Tuesday, June 4, 2013


(UPDATED 6/5/2013 -- See Roy Rogers section of 'Howdy, Kids!!' review, Tom Mix screening)

Those of us who grew up in the post-World War II baby boom had, unquestionably, the best TV childhood of any generation.  There is a reason that people of several generations still watch shows like SUPERMAN and LEAVE IT TO BEAVER: they really were as good as you remembered, and not aimed down to you, but  rather geared to your interests.  Some series whose genres have fallen out of favor have disappeared – CAPTAIN GALLANT and RAMAR OF THE JUNGLE are still good campy fun, but kids of today would have no idea what to make of a Foreign Legion or Jungle series.

Among the shows that have stood the test of time, not surprisingly, are those in that most American and most cinematic of all genres, the Western.  Now the good and very hip/edgy folks at SHOUT FACTORY have put together a delightful sampler, a three DVD, twenty-four episode, ten hour collection of cowboy favorites.  It includes episodes from a dozen favorite series, as well as a pair of fascinating unsold pilots.   Entitled HOWDY KIDS!! – A SATURDAY AFTERNOON WESTERN ROUND-UP, the word ‘afternoon’ is a misnomer, as the whole point of these shows – from a parental perspective – was to keep the kids busy and quiet on Saturday ‘morning’, so grown-ups could catch up on their sleep.  Shout Factory has selected very well, and watching them will spark fond memories from those of us who grew up with them.  They’ll also serve as a great introduction to children and grandchildren – and decode a bit about their parents’ and grandparents’ psyches – when the youngsters see them for the first time.   

Early TV benefited tremendously from the training ground of Republic Pictures.  Many of the directors, writers, editors and other crew members and character actors who had learned to perform their crafts with slick, stylish efficiency at the little studio in the San Fernando Valley, quickly found their services in demand all over the small screen.  This was particularly true for one of the very best series of the day, THE ROY ROGERS SHOW, whose TV episodes were like a really good Republic Western without the excessive musical padding.  But Roy, who was still under contract to Republic for seven pictures a year, was forbidden by the studio to do a series.  The court battle over Roy doing the series, and Republic airing his movies, went on for years.  When the prairie fire burned itself out, Republic ran the movies, and Roy starred in his series, but he never appeared in a major studio film again, and his lawyer, Art Rush, always thought Roy had been blackballed as too difficult. Premiering in 1951, husband and wife Roy Rogers and Dale Evans spent seven years and 102 episodes in Mineral City, as friends but not spouses, with Roy as a rancher and unofficial lawman, Dale running the coffee shop, and Roy’s old pal from The Sons Of The Pioneers, Pat Brady – he of the Jeep named Nellybelle –  as Dale’s dishwasher and Roy’s sidekick.  The shows also featured Trigger, “Roy’s golden palomino… and Roy’s wonder-dog, Bullet,” and horse and dog were frequently called upon to carry a message or untie Roy’s hands.   Roy had a very natural acting style that has aged well when others have dated, and his shows often had more plotting, riding, and rough-and-tumble fighting than the others.  A modern-day Western series, this is the sort of show, mixing horses and stagecoaches with Jeeps and telephones, that forever confused the kids of my generation, who believed that if we could only manage to get out west, we could wear six-guns and rob stagecoaches.  Of the two episodes included, THE SETUP is only the third one of the series, centering around a feisty old-lady trapper who won’t sell her land, and the crooks who are willing to shoot her, or have her declared insane to get her property (kinda edgy for a kid show).  The second episode, BAD NEIGHBORS, is from the 4th season, and features the rarely seen Post Cereals credit sequence. 

No one knew more about making quality B Westerns for a price than Gene Autry, who had preceded Roy at Republic – Roy actually had been promoted to stardom to replace Gene, who had gone off to war.  Gene Autry produced THE GENE AUTRY SHOW from 1950 to 1955, starring in 91 episodes.  But he also produced several other series under his FLYING A PRODUCTIONS banner, four of which are represented in THE HOWDY KIDS!! collection.  ANNIE OAKLEY stars beautiful Gene Autry-discovery Gail Davis as ‘Little Sure-shot,’ although the series bears no relation to her actual life.  Annie, her kid brother Tagg (Jimmy Hawkins) assist Deputy Lofty Craig (Brad Johnson) in protecting their little town of Diablo, and there is plenty of action, though more of the shooting kind – Annie’s specialty – than fisticuffs.  No surprise that Annie was a favorite among girls – she was better with a gun than any man, but never lost her humor or femininity.  All of the Autry shows were well-produced, and with a varying range of locations.  In addition to Gene’s own Melody Ranch, Vasquez Rocks, Iverson’s Movie Ranch, Pioneertown and the Alabama Hills near Lone Pine are frequently seen.

