Bob as Billy
We were talking last time about how the Billy the Kid myth, elevated (or resurrected) by the sensational Walter Noble Burns ‘history’ of 1926 and the major-studio movie of 1930, migrated in the 1930s to the juvenile programmer, and we got a B-Western Billy.
But Republic’s Joe Kane-directed oater, Billy the Kid Returns, in 1938, with Roy Rogers as Billy, was a big-budget affair compared with the series of pictures then launched by PRC.
Producers Releasing Corporation, commonly known in the business as Poverty Row Corp, was the smallest and unglitziest of the Hollywood studios of the time. It was situated in a low-rent part of Gower Street, in Hollywood. PRC produced 179 feature films and almost never spent more than $100,000 on any of them; most of its films actually cost vastly less.
However, to be fair, PRC was more substantial than many of the tiny independent companies that made only a few ultra-cheap movies and then disappeared. PRC was at least an actual Hollywood studio – albeit the smallest – with its own production facilities and distribution network. It lasted from 1939 to 1947, churning out B-movies on a shoestring as second-features or for the upper half of the program in a neighborhood theater showing second-run films.
Leading lights at PRC were the Neufeld brothers. Sigmund Neufeld (1896 – 1979) was the producer, while the director was his brother Sam (1899 – 1964), who anglicized his name to Newfield but also used the names Peter Stewart and Sherman Scott, so as not to give the impression that PRC only had one director. The Neufelds were behind the series of six oaters that featured Bob Steele as Billy the Kid and ran from 1940 to 1941.
Bob Steele was one of the great screen cowboys, and a great survivor. He was born in Oregon into a vaudeville family in 1907 and early on was launched into a showbiz career when he starred with his twin brother Bill in a series of screen adventures known as the Adventures of Bill and Bob.
These were directed by the boys’ dad, Robert North Bradbury (Robert Adrian Bradbury was Bob’s birth name) and Bradbury père (1886 – 1949), usually billed as RN Bradbury, deserves eternal credit for the highly entertaining Westerns he directed, wrote and produced for years and years – he started in the movie business in 1918 and directed his last Western, a Buck Jones/Tim McCoy oater, in 1941.
We remember RN mostly for the pictures he made for Paul Malvern’s Lone Star productions, released by Monogram, many of which starred John Wayne, in the 1930s.
Bob’s first oaters were in 1921: nine of those Bill-and-Bob pictures that year alone were billed as Westerns. In 1926 his pater also put him in a couple of silent early Westerns, Daniel Boone Thru the Wilderness and With Davy Crockett at the Fall of the Alamo, and his first oaters as lead came in 1927, directed by the now-forgotten Wallace Fox and released by FBO (Film Booking Offices of America), also now pretty well forgotten, although it found fame when it was acquired by Joseph P Kennedy, who in 1928, using RCA Photophone technology, made it only the second Hollywood studio to release a feature-length talkie.
Bob, though, went on making silent Westerns through to the end of 1929. His first sound Westerns were made for Trem Carr Pictures (producer Trem Carr was a co-founder of Monogram) and released by Tiffany Productions in 1930, directed and written by John McCarthy, probably best known for his later The Return of Casey Jones, with Charles Starrett and Gabby Hayes, in 1933.
Bob also did a lot of Westerns helmed by JP McGowan, who, fascinating trivia item coming up, was the director and writer of the first ever Billy the Kid motion picture (the first featuring ‘the’ Billy the Kid anyway), the silent Billy the Kid in 1925, starring Franklyn Farnum, a movie now lost. McGowan also acted in it, though in which role we do not know. So there was a Billy the Kid link well before the PRC pictures. Maybe McGowan enthused Bob with the Billy legend in those early 30s days, who knows.
You see, you learn a lot reading this blog. All useless knowledge, but hey.
