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Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Smoldering.

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“Silence”

November 27, 2008

If there is a film out there featuring a great performance by Charles Starrett — one where you go “WOW! That guy could act!” — “Silence” isn’t that film.

clivebrookThis disk of the 1931 Paramount production was very difficult to obtain.  No synopsis on IMDB either.  Until now.  Jim Warren (Clive Brook) is going to the gallows for a crime he didn’t commit.  He confesses to the prison chaplain and we see his life story in flashback.  And we find out who he is protecting.

Starrett plays a minor character in Warren’s life, and the film: Arthur Lawrence, the fiance of the woman who does not know she is Warren’s daughter (Peggy Shannon).   We learn from Warren’s shady friend that Arthur is from “one of the oldest families.”  In this role, Charles goes to a fair, chides his fiance for falling for a three-card monte variation, catches a pickpocket, wears a tux, kisses the gal, inherits a newspaper — oh, and he opens a door.  All this in two scenes and less than five minutes of screen time.

This is Charles’ sixth film.  Let’s take a moment now to track Charles first 10 roles:

In “The Quarterback” Charles plays a football player.

In “Fast and Loose” he’s a lower-class mechanic.

In “The Royal Family of Broadway” he’s a tux-wearing banker and fiance to a famous actress. 

I can’t find “Damaged Love”.

“The Viking” casts Charles as a naive but tough seal hunter.

“Silence” has him back in the tux, engaged to another rich gal.

No print of “The Age Of Love”  is available.

“Touchdown” finds him playing a naive eighteen year old college football star.

1932’s “Sky Bride” features Charles as a cocky test pilot.

In “Lady And Gent” he’s eighteen again, and once again a naive college football star.

And “Mask Of Fu Manchu” gives us Charles as an adventurer who gets stripped to the waist and whipped by Myrna Loy.

If you are able to chart a career arc out of that, you’re doing better than me.  Bonus points if you can make all this add up to a future as a masked avenger on horseback.

“Challenge Of The Range”

November 16, 2008

“Challenge Of The Range” begins with a couple of cowboys retrieving a note from beneath a rock in the middle of a prairie.  The note reads: “Time for the Bartons to get out of Pincon Valley.  You know what to do.”  One of the henchmen chuckles and says, “We should.  We’ve been doing it long enough.

So should the filmmakers responsible for the Durango Kid series.  They’d been doing it long enough at this point;  by 1949 they had made 35 films.

And I should know what to do as well.  I have now seen 113 films starring Charles Starrett.  What a ride!

I’ll start this discussion of #35 then with an overdue, if obvious, observation.  Most Durango Kid films start with an action sequence.  Most Pre-Durango Kid films start with a song.

No fancy government job for Charley this time — Steve Roper is just an unemployed cowhand riding around and dressing up in black now and then.  Once he gets involved in the range war in Pincon Valley, he becomes consumed by the excitement-free task of comparing the handwriting on discarded notes to that of various suspects.

Smiley has probably the most interesting role in the entire series: he’s a pulp western writer from back East, a real city slicker in a bowler hat and plaid suit and pants combo.  His latest tome is “Dead Eye Dick And The Blond Temptress.”  He’s in town doing research on the range war for his next book.  Unfortunately, this promising premise is pretty much immediately ditched and he’s back in his familiar duds doing his unique brand of comedy — the kind that isn’t funny.  At all.

Early on, Steve says “I never take chances when a woman is involved.”  This would pretty much sum up his love life in the Durango Kid films.  He has nary a romantic moment with pretty Paula Raymond.  She has most of her scenes with Smiley.

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Courtesy of Les Adams

A strange casting choice: former Dead-End Kid Billy Halop plays hothead Reb Matson with his Brooklyn accent intact.  His take on cowboy lingo is pretty funny.

Well, I called it this time!  I saw three riders chasing Durango.  I checked their clothing – black shirt, white shirt, checkered shirt.  It could only add up to one thing: the ol’ Durango ambush with a rope between two trees.  You know the rest — shoot the gun out of one of their hands, take their boots — cut to them gingerly walking through the brush, “our feet will be worn down to the knees before we hit town.”

A quick note about Durango’s horse:  we know the horse is named Raider primarily from promotional material.   Durango himself almost never addresses the horse by name (unlike a number of other famous cowboy heroes).  However, he does so here.  “Go Raider!”  It’s probably the third time I’ve witnessed it.  Quite a thrill, believe me.

The mystery in this film genuinely worked for me.  I had no idea who the villain was.  Mainly because I never really got involved enough to care.  There’s not a lot to grab you here: handwriting samples and hidden clauses in membership forms and a shy villain who hides notes under rocks.

Charley doesn’t even throw a single punch in the entire film.  Maybe because Dick Curtis isn’t around.

There is a shoot out on the set of some other Columbia film.  Maybe “Father Was A Bachelor”?

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Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

In the end, who saves the day?  It’s not Steve.  It’s not Durango.  Who then shoots the bad guy at the last minute before he kills the innocent rancher?  The Sheriff?  The Dead End Kid?  The gal?

