Back In The Saddle Again
My heroes haven’t always been cowboys, but lately I’ve formed attachment to several that rode early talking trails and dog-gone if they’re not becoming like family. What was it that kept B western fans loyal for lifetimes? Seems the oldest men roam cowboy cons, many up in their seventies. Lots around my state still convene in garage theatres for Saturday shows. Will horrors and comedies I’ve treasured endure for me like westerns have for them? Matinee cowboys worked a hypnotism that I want better to understand. Wherever you’re living, there are old-timers who still love them. Our mailman used to engage me as to preferred leading ladies for Roy Rogers, thirty years after the fact (he found Mary Hart distinctly wanting). There’s an ice cream shop mere yards from where I sit decorated with lobby cards and operated by a fan in his mid-eighties who still attends the Western Film Fair. Most of us recognize North, South, and West of The Rio Grande as distinct points geographically, but these guys know said landmarks better as three separate B’s featuring Hopalong Cassidy, Buck Jones, and Johnny Mack Brown, respectively. I point this out with due respect and awe for minds that have collated and maintained such data since these shows were new. The rest of us can forget about attaining their level of knowledge, but there’s a place we might go to begin an education. Sinister Cinema distributes a strong line of B westerns. Hundreds are available from their website. A recent 40% off sale sent me there shopping. What follows are some of trails I've rode so far ...
Like anyone trying to differentiate western titles, I get flummoxed. My latest Hoot Gibson was The Gay Buckaroo, but wasn’t he previously The Buckaroo Kid? And what of those Gay Caballeros (four with that moniker) or The Fighting Buckaroo? Not to be confused with The Battling Buckaroo, of course, let alone The Fiddlin’ Buckaroo. Don’t forget Tom Tyler was once The Rip Roarin’ Buckaroo. There were industry scribes whose job it was to find endless variation on a finite vocabulary that suggested outdoor action. There are only so many such words in any dictionary. Imagine how many similar titles they tripped over with hundreds of cowboy shows pouring out year after year. Next week I’ll pick up The Gay Buckaroo and forget I’ve already watched it. It may be fifteen minutes in before realization dawns. But that doesn’t stop my having a good time. The rules are different for watching B westerns. First you need to get over notions they’re all alike. Maybe this was somewhat a case when Republic got assembly lines perfected. I admit to one Rocky Lane being near clone of another (not to say his are bad), but also confess preference for cowboy action before streamlining took hold. Initial talkie westerns were disorganized affairs. Each represents experiment that rose or (often) fell on five-day (or less) schedules with money stretched beyond parsimony. Dust clouds obscure riders because who's got time to wet down dirt roads? Hoot’s dialogue, a struggle for him in any event, competes with offscreen barking dogs not otherwise germane to the story. Moments later, he stumbles and nearly falls coming down porch stairs. Bless these flubs being left in. I’d opt always for honest (if clumsy) effort of independent cheapies as opposed to polished studio trick rides.
The best in B westerns doesn’t necessarily revolve around action. Hoot Gibson shambles amongst villains and girl companions almost to a point of lethargy, but when he’s roused, it means something. Fights are awkward as in real life. Punches often don’t connect and un-choreographed falls look like they really hurt. Musical scoring doesn’t interfere with natural sounds because there’s virtually no music in these primitive oaters. Just something over the title and clip-clop of horse hooves afterward. Soothing is ambient sound of running water as Ken Maynard negotiates wild horse trading in Come On, Tarzan. That one (from 1932) is a honey. The heavies (referred to as hide-hunters) are rustling equines to be slaughtered for dog food, said conduct lower than a snake’s belly, according to Ken. He subdues a pair by leaping upon mounts galloping side-by-side and engaging both in fisticuffs with a foot on each saddle. Of course, Roman riding was something Maynard knew from cradle days, but how many have mastered it since? --- and whooped a pair of bad guys while doing so? B westerns always chose stunting over violence. Well, naturally. There were children watching, after all. Anyone could shoot a gun or fall down. Not many could ride or tumble like Maynard or dangerously lean Tom Tyler. The latter got round soon enough to playing villains and mummies, these perhaps his truer calling, but in starting days, Tyler roped and punched canyons-full of hombres without turning a neatly combed hair. One of his was called Rider Of The Plains (imagine infinite variants on that title). It’s a reformation story with a scrappy kid and kindly parson (once Tom’s outlaw pard) combining to soothe Tyler’s roistering ways. There’s barely a shot fired for these 57 minutes, but I was entranced. One scene has Tom standing alone outside a church listening to hymns from within that John Ford might proudly have signed. Such moments were not uncommon to westerns both modest and, for that, truer to life than cinematic roads bigger companies were paving.
I look at cast listings for B westerns and wonder. Who were these people and what became of them? I don’t mean the lead cowboys. We know the trailer park Ken Maynard sunk to, and of Hoot Gibson greeting in Vegas. What I reference are leading ladies and … what about that kid tagging alongside Tyler in Rider Of The Plains? According to IMDB, he was Andy Shufford, short-lived child actor in and out of movies between 1929 and 1933. He was born in Arkansas and died closeby there in 1995. Did Monteagle, Tennessee residents figure this retiree for once performing with Bill Cody, Bob Custer, and Tom Tyler? Would they, in fact, have recognized any of those names? Tim McCoy’s leading lady in 1939’s Straight Shooter was one Julie Sheldon. She’s decorative and gets out her lines, but that’s pretty near it. Lots of ingenues got no further than B westerns. Julie was in all of three films, one uncredited. IMDB doesn’t know when was she born or if she’s died. Somewhere there might be an elderly woman who’d tell you she once played opposite Colonel Tim. My parents came back from a dinner in Blowing Rock, NC back in the seventies and told me they met a woman who claimed to have appeared with Hoot Gibson, Buck Jones, and lots of other cowboys. I don’t doubt her story for a moment, whoever she was. I’ll bet there are (were) as many B western leading ladies living in obscurity as there were former Our Gangers, or offshoots from same. These were quintessence of folks who enjoyed fame's fifteen minutes and stepped off to private life from there.
Original negatives of most B westerns are as gone as horse harness. We’re lucky to have so many survive in 16mm. Reason these managed was television’s voracious appetite for product during early 50’s years prior to major studios offering backlogs. I remember getting lists from a warehouse in Tennessee back in the sixties that had buckets of westerns you could buy for $40-50 a pop. Sometime later, I heard the joint itself went pop, or rather boom for the explosion that took it and hundreds of irreplaceable titles out. Collectors scooped up prints programmers discarded when bigger movies came available for tube-cast. I never got onto that for lacking encyclopedic knowledge to spot good prospects from lesser ones. Who was I to recite the best of Buck Jones when I'd missed him altogether in theatres? Cheap westerns seldom had copyrights renewed (hate that word cheap applied to them --- it sounds pejorative --- and these cowboys deserve better). Small label video outlets will sell you infinite numbers so long as quality matters less. I shop with Sinister as theirs are nearly always best prints around. In many cases, they’ve transferred from all that is left on many titles. That Tim McCoy I watched had remnants of its original Victory logo, a small miracle in itself for a 16mm source that had survived any number of broadcasting assaults over sixty past years. No one’s lining up to preserve Straight Shooter, so those who want it will find their way to Sinister. Watching banged-up B westerns is OK with me. There’s noble tradition in that.