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, September 27, 2013

ANGEL WITH SPURS by Paul I. Wellman

General Shelby

Angel with Spurs was originally published in 1942.  It is a fictional account of the real life epic march of Confederate General Jo Shelby and his men from Texas to Mexico City after the South’s surrender.  They marched there to offer their services to Maximilian, the Austrian figurehead who had been placed on the Mexican throne by the French emperor, and who remained there because of the presence of French troops and the support of conservative political elements among the Mexicans.  The elected president of the country, Benito Juarez, a reformer whose followers were primarily peasants who were called Juaristas, opposed Maximilian and the French.

Benito Juarez

Maximilian I
 At first glance, it would appear that Shelby and his men had more in common with the Juaristas than the aristocratic Maximilian and the French military.  After all, the Confederacy had rebelled against what they saw as a too powerful central government.  But Juarez was an Indian and his followers were primarily Indian and mestizo.  As far as Shelby's men were concerned, the Juaristas were not white men. They believed that supporting the revolution of peasants against the aristocratic government would have been akin to supporting black slaves in the American Civil War.  Even though Shelby was a member of the aristocratic class back home in Missouri, he personally favored the Juaristas.  However, since he had earlier indicated that majority rule would dictate the decision, he had no choice but to follow the lead of his men.
Joseph Orville (Jo) Shelby was born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1830.  He was born into a family of wealth and after the death of his father was raised by his stepfather, a wealthy landowner and hemp rope manufacturer.  When Shelby was twenty-one, and the recipient of a rather lucrative inheritance, he migrated to Waverly, Missouri where he purchased farm land and also went into the hemp rope business.  Slaves supplied the labor in both enterprises.

Just before the outbreak of the Civil War, Shelby suffered a number of financial setbacks that forced him to sell his business, plantation, and slaves.  The war became his new business and despite a lack of prior military training, it was readily apparent that he was a natural.  He fought in almost every major battle that occurred west of the Mississippi and was usually victorious, and when he wasn’t, it was never due to any failure on his part.

Wellman wrote in the foreword to his novel, “Shelby himself was a figure out of the Middle Ages, almost, with plumed hat and cloak, and flamboyant manner; but he also was the hardest riding and hardest fighting of all the Confederate cavalry chiefs, campaigning during the war over a sweep of country which dwarfed the arena of the Virginia struggle.”

Shelby is not as well known as Jeb Stuart, for example, because he spent nearly all the war in the backwater theater west of the Mississippi.  Nevertheless, an historian or two have claimed that he was the greatest cavalry officer – North or South -- on either side of the river.  That may be an exaggeration, but nobody disputes the fact that he was the greatest cavalry officer in the Trans-Mississippi theater.

When the war ended, he and his command were in northern Texas.  He refused to surrender and asked volunteers to march with him to Mexico City.  According to Wellman, a thousand volunteers made the trek, while others have placed the numbers at 300 or 600 or some number in between.  Wellman can’t be faulted on the numbers, for at the time he wrote his novel little had been written about the expedition.  More information is now available as the result of several histories and biographies that have since been published.  What is known for sure is that most of the volunteers were Missourians who had been members of Shelby’s Missouri Brigade. 

Wellman’s account of the march, though fictional, is an interesting read, particularly for any individual who is not already familiar with the history.  However, the melodramatic subplot involving one of Shelby’s young lieutenants and a young woman attempting to attach herself to the expedition in order to travel to Mexico has no factual basis and weakens the novel with too many contrived coincidences and hairbreadth escapes.

The subplot brings me to the cover of the paperback copy of the book that I own, which was published in 1952.   It features a beautiful young blonde woman dressed in a Confederate army uniform.  The blouse is unbuttoned to her waist exposing a fair amount of cleavage, the better to attract readers desiring more spice in their reading.

The lipstick is probably why the disguise wasn't successful.

It is a case of false advertising.  Paperbacks during the ‘50’s were nearly always misleading, promising much more on the covers, especially sex, than what they delivered between the covers.  It is true that the heroine did wear a confederate uniform in the story, but only for the first fifty pages of a 400+ pages novel. 

Here is the tagline that is written above the title on the front cover: “She tried to live – as a man – with a renegade band of mutinous soldiers.”  Well, yes, for fifty pages she did, but not during the remaining 400 pages.  Moreover, nowhere in the book is there a scene remotely similar to the one depicted on the cover.

