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Sunday, January 23, 2011

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. Lots had been spent 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.


Blogger Mike Cline said...

Sunset's acting talents can be looked at from several angles.

On its on merits, he wouldn't rank very high on the Edward G. Robinson scale.

But if you compare him to "Slingin' Sammy Baugh, Sunset challenges Mr. Arliss, subject of your previous post.

2:00 PM  
Blogger Raymie said...

Hello everyone.The story on sunset smoked me out.But I read greenbriar religiously every week.My only true connection is that back in the mid sixties I would at the end of a school day,skip the bus and walk downtown and sit and wait until a very kind and patient man name of sam rubin would finish his work in the furniture store and talk to me.If only as a teenager I could have fully understood his love and passion for silent films.All I wanted to talk about was tom mix who was from pennsylvania like us.Sam would give me a copy of his silent film magazine and he was always friendly and courteous and then I would walk three miles home.Sadly I never got beyond castle film purchases.I have always been fascinated in the life of sunset.I am not sure of the year he was born or if he was a champion rodeo rider in africa and just what was the rodeo competition in africa like compared to the united states.I know not if a report of an under age girl on the republic set was true with sunset either.I have read of giant cue cards that needed read off by sunset but some folks just naturally have trouble memorising words drunk or sober.All I know is the man was tall,quick,had a nice voice and you can't learn to ride a horse that well in a week before you start your first western.He had to have been a real cowboy or a real rodeo rider.I have viewed his fall from grace with 16mm westerns that were blown up such as sunset carson rides again.He had decades to see the error of his ways.He was a swinging wild man in a scrap and his facial features compared to john wayne's was like night and day.Except wayne had the higher be sure.What counts was those twilight years when he was willing to discuss his short career and lament the lack of heroes and good westerns made.I have seen him ride into town for the pbs series.I know he is little more than a small footnote to hollywood.But I still call him a hero.

11:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Back in the 1970's I remember Sunset was frequently invited by someone (I don't know who) to just hang around the voting polls on election days in North Wilkesboro, NC, for an informal meet-and-greet. There he was in full western regalia, big Stetson and shootin' irons. Let me tell you even by then he was still an imposing figure. His hair was dyed jet black, but otherwise his physique did not belie years of hard living. I don't know if Sunset could've whipped Clint Walker but it would've been a fair match for both.

8:19 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

One of the funniest lines I ever heard in a B-Western,I think was uttered by Sunset Carson,where hes describing the favorite killing method of some bad hombre hes on the trail of.."Shoots his men right in the neck,likes to see their head wobble before they drop to the ground!"

1:49 AM  
Anonymous r.j. said...


I think I need not add, but will anyway, that your wonderful masthead for The Marx Bros. Go West was drawn by the great Al Hirschfeld.

While on that subject, quickly, I will tell you I have been tapped as a sort-of consultant by a wonderful gentleman in Louisiana, right next-door to you, John (sort-of), who's currently writing a long-overdue biography of song/screenwriters Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. He has had rare access to their orig. screenplay for "Go West", and confirmed what I have often heard, that it's one of the funniest things ever written, completely different from the pedestrian mish-mash credited to Irving Breecher, that finally made it before the Metro cameras. As you noted in your post on "Copacabana", the song intended for Groucho to sing in the Kalmar/Ruby version, did at least make it intact into that film!

Keep slugging! R.J.

2:30 AM  

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