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Tag Archives: Frank Ellis

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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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.

Ambush Trail (Feb. 17, 1946)

Even by 1946 standards, Ambush Trail looks like a relic of an earlier time. The film stars cowboy actor Bob Steele, who played in more than a hundred westerns from the silent era onward, but Ambush Trail is the first film starring him that I’ve seen. He was a supporting player in The Big Sleep (1946), which I have seen, but I couldn’t have picked him out of a crowd if you paid me. Even though it’s a talkie, Ambush Trail has all the hallmarks of a bad silent film; stilted acting, awkward pauses, and lame comic relief from a rubber-faced sidekick (Syd Saylor). It’s also blocked and edited like a silent movie, and only really comes alive during the fistfights, of which there are many.

A small, trim man (his listed height is 5’5″), Steele had dark, curly hair and a neat little mustache. (Check him out in the lobby card above. He’s the one with the whitest hat, the bluest jeans, and the fanciest shirt.) Steele’s earliest roles were in a series of shorts directed by his father, Robert N. Bradbury. He originally went by his birth name, Bob Bradbury, Jr., and his first film role was at the age of 14, in the Pathé short The Adventures of Bob and Bill (1920), which also starred his twin brother, Bill Bradbury. The two young men went on to star together in more than a dozen semi-documentary nature adventure shorts with titles like Trapping the Wildcat (1921), Outwitting the Timber Wolf (1921), and Trailing the Coyote (1921). As he grew older, Steele became a star in his own right, and a box office draw as a star of westerns.

By the mid-’40s, however, his star was fading, and it’s not hard to see why. Steele may be the best actor in Ambush Trail, but that’s only because everyone else is so God-awful. He plays a cowboy named Curley Thompson who has just purchased the Flying A Ranch. To his surprise, Curley learns that the ranch comes with a pea-brained foreman named Sam Hawkins (Saylor), who can’t even ride a horse. (He can handle a buckboard, however, which will come in handy later in the picture.) Curley quickly runs afoul of the local boss, freight owner Hatch Bolton (I. Stanford Jolley). Bolton is systematically ruining the local ranchers so he can buy them out cheap and sell their ranches to a grain combine in Chicago.

After Sheriff Tom Gordon (Henry Hall) is ambushed and disappears, his brother, Deputy Walter Gordon (Kermit Maynard) takes over. Gordon and his gal pal, Alice Rhodes (Lorraine Miller), join up with Curley and Hawkins in their fight against Bolton. When a local rancher named Joe Moore (Al Ferguson) is shot through a window and murdered while he’s meeting with Curley, Bolton and the crooked Marshal Dawes (Ed Cassidy) pin the murder on Curley. After Deputy Gordon frees him from the local jail, Curley hunts for evidence against Bolton that the missing sheriff may have left behind, and the fight is on.

Throughout the picture, Steele moves and emotes as though he’s in a silent film. He delivers his lines in a competent fashion, but he still looks as if he’d be more comfortable with heavy makeup and a live piano accompaniment. His character is a bit of a wet blanket, too. Curley drinks lemon soda instead of liquor, and even weans his sidekick, Hawkins, off the hard stuff, too. Steele’s not terrible, and neither is Ambush Trail, but it’s not very good, either. It’s a passable B western, but only if you really like B westerns.