There were 78 episodes of Autry’s THE RANGE RIDER produced between 1951 and 1953, and while Gene drew on the Republic directors and stock-company of villains, the series’ greatest assets were its charismatic stars, Jock Mahoney as The Range Rider, and Dickie Jones as his young sidekick, Dick West.  In addition to being good actors, they did all of their own stunts – and there was an astonishing amount of trick-riding, leaping on and off of horses, diving through windows and the like.  Starting under his birth-name of Jacques O’Mahoney in the mid 1940s, Jock had stunt-doubled for dozens of stars before becoming a star himself.  Jones was a trick-rider and roper from the age of four (!), and at six was hired by Hoot Gibson to perform in his rodeos.  In addition to his work on-camera in westerns, serials and Our Gang comedies, Dick had starred on radio as HENRY ALDRICH, and for Disney voiced the title character in PINNOCHIO.   The episode BULLETS AND BADMEN features ANNIE OAKLEY-hero Brad Johnson as a villain.  Like his movies, Gene Autry’s shows often dealt with social issues, and the episode CONVICT AT LARGE examines an ex-outlaw’s attempt to go straight when few want to give him a chance. 

After RANGE RIDER rode off into the sunset, Dickie Jones was back in another Autry series, BUFFALO BILL JR., playing the title role of a young Marshal – with little or nothing to do with the real Cody, senior or junior.  Little Nancy Gilbert played his forever-in-trouble kid sister Calamity (what can parents expect when they give a kid that name?), and Harry Chesire was Judge Ben ‘Fair ‘n’ Square’ Wiley, who is saddled with raising the two whippersnappers.  This show is what used to be called a ‘haircut’ (gender switch) on ANNIE OAKLEY, and was very popular, if not quite up to the RANGE RIDER standard; but it was full of the sort of riding and fighting and shooting action you expected from Dickie Jones.  One included episode focuses on a town milliner who is fingering likely candidates for robbery.  The other details a search for a treasure buried by Jesse James.

Gene Autry even tried to build a series around his famous horse in THE ADVENTURES OF CHAMPION, which ran for one 26-episode season in 1955/56.  Set in old Arizona, it starred Barry Curtis as Ricky North, the only person ‘Champion the Wonder Horse’ would obey, with Jim Bannon, a former Red Ryder, as Ricky’s dad, and a German Shepherd named Rebel, who could have been Bullet’s brother.  It’s a nice series, some of it directed beautifully by old pros like Ford Bebee, who was helming Westerns in the silent days, and knew how to tell an animal story with minimal dialogue.  Perhaps it didn’t ‘click’ because it focused more on boy than horse, and Curtis, while a good actor, was saddled with a character so earnest that he made Timmy from LASSIE seem like a juvenile delinquent.  With the show cancelled, he went on the next year to play Van Heflin’s son In 3:10 TO YUMA. 

FURY started the same year as CHAMPION, and ran for five seasons and 116 episodes.  Fury was a beautiful but wild stallion, and Bobby Diamond played Joey Newton, the only person Fury would obey (sound a little familiar?).  Following the great TV tradition, Joey was an orphan, adopted and raised by Jim Newton (Peter Graves), and they lived on and worked the Newton Ranch with crusty old sidekick Pete (William Fawcett).  Fawcett, a Ph. D., who taught theatre at Michigan State, started acting on film and TV right after the war.  Among his 274 screen credits were every single series included in HOWDY, KIDS!!  -- except for ADVENTURES OF CHAMPION.   Originally planned as a prime-time series, Peter Graves was furious at first, when they switched its time slot to Saturday morning.  A modern-day Western series, with superior acting and production, the episode KILLER STALLION is the first after the pilot, and involves a case of mistaken horse-identity, and Joey’s fight to save Fury from being put down for stampeding other horses.  SCORCHED EARTH could have been a boring p.s.a. about forest fires in less talented hands, but instead is very exciting.   

