Fast-paced, primitive, no bullsh*t B-oaters that deliver the simple horsey goods.
By Paul Mavis
Mill Creek Entertainment has released The Durango Kid Collection: 10 Western Classics starring Charles Starrett as Columbia Pictures’ B-movie Robin Hood-like, Scarlet Pimpernel-like, Zorro-like masked avenger of the Old West. Titles included here are: 1946’s The Fighting Frontiersman, 1948’s Blazing Across the Pecos, 1949’s Laramie, 1950’s Trail of the Rustlers, Streets of Ghost Town, and Lightning Guns, 1951’s Snake River Desperadoes and Bonanza Town, and 1952’s The Hawk of the Wild River and The Kid from Broken Gun. With clean, uncomplicated lines, these Durango Kid features are basic, no frills storytelling entertainment for Western and B-movie fans.
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Growing up in the early 1970s, there were plenty of old cowboy Westerns on pre-cable television for me to watch…but not many Charles Starrett Durango Kid outings, at least not that I remember in my particular market (Starrett once stated that plans to promote and sell his Durango series to TV fell through in the 1960s). I do know, though, that fans of studio B Westerns had an almost fanatical following for Starrett, many of whom grew up on seemingly endless Saturday afternoon matinees featuring The Kid and his horse, Raider (he made 65 of them…).
Tall, rangy Starrett, an East Coast Ivy League college grad and heir to the Starrett tool manufacturing fortune, fell into stage dramatics and then movies when he was chosen as an extra in a 1926 silent football movie, The Quarterback. Eventually working his way out to Hollywood were he became a Paramount contract player, A-list status eluded Starrett, even when he snagged the second lead role in M-G-M’s 1932 Boris Karloff hit, The Mask of Fu Manchu.
Reduced to low-budget independent outings for the next few years, Starrett finally landed a long-term Paramount contract in 1935 when he was chosen to replace cowboy star Tim McCoy in an on-going series of Westerns. These proved quite popular, particularly with the addition of the singing group, Sons of the Pioneers, for musical interludes inbetween the shoot-outs and fisticuffs. Starrett at one point walked out on his contract—he insisted on doing other types of movies in addition to Westerns—but his oaters proved so popular he was eventually convinced by the studio to remain in the saddle.
One of those outings, 1940’s The Durango Kid, was successful, but it would be five years before Paramount tried a sequel, The Return of the Durango Kid. That one really hit paydirt with the public (particularly with the Saturday matinee kiddie crowd) and Paramount finally realized that they had a franchise on their hands. Starrett particularly liked working with his comedic sidekick, Dub “Cannonball” Taylor, but Taylor soon left Paramount for Monogram. Replacing Taylor in the Starrett Westerns in 1944 was Smiley Burnette, former sidekick to Gene Autry and Roy Rogers among others, and arguably more popular than Starrett, at least in terms of exhibitor polls. Easygoing Starrett didn’t take to temperamental, egotistical Burnette, but the popularity of their teaming was undeniable, and they worked together for the next eight years (according to Starrett, the arrogant Burnette came up to him at the start of their partnership and said in so many words, “I’m saving your failing series,”…and that was all she wrote for Starrett).
Feeding those cowpoke punchy kids at all those raucous Saturday matinee showings, Columbia churned out about seven to nine Durango Kid titles every year from 1945 to 1952. Initially they cost around $150,000 to $175,00 to produce (not a bad budget for a B oater), but the shooting schedules were punishing, with the cast and crew often putting in, astonishingly, 70 to 80 hour work weeks on a 16-18 day shoot.
Unfortunately, B series at most of the studios were already in decline by the time the Durango titles were hitting their stride, due to the changing economics of B movie production. Below-the-line costs were rising, cutting into profits while forcing a slow-down in production. As well, a gradual squeezing off of the traditional double-bill eliminated the B movie market (thanks to the anti-trust legislation aimed at the studios, along with television’s rise).
