Wednesday, March 7, 2012

B-Western Wednesday: Return of the Lash (1947)

One of the most fervent supporters of this new feature here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear has been Bob Brooks, a Georgia neighbor and Facebook saddle pal whom I talked about in this post back in October 2009.  Bob is a huge B-western fan; not only does he maintain a group on the ‘book entitled Western Trails Stars of the Silver Screen (“Keeping the B Western film genre alive!”) but he also is the country’s foremost Al “Fuzzy” St. John impersonator, as witnessed in this photo:

So I thought this week’s oater should be a shout-out to Bob, and I’m convinced Return of the Lash (1947), a PRC saga starring Al “Lash” LaRue and Fuzzy is just what the doctor ordered.  Fuzzy may have just been the comic relief sidekick in many of these B-westerns, but in many instances his routines were the highlight of each film…particularly since the productions at Producers Releasing Corporation (often abbreviated as PRC) were low-rent flicks featuring mediocre scripts, pedestrian direction and actors who were either just starting out or on their way down.  PRC made beaucoups of westerns because of the cost benefit factor—cheap to make, profitable as all-get-out—but that doesn’t mean they were necessarily good.   In England and other European countries (Germany in particular), Fuzzy was often the star of the poster of whatever cowboy he happen to be supporting—be it Bob Steele, Bob Livingston or Larry “Buster” Crabbe.  Buster and Fuzzy appeared in thirty-six westerns at PRC before Crabbe left PRC (supposedly because of the studio’s shoestring budgets) and with that departure, Fuzzy soon started riding with Lash LaRue.

Don't let the title fool you.  The New PRC was practically indistinguishable from the old PRC.
LaRue might receive top billing in Return of the Lash…but he really isn’t in it much.  It’s Fuzzy’s show for most of its short running time (I have a 53-minute print I scored from Encore Westerns; the IMDb says the movie is about two minutes longer) and he makes the best of it—as Fuzzy Q. Jones, he rides into the town of Sagebrush and learns from a storekeeper (Budd Buster) that there’s a range war a-ragin’ between cattle barons Big Jim Kirby (George Chesebro) and Jeff Harper (George DeNormand), who are duking it out to control all the land in the valley.  (I love Fuzzy’s response: “What do they want it for?  They can’t eat it…”)  Kirby has apparently been hiring gunmen from out-of-town to gain the advantage in his fight against Harper, and though the storekeeper mistakes Fuzzy for one of Kirby’s employees at first, the audience soon learns that Fuzzy is there in town as advance man for the movie’s hero, Cheyenne Davis (LaRue)—better known as “The Cheyenne Kid.”

Working with his old pal Tom Grant (Buster Slaven), one of the ranchers, Cheyenne hits upon a scheme to stop Kirby by joining up with the sheriff (Roy Butler) and one of Tom’s fellow ranchers, Dan Clark (Lee Morgan), to decimate Kirby’s payroll by arresting the hired guns and collecting the hefty rewards wanted for each man.  With the reward money, the ranchers will be able to pay any outstanding debts and stave off any foreclosing action instituted by Kirby…the only problem is, they won’t receive the money until each outlaw is convicted—so a deal is struck with Kirby’s rival Harper to get a loan ($33,000) and when the reward money comes in, Harper will be repaid,  They send Fuzzy off to the nearby town of Kingston to pick up the thirty-three large; on the way back he’s bushwhacked by two of Kirby’s goons (Lane Bradford, Curley Gibson) and develops amnesia as a result.  Before losing his memory, Fuzzy wisely hid the money so the bad guys couldn’t help themselves to it…unfortunately, in his amnesiac state he has no idea where the cash is hidden.  Kirby and his henchmen kidnap Tom and his sister Kay (Mary Maynard) in an effort to force Tom to sell his ranch (and its lucrative water rights) until Cheyenne decides enough is enough and opens up a 40-gallon drum of whupass on the crooks (using the talents that earned actor LaRue the nickname, “The King of the Bullwhip”).  Fuzzy’s brains get scrambled during the rough-and-tumble and he winds up his own self again…and remembering where he hid the booty, he rides off in the direction of the hiding place in his underwear.  (He’s a doodle!)

