“Death Valley Days” was a half-hour western anthology
series that ran for 20 years on radio starting in 1930, continued on TV for 18
seasons (1952-1970), and is still being shown on cable TV today. The series,
noted for its authentic detail and historical accuracy, was created by British
writer Ruth Woodman at the request of Pacific Coast Borax, the company that
made 20 Mule Team Borax. The company wanted a series that tied in with their detergent
product, and since Borax is principally mined in Death Valley, Woodman
suggested the series be focused on stories based on the history and geography
of that area. She made frequent trips to the borax mines and the surrounding
vicinity digging up historical tidbits that could be used as the basis for
stories. She eventually became one of the foremost experts on that period and
place in history.
For the first 11 years of its run, each episode of “Death
Valley Days” was introduced by The Old Ranger (Stanley Andrews), who would begin
by relaying some bit of historical information about Death Valley that would be
used as the basis of the story. The Old Ranger was later replaced as host by
Ronald Reagan, Robert Taylor, and Dale Robertson. These three even appeared in
some of the stories.
Timeless Media Group, a division of Shout! Factory,has
released the first season of 18 episodes from 1952 on three DVDs. The picture
quality of the episodes is astonishing, given their age. There’s no information
on the packaging to indicate if the original film elements have undergone
restoration, but all 18 episodes look brand new.
There is a variety of tales included in this first
season, and a host of familiar faces on hand from western films and TV shows of
that era. One that particularly caught my attention was an episode that would
not have aired as written in today’s politically correct world. “Swamper Ike”
features legendary stuntman/actor Jock Mahoney playing a man raised by Indians,
who wasn’t sure if he was really an Indian or a white man. The question becomes
crucial when the girl he loves, played by Margaret Field, says she won’t marry
him if he’s an Indian! She doesn’t believe a marriage between people of two
different races will work. (Margaret Field, by the way, had just married Mahoney
in real life. She already had a daughter by a previous marriage, a girl named
Sally Field.) Hired as a swamper by mule driver Hank Patterson, and given the
name Ike, Jocko is hated by Denver Pyle, his rival for Field’s affections.
There is a lot of good stunt work by Mahoney in this episode, but the
conclusion, in which, much to everyone’s great relief, Mahoney discovers that
he’s actually white and can now marry his lady love, is pretty much out of
kilter with today’s attitudes.
For its first two years on the air, “Death Valley Days”
was produced for television by Gene Autry’s Flying A Productions, which also
produced Mahoney’s Range Rider series. So, it’s no coincidence that Gail Davis,
star of Flying A’s “Annie Oakley” also appears in one of the episodes. In “The
Little Bullfrog Nugget,” she plays Mamie Jaggers, the only single woman in
Bullfrog, Nevada. All the men are vying for her attention but she can’t make up
her mind which one to marry.
“She Burns Green,” starred James Griffith and Donna
Martell as a couple prospecting for gold, but who turn to mining borax instead
when they discover rich deposits of it near them. The title is based on the
fact that you can tell if it’s borax by setting it on fire. If the flame burns
green, it’s borax.
“Self-Made Man,” starts out highlighting a rock drilling
competition among the miners, that demonstrates how they used to use hand
drills to get the borax out of the mine. But it also tells the story of a man
who loses one of his arms and thinks his life is over. As a miner, it is over,
but with the encouragement of his wife he takes up the study of law and becomes
a successful lawyer.
That’s the kind of story that the series presented most
of the time—gritty, realistic tales that showed the harshness of life in Death
Valley but which ultimately show the good guys wresting some sort of triumph
out of their hardships. Woodman’s writing may be well researched, but her plots
and characters are pretty simplistic. The acting is as good as can be expected.
“Death Valley Days” is an interesting piece of television
history. There were a total of 296 episodes filmed over 20 years, and it
remains to be seen how many more episodes will be forthcoming on DVD.