Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Stagecoach Outlaws

The B-Hive

By Ed Garea

Stagecoach Outlaws (PRC, 1945) – Director: Sam Newfield. Writer: Fred Myton (story & s/p/). Stars: Buster Crabbe, Al St. John, Frances Gladwin, Ed Cassidy, I. Stanford Jolley, Kermit Maynard, John L. Cason, Bob Kortman, & Steve Clark.  B&W, 58 minutes.

I have a confession to make: I’m a big fan of the B-Western. They’re fun to watch, move fast, and the action is continuous. The plots are somewhat simple, almost as if from a cookie cutter, but I know what I’m getting, so I’m never disappointed. Over the years these lowly regarded B-Westerns have served as a spawning ground for young actors such as John Wayne, and a last refuge for those whose time and star have faded.

One of the outfits churning out B-Westerns in the ‘40s was Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC) and one of their most successful franchises starred Buster Crabbe and Al (Fuzzy) St. John. Crabbe first starred as Billy the Kid in 1941, taking over the role from fellow B-veteran Bob Steele, and played the role in 13 films. The character’s name was changed to “Billy Carson” in 1943, and Crabbe starred in another 23 films.

Like Johnny Weissmuller, Buster Crabbe was a championship swimmer, having won a bronze medal in the 1500-meter men’s freestyle at the 1928 Amsterdam Summer Olympics and a gold medal in the 400-meter men’s freestyle at the 1932 Los Angeles Summer Olympics. But it was Weissmuller who beat out Crabbe for the role of Tarzan in an MGM screen test. Paramount, though, was impressed enough to star him in the 1933 feature, King of the Jungle, where Crabbe played Kaspa, a white youth raised in the jungle by animals, is captured, and brought back to civilization as an attraction in the circus. It was one of many Tarzan imitations and was not to be Crabbe’s last. Later that year, he starred for producer Sol Lesser in the serial, Tarzan the Fearless, a movie so wretched it was pulled from many theaters after only one episode and placed a permanent damper on Crabbe’s career, consigning him to the B’s and below. He made a few films for Poverty Row studio Mayfair before Paramount signed him for a series of B-Westerns based on Zane Grey’s writings.

While at Paramount, he also freelanced in a couple of serials for Universal, three as Flash Gordon and one as Buck Rogers. The serials quickly passed into limbo, but were revived by audiences in the 60s and 70s when they played on television and at colleges, and made Crabbe something of a cult figure.

His Paramount contract having run its course, and with no new prospects at Universal, Crabbe became a free agent, i.e., unemployed. It was in 1941 that he accepted a role as an African explorer in a low-budget thriller from Poverty Row Producers Releasing Corporation. Titled Jungle Man, it made back its cost and more, and PRC pressed Crabbe into action in their “Billy the Kid” series, replacing Bob Steele, who had enough of low-budget oaters and left for greener pastures. And except for a few adventure films, such as the notorious Jungle Siren  (1942), where he and “jungle girl” stripper Ann Corio fought the Nazis, Westerns would be his specialty at PRC. His first film in the new series was 1941’s Billy the Kid Wanted, where he was paired with a man who would appear with him in the subsequent Billy the Kid/Billy Carson films: Al. “Fuzzy” St. John.

Al St. John has quite a pedigree in Hollywood. He was one of the original Keystone Cops for Mack Sennett and made many shorts with his uncle, Fatty Arbuckle. After Fatty was banished from Hollywood due to scandal, St. John formed his own production company and made comic shorts for many studios, including Fox, Educational, Rayart, and First National. (One of his shorts for Fox, 1923s Spring Fever, co-starred a young Jean Arthur.) When sound arrived and slapstick comedy became screwball comedy, St. John drifted into Westerns, where he grew a beard and assumed that most popular role of The Sidekick.

Legend says he acquired the name “Fuzzy” while appearing in a Fred Scott oater for low-budget Spectrum Pictures. The story was that the producers were unsuccessfully trying to hire Fuzzy Knight, but balking at his asking price, hired St. John instead, billing him as “Fuzzy” in the picture. Given his beard, he began using the nickname in future appearances. He also worked for director Sam Newfield and his Westerns writer, Fred Myton, in the late '30s. When Sam co-founded PRC, St. John went with him, playing Fuzzy Jones (later Fuzzy Q. Jones) in a number of Westerns before landing in the Billy the Kid series as a sidekick to Bob Steele. After Steele quit, St. John became the sidekick of Buster Crabbe, and when Crabbe left the series, the studio simply plugged in Lash La Rue without missing a beat. When PRC folded in the late '40s, Lash and Fuzzy took their act over to producers Ron Ormond and Joy Houck. Their last film was in 1952, after which both La Rue and St. John bid goodbye to Hollywood and hit the dusty trail, plying their trade at Wild West shows and rodeos.

Stagecoach Outlaws makes ample use of Fuzzy’s pratfall skills and revolves around a case of mistaken identity. It begins with a bang, as Billy Carson happens upon three masked outlaws holding up a Red River Lines stagecoach. They shot the driver and the guard and are trying to kidnap the only passenger, Linda Bowen (Gladwin). Billy shoots and kills one outlaw while chasing the other two off. He accompanies the stage and Linda back to Red River.