Even the title is misleading.  The picture on the cover strongly indicates that the young woman is the “angel with spurs.”  She isn’t.  In fact, it is her father who applies that description to another character.  

It should also be noted that Wellman was guilty of the kind of insensitivity toward women and minorities that was often found in the fiction of that era: all blacks are “lazy,” all Mexicans are “greasy,” all Indians are “savage”; and all women are one-dimensional and totally dependent upon men for their protection.


Paul Wellman (1895-1966) was born in Enid, Oklahoma.  When he was six months old, his parents went to Angola to become medical missionaries.  In 1903, he and his brother were sent to stay with their maternal grandparents in Kansas.  Their parents did not return for six years and then almost immediately divorced.  He and his brother moved with their mother to Cimarron, Kansas.

At age fourteen, he began working as a ranch hand during the summers in order to help support his family.  In 1911, he moved to Wichita to live with his grandparents so that he could finish high school.  He later attended what eventually became Wichita State University.  He served in Europe in 1918-1919 and after his discharge, he pursued a career in journalism.  His first two books, published in 1934 and 1935, were histories of the Indian wars that grew out of newspaper columns that he had written.  It is only fitting then that his first novel, Broncho Apache (1936), covered some of the same territory. 

For several years, he continued to work as a journalist while writing in his spare time.  From 1934-1966, he published thirty-one books, both fiction and nonfiction.  The Walls of Jericho (1947), a best-seller set in Kansas was his most successful novel; he was able to sell the movie rights for a reported $100,000.

The following films were based on Wellman’s stories or novels:



Director: Raoul Walsh;  Producer: Robert Buckner;  Cinematographer: Sidney Hickox;  Writers: screenplay by Allan Le May and Thames Wiliamson based on a story by Paul Wellman

Starring:  Dennis Morgan and Jane Wyman


Director: John M. Stahl;  Producer: Lamar Trotti;  Cinematographer: Arthur Miller;  Writers: screenplay by Lamar Trotti based on Paul Wellman novel of the same name (published in 1947)

Starring: Cornel Wilde, Linda Darnell, Anne Baxter, Kirk Douglas


Director: Gordon Douglas;  Producer: Henry Blanke;  Cinematographer: John Seitz;  Writers: screenplay by James R. Webb based on Paul Wellman novel of same name (published in 1951)

Starring: Alan Ladd and Virginia Mayo

APACHE (Hecht-Lancaster/UA, 1954)

Director: Robert Aldrich;  Producer: Harold Hecht;  Cinematographer: Ernest Laszlo;  Writers: screenplay by James R. Webb based on Paul Wellman novel, Broncho Apache (published in 1936)

Starring: Burt Lancaster and Jean Peters

JUBAL (Columbia, 1956)

Director: Delmer Daves;  Producer: William Fadiman;  Cinematographer: Charles Lawton, Jr.;  Writers: screenplay by Russell S. Hughes and Delmer Daves based on Paul Wellman novel, Jubal Troop (published in 1939)

Starring: Glen Ford, Ernest Borgnine, Rod Steiger, Valerie French

 It takes Wellman more than 500 pages to tell Jubal Troop’s story as a hired sheepherder, a hired cowhand, an itinerant rawhider, a rancher, a miner, a rancher again, and, finally, an oil tycoon.  The movie is based on his days as a hired cowhand, which accounts for only about a hundred pages in the novel.

It is almost a very good movie, but it is spoiled almost single-handedly by Rod Steiger’s over-the-top histrionics.  In the right role, Steiger could give a powerful performance, but he was never good in Westerns and should never have been cast in one.  Lee Marvin would have been perfect in the role.



Director: Michael Curtiz;  Producer: George Sherman;  Cinematographer: William H. Clothier; Writers: screenplay by James Edward Grant and Clair Huffaker based on Paul Wellman novel of same name (published in 1952)

Thursday, September 12, 2013

ERNEST HAYCOX (1899-1950) -- Western Storyteller

Young Ernest Haycox

his first published novel (1929)

Robert L. Gale wrote in Twentieth-Century Western Writers (St. James Press, 1991), "[m]ore than any other 20th-century writer, Ernest Haycox changed the formulaic Western novel into one featuring complex heroes, contrasting heroines, and varied themes."  Western novelist D. B. Newton wrote that  Haycox made the Western respectable.  While historian Richard Etulain, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Haycox, gives the writer credit for creating a "Hamlet-hero" who is a "reflective and analytical protagonist who often had to choose between two women, dark and light, as they moved toward resolution of their own lives."  Almost invariably, the protagonist was initially attracted to the wrong woman, but just in time was able to rectify his mistake.

