September 16, 2011
Western Profiles: Lash LaRue
He looked more like a gangster than a cowboy hero. He wore an all black outfit and had his Stetson cocked slightly to the side. His main weapon was an 18-foot bullwhip coiled at his holster. This was Lash LaRue, and he projected quite a different screen image than that of his contemporaries.
In fact, he began his career in Western films portraying an outlaw. In 1945, Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC) studios had recently begun a new series starring Eddie Dean as the latest singing cowboy. In the film SONG OF OLD WYOMING, a newcomer named Alfred LaRue was cast as “the Cheyenne Kid.” By the end of the film, Cheyenne was converted from his owlhoot ways and joined the Eddie Dean side for law and order. This black-clad character caught on with the kids in the audience, and mail began to pour into PRC requesting more of the Cheyenne Kid. They were granted their request as LaRue returned the following year in Dean’s THE CARAVAN TRAIL. This time he played “Cherokee” but the outfit and persona were the same. Also in 1946 he supported Eddie Dean in WILD WEST. His character’s name this time was “Stormy.”
LaRue’s popularity caused PRC to launch him in his own series in 1947. He was back portraying the Cheyenne Kid in eight films that year, beginning with LAW OF THE LASH. The follow-up was RETURN OF THE LASH, and the mold was set; though somewhere along the way the “Kid” became “Cheyenne Davis.” All of these films were produced by Jerry Thomas (who had worked on the Eddie Dean series) and were directed by Ray Taylor.
LaRue’s co-star was comic Al “Fuzzy” St. John, truly one of the funniest sidekicks to appear in Westerns. St. John had been with the Keystone Cops back in the silent days and had starred in his own series of short subjects. He had previously worked with many Western stars, including Bob Steele, Bob Custer, Bill Cody, Tom Tyier, Rex Bell, Fred Scott (with whom in 1937 he first portrayed the “Fuzzy” character, Fuzzy Q. Jones), Lee Powell, Buster Crabbe, George Houston and Bob Livingston.
By 1948, matinee Westerns were on the decline and budgets were cut at all the studios. PRC already occupied the bottom rung in the low budget studio ladder. They went out of business in 1948. Lash LaRue did not. He was back in a new series (along with Fuzzy) for Western Adventure Productions (WAP) with producer Ron Ormond at the helm. Ray Taylor continued to direct. For this series, LaRue became known as “Lash” LaRue and would continue that character for the rest of his films.
New producers came in 1949… J. Francis White and Joy Houck. Ron Ormond took over as director and produced probably the best of the Lash LaRue programmers . . . KING OF THE BULLWHIP. Whereas B-Westerns are noted for their action, the Lash LaRue series plodded along at a dreary pace. The chase scenes consisted of repetitive camera angles with lethargic editing. There was lots of padding, and inconsequential scenes seemed to drag on without end. KING OF THE BULLWHIP had more action than most as Lash faced an outlaw, El Azote, who also used a bullwhip. To offset the slow pace of previous efforts, director Ormond used scenes of the climactic battle of the bullwhips as background for the main title sequence. This started the picture off with a bang. The camera work during the course of the film was unusual and inventive. KING stands out as a unique and different Western.
Unfortunately, this new-found quality soon faded as budget cuts necessitated excessive use of stock footage from previous films. At one point the Eddie Dean film WILD WEST was re-cut and released as a Lash LaRue film known as PRAIRIE OUTLAWS. THE BLACK LASH, released in 1952, was comprised mostly of footage from the 1948 film FRONTIER REVENGE with new footage added. When new scenes of actor Jim Bannon were needed in BLACK LASH, director Ormond filmed a stand in wearing a similar shirt from the back. Bannon was not even credited in the later film.
The final film in the Lash LaRue series was a reworking of OUTLAW COUNTRY from 1949. It was entitled THE FRONTIER PHANTOM, and this one featured Lash in a dual role. In OUTLAW COUNTRY, it was established that Lash had a twin brother who called himself the Frontier Phantom. This concept was repeated, along with much of the same footage, in THE FRONTIER PHANTOM. The supposed twin is seen here in this photo.
Despite the shortcomings of the production values of his films, Lash LaRue himself remains a striking figure among the legends of screen cowboys. Had he been at Republic Pictures under the direction of William Witney, his star would have glistened more brightly. Lash was one of the last of the series Western stars. By the end of 1953, all of the great matinee cowboys had ridden off into the sunset for the last time.
In 1949, Fawcett Publications licensed a Lash LaRue comic book, and the series ran into 1953 for 46 issues. Photos of Lash were on the front and back covers too in some of the early issues. Fuzzy did not appear in the comic book. His latest films were touted in ads. He was also regularly featured in “Six Gun Heroes”, alternating the cover shot with Rocky Lane.
Lash made films in 1947, 1948, 1949, 1951 and 1952 (plus the earlier Eddie Dean films). He was also featured in the 1945 serial, THE MASTER KEY. In the early 1950’s Lash made a short-lived TV series entitled TALES OF FAMOUS OUTLAWS. These were 15-minute segments also produced by Ron Ormond and WESTERN ADVENTURE PRODUCTIONS Lash portrayed a modern-day Western lawman who reminisced about his grandfather, the original Lash LaRue, in the days of the old West. The bulk of the show was made up of clips from old Westerns. The program was also known under the title LASH OF THE WEST.
After his retirement from films, he toured the country putting on shows with his whip. When film festivals began in the 1970’s, he was one of the first to be invited to attend. Lash LaRue passed away in 1996.