"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Sundown Saunders (Supreme Pictures, 1935)


Bob bests the bad guys and gets the girl






Sundown Saunders was a Bob Steele Western cooked up and directed by Bob’s dad, RN Bradbury. It’s a classic mid-30s one-hour programmer with all the proper ingredients. And Earl Dwire is the sheriff – hoorah!

Bob is extremely popular Bar X cowhand Sundown Saunders. The other cowboys practically applaud every time he appears. I wonder if he was related to Singin’ Sandy Saunders (John Wayne) from Riders of Destiny, or, come to that, Tex Saunders (Tex Ritter) from Heading for the Rio Grande or Wild Bill Saunders (Bill Elliott) from Pioneers of the Frontier or Blackie Saunders (Tom Tyler) from Riders of the Plains, or any of the other Saunderses. It was a mighty big clan. Or maybe he was related to The Sundown Kid (Don ‘Red’ Barry) in Two Gun Sheriff or Sundown Jim (John Kimbrough) or indeed Seven Ways from Sundown (Audie Murphy). But enough speculation on his family tree, unrecorded by the genealogists and not set down in Burke's Western Peerage, more's the pity.

It’s a normal skullduggery plot in which bad guy Taggart (stocky Ed Cassidy; baddy in a number of B-Westerns of the period) pretends to be a government agent and sells a ranch to gullible sheepherder Preston (Jack Rockwell, lantern-jawed brother of Charles Trowbridge, almost always a lawman but this time that job was taken by Earl so he was relegated to sheepman) and his fair but equally credulous daughter Bess (Marie Burton, aka Catherine Cotter, 33 B-movies including half a dozen Westerns 1932 – 39).
 
Sheriff Dwire chats to bad guy Cassidy in the saloon. Of course the lawman is on to him.
 
This ranch, though, actually belongs to Sundown Saunders! He’s awfully good about it, however, and doesn’t tell the girl and her pa to get off his place pronto. In fact he doesn’t even mention it’s his. Still, it doesn’t matter because we know he’s going to fall for Bess, and, indeed, vice-versa, so they’ll all live happily on the ranch together. And Mr. Preston says he’s going to sell his sheep and buy cattle, so that’s alright. You know how sheepmen are regarded in Westerns. Somewhere on the scale between axe-murderers and cannibals.
 
Bob Steele and his dad cooking up another oater
 
Sundown’s old-timer sidekick Smokey is good old Milburn Morante (billed here as Milt Morante) and he duly helps out. Lloyd Ingraham is the doc. He is involved in treating the various victims of GSWs inflicted by bad-guy Taggart (in the back) which include Mr. Preston, and he is persuaded to fake the death of Preston when it was only in fact a flesh wound. Cunning, huh.
 
Milburn and Bob, pards
 
There’s much climbing in and out of hotel rooms and in the end Sheriff Dwire swears in the Bar X boys as deputies and they all gallop to the rescue like well-trained cavalry, wearing rather dashing white kerchiefs on their heads to distinguish them from the outlaws. It’s all gripping stuff. And you should see the nifty way Bob mounts up.

Bradbury knew a thing or two about short Westerns, as all those Monogram ones he did with John Wayne proved. They were pacey and full of action.

If you watch this one you won’t be bored.

Of course he gets the girl


 

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Bad Man of Deadwood (Republic, 1941)


Roy's up in Deadwood now




 
 
I kinda prefer early Roy Rogers Westerns, before Trigger got so darned intelligent. Roy had emerged from the Sons of the Pioneers in 1938 to lead in oaters and he’d been Billy the Kid, Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill Hickok and Jesse James by 1941, not a bad achievement. When Sheriff of Tombstone in May ’41 he’d been Brett Starr, and he returned as Brett Starr, though under the assumed name of Bill Brady, up in Deadwood in September. Later on, of course, he abandoned all these characters and played ‘Roy Rogers’.

Notice that the title refers to a ‘bad man’ and not a ‘badman’. Western badmen were semi-goodies, indeed Roy himself, saintly as he was, could sometimes be a badman, that is a fellow who had been on the wrong side of the law but was deep down a goody – witness all those Jesses and Billys and so on. They were usually set back on the path of Righteousness by the redeeming love of a good woman. No, bad men were a different breed altogether – the villains. In this one the title refers to the scheming Deadwood newspaper editor Ted Carver (Henry Brandon, well before he became Scar). Carver comes across as law-abidin’, if rather pusillanimous, and even sets his cap at his glam assistant Linda (Carol Adams) but in reality he is a skunk, the leader of the crooks who have treed the town.

