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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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.

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