Yukon Gold: THE SPOILERS (Universal 1942)

What’s this?? A “Northern” Western set in 1900 Alaska Gold Rush territory starring my two favorite cowboys, John Wayne and Randolph Scott ? With the ever-enticing Marlene Dietrich thrown in as a sexy saloon owner? Count me in! THE SPOILERS is a big, brawling, boisterous film loaded with romance, action, and, most importantly,  a sense of humor. It’s the kind of Hollywood entertainment epic that, as they say, “just don’t make ’em like that anymore”. I’ve never been quite sure who “they” are, but in regards to THE SPOILERS, they’re right – and more’s the pity!

Rex Beach’s popular 1906 novel had been filmed three times before (1914, 1923, 1930), and would be one more time after (in 1955), but with The Duke, Rugged Randy, and La Dietrich on board, this has got to be the best of the bunch. Even though audiences were more than familiar with the story, which would be used time and time again unofficially (that is, stolen!) in lesser Klondike films, THE SPOILERS was a big hit, raking in over a million dollars at the box office (a hefty sum at the time!).

Prospector’s claims are being jumped by unscrupulous officials, chief among them new Gold Commissioner Alexander McNamara (Scott). Big Roy Glennister (Wayne), co-owner of the Midas Mining Company, returns from Seattle, smitten with pretty young Helen Chester, niece of new law’n’order Judge Stillman, who’s secretly in cahoots with McNamara. Cherry Malotte (Marlene), operator of The Northern Saloon and Roy’s gal pal, is jealous of the attention her man’s giving Helen, and flirts with McNamara. The two crooked officials make an attempt to wrest The Midas from Roy and his partner, crusty old Al Dextry, through legal chicanery, resulting in Roy jailed on a trumped-up murder charge. Cherry discovers the truth and assists in freeing Roy before the crooks can set him up to be killed, and the entire thing winds up with a knock-down, drag-out, four-minute saloon brawl (yes, I timed it!) between Wayne and Scott (and their stunt doubles Eddie Parker, Allen Pomeroy, Gil Perkins, and Jack Parker, to give credit where credit is due!).

Duke only gets third billing behind Marlene and Scott, even though he’s really the star of the show, mainly because he was on loan from Republic Pictures, while Randolph was under a Universal contract, and Marlene was… well, Marlene! Wayne and Dietrich were in the midst of a torrid affair begun while shooting 1940’s SEVEN SINNERS together, and you can practically feel the heat between them rising from the screen, giving the sexual innuendos they throw at each other (courtesy of screenwriters Lawrence Hazard and Tom Reed) a little extra zip! When Duke tells Marlene (use your inner John Wayne voice here), “I imagine that dress is supposed to have a chilling effect. Well, if it is, it isn’t working – cause you’d look good to me, baby, in a burlap bag”, his eyes tell you he means it!

Randolph Scott turns his syrupy Southern charm to The Dark Side, and makes for an oily villain. Scott had played shady characters before, but none as the out-and-out bad guy of the piece, and wouldn’t again until his last film, 1962’s RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY. Another actor usually on the right side of the law, Samuel S. Hinds , is the crooked judge. Harry Carey (Sr) plays Wayne’s partner Dextry, mentoring the younger man onscreen much as he did off it. Margaret Lindsay gets the thankless part of Helen – sorry, but she’s no match for Marlene! Former D.W. Griffith star Richard Barthelmess does good work as saloon card dealer The Bronco Kid, who carries a torch for his boss Cherry.

Three Cowboys: Harry Carey, John Wayne, William Farnum

There are other interesting casting choices in THE SPOILERS. William Farnum , who starred in the 1914 original, is on hand as a lawyer on the side of the good guys. Hollywood’s perennial souse Jack Norton plays the town drunk, and gets to perform some heroics for a change! Robert W. Service, a real life poet who wrote about the Yukon Gold Rush days, has a brief bit as (what else?) a poet (you can read his most famous, “The Shooting of Dan McGrew”, by clicking on this link ). George Cleveland and Russell Simpson are a pair of grizzled old miners, and oh-so-many other Familiar Faces appear: Irving Bacon, Marietta Carey (as Cherry’s maid Idabelle), Willie Fung , weaselly Charles Halton, Bud Osbourne – happy hunting!


