“South of the Chisholm Trail”

June 18, 2008

Compelling opening!

We’re in Abilene. There’s lots of people and a booming railroad business and Big Jim Grady runs it all.

Wrestling ring. Big crowd. Smiley is warming them up with a song and his pitch for a miracle tonic. He demonstrates by bending a horseshoe.

Big Jim shows up. His wrestler is hurt. They need someone to fight the BoneCrusher and soon or this crowd will turn violent. They recruit “strongman” Burnette as their fighter and things get real ugly, real fast.

A stranger arrives on the scene. He sees the ensuing carnage and volunteers to take Smiley’s place . Before you know it, he’s made quick work of this BoneCrusher.

His name? Steve. Steve Hayley.

His work done, Steve rides out of town.

Cut to: Many weeks later. Smiley and his boys are riding along when they
witness a stagecoach robbery. They jump the robbers and recover the loot. Bad news: the sheriff and posse jump Smiley, and he’s headed for a long fall and a short rope.

Just then, a masked man dressed all in black attacks the posse and makes off with the loot.

In town, they are getting ready for a hanging, when who should show up but Steve Hayley. He’s wrestled the money from the grasp of the masked man – the Durango Kid himself. Money returned, Smiley is cleared. Steve is the bad ass of the county: he beat BoneCrusher and the Durango Kid!

WOW! Questions, questions! How will all these pieces fit together? When will these two actually team up?

The bummer about these films is that there really is a formula. Actually, it’s more like an equation.

x amount of plot

x amount of action

x amount of singing

x amount of clowning

So when you get a bunch of plot and action right away, you know you’ll end up paying later with back-to-back Smiley scenes and a misplaced song right in the middle of the climax.

The 1946 film is set in Bearcat, Kansas, population 429. There is so much rustling in Bearcat that the cattlemen can’t get their herds to market in Abilene. They want to fight “fire with fire” and “hire gunslingers, killers, like Hawk Fisher, King Martin or even the Durango Kid!”

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

As for Steve, he does a lot of sitting and listening to speeches during the first half.

The whole thing leads to a big cattle drive to Abilene. Since the title has “Chisholm Trail” in it, we can surmise that they took this well-traveled route to Abilene. Since the title also includes the words “South of”, one might be tempted to conclude that Bearcat is somewhere down around Laredo or Corpus Cristi (see map below.)

However, since Bearcat is in Kansas, and the town sign testifies to it, along with some prominent dialogue, we must conclude that the cattle ranches in question are South of some portions of the Chisholm Trail, and North of other portions. Some might say, after studying the map above, that a more appropriate title for this film would be “North of the Majority of The Chisholm Trail”.

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

The big finale is a shootout between Steve and Big Jim, right? No, it’s a bank robbery! I’m telling you, this one keeps you guessing.

Of note: there’s a great moment where Steve is in a gunfight in which he is seriously out-gunned. He takes refuge behind a bush. He looks down. There’s a black hat! He lifts the hat. There’s a black scarf! Cut to: Durango charging around a corner, guns blazing.

Really like this one. Up there with “Cowboy Star” and “Lawless Empire.”

Music by the improbably named Hank Newman and his Georgia Crackers.

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2 Responses to ““South of the Chisholm Trail””

  1. mike newton said

    Starrett’s films always had a geographical locale in the titles: South of Arizona, South of the Chisholm Trail, Trail to Laredo. The irony of it was that when they were shown in England, the titles were changed to something even less Western. I guess it was felt that English fans would not understand the Western lingo. As I have stated in other posts, these films were usually filmed so rapidly, about one month, that they only had a production number until they were finally cut for release. Then the secretaries in the steno pool got together and came up with a title.

  2. stevesomething said

    This bit about the films only having production numbers when shot is often noted by Starrett fans. It’s only partly true. In my research in the vaults of Columbia, I found many films with working titles, not just numbers. I know, I know, Charlie himself was quoted about the production numbers thing, but my research shows that, at least some of the time, there were titles when they were shot, if not the title they were ultimately release under.

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