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Lash La Rue, King of the Bullwhip - A Biography

by Mike Haberfelner

December 2008

Films starring Lash La Rue on (re)Search my Trash

 

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One cannot say that Lash La Rue was the biggest Western star, nor did he have the longest career in B-Westerns - and besides that, he entered the B-Western game only at the tail end of that genre's life, only got his own series because Buster Crabbe backed out [Buster Crabbe bio - click here], plus his fims were all made on the cheap, which at times painfully shows ... yet despite everything, the man managed to carve himself a name in (B-)Western history. Maybe it was his more urbane attitude and slang that set him apart from cleancut country boys à la Roy Rogers [Roy Rogers bio - click here], maybe it was his trademark black outfit that got him some extra attention, maybe it was his weapon of choice, the bullwhip, which he didn't exactly introduce to the genre, but which he masterfully used in pretty much all of his films with an insistance that made it memorable all by itself.

 


 

Early Life, Early Career

 



Lash La Rue was born Alfred La Rue in Gretna, Louisiana in 1917 (some sources claim 1921) as the son of a travelling salesman - which meant he spent his youth pretty much all over the country, and while his father was almost permanently on the road, his education was pretty much provided by his mother. Eventually, La Rue's family settled in Los Angeles, where he went to St.John's military High School and later started to study law at the College of the Pacific. During that time he took some acting classes on the side, initially merely to overcome a speech impediment.

After leaving college, La Rue took a variety of jobs, from real estate salesman to hairdresser, and only eventually he got into films ...

 


 

Becoming Lash

 

Lash La Rue - then still performing as Al or Alfred La Rue - first tried his luck at Universal as a supporting actor and bit player in serials like The Master Key (1945, Lewis D.Collins, Ray Taylor) and films like the Deanna Durbin-musical Lady on a Train (1945, Charles David), before eventually trying his luck at PRC [PRC history - click here], a studio that at the time needed a cowboy actor to support country singer Eddie Dean - the studios newest acquisition - in a Western, Song of Old Wyoming (1945, Robert Emmett Tansey), to be shot in Cinecolor - a then common colour process definitely inferior but also much cheaper than the even more common Technicolor.

 


At his audition, Lash La Rue had no problems convincing producer Robert Emmett Tansey of his acting abilities, and he also had the good yet somewhat rough-edged looks that made him perfect for the proposed role of a villain mending his ways in the end - problem was, La Rue's character was supposed to handle a bullwhip as his weapon of choice, and Lash had never touched one in his life. Still, La Rue claimed he had practically grown up with one, and when he got the part, he went to the next store, bought two and started practicing ... and once filming on Song of Old Wyoming began, he had to admit to Tansey, producer-director of the picture, that he actually was a bloody amateur regarding the whip (emphasis on bloody), and all the training he put into it only resulted in a heap of self-inflicted injuries.

Tansey took this confession in good humour and simply hooked La Rue up with a coach to teach him how to handle a whiplash, and Lash was subsequently able to fill out his role without problems ...

 

Lash's performance alongside Dean went well enough with the audience, so in 1946, he was called back by PRC to support the singing cowboy in two more Westerns, The Caravan Trail (in which Lash did not carry his trademark bullwhip) and Wild West, both again directed by Robert Emmett Tansey. Just like Song of Old Wyoming, the films were shot in Cinecolor, but apart from that they were actually nothing special, just run-of-the-mill series Westerns. Once again though, Lash managed to please the audience, so much so that the powers-that-be at PRC remembered him when one of their cowboy series heroes, Buster Crabbe [Buster Crabbe bio - click here], quit his contract with them ...