Director Ray Enright keeps the pace brisk and the comedy breezy, like when Idabelle runs into Roy wearing blackface – wait, I didn’t tell you The Duke appears in blackface? Don’t worry, it’s all part of the plot, as is when he comes out wearing one of Marlene’s feathery nightgowns. Wait, I didn’t tell you he appears in semi-drag, too? Well, if your appetite isn’t whetted enough by now to watch THE SPOILERS, then I guess there’s no hope for you. If it is, strap yourselves in, because you’re about to go on one hell of an entertaining ride!

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Wild Wyler West: Gary Cooper is THE WESTERNER (United Artists 1940)

It’s hard to believe that, except for two films in which he cameoed, I haven’t covered any movies starring my namesake, Gary Cooper . Nor have I written anything about any of major Hollywood director William Wyler’s works. So let’s kill two birds with one stone and take a look at 1940’s THE WESTERNER, one of the best Westerns ever. It’s a highly fictionalized account of the life and times of Judge Roy Bean (1825-1903), played by Walter Brennan in his third and final Oscar-winning role, with Cooper as a drifter at odds with “The Law West of the Pecos”.

That “law” is Bean, who sides with the open range cattlemen against the homesteaders who’ve moved into the area. Into the town of Vinagaroon rides Coop as Cole Harden on his way to California. Unfortunately for Cole, he rides in on a horse stolen from one of Bean’s cronies, and is put on trial in Bean’s saloon-cum-courthouse. The sly Cole is saved from the hangman’s noose thanks to some quick thinking, gloming onto Bean’s obsession with singer/actress Lili Langtry. Cole claims to not only have met “The Jersey Lily” but possess a lock of her hair, and smooth talks his way into Bean’s good graces.

The homesteaders are disheartened by the cattlemen’s constant harassment, and begin leaving West Texas in droves. Cole stops by one of the ranches to thank Jane Ellen Matthews, who tried to stand up for him at his trial, and finds out some of the sodbusters have ridden into Vingaroon to lynch Bean. Cole rides ahead to avert catastrophe, and an uneasy truce between cowboys and farmers is formed. That truce doesn’t last long, and Cole is forced to choose sides between Jane Ellen and the sodbusters and Bean’s men, while the judge awaits the coming of Lily Langtry herself to nearby Fort Davis…

The interplay between Cooper and Brennan is a master class in screen acting. The two actors made six features together, and were friends offscreen as well. Whether feeling each other out while guzzling some ‘Rub of the Brush’ (so strong it eats right through Bean’s wooden bar!), Cole’s fanciful tales of Lily Langtry captivating the enamored Bean, or their final showdown (which heavily influenced the finale of Don Siegel’s THE SHOOTIST ), these two are perfection. The taciturn, boyish Cooper is a movie star like they don’t make anymore, and Brennan matches him scene for scene.

Wyler came up through the ranks making silent Westerns at Universal, and his resume reads like an All-Time Great Movie list: DEAD END, JEZEBEL, WUTHERING HEIGHTS, THE LETTER, MRS. MINIVER, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, DETECTIVE STORY, ROMAN HOLIDAY, BEN-HUR. He directed fourteen actors to Oscar victories, which must be a record! Wyler and his frequent collaborator, cinematographer Gregg Toland , create a deep-focus Western world, and though the screenplay by Jo Swerling and Niven Busch may be historically inaccurate, the film’s look certainly isn’t. There’s an ambitious, exciting scene where the cattlemen burn out the homesteaders, and the “special photographic effects” are credited to another ace cinematographer, Archie Stout .

