Monday, March 17, 2008

Watching The Durango Kid

I was doing the usual channel surfing this past weekend and happened on a couple of westerns that I haven’t seen in a long time. One of the nice things about being a fan of such things is that I can tune into just about any western at any given point and enjoy it almost as if I had been watching it from the beginning. I think part of that is that is sometimes seems as if I have seen about three quarters of whatever happens to be showing and the other is the predictability of so many of the old westerns.

It really is as if there were only about a half dozen plots available, and you just made small changes and then inserted the ‘hero’ to right things. I’m sure somebody has already done this, but I’m often tempted to create a ‘western’ worksheet or guideline that would enable any director to turn out a successful ‘B’ western. (For example: 1) Hero – masked or unmasked? 2) Sidekick – cranky old-timer or chubby comic relief; 3) Villain – obvious outlaw or double-crossing ‘good citizen’)

The movie I caught on Saturday really did fit into this pattern, and of course I loved every minute. AMC presented a few ‘Durango Kid’ films, starring Charles Starrett as the masked hero. Not as well known to modern western fans as the Lone Ranger, DK did have a following in films and naturally in western comics. Starrett had appeared in dozens of other westerns before first donning the black scarf and outfit that would make him a favorite of moviegoers for over a decade. Like Clayton Moore and William Boyd, Starrett became so identified with his character that it was difficult for him to appear in other roles. He retired from acting at the age of 48, shortly after the DK series ended, having invested wisely and becoming wealthy enough to move on.

The first film, which I caught at the mid-point, was the very first film; simply called “The Durango Kid” starred Starrett as the hero, and wasn’t actually intended to become a series at all. This was made in 1940, but it wasn’t until four years later that Columbia decided to bring the character back in “The Return of the Durango Kid” (the second film shown by AMC this weekend) with the idea of a continuing series featuring their most popular western star. Oddly, while the DK outfit remained the same and Starrett was essentially the same character his unmasked identity changed in every movie. After the first few his first name became “Steve” no matter what his surname. While Starrett himself never sang, most of the DK movies featured the Sons of the Pioneers or other western groups as DK’s assistants, along with his designated sidekick.

You may find it interesting to discover that after the first eight DK movies, that featured Dub Taylor as his companion, Gene Autry’s old buddy (rumored to be tempted by higher salary) Smiley Burnette signed on to ride with Starrett. There’s just no loyalty in the Old West it seems.

When I have time I’ll talk about the much darker, “A Time For Killing” with Glenn Ford, George Hamilton (yes, THAT George Hamilton!) and a few surprises.
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