“Frontier Outpost”

December 12, 2008

frontier-outpost

Over lunch with my friend Rodney Ascher the other day, I was complaining, as I often do during our lunch meetings, about the lack of continuity in Charles Starrett’s character in the Durango Kid series; you know, how he’s always got a different last name, a different job, a different relationship with Smiley.

I was shaking my head with familiar frustration when Rodney pointed out something that had never occured to me: that the only constant, in fact, in these films is the Durango Kid himself.  That, therefore, the Durango Kid was the true identity and the Steve character was the mask that he put on.

115 films and I never once thought of it that way.  But then, that’s why we call Rodney “The Doctor”!

I will now attempt to discuss 1950’s “Frontier Outpost” from that perspective.  It’s going to be tough, but here goes nothing:

The Durango Kid is masquerading this time as Steve Lawton, who has some unstated military relationship with a Major Copeland (played by Fred Sears).   In the opening sequence, Durango robs a stagecoach of a shipment of gold, then appears in Steve disguise to return it to the Major.

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Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Later, Copeland and the other passengers on the stagecoach discover a mysteriously deserted fort.  He tells the rest of the riders that “Steve and Smiley have been assigned to me” to help find out about more gold shipments that have been going missing.

The Major doesn’t know that the Durango Kid is posing as Steve.  Smiley seems to know.  When the Major is killed, Durango, in the guise of Steve, reports Copeland’s death to Colonel Warrick who says “you’re not only an outlaw, you’re a crazy outlaw.”  Durango, still disguised as Steve, is arrested for the Major’s death.

The obese Smiley with his OCD involving food consumption tries to free Durango in a number of half-assed ways that generally include singing.

Once freed, Durango is able to shed the Steve disguise momentarily and ride to the rescue of the folks at the fort.  In the end, he adopts the Steve persona one last time to receive a well-deserved apology from the Colonel.  With that behind him, he sheds the Steve Lawton persona forever.

And off Durango rides, off to another adventure, where he will don another disguise, with a completely different identity,  job, and name.

Except that his first name will again be “Steve.”

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Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

“Prairie Roundup”

July 25, 2008

Very strange opening credit sequence — different/grander music, different font and lay-out on the credits. And a different painted background. It’s not the traditional lone yucca or the city lights in the valley. It features a campfire and three brands (w, o, x) leaning against a rock.

Same old crew though. Comrade Borofsky cut it, Colbert produced and our old friend, and reoccurring bad guy, Fred Sears directs.

However, differences abound in this film. The opening shot is a rare overhead view of the western street (I’ve never seen an elevated camera shot in any of these). Charely rides into town. “I’m looking for a friend of mine, Smiley Burnette.”

Another rarity, a well-executed and long tracking shot through a crowded bar. Fake Durango robs the place. Charley kills Fake Durango. Smiley says, “Steve! Hey, I thought you were the Durango Kid!” “Forget it, Smiley.”

Steve Carson “used to be a Captain of the Texas Rangers before they disabled them,” shouts Smiley. “You remember him, Steve Carson!”

Oh yeah, that Steve Carson.

They arrest Steve for Durango’s murder (is that a trip or what?) and find him guilty and sentence him to hang! Smiley pleads, “all you got to do is tell them that you’re…” But Steve will only woodenly shake his head.

The guys behind the frame-up are from down in Santa Fe, so Steve escapes and heads down there to clear his name.

He dresses up as Durango first and surprises the Sheriff. “Another Durango!”

Smiley apparently was a Texas Ranger as well. He’s also a bad ass in this!

A cowhand is messing with him, pushing him around and says, “Maybe there’s something you don’t like about me?”

Usually, at this point, Smiley would feebly attempt to pull a gun and it would fall apart, or his pants would fall down and he’d whimper. Instead…

“Yeah, your face. If I had a face like that I’d nail a board over it!”

The guy swings. Smiley moves his head. “I’m over here.”

Another swing. Another miss.

“You don’t hit nothing, do you?” Then Smiley kicks his ass. “Fun, ain’t it!”

Steve is surprised. “I never knew you could fight like that.” “I was never that mad before.”

A woman hires Steve as Trail Boss on a cattle drive because “Dad and Steve’s father were old friends.”

Steve has a father?!

More differences: close-ups, lots of moving cameras, even a dutch angle of horses jumping over the camera and kicking dust into the lens. Someone decided to put a little effort into this one. Why this film? Why 1951? Beats me.

Music is by the Sunshine Boys, who play cowhands on the cattle drive as well.

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

I wonder where the “Santa Fe” set is — I’ve seen it before as a “Mexican city” in “Bandits of El Dorado”.

At one point, the bad guy hires Durango to kill Steve. Now it’s getting really trippy! Like, wheels within wheels. My head is spinning….

Charles is looking old in this one.

In the end, Steve and Smiley sit by a fire. Smiley wants to “stop all this traipsing around the country getting in trouble.”

Steve says, “You’ll never be happy in one place.”

And I’ll never be happy when Smiley is in the picture.

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

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.

“The latter days of the 19th century saw the West torn by turbulence and strife, invaded by desperadoes and bandits.  Before this onslaught, Justice faltered and the Law stood helpless.  Life was filled with terror and no man could trust another.  Then, into the turmoil and havoc of lawlessness, a mysterious figure rose up and came to the people’s aid.  They called him…The Durango Kid!”

