Approximately a year after the 1937 Joe Louis visit, another important event occurred at the ranch. In October of 1938 it was reported that Associated Cinema Company was shooting the first films ever made on location at a "Negro ranch." The titles had already been established: "The Bronze Buckaroo" and "Harlem Rides the Range."
The star of these films was a vocalist named Herb Jeffries. In fact, it was he who came up with the idea of a black singing cowboy film genre. Jeffries had started off singing with Earl "Fatha" Hines in 1934. He was from Chicago, and says that he did not suffer racism while growing up there, but while traveling through the South with Hines, he noticed blacks were not allowed in white theaters and were forced to watch movies in tin-roof structures and warehouses -- plus they were watching Tom Mix, Ken Maynard and John Wayne. Jeffries thought, "My God, there should be black cowboy pictures. There were black cowboys."
He first pitched the idea to wealthy eastern blacks, but without success. Then one day, while in California, he walked into the office of Jed Buell, a Hollywood producer in Gower Gulch, where many B-Westerns were being made. Buell had just produced a novelty movie with a cast entirely of midgets, entitled, "Terror of Tiny Town." Jeffries was able to convince Buell to make the film; after all, if a movie consisting of only midgets would work, why not one with all blacks.
The first of the genre, "Harlem Rides the Prairie," was produced in 1936, but no copies are known to have survived. "The Bronze Buckaroo," "Harlem Rides the Range," and a fourth movie filmed elsewhere, "Two-Gun Man From Harlem," were found and rescued from the collapsed cellar of an abandoned theater in Dallas and are now available on video tape.
"The Bronze Buckaroo" is the best, from the stand point of being able to see the ranch and the surrounding desert. Bell Mountain is prominent in several shots, the corrals and barns can be seen up close, some scenes were shot from the cottage interiors, and there are other structures, the water tower and windmill being among them.
Both of the movies filmed at the Murray Ranch featured a shootout at the end between the good guys and bad guys (Jeffries was a good guy and he wore a white hat). These gun battles took place at Sycamore Rocks, and one scene taken from there looks down "Papago Trail" road to the Murray Ranch, located three miles away.
Spencer Williams, one of the producers, plays the heavy in Jeffries' films. Williams is best known for his role as Andy Brown, co-star of the televisions series "Amos and Andy." Other stars include Mantan Moreland, famous for his work as Birmingham Brown in the Charlie Chan movies, and Matthew Beard, who played Stymie in "Our Gang."
Five of the actors in Jeffries' films were actual cowboys from Oklahoma and Texas. And speaking of real cowboys, the filming of the movies happened to take place during the Victorville rodeo, and the entire cast was taken to see the events as guests of the Murrays.
One of the special attractions of Herb Jeffries' movies was his songs. Jeffries sings his theme song, "I'm a Happy Cowboy," which is a traditional Western tune and could have been sung by Gene Autry or Roy Rogers. However, he departs from the pure Western style with songs influenced by jazz and blues, such as "Pay Day Blues" and "It's Almost Round-up Time," the latter being a somewhat camp rendition.
The setting for the tune "It's Almost Round-up Time" is a saloon full of tough cowboys quietly drinking and gambling. All of a sudden somebody breaks out in this bluesy song, and shortly the rest of the crowd joins in. Then a man is seen cheating at cards, whereupon Spencer Williams draws a six-shooter and plugs him. The room goes deadly silent, and then, as though the shooting had never taken place, the chorus bursts into the last refrain of the song. Well, you had to be there, but it is hilarious. There is another musical piece where Jeffries' side-kick "Dusty" does a soft-shoe dance in the bunkhouse, wearing cowboy boots, no less.
The musical numbers, perhaps as much as the actors and the humor in these horse operas, made the movies entertaining. Jeffries was an excellent Western vocalist, and he eventually attained popularity as a singer with both black and white audiences.