Charles Starrett: The Durango Kid

Today a tip of the Stetson to Charles Starrett (1903-1986), one of the screen’s unlikeliest cowboy stars.

Starrett was an upper crust Yankee who attended Worcester Academy and Dartmouth. As part of the Dartmouth football squad, he took an extra role in a silent film called The Quarterback (1926) and this changed the course of his future. He went into vaudeville and regional stock companies, including that of Stuart Walker, who later went on to direct such films as Great Expectations (1934) and Werewolf of London (1935). A turn in the short-lived Broadway play Claire Adams (1929) got him scouted for Hollywood. One of his few Hollywood pictures that would tap into his early vaudeville background (as well as his football past) was the campus musical comedy Start Cheering (1938) with Jimmy Durante and the Three Stooges. Here is how he looked in his early phase:

The first five years of Starrett’s film career was more variegated than it would come to be during its best known phase. In his first sound feature, Fast and Loose (1930) with Frank Morgan, Miriam Hopkins, and Carole Lombard, he was typecast as a rich young man in love with a chorus girl. This was followed by the screen adaptation of The Royal Family of Broadway (1930) by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. There were another 30 or so during this period, including The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) with Boris Karloff and Murder on the Campus (1933).

In 1935, Starrett (who stood 6’2″ and had the same football players’ build as John Wayne) was hired by Columbia to be a younger successor to their then-reigning western star, Colonel Tim McCoy. Oaters were to be Starrett’s meat and potatoes through the balance of his screen career. Gallant Defender (1935) was his first cowboy picture. Well over 100 followed, of ever increasing sameness. During the first phase (through 1940), the Sons of the Pioneers provided musical entertainment in his movies. The first Durango Kid picture was in 1940, although the popular series would not be launched until five years later. Before that time, he played any number of sheriffs, marshalls, rangers, and civilian ranchers drawn into adventure. Starting in 1941, for some reason, all of his characters were named “Steve”. The characters all had different last names, but they were all Steve. (Point of fact, there is an entire blog devoted to Starrett’s westerns whose URL is https://stevesomething.wordpress.com/ .

Dub “Cannonball” Taylor was Starrett’s sidekick during the early years; starting in 1946 it became Smiley Burnette, who had earlier been with Gene Autry, and always brought his musical talents to bear.

The Durango Kid series was launched properly with The Return of the Durango Kid in 1945. Again, Starrett played a succession of guys named Steve, all of whom had the same heroic, costumed alter ego, the Durango Kid, a masked vigilante like The Lone Ranger or Zorro or the Shadow, whose identity was unknown to any of the characters, and who always foiled the rustlers, stagecoach robbers, or what have you and deposited them at the jail. There were dozens and dozens of these pictures, whose formula never varied, over a period of eight years, on top of the decades of similar B movies westerns before them. Towards the end of the series, Columbia (as they had resorted to doing with Three Stooges shorts) began recycling footage from earlier films. Burnt out on the repetition, Starrett opted not to renew his Columbia contract and retired from acting. With that action, Columbia also closed its B movie western unit. The Durango Kid lived for three more years however, through, 1955, in comic books:

Much like Randolph Scott, Starrett was able to retire comfortably on a combination of his own inherited dough and his wisely invested movie income. Over the next three plus decades, he could still be seen at fan conventions and the like.

For more on vaudeville, where Charles Starrett got his start, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,