Sunset Carson Westerns by Boyd Magers

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Sunset Carson.

Sunset Carson.Ratings: Zero to 4 Stars.

Two Stars “CALL OF THE ROCKIES” (‘44 Republic) Gene Autry was in the service. The John Paul Revere series had flopped. So Republic decided to try a new tack by top-billing comic Smiley Burnette over their new leading man, Oklahoma/Texas rodeo cowboy Michael Harrison whom Republic prexy Herbert J. Yates promptly christened Sonny “Sunset” Carson. (The Sonny was dismissed after this first film.) Noting Sunset’s size and ability (and probably his lack of acting experience), director Les Selander planned “action, action and more action.” Smiley received top billing over the fledgling star in the first four films, a first in B-western history. Republic originally intended to do eight with “Frog” in the “lead,” but the fan mail for Sunset was so overwhelming Republic decided to let Sunset go on his own. Carson went on to make eleven “solo” westerns at Republic in ‘45 and ‘46 then, due to excessive boozing, self-destructed. The “what-if” questions surrounding Sunset’s brief career at Republic are among the most oft asked among B-western aficionados. With a sidekick technically in the lead, Republic began another gimmick with “Call of the Rockies” in which the kids in the theatre audience were asked to participate in the on-screen action. In this one, as a “badman” chases Sunset and Frog at the end of the picture, Smiley turns to the audience and asks them all to go “Bang”, apparently “shooting” the outlaw off his horse. Plotwise, the pair try to aid hardrock miners obtain a government franchise to improve the safety of the water-leaky mine shafts. Note that Sunset uses a whip to disarm one badman, predating both Lash LaRue and Whip Wilson by several years. Also Sunset uses a reverse draw double-holster rig in his four with Smiley, reverting to a standard single forward draw rig for the remainder of his westerns.

Sunset Carson and Smiley Burnette in their first together, "Call of the Rockies".

Three Stars “BORDERTOWN TRAIL” (‘44 Republic) Texas border patrol agents Smiley Burnette and Sunset Carson battle a criminal organization led by Addison Richards who, along with Weldon Heyburn and his gang, attempt to smuggle half a million dollars in gold into Texas where it will be used to buy votes opposing the annexation of Texas to the Union. Bob Williams and Jesse Duffy’s screenplay has some unusually cruel and vicious scenes for a B-western. On the other hand, there’s some unusually silly scenes between Sgt. Rex Lease and old maidish Ellen Lowe. Republic must not have liked the tenor of Jack Luden’s voice as Lt. Carson (Sunset’s brother) because it’s dubbed for every scene he’s in by a deeper more resonate voice.

Four Stars“CODE OF THE PRAIRIE” (‘44 Republic) Former western lawman Bat Matson, turned frontier newspaperman (Tom Chatterton), with his daughter Peggy Stewart, attempt to bring law and order to a small western town. When Chatterton learns too much about the past of local politician Roy Barcroft, he is killed. However, frontier photographer Smiley Burnette accidentally snaps a picture of Barcroft disposing of the body. It takes Smiley’s pal Sunset Carson and misguided Weldon Heyburn (who’s running for Sheriff against Sunset under Barcroft’s backing) to handle the rough stuff and restore justice. The quite unusual final denouement brings the audience into the explanation of the picture, then Smiley turns directly to the audience and says, “You kids go home now. You been in here all day.”

"Firebrands of Arizona".Four Stars“FIREBRANDS OF ARIZONA” (‘44 Republic) A B-western classic! The funniest film Republic ever made. Determined to cure her hypochondriac, pill-guzzling, ranch hand, Smiley (Frog) Burnette, ranch owner Peggy Stewart sends Frog off to a distant medical specialist, accompanied by his pal Sunset. Frog and Sunset are fired upon by a posse believing Frog to be wanted outlaw Beefsteak Discoe, whom he resembles to a T. Badmen, also believing Frog to be their boss Beefsteak, rescue the pair who hightail it into town where the local populace, including horses and cigar store Indians, run from them in terror—again mistaking Frog for Beefsteak. Sheriff Earle Hodgins (who practically steals the picture with his mannerisms and ad-libs) captures Frog, pegging him as the notorious outlaw. Poor Frog is about to be hung (at this point every “hanging joke” ever conceived is trotted out) until the real outlaw pulls a stage robbery. Then it’s a merry who’s who mix-up comedy of errors of which there is none funnier. The surrealistic scenes between Frog and wagon driver Tom London are absolutely delightful. This was Smiley’s last of four with Sunset who was getting the build-up from Republic.

Four Stars“SHERIFF OF CIMARRON” (‘45 Republic) Stuntman Yakima Canutt directed one of the best slam-bang action efforts Republic ever released. Sunset Carson (in his first western on his own), fresh out of jail for a crime he didn’t commit, becomes sheriff of outlaw plagued Cimarron. Clearing up the robberies and the frame job on himself leads to his own brother, Riley Hill. Most people remember this as the one where Sunset woos Linda Stirling with a wink and a “clik-clik” of his tongue. Temperate comedy relief from Olin Howlin. Sunset uses a bullwhip  once again.

