Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Overlooked Films: The Durango Kid in "Blazing Across the Pecos" (1948)

The Durango Kid, in his black outfit and mask, looks cool and mysterious on movie posters, which may explain why he survived long enough to appear in 67 films.

On screen, though - at least in this film - the Kid is considerably less cool and mysterious. He’s pretty much your standard western hero, roaming from town to town and arriving just in time to rescue an innocent good-lookin' and purehearted female and her father from evildoers. And he performs most of his heroics unmasked, this time under the name Steve Blake.

For reasons unexplained (and likely inexplicable) the Kid's unmasked name changes from film to film. So he might be Steve Duncan or Steve Lawson or Steve Armitage or Steve Drake or Steve Woods or or or. And sometimes, probably just to get out of a rut, his first name is Jim or Jeff or Bill or Kip or something else. Also unexplained is why Steve or Jim or Whoever occasionally dons the mask and does his derring-do as The Durango Kid. I have no clue, except maybe that it looks cool and mysterious on the movie posters. And maybe that’s enough. The whole idea was to get butts in the theater seats, right?

In that list of 67 Durango Kid films, Blazing Across the Pecos falls smack-dab in the middle, at number 34. So I have to guess it’s somewhat representative of the series. The trouble is, everything about it screams cheap. TV cheap. If I didn’t know this movie was released in 1948, I’d have thought it was made for an old western TV series.

The sets are minimal. Most of the action takes place in the bad guy’s office, or the newspaper office, or the saloon. Or maybe in the street, where a bare minimum of extras are milling about. When an action scene is needed, like an attack on a wagon train or the rustling of cattle, we get a healthy dose of stock footage.

The shots are all close-ups or medium close-ups, just what you’d expect from TV, and must have looked really in-your-face on the big screen.

Steve, or Jim, or Barney, or whoever the hell the Kid is when he's not the Kid, 
engages in some unfunny horseplay with Smiley.

Smiley Burnette is on hand, playing a character named "Smiley Burnette," who looks and acts just like Gene Autry's pal "Frog." Except that Frog is actually funny, and "Smiley" is just silly. Chief Thundercloud appears uncredited (probably at his own request) as Chief Bear Claw. Sheesh, how embarrassing. The only bright spot was a 30-second uncredited appearance by Jock Mahoney, who later became a series regular.

The feeling all this conveys is that everyone involved was resigned to making a silly and forgettable cheapie, and were just going through the motions. Hard to blame them, seeing they had already cranked out 33 of them, and had 33 more to go.

The Kid impresses Chief Bear Claw and his pals with his pidgin English, 
though elsewhere they understand real English just fine.

So. Did I LIKE this film? Hm. While I didn’t especially dislike it, LIKE is too strong a word. I’m still mildly curious about Starrett’s first appearance in the role, made way back in 1940, but otherwise it’s hard to imagine devoting another 58 minutes of my life to The Durango Kid.

BELOW: Because the D.K. did not look particularly cool or mysterious on the poster for Blazing Across the Pecos, I'm sticking up this 3-sheet from an earlier film, in which he does. Shades of The Shadow, no?

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Walker Martin said...

I saw several Durango Kid movies as a kid and I remember them with nostalgic feelings. But you have to be a kid to overlook some of the series faults: cheap productions, silly comedy relief, and poor, boring plots. I guess we liked the name: THE DURANGO KID! and the cool black costume and mask.

Maybe if I get old enough I'll get more and more childish and be able to enjoy these films again!

Walker Martin said...

I just noticed that TCM On Oct 9 has a Charles Starrett western on at 2:30. THE COWBOY STAR(1936) is not a Durango Kid film but does give us a look at Starrett in an early role.

pattinase (abbott) said...

My mother would have known this one. She loved westerns and spent Saturdays watching them.

Rick said...

Anybody in black held a kid's interest. Consider Lash Larue. No mask but black and a whip. Sure to capture a kid's adoration. To top that off with a mask of black made of a kerchief any kid could imitate was a bonus. Kids were all forgiving to see the mysterious hero in black and mask come to the rescue and win taboot. Sagebrush sage bursting from the page.

Anonymous said...

My mother once said that Charles Starrett was her favorite Western star when she was a kid. I saw the first two Durango Kid movies on TCM a few years ago. They were not bad, but they were routine. Typical 1940's B Westerns. I guess it was the mask that set him apart and made him popular with kids. As for the low budget, that was common in 1948. By then, "B" series and serials were on the way out. Budgets were cut, and a lot of stock footage was used. That meant that plots had to follow the earlier movies' scripts, so a lot of Westerns and serials at Columbia and Republic were basically remakes.

Anonymous said...

I don't know why DK had a different secret identity in each picture. But then, continuity was not a high priority in B Westerns. In Republic's series, the same characters (Roy Rogers and Gabby, Rocky Lane and Nugget Clark) seemed to be meeting for the first time in more than one movie. And the Three Mesquiteers movies were sometimes historical and sometimes contemporary.

Ron Scheer said...

I find these cheap westerns tiresome, too. Since I wasn't anywhere near a movie theater as a kid, I have no nostalgia for the period...Maybe this one looks like a TV western because, like the Hoppy movies, they were inexpensive content all ready for the new medium. Just needed someone like William Boyd to blow off the dust.