3 Degrees of Powdersmoke

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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.

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March 15, 2011 · Posted in Legends, Western  
    

The Sixteen Mesquiteers (Pt. 2)

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(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

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January 27, 2011 · Posted in Legends, Western  
    

The Sixteen Mesquiteers (Pt. 1)

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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

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November 14, 2010 · Posted in Legends, Western  
    

The B Western Front

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As if dealing with rustlers, unhealthy train 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.)
lullaby_joslin

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.

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April 4, 2009 · Posted in Western