As regular readers of this site well know, I have a very low opinion of the fat man in the battered hat and the antics he calls ‘comedy.’  Over the years, folks have chimed in with their own opinions.  I am sharing some of them here in the spirit of reasonableness and openness to others’ opinions.  (But he still sucks.)

Ed: I just received a set of DVDs containing 46 Durango movies. The couple I’ve seen so far confirms your opinion that Smiley Burnette was spectacularly unfunny.

Joe, Sr. :  R. SMILEY BURNETT I HAVE NEVER LAUGHT SO MUCH, AS WHEN I SEEN YOU DO YOUR MAGIC ON THE WESTERNS, I DO KNOW THAT YOU HAVE WRITTEN ABOUT 300-SONGS. SO MUCH TALENT YOU HAVE. GOD BLESS YOU ALWAYS. YOUR PAL DRANGO KID WILL SHOOT ME! I DID NOT GET HIS NAME RIGHT!

Luciano: I think that in terms of songs by Smiley Burnette, this film, Cyclone Fury, has some of the best. His song “I’ll be getting some sleep” by the coffin is great, so is “Hear the Wind”, a song that he sings by the chuckwagon in order to earn a bite to eat.

Mun Mun: I agree that Starrett always does a great job of feigning amusement at Smiley’s comedy routines.

Steve:  I think you’re being a bit hard on ol’ Smiley. I always liked the guy, even though he could be a bit too annoying in some films. Of course, it was in the script that he act that way.

Bruce: SMILEY BURNETTE: agree with you on your blog, he is the single most negative factor in every DK movie, thank God for remotes & fast forward. He’s even annoying on many one sheets where frequently he dominates them more than Charley. Autry never gave him the seemingly free licence he had with Charley.

Mike: Everybody’s entitled to their own opinion and while Smiley’s buffoonish comedy may not appeal to you, he was definitely popular with Western movie audiences of the Forties and Fifties. Even after leaving movies, he took his act on the road to state fairs where people still remembered him and then of course to Petticoat Junction. He wrote countless songs, was able to play a number of instruments and his bug-eyed look and gravelly voice always found an audience.

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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.

Last night, I was watching George Marshall’s Texas and it all felt eerily familiar and I couldn’t put my finger on why.  Then it hit me — it’s “South of the Chisholm Trail!”  The boxing match at the beginning, the big boss who has just brought the railroad to Abilene, our heroes robbing some stagecoach robbers so as to return the money and nearly getting lynched for their effort, trouble in Bearcat Kansas… it’s all the same!

Columbia had clearly recycled the plot of their 1941 William Holden/Glenn Ford A-picture in one of the nine Durango Kid films they churned out in 1947.

I wondered, had I discovered some unknown fact?  Some cherished bit of trivia from Durango lore?  Would I have bragging rights forever?

Naw!  Our old friend Les Adams had already figured it out years ago.  To quote his IMDB notes in their entirety:

“No studio reworked stock footage from their other western films more than Columbia Pictures, other than Warners/Vitaphone did when making a new Short out of footage from three other shorts, or a Short from a feature western. Vitaphone and the Warners’ shorts department sold exhibitors the same footage as many as five different times under a different title.

And Columbia re-used their plots over and over again as plots in all of their early series-westerns , starring Buck Jones or Tim McCoy, were made over again (and again) in the series starring Ken Maynard, Bob Allen, Charles Starrett, Bill Elliott and Russell Hayden. The only Columbia western series that didn’t rely on dusting off previously made films was the Ken Curtis-Hoosier Hotshots series.

But for this film, Columbia did a re-work of one of their A-westerns, 1941’s “Texas” that starred Claire Trevor, William Holden and Glenn Ford. They, of course, dumbed it down, simplified it and altered it to fit The Durango Kid character, but bottom line the primary plot was essentially all “Texas”, with similar characters and professions among the bad guys, and also inserted a few incidents and some of the dialogue from that film. And the climatic cattle-stampede through town from “Texas” was used in full.

Of course, subbing George Chesebro for the Edgar Buchanan and Frank Sully for the George Bancroft characters does tend to lose a lot in transition.”

I think Les has it all figured.  Except for one question:

Which one’s Smiley?

Sadly…More Smiley

September 27, 2009

I thought I’d discovered all evidence of Smiley at the Autry.  I was wrong.

