Starrett in 1940
March 28, 1903|
Athol, Massachusetts U.S.
|Died||March 22, 1986
Borrego Springs, California U.S.
|Spouse(s)||Mary McKinnon (1927-1986); 2 children|
Charles Robert Starrett (March 28, 1903 – March 22, 1986) was an American actor best known for his starring role in the Durango Kid western series. When he retired he held the record for starring in the longest-running string of feature films (131 titles, for Columbia Pictures).
A graduate of Worcester Academy in 1922, Starrett went on to study at Dartmouth College. While on the Dartmouth football team he was hired to play a football extra in the film The Quarterback (1926). Bitten by the acting bug, Starrett played minor roles in films and leading roles in stage plays. In 1928, he was a member of the Walker Company, a repertory theatre troupe headed by Stuart Walker.
He played the romantic lead in Fast and Loose (1930), which also featured Miriam Hopkins, Carole Lombard, and Frank Morgan. He also starred in the Canadian production The Viking (1931), filmed on location in Newfoundland, which had begun as a Paramount Pictures project.
After that he was very active for the next two years but his roles were unremarkable. He was featured in Our Betters (1933), Murder on the Campus (1933). and in his most charming role as a young doctor named Orion in "Along Came Love", with the vivacious co-star Irene Hervey. Offscreen, he helped organize the Screen Actors Guild.
In 1935 Columbia Pictures wanted to replace its incumbent western star Tim McCoy with a younger actor. Starrett heard about this and interviewed with Columbia producers. Starrett ultimately signed four contracts with Columbia, becoming the studio's number-one cowboy star. He cast an appealing figure with his tall stature (6' 2"), strong jawline, confident voice, and air of quiet authority.
Starrett hadn't planned on making an entire career out of westerns, and agreed to make them for two years, with the understanding that his bosses would then cast him in plainclothes roles. When they didn't, he walked out on his contract after the two years. (In 1974 Starrett told author James Horwitz that his self-imposed leave of absence cost him $60,000, which was the dollar value of his original agreement.) Meanwhile, theater exhibitors around the world were attracting big crowds with Charles Starrett westerns, so Columbia gave him a new contract with the actor insisting on appearing in a non-western. He finally got his chance—once—in 1937, for the collegiate musical comedy Start Cheering (released 1938). In a curious reflection of his own situation, Starrett played a disenchanted movie hero who wanted to do something different with his life. But Starrett's success in westerns established him firmly in outdoor fare and sealed his fate professionally. For the rest of his career he made Columbia westerns exclusively.
The musical westerns of Gene Autry inspired every Hollywood studio to have its cowboy personalities use their musical talents—but not Charles Starrett. He could carry a tune but left the songs to professional vocalists (his vocals in Start Cheering were dubbed by Robert Paige). Columbia solved the problem by hiring an entire singing group to support Starrett: the Sons of the Pioneers.
Charles Starrett made two dozen westerns under his new contract, and they tend to resemble each other because the production unit was very close-knit. The same company of technicians and players worked in film after film: almost always Iris Meredith as the leading lady, Dick Curtis as the villain, Hank Bell as the sidekick, Edward LeSaint as the senior character of father, rancher, marshal, etc., and the Sons of the Pioneers as the chorus. When Starrett's new contract lapsed in 1941, he withdrew from westerns and Columbia disbanded the unit. The Sons of the Pioneers moved to Republic Pictures, where they reunited with their former lead singer Roy Rogers.
Again, exhibitors petitioned Columbia for more Charles Starrett westerns, so the studio came through with a new contract at an increased salary. Starrett finally accepted his permanent cowboy status.
The Durango Kid
After playing assorted rancher, ranger, and sheriff roles, Starrett was cast as "The Durango Kid" in 1940. The character was an upright citizen known and liked by the townsfolk, but he masqueraded as a notorious, black-garbed horseman to terrorize the local criminals and foil their plans. The film was successful but not much different from some of Starrett's earlier good guy-chasing-bad-guy roles.
The character was revived five years later in The Return of the Durango Kid, which caught on very quickly. Starrett played an amiable cowpoke named Steve (the last name varied but he was always Steve to his friends), who would become angered by an injustice and go after the villains as the mysterious, elusive Durango Kid. Steve's paint horse was named "Bullet" and Durango's white horse was "Raider." A follow-up film was made, and then a series. One favorite device became a signature: the masked Durango Kid suddenly materializing like Superman, always catching the villains by surprise. The Durango Kid rejuvenated Charles Starrett's career, winning him a new generation of loyal fans and a new five-year contract. The series was also a useful training ground for novice actresses and fashion models, who would be signed to six-month contracts and cast as cowgirls in Starrett westerns.
Dub Taylor, as comic sidekick "Cannonball", worked with Starrett until 1946. At that time, Smiley Burnette, who had been a very popular sidekick to Gene Autry, was brought in to replace Taylor. Burnette, appropriately enough, played a character called "Smiley Burnette." The Durango Kid films combined vigorous action sequences—often with spectacular stunts performed by Ted Mapes and later Jock Mahoney—and western music. Each film featured musical specialties by Burnette, and by a guest artist or group from records or radio.
