"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Billy the Kid in Santa Fe (PRC, 1941)


Bob is Billy for the last time




 
 
Billy the Kid in Santa Fe, released in July 1941, was the last of the six B-Westerns in which Bob Steele played the outlaw usually called William Bonney. Buster Crabbe would take over afterwards. They were Producers Releasing Corporation pictures. PRC, which lasted from 1939-47, churned out low-budget second features for cheaper theaters. Like Monogram, though, PRC was not at the very bottom of the food chain on Poverty Row; it not only created and released its own products, it even had its own studio facilities (other Poverty Row outfits rented space).

Sigmund Neufeld was the producer. He was responsible for over a hundred B-movies, often Westerns, many, like Billy the Kid in Santa Fe, directed by his brother Sam Newfield. Newfield was a real journeyman director, kicking out Westerns at a rate of knots from Undercover Men in 1934 to Wolf Dog (with Jim Davis) in 1958.

Sam Newfield with Bernadette O'Farrell (Maid Marian in the TV Robin Hood)

Bob Steele was the son of actor/director/writer RN Bradbury, a stalwart of Monogram. Pa Bradbury had used Bob and his twin brother Bill as juvenile leads right back in 1920 in the silent movie The Adventures of Bob and Bill.

Bob with his dad

In 1927 Bob was hired by production company Film Booking Offices of America (FBO) to star in a series of Westerns (they gave him the name Bob Steele). Right through into the 1940s he made Westerns for pretty well every minor studio there was, including some Three Mesquiteers pictures at Republic. Try other Billy pictures such as Billy the Kid in Texas or Billy the Kid's Gun Justice. He’d been at high school with John Wayne and they remained pals and you can see Bob in the likes of Rio Bravo or The Comancheros. His short stature and craggy face are immediately recognizable in 300 Westerns, over a 50-year career (his last appearance was 1971).

Bob was slightly anno domini to be playing the Kid but never mind

Second-billed, and mentioned on the title screen, is Al ‘Fuzzy’ St John, Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle’s nephew, who provided the comic relief. He’d actually been in Arbuckle’s 1918 Western Out West. In the sound era he specialized in the scruffy old-timer sidekick part. Oddly, he was the main box-office draw of these pictures in Europe.

An interesting photo of Al St John (right) with his uncle Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle and Buster Keaton on the other side

The third member of the party (there were often three, the hero, an old-timer and a handsome one to romance the dames) was Rex Lease. Like Steele, Lease got work at FBO in the 20s but his first Westerns were for MGM at the end of the decade, on the cusp of the talkie era. In 1936 he was Hoot Gibson's brother in Cavalcade of the West; he played the Pecos Kid in Tim McCoy's Lightnin' Bill Carson; and he worked in a couple of Tom Tyler oaters, Ridin' On and Fast Bullets. You can watch him in Custer's Last Stand (1936 again, a busy year for Rex) or The Ghost Rider the year before. Rex's finale as a star had him teaming up with Rin-Tin-Tin Jr. in The Silver Trail in 1937. By the early 40s he was taking support roles, often being either the pardner or the nemesis of Gene Autry or Roy Rogers.

Rex was a bit of a smoothie

In the opening scene Billy, in Carlton City, is convicted of murder and sentenced to hang. Now, no surprise here, you may think. Bonney was indeed sentenced to death for murder. But of course in these early Billy the Kid films, Billy was an out-and-out goody, solving crimes, protecting the weak and bringing justice to all. He couldn’t possibly have done that murder. He was obviously framed.

Yes, and we see the dark villains who did it, perjuring themselves while giving testimony under oath. The blackguards. They are Karl Hackett, Charles King, Frank Ellis and Kenne Duncan, regulars all of B-Westerns of the time.

The crooked sheriff (Hal Price, I always thought he deserved the middle initial F) cooks up a scheme whereby he saws his own jail bars to allow the Billy to escape. “I know you’re innocent,” he says. Actually, he has his deputies hidden outside with Winchesters, ready to shoot Bonney down the moment he steps out the door. Luckily, Fuzzy and Rex are there and they make short work of the would-be assassins.

The poster was the nearest they got to color

The trio set off for Santa Fe because one of the perjurers, gambler Texas Joe (Dave O’Brien) has gone there and he could give them a clue. They drive off some rustlers but are themselves taken for rustlers by local ranchers and taken to the boss rancher, Pat Walker. Wouldn’t you just know it? Pat Walker knew Billy as a boy. She releases the friends. Yes, she. Pat is a rootin’ tootin’ lady rancher (Marin Sais, Calamity Jane in Deadwood Dick the year before).

She hires Billy and his pals to clean up Santa Fe. There follows an amazing amount of action and plot (the whole thing is only 61 minutes) as Texas Joe is hanged by a posse and they discover that Silent Don (Dennis Moore) is actually Joe’s brother, and… Oh well, never mind.

Fuzzy constitutes himself a judge and his pals a jury and they acquit the goodies of all charges, ha ha.

The whole thing is full of gusto and does not take itself seriously for one moment. The print quality is pretty poor on the Westernmania channel of Amazon Prime where I watched it but it’s three quarters of a century old after all. You have to be quite into these old B-Westerns to enjoy this one but if you are, you’ll have fun.

 

 

4 comments:

  1. Some of the PRC westerns were a bit dire (well many really) but they performed a useful function and gave steady work to a lot of people. I have a 'soft spot' for anything with Bob Steele in a major role as he was a passable actor, very good action star and horseman and his films were fun.

    I note that Dave O'Brien, playing baddie Texas Joe here, became the third star in the series quite soon, playing in several with Buster Crabbe and Fuzzy. He was Tex in those too!

    Always nice to see you review these little 'B' efforts, Jeff, and done without a hint of snobbery. Good on ya!

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    1. Snobby, moi? Perish the thought. No, I love these oldie B-Westerns.
      Jeff

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  2. There are quite a few big pictures in which Bob had significant screen time. Notably, to me at least, Of Mice and Men, The Big Sleep, South of St. Louis, Pork Chop Hill.

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    1. Yes, he also had quite a big non-Western profile.
      Jeff

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