December 9, 2009
Here we have a rare discussion of an A Western at “Charles Starrett – One Fan’s Journey.” The reason? Mainly, I was interested to see what a bigger budget Western from 1935 looked like.
It looked good.
The differences between this film and “Gallant Defender”, Charles’ first Western made that same year on a considerably smaller budget, are many. RKO’s “Annie Oakley” has an accomplished director, George Stevens, and star, Barbara Stanwyk. It has scenes featuring lots of people — crowd scenes and wild west shows. It is painted on a bigger historical canvas, involving real people and real events.
Also, the love story is central to the story, rather than, in “Gallant Defender” and most other films from Charles Starrett’s western period, treated as an afterthought or, more often, an unwanted intruder on the plot.
“Gallant Defender” follows Johnny Flagg (Starrett), a wandering cowboy, as he throws in with a group of Homesteaders in their struggle with the evil Cattleranchers. “Annie Oakley” tells the (mostly) true story of the sharpshooter and her life in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Toby Walker (Preston Foster) is the crack shot she bests and later replaces and loves all the while.
These films also have a lot in common. Mainly (besides Ms. Stanwyck), it’s wooden acting. Preston Foster lurches through the film. I know him primarily from his role in the previous year’s “Last Days of Pompeii” (which I’m sure our loyal reader from New Zealand will point out is a Gladiator flick. ) In 1939, he would appear in “Geronimo” playing Capt. Bill Starrett. Perhaps the brother of Joe Starrett from “Shane”?
The writing often sucks as well. Check out this scene set at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Sitting Bull is a guest at the performance. After Annie Oakley does some impressive shooting, an audience member nudges the great Indian Chief and says, “Bet you don’t have any squaws that can shoot like Annie Oakley.” To which Sitting Bull responds, “Don’t want squaws who shoot, only cook!”
I’d also say that neither film was making any great leaps in cinematic history.
An unexpected discovery from viewing “Annie Oakley” was how many bit players from this film were featured in Charles Starrett vehicles.
(WARNING: The following paragraphs are for HARDCORE Starrett completists only.)
Richard Alexander appeared in four of Charles’ films between 1937-1951. He has the fun, if tiny, role of Prince Wilhelm during Annie’s European tour. Annie shoots a cigarette out of his mouth while her handler warns that one slip and she could “change history.”
The Judge in the shooting match between Annie and Toby Walker is played by Stanley Blystone, an actor who appeared as Charles’ Uncle Marvin in Starrett’s debut as a cowboy star “Gallant Defender” AND as a detective in the pre-cowboy Starrett starrer “Silver Streak.”(“Annie Oakley” cinematographer J. Roy Hunt shot that film.)
The actor playing Sheriff Bixby, Robert McKenzie, also straddles the line, as a policeman in the 1935 mystery “Shot in the Dark” and a telegraph operator in the next year’s Western “Mysterious Avenger.”
Speaking of obscure Starrett vehicles, Harry Bowen was in two of them — 1934’s “Murder on Campus” and 1935’s “Make a Million.” Donald Kerr was also in the latter, there as a radio announcer, here as a shooting gallery barker. And Charlie Hall was billed above Starrett in “Call It Luck”. Anyone remember “Return Of Casey Jones”? Theodore Lorch played Dr. Wallace in that one.
The winner of the Most Films With Charley goes to Ernie Adams who appeared with Starrett in fifteen films between 1936 and 1952, including Charles’ swan song, “The Kid From Broken Gun”. Here he plays a wrangler in Bill Cody’s show.
Perhaps most memorable is Si Jenks in a small role here, who played comic relief to Starrett in a number of early Westerns, including the crusty coot Buckshot in “Cowboy Star.” The little brat Sammy in that film? Why, it’s Sammy McKim who plays a kid begging turns at the shooting gallery where Toby Walker retires in shame.
