Back at the B Western

Few people appreciate the great contribution the handgun has made to television and motion pictures. What would police shows, for example, be without .38 Specials and .357 Magnums Imagine police detectives standing around the squad room in shirtsleeves, rifles dangling from under their armpits. Ridiculous!

The shows that would really suffer from an absence of handguns, though, would be the westerns. Without the pistol, there would be no fast draw, and without the fast draw, westerns would be a whole lot different. Consider, if you will, and if you have the stomach for it, a quick-draw scene with rifles.

Matt Dillon clumps out into the street from the Long Branch Saloon to issue a warning to one of the quaintly named villains so characteristic of Gunsmoke.

Chester and I caught you red-handed stealin buffalo humps up on the flat, Ick Crud he says. You be outta town by sundown if you know what's good fer ya. Folks here 'bouts don't take kindly to buffalo-humpers.

Ick Crud sneers. Reach fer yer iron, Marshal!

The camera zooms in for a close-up of Matt's low-slung Winchester, the tie-downs knotted around his ankle. Quicker than Dean Martin can sing Old Man River, Matt draws... and draws... and draws. Ick Crud uses a frantic hand-over-hand draw on his Sharps-Borchardt. During the draw, Chester, Doc, and Miss Kitty go back into the Long Branch for a drink to steady their nerves.

Three whiskeys and be quick about it, Miss Kitty snaps to the bartender. Matt's drawin' out there in the street, and we ain't got much time before the shootin' starts.

I don't know why Matt don't git outta the marshaling business, Doc grumbles. I keep tellin' him, Matt, sooner or later a gunfighter's gonna shade your draw by just a minute or two, and that'll be it fer ya. We better git back out there, Chester whines. They should be just about finished drawin', and I don't want to miss the shootin'.

No doubt about it, the handgun and the fast draw are essential to the true western, and any movie fan worth his hot-buttered popcorn not only expects them to be in the western but knows the ritual by heart. The ritual usually begins with the call out. The villain stands in the street and calls out the hero-C'mon out, Ringo, you yellow-bellied, chicken-livered, varicose-veined, spastic-coloned wimp!

Upon hearing himself being called out, the hero immediately begins his preparations. He tosses down his shot of whiskey and grinds out his cigar on the greasy nose of the belligerent bartender. He slips his pistol out of its holster and checks the cylinder to make sure he reloaded after his last shoot-out. (There is nothing more disappointing than to beat the other fellow to the draw and then discover that you forgot to reload.) He then reholsters his gun and slips it out and in a few times to make sure it isn't sticking.

(A stuck gun is just about as bad as an unloaded one.) Next he unstraps his spurs, his motive here apparently being that, should he change his mind about the fight, it is a lot easier to run when you're not wearing spurs. He pulls his hat low over his eyes, limbers up the fingers of his gun hand, and tucks his jacket back behind the butt of his revolver. One purpose of all this preparation may be the hope that the villain will get tired of waiting and go home. The villain never does, of course, although sometimes he gets a cramp in his lip from holding a sneer so long.

Back in the olden days when I was a kid, we had what were called the B westerns. The B stood for best. These were movies starring Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and Hopalong Cassidy. They weren't anything like the westerns nowadays starring Clint Eastwood, the ones where you have to buy a program to tell the good guys from the bad guys. In the B westerns, you always knew the good guys. They were neatly dressed, clean-shaven, and didn't cuss, smoke, drink, kiss, or do anything else that was bad for health or morals. Even the bad guys didn't do most of these things, but you could tell them anyway. For one thing, they all used the interrupted curse What the...!

Well, I'll be...!

Why you...!

They had real action in the B's too, not like the modern western where you spend half the movie watching Eastwood squint his eyes and ripple his jaw muscles. Clint holsters his gun like he was setting a carton of milk back in a refrigerator. Why, Roy, Gene, and Hoppy wouldn't even think of putting their guns back into their holsters without giving them a twirl or two first.

I don't recall seeing Roy, Gene, or Hoppy ever shoot anybody, but they probably did. Usually, they just shot the gun out of the villain's hand and let it go at that. Sometimes they would rope the bad guys, often getting a single loop of their lasso around the whole gang.

Heroes knew their business in the B westerns.

One nice bit of business Roy, Gene, and Hoppy perfected was to leapfrog over the rumps of their horses and land smack in the saddle. They never landed on the saddle horn either, although once I think I heard the Lone Ranger cry out in a shrill voice, Hü owwww Silver away!

