THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Thursday, August 29, 2013

BOB STEELE -- Part 2: Ridin' Down Poverty Row, 1930-40

You can read Part 1 here.


In this scene from THE OKLAHOMA CYCLONE (Tiffany, 1930), Bob Steele serenades Rita Rey with three songs, with hardly a break in between.  Rita then returns the favor with a song of her own.

Western movies experienced much difficulty in making the transition from the silent era to talkies.  Bob Steele, however, experienced little trouble in making the transition.  First, he was young, handsome, and possessed an acceptable, though somewhat thin, speaking voice; second, he was a good rider, stuntman, and an excellent brawler; and third, he was an adequate actor -- and he would get better -- much better.

Unfortunately, the young cowboy was unable to make the transition with a major studio, but had to do so by starring in independent productions, whose cost-cutting measures were plain for everyone to see on the screen.  Most Western stars, however, had to make the transition to talkies with independents, for only Universal, among the major studios, continued two Western series with Ken Maynard and Hoot Gibson uninterruptedly into the sound era.  Eventually, however, even that studio terminated its Westerns and Maynard and Gibson joined the other cowboys making films for independents on Poverty Row.

In 1930, Steele entered into an association with independent producer Trem Car for a series distributed by Tiffany.  The eight picture series was filmed in 1930-31 and included the little cowpoke's all-talking debut, NEAR THE RAINBOW'S END.  The director was J.P. McGowan, who was frequently at the helm of Steele Westerns and had directed several of his silent features.  The next six in the series were directed by J.P. McCarthy.  Wallace Fox directed the final entry.  He had directed many of Steele's silent Westerns.  

Two of the screen's most prominent future Western comedy sidekicks, namely George (later 'Gabby') Hayes and Al (later 'Fuzzy') St. John appeared in a number of the Tiffanys.  Si Jenks also appeared in several of the films.  He was an active performer in Westerns and non-Westerns, but never co-starred in a continuing series and is not as familiar a name as Hayes and St. John.  However, there is some evidence that both actors in developing their screen characterizations were influenced to some degree by the acting and comedic style of Jenks.

George "Gabby" Hayes

Si Jenks
Al "Fuzzy" St. John
It was in the Tiffanys that Steele made his debut, unfortunately, as a singing cowboy -- four full years before Gene Autry, usually credited as the first singing cowboy, made his motion picture debut in the Ken Maynard serial, IN OLD SANTA FE (Mascot).  As most Western film buffs know, Maynard, Steele, and John Wayne, in that order, predated Autry as singing cowboys.  Wayne's voice, however, was dubbed and frankly ol' Ken's and Bob's should have been.  Steele's inability to vocalize was demonstrably proved in the second entry of the Tiffany series.  In THE OKLAHOMA CYCLONE (1930), he warbled not one -- not two -- but three songs in rapid succession followed immediately by, without even a pause for a little action, a tune by the heroine.  J.P. McCarthy, who was not only responsible for directing the film, but also provided the story, should have known better.  

 The film was made in 1930, however, so one must remember that the sound equipment of the day was still quite crude and had to remain stationary which discouraged action and led to many scenes of people standing around talking or, in this case, singing.  However, there was action in the opening scenes in which we see a lone rider fleeing from a sheriff's posse.  In making his escape, he takes a chance and rides his horse down a precipitous hill that the posse chooses not to try.  But the sheriff has a plan, he yells, I kid you not, "Go around!  Head him off at the pass!"

Of course, the rider making his escape is played by Steele.  In a nifty little scene, with his horse in a gallop, he removes the bit and bridle, loosens the cinch on the saddle, and with the horse still running he dismounts and hits the ground running while holding the saddle and bridle, allowing him to quickly gain a hiding place in the barn.  It appears that the stunt was performed by Steele, though it may have been a double.  It isn't very realistic, but is still fun to watch.  Unfortunately, after such a rousing start everything soon comes to a screeching halt with over ten minutes of musical, if it can be called that, interlude.

On the other hand, the little guy did whip big old Slim Whitaker in one fight and Charlie King in another.  I don't know if it was the first time that he beat up Charlie, but I do know that it wasn't the last.  They fought many, many times over the years and as far as I know, Charlie lost every time.

Another interesting sidelight to this modest little film is the appearance of the Mexican actor Emilio Fernandez in a brief scene.  He portrays a Mexican bandito who is backed down by Charlie King and his henchmen.  It was his second film role and his first in an American production.  From that humble beginning, he went on to become Mexico's most famous actor, director, and screenwriter.  He is best known to American film audiences for his role as General Mapache in THE WILD BUNCH (WB, 1969).