Doris Davenport plays Cooper’s love interest Jane Ellen – wait, who? Miss Davenport was a former model who was a contender for the Scarlett O’Hara role in GONE WITH THE WIND (wasn’t everybody?), and has but nine credits on IMDb. Apparently, she quit acting after 1940’s BEHIND THE NEWS, but her performance here shows she could’ve been a star given half the chance (at least in my opinion). A very young Forrest Tucker makes his debut as a farmer, while veteran Fred Stone appears in his last as Jane Ellen’s father. Others in the cast are a young Dana Andrews , Stanley Andrews, Trevor Bardette, Lilian Bond (as Lily Langrty) , Charles Halton, Paul Hurst, Lucien Littlefield, Tom Tyler , and Chill Wills.

THE WESTERNER is full of so many great bits it would take me all day to point them all out. So I’ll just say, putting all those bits together adds up to a classic Western that’s hard to resist for film buffs. The performances, the dialog, the camerawork, direction – what are you waiting for, go watch it now!

 

 

Cowboy Christmas: TRAIL OF ROBIN HOOD (Republic 1950)

There’s no sign of Robin Hood to be found in the Roy Rogers vehicle TRAIL OF ROBIN HOOD. However, the film has gained a cult following among sagebrush aficionados for the plethora of cowboy stars gathered together in this extremely likable little ‘B’ Western directed by Republic Pictures workhorse William Whitney , with plenty of songs by Roy and the Riders of the Purple Sage to go along with that trademark Republic fightin’ and a-ridin’ action (thanks, stuntmen Art Dillon, Ken Terrell, and Joe Yrigoyen!).

Some rustlers have been stealing Christmas trees from ‘retired actor’ Jack Holt’s tree farm. The benign Jack raises his trees to sell at cost to parents of poor kids, but avaricious J.C. Aldridge (Emory Parnell ) and his foreman Mitch McCall (former Our Gang member Clifton Young ) want to put an end to it and corner the Christmas tree market! U.S. Forestry Agent Roy is out to stop the varmints, along with his goofy sidekick Splinters McGonigle (Gordon Jones )  and his kid sister, whose name, appropriately enough, is Sis (Carol Nugent)!  Aldridge’s purdy but haughty daughter Toby (Penny Edwards) is sent to get Jack to sell out, and when he refuses, the baddies use every dirty trick in the book (including murder!) to put him out of business!

Toby has a change of heart when she learns McCall has kidnapped her pappy  after the villains resort to arson, causing Jack to be overcome by smoke inhalation. Things look bleak, as the tree wranglers are scared to bring the firs to market, so Sis gets the idea to call in the troops: Western icons Rex Allen, George Cheseboro, Crash Corrigan , William Farnum, Monte Hale, Tom Keene , Allan “Rocky” Lane, Kermit Maynard, and Tom Tyler ! They rush the trees by wagon over a burning bridge (with special effects courtesy of Republic’s Lydecker Brothers), the baddies are defeated, and Christmas for them thar poor kids is saved!

Anyone familiar with these Roy Rogers Westerns knows about the weird mix of Old West cowboys in modern times, and this one is no exception. Roy’s overgrown Boy Scout character is pure corn, but he was a big box office draw for the kiddies, and the film sure looks good in Trucolor (Technicolor’s poor cousin). Jack Holt, older and balding, is still as square-jawed as ever, and it’s a treat to see him along with all the other former cowboy stars under one Western sky. They don’t actually get to do much besides a little shooting and riding, but that’s okay, their mere presence helps up grade the material. Despite all these cowboy heroes appearing together, it’s Roy’s palomino Trigger, “The Smartest Horse in the West” , who receives second billing (his German Shepherd Bullet is featured, too)!

Roy gets to sing a few songs with Foy Willing and the Riders of the Purple Sage (“Home Town Jubilee”, “Get a Christmas Tree for Johnny”, “Every Day is Christmas in the West”), and there’s a cute subplot involving Sis and her pet turkey Sir Galahad, who Splinters envisions as a tasty Christmas dinner! Nobody did these things better than Republic, and it’s all harmless fun from the waning days of the Saturday matinee Westerns. The glimpse of cowboy heroes past makes it more than worth your time, and while it’s no classic, it sho’ nuff is a lot of fun!

