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Above is a screen capture of Newill as one of the singing band members in the public domain film SOMETHING TO SING ABOUT (Grand National, 1937) which starred James Cagney. Newill doesn't get billing in the opening credits but "James Newill" is listed as a band member in the closing credits. He was about 26 years old when he did this film.

Newill's Hollywood career began in several 1937 films, including a role in the James Cagney SOMETHING TO SING ABOUT (Grand National, 1937). That was one of the movies which Cagney made after he broke with Warners ... and it's also the oft mentioned project which started the financial woes at Grand National that ultimately caused the company to file bankruptcy a few years later.

Philip N. Krasne was a producer and boss of a small production outfit named Criterion Pictures, and he arranged with Grand National to release a series of Canadian mountie adventures based on the Renfrew of the Royal Mounted stories by Laurie York Erskine (1894 - 1976). Krasne is best remembered as the producer who would later do Cisco Kid movies and TV shows starring Duncan Renaldo.

Why a series with a singing, red-coated, north of the U.S. border police officer? During the mid to late 1930s, mountie films were popular and prevalent. Ken Maynard's younger brother Kermit starred in a mounted police series for Maurice Conn's Ambassador-Conn production company. Charles Starrett wore a redcoat in some films at Columbia. Even Tim McCoy and George O'Brien donned the RCMP uniform. There was a Renfrew radio program which starred House Jameson as 'Sgt. Douglas Renfrew' and was broadcast from 1936 through 1940 (more on the radio show on a later webpage). As to the crooning, the singing cowboy craze was in full swing because of Gene Autry. Popularity and financial success breed copycats, and a bunch of new singin' cowpokes were rushed onto the screen by major studios and "Poverty Row" production companies. Newill was a handsome gent and a good singer. It's unknown how Newill got the Renfrew job - perhaps Krasne and/or Grand National liked what they saw (and heard) when he worked in SOMETHING TO SING ABOUT.

Newill's first starring role was RENFREW OF THE ROYAL MOUNTED, which was released by Grand National in September of 1937. Grand National also handled the follow-up - ON THE GREAT WHITE TRAIL was released in July, 1938.

Notice the nearly one year spread between the release dates. Was Krasne and/or Grand National short on cash and only able to do the Renfrews on a one-at-a-time basis? Or did the deal with Grand National call for an occasional film, not the traditional 4, 6, or 8 film series? Or perhaps the production breaks were caused by Newill's radio and stage work? Sorry - no answers to these questions.

We know that Newill was doing radio in 1937. He was the male vocalist on a new west coast show called "Presenting David Broekman" which originated from Los Angeles station KHJ and was broadcast on Friday evenings over the Mutual Network. Sponsored by the General Electric dealers of Southern California, the cast included the singing Stafford Sisters trio (which were Christine, Pauline and Jo Stafford; Jo would later join Tommy Dorsey and the Pied Pipers singing group). Newill worked with Broekman off and on through the World War II years - he was one of many singers that donated their time on recordings with Broekman for the 1942 - 1944 "Treasury Star Parade" broadcasts.

We also know that the Renfrews were among several productions that got tangled up in Grand National's money problems. Phil Krasne was planning a new trio western series starring big band leader and singer Art Jarrett, Lee 'Lone Ranger' Powell, and Al St. John. However, only one of the planned half dozen was made, TRIGGER PALS (Phil Krasne/Grand National, 1939). Suffering a similar fate was left-handed singing cowboy Tex Fletcher who was also to get a series. But Tex's screen time as a hero came and went in a solo shot, SIX-GUN RHYTHM (Arcadia/Grand National, 1939). Producer Ed Finney and his "Boots and Saddles" production unit had turned out a dozen Tex Ritter sagebrush adventures under the Grand National clock tower logo. But in late 1938, Finney, Ritter, and Tex's trusty steed White Flash moved to Monogram.

