“Western Caravans”

June 30, 2008

Courtesy of Les Adams

Jim Carson is the Sheriff of Powder River. He’s caught between a fresh wave of homesteaders and the ranchers who want to keep them out.

“Western Caravans” has an obvious pro-immigration message. Jim cries out to the xenophobic cattlemen, “Can’t you see, there’s room enough for everybody?!” I don’t know enough about US domestic policy in 1939 or attitudes about immigration at the time to know if this film was expounding a popular sentiment or not. I imagine that we as a nation were casting a nervous eye at the developments in Europe, though.

Of course, rustlers (with mean Dick Curtis in the lead – so mean in this one that he shoots a 12 year old kid in the back) are behind all the unrest — they want to start a war to cover up their rustling.

Film is very short on action. In fact, the whole conflict comes to an end around 30 minutes in — both sides shake hands, the Sons of the Pioneers feel like singing, Charley shouts “well, sing then!” and everyone dances in the street. Fade out.

It’s also short on Charley. He’s absent from the action for nearly 10 minutes as the film reinvents some tension and plot. Even then, he’s mostly the long-suffering type, on the side of good and knows it and won’t lower himself to his enemies’ level. (He does have two great brawls with Dick Curtis.)

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

The real hero of this film is Iris Meredith. She stands up to her father, to the angry cattlemen, to everybody. She puts herself in harms way consistently through the film.

I’m glad to see her get a chance to shine in a stronger role. She has credited roles in 45 films, nearly half of which are Starrett vehicles. As the pretty heroine, she fills the part quite well, but she’s got something more to her and I’m glad she got a chance to exercise that in this film. Hopefully, we’ll see more of this strong side of her as we continue to watch these films.

Here’s a webpage dedicated to Iris.

“Western Caravans” ends with a big shoot-out, like 40 guys shooting at each other across a western town street. Then the action moves to the rocks outside of town, and more shooting. After the intimacy of the action in the Durango films, I enjoyed a bigger spectacle.

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“Blazing Trail”

June 29, 2008

Opening narration (read by Charles): “Sooner or later, a man rides a one-way trail he can’t turn back on. It doesn’t look any different to him than any other trail, so he has no way of knowing it will be his last. Normally old Mike Brady might have seen the difference. But his mind was troubled. And death takes up very little space when it’s shaped like a .45.”

This poetic opening was written by Barry Shipman, writer, actor, sun-tan lotion inventor. He wrote 26 of the Durango Kid films. Son of silent screen star Nell Shipman, he also was a writer for the serials of “Dick Tracy”, “Zorro” and “Flash Gordon.” His later work included many TV westerns and training films for the Navy and NASA. You can read a touch memorial of the man here.

He also wrote “Blazing Trail” in 1949. Steve Allen is the Marshall of Brady Town, searching for the killer of old Mike. There’s a lot of voice-over and flashbacks which makes me suspicious that this was patched together from footage from other Durango films. I recognize some of the pieces.

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Durango spends much of the film removing bullets from suspects’ guns to compare with shells found at the scene of the crime. I guess it’s a good use of the Kid…

Smiley is the newspaper editor who keeps disguising himself to get the story. The Jesters sing “cheer up, be happy, wear a smile” but there’s not much of a chance of that with Smiley around.

The running gag is that Smiley can’t find a capital “D” for his printing press. In the final shot, he finds it and shouts, “Now I can write a story all about the Durango Kid.”

Barry Shipman 1912 – 1994.

There’s something that I struggle to figure out as I watch these films, especially the early ones like this 1933 number. It is the mystery of Charles Starrett’s appeal.

I am tempted to call it an Everyman’s appeal, but it’s not that. Tom Hanks has that. Gary Cooper has that.

He looks like a movie star, if a goofy one, with his height and his trim physique, his hair and his chin. It’s more like he’s an adequate star. I’m struggling here, because there are plenty of those (Audie Murphy comes to mind) and he doesn’t remind me of him. And it’s not just that he seems like a nice guy, cuz he doesn’t exude niceness like Jack Lemmon or Jimmy Stewart.

