“Cyclone Praire Rangers”

September 30, 2008

Sabotage on the railways!  Chickens trashed!  Produce set on fire!

Charles gets a telegram: “STEVE TRAVIS, PRAIRIE JUNCTION.  ACCEPTANCE OF APPOINTEMENT RECEIVED.  CASE FILE AND DATA IN MAIL NOW.  GOOD LUCK.  UNITED DEFENSE INDUSTRIES”

But first, a song by Jimmy Wakely and His Saddle Pals.

This is another rare contemporary Western for Charles.  It joins “Sundown Valley” and “Cowboy Canteen” (both are 1944).  It’s also a propaganda tool to sell War Bonds.

The sheriff says “…you’d think it was back in days of Jesse James, instead of 1943.”  And you sure would.  The film is shot on the same sets that were supposed to be 1870 in the last picture.  Everyone wears the same outfits they would in a film set in the wild West just after the Civil War, not during World War Two.  They all ride horses everywhere and carry six-shooters in their gun belts.  And, of course, it’s the same cast of stock characters.

This leads to jarring moments where you’ve just about forgotten that this is modern day, and then someone carries something from the saloon to a car, or the deputies huddle in the sherriff’s office and compare fingerprints with those sent by the FBI, or Steve is late for a town meeting because he’s making a long distance phone call.

Of course, as my friend Rodney pointed out to me the other day over sandwiches in the Warner Brothers cafeteria (not far from the old site of the Columbia Ranch where they probably shot this thing), in 1943 the year 1870 was about as close in time as 1943 is to us today.

Charles plays Steve Travis, the famous rodeo performer who is “doing such a swell job selling War Bonds.”  Apparantly, he’s also some sort of secret agent for the Military Industrial Complex.

The stakes: “Well boys, this valley supplies our Southern coastal cities with most of their beef, grain and dairy products.  If these ranches were wrecked, it’d throw a monkey wrench into our cities’ defense industries because workers must have food.  We’re going to need our graineries and packing houses crammed to the rafters to feed our people.”

“Steve, you make it sound goddarn serious.”

“It is serious, Davis.  Food is an essential weapon.”

It’s not a very sexy premise, but it works.

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Better villains than in “Sundown Valley” at least.  In that film, the bad guys were merely opportunists who were hoping to make a buck off the work effort.  I kept hoping they’d end up being Nazi spies.  No luck.

But here, in “Cyclone Praire Rangers”, I get my wish.  Sort of.  The bad guys are local folks who are working for a foreigner whose country of origin is unnamed but who talks about the “inferior race” and pronounces his “W”s like “V”s.

There’s more actual mystery, riding and fighting than in “Sundown Valley” and less rah-rah speechifying.

Though the film does end with Charles hawking War Bonds to a crowd and speaking more or less directly into the camera.

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As editor of my high school yearbook, I met regularly with the representative from the yearbook company.  His name was Hoot Gibson.  He was a nice guy, your classic salesman.  He had a big meaty face, always smiling, couldn’t remember my name so he called me “T”.  My co-editor was named Todd, so he was “T” as well.  Together, we were “T n T.”  Guess why?  “Cuz you guys are dynamite!”

If you met the guy, you wouldn’t mistake him for a Western Movie Star.   But, then again, you wouldn’t mistake the actor in the leading role of 1936’s “Riding Avenger” for one either.  Paunchy, goofy-looking with big flabby cheeks and jowls, Hoot Gibson at 44 could fit no one’s idea of a cowboy hero.

Now, I understand he was a rodeo star in his youth, and made a ton of silent films.  I will have to see one of them.  Maybe he was great back then.

But to answer the question I regularly pose here, what was this cowboy star doing in 1936, when Charles Starrett was becoming a B-Western star?  Hoot Gibson was embarrassing himself.

Charles Starrett would have been 11 or 12 in 1915 when this Alaskan melodrama hit the theaters.

And he would have been 27 when he made “The Viking” set in New Foundland.  I wonder if he got a secret thrill making this third movie, knowing that he was following in his boyhood hero’s snow-covered tracks.

“The Darkening Trail” is, at first, a melodrama set among the social set.  A moneyed “cad” flees a pregnant lover to start over in Alaska, which the card describes as “the melting pot of the North”.

Hart (who directs as well) doesn’t even show up until nearly 20 minutes into the film.  He plays his usual rough jerk with a heart of gold.  He spots the cad for what he is and ultimately punishes him for it.

Hart’s range is so much more impressive than most of the cowboy stars (including Charley).  In this film, where he in essense plays a supporting role, he displays cruelty, honor, crazed mirth, stoic anger, sorrow and blood-thirsty intensity.