General Mapache

In 1932, Steele and producer Carr terminated their affiliation with Tiffany, which was in dire financial straits and soon faded from the scene, and began to distribute their product through World Wide.  The six World Wide vehicles were a great improvement over the Tiffanys.  The sound had improved, so had the acting, and there was a lot more action and a lot less singing.  Another explanation for the improvement is that Steele's father, Robert North Bradbury, directed five of them, and also provided three of the stories and screenplays.  George Hayes appeared in three and Earl Dwire, a familiar face in future Steele Westerns, had roles in two.  The third entry, RIDERS OF THE DESERT (1932), directed by Bradbury, is notable for the presence of both Hayes and Al St. John in supporting roles.  However, in this one Hayes is Hashknife Brooks, the leader of an outlaw gang.  In addition, it is Hayes that Steele whips up on at the end of the film.  Poor Gabby, he didn't have any more luck than Charlie King.

Earl Dwire, always with the long face

The association with World Wide, which lasted but one year, might have lasted longer were it not for the company's declaration of bankruptcy that brought production to an abrupt halt.  The problems of Tiffany and World Wide were indicative of what was occurring on Poverty Row.  There were just too many companies, operating on shoestring budgets, churning out too many Westerns.  The winnowing process eventually took its toll and conditions did become more stable as the major studios re-entered the Western sweepstakes.  In addition, two new studios, Monogram and Republic, came onto the scene to specialize in better quality B-Westerns.

After World Wide disintegrated, Trem Carr formed a partnership with W. Ray Johnston at Monogram, bringing Steele with him.  Actually, Steele's stint at Monogram represented a homecoming of sorts for him since, as earlier mentioned, the new Monogram was the old Syndicate where he had starred in his last silent films.

The eight Monogram Steeles represented his best series since his silent days at FBO.  To the benefit of the series, father Bradbury and son continued their off-and-on association that had resumed with the World Wide features.  Bradbury directed five of the eight Monograms.

father and son

It was in this series that George Hayes, appearing in seven of the eight films, began to develop and refine the "Windy" and "Gabby" type characterizations that later made him immensely popular in the Hopalong Cassidy and Roy Rogers series, respectively.  In the Steele films, Hayes alternated between villain and crusty codger roles, which he continued in the Monogram films of Steele's eventual replacement at the studio, John Wayne.  In the ensuing years, Bradbury would direct many of his son's films, but he also continued to work frequently at Monogram as Wayne's principal director.

In the midst of his Monogram series, Steele paused to make his sole appearance in a serial when he starred in Mascot's MYSTERY SQUADRON (1933).  Supporting Steele in the serial were three other cowboys, Guinn "Big Boy" Williams, Jack Perrin, and Wally Wales.

Guinn "Big Boy" Williams and Bob "Little Boy" Steele

When John Wayne, Steele's former high school classmate, rode onto the scene at Monogram, Steele signed with yet another independent producer.  The association with A.W. Hackel was a beneficial and profitable relationship for both.  In 1934-38, they were responsible for thirty-two films -- the first sixteen produced and distributed by Hackel's Supreme Pictures -- and the last sixteen produced by Supreme, but released through and distributed by Republic Pictures, which had been created in 1935.  Concurrent with the Steele series, Hackel produced a good one with Johnny Mack Brown (his initial series) that was also first released through Supreme and then Republic.


Most of Steele's films during the Republic period were directed by his father, who also directed several of the Mack Browns, while at the same time being busily engaged in directing and supplying stories and screenplays for the Wayne vehicles at Monogram.

In 1935, Steele on vacation from the Supreme series was cast in a featured supporting role in POWDERSMOKE RANGE (RKO). which was billed, because of its truly all-star cast, as "the Barnum and Bailey of Westerns." The film, directed by Wallace Fox, was the first in which all three of William Colt MacDonald's Three Mesquiteers were brought to the screen.  It starred veterans Harry Carey as Tucson Smith and Hoot Gibson as Stony Brooke, with Big Boy Wiliams rounding out the trio as Lullaby Joslin.

Tom Tyler, in his best performance to that point in his career and one of his best ever, was featured in the role of a reformed gunman by the name of Sundown Saunders, while Steele portrayed yet another "kid" -- this time the Guadalupe Kid.  Ironically, later Republic would team Tyler and Steele in its Three Mesquiteers series as Stony Brooke and Tucson Smith, respectively. 

The Steele films of 1936-38 were technically not Republic productions, but did benefit from somewhat larger budgets and thus were superior to the previous sixteen released through Supreme.  They were also more popular as a result of Republic's more aggressive distribution process.  The record indicates that Steele ranked number seven the first two years of the Motion Picture Herald's poll of top ten cowboy stars in '37 and '38 while starring in the Republic films.  It is no coincidence that his only other two years in the top ten were in later years when he was co-starring in Republic's Three Mesquiteers series.

