Recently on Turner Classics, I caught the 1968 Clint Eastwood film, Hang ’Em High. And in the opening scene where a posse of miscreants attempt to lynch Clint, there were a passel of familiar character actors, including Ed Begley, Bruce Dern, Alan Hale Jr., Ned Romero and Bert Freed. And the oldest of them — the only one to hesitate about hanging a man — was a face that burned familiar and at first, I couldn’t place. Then it hit me, this grizzled old rancher was Bob Steele. The movie suddenly interested me more and I stayed to watch it through.
When I was a wee bairn, in the early 1950s, TV was rife with old Westerns. Television was new and stations were starving for content. Libraries of old movies were packaged and sent to local outlets and afternoon programming included piles of old Westerns, mainly from the Golden Age of the 1930s. As a five-year old, maybe seven, I clearly had my favorite cowboy stars. Hoot Gibson, Tim McCoy, Ken Maynard, Buck Jones. And Bob Steele. All of them stars before the advent of Gene Autry or Roy Rogers.
They each had their shtick. Hoot Gibson tended not to carry a gun; McCoy brought a historic sense of the real West. Maynard was a trick rider. And Steele was the king of the fistfight.
I must have watched hundreds of these Westerns. Later, when half-hour Western series took over the evening, I watched Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok, The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid. But it was the movies that really spoke to me.
It wasn’t just that they were cowboy movies — although that was their primary attraction (I had a cowboy hat, a cap pistol, and when I was four years old, an imaginary horse I rode around the living room, which I named Whitey.) It was also my introduction to movies. I am not going to claim any great sophistication in my appreciation. I wasn’t particularly paying attention to the editing or lighting, but I did notice the music and I did notice, even at that tender age, that there were scenes that must have been shot silent, with no dialog and with Foley sound added later, like the coconut clop of horse hooves. The sound and visuals didn’t quite match up, making it clear they were done separately. And I was aware of the various wipes and dissolves. They loved their wipes. In that sense, I had some early appreciation that these were artifacts, creations of a filmmaker.
As an adult, when I occasionally watch an old Western, I am kind of embarrassed that I loved them so much as a boy. On the whole, they were clunky, cheaply made, and ridiculously repetitive. The same plots over and over, this time with Tex Ritter, that time with Bob Livingston, another with Johnny Mack Brown. Every banker and lawyer wore a string bow tie — that’s how we knew who the villain was.
And every one of them had a gang of brutes led by Harry Woods, Charlie King or Roy Barcroft. The string bow ties tried to cut off water to the ranchers, or tried to cheat them out of their land, or schemed to steal the deeds to the gold mine. And they all seemed to end with a mass shootout in the distinctive rock formations of the Alabama Hills of California.
These programmer Westerns went through a clear evolution. Later in life, I began to look at them more closely and saw that change over time. Beginning with the silents, there was Broncho Billy — really Maxwell Aronson, born to an immigrant Jewish family, who became the first cowboy star. He made hundreds of films, mostly one-reelers, all before 1920 and included titles such as Broncho Billy and the Indian Maid (1912), and Broncho Billy and the Land Grabber (1915). There was no attempt at realism. They were pure fantasy.
That changed with William S. Hart, a one-time Shakespearean actor who took his duty to the West seriously in a series of popular melodramas. In almost every one, Hart was a tough hombre redeemed by the love of a good woman. Some of the films stand up, and I’ve watched Hell’s Hinges (1916) only recently and astounded at some of the visuals. Or Tumbleweeds (1925), with the great Oklahoma Land Rush sequence that is still a benchmark in such things.
The other side of the movie Western world was Tom Mix, the fancy-dress cowboy, with crescent-pocket shirts, embroidered boots and Tony, the Wonder Horse. His 1925 Riders of the Purple Sage is one of his less show-bizzy films, based on the Zane Grey novel. I’ve seen it several times.
The two strands of Western continued through the genre’s history. Even recently, you can sense the ghost of Tom Mix in something like Will Smith’s Wild Wild West (1999) and the stern rectitude of Hart in Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992). (Or both together in the Coen Brothers anthology film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, with the Mix clone Buster Scruggs in the opening episode, and the heartbreaking Hart-like realism of the penultimate episode, “The Gal Who Got Rattled.”)
The early sound era was, for me, the high water mark for the Western. By the 1940s, the B-Western had worn itself out and by the 1950s, with godawful series like Whip Wilson, they were just embarrassing.
There were, I posit, three types of Western actor. There were those who could actually act (the rarest of the breeds); those who had genuine screen presence even if they were no Oliviers; and finally, the wanna-bes who just went through the motions as if carved from balsa wood.
In the first group were William Boyd (Hopalong Cassidy), Harry Carey, Johnny Mack Brown and Bill Elliott. They all had both acting chops and screen magic. In his earliest films John Wayne had all the magic needed, but only later did it ever occur to anyone that he might actually be able to act. When John Ford saw him in Red River, from 1948 (the year I was born), he was impressed and famously said, “I didn’t know the big son of a bitch could act!” He could, although he didn’t always need to.
Others, such as Tex Ritter or Gene Autry had the gleam on the screen, but no one would accuse them of being able to recite dialog and sound like an actual human being at the same time. And at the bottom of the list comes Sunset Carson, possibly the worst actor ever to mount a horse.
There were tons of these guys that I used to love, before I ever developed the critical faculty to judge their thespian talents. Among my favorite Saturday afternoon movies were the Three Mesquiteers films, with shifting casts that included, at different times, John Wayne, Crash Corrigan, Bob Steele, Max Terhune, Bob Livingston, and even, briefly, Duncan Rinaldo. Buster Crabbe left behind Flash Gordon and made a series of pretty good Westerns. But when the name Bob Steele came up in the opening credits, that was the best. Remember, I’m talking about being seven years old here.
Steele had a long career. His first film, as a juvenile, was in 1920. His cowboy heyday came in the ’30s, but he kept working in Hollywood even after hanging up his spurs. Famously as Canino in Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946). He kept working until 1974, appearing in such films as Rio Bravo, The Longest Day, and even a comic role as Trooper Duffy in F Troop (1965-67).
And so, I’m watching Hang ’Em High and I recognize, hidden in the crowd, that face, now leathery and wrinkled, with a stubbly beard, a flash of 60 years condensed. How could I have recognized it so unconsciously? It’s not as though I had thought of Bob Steele more recently than decades ago. But it tickled something in my memory and I twitched. “That’s Bob Steele.”
In 1968, Steele was more than 10 years younger than I am now, and yet, he looked so old. What does that make me?