The "B" Western - 1932-1953
TOM MIX: BUCK JONES: KEN MAYNARD: RANDOLPH SCOTT: HARRY CAREY; BUSTER CRABBE TOM TYLER: JOHN WAYNE: JACK HOXIE: KERMIT MAYNARD: WILLIAM BOYD: REB RUSSELL GEORGE O'BRIEN: GENE AUTRY: DICK FORAN: JACK RANDALL: TEX RITTER: BOB STEELE
HOOT GIBSON: JACK PERRIN: GILBERT ROLAND: BILL ELLIOTT: JOHN MACK BROWN:
BOB BAKER: BOB LIVINGSTON: DUNCAN RENALDO:CHARLES STARRETT: TIM McCOY: LANE CHANDLER: JAMES ELLISON -- etc. -- vs
FRED KOHLER: WALTER MILLER: CHARLES KING: CHARLIE STEVENS: BOB KORTMAN:
DICK CRAMER: NOAH BEERY Sr: HOOPER ATCHLEY: HARRY WORTH: ROY D'ARCY: HARRY WOODS: ED COBB: TOM LONDON: BUD OSBORNE: TRISTRAM COFFIN: WARNER RICHMOND: EARL DWIRE: JOE SAWYER: MONTE BLUE: DICK CURTIS: and hordes of savage Indians!
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Last month we hope we swayed the opinions of those who lump all cartoons into
one package; this month we're after the scalps of those to whom all "B" westerns
seem alike! As with all films, there are tremendous differences -- all of
them attributable to money, and talent. "B" series westerns, more than any
other kind of film, depend very largely on their stars -- an inadequate hero,
and the cause is lost before reel one is over. But there were other factors
too: the real cheavies from small outfits sought to save money by any number
of ways -- a lack of background music, a "band of expensive running inserts
close-ups, shot from a truck), a sparsity of extras and horses, and
a plethora of stock shots. With reasonable budgets, worthwhile players and
good directors, many extremely intelligent and interesting minor horse
operas have been made; tonight we hope you'll agree with our choices of the
good -- and the bad.
Frankly, this is the kind of a program that needs a shorter, snappier
documentary approach, a la Project 20. Just the right scene to illustrate a
point, and a narrator. But failing the budget to produce that kind of a show
tonight, we've done the best we can to cover the field. There'll be gaps of
course -- and if you find your particular favorites missing, it's because we
obviously couldn't have every western star represented. Roy Rogers, Fred
Scott, Allan Lane, Sunset Carson, Bill Cody, Tom Keene, Bob Allen and Tim Holt
are among the missing tonight -- and if it seems odd that there might be three
excerpts with one star, and none of other, there are usually reasons --
content, chronology, and so on.
These notes will of necessity be brief. The initial "rough cut" of the show
ran a little over six hours. By 10 o'clock on the night prior to the show it
was down to five hours, and then the editor-viewer blew a fuse! Luckily one of
our members, Lou McMahon, lives just a couple of blocks away and rushed over
with another 16mm viewer. By midnight the show was down to four hours, and
since that was the point at which Stroheim insisted that "Greed" could be cut
no further, it seemed an appropriate point to call a halt. That left the wee
hours of the morning for the program notes (please don't ask us why we don't
work further ahead!) and with 37 films represented, detailed notes on each one
seemed rather a project! To save space, we're eliminating credits on our
notes, but have attached (in nine cases out of ten) the main titles of the
films to our excerpts, If anybody misses which films were photographed by
Ted McCord and Russell Harlan, or which ones were directed by Lambert Hillyer,
Dave Howard or Ray Taylor, we'll be glad to fill you in afterwards. A final
word: we've stuck strictly to chronological order throughout. This isn't
really good showmanship as the westerns set weaker towards the end but it's
better film history we feel.
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"RIDE HIM COWBOY" (Warners) John Wayne
We're just using the rather nostalgic and enjoyable main
titles of this one to get the show under way; it's a good little western, and
we plan to run it in its entirety shortly on a lengthy Saturday afternoon-and
evening session. Details about this in our June notes.