RN Bradbury also directed and wrote a lot of the Trem Carr talkie oaters of the early 30s with his son Bob. Bob also did a series of pictures in the late 30s with producer/director Harry S Webb. Mr Steele was certainly getting the experience, and as the decade wore on he was becoming one of the most established Western actors in the wonderful world of the low-budget Western.
Sam Newfield first directed Bob Steele in Westerns in 1937 (they did six together that year), made by Supreme Pictures (which often used another Billy, Johnny Mack Brown, as lead) and distributed by Republic.
Many of the pictures he did in that decade had titles like Kid Courageous, The Kid Ranger and The Colorado Kid, and Bob did retain a youthful appearance and persona which would make him front of mind when the Neufelds wanted a low-rent Billy the Kid, even though when Bob first appeared as Billy he was already 34. Well, that’s OK: screen Billys have often been not exactly teenaged. Franklyn Farnum in that first one had been 47!
Bob starred as Billy six times, in movies released between July 1940 and July 1941. They were Billy the Kid Outlawed, Billy the Kid in Texas, Billy the Kid’s Gun Justice, Billy the Kid’s Range War, Billy the Kid’s Fighting Pals and Billy the Kid in Santa Fe.
All the pictures were directed by Sam Newfield (billed mostly as Peter Stewart, Sherman Scott for the last one) and produced by brother Sigmund. The cinematographer was Jack Greenhalgh. They were written by one or more of a team comprising Oliver Drake, Joseph O’Donnell, Tom Gibson, William Lively and George Plympton.
They co-starred Al St John as Fuzzy and Carleton Young as Jeff, Billy’s pals, except for the last one, in which Rex Lease was Jeff. They had various leading ladies (though the love interest was minimal, probably to the relief of the audience).
The first two had some ever-so-slight historical credentials. “In the year 1872”, the intro scroll on Billy the Kid Outlawed informs us, a tad hyperbolically, “Lincoln County, New Mexico was ruled by a reign of terror. Range wars swept the country and only one law prevailed – GUN LAW!” 1872 wasn’t entirely accurate but we’ll let that slide. Villains have treed the town and killed two ranchers, friends of Billy’s. “Before I’m through,” Billy tells the bad guys, “you’re going to wish you never heard the name of Billy the Kid.” But the villains put up wanted posters for Billy and his pals. They also kidnap the fair Molly (Louise Currie). Of course they shall be thwarted, the skunks. Then, as will become traditional, Billy and his pards will ride off for another adventure. There’s no Tunstall or Pat Garrett or anything but well, at least it’s set in Lincoln County.
As you may guess from the title, in the next one Billy is in Texas. Well, that’s OK, Billy did cross over into the Panhandle now and then to sell rustled cattle. Furthermore, Billy’s brother figures (Carleton Young again). And Henry McCarty/William Bonney did have a brother, although we know very little about him. The angelfire website tells us:
Joe McCarty was born in an unknown place in either 1854 or 1855, and he claimed he was born in Indiana. He grew up in Silver City with his family and attended school there. After Catherine McCarty, Joe’s mother, died and William Antrim left Silver City, Joe went to stay with Joe Dyer. Joe later went to Arizona, but left there in 1880 for Trinidad, Colorado. In August of 1882, Pat Garrett and Joe met up by chance at the Armijo Hotel in Trinidad, Colorado. They talked there privately for two hours. Garrett and Joe eventually shook hands and parted company, with no hard feelings. Joe worked as a gambler in Colorado and later returned to New Mexico. In 1883, he stopped a lynching at Silver City. He was almost killed by a fellow gambler a few months later, but was able to talk his way out of it. Joe later went to Tombstone, Arizona and from there to Denver. He died a poor man at Denver on November 25, 1930 and his body was given to the Colorado Medical School to be dissected.
So, in Billy the Kid in Texas, so far, so accurate. It doesn’t last. In this movie, Billy’s brother is Gil Cooper, and he’s in on a hold-up. Still, he’s a good-badman, and his heart’s in the right place.