In 1939-40, after reaching the peak of his popularity in the sound era during the two previous years, Steele's career hit the skids and he descended to the lowest depths of his film career.  It was at this point that he was forced to go to work for an outfit that made Tiffany and World Wide look like MGM in comparison.  It was Metropolitan Pictures, which was headed by Bernard B. Ray and Harry S. Webb.  Webb and Ray, in association with John R. Freuler, had earlier created a company by the name of Big 4.  After it failed, Webb and Ray established Reliable Pictures.  Reliable's principal star was Tom Tyler; it almost destroyed his career.

Out of the ashes of Reliable, Webb and Ray created Metropolitan in 1939 -- and it lasted one year -- and its sole asset was Bob Steele.  

Don Miller wrote in Hollywood Corral,  "When even the most unassuming Western series was showing signs of improving, the Metropolitan Steeles were a regression to the past, and conceivably could have harmed the future of the most indestructible cowpoke."

Why was Steele forced into the ignominious position of working for Metropolitan during the closing years of the decade -- especially since they were peak years for B-Western production and a time when the A-Western came of age?  One explanation would be the singing cowboy phenomena initiated by Gene Autry and in full swing by the late '30's.  And Steele had already proved conclusively that he was no candidate in the singing sweepstakes.

Studios and independent producers, on the lookout for another Autry, began to cut loose non-singing cowboys such as Tom Tyler and Bob Steele.  As a result, they found themselves reduced to working for outfits headed by the likes of Webb and Ray.  It is to the credit of both Tyler and Steele that they were able to survive the experience.

Friday, August 23, 2013

BOB STEELE -- Part 1: Ridin' the Silent Range, 1927-30

He was immediately recognizable, his intense features topped off by the unmistakable mop of curly dark hair.  Perhaps his most striking asset, in more ways than one, was a paradoxical one.  He was of small stature, yet he could participate in a filmic scrap with the best of them....

He looked especially good from the back, this compact, diminutive young man with exceptionally broad shoulders for his stature, swinging long looping lefts and rights with piston-like rapidity and precision.  He was a welterweight contender smashing after the heavies, or heavyweight....

What made his task all the more difficult was his lack of size.  It was necessary for him to make his audience believe that he could knock about some huge bear of a baddie without getting squashed in the process.  That he invariably did so was perhaps his highest achievement in Westerns.  It also gave every little kid hope, in a world that seemed at times peopled with big bullies. -- Don Miller, Hollywood Corral (Popular Library, 1976)

Don Miller could be describing only one individual: Bob Steele.  The little battler, standing just 5' 5" tall, was an example of a solid second echelon B-Western cowboy actor, who, for whatever reason (mostly lack of luck), never achieved the prominence of, for example, Tom Mix, Buck Jones, Gene Autry, or Roy Rogers.  On the other hand he never descended, on a permanent basis anyway, to the abysmal depths of, for example, Buffalo Bill, Jr., Bob Custer, Bill Cody, or Buddy Roosevelt.  Although he never rose to the pinnacle of cowboy fame, he is a member of a talented group that includes such dependable stalwarts as Charles Starrett, Don Barry, Tex Ritter, and Tom Tyler, who were able, in their own way, to contribute substantially to the development of B-Western films, and to build for themselves a sizable following among fans of the genre.

He was born Robert Adrian Bradbury in Portland (some sources say Pendleton) Oregon in 1907, the twin brother of William Curtis Bradbury.  Their parents, Ronald and Nieta Bradbury, were performers on the vaudeville circuit.  At some point, the family moved to California and the senior Bradbury became a Hollywood film director who specialized in Westerns.  He changed his name to Robert North Bradbury, apparently because he felt that it was a more fitting name for a Hollywood director. 

As a lark, in 1920 the director filmed the staged escapades of his twin sons.  After showing these films at various times to various people he decided to distribute them for theatrical viewing under the series title The Adventures of Bill and Bob.  Bob was billed as Robert North Bradbury, Jr.

By the time Steele/Bradbury reached high school age, he and his family had moved to Glendale, California.  Bob played baseball and Bill concentrated on football.  One of Bill's teammates was a fellow named Marion Morrison, who later changed his name to John Wayne.

After high school, Bob began to appear in films as an extra, stuntman, and bit player in several of his father's films, now under the name Bob Bradbury, Jr.  In 1927, at the tender age of twenty, he won the lead role in THE MOJAVE KID (RKO), which was directed by his father.  For the first time he was billed as Bob Steele and Bob Steele he would be forever more. There would also be many "Kid" roles in his future.

In 1927-28, Steele starred in eight silent Westerns, as well as six non-Westerns, for FBO.

The young actor was most fortunate to begin his career as a B-Western star with FBO (Film Booking Office), the best studio making Westerns during the late '20's  The studio was owned by Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. (father of John F. Kennedy).  One of Tom Mix's closest rivals, Fred Thomson, was the studio's biggest star before deciding to transfer to Paramount to star in big Western specials that turned out to be mostly artistic and financial failures.  Mix, after leaving Fox, briefly worked at the studio in the closing years of the silent era.  In addition, the studio produced a series starring Bob Custer and one that starred juvenile actor Buzz Barton.  Also at the studio at the same time as Steele was Tom Tyler, whose films fell somewhere below those of Mix and Thomson, but above those of Custer and Barton. In other words, just about on a par with the Bob Steele productions.

