I’ve seen a lot of Bob Steele movies. An awful lot. But “Near the Rainbow’s End” remains my favorite. It’s his first talkie. And like Garbo, he waited quite a while to take the plunge. Jolson’s "The Jazz Singer” came out in 1927 and by ‘29 it seemed clear that sound represented both present and future for the movie industry. As it happens, Garbo’s “Anna Christie” emerged in February of 1930. Moviegoers had to wait till June to hear Bob talk. Of course, his audience wasn’t the same one that panted over Garbo. Probably not as numerous; certainly not as visible and voluble on the world stage. The press, the Hollywood elite, the glittering world all held their breath to see how Garbo would fare. Could any voice live up to the glamorous image of the silent screen’s most elegantly doomed orchid ? Finally she spoke - cymbals clashed, trumpets blared – and she triumphed. Luxury film palaces played “Anna Christie” to packed houses and critical hosannas. MGM breathed a diamond-studded sigh of relief.
Bob’s sound debut was considerably more low-key. Silents had made him a star of sorts – but on a level far more modest than Garbo’s. Millions were tied up in her career. Bob’s vehicles were filmed on a shoestring. She was famous around the world. Foreign distribution of Bob Steele movies was probably sketchy at best. Mighty Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer guided the lady’s cinematic fortunes. Bob Steele westerns were distributed on an almost catch as catch can basis. The latest batch was put together by Big Productions Film Corp., an entity whipped into being in 1929 for the express purpose of churning out a season’s worth of Bob Steele movies. They certainly weren’t equipped to distribute the product; for that, they hooked up with the (slightly) more substantial Syndicate Pictures. But this was still fly-by-the-seat- of- your-pants film production. Garbo’s every move was fan magazine fodder. It’s doubtful fan mags took much notice of Bob. At the time she lived behind high walls on a spacious property complete with Spanish-style house and swimming pool . He rented a modest Los Angeles apartment with one of his buddies. MGM, critics and fans rhapsodized over Garbo’s Art. “Anna Christie” came from the pen of Eugene O’Neill, no less. Steele made brief no-nonsense horse operas. Her movies played fancy first run houses; his pitched camp at neighborhood Saturday matinees . Yet, Steele had built up an enthusiastic audience. Mainly kids and cowboy fans. Very few of whom would have lined up for “Anna Christie”.
Both Greta Garbo and Bob Steele were in their twenties, with their brightest career years potentially ahead of them – provided they could master the microphone. Nowadays, retrospective film study is much more catholic in its perspective. It’s possible to appreciate Greta and Bob. To love them both. That wasn’t generally the case in 1930. Garbo films tended to be released sparingly, each trumpeted as a special event. Bob had five silent western out in 1930 before “Rainbow” 's June release. Yet, Bob’s sound debut was also something of a triumph. An understated one, maybe, but still a very solid success. Audiences that had enjoyed him without sound found no reason to like him any less. Yes, Garbo talked. But so did Bob - quite appealingly, in fact. Unlike Garbo, he also rode, wrangled and brawled. All things his fans craved. Sound was clearly here to stay – and unlike so many whose careers were scuttled by the new technology - Bob was staying too.
MORE BOB STEELE TO COME