Football legend Slingin’ Sammy Baugh died December 17 at 94 at his home in Rotan, Texas.
Baugh, as you know if you’re a football fan, was perhaps the world’s greatest quarterback. He threw footballs for more than 23,000 yards in gains while he was field general for the Washington Redskins of the NFL. Before that, he was an All-America quarterback for the Texas Christian University Horned Frogs, played in the inaugural Cotton Bowl game (a 16–6 win over Marquette) and is a charter member of both the College Football Hall of Fame (‘51) and the Pro Football Hall of Fame (‘63). The only other quarterbacks who have claimed both college and pro titles are Joe Namath and Joe Montana. Sam was also named to the modern all-time team, encompassing a 50 year period from 1919-1969.
Samuel Adrian Baugh played high school ball in Sweetwater, TX. In later life he seldom left his ranch outside Rotan in West Texas. “I’ve got a rule that includes not going anywhere. I go to the golf course (usually three rounds a week) and back home. That’s my travel. As long as I do that, I feel good, eat good and sleep good at night. I sure as hell don’t go to any big city. I don’t fly. I don’t drive at night. And I sure don’t miss it a lot.”
The 6'2" rancher prefers Sam to Sammy and when he starts talking about football, it’s like he knew the game at the dawn of time. In a way he did. “Everything I learned about the game came from TCU and coach Dutch Meyer. I still think he was way ahead of his time. When I got to the pros, they had these little rules that were supposed to protect the passer, just like today. But the real rule don’t ever change: Quarterback tries to pass, you put his ass on the ground! All you hear from coaches now is ‘Stay in the pocket.’ Sonofabitch can get killed staying in the pocket.”
Baugh had a campus job sweeping out the music room when he led the Horned Frogs to a national championship in 1935. He played 16 seasons with the Redskins and led them to NFL titles in ‘37 and ‘42. “Pro quarterbacks make more money today in one game than I did playing 16 years. I couldn’t believe it. But, good for them. I was born too soon.” Baugh started out making $8,000 a year with the Redskins but by the end of his pro career he was drawing about $25,000 with thousands more in endorsements.
After retiring in 1952, he “coached around” with the NY Titans, the Houston Oilers and the Detroit Lions. “Talk about making money—ranching sure ain’t the way to do it. I bought my place in ‘41.” He owns 6,200 acres of grasslands and cultivated fields. Baugh’s wife died several years ago. A daughter and grandchild live with him on the ranch while one of his sons—a high school football coach at nearby Snyder—helps keep the place going. Sam has a satellite dish and during the Fall he starts watching football on Saturday morning and keeps on til Monday night. “It’s a better game now.”
His brief fling as an actor in Republic’s “King of the Texas Rangers” serial helped pay for the ranch and stock it with Hereford cattle. “Somebody from Republic called me and asked if I wanted to do a movie. I thought at first he was kidding. When I realized he was serious, I pointed out to him I didn’t know the first thing about that sort of thing. Hell, I was a football player. He told me players like Red Grange had done okay in movies (“Galloping Ghost” serial—Mascot ‘31) and Tom Harmon of Michigan, who had just won the Heisman Trophy, had signed to do a picture.” (“Harmon of Michigan” ‘41—among others.) Fellow Texan and longtime friend John Kimbrough, the Texas A&M star from nearby Haskell, TX, was also about to sign a contract to star in Zane Grey westerns for 20th Century Fox (“Lone Star Ranger”, “Sundown Jim”—both ‘42). Baugh laughingly chides his friend, “I guess I was the world’s worst actor, unless it was John Kimbrough.”
“The Republic guy told me it wouldn’t take long,” Baugh continues, “said it would be fun and would pay pretty good. So I figured I’d give it a try.” The 12 chapter ‘41 serial was tailor made for Baugh as famous football player Slingin’ Tom King returns to Bordertown and joins the Texas Rangers to track down ‘His Excellency’, the mysterious agent of an unnamed 5th column foreign power engaged in destroying Bordertown oil fields and who is also responsible for King’s father’s death. His ranger father is killed at the very moment Tom is winning the game for the Texas All Stars.
Baugh’s contract, consummated 2/27/41, paid him $1,000 a week on a five week minimum guarantee, tying him with Ray Mala (“Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island”) and Ralph Byrd (“Dick Tracy Vs. Crime, Inc.”—his fourth DT serial) and Hoot Gibson (“Painted Stallion”) as the highest total-grossing actors in Republic serial annals.
The serial was filmed during Baugh’s off-season in June and July ‘41. The first chapter intercut some actual game footage of Slingin’ Sammy at work on the gridiron, but nothing thereafter. The main-title music was a spine-tingling Mort Glickman arrangement of the TCU Horned Frogs fight song, “Come To the Bower”.