Tom Mix and "Tony"


Buzz Barton

Bob Custer

During the sound era, FBO evolved into RKO-Radio Pictures and continued to produce superior B-Westerns with first Tom Keene, then George O-Brien and, finally, Tim Holt.

In the transitional period between the silent and sound eras, Steele was employed by an independent studio named Syndicate.  In 1929-30, he starred in eight films for the company, some of which were released with music and/or sound effects.  Syndicate's other star during the same period was Tom Tyler. 

Tom Tyler

After the departure of Steele and Tyler, Syndicate, which grew out of the old Rayart organization, before later evolving into Monogram in 1931, was forced to rely on a series starring a fading Bob Custer and occasional features with Jack Perrin, Buffalo Bill, Jr. (Jay Wilsey), and Buddy Roosevelt.  As Monogram, two of its first stars would be Tom Tyler and Bob Steele.  It was not the last time that the two cowboys would meet each other on the celluloid trail.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

THE OUTCAST (Republic, 1954)

DIRECTOR: William Witney; ASSOCIATE PRODUCER: William J. O'Sullivan; WRITERS: John K. Butler and Richard Wormser based on story by Todhunter Ballard; CINEMATOGRAPHY: Reggie Lanning; STUNTS: Chuck Hayward, Chuck Roberson

CAST: John Derek, Joan Evans, Jim Davis, Catherine McLeod, Ben Cooper, Taylor Holmes, Nana Bryant, Slim Pickens, Frank Ferguson, James Millican, Bob Steele, Nacho Galindo, Harry Carey, Jr., Bill Walker, Buzz Henry, Nicolas Coster, Hank Worden

In 1937, Republic was experiencing problems with one of the co-directors of a serial, THE PAINTED STALLION.  The problem was that he was drinking on the job, so he was fired.  The assistant director, William Witney, was promoted to take his place and finish the picture.  He was all of 21-years old.

The Oklahoma native eventually became one of the most prolific and most accomplished of all action directors.  Specializing in serials prior to WWII, often with co-director John English, he became the studio's number one B-Western director after the war.  He became known primarily for downgrading the music and upgrading the action in the postwar Roy Rogers series, much to the delight of the popcorn-munching youngsters sitting in the front row. 

When Rogers became disenchanted with Republic's boss, Herbert J. Yates, he retired from feature films and made plans to follow William Boyd and Gene Autry and take his act to television (first having to sue Yates in order to do so, but that's another story).  When that happened, Witney took over Republic's Rex Allen series.  It was not only that studio's last B-Western series, it was the last for any studio.  After Witney left the series in 1953, only two more films were produced before it was shutdown the next year.

young William Witney and pal

So ended the B-Western chapter in Witney's life, but he remained as busy as ever.  Republic employed him to direct feature films and TV productions right up to the point that the studio discontinued all film and TV production in 1959.

The studio had removed Witney from the Rex Allen series in 1953 because it wanted him to direct something a bit more ambitious.  His new assignment was THE OUTCAST.


John Derek (born Derek Devevan Harris) was born in Hollywood in 1926.  His father was a film actor, producer, director, and writer during the 1920's.  His mother was an actress during the same era. As a teenager, he began acting in films in the early '40's.  His big break came in 1949 when he was cast in important roles in two prestigious films.  In the role of a young criminal, he received second billing after Humphrey Bogart in KNOCK ON ANY DOOR (Columbia, directed by Nicholas Ray).  He was a little farther down in the cast list for ALL THE KING'S MEN (Columbia, directed by Robert Rossen), but his role as Willie Stark's son was nevertheless an important one.

Based on his performances in those two films Columbia signed him to a contract.  The studio then cast him in his first lead role.  ROGUES OF SHERWOOD FOREST (Columbia) was an old story with a new twist.  King John was still up to his greedy and dastardly ways, but Derek, as the son of Robin Hood, reorganizes his father's band of Merry Men in order to oppose the scoundrel.  One interesting aspect of the film is the fact that Alan Hale, in his last film, portrayed Little John for a third time.

After that, Derek was cast in the lead or in supporting roles in several run-of-the-mill films, several of which were of the costume adventure genre, which did nothing to advance his career.  Nevertheless, he stayed busy appearing in five films in 1953, including his first two Western roles.  The first was AMBUSH AT TOMAHAWK GAP (Columbia), a 73-minute programmer starring John Hodiak, with Derek, known only as "Kid," in a co-starring role.  THE LAST POSSE (Columbia), also 73 minutes long, found Derek supporting Broderick Crawford. (The fact that Crawford had the lead pretty well says all that needs to be said about this film.  He was never believable in a Western role and should never have been cast in one.  Considering that both he and Derek had appeared as father and son in ALL THE KING'S MEN just four years earlier, the Western indicated that the careers of both were heading in the wrong direction.)