Damn. I’m still on it. I’ll get back to you. You know I will.

On to the movie.  There’s been a murder on the campus.  A student named Mal Jennings with an equally strange occupation as athlete/bell-ringer has been shot atop the belltower. Charles plays Bill Bartlett, reporter from the Times Star, who is following the case and is sweet on a gal who may be the killer.

As a noir hero, Charley gets to wear a raincoat and smoke a lot. As a noir hero, he’s also pretty emotional. He has lines like this one, “Murder? You’ve charged her with murder! Sure. Sure, you cops have to do something to save your face, so you pick on an innocent gal. Why she had no more to do with those murders than you did.”

His slugging skills are still a little underdeveloped. Underdeveloped? Sure. Sure, pick on the young star. Just remember this: he’s young.

There’s lots of suspects: a gambler named Blackie, some jerk named Brock, a rich broad named Ann.

There’s also a Professor of Criminology who inexplicably works in a lab with beakers bubbling and formulas brewing. There’s an extremely weird non-scene where he and Charley have just found a dead man in the other room, and are waiting for the cops to show up. They kill time by wandering around the lab playing with the devices there.

In closing, may I return for a moment to my ongoing examination of what the French call Appeal de la Starrett? Maybe the thing is, or part of the thing is, that Charley clearly works so hard. In this film, in which he’s in almost every scene, when he’s not leading the action, he’s in the background, in soft focus yes, but clearly watching with rapt attention. Participating in any way he can.

“Trail to Laredo”

June 27, 2008

Opening narration: “You’ve all heard the old saying, ‘a man is known by the company that he keeps.’ In the early days, it wasn’t too hard to figure that any man who threw in his brand with outlaws like these did not have the makings of a good citizen. On the other hand, the man who joined up with good company was certain to have fine qualities and good intentions. But what about a man who kept no company? Who always worked alone? A masked man who road a spirited white horse. What side was he on?”

That’s an easy question. The answer is our side. And we’ve got real good company over here, with Les Adams, Steve Chaput, Jack Hailey, Bruce Hickey and Mun Mun riding alongside. Thanks to you, and my other readers, for taking his trail with me.

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

This 1948 entry comes approximately half-way through the Durango Kid’s run. Dan Parks discovers that his crooked partner is in cahoots with bad guys smuggling stolen gold. They frame Dan for robbery, and then murder. Steve Ellison used to ride with Dan Parks “up in the Panhandle.”

He’s also a Treasury Agent. And, in a first, so is Smiley. We first meet him as a window repairman, but he’s undercover. “How am I doing?” he whispers to Steve. “Great.” “Learn anything about the smuggled gold?” “Plenty!”

We’ve seen Smiley where he knows Steve is an agent (and we’ve seen it when he doesn’t, and when he doesn’t know Steve at all, and other configurations) but we’ve never seen him also know that Steve is the Durango Kid! Steve says of a bad guy, “I think I’ll throw a scare into him.” Smiley nods knowingly. Cut to Durango pulling a gun on said bad guy.

Durango is posing as an outlaw for much of this film, so Charley gets to play him rougher and meaner than usual.

There’s some footage of Durango stealing gold from the hide-out of the bad guys and driving it away on a wagon by riding behind it and shooting at the horse. We’ve see this footage before, in the 1946 “Heading West.”

The music is provided by the Cass County Players. The singer is Virginia Maxey who was a nightclub singer who made four films in her career, all in 1948. This is the first one. She’s also the love interest. She’s also tiny. Like just a hair taller than Tommy Ivo, the kid in this.

Smiley paints the saloon. He makes a mess. It’s a tough call, but I would have to nominate this clearly improvised scene for the most unfunny bit Smiley has ever done. And that’s saying alot.

Sadly, to get back to the narration at the top, Durango did not ride alone. The company that he kept was Smiley. I shudder to think what that says about him.

“West of Tombstone”

June 26, 2008

Courtesy of Les Adams

Over the image of a crude cross with the name “Billy The Kid” written on it, runs this scroll: “William H. Bonney, alias Billy The Kid, was killed at Fort Sumner, New Mexico, July 14, 1881. So the official records state. But was he? The supposed killing was done by his life long friend, Sheriff Pat Garrett, and has long been disputed, even by members of Billy’s outlaw band.”