The list goes on and on. Frank Austin in 1937’s “Outlaws of the Prairie”; Dick Elliot in two films, “Start Cheering” (1938) and “Across The Badlands” (1950); Jim Mason playing “Henchman” in two films; and Bud Geary also playing Henchmen and assorted other bad guys in four Starrett westerns. Lew Meehan was in nine.
Perhaps this is the connective tissue between the A and the B Westerns. The supporting cast.
October 1, 2009
The rumor that “Law of the Northwest” would be playing on TCM this month has turned out to be false. Alas. In place of a review of that “lost” Durango Kid film, I present another mind-bending (time-wasting?) chapter in the saga of my attempt to discover what the other B-Western stars were doing in 1935, the year that Charles Starrett began his cowboy star career.
Tom Tyler was chasing the “Phantom of the Range” in this Victory Pictures production.
The titular character wears a white slicker and pretends to be a ghost, riding around at night to keep snooping eyes from discovering what the bad guys are up to at old Hiram Moore’s place. They are looking for the dead coot’s buried treasure. Moore’s pretty daughter catches Tom’s eye, so he buys the estate and they join the search for the loot. The plot features an auction, a map in an old painting, some fights and some riding. Tom has his own sidekick, a thin gay British Smiley, if you can picture that.
I enjoyed this film, but, boy is it a cheapo. I’ve written before about poverty row, but this is so cheap. A lot of the dialogue is ADR and some scenes are shot in weird panning close-ups, in the style of primitive sit-coms. On the plus-side, it features some great locations in Lone Pine, and the like-able characters are actually very like-able.
I had a realization watching this film that is a testament to how little I knew about the B-Western genre when I began this project. It’s amazing that it has taken this long for me to recognize that Charles, at least stacked up against his contemporaries, was a real cutey pie.
I mean, no one is going to mistake Hoot Gibson or Wild Bill Eliot for eye-candy. Gene Autry has a goofy boy next door sort of look. Tim McCoy and William S. Hart are odd. Tom Mix has a good head of hair, as does Ken Maynard, but you wouldn’t call either of them matinee idols.
In fact, I can’t think of any other cowboy star of Charles’ day who started their career playing pretty boys (“Desirable” and “Royal Family of Broadway“) or hunks (“Fast and Loose” and “Jungle Bride“). Can you imagine any of the others shirtless and being whipped by Myrna Loy as Charles was in “Mask of Fu Manchu“? Johnny Mack Brown? C’mon!
And then there’s Tom Tyler.
Tom Tyler is an adequate cowboy hero in this picture, and he should be. He had been playing variations on this role since 1926. He’s thin and wears a broad black hat. A handsome guy, but surprisingly ethnic for a cowboy star (Tom’s birth-name was Vincent Markowski and he was of Lithuanian descent.) With his jet black, slicked back hair and long face, he seems more suited to playing thugs in organized crime movies.
He reminds me of Henry Silva.
July 16, 2009
The Autry Museum of the American West has a wing where the history of the B-Western is chronicled. A short film that plays on a monitor surrounded by posters and props pays tribute to the 5 most influential figures of the B-Western: Tom Mix, Buck Jones, Ken Maynard, Tim McCoy and Hoot Gibson. (This is the second film. The first features Gilbert Anderson and William S. Hart.)
This is their list. Personally, I’d leave off Hoot, but that’s me. I would also argue that Charlies is either number 6, or he’s number 1 of the next list. When he debuted as a cowboy star in 1936, Charles was already a throw-back to a more traditional B-Western star, the kind of star embodied by the Autry 5 in their hey-day. Because, even by 1936, the 5 were doing new, weird stuff.
Tim McCoy is flying planes for the DOJ and investigating death rays in ’36’s “Ghost Patrol.” I’ve written about these strange Western/Sci-Fi hybrids before (and better — check out my thoughts on Tom Mix in “The Miracle Rider” or Gene Autry in “Phantom Empire”.)
I like Tim McCoy. He’s cool in a steely-eyed sorta way. He has a casual stiffness and a pretty droll sense of humor.
