Charles on “Steve”

August 31, 2008

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Most superheroes have a distinct difference with their alter egos.  Clark Kent is a wimpy coward, Bruce Wayne is an irresponsible playboy, and so on.  Not Steve Something.  He and Durango are nearly identical, except for the color of their clothes and horses.  This often leads to the complaint that Steve doesn’t need Durango, that he could accomplish most of the tasks that confront him without all the hassle of dressing up and wearing a mask.

Here is what Charles Starrett had to say about the matter:  “The superhero is Durango, of course, but Steve, he wasn’t a buffoon.  Steve had to be played as a hero, as a capable man, as a fighting man believing in justice, believing in goodness and all the nice things that we saw in a straight character just doing a straight western.  Durango was what you might call a superhero who puts the fear of God in the hearts of bad men, and everyone else.  He was so good, so concise in everything that he did, in his movements, perhaps even in the staccato of his voice.  I mean, you do this or if you don’t then you know what the consequences are going to be.  Steve, I felt, should not be a weak character unless you were playing for comedy.  He had to be strong too, to make the superhero look even better.  I think that is perhaps why the whole series lasted so long.”

I think Charles point here is two-fold.  1) Durango is so strong, is such a superhero, that even if Steve is a strong hero, he is nothing compared to Durango.  2) Steve’s strength only makes Durango look stronger.

I’m not sure I agree.  I would say that the B-Western is intolerant of any subtlety in characterization.  Everything is painted in either black or white, weak or strong.  So the options for Steve were to be good and strong and wear the white hat OR to be cowardly and weak and “played for comedy.”

Charles’ choice here, then, is a no-brainer.

(quote take from the introduction of Bob Carman and Dan Scapperotti’s fine book “The Adventures of The Durango Kid, starring Charles Starrett”, 1983.)

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In 1935, Tim McCoy left Columbia Pictures to make westerns for Puritan films. Columbia needed a new cowboy star, and Charles Starrett got the job.

More observant men than I have noted that the studio gave Charles the same costume. Tim’s look was big white hat, white scarf, black shirt, black pants, white horse.

The similarities end there. Tim McCoy is short, sort of pudgy, with a roundish face. He rides his horse very erect. He talks to his horse alot – explaining plot points and his motivation. He rolls his own smokes and talks in a slow and lazy sort of way, with an “authentic” drawl. What must have been a real draw for him was the fact that he has this incredible intensity when he’s angry – great eyes.

Tim McCoy was the real deal, a cowboy from Wyoming, with a great past and a lot of schemes. Here is a good concise history of his life.

In “Texas Cyclone”, 1932, Texas Grant rides into Stampede, Arizona. He is mistaken by everyone as Jim Rawlings, missing for over 5 years. Texas decides to stick around and take this identity, cleaning up the town and settling Jim Rawlings’ old scores. So, like Charley often does, Tim has a double identity in this film.

(Interestingly, in most films Tim McCoy is named “Tim” Something.)

Other differences between a Tim McCoy film and a Charles Starrett film: lots of people and background action. Also, they speed up the action – fights and riding – alot, I mean, real fast. There are some featured horse jumps – like over a wagon – I’ve never seen anything like that in a CS flick.

Tim has a nice supporting cast here: Walter Brennan (was he ever young?) and a decidedly young John Wayne as his sidekick, Steve.

So this is Charley’s cinema-father. I like.

Yesterday, we took a little drive deep into Simi Valley and visited two of the locations where many of Charles Starrett’s films were shot.

The first was Corriganville. Opened by Ray “Crash” Corrigan, stunt-man and B-western star, in 1937, this 1900 acre ranch was the location for countless Western films. An amusement park was opened on the site in 1949, featuring all the western town sets and so forth. Today, it’s a wilderness park, with a lazy loop of a dirt path which leads you past many of the locations (some noted by “interpretive signs” and photos.) It’s a nice 1-mile hike and fun to soak in the area.

There’s an excellent webpage with a more complete history, profiles on the many people who worked there, and, best of all, a photo “tour” of the facility when it was up and running.

Oddly, there is a working sound stage next to the park. I can only imagine it is located there out of some sense of tradition — the 118 freeway and Amtrack tracks are right on top of the place, making outdoor shooting impossible. And it’s not like it’s close to anything. Odd.

Next stop was Iverson Ranch. This is where the majority of Starrett’s films were shot. It too had many standing western sets. Most burnt down in fires in 1970 and 1979. The freeway also killed this location.

Sadly, it’s now covered with tract homes. We did find “Lone Ranger Rock”. Here’s a site which has more information on the history and filmography of Iverson Ranch.

To any fan of this genre, these places will look mighty familiar.  They are the landscapes of the B-Western.  The A-list may have had Monument Valley, Charley and the rest of the guys had Corriganville and Iverson Ranch.

“Down Rio Grande Way”

August 25, 2008

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

This is a different sort of Starrett Western.

