Charles At Home

October 25, 2008

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

There’s a lot to ponder here.

One thought: I’m a little suspect of this “home.”  Granted that these were taken sometime in the late 40s or early 50s (judging by Charles age), so the kids would be out of the house and off at college, but let’s remember that this man was still a married man.  Does this place look like a woman has ever stepped foot inside?

Does this look like the home of an independently wealthy movie star?

I’ve seen a few of these publicity department portraits from this period.  Enough to wonder if this wasn’t some sort of set.

Besides, as good a sport as Charles clearly was, I imagine he was still a rather private person.

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Gabby Hayes Book

October 24, 2008

Fellow Starrett fan, and friend of the site, Bobby Copeland, has a book out!

NEW BOOK ON GABBY HAYES:

It’s all here: Biography; All about his films, TV show and comic books; Gabbyisms; Merchandise; Comments by Gabby and his co-workers; and much more. Profusely illustrated with loads of photos. AND, bonus articles on Russell Hayden and Jimmy Ellison.
$24 (includes postage)
Autographed copies available from the author:
Bobby Copeland
104 Claremont Rd.
Oak Ridge, TN 37830

The film starts with a neat trick.  William S. Hart is elegant in a tuxedo with slick hair.  He bows and slowly transforms into a rough tough cowboy.

Imagine the same dissolve trick for Charles’ career in 1935.  From dapper dandy to western hero.

Twenty years earlier, in 1915 when Charles was 11 years old, he might have caught this film on a rare trip from his exile on a South China farm to the big city of Boston.

His childhood movie idol, William S. Hart, was starring in his first feature.  Making his own transformation from denizen of Broadway to the star of Tom Ince’s western films.

Hart has a great name in his first major role.  He’s “Jim Stokes, the two gun man.”  This appears to be his full name.  That’s the way it’s written in the telegraph to the stagecoach warning them that he’s in their territory.  It’s on his wanted poster after he robs said stage.  Sometimes folks call him “Jim Stokes, the bandit”, like when the posse is looking for him.  “He’s a two gun man and I need help”, says the sheriff when he catches up with Jim at the border.

Since this is a William S. Hart film, it’s a tale of sin and redemption.  And sacrifice.  Lots and lots of sacrifice.

Poor Charles Starrett.  For all his time in a white hat, he never got to play as remotely a heroic role as this one.

There’s a telling moment in this film that, I think, helps explain why.  Jim needs to commit one last robbery to set things straight.  To do so, he needs a mask.  We see him take a bandanna from his pocket.  He presses it against a wooden post.  He opens a knife and cuts a pair of eye-holes.

Contrast this moment with Steve riding behind a rock, any rock, anywhere, and emerging seconds later riding a different horse, wearing a different outfit and a freshly pressed silk mask.

When it’s that easy, it’s just not that heroic.

Columbia Ranch

October 22, 2008

The Columbia Ranch is located in Burbank, California.  Some portion of almost all of Starrett’s Columbia films were shot there, most interiors and Western street stuff.  (See “Corriganville” and “Iverson Ranch” blog entries for other locations.)

Here are some nifty facts about the place:

1934:  Columbia Pictures purchases forty acres for the ranch.

1935: Party Wire” is the first film shot there.

1949:  The ranch has grown to eighty acres.

1965:  The first sound stage was erected.  The cost: nearly $400,000.

During it’s most productive time, the lot boasted a complete Western Town with two streets, a Colonial era town, a jungle, and a large New York street.

1966-1970:  Much of the ranch is sold.

1971:  Only thirty-eight acres remain.

June 3, 1971: Columbia Pictures moves production onto the Warner Brothers lot.

1974:  Six more acres were sold to create a shopping center.

Today:  The lot is now thirty-two acres.  It serves as an auxillary lot for nearby Warner Bros.  It is surrounded by residential streets, mainly multi-unit apartment buildings and the occasional small house.

Here is a snapshot of what it looks like today.  This is approximately where the Western Street would have been located.

And that’s Briar with her favorite Elephant toy.