This was also the year that Derek said goodbye to Columbia.  His last film that year was SEA OF LOST SHIPS, a Republic production directed by old pro Joseph Kane, the director that William Witney had succeeded as the studio's principal B-Western director.  Derek's next film was also for Republic.  It was THE OUTCAST.


Much like Derek, Joan Evans hit her peak early in her career, but at even an earlier age.  At age fourteen, she made her film debut when she co-starred with Farley Granger as the title character in ROSEANNA MCCOY (Goldwyn/RKO, 1949), loosely based on the infamous Hatfield-McCoy feud.  She won the role as the result of a nation-wide talent search conducted by producer Sam Goldwyn.  He didn't have to look very far since she was right there in his backyard.  Born Joan Eunson, she was named after her godmother, Joan Crawford.  Her parents, Dale Eunson and Katherine Albert, were Hollywood writers.  Reportedly, the parents added two years to their daughter's age in order to make it appear that she was sixteen when the film was made.  It was Goldwyn who changed her name to Joan Evans.

Because Evans and the film received some good reviews, Goldwyn followed it up with two more films featuring her with Farley Granger, both released in 1950.  Even though she was still only a teenager, those three films represented the apex of her career.  Like Derek, her career leveled out and never approached the stardom that many had predicted for her.

In 1953, she was cast in her first Western, COLUMN SOUTH (Universal), starring Audie Murphy.  Her next film was also a Western.  It was THE OUTCAST.

Jim Davis as Matt Clark, railroad detective

Beginning with BRIMSTONE (starring Rod Cameron, directed by Joseph Kane) in 1949 up through THE MAVERICK QUEEN (starring Barbara Stanwyck, directed by Joseph Kane) in 1956, Jim Davis appeared in practically every Western produced by Republic Pictures.  In nearly every case, he portrayed a villain.  One of the films during that period was THE OUTCAST.  The film's main villain was portrayed by, you guessed it, Jim Davis.

However, that year he also got to portray a hero.  In fact, in 1954-55 he got to play the role for two years on television.  Stories of the Century was a Republic TV production that starred Davis as a railroad detective named Matt Clark who was in on the capture of thirty-nine famous outlaws during the show's thirty-nine episodes.  The series might have lasted longer but the Old West ran out of outlaws.

It is hard to fathom how Davis was able to star in this series, guest star in other TV shows, and appear in as many movies as he did while Stories of the Century was being filmed, but somehow he  managed  -- and so did the show's director.  William Witney directed the first thirty episodes in the series.

Slim Pickens always sounded as though he hailed from the Texas plains or maybe Oklahoma, but was born in central California, not far from Fresno.  His real name was Louis Burton Lindley, Jr.  He came by his stage name when at age fourteen he signed up to appear to ride in a rodeo, but since Louis Burton Lindley, Sr. was opposed, he told the manager he would have to perform under another name.  The manager said something to the effect that he would see nothing but "slim pickins" on the rodeo circuit.  Slim said that would work as a name.  The man wrote it as "Slim Pickens" and that became his name.  At least that's the way Slim told it and if it ain't true, it should be.

He might not have been from Texas but he was as much cowboy as any Texan.  He rode bareback and saddle broncs in rodeo competition and later learned the art of acting and comedy as a rodeo clown.  He got a late start in the movie business but once he started it was bombs away (literally; see conclusion of DOCTOR STRANGELOVE [Columbia, 1964]).

He was 30-years old when he broke into films in the Errol Flynn Western, ROCKY MOUNTAIN (WB, 1950).  It was two years later before his second role but after that, he became an extremely busy actor.  Republic signed him to replace Buddy Ebsen as the comedy sidekick in the Rex Allen series.  He played the role for eleven films before the series was discontinued in 1954.  As fate would have it, both William Witney and Slim Pickens joined the series on the same film.  Under Witney's direction, Pickens underwent a crash course not only in movie acting, but especially movie stunting.  His rodeo background made it much easier than it might have been.  He was a natural.

Can you guess from the photo which cowboy is the hero?   It most assuredly was not a still from one of William Witney's films.  He wouldn't have allowed the fancy costume.  This was probably a publicity still for a public appearance.  In Rex's films, he dressed rather conservatively, especially for a singing cowboy.  In addition, he was always a one-gun man. 
While appearing in the Allen series Pickens acted in a few other pictures.  The most notable was THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT (1953), directed by John Ford, produced by his Argosy Productions, and distributed by Republic.  A year earlier he had appeared in THUNDERBIRDS (Republic), starring John Derek, on loan-out from Columbia.

