to save both of them and the dam.
Autry and Frog ride back to town and head into the saloon, waiting to see which of the men will be most surprised to see them alive. While waiting and scanning the crowd, Autry sings Red River Valley on stage. When the two saboteurs arrive at the bar and are shocked to see their ditch rider alive, Autry keeps an eye on them while Frog does a musical number.
The men return to the dam to remove the evidence. Autry and Frog capture them, returning to town to have them questioned by the sheriff. Because there isn't enough evidence to hold them, the men are set free and they head out of town.
Meanwhile, the dam workers payday has arrived, and the men are anxious for their money. George Baxter, the dam company owner and a rancher, tells the men that due to the continuing complications arising from sabotage, there will be no money until the following week. The men become upset and refuse to work any longer until they are paid.
The ranchers, desperate for water, try to get additional money from banker Hartley Moore, who already owns half of their properties in mortgage. The ranchers want to mortgage the rest of their land in order to get the dam completed.
Autry tries to talk the diggers into returning to work. Bull argues with Autry, causing Autry to humiliate him by forcing him to sing in front of the men. Using his pistol as a conductor's baton, Autry gets all the men to sing a song, ensuring them that they'll feel better if they do. As the song progresses, harmony ensues (literally and figuratively, as some men break into harmony around the last chorus). George Baxter returns to the diggers with news of double pay on the next payday, thanks to Moore, if the men promise to keep on. The men agree.
When payday arrives, the men line up outside the office, awaiting their money. Bull picks a fight with Autry and the two go at it with their fists. While the fighting is happening outside, the payroll is robbed from the office. When the men find out the money has been stolen, Conway declares it was Autry's men who took the money while Autry created a diversion with the fistfight.
Autry and Frog escape as some of the men pursue them. They make a daring dive off a cliff into the river below while still on their horses, and they escape downstream. They track down the men who stole the payroll, and discover it is the two men who sabotaged the gate, who have met up with Bull to divide the money. Autry manages to capture the men and recover the payroll, but Frog is shot in the process. He is forced to make his way back to the office slowly with his captives and his injured friend in tow.
Back at the dam, Moore refuses to give any more money for payroll. He and Conway had been working together to get the rights to the land around the dam through delays and sabotage, and it seems they finally have what they aimed to get. However, the workers have become so disgruntled that they plan to blow up the dam. Realizing that a blown-up dam would make their plans for control over the area worthless, Moore and Conway try in vain to keep the workers from destroying the dam.
As the men are fighting and shooting at one another, Autry arrives and tries to bring the payroll across the dam. Conway and Moore see him coming and attempt to drown him by opening one of the gates, but Autry manages to make it across with the money. As Baxter and the men find out what really happened to the payroll, Conway and Moore attempt to escape on the company train engine, but are killed when they run into the dynamite the men had dragged out to blow up the dam.
Once Conway, Moore, and their henchmen are out of the way, the dam is completed, the workers are paid, the ranchers are in business, and Autry marries Mary Baxter, riding a honeymoon train at the fade.
Plot keywords: singing cowboy, irrigation, building a dam, ranchers, ambush of payroll, good man versus corrupt businessman, comic sidekick
Red River Valley is available on DVD.