Throughout his years as a writer, Haycox made a sustained effort to improve upon what he had produced in the past.  And his career is one of continuous advancement, one in which the quality of his storytelling greatly increased over the years, to the point that it could be said that he re-invented the genre.  He began writing stories much like the formulaic stories of Zane Grey and Max Brand, but soon began to experiment with new techniques in which he stretched the conventions of the formula.  Although he never advanced to the literary status of a Wallace Stegner or A.B. Guthrie, for example, he did bridge the gap between those worthies and early novelists such as Grey and Brand.  In the process, he became the most imitated of all the Western novelists.

Despite his death a few days after his fifty-first birthday, he published two dozen novels and over 250 short stories. Among his fans were Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein.

He was born in Portland, Oregon in 1899 and it was there that he lived most of his life and did most of his writing.  In 1915, claiming he was 18-years old, he joined the Oregon National Guard.  He was only fifteen.  His unit was sent south of San Diego to guard against any excursions by Pancho Villa and his band.  Pancho never showed and the unit returned to Oregon and Haycox re-entered high school.  Two years later, the unit was mobilized when the United States entered World War I.  Still only 17-years old and a senior in high school, he and his unit sailed to Europe.  Although he never experienced combat, he did rise to the rank of sergeant before being discharged.

After pursuing a number of livelihoods, commercial fisherman in Alaska for one, he enrolled at the University of Oregon in 1920, majoring in journalism.  While a student, he also began to write fiction that aroused little interest in the publishing industry.  Finally, in 1922, he sold his first story, receiving thirty dollars for his efforts.  By the time he graduated a year later he had sold several more stories.

Upon graduation, he became a police beat reporter for a short time, while continuing to write fiction.  Deciding that he needed to leave Portland in order to jump start his writing career, he took a train to New York.  While en route, he met Jill Chord who was on her way to attend art school in the big city.  They married in 1925.

Haycox determined rather soon after his arrival that New York was not the place for him.  Homesick and broke he returned to Oregon in 1925.  It was there that his fortunes as a writer began to improve.

After seeing a number of his short stories published, his first novel, Free Grass, was published in 1929 after first being serialized in the pulp magazine, West.  In 1931, he broke into the "slick-paper" magazine trade when he and Collier's entered into an agreement whereby it would be given the first opportunity to publish his stories.  For the next dozen years, nearly all of his output was serialized in that publication, including fourteen novels and nearly a hundred short stories.  After appearing in Collier's, the novels were published in book form.

Although Haycox had a story in Collier's almost every week, the magazine was guilty of one grave misjudgment when it passed on Bugles in the AfternoonThe Saturday Evening Post quickly agreed to publish the serial, which resulted in Haycox having stories running simultaneously in both publications.  Furthermore, Bugles in the Afternoon is now considered to be his greatest novel.

Haycox's greatest novel

Appearing in Collier's in 1937 was a short story that would become one of the writer's most famous stories.  The title was Stage to Lordsburg.  In 1939, it became the basis for John Ford's STAGECOACH, one of the most famous Western movies ever filmed.  It was also the first Haycox story to be adapted for the screen.  In the same year, another story, Trouble Shooter (1937), became the basis for Cecil B. DeMille's epic film, UNION PACIFIC.

The following is a listing of the films that were based on Haycox's stories:

STAGECOACH (Wanger/UA, 1939)
Director: John Ford;  Producer: John Ford;  Writers: screenplay by Dudley Nichols based on Ernest Haycox short story, Stage to Lordsburg;  Cinematographer: Bert Glennon

Starring: Claire Trevor and John Wayne

This is the most famous, as well as the greatest film to be based on a Haycox story.  But John Ford's direction has more to do with the film's success than the Haycox short story on which it was based.

