(From Old Corral image collection)
Above - Bob Steele rode a bunch of hosses, and the above is Brownie. This image of Steele was during his films for A. W. Hackel which were released through Republic Pictures.
|The recognized expert on Bob Steele was the late Bob Nareau, and he had done extensive study on the 'Bradbury Family' over the years. Nareau published many articles and authored four books devoted to Bob Steele and the Bradburys. Previous Steele biographies note that his real name was 'Robert North Bradbury, Jr.', he was a multi-sport athlete at Glendale High, and more. It was Nareau who debunked much of this. His investigative efforts revealed a lot of information, and following are some important truths and tidbits:
(Courtesy of Ed Phillips)
Above, twin brothers Bill (left) and Bob (right) in one of their 1920s ADVENTURES OF BILL & BOB shorts.
The 50+ year Hollywood career of Bob Steele begins in the low budget films of the 1920s when he was a youngster.
Bob, and his real life twin brother Bill, were in a batch of silent shorts labeled the 'Adventures of Bill and Bob'. These were directed by the father of the boys, Robert North Bradbury, Sr. And it was during this time, that Robert Adrian Bradbury became 'Robert North Bradbury, Jr.' ... sometimes shortened to Bob Bradbury, Jr. I've never seen any of these shorts --- however, Boyd Magers told me that at least three exist but their condition is very poor.
As Steele matured into a good lookin' young man with a mop of wavy hair, he wound up starring in silents at FBO, most of which were sagebrush adventures. The British R-C Pictures (Robertson-Cole) and their U.S. subsidiary, Film Booking Offices (FBO), were taken over in the mid 1920s by President John F. Kennedy's father, Joe Kennedy Senior. Kennedy was a shrewd, profit-oriented businessman who realized the potential of the hastily made and inexpensive westerns. He already had Fred Thomson and his trusty cayuse Silver King under contract, but Thomson was demanding substantially higher production expenditures and a larger salary. Kennedy and little FBO couldn't (or wouldn't) knuckle in to the extravagant demands, whereby Thomson left to fail with his expensive westerns at Paramount. Little FBO, which was the forerunner of RKO Pictures, continued on with a stable of silent cowboy heroes which included Steele, Tom Tyler, Buzz Barton, Bob Custer, and even a short tour for Tom Mix.
At around twenty years of age, Steele made his first starring western for FBO in 1927 (probably THE MOJAVE KID). There, he would make a dozen or so oaters, and would also go through a name change to Bob Steele.
Les Adams provides more insight on the name change: "when I asked Steele where the Bob Steele name came from, his reply was that somebody at FBO came up with that for him. In 1979, in an hour-plus video tape interview I did with Oliver Drake, who was writing scripts at FBO when Bob kicked off there, Drake said the Bob Steele name had already been chosen for a new series built around a young, athletic cowboy and Bob Bradbury, Jr. was signed for the series and given the name. According to Drake, Tom Tyler came about in much the same fashion."
As the silent era was ending, Steele was riding the range for lowly Syndicate Pictures. Then came Amity/Tiffany for a mix of eight silents and talkies, and NEAR THE RAINBOW'S END (Tiffany, 1930) was his first talkie. In 1932, he did six films for Sono-Art Worldwide.
Steele was one of the earliest Hollywood range riders who tried their hand at singin' westerns, and he does so in RIDIN' FOOL (Tiffany, 1931) (is that brother Bill doing the singing?) as well as NEAR THE RAINBOW'S END (Tiffany, 1930), NEAR THE TRAIL'S END (Tiffany, 1931), and OKLAHOMA CYCLONE (Tiffany, 1930). He also got melodious in a few later films including TRAILIN' NORTH (Monogram, 1933) and WESTERN JUSTICE (Hackel/Supreme, 1934). "Bob does a tune" was long before the arrival of Gene Autry at Republic Pictures and the prominence of the singing western.
In the early 1930s, Monogram Pictures was one of many major and minor production companies churning out low budget western programmers. They tried Bill Cody and Tom Tyler for the 1931-1932 season. But these range heroes were sent packing after their contracted blocks of eight yarns, and were replaced by Bob Steele and Rex Bell for 1932-1933.
