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Monday, May 10, 2010

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.


Blogger Unca Jeffy said...

I have the same lure to these as you and the same holes in my knowledge. I grew up hearing older family members talk of them and their names all ring like some long lost family history lesson.

There seems real charm there and I admit to falling under their spell more than once, but like you without knowing where to turn for the next great oater, I just flounder along.

11:24 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

In the 1980s a new TV station in Boston picked up a package of arcane westerns and showed them on Saturday mornings. Many were the same bottom-of-the-barrel efforts that are now gleefully offered by Sinister. I remember two in particular, from both ends of the spectrum: COURAGEOUS AVENGER (Supreme, 1936) with Johnny Mack Brown and some outstanding outdoor photography, and LIGHTING BILL (Superior, 1934, and that's no typo in the title), one of the Victor Adamson productions that Sinister says were made for as little as eight hundred dollars. John, I agree with your assessment of the "mistakes they left in" -- these no-budget, save-the-take westerns have a certain desperate charm.

11:38 AM  
Blogger JAMES said...

The "B" westerns I grew up with were filmed in the late 1940s and early 1950s. My favorites were Allan 'Rocky' Lane and the Durango Kid. I didn't care much for the singing cowboys or those that kissed the girls. I got Charles Starrett's autograph when he spent a weekend in my hometown visiting his son who was in college there. Very patient guy who talked with all his pre-teen fans on the lawn of his hotel one afternoon. Roy Rogers and one of his horses appeared on stage at the local movie house to promote "Trigger Jr". My dad built the ramp over the theater's orchestra pit so that Roy could ride right down the center aisle and up onto the stage.
My friends and I would recreate much of the riding and shooting from these films in the wooded area near our homes. No, we didn't have horses. Our bikes and cap pistols did the job. Ah, memory.

1:09 PM  
Blogger CanadianKen said...

I find there's nothing quite like the wonderful Bob Steele movies of the early '30's. Even among B-westerns they're a world unto themselves. No one could match him as far as go-for-broke physical action. Plus he was a terrific rider - some of his mounts and dismounts still still register as jaw-droppers. But the best of his films - and there were plenty of good ones - also highlight an appealing vulnerability , an actual tenderness that make the stories seem to matter.
The silent movie lipstick and eye-makeup came and went. He'd have it one picture, then tone it way way down for the next one. Who knows why? Yet it never got in the way of one's enjoyment of the films; in a quaint way it was almost a plus - another thing that made the Bob Steele experience so special. Check out his first talkie "Near the Rainbow's End", a real charmer, with a wonderfully experimental flying by the seat of your pants feel. Other standouts include "Law of the West", "Texas Buddies", "Brand of Hate" and "Rider of the Law".I always thought Steele would have made the ideal Massala in the silent Ben-Hur". Stodgy Francis X. Bushman looked way too old to be Novarro's boyhood friend. And it's so easy to picture Steele, with his art-deco looks and super-intensity tearing around in a chariot (no stunt double required), Ben-Hur's perfect and perfectly fiery rival.
And as far as the B-western leading ladies go, there was never a better one than Iris Meredith, Charles Starrett's regular screen partner in a slew of Columbia oaters from '36 to '40. Definitely one of the screen's great beauties, she had talent and charisma to match. But spent her whole career in B's. She and Bob Steele remain among my very favorite stars - and that's not gonna change.

2:26 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

I always loved The 3 Mesquiteers series,whether with Bob Livingston or John Wayne as Stoney Brook..Always good action and the humor was pretty good..Also the later series The Range Busters with much the same set up..and the Tim Holt westerns..I'm particularly fond of an earlier western Holt did with George O'Brien and Rita Hayworth called Renegade Ranger..

10:48 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

While not exactly a B western from the years covered here, Filmoteca played last Friday THE OKLAHOMA WOMAN.

This film, that has never being available on home video, can be seen here:

1:21 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

HOPPY's my favorite, even though his features are a notch above the normal "B" western...let's say "A-" westerns.

8:45 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Great hearing from folks out there who still like B westerns. I've heard about a few starter sub-TV stations that are running them again just like in the 50's. Too bad Encore's Western channel has cut back so far with B cowboys. They used to play the really good Columbias with Jones, McCoy, and Maynard. No more, though.

1:06 PM  
Blogger coolcatdaddy said...

I had a friend that was a big movie buff that knew folks who really got into the B Westerns. He remembered sitting around talking with them about a trip they made to "the rock".

What was "the rock", you ask?

It was some distinctive large boulder on a path that was used in countless of these westerns. They'd take special delight in spotting "the rock" in a b-western chase scene.

4:08 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

they were probably talking about one of the many famous rock sites at Iverson Ranch,home to countless B-Westerns,Serials and A-Pictures..
this might make some weep :o( :o))

6:23 PM  
Anonymous Davey Collins said...

Excellent post and just what I was in the mood for having been through a few great B-dusters here lately. Is there any other stable in filmdom quite like the cluster of B-western stars? Horror had a few kings trailed by some fringe players, but these guys all seem to be gods descending from their respective western skies. I find myself staring, enamored, at any likeness thereof. I've even acquired a taste for Ken Maynard's singing voice! Here are a few I've been through recently worth a look. Shadow Ranch (1930) with Buck Jones. No high-key lit interiors for this early talkie, it's dim and grim with a few early moments of humor earned. As pointed out in the post, the LACK of a score only punctuates the atmosphere. Buck is near perfect; a totally believable performance with only a few awkwardly spoken lines (which come across as authenticating in these westerns at any rate). Count me in as a Bob Steele admirer. There is a scene in the quite good Brand of the Outlaws ('36 - from Bob's always capable father Robert N. Bradbury) in which Bob earns the film its title by being falsely accused and branded by one of the actual rustlers. As the red-hot branding iron sears into his flesh the camera cuts to a darkened close-up of Steele's face as he veraciously brings his eyes to a scowl. There is no jabbing musical accent. Just that unmistakable face in perfect expression. I think about that scene all the time. It's fleeting and flawless. Come on Danger! ('32 - fantastic evocative title!) features a game and charismatic Tom Keene laying siege upon the hacienda operated by the female-led gang that shot his brother in the back. I came away from this feeling that Keene must be among the most underestimated of screen cowboy heroes. Thanks for the great reading!

6:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wonderful entry on your blog! My favorite B-western memory is a young John Wayne strumming a guitar and singing in a rather high-pitched (dubbed) voice while jerkily riding a burro-sized pony in RANDY RIDES AGAIN. What was the program called, "Pioneer Theater", on WSJS Channel 12 back in the late Sixties?

7:36 PM  
Anonymous Jay said...

Did 'B' westerns have trailers made for them? It occurs to me that I've never actually seen a trailer for one.

10:12 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Jay, there are trailers on all of the Sinister Cinema DVD's I have. They are, as you say, very rarely seen. Some were printed for 16mm television use in the fifties, while others survive (somewhat battered) from 35mm theatrical play.

7:45 AM  

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