Director: Cecil B. DeMille;  Producer: Cecil B. DeMille;  Writers: screenplay by Walter DeLeon, C. Gardner Sullivan, Jesse Lasky, Jr., and Jack Cunningham based on Ernest Haycox novel, Trouble Shooter;  Cinematographer: Victor Milner

Starring: Barbara Stanwyck and Joel McCrea

This was an epic blockbuster and DeMille's best sound Western.  However, it is weakened by a poor performance by Miss Stanwyck that is only partly offset by good performances by McCrea and Preston.

SUNDOWN JIM (Fox, 1942)
Director: James Tinling;  Producer: Sol M. Wurtzel;  Writers: screenplay by William Buckner and Robert F. Metzer based on Ernest Haycox novel of same name;  Cinematographer: Glen MacWilliams

Starring: John Kimbrough

John Kimbrough was a football All-American and star of Texas A&M's national champions in 1939.  Fox starred him in this film and one more the same year.  He then served in the military during WWII and after his discharge played three seasons of professional football, but never appeared in another film.  He is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.

(L-R) William Lundigan, Donna Reed, Ann Ayars, Lloyd Nolan

Director: Richard Thorpe;  Producer: Samuel Marx;  Writers: screenplay by Maurice Geraghty based on Ernest Haycox short story, Stage Station;  Cinematographer: Sidney Wagner

Starring: Lloyd Nolan, William Lundigan, Donna Reed

Lloyd Nolan starring in a Western?  What could be worse?  How about one starring Nolan and William Lundigan?  Well, at least it was over in 66 minutes.

(L-R) Randolph Scott, Ann Dvorak, Edgar Buchanan
Director: Edwin L. Marin;  Producer: Jules Levy;  Writers: screenplay by Harold Shumate based on Ernest Haycox novel, Trail Town;  Cinematographer: Archie Stout

Starring: Randolph Scott and Ann Dvorak

Randolph Scott and Edgar Buchanan, not to mention Rhonda Fleming and Lloyd Bridges -- now that's much, much better.  Although this is only a fair-to-middlin' Western, it is at least getting closer to what Haycox put on paper.  

Director: Jacques Tourneur;  Producer: Walter Wanger;  Writers: screenplay based on Ernest Haycox novel of same name;  Cinematographer: Edward Cronjager

Starring: Dana Andrews, Brian Dovlevy, Susan Hayward

The Oregon location photography by Edward Cronjager is breathtaking.  Dana Andrews, in one of his very best performances, leads a talented cast.  Once again, as so often in his stories, Haycox's hero must decide between two women, after prematurely choosing the wrong one.  

Brian Garfield in his review of the film had this to say: "[It] is the only movie to have rendered on screen a reasonably true reflection of the spirit and feeling of Ernest Haycox's storytelling, right down to his poetic and fascinating dialogue.  His prose is lyrical and unique; somehow this film captures it."

You can read Colin's great review of the film over at RIDING THE HIGH COUNTRY .

MAN IN THE SADDLE (Columbia, 1951)
Director: Andre deToth;  Producer: Harry Joe Brown;  Writers: screenplay by Kenneth Gamet based on Ernest Haycox novel of same name;  Cinematographer: Charles Lawton, Jr.

Starring: Randolph Scott, Joan Leslie, Ellen Drew, Alexander Knox

This is one of the better film adaptations of an Ernest Haycox novel.  According to Brian Garfield, it is second only to CANYON PASSAGE, but a distant second.  And like that film, it is also an example of Haycox's protagonist being attracted to the wrong woman, but after he sees his error, he chooses the right one.

Ray Milland and Forrest Tucker
Director: Roy Rowland;  Producer: William Cagney;  Writers: screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring based on Ernest Haycox novel of same name; Cinematographer: Wilfred M. Cline

Starring: Ray Milland, Helena Carter, Hugh Marlowe

It is unfortunate that Haycox's greatest novel was made into a mediocre film, but that is what happened.  The biggest problem is the casting of Ray Milland in the lead.  An otherwise fine actor, he was never very believable in Western roles.  Forrest Tucker was good and Hugh Marlowe even better, but Sheb Wooley as Custer?  I don't think so.

Director: Harold F. Kress;  Producer: Hayes Goetz;  Writers: screenplay by Jerry Davis from Ernest Haycox short story, Stage Station;  Cinematographer: John Alton

Starring: Gilbert Roland, Glenda Farrell, Robert Horton

This is a re-make of the studio's APACHE TRAIL, which was filmed ten years earlier.  It is an improvement, if only for Gilbert Roland replacing Lloyd Nolan in the lead role.

