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Tag Archives: Al “Fuzzy” St. John

Prairie Badmen (July 17, 1946)

Is wildly prolific Poverty Row director Sam Newfield’s Prairie Badmen really that much better than the last two westerns of his I’ve seen? Or is he just wearing me down?

Probably a little of both. Prairie Badmen has all the hallmarks of a shoddy P.R.C. western — incompetent use of library music by musical director Lee Zahler, insouciant use of obvious stunt doubles, and static, unimaginative camerawork — but it moves at a nice clip, has a decent story, doesn’t overstay its welcome, and features plenty of goofy physical humor courtesy of Al “Fuzzy” St. John.

As the film opens, we see Fuzzy, wearing a feathered trailer warbonnet that flows down his back and reaches the ground. He’s standing on the back of a wagon, hawking patent medicine called “Kickapoo Elixir” (subtitled “A Blessing to Mankind”) to a bunch of cowpokes and yokels. Inside the wagon lies Doc Lattimer (Ed Cassidy), who is convalescing. Lattimer tells his daughter, Linda (Patricia Knox), “Fuzzy seems to be all right on the crescendo, but he doesn’t seem to have the proper persuasive note in his confidential appeal.”

Before you can say “Jack Robinson,” a trio of no-good characters, Cal (Charles King), Lon (Kermit Maynard), and Steve (John L. Cason), surreptitiously hitch their horses to the front of the wagon and take off with it, with Lattimer and his daughter inside. Fuzzy falls off, but he quickly gets to his feet and chases after them, his headdress flying behind him, nearly parallel to the ground. (It’s clearly held aloft by an off-screen wire, since its angle is different in each shot.)

Pretty soon, Billy Carson (Buster Crabbe) rides in and saves the motley crew of good-natured scam artists from the troublemakers. They claim they were just having some fun. Prairie badmen? More like prairie frat boys.

Or so it seems. Eventually we’ll learn that those badmen are after a map that a wounded and dying outlaw named Bill Thompson (Frank Ellis) may have left with Doc Lattimer five years earlier. The map supposedly shows the location of four bars of gold stolen from an express office.

The thickening of the plot, such as it is, comes from Doc Lattimer’s son, Don (John L. Buster), who’s sick of traveling with his father and sister, making chicken feed while standing on the back of the medicine wagon and singing songs like “Prairie Pete.” Billy offers him some avuncular advice, “You don’t prove you’re a man by carrying a chip around on your shoulder.” But Don doesn’t take it to heart, and soon falls in with the black hats, attempting to finagle a half share of the loot in exchange for revealing the location of the treasure.

The plot is nothing outstanding, but it’s engaging enough, and frequently punctuated by Fuzzy’s corn-pone antics, so it never gets boring. When Billy tells Fuzzy he should know what he’s selling for a dollar a bottle, Fuzzy accidentally grabs turpentine instead of patent medicine. He pours it on his head, down his back, and then drinks it. He proceeds to make facial expressions that would make Red Skelton ashamed, spits it out, yowls, and leaps up and down like a jumping jack.

Some of the comic relief goes on too long, such as the scene in which Fuzzy attempts to string up a hammock and then get into it, but it’s mostly entertaining. He wears his Indian warbonnet for most of the picture, and it’s practically another character in the movie, snaking and flying around, constantly manipulated by that off-screen wire.

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Ghost of Hidden Valley (June 5, 1946)

When it comes to Poverty Row westerns, there’s a fine line between watchable and unwatchable.

I didn’t dislike Ghost of Hidden Valley, and even enjoyed a lot of it. I can’t say whether that’s because it’s a slight cut above other Poverty Row westerns distributed by P.R.C. (Producers Releasing Corporation) that I’ve seen lately, or because my expectations were ground down to a nub by the three other movies directed by Sam Newfield that I’ve watched in the past year.

One of the most prolific directors of all time, Newfield directed more than 250 movies in a career that spanned almost 40 years. Martin Scorsese once said, “Newfield is hard, that’s a hard one, you can’t do too much of that.” This from a man well known for his insatiable appetite for films of all kinds.

Ghost of Hidden Valley begins with some stock footage of an enormous herd of cattle. In the next scene, Ed “Blackie” Dawson (Charles King), the leader of a group of cattle rustlers, shoots an interloper so he won’t tell any tales to the law. “Well, that takes care of that,” Dawson’s henchman says. “The ghost of hidden valley will get all the blame.”

I’m a fan of economical storytelling, even when it’s outlandish.

There is no ghost, of course, and we won’t see any more cattle, either. There will be some weak-sauce comedy in which the grizzled and toothless Fuzzy Q. Jones (Al “Fuzzy” St. John) will mistake the calls of a hoot owl for the spectral cries of a wandering spirit, but that’s it.

After Dawson and his rustlers commit murder, we see cowboy Billy Carson (Buster Crabbe) and his friend Fuzzy at the post office in Canyon City, Arizona. Fuzzy has received a letter from someone named Cecil Trenton. (It comes addressed to “Fuzzy Jones, Esq.”) Cecil’s late brother, Sir Dudley Trenton, spoke well of Fuzzy, as well as his sojourn in America generally. “It was his wish that his son Henry, a young gentleman just out of Oxford, should experience a bit of the rugged life and devote some attention to the property Sir Dudley purchased in your vicinity,” Cecil writes.

“What is this Oxford he just got out of, a penitentiary?” asks Fuzzy.

“No,” Billy responds. “Some sort of a school.”

Henry Trenton (John Meredith) is exactly what you might expect. A fey, snooty-accented tenderfoot wearing a checked shirt, vest, ten-gallon hat, and ridiculous sheepskin chaps. “I always make it a point to dress correctly,” he says. He even has an aristocratic butler in tow named Tweedle (Jimmy Aubrey).

Billy sees the potential of Hidden Valley Ranch, if only someone could knuckle down and work it properly. Will Henry Trenton be that man?

Ghost of Hidden Valley is a typical P.R.C. western, with plenty of shootouts, chases on horseback, and furniture-destroying fistfights to fill out its 56-minute running time, but at least it’s briskly paced. Also, the female lead (Jean Carlin) is pretty, unlike the last Crabbe P.R.C. western I saw, and the script by Ellen Coyle is breezy and relatively entertaining.

There’s still Newfield’s trademark sloppiness and inattention to detail for the viewer to contend with. For instance, there’s one scene in which Crabbe’s skinny stunt double, his loose shirt hanging out of his pants, takes a punch, there’s a cut, and the next shot is of the real Crabbe, his chunky torso unmistakable, and his shirt tightly tucked into his jeans.

Crabbe was my main problem with this film. No longer the dashing young actor he was when he played Flash Gordon in the ’30s, Crabbe phones in his performance, has trouble mounting his horse in at least one scene, and generally looks as if he’d rather be somewhere else.

Gentlemen With Guns (March 27, 1946)

Another week, another bargain-basement western from P.R.C. (Producers Releasing Corporation).

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.