Steele would remain at Monogram for a brief time and do eight sagebrush yarns. Some were good, some bad, and several used offbeat, non-traditional plotlines: Steele was a boxer in THE FIGHTING CHAMP (Monogram, 1932); there was the Goodyear blimp in HIDDEN VALLEY (Monogram, 1932); Steele was a circus performer (wearing tights) in THE GALLANT FOOL (Monogram, 1933); and Bob even handled a sword and racing car in BREED OF THE BORDER (Monogram, 1933). After that group of eight, Steele was out at Monogram. His replacement was John Wayne, and the young 'Duke' would continue in these Paul Malvern produced 'Lone Star' adventures through the merger of Monogram into the new Republic Pictures organization in 1935.
The first of the four Steele books by Bob Nareau contains a copy of the 1932 contract that Steele signed with Trem Carr and Trem Carr Pictures for the Monogram series. The agreement called for Robert Bradbury, Jr., screen name of Bob Steele, to do "8 feature length western 100% talking motion pictures". The salary was $500/weekly for 52 weeks (total of $26,000), and 10% would be deducted and paid directly to Steele's manager, Bill Dunn, of the Bill and Sabel Dunn Agency. The contract also included an option for eight more films with a salary of $35,000, but this option was not exercised.
When I saw the Steele/Monogram features on early TV, I noticed that several included an actor who portrayed a grizzled 'oldtimer' --- that man was George Hayes, who a few years later would become 'Windy' in the Hopalong Cassidy series and 'Gabby' at Republic studios. After his work with Steele, Hayes would appear in many of the John Wayne Lone Star/Monogram films.
Steele then signed on with independent producer A. William Hackel and his Supreme Pictures, one of many 'Gower Gulch' production companies that existed in the 1930s. He'd work there for most of the next four years, and do 32 westerns of varying quality. The initial entries were typical low budget fare, were released through states rights distributors, and played in second and third run movie houses. But then Hackel got lucky.
Republic Pictures had been formed in 1935 by the merger/consolidation of Mascot Pictures, Monogram Pictures, Consolidated Film Laboratories and other pieceparts ... and Republic needed some cowboy adventures to fill out their release schedules, entice theater owners, and build some profits. So they signed a deal with Hackel to release forthcoming Steele features over the Republic logo. In return, Hackel got some budget and financial help. Thus, the Steele entries for seasons 1936-1937 and 1937-1938 have a tad better look to them. But all good things come to an end, and by 1938, Republic had plenty of in-house talent ... and the arrangement with Hackel ended. (Hackel and his Supreme outfit also had Johnny Mack Brown doing westerns. The Republic releasing deal not only included two years of Steele's films, but one season of the Brown features.)
SMOKEY SMITH (A. W. Hackel/Supreme, 1935) is one of Steele's best and includes a climactic battle scene with the 'good guys', led by Bob and Earl Dwire (as the sheriff), wearing white bandanas on their foreheads to identify themselves from the gang members. This oater showed Warner Richmond at his nastiest - to get his hands on a ring, he shoots off the finger of Steele's father (kindly ol' Horace Carpenter). And Richmond also throws lye in George Hayes' face. It's also one of many "time warp" westerns as Steele, in the back of a covered wagon, cuts loose on the gang with a machine gun. Another solid entry from this period is SUNDOWN SAUNDERS (A. W. Hackel/Supreme, 1935), with Steele (as Sundown Saunders) battling shifty land merchant Ed Cassidy who illegally peddles a homestead to Jack Rockwell and his daughter, played by Catherine Cotter. Also note the Sundown Saunders title - Tom Tyler portrayed Saunders in POWDERSMOKE RANGE (RKO, 1935). Another good 'un is TRAIL OF TERROR (A. W. Hackel/Supreme, 1935) wih Bob as an undercover G-Man posing as an escaped convict to catch the gang of Forrest Taylor, Dick Cramer and Charlie King. Earlier, Bradbury wrote and directed THE LUCKY TEXAN (Lone Star/Monogram, 1933) starring John Wayne, and that film included Wayne (Yakima Canutt doubling) riding a log down a watery chute. Bradbury re-used that scene in TRAIL OF TERROR, filming it at medium range so you can clearly see that Steele was doing the log ridin'.
Steele would work for his dad in over two dozen oaters at Sono-Art World Wide, Monogram and with Hackel, and then the two went their separate ways. The senior Bradbury was also in charge of several of the John Wayne Lone Star quickies at Monogram ... then a few of the Tex Ritter jobs at Grand National ... and concluded his directing/producing/screen writing career back at Monogram with Jack Randall, Tom Keene and the Rough Riders. In the later filmography webpages, you'll find notations of the Steele films that involved his father.