“Stranger From Texas”

October 17, 2008

Courtesy of Les Adams

This one’s all about fathers and sons.  It makes sense, watching it, that Charles’ father died when he was so young, and that Charles’ never really knew him.

The 1939 film starts with a rare comic turn by Starrett.  He’s “riding” a bucking bronco and gets thrown.  Close-ups on his face remind me of the gag in “Cowboy Star” where it is revealed he’s on a wooden horse.

The Sheriff from Buffalo Springs has written Tom Murdoch (Starrett) to ask for help from the Marshals office with a rustling problem.  Tom is amazed to read that the man accused of rustling is his own father.

On the other side of the feud are the Brownings, another father and son pair.  Tom goes undercover in their outfit as a cattle buyer.

For this job, Tom changes his name (not to Steve) but to Morgan.  But Dad is a quick study.  He sees Tom undercover and almost immediately winks and nods.

Moments later, Dad is murdered.  Undercover or not, Tom shows absolutely no remorse.  He leans over the fresh corpse, says something like “he’s dead” and gets along with his business.

Later, when he sees his father’s home for the first time, he merely says “mighty pretty spread.”

Incapable of expressing grief over his father’s murder, he surprises us with his reaction when Browning’s son is framed and arrested.  He look shocked and helpless, clinging to the man’s sister as he is lead away.  But wait.  It’s all a put-on.  He drops the concern the moment the riders are out of sight.  He turns on a dime – now he’s all smiles and upbeat — he’s sure that the Sons Of The Pioneers will find some clue to clear the guy.  He even kids her a little about worrying.

I don’t think the filmmakers’ intent was to make Tom appear to be glib and heartless.  It’s hard to imagine that the script called for Charles to play Tom as a sociopath.  I’m sure that they probably lacked the time and finesse to deal with messy emotions like sorrow.

In fact, Tom gets exactly four seconds of looking sad after he reveals his true identity, “My name’s not Morgan, it’s Murdock, and Dan Murdock was my father” — just long enough for the gal to put a comforting hand on his arm — before he’s animatedly describing his plan to trap the bad guys.

I think the filmmakers’ miscalculated.  Omitting any emotional response from the hero may streamline the story, but it also makes him seem totally strange, and unhinges his actions from reasonable reality.

I also think Charles played this role too well, like a man so used to hiding things and submerging his true emotional connections that he has become a stranger even to himself.  A “Stranger From Texas.”

Not much gunplay or fighting in this one, but plenty of good riding.  Dick Curtis is great as always.

“Man From Sundown”

October 14, 2008

At this point, you’d think I’d know better.  After viewing nearly 110 of Charles Starrett’s films in the last seven months, you’d think I’d have learned that the title has nothing to do with the film.  They were named after they were shot, often by some lowly staffer in New York, 3000 miles away from the action.

And yet, I’ve really been looking forward to this film.  Why?  Because “The Man From Sundown” sounds so cool!

Courtesy of Les Adams

“Hello Larry!” is how they greet Charles in this 1939 film.  That’s right – this is one of his rare appearances as a character named something other than Steve.  A study should be done on the effects of playing a non-Steve on Charles’ performance.  Maybe someday when I’m old and gray…

Larry Whalen has been called back to Texas Rangers Headquarters, Sundown Division.  There’s a new gang of robbers in town, and they don’t leave any witnesses.  This last fact drives the action in this film.

Iris Meredith’s brother Tom witnesses a bank robbery and wings one of the bandits. Tom’s life is in danger until he can testify.  Charles will protect him because he’s a Ranger, and because he’s sweet on Iris.

Director Sam Nelson makes little use of background music.  Instead, he relies on natural sounds to create the soundtrack.  There’s a nearly silent bank robbery.  Horsehoofs clattering is the only accompanying sound as the posse chases the outlaws, or a lone rider goes for help.

There’s also a nice attention to the spaces between the actions.  People waiting for something to happen, finding their seats in a courtroom or returning to the bar after a fight.  All this adds a touch of authenticity and honesty to the film.  It helps balance the often contrived plot-turns.

