Durango rides (yet) again
A Durango Kid Western every now and then doesn’t hurt.
The Rough, Tough West is part of the late Durango œuvre, one of five Charles Starrett did in 1952, the last year of the series which had begun in 1940 (though the comic Charles Starrett as the Durango Kid continued publication through 1955). Rough, Tough was released in June ’52 and the very last Starrett Durango pic would be The Kid from Broken Gun in August that year (see our riveting review). There was talk that Jock Mahoney would take over from Starrett and do a new series with Smiley Burnette but that never happened and so the Columbia B-Western effectively died with Starrett’s retirement in ’52. The genre was in any case on its last legs (or hooves).
The Rough, Tough West was a typical Durango flick, a 54-minute black & white job, helmed, as many were, by good old Ray Nazarro (he and Starrett worked 42 times together!), and written by Barry Shipman (26 Starrett oaters). The cast was one of regulars too, with Jock (as Jack) Mahoney doing Starrett’s stunts and acting as the chief bad guy (though only moderately bad, of course), Smiley Burnette doing his usual shtick (this time he’s the fire chief), Steve’s paint horse Bullet and Durango’s white steed Raider, Carolina Cotton this time as leading lady/songstress, as in Texas Panhandle and Outlaws of the Rockies, and of course they managed to squeeze in five songs, despite the less-than-an-hour runtime. The usual Iverson Ranch and Columbia Western town lot locations. The mixture as before, you might say.
This time Steve Holden arrives in town looking for his old Texas Rangers pal Big Jack Mahoney, who, it soon transpires, pretty well owns the town and, naturally has his HQ in the saloon. He offers Steve an in, and arranges for him to be appointed town marshal. We know Steve, though, and it’s pretty durn certain that he’s going to take that badge seriously and set about cleaning up the town, so there will be a falling out. Steve was always a bit insufferable. He declines the drink Jack offers him, saying he always takes his water neat, and he has the usual Sta-Prest pants and immaculately combed hair. Luckily he has an alter ego.
It’s only a matter of minutes before we get the first song, when Carolina (Carolina Cotton) warbles the chirpy If You Wanna Get a Wedding Ring in the saloon, and not long after that Fire Chief Smiley Burnette (Smiley Burnette) leads Pee Wee King and his Band (Pee Wee King and his Band) in the rousing Call Out the Volunteers, accompanied by much comic Smiley mugging by Burnette. Carolina will be back with the smoochy I’m in Love (she has fallen for Big Jack), we get Pee Wee’s Band sans Smiley with You Don’t Need My Love Any More (that was the best one, I thought) and finally Smiley sings us out at the happy-ending with The More We Get Together. It’s amazing really how they crammed so many songs in. They are all distinctly late-1940s in style but nothing wrong with that.
The problem is that Big Jack’s ambitions to own the whole valley come into conflict with the sturdy, decent, all-American miners, led by Jordan McCrea (Bert Arnold, in his only Starrett Western, gosh), and the local newspaper editor, Matty Barrett (Valerie Fisher) campaigns in her rag The Spokesman on their behalf. Furthermore, the plot thickens because Big Jack is half-hearted about being a bad guy, and tempted to follow the straight ‘n’ narrow, urged on by Steve of course, but his henchman (saloon owners had to have henchmen, it was de rigueur), played by Starrett veteran heavy Marshall Reed, has no such compunctions and is ready to stoop to any depths to achieve his crooked aims, including, if necessary, getting rid of his boss, the double-crossing varmint.
As you know, semiotics were at work in Westerns and if a character is nice to an animal or child in the first reel, we know he is a goody, not a baddy. Well, Big Jack is particularly kind to a young boy with a crutch, editor Matty’s grandson, in fact, Buzz (Tommy Ivo) and is even getting a surgeon from back East to fix the lad’s leg. Clearly, therefore, Jack may be semi-bad but must have a heart of gold. And so it turns out.
And of course having a young boy in the story is dramatically useful because well more than half the audience would have identified with him.
One good thing: Fred F Sears has two parts! First he is a whiskered, scruffy and none too sober miner and then he is an elegantly suited doctor with pince-nez. As I’m sure you know, Fred did quite a bit of acting in Charles Starrett oaters before graduating to directing Starrett in 1949 with Desert Vigilante, the first of 54 pictures he would helm.
Thus we get to the action finale, in which there’s a gunfight in the street and a terrible fire, and poor crippled Tiny Tim-like Buzz can’t get out of the burning house so Big Jack shows his decency by going in to save him, is overcome by smoke and then Steve has to go in to save both of them, it’s all very dramatic, I can tell you.
Simpler times, they were.