Busy as the proverbial beaver, Steele made the time to appear in a couple of other cinema adventures. He was the lead in THE MYSTERY SQUADRON (Mascot, 1933), a Nat Levine produced cliffhanger, with Guinn 'Big Boy' Williams and Lucile Browne in a (then) modern aviation tale with a villain known as 'The Black Ace'. And he also played the 'Guadalupe Kid' in RKO's POWDERSMOKE RANGE (RKO, 1935), which was based on the Three Mesquiteers' writings of William Colt MacDonald.
Bernard B. Ray and Harry S. Webb were the brains behind Reliable Pictures, one of many 1930s independent film companies, and they churned out westerns with the likes of Bob Custer and Tom Tyler. After Reliable went belly-up, Webb and Ray formed another Poverty Row production outfit by the name of Metropolitan Pictures ... and Steele was their cowboy hero for eight routine yarns for the 1939-1940 season. Metropolitan didn't last very long, and Webb was soon at Monogram doing oaters with Jack Randall.
Bob's next stop was with Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC), where he did a new series based on the 'Billy the Kid' character. As expected, 'Billy the Kid' wasn't a trigger happy gunman, but a good guy wrongfully blamed for various misdeeds. Al 'Fuzzy' St. John was his sidekick. Steele would continue in the series for a brief time, but then a phone call came from Republic Pictures. Republic was looking for someone to assume the role of 'Tucson Smith' in the Three Mesquiteers series. The lure of better working conditions and more money worked as Steele quickly joined the Republic payroll (leaving Buster Crabbe to replace him in those PRC Billy the Kid/Billy Carson oaters).
(From Old Corral image collection)
Above is a duotone B&W title lobby card from the 1950 re-release of THUNDERING TRAILS (Republic, 1943). From left to right are Tom Tyler, Jimmie Dodd, and Bob Steele. One-time Johnny Mack Brown heroine Nell O'Day is shown in the photo inset on the top right.
In his initial Mesquiteers' appearances, Steele was billed second to lead Bob Livingston. After a while, Tom Tyler replaced Livingston, and Steele moved up to top billing.
The Mesquiteers had hit the screen in 1936, were popular and financially successful. But by 1943, Republic apparently felt they had other western talent on their lot (such as Roy Rogers and Bill Elliott), and the long-running trio series was put out to pasture.
Republic made fifty-one Mesquiteers features, and Steele appeared in the last twenty films. RIDERS OF THE RIO GRANDE (Republic, 1943) was released to theaters in May, 1943, and was the finale.
Most of the info on the Old Corral about the contracts and salaries at Republic Pictures has been gleaned from Jack Mathis' excellent Republic Confidential, Volume 2, The Players (Jack Mathis Advertising, 1992), and I've given Jack credit in the Acknowledgements & Thanks page. The Mathis book includes information on Steele's agreements for the Three Mesquiteers --- he was paid $1250 each for the initial four entries and $1500 for each of the remaining sixteen pictures. This arrangement did not lock Steele into working exclusively for Republic.
In late 1940 through early 1941, Steele was on screen in both the Mesquiteers and 'Billy the Kid' films. He may have worked simultaneously at both PRC and Republic during the second half of 1940, and perhaps even into early 1941. The release date of his first 'Kid' feature, BILLY THE KID OUTLAWED (PRC, 1940), was mid Summer, 1940. His last, BILLY THE KID IN SANTA FE (PRC, 1941), was the Summer of 1941. UNDER TEXAS SKIES (Republic, 1940), Steele's first 3M, was released in September, 1940.
An opposite scenario is that Steele completed all six 'Kid' films prior to the Mesquiteers, but PRC released them very slowly over the subsequent twelve months in order to capitalize on Steele's 3M involvement ... and it appears this was the situation. Les Adams interviewed Steele in the early 1970s when the western star was on a promotion tour for the Dean Martin movie, SOMETHING BIG. Steele told Les that he had completed the Billy the Kid series prior to becoming 'Tucson Smith' at Republic, but PRC strung the releases out to finish the 1940-41 schedule, thereby putting him on screen at the same time as his Mesquiteers pictures.
(From Old Corral image collection)
Above is the last Three Mesquiteers team --- from top to bottom are Tom Tyler, Jimmie Dodd and Bob Steele. Tyler had a long career in B westerns, and was the lead in many cliffhangers including Republic's CAPTAIN MARVEL and Columbia's THE PHANTOM. Dodd went on to star in Disney's MICKEY MOUSE CLUB TV show.