Four Stars“SANTA FE SADDLEMATES” (‘45 Republic) This is the action-packed cream of the crop among Sunset’s 15 B-westerns for Republic. Sunset’s in top form, he never looked fitter. There’s good chemistry between Sunset and leading lady Linda Stirling, who sings, but not too well. Directed by the stalwart Tommy Carr.

"Santa Fe Saddlemates".

Three Stars “OREGON TRAIL” (‘45 Republic) When a train is robbed of $50,000 in gold, railroad detective Carson goes undercover to infiltrate the gang run by John Merton, fronting for businessman Steve Winston (a bad actor), who is trying to wrest control of the town of Gunsight from Frank Jaquet and his daughter Peggy Stewart as Winston has knowledge the railroad is coming. Mary Carr, who plays Peggy’s feisty grandmother, is in reality director Thomas Carr’s mother and quite a name during the silent era. Although Monte Hale and Rex Lease are billed, they were cut from the final release print.

Two Stars “BANDITS OF THE BADLANDS” (‘45 Republic) Texas ranger Sunset Carson resigns to track down the badmen who killed his brother (Monte Hale). He and saddlekick Si Jenks, pretending to be escaped owlhoots, infiltrate the gang in their outlaw town where blacksmith Forrest Taylor and his daughter, gun totin’ Peggy Stewart, are being held against their  will. This is also the historic western where Sunset Carson read a line wrong  while  film-ing. After Sunset has stopped a stage and is ready for it to roll again, he says, “Wind them wheels.” (‘Wind’ being pronounced by Carson like air in motion). Director Tommy Carr hollered, “Cut! Sunset, it’s ‘Wind them wheels!” (‘Wind’ correctly pronounced here to mean tighten.) Sunset said, “Well, damn, its ‘wind’ in my script.”

Four Stars“ROUGH RIDERS OF CHEYENNE” (‘45 Republic) Fast, furious action as Sunset exposes the mysterious plotter behind the long standing Carson-Sterling feud. Can’t tell you who the “boss” is for fear of spoiling the “mystery man” surprise ending—as if you won’t have guessed. Monte Hale has a good supporting role in one of his several pre-starring-days films. One of Carson’s best with an unusual duel between Sunset and Peggy Stewart at the finish.

"Cherokee Flash".Four Stars“CHEROKEE FLASH” (‘45 Republic) One of Republic’s most unusual westerns, in that it gives all-time heavy Roy Barcroft a sympathetic role as Sunset Carson’s foster father, a former outlaw known as the Cherokee Flash. Barcroft has paid his debt to society years ago and is now living peacefully as a respected citizen of Red Bluff when his old gang involves him in a bank robbery he had no hand in. It’s a vicious plot by underhanded lawyer John Merton to frame Barcroft and grab off his ranch which controls the local water. Aiding Sunset is Barcroft’s ranch foreman, toothless Tom London.

Two Stars“DAYS OF BUFFALO BILL” (‘46 Republic) The cards stacked against him, Sunset and toothless Tom London are framed by card sharps James Craven and Rex Lease for the shooting of hard-luck gambling loser Jay Kirby. Learning Kirby discovered gold on his ranch before his death, the two gamblers form an uneasy alliance with banker/forger Ed Cobb to take the ranch away from Kirby’s sister, Peggy Stewart, who is unaware of the gold but owes the banker for her brother’s debts. When she tries to raise the money by selling off her herd of horses, the outlaws strike. Peggy hires Sunset and Tom, unaware they are suspected of her brother’s killing. When she does learn, she tries to kill Sunset but he escapes and eventually discovers the truth about Kirby’s murder. Somehow, Sunset seems more laid-back, ill at ease and uncomfortable than usual in the dramatic scenes.

Two Stars“ALIAS BILLY THE KID” (‘46 Republic) Into a lawless region rides undercover Texas Ranger Sunset Carson, assigned to track down and bring to justice a female Robin Hood, Peggy Stewart, and her gang. Turns out they are innocent victims of Roy Barcroft who is cheating and robbing ranchers with starvation cattle prices. When Peggy’s father was killed by Barcroft she vowed to fight back the only way she knew how. It’s another variation on Bennett Cohen’s “Come On, Danger” Tom Keene/George O’Brien/Tim Holt story. Cohen produced this version. Incidentally, this is the film in which Sunset constantly refers to Peg as Baby Sister.

Two Stars“EL PASO KID” (‘46 Republic) Associate producer Bennett Cohen recycled his Ken Maynard “Texas Gunfighter” (‘32) script for this Carson. After Sunset and his saddle-pal, Hank Patterson, pull out of Robert Filmer’s gold-robbing gang, the townspeople, upon Cobb’s pretty daughter Marie Harmon’s suggestion, appoint Sunset the new deputy sheriff of Laramie City. Even though Filmer tries to blackmail Sunset, the El Paso Kid, back into the gang, Sunset vows to go straight and bust up the gang at the expense of his own past being exposed.

Sunset and leading lady Marie Harmon in "El Paso Kid".

Four Stars“RED RIVER RENEGADES” (‘46 Republic) Six guns blaze as postal inspectors Sunset and his pard Tom London investigate the mystery of the watery stagecoach graveyard and encounter Pinkerton agent Peggy Stewart also on the trail of sneaky Ted Adams and his gang. Simply one of Sunset’s best!

Four Stars“RIO GRANDE RAIDERS” (‘46 Republic) Sunset’s last film for Republic is an action lover’s treat with Bob Steele taking top acting honors as Sunset’s hot-headed ex-con brother who is once again falling in with bad company. The plot revolves around the rivalry between the Harding Stage Line (Linda Stirling) and the crooked Redmond Transportation Company (Tris Coffin). Had not John Barleycorn got the best of Sunset at such a young age, he possibly would have lasted another decade to the end of the B-western era. Even as it is, Carson left us with some of the most action packed B-westerns ever made.

Sunset threatens badman Kenne Duncan as Bob Steele (L) and Tom London (over Sunset's right shoulder) stand by in "Rio Grande Raiders".

Two Stars “SUNSET CARSON RIDES AGAIN” (‘48 Yucca/Astor) Without screen work for two years, Sunset resurfaced in late ‘48 starring in four dismal efforts produced by Walt Mattox for his Yucca Pictures, all directed by aging vet Oliver Drake. All were released by R. M. Savini’s Astor Pictures Corp. All four appear to have been filmed in 16mm color and blown up to 35mm for theatrical distribution. In the process, the color was so grainy most of the films saw only sporadic b/w release. However, “Sunset Carson Rides Again”, the best of the four if that’s any recommendation, survives in color. In this first of the four ultra-cheapies, Sunset has to convince young Al Terry that he didn’t kill his father while stopping Sunset’s “partner”, John Cason, from robbing the school fund. As in all four, there is an overabundance of off-key campfire songs.

One Star “DEADLINE” (‘48 Yucca/Astor) Ex-Pony Express rider Carson aids a telegraph construction company owner to ward off owlhoots who intend to drive her out of business and reroute the telegraph. The obnoxious Phil Arnold, who aggravated viewers so well as Zerbo on TV’s “Cowboy G-Men”, is perfecting his undesirableness here as a medicine show man. An irritating feature of “Deadline” is the endless riding insert shots of Carson and leading lady Pat Starling. An interminable nearly 10 minutes of film is taken up racing over the range! This group of Carson films were like dinosaurs from another era—underfunded, poorly directed by Oliver Drake, badly photographed and populated with ample amounts of amateur actors.

One Star“FIGHTING MUSTANG” (‘48 Yucca/Astor) Carson’s series of Yucca pictures all have a homemade feel to them, so much so you can almost hear one-time top-flight director Oliver Drake saying to his pals (referred to by Ollie as the Beasties), “Hey guys, let’s get together and make some cowboy movies.” In this one, Texas Ranger Carson fights a band of outlaws opposed to the annexation of badlands territory to Texas. Pretty much inept. The Dale Harrison listed in the cast is Sunset’s younger brother.

ZERO “BATTLING MARSHAL” (‘50 Yucca/Astor) Mindless, you’ve-seen-it-all-done-much-better-a-hundred-times-before Carson cheapie. $1.98 production values with low rent do-anything-to-be-in-a-movie actors. Grandpop and his daughter Pat Starling are put upon by outlaws until U.S. Marshal Carson and his stubby-bearded saddlepal, Lee Roberts, come to their rescue. There’s a lost  vein  of  gold  underneath  Grandpop’s  ranch.   The crooks try to scare Grandpop off with a smallpox scare. The most talentless music aggregation in B-westerns, Little Jimmy Hiser’s group, makes us suffer through 3 songs.

ZERO “RIO GRANDE” (‘49 Lautem/Astor) A strong candidate for the worst B-western ever made, certainly the worst ever with a major star. If you think Sunset’s Yucca Productions in ‘48 were bad, wait til you see (if you must) this abysmal excuse for exposed film. Filmed on the Rio Grande in Juanita, TX, a run-down village about 25 miles east of Laredo, everything about it is inferior, especially Jack Specht’s motionless inept photography for which he used no lights (other than the sun) and no reflectors, leaving faces in total shadow most of the time. There’s a car horn on the soundtrack, an unbelievable off-key girl singer, several amateurish local actors and unintentional yuks—such as when the badguys, sent to ambush Sunset and strongly warned not to miss with the first shot, not only miss the first shot, but the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th in a row!

Sunset Carson personal appearance poster.