Merry Christmas from Roy and Trigger!

 

No Surprises Here: GUN FURY (Columbia 1953)

I watched GUN FURY expecting a surprise. What I got instead was a routine Western, not bad for its type, bolstered by a better-than-average cast, solid direction from veteran Raoul Walsh , and some lavish Technicolor location footage from Sedona, AZ. But I kept waiting and waiting for that “surprise” that never came. What am I talking about? Read on and find out, buckeroos!

Ben Warren, a peaceful Civil War vet, meets his intended bride Jennifer Ballard at the stagecoach station. The two lovebirds intend to travel to the next stop and get hitched. Also onboard the stage is mean desperado Frank Slayton, an “unreconstructed Southerner” feared across the territory, and his partner-in-crime Jess Burgess. Frank’s gang, disguised as Cavalry soldiers, lie in wait and rob the stage of it’s shipment of gold, stealing the loot killing everyone except Jennifer, who Frank has designs on and kidnaps.

But wait! Ben’s still alive, and he saddles up to search for his missing fiancé. Jess, who disapproves of Frank’s lecherous lust for Jennifer, is tied up to a fencepost by the gang and left for the buzzards. Along comes Ben, who frees Jess from his bondage, and the pair form an alliance to find Frank and his gang, Ben to rescue his true love, and Jess to settle the score with Frank…

Yup, it’s a chase Western, with the novelty of being a 3D release, which must’ve looked cool at the time, but falls flat when watching on the TV screen. The saving grace here is the impressive cast, with young Rock Hudson starring as the intense, earnest Ben, on a quest to save his ladylove. She’s played by Donna Reed , who makes for a pretty woman-in-peril (and would win the Oscar that same year for FROM HERE TO ETERNITY). Phil Carey gives a good performance as bad hombre Frank, and Leo Gordon does a fine job as Jess. Lee Marvin and Neville Brand play members of Frank’s gang, and Roberta Haynes tries hard as Frank’s Mexican squeeze Estella.

Director Walsh was responsible for some macho screen classics (WHAT PRICE GLORY, THE ROARING TWENTIES , HIGH SIERRA, WHITE HEAT ), but unfortunately GUN FURY isn’t one of them. Like I said, it’s okay for what it is, it’s just not up to Walsh’s usual high standards. The screenplay was co-written by novelist Irving Wallace, whose books THE CHAPMAN REPORT, THE MAN, and THE SEVEN MINUTES were made into films, and Roy Huggins, who later created such TV hits as MAVERICK, 77 SUNSET STRIP, THE FUGITIVE, and THE ROCKFORD FILES. The Sedonia scenery is gorgeous to look at in Technicolor, and Mischa Bakalieinikoff’s music is appropriately rousing.

I recorded GUN FURY off The Sony Channel a while back because under the “Cast and Crew” listing on my DVR was a name towards the bottom that made me want to see the film. It simply stated “James Cagney as The Villain”! Though I couldn’t find any other information, I figured the great Cagney might have done a cameo as a favor to his friend Walsh. So I sat and waited… and waited… and waited, right up until the very end. Cagney was nowhere to be found!! At least, I couldn’t find him! Why he was listed in the first place, I have no idea. So if you choose to watch GUN FURY, don’t expect any “surprise” appearance from Jimmy. Just make yourself some popcorn, sit back, and enjoy an average Western with an above-average cast.

Nothin’ Dirty Goin’ On: THE CHEYENNE SOCIAL CLUB (National General 1970)

THE CHEYENNE SOCIAL CLUB isn’t a great movie, but it’s not a bad one, either. It couldn’t be; not with all that talent in front of and behind the cameras. You’ve got two legendary leads, James Stewart and Henry Fonda , Oscar winner Shirley Jones, Gene Kelly in the director’s chair, and John Wayne’s favorite cinematographer William Clothier . Still, the film, while amusing, should’ve been so much better.

