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STUNT MEN IN THE SPOTLIGHT

We all have wish lists of movies we want to see. For years I’ve been on the lookout for Sons of Adventure (1948). Why this obscure B movie? Because it’s a story about stunt men made by Republic Pictures, the studio that employed the best stunt players in the business in their serials, Westerns and B pictures. What’s more, it was directed by the king of the stunt men, Yakima Canutt, the former rodeo cowboy whose many credits included the chariot race in Ben-Hur (1959). Imagine the possibilities!

Now, thanks to Andrea Kalas at Paramount (which owns the Republic library) I can cross this title off my bucket list….but, as so often happens, the film does not live up to expectations.

The premise for Sons of Adventure was devised by two veteran serial writers, Franklin Adreon and Sol Shor; Adreon also produced the 60-minute feature. They made it irresistible to studio chief Herbert Yates by promising to re-use action footage from earlier Republic films: not just serials like The Lone Ranger, Dick Tracy’s G-Men, Adventures of Red Ryder and Federal Operator 99, but the big-budget John Wayne vehicle The Fighting Seabees. They managed to incorporate six minutes from that film by contriving a flashback in which stunt man Russell Hayden explains to a studio publicist why his pal Gordon Jones is qualified for a job alongside him: during World War II he rescued Hayden from an exploding tank.

This vaudeville act is used as a throwaway in Sons of Adventure but provides a nice look at the Republic studio lot, which is today CBS Studio Center

Sons of Adventure promises to take us behind the scenes of moviemaking but does so on only the most superficial level. For diehard Republic fans it’s fun to see clean-shaven Roy Barcroft playing a hot-tempered director named Bennett (after real-life director Spencer Gordon Bennet), with George Chandler as his world-weary assistant.

But the whodunit at the center of this limp hour-long yarn is strictly routine, and glimpses of the Republic lot are meager compensation. Russell Hayden is genial as always, and top-billed Lynne Roberts (formerly known as Mary Hart) is a pleasing leading lady, but Gordon Jones, Stephanie Bachelor, Grant Withers, John Newland and the other players are understandably uninspired.

As for stunts, Canutt (or someone copying him) does perform his signature “gag” in which he falls under a stagecoach’s galloping horses and manages to catch the back of the wagon. In another scene a similar wagon explodes into smithereens on a back lot western street…but it’s just not enough to bring this second-rate film to life.

At least I can cross this off my wish list…but I sure wish it had turned out to be a better film. It would take a stuntman-turned-director of the next generation, Hal Needham, to make the best movie about his profession, Hooper (1978) with his pal, stuntman-turned-actor Burt Reynolds in the lead and one of the all-time greats, Jock Mahoney, in a flashy cameo part.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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