Monday, March 21, 2016

THE GLINT OF STEELE - BOB OF THE B’s



                I’m a fan of the B western. Certainly, that’s a term people interpret in different ways. When I use it, I’m talking about mini-budget cowboy movies - early 30’s to early 50’s. These B’s (the B suggesting secondary titles on a double feature) generally came from low-level studios like Republic, Monogram, PRC - or from independent shoestring producers, who either distributed through one of these Poverty Row outfits or found even sketchier ways to get their product out there.  The pictures were often put out in series –the connective tissue generally the lead cowboy actor himself. Their character names may have changed from script to script, but not their star personas. Some (like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry) simply dispensed with made-up character names and used their own professional monickers onscreen.  A state of affairs that tended to give their films the prescient flavor of sagebrush reality shows.  Westerns were, naturally, best filmed outdoors – and that did away with the need to build a lot of elaborate sets. So they were a natural fit for small-time producers with slim budgets.  Key target audiences for the films were kids at Saturday matinees (for them cowboys were the superheroes of the day) and rural filmgoers. Small second run cinemas were B western headquarters, especially on Saturday afternoons.  Fancy first run picture palaces rarely played host to the cowboy quickies.  Major studios did sometimes get into the act. Warner Brothers had the Dick Forans, 20th Century Fox the Cesar Romero Cisco Kids.  With access to big studio sets, technicians and contract players, these films inevitably sported a slicker, more polished sheen than their humbler Poverty Row cousins. But they weren’t always better. A low budgeter sometimes transcended its limitations. A director with a gift for inspiring team effort, a cinematographer with an inventive eye, a scripter or actor bucking the odds – and by dint of sheer  whatever - talent, commitment, luck –might just create something with enough pluck and pizzazz to distinguish itself from the herd. Westerns usually guaranteed nice outdoor scenery plus a dependable amount of action, including impressive shots of beautiful horses in full, glorious gallop. Granted, much of the appeal of the B westerns came from their ritualized story beats. But it was always fun to watch someone re-invigorate those conventions with dashes of wit, feeling and spontaneity.  That didn’t always happen. But the fact that it was done often enough to keep audiences coming back for decades is a tribute to the people that made these movies.
                Now, I like a lot of the old cowboy stars. But, for me, one of them occupies a special place at the front of the queue. That’s Bob Steele. I discovered him late. Sometime in the 90’s.  I’d seen him from time to time before that without paying much attention. I think my quick impression was that he looked a bit strange and - though younger than most of the actors around him – gave off a retro vibe, as if he’d  somehow emerged alive and kicking from an even earlier era.  Don’t know if I’d ever watched a whole film. But a friend bought one of his early 30’s movies (on video); he liked it and recommended I try it. The tip turned out to be a good one. I was unexpectedly captivated – and haven’t looked back.  My friend and I have both watched dozens of Steeles since – and it’s only deepened our admiration for this guy.
                Steele (born  Robert Bradbury, Portland, Oregon, 1907) began in movies as a boy. Not that surprising, since his father, Robert N. Bradbury, was a writer/director. Dad featured Bob and twin brother Bill in a series of Boy Scout style shorts in the early 20’s. Bill drifted out of the industry, eventually becoming a doctor. Bob stayed in the movies, first in supporting roles, then graduating (rechristened Bob Steele) to  leads  in low budget westerns, some directed by his dad. Remember, this was the 20’s so we’re talking silent films here.  Most of these early Bob Steele films are lost. One survivor is 1929’s “A Texas Cowboy”. The version available offers some viewing challenges  -  the print’s soft and grainy ; the music  grafted on to accompany it is more arbitrary than appropriate. Yet, darn it, if the thing isn’t engaging.  The story’s brisk. The camera makes the most of bracing outdoor settings.  Heroine, Edna Aslin, turns out to be a genuine charmer. Too bad she didn’t carve out a career for herself in the talkies. And J. P. McGowan, the director responsible for the all-round quality of the piece, also doubles as actor. He plays the heavy (character name: Brute Kettle { from the bad branch of Universal’s big-hearted Kettle clan?} ) and boy, is he good at it!  Makes  me think of a latter-day Grant Withers.  But an even better  version.  His pared down naturalism– there’s no trace of what’s often considered “silent movie” acting – is really effective, served up with a kind of matter of fact intensity. 
                                                 
