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.


  1. If you like Tom Tyler's movies I recommend signing a petition to get his surviving FBO silent B-western films digitalized and released on DVD:

  2. Thanks Julie,

    I do like his movies and I will sign the petition. Thanks for the heads-up.