For most of this film, Charles is less intense and driven than we may be used to seeing him.  He’s a bit happy go lucky, swinging his lariat along to the Sons of the Pioneers tune.

That all changes after the (groan) courtroom scene. This is mercifully cut short when Tom is assasignated by the gang.  Now the story takes an abrupt left turn, as Larry goes undercover in Cherokee Territory to join the gang.

We know what this means — off comes the black shirt and white hat.  On goes the checkered shirt and black hat, along with a good layer of dirt and stubble.  It’s always fun when Charles goes undercover.  He gets to be mean, shout stuff like “I don’t like his face” and “keep your mouth shut or I’ll shut it for you.”  He gambles and drinks.  He even has an alias, get this, “The Cheyenne Kid.”

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

If anyone ever tells you that Charles Starrett couldn’t throw a punch, they are full of hooey!  And this film offers a couple of good examples of Charles clearly doing his own stunts.

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

As we seem to be moving along towards a satisfactory climax, there is a weird time-out for a horse race between Iris and the bad guy.  it’s hard to tell if this is part of Charles’ plan.  Regardless, a nice wagon chase ensues.

Charles fans his gun alot in this film.  I don’t know why he quit doing that.  It’s cool.

The Fate Of The Durango Kid

October 11, 2008

I’ve read a number of the original reviews of Starrett’s films, and it is clear that these films were not intended solely for a younger audience.  Many speak of “viewers old and young” and none consider them to be only kiddie fare.

However, due to the passage of time, the original audience members who remain among us are those who first experienced these films as children.  The memory of Charles Starrett’s films are, for the most part, kept alive by these primal viewers.

A number of questions are suggested by these facts:

Will The Kid have an encore?  Or is his fate linked forever to his very first fans?  To a modern audience, is the significance of these films lost forever?

Is there an audience for these films in the 21st Century?

And finally: viewed from the perspective of the 21st Century, what do these films mean?

Okay.

So, we’ve spent some time exploring an important year in Charles Starrett’s cowboy star career.  That would be the year of 1935.  This is when Starrett first pulled on his boots and starred in his a Western.  That film was “Gallant Defender.”

1945 would probably rank as the second most important year in his career.  That’s when he began to make Durango Kid films exclusively, with “The Return Of The Durango Kid.”

What was Wild Bill Elliott up to in 1945?  Well, he was portraying the creation of comic artist Fred Harman — Red Ryder.  He would be the second of four actors to play the role (Don “Red” Barry, Allan Lane and Jim Bannon were the others).

“Colorado Pioneers” co-stars Robert Blake, and concerns a bunch of city kids who come West to learn a thing or two about being cowhands.  This Republic film is strictly for a younger audience.

This opens the door to a discussion on what the intended audience was for Charles Starrett’s Western films, and how much a consideration of the age-range of the audience effected the filmmakers’ choices in making these films.

Let us continue this discussion on another day.

“Two-Fisted Sheriff”

October 9, 2008

This is not to be mistaken for “Two-Fisted Stranger.”  There’s a difference.  In this one, he’s the Sheriff!

It seems to me that by 1937, when this film was made, many Western filmmakers had painted themselves into a corner.  After creating ever bigger stunts and even crazier horse tricks, with their stars aging quickly and poorly, these filmmakers tried to reinvigorate the genre by desperately adding science fiction elements like rayguns and X-94 and underground civilizations and rocket-powered gliders.

As Charles climbed into the saddle, his films offered, instead, S.O.S.  Same Old Shit.  Adequate riding, adequate fistfights, some okay gunplay and familiar plots.  The result was a more satisfying experience than watching old cowhands struggling to make some crazed hybrid genre work.  Charles was just the man for the task — and his films generally deliver on their modest intentions.

This isn’t one of those.  This one stinks.  At least, the first half does.

Dick Houston (Charley) is Sheriff of Remuda Gap, where the townspeople are ready to string a guy up at the drop of a hat.  I guess it takes two fists to be Sheriff in this town.