 


 

Law of the Lash

 


Buster Crabbe became one of PRC's Western series heroes in 1943, taking over the Billy the Kid-series (later rechristened the Billy Carson-series) from Bob Steele [Bob Steele bio - click here] and stayed on board until 1946. The films of this series were nothing special, cheaply made (but by no means nearly as shoddy as other sources want to make you think) Westerns with standard plots and pretty much the same actors picture after picture, but besides Buster in the lead, they also had Al St.John as Fuzzy doing sidekick duties - and St.John, a former Keystone Cop, was probably the best, funniest, most versatile, most beloved and most memorable sidekick there was, especially in his Fuzzy-role.

Anyways, after shooting his final season of Westerns for PRC in 1946, Buster Crabbe split company with the company for whatever reason, leaving the space besides Fuzzy Al St.John (who was always more co-star than sidekick and carried many a film during his long sidekick-run) vacant ... and luckily, PRC remembered the good work Lash did and gave him the leading role in the string of films following Crabbe's Billy Carson-series.

 

Other than Buster Crabbe after Bob Steele's departure though, Lash La Rue wasn't just invited to take over Crabbe's role, but his character was closely modelled after the characters he played in the Eddie Dean Westerns, meaning he was always dressed in black, was called Cheyenne just like in Song of Old Wyoming, and he had a bit of an anti-hero aura assigned to him - and of course he was carrying a bullwhip as his weapon of choice. Apart from that though, the Fuzzy and Lash-Westerns were pretty much routine flicks made on the cheap, just like the Billy the Kid/Billy Carson-series was, though one might want to add that veteran Al St.John and rookie Lash La Rue quickly found some common ground and there is some typical hero-sidekick-chemistry between them that greatly improved their films beyond mere production values.

 

For 1947, Lash signed on with PRC for a season of 8 B-Westerns (which was a standard B-Western season in the 1930's and 40's), starting with Law of the Lash (1947, Ray Taylor), a solid if not particularly remarkable effort - however, it was exactly the product PRC had expected it to be and was pretty much as successful as expected by the studio.

 


Even though Lash La Rue at that point in his career seemed to have everything going for him, he was pretty much at the right place at the wrong time, as only two movies into the Fuzzy and Lash-series - Law of the Lash and Border Feud (1947, Ray Taylor), PRC was taken over by J.Arthur Rank's Eagle Lion. For the remainder of the year, Eagle Lion continued to carry the PRC-brand as such, and it also respected Lash's contract and had him finish his series - and even gave him roles in two non-Westerns by the way, Heartaches (1947, Basil Wrangell) and The Enchanted Valley (1948, Robert Emmett Tansey) - but in 1948, the PRC-brand was gone altogether, and Eagle Lion showed no interest in renewing Lash's contract.

This refusal had little to do with the quality or success of the Fuzzy and Lash-series, but much more with the fact that by the late 1940's, the B-Western of old quickly came out of style - and actually, compared to ten or even five years ago, there were only very few B-cowboys still around having their own series - apart from the big ones of course (that being Gene Autry, Roy Rogers [Roy Rogers bio - click here] and William Boyd as Hopalong Cassidy).

 


Considering the rather dire state the B-Western as such was in in the late 1940's, Lash La Rue and Al St.John could consider themselves lucky that against all odds, their series was picked up by another producer, Ron Ormond - who besides Westerns was later also responsible for such trash gems as Mesa of Lost Women (1953, co-directed with Herbert Tevos) and Untamed Mistress (1956) - and his company Western Adventures.

Ormond's Westerns, which he had first distributed through Screen Guild and later Realart, were of course nowhere near as schlocky as his horror and science fiction escapades, they were pretty much in line with the usual Western output of the day, but they were certainly a good deal cheaper than PRC's already pretty unexpensive films.

Apart from another producer, lower budgets and resulting lower production values, and Lash giving up his Cheyenne Kid screen persona to be simply called Lash La Rue in his films from now on, very little changed at first, even Ray Taylor, who had directed Fuzzy and Lash's run at PRC was kept on board for the first few movies, starting with Dead Man's Gold (1948).