"MY PAL THE KING" (Universal)
Tom Mix, aided by Mickey Rooney, carrying on the tradition
of his silents for Fox - sheer escapism, put over with verve and a good
budget. Mix was ageing however, and his speech was far from good.
"MAN OF THE FOREST" (Paramount)
Paramount's Zane Grey series remains one of the best
groups of 2nd feature westerns of the 30's. This one, by Hathaway, has a grand
cast and dates not at all. Randolph Scott, Noah Beery, Harry Carey.
"WHEN A MAN RIDES ALONE" (Freuler)
With more polish than most independent westerns, this
cheapie holds attention by virtue of its athletic star, Tom Tyler (a popular
FBO top-liner in the 20's) and some good, sharp camerawork, And a Marilyn
Monroeish heroine, Adele Lacey, helps matters quite a bit too. The foreword is
worthy of DeMille, by the way!
"THE THUNDERING HERD" (Paramount)
Hathaway again; many of the Paramounts in this series
were remakes of silent westerns, and used stock footage liberally. The
spectacular Indian battle scenes here come from William K. Howard's silent
version, and Jack Holt can be seen clearly in some scenes in place of hero
Randolph Scott. The speed shows up the age of the footage, but it's fine stuff.
"IN OLD SANTA FE" (Mascot)
An unusually elaborate indepedent western, this film
brought Gene Autry (who had some specialty numbers)to the forefront of
attention. Ken Maynard, who switched incredibly from major companies to
independents in this period, is the star, and the horse race that forms our
excerpt was used by Republic (Mascot's successor) for years as stock footage
for the westerns of Autry, Bob Steele, and many others.
"SMOKING GUNS" (Universal)
Maynard, who had his own unit, wrote many of his own stories,
and usually directed the director -- as well as making up the dialogue as he
went along. In addition, he was a heavy drinker, and his flights of fancy
sometimes have to be seen to be believed. This is a good example.
"HONOR OF THE RANGE" (Universal)
A briefer, and equally incredible, excerpt from another
Maynard. He apparently loved dual roles and masquerades -- his fans really
got the treatment in 1934!
"VALLEY OF GOLD" (Independent)
Jack Hoxie, an extremely popular star in silents, found in
talkies a tougher element. Big and amiable, but an illiterate, he found it
togch to read his lines in order to memorise them, and he was no great shakes
as an actor either. His talkie career was comparatively brief.
"THE TRAIL BEYOND" (Monogram)
John Wayne, unaccountably not a star after Walsh's "The
Big Trail", stepped down from Warners to Monogram -- but the westerns he made
there were good ones. "The Trail Beyond" has a lot of stock footage, but some
quite elaborately staged new material too. Yakima Canutt does some fine
stunting for Wayne; one of the stunts, you'll notice, misfires -- but the
cameras keep grinding, Yakima picks himself up, gets back in the saddle, and
tries it again!
Back in the late 20s, Lane Chandler was on an equal footing with Gary Cooper
at Paramount. Cooper made it, Chandler didn't. After starring in cheap "B"
westerns like this in the early 30's, Chandler drifted into villain and
character roles -- incidentally improving as an actor as he did so.
"NORTHERN FRONTIER" (Conn Productions)
A brief glimpse of Kermit Maynard, Ken's brother. A first-
class stunt rider and a rood enough actor, Kermit made some excellent starring
horse operas before following the inevitable path into villain roles.
"OUTLAWED GUNS" (Universal)
Buck Jones' early films for Universal were grand westerns in
the old style; later we hope to show one of the best of them in its entirety.
"BAR 20 RIDES AGAIN" (Paramount-Harry Sherman)
The most fantastically successful of all western series,
the Hopalong Cassidys started in 1935. In the early ones, story took pride of
place over action, and Cliff Lyons doubled Boyd in all the riding. Here Boyd
does his own riding for the first time. All of the early Cassidys were slow,
saving their action for a spectacular climax. Devoid of music during the
preceding reels, they would suddenly come alive with Gluck's "The Furies" for
the final chase -- a formula that paid off both dramatically and in terms of
excitement. Our excerpt is of such a climax.