The film is a bore. It’s terribly slow-paced, and not just because of McCoy’s much-ballyhooed authenticity. Dick Curtis, for example, takes nearly three minutes to set up a ham radio. And we get to watch every second.
Charles replaced Tim McCoy at Columbia. His costume is an echo of Tim’s — white hat and scarf, black shirt.
I’m afraid that “Ghost Patrol” has not inspired me to a very long entry here. So I will sign off, and say a little prayer that some of Charles’ lost titles show up soon, so that this site doesn’t get too boring.
October 10, 2008
So, we’ve spent some time exploring an important year in Charles Starrett’s cowboy star career. That would be the year of 1935. This is when Starrett first pulled on his boots and starred in his a Western. That film was “Gallant Defender.”
1945 would probably rank as the second most important year in his career. That’s when he began to make Durango Kid films exclusively, with “The Return Of The Durango Kid.”
What was Wild Bill Elliott up to in 1945? Well, he was portraying the creation of comic artist Fred Harman — Red Ryder. He would be the second of four actors to play the role (Don “Red” Barry, Allan Lane and Jim Bannon were the others).
“Colorado Pioneers” co-stars Robert Blake, and concerns a bunch of city kids who come West to learn a thing or two about being cowhands. This Republic film is strictly for a younger audience.
This opens the door to a discussion on what the intended audience was for Charles Starrett’s Western films, and how much a consideration of the age-range of the audience effected the filmmakers’ choices in making these films.
Let us continue this discussion on another day.
October 7, 2008
The posters for this Mascot film read “The Foremost Western Star in Motion Pictures” and continue with “Tom Mix, Idol of Every Boy in the World!”
This serial starts with a series of vignettes illustrating the expansion of the West and the mistreatment of the Indians. First in 1777 with Daniel Boone, then 1825 with Davey Crockett, then 1877 with Buffalo Bill — these great men preach respect for the Indians and are ignored by white jerks who are subsequently killed (including Dick Curtis in a brief cameo.)
The montage takes us to 1912, where Tom Mix, er Tom Morgan cradles his father’s head as he dies, the latest victim of disrepectful white jerks. He makes Tom promise to become a Texas Ranger and protect the red man.
Cut to the modern day, 1935, where Tom (who’s looking really old for someone in his early 30s) has fulfilled that promise. He keeps the Indians safe from white jerks who try to steal their payroll and so forth.
But there’s a new threat to Tom’s charges. X-94 has been discovered under the Ravenswood Reservation. White businessmen and scientists need to scare off the Indians so they can mine this stuff, the most deadly explosive of all time. To this end, they use gadgets like phones hidden inside caves and under piles of rock, a raygun that burns macrame from a great distance, and a rocket glider the Indians call “The Firebird.”
Yes, science fiction meets B-Western (or is it C-Western?) once again in 1935. “The Miracle Rider” joins “The Phantom Empire”, where Gene Autry fights an underground race, and “Ghost Patrol”, where Tim McCoy fights some science guys with a lot of cool equipment.
It’s interesting to me that Charles Starrett’s cowboy stardom was born at the exact same moment that some folks were definitely thinking that the genre needed alot of help, needed an injection of science-fiction nonsense to turn it into some sort of hybrid sci-fi/western genre.
I guess Charles’ longevity in the saddle proved these folks wrong. The western didn’t need some crazy rescue scheme. It just needed to lower its expectations a little. Or alot, depending on how you look at it.
How’s Mix at 55? He does some good riding stunts for a man his age, but…let’s put it this way: when he talks to Tony Jr., he comes off like an old geezer muttering to himself as he waits for the bus.
This was his last film. He died 5 years later.
September 27, 2008
As editor of my high school yearbook, I met regularly with the representative from the yearbook company. His name was Hoot Gibson. He was a nice guy, your classic salesman. He had a big meaty face, always smiling, couldn’t remember my name so he called me “T”. My co-editor was named Todd, so he was “T” as well. Together, we were “T n T.” Guess why? “Cuz you guys are dynamite!”