Old B Westerns were starting to be re-run for free on the tube; new Western series like The Lone Ranger would eventually garner big ratings with the kids who used to go to the all-afternoon Saturday matinees, while in Columbia’s case, its successful Screen Gems television division in essence transformed its big screen B production unit into a producer of television product. Columbia’s Harry Cohn, hard-scrabble survivor of “Poverty Row,” knew the frequently life-saving monetary value of his short subjects, Bs, and serials, but economics are economics, then and now, and the writing was on the wall for series like The Durango Kid. By the late 40s, the shooting schedules had been drastically cut to 7 to 10 days, with big chunks of footage from earlier Durango movies routinely inserted into the new ones to save time and money.
When Starrett fulfilled his final Paramount contract in 1952, he hung up his Durango Kid spurs for good and retired from movies altogether (Burnette and Starrett’s stuntman Jock Mahoney were to continue the series, but their initial effort was shelved). In later years when asked about the series, Starrett was always humble and straightforward about its impact on his career (positive) and the movies’ own worth (they were hard work, and maybe not the best movies…but he was always glad that so many fans enjoyed them).
Not surprisingly, easygoing Starrett’s approach to the Durango Kid movies is the best way to view them. The Durango movies featured on the Mill Creek Entertainment The Durango Kid Collection: 10 Western Classics discs are meat-and-potatoes oaters, aimed mostly at the kiddie matinee trade of the 1940s and 50s…and they don’t have to be anything more than that, to be entertaining outings. Unselfconscious in their straight-ahead, unambiguous storytelling, the Durango Kid movies have simple stories to tell, and they do so modestly, without pretense or embellishment. They may not provide anything close to a layered story or complex characterizations, but they’re quite busy and active within their short 55 minute runtimes.
These aren’t Westerns to be mulled over or critically picked apart—they were never consciously formed as “art” (whatever the hell “art” means to you, anyway). These quick, fast oaters were made for those rowdy, Western-obsessed American kids who swooned at the sight of future hot-rodder Tommy Ivo effortlessly jumping onto his beautiful white pony, Raider, Jr. before tearing off into the California brush (can you imagine a little kid in Brooklyn seeing that?) They were made for the tired mothers accompanying those sweaty little brats, the housewives who needed nothing more than a modest, easy-to-follow story, hosted by handsome, stalwart Starrett, while taking a much-needed break from their daily chores. They were churned out for the fathers and single men and dreamers who, for a couple of bits, could see a never-was version of a “simpler” time in the mythical “Old West,” an unambiguous screen world of pure hearts and rough action and absolute resolution (so different from those ticket buyers’ own confused, anxious post-war 1940s-50s America), where they could be tall, rangy, handsome Charles Starrett just for under an hour, and settle their scores permanently with their fists and six guns.
TV soon enough would take over the chore of providing the masses with these unpretentious wish-fulfillments and time-passing entertainments, all “free of charge” except for those ten minutes of toothpaste, Ovaltine, and beer commercials every hour on the hour. But while they lasted, these B productions garnered a life-long loyalty based on value-for-dollar that’s easy to understand when one watches something as neat and tidy—and innocently fun—as the Durango Kid flicks.
Let’s look very briefly at the titles included on Mill Creek Entertainment’s The Durango Kid Collection: 10 Western Classics:
The Fighting Frontiersman
Directed by Derwin Abrahams (he would go on to helm seven more Durango Kid Bs) and written by pulp magazine wiz Ed Earl Repp, The Fighting Frontiersman features old prospector coot Cimarron Dobbs (Emmett Lynn) finding Santa Anna’s lost gold. Saloon gal Dixie King (Helen Mowery) advises him to contact Steve Reynolds (Charles Starrett) to act as a bodyguard. But is Dixie on the up and up? And what about her boss, saloon owner John Munro (Robert Filmer)?
I’m down for anything with an old coot in it (vet Emmett Lynn specialized in characters called “Old timer,” “Twitchy,” “Desert Rat,” “Pops,” “Hermit,” “Old Codger,” “Fiddlefoot,” “Whopper,” and “Hebrew at Golden Calf” in The Ten Commandments). I’d take Dub Taylor any day over Smiley Burnette (he tries too hard, plus there’s something…off about him…), but he does get laughs when he falls on his ass a few times here. Helen Mowery looks just too too in that ridiculously chic Sy De-Whorish riding suit, while Hank Newman and the Georgia Crackers score some fun numbers (camera hog Burnette can’t even let them have a shot without trying to do some scene-stealing business off to the side). Good bit with Raider pulling up the Kid on a rope. Love how everyone’s a “jasper” here.
