Honk If You Love Sunset!
It's Netflix what turned loose an avalanche of Sunset Carson westerns here recent, and some of us (wonder how many) are happy wranglers for it. Not to brag, but I shook his hand once, maybe several times, at Dixie cowboy cons we used to haunt in the 70's/80's. Course I had to reach up to do it, as towering Sunset was like Gulliver entering dealer rooms, near all his fans mere Lilliputians. What's crazed about his westerns is bad guys offering Sunset a knuckle sandwich even as they stand at eye level with his shirt buttons. To go mano-a-mano with this tree-top was sheer lunacy, yet over and again, heavies ventured forth like limbs fed into a chipper. The sense B westerns don't make sometimes! Sunset will routinely bend down to go through doors. Sets for him come off like those built for juniors Stan and Babe in Brats. When fists go to swingin', better hide the balsa furniture, because none of it will save intact once SC vacuums the place. So alright, the burning question --- how's his acting? Does anything matter less? Watch Sunset awhile and you'll revere line readings few thesps could stay on salary doing, even at Republic. They'd let him go, sure, but for reasons what laid many a cowboy low --- demon rum and ticking off the boss, to-wit Herbert J. Yates, who'd make time in a busy day to fire Sunset personally.
But I'm ahead of myself: Better to start with lucky breaks ... Sunset making pals of Frank Borzage and Mike Curtiz, two who could pick up phones and have you stood before cameras by afternoon. SC was lean as string beans and a scouting Republic said he'd need meat on lanky bones to stand frontier punishment. Having crossed that threshold, Sunset was put to supporting comic Smiley "Frog" Burnette for a try-out season (this a first occasion billing a sidekick over the action hero, but who'd heard of Carson then?). Fan mail did the rest ... for Sunset, this amounted to a deluge. Cowboys had been handsome before, but his lent distinction of big sisters (and Mom) bringing cap-gunners to Saturday meets, and that warn't for new-found love of western formulae. Sunset was their giant with a baby face and voice to match, but put him on a horse and the wind couldn't keep up, being, of course, what red-blood boys like. Carson astride evoked low-flying aircraft, and how he rendered a bruising! Fights weren't regarded fair unless Sunset took on four minimum. He'd pretty much use one for a ball and the rest for bowling pins.
Sooner or later in his westerns, Sunset comes around to admit, I'm not much good fer makin' speeches, thus getting him off hooks for delivering necessary ones so awkwardly. Ineptness with words is endearing when you perform actionful rest as well as Carson. He began with Republic at $150 a week, punched ways to eventual $250 before high spiriting (make that being high on spirits) put Sunset to pasture after championship seasons when his westerns were best in their category. A mere boy in mid-twenties, drunk on sudden fame if not the sauce, and thoughtless as to consequence of being fired not just from Republic, but by word-of-mouth extension, a whole industry that carved his name with trouble. They'd spent lots to establish Sunset, so imagine umbrage over his frittering stardom away. Comebacks attempted later, wretchedly shot on 16mm blown up to 35, hammered down SC's oblivion. I'll need to seek those out, of course, being irresistibly drawn to westerns representing a rock bottom.
Sunset eventually made way to protective yolk of Carolina cowpokes who'd grown up idolizing him. Many were collectors. Who among these imagined SC dropping in on club screenings of movies he'd made thirty years before? My friend/mentor Moon Mullins would often say, You just missed Sunset!, as I'd pull up in his back yard. Hickory's star-in-residence was then (mid-seventies) hosting afternoon UHF westerns while I was seated but yards away in college class. With so many fans at middle-aged spending peaks, all in quest of lost innocence, Sunset pointed to roads back. He'd go here and yonder hosting laments for days past, working the old quick-shot or bullwhip act, signing autographs 'till gun-hands wilted. Was there a nicer celebrity of yesteryear on the western con route? Not that I'd encounter. Sunset got hit by a car while crossing four lanes over to Moon's house one afternoon. Word was they had to take the car to the emergency room. Above represents some of ventures SC got drawn into whilst nostalgic flames burned brightest. He was dream come true for admirers who'd hoped one day to meet a boyhood hero. Sunset made that reality just being, for that blessed while, the most accessible western icon of them all.