My cousin Buck, who was several years older than I and knew everything, told me he was an expert at getting on horses like that and that there really wasn't anything to it. I said I couldn't believe that. He said if I had a horse handy he would show me. I said I didn't have a horse but I had a cow.

Would a cow work He said sure. We went out to the pasture and found a cow engaged in licking a salt block. Buck said that one would do just fine. I suggested that we warn the cow of what to expect, but Buck said that wouldn't be necessary. As it turned out, Buck was wrong about that and the rest as well. I still think the cow probably would have cooperated and even entered into the spirit of the thing had we just let her know what to expect. As it was, Buck got back twenty yards or so and made a dash for her. At the exact instant he got his hands on the cow's rump and his legs had crossed over his arms in mid-vault, the cow let out a frightened bellow and bolted forward. As the cow disappeared over a nearby hill, Buck was still perched on her tail bones in a strange variation of the lotus position and screaming, Whoa, you stupid cow, whoa! Well, I'll be...! I said.

The B western heroes were big on tricks. Say the villain got the drop on Roy in a little cabin out in the middle of the desert. just as the baddy was about to plug him, Roy would shout Watch out! and point over the other man's shoulder. The villain would spin around, and Roy would jump him and thump his head to a fare-thee-well. These villains were dumb! Otherwise, why would they expect the guy they were about to gun down to warn them of a surprise attack They were slow to learn.

Roy, Gene, and Hoppy would catch them with this little trick movie after movie. Maybe the reason they were so dumb was from getting their heads thumped so often.

Eventually, however, they did start catching on to the trick. You ain't foolin' me with that old trick, Rogers, the bad guy would say, as if he had seen some of these movies before himself. But this time Gabby Hayes would actually be sneaking up behind him and would thump his head a good one.

Again, one might wonder why Roy thought it necessary to warn the villain when his comical sidekick was in fact sneaking up behind the man. The reason, of course, was to complicate matters for the villain when this particular situation arose in future movies. Roy, Gene, and Hoppy all worked half a dozen different ploys of this same routine, always with success. After a while the villain could scarcely get the drop on one of them without instantly becoming a nervous wreck from wondering whether or not he was about to be jumped.

The B western villain was a sucker for pebbles, too. Anytime the hero wanted to draw the baddy's attention away from himself, he would toss a pebble. The villain would whirl around and empty his six-gun into the pebble.

Then he would see that it was only a pebble and would get this worried, expectant look in his eyes, which said, Head, get ready for a thumping!

Counting shots was a favorite tactic of B western heroes. They would wave a hat around on a stick or perform some other trick to draw fire, all the time counting shots. Then, suddenly, they would walk right out in the open and announce, Six! That was your last bullet, Slade!

Villains liked to try this trick too, but having the IQ's of celery, they could never get it straight. There was scarcely a villain in B westerns who could count to six without making a mistake. Six, the bad guy would say, walking out from behind his rock. That was your last bullet, Autry!


If the movie patron wondered what it was the villain was muttering as he lay sprawled in the dust, it was probably, Let's see now, two shots ricocheted off the rock, two went through my hat on the stick, that makes five...

Even among the B western audiences there were those who counted shots.

They counted the number of shots the hero fired without reloading. I hated these wise guys. Right in the tense part of the movie, they would guffaw That's nine shots without reloading! Roy must be using a nine-shooter!

Why you...! I would say under my breath. If there was anyone who couldn't appreciate a B western, it was a nitpicker.

The last B western I ever saw in a theater was in a small college town in Idaho. It starred Randolph Scott, and in the big scene the baddies had ganged up on Randolph in the saloon. When they started blazing away at him, Randolph jumped behind a cast-iron stove and, if I recall correctly, used the stove lid as a sort of shield while he returned their fire. The theater was filled with college kids and, as is the nature of college kids, they began whooping and jeering and laughing at Randolph's plight. Seated just behind me were an old farmer and his wife who had paid their hard-earned $1.50 for an evening of serious entertainment. As the slugs were spanging off the stove like lead hail and the college kids were whooping it up, I heard the old woman whisper nervously to her husband. The farmer, in a gruff but gentle voice, reassured her. Don't worry, Mother, he said, Ol' Randolph, he'll figure a way to git hisself out of this mess.

You bet! The farmer and his wife were my kind of people.

Looking back, I now realize it was a good thing Hollywood stopped turning out B westerns when it did. I was grown up and had a job by then, and folks were beginning to ask, What's that big fellow doing down there, sitting in the front row with the kids

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