Irrefutable evidence of Carver’s skunkery is given later in the picture when he disposes of two of his co-conspirators (Hal Taliaferro and Jay Novello) who were about to skip town on the first stage with the loot, and he does it with a derringer! Derringers, as you know, are employed by crooked saloon owners, disreputable gamblers and louche saloon women. Actually, later still, in the last reel in fact, Carver, in the rocks outside Deadwood, manages to shoot Roy’s hat off at a thousand yards with the pop-gun, a feat of marksmanship which would have had the editors of the 1880 edition of the Guinness Book of Records reeling with disbelief.
 
 
Brett – I mean Bill – first appears in Deadwood with Gabby Hayes’s traveling medicine show. He is the singing crack-shot artist who entertains the crowd (actually, though, Roy hardly sings at all in this picture). Gabby does his usual comic old-timer act, and has some good lines. I liked it when Roy is shot (only a flesh wound, natch) and he whips out a bottle of his elixir. When asked if it works, he replies, “Why, it makes bullet wounds plumb beneficial.”
 
 
There’s a corrupt sheriff (good old Monte Blue) in the pocket of the crooks, as was traditional. It doesn’t take long to work out that Roy will be wearing that star by the end of the movie, and indeed it ends with him pinning it on (again), so now he has a steady job and can ask for Linda’s hand in marriage (for of course she has seen through her skunkish employer).

Trigger is there, of course, and carries Roy about but the fancy palomino isn’t even named; he’s just Roy’s horse. And he doesn’t do any tricks and isn’t at all (yet) the smartest horse in the movies. He was probably still learning.
 
 
There’s a good armored stage, a sort of prototypical war wagon, which Roy and Gabby rob – not to keep the money, of course, just to get evidence against the evil Carver.
 
It may be Deadwood but there's no sign of Wild Bill or Jack McCall.
 
Henry Brandon before he became a Comanche
 
Still, there’s a lot of gallopin’ and shootin’, and the US Cavalry arrives at the last moment. All good stuff. They weren’t junk, you know, these Republic oaters. They were positively big-budget compared with the Bob Steele/Buster Crabbe PRC Billy the Kid programmers we have been reviewing lately. This one, like so many others, was directed by Republic regular (I nearly said hack) Joseph Kane, also billed as associate producer. Mind, he could have done it in his sleep.

Worth seeing for the derringer.

 

 

Friday, October 6, 2017

Billy the Kid in Texas (PRC, 1940)


Billy wears a star




 
 
I couldn’t resist another Bob Steele/Billy the Kid picture. I was talking the other day about Billy the Kid’s Gun Justice, which came out in December 1940. Well, Billy the Kid in Texas was released in September that year. The first of the series, Billy the Kid Outlawed, which we’ll review another day (if you feel strong enough) came out in July.

These Billies were of course goodies, falsely accused of the crimes laid at the Kid’s door. I was saying in the review of Gun Justice that he even became a lawman once, though that was in Sheriff of Sage Valley when Buster Crabbe had taken over the role. Well, it was evidently something of a habit, because in Texas too Bob’s Billy is made sheriff by the townsfolk, and faithful Fuzzy (Al St. John) proudly gets to wear a deputy’s star.

Audie Murphy would start his Western career as Billy, in The Kid from Texas, when, probably because of Audie’s Texas roots, they decided that William Bonney was a Texan. He wasn’t, but he did go to Texas and was in the Panhandle from time to time, rustling stock or carefully avoiding detection. So Billy the Kid in Texas does have some plausibility.

In the story he arrives in Corral, TX, where, obviously, bad guys have treed the sheriffless town. They are cowhands from the Lazy 8 but these aren’t simple cowboys hurrahing the place (though they do that too) but crooks and thugs who hold up the express company’s deliveries.
 
He's may appear a baddy in black but actually he's just ridin' the West doin' Good
 
It all starts with a robbery, which Billy foils, and much galloping and shooting - one of those chases where they fire six-shooters with abandon on horseback, hitting nothing of course, and the revolvers have at least twenty shots in them before needing reloading. Anyway, ‘Billy Clark’, as he calls himself, recovers the stolen money and proves himself adept with a firearm so is the ideal candidate to wear the sheriff’s star. No one knows (yet) that he is Billy Bonney, you see.
 
Al amuses the juvenile audience
 
Now in Gun Justice, Carleton Young would be his other sidekick, Jeff, but this time Carleton (misspelled as Carlton in the credits) is Billy’s brother, Gil. He has allied himself with the bad guys and is tasked with shooting down the new Sheriff Clark. At the last mo’ he recognizes his bro, and they fudge the showdown and hatch up a plot together to foil the baddies.
 
