It’s 1945.  It’s been four years since Buster Crabbe and Al “Fuzzy” St. John first appeared as a team in “Billy The Kid’s Round-up”.  The final card in the opening credits of “Stagecoach Outlaws” shows the pair sitting on a corral fence above the words “Our Old Pals.”

It’s also been nine years since Crabbe appeared in “Arizona Raiders”. Has he matured as a cowboy star?

Well, he’s less flip. He’s sturdier.  He’s still super strong and he’s still happily reaching into his actor’s toolbox for the arched eyebrow.  He also looks puzzled a lot.  This involves a gaping mouth.

The thing that jumped out at me about Crabbe in both of these films is his comedy.  Most cowboy leads participate in the humor of the films as a spectator or bemused and detached participant.  Charles Starrett will shake his head at Smiley’s antics.  He’ll dismiss some comic situation with a straight-faced barb that dissolves to a hearty laugh.  This is true of most cowboy leads, especially the non-musical ones.

Not so, Buster Crabbe.  He readily takes part.  He is forever willing to use his impressive physicality for comic effect.  It’s a like-able quality, but at times it seems like the only reason the comedy is happening is that Buster doesn’t know what else to do other than just jump in and follow his sidekick’s lead.  And heroes aren’t supposed to follow their sidekicks!  It doesn’t work that way.

Other interest to Starrett Completists: this film was written by Fred Myton who wrote for the silents and penned three pre-Durango Starrett vehicles, “Two-Fisted Rangers,” “Pinto Kid” and “Texas Stagecoach.” Director Sam Newfield also helmed the under-rated early Starrett starrer, “Undercover Men.” He also directed the unfortunate “Terror of Tiny Town.”

Audie Murphy is “The Silver Kid!”  As with Charles Starrett’s moniker, there is no explanation of what the name means or how Audie got it.

My self-imposed rules for this site dictate that I only review B-Westerns that were made before or during the years that Charles Starrett was gracing the silver screen.  “Duel at Silver Creek” just squeaks in there.  It was shot in 1952, the year that Starrett retired.  Also, though it’s considered a B-western, it features a much bigger budget than Starrett’s vehicles or those of his contemporaries; there are lots of locations, lots of people, lots of horses, and no recycled footage.

There’s plenty of action right up front in this film, which is not surprising considering it is directed by Don Siegel who went on to make such action classics as “Dirty Harry” and “Charley Varrick” and who is one of two people to whom Clint Eastwood dedicated his ultimate Western “Unforgiven” (the other was Sergio Leone.)  Audie Murphy and his dad are working a mine.  A gang of claim jumpers kill his dad.  There’s an ambush, a shoot-out and a running gun battle on horseback — all in the first 8 minutes.  Then Murphy disappears for nearly 20 minutes.

In the meantime, we catch up with Lightning, a Marshall played by Steve McNally, an actor who played a dynamite bad guy in “Winchester 73”.

Here, he’s a hero.  A lot happens to Lightning during Murphy’s absence from the film.  He leads a posse, gets wounded, heals up at a fort, falls in love, loses a deputy and the physical ability to pull the trigger on his gun.

Ultimately, Lightning and the Silver Kid join forces to find the killers and expose the leader of the gang.

Audie is cool. He’s got a great drawl and a cool ambling walk.  There is a running bit in the film about how young he looks.  “When you gonna start shaving, Kid”, taunts Lee Marvin. When Murphy was young, of course, he was a real-life hero and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient.

Murphy was 28 when he made this, his ninth film.  That same year, Charles Starrett was 49 and retiring.  We’ll never know if Murphy would have made the same decision when he reached Starrett’s age.  He died in 1971 at the age of 46.

I had just finished William Wyler’s epic “The Big Country” when I slid “The Montana Kid” into the DVD player.  Needless to say, it’s a much smaller film.

Some drunk’s kid is coming home by the stagecoach.  Drunkie gets swindled out of the deed to his land and ends up dead.  Bill (played by Bill Cody) sorta adopts the kid and they become a (surrogate) father/son bank robbery team.  In the end, they get the land back.

Here’s his disguise.  Look like anyone you know?

Bill Cody smiles in the face of most tragedies.  He laughs a lot.  Even when he’s being tough, he often pauses to break the tension with a laugh and smile.  He sure busts himself up!

Like most cowboy stars, Bill Cody mainly plays characters with his real-life first name.  This film gave me a new thought about what we like to call around here “The Mystery Of Steve.”  Namely, why is it that Charles Starrett is almost always named “Steve” in his films?  Different last name, but nearly always the same first: Steve.