STAGECOACH (Fox, 1966)
Director: Gordon Douglas;  Producer: Martin Rackin;  Writers: screenplay by Joseph Landon based on Dudley Nichols 1939 screenplay and Ernest Haycox's short story, Stage to Lordsburg.

Starring: Bing Crosby, Ann-Margret, Alex Cord, et al.

Why a re-make of the 1939 classic?  Beats me.

Two more of Haycox's novels, The Border Trumpet and Alder Gulch, were optioned but never filmed.  It was reported that the latter was to be directed by Anthony Mann with James Stewart as the star.  It is unfortunate, because the result might have been a major Western film. 

In the postwar years, Haycox grew weary of the restrictions that magazine publishers and the serialized novel placed on him.  And though he always scoffed at the idea of wishing to write literary novels, he did once admit in a moment of candor that he hoped he would be remembered and that he didn't believe that what he had written to that point in his career would make that possible.  Canyon Passage, published in 1944, was his final serialized novel.

Beginning with Long Storm (1947), Haycox moved away from the traditional Western adventure that had made him a popular writer, and moved toward more panoramic, more sweeping -- yes, more literary  historical novels set in the West.  He was not happy with the results of his first effort, but did feel that he was moving in the right direction.

After the publication of Long Storm, Haycox began a new attempt to write "an important novel," but he struggled to finish it.  It was The Adventurers, which was not published until 1954, four years after his death.

Next was Haycox's most ambitious novel, The Earthbreakers.  The setting is Oregon's Willamette Valley in 1845.  Apparently, he intended it to be the first of five novels dealing with the different stages of Oregon's historical growth and development.  Perhaps he had in mind something similar to A.B. Guthrie's series of novels that covered the West's various historical stages, beginning with the mountain man and ending with the contemporary West. We will never know for sure, for Haycox died in 1950 a few months after two unsuccessful cancer surgeries.  The Earthbreakers was published two years later. 

What we do know is that Haycox would have continued to experiment and he would have taken his novels to the next level had his premature death not robbed him of so many creative years.  And we also know that he is remembered.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

BOB STEELE -- Part 4: Near the Rainbow's End


NEAR THE RAINBOW'S END (1930)  was a title in Bob Steele's Tiffany series, but it is also an apt description of the cowboy's acting career after The Trail Blazers series was terminated in 1944.  In 1945-46, he starred in two specials filmed in color -- unfortunately, not Technicolor, not even Trucolor, but Cinecolor.  The first was WILDFIRE (Lippert,1945), a story about crooks engaging in horse rustling but blaming it all on a wild horse, which is a plot that has been used in practically every movie ever made about a wild horse.  Bob Steele as Happy Haye, and sidekick Sterling Holloway as Alkali Jones, are the good guys and Eddie Dean, as Johnny Deal, is the local law.  Eddie also gets to sing a couple of songs.

The poster was much more exciting than the movie.
Eddie Dean had been around for years playing bit roles and/or singing a tune or two in B-Westerns.  After this film, he would become PRC's new lead cowboy.  The first three in his series were filmed in Cinecolor and the first introduced Al "Lash" LaRue to movie audiences.  PRC and Cinecolor was not a good combination.    

Next up for Steele was NORTHWEST TRAIL (Lippert, 1946), a rather disappointing Royal Canadian Mounted Police yarn.  The garishly tinted tones could not obscure the shoddiness of the production -- and in many ways emphasized its shortcomings.  The color gave the film an air of pretension that wasn't supported by the poor locations (which looked more like the Ozarks than the Canadian Northwest), routine story, poor acting, lack of extras, and weak direction.  Steele, looking uncomfortable in his Mountie uniform, appeared to be going through the motions.

Also in 1946, Steele completed his starring days by appearing in four films at PRC.  Syd Saylor was featured as his sidekick in all four productions.  In what was thought at the time to be a dramatic break with tradition Steele, in the final two films, sported a mustache, which had traditionally been an indication of villainy, and most uncharacteristic of B-Western heroes.

