All kinds of films played in our small neighborhood movie theatre. So, according to your taste you went to see one kind or another. For example, my mother liked musicals, so she went to see every musical that played there. On the other hand, she didn’t like mysteries so she generally avoided them. In those days the kind of films most people in the place where I grew up liked were westerns, especially the grade B and C kind. Hollywood had its class A pictures, grade B, grade C and even grade Z. This mostly had to do with the amount of money spent on the film (its budget) and the caliber of stars in the principal roles. We knew nothing about that and didn’t care. A movie was a movie was a movie so far as we were concerned. If the plot held our attention and there were lots of action scenes, that’s all we wanted to know. And we could even distinguish the difference just based on the coming attractions. For example there was a cowboy star named Bill Elliot. He made both kinds of westerns. If the trailers were in color and the voice over announcement said;”Starring William Elliot” we knew that the film would be dull, full of talk with very little violent action. In films like that he would be wearing a suit mostly and doing a lot of sitting in saloons smiling with women. Those were his class A pictures.
Now if the preview was in black and white and the announcer called him; “Wild Bill Elliot” we knew that was a film we wanted to see. In those films he almost never smiled. He would sneer at the bad guys or anyone else who crossed him then punch them in the face. He would also stop runaway stagecoaches by jumping between the two lead horses and pulling on the reins then go to see if the woman in the coach who got knocked unconscious during the frenzy was alright. In those movies he always wore two guns (even when he slept) and told the other characters that he felt naked without them
A frequent Bill Elliot role was Red Ryder and he had as his second or sidekick an Indian (Native American) boy called Little Beaver. This role was played by Robert Blake who grew up to act in such films as In Cold Blood (1967) and Tell Them Willie Boy is Here (1969) as well as the TV series Baretta. He starred in a rather well covered real life murder trial as well, but all that was to come later. At the time that I’m talking about (the 1950s) he was Little Beaver to not one but two actors playing Red Ryder; Bill Elliot and Alan “Rocky” Lane. Lane was alright but Bill Elliot was our favorite. Still we went to see them both because of Little Beaver. He was absolutely our favorite character in those movies. On screen he did what we dreamed of doing. He would beat up adults all the time and we would jump out of our seats with joy yelling “Yeah!”
In those films there was always a situation where Red Ryder would be fighting five or six guys at the same time. Seeing this Little Beaver would rush in to help. Now you have to realize that he was only about ten so one of the bad guys would grab him by the back of his neck and throw him into a haystack. Little Beaver would get up mad, shake himself off and go back after the guy.. He would kick his shin and when the guy reached down to get him Little Beaver would run between his legs, grab his foot and trip him. The guy would hit his head on the floor and get knocked unconscious. Then he would go after another guy. This guy (a real meanie) would punch at Little Beaver with all his might. Beaver would easily avoid it and the punch would smash into a post or wall. The guy would cry out in pain. While he was doing that Beaver would pick up an ax handle that was close by and hit him over the head with it “Bong!”. The villain would stagger comically for a moment before hitting the deck. Red Ryder by this time was polishing off the four remaining guys. After he did he would turn and say; “Thanks Little Beaver. “And we would cheer because we knew that without Little Beaver he couldn’t have done it and he did too.
We also knew that in a similar situation we could do the same thing. Our problem was that in our little part of the world there weren’t any cowboys, especially the villainous kind, so we really couldn’t show what we could do. And that was frustrating. But Little Beaver did it for us and you could only find him in grade C films.
Now our favorite western hero wasn’t Randolph Scott, Gary Cooper or John Wayne. Those guys were okay but the man we all looked up to was Audie Murphy, the kid from Texas. He had been a war hero. America’s greatest war hero. Reportedly he killed 240 Germans. He had won more medals for heroism in World War Two than any other American soldier in history. And they told you so in the coming attractions of every film he made. “Starring America’s greatest and most beloved war hero Audie Murphy”.
He wasn’t much of an actor but he wasn’t awful either. He could deliver a line of dialogue convincingly enough and the emotional demands of the scripts were never out of his range. On screen he projected a kind of humility that spoke volumes when contrasted with his real life background. But the thing that made him such a favorite in our eyes is the fact that in real life he had actually killed people. The others were actors just playing at that stuff but Murphy had really done it. So when he shot a bad guy in his movies it was always more convincing to us because we knew that he knew how. The man was a killer. We had all seen the movie of his war exploits (To Hell and Back – 1955) with him in the lead showing us how he did it.
Murphy had a baby face which was deceptive, of course. He didn’t look tough and the bad guys were always underestimating him or his abilities. He also had a disarming grin which told them that he was a pushover. Added to which he seemed to have a face that villains always wanted to slap. Of course when they tried it would turn out to be the mistake of their lives. I remember in one film some town bully said to him;”Why don’t you take that gun off your side.” To which Murphy replied; “Why don’t you take them off for me.” Of course the guy tried and it was “Bye-bye” Mr. Bully.
I really don’t know how many westerns he made but it seems like a lot. He played both Billy the Kid and Jesse James. And when he did we found out that they weren’t the thieves and killers that history and legend makes them out to be. They were just misunderstood kids who were either framed or manipulated into doing what they did by unscrupulous people in search of gold or political power. Other times he played fast guns, determined sheriffs, Indian scouts, Government agents, Bounty hunters or humble farmers. All were men of quiet dignity and unblinking courage who could fight with their fists as much as they could draw and shoot.
We would sometimes sit around for hours talking and trying to analyze what made Audie Murphy so good and why we loved him so. Some said it was because he was tough, others said that it was because he came from Texas and was a real cowboy. But the real reason that captivated us and made us so devoted to him was told to us by an adult. He was a cab driver that was a huge Audie Murphy fan like we were. “You see” he told us one day, “the difference between Audie Murphy and the other cowboy actors in the movies is that Audie Murphy does kill them people we see him shoot.”
We didn’t believe it and told him so.
“I’m serious” he said by way of explanation. “You see what they do in Hollywood when they making his movies is they get all these men from jail who is supposed to die in the electric chair from committing murder and all kinds of things. They put them in cowboy clothes and give them guns. Only their guns ain’t got real bullets in them, they got blanks. Now Audie Murphy guns have the real thing, so when they shoot at him he can’t get hurt, but when he shoot back; “Bam! Bam!” they dead.
“Wow!” We looked at each other and were really convinced. We were really impressed as well. After that we looked at every Audie Murphy film with awe because he was not only taming the west he was clearing out America’s death row prisons as well.
Some months after I asked my father about this. He frowned and asked: “ Where did you hear that nonsense?” I told him my source. “That man is an idiot and a jackass, don’t ever listen to anything he tells you. In fact don’t even speak to him. For one thing he’s too old for you, for another, you’re more intelligent than he is.”
After that Audie Murphy stopped being a special favorite. I mean we still liked him and all but when we found out that he wasn’t really killing people on screen there was nothing to distinguish him from the other cowboy stars. We couldn’t understand the point of being a genuine war hero if you had to fake it in movies just like everybody else.
Audie Murphy died in a plane crash in 1971 but his movies live on. Sometimes late at night I see one of his films and I’m filled with some of the same excitement I had when I first saw him. I think it’s because somewhere in the corner of my mind I still believe that he’s really shooting all those bad guys. And at those times no one can tell me different. Sorry Dad.