Wednesday, April 4, 2012

B-Western Wednesday: Outlaws of the Plains (1946)

About a month ago, the spotlight here at TDOY was shown on veteran second banana/sidekick Al (Fuzzy) St. John and a film in which he co-starred with “Lash” LaRue, Return of the Lash (1947).  Seeing as I was sort of pressed for time this week, I decided to go with another Fuzzy vehicle as our B-oater…only this time, it will focus on the long, rewarding partnership he shared with the man known by many film buffs as “the king of the serials”—the one and only Buster Crabbe.

Not only was Buster a serial king, but he also had this suck on that, Roy Rogers.
Buster was born Clarence Linden Crabbe II in 1908 in Oakland, CA and an interest in swimming at an early age (he was raised in Hawaii) led to competing and winning a myriad of swimming competitions…which in turn, got him on the U.S. Olympic swim teams in 1928 and 1932.  He won a bronze medal in the 1500 meter freestyle the first time around, and in 1932 earned both a gold meal and a new world record in the 400 meter freestyle.  (The previous record holder, by the way, was Johnny Weissmuller.)

Like Weissmuller, Buster’s athleticism and good looks were courted by the movie bidness, but Crabbe only got to play “the Lord of the Apes” in one film production, the 1933 serial Tarzan the Fearless.  (Though he came close, feature-wise, as a Tarzan clone named “Kaspa”—not the friendly ghost, by the way—in the 1933 Paramount film King of the Jungle.)  But Crabbe did earn the distinction of playing not only Tarzan but Buck Rogers in a 1939 serial for Universal, and in 1936 he completed the comic strip hero hat trick by starring as Flash Gordon in the 1936 chapter play of the same name (he’s the only actor to play all top three heroes).  Flash Gordon is probably the vehicle for which Crabbe will be remembered; the serial was so successful (it’s at the top of many serial enthusiasts’ favorites, and many will argue it was the greatest of them all) that it spawned two sequels, Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (1938) and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940).  (This last serial has a special resonance for me in that it was the very first I ever watched—I would go to our local library every Wednesday evening to see all twelve chapters.)

Crabbe did feature film work as well—he’s in the cast of one of my favorite W.C. Fields films, You’re Telling Me (1934), for example—but for a while it appeared that the world of cliffhangers was his domain.  He starred in nine overall; in addition to those already named there was Red Barry (1938), The Sea Hound (1947), Pirates of the High Seas (1950) and King of the Congo (1952).  But he also spent a lot of time riding the range, notably in thirty-six B-westerns he made for PRC from 1941-46, in which he played “Billy the Kid.”  He inherited that role from cowboy legend Bob “Trooper Duffy” Steele, who played Billy in six previous PRC oaters—the premise being that the Kid was actually a good guy who would invariably be blamed for some wrongdoing committed and he would be forced to clear his name.  Steele got a better offer from Republic to play one of their “Three Mesquiteers,” so the part was handed off to Crabbe beginning with Billy the Kid Wanted (1941).  After thirteen of those westerns, the studio decided that “Billy the Kid” had sort of a negative connotation (only took them 13, eh?), and so they changed the character’s name to “Billy Carson.”

Co-starring with Buster in the Billy westerns was our good pal Fuzzy, and though many people think Al St. John was at his best in the LaRue westerns, I side with The Old Corral’s Chuck Anderson in saying that I prefer the Crabbe/St. John partnership.  Crabbe’s demeanor was much more congenial than the often dour LaRue, and his rapport with Fuzzy immensely entertaining.   St. John also benefited from more screen time in the Crabbe westerns than in his LaRue oaters; two of them, as a matter of fact—Fuzzy Settles Down (1944) and His Brother’s Ghost (1945)—are all about the “Fuzz,” with Chuck calling the latter film the best of the Crabbe PRC vehicles.  “If you like Fuzzy, give Crabbe some credit,” writes Anderson.  “As the star, he had to be supportive of St. John's expanded sidekick duties.  If he was not pleased, I'm sure he could have gotten PRC's production team to reduce Fuzzy's role.”

I’ve been fortunate to see a few of the Crabbe oaters on Encore Westerns, and while they probably won’t knock anyone over with their magnificence they’re a painless way to kill an hour.  I decided to go with his last film for the studio, Outlaws of the Plains (1946; though they leave the “s” off in the posters and lobby cards), as today’s stirring sagebrush saga…which begins with our pal Fuzzy Q. Jones gazing into his crystal ball and communicating with the spirit world:

"Eeny meenie...chili beanie...the spirits are about to speak!"
Fuzzy, to his amazement, has made contact with the ghost of an Indian chief named Standing Pine (Fuzzy: “Well…where is you standing, Pine?”).  The chief tells Fuzzy about “heap plenty gold” that’s stashed on a plot of land nearby, and after riding off in the direction of riches, Fuzzy finds several nuggets as big as walnuts.  In the process of getting ready to ride to town and boast of his find, however, he’s stopped by Nord Finner (Charles King), whose very name speaks villainous volumes and who’s the owner of the land.  Finner doesn’t know about Fuzzy’s gold discovery—or does he?—but he’s willing to part with the claim for the princely sum of $50,000.