More Smiley at the Autry

Beware potential visitors.

Every little bit of Smiley

September 19, 2009

I spend a lot of time at the Autry Museum, especially in the summer (as should be apparent from my last half-dozen posts).  It’s close to our home, the little one likes the place, it’s not the sort of museum where you have to be particularly quiet, the people are friendly, and it’s got, hands-down, the best air-conditioning in the L.A. area.

We often find ourselves in the Imagination Gallery, aka, the cowboy movie section.  There’s a blue screen there and a saddle with a button under the horn.  If a little finger pushes it, baby is part of a chase scene set to the William Tell overture.  Briar rides this about 800 times every visit.

I’ve had plenty of time to peruse the exhibits and I’m happy to report that there is very little Smiley Burnette  on display.  Fellow Smiley-phobes, you are free to roam these halls with little fear of running into images of the big unfunny man in the battered black hat.

I count two (2) images of Smiley.  The first is a brief appearance in the aforementioned tribute film to stunt men where he is barely recognizable, expect to the keen eye of those who have suffered through hours of his inane antics.

The second, and final, image is this, tucked in with a number of other stills running along the top of the displays.

Smiley Sucks at the Autry

It’s surprising really, seeing how long he was with Gene Autry.  I mean, pretty much from the beginning, and, after a break as Starrett side-kick, right up until the end.  He’s not even mentioned in the literature or the 20 minute film on Gene’s life.

But, look!  Don’t get me wrong!  I’m NOT complaining!

A Special Breed

August 31, 2009

The Autry National Center of the American West (aka, the Autry Museum) has a series of short films  playing on monitors interspersed among the exhibits.   These presentations examine the history of B-Westerns.  I’ve written about these films before.

Around the corner from the Charles Starrett exhibit there plays a tribute to the stunt men of the B-Western.  It begins with a quick-paced montage of movie stunts (a horse and rider diving off a cliff, a wagon rolling down a hill, etc) and culminates with a long shot of a cowboy maneuvering along a buckboard on a “speeding” wagon, clearly on a soundstage.  Recognize someone?

Special Breed 006Special Breed 007Special Breed 010Special Breed 011

“…a special breed of people who make movie magic appear to be real.”

I’ll agree with the “special” part, but, c’mon, Smiley as a stuntman?  The guy can barely pull off a convincing pratfall.

“Kid From Broken Gun”

December 29, 2008

kid-from-broken-gun03jpg

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

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.

kid-from-broken-gun-lobbyjpg

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

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.”

kid-from-broken-gunjpg

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

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.”

kid-from-broken-gun02jpg1

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

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….”

“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.

frontier-outpost-01jpg

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

“Challenge Of The Range”

November 16, 2008

“Challenge Of The Range” begins with a couple of cowboys retrieving a note from beneath a rock in the middle of a prairie.  The note reads: “Time for the Bartons to get out of Pincon Valley.  You know what to do.”  One of the henchmen chuckles and says, “We should.  We’ve been doing it long enough.

So should the filmmakers responsible for the Durango Kid series.  They’d been doing it long enough at this point;  by 1949 they had made 35 films.

And I should know what to do as well.  I have now seen 113 films starring Charles Starrett.  What a ride!

I’ll start this discussion of #35 then with an overdue, if obvious, observation.  Most Durango Kid films start with an action sequence.  Most Pre-Durango Kid films start with a song.

No fancy government job for Charley this time — Steve Roper is just an unemployed cowhand riding around and dressing up in black now and then.  Once he gets involved in the range war in Pincon Valley, he becomes consumed by the excitement-free task of comparing the handwriting on discarded notes to that of various suspects.

Smiley has probably the most interesting role in the entire series: he’s a pulp western writer from back East, a real city slicker in a bowler hat and plaid suit and pants combo.  His latest tome is “Dead Eye Dick And The Blond Temptress.”  He’s in town doing research on the range war for his next book.  Unfortunately, this promising premise is pretty much immediately ditched and he’s back in his familiar duds doing his unique brand of comedy — the kind that isn’t funny.  At all.

Early on, Steve says “I never take chances when a woman is involved.”  This would pretty much sum up his love life in the Durango Kid films.  He has nary a romantic moment with pretty Paula Raymond.  She has most of her scenes with Smiley.

