Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 123: Bob Steele, the would-be Wood star

Bob Steele (right) with newspaper columnist Bill Soberanes.

Bob Steele (1907-1988) never appeared in any of Ed Wood's films or TV shows, but it wasn't for lack of trying. According to Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. (1992), Eddie had two major unrealized projects involving Steele, a superhumanly prolific actor whose screen career spanned from 1920 to 1974. 

Steele's story is an interesting one. A Portland native, he had been part of his family's vaudeville act since his early childhood. For his first few years in Hollywood, largely appearing in movies directed by his own father, he went by his real name, Bob Bradbury, Jr. In 1927, he started using the catchier name Bob Steele and stuck with it for the rest of his career.

Like Wood regulars Tom Keene and Kenne Duncan, Steele was best known for his work in modestly-budgeted Westerns. His main employers were poverty row studios like Monogram, Republic, and the lowly PRC. But the diminutive actor earned a fan following anyway, becoming a screen idol to a generation of matinee-attending kids. In The Hall of Fame of Western Film Stars (1969), author Ernest N. Corneau puts it this way:
A perennial favorite of Western fans, Bob has contributed a major portion of talent and skill toward the advancement of the Western genre. Audiences who saw him in action were never short changed when it came to thrills and excitement. Although unusually short in height for a cowboy hero, he proved himself quite capable of handling any rough stuff, whether it involved fisticuffs or stunt riding. He truly earned his title of "The Little Giant of Westerns."
Ed Wood was undoubtedly one of Bob Steele's ardent admirers. In 1953, Wood envisioned "a series of low-budget Westerns" called Bob Steele of the Border Patrol. The text doesn't clarify if this was to be a TV series or a film franchise. Either way, it sounds a lot like Tom Keene, U.S. Marshall

Grey does mention that Border Patrol was to be produced by a company called Commodore. I found only a couple of known Commodore titles: a 1953 Clyde Beatty adventure film called Perils of the Jungle and a Los Angeles TV talk show called Help Thy Neighbor in which host Hal Styles attempts to drum up donations for Los Angelinos with hard-luck stories. Both Perils of the Jungle and Help Thy Neighbor were produced by a man named Walter White, Jr., who also produced the iconic Hopalong Cassidy radio show (1948-1952) under the Commodore banner. 

Bob Steele was also supposed to have appeared in Ed Wood's thwarted Western/horror hybrid, The Ghoul Goes West (aka The Phantom Ghoul). Between being namechecked in both Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994) and Ted Newsom's Look Back in Angora (1994) and having its screenplay published in 2016, The Ghoul Goes West is one of Ed's best-known unrealized projects. Eddie originally announced the film in 1953, but production was delayed by Bela Lugosi's stint in rehab. When Gene Autry dropped out of the movie in 1955, Eddie considered Bob Steele as a possible replacement before shelving the project altogether.

Admittedly, I have not seen enough B-grade Westerns of the 1930s and '40s to be that familiar with Bob Steele's cowboy career. As it turns out, however, I definitely have seen some of his more high-profile, mainstream pictures. You probably have, too. For instance, Bob played the villainous Curley in the 1939 version of Of Mice and Men starring Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney, Jr. Bob's other credits include The Big Sleep (1946), Rio Bravo (1959), McClintock! (1963), and Hang 'Em High (1968). Steele never worked with Ed Wood, but he did work with such famed directors as Howard Hawks, Don Siegel, William Wellman, and Michael Curtiz. On the small screen, Steele was a regular on the '60s frontier comedy F Troop as Trooper Duffy and made appearances on many of the big shoot 'em up shows of the era: Gunsmoke, Rawhide, Maverick, etc. He did some non-Western shows, too, including Family Affair, Judd for the Defense, and Then Came Bronson.

Starting in the mid-1950s, Bob Steele transitioned mainly to television while making occasional motion pictures. In 1966, somewhat embarrassingly, The Los Angeles Times mistakenly declared Steele dead. It seems a rodeo star with the same name had passed away. The actor -- then 59, still working steadily, and supposedly in good health -- set the Times straight. They corrected the mistake in their July 15, 1966 edition with a rather lengthy article by staff writer Paul Henniger.

"I'm not dead!" declared Bob Steele.

A little later that same year, on October 16, 1966, the Petaluma Argus-Courier printed a long, flattering article by Bill Soberanes about Bob Steele, presenting him as the last man standing of the old-time Western stars, the ones who didn't need stuntmen. Note, too, that Steele worked with the aforementioned Clyde Beatty.

A flattering tribute to Bob Steele.

As it turned out, Bob Steele kept working until 1974, finally ending his career with a supporting role in the somewhat forgotten thriller Nightmare Honeymoon starring Dack Rambo. He died on December 21, 1988 at the age of 81, having outlived his premature obituary by 22 and a half years. Touchingly, his actual obituary from the January 4, 1989 edition of the Petaluma Argus-Courier was also written by Bill Soberanes. (Despite what the article says, Steele was just shy of his 82nd birthday when he passed away.)

It was the end of the trail for Bob Steele.

We'll never know what magic (or anti-magic) Ed Wood and Bob Steele could have made together. Bob Steele of the Border Patrol would probably have been typical of Eddie's film and TV Westerns -- straightforward, moralistic, and a little on the bland side compared to, say, Glen or Glenda (1953). Ed Wood tended to rein in his eccentricities when he made cowboy pictures, such was his reverence for the genre. Meanwhile, The Ghoul Goes West remains one of the great "what if"s of Ed's entire career. We can only speculate what kind of movie might have resulted from that unfilmed, genre-hopping script.

Despite his extensive and varied filmography, Bob Steele is not an actor I would ever have noticed under normal circumstances. My dad was a great fan of cheapie Westerns and was a regular attendee of the Saturday matinees as a child. Perhaps he sat through a few Bob Steele pictures -- or a few dozen of them. If he were still around, I'd ask him. As it is, Bob remains an intriguing footnote in the career of Edward D. Wood, Jr.