Two series made a direct transition from radio to television: THE LONE RANGER and SERGEANT PRESTON OF THE YUKON.     Both are credited as created by George W. Trendle, although many insist that LONE RANGER was truly the creation of head writer Fran Striker.  Brace Beemer played the daring masked rider of the planes on radio, but a younger and more fit man was needed on-screen, and Clayton Moore was perfect.  A busy but undistinguished actor with an unusually distinctive voice, his portrayal came alive when the mask went on, and he made an indelible impression as the Lone Ranger.  Jay Silverheels, a Mohawk, played his faithful Indian companion Tonto, and although his dialogue was written to make it clear that English was his second language, his characterization was subtle and memorable.  And they didn’t soft-pedal the racial elements; until they learned better, many white folk started the episodes addressing Tonto as “Indian,” as though he didn’t have a name.      

Coming with a tremendous backlog of already-produced half-hour stories, the shows at first relied heavily on adapting radio scripts, as can be seen in THE RENEGADES, episode 8 of the first season.  This caused them to be rather stiff and stilted.  Actor Gerald Mohr, who spoke those well-remembered words from the opening – “…Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear!  From out of the past come the thundering hoofbeats of the great horse Silver!  The Lone Ranger Rides again!” – voiced much un-needed and distracting narration that was carried over from radio.  But by episode 11, SIX GUN’S LEGACY, they had cut back noticeably on the exposition.  The production values are high in these early shows, with plenty of location work, and a bit of stock footage thrown in.  Later on the series became famous for cutting corners.  Dick Jones who, in addition to starring in THE RANGE RIDER and BUFFALO BILL JR. guested on the LONE RANGER, recalled that the camera was mounted on a tripod in the back of a truck at all times, so they could change set-ups that much quicker.

SERGEANT PRESTON came to television six years later, in 1955, but was even more radio-tied and stiff than LONE RANGER, and Richard Simmons portrayed Preston with an ‘1890s melodrama’ broadness that was a distinct, and quirky, part of the show’s charm.  One of the few shows shot in color – the LONE RANGER didn’t get color until near the end of its run – it was still one of the most old-fashioned, and the episode CRIME AT WOUNDED MOOSE features a horde of masked bandits that look like they’re right off of a WEIRD TALES pulp cover.   Did I mention that Preston is ably assisted by his lead sled-dog, “…his wonder-dog Yukon King!” 

THE CISCO KID, produced by ZIV Television, was shot in color, which contributed greatly to the series’ value and longevity.  When O. Henry created the Cisco Kid in his short story THE CABALLERO’S WAY, the Kid was a pretty rotten villain, and his image had been continually scoured and polished ever since.  By the time that Duncan Renaldo, who had played him in some movies for Monogram and United Artists, was playing him again for television, Cisco was “O. Henry’s Robin Hood of the old west!”  Or more properly, as Duncan described him, Don Quixote, with Leo Carrillo as Pancho, the Sancho Panza character.  Like the Lone Ranger, they didn’t shoot bad guys; they shot the guns out of their hands.  Much of the pleasure of this series is the charm of the two stars, who had been in the movies for decades.  Leo Carrillo, who had started at the tail end of the silent era, and had played Pancho opposite Renaldo in the United Artists films, was over seventy when he began the series, but put in a tremendous amount of work in the sun and in the saddle.  Duncan Renaldo’s background was as mysterious as any movie (read my article about him HERE http://henryswesternroundup.blogspot.com/2010/08/amazing-adventures-of-duncan-renaldo.html), but he’d had a long career at Republic, and had written some movies as well.  Their chemistry on-screen was a joy.  Marcia Mae Jones, who starred with them in the GHOST TOWN episode, told me that they were terribly competitive, and always concerned about who was getting more close-ups, but that never came through to the audience.  Incidentally, as many of these series were syndicated over the years, cuts were made to allow for more ads.  I’d seen GHOST TOWN several times, but only with this version have I finally seen the first four minutes, which not only sets up an otherwise unintelligible plot, but also features moving scenes with Cisco and Pancho nearly dying of thirst in the desert.  The series lasted for seven seasons, ending in 1956, and produced 156 episodes, which were re-run for decades.  The stars’ identification with these characters was complete, which was fine with both men.  After playing Pancho, Leo Carrillo only did two TV guest shots before he died in 1961at the age of 80.  Duncan Renaldo died in 1980, at the age of 76, and never played another character onscreen again.