 


However, the longer the series dragged on under Ormond's tenure (11 pictures between 1948 and 1952), the shoddier it got, e.g. 1952's The Black Lash (Ron Ormond), which not only re-uses large chunks of the earlier Frontier Revenge (1948, Ray Taylor) as a set-up, but is also opened with a lengthy prologue chock-full of stock footage that has no relation to the plot as such, or The Frontier Phantom (1952, Ron Ormond) - the very last film of the series -, which is basically made up from scenes of Outlaw Country (1949, Ray Taylor) - here presented as a flashback - as a whole.

Of interest for another reason might also be The Dalton's Women (1950, Thomas Carr), which in the ads downplayed Lash's and Fuzzy's involvement in the film and put an emphasis on its scantily clad saloongirls, promising more oomph than the film could keep - after all, it was still a Fuzzy and Lash-Western made primarily for the kiddie crowd (as were most B-Westerns).

 

Like all good things, the Fuzzy and Lash-series had to come to an end, and when it did in 1952, the B-Western of old was definitely breathing its last ... and it's almost surprising that the series had lasted until '52 as it is, especially considering the poor production values of the last few films. Still, Lash La Rue and Al St.John made a good (hero-sidekick-)couple throughout the series, and Lash made himself into one of the most accessible cowboy stars of his time, often appearing live at matinée performances of his movies and demonstrating a few tricks with his whip - much to the joy of his young audience.

Also, Lash got his own comicbook, Lash La Rue Western in 1949, which ran until 1961, published first by Fawcett, and taken over by Charlton when Fawcett pulled out of the comicbook business altogether in 1954. He also appeared frequently in Fawcett's Six Gun Heroes, another title later picked up by Charlton.

 

Lash La Rue was perhaps not the biggest cowboy star back in his time, but he was at least popular enough with a certain audience that he eventually got his own TV-show Lash of the West in 1953. However, Lash of the West was rather poorly conceived, it was not a show containing original material (like Gene Autry's and Roy Rogers' shows did [Roy Rogers bio - click here]), but had Lash presenting short clips from his films and occasionally welcoming a guest in a mere 15 minutes per show. Not all that surprisingly, the show was soon cancelled ...

 


 

The Decline

 



After the demise of his TV-show, Lash had to come to terms with the fact that his starring days were over and the B-movie world was moving away into a direction that no longer needed a cowboy hero like him - and let's face it, he wasn't enough of an actor to really break away from his mold, like Buster Crabbe [Buster Crabbe bio - click here] and Bob Steele [Bob Steele bio - click here] were, who sided Fuzzy before him managed to do.

This didn't hit Lash too hard at first, as in the 1950's, there were plenty of TV-Westerns around that could need a supporting actor with on-camera experience, shows like Judge Roy Bean (1956) starring Edgar Buchanan and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (1959) starring Hugh O'Brian.

 

In the 1960's however, the market for television Westerns had dried out but good, and according to several sources, La Rue's life became unhinged at that time - though much of this might be nothing but rumours: It is said that La Rue got married (and divorced) so often the number is somewhere in the double digits, reportedly he also started drinking heavily, and alcohol became a demon he had to battle his entire life. And then there are also rumours about financial problems and troubles with the law, as well as reports of him having become a missionary.

Fact is though that he had very few acting credits during the 1960's and 70's, and if he was in any movie at all, they were hardly milestone films ... though some might be worth checking out just because of that:

  • In 1963, La Rue teamed up with Ron Ormond again for Please Don't Touch Me (Ron Ormond), in which he plays a psychiatrist trying to cure a young wife of her frigidity. Now this could have been a serious film about issues, but in Ormond's hands and with the set of values of its time as a backdrop, it's a mix of sleaze and utter hilarity ...
    According to some sources, the film was actually shot in 1959.
  • Allegedly, La Rue was also in Terrence Malick's early short Lanton Mills (1969), but unfortunately the director has donated the sole copy of the film to the American Film Institute, and only under the condition that only film students are allowed to see it - so most of the stuff to read about the film (and La Rue's invovlement in it) is only based on speculation.
  • Hard on the Trail (1971, Greg Corarito) on the other hand is another matter altogether. For this Western, La Rue was hired to play the villain, but everybody on the crew forgot to tell him that this was going to be a sex movie - and since he was not in any of the sex scenes himself, he only found out after the film was finished. La Rue reportedly was enraged, but by then there was nothing he could do anymore - and rumour has it that for repentance, Lash then turned to missionary work ...

