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BIG CALIBRE (1935)

Robert North Bradbury often seemed to add a pinch of the offbeat into his westerns, but when it came to directing his son, star Bob Steele, there was a downright oedipal underpinning because, quite often, Bob was thrust into an onscreen situation in which he lost his father.

Big Calibre utilizes this plot situation yet again, but regardless what Sigmund would have to say about it, it is of little consequence to this enjoyably odd oater. Bob’s father is killed and robbed of his cattle cash by a local chemist, played by screenwriter and Steele friend Perry Murdock. Bob pursues him, but the chemist escapes. Some time later, Bob, still in pursuit of his father’s murderer, is accused of holding up a stagecoach and murdering Peggy Campbell’s father, who also was robbed and killed with corrosive gas while en route to save his ranch from foreclosure.

The local banker wants Peggy for himself and is behind her father’s supposed killing (the body is missing).  He has a hunchbacked, fanged, bespectacled assistant/henchman. Peggy knows Steele is innocent since it was she who held up the coach in order to prevent the delivery of a letter, from the banker, seizing her ranch.

Still from Big Calibre (1935)The local mob is itching to hang Bob, and so an anonymous benefactor breaks Bob and his comedy relief sidekick out of jail, using corrosive gas! There is an unintentionally surreal, misplaced barnyard dance with Bob and the sidekick dancing with Peggy while masked! The dance ends in a planned brawl and Bob barely escapes with his life. Unsurprisingly, the hunchbacked assistant is none other than the low-life chemist who butchered Bob’s pa. When Bob knocks him to the ground his fake fangs and glasses come off to reveal his true identity.

An exciting and atmospheric desert chase follows with the assistant making his getaway in an automobile. All ends well, of course, with the bad guys reaping what they sow, the hero and his girl hooking up after she finds out her daddy is still alive, and Bob’s sidekick being chased off by an ugly childhood sweetheart who won’t leave him alone.

Big Calibre has more loopholes than plot. The loopholes hardly matter because it has an admirable low budget, authentic western weirdness. It’s strangeness is organic and subtle, rather than on-the sleeve. The lack of a musical score, which is the norm in early 1930′s B westerns, actually adds to the unique flavor.

Bob Steele possibly made more B westerns than anyone and few of them were good, but he had an amiable and hip personality that audiences responded to. He is probably best known as the low-life Curley in Lewis Milestone’s 1939 version of Of Mice and Men. Big Calibre, released by Sinister Cinema, is available on Amazon and the Sinister Cinema website.

1 comment to BIG CALIBRE (1935)

  • This one is indeed odd. There’s more than a little bit of culture shock in seeing the difference in entertainment conventions between that era and our own. It seems strange today to see how easily and naturally they incorporated old vaudeville routines and very broad comedy into the action/western format, and hints of horror as well.

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