Reb Russell was another who stayed in the bottom drawer; this
excerpt shows quite clearly why. In this strange little film, a sympathetic
William S. Hart-calibre villain (well played by Ed Cobb) actually had far more
footage than hero Russell.
"WHEN A MAN'S A MAN" ("SAGA OF THE WEST")
We'll say little about this fine little Sol Lesser subject,
save that it's one of the best little "B" westerns of all, and certainly one
of George O'Brien's best. Plus factors include a more human villain than
usual in Harry Woods, lovely Dorothy Wilson, some fine old melodic themes
from the silents, and some first-rate camerawork by Frank B. Good, one of
the moat under-rated of all cameramen.
THE MUSICAL WESTERNS (our excerpts: 1935-37)
"TUMBLING TUMBLEWEEDS" (Republic, 1935) .
The first starring Gene Autry vehicle, this still had
more action (and good action, too) than songs. Later of course, and especially
in the 40's, the musical elements got so out of hand that the films almost
became lampoons of westerns.
"MOONLIGHT ON THE PRAIRIE" (Warners, 1935)
Dick Foran was Warner's answer to Autry, and this
was Foran's first western. His voice was much better than Autry's, and though
he at first seemed somewhat of a phoney -- thanks to excessive makeup and
old-hat dialogue - he soon became a first rate western star. His films had
.solid production values too.
"RIDERS OF THE DAWN" (Monogram, 1937)
From Fred Scott to Jimmy Wakely, a dozen singing cowboys
tried to emulate Autry. Jack Randall was one of the better ones, but came along
too late. The market was glutted with singing westerners, and Monogram
eliminated songs from his films after the first two or three. "Riders of the
Dawn", his first, has a wonderful climax that even John Ford wouldn't be
ashamed of -- with Yakima Canutt clearly recognisable as he doubles for Jack
in the stagecoach stunting.
"TROUBLE IN TEXAS" (Grand National, 1937)
Tex Ritter is our singing cowboy in this one -- but we've
picked a sequence where he doesn't sing, but instead watches the cantina girl
as she dances. She's Rita Hayworth - then Rita Cansino, and like Jennifer
Jones, Laraine Day and Carole Landis, doing western chores prior to real
One of the staple plots in the 30's was for Abe Lincoln to concern
himself with the gold shipments not getting through. Here there's a slight
switch -- an "independent Republic" is starting up out West, and Abe (played
in silhouette by Bud Buster) sends Bob Steele to put a stop to it. The Civil
War stock shots are from Ince's "Barbara Frietchie".
"HAIR TRIGGER CASEY" (Atlantic)
Jack Perrin started out with Sennett in 1916. He wound up
as an extra in Wyler's "The Friendly Persuasion". Currently, we are reliably
informed, he can be heard beating his wife most mornings in his Hollywood
bungalow. In between all this he made a group of decidedly inferior westerns
like this one, wherein he is plainly intoxicated. But don't misunderstand --
we like Jack, and some of his Universal silents were great. One incredible
sequence in this film had Jack recalling his war adventures -- consisting of
almost a reel of stockshots, including the best war scenes from "The Big
"THUNDER TRAIL" (Paramount)
The Zane Grey series still maintaining a very high standard;
the films packed non-stop action and real production values into running
times often below 50 minutes! This one had some truly fine photography by
"IN EARLY ARIZONA" (Columbia)
Columbia, which had made some good series with Ken Maynard,
Buck Jones and Tim McCoy, here introduced a "new" star in Bill Elliott (who
had been in movies since the 20's). His first few for Columbia were fine;
then they went into a shabby decline. But Bill, who patterned his performances
after William S. Hart's, climbed back to the top again at Republic and Allied
"DESPERATE TRAILS" (Universal)
Two stars for the price of one - Johnny Mack Brown and Bob
Baker co-starred. This started a trend which continued through the 40's, and
brought back many old-timers from retirement,
"PIONEERS OF THE WEST" (Republic)
The popular 3 Mesquiteers series here tries to add
production value by falling back on the big Indian attack scenes from "The
Big Trail". Somehow the hordes of Indians from the Fox epic don't match up
too well with the few moth-eaten extras that Republic manage to dig up!
