“Shot In The Dark”

April 29, 2008

— image from “Stolen Sweets” courtesy of Les Adams – Abilene, Texas

The print I saw of this 1935 film is old and in poor condition. The film jumps at times, and dims suddenly. It feels as if any second the scene will fade to black, in the middle of an action, in the middle of a line of dialogue, during a character’s pause for breath.

I wonder if Charley felt that way about his film career at this point. Like it might just fade away at any moment. Fade to Black. Roll credits. The End.

Or did this film feel like the next step in a meteoric career that would take him to the top of the industry.

I don’t know, but I can’t believe that he could ever imagine a long, long career as a cowboy star in B-Westerns.

In this college who-dun-it, Charley doesn’t have to stretch too much to play the role of Ken Harris, Dartmouth student. Charley would have graduated from Dartmouth only eight years before.

I’m frustrated by my lack of prime sources for my study of Charles Starrett. I would love to share some information about his career at Dartmouth, his major, his relationship with classmates, some early love affairs, etc.

(If someone can help me out on this, I will show my appreciation by publishing that knowledge here, to be shared with legions of future Charles Starrett fans throughout the ages.)

As is, all I have is the stuff you can find on the web — much of which I wonder didn’t originate from some studio press office a long time ago. By this common knowledge, Charley was a member of the Dartmouth football team with no acting aspirations until he played a bit part in a 1926 Famous Players film “The Quarterback” shot at Dartmouth. He caught the acting bug and came to Hollywood.

Anyway, Charley is back at this alma mater (or the sound stage equivalent) helping his sleuthing detective fiction writing father to solve the murder of his roommate. Charley is fine. The director seems to enjoy Charley’s height, putting him with a very petite love interest. He wears alot of tweed, and, at one point, a striped bathrobe.

I saw that someone listed this on the web as one of their top 30 films of all time. I’d love to know why.

What Charley Sounds Like

April 23, 2008

Courtesy of Les Adams

As I mentioned before, I discovered Charles Starrett in 2002 ago while preserving production stills from his many films.

So for over five years, though I had seen literally thousands of still images of Charley, had read everything I could find on him, and, frankly, knew more about him than maybe a dozen people in the entire world…

…I had never seen him move. Or walk. Or open a door. Or put down a fork.

Or talk.

And Charley talks a lot like Edgar G. Robinson. And I don’t mean like Bugs Bunny doing Edgar G., or some comic doing a big overblown Edgar G. “Ya see” and all that crap.

No, Charley’s got this “movie voice”, real old-school, real hammy. It sorta sounds like it comes from vaudeville or early radio (none of which Charley ever did).

Another mystery…

Smiley Burnette Recipe

April 22, 2008

Here’s another recipe from “What Cooks In Hollywood: autographed recipes straight from the kitchens of your favorite movie stars…”:

Thanks again to Todd Hughes, Silver Lake Historian

Courtesy of Les Adams

At this point in my study, a number of questions have emerged, riddles I can’t yet solve. I will continue to search for the answers, but I thought I would take a moment now to name them.

Note: I understand the impulse to merely blame these mysteries on the inattention of filmmakers working on a budget. You know, “these were B-pictures, what do you expect?” And yes, I will be exploring in future entries the attitude of the studio and their seeming indifference to the content/quality of these films.

But, in the name of Narrative, let us contemplate these questions from the vantage point that there is an answer, somewhere, within the body of the work.

First question, quite simply, is this: Who is the Durango Kid? I mean, who is this guy and why does he do what he does? Is he a Texas Ranger who moonlights as a masked avenger (“Return of the Durango Kid”)? Does he work for the Treasury Department (“Bonanza Town”)? Or is he a wandering hero who roams from town to town on his own dime, righting the wrongs that he encounters (in almost every other film I’ve seen)? If the latter, then what is his motivation? What is driving him?

Second question: Who is “Steve”? He seems to have a different job (and a different sur-name) nearly every picture. Superman is always Clark Kent. Batman is always Bruce Wayne. The Durango Kid is a different Steve in every film.