If you met the guy, you wouldn’t mistake him for a Western Movie Star. But, then again, you wouldn’t mistake the actor in the leading role of 1936’s “Riding Avenger” for one either. Paunchy, goofy-looking with big flabby cheeks and jowls, Hoot Gibson at 44 could fit no one’s idea of a cowboy hero.
Now, I understand he was a rodeo star in his youth, and made a ton of silent films. I will have to see one of them. Maybe he was great back then.
But to answer the question I regularly pose here, what was this cowboy star doing in 1936, when Charles Starrett was becoming a B-Western star? Hoot Gibson was embarrassing himself.
September 21, 2008
In 1935, Charles Starrett made his first western. After that, he averaged eight a year. Here’s what else you could expect to see on the silver screen back then.
This Republic series of 51 films between 1936 and 1943. 12 actors played the three roles over the years (including John Wayne).
In 1937, the Three Mesquiteers are played by Robert Livingston as Stoney (the lover), Ray “Crash” Corrigan as Tucson (the fighter), and Max Terhune (the comic.)
I guess Charles Starrett would be closest to the Corrigan character. Charley is very rarely the lover. And he’s hardly ever funny.
This is another contemporary western, set in the early 1930s, but you can’t tell in some of the films. “Call The Mesquiteers” features cars and motorcycles, but “Hit The Saddle” could be set in the 1870s.
Robert Livingston is the baby faced cutey, the lover that’s a sucker for the ladies with an agenda (in “Hit The Saddle” it’s a very young Rita Hayworth.) He’s also the romantic, he wants to set the wild mustangs free.
Ray “Crash” Corrigan is the more interesting leading man, good with the gun and strong on the law and order side of things. He becomes Sheriff in “Hit The Saddle.” He was a former stunt man who played Tarzan. He also founded Corriganville. Legend has it that he was taking a break from shooting one of the 3 Ms and rode to the top of a hill and looked down on the valley below. He decided to buy it for 10k. Corriganville was born — the setting for many films, and the site of the amusement park (see “Corriganville” blog entry.)
Max Terhune is a talented comic actor. He later performed with the dummy Elmer Sneezewood. He’s an interesting comic sidekick. Unlike a fool like Smiley, he’s not a dumb-shit, he’s a joker. He does bits and impressions when he’s being funny. He’s also competent and pretty tough too. Neat scene where he brings a horse into a bar and makes the rustlers apologize to it — at gunpoint.
Interestingly, there is conflict in these films between the three leads. Stoney thinks Tucson is getting a big head when he becomes Sheriff. Tucson thinks Stoney is letting Rita play him for a sap. This sort of conflict is rare in these b-westerns — good guys generally get along. And if they don’t, it usually turns out to be an act and all part of their “plan.”
I assume these guys got their name because they live in the town of Mesquite? I’m asking here. The newspaper is called the “Mesquite Sentinel”. That’s my only clue.
September 18, 2008
We all know what Charles Starrett was doing in 1935. He was climbing onto a horse for his first western. He would climb off again 17 years and 135 films later.
In our continuing series on what other cowboy stars were up to that year, we discover that future sidekick Smiley Burnette and soon-to-be mega-star Gene autry were busy — they were fighting aliens.
Proving that pot did indeed exist in 1935, “Phantom Empire” is a serial that is part B-Western, part Flash Gordon. The Muranians live 20,000 miles beneath Autry’s Radio Ranch. To stop scientists from invading their world, Queen Tika has ordered her soldiers to stop Autry from broadcasting his radio show. There’s also a framed-for-murder subplot, a bunch of kid detectives and plenty of songs.
This was brought to us by the same people who made the serial “Mystery Mountain” starring Ken Maynard (see “Other Cowboys Stars – Ken Maynard”). In fact, Maynard was offered the role. He went to work at Columbia with Charley instead.
Smiley is listed in the credits as “Lester (Smiley) Burnette”. There’s less of him to hate (weight-wise) but he’s still annoying, doing double-duty as a member of the band, and playing various roles in the radio-drama broadcast each week.