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Courtesy of Les Adams

A strange casting choice: former Dead-End Kid Billy Halop plays hothead Reb Matson with his Brooklyn accent intact.  His take on cowboy lingo is pretty funny.

Well, I called it this time!  I saw three riders chasing Durango.  I checked their clothing – black shirt, white shirt, checkered shirt.  It could only add up to one thing: the ol’ Durango ambush with a rope between two trees.  You know the rest — shoot the gun out of one of their hands, take their boots — cut to them gingerly walking through the brush, “our feet will be worn down to the knees before we hit town.”

A quick note about Durango’s horse:  we know the horse is named Raider primarily from promotional material.   Durango himself almost never addresses the horse by name (unlike a number of other famous cowboy heroes).  However, he does so here.  “Go Raider!”  It’s probably the third time I’ve witnessed it.  Quite a thrill, believe me.

The mystery in this film genuinely worked for me.  I had no idea who the villain was.  Mainly because I never really got involved enough to care.  There’s not a lot to grab you here: handwriting samples and hidden clauses in membership forms and a shy villain who hides notes under rocks.

Charley doesn’t even throw a single punch in the entire film.  Maybe because Dick Curtis isn’t around.

There is a shoot out on the set of some other Columbia film.  Maybe “Father Was A Bachelor”?

challenge-of-the-rangejpg

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

In the end, who saves the day?  It’s not Steve.  It’s not Durango.  Who then shoots the bad guy at the last minute before he kills the innocent rancher?  The Sheriff?  The Dead End Kid?  The gal?

No.  It’s a minor character.  One of the partners in the Cattlemen’s Association.  He has maybe a dozen lines.  Couldn’t tell you his name.

Not an entirely satisfying experience, watching this film.  But 113, right?!

“Prairie Raiders”

November 12, 2008

After a two minute history lesson that could be titled “Horses Of The West,” this 1949 film starts with Steve and Bronc Masters in the saddle, over looking a herd.  This footage will be recycled in 1951’s “Cyclone Fury”, but by then the filmmakers will have forgotten Bronc’s name, and he will be called “Brock Masters” through out the film.

Back in Twin Forks, we discover that Steve Boldon is a government agent; he has just granted a lease on land to Bronc Master.  Problem is, Bad Guy Henley has his own lease, but his is forged.

Once again, there is no reason for Steve to adopt the Durango Kid persona.  Durango investigates the land rights.  He cautions both sides not to do anything rash until he’s sorted things out.  C’mon – you don’t need a black mask to do that.

In fact, this is exactly what Steve is doing.

prairie-raiders-02jpg

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Smiley is one of Bronc’s men.  He doesn’t know Steve, but he respects his fighting ability.  “We don’t want to be swapping lead with this Jasper.”  He has heard of the Durango Kid, he recognizes him immediately when he comes riding into the middle of things.

So does Bronc: “I never thought I’d meet up with him, but it’s plumb comforting to know he’s on my side.”

The time period is a little easier to pin-down in this one: there is talk of a war going on, and there is a phone at the county seat.  I’m guessing this would be 1898, and the war would be the Spanish American war.

As usual, no gal for Steve.  In fact, he’s especially emasculated in this film — we see him feebly trying to reach his superiors by telegraph, waiting five hours for a phone call, having his authority ignored by good and bad guys alike.

One extremely strange moment: When the bad guys stampede the horses, we cut from Durango shooting it out with them to Steve riding innocently through town when suddenly the stampede is upon him.  What are we to make of this?  Were the filmmakers actually trying to fool us?  Or was Steve play-acting to an empty street?

Another odd moment regarding the cosmology of The Durango Kid: Bronc wonders out loud how he can find Durango.  Steve: “They’ve been looking for his hide-out for years.”  They have?  Who is they?  And, since DK travels from town to town, what exactly is he doing with a hide-out?

There is a rare, if obscure, mention of an earlier adventure.  Smiley is bragging about a new invention, and a gal makes reference to his “interlocking self-locking jail cell” which he locked himself in.

This film features the scene we’ve all been waiting for: Durango comes face to face with the Secretary of the Interior himself!

Film ends with a wedding.  Steve catches the bouquet.  Blushing, he gives it to Smiley.  (You can’t make this stuff up.)

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Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Puzzle this line, my friends.  Smiley to his horse: “You old alligator bait, the next time you hang me in a tree, you wait ’til Christmas, you hear?”