“Landrush”

May 31, 2008

Courtesy of Les Adams

This 1946 chapter in the Durango Kid saga has some of the best lines yet.

“That’s me. I’m like a fly on a hot piece of cornpone, no sooner do I light than I’m off.”

And this: “Do I play poker? Why, that’s a mighty difficult question to ask a fella this early in the morning.”

And this exchange: “Want to know something Smiley?”

“I sure do”

“Well maybe someday you will.”

It also has some of the worst, like this clunker. “Looks good to me. We’ll use the same copy for the circulars. Smiley, I want you to post these on the main highway and out-lying roads. When the circulars are ready, distribute them in bundles for distribution at crossroads, stores, stage depots, hotels and so forth. You’ll have to hurry there isn’t much time.”

WOW! “In Bundles” you say!

Steve Harmon is a surveyor for the Government (another sexy job for our hero.) He’s organizing a Land Run in the town of Border Plain. Claw Hawkins and his gang want to stop the run so they can keep the land for themselves. Smiley is a retired “Teeth Extractor” who doesn’t know Steve when the film begins.

Of course, I’ve seen most of the second half of this in the flashback sequences in “Streets of Ghost Town” (1951).

One staple of the Western I haven’t seen before in a DK film: the saloon poker game. It’s another comic set-piece for the master, Smiley Burnette. (psst I’m being sarcastic…)

Another fresh idea in this one. The gal actually takes an interest in Steve. But she does seem to know the score. She asks Smiley about Steve one time, since they spent some time alone together out on the plains, “It takes a man to size up another man.”

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

At the end, she calls him “Mr. Somebody.”

Lots of neat riding in this one. Not a lot new for Charley here, but he does well.

Ozie Waters and his Colorado Rangers play some standards “Oh Suzanna” and “Campdown Races”. They also act.

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Smiley Burnette has a star on Hollywood Boulevard.

Smiley has a commemorative rifle.

Smiley even has a celebrity impersonator.

What does poor Charles Starrett have? A couple of pages on B-Western websites.

And this lousy blog. Poor Charley.

Courtesy of Les Adams

There is one word to describe Charley’s performance in this 1932 film, his 10th. That word is “chipper.” He’s chipper most all of the time. When they hear of the expedition to Genghis Kahn’s tomb, when they find the dig in a cave, when they prepare to guard their finds. He says stuff like “Age before beauty” and “Cheerio!”

He’s not that chipper, of course, when he’s suspended from a chain in Fu Manchu’s dungeon being whipped by two black giants as Myrna Loy shouts “faster, faster.”

His shirtless image here is probably the single most seen footage of Charley. It’s the only one I could find on YouTube. I’m sure fetish freaks the world over have drooled over the future Kid.

It’s odd to see Charley playing the hunk role. He’s strapped to a slab, naked except for a lion-cloth. Myrna Loy as Fu Manchu’s daughter likes to stroke him and says “He is not un-handsome, is he father?”

After all the torture and unpleasantness, Charley is injected with a serum that turns him into a mindless slave, and the chipper guy is back. He’s the life of the party, everything is just fine, smiling like an idiot, and chuckling along as Fu Manchu rants about “wiping out the whole white race!”

I wonder if Charley secreted away some of that serum to use when he had to laugh at one of Smiley’s “jokes”.

Many of the buildings on the historic Columbia Studios lot (now owned by Sony Entertainment) are named after actors, directors and other illuminaries of the storied Columbia history.

There is no Charles Starrett Building!

Let’s do some math. According to IMDB, Columbia Pictures has made 2,947 films in its 93 year history.

Charles Starrett was the star of 134 of those films. That’s 4.5 percent!

Let’s compare this number with some of the people who do have buildings named after them.

Harry Cohn was the head of the studio for over 30 years. He deserves The Harry Cohn Building.

But what about the Capra Building? Frank Capra made 29 films for Columbia. That’s a mere 0.9 percent.

The Cary Grant Theater? 12 films! 0.4 percent!

And the hallowed halls of the Thalberg Building, where the modern lions of the industry stroll in the shadow of the late great Irving Thalberg? Thalberg ran MGM (which once had its home here.) He never made a single film for Columbia. That zero percent!