When the Allen series ended, Pickens didn't miss a beat.  His next film was THE OUTCAST, reuniting him with Witney and Derek.

Catherine McLeod is in the film because there were two women in the story.  Enough said.

Black actor Bill Walker is the town blacksmith who quietly opposes the Major and rekindles his friendship with Jet.  He gives one of the best performances in the film.

William "Bill" Walker is probably best remembered for his brief, but memorable performance as the Reverend Sykes in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (Universal, 1962).  "Miss Jean Louise. Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father's passing."

Ben Cooper portrays a reckless, hardheaded, headstrong kid, who is known only as "The Kid."  If you remember Cooper then you know that he was nearly always a reckless, hardheaded, headstrong character who looked like a kid, a boy trying to be a man.

a boy trying to be a man

THE KID (Ben Cooper):  "Here's for helpin' the lady.  Buy yourself a cigar" [he tosses a coin to Jet].

JET (John Derek):  "You keep it" [flipping it back].  "Until you're old enough to smoke." 

James Millican and Frank Ferguson, both familiar faces in Westerns provide good support.  Harry Carey, Jr. is in the film, but seems out of character.  First, he plays a mean hired gunman (I ain't buying it.) and second, he seems older and more mature than in his previous roles.  However, two years later, when Carey was in his mid-thirties, John Ford cast him as a 19- or 20-year old in THE SEARCHERS (Whitney/WB) (I bought it).  Of course, in Ford's eyes because of his long relationship with the Carey family he always saw Carey as a kid.

Robert "Buzz" Henry, a former child actor, is in the film but has hardly any dialogue.  Moreover, so was another former child actor, Robert Adrian Bradbury, but he had a lot to say.  Like Derek and Evans, he was a member of a Hollywood family.  In addition, like William Witney and Slim Pickens, B-Westerns were an important part of his background.  We know him as Bob Steele. 

Steele's career began in the early '20's when as a pre-teen he starred in a series of shorts with his twin brother, that was directed by their father.  In the late '20's when he became a B-Western star at FBO, his name was changed to Bob Steele.  I plan a more extensive write-up on Steele in the near future, but for now, I will add that Steele was no stranger at Republic.  From 1940 to 1943, he was the last Tucson Smith in the final twenty films in Republic's long-running "Three Mesquiteers" series.  Although William Witney never directed Steele in that series, it is ironic that his third film as director, and first non-serial, was a Three Mesquiteers film.

This is the final combination in The Three Mesquiteers changing cast of stars.  (L-R) Tom Tyler is Stony Brooke; Jimmie Dodd is Lullaby Joslin; and Bob Steele is Tucson Smith.

When Jet (short for Jetthow in the original story) Cosgrave (Derek) was 16-years old his father died.  According to a will, the family ranch had been left to Jet's uncle, Major Linton Cosgrave (Davis).  Jet was sure that he had been robbed of his inheritance, but he was too young to do anything about it.  Eight years later, he returns and he plans to reclaim the ranch.  Because the Major employs a band of hired guns (Millican, Cooper, Carey, et. al.) to protect his interests, Jet hires his own group of mercenaries headed by Dude Rankin (Steele) to help him regain his ranch.  Dude is a merciless killer who doesn't hesitate to shoot a man in the back or string one up from the nearest tree.  He also feels no loyalty to Jet or any other man.

A third party has an interest in the proceedings.  The Polsen hill clan (Ferguson, Pickens, Henry, Coster, and Evans) has been forced off a valley ranch owned by Hal Newmark who has mysteriously disappeared.  Newmark had generously allowed the Polsens to graze their cattle in the valley, but the Major who claims that he is only minding Newmark's ranch until he returns has banished the Polsens from the valley.  Therefore, Jet sees the Polsens as potential allies.

Judy Polsen (Evans), the only female member of the clan, becomes romantically involved with Jet.  Alice Austin (McLeod), a refined lady from Virginia, who arrived in town at the same time as Jet, has come to marry the Major, but that doesn't quite work out.

ALICE AUSTIN (Catherine McLeod): "I'm going home, Linton."

MAJOR LINTON COSGRAVE (Jim Davis):  "As easy as that.  You just walked out on the man you promised to marry."

ALICE:  "I found out you're not the man I promised to marry."

 Jet almost finds himself isolated and alone in the range war.  Dude and his hired guns are bought off by the Major and the Polsens don't trust him.  The Polsens eventually come around and two of them, Boone (Pickens) and Zeke (Henry), join Jet in the big shootout that allows him to take control of the range.

I have only two quarrels with the film.  First, it is hard to accept the beating that the slightly built Jet gives to the Major who is about three inches taller and at least twenty-five pounds heavier -- especially since Jet was recovering at the time from a bullet wound to the shoulder.  The fight is well-staged by Witney, with Chuck Roberson and Chuck Hayward, doing the doubling and Derek and Davis handling themselves well in the close-ups, but it is still hard to believe that Jet could have emerged the winner in that scrap.