Carleton and Bob, brothers
 
It’s all predictable (note, I did not say corny) and formulaic. Director (Sam Newfield this time) and writer Joseph O’Donnell go through the motions and tick all the boxes (on a very limited Poverty Row budget). There’s a saloon where fisticuffs can take place, as was compulsory in them days. Naturally there’s a fair maid in town, Mary (Terry Walker), and some comic antics from Fuzzy. Slim Whitaker is the driver. Billy is dressed all in black and rides a fancy palomino. Maybe he’s trying to be Randolph Scott.
 
The fair maid
 
It’s all enjoyable fun, even if history teachers would be well advised to stay away, to avoid having palpitations.

Obviously bad guys. You can tell from the mustaches.


 

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Billy the Kid’s Gun Justice (PRC, 1940)


Billy the Kid rides (yet) again




 
 
PRC, Producers Releasing Corporation, usually known as Poverty Row Corp, invested quite heavily in Billy the Kid movies from 1940 to ’43. Inasmuch as they ever invested heavily in anything, that is. There were in fact nineteen one-hour Billy programmers between those dates. Try, for example, Billy the Kid’s Smoking Guns or Billy the Kid Trapped. You will be thrilled. Bob Steele started as Billy before, in October ’41, giving way to Buster Crabbe. Buster was Billy the Kid the most, thirteen times, but Bob didn’t do badly: he was Billy six times. Al St. John was Billy's comic old-timer sidekick, Fuzzy (sidekicks were compulsory in them days) and he didn’t seem to notice that the Kid's face had changed somewhere in the summer of ’41. He just went right on sidekickin’. Bob, Buster, what's the difference?
 
Buster as Billy
 
In these Bob ‘n’ Buster flicks Billy was a goody, ridin’ the range and Doing Good – helping out sturdy farmers and damsels in distress and so forth, and rescuing them from the nefarious schemes of crooked saloon owners and suchlike. Hell, in one of them, Sheriff of Sage Valley, he was even a lawman. These Billies were nominally outlaws, and sort of hiding from the law, but they never actually did anything bad.

Buster was 32 when he started as Billy and Bob 33, so both were a little geriatric to play the homicidal teenager, but I don’t think anyone minded, or even noticed.
 
Bob as Billy
 
Billy the Kid’s Gun Justice was a typical Bob example. Having saved Ann, a fair homesteader’s daughter (Louise Currie) from some bullies who are henchmen of crooked saloon owner Cobb Allen (Al Ferguson), Billy finds out that Allen is operating a lowdown scheme, killing decent farmers, grabbing their land and then selling it to other farmers – but he has diverted all the water, and wants another thousand dollars to let it flow to the farms. Of course Allen has a suit and a thin mustache – they were obligatory for crooked saloon owners – and would normally also be expected to whip out a sneaky derringer at a key moment, but this time he just has a banal Colt .45, which is a disappointment.
 
Bob 'n' Al
 
The sets are cheap and the characters spend a lot of the time explaining the plot to each other. Location scenes in which Bob or the baddies gallop from one cabin to another are short and perfunctory.

As for some odd reason Western heroes in those days were expected to have two sidekicks, a crusty old-timer one and a smoothie type the gals might fall for, in addition to Fuzzy we also have Carleton Young as Jeff (excellent name for a Westerner). A Republic and Poverty Row regular, Carleton was often to be seen as sidekick or heavy in cheap Westerns. Later, in fact, he did much better, being noticed by John Ford and getting quite big parts in Ford and John Wayne Westerns. He starred in the episode of Wagon Train that Ford directed, The Colter Craven Story, and was in fact rather good.

I always liked Bob Steele (left). He was producer/director/writer RN Bradbury’s son, and started in movies aged 14 with his twin brother Bill in Bradbury’s The Adventures of Bob and Bill. Bob started leading in Westerns right back in the silent days and IMDb credits him with an astonishing 311 Western appearances between 1921 and an uncredited bit-part in a 1971 James Garner picture. He became a talkie B-Western star in the 30s but by the 1940s his star was rather on the wane, as so often happened. In fact Rex Lease, another former star, also descended to Poverty Row and appears, briefly, as “Henchman Buck” in Billy the Kid’s Gun Justice. Oh howe are the myghtie ouerthrowen (Samuel I, 19), as you have no doubt oft reflected.

Well, there are fisticuffs, ambushes, a treasure map and double-crossing, in the best tradition, and naturally the pards win out and they best the bad guys who are carted off to jail. The boys ride off for another adventure in about a month’s time. Doubtless the young boys in the audience were enthralled and maybe even the girls weren’t too bored.

