Charles Starrett is back as The Durango Kid (along with his alter-ego, Steve Reynolds) in The Fighting Frontiersman (1946), the 18th of more than five dozen series B-Westerns churned out like sausages from Columbia Pictures, this being the tenth such film in 1946 alone. (Reader Sergei Hasenecz notes, "Starrett did an amazing 131 B-westerns for Columbia from 1935 to 1952, of which 65 were in the Durango Kid series. He did nothing but Durango Kid movies from 1945 to 1952. Columbia did churn them out, but that's because they were so popular.")
As B-Westerns go, this one is truly ordinary and brimming with genre clichés, though it's not unpleasant. Sony's "Choice Collection" has mostly been a true delight, their video transfers especially being consistently good. Thanks to this program, a great many long-forgotten B's are being made available for reappraisal, and this has produced some really pleasant surprises. But with series films, from the Johnny Weissmuller Jungle Jims to the Starrett Durango Kids, they've been less careful and creative. Many complain the suggested retail price is too high for programmers running under an hour and that putting two or more of these movies onto a single disc would be a better marketing strategy. I tend to agree.
In the case of The Durango Kid, it would also help if Columbia were to release the films in chronological order instead of skipping about so haphazardly. Among the handful of Durango Kids released so far is The Kid from Broken Gun (1952), the last of the line, of which at least one-third is composed of stock footage from The Fighting Frontiersman. I'd hate to try watching those back-to-back.
Produced under the working title Big Bend Badmen (say that fast three times), our story opens with Gabby-esque prospector Cimarron Dobbs (Gabby-esque Emmett Lynn) falling off his mule and smack-dab in front of a long lost cache of Spanish gold long ago abandoned by Santa Anna. Cimarron tells saloon girl Dixie (Helen Mowery) the news. She keeps it under her hat (so to speak) but saloon owner John Munro (Robert Filmer, curiously uncredited), secretly also the leader of a nefarious gang of outlaws (whose members include Jock Mahoney), overhears their conversation and plots to steal it away. Soon enough ol' Cimarron has disappeared.
Dixie wires Texas Ranger Steve Reynolds (Charles Starrett) the distressing news, and he rides into town with inept but genial ranger station manager Smiley Burnette (Smiley Burnette). Steve also slips in and out of his alter ego, The Durango Kid, well known in these here parts as a kind of good-bad guy, but like most Durango Kid movies, the effort is hardly necessary. Munro tries to bump off Steve, who's offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to the old coot's safe return, while Dixie tries to persuade Munro that she's actually on his side. She claims she can get Cimarron to reveal the location of the treasure if he'll cut her in on the deal.
The basic plot recycles for the umpteenth time several of the oldest chestnuts of B-Westerns, namely the kidnapping of an old-timer who's struck it rich, usually the father/grandfather/uncle of the ingénue, and the respected local saloon owner who's secretly also the leader of an outlaw gang. Here, incredibly sloppy writing strains things even further. In one scene at the saloon, for instance, Munro unsubtly tells his chief henchman, Rankin (George Chesebro), "You'd better get back to the hideout." He does this within earshot of the good guys, who are no more than ten feet away. ("Rankin," incidentally, is a curiously common name for henchmen in B-Westerns and serials.)
In an early scene Dixie warns Cimarron, "Once it gets out about your discovery, your life won't be worth a plug nickel!" Later, after visiting Cimarron at the hideout, Dixie warns Steve, "If I told you who was holding Cimarron, your life and mine wouldn't be worth a plug nickel!" That Dixie sure has a one-track mind.
Mostly though, The Fighting Frontiersman burns through its running time with the usual quotients of B-Western action, comedy relief, and songs. Smiley Burnette was the most popular of B-Western sidekicks, the only one to make the Top Ten of Boxoffice's list of Western stars. He was first teamed with Gene Autry, but when Autry suddenly left Republic Pictures to serve during World War II, Burnette left the studio within a few years to join Columbia's Durango Kid series. After that series ended in 1952, Burnette briefly reteamed with Gene Autry for several movies made in 1953. He later turned up regularly on both Green Acres and Petticoat Junction as railway engineer Charley Pratt until his untimely death in 1967.
He does his usual shtick in The Fighting Frontiersman, falling off a ladder and spilling paint all over himself in one scene, slipping on a bar of soup in the coup de grace. As a comedian Burnette was just okay, broad and obvious, but as a songwriter ol' Smiley was something else. He wrote at least 400 songs, including such classics as "Ridin' Down the Canyon (to Watch the Sun Go Down)," "Western Lullaby," and "On the Strings of My Lonesome Guitar," and reportedly he could play 100 different instruments, some of which he invented himself.
Burnette sings four songs in The Fighting Frontiersman, the balance performed by third-billed Hank Newman and His Georgia Crackers, personal friends of Burnette's and who had previously appeared with him in several Roy Rogers pictures (made after Autry's departure and before Burnette moved to Columbia). Newman and His Crackers reportedly didn't care for Hollywood, however, and returned to their native Columbus, Ohio soon after, eventually opening Hank Newman's Restaurant and Pizza Palace, where the otherwise disbanded Crackers occasionally performed.
Video & Audio
The Fighting Frontiersman is presented in a typically crisp black and white, full-frame transfer on par with the high standards of Sony's "Choice Collection" line. There are no menu screens or options. Insert the disc and the film starts automatically. The region-free DVD-R's mono audio (English only, with no subtitle options) is above average. There are the usual chapter stops every ten minutes but no Extra Features at all.
A long way from great but passable by undemanding B-Western standards, The Fighting Frontiersman isn't memorable but decent enough for what it is. The transfer makes for pleasant viewing, though only B-Western fans will likely want to make the effort to see it. For them it's mildly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.