As to Newill and Renfrew, more time passed until Krasne inked a distribution deal with Monogram Pictures. Renfrew number three, CRASHING THRU, was released through Monogram's exchanges in January, 1939.

Then came a near one-year hiatus before the final five Renfrews hit the theater screens. Criterion churned those out in typical B-programmer fashion - quick and cheap. The first, YUKON FLIGHT, was released in December, 1939, and the finale, SKY BANDITS, in the Summer of 1940. Monogram handled the distribution.

The early Renfrews were plain ol' outdoorsy Royal Canadian Mounted Police adventures. The last included some wild schemes and themes such as the power beam gun used to shoot down airplanes in the appropriately titled SKY BANDITS (Monogram, 1940). Newill's helpers included a pooch named 'Silver King' and RCMP assistant 'Kelly' was most often portrayed by the very busy Dave O'Brien (though Robert/Bob Terry and Warren Hull did solo shots as 'Kelly' in a couple of the earlier films). And if you look closely, you may spot premier stuntman Dave Sharpe - as well as Carl Mathews and Wally West - doubling for Newill.

There was corner cutting, lame comedy and out-of-place tunes. A good example is the overly long chase scene in DANGER AHEAD with Newill at the wheel of an armored car. The villains have applied acid to the brake lines which ultimately cause the brakes to fail. O'Brien, driving a white convertible with the top down, is trying to catch up with his pal and the baddies, but his floppy mountie hat is constantly blowing into his face and blocking his view. And the back process screen used when the armored car careens down the road through 'Devils Gorge' leaves me dizzy. But that's not all - heroine Dorothea Kent is in the rear of the armored vehicle (disguised as a mountie) and Newill even breaks out in song (before the brake line breaks).

The best of the Renfrews is MURDER ON THE YUKON (Monogram, 1940) with Newill and O'Brien vs. a gang of counterfeiters (William Royle, Chief Thunder Cloud, Kenne Duncan, Karl Hackett and Earl Douglas).

In addition to warbling a tune or two in each film, Newill also belted out the lively Renfrew theme song - as the opening titles flash across the screen, he rides along with a troop of mounties in the background and sings "... We're Mounted Men ..." which was written by Betty Laidlaw and Robert Lively. Don't recall the theme song? You can hear it on YouTube:

Overall, the Renfrew films were OK, but not great. Give Phil Krasne credit for at least trying something different versus simply churning out a batch of cheap westerns.

Some may wonder if Renfrew was riding on the coat tails of the radio series, CHALLENGE OF THE YUKON, which was about Sgt. Preston and his faithful dog Yukon King. The Renfrew yarns authored by Laurie York Erskine were written long before Sgt. Preston. And the Renfrew films with Newill came and went years before the Sgt. Preston radio program was broadcast on a nationwide basis. George W. Trendle and his Detroit WXYZ station began the CHALLENGE OF THE YUKON in early 1938 but these were local 15 minute shows. CHALLENGE went national in the Summer of 1947 with half hour shows airing on ABC, and the series later moved to the Mutual Broadcasting System.

(Courtesy of Les Adams)

Above is the title lobby card from the first of the Renfrew "singing mountie" films, RENFREW OF THE ROYAL MOUNTED (Grand National, 1937). The heroine clutching James Newill's arm is pretty Carol Hughes. Among her many roles was the female lead in Roy Rogers' first starring film, UNDER WESTERN STARS (Republic, 1938) and she portrayed Dale Arden in the third Buster Crabbe/Flash Gordon serial, FLASH GORDON CONQUERS THE UNIVERSE (Universal, 1940). In the canoe are Chief Thunder Cloud (Victor Daniels) and Lightning, the Wonder Dog.

(Courtesy of Les Adams)

All (or most all) of the silver screen cowboys had product tie-ins. Here's a James Newill coat that was included in the pressbook for RENFREW OF THE ROYAL MOUNTED (Grand National, 1937).

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