That same year, as earlier noted, he appeared as a gangster in THE BIG SLEEP.  Furthermore, since he was running out of starring roles, he took roles in four B-Westerns at Republic, supporting Bill Elliott, Gene Autry, Allan Lane, and Sunset Carson.  In the last film, he portrayed Carson's brother in a bit of ironic casting since Sunset towered over him by a foot.  After these four, Steele's efforts were confined almost exclusively to supporting roles in A-Westerns.

In his second talkie, filmed in 1930, Bob Steele whipped Charlie King for the first time.  Down through the years they fought many other times, with Charlie losing each time, including the last two Bob Steele Westerns.  

Among other films, Steele had supporting roles in:

CHEYENNE (WB, 1947, starring Dennis Morgan) Tom Tyler gave a good performance as a villain in what is a rather routine film.

SOUTH OF ST. LOUIS (WB, 1949, starring Joel McCrea)

THE SAVAGE HORDE (Republic, 1950, starring William Elliott) Steele portrays a coldhearted villain in this one.

 CATTLE DRIVE (Universal, 1951, starring Joel McCrea)

FORT WORTH (WB, 1951, starring Randolph Scott)

THE OUTCAST (Republic, 1954, starring John Derek) Steele is very good as Derek's hired gun who owes no loyalty to anyone and shows no mercy toward those who oppose him.

GUN FOR A COWARD (Universal, 1957, Fred MacMurray)

DECISION AT SUNDOWN (Columbia, 1957, starring Randolph Scott)

RIO BRAVO (WB, 1961, starring John Wayne)

CHEYENNE AUTUMN (WB, 1964, starring Richard Widmark)

MAJOR DUNDEE (Columbia, 1965, starring Charlton Heston)

SHENANDOAH (Universal, 1965, starring James Stewart)

HANG 'EM HIGH (Universal, 1968, starring Clint Eastwood)

RIO LOBO (NG, 1970, starring John Wayne)

SOMETHING BIG (NG, 1971, starring Dean Martin)


Earlier, in 1965, Steele was featured in two nostalgic delights, REQUIEM FOR A GUNFIGHTER (Embassy) and THE BOUNTY HUNTER (Embassy).  Both were produced by Alex Gordon and directed by veteran serial and B-Western director, Spencer G. Bennet.  The cast of the first film included other former B-Western luminaries such as Rod Cameron, Tim McCoy, Johnny Mack Brown, Lane Chandler, Raymond Hatton, Dick Jones, Rand Brooks, and Edmund Cobb.  The second featured Dan Duryea, Cameron, Mack Brown, Cobb, and a cameo performance by the man who began it all, Max Aronson, better known as Bronco Billy Anderson.

Bronco Billy, the first Western movie star

In 1966-68, Steele gave TV a shot with his recurring role as Trooper Duffy in the Western comic series, F-Troop.  The series underlined the actor's versatility as he displayed a surprisingly deft comedic touch in support of Forrest Tucker, Larry Storch, and Ken Berry.

So what could one say in a final evaluation of the career of our hero?  He certainly can be praised, if for nothing else, for his persistence and longevity, and ability to survive against the almost insurmountable obstacles placed in his trail.  However, he was able to accomplish more than that, though that was no mean accomplishment.

In a career that lasted forty-six years, discounting the early shorts in THE ADVENTURES OF BILL AND BOB series, Steele appeared in nearly 200 Western films, not including unbilled stuntman and extra roles at the beginning.   For twenty years, the little battler was a lead player and starred in 122 Westerns, 102 during the sound era.

For the record, only John Wayne's career as a Western actor (forty-seven years) spanned a longer period of time, and only Charles Starrett (132 films) and Johnny Mack Brown (114 films) starred in more Westerns during the sound era.

In Shoot-'Em-Ups (Arlington House, 1978), Buck Rainey wrote, "Steele was one of the most handsome cowboy stars ever to appear on screen and also one of the smallest physically.  But he was a whirlwind fighter, an excellent rider, an above-average actor, and possessed a pleasant personality and voice."

Well, I ask you, what more could one ask for in a cowboy?

BOB STEELE -- Part 3: Billy the Kid and Two Trigger Trios, 1940-44

You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

As the '30's ended, however, the indestructible little cowpoke began to claw his way out of the abyss.  In 1939, he was given the opportunity in a prestige picture to prove that he could act.  The following year, he was hired to star in a new Western series at PRC and before the end of the year, he left that studio and signed up for a series at Republic.