But fans of his work watch these movies for two things: to see him ride terrifically (here in a pouring rainstorm) and get mad vengeance (dispatching the cad at the death-bed of his wife.)

Charley does neither of these things very often or very well.

Other Cowboy Stars – Tom Mix

September 25, 2008

In “The Great K & A Train Robbery”, we meet Tom Gordon hanging from a rope, a thousand feet above a gorge.  Tom Mix regularly does this sort of thing: he rides a horse at a gallop across a thin railroad tressle, he clings from a mining bucket over a raging river, he leaps from his saddle onto a fast-moving train.

He’s more Indiana Jones than Durango Kid.

Charles Starrett doesn’t do impossible stunts.  And that’s not just because of the budget, his are a different sort of films.

In “Great K & A Train Robbery”, Tom Mix has a secret identity and he wears a black mask, which provides a nifty jumping off point to a discussion of the differences between him and Charles.

Charley’s masked man, DK, is intense, deadly-serious and humorless — as Charles put it, he’s 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.” (see “Charles on Steve” blog entry.)  As we’ve discussed before, this secret identity differs so slightly from “Steve” (Charles’ real identity) that it’s often laughable that he bothers putting on the mask.

On the other hand, Mix’s alter-ego is a bon-vivant.  He’s a show-off, doing everything he does with a lot of style and wit.  From what I understand about Mix, this was very close the man in real life – with his women, his flash, his high-living.

Mix is very light on his feet, very agile, he moves like a dancer.  He’s sort of funny-looking, like a cartoon of Barney Miller.  He seems shorter than his purported six feet.  He’s got dark hair.  He might be considered Starrett’s physical opposite in many ways.

Actually, the villain in this piece is the sort of character which Charley used to play in his pre-Western days — dapper, refined, rival to the hero for the gal’s hand, described in the cards here as “if he’s a college man, it’s Vassar.”  (Enough of your Vassar bashing, Mr. Mix!)

One last note, since my mind is on horses after my visit to the site of Fat Jones Stable: Tony is a featured character in these films, unlike Charley’s horses.  In fact, Tony has twice the personality of Raider and Bullet put together.

Fat Jones Stables

September 25, 2008

Fat Jones Stables was the top supplier of horses and horse wranglers to the movies for 51 years.  The business was founded by Clarence “Fat” Jones in 1912 when he provided horses for a Pathe Films western.

Originally located in Edendale (which today is Silverlake), the Stables moved to North Hollywood in the ’20s.  They shut their barn doors in 1963, but not before they had making an indelible mark on the screen with such stars as Flicka, Silver, Gene Autry’s Fury, and the horses which Hoss and the boys rode on “Bonanza”.

And, of interest here, Raider, the white horse of choice for one Durango Kid.  According to Charles Starrett, there were 31 “Raiders” over the years.

With a pedigree like that, we just had to visit this joint, so Briar and I set out on a little road-trip.

If Clarence had never moved his base of operations, we would have had a short drive.  Edendale is less than a mile from our home.  Mixville Studios, where Tom Mix produced his westerns, is long gone.  It served as a fire station for some years and then was converted to the Edendale Grill.  Yummy food by the way.  The drive would have been a lot more pleasant as well — winding tree-lined streets, residential homes, schools and many pedestrians.

Instead we were headed to the dark heart of the Valley, Sherman Way and Lankershim.

This has become one ugly part of town.  Body shops, discount shoe warehouses, cut-rate lumber yards, run-down prop houses.

And hot too.  It was over 100 degrees on the sunny September afternoon.

At least it was clear.

The best I can figure, a Storage business occupies the land that so many equine stars once called home.

There is no marker, no stone, no trace at all.  Not even a stray bit of dried-up hay or a faint whiff of petrified manure.

Too bad.  Briar brought her riding boots.

“Hell’s Hinges” is the greatest Clint Eastwood movie not starring Clint Eastwood!

In the form that Charles Starrett sent to the Dartmouth Alumni Records Office in 1956, for inclusion in the Alumni Directory, he lists under religion “Episcopal.”

Watching “Hell’s Hinges” starring and directed by Starrett’s boyhood celluloid hero, William S. Hart, one must wonder how deeply his religious sentiment ran as a child.

The film, released in 1916, is very religious in content and theme.  Like many of Hart’s roles, Blaze is a bad man who finds salvation.  Here it is a pretty straight path to God — he falls for the new Parson’s sister, she has a smile unlike any he’s ever seen, he defends the church from the mob, he becomes a member, and when the mob burns the church down, he burns the whole damn town down!

