Other Cowboy Stars — Sunset Carson in “Sheriff of Cimarron”
March 10, 2011
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.