It is ironic that in the middle of the lowest point in his B-Western career, Steele was chosen for an important role as the sadistic Curley in the film version of John Steinbeck's OF MICE AND MEN (UA, 1939, directed by Lewis Milestone).  The role called for a little man with curly hair who was extremely jealous of his wife.  I don't know about the jealously part, but Steele fit the bill insofar as the physical characteristics were concerned.  Despite being cast against type, he gave a very good account of himself and more than held his own in a cast that included such talented performers as Burgess Meredith, Betty Field, and Charles Bickford.

To this point in his career, Steele had always played the good guy, the hero, who always saved the day.  Why then did he choose to take on such an unsympathetic role?  Could it have been because he wanted to work with a distinguished director in an important film and prove that he could act?  On the other hand, maybe it was because his career was on a downhill skid and going nowhere fast and he believed that he had nothing to lose, that he could only go up.

At any rate, beginning with OF MICE AND MEN, he was occasionally cast in non-Western character roles, usually cast against type, and admirably acquitted himself by proving that he could do more than shoot, ride, and fight.  The following year, he had an uncredited role as a mean-tempered prizefighter named (well, of course) Kid Callahan in CITY FOR CONQUEST (WB, starring James Cagney).  In 1946, he made a lasting impression in THE BIG SLEEP (WB, directed by Howard Hawks) as the gangster who disposed of Elisha Cook, Jr., before being bumped off by Humphrey Bogart.

from cowboy hero to killer Canino in THE BIG SLEEP
Also in 1940, Steele, in support of Roy Rogers and Gabby Hayes, played the chief villain in Republic's THE CARSON CITY KID (only this time Rogers, and not Steele, was the "kid").  It would be the type of role that he would later fill in effective fashion in his character actor days. 

In the same year, PRC launched its long-running Billy the Kid series.  Who better than Bob Steele, with his small physique and history of portraying "kids," was more suited among B-Western stars to portray Billy the Kid?  Unless I have miscounted, including the six Billy the Kid films at PRC, he played some sort of kid in at least fifteen films.

PRC wasn't Republic by any stretch of the imagination, but it wasn't Metropolitan either, and the Billy the Kid series helped re-establish Steele as a popular cowboy with mass appeal.  The studio's stated policy was a maximization of action and a minimization of dialogue.  For the most part, the dual goals were attained.  Steele, in his early thirties, was certainly able to deliver the action (and the dialogue the rare times he was asked to) and he found himself supported by an old friend.

Al St. John, a nephew of Fatty Arbuckle and a former member of Mack Sennett's Keystone Kops, had been in films since 1913 and, in fact, the veteran comedian had often, as previously noted, supported Steele in many films in the '30's.  He was also the first actor to portray William Colt MacDonald's Stony character (THE LAW OF THE .45'S, Normandy, 1935).  (This film is not considered to be the first Three Mesquiteers film since it did not include the Lullaby character.  Furthermore, Stony's last name in this film was Martin and not Brooke as it was in MacDonald's stories and in the later Three Mesquiteers films.)

However, he did not develop into an established performer until he was teamed with Steele at PRC.  In that series, he continued the Fuzzy Q. Jones characterization that he had developed in the Fred Scott series at Spectrum during the late '30's.  He became "Fuzzy" because Scott's sidekick role had been slated for Fuzzy Knight, who instead signed with Universal to co-star with Bob Baker.  Consequently, the Fuzzy tag was retained for the sidekick role and St. John adopted it permanently.

Fuzzy Q. Jones

When Steele left PRC, he was replaced by Buster Crabbe, but St. John continued as his sidekick for the duration of the series.  While working in that series, St. John simultaneously supported George Houston (and later Robert Livingston) in PRC's Lone Rider series, as well as portraying Don "Red" Barry's pard at Republic in several films.  After these three series ended, St. John co-starred with Al "Lash" LaRue in another PRC series that concluded in 1951.  In all, with the exception of the Barry films, he portrayed the same character -- Fuzzy Q. Jones.
All one had to do to understand why Steele jumped at the chance to leave PRC and join Republic is to view his last film in the PRC series,  BILLY THE KID IN SANTA FE (filmed in 1940, but not released until 1941), followed by his first for Republic, UNDER TEXAS SKIES (1940).  Although Steele gave it his best in the PRC film, it wasn't enough.  The whole thing was filmed around Newhall, California which didn't look a bit like the desert southwest.  The plot has Billy fighting to bring truth and justice to the wide-open town of Santa Fe, but all that fighting takes place in the countryside with the town nowhere in sight.  The film is simply a cobbled together series of action scenes, with a minimum of dialogue, and a seriously flawed plot.  Oh well, it was PRC.

