Thursday, December 28, 2017

Sundown Saunders: A man who never breaks his word

Being a gun for hire is not always what it is cracked up to be, as the one Sundown Saunders is in “Powdersmoke Range”(1935). Maybe it is because Tom Tyler's role demands that he be vicious and unforgiving, acted in a dramatic manner but not too over the top. Sandwiched between “A Rider of the Plains” (1931) and “Stagecoach” (1939), “Powdersmoke Range” remains one of the top three of Tom's performances in a western, from that decade, if only because his role is essential to the plot's development. From the opening scene of the movie where the main players are seated in their acting chairs, to the climactic range war, Tom delivers the best performance in the movie, despite being up against some of the biggest names in B-westerns of the mid-1930's: Harry Carey, Hoot Gibson, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, and Bob Steele. The first three actors on the list portray the Three Mesquiteers, while Bob is Jeff Ferguson, also known as The Guadalupe Kid, a close friend of the trio. Unlike “Stagecoach” (1939), all five actors including Tom himself have firmly established backgrounds as leading men in silent film. Needless to say, Tom as usual held his own quite well in this star-studded B-western from RKO. It is worth noting that most of scripted interaction he has is with Harry Carey, who portrays Tucson Smith, and the onscreen chemistry between them is what really adds substance to “Powdersmoke Range” with its common western theme of cattle rustlers and gunslinging.

Written by William Colt MacDonald (the screenplay is by Adele Buffington), “Powdersmoke Range” is about a crooked saloon owner who also happens to be a cattle rustler and ranch deed thief named Steve Ogden (Sam Hardy). Ogden confiscates the livestock and deed to the ranch belonging to the Three Mesquiteers and their friend Jeff Ferguson (Bob Steele), also known as he Guadalupe Kid. To make matters worse, the town deputy, Glascow (Adrian Morris) is in cahoots with Ogden. The Three Mesquiteers fight to get their property back, but not without a fight from Sundown Saunders, hired by Ogden to engage Tucson Smith (Carey) in a duel at sundown.

The opening credits of “Powdersmoke Range” depict the main players are seated in their chairs, backs to the camera, their names clearly printed on the back of each chair, introduce their faces with some personality: the heroic, craggy face of Harry Carey; Hoot Gibson taking a bite from an apple; Guinn “Big Boy” Williams spitting in a classy manner; and Tom Tyler, slowly turning his head, eyes narrowed, eyebrow raised with a “don't give a” expression. Tom comes across as being a tough, lean, mean, fighting machine whether it is in armed or unarmed combat. As Sundown Saunders, Tom delivers a memorable performance on film; in the Big Little Book of “Powdersmoke Range” (Whitman Publishing, Racine, WI: 1935) Sundown is described as a “tall dark man in a black hat...His face was lean and stern. His eyes were dark, cruel slits under his hat brim.” (pp. 98-100) This highly collectible book contains many stills from the movie, and is the only Big Little Book I have come across that has Tom Tyler as a main character in the story.

Sundown Saunders makes his first appearance in the film when Ogden is with Glascow in his room above the Red Bull saloon. The bartender knocks on the door before entering and informs Ogden there is someone downstairs to see him. Once the bartender leaves, Sundown arrives, opening the door to the room, asking which man is Ogden. Sundown is adamant about his business being between Ogden and himself, wanting no one else to hear the conversation that transpires. So he orders Glascow to leave, which he does. Ogden offers Sundown a drink, and Sundown, sitting on the edge of the desk, responds with “Gunplay and liquor don't mix”. Sundown is one who likes to be sober and always alert, sharp on the draw. At no point does Sundown ever let his guard down. Ogden's plan is to frame Tucson Smith, accusing him of stealing cattle off the local ranches and wants Sundown to plug him. As a hired gun, Sundown Saunders demands Ogden pay him his price of $2500.00 on the spot before he does the job. Sundown knows Tucson Smith all too well, is taken aback when he learns why he has been asked to plug Tucson, and in turn accuses Ogden of lying. Yet Sundown never breaks his word to anyone, no matter what the character of the person might be. In maintaining his reputation as the Fastest Gun in the Southwest, Sundown agrees to go up against Tucson Smith, just for game. Successfully going through with the gun match is no problem for Sundown, as he prepares himself mentally and physically for the role, when he spends time outside behind Red Bull saloon cleaning his gun and thinking.