Linda and her father, Jed (Cassidy), are grateful and impressed with Billy’s skill. Ned tells Billy there have been quite a few stage robberies as of late and offers Billy the job of protecting the coaches, but Billy declines, telling Ned that he doesn’t like being tied down.

The two surviving outlaws, Joe Slade (Cason) and Vic Dawson (Maynard), slink back to town to report their failed mission to their boss, saloon owner Steve Kirby (Jolley). Kirby had earlier tried to convince Jed to sell the stage line to him, so we knew right away he was a heel. That’s the way it works in a B-Western.

Kirby berates them for their failure and then gets an idea. Notorious bank robber Matt Brawley (Kortman) is cooling his heels in a jail in nearby Cherokee. If Joe and Vic can break Brawley out, not only will he join their gang, but he might also be persuaded to share in the loot he has stashed from the robbery.

However, before Joe and Vic can get to Cherokee, Brawley, left in the care of Fuzzy while the sheriff (Clark) stepped out for refreshment, overpowers Fuzzy, cold-conks him, and places him in the cell as he makes his getaway. When the sheriff returns and finds Brawley has escaped, he’s so angry that he decides to leave Fuzzy in the jail cell as punishment.

The two baddies arrive, overpower the sheriff, and thinking Fuzzy is Brawley, spring him and take him with them. Fuzzy, for once sizing up the situation, decides to play along until he can make his escape, and travels with the two back to Red River.

Fuzzy’s cover is almost blown when Billy sees him, but Fuzzy pretends not to know who he is. After Billy brawls with Vic in the saloon, he overhears Fuzzy introducing himself to Kirby as Brawley and picks up on the ruse, concerned for his friend.

Billy follows Joe, Vic and Fuzzy to a ghost town hotel, where the two outlaws grill Fuzzy about the hidden loot. Searching the hotel, Billy accidentally rings the front desk bell, and Joe, Vic and Fuzzy rush downstairs looking for an intruder. Fuzzy manages to ditch his partners long enough to tell Billy about his plight. Later, Joe and Vic tell Fuzzy that they’ll let him in on a lucrative proposition if he agrees to share his loot. Vic catches Billy trying to eavesdrop on their conversation but Billy escapes after a brawl.

Back in Red River, Kirby tells Linda that he advised her father to sell the stage line to him, but Linda says her father will never sell. When Billy shows up and questions Kirby about his intense interest in the stage line, the two get into a fight, which is broken up by Jed. Afterward, Billy offers to protect Jed’s next shipment: the nearby miner’s payroll.

The next day we see Billy, dressed in a serape and sporting a fake mustache, pulling a cart while Joe and Vic force Fuzzy to go with them to rob the stage. They secure the lockbox, but when they force it open, they find it’s full of iron washers.

After Kirby learns of Billy’s ruse, the real Brawley shows up in town, looking for his impersonator. Overhearing Brawley’s threats, Billy hightails it to the ghost town to warn Fuzzy and runs into his friend as he’s sneaking out of the hotel. The two join together against Joe and Vic, who have kidnapped Linda. While Joe and Brawley chase Fuzzy, Billy has it out with Vic in the hotel. Fuzzy returns, and he and Billy overwhelm and hogtie the baddies while freeing Linda.

Back in Red River, Vic is about to spill the beans of Kirby when Kirby shoots him through an open window. Billy returns the fire, killing Kirby. As the film ends, Billy says goodbye to Jed and Linda while Fuzzy takes the recaptured Brawley back to the Cherokee jail.

Stagecoach Outlaws is a pretty entertaining outing from PRC in spite of the low production values, one of which includes substituting a curtain for a wall at the ghost town hotel. (Watch for the scene where Billy bumps into it.) It’s more St. John’s picture than Crabbe’s, as the plot really revolves around Fuzzy. He usually is given time in the other films of the series to do his shtick, but not as the center of attention and he is fun to watch as both the comic foil of Billy as well as the baddies, with more than a couple of Sennett-type pratfalls to his credit.

The film also has a good supporting cast, with veteran B-movie heel I. Stanford Jolley in fine form as the conniving Kirby. Kermit Maynard, brother of Ken, gets a meaty role as Vic, and Kortman, whose credits harken back to the silent days, manages well as the tough guy Brawley. The only fly in the ointment is Frances Gladwin, as Jed’s daughter Linda. She can’t act and it shows as she sits there in the hotel room seemingly baffled by all the action going on around her.

This is one of the better entries in the series and both Crabbe and St. John acquit themselves well in their roles, billed at the beginning as “Our Pals,” just in case the kids at the matinee didn’t know. It’s also well thought out and written, which is a rarity with PRC. One last point: although this Western series made more than enough money to keep PRC afloat, Crabbe made only $3,000 per picture and St. John, $1,000. Considering what they returned, it was skimpy wages indeed.

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