Tear off the plaques. Take a sandblaster to the inscription over the door. Call the printers to start reprinting maps of the lot.

Sony Lot needs a Charles Starrett Building. The man is responsible for nearly 5 percent of the entire Columbia catalog.

It’s a no-brainer. Just do the math.

— image courtesy of xurble’s flickr photostream

“Make A Million”

May 29, 2008

Charley plays a nerd in this 1935 snoozer. He’s Reginald Q. Jones, Associate Professor of Economics at Pelton University. A young rich student (Pauline Brooks) gets him fired for his theories on the distribution of wealth. He has to *make a million* to prove the worth of his ideas, and regain his post.

I guess it’s a comedy.

This character worked for Cary Grant a couple of times, but it really doesn’t work on Charley. As good as he was as a western nerd in “Law of the Canyon”, this just isn’t his mileu at all.

Let’s put it this way, even in a comic role, Charley needs a comic sidekick. Yes, before Smiley, before Dub, there was Pete. Played by James Burke, Pete’s a fun-loving dumbie of the type that Art Carney perfected with his Norton character.

One exchange. Pete: “I had an accident today. I threw a cigarette out a second story window.” Charley: “How is that an accident?” Pete: “I forgot to let go of the cigarette.”

Seeing as how Charley was one of the heirs of L. S. Starrett, it must have been interesting for Charley’s friends and family to see him on the screen, railing against children born into wealth. The members of the rowing crew at Worcester Academy and his chums from Dartmouth must have gotten a big kick out of it.

Interesting aside here: Norman Houston plays Moxey, the scam-a-minute journalist. This was one of only three acting roles for Mr. Houston. He is mostly known as a writer of nearly 70 B-Westerns. None of them Charley’s.

“Underworld USA”

May 28, 2008

1961. The last Durango Kid film was 1952’s “The Kid From Broken Gun”. It was also Charley’s last film.

Except for an uncredited role in this Samuel Fuller classic.

Watching “Underworld USA” was like playing an extended game of “Where’s Charley?” Every time someone mentions a character before we meet him, my ears perked up.

Could he be Gela, Gunther, Smith or Vic Ferrer — the four men who beat Cliff Robertson’s father to death in an alley? Could he be the prison Doc Meredeth who Cliff cons into helping him discover the identity of his father’s killers? Could he be Chief of Detective Fowler, who’s on the take? Or the missing bookkeeper Menkin? Or even Earl Conner, the Underworld Chief?

SPOILER ALERT: Charley played none of these roles!

Whoever started this internet rumor, I would like to thank you for an enjoyable evening revisiting a great old film. However, Charley ain’t in it!

It’s too bad. It’s a juicy idea. Maverick Sam Fuller casts retired Western star in small but pivotal role, which he plays without credit. I was even imagining that maybe Fuller casts a bunch of other Western heroes of yesterday — Tex Ritter, Tex Harding, Russell Hayden — and they all played mob bosses in a big sit-down scene or something.

Alas.

I don’t know how this started, but I did see that, according to IMDB, there is someone in the cast by the name of

Charles Sterrett Investigator (uncredited)

“Pecos River”

May 27, 2008

Not sure where the fellas at the studio came up with this title. I didn’t sure see any river!

You know, Charley smiles alot in these films. He’s got a nice smile. It seems natural. I’m glad he liked his job. It was 1951 and almost over. Six more Durango Kid films and Charley retired from the screen forever.

He gets to do a little more acting than usual in this one. When we meet Steve Baldwin, he’s in disguise — unshaven, dirty clothes, poor elocution and a phony wanted poster to boot. Charley’s advancing age helped him with his portrayal here.

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Turns out he’s a Postal Investigator (boy, they come up with some sexy jobs for Charley). He’s looking for those Mail Robbers “wanted for that Tucson mail robbery.”

Jock (now Jack) Mahoney (long time Starrett stuntman) plays an Eastern educated square who arrives in town in a straw hat with a tennis racket and a mandolin. Some jerks pick on him but it turns out he can fight like…well…The Durango Kid. Exactly like the Durango Kid.