"RAGTIME COWBOY JOE" (Universal)
Universal made strictly formula westerns -- but what
a slick, fast-action formula it was. With excellent background music and
particularly smooth running inserts, they were first-class little "B"s.
"FORBIDDEN TRAILS" (Monogram)
More "B" westerns were being made at this time than at
any other period in history. One of the most pleasing and intelligently
written was Monogram's "Rough Riders" series, with old-timers Buck Jones,
Tim McCoy and Raymond Hatton. Robert N. Bradbury, who. directed, was Bob
"ARIZONA CYCLONE" (Universal)
Despite poor print quality, we've included several
excerpts of this one to show just what a good director can do with stock
material. Former editor Joseph Lewis (later a director of top-flight
melodramas) gets in some fine effects here, and even gets new visual
excitement into such old situations as the leap into the saddle, and the
showdown between hero and villain. And one chase is immeasurably enhanced
by having a low horizonal fence between the careening wagons and the
camera truck; it's a simple effect, yet adds tremendously to the impression
of speed. Even apart from this, it's a good rousing western, with Johnny
Brown after Dick Curtis once again.
"THE PHANTOM PLAINSMEN" (Republic)
Nazis got much more of a foothold in the West than
the Communists have ever been able to do. Here the 3 Mesquiteers put paid
to Teutonic plottings, and get in some neat propaganda for the war effort
too. David Sharpe rather obviously doubles for Bob Steele in a fight.
"DEATH VALLEY. RANGERS" (Monogram)
In the wake of The Rough Riders came The Trail
Blazers -- and the last starring roles for Maynard and Hoot Gibson, Bob
Steele was to remain more active. A cheap and shoddy series in terms of
production value, and afflicted with moronic music from Frank Sanucci, the
films at least had speed and action, and some pretty impressive stunt
work. The stars still rode well, but doubles took over for all the tricks.
"LIGHTNING RAIDERS" (PRC)
This trailer for a Buster Crabbe opus symbolises all
we need have said, via a longer excerpt, about the many cheap PRC westerns.
The camerawork crude, the scripts almost non-existent, each film exactly
like its predecessor, this type of film marked the beginning of the end for
the "B" horse opry.
"THE GAY CAVALIER" (Monogram)
Monogram still made a commendable effort to keep quality
in its westerns. Veteran producer Scott Dunlap made films economically but
not cheaply, and the added dollars always showed. Gilbert Roland made a fine
Cisco Kid in this Monogram series.
"THE GENTLEMAN FROM TEXAS" (Monogram)
Another Dunlap production, this was directed by
Lambert Hillyer. Westerns were beginning now to reflect much of the toughness
of the post-war school of private-eye thrillers; here, without much ado,
the seconary heroine is killed off, and the villain winds up with a broken
neck. Brutality, sex and private-eye dialogue were beginning to seep into
the "B" westerns, although it wasn't until the fifties that such qualities
began to become objectionable in films like "Jesse James' Women".
"THE KID FROM AMARILLO" (Columbia)
In the early fifties, most of the series westerns
began to fold. It wasn't as tragic as it might have been, as with the
exception of Rko's Tim Holt films (carefully and expensively made), the
overall quality was low. These Durango Kid-Charles Starrett westerns at
Columbia were made in 3 days, thanks to an overuse of stock. Here again we
have a markedly vicious ending. Jack Mahoney, doubling for Starrett, also
appears as one of the villains.
"TOPEKA" (Allied Artists)
Bill Elliott's series at AA (which also declined badly before it was
halted) was the last "B" series of quality. Elliott consciously strove to
imitate Hart both in performance and in his plots, and this film bore a more
than coincidental similarity to Hart's "The Return of Draw Egan". It also
boasted a moving-camera-happy photographer, who kept his cameras on the move
even more than had Paul Fejos in "Broadway"!
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