Chances are, if you were starring in westerns for P.R.C. in the ’40s, you were either a has-been or a never-was. I guess Buster Crabbe falls into the first category. The last time I remember seeing Crabbe, he was cutting a dashing figure as Flash Gordon in the Universal Pictures serial from 1936. Here, 10 years later, his face haven’t developed any character, and his acting certainly hasn’t improved. He’s just older and a little bit fatter.
In Gentlemen With Guns, which should get an award for “most generic title for a western,” he’s listed in the opening credits as “Buster Crabbe, King of the Wild West,” but just saying it doesn’t make it so. While he’s not the worst cowboy I’ve ever seen, Crabbe doesn’t exhibit any of the qualities I think of when I think of a western star, except earnestness. He earnestly seems to wish he were starring in a better movie.
Alas, only a fool would have cast him in one. While neither unattractive nor truly overweight, by 1946 Crabbe was just far enough over the hill to bear an eerie resemblance to the comedian Bob Odenkirk, of Mr. Show. While there’s nothing wrong with looking like Odenkirk, he’d never be anyone’s first choice to play a cowboy.
The plot of Gentlemen With Guns, such as it is, involves a bunch of black hats attempting to pin a murder on Fuzzy Q. Jones, who is played by Al “Fuzzy” St. John. Fuzzy is the type of bearded, toothless old coot who will be familiar to anyone who’s seen a few western programmers from the ’30s or ’40s. (“Gabby” Hayes made a whole career out of playing this type of character.) The frame-up is fairly ingenious. A man is shot while Fuzzy is talking to him, then the evil sheriff (Budd Buster) moseys on over, his gun drawn, and inspects Fuzzy’s revolver. He switches them and produces a weapon with a single round fired; the round that killed the man. At this point the audience is clued in to the fact that the sheriff is the one who actually did the killing. But wait, it turns out that the supposedly dead gentleman was just playing possum, and he spends the rest of the movie hiding out so Fuzzy can be lynched nice and legal-like. Meanwhile, it’s up to Fuzzy’s friend Billy Carson (Crabbe) to fight the bad guys and eventually discover the ruse.
If the bad guys are so ruthless, however, I’m not sure why they didn’t just murder someone they had it in for and pin it on Fuzzy. But I guess without a faked death there wouldn’t be a movie.
Along with all the fistfights and shootouts, there’s a light-hearted subplot about a mail-order bride named Matilda Boggs (Patricia Knox) who arrives in town thinking that Fuzzy is a young, strapping man who owns a huge ranch. In fact, as soon as she sees Billy, she exclaims, “Fuzzy! Oh, you great, big, wonderful man,” and throws her arms around him.
Gentlemen With Guns was certainly better than Romance of the West, the last P.R.C. western I saw. Unlike Romance of the West, the acting isn’t godawful, and the production values are a little better, even though it’s filmed in regular old black & white, not Cinecolor.
It’s still not anywhere close to being an A-list production. At times, it seems as if the actors are struggling to make their lines heard over the blaring, canned music on the soundtrack. Since the music in a movie is usually added last, however, that can’t possibly be the case, can it? It must just be that their lines are terrible and their delivery is wooden, right?
Maybe I’m being too hard on Crabbe. He can ride a horse without falling off, fire a revolver without dropping it, sit a hat atop his head, and vault over a three foot-high fence and then mount his horse in just two attempts. But as far as former champion swimmers turned western actors go, he’s no Timothy Olyphant.