In 1955, when Bill Williams finished starring in 103 episodes of THE ADVENTURES OF KIT CARSON, he said he never wanted to hear the name ‘Kit Carson’ again.  I’m with him.  I’m not saying it was a terrible series, but it wasn’t very good.  The shows tended to be static, with way too much time spent talking in interiors, and not enough plot or action.  The biggest weakness was Williams himself, who was very handsome, but a lox.  Ironically, his sidekick, El Toro, played by Don Diamond, had all the personality that the star lacked.  Although actually a Russian Jew from New York City, Diamond excelled at playing Mexicans, and was also a regular on Disney’s ZORRO series before winning his best-remembered role as Crazy Cat on F-TROOP.  El Toro’s obsession with the ladies makes for trouble, and in the episode THE DESPERATE SHERIFF, about a new and unsure lawman, and a prisoner who must be held when there is no jail cell, the femme fatale of the piece is no less than Movita, Tehani of 1935’s MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY, and later the first wife of Marlon Brando.

Although Kirby Grant had done many films, playing Mounties and cowboys and foils for Abbott and Costello, the role of SKY KING defined his image as much as The Lone Ranger did Clayton Moore, and he gloried in it.  In fact, after eight years and 72 episodes, once the show ended in 1962, Grant never played another character onscreen again.  Unlike the ‘in between’ shows like ROY ROGERS, SKY KING was as modern as a modern-day Western could be, and lots of fun, with Sky flying his Cessna, ‘The Songbird,’ all over the west to save the stranded and track the lawless.  With him was his adorable, if often ditzy, niece Penny, played by Gloria Winters, and probably half of the episodes involved getting Penny out of some harebrained trouble.  But to be fair, Penny could also fly to the rescue when given the chance.  The featured episode, BULLET BAIT, centers on a wedding being held at Sky’s Flying Crown Ranch, until gangsters kidnap the groom and threaten the bride.      

THE RIFLEMAN is the oddest choice of the set, because even though, like CHAMPION, FURY, and BUFFALO BILL JR., it focused on a boy, rather than being a Saturday Morning show, it was an ‘Adult Western’ in the mold of GUNSMOKE, and made by some of the same tough characters, including writer and director Sam Peckinpah.  In 168 episodes, from 1958 to 1963, Chuck Connors was widower Lucas McCain, Johnny Crawford was his son Mark, and the two shared a ranch just outside of North Fork, New Mexico in the 1880s.   Although Lucas was as good with his modified Winchester as Annie Oakley was with her guns, it couldn’t have been more different: Lucas avoided showing off his gun whenever possible, yet almost always ended up having to kill someone, something that was rarely featured, especially on-camera, on the Saturday morning shows.  In the featured episode, DAY OF THE HUNTER, Lucas must deal with charming but sinister mountain-man John Anderson, who is determined to force Lucas into a duel, and cruelly manipulates Mark into making it happen.  It’s much darker than you’d ever have on a Saturday morning show, but very good, until a scene at the end which I won’t give away, except to say that it is not merely bad, but laughable, in a series in which you would never expect it. 

Rounding out the set are a pair of unaired pilots that run the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous.  To take the ridiculous first, THE ADVENTURES OF RICK O’SHAY, with no connection to the same-named comic strip, starred Steve Keyes, with sidekicks Bob Gilbert and Ewing Brown.  The plot, if you can call it that, involves kidnapping, and characters so stupid that they agree to take part believing it’s a practical joke.  While some of the outdoor photography is better than adequate, the acting is embarrassing, and the tech work, especially indoors, is horrible, reminiscent of the worst junior high school play you’ve ever seen.  The only name worth mentioning is director Oliver Drake, who was a fairly good and prolific screenwriter but a very poor director. (We do owe him a debt of thanks for co-writing STUNT MAN: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF YAKIMA CANUTT.)    