The bad guys are Lazy-A cowhands, led by the dastardly Flash (John Merton) and the town of Corral City, TX is durned afraid of them. The townsfolk make Billy sheriff. Billy is wounded and suffers imprisonment but he and Gil team up, and, having thwarted the bad guys, which they do with the aid of the fair Mary (Alice Dahl), Gil is made sheriff when Billy and his pals ride off into the sunset.
And that, I’m afraid, is where history, such as it was, and it wasn’t, ends, for the other four movies are generic Westerns and have no pretentions of Billy the Kiddery to them at all.
Chapter 3, Billy the Kid’s Gun Justice, released in December 1940, sees Billy, Fuzzy, and Jeff ride to the ranch of Jeff’s uncle, only to find another family living there. They soon learn of the heinous plot of the wicked Cobb Allen (our old pal Al Ferguson) whereby he sells a ranch, makes sure the rancher can’t pay off his note by diverting the water, kicks him out, and resells the ranch. So the pals have to recover the ranchers’ money and foil the villains. To do this, Billy sends Fuzzy to town with a fake map to a gold treasure…
In Billy the Kid’s Range War, bad guy Karl Hackett is using a Billy the Kid lookalike (Rex Lease) to prevent the completion of a road which the fair rancher Ellen (Joan Barclay) is building. The real Billy can’t have that. In this one, Jeff has become a marshal, and he’s supposed to arrest Billy. That’s awkward. Fuzzy will break Billy out, though. With the road saved and the bad guys in jail, Ellen asks Billy to stay on. A chance to go straight (not that he has ever gone crooked). But nay, it’s off into the sunset once more.
The fifth episode of the saga, Billy the Kid’s Fighting Pals, released April ’41, has Fuzzy as marshal (well, I guess it was his turn). It’s a freedom of the press yarn because the bad guys want to shut down the local newspaper and Billy will do all he can (and that’s a lot, obviously) to stop that. He’s aided by the fair Ann (Phyllis Adair). There’s a bartender (Julian Rivero) who turns out to be a Mexican secret agent, and a tunnel under the US/Mexico border used for smuggling. Naturally Billy & Co save the day. The town is named Paradise and before leaving, Billy and the boys shoot up the sign till it reads PAR D S. “That’s us.”
The last one, which came out in July 1941, was titled Billy the Kid in Santa Fe, so you may guess where it is set. The town is lawless (naturally) and in thrall to villains Hank Baxter (Frank Ellis) and Texas Joe (Dave O’Brien). They manage to get Billy framed for murder. Murder! The very idea! Feisty local rancher Pat (Marin Sais) has known Billy since he was a, er, kid, and she and the cattlemen hire him to restore law ‘n’ order. Which, bien sûr, Billy and his pards duly do.
And that, as far as Billy went, was that for Bob. The pictures are in fact a lot of fun. Complete nonsense, of course, but that’s no disqualification. There has yet to be an accurate film about Billy the Kid and anyway, accuracy isn’t what Hollywood Westerns, big budget or small, are for.
Bob Steele now had other, slightly higher-budget fish to fry. Even while being Billy he had started a run of Republic Three Mesquiteers oaters as Tucson Smith, taking over from Ray Corrigan. The first was Under Texas Skies in September 1940. They were directed by George Sherman and, when Bob came in, were led by Bob Livingston as Stoney Brooke, with Rufe Davis as Lullaby Joslin (as you know, there was a shifting personnel). They were still one-hour black & white programmers, with three pards roamin’ the West and rightin’ wrongs, but they did have slightly higher production values. Bob preferred those. He’d do twenty of them all told, through 1943.
That wasn’t that for the Billy series, though. The Neufelds hired Buster Crabbe to take over as hero, and the sidekicks didn’t seem to notice that Billy looked a bit different recently, more like Tarzan or Buck Rogers, somehow. To be brutally frank, the series deteriorated once Bob departed. In fact they became a bore.
But we shall examine these works of art at a later date.