Second, where was the law when this range war was in progress?  The town is Colton, Colorado and the sets indicate that it is fairly large and well populated. For example, Mrs. Banner (Bryant) owns a rather opulent saloon and restaurant.  Yet, there seems to be no law in Colton.  There should be a town marshal and in a town this size, he should have several deputies.  In many Westerns with similar storylines the local marshal is cowardly or corrupt or both.  But not in Colton.  There he doesn't even exist.  What about a county sheriff?  Nope, there doesn't seem to be one.  The cavalry was sent into Lincoln, New Mexico to put a lid on the range war that featured a kid named Billy.  But not in Colton.

Okay, so the rangeland revenge story is a standard Western plot that we have all seen in many films and it develops in a predictable fashion with no surprises.  But let me give a couple of reasons for watching it anyway.  

One reason is veteran cinematographer Reggie Lanning's color photography.  Since this is a Republic film, the color process is Trucolor, which was used primarily in the Roy Rogers series.  It could be rather garish at times, but Lanning was able to use it in such a way as to create some rather subdued outdoor scenes.  The best example is when the Major's men, led by his top hand Cal Prince (Millican) have Jet's Mexican cook Curley (Nacho Galindo) holed up in one of the buildings on the Newmark ranch that Jet has occupied in an effort to regain his own ranch.  Curley is saved by Dude and his men who ride to the rescue.  The rescue is beautifully shot by Lanning and Witney.  With a background of Colorado golden aspens in the background, the rescuers ride down a ridge with guns blazing. (It was always possible to identify a Republic Western by the distinctive sound of the gunfire.  It may not have sounded like real gunfire, but it did sound the way gunfire should sound).  The camera is placed in relation to the sun in a way that the smoke from the gunfire is shown in dramatic fashion and so is the dust stirred up as the riders fan out on their galloping horses as they race down the ridge.

Another reason to watch the film is Witney's staging of the action scenes.  The big shootout with Jet and Boone and Zeke Polsen taking on Dude and his men is a real treat.  Pickens is able to demonstrate his superior horsemanship as he rides at a full gallop, firing his rifle, and without holding the reins, guide his horse with his knees.  It is at this point that it becomes apparent why Buzz Henry is in the film.  He hasn't had much to say because he couldn't act -- despite the fact that he had starred in films at a very young age.  But could he ride!  

It was to be expected that Pickens and Henry would be able to demonstrate superior horsemanship, since they had been practicing practically all of their lives.  The big surprise is Derek.  His abilities didn't quite come up to the other two, but he was no slouch either.

During this sequence, Witney films a stunt that I have never seen before or since.  Derek's double (probably Chuck Roberson) rides alongside Steele's double (probably Chuck Hayward) and jumps off his horse and grabs the other man around the waist and is hanging on the side of the other man's horse.  He then does a pony express mount and leaps onto the horse behind the other rider.  The saddle cinch breaks and the two hit the ground.  It is extremely well done.

In watching this film again after many years, it strikes me that John Derek would have been a great B-Western cowboy.  His handsome looks (some said too handsome), athleticism, and horsemanship would have made him a natural.  He could have acted under his own name.  John Derek would have been as good a name for a cowboy as Roy Rogers, Allan "Rocky" Lane, Monte Hale, and Rex Allen, all Republic cowboys at the end of the B-Western era who acted under their own names.  He would have also been a better actor than any of those range riders. 

Brian Garfield in Western Films: A Complete Guide writes the following with regard to THE OUTCAST:  "Fast-paced yarn has perky direction and good action, marred by Derek's thespic incapacities and a few too many screenplay cliches."  I rarely disagree with Garfield, but I do with regard to Derek's acting.  He wasn't the weak link in the film.  He wasn't that bad.  Garfield did identify the primary weakness, which resulted either from a weak story or a weak screenplay -- or both.

However, if for no other reasons, it is worth viewing for the action scenes and to watch Pickens, Henry, and Derek ride.  Furthermore, for a film that featured a star on his way down, a studio on its way out, and a former B-Western director it was better than what anyone had a right to expect.                



Thursday, August 8, 2013

THE OTHER SHOE: A Novel by Matt Pavelich

"Whoso removeth stones shall be hurt therewith; and he that cleaveth wood shall be endangered thereby." -- ECCLESIASTES 10:9

Matt Pavelich's The Other Shoe is a novel of many layers and overlays. A horrible crime is committed in the first chapter, but it is not a crime novel. Despite the fact that much mystery surrounds the commission of the crime, it is not a mystery thriller. There are some insightful and engaging descriptions of interactions between a prosecutor, a public defender, a defendant, a judge, and even among inmates in a county jail. Furthermore, there is a vivid description of a court trial, but this is not a legal thriller either. It is a book that resists, one could say defies, categorization.