St. John’s best moments in the movie are at the beginning, when he’s just arrived in town and establishes his rapport with the audience by trying to help the sheriff, who’s about to lose two of his prisoners when Kirby’s goons come by and force him at gunpoint to turn them loose.  Fuzzy gets the drop on the henchies, but then one of Kirby’s men comes up behind him and St. John does a nifty tumble through an open window into the sheriff’s office.  Later, since he and the sheriff have been locked up, he humorously manages to pick the lock of the cell door (his cellmate’s reaction to his “tool kit” is pretty risible: “From the looks of that equipment, you probably belong behind bars”).  Fuzzy’s talent for lock-picking comes in handy again toward the end of the picture when Cheyenne asks him to open up Kirby’s safe and obtain some incriminating evidence.  (St. John does a nifty bit whereupon instead of using sandpaper on his fingertips he applies it to his nose, and then rests his nose on the safe as he molests the tumblers.)  Watching St. John go through his paces, it’s amazing how much his style resembles The Great Stone Face, with whom he worked in the silent two-reel comedies made alongside Al’s uncle, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.

As for Fuzzy’s “sidekick” (he actually refers to him as that in the early part of the film in a hilarious deadpan)—the man born Alfred LaRue was a hairdresser in Hollywood before he started getting work in pictures at Universal (he’s in Deanna Durbin’s Lady on a Train and the 1945 serial The Master Key)…a plum supporting role as a bad-guy-gone-straight in the Eddie Dean western Song of Old Wyoming (1945) brought him to PRC, and after two more Dean oaters he got his own series…with his new billing as “Lash” LaRue as a reference to his bullwhip proficiency.  After eight features at PRC, he went to work for independent producer Ron Ormond and his Western Adventure production company—where he (and the Fuzzster) headlined a dozen oaters that were so ineptly made they made the PRC (now Eagle-Lion) product look like something from M-G-M.  A short-lived TV show (Lash of the West) and a long-running comic book series followed, but by 1956 LaRue experienced a number of personal problems (booze, pills, etc.) that necessitated getting right with Jesus.  He was a popular attraction at Western film festivals and continued in the movie bidness in occasional roles—two of his later films, Dark Power (1984) and Alien Outlaw (1985) have been released on DVD by VCI, who were nice enough to send me a freebie (just haven’t gotten around to looking at them yet).

One of the reasons why LaRue had difficulty breaking into pictures early in his career was that he bore a strong resemblance to Humphrey Bogart (and to be honest, LaRue never really sounded like a Western hero in his movies…he often seemed as if he wandered in from a gangster pic).  Character actress Sarah Padden even asked “Lash” if he was related to Bogie and when the actor explained he wasn’t, she took a beat and then posed a follow-up: “Did your mother ever meet Humphrey Bogart?”

Return of the Lash is pretty much standard B-western fodder: the acting is functional, the script serviceable and the direction competent …though I’d like to give the auteur of Return a shout-out in that it was helmed by Ray Taylor, a journeyman who started his career as an assistant director (working on many a John Ford film), then graduated to one- and two-reelers by his lonesome before finding his calling in cliffhanger serials, with chapter plays like Flash Gordon (1936) among his credits.  Unfortunately for Ray, he had quite a heavy pull on the bottle, which sort of labeled him undependable (William Witney got his first co-directing credit on the 1937 serial The Painted Stallion when Taylor became incapacitated at work) and he spent the rest of his tenure at Universal directing in tandem with Lewis D. Collins.  (You can stare at Taylor and Collins’ handiwork every Saturday here at TDOY while we dissect Jungle Queen [1945].)  PRC hired Taylor to give their Westerns a professional sheen, and when LaRue became Ormond’s bread-and-butter Ray went with him before he retired in 1949.

One moment that did make me laugh-out-loud in this movie: there’s a scene where the ranchers are trying to persuade Harper to lend them in advance the money they’ll eventually receive from the outlaws’ rewards; Harper is hesitant, then acquiesces to their request…and that’s when I got a little suspicious.  Rich men are never that altruistic in the movies, and so I wasn’t at all surprised when I learned that Harper and Kirby were working together by the time Return of the Lash calls it a day.  If you’re a fan Al St. John, however, I think you’ll enjoy this little vehicle that allows him to cut loose with what he always did best.

1 comment:

Linda said...

Great blog. Thanks for sharing.