Off to dreamland.

Charles Starrett was at Columbia for seventeen years.  The down-side to having a minor contract with a major studio is that there is no outside work.  Charley couldn’t take a break from being a cowboy hero and go play a heavy in another studio’s film.  Bob Steele didn’t have this problem (nor did he have the career stability that Starrett’s studio contract afforded him.  Or, presumably, the paycheck.)

So, right between “El Diablo Rides” and “Wild Horse Valley”, films in which Bob Steele played a character named “Bob”, he appeared on the same bill with Burgess Meredith, Lon Chaney Jr and some heavy hitters from the New York stage.  The film was the 1938 adaptation of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men”, directed by Oscar-winner Lewis Milestone.  It was nominated for Best Picture.

Steele plays “Curly”, the spoiled owner of the ranch where George and Lenny are working.  He plays the classic short man with a chip on his shoulder.  (In fact, Burgess “The Penquin” Meredith has a good inch or two on Steele.)

It’s a challenging role.  Steele plays Curly very intense.  His movie star confidence works well when he’s playing the spoiled asshole; his scrappy familiarity with horses gives him authentic authority.  Curly is multi-layered — a coward, a blowhard, tough, afraid, jealous, cruel, pathetic.  He swaggers, he cowers, he jeers and glowers.  He’s flawed to his core.

Charles Starrett was never allowed, or never allowed himself, to portray a character of this complexity.

Awesome film, too, if you haven’t seen it or haven’t seen it in a while.

This is my second discussion of Sunset Carson.  It is subtitled: AFTER THE FALL.

It’s 1948, two years since the height of Sunset Carson’s career, when he appeared on the list of top 10 Western money-makers.  It was two years since Carson’s break with Republic Studios.  Some say that it was over a contract dispute.  Others, including Yakima Canutt, posit that a scandal lead to Carson’s dismissal.  In this version, studio chief Herbert Yates was dismayed when Carson showed up at a studio function drunk with an under-age girl on his arm.

I am not eager to contradict the great Yakima, but I have to believe that the real story is a lot less scandalous.  I’m leaning towards something more damaging to the bottom line, like misbehaving on set, which would lead to lost days and budget overages.  Let’s remember that Republic may have been the biggest studio on Poverty Row, but they still operated on a shoe-string compared to film budgets at major, or even minor, studios of the day.

After two years without a picture, Sunset hooked up with Oliver Drake and Yucca Pictures.  Oliver Drake is a bit of trip.  At this point in his career, he was often referred to as a “veteran filmmaker.”  This is both true and kind.  The guy had been writing/directing/producing films since the silent era, and had an impressive numbers of pictures under his belt.  He also had been working on the cheapest, most cut-rate productions his entire career.  By 1948, he was long gone from the studios and shooting 16 mm productions on his property in Pearblossom, starring his drinking buddies and losers like Spade Cooley.  He directed “The Kid From Gower Gulch” with Cooley, which joins Bill Cody’s “Border Menace” at the top of my list of nominees for the “Plan 9 from Outer Space” of B-Westerns.

Between 1948 and 1950, Sunset would make four films with Yucca Pictures.  This would constitute the majority of his remaining film career.  .

“Fighting Mustang” is his first picture since his fall.  The question is, “how far has he fallen?”

Pretty damn far.

Let’s keep in mind that low production value, crappy day for night, canned musical numbers, unfunny comedy and clumsy plotting were tools of the trade for the B-Western genre.  Even the nominally higher budgeted studio films shared many of these attributes.  “Fighting Mustang” has all of these in spades.  It’s shot almost entirely outside — the saloon scene is a bunch of picnic tables outside a barn.  The 16 mm stock is grainy and the sound is muddy.

But these things are not what makes this film so much worse than the Republic films that Sunset was appearing in at his peak.  It’s the odd, sleazy quality of the film.  It’s the weird dwarf doing the singing.  It’s the clearly drunk supporting characters.  It’s the odd dialogue-free moments smack in the middle of scenes.  More than the cruddy production value and crummy script, it’s these things that making watching this film such an unsettling experience.

The music is by “The most talentless music aggregation in B-westerns, Little Jimmy Hiser’s group” — this from our esteemed colleague Boyd Magers.

How is Sunset in this?  He’s alright.  He’s still tall, he’s still handsome.  Unfortunately, he’s still doing that “click click” sound when he likes a girl, which is pretty gross trademark, if that’s what it is.

At some points in the film there is a halfhearted quality to his acting.  In one scene in particular, he’s supposed to be gravely hurt and being helped to walk by a much smaller man.  Sunset’s heart is clearly not in it.

My bottom-line.  At this point in his career, Sunset is not yet down for the count.  He’s still fighting.

Final thought.  A lot of folks dump on Sunset for blowing his shot.  Did he?  Or was the B-Western just dying and Sunset took the heat?

Stay tuned for my thoughts on “Alien Outlaw.”  And let’s keep praying that a print of “Marshal of Windy Hollow” turns up.

Another Starrett

April 6, 2011

Meet Blaise Starrett, the embittered rancher from “Day of the Outlaw”.  Robert Ryan would have been fifty in 1959.  Charles Starrett retired seven years earlier at the age of forty-nine.

Blaise joins Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) and the rest of the Starrett family from 1953’s “Shane.”  See Starrett in “Shane.

A popular cowboy name?  An homage?  What does it mean?!