The story’s fairy simple: two old Texas cowhands, John O’Hanlon (Stewart) and Harley Sullivan (Fonda) are plying their trade when John receives a letter. Seems John’s brother has died and left him an inheritance – The Cheyenne Social Club in Cheyenne, Wyoming. John and his old pal head north, and it turns out The Cheyenne Social Club is a cathouse, run by Madame Jenny (Jones), and she and the girls warmly greet the perplexed duo. Uptight John, who’s always wanted to be a “man of property”, decides he’s going to fire the girls and open a boarding house, but Harley doesn’t seem to mind the set-up, sampling all the fine young wares!

The girls are upset when John gives them the news, and the townsfolk are up in arms. There’s an obligatory barroom brawl which lands John in the pokey, and he then discovers if he gets rid of the girls, he loses the property, due to an agreement his brother, “the late DJ”, made with the railroad. Jenny receives a brutal beating from irate customer Corey Bannister, and John straps on his shootin’ iron (even though he’s “no hand with a gun”) and goes after him. Thanks to Harley’s inveterate habit of cracking nuts, John wins the gunfight, only to have the entire Bannister clan descend on Cheyenne for the inevitable shootout scene….

Critics of the time called the film “smutty”, but it’s pretty harmless when seen today. There’s a lot of chuckles to be had, but like I said it’s not the great movie it could’ve been. The problem as I see it is two-fold, the first being Gene Kelly’s meandering direction. Kelly is my favorite among Golden Age dancers (sorry, Fred Astaire), and co-directed one of my all-time favorite films, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN. But his career as a solo director was hit-or-miss, and the pacing in this Western comedy is off by a country mile. Someone like Burt Kennedy would’ve had a ball with this material, but Kelly is out of his element. Then again, James Lee Barrett’s script doesn’t help matters. It’s far too talky and lacks characterization. Only the three main stars get anything resembling distinctive, motivated parts; everyone else is a cardboard cut-out.

Fonda and Stewart, of course, can do no wrong. The two actors had been friends since their salad days at the University Playhouse on Cape Cod, and became lifelong friends despite the differences in their personalities. Both men became major stars, and appeared together in three films: the 1948 anthology ON OUR MERRY WAY, the Western drama FIRECREEK (1968), and this one (both were in the all-star HOW THE WEST WAS WON, but appeared separately). Jimmy’s still being Jimmy here, but the usually taciturn Fonda’s Harley is a garrulous, randy old coot, and gives the funnier performance. Stewart and Fonda never let their political differences get in the way of their friendship (something sorely lacking today), and even got to satirize it in this exchange:

John: “Solid, respectable, Republican business. That’s what makes America, Harley.”

Harley: “Our folks were Democrats, John.”

John: “Yeah, and where did it get you. A lifetime on the range and sweat in the summer and freezin’ in the winter, and sleeping on the ground and fightin’ wolves and the rattlesnakes… oh no, Harley. There can’t be a finer calling in the world than being a Republican businessman.”

Harley: “I don’t like to dispute you, John, but didn’t you always vote Democratic?”

John (in that trademark Jimmy Stewart hemming and hawing): “Wal, wal, that was when I didn’t know any better.”

And later in the exchange – Harley: “John, you don’t mind if I still vote Democratic, do you?”

John: “Just so long as you’re not seen with me when you do it. Be bad for business.”

Shirley Jones won the Oscar for playing a prostitute in ELMER GANTRY, and she’s a bawdy good time here. Her Jenny is the only one of the girls – Sue Ane Langdon , Jackie Joseph, Elaine Devry, Jackie Russell, Sharon DeBord, all capable actresses – with a fully fleshed out character. Jean Willes is entertaining as Alice, a saloon girl with her sights set on Harley, but again she’s just a stock character, as are the other Familiar Faces here: John Dehner, Dabbs Greer, Myron Healy, Arch Johnson, Robert Middleton, J. Pat O’Malley, Charles Tyner, Jason Wingreen. I’ll usually watch THE CHEYENNE SOCIAL CLUB whenever it’s aired (and have many times), but I can’t help but wonder how much better it could’ve been with tighter direction and a richer script. James Stewart and Henry Fonda together on film for the last time is what makes it worthwhile for me.

