(From Old Corral collection)
FIREBRANDS OF ARIZONA (Republic, 1944) was another of the early Carson series in which Smiley Burnette was given top billing. In this oater, Burnette has a dual role as his normal screen self, as well as bad guy "Beefsteak Discoe". Above from L-to-R are Bob Wilke, Sunset, Rex Lease, Jess Cavin (in background), Earle Hodgins, and Pascale Perry (in background) in a lobby card from FIREBRANDS OF ARIZONA). Sunset had originally named his white hoss 'Silver', but changed it to 'Cactus'.
At that point, Smiley moved over to Columbia where he would join Charles Starrett's 'Durango Kid' series and eventually re-team with Gene Autry who had also migrated there. And Sunset moved to the top of his pictures' cast, starting with SHERIFF OF CIMARRON (1945). The only cosmetic changes were a white bandana around the neck, instead of the dark one of the earlier pictures, and a new brace of pearl-handled six-shooters in a gunbelt and holsters with even bigger studs than in the previous foursome. Sunset plays a man who has completed a prison sentence for a crime he didn't commit. Although he doesn't find out until the end, the real culprit was his kid brother, played by perennial kid Riley Hill, this time as a secret member of the outlaw band led by Jack Ingram. Hill, who would go on to define the hot-headed but honest kid roles in Monogram's Johnny Mack Brown and Jimmy Wakely westerns, is utterly evil here. He even kills the father of leading lady Linda Stirling, who teams with Sunset for the first time. Olin Howlin provides the comedy as a put-upon town veterinarian. In the first few minutes of the film, Sunset rides into town, has Linda topple off a stool and into his arms, fights off two of three would-be bank robbers, chases them all out of town before dropping two of them and capturing the third with his bullwhip (in a sequence that would be lifted for several other Sunset vehicles) -- which is how he becomes the movie's title character. Maybe the fact that the movie was directed by veteran stuntman Yakima Canutt helped. It was also here that Sunset established his character as a somewhat flirtatious cowboy hero. Not only did he trick the heroine into falling off a stool so he could catch her, but he clicks his tongue at her in a way she appears to find insulting (the sound is more often associated with signaling a horse to speed up). In the movie, the father of Linda Stirling's character finds it all highly amusing.
But if audiences thought SHERIFF OF CIMARRON was full of action, they got even more with SANTA FE SADDLEMATES (1945). Sunset has three different fights before the plot even gets under way (to test his mettle for the assignment; it turns out Lash LaRue would use the same scenario a few years later in OUTLAW COUNTRY). Next, he takes on some saloon toughs when one of them (Bud Geary) tries to get too friendly with singer Linda Stirling (an undercover newspaper reporter). Finally, he and 'saddlemate' Olin Howlin (playing a dude wanting to be a cowboy) infiltrate the gang of smugglers led by Roy Barcroft and smash them. Johnny Carpenter is a member of the gang, and Kenne Duncan plays the gunfighter whom Sunset has been impersonating. This movie moved so fast that the heroine's name is never even mentioned, not even by the time she and Sunset are becoming friskily romantic at the end. Thomas Carr had become Sunset's director, and would direct all the rest of the big cowboy's films at Republic.
In OREGON TRAIL (1945), Carr's mother -- former silent film actress Mary Carr -- gets to play a character role as Peggy Stewart's feisty grandmother (who even gets involved in the final gunfight). Sunset becomes sheriff again, has another shoot-out with Kenne Duncan (after being shot in the back and hospitalized by Duncan), and uses a bullwhip to pull a would-be stage robber off his horse. This time there is no comic sidekick at all.
BANDITS OF THE BADLANDS (1945) sees Sunset as a ranger who plans to take the law into his own hands when he finds the killer of his doctor-brother (played by Monte Hale). He does this by infiltrating an outlaw town with stage driver Si Jenks, and finds Peggy Stewart and her gunsmith father virtual prisoners there. Alerted by Stewart's character who has fallen for Sunset, the rangers arrive on the scene in time to keep Sunset from murdering the man he has finally hunted down. For some reason, Sunset was relegated to packing only one pearl-handled six-gun this time. And except for his next picture, he would be a one-gun hero for the rest of his Republic stint.