Sammy admits, “I was just a football player on a two month fling in sunny California. Shoot, when we were filming it I could never figure out what the story was about. They’d give us the part of the script we’d be doing the next day and tell us to study the lines that night. I did that for a while but they kept changing the scenes the next day; so I finally quit memorizing the lines until the next day when we got to where we were going to be shooting. It was a lot of fun, but not something I ever thought of doing as a career.”
Baugh often credited Duncan Renaldo, who played Mexican Rurales Capt. Pedro Garcia, with showing him the “acting ropes”. Renaldo once told interviewer Greg Jackson, “I liked Sammy very much. He was so green. I tried to get him to be natural and not to act. Neither (directors) Jack English or Billy Witney could do that with him; they didn’t have the time nor the capacity to do that. I’m a very patient man and I directed him really. Billy used to let me. Then said, ‘Duncan, here we go’ and I’d step right into the scene and play the rest of it.” (Thanks in part to Barry Martin.)
J. Edgar Hoover, the dictatorial head of the F.B.I. for the better part of the 20th Century, knew early on the power and importance of film, moreover that if used correctly it could serve his career and political agenda well. He consequently made it a point to ensure that depictions of the F.B.I. in movies be in keeping with the professional image of the organization he had taken such pains to tailor and promote. He liked his agents to be clean-cut, mature and professional. He also wanted them to be single-minded in their objective of ridding America of crime (although he usually kept his distance from the Mafia which he realized he probably could not do a lot about). Nonetheless, most early film depictions of federal agents were pretty stereotypical and unremarkable not to mention unrealistic. Hoover was rarely impressed by the film and television images of his agents whether depicted in “A” movies with actors like James Cagney or scores of “Bs” made in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Despite a few acceptable glimpses of bureau methodology in efforts such as “The House on 92nd Street” (‘45), it really wasn’t until the 60’s TV series “The F.B.I.” starring Efrem Zimbalist Jr.—when the network had to run just about everything past the director for a green light on production—that he got the look and feel of the F.B.I. he desired.
Who knows what, if anything, Hoover might have thought of the way his men were portrayed in cliffhangers, the gaggle of incompetent federal men from “Mysterious Dr. Satan”(‘40 Republic) for instance, who make fools of themselves by being caught in the good doctor’s house of traps and snares. It’s doubtful he would have been amused or entertained though it has been reported he enjoyed comic books, particularly Dick Tracy.
“Federal Agents Vs Underworld, Inc.”, produced by Republic in ‘49, is neither particularly amusing (intended or not) nor all that entertaining either. Coming along as the popularity of the motion picture serial began to wane and studios started to lose all interest in the genre, it is slow moving without a great deal of inventiveness on the part of director Fred Brannon or energy from the assembled players. It’s not a terrible serial but it’s not a very good one either. It doesn’t even benefit from the unintentional humor that often characterized and underscored some of the later chapterplays when writers and directors would periodically toss some pretty bizarre stuff into the celluloid mix to spice things up. It just plods along, rarely if ever offering anything even remotely exciting or unique.
The storyline, fashioned by writers Royal Cole, Basil Dickey, William Lively and Sol Shor, borrows from numerous older (and better) serials including a chief thematic ingredient lifted from “The Adventures of Captain Marvel”, namely the search for the partner to a certain Golden Hand which, when combined with its mate, is said to bestow upon the owner great knowledge and power (in “Marvel” it was the restoration of five lenses to a magical Golden Scorpion). Hot on the trail is Nila (Carol Forman), a mysterious woman who wishes to locate the treasure in order to create a united criminal organization, Underworld Inc., but also on the scent, and opposing her at every nefarious turn, is intrepid government agent David Worth (Kirk Alyn).
For 12 extremely ordinary chapters Nila tries everything in her nasty bag of tricks to find the Golden Hand and eliminate Worth but, frankly, is not very good at either. Not that the F.B.I. agent is world class in the brain department either. For instance, in one chapter Worth intentionally parachutes onto a moving train and is almost killed in the process. In another episode he decides to prevent a plane from taking off by driving a car into it, nearly blowing himself up.
I never much liked Kirk Alyn as Superman when he played the Man of Steel in two serials over at Columbia, but he’s ok here, although there is nothing particularly memorable in his characterization of the G-Man other than his tendency when in immediate danger to make his eyes very big as if about to pop out of his head cartoon style. Regrettably, this creates a more comical effect than anything else and detracts from the gravity of the situations he often finds himself in.