Back in Showdown Flats, Fuzzy has acquired a serious reputation for his psychic powers—several townspeople have been duped into think that his predictions have come to pass.  When they learn about Fuzzy’s strike, they’re all eager to invest in a “corporation” he’s planning to set up in order to purchase the land…even the town banker, Tom Wilson (Budd Buster).  But what Fuzzy and his pals are unaware of is that Fuzzy’s “Indian guide” is a hoax; one of Finner’s goons, Ralph Emory (Jack O’Shea), is speaking to Fuzz not from the spirit world, but from a storeroom adjacent to Jones the Psychic’s (though a jerry-rigged speaker system involving a funnel).

A dialogue exchange reveals that Billy used to bounce Kitty on his knee when she was a young girl.  Oddly enough, no one seems to be bothered by the ramifications that he's planning to rob the cradle here.
Fuzzy wants to bring his pal Billy into the investment—yes, sixteen minutes of the film pass before the star even makes an entrance—and Billy is naturally skeptical of the whole scheme.  His bullsh*t meter begins to peg when lovely Kitty Reed (Patti McCarty), daughter of one of the local ranchers, tells Billy that her father Henry is taking out a partial mortgage on his ranch to finance Fuzzy’s gold venture.  In the meantime, Henry Reed (Karl Hackett) does a little investigation on his own, finds out about Finner’s chicanery, and gets a bullet for his trouble courtesy of Nord’s other henchie, Joe Dayton (John L. Cason).  But Billy witnesses the killing, and ties ol’ Joe to a tree for safekeeping, then gallops back to town to put an end to Finner and his evil machinations.

Fuzzy is clinching the deal with his investors just as Billy arrives, and while looking around in the store room Billy’s dry-gulched by Finner and Emory and trussed up like a steer.  Then Finner pays Fuzzy a visit, and while disillusioned to learn that Fuzzy only has 40 G’s of the fifty grand he decides to settle for that.  Fortunately for Billy, the sheriff (Bud Osborne) arrives at Fuzzy’s to kick in his share…and our hero is able to make enough noise in the storeroom to attract both men’s attention.  Billy, Fuzzy and the sheriff ride hard after the two outlaws, who have made the dreadful mistake of stopping to pick up the hapless Drayton, still keeping company with that tree.  There’s a spirited chase (Fuzzy has to take off after Finner at one point, and subdues the snake with his brute sidekick strength) and a shootout in the hills before all three bad guys are duly rounded up and deposited in the hoosegow.

In the coda, Billy explains to the townsfolk about the swindle…though since the money has been recovered, no harm, no foul.  He does jokingly suggest to the sheriff that Fuzzy be locked up for violating Showdown Flats’ “no fortunetelling” statute—but when a representative from the railroad (Slim Whitaker) offers to purchase the “gold-riddled” property for a cool $150,000, Fuzzy runs off “to have another peek at that crystal ball!”

The man on the right is Budd Buster, whom Serial Saturdays fans might recognize as Jungle Queen's intrepid safari explorer "Jungle Jack."  Budd plays one of the few financial officers who is not in cahoots with the bad guys in B-westerns.
The only thing really remarkable about Outlaws of the Plains is that it was Buster Crabbe’s swan song at PRC—he loathed the cheapness of the studio and its product, and was probably a little frightened about the “tinderbox sets.”  (The production values on this picture are so skimpy that you can see the actors pass the same clump of trees five or six times during the horseback chases…which would seem to suggest that those “wide open spaces” weren’t as wide open as we thought.)  Buster later observed of his departure: “If you can believe it, we started my last movie for PRC on Monday and had it in the can on Thursday!  That's when I decided I'd had enough and quit.  I went in and told them I was through.  They didn't even bat an eye.  The next thing I knew they replaced me with Lash LaRue.”  Crabbe might have been lacking in thespic talent but action heroes never really needed any of that; it’s why they didn’t go to Olivier when they were casting Die Hard.

But Plains is a lot of fun simply because of the first-rate chemistry that was always in evidence between Crabbe and his loyal sidekick Fuzzy; I like their scene together where Fuzzy is explaining to Billy about his “spirit” contact, and Billy responds with “Fuzz, you better keep that cork in the bottle—those spirits are going to get you into trouble.”  The affection Buster had for his longtime co-star was so great that when production began on his 1950s TV series Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion (aka Foreign Legionnaire) he asked the producers to get St. John to be his sidekick.  (Unfortunately, they grabbed the wrong Fuzzy—Fuzzy Knight, the veteran character great who hailed from Fairmont, WV.)

In the 1950s, Crabbe also hosted over New York’s WOR a program called The Buster Crabbe Show (aka Buster’s Buddies), in which many of his PRC oaters were shown—he never really disappeared from show business, appearing in the occasional feature film (Badmen’s Country, The Bounty Killer) but he channeled his energy into other pursuits, including a successful swimming pool business that was associated with the Cascade Pool Company.  When the TV series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was still airing on NBC, the producers hired Crabbe to play “Brigadier Gordon” on an installment (“Planet of the Slave Girls”) that was probably my favorite episode of an admittedly cheesy series—complimented on his flying, Crabbe’s character shoots back: “Son, I've been flying these things since before you were born.”  Buster Crabbe may have grounded upon his death in 1983, but his cinematic legacy, both as Flash Gordon and as easygoing cowpoke Billy Carson, continues to entertain fans (like me) to this day.

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