That next picture was ROUGH RIDERS OF CHEYENNE (1945), an almost 'Romeo and Juliet' horse opera with feuding families, the Stirlings and the Carsons. Interestingly, Melinda Stirling is played not by Linda Stirling but by Peggy Stewart, and her Lady MacBeth-like mother by Mira McKinney. Sunset is drawn into the feud to avenge the killing of his father (Eddy Waller, future 'Nugget Clark' in the 'Rocky' Lane series), and ably assisted by ranch foreman Monte Hale, who gets to sing the only song to grace a Sunset Carson film. Hale's character later dies protecting Sunset, and Sunset nearly guns down Stewart who has disguised herself as her brother to save him from a shoot-out with Sunset. But Sunset ferrets out the real culprits and brings peace to Paradise Valley. Once again, the action is all that fans expected from the Carr and Carson team.
The last picture of the 1945 season was CHEROKEE FLASH, with the surprise casting of Roy Barcroft as not only a good guy but Sunset's father, and the title character as well. Once an outlaw known as the Cherokee Flash, Barcroft has reformed and resists efforts by his old gang to bring him back into the fold. He and Sunset and Tom London, supplying the sidekick honors, do that in style while Linda Stirling does leading lady honors this time around.
(From Old Corral collection)
In THE CHEROKEE FLASH (Republic, 1945), Roy Barcroft plays Sunset's father, the titled character and former outlaw, who has reformed but his old gang wants him back. In this lobby card, Sunset is on the right and Barcroft is on the left with his six-shooter leveled at three unidentified players.
Sunset also appeared during 1945 in the Roy Rogers vehicle, BELLS OF ROSARITA, in which Roy and the Sons of the Pioneers enlist a line-up of Republic movie stars in this modern western to help save Dale Evans' and Gabby Hayes' circus by guest appearances. Sunset answers the call along with Allan Lane, Robert Livingston, Don Barry and 'Wild Bill' Elliott. They also join Roy in rounding up the outlaw gang at the end. 'Let's get 'em, boys,' calls Roy. 'They're rationed -- one to a man.' But the funniest line in the picture has to be from henchman Roy Barcroft, when he and villain Grant Withers find their car missing: 'There must be some crooks around here!' Sunset has an action scene filming a fight at Republic when he gets Roy's call for help (although this is cut from some versions of the film) and is the first of the guest stars to 'get his man' at the end, riding after him and stopping him with a bullwhip before jumping down and clobbering him.
(From Old Corral collection)
L-to-R standing in the top row are Wild Bill Elliott, Allan Lane and Sunset Carson. L-to-R kneeling are Bob Livingston (laughing), Roy Rogers, Don 'Red' Barry and Dale Evans. Lobby card from the Roy Rogers 'All-Star' western, BELLS OF ROSARITA (Republic, 1945).
Sunset's horse is identified in the movie as Silver. During an appearance at Hillbilly World, Tenn., in the early 1970s, as Sunset 'Kit' Carson, he told this writer that his horse was to have been Buck Jones' new Silver, had Jones not been killed in a tragic fire, and that Sunset dropped the name 'Silver' because of its identification with the Lone Ranger's steed. He called the white horse Cactus instead. (In at least one of his independent outings, the color version of SUNSET CARSON RIDES AGAIN, his horse is billed as 'Cactus Jr.,' but appears to be a palomino.)
(From Old Corral collection)
Above, Sunset with his helper Tom London in a lobby card from DAYS OF BUFFALO BILL (Republic, 1946). London had removed his teeth for this sidekick portrayal. On the ground is 1930s hero Rex Lease.
The 1946 season opened with DAYS OF BUFFALO BILL, which had nothing whatever to do with Bill Cody but had Sunset mistakenly believing he'd shot and killed Peggy Stewart's brother. He and sidekick Tom London try to make up for things by helping her save her ranch, although later she almost shoots Sunset when she finds out who he is. Sunset eventually clears himself and rounds up the outlaws.
ALIAS BILLY THE KID (1946) likewise has nothing to do with Billy Bonney, but has Sunset as a ranger infiltrate Peggy Stewart's outlaw gang only to find his sympathies with her and against banker Roy Barcroft. Tom Keene, Buck Jones (in TEXAS RANGER) and George O'Brien, Rita Hayworth and Tim Holt (in THE RENEGADE RANGER) had all done it before, but it was still a serviceable plot. This was the beginning of Sunset's references to Peggy Stewart as 'little sister,' which she pretended to be in the script to get one of her men out of jail. Eventually Sunset clears Stewart's followers and jails Barcroft, and all is right with the world once more.