The film begins with a stagecoach robbery and the wounded lawman on board swearing the leader of the gang was Billy The Kid.

Next, Charles rides into Fort Sumner and digs up Billy’s grave — it’s empty except for a saddle and gunbelt.

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

This film is called “Billy The Kid Rides Again” right? Or “The Return of Billy The Kid” or “Pat Garrett’s Folly” or “The Empty Grave on Boot Hill”?

Nope. “West of Tombstone.” Nice work, boys. Thanks for the vague geographic clue to the general location of the action of the film. Big help. Really sells the picture.

Courtesy of Les Adams

Deputy United States Marshall Steve Langdon is looking for Billy. It’s a mystery. Is it Lucky Barnett (Russell Hayden)? No, it’s his Dad – gone clean – and the old Hole in the Wall Gang is blackmailing him into setting up stagecoach robberies for them.

This 1942 film is the third pairing of Charles Starrett and Russell Hayden, and their names both appear above the credits. They would do five more films together before the partnership was dissolved and Charley found his niche as the Durango Kid.

Just as Charley is always Steve Something, Russell is always Lucky Something.

People in these films get “winged” alot. This means that they get shot, but conveniently don’t suffer the real-life consequences of taking a bullet. I’ve learned to accept the stomach shot that heals overnight and the shoulder wound that doesn’t affect one’s gun work. But this takes the case: Lucky gets shot in the head, he clutches his eye and falls down. A few minutes later, he comes to and jumps up. No blood, no wound, no mark at all. After a couple of days of bed rest, the Doc says he’s just fine. Yeah….

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Comedy is handled by Cliff Edwards, a former vaudevillian renowned for his ukelele act, who we might remember best as the voice of Jiminy Cricket and singing “When I See An Elephant Fly” in “Dumbo”.

Shot among the great rock formations of Brandeis Ranch and Iverson Ranch in California.

“Sons of Steel”

June 25, 2008

Chadburne Brothers Steelworks is run by two brothers, old men. They each have different plans for their sons. Curtis (Holmes Herbert) has put Ronald (William Blakewell) through college in style, and hands him a cushy executive job at the plant. John (Walter Walker) has a more twisted plan. He has given his son away at birth to a machinist and his wife. Phillip (Charles Starrett) has worked his way through college tending the furnace and doing rich kids’ laundry. Upon graduation, he puts Phillip in the lowest paying job possible, with the plan of promoting him to the executive branch in one year.

Both plans are terribly flawed and lead to an industrial accident and a general strike by the steelworkers.

There! I was unable to find a synopsis of this film anywhere. Now you can read this one over at IMDB.

This is a good role for Charles. It’s 1933 and early in his career. He gets to play sweet, good-humored and optimistic college grad. Bitter steelworker. Rabble-rousing labor organizer. And, finally, Captain of Industry.

I don’t know much about Charley’s actual politics, but I do know that he was one of the founding members of SAG, the Screen Actors Guild. So he probably used the word “Organize!” outside of the pictures once or twice.

— images courtesy of Les Adams – Abilene, Texas

At last! A title which actually relates to the film. I mean, beyond giving us a general geographic location of the action (“West of Cheyenne”, “West of Abilene”, “West of Dodge City”, “South of Arizona”, “South of Death Valley”, etc.)

Check it out: part of the film is set in El Dorado, and the plot involves the search for a bunch of bandits who have mysteriously disappeared.

In fact, the 1949 film starts with a lengthy prologue which lists these bandits: “Ace Dawson, Sam Milton, Luke Holden, John Rackim, Bill Drake, Kurt Dixon, and Sam Milton (again)” I wonder if these were the names of crew members, or friends of the writer.

We meet Charles wearing a different mask than we’re accustomed to seeing him in — he’s an outlaw, robbing a stagecoach. He unshaven, dressed in dusty clothes, and tosses around some good tough guy lines like “Everyone in favor of staying alive, raise your hands.”