The Three Mesquiteers first meet Sundown in Happy Days saloon across the street from Red Bull saloon. The owner Happy (William Desmond) is busy tending the bar, with only Tucson Smith, Lullaby Joslin (Williams), and Stony Brooke (Gibson). While the men chat, Sundown enters the saloon and saunters up to the bar, requesting a shot of whisky. Happy whispers to the three men that the guest is Sundown Saunders. Tucson starts to leave and as he walks towards the front door, is stopped as Sundown casually grabs him by the arm. Sundown and Tucson exchange a few words, the conversation eventually being softened by Tucson in response to Sundown's snarl, while Sundown challenges him to a duel at sundown. Tucson is right in thinking Sundown is being paid to fight him, but of course Sundown won't admit it. Soon after Sundown leaves the saloon, Jeff comes in and tells Tucson he plans on discouraging Sundown in fighting him, afraid he might lose a close friend and mentor. Being young, with a propensity towards impetuousness, Jeff does not heed Tucson's warning, telling the boy that it is his fight alone.

Jeff finds Sundown outside behind Red Bull saloon, cleaning his gun while sitting by a tree. Jeff implores Sundown not to engage Tucson in a gunfight, explaining how close he is to the oldest of the Three Mesquiteers, looking up to him like a father. Should anything happen to Tucson in this match, Sundown would have to deal with Jeff personally. Jeff is hoping that deep down, Sundown understands how he feels about Tucson – and he does, yet conceals it very well. The only reason Sundown is going through with this is because of the bargain he made with Ogden and being paid for the job, refuses to back down. If there is a crisis of conscience on Sundown's part, there is no visible evidence of it, as he moves mechanically, acting like a killer in every sense of the word. Still seated in front of the tree, Sundown's expression is grim, cold and calculating, as is his every word with Jeff. As if to deliberately provoke Jeff, Sundown tells him that he will eventually forget about his hero worship of Tucson, when Jeff suddenly punches him in the face. Startled, Sundown stands up, his eyes squinting, moving towards Jeff, who takes a step backward. To Sundown, Jeff is just an impetuous kid with misplaced feelings. The duel at sundown is still on, and there really is not much Jeff can do to stop it. After Sundown gives Jeff the brush off, he finds himself dealing with Tucson Smith, who went to Red Bull looking for Jeff. Sundown enters the saloon through the back door of the saloon. With Ogden nearby, Sundown reminds Tucson of his date at sundown in the center of town. Once Tucson leaves, Ogden tells Sundown that he missed the chance to plug Tucson then and there. Sundown looks at him in horror, sneers “You're lower than a rat” before turning his back on him.

Like a red seal is the setting sun
On the good and the evil men have done,-
- Longfellow

At sundown Tucson and Sundown meet up at opposite ends of the road in the middle of town. Once they come within shooting range, Sundown draws and fires but is too late; Tucson already fired, but instead of using regular bullets in his 45 frame revolver, used 3220's – a size meant to only knick his opponent from a certain distance. Tucson had no desire to kill Sundown, and is the first to arrive by Sundown's side when he collapses in the middle of the road. Sundown looks up at Tucson with widened eyes and replies “You took me by surprise”, taking a hit, especially from someone who he did not consider to be truly a bad guy but rather a good guy. After Sundown is taken away and fixed up at the doctor's, Tucson and the boys face a bigger challenge: the real cattle rustlers. Later on, Sundown leaves the doctor's office, when Tucson manages to catch hold of him. Tucson encourages Sundown to join in on the fight against the rustlers. Sundown listens to him even though he looks off into the distance, clearly detached from the entire situation, and wanting to go home to his ranch. Tucson tells Sundown to think about it and turns his attention to the cattle rustling, as the Three Mesquiteers head towards to rocky hills on horseback.