Blazing Across the Pecos
Blazing Across the Pecos, directed by series vet Ray Nazarro and ace B serial scripter Norman S. Hall (Adventures of Captain Marvel, Buck Rogers, Daredevils of the Clouds), begins with another Indian raid on Matt Carter’s (Thomas Jackson) trading post. Only…they’re not Indians; they’re white renegades led by Buckshot Thomas (Jack Ingram) and Ace Brockway (Charles Wilson). Their plan? Give the Indians, led by Chief Bear Claw (Chief Thunder Cloud), a whole bunch of rifles and mislead them into attacking the valley’s settlers. Then, the Army comes in and wipes out the Indians…and the crooks get all the land. They forgot one thing: Rambo The Durango Kid.
The opening narration—“the greatest enemies to civlizing the West were the White men, who through greed, armed the savage Indian tribes,”—is yet another hidden-in-plain-site example of how Hollywood back then wasn’t as cut-and-dried racist as so many of today’s “film historians” (blech) desperately want you to think (don’t let the facts get in the way of your own self-loathing, kids!). Charles Wilson’s villain here is rather…grand, in a pleasing way (“How the West Was Camp”). Come to think of it…what’s with all the out-there homoeroticism of Buckshot and Steve/Durango trying to dominate each other in that weirdo saloon scene (“Tear off one of those legs and start feeding me!” Buckshot commands. “Now you start feeding me!” the now-dominate Steve orders. Easy, girls…). And why is laughing Steve such a jerk to Smiley, throwing dirt on the windows he just washed? How’s that any different from Ace’s crap? Check out Jock Mahoney’s three horse leap to a saddle. Red Arnall and the Western Aces really swing it, pardner. And remember what Chief Bear Claw say: “Durango Kid friend to all Indians.”
Directed by Ray Nazarro and written by prolific Western scripter Barry Shipman, Laramie begins with government agent Steve Holden visiting old friend Colonel Dennison (ace B director Fred F. Sears) at Fort Sanders. A renegade bullet kills visiting Chief Eagle (Shooting Star), and for his trouble, his son Running Wolf (Jay Silverheels) is locked up—something Steve vehemently opposes. Quicker than you can say, “Hey, where does the Durango Kid hide his horse Raider…and who feeds and waters him during all that time?” the Kid busts Wolf outta jail. So what’s the deal with the assassination? What else: someone wants to sell guns to the Indians.
We need more dads like the Colonel (the kid was this close to the firing squad). Steve proves again that the West wasn’t as racist as you’ve been told—at least not in Hollywood movies. That prison break isn’t exactly crackling with excitement (Nazarro was phoning these in by this point). The guy yodeling too high? Cripes. This storyline is tighter, more grim than the previous outings. George Lloyd’s gruff, funny Sergeant Duffy is a welcome addition…too bad he couldn’t have replaced Burnette.
Trail of the Rustlers
Directed by Ray Nazarro and written by Victor Arthur, Trail of the Rustlers is set in the Rio Perdito valley…which is dry as a bone. That’s good for Ma Mahoney (Mira McKinney) and her clan of murderous boys. They want the valley for themselves, so they figure they’ll kill two birds with one stone: son Chick (Don Harvey) will dress like The Durango Kid and start killing settlers, driving them off their already parched land…which should bring the real Durango Kid to town. Why do that? Because Ma wants to kill him, that’s why. She blames Durango for locking up her boy Big Slim, who was killed escaping prison. Will Tod Hyland (Tommy Ivo) still hero-worship the Kid, after all is said and done?
I like the decidedly nasty undercurrent in this zippy little oater. That perverse Ma Barker vibe is welcome (always good to see motherhood bashed in the supposedly mother-worshippin’ 50s). Sneering Don Harvey’s a good addition to the series, while McKinney is just right as the murderous Ma (there’s a great shot of her watching Smiley sing a song…unamused. Exactly, Ma…). Kids must have loved Ivo’s role, getting to dress like the Kid, with his own Raider, Jr. pony. He even gets the drop on our hero!
