Thursday, February 1, 2018

Gangsters abound: Tom Tyler in “The Last Outlaw”

One of the most unique turning points of Tom Tyler's film career was playing a heavy in “Powdersmoke Range” in 1935, during a time when he was portraying cowboy heroes for Reliable in the mid- to late 1930's. For Tom, it was simply a matter of making the most of his versatile acting talent which would come in handy three years later in “Stagecoach” (1939). It was one movie in between those two, however, that would see Tom portray a heavy as well as be paired up with Harry Carey once again: “The Last Outlaw” (1936) from RKO. In this movie, Tom portrays a gangster who succeeds the recently paroled Dean Payton (Carey) in the story, his fate ending up in a very similar manner to the man he meets on the city bus while trying to maintain the appearance of an ordinary city man.

From the time Dean is paroled from jail and returns to him hometown by bus, he is hoping for a new lease on life without having any reminders of his past brought up again. That all changes, however, as soon as he meets his modern-time replacement on the bus, a gangster by the name Al Goss (Tom Tyler). Compared to Dean Payton's manner of dress, a throwback to an earlier time out west, Al is wearing the finest threads available, plus a white hat with a wide black band around it. To Dean, Al looks like a well-dressed businessman, unaware that he is in fact a gangster who is in the same business that Dean once was. Once Dean boards the bus he finds a seat next to Al. Al dozes off in his bus seat when Dean nudges him and asks if he could sit there. Al abruptly wakes up and admonishes Dean: “What do you mean poking a guy in the ribs?” Al relents at Dean's request, and moves over to the seat next to the window on the bus. Dean has trouble with his belongings, but once he gets settled in, he grins at Al, who in return glowers at him, as if he is someone who needs to be kept an eye on.
Once Dean reaches his destination, he gets off with Al following him. Al finally confronts Dean and challenges him, saying: “For a nickel I'd take a sock at you.” Dean falls for the ploy and hands Al a nickel, if only to give him the satisfaction of slugging him. Just as he is ready to fistfight Al a policeman comes up behind him. The policeman asks Al what this is all about then replies that he was attending to his own business. Al is a tough hombre but younger and physically stronger than Dean is, before handing Dean back his nickel. Al, however, guarantees that he and Dean will be meeting up again soon, much to Dean's chagrin; what Dean does not know is that he will eventually meet up with Al to turn him in to the authorities and put an end to his criminal activities. In addition to becoming adjusted to a normal life, he tracks down his daughter Sally (Margaret Callahan), spends time with friends Cal Yates (Henry B Walthall) and Chuck Wilson (Hoot Gibson), going to the movies, experiences the era of the singing cowboys, and longs for the real wild west, if only because that is where his heart is. Dean will get to experience his dream sooner than later – and at the same time feel truly redeemed in addition to serving his time in jail.

In the meantime, Al and his henchmen make their plans to rob State Bank and as soon as their nefarious act commences, Dean is in the bank at the same time they are. Unfortunately for Dean, he is left behind in the position where the police suspect him as the culprit even though he is innocent. Dean knows who the police should be following and is willing to help them catch Al, whose daughter Sally has been abducted by Al and his gang. Only one diversion takes place on their way to a hideout – the same one used by Dean only two decades earlier – a stop at a small gas station to fill up their tank. Just as they are leaving, a news announcement comes over their car radio regarding the occupants and the bank robbery. The gas station attendant overhears, and as Al stands outside the car, he looks around nervously, hoping for enough time to escape while paying for the gas – which he does. The gangsters hurriedly leave and continue on their way to the hideout, and after a brief repudiation towards Al by one of his own men as to its location, eventually arrive there.

As leader of operations, including control over Sally in their possession, Al calls the defense shots when Dean, Cal and Chuck arrive and hide behind an outcropping of rocks at the top of the hill above the hideout cabin. Both sides son engage in gunfire, with Dean and his pals at an advantage: they attempt to drive everyone out of the cabin, carefully planted bullets in the barrel holding a water supply connected to the house, the stove pipe jutting out of the roof, the water bucket carried by Sally, the tires on the getaway car, even the car radio as it plays “My Heart's on the Trail”, the theme song to the movie they just saw recently.

Independent Exhibitors Film Bulletin, June 3, 1936 states the following: “Tom Tyler is seen in the strange role of one of the gangsters and he risks audience sympathy by playing the part for all it's worth.” It is only when Tom, his gang and Sally are hiding out at a deserted ranch house that he utilises his voice to perfection: the monotone gravelly dictates such as “We need water”, eventually grabbing Sally and hiding behind her as he escapes from Dean Payton out the cabin's front door. This iconic scene, which became a promotional item for “The Last Outlaw” in both lobby cards and one-sheet posters, a characterization of Tom Tyler never before seen in any films he previously made. Who could imagine Tom making a getaway while using a woman as bait? Yet he pulled off the scene beautifully in the movie, including his escape, which permits the viewer to imagine that is exactly how Harry Carey's Dean Payton was captured two decades earlier. While “Powdersmoke Range” places Tom Tyler not only in close proximity with Harrey Carey near the end – but also an emotional closeness, “The Last Outlaw” places him at a considerable distance – even placing Sally between them – while the closeness remains one at heart: being the true successor of a mastermind criminal from twenty years earlier, and just like Dean Payton, is caught, although not by Dean himself but by his friend Cal. Not surprisingly, Tom's performance ranks high as usual, playing off Harry Carey's portrayal of an aged criminal nicely without obvious rivalry. Written by E. Murray Campbell and John Ford, and directed by Christy Cabanne who would later direct Tom in “The Mummy's Hand”, “The Last Outlaw” is a B-western that ranks up there with “Powdersmoke Range” in having big-named stars playing major roles. Most importantly, “The Last Outlaw” offers Tom Tyler fans a glimpse into a very different type of character played onscreen, apart from his typical hero-type starring roles.

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