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Gunfight at the Columbia Corral: 1940

As a continuation of last month’s post, I’m looking at two B Westerns from Columbia’s 1940 output. I’m pitting Wild Bill Elliott against Columbia’s other cash cow(boy), Charles Starrett. Each made six Westerns for Columbia in 1940, I've chosen--somewhat randomly--Bill Elliott in The Return of Wild Bill and Charles Starrett in Bullets for Rustlers. Who will provide the bigger thrills?

The Return of Wild Bill 

Gordon Elliott was a hit in the title role of Columbia’s 1938 serial The Great Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, so the studio seized upon that “Wild Bill” name and corralled the actor into two more chapter plays (Overland with Kit Carson and The Valley of Vanishing Men) and an astounding two dozen B Westerns over the next four years. The Return of Wild Bill is the 9th of these features, and the fourth and final “Wild Bill Saunders Adventure.”

The plot is a bit complicated. So, there’s these really bad brothers by the name of Kilgore. The film opens with these self-described “vigilantes” hanging a man by the name of Griffin for stealing cattle ‘cept the poor man is innocent, and the Kilgore boys know he’s innocent. You see, the whole point of the hanging is to start up a feud between a fella named Ol’ Mitch, who has taken in the now orphaned Griffin girl, and Lige Saunders, whose cattle it is was that got rustled that formed the pretense for this hanging. The elder Saunders uses this new technology known as the electrical telegraph to reach his son, and that’s our boy Wild Bill Saunders. Wild Bill’s handy with a pair of six-shooters.

If that’s a mite confusing, here’s the compass rose: root for tall handsome Wild Bill and the Griffin girl played by Western-staple Iris Meredith, and jeer for the smelly looking Kilgore brothers, played by George Lloyd and Francis Walker:

George Lloyd Francis Walker  Wild Bill  Iris Meredith
George Lloyd & Francis Walker < Wild Bill & Iris Meredith

Comedies are easy to appraise—if you laugh, it’s a hit—but B Westerns are only slightly more difficult to measure their success. If you get a sort of tingling sensation when the hero heads into action, then it’s a good Western. After Wild Bill’s father (one of former silent film director Edward LeSaint’s final roles) dies from a gunshot wound, Elliott exits the house and ever-so-slightly adjusts his holster. Tingles. Later, Wild Bill brandishes a shotgun in front of the Kilgore boys and says, “Well, you gonna go now or are you gonna wait for the fireworks?” More tingles.

There’s some funny kiss-y business. Wild Bill lays one on the only good Kilgore, Kate (played by another Western-regular Luana Walters), as a dying request. Don’t worry, the actual act is blocked by Bill’s cowboy hat. Luana Walters comes extremely close to being kissed at the end—for a moment I thought there may have been a few frames missing from the print—but I confirmed with a contemporaneous review in Showmen’s Trade Review that there was no lip-to-lip action.

wild bill elliott return of wild bill
Newspaper clippings for The Return of Wild Bill.

Bullets for Rustlers 

Despite the violent title, the Sons of the Pioneers set an easygoing tone to this film with the familiar strains of “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” playing under the credits. This fades to the opening scene with the singers on horseback pining for lazy ways on the last stretch of their roundup with “We’re Headin’ for the Home Corral.” Of course, moments after the last exclamation of “I’m glaaad the roundup’s ov-er,” gunshots ring out and a chase ensues in the distance.

“Well, looks like somebody’s after somebody!” says one of the Sons in the drollest line of dialogue to have ever echoed across the range.

Charles Starrett Bullets for Rustlers
Newspaper clippings for Bullets for Rustlers.

The chase concludes with Sheriff Webb catching up to Steve Beaumont and accusing him of the capital crime of rustling cattle. Mind you, Steve is played by our star Charles Starrett so every viewer should know he’s not really a rustler. In fact, he’s an undercover member of the official Cattleman’s Association investigating a rustling ring. A much too convoluted plot is crammed into less than an hour that includes three musical numbers by the Sons of the Pioneers and a detailed recipe for Texas-style rabbit (trust me, it’s worth the price of admission in itself). It’s a fun time thanks to the supporting cast, including:

  • Edward LeSaint plays the judge who holds court in a saloon (the bar is closed during the proceedings) banging the butt of a six-shooter as a gavel.

  • The mustachioed Jack Rockwell played a sheriff in approximately 65 films from 1931 to 1946. The typecast tough guy plays a sheriff here, just as he did in The Return of Wild Bill.

  • Newport, Kentucky-native Dick Curtis has a face that you can’t trust—the eyes are too squinty and his lips are kinda…fishy.

  • Every B Western needs a love interest and Lorna Gray as Ann Houston is as lovely and interesting as they come. Like the previous film, they don't get too friendly with each other. Instead, Gray jokingly points a gun into Starrett’s belly and coos, “You’re not going anyplace.”

Lorna Gray Charles Starrett Bullets for Rustlers
"You're not going anyplace." Lorna Gray "holds up" Starrett.

Who wins this round? At the risk of sounding like a fence-sitter, both are highly satisfactory B Westerns. Starrett might beat Wild Bill in the looks department and have the Sons of the Pioneers as his house band, but Wild Bill dominates in the action department, where it matters most.

Wild Bill wins this Gunfight at the Columbia Corral.

27 views4 comments


An excellent entry on the Columbia B-western features. THE RETURN OF WILD BILL is my favorite Bill Elliott Columbia picture. Another good one from 1940 is THE MAN FROM TUMBLEWEEDS, directed by Joseph H. Lewis. Lewis lives up to his nickname of "Wagon Wheel" Joe with all manners of unusual camera angles throughout the film.

And not to slight Charles Starrett but 1940's TEXAS STAGECOACH (also from Joseph H. Lewis) has the best opening musical sequence in all of B-western history. Check out The Sons of the Pioneers singing "Hill Country". Unfortunately, the sound of the YouTube clip is not synced up correctly but it's still pretty impressive.

(1) Hill Country - YouTube

Adam Williams
Adam Williams
Dec 29, 2023
Replying to

I'll have to look for that set the next time I walk past the Mill Creek display at Menard's!

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