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

It’s all play acting, of course. He’s Steve Carson, Texas Ranger, and he’s committing a very public crime so he can go on the lam and find the underground railroad to “El Dorado”.

These are my favorites, where Charley gets to play a bad guy. Partly because he’s good at it, and partly because it provides a rare chance for Steve’s adoption of the Durango Kid identity to make sense!

That said, Durango makes a very late appearance. Nearly 22 minutes into the film.

As we’ve discussed before, sometimes Smiley meets Steve during the action of the picture. In this, he already knows Steve. “I’ve known him from way back.”

He doesn’t know Steve’s the Durango Kid, however. He asks Durango if he lives in a cave. In some footage shot when he was in his 80’s (see blog entry “Charles Starrett’s Last Public Appearence”), Charley talks about Durango hiding in a cave, “always ready!” Personally, I’ve seen Durango appear out of a lean-to, and from behind some rocks, but this is the first cave I’ve seen.

The action of the film takes us from Copper City down to El Dorado where Steve is trying to discover the boss of the operation providing the escape for these bandits. He’s helped by his Texas Ranger Captain, in disguise, who is played by our old friend Fred Sears.

Smiley down there too, and in disguise as well.

Courtesy of Les Adams

When Steve finds out Smiley is in Mexico, he’s bummed. “Aw, we’re sunk. I can handle outlaws, but I can’t handle that Smiley.” Me neither. Not on a full stomach, I can’t.

There’s not alot of discussion of Ray Nazarro in these pages, despite the fact that he directed a lot of these films. He is a competent director and an adequate storyteller. And he does frame a nice shot from time to time, which he does here.

There’s also a nicely staged fight scene in a darkened room.

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

The big stand-out in this film (other than the fact that there is not one woman in the entire film) is Mustard and Gravy. These two guys were a hillbilly music novelty act which Smiley brought into the fold. Imagine Tenacious D made up of two Kyle Gasses. They appear here dressed as wrestlers, as bullfighters and as black-faced minstrels.

We’ll be seeing more of this duo in future films, so look for a more extended discussion on them then.

Oh, and Clayton Moore appears here in his last film before climbing onto Silver and donning a mask of his own.

This film has both Little Brown Jug and Tommy Ivo in it! These two seem to alternate as the little kid quotient in these later films (this is 1951 and 10 to go.)

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

We should get these two together. Little Brown Jug (aka Don Reynolds) went to become a horse wrangler and trainer, most notably on the “Lord of The Rings” trilogy. Here is more information on Don Reynolds. Tommy Ivo became a professional race car driver, competing in Top Fuel Dragsters and Nitro Funny Cars. Here is T.V. Tommy’s webpage.

Screw the “Two Coreys”, these two should have their own reality show!

We’ve seen this plot before: opportunistic cowboys are raising hell dressed as injuns, hope to start a war so they can sell rifles. Though we see an addressed envelope that reads “Stardale, Idaho”, this doesn’t have anything to do with the Snake River (or Desperadoes for that matter).

Steve Reynolds is an agent for Indian Affairs, but he’s working undercover. Smiley has discarded the trademark battered black hat for a band marshall’s ceremonial headress. The change doesn’t make him any funnier.

There is a nice Rambo-esque sequence where Durango picks off members of a posse one by one. This is recycled footage from 1949’s “Desert Vigilante.”

The bad guy is revealed in a great manner. The kind old storekeeper who knows all about the local indians is always sewing beads on something while he talks. Later, we pan a darkened room full of ruffians and hear their boss’ voice and pan to reveal that this boss is finishing sewing the beads in the shape of a swastika.

Some cool riding in this. Lots of high-speed tracking shots. Go Fred Sears.

Final dialogue: whites and indians gathered around the teepee, shaking hands.

Black Eagle: “Now maybe our two people live in peace.”

Durango: “That’s right, Chief. Like one people.”

Black Eagle: “Like one people. Like Durango and Steve Reynolds maybe.”

Durango: “Maybe.”

Yeah, maybe. No one else seems to care much. At least not the writers.

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Last shot of the film is the two little boys smoking a peace pipe. I’m telling you, this reality TV show has potential….

