1974.

Bob Steele did something different than Charles Starrett when his career as a Western leading man was winding down; he didn’t quit acting.

1958 finds him playing a supporting role in the low-budget sci-fi flick “Giant from the Unknown.”  He’s third-billed.

Why?  It’s a mystery.

Here’s what we know.  The area around Pine Ridge (Big Bear, CA) is crawling with archeologists digging for bones at Devil’s Crag.  They find a cross.

And they find this guy.

Bob Steele plays the ornery local sheriff who suspects the scientists are behind the recent spate of brutal killings and cattle mutilations.  One of the archeologists says “that man has a badge instead of a brain.”

At 51, Steele has the uncanny knack of coming off wizened and cagey beyond his years but as fit and more vital than a much younger man.

Of course, any fan will have two questions.  1) Does Bob shoot it out with the monster?  Yes. 2) Does he win?

No.

1927.

When this film was released, what did Charles Starrett think?  It was 1950.  He and Bill Elliott were the same age.  Charles had been at a major studio for 17 years while Bill Elliott was hopping between minors.  And yet, here is Elliott starring in a REAL western with name supporting characters, an actual budget and even a 90 minute running time!

Charles, on the other hand, was playing the Durango Kid eight times a year in 55 minute films with ever shrinking budgets and shooting schedules.

Could this have been another reason Starrett decided to retire in 1952?

Bill Elliott did not retire.  He appeared in ten more westerns after “Savage Horde” before playing Detective Andy Doyle in a series of pictures for Allied Artists.  Instead of jumping ship, he made the leap to Noir!

Once upon a time, Elliott took a cup of coffee at Columbia.  He was a fresh faced young guy.

By 1950 and “The Savage Horde”, he’s looking a lot rougher.  He’s also better at playing the tough guy.  He’d made over 200 films at this point.

Physically, Elliott is the same sort of cowboy star as Starrett.  He’s tall and lean.  He has a long face.  He’s mainly heroic but can play it a little grim at times.  And sometimes…super goofy.

In “Savage Horde”, Elliott plays John “Ringo” Baker, a gunman who killed an army Captain in self-defense and is now on the run from a patrol lead by his brother.  He settles in Gunslock because his childhood sweetheart is in love with the villain.  He organizes the independent ranchers to hold their own against in a range war.

Another western star who never retired is in this one, Mr. Bob Steele.  He’s Dancer, the hired gun.  He’s the bad guy.

Bob Steele made the move from leading man to supporting roles and had a career that stretched into the 70’s.  Here he plays “that little sawed-off gunslick Dancer,” as described by Noah Beery Jr.  He’s younger than Elliot and plays this role crazy and mean.  He emanates cocky self-confidence in every shot.  Great crazed expressions and brilliant eyes as he stares down a harmless rancher, mocking him before shooting him dead, or laughing at the death of confederate.

I love this guy.

Everyone loves an Almost Was story.  We are all familiar with the elements of this tragedy: a huge natural talent, early and tremendous success, limitless potential, personal sabotage, sensational failure, exile, redemption.

Here is one for the B-Westerns, writ small enough for the genre.  It is the story of Sunset Carson.

Sunset was born with a decidedly unpromising name for a future western star — Winifred Maurice Harrison.  Of course, Mr. John Wayne hisself overcame a less than manly name.  Winnie meet Marion.  Sunset spent his childhood in Oklahoma and Texas and grew up big enough to be a hit on the rodeo circuit.  After touring South America with Tom Mix’s western show, he tried his hand at Hollywood and quickly caught the attention of Republic Pictures, the top studio producing B-Westerns.  He was given his new name and his own series.  By the end of the year, Carson appeared on the top 10 list of Western Stars and was one of the biggest moneymakers in the genre.  He was 24 years old.

Within two years, his career would be all but over.

“Sheriff of Cimarron” was made in 1945 at the peak of Carson’s career.  His first four films had been built to give equal time to his partner and co-star, the more established Smiley Burnette.  By this film, the fat ‘funny’ man was gone and Carson was firmly in the saddle as the leading man.

The plot is familiar but “Sheriff of Cimarron” is a decent vehicle.  There is a “lead epidemic” in Cimarron.  Sunset arrives in town to visit his brother and immediately foils a robbery and kicks some major ass.  The town makes him Sheriff, unaware that he is fresh out of prison (psst! for a crime he didn’t commit).  Within minutes, we learn that his brother was behind the frame-up.  The mystery element is completely out the window, as is most of the narrative intrigue.  What we are left with is Sunset Carson.

An essential element of the Almost Was or Also Ran story is the “he could have been huge” factor.  Carson had a lot going for him.  First off, Sunset Carson is a great name.  He’s got a fresh, open face, a great smile and must be the cleanest cowboy I’ve ever seen.  He shines with the corny courtship stuff.  He’s also got an real authority in the saddle — clearly an accomplished rider who I’d guess did a fair amount of his own stunts.  His easy manner and drawl further underline this authenticity.

Let’s face it, Sunset Carson is the Frankenstein Monster of the B-Western.  He’s got Gene’s folksy open charm, Buck’s ease in the saddle, the physicality of Tom Mix and Buster Crabbe, the authentic Western air of both Tim McCoy and the grand-daddy of them all, William S. Hart.  He’s even got Starrett’s ram-rod straight back.

One chink in his perfect armor appears at the hoe-down.  The dude cannot dance.

What happened for Sunset to fall so far?  There are many stories, one of which involves him drunk in public with an under-age girl.

We’ll see.  I’m interested in Sunset.  Check back here for further discussions of his films.  In “Fighting Mustang”, we’ll examine the first film after his fall and the beginning of his association with Oliver Drake and his Yucca Pictures.  We’ll explore 1972’s lost comeback vehicle “Marshall of Windy Hollow” and his various TV shows to see if there was any redemption in the Sunset Carson story.

Finally, a coda of sorts with “Alien Outlaw”, the 1985 low-budget film that is exactly what it sounds like.