Friday, July 1, 2011
Doris Houck (Two-Fisted Stranger, Heading West, Landrush)
Of all the B-Western series, with the possible exception of Republic's Rocky Lanes, the Columbia Durango Kids needed leading ladies the least. In fact, in later years, the series often dispensed with them entirely. With no one the wiser, truth be told. But if there actually was a girl involved, she was involved even more peripherally than usual for the genre and was mainly there for the studio to trot out one of their many contract starlets, each and every one of whom studio czar Harry Cohn believed to possess the potential to become another Rita Hayworth. Doris Houck (1921-1965) did three Durangos in a row and you'd be hard pressed to tell them apart: she was the daughter of a mine owner in Two-Fisted Stranger, a banker in Heading West and a newspaper editor in Landrush. All of these fathers are single, widowers presumably, a very common occurrence in B-Westerns, where the survival rate of women seems to have been tragically low. A B-Western father is also always quite elderly and played by distinguished types like Davison Clark (Two-Fisted Stranger) and Nolan Leary (Heading West), if not downright geriatric like Landrush's dear old Emmett Lynn, who could easily have been Miss Houck's grandfather. In any case, Doris Houck's characters in all three films are virtually indistinguishable, as, truth be told, are the general plots: Charles Starrett plays someone named Steve who is really the masked defender of the weak, the Durango Kid, Smiley Burnette does his usual shtick (Heading West is the one where he performs magic tricks, and he is seconded by vinegar-faced Maudie Prickett in Stranger), and the main villain appears law abiding on the surface. For Houck, these Durangos were meant to keep her in front of the camera – just like the studio's many crime series entries – while she waited for that big break that would bring stardom. It was not to be, alas. Originally a chorus girl, Idaho-born, Los Angeles reared Doris Houck, who sometimes billed herself as Doris Colleen (notably in the Stooges' public domain classic Brideless Groom where she sticks Shemp Howard's head in a vise), danced at New York's Riviera Club and was featured with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra at Nils T. Granlund's famed Los Angeles landmark The Florentine Gardens. That led to her stint with Columbia but little else. Off screen, she dabbled in writing (one gossip column tidbit had her authoring a tome entitled “Analysis of the Hairy Ape,” presumably referring to Eugene O'Neill's classic play), and was at one time rumored to be close to marrying handsome cartoonist Peter Arno, but that union proved short-lived. Of longer duration, but a lot messier, was a marriage to Los Angeles Vice Squad Officer Fred Otash which ended in an especially acrimonious divorce in 1952. (The 220 pound Otash, who became a private detective and later hooked up with Swedish bombshell Anita Ekberg, once testified before a state Senate investigation committee that “Communists and sex deviates [should] be ousted from the movie industry, that male movie stars stay with their wives and female movie stars stay with their husbands.” Bitter much?) Doris Houck disappeared from the news following her divorce from Otash.
Ms. Houck's husband, Fred Otash, has turned up in a couple of very interesting publications recently, including a reprint of James Spada's biography of Peter Lawford, "Peter Lawford: The Man Who Kept The Secretts" (New York, NY: Author & Co., 2011), where Spada has Lawford contacting Otash on the morning of Marilyn Monroe's death. Otash at the time resided at 1342 N. Laurel in West Hollywood, a home that still exists. The former vice squad detective is also mentioned -- at length in fact -- in Samuel Bernstein's treatise on sleaze-merchant Confidential Magazine, "Mr. Confidential: The Man, His Magazine & The Movieland Massacre That Changed Hollywood Forever" (Los Angeles, CA: Walford Press, 2011). The juxtaposition of the two books is quite revealing: Otash clearly worked both side of the street, so to speak, like providing material for Bob Harrison's Confidentialrag, mostly outing gay Hollywood, while at the same time aiding Lawford keep whatever secrets the death of Monroe may or may not have revealed.