The Law of Contact

Bob Baker

by Frank M. Roberts

Here's another look at one of yesterday's western stars. This one is lesser known, perhaps it's safe to say he is 'much lesser known' but he did get around so, what the hey, let's check on Bob Baker. (Sounds like an old quiz show emcee).

His father was a butcher, his mother a candlestick maker. (Dopey joke there somewhere). He was born - bless his cowpoke heart - on my birthday - Nov. 8 - several years before my year of 1928. His year was 1910. And, he was born in a state in which I spent many happy years - Iowa. The town was Forest City. According to his reliable birth certificate, his real name was Stanley Leland Weed. Gee, a Weed in Forest City. His one and only wife was Evelyn McCauley. They had four children.

Getting down to brass tacks (uncomfortable) - although his name is unfamiliar to anyone under 75 or 80, he made some interesting cowboy history. At 18, he joined the Army and, learned to play guitar.

As you know, when stories of 'B' westerns come up, Gene Autry is mentioned as the first singing cowboy on screen. Truth to tell, there were several before him. Many also followed including Bob Baker. His success as a film actor did come about as a result of the Autry success and, it was with a larger studio - Universal. He became that studio's answer to the draw of Autry at the box office.

And, get this: In 1937 he was chosen over seven singers - one of them - Roy Rogers. To begin with, young Baker became a working cowboy in Arizona and, when he was 16-years-old he became a major rodeo star. So, he was the real thing - impressive.

In 1929 he became known as 'Tumbleweed'. A year later, his singing career began. It was on radio station KTSM in El Paso. Later, he became a member of the WLS-Chicago famed National Barn Dance.

Wisely, Universal immediately starred their new 'find' in his first film with the delicious cowboy title, "Courage Of the West." Of course, he had to have a sidekick, and it was one of the best - ole Fuzzy Knight. And, there was a resident bad guy. That was ace badman, Harry Woods. Baker made six films for the big studio, before serving in the Army in WW2. As oft happens - after the war he was unable to get his film career back on track but, he stayed in uniform, entering law enforcement in Arizona. So, while others were 'play acting' at it, Mr. B was the real thing.

Nice to report - he received good reviews for his first effort. Altogether, he starred in a dozen films before suffering an injury which relegated him to second star status. One of the critics of those days described Baker as, "a good singer and passable actor." Nevertheless, fate was not in his favor. The studio gave him no decent support, and he was soon relegated to co-star status under Johnny Mack Brown - a tail kick to the ego.

Oh, there was another critic. His "Courage Of the West" co-star, Lois January, let it be known that, "Bob Baker was too pretty!" (I always had that complaint). She added, "he was always nice, but didn't get friendly. He didn't want me to sing a song in his picture." (Not exactly a Rogers-Evans relationship.) "That business," she added knowingly, "is full of jealousy."

Despite all that, the 'Courage' movie was thought to be his best." The first critic I quoted added, "the others suffered from predictable plots (gee, in a western?) and poor scripts." He died in 1975.

Some of his films included (what else?) "Singing Outlaw," with Fuzzy, Joan Barclay, Harry Woods and, one, Carl Stockdale. Baker starred in "Courage Of the West," then traipsed along "Western Trails," with Franko Corsarro (who?) and Bob Burns (not the Arkansas hillbilly). Here's a title that would have to be changed in these days: "Black Bandit." Another flick was "Border Wolves," (not the whistling kind). Fuzzy again with Frank Campeau. (Who?). And, he starred in the 'epic-ly' titled, "Prairie Justice."

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And, as we like to do we get into a little history re: supporting players although, in this case, some would give Bob Steele a leading man status. A Pendleton, Oregon native he became a veteran of no less than 100 movies. That calls for a 'wow!' He attended grammar and high school in plush-y Glendale, Cal. Moments after h. s. graduation he was signed by F. B. O., making his debut in, "The Mojave Kid."

His next stop was Monogram, and the stop after that was Supreme which released the pix he made there under the Republic label. He was a popular guy and started making a new series with an independent company. That's when Republic put his name on their dotted line. He became one of the Three Mesquiteers - Tucson Smith.

Next stop - teevee, and that is where many of you will remember him. He was Trooper Duffy on one of the tube's funniest offerings, "F Troop."

Other movie roles included "Powder Smoke Range," and "Raiders Of the Range," and "The Kid Ranger." (Kinda like "Ole McDonald's Farm" - (here a range, there a range, etc.) There were also "The Law Rides," "Arizona Gunfighter," "Border Phantom," "Doomed At Sundown," "The Red Rope," "Blocked Trail," "Riders Of the Rio Grande," and "Santa Fe Scouts."

His first movie role? He and twin brother, Bill, did a comedy act with their dad at the tender age of two. The obvious title was, "The Adventures Of Bob and Bill." Gee, our hero got top billed over Bill. Bob Steele's last picture was in 1974, and it sounds like a winner: "Nightmare Honeymoon."

For a few years he was married to Virginia Neil Tatem. No children. For the record, he was probably moviedom's most abbreviated cowboy. Tall in the saddle, he wasn't. Height 5 feet, 5 inches. He could have been a cowboy munchkin in "The Wizard Of the Range."

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