Streets of Ghost Town
Backed again by the team of Nazarro and Barry Shipman, Streets of Ghost Town finds Steve, Smiley and tough old bird Sheriff Dodge (Stanley Andrews) holed up overnight in ghost town Shadeville’s abandoned hotel. While Smiley cowers in fear, Steve recounts the travails of the Selby gang, which has been looking for buried gold squirreled away by traitor gang member, Bill Donner. During this flashback, we learn of Donner and Selby’s efforts to stop a land rush, and their subsequent hiding of the loot. The next morning in Shadeville, Steve finds Doris Donner (Mary Ellen Kay), who is looking for her young brother Tommy (Don “Brown Jug” Reynolds), who’s run away, intent on finding the Donner treasure. So who, then, is in that abandoned mine?…
A fun Durango Kid outing…even if there isn’t a whole lot of Durango in it. The opening depiction of “Ghost Town” is quite good—a nice mix of the western and the traditional spookums haunted house subgenre (Burnette gets some solid laughs with his fraidy cat shtick). Frankly, Streets of Ghost Town would have benefitted from just staying right there in dark, scary Shadeville, before daylight ruins the mood and big chunks of another Durango Kid movie are crammed in as stock footage. Nice bit with Steve shooting that skull thrown into the air, to let anyone watching in the shadows know that they’re all good shots (an amusing bit of manly bravado, that). Love that last shot of crazy, blind “Uncle Donner” slobbering over his gold, and watch closely at the end for Kay breaking character and laughing at Smiley falling on his ass, right before they cut the shot.
New blood! Expert B helmer Fred F. Sears is on board here, along with scripter Victor Arthur, for a slam-bang Durango outing. There’s trouble in Piute Valley. It’s dry, so rancher Luke Atkins (William Norton Bailey) wants to dam up the river that runs through his property. Nope, says gruff Captain Dan Saunders (Edgar Dearing). His downriver property will flood. Love trouble also plagues the Valley: Atkins’ daughter Juliet Susan (Gloria Henry) is in love with Saunders’ son Romeo Rob (Jock Mahoney). It’s going to take the Durango Kid to settle everyone’s hash.
The difference in impact of this Durango movie with previous ones is striking, now that Sears is behind the camera. Sears’ movies move, and they do so with dynamic, informed framing and blistering pace. This is a director trying to do something more within the limiting confines of the low-budget B exploiter, and he almost always succeeds (the opening features plenty of uniquely-framed shots of horses and riders furiously giving chase, before Sears stages a striking scene of a man tied to a tree and whipped). Unfortunately, with a really solid director at the helm, the story zings along and we don’t need those so-called comedic interruptions that used to be welcome from Smiley. When he shows up, he gums up the works. Great vicious fistfight with Starrett at the end, another sign of Sears’ impact (as well, I’m convinced that those fetish shots of menacing black-gloved hands filling the frame and firing revolvers stuck in the minds of some future Italian giallo directors—the guys who ate up all these cheap American Westerns after the war).
Snake River Renegades
Sears is back with Barry Shipman for another snappy Durango. Trouble between White settlers and the local Indian tribe upsets Little Hawk (Don “Brown Jug” Reynolds). He wants his father, Chief Black Eagle (Charles Horvath) to make peace with the Whites, but Black Eagle is having none of it: he won’t stand for the attacks made on his people. What he doesn’t know is that the White settlers aren’t attacking him, it’s a group of renegades, bent on making a profit selling guns to the Indians, and then further profiting from the chaos that will result from the subsequent Indian/settlers war. Good thing Little Hawks’ friend Billy (Tommy Ivo) and the Durango Kid are on hand to help.
Not as gripping as Lightning Guns, but still a superior Durango. Director Sears tries to get as many interesting shots as he can into this standard story of White renegades screwing around with the Indians, including a spectacular traveling shot of Steve and Raider riding full out along the town’s covered sidewalks. Nice blocking, too, of the sequence where clever Raider fools the vigilantes into revealing their hiding place. Even something as simple as a scene showing the villains plotting at a table is enlivened by Sears, who pans slowly across their dark, up-lit faces. Some passable slapstick with Smiley in drag. And check out that last shot, as Little Hawk gets Billy high….
