“King of the Texas Rangers”
Offhand, I don’t recall too many sports stars being exploited by Hollywood when I was a kid although a few do come to mind. Football great Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch tried his hand at acting for a short and not terribly successful period appearing in several forgettable films such as “Zero Hour” (the plot of which later inspired the hit comedy “Airplane”) while Olympic marathoner and future Congressman Bob Mathias showed up in some awful ‘60s European gladiator flicks as well as “The Troubleshooters”, a TV show about construction workers in which each week the writers had to devise some unique way Mathias could showcase his track and field skills (shot putting bricks, for instance). Even the era’s Kings of Swats, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, starred in a (thankfully) little remembered effort called “Safe at Home” playing themselves.
The real heyday of the athlete turned thespian was actually the ‘20s and ‘30s when noted sports figures such as Babe Ruth, Johnny Weissmuller, Buster Crabbe, Herman Brix, Red Grange, John Kimbrough, Glenn Morris, Jack Dempsey, Johnny Mack Brown, Max Baer and others took time out from the field, boxing arena and locker room to appear on the screen. Most of these were one-shot deals, but in the case of Weissmuller, Crabbe, Brown and Brix (later Bruce Bennett) full time screen careers followed.
Such, however, was not in the cards for Sammy Baugh, one of football’s all time great quarterbacks (Washington Redskins, ‘37-‘52), who in ‘41 was temporarily recruited from the gridiron to play lead character Tom King in Republic’s “King of the Texas Rangers”, one of the most entertaining, action-filled, satisfying serials ever produced. The fact Baugh had no acting skills and looked nothing like your run of the mill action star of the period might at first seem a hindrance, but this same awkwardness actually becomes a kind of odd plus and eventually works to his advantage. He’s occasionally wooden and uncomfortable looking alright, but in a strangely charming and natural way, so before long you accept it as just a legitimate part of the character, right along with his “twenty-gallon” Stetson and boots. He’s honest, tough, short on words, fast on the draw, and believable in the saddle (the Republic stuntmen, reportedly often contemptuous of certain actors’ lack of equestrian skills, were immediately impressed by the way Sam handled a horse, not surprising since Baugh grew up on a Texas ranch). The Republic writers even figured out ways to have him occasionally heave things quarterback style at several of the bad guys.
The plot of “King of the Texas Rangers” has a lot going for it too, plenty of ingredients to appeal to every taste in cliffhangers. Although set in (then) modern times, it takes place in that strange twilight world of so many westerns of the era where automobiles, radios and airplanes blend right in with a world still replete with cowboys, buckboards and blazing six shooters, a world you don’t question anymore than you do the trappings of Dorothy’s OZ, Tarzan’s Africa or Flash Gordon’s Mongo. You just go with the flow and have a good time with it. Also adding to the curious blend is a pre-World War II (or at least pre-Pearl Harbor) set of Fifth Columnists led by His Excellency (Robert O. Davis) who flies around the skies in a dirigible in league with Barton (Neil Hamilton) plotting to destroy Texas oilfields so essential to American interests. But they make the big mistake in Ch. 1 of killing off Tom’s Texas Ranger father (Monte Blue) while the younger King is back east throwing touchdown passes in college. This leads to the vengeful offspring trading in his shoulder pads for a two-gun rig and setting out to round-up the gang he ultimately realizes are saboteurs.
Aiding Baugh is Duncan Renaldo in his pre-Cisco Kid days, as Pedro, a member of the Mexican police who, without so much as a “See ya, Guys”, to his superiors hooks up with young Tom to revenge the murder of the lawman’s father. Renaldo, athletic, charming and likable, makes a colorful and entertaining partner as he almost always did when he played the sidekick in serials.
Pauline Moore provides attractive and feisty assistance and the aforementioned Hamilton, an early Hollywood leading man who would wind up on TV’s “Batman” as Commissioner Gordon, is effective as the urbane and duplicitous Barton. Filling out the 12 chapters is a large assemblage of serial regulars and familiar faces including Charles Trowbridge, Kermit Maynard, Roy Barcroft (just starting off his grand cliffhanger career), Herbert Rawlinson as well as Kenne Duncan and Jack Ingram (who seem to scream out a warning call of “Rangers!” each and every episode).
All serials, of course, deliver lots of action—or at least promise to—but some such as “King” are literally exploding with the stuff. Directed by William Witney and John English, the Rogers and Hammerstein of cliffhangers, this is surely one of them. In Chapter 7, for instance, aside from a few seconds worth of narrative dialog, there’s not a moment devoid of shooting, punching and riding. The cliffhangers are inspired and well choreographed; Cy Feur’s rousing and knee-slapping score wonderfully compliments the frenetic visuals and the Brothers Lydecker miniatures are terrific as usual (I particularly liked the collapsing tunnel in Ch. 2).
In several later interviews Sammy spoke only with good memories about his one Hollywood experience. He enjoyed the Hollywood people he met, both in front of and behind the cameras, and said he had seldom had as much fun. Likewise, Sammy.
The other day we watched “The Adventures of Red Ryder” with Don Barry as the title character. Tommy Cook was Little Beaver and Maude Pierce Allen played the Duchess. Character actors such as Noah Beery Sr., Harry Worth, Bob Kortman, Ray Teal, and Carleton Young played the villains of the serial. Hal Taliaferro, Vivian Coe and William Farnum rounded out other important roles. Bill Witney and John English directed.
Although Barry was the first choice of Herbert J. Yates to play the character of Red Ryder, Barry didn’t want to do it. In an interview with Don Barry he states, “Herb Yates, who owned Republic, was a tough little Scotsman that chewed the foulest smelling tobacco you have ever smelled in your life and one of the nicest guys to me that ever lived. He and I became very close friends.
So even though Don originally did not want the role of Red Ryder, he later appreciated that he did it, and we recommend for those who have not seen this classic serial to take time to watch it. We think Don Barry was great in the part, and feel y’all will feel the same about his performance. Of all the Red Ryder pictures, even though Bill Elliott, Allan Lane and Jim Bannon did well in the part in future features, Barry is our favorite Red Ryder.
Beautiful, auburn-haired, petite with a dynamite figure, Lois Collier was born Madelyn Jones in Sally, SC. She came to Hollywood following a school contest in 1935 billed under her real name in several small roles. She adopted Lois Collier after playing a character with that name in a radio show.
Starting in 1941 she co-starred in seven Three Mesquiteers titles at Republic. As she told writer Michael Fitzgerald, “I enjoyed them. It was good experience…just starting out. Tom Tyler later did some ‘Boston Blackie’ (‘51-‘53) episodes with me (she was Kent Taylor’s co-star) and we’d talk about the old days. Tom was a real quiet, nice man.”
Edward Norris, her co-star in “Jungle Queen” (‘45), told Fitzgerald, “Lois Collier’s passing made me sad. I remember her as a lovely 18 year old actress (and a good one); now 50 years have gone by since we worked together. I’m convinced Hollywood overlooked her, which is par for the course. I enjoyed working with her because she was a thinking actress and with the pressure in those days to bring an impossible schedule in on time, we had no time for rehearsals. As a result, you had to be good in the first take. Needless to say, she won my admiration.”
Lois co-starred with Walter Reed in Republic’s “Flying Disc Man from Mars” (‘51). Walter told me, “She was very pleasant to work with…a lot of fun. Easy to work with ...very professional.”
Lois Collier, 80, died October 27, 1999, following a struggle with Alzheimer’s at the Motion Picture Hospital in Woodland Hills, CA.