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.

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