First off, the canvas is much bigger.  The 1942 film starts in Washington, DC.  Two politicians in top hats conspire to “stir up so much trouble, so much lawlessness…that no right-thinking congressman would dare” to vote Texas into the Union.

They have a man in mind to do the job, Vandal, the tax accessor in Bajou Texas.  He, and his secret partner, The Colonel, are taxing the ranchers to bankruptcy to force them to violence.

The stakes are mighty high for one of these little films: statehood for the Lone Star!

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Cut to Texas Rangers HDQ (the sign tells us it’s on the 3rd floor) where Steve Martin is bringing in an outlaw.  He’s hasn’t had any sleep in 72 hours and wants a few days off.  A regal man enters the room.  “Request refused, Ranger.” “President Houston!”  Sam Houston has plans for Steve, to go undercover as a land-buyer in Bajou, and stop the threat to Texas.

An historical figure calling Steve by name!

Steve arrives in Town and finds that his big problem is the hotheaded Lucky Haines (Russell Hayden in his 5th of 8 films with Charley) who is ready to go head to head with Vandal.  A congressional committee is coming to Bajou.  It’s up to Steve to make sure the town makes a good impression.

There’s an incredibly half-assed and half-hearted attempt at a love triangle between the two guys and the Colonel’s daughter.  It consists entirely of two scenes: 1) Steve smiles at her and 2) Lucky hears Steve has gone to visit the Colonel and his mother asks if he’s jealous.  He says “naw!”  Nobody’s heart was in this sub-plot.

Neat scene where Charley and Russell fight each other to a draw.  “Think we better go on?”  “We’re not getting anywhere.”  They are friends now.

Weird tough-guy line for Steve.  A bad guy is roughing up Lucky’s cousin and Steve responds to the shouts.  “What do you want?”  “My ears are sensitive to noise.”

Vandal (Norman Willis) has a great arch bad guy voice.  He also has one of the weirder lines.  “That’s like baiting a trap with a mouse to catch another piece of cheese! Ha ha ha!”  What?

In the end, Charley earns his top billing – he kills or captures everyone of import, while poor Hayden wings a henchman or two.

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Great over-the-top final shot: an American flag being raised over a Texas courthouse while a saluting Sam Houston, flanked by Lucky and Steve, recites an abridged Declaration of Independence.

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

A TRIBUTE

Charles “Durango” Starrett

I am grateful to be a part of a tribute that is long overdue — a tribute to the leading ladies who rode the Hollywood range during half a century of Western film production. The “B” Western heroine until now has been mostly overlooked and ignored by writers of Hollywood’s films and stars, but now Buck Rainey has made it possible for those of us who loved and appreciated the ladies of the range to read of them and their films, and perhaps for the first time to learn something of their personal lives, achievements, and defeats. The book you are about to read is a marvelous reference book and the only one that I know of that is devoted to the Saturday matinee heroines of yesteryear.

In the 17 years I made Westerns I had the pleasure of working with many actresses, and nearly all of them earned my admiration. They had pride. Whether young, new, or an actress more experienced in Westerns, the environmental conditions were the same. But in spite of the tough outdoor shooing and the wind, dust, heat, rough men, and horses, they were troupers. Such work gave them confidence and courage, and they gave of their best on camera. I remember that most of them were most pleased just to win approval from the cast and crew. They never expected to be given much of a break in the press or the studio front office, but they kept their spirits up and did their job like the professionals they were.

Naturally we cowboys got a big part of the glory, for the stories were built around us and our heroics. After us came our horses, our sidekicks, and a few beloved, noted character actors, with the heroines usually bringing up the rear on the glory trail. They deserved better, and I was always happy when one of the girls did succeed and really got the recognition she had earned.

Though sometimes just window dressing, the leading ladies often had an important, integrated role in the story. Consequently they were able to contribute to raising a “B” Western’s entertainment value far above what would be expected from its production budget. And speaking of budgets, did you konw that a lot of the girls worked for as little as $75 a week? Of course some made a lot more, but nearly all were grossly underpaid for the work they were called on to do.

Nearly all of the Western heroines I knew and worked with were nice, down-to-earth, hard-working young persons much like the working girl who goes to an office each day. They had a job they conscientiously strived to excel in, and they loved their profession just as much as the higher-paid, highly touted actresses working in the so-called “big” pictures at the studios. The leading ladies of Gower Gulch Columbia Studio had their dreams and aspirations too, and it always pleased me when a nice, talented actress was able to get her name above the title or at least ahead of the horse.

It is with respect and sincere admiration that I take my Stetson off and bow to the sweethearts of the sagebrush.

— foreword to Buck Rainey’s fine book “Sweethearts of the Sage: Biographies and Filmographies of 258 Actresses Appearing in Western Movies.”