The gal (Barbara Weeks) has a father who doesn’t approve of her suitor, Bob.  When the father ends up dead, Bob is accused of the murder.

It’s interesting that this early in his cowboy career, only a few years after being typecast as a “hunk”, that Charles is playing the tough older brother type, and allowing Bruce Lane as Bob to play all the love scenes.  This was a pattern that would repeat more and more frequently, with Tex Harding, Paul Campbell and many others through the remainder of Charles’ career.

The worst of these films are the ones which end with a trial.  This one moves the trial up to the first reel.  It’s not very interesting.  And it’s long — running nearly 15 minutes (that’s a quarter of the running time of the entire film.)

Maybe it’s because he’s named “Dick”, but, as a Sheriff, Charles is a real wuss.  He loses a prisoner, the mob takes his gun, the mayor takes his badge, and he spends a lot of his time pleading with people to do the right thing.

But the film starts over after Dick loses his badge, with Dick and Bob going undercover in Buckhorn to find the real murderer.  Charles is born again, and born again hard.

Soon he’s spouting lines like these:

Barkeep: “Slagg runs the whole county.  When he says jump, people ’round here jump.”

Charley:  “I’m afraid I’m not too handy with jumpin’.”

Laughing Bill Slagg is a great villain.  He’s so crazy that he scares everyone.  He even unnerves unflappable Charley.  Enough so that he leaves.

I’m going, Slag, but I’ll be back.  And when I do come back, I’ll be walking down the center of the street with my trigger finger itchin’.  If you come out in the open, come out shooting!

He doesn’t quite fulfill that promise.  He rides back into town, and he shoots Slagg in the cover of the bar.

With a six-shooter.  Not a raygun.

The posters for this Mascot film read “The Foremost Western Star in Motion Pictures” and continue with “Tom Mix, Idol of Every Boy in the World!”

That’s a big claim to make about a 55-year-old star at the very end of his career.

This serial starts with a series of vignettes illustrating the expansion of the West and the mistreatment of the Indians.  First in 1777 with Daniel Boone, then 1825 with Davey Crockett, then 1877 with Buffalo Bill — these great men preach respect for the Indians and are ignored by white jerks who are subsequently killed (including Dick Curtis in a brief cameo.)

The montage takes us to 1912, where Tom Mix, er Tom Morgan cradles his father’s head as he dies, the latest victim of disrepectful white jerks.  He makes Tom promise to become a Texas Ranger and protect the red man.

Cut to the modern day, 1935, where Tom (who’s looking really old for someone in his early 30s) has fulfilled that promise.  He keeps the Indians safe from white jerks who try to steal their payroll and so forth.

But there’s a new threat to Tom’s charges.  X-94 has been discovered under the Ravenswood Reservation.  White businessmen and scientists need to scare off the Indians so they can mine this stuff, the most deadly explosive of all time.  To this end, they use gadgets like phones hidden inside caves and under piles of rock, a raygun that burns macrame from a great distance, and a rocket glider the Indians call “The Firebird.”

Yes, science fiction meets B-Western (or is it C-Western?) once again in 1935.  “The Miracle Rider” joins “The Phantom Empire”, where Gene Autry fights an underground race, and “Ghost Patrol”, where Tim McCoy fights some science guys with a lot of cool equipment.

It’s interesting to me that Charles Starrett’s cowboy stardom was born at the exact same moment that some folks were definitely thinking that the genre needed alot of help, needed an injection of science-fiction nonsense to turn it into some sort of hybrid sci-fi/western genre.

I guess Charles’ longevity in the saddle proved these folks wrong.  The western didn’t need some crazy rescue scheme.  It just needed to lower its expectations a little.  Or alot, depending on how you look at it.

How’s Mix at 55?  He does some good riding stunts for a man his age, but…let’s put it this way: when he talks to Tony Jr., he comes off like an old geezer muttering to himself as he waits for the bus.

This was his last film.  He died 5 years later.