December 29, 2008
It was with high hopes that I prepared to watch the last Durango Kid film.
In this final installment of the epic 65 film series, all questions would be answered, all mysteries revealed.
What is the origin of the Durango Kid?
Who does he really work for?
What is Steve’s true name?
What is his relationship with Smiley?
Where is his hide-out?
How does he change outfits so fast?
I expected big things. I expected that the Kid would probably die. Or Smiley would die! That’s it, Smiley would die! Durango would take off the mask and Smiley would die! What a finale!
It was not to be.
The opening titles of this 1952 film are over a card I’ve never seen before in the series. It is of a lake with a tree on the distant shore. A small fire burns in the foreground. A single, thin column of smoke dissects the frame, pointing out, perhaps, the duality of the Steve/Durango schism.
Also, a first in the series: two writers. Barry Shipman and Ed Earl Repp, both veterans of the Durango Kid gig. The “Kid From Broken Gun” is directed, fittingly, by Fred S. Sears, who began playing a villain and ended up directing a good number of the films.
Prologue reads: “‘If a man be proven guilty of murder, let him hang by the neck until dead.’ So read the law West of the Pecos (they couldn’t resist getting in one last set of vague directions) in the late 1870s.”
The film is set almost entirely in, groan, a courtroom. Jack Mahoney is on trail. Jack is the “Kid From Broken Gun”, his old boxing alias. It’s odd that in a film featuring a “Durango Kid” there would be room for another “Kid.”
Steve Reynolds and Smiley are friends with Jack. No job titles in this one. They’re just FOJ: friends of Jack.
The trial set-up is a bit to allow flashbacks to actions from previous films, especially the poorly titled “Fighting Frontiersman”. This is a cost-cutting technique that the filmmakers have used before, and used with more and more frequency as the series got longer and the budgets got smaller.
When Steve finally gets involved in the story (maybe 20 minutes in), he does a few things. He remarks to Smiley about the female defense attorney having “a certain family resemblance.” As Durango, he discovers a familiar looking coin. He also discovers that the mysterious owner of the missing gold shipment is someone named “CD.” He tells Smiley that their lives are in danger “if it’s the CD I think it is.”
CD turns out to stand for “Cimmaron Dobbs”, the old prospector from the film that should have been titled “The Curse of Santa Ana’s Gold” or something cool like that, but is, in fact, entitled “Frighting Frontiersman.” The defense attorney (Angela Stevens) is the sister of the crooked showgirl in that picture.
The best line in the film comes when Steve is sworn in to testify. The prosecutor objects, saying that the trial won’t get anywhere if they stop to listen to “every Tom, Dick and Harry.” In the gallery, Smiley scoffs: “Aw, his name ain’t Tom, Dick or Harry! His name is Steve!”
Yes it is, Smiley.
The weirdest moment occurs when Steve, on the stand, reveals the coin which Durango discovered. The prosecutor: “If the Durango Kid found it, how is it you have it?” Steve (with a wink): “Maybe Durango dropped it.”
What are we to make of that?
Charles looks long in the tooth. He squints a lot, maybe a sign of the advancing diabetic condition which would ultimately leave him blind. He’s still slim and athletic. He does seem to move a little slower, a little stiffer.
The recycled footage in the flashbacks is long on Durango, and short on Steve. Unfortunately, Durango is primarily played by stuntmen (including co-star Jack Mahoney), so there is very little Charles in this major part of the film.
In the actual narrative, Steve, having testified, leaves town and the movie for over 1o minutes. Like I said, very little Charles in this. Which is a shame for his swan song.
Smiley has a weird dream where he plays all the members of the trial — the judge, jury members, prosecutor, the accused. Also, we get more of the tough guy routine from Smiley: “Durango will shoot you so full of holes you’ll whistle in the wind.”
And with that, the fat man headed back to Gene Autry for six pictures, then became a regular guest on “Green Acres” followed by a reoccurring role on “Petticoat Junction.”
Jack Mahoney is acquitted, thanks to some gunpoint justice in the courtroom. Though Columbia seemed to be grooming him to take over the series, it never happened. The next year he began his 77 TV episode run as “The Range Rider.”
And Charley? He rode off into the sunset, traveling the world with his wife and splitting his retirement between Laguna and Borrego Springs.
And now we must say goodbye to the Durango Kid. He’s been a part of cinema history, and a part of the audience’s lives for eight years and sixty-five films.
The final lines of the film, and thus the series? Here they are:
Steve: “Jack, I guess the next time you’ll think twice before you look at a pretty face again.”
Jack: “There isn’t going to be a next time, Steve. I’m never going to look at a pretty girl again as lo….”
Girl passes. Jack preens and follows.
Smiley: “Now that’s what I like, a man of his word.”
Steve and Smiley laugh. Fade out. The End.
Not exactly the poetic summation I was waiting for. (see blog entry: The Last Durango Kid Film). But Jack’s right. “There isn’t going to be a next time, Steve….”