Third question: What is his relationship with his side-kick? With Cannonball, and then with Smiley, this relationship seems to change from film to film. In one film, he will not know the guy, and meet him when he comes to town. In the next, this guy is more like a partner, someone he “sends ahead” to gather information.

A couple other loose ends that keep nagging me:

Where does he hide the white horse?

Why does he always befriend a handsome male stranger?

Why doesn’t he ever get the girl?

Also, something I may revisit soon, is this: The donning of the double identity often contributes nothing to the success of Steve’s mission. He could just have easily accomplished all he does without posing as the Durango Kid. So, I ask, is the Durango Kid identity a benefit, or is it merely a compulsion?

Or is it a curse?

“Bonanza Town”

April 20, 2008

Finally, some clarity.

Right off the bat (after a little action scene with a runaway stagecoach) we learn that Charley is Steve Ramsey. He’s working for the Treasury Department as a “sorta spy.” He’s followed some marked money to Bonanza Town where he hopes to find a wanted criminal who got away from him before.

Wow. In the land of Durango, that’s a very clear backstory.

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

However, five minutes later, a young dude rails against the injustice in the town and tells his father he’s found a way to fix it, “I’ve sent for the Durango Kid!” Dad is shocked, “You’ve sent for Durango?!”

Durango meets the dude and his group of vigilantes, “Who wrote me the letter?” “I did!”

A letter? Where did he send it?

Let me get this straight: Steve in town because he’s a Treasury Officer tracking marked money. But Durango in town because someone wrote him a letter.

The schism between The Kid and Steve grows wider. They each seem to have their own agendas.

Plot: Fred Sears returns from “West of Dodge City” as the villian Hardison. He also directs this film (as well as 50 plus other films for Columbia.)

That’s not all that returns from “West of Dodge City.” Nearly half of the footage does as well. Here’s how it works: Steve sits at a table with a guy and says, “Let me tell you about Hardison.” And then we watch a good twenty-some minutes of the 1947 film.

I’ll tell you all about “West of Dodge City” when I get the chance to see the entire film.

Some fun bits: some of the quickest Steve-into-Durango change-a-roos ever!

Some less than fun bits: all of Smiley’s clowning as a barber. It’s just tiresome. One musical number is actually introduced like this: A guy runs into the shop with some instruments. Smiley says, “What you got there?” “These things apparently make music.” And off they go…

I once asked my friend Todd to turn on his gay-dar and give me a report on Charles Starrett. He said the findings were inconclusive.

More thoughts on Charley’s sexuality in later entries, but let me just say this: the guy can convincingly, and consistently, play a man with a double life.

Intentional or not, “Blazing Across The Pecos” contains one of the gayest scenes in cowboy movie history. It even rivals the scene in “Red River” (also 1948 ) where Montgomery Clift and John Ireland compare gun sizes.

Charley meets the handsome newspaper editor Jim Traynor (Paul Campbell) in a bar. At one point, Charley very deliberately puts his hand on the table, “So you’re on Ace Brockway’s payroll?” Traynor very deliberately puts his hand next to Charley’s, “just because I take his money, doesn’t mean I always do what he says” and rubs his hand against Charley’s. Then the bad guy arrives and pulls a gun on Charley. He tells Traynor to take off Charley’s belt. Cut to Smiley shoving a gun inside a chicken. Then the bad guy tells Charley to feed him. Charley gets the drop on him and says “Now, you feed me.

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

It’s not the pieces. It’s how the pieces add up.

My guess: the filmmakers were having a little fun.  As the old saying goes, when the cats away, the mice will play.  The studio clearly wasn’t paying much attention to these films, as long as they got done on time, and on budget.  The big-wigs most likely never watched one; let’s remember that it was left to the secretary pool to name the things.

A little fun on the set, a poke in the eye to the uncaring studio, a veiled gag that maybe some of the adults in the crowd would get.  And if anyone in the cast, or on the crew, was gay — all power to them, I says.