On the sublime side, THE ADVENTURES OF RED RYDER, created as a comic strip by Fred Harman, had been a hit in the newspapers, then on radio.  Republic made a very good and popular serial starring Don ‘Red’ Barry (that’s where he got ‘Red’), and Tommy Cook as his Indian orphan companion Little Beaver.  This was followed by a long series of Republic features, first with Wild Bill Elliot, then with Allan ‘Rocky’ Lane as Red, and always with Bobby Blake as Little Beaver.  The last big-screen Red Ryder was Jim Bannon of THE ADVENTURES OF CHAMPION, and in 1951, when this pilot was made for a possible TV series, Bannon was back, and turning on the charm in a big way.  While the mystery boy who played Little Beaver – billed as ‘himself’ – was not up to the Cook or Blake standard, the rest of the cast was exceptional.  Lyle Talbot was the main villain, trying to engineer the rustling of cattle entrusted to Ryder’s care.  Olive Carey, widow of Harry Carey and mother of Harry Carey Jr., played ‘The Dutchess,’ the wealthy lady Red works for.  Kenneth MacDonald was the man who knew too much to live!  Robert J. Wilke, one of the West’s best grinning badmen had a wonderful knock-down drag-out saloon brawl with Red; and Dick Curtis, another top-shelf swine, has a bullwhip duel with Red!  Director Thomas Carr, a master of Western action, and director of many of the best SUPERMAN shows was at the helm.  The tight script was penned by Charles Belden, who’d written many Westerns, and many of the best Charlie Chan pictures.  It’s thoroughly entertaining, and I’m amazed it didn’t sell.  Incidentally, in 1956, another pilot was shot, featuring Allan ‘Rocky’ Lane as the redhead, and it didn’t sell either.             

I thoroughly enjoyed HOWDY KIDS!!, and I’m sure anyone of an age to remember some of the shows, or anyone who wants to know more about kid television, will enjoy it as well.  Sadly, this sort of kid-centered action entertainment, a direct descendent of the Saturday matinees with serials and B Westerns, did not last long.  As actors, justifiably, began demanding a bigger piece of the action, production budgets, though infinitesimal by today’s standards, soared, and live action was soon dumped in favor of cheap-to-produce cartoons.  But boy, it was great while it lasted!   HOWDY, KIDS!! is priced at $19.98, and available from the Shout Factory HERE.
Turner Classic Movies will show five George O'Briens starting this morning at 5:45 a.m., Pacific time, interspersed with other movies.  They are MARSHAL OF LOST MESA (1939), BULLET CODE (1940), LEGION OF THE LAWLESS (1940), PRAIRIE LAW (1940) and TRIPLE JUSTICE (1940).  And later in the afternoon they'll show Tim Holt in ROBBERS OF THE RANGE (1941).


Don't know quite how it'll fit into 'What Is A Western?', but Billy Wilder's film of Raymond Chandler's screenplay from James M. Cain's novel is so close to perfect that it's a must-see regardless. Prior to the screening, there'll be a talk by Glynn Martin, executive director of the Los Angeles Police Museum, discussing L.A.'s importance to films noir. It's at 1:30 pm, and did I mention it stars Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson?


On Saturday, June 8th, at 7:30 p.m. in the Speilberg Theatre at the Egyptian, a program of silent Tom Mix westerns, all produced by Col. Selig, will be presented.  Part of the Cinemateque’s ‘Retro Format Films’ series, all of the prints being shown are 8mm film, possibly the only format in which some still exist.  There will be several shorts, including “An Arizona Wooing” (1915, 23 min.), “A Bear of a Story” (1916, 13 min.) and “Roping a Bride” (1916, 11 min.), followed by the feature JUST TONY (1922), all shown with a live piano accompaniment by Cliff Retallick.  If you’re not familiar with film pioneer Col. Selig, you need to read Andrew Erish’s excellent book, COLONEL WILLIAM N. SELIG – THE MAN WHO INVENTED HOLLYWOOD.  Here’s a link to my mini-review – I’ll have a more extensive one, and an interview with the author, shortly:  http://henryswesternroundup.blogspot.com/2012/12/luke-parrys-third-goodnight-for-justice.html


As Summer comes along, there are more good things to do out-of-doors.  Please send me your Western events anywhere in the world, and I'll be happy to share them!


On Saturday and Sunday, arts and crafts, food, dance performances, and drumming, at the San Luis Rey Mission grounds.  (760)-724-8505.  http://slrmissionindians.org/www.slrmissionindians.org/Home.html


Entertainment, speakers, food and drink, puppet shows and tours of the historic buildings of Allensworth.  Allensworth State Historic Park. (661) 849-3433


That's it for this week!  If you are a regular Round-up reader (or Rounder), you know that  I've interviewed a number of actors, directors and writers of Westerns, but this past Wednesday I had my first opportunity to interview a film composor, Randy Miller, who composed the soundtrack for YELLOW ROCK, which has just been released on CD on the Intrada label.  I'll have that soon.  Have a great week!

Happy Trails,


All Original Contents Copyright June 2013 by Henry C. Parke -- All Rights Reserved


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