Tuesday, December 12, 2017


I’ve always loved the phenomenon of Western film stars who featured their horses and saw that their horses got special billing and special attention in their films: Ken Maynard had Tarzan, Roy Rogers had Trigger, Tex Ritter had White Flash, Charles Starrett had Raider. Some horse stars of Western films even had their own comic books (I should review one of those here at BTC!). Going even beyond that in affection for horses would be that curious sub-genre of films that FEATURE the horse, where the humans take a back seat. WILDFIRE is to some extent one of those.

I was not raised on a ranch with horses, alas, but I did have a friend down the street who had horses, which I enjoyed spending time with, and I worked off and on as a 14-year-old at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds in the barns picking up after horses, helping to get them hay, etc. And I’ve been a lifelong horse-racing fan….in fact, I skipped school once in 6th grade to go to the track. They would not allow unaccompanied minors in, so I had to wait outside and approach a friendly-looking hard-core gambler to let me come in as his “nephew” or whatever. No wonder I enjoy a film like this one.

WILDFIRE was an independent western, sort of.ACTION PICTURES made three features in 1945-1946, two of which starred Bob Steele (his other one was a Mountie film, also recommended), and the other starring Robert Lowery (my favorite Batman) and Buster Keaton. Action Pictures eventually became SCREEN GUILD, which eventually morphed into Lippert Pictures. According to Kit Parker, Lippert was co-owner of Action. Screen Guild and Lippert made and distributed many excellent modest-budgeted films, all the way through 1955. Lippert then ran the B-unit of 20th Century Fox until the mid-60’s, again producing many enjoyable genre films made for the bottom of the bill. Chris reviewed his RAIDERS FROM BENEATH THE SEA (from 1964) here at BTC a number of months ago. The gimmick with these three Action Pictures releases was that they were in CINECOLOR, one of the many second-tier color processes, like TRU-COLOR. There’s actually a fascinating Wikipedia article on Cinecolor here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cinecolor. Color was still quite a novelty in 1945, especially in the low-budget genre-film arena, so offering a COLOR Bob Steele western to exhibitors, for whom Steele was a proven box-office draw, would certainly have made WILDFIRE stand out from the pack.

Steele had been a reliable western star with a distinctive and energetic style since the late silent era. No one was a better horseman, and Steele did a lot of his own stunts too. He’d worked for the majority of the production companies heavily involved in B-Westerns (though not Columbia, to my knowledge), and in the early 40’s, he’d had his own series at PRC, he’d been one of the Three Mesquiteers at Republic (and the entries in that series are quite good, especially where he’s teamed with Tom Tyler!), and he’d been one of the trio The Trail Blazers at Monogram, paired with Hoot Gibson and Ken Maynard (and after Maynard left, with Chief Thundercloud). Steele was also active as a supporting actor in non-Westerns, having had key roles in such classics as OF MICE AND MEN and THE BIG SLEEP. He continued working as a supporting actor with regularity once he had his last above-the-title starring roles in B-Westerns in 1946 (he had a regular role on the F-TROOP TV series in the 60’s). He is probably my favorite B-Western star, as he always gives a film 110% effort, no matter how ragged and slipshod it might be (and among the most ragged and slipshod would probably be his series for Metropolitan Pictures in 1939-1940). Interestingly, Steele’s B-Western career was given a second wind years after he made his last one in 1946 when all his old films (and he’d made A LOT of them) became staples of early TV in the early 50’s. He even got his own comic book at that time, years after he’d stopped starring in films, but his films were all over TV then, so perhaps he was even a bigger star in the early 50’s. You know you’ve made it when you get your own comic book….at least that’s the way WE judge things here at BTC!

Steele and his sidekick Sterling Holloway (!!!!)—yes, Winnie The Pooh himself, also try to check out his Columbia comedy shorts!—are traveling horse traders and see a wild horse being shot at by two seedy looking characters. They defend the horse, who’d already been shot by these guys, and chase the horse-abusers away. They then nurse the horse back to health. Evidently, a local crook is blaming Wildfire for chasing away horses from their owners’ ranches when he himself is actually stealing the horses. So Bob Steele and Sterling Holloway are not just saving Wildfire and nursing him back to health….they are protecting his reputation and his good name!

If all this is not enough, the Sheriff is played by Eddie Dean, who was just then starting his own musical B-Western series, and who does get to sing briefly here—it’s almost like a coming attraction for his solo films over at PRC (“hey, who is that handsome guy singing there and looking so elegant on that horse? Eddie Dean? Oh, one of his pictures is playing down the street. I’ll have to go see it.”). And if you want more random connections, some of Eddie Dean’s PRC westerns were released in Cinecolor!

Of course, everything works out well in the end. Eddie Dean gets the girl, Bob Steele sends the recovered Wildfire back to be with his herd of wild horses, and the bad guys get what’s coming to them….all in 57 minutes and all in Cinecolor.

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