(From Old Corral image collection)
Winifred Maurice Harrison
1920 - 1990
|Special thanks to guest commentator Paul Dellinger for authoring the following narrative and background info on Sunset Carson.|
|Click HERE for more info on this pair of Colt Bisley .45 calibre six-guns that may have belonged to Sunset. And there's more on this Sunset Carson gunbelt.|
Confused about Sunset's birth date, birth location, etc. Click HERE for a webpage with "genealogy" and family info that may help ... or add to the confusion.
In just two years, 1945 and 1946, Sunset Carson made more of an impression on western filmdom than most cowboys managed in their entire movie careers. Those were the Republic years, in which the recently-dubbed Sunset starred in eleven actionful pictures plus a guest stint in a Roy Rogers extravaganza. His introduction to movie audiences actually came in 1944, when he co-starred with Smiley Burnette (and surprise! Smiley got top billing) as Sonny 'Sunset' Carson. The odd pairing resulted in four pictures, the last of which is a comedy (!). After that, Smiley would depart from Republic forever and Sunset would become the 'main player' that we all knew he was, anyway.
Sunset blamed bad advice for his departure from Republic. Others have blamed his off-camera behavior. Top-notch film historian Richard B. Smith III wrote in Boyd Magers' Western Clippings that Sunset was fired by Republic president Herbert G. Yates himself, as related by stuntman-director Yakima Canutt. Canutt's account was that Sunset appeared at a gathering of the studio's western stars not only under the influence but with a girl who was apparently a minor. Yates supposedly told Carson at that time that his starring roles at Republic were over. Whatever the reason, he went on to make five low-budget independent oaters (although at least one was in color) which disappointed those of his fans who saw them. Much later in his career, he co-starred with other stars of 'golden age' westerns in a few offbeat films, the last of which was a sci-fi flick!
Never let it be said that the career of Sunset Carson was routine. But, to start at the beginning ...
Well, even the beginning has differing versions. By Sunset's account, he was born November 12, 1922, in Gracemont, Oklahoma, as Michael Harrison. The Internet Movie DataBase says the date was November 12, 1920, and that his name was Winifred Maurice Harrison -- which, admittedly, doesn't sound much like a movie cowboy. Sunset gave different birth years at different times, recalls film festival observer and film scholar Bobby Copeland, each time moving the year up slightly to reduce his apparent age. With all due respect to Sunset, he did embellish the truth just a tad. The best-supported accounts have his family moving to Plainview, Texas, when he was eight or nine years old. That was where he grew up. Sunset has said (we can choose to believe it or not) that his father was a rodeo performer in the Tom Mix Circus and that he himself began rodeo-ing as a teenager and was named All Around Champion Cowboy of South America in 1941 and 1942, and that it was none other than Tom Mix (no stranger himself to some exaggerations concerning his background) who suggested that the young man consider film acting.
As Michael Harrison, Sunset appeared in STAGE DOOR CANTEEN (1943) as a character named Texas, amid a star-studded cast of performers for servicemen. In JANIE, a comedy about a girl (Joyce Reynolds) with a fondness for men in uniform, he played Sgt. Carl.
In 1944, he tried out at Republic Studios, and found his niche -- at least for the next few years. Supposedly, it was studio President Herbert Yates who changed Michael Harrison to Sunset Carson after being inspired by a sign on a car dealership: Sunset Boulevard Cars.
(From Old Corral image collection)
Above - Smiley Burnette
(Ad cut courtesy of Les Adams)
But, as mentioned, Sunset didn't begin as the star of his own pictures. Top billing went to Smiley Burnette (pictured above on the left), who had come to Republic with Gene Autry and co-starred with others including Roy Rogers and Bob Livingston while there. As the only comic sidekick to be elevated to top billing in a western series, even if it was only four films, Smiley's roles were built up more than usual but it was Sunset who carried the action. In each film, Smiley's character was named Frog Millhouse, while Sunset played Sunset, as he would do in all the rest of his westerns.
The public got its first look at Sonny 'Sunset' Carson in CALL OF THE ROCKIES (1944), with Harry Woods supplying the villainy, Ellen Hall the beauty, and Kirk Alyn (best known for his 'Superman' and 'Blackhawk' serial roles at Columbia, although he would later do some Republic chapter-plays too) as a young mining engineer. Sunset alternated between the light cowboy shirt with the arrow pockets and the striped dark one, as he would do for the rest of his Republic stint. He wore a brace of stag-handled guns butts forward, Wild Bill Elliott-style. Film highlights include battles in the Republic cave set and some suspense as Sunset holds a gun on a renegade doctor (Frank Jaquet) to force him to save the life of a double-crossed outlaw (Tom London) who can expose the others.
Next came BORDERTOWN TRAIL (1944), in which Frog and Sunset are members of the Border Patrol, tracking smugglers led by outlaws Weldon Heyburn and Addison Richards. Sunset acquires his first brother in the Border Patrol commander, Vic Carson (Jack Luden), his only movie brother to survive at the end of the film.
CODE OF THE PRAIRIE (1944) gave Heyburn a sympathetic role this time, as Sunset's lawman friend even though he is temporarily duped by the bad guys until the final brief-but-blazing shoot-out when he and Sunset wipe out the entire gang. Tom Chatterton plays an aging ex-lawman named Bat Matson, no doubt inspired by the real-life Bat Masterson. But the most significant casting is Sunset's first encounter with resident Republic villain Roy Barcroft as the brains heavy and pretty Peggy Stewart as the leading lady. Sunset would see a lot of them both in future films.
In later years, Sunset described Barcroft offscreen as 'my best friend' and he and Peggy were frequent co-stars at film festivals around the country. The last of the foursome was the outright western comedy, FIREBRANDS OF ARIZONA (1944), in which Smiley played a dual role as Frog and the notorious outlaw 'Beefsteak Discoe'. The movie ends with Smiley, as Beefsteak, and Sunset slugging it out and finally shooting it out after Sunset identifies the real Frog by the pills he is always taking. Peggy Stewart is back as a ranch owner who becomes disgusted with Frog's laziness and his excuses about feeling ill all the time. Later, she gets in on the horseback gunfighting right along with Sunset. Earle Hodgins plays a fast-talking sheriff who convinces Frog at one point that Frog is duty-bound to allow himself to be hanged, when he is mistaken for Beefsteak, so that the town can build a memorial to the famous outlaw. Barcroft is the sheriff's deputy, another switcheroo, and packs a pearl-handled pistol for perhaps the only time in his career.
(Courtesy of Ed Phillips)
|Sunset is about to tangle with Weldon Heyburn in CODE OF THE PRAIRIE (Republic, 1944).|
Note Sunset's gunbelt with the butts forward. Also note the tape wrapped around the grip on Heyburn's six-shooter.
(From Old Corral image collection)
Above - George Chesebro and Sunset.