Carol Forman, always attractive and a good actress, is her usual surly and unpleasant self as Nila, not quite as memorable as she was in the later chapterplay “The Black Widow” where her evil was a bit more effectively restrained and layered, but is an improvement over her turn as The Spider Lady in the first Superman serial where she never really seemed a worthy criminal adversary. She is best here in her numerous scenes with the always welcome Roy Barcroft who saved many a cliffhanger from the ineffectiveness of other actors, which brings me to the rest of the cast of “Federal Agents Vs Underworld, Inc.”
Alyn’s investigator assistant Steve Evans is portrayed by a young actor named James Dale who has to be one of the dullest sidekicks in serial history. I kept seriously wondering if he was on medication during the shoot. He’s just along for the ride and hardly that. Rosemary La Planche, a former Miss America (‘41), is pretty but little else. Female roles in serials are rarely plumbs, but a number of actresses have managed to bring a few sparks to their portrayals, however Ms. La Planche can not be said to even do this. Bruce Edwards, who would turn up later as the lead in the Republic’s “Black Widow”, has the thankless role of Professor Williams who is drugged by the bad guys and controlled into helping their evil cause. When he is killed no one even cares or looks into why he suddenly behaved in such an uncharacteristic manner. Backing up the main characters are such serial stalwarts as Dale Van Sickel (who has a brief speaking part as one of the gang impersonating Professor Graves, a kidnapped scientist), Tom Steele, Tristram Coffin, Marshall Reed, James Craven and Robert Wilke.
There’s a lot of old footage here and what new action there is seems tired and overly familiar. The whole thing has re-tread written all over it in big capital letters that even the most ardent serial devotee can’t ignore. No pizzazz, no zip, no fire in the proverbial belly. It’s all been done before and much better. Even the kid that still resides in me had a big problem staying with it. Had I still had my three gear Schwinn out in the backyard I might have even forgotten Alyn and company and gone out and had a long ride on it. But the only thing in my backyard these days are weeds.
REEL VS REAL:
By Jack Bennett and Boyd Magers
In 1950, Bud G. Anderson, owner of Seal Bros. Circus, signed Vern Corriel to do his wire walking, juggling, etc. acts. Corriel, a big E.R.B. and Tarzan fan, visited former screen Tarzan Elmo Lincoln at the Motion Picture Home while the show was in winter quarters. Corriel reported to Anderson that Elmo was quite excited about the circus. (Some of his press says he was a strongman before appearing in movies.) Anderson knew a good thing when it stared him in the face, so signed Elmo to Seal Bros. at $75 a week plus room and board.
Anderson died in a truck wreck that summer and the show was closed. All advertising proclaimed, “The one and only original Tarzan” with an 8 x 10 of Elmo, foot on a conquered lion, beating his chest. To most kids of that time, the “one and only” could only be Weissmuller!?! Not a word in the advertising mentioned Elmo Lincoln. A friend of mine on the show commented that Elmo mostly just rode an elephant while Corriel did commentary on his life.
Meanwhile, back at the theatres, “Jim Thorpe, All American” with Burt Lancaster was released by Warner Bros. in ‘51. By now, Anderson's son Luke owned the circus, had renamed it Wallace and Clark, and, like his Dad, saw the publicity potential in the real Thorpe and signed him. However, the Indian died of a heart attack in March ‘53 before the show opened for the season.
Both Elmo Lincoln and Jim Thorpe had worked in serials. Lincoln starred in two 18 chapter Universal chapterplays in 1919 and 1920, “Elmo the Mighty” and “Elmo the Fearless”. This was followed by “The Flaming Disc” in ‘20, then the immortal “Adventures of Tarzan” in ‘21 for Great Western. Elmo had previously starred in two Tarzan features, “Tarzan of the Apes” and “Romance of Tarzan” in 1918. The serial became one of the four most popular films of the year! Typecast as the apeman, Lincoln then appeared as a white hunter in “King of the Jungle”, a 1927 cheapie for Rayart, retiring after that but returning to films in bit parts around ‘39 when his only serial work was a small role in Columbia's “Black Arrow” (‘44). He died of a heart attack at 63 in ‘52.
Thorpe, a member of the Sac and Fox Indian tribes, attended Carlisle University and, during the 1912 Olympic games in Sweden, won both the decathlon and pentathlon championships. However, disclosure of his minor participation in semi-professional baseball in 1910 at Carlisle deprived him of the gold medals by an apparently prejudiced Olympic committee. (In recent years they were reinstated.)
Following the Olympics, he played major league baseball and football, then entered films as Chief Swift Arrow in Tom Tyler's “Battling with Buffalo Bill” in ‘31. Unable to secure a coaching job, Thorpe drowned his plight in booze for years while continuing to appear in small parts in westerns and serials—“Red Rider”(‘34), “Rustlers of Red Dog” (‘35), “Phantom Rider” (‘36) and “Oregon Trail” (‘39).