Twilight of the B-Western: White Horse, Black Hat

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C. Jack Lewis saw a lot in his 84 years. A Marine Corps veteran of three wars, he was also a self-described “reporter, drunk, editor and hobo” who spent decades on the fringes of Hollywood. A fan of Westerns since childhood, he broke into screenwriting just as the B-Western business was collapsing, thanks to the arrival of television. He managed to sell a few scripts for budget stars like Lash LaRue and Johnny Mack Brown, but would spend the majority his career as a journalist for horse and army publications (he was the founder of Gun World magazine). During that time he met all of the stars of his youth as they sank down the Hollywood food chain, making a living as extras on TV Westerns or as special attractions at traveling circuses. In his affecting memoir White Horse, Black Hat, published in 2002 by Scarecrow Press, Lewis wrote thumbnail portraits of these faded stars, a collection which captured the end of the B industry and the itinerant careers of the low-budget cowboy.

Lewis

Jack Lewis was born to a military family in 1924 Iowa. His father was an officer in the Army cavalry, and Lewis followed suit by enlisting with the Marines when he turned 18,. He saw action in WWII as a machine gunner, received a Bronze Star for bravery as a combat correspondent during the Korean War, and served as a Reserve Major for the Marine Amphibious Force in Vietnam. Throughout his service he was thinking up scenarios, specifically for the B-Westerns starring the likes of Tom Mix, Ken Maynard, and Hoot Gibson that dominated his youth. Lewis writes that “from the age of twelve, I insisted I was going to be in the Western movie business. My mother wanted me to be a lawyer and my old man just wanted me to seem reasonably sane.” As a kid he wrote a fifty page script for The Range Busters series and sent it to the Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures. It was rejected for being too expensive to produce. This would be an early lesson in economics that Lewis would encounter throughout his career, as he struggled to get his work up on screen.

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In 1945 Lewis was training in Pendleton, California for an invasion of Japan, but on his off days would hitchhike to Hollywood and talk his way onto studio lots. One day he weaseled his way into Eagle-Lion, and managed to speak to producer Robert Tansey and a young actor named Al LaRue. A few years later Al would be rebranded as “Lash” LaRue, for whom Lewis would write one of his first screenplays, King of the Bullwhip, It was produced and directed by Ron Ormond for his Western Adventures Pictures, Inc. for  $40,000. Lewis describes the pre-production:

I went to the Hollywood library and checked out a book on screenwriting. A week later, I was in Ormond’s office in the San Fernando valley, script in hand. “This isn’t bad, he said. “I think we can use it, but have you ever seen Lash act?” I admitted I had. “Then take it back and cut all of his lines to ten words or less. Otherwise we’ll never get the picture made!”

Ormond would become one of Lewis’ close friends and collaborators as they tried to make a living on the edges of Hollywood. LaRue, according to Lewis, became another sad story, getting fired from the Wyatt Earp TV show before moving on to appearances at country fairs and rodeos. He eventually hit the bottle, and “at one point, when a police officer drew a pistol on him, the old actor challenged him to fire and ‘put me out of my misery.’” This story is representative of the characters Lewis meets throughout the book, men discarded by Hollywood and clinging to the embers of their fame. What makes White Hat, Black Hat so engaging is the complete lack of judgment. Lewis is very upfront about his own troubles with alcoholism, and treats each story with a matter-of-fact distance. And LaRue’s story does not end in the gutter. He dried himself out , became an evangelist named “Doctor Lash”, and bounced around North Carolina and Los Angeles. Lewis stayed in touch until his last days, whereupon his ashes were lost by the cemetery. “I’m certain he has to be laughing like hell at the final excitement he created!”

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Death is everywhere in this book, there are more heart-attacks per page than the New York Times’ collected obituaries. Comedian Al St. John was in a motel room in Vidalia, Georgia eating grapes when “he just fell over and he was dead.” Charles King had started as an extra in the silents, and ended his life and career the same way, working background for TV’s Gunsmoke. The legend goes that he had just finished playing a corpse on-screen when he suffered the heart attack that killed him.  Tex Ritter had a heart attack in a Nashville jail cell, visiting a friend. Regarding Ritter, Lewis writes: “This was a man I wish I had known better.” The whole book is an attempt to resurrect an era from memory, and Lewis is open and regretful for the gaps therein. Of flight instructor and bit actor Dennis Moore he writes: “I felt a little relieved to find that I was not the only one who never really knew Dennis Moore, but it’s really too bad. No one should have to be that much of a loner.”

Lewis is the Forrest Gump of B-Westerns, seeming to have encountered every star who passed through Poverty Row.  Even if he met someone in passing, or in Tom Mix’s case, talked to his ghost, he makes room for them in this generous book. An empathetic collector of characters, White Horse and Black Hat opens up a lost world depicting the twilight of the B movie, and the real human consequences of its loss. The majority of people mentioned by Lewis will never have monographs written about them, but here their art, their lives and their deaths are made to matter. “They don’t really forget you in Hollywood”, according to prolific B-Western actor Frank Yaconelli, “They just park you beside the road so you can watch as the rest of them marched on.” With this book, Lewis looks to those left behind, and gives them their final fade-out.

2 Responses Twilight of the B-Western: White Horse, Black Hat
Posted By swac44 : November 25, 2015 1:09 pm

Didn’t know that about Al “Fuzzy” St. John’s passing. Sad to think about, considering his brilliance in those early shorts with his uncle Roscoe Arbuckle and Buster Keaton (and his own starring short films are filled with laughs as well). At least he was able to find a second career on poverty row as the grizzled sidekick in those Buster Crabbe and Lash LaRue films, many of his silent comedy cohorts weren’t so lucky.

Posted By robbushblog : February 18, 2016 5:55 am

My dad would have enjoyed this book. He loved Poverty Row westerns growing up. I’ve never been quite as taken with them as I am of the more A-budget westerns starring bigger stars, but I can definitely appreciate them, and miss the opportunities of watching them with my dad.

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