My new theory is that Charles was trying to follow the tradition of cowboy stars going by the same name in every picture.  However, he (or his handlers) didn’t think that “Charles” was tough enough? rough enough? heroic enough?  Ergo, they went with “Steve” and stuck with it.  This theory, of course, doesn’t explain the occasional “Jeff” or “Kip.”

Bill Cody worked with kids a lot.  Here his freckle-faced co-star is Andy Shuford, who retired from the screen two years later at the age of fifteen.  Cody would make four films with his own son, Bill Cody Jr.

Give it up already, RS!

Last night, I was watching George Marshall’s Texas and it all felt eerily familiar and I couldn’t put my finger on why.  Then it hit me — it’s “South of the Chisholm Trail!”  The boxing match at the beginning, the big boss who has just brought the railroad to Abilene, our heroes robbing some stagecoach robbers so as to return the money and nearly getting lynched for their effort, trouble in Bearcat Kansas… it’s all the same!

Columbia had clearly recycled the plot of their 1941 William Holden/Glenn Ford A-picture in one of the nine Durango Kid films they churned out in 1947.

I wondered, had I discovered some unknown fact?  Some cherished bit of trivia from Durango lore?  Would I have bragging rights forever?

Naw!  Our old friend Les Adams had already figured it out years ago.  To quote his IMDB notes in their entirety:

“No studio reworked stock footage from their other western films more than Columbia Pictures, other than Warners/Vitaphone did when making a new Short out of footage from three other shorts, or a Short from a feature western. Vitaphone and the Warners’ shorts department sold exhibitors the same footage as many as five different times under a different title.

And Columbia re-used their plots over and over again as plots in all of their early series-westerns , starring Buck Jones or Tim McCoy, were made over again (and again) in the series starring Ken Maynard, Bob Allen, Charles Starrett, Bill Elliott and Russell Hayden. The only Columbia western series that didn’t rely on dusting off previously made films was the Ken Curtis-Hoosier Hotshots series.

But for this film, Columbia did a re-work of one of their A-westerns, 1941’s “Texas” that starred Claire Trevor, William Holden and Glenn Ford. They, of course, dumbed it down, simplified it and altered it to fit The Durango Kid character, but bottom line the primary plot was essentially all “Texas”, with similar characters and professions among the bad guys, and also inserted a few incidents and some of the dialogue from that film. And the climatic cattle-stampede through town from “Texas” was used in full.

Of course, subbing George Chesebro for the Edgar Buchanan and Frank Sully for the George Bancroft characters does tend to lose a lot in transition.”

I think Les has it all figured.  Except for one question:

Which one’s Smiley?

This 1938 film is clearly a novelty-piece, an attempt to capitalize on the fame of baseball’s Lou Gehrig.  “Rawhide” opens with Lou Gehrig retiring from baseball and moving out west to live with his sister on a ranch.  He plays himself as a loud, brash New Yorker who doesn’t take guff from anyone.  Much of the humor of the film grows out of the city-slicker trying to be a cowboy, so much so that Si Jenks (a low-rent Gabby Hayes) is unnecessary as comic relief.  There’s also a fair amount of baseball references, as you might have guessed.  Lou gets thrown by a horse and says “strike one.” He gets in a bar room brawl and tosses cue balls.

The real lead in the film, however, is Smith Ballew.  His was a strange path to Western actor.  Guys like Yakima Canutt and Montie Montana were rodeo stars, Tom Mix and Ken Maynard graduated from the Wild West shows, Buster Crabbe and Johnny Mack Brown were athletes.

Smith Ballew was a jazz musician and big band orchestra leader.

Ballew has an interesting back story before coming to be a singing cowboy and minor Western movie star.  He was a serious jazz performer and singer who recorded with the likes of Duke Ellington and the brothers Dorsey.  You can read a comprehensive bio here.

As a cowboy, Smith Ballew is sort of a taller and thinner Charles Starrett.  He’s got an honest look to him.  He rides and fights adequately.  Most of the singing in this film is done with music appearing out of nowhere, like in a movie musical. He made 16 films between 1933 and 1951.

The plot is familiar: bad guys are shaking down the honest rangers with a tax scheme that would rival a George Lucas plot-device in its obscurity and excitement-free intrigue.

But Ballew is a fun star and he and Gehrig are good together.

A sad note, this film remains one of the final records of Lou Gehrig as a well man.  The next year, he would retire from baseball for real, as the onset of his disease would make playing impossible.  That story would be immortalized in “Pride of the Yankees” where Gehrig would be played by another cowboy star, Gary Cooper.