Hollywood History Lesson: Errol Flynn in SANTA FE TRAIL (Warner Brothers 1940)

A movie lover could get pretty spoiled living on a steady diet of Errol Flynn/Warner Brothers epics from the 30’s and 40’s. You’ve got Flynn, the personification of the classic “movie star”, performing heroic feats and romancing his leading lady (usually Olivia de Havilland ). A historical setting   serving as the backdrop to move the story along, expertly directed by Michael Curtiz or Raoul Walsh, a cast full of Hollywood’s greatest character actors, a majestic music score (mainly Max Steiner , but there were others equally as talented), action, drama, humor, conflict… what more could a film fan ask for?

SANTA FE TRAIL has all this and more, an energetic pre-Civil War tale guaranteed to hold your interest for its 110 minutes no matter which side of the Mason-Dixon Line you live on. It’s characters are drawn from history, but historic accuracy be damned… these films were all about entertainment! Flynn plays West Point Cadet Jeb Stuart, and Ronald Reagan is his best bud George Custer, who, along with Phil Sheridan, James Longstreet, and George Hood (all later to become opposing generals), get into an altercation with Cadet Rader, a staunch supporter of violent abolitionist John Brown. Rader is given a dishonorable discharge for spreading subversive ideas, and Stuart and Custer are sent upon graduation (by West Point Commandant Robert E. Lee, no less!) to “the most dangerous branch of the United States Army”, Fort Leavenworth in the bloody Kansas Territory, a hotbed of violence and unrest fomented by Brown’s misguided reign of terror.

Both Stuart and Custer become enamored of fellow grad Bob Holliday’s sister Kit… and since Flynn plays Stuart and Kit is Olivia de Havilland, guess who wins? Papa Holliday is trying to get his railroad across Kansas to the Santa Fe Trail (hence the film’s title), but is having difficulties due to all the blood-soaked raids going on. Stuart and Custer are assigned to guard a shipment of Bibles, not knowing the crates are filled with rifles heading to Brown’s encampment (yep, the old “guns hidden in crates marked Bibles” routine!). When the weapons are accidentally discovered, Brown’s disciples reveal themselves… including Stuart’s old nemesis Rader!

Stuart goes undercover to find John Brown’s latest hideout, but he’s betrayed by the U.S. Army brand on his horse. Captured by Brown and his men, doomed to hang at dawn, our man Jeb attempts escape, becoming trapped in a burning barn until Custer and the cavalry ride to the rescue! With John Brown seemingly vanquished and out of the territory, Stuart and Custer are reassigned to Washington, not knowing Brown is in the vicinity, and plotting his infamous raid on Harper’s Ferry…

Errol Flynn doesn’t exactly sound like a Southerner, but he more than makes up for it with his courtly manners and dashing heroics. He could turn on the charm at the drop of a hat, and was at the peak of his popularity while making SANTA FE TRAIL. Released right after Christmas 1940, the film was a big success at the box office, and the team of Flynn and Olivia de Havilland would hit it big again the next year in THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON, with Errol portraying Custer this time around at the Battle of Little Big Horn. That one would be their last screen pairing, and while Olivia went on to receive two Oscars, Errol continued doing what he did best, charming the pants off movie lovers onscreen… and young girls offscreen! (As for poor Ronald Reagan, once again he loses out to Flynn in the romance department. Oh well, he wound up doing okay for himself a few decades later!)