Once the Three Mesquiteers arrive in the hills, gun play starts against the cattle thieves. Well concealed by outcroppings of rocks, they take their turns, while not far off in the distance, Sundown is making his way to their destination, on horseback, crossing a riverbed. In an attempt to repay Tucson for his kindness, Sundown looks around, trying to find where Tucson is located among all the large rocks. He finds him, shooting away, and crouching down, the two men come face to face, looking at each other in a manner of faithfulness and understanding to each other. Of course, Tucson is happy that Sundown decided to join them, and right as one of the cattle rustlers sends a bullet in their direction, Sundown leapps up, ready to shoot back, but instead takes the bullet meant for Tucson right in his chest. Sundown falls back towards the ground, his hat falls off, Tucson looking on in horror, grabbing him. Sundown's last words to Tucson were “I guess it wasn't in the cards for me to stay on the ranch”, looking up at Tucson and smiles broadly, a smile that Tucson hoped he could one day see from Sundown. Sundown finally expires, smile disappearing, still held in Tucson's arms, his face turning towards Tucson's chest. As a rather poignant moment between Tom and Harry, the two finally become friends at the end – a friendship that required the final sacrifice.

Directed by Wallace Fox, “Powdersmoke Range” offered Tom Tyler and Harry Carey the chance to work together for the first time, and as an installment for the Three Mesquiteers, is top notch viewing even though it is a B-western of the mid-1930's. What the movie does offer is the standard western fan's chance to see Carey, Gibson, Williams work with Tom Tyler on equal billing, as well as observe Tom on the other side of the law (at the time this movie was made, Tom was also under contract to Reliable, having just released “Rio Rattler” in 1935), a temporary diversion from his good guy leading man roles in B-westerns at the time. As stated earlier, it is the onscreen chemistry between Harry Carey and Tom Tyler that really make the picture. Their personalities play off each other quite nicely: Tom Tyler being the more enigmatic figure, while Harry Carey is the tough guy with a tender heart, always being on the right side of the law. This chemistry would later be seen in “The Last Outlaw” (1936), another western also starring Hoot Gibson. All things considered, “Powdersmoke Range” remains one of William Colt MacDonald's best western stories translated to the silver screen, bringing the memorable Three Mesquiteers and their friends to life.

Happy One-Year Anniversary!

It has been a whole year since I started this blog, not knowing what to fully expect. Originally started as a marketing tool for Aventuras de Tom Tyler, the actual website grew rapidly, maybe too rapidly at one point. The monthly newsletter also started around the same time the blog did, and the full archive can be found here. Amazingly enough, the demographics for the blog stats range between ages 30 to 60, mainly men but a number of women, too. The blog and website received a facelift in the past few days, in addition to a Podcasts link on the website. The good news is this: both the website and blog itself will always have something new about Tom Tyler, something to celebrate this very special man (which he was), compared to the general biographies that already exist online. The journey has only begun, and with the website three years old now, is about to get better, what with "Shazam!" in its early stages of filming up in Toronto, Ontario, the Blu-ray release of "Adventures of Captain Marvel", the revisiting of Tom Tyler as the superhero and his established career in early talkies and silent film arouse the curiosity of his work. The gentle waves of Hollywood trends come and go, but I predict this one to be a tidal wave for Tom Tyler in 2018. In the meantime, it is back to the regularly scheduled Tom Tyler blog.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

German titles of Tom Tyler films

"Born to Battle", 1926, Film-Kurier
Now we travel to Germany to see what Tom Tyler film titles might appear like on movie posters and other film-related memorabilia. Like the Spanish Biblioteca Films film booklets, Germany also had something similar called Film-Kurier. Tom's starring roles from the 1920's to 1930's have made more than a few appearances on the covers of Film-Kurier. Surprisingly, some film titles like “The Phantom” and “Adventures of Captain Marvel” do not get translated into German. As a piece of Tom Tyler film trivia: Betty Amann, Tom's leading lady in "Trail of Horse Thieves", was born in Pirmasens, Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany on March 10, 1905. With thanks to Tagesbote,, and for many of the German film titles.