By 1949, the series faced a challenge. Production costs kept rising, but the financial return was limited. So Columbia resorted to shooting less new material, and borrowing scenes from older Durango Kid pictures to coax the running time up to the usual length. Columbia was starting to use this same recycling gambit in its adventure serials and Three Stooges comedies. Sometimes the scripting and editing were very clever, most memorably in Cyclone Fury (1951), in which footage from four older Starrett westerns is worked into the plot. The final Durango Kid feature was The Kid from Broken Gun (1952), with the new footage set in a courtroom and the old footage illustrating the testimony of the various characters.
Charles Starrett retired at age 48, when his last Columbia contract lapsed. As Starrett had once taken over Columbia's westerns from Tim McCoy, Jock Mahoney took over the reins from Starrett, co-starring with Smiley Burnette in a new series. The pilot feature was completed but never released, so Columbia's long history of B westerns ended with Charles Starrett. Columbia serviced the still-strong demand for Starrett by reissuing his 1937-1940 westerns with the Sons of the Pioneers. These proved just as popular as the Durango series, and Columbia kept dozens of the Starrett features in theaters for several years.
Although his agent, Sam Jaffe, tried to interest movie and TV producers in hiring Starrett, the actor no longer needed or wanted a show-business career; he was independently wealthy from wise investments and his family fortune. In retirement he traveled widely with his wife, favoring tropical islands. He once told the Dartmouth alumni magazine that most of his California neighbors thought he was a retired banker.
His fans never forgot him, and corresponded with him in later years. Starrett was pleased by the interest and made guest appearances at a few film conventions and revivals. Starrett died of cancer in Borrego Springs, California, in 1986, six days short of his 83rd birthday.
- The "Durango Kid" Films
- The Durango Kid (1940)
- The Return of the Durango Kid (1945)
- Both Barrels Blazing (1945)
- Rustlers of the Badlands (1945)
- Outlaws of the Rockies (1945)
- Blazing the Western Trail (1945)
- Lawless Empire (1945)
- Texas Panhandle (1945)
- Frontier Gunlaw (1946)
- Roaring Rangers (1946)
- Gunning for Vengeance (1946)
- Galloping Thunder (1946)
- Two-Fisted Stranger (1946)
- The Desert Horseman (1946)
- Heading West (1946)
- Landrush (1946)
- Terror Trail (1946)
- The Fighting Frontiersman (1946)
- South of the Chisholm Trail (1947)
- The Lone Hand Texan (1947)
- West of Dodge City (1947)
- Law of the Canyon (1947)
- Prairie Raiders (1947)
- The Stranger from Ponca City (1947)
- Riders of the Lone Star (1947)
- Buckaroo from Powder River (1947)
- Last Days of Boot Hill (1947)
- Six-Gun Law (1948)
- Phantom Valley (1948)
- West of Sonora (1948)
- Whirlwind Raiders (1948)
- Blazing Across the Pecos (1948)
- Trail to Laredo (1948)
- El Dorado Pass (1948)
- Quick on the Trigger (1948)
- Challenge of the Range (1949)
- Desert Vigilante (1949)
- Laramie (1949)
- The Blazing Trail (1949)
- South of Death Valley (1949)
- Bandits of El Dorado (1949)
- Horsemen of the Sierras (1949)
- Renegades of the Sage (1949)
- Trail of the Rustlers (1950)
- Outcasts of Black Mesa (1950)
- Texas Dynamo (1950)
- Streets of Ghost Town (1950)
- Across the Badlands (1950)
- Raiders of Tomahawk Creek (1950)
- Frontier Outpost (1950)
- Lightning Guns (1950)
- Prairie Roundup (1951)
- Ridin' the Outlaw Trail (1951)
- Fort Savage Raiders (1951)
- Snake River Desperadoes (1951)
- Bonanza Town (1951)
- Cyclone Fury (1951)
- The Kid from Amarillo (1951)
- Pecos River (1951)
- Smoky Canyon (1952)
- The Hawk of Wild River (1952)
- Laramie Mountains (1952)
- The Rough, Tough West (1952)
- Junction City (1952)
- The Kid from Broken Gun (1952)
- Rainho, Manny (March 2015). "This Month in Movie History". Classic Images (477): 28.
- Marks, Michele (December 21, 1986). "Ask Michele". Santa Cruz Sentinel. California, Santa Cruz. p. 201. Retrieved June 6, 2016 – via Newspapers.com.
- "(untitled brief)". The San Bernardino County Sun. California, San Bernardino. July 6, 1930. p. 6. Retrieved June 6, 2016 – via Newspapers.com.
- "Walker Company Opening". The Indianapolis News. Indiana, Indianapolis. April 28, 1928. p. 9. Retrieved June 6, 2016 – via Newspapers.com.
- Loy, R. Philip (2001). Westerns and American Culture, 1930-1955. McFarland. p. 21. ISBN 9780786481156. Retrieved 7 June 2016.
- Horwitz, James, They Went Thataway (1976, E. P. Dutton; 1978, Ballantine Books) (Interview with Charles Starrett)
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