Other Cowboy Stars — Bob Steele in “Family Affair”
September 3, 2011
Bob Steele appeared on the big screen a couple more times after this TV guest spot in 1970, but, for me, this is his last real role. It’s called “The Old Cowhand.”
Steele plays a client of Uncle Bill’s, a foreman on a ranch in Pennsylvania. A long time ago, he was Chaps Callahan, cowboy star, and his films still play on TV. Freckle-faced Jody is a big fan. The show features footage from some of Steele’s westerns. (Anyone know which ones?) In one scene, Jody and his pals are glued to the TV where Chaps saves a guy from hanging by shooting the rope. I would guess that the dialogue is not authentic. “That’ll teach you to try and hang an innocent man,” sounds forced, even by B-Western standards.
There is a moment in the show that strikes a note of reality. When Chaps visits the family for dinner, Jody knows the plots and titles of Chaps’ films better than he does. Charles Starrett often related the story of how fans would gush about a film like “South of Arizona” or “West of Cheyenne” and he’d have to tell them that the titles were added to his films later, that the only title on a script on set was a number.
As corny as this device is, the plots of the films that Jody recounts sound a lot like real B-Western plots and, later, when Chaps and Jody recruit a reluctant Buffy to help them act out a scene from one of his films, it feels like scene you could easily imagine Bob had played before, maybe more than once.
The episode of “Family Affair” also follows a familiar Western plot. An aging gunfighter is living on his reputation. He’s out-drawn by the new kid in town and has to win back the respect of his community.
Here’s how that goes down. At the park, Chaps regales Jody’s friends with tales of the West, using cowboy lingo like “ornery sidewinder” and “let’s put on the feedbag, pardner.” He gets goaded into a quick draw contest and humiliated by Jody’s asshole friend, Larry. He loses the one thing that really matters to a cowboy star — his audience, in this case, Jody.
Uncle Bill lays out the lesson, as he always does, and the lesson is this: Time changes people but it doesn’t destroy them.
Having lost face in his playground theatrics, Chaps redeems himself in Jody’s eyes with a display of…humility. Jody: “You’re still the best cowboy I ever saw!”
This really is an awesome role for Steele and he shines in it. He basks in Jody’s awe, he gets caught up in his own hype and ultimately projects hard-won self-knowledge in his final scenes. Bravo, Bob. I’ll watch “something big” and “Nightmare Honeymoon”, but this will always remain my favorite of your final roles.
NOTE TO FUTURE BOB STEELE HISTORIANS; In the TV-show-within-the-TV-show (the one Jody watches and they re-enact a scene from later), Chaps final film was made in 1939. In it, he rode a horse named Thunder and faced off with a crooked guy named Archer. Good luck finding it and let me know when you do!