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 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?

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