Anyway, this is Charley’s fifth of eight films in 1948. Plot-wise, the bad guy is giving rifles to the Indians in exchange for attacking his competitor’s trading posts.

A voice-over tells us that the Durango Kid has been on their trail for three months. This announcement and some other clues in the film seem to imply that the Durango Kid is an independent sleuth wandering the West seeking out bad guys. I’m still not sure who he’s supposed to be. And I’m not sure if there was ever much of a consensus among the many writers of the different films.

He’s named Steve Blake in this one. And he doesn’t know Smiley when the picture starts. Smiley is a cook/Marshall.

Some fun bits:

Durango Kid is friends with Indians. He sends a smoke signal and the Chief says, “Durango!” They sit cross-legged and Charley says, “Durango friend to Bear Claw.” Chief says “Durango friend to all Indians.” I didn’t know that.

The Villian loves to laugh. He’s always paying his sidekick to do stuff like get drunk and go shoot up a saloon, shoot a milk jug off of Smiley’s head, rough up Charley and “make it real funny.” It even seems like his strange sense of humor is driving the plot — he might be tormenting his competitor just because it makes him laugh.

Charley gets in on the sadistic humor, tossing a handful of dirt on a window Smiley is cleaning, then sticking a broomstick in his back.

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Then he makes him jump into a bucket. “Why Smiley, this is no time to take a bath.” Ha ha ha!

Some good stunts and stunt-riding.

Henchmen all have great names: Buckshot, Gunsmoke and Sleepy.

I enjoyed this one, despite the obvious budget restrictions. Re-purposed footage, sparsely populated town scenes and that sort of thing.

Singers are Red Arnall and The Western Aces.

In all, Paul Campbell did 10 pictures with Charley. That’s a lot of cold Canadian nights….

Charles Starrett Recipe

April 15, 2008

While we’re all waiting for Netflix to send me a few more Durango Kid flicks, here is a doozy of a recipe straight from:

What Cooks In Hollywood:

autographed recipes straight from the kitchens of your favorite movie stars

Thanks to Todd Hughes, Silver Lake Historian

“Lawless Empire”

April 13, 2008

Oh Cannonball!

Dub Taylor appeared in the role of “Cannonball” in fifty-three films between 1939 and 1949. Fifteen of those appearances were as comic relief in Charley’s films.

In 1945’s “Lawless Empire”, Cannonball is enough of a trusted sidekick that he is “sent ahead” by Steve Ranson (aka the Durango Kid) to gather information by getting a job mopping up at the local saloon.

And mopping up provides a lot of comic material. Let your mind drift and you might be able to picture the possibilities: bad guys can slip on the wet floor, Cannonball himself can slip on the wet floor, the bucket can be set too close to a closed door – when it opens, you’ve got a mess! Oh Cannonball!

And as if that’s not enough, there’s also a loose board in the floorboards outside the Sheriff’s office: something like that just might slap Cannonball in the butt everytime he enters the office!

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Plot: Some homesteaders are being evicted at gun-point and The Durango Kid shows up just in time to save Tex Harding (here playing the character “Reverend Tex Harding”). Doc Weston is a bad guy and runs the town. Steve tricks him into offering him the job of Marshall.

Cool bit where Doc shows him his trophy wall in the saloon. It’s got all the gunbelts of all the former Marshall (which he has had killed.) He tells Steve “take your pick.” Steve takes the one with J.R. initials.

Turns out J. Ranson was his brother, and the former Marshall. That’s why Steve’s in town, to avenge his death. He does his double-duty Durango Kid thing and beats them all!

Some fun along the way as Charley pretends to be a really ineffective Marshall; slow to get moving and quick to tell people his plans.

Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys do the singing.

I don’t know enough about the year 1933 to understand why you’d need a film about a World War One-era train engineer. If you’d asked me, I never would have guessed that would be a slam-dunk of a pitch session over at Monogram pictures.

But they made it. And Charley starred in it.

Historically for Charley, he had been in Hollywood for 2 1/2 years and this was his 13th film. Judging by the titles of the other twelve (Mask of Fu Manchu, The Viking, The Royal Family of Broadway…) this seems to be the closest he’s come yet to being in a Western.