Gene is wooden, but that’s a good part of his charm, right? Since he can’t, or won’t, act, he’s considered sincere. That’s just me guessing.
Interestingly, like Charley’s 1945 “Cowboy Canteen”, this Sci-Fi/Western has a contemporary setting — I mean, in the film it is 1935 and there are planes and radios and so forth. Along with Muranians and Singing Cowboys.
It’s a pretty fun serial. Goofy. And the robots are a hoot.
September 12, 2008
We all know what Charles Starrett was doing in 1934. He was preparing to don a cowboy hat on screen for the first time in “Gallant Defender.” He’d never be far from one for the rest of his career.
Eight years Charles’ senior, Ken Maynard was resurrecting his own career over at Mascot. After being let go by Universal, Ken had returned to rodeo for a few years. Now he was shooting the 12 part serial “Mystery Mountain” at Iverson Ranch and Bronson Canyon.
The plot involves a mysterious crook named “The Rattler” who is stirring up trouble between the railroad men and the stagecoach men. Ken Maynard plays Ken Williams, Detective for the railroad company.
Maynard is an interesting cowboy star. He’s good looking with dark, slicked down hair. He wears a black embroidered western shirt and a colored scarf. He sports two pearl-handled pistols. He’s got a very well trained horse named “Tarzan” who can do great stunts and other cool stuff like lie down on command.
He uses a lasso a lot. Charles never used a lasso. What’s up with that?
Maynard did a lot of his own stunts and was an expert horseman. It shows. Pretty exciting stuff (though they do speed up the action a fair amount at times.)
Ken also has a thick accent – Indiana. He has a folksy manner and adds some nice authetic touches, like calming his horse during a stand-off with outlaws.
There’s an easy way about him — an easy smile and an easy manner. This is in contrast to the off-screen Maynard, as illustrated by the well-known stories about his ego and the ugly drunken tantrums he would throw on set.
When this film wrapped, Ken headed over the Columbia. He made eight films there, starting with 1935’s “Western Frontier.” I imagine he bumped into Charley a fair amount during those two years. I wonder what Charley thought of Ken’s mean and drunken ways. CS seems like such a gentleman and a generous soul, he must have been very popular with his crew.
Final thought: Ken Maynard mainly played characters named “Ken”. This business is starting to look like a trend. Tim McCoy is “Tim”, Bill Elliot is generally “Bill” or “Wild Bill”, Johnny Mack Brown is “Johnny”, Gene is “Gene”, Smiley is “Smiley”, etc.
What’s up with “Steve?” Something wrong with the name “Charles”?
August 27, 2008
In 1935, Tim McCoy left Columbia Pictures to make westerns for Puritan films. Columbia needed a new cowboy star, and Charles Starrett got the job.
The similarities end there. Tim McCoy is short, sort of pudgy, with a roundish face. He rides his horse very erect. He talks to his horse alot – explaining plot points and his motivation. He rolls his own smokes and talks in a slow and lazy sort of way, with an “authentic” drawl. What must have been a real draw for him was the fact that he has this incredible intensity when he’s angry – great eyes.
Tim McCoy was the real deal, a cowboy from Wyoming, with a great past and a lot of schemes. Here is a good concise history of his life.
In “Texas Cyclone”, 1932, Texas Grant rides into Stampede, Arizona. He is mistaken by everyone as Jim Rawlings, missing for over 5 years. Texas decides to stick around and take this identity, cleaning up the town and settling Jim Rawlings’ old scores. So, like Charley often does, Tim has a double identity in this film.
(Interestingly, in most films Tim McCoy is named “Tim” Something.)
Other differences between a Tim McCoy film and a Charles Starrett film: lots of people and background action. Also, they speed up the action – fights and riding – alot, I mean, real fast. There are some featured horse jumps – like over a wagon – I’ve never seen anything like that in a CS flick.
Tim has a nice supporting cast here: Walter Brennan (was he ever young?) and a decidedly young John Wayne as his sidekick, Steve.
So this is Charley’s cinema-father. I like.