Tuesday, April 04, 2017


Those who were the stars of the classic B-Westerns of the 1930’s and 1940’s came to their positions from a number of different routes--some such as Buster Crabbe (USC), Johnny Mack Brown (University of Alabama), and Tex Ritter (University of Texas, then Northwestern University Law School) were successful college men. Among those, TEX RITTER always had a unique persona as a Western personality, both in his films and in his even longer and more successful career as a recording artist. Ritter had studied Western History and Folklore at UT with legendary folklorist J. Frank Dobie and was quite an authority on original cowboy songs of the 1800’s. After his college and law school days were over, he went to New York where he was a pioneer in early radio broadcasting and, like Will Rogers before him, appeared on Broadway, milking his western persona. Although he had many records in the country charts over a 30-year period, he sounded like no one else, with his well-worn baritone delivering songs and recitations that truly sounded like they were from an earlier age. His lugubrious (I’ve been waiting to use that word) delivery on his best known song, the ‘Do Not Forsake Me....” theme from the film HIGH NOON, is typical of his “western balladeer” style. No one would ever describe Tex Ritter’s voice as “pretty” (as they might for Roy Rogers, who also trafficked in songs rooted in the West), but it had a gritty authenticity and could be very moving.

Like Ernest Tubb or Wilf “Montana Slim” Carter, Ritter had an uncommercial voice, but a voice that was trusted.

Although Ritter’s B-Western starring career lasted just under ten years, he worked steadily...starring in 52 features....first with his own series at Grand National. GN was an odd studio, best known (if known at all) as the studio that James Cagney retreated to for two films while he was on strike against Warner Brothers. Those were GN’s most successful releases, but when Cagney went back to WB, Grand National began to flounder and only lasted a few years. One odd thing about much of GN’s product is that, unlike the usual low budget studio such as Monogram, which tended to favor action and comedy to mask their poverty row economy, Grand National’s features tended to be talky and stage-bound. They really needed the quickie location shooting one would find in other low-budget films in order to give the films some grit and rawness. Tex Ritter’s films for GN, independently made by producer Edward Alperson, were unlike most of the studio’s product and resembled the typical B-Western product made by other indies....except for the persona of their star.

While Tex could be authentically tough and was quick with a gun, he had a laconic and cerebral quality....so you had a man whose songs (he sang in most of his features) were old-fashioned cowboy- themed material echoing an earlier age, a man who was slow to anger and in his thick Texas accent spoke slowly and carefully, and a man who was both the ultimate good ole boy yet also had something of the intellectual about him--in fact, in his final run with eight films at PRC in the Texas Rangers series, with Dave O’Brien (one of the great leading men of low budget movies of the 30s and 40s, now best known as the psycho “Ralph” in Reefer Madness) and BTC-fave Guy Wilkerson as the comedic “Panhandle Perkins,” Ritter played an attorney (Tex Haines), fast on the draw but pursuing justice. He would often be perusing his law books and take a break to launch into a song! However, three things Tex Ritter ALWAYS had in his films were qualities that could not be faked: gravitas and presence and authenticity.

As with most B-Western stars of the 30’s and 40’s, early TV gave their careers a shot in the arm as their old movies were played constantly as cheap filler and brought them legions of young fans, the kind of people who bought comic books. That’s why comic books emerged in the 1950s for people like Bob Steele and Tex Ritter, both of whom had stopped making B-Westerns in the mid-1940’s. In Ritter’s case, his continued success as a recording artist and as a radio and television figure kept his name current, so he actually had a comic book of his own as late as 1959, which was 14 (!!!!) years after his last western at PRC.

Tex was a unique figure in both western films and in country music, and while this comic under review is no classic, it does manage to capture some of his unique qualities--in the parts of the comic devoted to him, that is.

On the masthead on page one of the comic, we learn that it is produced by the Al Fago Studio….and regular BTC readers will remember Mr. Fago as the man behind ATOMIC MOUSE. Although I have no evidence to support this, considering Charlton’s modest page rates, I would not be surprised if Fago delivered a complete magazine to Charlton for a set fee. So many of the comics professionals back in that day were able to work equally well in any number of styles—they had to as it was a job, and the more eclectic you were, the more work came your way.

One aspect of country music that died decades ago (for the most part it died in the 70’s, when country music started trying for "respectability,” not realizing that its strength was its unique rural and heartland identity) was the “show” aspect. It was not just a concert. You got with your show ticket baggypants rural comedy and maybe even horse performances, perhaps a Gospel mini-set, some recitations, etc. Even Elvis—in his pre-RCA days—followed this tradition, as bassist Bill Black would do comedy skits, “ride” his bass, etc. as part of the “show.” In a sense this comic book follows in that tradition….although I’m not sure if that’s intentional or just an outgrowth of padding a comic book with unrelated filler to get it up to the required length (if I were a betting man, I’d bet on the latter—but that certainly does not take away from my appreciating it as if it were for the former reason).

The two long stories featuring Tex Ritter are exciting, seem to capture his screen persona adequately, and could be plots from one of his films (though, obviously, there's no songs in them). We also get a "note" from Tex (see pic) telling us a story. The odds are 100-to-1 that Tex never even saw that note, let alone wrote it, but it would be fine for a 12 year old fan....and considering how most press releases from the film studios of the day were composed by the PR department and put into the mouths of the stars, it probably reads like something Grand National might have issued on behalf of Tex, had they bothered to do that!

The issue also features (is padded with) a 3-page story featuring Indian hero Young Falcon, two half-page western slapstick strips featuring Whiz Banks, another half-page humor piece featuring Wagon Wheels, another half-page humor piece featuring Wilbur The Waiter which is funny but not even a western (!!!), a six-page western comedy piece featuring Denver Mudd and Bushy Barnes (imagine Vince Barnett meets Al Fuzzy St. John), another non-western half-page comedy strip from Vita Min (a young girl), a half-page from Tumbleweed Jr., and finally a full-page black and white strip from Happy Homer (see pic) which has a style not unlike that later made famous by Robert Crumb. Oh, the back cover has a black and white still from one of Tex Ritter's films.

Well, you be the judge....either this comic book presents a wide variety of entertaining and diverse selections, anchored by the great Tex Ritter....or Tex is a guest star in his own comic book! The two Ritter stories are relatively long----8 and 10 pages, respectively----so I'm not complaining.

You can read and download this entire issue at comicbookplus.com----if you enjoy it, check out one of Tex Ritter's PRC "Texas Rangers" westerns (there were 8 of them). GANGSTERS OF THE FRONTIER (see poster) is available for free on You Tube. Ditch the Netflix and Amazon series and let Tex Ritter, Dave O'Brien, and Guy Wilkerson entertain you in classic B-minus-western style! You get THREE songs from Tex AND the comic genius of Wilkerson as Panhandle Perkins. That, my friends, is entertainment!


top_cat_james said...

As I understand it, comics publishers were required to have at least one story per book featuring characters that did not appear in any other story, as well as one page of text-only material, in order to qualify for a Second Class Mail permit needed for subscriptions.

Bill S. said...

Thanks for that info and for commenting. I have also heard it said (don't know if it's true) that the letters columns that came along in the 60's or whenever were a way of getting around the "text only" requirement for the 2nd class mailing permit without having a story, as it was believed no one read those stories, and letters were provided for free from readers, meaning you would not have to pay someone a few bucks for the filler story. I always enjoyed the filler stories, myself. I'm reading a bunch of old 70's Tarzan comics recently, and so many of the letters there are from ERB purists who are complaining about deviations from "the canon." I almost wish there was some throwaway text-only story instead!