Netflix describes this as a silent film. It’s not, but the film does remind you how new sound still was in 1933 — it’s really bad.

Story-wise, little Jim Martin looks up to his hero Casey Jones. When the famed engineer dies, we cut to the present where Jim is a big engineer himself. He’s got a great gal and a line on a local route. Then the war comes, his mother has a debilitating heart attack and he can’t go fight, there’s an accident on the train, and everyone thinks he’s a coward. Even his gal.

He’s not and proves it. He forgives everyone for doubting him. The End.

I still don’t know why this was a story that had to be told, but I do now understand a little more about trains. Apparently, the big danger with driving a train is that the needle on the dial will get really low. When this happens, you have “lost pressure” and your brakes don’t work. The only remedy is to climb out on the edge of the engine and tighten a bolt with a wrench. Why they don’t move that bolt inside the platform is a mystery.

Charley’s fine. He doesn’t look particularly younger, and his acting is neither stiffer nor fresher. He’s Charley Starrett. Soon to be the Durango Kid.

Courtesy of Les Adams

1945. The first film after “The Return of The Durango Kid”.

If we think of the Durango Kid series as a franchise (which it was), then by modern standards this is Spiderman 2 or 3, depending on how you’re counting. It’s Batman Returns.

With that in mind, there’s a few strange things.

For one, the hero has a different name now. He’s Kip Allen. Also, oddly, he has a different job. He’s a Texas Ranger who decides to take some vacation time so he can follow bank robbers across state lines to get back some stolen gold coins.

Imagine a superhero franchise (or any franchise with a central re-occuring character, say “Dirty Harry” or “Indiana Jones” or “Pirates of The Carribean” even) where they change the hero’s name and occupation every film. In “Magnum Force” Harry Callahan is suddenly named Harry Johnson and he’s a veterinarian. Indiana Martin is a book publisher in “Temple of Doom”. Who’s Jack Sparrow? Now it’s Jack Smith and he’s a sports reporter. That’s what we have here.

There seems to be an oblique nod that Kip’s Ranger Boss knows he’s the Kid. I’m not sure on this though. He’s no Alfred, nor is he Commissioner Gordon.

Anyway. Plot:

When he tracks the outlaws to New Mexico, “Kip” hooks up with his old buddy Tex Harding. This is one of the 11 films that Tex Harding made in his two year Hollywood career. Ten of them were Durango Kid films. In most of them, he plays “Tex Harding.” In “Last Days of Boot Hill” he plays “Tex, Steve’s friend.” Guess who Steve is?

From what I’ve seen of him so far, Tex always plays the local guy who Charley helps out. He also sings, not Charley. He also gets the girl, not Charley.

There’s a somewhat unique character in this picture. Grubstake is the loser prospector who hangs out at the saloon bumming money. The owner keeps him around as a good luck charm. Turns out Grubstake has been sending all his begged money to his neice, putting her through prep school (Vassar, perhaps?)

Later, the owner has the idea to launder his stolen gold through Grubstake, making it look like it’s gold from his mine. This allows Grubstake to act like the big shot when his niece comes to visit.

Nothing unique about Charley’s role. He rides the dark horse when he’s Kip and the white one when he’s The Kid.

One twist where Tex dresses up as The Kid to try and help out Grubstake.

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Funny bit: Everyone’s familiar with the movie convention where the characters struggle, a gun goes off, a beat, and then one falls dead. Well, in this scene, you can clearly see the gun pointed harmlessly away from both combatants when it goes off. “Cut. Good Enough. Print and move on!”

Also: An actor completely walks all over a Tex line. Charley knows how things go on these pictures, so he just keeps going, but Tex is sort of looking stiffly around like “are we still rolling?” Sure they are, Tex!

“The Jesters” are back, singing “Look Before You Leap” in a rare plot-related song (they’re secretly signaling Charley that it’s an ambush that’s waiting for him in the saloon.)

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures