Would some one please write a book on Oliver Drake?  A well-researched, 1000+ page book covering his days as a silent film director and his TV work in the 60s & 70s, but with a special emphasis on the years he spent in the 40’S-50’s making cheapo Westerns on his ranch in Antelope Valley?  Films like “Battling Marshall”.

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These clumsy, mean-spirited, discordant westerns starred troubled talent at the end of their ropes. A guy like former Western Swing sensation and future murderer, Spade Cooley, in “Kid From Gower Gulch” and “The Silver Bandit” (both 1950).

Spade Cooley

Sunset Carson is the star of “Battling Marshall”.   That’s him on the bottom.

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I’ve written a lot about Sunset in “Sheriff of Cimarron” (1945), “Fighting Mustang” (1948) and “Alien Outlaw” (1985).  By the time he was making “Battling Marshall” in 1950, Sunset was a cast-off almost-was dumped by Republic after some promising Westerns and a scandal or two.

This was his second of five films shot on Oliver Drake’s ranch with his drunken cast and crew.  The Beasties.

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Often plodding.  Sometimes dizzy.  Almost always unsettling.

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This book might not be a best-seller.  But.  I’d like to read it.

File this one under “CODA.”  It’s Sunset Carson’s last ‘big’ screen appearance and one of Lash La Rue’s final films as well.

This is one of those cheapy horror sci-fi films that popped up with great frequency during the Eighties.  A local production featuring mainly non-actors and laughable special effects.

It’s 1985 and Sunset Carson hadn’t worked since 1950.  That year marked his final film with the equally cheapo Yucca Pictures.

He has maybe two minutes in this film but he still gets his (gross!) trademark “cluck cluck” in twice!  Sunset plays the role of Sunset, a scout for the Diamond theatrical agency.  He clucks when he checks out the female lead’s legs and clucks again as a sort of fond “good luck” farewell.

“cluck cluck”

He looks good for a man of his age (65.)  He’s still got that personable, like-able quality that typified his films with Republic in the late 40’s.  In a bonus feature on the DVD, he sits on apple crates with fellow actors and interviews them for his cable access TV show.

In the film, Jesse Jamison is an 80’s Annie Oakley who is poised to become star of “the greatest gun show of all time” as her new management tells her.  Unfortunately, an alien shows up.  An Alien Outlaw.

Lash La Rue is the lead. The lead!  He plays the uncle of Jesse’s missing assistant.  He helps Jesse take out the bad monsters and get her guns back for the big show.

Lash sports a Stephen J. Cannell look in the film.  He’s pretty fit but do we really need to see him with his shirt off?

No.  We don’t.

{no photo here cuz my mama brought me up right}

The big question is: does he use the whip?  No, but he does get his ass kicked pretty good.

There is one more final film appearance, and it one of the saddest cameos in the history of film.  Frederick Penniman was a part-Indian cowboy who made a sorta living in rodeos, Wild West touring companies and doing stunts in movies.  The stage name he chose is Wild Bill Cody, which is equal parts real-life cowboy and B-Western movie star — Bufallo Bill Cody and intermittent B-movie star Bill Cody; Wild Bill Hickok and Wild Bill Elliot.

In 1972, Sunset gave him a role as an Indian Chief in the doomed “Marshal of Windy Hollow”, a film which was never released.

In “Alien Outlaw”, his final role finds him as a withered and bent pervert sitting on a park bench.  He’s ogling girls.

He seems to be suffering from some form of throat cancer. When his dog bolts after the foxy Jesse, he croaks out a single line, “Hey, you can’t bring it back!”

He died three years later.

A final note: the film may exist now as mainly a curiosity showcasing a couple of aging cowboys, but it also turns out to have been a wonderful moment in a English kid’s life.  Check out this happy tale from the IMDB comment section:

I watched the filming, 19 April 2008
Author: barke_p from United Kingdom

I have happy memories of a teenage summer staying near Sparta, NC, on one of the locations that this film uses. Specifically, in the film it was the farm house of the character played by Lash La Rue. I was staying with the family that owns that farm. The “barn” you see in some scenes there was actually the family’s garage.

The film crew were there for several days and I joined in the shoot as a sort of unpaid runner, carrying things around. It was quite odd, not to say surreal, at times: a fifteen year old kid from the UK sitting on the porch chatting alternately with a grumpy B-western star, then the long legged heroine (they were FANTASTIC legs), then the “aliens”, without their helmets. At lunchtimes we had fried chicken, mashed potato , biscuits and gravy I seem to remember. Tasted very good! At one point I overheard the director say something particularly uncomplimentary about his own film. He struck me as someone who could have made much better films if he had had the resources.

I just got the DVD, having never watched the film and it really is difficult to say anything positive about it as a piece of cinema. As a memento of the best summer of my life though it is priceless.

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.

Everyone loves an Almost Was story.  We are all familiar with the elements of this tragedy: a huge natural talent, early and tremendous success, limitless potential, personal sabotage, sensational failure, exile, redemption.

Here is one for the B-Westerns, writ small enough for the genre.  It is the story of Sunset Carson.

Sunset was born with a decidedly unpromising name for a future western star — Winifred Maurice Harrison.  Of course, Mr. John Wayne hisself overcame a less than manly name.  Winnie meet Marion.  Sunset spent his childhood in Oklahoma and Texas and grew up big enough to be a hit on the rodeo circuit.  After touring South America with Tom Mix’s western show, he tried his hand at Hollywood and quickly caught the attention of Republic Pictures, the top studio producing B-Westerns.  He was given his new name and his own series.  By the end of the year, Carson appeared on the top 10 list of Western Stars and was one of the biggest moneymakers in the genre.  He was 24 years old.

Within two years, his career would be all but over.

“Sheriff of Cimarron” was made in 1945 at the peak of Carson’s career.  His first four films had been built to give equal time to his partner and co-star, the more established Smiley Burnette.  By this film, the fat ‘funny’ man was gone and Carson was firmly in the saddle as the leading man.

The plot is familiar but “Sheriff of Cimarron” is a decent vehicle.  There is a “lead epidemic” in Cimarron.  Sunset arrives in town to visit his brother and immediately foils a robbery and kicks some major ass.  The town makes him Sheriff, unaware that he is fresh out of prison (psst! for a crime he didn’t commit).  Within minutes, we learn that his brother was behind the frame-up.  The mystery element is completely out the window, as is most of the narrative intrigue.  What we are left with is Sunset Carson.

An essential element of the Almost Was or Also Ran story is the “he could have been huge” factor.  Carson had a lot going for him.  First off, Sunset Carson is a great name.  He’s got a fresh, open face, a great smile and must be the cleanest cowboy I’ve ever seen.  He shines with the corny courtship stuff.  He’s also got an real authority in the saddle — clearly an accomplished rider who I’d guess did a fair amount of his own stunts.  His easy manner and drawl further underline this authenticity.

Let’s face it, Sunset Carson is the Frankenstein Monster of the B-Western.  He’s got Gene’s folksy open charm, Buck’s ease in the saddle, the physicality of Tom Mix and Buster Crabbe, the authentic Western air of both Tim McCoy and the grand-daddy of them all, William S. Hart.  He’s even got Starrett’s ram-rod straight back.

One chink in his perfect armor appears at the hoe-down.  The dude cannot dance.

What happened for Sunset to fall so far?  There are many stories, one of which involves him drunk in public with an under-age girl.

We’ll see.  I’m interested in Sunset.  Check back here for further discussions of his films.  In “Fighting Mustang”, we’ll examine the first film after his fall and the beginning of his association with Oliver Drake and his Yucca Pictures.  We’ll explore 1972’s lost comeback vehicle “Marshall of Windy Hollow” and his various TV shows to see if there was any redemption in the Sunset Carson story.

Finally, a coda of sorts with “Alien Outlaw”, the 1985 low-budget film that is exactly what it sounds like.