I like this guy.  He looks cool when he’s evil.  And heroic when he’s good.  I like the way he holds his guns, all hunched over like a coiled snake.  And he rides like a demon.

The religious stuff barely shows up in Starrett’s film (good v. bad maybe) but he didn’t have nearly the control over his pictures that Hard did.  I don’t know but I wonder how much the religous undertones were a part of Charles attraction to the guy.

More here.

“Sundown Valley”

September 22, 2008

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

This film announces itself pretty quick.  Steve Denton is roping a horse on the range when he hears gunfire.  It’s Cannonball.  In a car.  He works for Steve’s old friend Gunsight Hawkins who came out of retirement after Pearl Harbor to make (you guessed it) gunsights for the mounted machine guns for World War II.

Is it starting to add up? Yep, this is a contemporary western set in 1944.  In fact, it’s the only film I’ve seen that is set later than 1880, other than “Cowboy Canteen” which was less a Charles Starrett vehicle than an excuse to string together a bunch of novelty acts and call it a movie.

Gunsight’s daughter has a government contract and a secret plant down at “the old Keller warehouse just this side of Canyon City.”  The problem is that production is down because of lack of workers.  So Steve calls a town meeting he calls a “Round-up for Victory.”

The meeting (and this movie) is a pitch for everyone to chip in and help the war effort.  Old Mum Johnson is the first to volunteer, “anything to beat the Axis.”

I kept hoping that Charley would end up fighting Nazi spies.  Instead, it’s Mr. Baxter.  He’s an opportunist who buys a share in the local saloon to cash in on the wages of the men working for the war effort.  He improves Honest Joe’s Friendly Club by adding gambling and a pay-check cashing service.

The filmmakers are so eager to find places to insert fight scenes into this conflict-free movie that they end up with two poorly motivated fistfights back to back, seperated by a location change and maybe 30 seconds.

The solution to this lack of conflict is to have Baxter and his boys target Steve because they are worried that he will disapprove of their improvements to the bar.

He does.  The drinking leads to “sick days” among the workers.  Charley shouts, “When you hurt Hodge Miller, you’re hurting Uncle Sam!”

Courtesy of Les Adams

Almost all of Steve’s dialogue sounds like it was written by the staff of Stars And Stripes.

“Uncle Sam needs those gunsights this week!”

“Let’s leave the fighting to the Army, fellas.”

“We’ve got to meet that deadline.  It’s our duty as citizens.”

“We better hit the trail for Uncle Sam.”

He also spends a lot of time with a pencil and paper working out schedules, making calls to Washington and announcements over the PA system.  Talk about drama.

The film features the requisite war-time montage of factory workers, assembly-line products, and calendar pages turning.

The solution to the villianous plans of Mr. Baxter?  Why, create a recreation center for the workers!  With ping-pong!  And activities like wagon rides!  Yawn.

In the nail-biting finale, a letter is read from the War Department.  The workers have been given some sort of productivity award.  And a flag.  And guess who signed the letter?  The Undersecretary of War himself!!!

I know Charley was just doing his duty, but c’mon, this one hurt.

(I would love to know where this one was shot.  It’s not any of the usual locations — there are beautiful snow-covered mountains in the background of many shots, most notably during the final horse-chase.)

In 1935, Charles Starrett made his first western.  After that, he averaged eight a year.  Here’s what else you could expect to see on the silver screen back then.

This Republic series of 51 films between 1936 and 1943.  12 actors played the three roles over the years (including John Wayne).

In 1937, the Three Mesquiteers are played by Robert Livingston as Stoney (the lover), Ray “Crash” Corrigan as Tucson (the fighter), and Max Terhune (the comic.)

I guess Charles Starrett would be closest to the Corrigan character.  Charley is very rarely the lover.  And he’s hardly ever funny.

This is another contemporary western, set in the early 1930s, but you can’t tell in some of the films.  “Call The Mesquiteers” features cars and motorcycles, but “Hit The Saddle” could be set in the 1870s.

Robert Livingston is the baby faced cutey, the lover that’s a sucker for the ladies with an agenda (in “Hit The Saddle” it’s a very young Rita Hayworth.)  He’s also the romantic, he wants to set the wild mustangs free.

Ray “Crash” Corrigan is the more interesting leading man, good with the gun and strong on the law and order side of things.  He becomes Sheriff in “Hit The Saddle.”  He was a former stunt man who played Tarzan.  He also founded Corriganville.  Legend has it that he was taking a break from shooting one of the 3 Ms and rode to the top of a hill and looked down on the valley below.  He decided to buy it for 10k.  Corriganville was born — the setting for many films, and the site of the amusement park (see “Corriganville” blog entry.)

Max Terhune is a talented comic actor.  He later performed with the dummy Elmer Sneezewood.  He’s an interesting comic sidekick.  Unlike a fool like Smiley, he’s not a dumb-shit, he’s a joker.  He does bits and impressions when he’s being funny.  He’s also competent and pretty tough too.  Neat scene where he brings a horse into a bar and makes the rustlers apologize to it — at gunpoint.

Interestingly, there is conflict in these films between the three leads.  Stoney thinks Tucson is getting a big head when he becomes Sheriff.  Tucson thinks Stoney is letting Rita play him for a sap.  This sort of conflict is rare in these b-westerns — good guys generally get along.  And if they don’t, it usually turns out to be an act and all part of their “plan.”

I assume these guys got their name because they live in the town of Mesquite?  I’m asking here.  The newspaper is called the “Mesquite Sentinel”.  That’s my only clue.

When I exhaust my current stash of Starrett titles, I will have seen 115 of his films.  That’s a lot.  But it still leaves 53 titles unseen.

If anyone has any information about the following titles, I would greatly appreciate it.  I hope to make this a comprehensive study.

Kid from Broken Gun 1952
Junction City 1952
Hawk of Wild River 1952
Kid from Amarillo 1951
Fort Savage Raiders 1951
Ridin’ the Outlaw Trail 1951
Lightning Guns 1950
Raiders of Tomahawk Creek 1950
Across the Badlands 1950
Texas Dynamo 1950
Outcasts of Black Mesa 1950
Renegades of the Sage 1949
Horsemen of the Sierras 1949
Quick on the Trigger 1948
El Dorado Pass 1948
Frontier Gunlaw 1945
Rustlers of the Badlands 1945
Sagebrush Heroes 1945
Cowboy from Lonesome River 1944
Riding West 1944
Cowboy in the Clouds 1943
Hail to the Rangers 1943
Robin Hood of the Range 1943
Law of the Northwest 1943
Riding Through Nevada 1942
Overland to Deadwood 1942
Riders of the Northland 1942
Royal Mounted Patrol 1941
Prairie Stranger 1941
Thunder Over the Prairie 1941
Medico of Painted Springs 1941
Pinto Kid 1941
West of Abilene 1940
Two-Fisted Rangers 1939
Spoilers of the Range 1939
North of the Yukon 1939
Texas Stampede 1939
West of the Santa Fe 1938
Colorado Trail 1938
Law of the Plains 1938
Call of the Rockies 1938
One Man Justice 1937
Trapped 1937
Westbound Mail 1937
Dodge City Trail 1936
Along Came Love 1936
Code of the Range 1936
Secret Patrol 1936
Mysterious Avenger 1936
Call It Luck 1934
Three on a Honeymoon 1934
The Age for Love 1931
Damaged Love 1931
The Quarterback 1926

We all know what Charles Starrett was doing in 1935.  He was climbing onto a horse for his first western.  He would climb off again 17 years and 135 films later.

In our continuing series on what other cowboy stars were up to that year, we discover that future sidekick Smiley Burnette and soon-to-be mega-star Gene autry were busy — they were fighting aliens.

Proving that pot did indeed exist in 1935, “Phantom Empire” is a serial that is part B-Western, part Flash Gordon.  The Muranians live 20,000 miles beneath Autry’s Radio Ranch.  To stop scientists from invading their world, Queen Tika has ordered her soldiers to stop Autry from broadcasting his radio show.  There’s also a framed-for-murder subplot, a bunch of kid detectives and plenty of songs.

This was brought to us by the same people who made the serial “Mystery Mountain” starring Ken Maynard (see “Other Cowboys Stars – Ken Maynard”).  In fact, Maynard was offered the role.  He went to work at Columbia with Charley instead.

Smiley is listed in the credits as “Lester (Smiley) Burnette”.  There’s less of him to hate (weight-wise) but he’s still annoying, doing double-duty as a member of the band, and playing various roles in the radio-drama broadcast each week.

Gene is wooden, but that’s a good part of his charm, right?  Since he can’t, or won’t, act, he’s considered sincere.  That’s just me guessing.

Interestingly, like Charley’s 1945 “Cowboy Canteen”, this Sci-Fi/Western has a contemporary setting — I mean, in the film it is 1935 and there are planes and radios and so forth.  Along with Muranians and Singing Cowboys.

It’s a pretty fun serial.  Goofy.  And the robots are a hoot.