For devotees only
We have seen how good old Bob Steele was Billy the Kid for PRC in six B-Westerns in 1940 and ’41. Well, Bob now moved on to even greater things (as Tucson Smith in a new series at Republic) and Buster Crabbe assumed the Billy mantle at Poverty Row.
Remarkably, Buster appeared thirteen times in two years as Billy the Kid, and then, when it became awkward having a known outlaw as a hero and role-model for young kids, they changed his name to Billy Carson and he did 23 more pictures between 1943 and ’46!
Clarence Linden Crabbe was a year younger than Bob but he was still 33 when he started playing the teenage outlaw. Still, all screen Billies were full-grown men rather than adolescents. He’d been tested for Tarzan by MGM but rejected, and Paramount put him in their Tarzan clone, King of the Jungle. Later he did become Tarzan, in an independent production, a serial which critics panned. Paramount put him in some Zane Grey Westerns, then Universal gave him the lead in sci-fi serials such as Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. After World War II, he devoted most of his time to his swimming pool corporation and the operation of a boys’ camp in New York, and did quite a bit of TV work. I’m afraid you wouldn’t call Buster one of the top Western actors. Still, he made quite a thing of Billy, and many theater-goers, especially juveniles, would have identified him with the New Mexico outlaw.
Actually, Buster was unhappy in the role and increasingly frustrated. The movies were very samey: the three compadres (Crabbe, Al ‘Fuzzy’ St John and Dave O’Brien) drift into town, thwart some criminal endeavor and ride off into the sunset. Over and over again.
Billy the Kid’s Smoking Guns is, though, very slightly better than the others, or anyway let’s say marginally less dire. It even has the slightest allusion to the story of the real Billy Bonney, with a plot about “the association” having a monopoly and the local ranchers (goodies) opening a rival store. But it’s the mixture as before: a crook in a suit (John Merton again) with a tame sheriff (Ted Adams) has treed the town, and the hero and his sidekicks thwart the villains.
Unusually, though, there’s no glam girl involved this time (the young boys in the audience were probably glad), so no brave lass to aid the heroes and be – chastely – romanced. There is an evil doc, though (Milton Kibbee), which is a bit different (doctors are usually goodies in Westerns, though I do recall a baddie doc in a Tex Ritter oater, Arizona Trail) and Slim Whitaker is back, as a rancher apparently on the side of the angels but actually in cahoots with the bad guys.
The director was Sam Newfield again, brother of Sigmund Neufeld, head of the studio. Newfield directed so many pictures for PRC that he sometimes changed his name so that the public wouldn’t think the studio only had one director. He is credited with an enormous number of Westerns, starting in 1934 and ending in 1958. However, you wouldn’t know Billy the Kid’s Smoking Guns was a “Newfield” movie. It’s just another formulaic picture with characters endlessly talking, explaining the plot to each other on ultra-cheap and unconvincing sets, interspersed with rare outside action as heroes and/or villains gallop from A to B.
Sidekick Jeff (O’Brien) is shot this time, in a gun battle with the villains in the rocks, one of those gunfights where the protagonists endlessly throw shots at each other with handguns at 300 yards. He recovers though, despite the murderous doc.
It’s Fuzzy who has the idea of the rival general store; indeed, it is named Fuzzy’s Emporium. Actually, there’s probably too much Fuzziness in this one. Comic relief, fine, but it’s rather overdone this time. Still, I suppose if you were ten in 1942…
Buster and his pards are kind to a small boy in the first reel, a sure sign of goodiness, and of course Billy the Kid is a total goody in these pictures.
These days I think you’d have to be quite a committed fan to watch these movies. On Jeff Arnold’s West we’ve reviewed one each of Bob Steele and Buster Crabbe, and I think we’ll leave it at that. Next we’ll have a look at MGM’s big remake, with Robert Taylor as Billy.
Until then, so long!