There is also something disconcerting about a misunderstood and mistreated Billy the Kid nevertheless giving it his all to tame a Western town.  Buster Crabbe replaced Steele in the role in 1941, but in 1943, the character's name was changed to Billy Carson for the remaining films in the series that concluded in 1946.

At Republic, Bob Steele joined Robert Livingston and Rufe Davis to form yet another Three Mesquiteers combo.  Steele would go on to appear in the last twenty features in the series.

The Three Mesquiteers, based on characters created by Western novelist William Colt MacDonald, was launched as a Republic B-Western series in 1936 and was discontinued in 1943.  Fifty-one films were produced during those years, utilizing twelve actors (including John Wayne) in nine different combinations.  In the three years Steele co-starred in the series, he was a member of three of those combinations.

(top down) -- the last Mesquiteers: Tom Tyler (Stony Brooke), Jimmie Dodd (Lullaby Joslin), Bob Steele (Tucson Smith)
Tom Tyler was taller, wore a taller hat, rode a taller horse, which was also white, but it never seemed to bother Bob Steele.  Why should it?  He never lost a fight and he received top billing.  Dodd would go from third Mesquiteer to Chief Mouseketeer on Disney's The Mickey Mouse Club in the '50's.

A year after Steele was cast in the role of Tucson Smith, he was joined by Tom Tyler, also on the comeback trail, who replaced Livingston in the Stony Brooke role.  In 1943, Jimmie Dodd replaced Rufe Davis as Lullaby Joslin in the final six entries in the series.  Steele received second billing in the films with Livingston, but moved up to number one after Tyler replaced Livingston.  It was the last B-Western series for Tyler and it is only fitting that it was while co-starring with Steele, since the two cowboys had crossed trails so many times in the past.

The Mesquiteers series was still popular in its final season and, in fact, ranked in the top ten of the Motion Picture Herald's popularity poll of B-Western stars during the three years of Steele's tenure.   However, Republic evidently believed that there wasn't much more that could be done with the series.  Instead the studio chose to concentrate on its two established series with Roy Rogers and Don Barry, and was also in the process of inaugurating new ones with Bill Elliott (Red Ryder) and Eddie Dew (John Paul Revere), and had Sunset Carson and Allan Lane waiting in the wings.

Bob Steele starred in two more series, though each was of short duration.  At Monogram, a step down from Republic (but still higher on the B-Western ladder than PRC), he teamed with veteran cowboys Ken Maynard and Hoot Gibson in the Trail Blazers series.  Originally, the series starred Maynard and Gibson as a duo and it represented an effort by the studio to duplicate its earlier success with its Rough Riders films that had starred three other elderly luminaries: Buck Jones, Tim McCoy, and Raymond Hatton.  Unfortunately, Maynard and Gibson, both around the half-century mark in age, looked older than their ages while Jones and McCoy, who were actually older, looked younger than their ages.

Gibson's wrinkle-lined visage reflected many years of hard, fast living and Maynard's waist was expanding at an accelerating rate.  Consequently, Steele, who was much younger (mid-thirties) and in much better physical condition, was added after the first three films in order to handle the more strenuous action and the romantic angle.

The ornery and cantankerous Ken Maynard had earlier forced former Universal cowboy Bob Baker out of the series and reportedly was unhappy about the addition of Bob Steele.  That probably explains the billing in the poster.  However, it wasn't long before Maynard was out, while Steele was still in.

 After the trio had completed three films the cantankerous and unpredictable Maynard, who was said to be angered by the addition of Steele, dropped out or was forced out, and was replaced in the next two entries by the screen's original Tonto, Chief Thundercloud (Victor Daniels).  After one more film, this time without Thundercloud, the Trail Blazers appellation was dropped and Steele (the last Tucson Smith) and Gibson (the first Stony Brooke) rode as a duo in two final films.