Director Fred F. Sears is back, directing a crackerjack script from Barry Shipman. Bonanza town, indeed…for corruption. Run by second-rate crook, Krag Boseman (Myron Healey), Bonanza Town ain’t got a chance, not when the pillar of its community, Judge Anthony Dillon (Luther Crockett), is openly bought and paid for by Boseman. Dillon’s son, Bob (Ted Jordan), is disgusted with his father, and decides he will join the vigilante gang of townspeople who are fed up with the corruption and murder that is ruining their town. The Durango Kid, however, advises caution….
Bonanza Town features the best storyline in this collection of Durango Kid movies, with a nicely dense, twisty plot (one of the few times that the addition of stock footage—this time from West of Dodge City—actually helps fill out the story). The movie’s agreeably sour look at a small Western town is welcome, too: corruption and murder rule the weak…but be careful when vigilantes take over; they could get it wrong (you would think the conformity-obsessed 1950s would have welcomed a unified mob…). Smiley sings what seems to be the same song again for the 100th time, but he does have a very funny bit in a barber chair with an unbilled Vernon Dent, of Three Stooges fame. Sears’ blocking during the action scenes is again inventive, including a good scene where Steve outwits some pursuing villains in a house, and a solid fistfight, done in close shots and done fast. It’s fun to see Sears acting in this one (he’s quite good).
The Hawk of Wild River
Director Fred F. Sears serves up another Durango winner, courtesy of solid vet scripter, Howard J. Green (I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, Morning Glory). The town of Wild River doesn’t have a sheriff. It never has a sheriff. That’s because the minute a sheriff is elected, “The Hawk” (Clayton Moore), a half-Indian gang leader who has terrorized the town into inaction. Along comes U.S. Marshal Steve Martin (who else?), who’s been assigned to end the stagecoach robberies near Wild River. When Steve turns into the Durango Kid, he captures the Hawk, and turns him in. Then Steve pretends to be a rotten apple so he can get in good with the Hawk…and that’s how he’s going to find all that stolen swag.
Watching this ninth movie in the collection, I was suddenly aware of what a tonic these unpretentious oaters were to me, compared to the ridiculously overproduced crap that passes for movies today, what with seemingly interchangeable superheroes and imitation processed food product Star Wars garbage all sinking in a sea of uninspiring CGI effects while I fish around for $60 bucks to take my family to the f*cking movies! (Hollywood today just doesn’t get it…). Director Sears’ action is modest and uncomplicated, and yet notes of vigor are everywhere (it may not seem like a big deal, but for Sears to actually haul his camera up on top of a building to shot down on a scene, was pretty ballsy in B production, when time was money and it was easiest just to pan the camera back and forth at eye level). There’s a shot worthy of Ford here, when the camera dollys up to a dead man, lying at the foot of a dead tree (hope that’s not stock footage…). It’s fun to see the future Lone Ranger, Clayton Moore, as a psychotic half-Indian killer, and the marvelous Syd Saylor is a treat as “Yank ‘Em Out” Kennedy, the traveling dentist (he makes Smiley look good). But even better is Starrett, clearly reveling in the chance to ditch his good-image guy to portray a (pretend) bad guy. He’s believably nasty.
The Kid from Broken Gun
The last Durango Kid…which even director Fred F. Sears can’t save. There’s a courtroom trial. There’s a murder. And the Durango Kid and Smiley help solve the case. Cripes.
Proof positive that even a good director can’t help a lousy script, this time from Barry Shipman. A dreary end to the series, with far too much stock footage, far too much Smiley Burnette singing, too little action, and too, too much Jock Mahoney and not nearly enough Charles Starrett (one assumes Columbia was pushing Mahoney front and center to see how he’d handle the reins once Starrett quit). When Burnette has a musical dream sequence (yep) that looks like something out of one of those later Three Stooges movies (one of the ones with the Curly/Shemp replacement you can’t ever seem to name), I almost turned off the movie. Truly wretched.