I like this opening narration, recited with great gravity over images of gunfights and wagon attacks, a montage ending with the rousing image of The Kid atop his rearing white stallion.

These words open many of Charles Starrett’s films, including “Law of the Canyon” which is an atypical  chapter in the Durango Kid saga.

Starrett plays Steve Langtry, a citified “dude” who says things like “unhand me” and “fight back? why, someone might get hurt or even killed!”  We meet him traveling by wagon to Jackson City to open a store.

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

When the wagon is hijacked at Skeleton Pass, he is winged in the hand and passes out at the sight of his own blood.  Smiley comes upon the bound victim and greets him with a familiar “Steve”, but Langtry doesn’t know him and calls him “stranger” repeatedly.  (Pssst. Don’t worry, it’s just an act…)

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

It’s fun watching Charlie play a stuffed shirt coward.  When he runs from a fight shouting “save me! save me!” in his deep baritone — it’s just beautiful.  Not only does this evoke the Clark Kent/Superman dynamic, it’s just nice to see some distinction between Steve and Durango other than the color of their duds.

Juicy plot.  Thematic narrative right out of “Morte D’ Arthur” or T.S. Elliot’s “The Wasteland.”  Ya know, the whole ‘the king is sick, the land lies fallow’ stuff.  Fred Sears as Doc Middleton takes the opening narration at its word, especially the ‘Justice falters and the Law stands helpless’ bit.  He is doping Sheriff Coleman so he seems sick, allowing his Hood Gang to run amok on Skeleton Pass.

Doc Middleton gets the best line in the piece, “Go find me the Durango Kid.  I never went to medical school, but I think I could do a little surgery on him.”

The whole wimpy Steve routine turns out to be an elaborate ruse.  But why?  And who is bank-rolling this pricey intervention?  Smiley answers it all in the last scene with one line:  “Steve is a Government Secret Agent.  I knowed it all along!”

I’m certain you all recall American History 101 where we studied the Post-Confederate Government Agency that sent Secret Agents into the western states to clear up local problems.  In case you were sick that day, here’s how it worked:

“Durango, get in here.  I hope you brought your black mask, cuz we’ve got a hot one for you this time.  We need you to clean up a mess outside of Jackson City.  You’ve got to clear Skeleton Pass!”

“Right, Control.  Here are my requirements.  I’ll need two wagons stocked full of store supplies, $2000 in ransom money, another three wagons to arrive in 2 weeks.  And, of course, complete immunity for any crime I may commit along the way.”

“Done.”

“One question.  What’s my name this time?”

“Langtry.  Steve Langtry.”

Co-stars a young Robert “Buzz” Henry who became a great stunt man, and Zon Murray who played a heavy in eight DK films.

Smiley endeavors to make comic magic with an uncooperative water pump.  Also a Gold-finding machine.  In another time, he might have founded a religion.  Here, he’s just dumb.

Music by Texas Jim Lewis and his Lone Star Cowboys.   Texas Jim is about as big as my thumb.

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

— image courtesy of the antique cowboy

Finally, the site of Charley’s transformations is revealed. Batman has the Batcave, Superman has his Fortress of Solitude (or in a pinch, a phone booth) and the Durango Kid has a make-shift lean-to tent in the forest.

It’s not much, but he makes it work.

In this 1948 addition to the DK saga, Charley is Steve Lanning, who Smiley describes as a “one man police force.” He’s an ex-Texas Ranger. He’s wanted for Bank Robbery, a ruse he uses to fool his enemies into trusting him. If you ask me, they should have stuck with this back-story for Steve (and with the name Lanning, it kinda suits him.)

We also learn that (for this picture at least) “You can trust Smiley. He’s an old Ranger Cook.”

Fred Sears (who acted in 19 of Charley’s films, and later directed 13) plays Tracy Beaumont, who has the crooked Texas State Police in his pocket. Charley and the good folk in town are working clandestinely to restore the recently disbanded Texas Rangers.

There’s a creepy bit where the Kid shows up at a secret meeting of these rebels and tells them his plan to defeat the Police. Someone asks the disguised man in his black mask, “Who are you?”

“If you’re smart, you won’t try and find out.”

“Birth of a Nation” anyone?

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

There’s also a Mini-Durango in this one. He’s little Tommy and he dresses like the Kid (black shirt, black hat, even a mini-Bullet named Dusty), and “helps out” by keeping an eye on Smiley. The actor’s name is Don Reynolds, but he is billed as “Little Brown Jug.” That’s his stage name. Later he became Don “Brown Jug” Reynolds, and became a horse wrangler who worked on all three “Lord Of The Rings” films.

Funny bit: Steve employs a really elaborate and stupid distraction. He creates a catapult out of a low hanging branch and some rope which tosses a rock to distract the enemy, so he can sneak up behind them. Shoot ’em in the back next time, Steve!

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

And, at last, a primary source of information on the Kid. In the film, someone holds up the Wanted Poster for Steve Lanning. It reads, in part:

Height 6 ft. 1 inch, Weight 190 lbs.

Dark Hair, Slender Build

Music by Doye O’Dell and The Radio Rangers, who get extra credit for doing a half-way decent job of feigning enjoyment with Smiley’s lame antics (fixing that durn broken leg on the old widow so-and-so’s chair.)