                But Bob Steele himself is the heart of the movie. Just 21 when he made it, he’s already shooting off star quality sparks. The fact that he was short (maybe five foot five) wasn’t really at odds with the image of youth he projected.  And he was definitely in great shape; tremendously agile, too. Young Steele had a gift for projecting both idealism and impetuousness. And almost always seemed super-invested in what was happening onscreen. The vivid quality of old school melodrama  flickers and flares in Steele’s performances  - he embodies the kind of ideals nourished through the Victorian era  - boyish innocence, moral probity, a taste for adventure, tempered by  parental respect bordering on veneration. All, especially the last, probably  attributable to his close relationship with his own father/ mentor.  Eventually Bradbury Sr. directed over two dozen Bob Steele films.  And the crucial importance of the parent-child bond creates such a strong narrative and  emotional  through-line in these movies one can’t help but imagine it was part of the actual Bradbury family ethos.
                Aside from the enthusiasm and “game for anything” aura, he’s also got a soulful quality. The love interest in a B western often gets only a minor look-in footage-wise, but Steele packs a lot of feeling into that limited screen time.  Projecting a mix of ardent attachment and courtly respect. But it’s not just the ingénues that attract that courtliness; elders, friends, even horses come in for their fair share of it. He displays a certain tenderness in most of his relationships, a delicacy of feeling hardly the rule in the B-western playbook.  There’s a  sensitivity on display that’s almost feminine; but it’s energized and sinewy; nothing dainty here. In his early films, the strength of his emotions is matched by the power of his commitment. He’s not just capable of idealism, it’s in his fibre. The guy’s sincerity comes off as so bone-deep  it never appears laughable or uncool.  Virtue only seems unhip when it’s detectably phony. And Steele invariably passes the sincerity test with flying colors. Which isn’t to suggest the onscreen Bob Steele is some sort of Goody Two Shoes. Confronted with injustice or violence, he can immediately default to a deadly glare, all but quivering with outrage; from which it’s only a short vault into Angel of Vengeance mode.
                The energy he projects is more than just the result of being young and healthy. He manages to combine the force of the traditional with the exhilaration of the immediate, giving old fashioned  sentiments and values an invigorating jolt of life. Vitality’s what’s on display. Young Bob Steele encapsulates the essence of early talkie movies – the excitement, immediacy and “jump in headfirst” commitment -  as few others do. The combination of Bob’s youth and energy with the unfolding of talkie technology is a compelling, symbiotic match. There s Cagney level vigor there without the wise-guy cynicism. No laid-back cowpoke detachment for Steele;  even his silences tend to bristle.
                                             
                Of course, a great deal  of Steele’s onscreen impact come from that face. Framed by lots of dark, curly hair - startlingly dramatic features carved in, Rushmore like - its architectural intensity amplifies the energy level of his performances. The lipsticked look Steele carried into many of his early talkies registers not as effeminate but as artistic flourish – a nod to long-standing  theatrical traditions: Greek tragedy, melodrama and mime.  There’s a fascinating aura of Art Deco to Bob Steele’s looks. He could have stepped out of the Babylon sequence of “Intolerance”. As he proved much later in his career, Bob Steele’s vivid physiognomy and almost dangerous energy level could also translate into a kind of sinister luminosity that occasionally made him an intriguing screen villain.  If 1925’s “Ben-Hur” had been filmed just a few years later he’d have been Ramon Novarro’s perfect nemesis.  Unlike Francis X. Bushman,  far too old (in his 40’s and looking all of that) to play 25 year old Novarro’s boyhood friend.  Just imagine a young, impassioned Steele as Messala –in winged Roman helmet - driving his horses on in a frenzy, roaring round the course  in that fabled chariot race. It’s an exciting image that, once envisioned, is tough to dispel. And who’d want to?
                Steele’s affinity for onscreen action is also pretty unparalleled in early talkies. His  screen dust-ups  are unfailingly convincing. Cowboy movies were still developing effective fight choreography, especially with the new complication of sound. But, on this front, Steele films always seemed ahead of the curve. A master of fancy footwork,  eloquently  bobbing and weaving , then pepper-spraying opponents with lightning fast punches. Steele came off as a sort of Nijinsky of brawling. And it’s clearly him, not a stuntman, in most of the fight footage.
                In fact, he’s beyond comfortable with all the western trappings and the weapons. Certainly he excels in the critical area of horsemanship. Of course, most cowboy stars, shine here. But there’s a special exhilaration in seeing Bob Steele riding hell-for-leather. And his mounts and dismounts – most poetically executed in his earliest talkies - can be breathtaking.  Achieving a mysterious grace that approaches the level of magic. As musically  buoyant and fulfilling as an Astaire-Rogers move. In fact, there’s  visual music in most of Bob Steele movements. A syncopated physicality totally in keeping with the sound and spirit of the late 20’s,early 30’s.  He’s an all-round athlete, but he’s more than that; there’s an out there eccentricity, an unpredictability to his energy; a kind of quicksilver jazz-age rat-a-tat-tat. Ever seen Jimmy Cagney’s Cubist-hoofer-on-speed dance moves?  Young Steele strikes me as someone that just might be able to keep up with him.
                The era  in which Bob’s qualities and the qualities of his films were in perfect sync lasted from 1930 to 1935. There were plenty of entertaining Steele films and performances after that. But for sheer sustained euphoria the films he made in that early period (all while in his 20’s) were pinnacle achievements. In a field where screen cowboys often operated with a kind of  laconic cool, Bob stood out. Never detached; constantly engaged.  Always conveying the fact that this story mattered to him. Which makes it matter to us.  

                                                MORE BOB STEELE TO COME

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