Great montage where Durango trains Jack to shoot so that he can avenge his father’s death. GREAT MONTAGE! Spinning and drawing — pantomiming “you try it now, Jack” — throwing cans in the air and shooting them — one shoots the eye out of a target of a man, the other shoots the other eye out — laughing when they miss. Shoulder-chucking. All that great stuff.

Neat tension between the two sides of Charley. Durango actually saves the one guy who can finger Steve for Murder.

Some great lines:

Sherriff: “The first thing you learn in the Law is, you gotta catch ’em with the meat, the feathers don’t count.”

Later. Charley: “When a man keeps cleaning a loaded gun, he don’t trust his company too much.”

Through the looking glass moment where Jack dresses up as…Steve!

Smiley Burnette plays “Smiley Burnette, Spec Specialist”. For the first time I’ve seen, Smiley is out of his trademark dusty outfit and chewed-up hat. He’s dressed in a top hat with a tie and vest and other fancy duds. Question: Why mess with a sure thing? Why draw on a winning hand?

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

“Pecos River” features the truly weirdest ending (by far) of any Durango Kid film I’ve seen.

Picture this: They blow the bridge at Deep Canyon and the stagecoach pummels to the rocks below, presumably with Durango and the Sheriff in it. Cut to: Smiley watching it with Jack and the girl. As Jack comforts the girl, Smiley walks up to the camera and addresses the audience directly, “Don’t worry about a thing yet, folks. Wait until I get on my special patented glasses for looking into the future. By seeing ahead I can tell exactly what’s about to happen. Yeah, everything might be fine and dandy.” He turns around and comes back with some sparkly glasses on. “Just what I thought, the future looks wonderful…”

Dissolve to the final scene of everyone assembled to say goodbye to Steve. The Sheriff is just fine. Smiley continues to narrate what they are saying. In the future, Smiley plays a Harmonica, but we can’t hear it. Smiley says, “I guess these glasses don’t work for sound too well.”

The closest they have come to breaking the fourth wall like this was in “Laramie Mountains” when Smiley took a piece of paper from Ringeye the Dog’s mouth and held it up to the camera. It read “The End.”

No band in this one. Only “Harmonica Bill.” Here’s the bit: his name is “Bill” and he accompanies Smiley’s singing by playing on a Harmonica!

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

“Laramie”

May 26, 2008

Courtesy of Les Adams

— image courtesy of Les Adams – Abilene, Texas

My daughter Briar has been watching these films with me. She is one month old today. In her life experience, Charles Starrett stars in 9 out of 10 movies. In fact, he’s the biggest movie star of all time.

We’ll have to see if this experience has lasting effects on her, perhaps a penchant for fellas named Steve…

“Laramie” (1949) is not to be confused with “Laramie Mountains” (1951). The film is set in or near Fort Sanders, in 1868. Steve Holden has been sent to the fort by Commissioner Briggs, “he’s head of the Government Peace Commission.” He (with Durango’s help) discovers that gunrunner are stirring up trouble between the soldiers and the local indians.

Fred Sears plays the Colonel, in a rare good-guy role. Bad-guy duties fall to Robert J. Wilke who played a lot of great villains over the years.

Sergeant Duff (another familiar face, George Lloyd) gives Smiley a run for his money as comic relief. He’s got an over-the-top Irish accent, a big ol’ temper, and he drops things a lot. Classic. You get these two together in a locked jail cell and watch out! Pure comic gold!

Joking (and hatred of Smiley) aside, the Smiley beats work well in this film, mainly because they are part of the plot. Smiley and Duff figure out the bad guy, and Smiley rides to Steve’s rescue.

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Charley is good in this one. He does his own fighting and shooting in at least one well-choreographed fight scene. It’s interesting. Since seeing “Laramie Mountains” where Jock Mahoney plays a central role, I now know what Charley’s stuntman looks like. It’s really easy to spot when it’s Jock.

He’s also let off the hook on having to act like Smiley is funny. Must have been a good shoot for Charley.