Durango out!

“Jungle Bride”

June 22, 2008

In 1925, Harry O. Hoyt made the “The Lost World” for First National Pictures. In 1933, he made “Jungle Bride” for I. E. Chadwick Productions. The credits read “Charles Starrett – courtesy of Paramount” so I’m thinking this was a loan-out.

In one of many firsts, we meet Charley, drunk, dressed in a white suit, strumming on a guitar and singing (with what sounds like his natural voice) for a bunch of folks on what turns out to be a doomed ship. He’s being taken by a reporter to the US to stand trial for a murder that another man has been convicted of. That man’s sister is Anita Page. She’s there too.

The ship hits a reef and sinks and all three of these folks end up on a desert island, along with Gordon Wayne‘s comic side-kick.

What follows is a lot of footage of wild animals intercut with our actors. There’s a Gilligan’s Island-type hut made of bamboo. Plans to escape. Rivalry for the gal.

We also get to see Charley do a lot of things we’ve never seen him do: wrestle a lion, play guitar, wear a striped shirt, laugh at a monkey, share hot chemistry with a gal, get married, use an eraser, beat up a reporter.

There’s a running mystery about Gordon’s guilt which has a lame resolution, but the ending of this film is pretty neat.

I know that when people talk of these films (if they talk about these films), they use the word formula. I think equation is a better word.

A formula suggests a strict set of ingredients and a definite order in which they are presented. Thus, when people say “formula” they often mean “predictable.”

An equation suggests to me amounts. Like, there will be x amount of gunplay, x amount of riding, x amount of singing, etc. This is predictable in the sense that one can be sure that there will be a prescribed amount of these things.

Why I make this distinction is that I feel these Durango Kid films are marked by a remarkable lack of attention to a formula. There is an incredible indifference to the rules of the game as established in previous Durango films.

1945’s “Outlaws of the Rockies” is a great example. We’re five films into the series and the one rule I am certain of is this: Steve puts on the Durango Kid identity to hide his own.

Nope.

The Lanning gang robs a bank and Tex Harding is mistaken for one of the outlaws. Steve Williams, the new Sheriff, is accused of being in cahoots with the gang. Both men are out to prove their innocence.

Dressed as Durango, Steve is helping Tex. This leads to this great dialogue when Durango comes to warn Tex, his gal and a puncher.

Gal: “I don’t know who you are or why you’re masked, but I’d like to thank you.”

DK: “Some people know me as the Durango Kid.”

Other guy: (recognition): “The Pecos gun job!”

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

During a chase, Durango is knocked from his horse. Tex rides back to help him, and when Durango gets up, the mask is gone. “Steve?! Why didn’t you tell me you were the Durango Kid?!”

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Tex wastes no time telling everyone! He tells the gal, Cannonball, the band, “Meet the Durango Kid!” And Steve laughs!

Next, the bad guy figures it out. And he tells everyone. His gang, the authorities.

It’s half-way through the movie, folks!

And yet, Steve continues to dress as Durango. And everyone still calls him Durango. “What now, Durango?” asks Cannonball. “Give my regards to hell, Durango” says the bad guy. “That Durango Kid is dynamite!” says a henchman.

Put that in your formula and smoke it, pops!

The other thing of note in this film is the appearance of Spade Cooley, “the King of Western Swing.” His record-breaking 18 month engagement at Santa Monica’s Venice Pier Ballroom established Western Swing (a big band version of the Singing Cowboy)  in the early forties, and his “Hoffman’s Hay Ride” TV show ran until 1959.

Spade’s a weird looking guy, sort of like a shorter, weirder Warren Oates. He’s also a killer. He beat his wife, Ella Mae, to death and died giving a prison concert.

He’s got a couple of lines in this film, the most memorable of which is (re. Cannonball), “That biscuit burner is getting too big for his britches.”

Speaking of Dub Taylor, he does a great little dance in the jailhouse. It’s a reminder of why he is genuinely funny and Smiley is unbearable — Dub seems to be having a ball.

Joining Spade Cooley is a great singer, Carolina Cotton.