No.  It’s a minor character.  One of the partners in the Cattlemen’s Association.  He has maybe a dozen lines.  Couldn’t tell you his name.

Not an entirely satisfying experience, watching this film.  But 113, right?!

“Prairie Raiders”

November 12, 2008

After a two minute history lesson that could be titled “Horses Of The West,” this 1949 film starts with Steve and Bronc Masters in the saddle, over looking a herd.  This footage will be recycled in 1951’s “Cyclone Fury”, but by then the filmmakers will have forgotten Bronc’s name, and he will be called “Brock Masters” through out the film.

Back in Twin Forks, we discover that Steve Boldon is a government agent; he has just granted a lease on land to Bronc Master.  Problem is, Bad Guy Henley has his own lease, but his is forged.

Once again, there is no reason for Steve to adopt the Durango Kid persona.  Durango investigates the land rights.  He cautions both sides not to do anything rash until he’s sorted things out.  C’mon – you don’t need a black mask to do that.

In fact, this is exactly what Steve is doing.

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Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Smiley is one of Bronc’s men.  He doesn’t know Steve, but he respects his fighting ability.  “We don’t want to be swapping lead with this Jasper.”  He has heard of the Durango Kid, he recognizes him immediately when he comes riding into the middle of things.

So does Bronc: “I never thought I’d meet up with him, but it’s plumb comforting to know he’s on my side.”

The time period is a little easier to pin-down in this one: there is talk of a war going on, and there is a phone at the county seat.  I’m guessing this would be 1898, and the war would be the Spanish American war.

As usual, no gal for Steve.  In fact, he’s especially emasculated in this film — we see him feebly trying to reach his superiors by telegraph, waiting five hours for a phone call, having his authority ignored by good and bad guys alike.

One extremely strange moment: When the bad guys stampede the horses, we cut from Durango shooting it out with them to Steve riding innocently through town when suddenly the stampede is upon him.  What are we to make of this?  Were the filmmakers actually trying to fool us?  Or was Steve play-acting to an empty street?

Another odd moment regarding the cosmology of The Durango Kid: Bronc wonders out loud how he can find Durango.  Steve: “They’ve been looking for his hide-out for years.”  They have?  Who is they?  And, since DK travels from town to town, what exactly is he doing with a hide-out?

There is a rare, if obscure, mention of an earlier adventure.  Smiley is bragging about a new invention, and a gal makes reference to his “interlocking self-locking jail cell” which he locked himself in.

This film features the scene we’ve all been waiting for: Durango comes face to face with the Secretary of the Interior himself!

Film ends with a wedding.  Steve catches the bouquet.  Blushing, he gives it to Smiley.  (You can’t make this stuff up.)

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Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Puzzle this line, my friends.  Smiley to his horse: “You old alligator bait, the next time you hang me in a tree, you wait ’til Christmas, you hear?”

Painted on a wall in the Tujunga Wash in the San Fernando Valley, there is a mural entitled “The Great Wall of Los Angeles” designed by Judith Baca.  It follows the history of Los Angeles from Prehistoric times to the 1960s.

Guess who pops up in the section devoted to the early days of cinema?  Charles’ hero!

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The Last Durango Kid Film

November 8, 2008

As of this writing, the rumors appear to be true — Turner Classic Movies will be showing “The Kid From Broken Gun” in December!

This hard to find film is the last in the Durango Kid series.  It’s also the last film that Charles ever made.  There has been some confusion on this matter over the years.  In fact, Starrett’s New York Times obituary lists “The Rough, Tough West” as being his farewell to the screen.  My research indicates that KFBG is indeed the martini, Steve’s final ride.

There have been many memorable farewell moments in the history of film.  The comedy duo of Martin & Lewis have a dilly of a final shot in the last film of their long-running series.  “Pardners” (1956) ends with the pair on a western street.  The words “THE END” appear, and Dean & Jerry pull their six-shooters and shoot the words off the screen.  They step up to the camera and tell us that they aren’t finished yet, that they have something to say.  The famously bickering pair then assure the audience that the rumors of their split are greatly exaggerated and that they look forward to making many, many more films together.

By the time this film hit the theaters, the duo had been broken up for months.

Finding an appropriate ending for the Durango Kid series seems like a difficult task.  For a while now, I’ve been wondering how one marks the conclusion of such an awkward series.

One thing is for sure.  It’ll be hard to top the last scene of “The Rough, Tough West.”  (In fact, the third to last film.)

Here we see a tableau of several generations of western pioneers: a grandmother, a grizzled old prospector, a weathered ranch hand, a young man, a young woman, and a small boy.  They stand near a bale of hay, watching their town burn in the distance.

Young Man: There’s a new town to be built, a new future.  Only this time it’s not going to be a one-man job.

Granny: You’re right, Jack.  The future of the West is every man’s job.  And there’s a place in it for every one.

Small Boy: Buck high, Ranger, or bust.

Hovering near the edge of the frame, somewhat detached from the group, with them and yet alone, stands Steve.

He smiles and nods.

Top that, KFBG!