Empty Saddles is a B-Western starring one of the biggest cowboy stars of the time, Buck Jones. The somewhat confused plot revolves around Buck, who attempts to convert the seemingly haunted “Empty Saddles” ranch into a resort, but soon discovers a group of crooked sheep ranchers have other plans. Louise Brooks plays Boots Boone, Bucks’ love interest, who helps out on the ranch.
In 1930, Brooks turned down an offer to appear in a Buck Jones Western. In 1936, however, she could not afford to be so picky. Brooks had been out of films for five years and was attempting a second comeback. Universal issued a press release quoting a supposed interview with the actress: “I am delighted with my role in Empty Saddles. It gives me an opportunity to do something, not just stand around and look pretty. I wouldn’t trade it for all the other roles I ever had because I am really acting now, not just being an ornament, and I feel that, at last, I am on the road toward getting some place in pictures.” Brooks received $300 for a week’s work.
One syndicated newspaper article, no doubt echoing the language of the studio press sheets, reported “Of outstanding interest is the fact that the picture marks the return to the screen of lovely Louise Brooks, the Ziegfeld Follies girl who won film fame and then quit pictures at the height of her career. Her brunette beauty and her fine acting making her a splendid leading lady.” Another stated “Do You remember Louise Brooks? She is the lovely brunette whose beauty carried her from the Ziegfeld Follies to screen stardom. Well, she has returned to the screen. She Is back in pictures again as Buck Jones’ leading lady in Empty Saddles, the Universal outdoor adventure film at the Grand Theatre. The actress is the same shapely Louise Brooks. The only change in her is that she is wearing her hair with a new style of dress.”
Prior to its release, Empty Saddles was previewed at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood, a neighborhood house considered similar to the small town theaters where the film was likely to show. According to reports, “The audience was satisfied with what it saw on the screen.”
Most of the trade journals were similarly satisfied. Daily Variety reported, “The yarn has plenty of suspense, numerous spooky situations, a good love theme and enough of a western touch to top a western dualer or fill out the action requirements of a mixed bill and leave the cash customers well satisfied.” Selected Motion Pictures stated the film was “A somewhat unusual western story, packed with excitement, fast-paced dramatic action, mystery and superb riding. . . . The natural scenic effects are of exceptionally high quality.” Box Office added, “Several new angles and Buck Jones’ usual capable performance as a hard-riding, square shooting son of the saddle makes this an above par offering in the Western class.”
Until Empty Saddles, Jones’ westerns were generally well regarded — each crisply edited and action-packed, and each with lots of the aforementioned hard riding and straight-shooting. Despite satisfactory reviews, this and Jones’ following films marked a decline in the actor’s productions. The Hollywood Reporter offered the lone critical review, “This Buck Jones Western must be set below par because of a rambling and cluttery story that is almost menaceless until the last reel or two and then, in the final chase and battle, is confusing and inconclusive.”
The film showed in the west and in small towns and neighborhood theaters elsewhere around the United States. J.E. Stocker, manager of the neighborhood Myrtle Theater in Detroit, reported in Motion Picture Herald, “I tried out a Buck Jones picture for a Sunday play date once before, on January 17th, which drew better than average so I tried again with Empty Saddles, March 14-15, and again it drew better than average so we can assume that Buck Jones is still popular.”
Film Daily liked Brooks in Empty Saddles, stating “Louise Brooks has quite a dramatic role as the heroine, which she handles very well.” Variety wrote, “Louise Brooks, cast as a poor trader’s child, is not flattered by the camera, but does a good bit of acting. She is the outstanding femme player in the slight romance.” Despite these few favorable notices, Empty Saddles failed to reignite Brooks’ career. Only one more featured role, another Western, awaited.
“Buck Devlin purchases the deserted ranch called Empty Saddles, a former battleground between sheep and cattle ranchers, with the idea of making it into a dude ranch. Cimarron White, who had been the foreman for the previous owners of the ranch, hires on as foreman for Buck. Swap Boone, a traveling peddler, and his daughter Boots help Buck fix up the ranch, and it is soon filled with Eastern tourists, including Jim Grant and his daughter Madge. To give the guests a thrill, Buck stages a mock fight re-enacting the earlier range feud. It quickly turns real when the hired men are replaced by actual sheep ranchers and several of Buck’s men are killed. Buck learns that the sheepmen, who have sworn vengeance on anyone buying the ranch, are prevented from taking it over themselves because of an organization of cattlemen called the Lobos. After their initial plan fails, the sheepmen plan to kidnap Madge and hold her for ransom. Boots overhears the plotters and at risk to her own life, warns Buck. Cim recognizes Grant as the former owner of the ranch, who is now the head of the Lobos. He joins with Buck and together they round up the outlaws. Buck finally realizes that Boots is in love with him and proposes to her just in time to prevent her from traveling East with the Grants.”
Production of the film took place in Southern California in the San Jacinto Mountains and at the historic Garner Ranch, located in the Garner Valley near Idyllwild, between August 26 and September 2, 1936.
Under its American title, Empty Saddles, documented screenings of the film took place in Canada, Jamaica, Netherlands Antilles, and the British Isles (England and Northern Ireland). Elsewhere, this motion picture was known to have been shown under other-language titles including O Rancho das Feitiçarias (Brazil); Prázd né sedlo (Czechoslovakia); Vyprázdnit sedla (Czechoslovakia); Cowboyens hvilehjem (Denmark); Puste siodła (Poland); and De tomma sadlarnas hus (Sweden).
The film is extant. Lesser quality copies circulate on VHS and DVD.
RELATED ARTICLES & REVIEWS:
— “Buck Jones Out on Location: A Melodrammer — slightly goofy!“ by Ted Magee (Hollywood, December 1936).