As recounted in our recent two-part look at the Three Mesquiteers movie series (Part 1 here and Part 2 here), that popular cowboy trio was played by a formidable posse of B Western veterans. From 1935-43, sixteen sagebrush stars moved in and out of the roles in the Republic Pictures series and its precursor, the “Barnum and Bailey of Westerns,” Powdersmoke Range.

The Mesquiteer series might have run even longer, but their success inspired so many imitators that by 1943, they’d been rendered almost commonplace by all the three-man teams that stampeded out of the Monogram and PRC studios. The Range Busters, the Rough Riders, the Trail Blazers and the Texas Rangers were the best known knockoffs of William Colt MacDonald’s trendsetting characters, and many of those groups included former Mesquiteers.

The actors who played Stony, Tucson and the gang were trailblazers, but they were also the nexus of virtually the whole wide range of Saturday matinee cowboys, nearly all of whom passed through their little corner of the West at one time or another. The number of top hands each man encountered over the course of his career is impressive; if you spread the associations out a little further, a la the old game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” the total is staggering.

For all the studios that cranked them out, the world of the B Western was a small one. Popular players like Bob Steele and Big Boy Williams worked all over the map and encountered many of the names that are listed below in connection with other actors. What follows is a simplified list, with only a sampling of the repetition of names; the multiple criss-crossing of actors in Powdersmoke Range alone accounts for more than half the famous names in the history of Western movies. For obvious reasons, the Mesquiteers have been omitted unless the two actors in question did not work together in that series. A complete accounting of the times a Mesquiteer crossed the path of other Western stars would boggle the mind.

BIG BOY WILLIAMS – Errol Flynn, Dick Foran, Buck Jones, Randolph Scott and John Wayne.

AL ST. JOHN – Rex Bell, Buster Crabbe, Lash LaRue, Lee Powell and Fred Scott.

HARRY CAREY – Buzz Barton, Buffalo Bill, Jr., William Desmond, Franklin Farnum, William Farnum, Art Mix, Buddy Roosevelt and Wally Wales…all in Powdersmoke Range!

HOOT GIBSON – Ken Maynard and Chief Thundercloud in the Trail Blazers series (which also included Bob Steele), Jack Perrin and Ray Corrigan.

SYD SAYLOR – Buster Crabbe, Ken Maynard, Kermit Maynard, Joel McCrea, George O’Brien, Tex Ritter and Randolph Scott.

RAY CORRIGAN – Rex Allen, Donald “Red” Barry, Monte Hale, Jack Holt, Tom Keene, Allan “Rocky” Lane, Dave O’Brien, Roy Rogers, John “Dusty” King and Dennis Moore (both in the Range Busters series).

BOB LIVINGSTON – Yakima Canutt, William Farnum, Rex Lease, Kermit Maynard, Art Mix, Dennis Moore, Roy Rogers, Al St. John, Chief Thundercloud and Big Boy Williams.

MAX TERHUNE – Johnny Mack Brown, Rex Lease, Dennis Moore and Dave Sharpe (the final three in the Range Busters series).

RALPH BYRD – Harry Carey, Edmund Cobb, Gary Cooper, Hoot Gibson, Tim McCoy, Fred Scott and Tom Tyler.

JOHN WAYNE – Yakima Canutt, Harry Carey, Iron Eyes Cody, Tim Holt, Buck Jones, Tim McCoy, Roy Rogers, Randolph Scott, Tom Tyler and Big Boy Williams.

RAYMOND HATTON – Rex Bell, Robert “Little Beaver” Blake, Johnny Mack Brown, Gary Cooper, Buck Jones and Tim McCoy (both in the Rough Riders series).

DUNCAN RENALDO – “Slingin’” Sammy Baugh, Harry Carey, Leo Carillo and Chief Thundercloud.

TOM TYLER – Gary Cooper, William “Wild Bill” Elliott, Errol Flynn, Russell Hayden, Tim Holt, Alan Ladd, Wayne Morris, George O’Brien, Roy Rogers, Randolph Scott, Jay Silverheels and John Wayne.

BOB STEELE – Broncho Billy Anderson, Johnny Mack Brown, Rod Cameron, Sunset Carson, Lane Chandler, Buster Crabbe, Clint Eastwood, Ben Johnson, Tom Keene, Ken Maynard, Kermit Maynard, Tim McCoy, Joel McCrea, Audie Murphy, Randolph Scott and John Wayne.

JIMMIE DODD – Rex Bell, Johnny Mack Brown, James Craig, Dick Foran, Hal Taliaferro and Big Boy Williams.

RUFE DAVIS had few Western credits outside his time with the Mesquiteers, but he deserves some kind of honorable mention for his recurring role on the TV series Petticoat Junction, which teamed him with Edgar Buchanan, Smiley Burnette, Pat Buttram and Roy Roberts in a virtual Western sidekicks’ and character actors’ reunion.

Taking the association a couple of degrees further, we can extend the Mesquiteers to just about every major cowboy star not already on the list. Three of the Mesquiteers acted with Roy Rogers, who in turn acted with Charles Starrett and Gene Autry, who both worked with Jimmy Wakeley. Tom Tyler can be connected through Russell Hayden to James Ellison  and Hopalong Cassidy himself, William Boyd, through Tim Holt to Ray Whitley, and through Jay Silverheels to Clayton Moore, TV’s Lone Ranger. Bob Steele’s co-star Sunset Carson once worked with Bill Cody. Raymond Hatton’s frequent partner Johnny Mack Brown acted with Bob Baker. And many of the Mesquiteers worked at one time or another with Gabby Hayes, who probably worked with everybody we’ve left out.

And let’s not forget the family connections. Bob Livingston’s brother Jack Randall played B Western leads at Monogram and Columbia. And Bob Steele’s father Robert Bradbury directed many movie cowboys, both famous and obscure, including William S. Hart and Tom Mix.

It’s no wonder the Three Mesquiteers rode point during the greatest of the B Western’s golden years – they had the best connections in the West.

March 15, 2011 · Posted in Legends, Western  
    

(In Part 1, we saw how Western novelist William Colt MacDonald’s popular pulp stories about a fighting cowboy trio slowly made their way to the screen in the 1930s. After a faltering start with the low-budget The Law of 45’s, MacDonald’s Three Mesquiteers hit the big time with the release of “The Barnum and Bailey of Westerns,” Powdersmoke Range.) Read more

January 27, 2011 · Posted in Legends, Western  
    

They were Tucson Smith, Stony Brooke and Lullaby Joslin; for a while, they were also Rusty, Rico and the Masked Rider; but one name everyone knew them by was the Three Mesquiteers – a hard-riding, wisecracking trio fondly remembered as the heroes of one of the liveliest Western series ever to gallop across the matinee screen. Read more

November 14, 2010 · Posted in Legends, Western  
    

(Part 1 began a look at Hollywood’s long-running love affair with the legend of Billy the Kid, whose brief and grubby real-life career came to an abrupt end at the hands of New Mexico sheriff Pat Garrett. The mythmaking continues:)
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July 27, 2010 · Posted in Legends, Western  
    

He’s been called everything from a homicidal moron to a cowboy Robin Hood – but whoever and whatever Billy the Kid really was, his brief and bloody career earned him an enduring place in the American imagination…and created a virtual cottage industry in Hollywood, where his legend has been mined, refined and reshaped in more than 60 motion pictures.
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June 21, 2010 · Posted in Legends, Western  
    

Fighting Westerner

(Part 1 examined the evolution of Randolph Scott from generic leading man into the iconic Western star he would become through a series of low-budget Paramount Zane Grey adaptations directed by Henry Hathaway. The story continues:)

Just a year after he’d begun the Grey series, Scott had settled so effortlessly into the role of native Westerner that roles like Heritage of the Desert’s tenderfoot Jack Hare were already well behind him. The 1933 Sunset Pass, again with Harry Carey and Noah Beery, consolidated the image even further with his role as a young gunslinger falsely accused of murder – and in Man of the Forest that same year, he and Hathaway added the final ingredient to the persona that would make him a major box office attraction for the next 30 years.
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November 16, 2009 · Posted in Legends, Western  
    

Scott

By 1932, Randolph Scott was all washed up.

The young Virginian had come to California in pursuit of an acting career, but despite his good looks, charm and intelligence, after four years he’d landed nothing more than extra work and a couple of bit parts. As many frustrated film actors have done before and since, he’d hauled his 6’2” frame onto the live stage in search of exposure, and his performance in a drama called The Broken Wing finally earned him attention and a contract with Paramount.

However, by mid-’32 he’d been given only one decent supporting role, a single bit part, and humiliating extra work as one of the hybrid creatures in The Island of Lost Souls. Paramount clearly hadn’t a clue how to use him.
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October 5, 2009 · Posted in Legends, Western  
    

Pirates Of The Prairie

There was nothing fancy about Tim Holt. No trick horse, no bullwhip, no bull of any kind. He was just the quiet cowpoke everybody liked, a straightforward guy who literally shot from the hip … but in his amiable, unassuming way, he was right up there with the great B Western heroes of all time.
He was the son of silent action star Jack Holt, but despite the instant success he could’ve had as Jack, Jr. (his real name), he chose to make it on his own and as himself.
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July 23, 2009 · Posted in Legends, Western  
    

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As if dealing with rustlers, ctrain robbers, and ubiquitous big-screen owlhoot Roy Barcroft weren’t bad enough, the B-movie cowboys of the early 1940s crawled out of their bedrolls one day to find sieg-heiling storm troopers and fifth columnists lurking behind every cactus. World War II had erupted all over the silver screen sagebrush, and while the conflict only occupied those six-gun heroes for a couple of years, during that brief time it was never quiet on the B Western front.

Unlike the drastic retooling that many industries underwent for the war effort, post-Pearl Harbor Hollywood was allowed to continue what it had always done on a largely unrestricted basis. During the early years, war-based entertainment was all over the place, particularly on the Saturday matinee screens … until the public’s need for more escapism made itself known at the box office, and the film capital increasingly turned away from global conflict and reverted to the sure-fire material of old.

But during that roughly two-year period, audiences had been treated to 51p7r8v3ydl_ss500_1such bizarre visions as the Three Stooges and Daffy Duck gouging Axis eyeballs, Sherlock Holmes matching wits with 20th century saboteurs, and Tarzan dealing justice to Herr Schicklegruber’s ruthless minions.

However, none of those attempts at retooling was as odd as Hollywood’s game of cowboys and Nazis. Riding out under gloriously loopy titles like Cowboy Commandos and Texas to Bataan, many of the Poverty Row Western heroes took on the Axis at one time or another – but nobody played that game as well as the flag-wavingest studio of them all, Republic Pictures. And of all Republic’s popular cowpokes, the Three Mesquiteers were the absolute best at stomping the Hun with a high-heeled boot.

The Mesquiteers were the heroes of a long-running series of films that saw a dozen different actors assuming the three leading roles as the years went by. With storylines that ranged from the 1880s to modern times (a financially convenient “modern West” in which covered wagons and gun-toting cowpokes co-existed with airplanes and jukeboxes), the Mesquiteers were quintessential utility heroes, and had often taken on social problems as timely as the morning newspaper. So when the threat of war in Europe began to rear its head in the late 1930s, they were natural candidates for a dustup with the world’s newest villains.

180px-palsofsaddleposterTheir first brush with the enemy actually came before the U.S. entered the fray, in 1938’s Pals of the Saddle, a typical Rover Boys-style romp that saw them thrust into the middle of a plot involving spies for a foreign power (unnamed in the custom of most pre-war films, but obviously Germany) which was bent on smuggling a poison gas ingredient called “monium” out of the country.

A youthful John Wayne made his first appearance as lead Mesquiteer Stony Brooke with this entry, and immediately found himself up to his big white Stetson in a preposterous adventure that saw him fleeing a trumped-up homicide charge and faking his own death in order to go undercover with the spy ring as a stand-in for a lovely Secret Service agent’s murdered partner.

(Got that?)

Of course, the plan goes awry in the best pulp tradition, and compadres Lullaby (Max Terhune) and Tucson (Crash Corrigan) have to ride to Stony’s rescue before Mesquiteer grit and the U.S. Cavalry save the world from germ warfare, bringing the villains’ monium-laden Conestogas to a slam-bang halt just this side of the Mexican border.

The boys’ next brush with the Axis came in 1942, and by that time the producers had stopped playing coy about who the bad guys were. Set in the waning days of American neutrality, The Phantom Plainsmen revolved around Nazi agent Hartwig’s attempt to force a lovable old rancher into selling his prize horses to the Third Reich for military purposes. However, Cap Marvin is such a pacifist that he won’t even sell stock to his own government’s armed forces, so Hartwig resorts to blackmail by having the rancher’s son Tad (played by young Richard Crane) dragged from his European studies and detained by the Gestapo.

The Mesquiteers pitch in to help, only to get tossed into the calaboose for steeletheir trouble. Luckily, their jailer is a singularly inept public servant (played by comic actor Vince Barnett), and after a whimsical jailbreak, our heroes bring Hartwig and his gang to justice by way of Fist City. It turns out that Tad has already been released from custody – a fact which Hartwig had kept to himself, the lying fascist – so Cap is now ready to commit his resources to winning the war that lies ahead.

Written for an audience of children and supposedly undemanding rural ticket buyers, the story relies on a wildly exaggerated opinion of the value of horseflesh in fighting a modern war. Even so, The Phantom Plainsmen is a first-class example of how easily the B Westerns could be adapted to wartime themes. Spy chiefs, often operating out of jalapeno-challenged New York City, were seamlessly substituted for the usual evil Easterners who made life so miserable for those good-hearted folks out West; and as there seemed to be no end to the number of hard-riding owlhoots who’d sell out their country for a handful of Deutschemarks, the game of white hats vs. black hats could continue unabated.

By this time, Wayne had left the series to give the Seabees and the Flying Tigers a hand, and Corrigan and Terhune had started the Range Busters franchise at Monogram (where they, too, would battle the Axis, though with a smaller war chest). Western legends Tom Tyler and Bob Steele became the new wartime Mesquiteers, joined at first by Rufe Davis and later Jimmy Dodd as Lullaby. (That’s the same Jimmy Dodd who would later become host of The Mickey Mouse Club, making a transition from movie Mesquiteer to TV Mousketeer.)
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With his no-nonsense demeanor and propensity for furniture-shattering fistfights, the diminutive Steele was a terrific addition as Tucson Smith. The towering Tyler, enjoying his last hurrah at cowboy stardom, brought a larger-than-life quality to the role of Stony that would stand him well in the group’s next showdown with the Third Reich.

Valley of Hunted Men, also released in 1942, was the last and wildest of the Mesquiteers’ World War II adventures. The story begins with the escape of three vicious Nazis from a Canadian POW camp. As they make their bloody tomtyler1way into the States, they’re gradually whittled down to a single murderous goose-stepper, who passes himself off as the nephew of a kindly old inventor who’s working to help the Allies win the war.

Of course, it isn’t long before the prairie is swarming with spies and turncoats, and the Mesquiteers have their hands full trying to sort the mess out. In one of the movie’s high points, Tyler brings down an enemy airplane with a rifle bullet; and the climax offers the bizarre spectacle of Tyler and Steele charging the Nazis hell-for-leather through a stand of trees amid flashing hooves and blazing six-guns – a moment so wonderfully goofy and unabashedly heroic that one can’t help regretting that Republic didn’t sign the Mesquiteers up for the duration.

April 4, 2009 · Posted in Western  
    

Two ranches stood off the road to Newhall, California – one, an austere little spread that barely covered three acres; the other, a sprawling hilltop estate called Horseshoe Ranch, the home of the great film legend William S. Hart. By contrast, the tiny place in the valley below had neither a fancy name nor a picturesque view … yet the man who lived there, literally in Hart’s shadow, would eventually become a legend, too. His name was Harry Carey.

harrycarey4Based on his work as a beloved character actor of the 1930s and ‘40s, Carey’s reputation is as secure and deserved as any in film history – yet the same historians who cemented that reputation have also shrugged off his early work as a cowboy star, unfairly keeping him in another man’s shadow by painting his silent Cheyenne Harry series as mere imitation Hart. But it isn’t that simple.

By the time the first Cheyenne Harry two-reeler appeared in 1916, Hart had been electrifying audiences with his “good badman” roles for two years. But dramatically reformed outlaws had been a staple of Western film since Broncho Billy Anderson invented the cowboy series hero in 1907, and D.W. Griffith’s numerous oaters (including several featuring Carey) had offered stories about good badmen as early as 1910.

Hart’s take on the convention, his emphasis on realism and dignity, was a major contribution to the form – but it takes nothing away from either man to note that by the time Hart made his debut, Carey had already begun projecting the same qualities in his own work. Being the men they were, how could either have done anything else?

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But it was their differences for which we remember them now. Hart’s austere Victorian façade, his constantly reenacted transitions from poetic loner to vengeful scorched-earth avenger, struck a chord in the audiences of his time; today, though, he’s seen more as a museum piece than as the gritty realistic character for which he was taken during the WWI era.

Carey, on the other hand, registers with a persona that still seems largely contemporary to modern viewers. Some of what he’s called on to do is old-fashioned in dramatic terms, but his cynical antihero is the genuine article. He’d made the Bogart thing his own when Bogie himself was barely out of short pants, coupled with a prototypical American look that was a cross between Will Rogers and Abraham Lincoln.

Most of the early films in Carey’s Cheyenne Harry series are among the lost works of the silent era, but one important effort remains: the 1917 Straight Shooting, which was not only the first feature-length Cheyenne Harry film, but also the first feature directed by John Ford.

As Ford’s biographer Tag Gallagher has noted, Ford was very much Carey’s 6a00d83451be5969e200e54f346eb88833-640wijunior partner on this production. Ford had worked his way up in the movie business as an assistant to his brother Francis – whose own sizable and once-popular body of early work deserves a new look – and had only recently struck out on his own as a fledgling director.

(In later years, Ford would be known for driving tough leading men to tears, but during work on Straight Shooting, he deferred to Carey’s experience and slept with the rest of the company in bedrolls on the grounds of Carey’s home. To his credit, as an elder statesman Ford would take pains to acknowledge Carey as the man who’d taught him the essentials of working with actors and making films.)

Universal Pictures was evidently considering pulling the plug on the Cheyenne Harry series, but for Ford it was still a big break … and neither he nor his star was ready to ride quietly into the sunset. The picture had been planned as another modest two-reeler, but Carey and Ford saw more potential in the story and simply refused to stop shooting. The story has it that Ford wheedled more film and shooting time out of the front office by concocting a tall tale about losing the original footage in a river. When it became clear that he and Carey were turning in a final product that was over twice its budgeted length, studio officials were outraged … but the quality of the rushes convinced Universal that the savvy old pro and the ambitious kid were on to something.

By giving the story a full five reels to breathe, Carey and Ford could use its traditional ranchers-vs.-farmers setup as a backdrop for a compelling human drama dotted with little touches that lifted it above the run-of-the-mill oater. Some moments are simple throwaways, such as the blink-and-you-miss-it business of one of the bad guys turning on a Victrola for a little (silent) background music in the gang’s headquarters. Other moments are pivotal and striking, such as actor George Berrell’s transformation from a comical proto-Gabby Hayes figure to a heartbreaking grieving father.

At times, one has the feeling of discovering the recurring motifs of Ford’s mature work alongside him. His use of a claustrophobically narrow passage through a rocky outcrop seems a clear precursor of his later love affair with the anomalies of Monument Valley. And his constant use of open doorways in the interior sets, which lend an air of verisimilitude and parallel action to the scenes, would culminate four decades later in the final shot of The Searchers.

If Ford’s work on Straight Shooting seems less than polished today, it’s still one of the most compelling pieces of on-the-job training ever committed to film – and in its day it was electrifying.

straightEqually unforgettable is Carey’s virtuoso turn as a hard-bitten thug who’s hired to wipe out the sodbusters, only to switch sides after getting an unexpected look at the misery his kind of violence leaves behind. Carey swears off killing, but it’s not that easy; his new alliance with the farmers has made him a target of the gang who’d hired him. One of the film’s finest moments occurs just after Cheyenne Harry’s been forced to shoot a former compatriot down in a sad dusty street. To the frightened townspeople, he’s still just another killer, and he realizes that he has no one with whom to share his mixed feelings but his oblivious, tail-switching horse.

The whole film is resolutely unglamorous. Carey doesn’t even wear a holster, opting to carry his six-gun inside his rumpled shirt. At one point a young cowboy (played by an impossibly boyish Hoot Gibson) topples off his horse while galloping across a stream, a real-life gaffe that fit the film’s warts-and-all approach so perfectly that Ford left it in.

Straight Shooting cleaned up at the box office, and any notion of putting Cheyenne Harry out to pasture was forgotten. Over the next two years, Carey and Ford made another 15 feature-length entries in the series, some highly serious and others wildly whimsical, but few with any concession to conventional notions of heroism. From beginning to end, Carey remained a hard character with criminal tendencies and a talent for drinking himself into a hallucinatory stupor. He was one of the most complex anti-heroes in the history of Western films.

Eighteen years after the series ended, Carey resurrected Cheyenne Harry for the 1937 Ghost Town, a leisurely low-budget programmer set in the “modern West.” At 59, Carey was well into that flinty Dutch uncle phase of his career for which he’s most celebrated, and no longer the hardcase of his silent features. But his personal charm and unique no-frills style were as effective as ever, and as the villains learned in an explosive climax, a mellow Cheyenne Harry was still no one to cross.

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It was Cheyenne Harry’s last ride, but even today those with their ears to the ground can pick up the vibrations of his silent mount’s hoofbeats. Carey never equaled Hart’s immense stardom, but neither did he become a prisoner of it – for Hart’s genius was so utterly personal that he became as much his own monument as that magnificent hilltop ranch, a towering bronze figure whose retirement in 1925 guaranteed that his image would be forever frozen in time.

Carey outlived Hart by a year, retired only by his death in 1947. He left a harry_carey1different but equally imposing monument behind, built of the enduring freshness of his work, and the long reach of his influence: in the achievement of his friend and student John Ford; in the career of John Wayne, who based his screen persona on Carey’s; and in every generation that re-invents the “adult” Western he helped pioneer.

It’s an achievement as big as they come in the movies, thanks in no small part to a half-forgotten scoundrel with the unlikely name of Cheyenne Harry.

February 6, 2009 · Posted in Legends, Western