 

 

Monday, October 2, 2017

Shoot Out at Big Sag (Brennan Productions, 1962)


Brennan pitches for a TV show




 
 
In 1960, when big-screen Westerns were in decline and TV seemed to be taking over, it was not surprising that Walter Brennan and his son Andy, with their company Brennan Productions, put together a pilot which they hoped would be taken up by a network. The pilot was eventually screened in 1962 but the series never happened. It isn’t very surprising. When you watch it you wonder what any network would have seen in it. None of the characters was sympathetic. Walter Brennan himself did his usual cackling-old-hen act but the show had nothing else to recommend it and the other acting was particularly wishy-washy, and sometimes downright wooden.

It lasts 64 minutes (presumably to fill an hour and a half of the schedules), in black & white of course, and it was noticeably cheaply staged, mostly done on studio sets with the occasional perfunctory exterior location shot.
 
Brennan cackles his way through as a fraudulent preacher with a gun
 
The plot is a Montana one, with Brennan as a soi-disant clergyman Preacher Hawker who never went to the trouble of being ordained, and who, during his frequent voiceover narration, spouts biblical platitudes throughout the show, to the point where it becomes certainly tiresome and almost offensive. He is a cattleman who claims to ‘own’ the whole Big Sag valley but Texan Sam Barbee (Leif Erikson) and his son Lee (Chris Robinson) lay claim to half of it, and a range war looks imminent.
 
Mother and daughter
 
Other characters are Hawker’s angry and rather superior daughter Hannah (Luana Patten); Hannah’s mother, the sour and malicious Sarah (Virginia Gregg); and three loutish and cowardly sons (Bill Coontz, Robert Beecher and someone uncredited). Then in town we have the crooked owner of the Last Chance saloon Chan Bartholomew (Les Tremayne) and his estranged and drunken wife Goldie (a rather Shelley Wintersish Constance Ford) and the gunman Fargo who loves Goldie (Don Kelly). So you see none of these cast members was exactly stellar and their characters are all unlikeable. Why would anyone want to make a series of this?

There is one good thing though: Goldie threatens Chan with a derringer. Not only that, she even does him in with it in the last part of the movie. Of course both user and target were typical derringer material.
 
Fargo watches as Goldie threatens saloon owner Chan wih her purse gun
 
The eponymous gun battle is rather fudged. The first part is OK, though done at night in the studio and pretty phony, but when the gunmen led by Fargo go to Hawker’s cabin and kill his sons it is only recounted by Hannah, and not shown.

Nor is it satisfactorily explained why Fargo should be so evil all of a sudden.
 
Texas cattleman and his son
 
Bizarrely, at the graveside of his sons, Preacher Hawker immediately afterwards conducts a wedding ceremony between Lee and Hannah. Hawker decides to leave but is equally unaccountably reconciled to his odious wife. The End. It all really is pretty bad.

Skip it, e-pards. You will have missed nothing.

 

 

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Battle of Rogue River (Columbia, 1954)


Routine





 
 
After many small parts on Gene Autry and Roy Rogers oaters, and some of those Three Mesquiteers ones in the late 1930s, George Montgomery finally got to lead in a Western in the 1941 version of Riders of the Purple Sage. In the early 50s he starred in many a B-Western, many of them already reviewed on this blog, and if he wasn’t the most charismatic of Western actors he was still solid and reliable. Battle of Rogue River, a cavalry Western made the same year as The Lone Gun and Masterson of Kansas, was a typical example.

It was a Sam Katzman/William Castle effort. IMDB tells us that producer Katzman's output “encompassed virtually every genre imaginable. In the 1930s he turned out Tim McCoy westerns for Puritan and Victory, the next decade he was grinding out the East Side Kids series at Monogram, the 1950s saw him making sci-fi opuses and teenage musicals for Columbia and in the 1960s he was cranking out hippie/biker films for AIP and Elvis Presley musicals for MGM.” He was a master of cashing in on a fad and his pictures may not have been fine art but they rarely lost money.
 
Castle & Katzman evidently pals
 
William Castle produced and directed low-budget B-movies, which also specialized in faddy gimmicks in both production and promotion, such as the Tingler, a vibrating device attached to theater seats. He didn’t direct that many Westerns, though three of them were with George Montgomery. They were competently done.