In the final action sequence involving a stagecoach attacked by Indians, Charley is wearing a black shirt and white hat. For a moment, I thought it was some interesting synthesis of the Steve character and the Durango Kid character. Then I realized that it was so he would match the hero in the recycled footage they were using. It’s from the John Ford / John Wayne classic “Stagecoach.” (Great scene, BTW. I gotta see that film again, pronto!)

Funny bit: a new low in production value, a FLASH from the on-set photographer DURING a scene where Smiley is surrounded by Indians while making a smoke signal fire. I’d love to see that photo.  Update 7/11/08 — Here it is:

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Best line: Charley has been captured and Smiley is trying to get inside the office where they are holding him. A tough hombre says he ain’t inside and roughs Smiley up a bit. Smiley backs away saying, “I’m sure you’re right, Mister. I just remembered his name ain’t Steve anyhow!”

This is a Durango Kid film, Smiley. His name is always Steve!

— image of Athol, Mass. courtesy of Google Earth

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about the place these days.

“The latter days of the 19th century saw the West torn by turbulence and strife, invaded by desperadoes and bandits.  Before this onslaught, Justice faltered and the Law stood helpless.  Life was filled with terror and no man could trust another.  Then, into the turmoil and havoc of lawlessness, a mysterious figure rose up and came to the people’s aid.  They called him…The Durango Kid!”

I like this opening narration, recited with great gravity over images of gunfights and wagon attacks, a montage ending with the rousing image of The Kid atop his rearing white stallion.

These words open many of Charles Starrett’s films, including “Law of the Canyon” which is an atypical  chapter in the Durango Kid saga.

Starrett plays Steve Langtry, a citified “dude” who says things like “unhand me” and “fight back? why, someone might get hurt or even killed!”  We meet him traveling by wagon to Jackson City to open a store.

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

When the wagon is hijacked at Skeleton Pass, he is winged in the hand and passes out at the sight of his own blood.  Smiley comes upon the bound victim and greets him with a familiar “Steve”, but Langtry doesn’t know him and calls him “stranger” repeatedly.  (Pssst. Don’t worry, it’s just an act…)

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

It’s fun watching Charlie play a stuffed shirt coward.  When he runs from a fight shouting “save me! save me!” in his deep baritone — it’s just beautiful.  Not only does this evoke the Clark Kent/Superman dynamic, it’s just nice to see some distinction between Steve and Durango other than the color of their duds.

Juicy plot.  Thematic narrative right out of “Morte D’ Arthur” or T.S. Elliot’s “The Wasteland.”  Ya know, the whole ‘the king is sick, the land lies fallow’ stuff.  Fred Sears as Doc Middleton takes the opening narration at its word, especially the ‘Justice falters and the Law stands helpless’ bit.  He is doping Sheriff Coleman so he seems sick, allowing his Hood Gang to run amok on Skeleton Pass.

Doc Middleton gets the best line in the piece, “Go find me the Durango Kid.  I never went to medical school, but I think I could do a little surgery on him.”

The whole wimpy Steve routine turns out to be an elaborate ruse.  But why?  And who is bank-rolling this pricey intervention?  Smiley answers it all in the last scene with one line:  “Steve is a Government Secret Agent.  I knowed it all along!”

I’m certain you all recall American History 101 where we studied the Post-Confederate Government Agency that sent Secret Agents into the western states to clear up local problems.  In case you were sick that day, here’s how it worked:

“Durango, get in here.  I hope you brought your black mask, cuz we’ve got a hot one for you this time.  We need you to clean up a mess outside of Jackson City.  You’ve got to clear Skeleton Pass!”

“Right, Control.  Here are my requirements.  I’ll need two wagons stocked full of store supplies, $2000 in ransom money, another three wagons to arrive in 2 weeks.  And, of course, complete immunity for any crime I may commit along the way.”

“Done.”

“One question.  What’s my name this time?”

“Langtry.  Steve Langtry.”

Co-stars a young Robert “Buzz” Henry who became a great stunt man, and Zon Murray who played a heavy in eight DK films.

Smiley endeavors to make comic magic with an uncooperative water pump.  Also a Gold-finding machine.  In another time, he might have founded a religion.  Here, he’s just dumb.

Music by Texas Jim Lewis and his Lone Star Cowboys.   Texas Jim is about as big as my thumb.