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Tag Archives: Roy V. Livingston

Thunder Town (April 12, 1946)

Diminutive cowboy actor Bob Steele rides again! In Harry L. Fraser’s Thunder Town, Steele plays Jim Brandon, a man recently paroled after serving time for a crime he claims he didn’t commit. Things aren’t easy for a parolee out there. As soon as Brandon gets off the stagecoach, he warmly greets the fellow loading it, but the man refuses to shake his hand. Then, while getting some drinking water, the sinister Dunc Rankin (Edward Howard) warns Brandon to stay away from him and his brother.

Brandon has a few friends on the outside, however. Matt Warner (Steve Clark), the local sheriff, recommended his parole, even though he doesn’t believe Brandon’s claim that he and his late partner Jim Donovan were framed. Brandon also claims Donovan’s suicide was really murder, and with the help of small-town ballistics expert Peter Collins (Jimmy Aubrey), he intends to prove it.

He also has a steadfast pal in Utah McGirk (Syd Saylor), who took care of Brandon’s ranch while he was behind bars. McGirk is hanging on to the ranch by his eyeteeth, and even had to take a job as a cook to make ends meet and keep paying taxes on the ranch.

The sheriff firmly reminds Brandon that, as a parolee, he won’t be allowed to carry a firearm. Brandon’s inability to carry a gun means that fisticuffs rule the day. This could have been interesting, but unfortunately he’s too obviously doubled by a stunt homunculus in some of his fight scenes. Also, he doesn’t do anything clever or flashy against his armed opponents, like throwing a knife into their hands or lassoing their guns. Mostly he just flees from them on horseback.

The main heavy in the picture is the aforementioned brother of Dunc Rankin, Bill Rankin (Charles King). Unsurprisingly for a P.R.C. western from the ’40s, the bad guy wants everyone else’s land, and will stop at nothing to get it. He even kidnaps Brandon and threatens to kill him in a bid to force a young woman named Betty Morgan (Ellen Hall) to marry Dunc so they can gain possession of the Morgan ranch. On the plus side, Hall is really easy on the eyes (too often, P.R.C. pictures featured some real dogs as the female leads), but if there was a scene that established her relationship with Brandon, I missed it. Also, the 23-year-old actress looks too young for Steele, who looks older than his 39 years. Strangest of all, the only love scene they share occurs in the last 30 seconds of the picture, and ends with a whispered proposal of marriage.

While Steele continued to appear in films and on television into the early ’70s, in parts both large and small, Thunder Town was his last leading role. He had a good run, though. He was a star of the silent era, and appeared in more than a hundred westerns.

For my money, Thunder Town is the type of western that should have died years earlier. The editing is jumpy, the framing is static, and every scene is lit like a bar after last call, when they turn all the lights on, temporarily blinding the patrons. The actors all deliver their lines in a stilted, cautious fashion, as though their pay will be docked if they flub a line. Steve Clark, who plays the sheriff, is the only supporting player who imbues his lines with any kind of human feeling, and his few scenes with Steele are the only ones that seem as if they belong in a decent movie. Overall, though, the acting is better than the last Steele P.R.C. western I saw, Ambush Trail. Blessedly, Syd Saylor acts like a normal person in this one, instead of the goggle-eyed, rubber-faced mugging machine he was in Ambush Trail. Except, that is, when he’s punched in the face. Then all bets are off. He’s still in this film to provide comic relief, after all.

There are also a few musical numbers shoehorned into the picture that aren’t bad, if you like old-school country music that occasionally involves yodeling.

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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.