When I wrote about Disney’s The Three Caballeros a while back, Tom Miller, author of On the Border and Revenge of the Saguaro told me I should look into the Roy Rogers movie, Hands Across the Border. He didn’t know if the State Department had anything to do with it, but there was Chicanonautica material there.
I've always liked the Roy Rogers universe. It’s full of happy trails, and animals that are so intelligent you expect them to talk. It also takes place in time warp: stagecoaches coexist with trucks, jeeps, and atom bombs. It’s a kind of 20th century American dreamtime where the past is upgraded for the newfangled reality. And it often gets downright surreal.
Hands Across the Border is so surreal it should be considered a precursor to the acid western subgenre.
It begins with a song, “Easy Street.” Roy sings it while riding into the town of Buckaroo, as he passes signs saying: CHECK YOUR CARES HERE AT THE CITY LIMITS AND RIDE ON INTO PARADISE and BEWARE TRAMPS, MOUNTEBANKS, GAMBLERS, SCALLYWAGS AND THIEVES THERE IS ONLY ONE PLACE IN TOWN WHERE YOU ARE WELCOME OUR JAIL! All while the lyrics declare that he doesn’t need money, and “Have you ever seen a happy millionaire?”
Did Sheriff Joe Arpaio ever see this?
Roy’s a saddle bum, or migrant worker, looking to earn his keep by wrangling horses and singing. And he does a lot of both as he saunters into a plot that's mostly an excuse to lead into the songs. Trigger accidentally kills the owner of the ranch, then encourages Roy to convince the owner’s daughter to keep the ranch from getting into the hands of the Bad Guy. Animals often act as spirit guides in the Roy Rogers universe.
Like The Three Caballeros, the story doesn’t directly have a “We gotta make friends with Latinos to defeat the Nazis” theme. Duncan Renaldo -- later know as The Cisco Kid on television -- is the ranch foreman, who orders around the Anglo cowboys, but nothing is really made of it. If there was any guidance from the State Department, it’s in the musical numbers. This really kicks in at a fiesta in the Renaldo characters’ town -- they don’t mention which side of the border it’s on.
There are muchas señoritas at the fiesta. Or at least Hollywood starlets in the appropriate regalia -- at least one was platinum blonde. And here we find a serious connection to The Three Caballeros, one of the señoritas sing “Ay, Jalisco, no te rajes!” song by Manuel Esperón, with Spanish lyrics by Ernesto Cortázar Sr. that was originally released in a 1941 film of the same name starring Jorge Negrete. Hands Across the Border was released on January 5, 1944. On December 21, 1944, The Three Caballeros premiered in Mexico City, featuring Esperón’s music with English lyrics by Ray Gilbert, making it into “The Three Caballeros.”
Cultural appropriation? The State Department in Hollywood? Or is this tune just that catchy?
The Mexicans in the town are supposed to help the ranch train the horses for a “government contract” in some way, buy it’s not shown. The military and the war aren’t mentioned. This is a spectacular race/torture test that the horses -- Trigger included -- are put through that includes explosions and a “simulated gas attack.”
I don’t think poison gas was used in the Second World War. What war are these horses going to be used in? We’re in the time warp again. Is this an alternate universe? On does it take place on a future, terraformed Mars?
This leads into an incredible finale. The opening song declares “We don’t have to flaunt our egos, amigos.” For about fifteen minutes there’s an all-singing, all-dancing recombocultural mashup of cowboy songs, Mexican Music (including an English translation of “Ay, Jalisco, no te rajes!”), and jazz on a stage with crossed Mexican and American flags, and a white line to represent the border. There’s also a violin and a female singer that sound like theremins. And three guys in dresses.
It’s as if Guillemo Gómez-Peña and La Pocha Nostra were doing a time travel gig in the Forties
With Latinos becoming the majority in California, and elections coming up, maybe double features of Hands Across the Border and The Three Caballeros should be encouraged.
Ernest Hogan had a Roy Rogers lunch pail in grade school. He lives in the Wild West, where life constantly reminds him that reality is stranger than science fiction.