 

The Comeback

 

Whatever really happened to Lash La Rue in the 1960's and 70's we'll probably never find out for sure, as the whole story is shrouded by way too much mist, rumours, legends and the like. However, it seems that he had gotten back on track in the 1980's, the time when Western conventions started to become a really big business, and forgotten stars of yesteryear were not only fondly remembered all of a sudden, they even became main attractions once more. According to all reports, La Rue visited these conventions just as frequently as he visited matinée showings of his films decades earlier. Furhtermore, he is said to have been a very likeable and accessible man in these days (and actually to his death), which helped him regain at least some of his popularity.

 


In the 1980's, Lash, by now a man in his 60's, even got some filmroles again. Most of them were of course nothing special, like a cameo in the TV-remake Stagecoach (1986, Ted Post) starring Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson in the role that made John Wayne famous in John Ford's 1939 original (click here), but at least they showed he was still not down for the count ...

 



In two independently produced horror films directed by Phil Smoot from 1985 though, Lash La Rue was allowed to reclaim center stage, Alien Outlaw and The Dark Power. Both films, though set in modern times, do feature Western elements, and they do respect Lash La Rue's past as cowboy hero.

The Dark Power, which also features long-forgotten B-Western stars Sunset Carson and Bill Cody in cameos and a scantily clad trick shootist (Kari Anderson) in the lead, is a rather dull affair though, a film about aliens coming to earth on a hunting trip. Now of course, this film anticipates Predator (John McTiernan), which didn't come out until 1987, but it makes remarkably little of its exciting premise.

By far more fun is The Dark Power though, in which Lash helps a group of sexy girls fight a gang of resurrected Aztec-like warriors - and in the finale, Lash is actually allowed to pull out his trademark bullwhip and literally take apart one of his adversaries ... now this one's a good laugh, really!

 


 

Closing Words

 

Lash La Rue made his last film appearance in 1990, in another TV-movie starring Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson, Pair of Aces (Aaron Lipstadt), but Lash's role was pretty much as insignificant as the entire movie. Even after his final film, La Rue continued to appear at Western and B-movie conventions, even though he was now already in his 70's. Ultimately, Lash La Rue died in 1996. He was at the time 78, and was survived by his then-wife Marion Carney, who had been in a few PRC-Westerns herself back in the days, incidently.

 

Nowadays, much emphasis is usually put on Lash's resemblance with Humphrey Bogart, which is fleeting at best but which actress Sarah Padden, his co-star in The Master Key, Song of Old Wyoming and The Black Lash, among other films, seems to have noticed early in his career. Often, it is also mused that La Rue could have become a bigger Western star wasn't he stuck with PRC - but that would be completely neglecting the fact that a) La Rue only ever shot one season of Westerns fro PRC/Eagle Lion, and that b) when La Rue hit the scene, the B-Western was already heading for extinction.

 

What Lash La Rue did though was popularizing the bullwhip as an offensive weapon - so much so that Monogram came up with a whip-wielding cowboy hero of its own, Whip Wilson, and Steven Spielberg later made the bullwhip Indiana Jones' weapon of choice, allegedly directly inspired by La Rue -, he was a good partner to Fuzzy Al St.John, possibly the most capable and funniest B-Western sidekick there was, but above all, Lash La Rue made a string of entertaining (if not exactly special) low budget Westerns which in all their simplicity and their cheapness still manage to entertain even today.

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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