“Cattle Raiders”

August 21, 2008

We hear about Charles’ character before we meet him.  He’s Tom Reynolds, oldest son of Jim Reynolds and heir to the Lazy R Ranch, on the lam for having killed the Sheriff – a crime he’s falsely accused of.  His father is a cripple.  His brother is a gambler and a lout.  The only ranchhand keeping the ranch together just left.  The land is fallow and “run down.”

Sounds almost biblical.

Tom rides back to town to set things right.  In the absence of Law & Order, Dick Curtis has thrived – working both sides of the fence as a cattle rustler and Sheriff/Prosecutor pro-temp.

This is a difficult film to watch for we serious Starrett fans.  Not only is Charley named “Tom,” but his brother is named “Steve.”  Very confusing.

In these earlier pictures, Charley still lapses into his heavy vaudeville voice, “Start Walking! First one to turn around, gets it!” and “Someone’s going to hang for that killing and it ain’t me!”

Between some good riding scenes and not enough fighting, we have a real lazy who-dunnit.  It turns out to be a double/double cross: Curtis shot the Sheriff, convinced Steve that he did and gets him to frame Tom.

Film ends with a loooong (15 minutes, one-quarter of the running time) courtroom scene.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t watch Westerns to see trial scenes.  I object!

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

I’m not sure that forensic science was this evolved in 1870 – proving Tom and Steve’s innocence involves matching two bullets to the same gun.  Now, there’s an idea – “CSI: Tombstone.”

Along the way, Charles sings!  He’s in jail and the Sons of the Pioneers are keeping him company.  “Hey! Since we’re stuck in here all night, how about a tune!”  He does that talk/singing, it’s one of those tall-tale bragging type songs and he “sings” a verse.  It sure sounds like Charley’s real voice.

I’ve seen some lame devices to pad or stretch the film.  Stock footage of cattle, riding scenes, etc.  But this takes the cake.  They stretch the film by 3 minutes easy by having a doctor lock and unlock doors.  It goes on and on and on…

Iris Meredith gets a kiss from Charley in the back of a wagon at the end, but otherwise is barely in the picture.

Auto Accident in ’44

August 20, 2008

The cover of the Los Angeles Times, Dec. 8th, 1944, features these headlines: JAPAN ADMITS DAMAGE BY QUAKE, PATTON CLOSES IN ON SAARBRUCKEN, NIMITZ TELLS OF SINKING JAP SNEAK ATTACK SHIPS.

At the bottom of the page, there is this smaller headline:

Johnny Mack Brown, Charles Starrett Hurt

COLUSA, Dec. 7, (AP) — Johnny Mack Brown and Charles Starrett, Hollywood motion picture actors, are in a hospital here for treatment of cuts and bruises received in an automobile accident near Colusa this morning. Highway Patrol officers said their automobile collided with a truck and trailer.

Where is Colusa, you ask? Right here.

What were Johnny Mack Brown and CS doing in this little town above Sacramento?

Here’s what Charley says about the matter, “A fancy country club wanted me to join their club and sent me an invitation for duck hunting in their grounds, and I could bring one guest with me.  I called my friend Johnny and we drove my specially built Cadillac station wagon, on which I had spent about $10,000, quite a lot of money in those days.  As we were going up a country road, a big bulldozer broke loose and headed our way.  I couldn’t do anything, the darn thing landed on our roof and would have surely crushed us if it hadn’t been for the extra roof reinforcement I had put in.  It was the best investment I had ever spent on.  Johnny and I landed in the hospital with minor injuries.  Well, I couldn’t even sue the guy who owned the bulldozer, a big shot in the area, who owned a large rice plantation and just about everyone in town worked for him.  Our lawyers stated even if we tried suing, he would have the case rigged by saying we were a couple of Hollywood cowboys on a drunken spree.  It was real frustrating and it was a hopeless case.”

Duck hunting.  Rice plantation.  Bulldozers.  Gotcha.

This would have been right before Charley started wearing the mask.

Dick Curtis

Holy Cross Cemetery
Culver City

Russell Hayden

Oakwood Memorial Park
Chatsworth

Dub Taylor

Ashes scattered near Westlake Village

Arthur Lee Hunnicutt

Coop Prairie Cemetery
Arkansas, USA

Smiley Burnette

Forest Lawn Memorial Park Hollywood


Iris Meredith

Forest Lawn Memorial Park Gendale


Ray Nazarro

Chapel Of The Pines Crematory
Los Angeles

Charles Starrett was cremated in Laguna Beach.  His ashes were then carried by an airplane over his alma mater, Dartmouth, and strewn over the football field.

According to IvyLeagueSports.com:

Memorial Field, originally built in 1893, was later dedicated in 1923. It consists of a 30,000-square-foot stadium that has a football field and track. Memorial Field was revamped to honor some 3,407 Dartmouth men who served in World War I, including 112 who lost their lives during battle.

Charles Robert Starrett died March 22nd, 1986, in Borrego Springs, California.

Here’s what wikipedia has to say about the place.