Rogue River didn’t exactly have a star-studded cast. After Montgomery it starred Richard Denning as the leader of a civilian militia, John Crawford as an Army lieutenant and Michael Granger as Chief Mike of the Rogue River Indians, with Martha Hyer (later to become Mrs. Hal B Wallis) as the dame for George to fall for. Denning was in a few Westerns, leading in only one, before he became the governor on Hawaii Five-0. He said, "I'm very grateful for a career that wasn't spectacular. I have wonderful memories of it, but I don't really miss it." He was especially unspectacular in Rogue River. Crawford is mostly known for TV work but he also took a few secondary roles in Columbia Western features. As for Granger, he was another with an unspectacular career. He was only in six feature Westerns and led in none of them. He was often an Indian (Sitting Bull in Fort Vengeance), though heaven knows why because he didn’t resemble one in the least.
 
Solid Montgomery (in 1870s cavalry uniform) and unspectacular Denning (who can't be a goody because he's blond)
 
Battle of Rogue River is a story set during the Rogue River Indian war of 1856 in Oregon. Montgomery is Major Frank Archer, a new martinet fort commander, taking over from a lackadaisical one (good old Willis Bouchey) and Archer is determined to lick the soldiers into shape and wipe out these pesky Indians, using his new-fangled artillery - until orders come from on high telling him to make peace. So he establishes a mutually respectful rapport with Chief Mike.
 
Chief Mike
 
However, there are bad-guy white men who are against statehood and have a vested interest in keeping the Indian wars going, and it soon becomes apparent that they have suborned apparent good-guy Stacey Wyatt (Denning). He lies and schemes to sabotage Major Archer’s truce.

There’s a sub-Broken Arrow vibe to the picture as the Indians are basically goodies and their chief, despite his silly name and war bonnet, statesmanlike in a Cochisey sort of way.

There’s some nice (though unOregonish) scenery shot in Technicolor by DP Henry Freulich and some stirring Mischa Bakaleinikoff music for us to enjoy. In fact the whole picture would be watchable on a wet afternoon.
 
Showdown
 
After mucho skullduggery and an Archer/Wyatt showdown, the chief and the major kiss and make up, the peace pipe is smoked, Oregon becomes a state and Major Archer wins the hand of the girl who has been, it must be said, rather annoying and silly.



 


Thursday, September 28, 2017

Five Guns to Tombstone (UA, 1960)


Pretty dreary




 
 
The 1950s black & white B-Western didn’t die on January 1st 1960. It went on for some time to come. The Robert E Kent-produced Five Guns to Tombstone, directed by Edward L Cahn, was an example.
 
 
Three Guns for Texas, Four Guns to the Border, Five Guns to Tombstone, it was a popular title. However, it is far from clear who the five guns are in this case, as there are a considerable number involved in the over-complex plot.

The cast was less than stellar. James Brown is Billy Wade, former outlaw going straight. No, not that James Brown. This Brown was an athletic Texan who had smallish roles in war films and had bit parts in big-screen B-Westerns from 1947 on. He was most famous, to stretch the meaning of the word famous, as Lt. Rip Masters on Rin Tin Tin. He led in three of these Kent/Cahn efforts in 1960 and ’61.
 
James Brown (left)
 
His brother Matt (Robert Karnes) is broken out of the territorial prison by crooked saloon owner Landon (Willis Bouchey, good as ever and about the biggest star on the set). Matt is tasked with getting brother Billy to come in on the Wells Fargo bullion heist he has planned. Billy lives with his impressionable young nephew (Matt’s son) Ted (John Wilder, later writer, producer and director) and they are trying to make a go of their cattle ranch. Billy wants to complete his going-straightness by marrying the glam Arlene (Della Sharman) but that’s a pretty perfunctory part of the plot.
 
James Brown stands over the corpse of his brother. They were struggling and the gun went off, you know how they do.
 
I won’t try to explain all the ramifications of the story as that would take all day and not be worth the bother. Suffice to say that it involves much double-crossing and a good deal of triple-crossing as well.
Boyd ‘Red’ Morgan (who also did the stunts) and Gregg Palmer have small parts.

There are relatively few good bits. One is when Landon’s henchman Ike Garvey (Walter Coy) is blackmailing him and Landon pulls a derringer on him, which Garvey looks at mockingly and tosses aside.
 
 
The movie’s poster tagline was ‘The Story That Gave Tombstone Its Name’, which it wasn’t.

It’s all done very cheaply and the production values are very reminiscent of the one-hour programmer Westerns of the old days, or a 50s TV Western show. It is supposed to be Tombstone, AZ but the few location exteriors are shot somewhere behind the studios in California. It ends with an unexciting shoot-out in the rocks.

All in all this Western is eminently missable.