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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Sunday, September 1, 2013

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.


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