Publishers Weekly called it "haunting," which it most assuredly is, and a "clever crime drama," which it most assuredly is not.  There is nothing formulaic about this novel.

Pavelich's simple description is that it is "a story of good people doing bad things; moral people who are all compromised by circumstances beyond their control." Their reactions could have been different, but they had no control over the circumstances in which they found themselves. It is all of that, and more.  It is a story about love, sacrifice, resiliency, a sense of responsibility and accountability, and perhaps most of all, integrity.  

It is a character study of two outsiders in western Montana, Henry and Karen Brusett, who live in a remote and isolated area that separates them from most of society. They are not outcasts for society did not force them to live in such circumstances. No, they are outliers, drawn to each other, who have voluntarily chosen to remain apart from society insofar as it is possible. Their marriage has had the effect of isolating them even more, partly because nobody can understand why Karen married such a strange man who is twice her age.  They would be even more puzzled if they knew that Karen had to talk Henry into marrying her.

Henry's livelihood had been harvesting trees.  However, he was seriously injured when he misread a tree he was cutting down.  The accident left him with a mangled body that was constantly in pain and a mangled personality that caused him to suffer from anxiety.  As a result, he was addicted to two things: pain pills and solitude. 

When Karen joined Henry at his remote home on Fitchet Creek shortly after finishing high school (she had 'entered high school without a friend in the world' and made none while there), it became for her "a paradise with a short half-life, ten acres where they offended no one and where kindness, of all things, was the prevailing order."  As for Henry, "his wife was as much society" as he "would ever tolerate."

In the end, however, the outside world intruded when a young man was killed and these two lost souls who wanted nothing more than to just be left alone, found themselves caught up in a bewildering judicial system, lacking the knowledge that might allow them to cope with it.

It is also a character study of two other people:  Hoot Meyers, an experienced prosecutor who practices law in order to support a losing proposition, his ranch; and Giselle Meany, an inexperienced, overworked, underpaid public defender.  Twelve times the two have faced off against each other in courtroom trials and the score is eleven to one in favor of the prosecutor. It is not a record that inspires confidence in the indigent defendants whose fate rests in her hands.

Giselle Meany was the public defender because she was the low bidder.  Astonishingly, before Montana in recent times went to a statewide public defender system, county governments contracted the job on an annual basis.  The only legal requirement for the office was that the individual be licensed to practice law in the state of Montana.  Meany as a single mother with a young daughter was not willing to spend the inordinate number of hours that many law firms required of their young attorneys.  After seeing an ad for the public defender's office in Conrad County she submitted a bid and because it was probably the lowest submitted, she got the job -- for that year, anyway.  Each year she had to submit a new bid in order to maintain her position.  Out of her salary, she also had to rent an office, buy office furniture, and pay the salary of a part time secretary.  She began the job with no mentor to advise her and no examples or precedents to follow and no assistants.  She was the public defender office.  Because he was indigent, Henry Brusett became one of her clients.  

Hoot Meyers as County Attorney did have a budget, but since the county is a poor, rural one, containing only three small towns, he had no assistants either.  However, he was a more experienced attorney who also had the advantage of living his entire life in the area and thus was much more familiar with the county and its people.

However, knowing the people of the county turned out to be a disadvantage when Meyers found himself in the position of having to prosecute Henry Brusett, a man he had known since they were children attending the same grammar school.  He remembered Henry "as a simple and immaculately sane boy" who "was generous to a deep fault."  Furthermore, Henry was "the only citizen in the county to whom Meyers owed any specific loyalty."  To find out why, you must read the book, because I'm not telling.

I'm also not going to divulge the book's shattering, shocking conclusion.  Pavelich said in an interview on Montana Public Radio that he thought the conclusion was inevitable.  The interviewer stated that she didn't see it coming and I certainly did not and I wonder if anybody else could have either.  
Pavelich is not only a talented writer, but he is also able to identify with the trials and tribulations of prosecutors and public defenders in Montana. He should, since he has served in both capacities.  After all, he once submitted the low bid.

Daniel Woodrell who writes critically acclaimed noirish novels set in the Missouri Ozarks wrote in a blurb on the back cover of my copy of THE OTHER SHOE: "Matt Pavelich is a native Montanan, he knows that world inside and out, and THE OTHER SHOE is rich with details that convince, insights that amaze. His prose is among the most impressive now being written, elegant, nuanced, rough when needed, the high and low of language. THE OTHER SHOE is a brilliant novel of crime, love, and the American West."

It is easy to see why Woodrell is impressed with this novel; move it to the Missouri Ozarks and he could have written it. It is that good.

This is a haunting, harrowing, horrifying, and, ultimately, heartbreaking story that will stay with the reader for a long time. I have already read it twice this year and I am sure that there will be a third reading at some point in the future. It is Pavelich's second novel and I am looking forward to reading his first: OUR SAVAGE.