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YEARS have passed since a lost Charles Starrett film has surfaced on DVD.  For we, the few & the proud Charles Starrett fans, this is akin to the discovery of the original, uncut “Metropolis” in Argentina or the recent un-earthing of Buster Keaton’s film “The Blacksmith” with an entire reel of alternate scenes.

It is with honor and humility that I present a “new” Durango Kid film.

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“The Hawk of Wild River” is one of the six Durango Kid films made in 1952, the final year of the series.  Charles Starrett is only months away from hanging up his black garb and white hat forever.

Fittingly, Clayton Moore is a co-star.  The Kid passes the black scarf to the Ranger who makes of it a mask!

Like many of the films from the last years of Durango, this one borrows heavily from the footage from another film.  I don’t know which film it is, but I’m guessing it’s not a Durango Kid film — I’ve seen all four of the films in which Clayton Moore appears and this isn’t one of them.  (For those who wish to search — Moore’s character is an outlaw who uses a bow and arrow as an assignation weapon.)

Charles plays Steve, of course, and this time he’s Steve Martin.

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A new twist on the always confusing relationship between Steve and Smiley; this time around, Smiley knows Steve, but Steve pretends not to know Smiley.  Like this.

Smiley: “Hi Steve!”

Steve:  “I’m afraid you’ve got me mixed up with someone else, stranger.”

Why Steve denies his “ever lovin’ buddy” is never clear.  It does create an existential crisis for Smiley.  “If that ain’t Steve Martin, then I ain’t Smiley Burnette.  And if I ain’t Smiley Burnette, who am I?  I might be someone I don’t even know,  not even like maybe.”

Ergo, he could be me!

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Confusion abounds in this film.  We learn that Jock (here “Jack) Mahoney is driven to track down the Hawk because he killed his father, the Sheriff.  However, Jock’s father was alive in the previous scene and no significant time has passed.

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With Charles heading towards retirement, his stunt-double and frequent co-star Mahoney gets a fair amount of screen time, but not as much as some of the other final Durangos.  In “Kid From Broken Gun” (also 1952), Charles disappears for a good 30 minutes of the 54 minute running time.  Here, he is involved in almost all the action.

There’s a nice bit where Durango sticks some bullets in a fire to confuse an ambush party, then ambushes them himself.  Good, inventive bit — often missing from these latter films.

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Another good one, Durango tells Jack to lock up “that stranger that blew into town.”

Jack:  “Steve Martin?”

Durango/Steve:  “That’s right.”

This is the only time I can remember that Durango uses his alter ego as a pawn in his game, or, maybe better put, the Durango/Steve entity manipulates one of its components by proxy. (As steady readers of this site well know, we have discussed this schism before, often and at length.  Things get a little heady over here at “Charles Starrett – a Fan’s Journey.”  Boy O Boy!)

In this sequence, Steve poses as a swaggering outlaw which allows Starrett to use his gangster voice, which is a mash-up of Edward Robinson and Bogart.

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Most of Smiley’s “comedy” in this film involves him doing insulting impressions of Mexicans and Native Americans.  Oh, and also being tricked into unnecessary and painful dental surgery.  Which I would, personally, rather endure than one more minute of his insipid clowning.

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At the 32 minute mark of this version of “Hawk of Wild River,” stuff changes.  And it’s not just the poor quality of the print going even further south.

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The final reel is in Portugese!  So my review will be a little spotty from here in. *

I gotta say, it’s a HOOT to hear my familiar friend Charles Starrett speaking like a rough and tumble bandito.  The guy they have dubbing him has a much deeper voice and really spits out his words.  The end effect is that Charles comes off a whole lot tougher than I’ve ever seen him.

And it’s almost embarrassing how easy it is to follow the film despite the language problem. Being jailed was a ruse for Steve to befriend the Hawk, escape and infiltrate his gang.

What is surprising is that Starrett does a lot of his own stunt work in this film.  At this stage in his career, and at 48 years old with advancing diabetes, Starrett was relying on Jock to do most of his fighting.  The films from the last two or three years of the Durango series find most of the action landing on the shoulders of the Kid, who, behind his black mask, could safely be Jock.  But Steve fights a long bruising fight sequence which is clearly Starrett every punch of the way.

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Not that you could tell from this picture…

So, they overhear the gang planning something, Smiley rides to town to warn Jock, and Steve slips into his Durango get-up. The Kid kills The Hawk and Jock rounds up the rest.

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It was fun to see mi amigo Charles Starrett in one of his last films, still holding his own against an up-and-comer like Clayton Moore, the next great masked man of the West.

*Complete disclosure: the company which sold me this DVD was very upfront about the quality and audio challenges of this film.  I appreciate the honesty and also the chance to see this lost film, even in this less than pristine form.  

UPDATE:  My friend Harry sent me a better copy of this all the way from Down Under. It’s cool to see the rest of the film in English and I thank him!  Thanks, buddy.

At last! A title which actually relates to the film. I mean, beyond giving us a general geographic location of the action (“West of Cheyenne”, “West of Abilene”, “West of Dodge City”, “South of Arizona”, “South of Death Valley”, etc.)

Check it out: part of the film is set in El Dorado, and the plot involves the search for a bunch of bandits who have mysteriously disappeared.

In fact, the 1949 film starts with a lengthy prologue which lists these bandits: “Ace Dawson, Sam Milton, Luke Holden, John Rackim, Bill Drake, Kurt Dixon, and Sam Milton (again)” I wonder if these were the names of crew members, or friends of the writer.

We meet Charles wearing a different mask than we’re accustomed to seeing him in — he’s an outlaw, robbing a stagecoach. He unshaven, dressed in dusty clothes, and tosses around some good tough guy lines like “Everyone in favor of staying alive, raise your hands.”

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

It’s all play acting, of course. He’s Steve Carson, Texas Ranger, and he’s committing a very public crime so he can go on the lam and find the underground railroad to “El Dorado”.

These are my favorites, where Charley gets to play a bad guy. Partly because he’s good at it, and partly because it provides a rare chance for Steve’s adoption of the Durango Kid identity to make sense!

That said, Durango makes a very late appearance. Nearly 22 minutes into the film.

As we’ve discussed before, sometimes Smiley meets Steve during the action of the picture. In this, he already knows Steve. “I’ve known him from way back.”

He doesn’t know Steve’s the Durango Kid, however. He asks Durango if he lives in a cave. In some footage shot when he was in his 80’s (see blog entry “Charles Starrett’s Last Public Appearence”), Charley talks about Durango hiding in a cave, “always ready!” Personally, I’ve seen Durango appear out of a lean-to, and from behind some rocks, but this is the first cave I’ve seen.

The action of the film takes us from Copper City down to El Dorado where Steve is trying to discover the boss of the operation providing the escape for these bandits. He’s helped by his Texas Ranger Captain, in disguise, who is played by our old friend Fred Sears.

Smiley down there too, and in disguise as well.

Courtesy of Les Adams

When Steve finds out Smiley is in Mexico, he’s bummed. “Aw, we’re sunk. I can handle outlaws, but I can’t handle that Smiley.” Me neither. Not on a full stomach, I can’t.

There’s not alot of discussion of Ray Nazarro in these pages, despite the fact that he directed a lot of these films. He is a competent director and an adequate storyteller. And he does frame a nice shot from time to time, which he does here.

There’s also a nicely staged fight scene in a darkened room.

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

The big stand-out in this film (other than the fact that there is not one woman in the entire film) is Mustard and Gravy. These two guys were a hillbilly music novelty act which Smiley brought into the fold. Imagine Tenacious D made up of two Kyle Gasses. They appear here dressed as wrestlers, as bullfighters and as black-faced minstrels.

We’ll be seeing more of this duo in future films, so look for a more extended discussion on them then.

Oh, and Clayton Moore appears here in his last film before climbing onto Silver and donning a mask of his own.

“Cyclone Fury”

May 19, 2008

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

“Durango not real. Him Great Spirit of Wind, ride on devil horse, kill all enemies.”

Words uttered by Little Johnny, and yes, he’s Native American.

It’s 1951, folks, and welcome to Charles Starrett’s 159th film.

We start with a somewhat rare narration (I count four so far). Even more rare is that the narrator is Steve Reynolds, who is (you guessed it!) The Durango Kid hisself.

“In the ’80’s I was employed by the government to help obtain remounts for the Army.”

So too, apparently, is Smiley. In an early scene, his hopes are dashed of being a mustang buster for the Army. He has to eat his hat after he can’t bust Red Devil. Charley can! I wish this scene were earlier in the series — it would make a great origin story for Smiley’s battered old hat.

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

I guess it was inevitable that Smiley would end up in a Haunted House, since he’s exhausted every other tired comic convention. He opens a “Coffin Store” and encounters a lot of cobwebs and even a singing skeleton.

Clayton Moore is back with one of my favorite lines yet from this series. “Let’s vamoose Doc, Burnette is making me sick!”

Me too, Kemo Sabe!

Of note: this is Clayton Moore’s first film after his Lone Ranger stint originally ended. He made a few more films, including, notably, Radar Men from the Moon, before the producers relented and brought him back (at a higher salary) as that other masked man.

The plot involves solving the murder of Brock Masters, delivering wild horses to the Army, and stopping Grat Hanlon (Moore) from muscling in on the action.

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

At nearly 50, Charley is starting to show his age a bit. But he still walks very erect and looks trim in both his white and black ensembles. He may not do the stunt where Durango jumps over two horses and into the saddle of Radar (amazing!), but he throws a mean punch and carries a big man on his back. And he even makes laughing at Smiley’s mugging look easy.

Another notable guest star is Mr. Merle Travis, who had a distinguished career as a Country Western singer and songwriter, with enduring hits such as “Sixteen Tons” and “Dark as a Dungeon.” Here he is performing with the Bronco Busters, who also appeared with him in Charley’s 1946 “Roaring Rangers”.

Is it just me or does the name “Brock Masters” sound like someone’s porno pseudonym?

Courtesy of Les Adams

This is the 1949 film that Charley took a break from shooting to share the recipe of his “bachelor friend who’s a nut on casserole dishes.” (See blog entry “Charles Starrett Recipe.”)

It’s also the first Durango Kid film featuring Clayton Moore in a small part. The future Lone Ranger was in three DK films in 1949, right before he landed his big role. After two years of 52 episodes a year, Moore quit over a pay raise dispute. He went right back to playing villiains to Durango’s hero, in “Cyclone Fury” 1951. The Lone Ranger fans were not impressed with Moore’s replacement, and he was brought back permanent shortly thereafter.

I find it funny that the world’s most famous masked cowboy hero played third fiddle to perhaps the world’s most forgotten masked man.

Here, Moore plays “Bead”, henchman to Fred Sears (back as another villian) who is stirring up trouble between the Cattlemen and the Miners by poisoning the wells. Charley gets framed, escapses, is thought dead, and saves the day.

His name is Steve Downey in this one. He even has it embroidered in his hat. “SD, that’s Steve Downey.” He’s the brother-in-law of the late John Carr and he’s taking over Carr’s mining claim.

Smiley does not know him. Smiley is “The Ever-Lovin’ Marshall” as Tommy Duncan and His Western All Stars sing for us. His lame antics center around a lasso this time. Stuff like he lassos his own leg and says “look, I caught me.” Hi-larious.

Not alot memorable about this one. I do note that this is the third time I’ve seen the same rams-horn ornament on the desk of the bad guy. Significance?

I’ll leave you with this choice line from Smiley: “Mr. Durango, I’ve always heard you were for the underdog, well, believe you me, every dog in Nugget City is on top of me at one time or another.”

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures