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  
    

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  
    

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  
    

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