Born to Battle (1926) – Der Cowboykönig der kalifornischen Berge

The Law of the Plains (1929) – Sein Freund aus der Prärie 

Postcard for "Jungle Mystery", Germany

Jungle Mystery (1932) –
Rätsel der Dschungel

Phantom of the Ranch (1936) –
Das Phantom der Ranch

Rip Roarin' Buckaroo (1936) –
Boxer und Cowboy

Brothers of the West (1937) –
Goldraub am Höllenpass

The Night Riders (1939) – Reiter in der Nacht
Stagecoach (1939) – Ringo/Höllenfahrt nach Santa Fé
Drums along the Mohawk (1939) – Trommeln am Mohawk

"Brothers of the West" German film program
The Westerner (1940) – In die Falle Gelockt
Brother Orchid (1940) – Orchid, der Gangsterbruder
Valley of the Sun (1942) – Tal des Todes
The Talk of the Town (1942) – Zeuge der Anklage
The Princess and the Pirate (1944) – Das Korsarenschiff
San Antonio (1945) – Ein Mann der Tat
Cheyenne (1947) – Schmutzige Dollars
I Shot Jesse James (1948) – Ich erschoss Jesse James
The Dude Goes West (1948) – Abenteuer im Wilden Westen
The Younger Brothers (1949) – Sie ritten mit Jesse James
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) – Der Teufelshauptmann

"I Shot Jesse James" one-sheet German poster

Crooked River (1950) – Banditenjäger

Friday, December 8, 2017

Tom Tyler: The clean-cut hero

Profiled in Classic Images June 1984, Tom Tyler receives a favorable evaluation as a Hollywood leading man, but not just for his acting skills; his personality and lifestyle is described by writer George A. Katchmer as being a role model for American youth to aspire to. One notable aspect of this article, “Tom Tyler: clean cut hero”, combines Tom's real life background with studio composed biographies, embellished as it were, to make it seem like he had an exciting upbringing and an adventurous streak which made Tom fit in his FBO western hero-type roles perfectly.

As a prizefighter in "Red Hot Hoofs"
For example, a number of sources claim that Tom Tyler worked as a coal miner near Pittsburgh, spent time at sea on a steamer, worked as a lumberjack, and as a prizefighter. In retrospect, such roles might not be hard to imagine of Tom, considering the fact he has played a lumberjack (“Riders of the Timberline”) and a prizefighter (“Red Hot Hoofs”, “Rip Roarin' Buckaroo”) and was on a passenger ship (“King of Alcatraz”) at least. Of course none of the studio embellished stories have been substantiated, although there is a strong possibility that he did work as an art model, according to “The Tom Tyler Story” by Mike Chapman. Tom no doubt knew how to pose – in fact during the height of his weightlifting career he posed as a model for Milo barbells in the 1920's. During his first years in Hollywood though Tom had to find a place to live, and eat too, so he was willing to find any kind of work, whether or not it directly led him into acting jobs. Considering Tom Tyler's looks and physique, it is not difficult to imagine him working as an art model.

As a lumberjack in "Riders of the Timberline"
The Classic Images article also documents Tom's desire to become an actor as a teen, receiving support from his two sisters but not his parents, who thought he was wasting his hard-earned money and time on a dream that seemed totally out of reach for the working-class Markowski family. Employed at the auto factory in Detroit, Tom's father preferred that his son follow in his footsteps and bring home a steady paycheck, having some means to support himself as well as a future wife and children (Tom was briefly married to actress Jean Martel, no children). Katchmer further details Tom's childhood and education. There are no details about Tom's education years although it is safe to guess he was a good student, a quiet boy who brought home decent grades on his report card. Comparing Tom Tyler's education years to A-list stars like Errol Flynn or Lee Marvin would be interesting, for it seems like such actors have had trouble in school, even being expelled at some point. Yet Tom, mild mannered as he was, was smart despite having only a high school education, and he was clearly in control of his destiny.

Regarding Tom's personality and lifestyle, the latter being atypical of Hollywood leading men, Katchmer explains why Tom Tyler is an ideal role model for American youth. He mentions that Tom was probably a moderate drinker and smoker (there are a few existing photos of Tom holding a lit cigarette; chances are he liked a cold beer or a glass of wine with his sirloin steak, one of his favorite dishes) and not his name emblazoned across the front page of the newspapers about some scandal on a daily basis. At the same time Katchmer notes that Tom was no saint, as none of us are. Tom's shyness possibly protected him from the toxic side of Hollywood, although it might also be considered that Tom believed in making it in Hollywood on his own talents, based on merit. Regardless of what stories surround Tom Tyler's background and career, this issue of Classic Images is worth seeking out and reading.