Raymond Massey  plays John Brown with religious fervor and a mad gleam in his eyes. Brown’s anti-slavery cause was just, though his methods touting violent revolution were extreme to say the least. Massey’s Brown feels he’s guided by God’s hand, and the actor portrays him as an unsympathetic zealot with a Messianic complex. The film itself is ambiguous about the question of slavery,  with both sides represented by Stuart and Custer, making it more an issue of State’s Rights vs Federal Power than a moral one, in order to appeal to the audiences both North and South. It’s a tricky balancing act, but somehow screenwriter Robert Buckner (who wrote five other Flynn vehicles) makes it work.

Van Heflin  is equally villainous as Rader, Brown’s military adviser, who later has a change of heart when Brown reneges on his payment. Alan Hale Sr. and Guinn “Big Boy” Williams , Flynn’s offscreen drinking buddies, are on hand for comic relief. The cast is huge, and among them you’ll find Alan Baxter , Ward Bond , David Bruce , Hobart Cavanaugh, Victor Kilian, John Litel, William Lundigan, Charles Middleton, Henry O’Neill, Moroni Olsen, Gene Reynolds, Frank Wilcox, and many others (if you’re really sharp, you’ll recognize Grace Stafford, the future voice of Woody Woodpecker!).

Curtiz delivers another gem in the director’s chair, guiding his large cast through their paces and proving once again he was a cinematic genius. His staging of the bloody battle at Harper’s Ferry is  a master class in how to film  an action scene, in collaboration with DP Sol Polito, editor George Amy, and special effects man Byron Haskin, with Max Steiner’s music roaring in the background. SANTA FE TRAIL may not be historically accurate, but it’s a stunning example of the Hollywood studio system at its apex, with talent before and behind the camera the likes of which they just don’t make anymore.

 

Dead Man Walking: Clint Eastwood in HANG ‘EM HIGH (United Artists 1968)

Clint Eastwood  returned to America after his amazing success in Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name Trilogy as a star to be reckoned with, forming his own production company (Malpaso) and filming HANG ‘EM HIGH, a Spaghetti-flavored Western in theme and construction. Clint was taking no chances here, surrounding himself with an all-star cast of character actors and a director he trusted, and the result was box office gold, cementing his status as a top star.

Clint plays ex-lawman Jed Cooper, who we meet driving a herd of cattle he just purchased (reminding us of his days on TV’s RAWHIDE). A posse of nine men ride up on him and accuse him of rustling and murder, appointing themselves judge, jury, and executioner, and hang him. He’s left for dead, until Marshal Dave Bliss comes along and cuts him down, taking Jed prisoner and transporting him to nearby Ft. Grant. Evidence is brought before Judge Fenton, who  clears him and offers Jed a proposition – work for him as a U.S. Marshal in the vast, untamed Oklahoma Territory, and legally bring his attempted killers to justice while helping Fenton clean up the territory. Jed accepts, and our revenge tale begins in earnest…

This sets up a series of vignettes that try to capture that Spaghetti flavor. Director Ted Post, who guided Clint through 24 episodes of RAWHIDE, was a competent craftsman who unfortunately lacked the visual flair of a Leone or a Corbucci, though he does give it a game try. The closest he comes is the scene where Clint crosses the desert plain with would-be killer Bruce Dern  (at his crazy best). Some of the camera angles and close-ups remind one of Leone, but Post just wasn’t up to the task. He would direct Eastwood again in MAGNUM FORCE, and among his other features are BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES, the cult horror film THE BABY, and the Chuck Norris vehicle GOOD GUYS WEAR BLACK. Post’s episodic TV credits include GUNSMOKE, WAGON TRAIN, THE TWILIGHT ZONE, and 179 episodes of the prime-time soap PEYTON PLACE.

That all-star cast I mentioned is headed by Pat Hingle as Judge Fenton, the only law in lawless Oklahoma Territory, representing the establishment. Fenton is a politician through and through, and is constantly at odds with Jed, who’s not too happy about being a pawn to get his justice served. Ed Begley is Captain Wilson, upstanding citizen and leader of the lynch mob that tried to hang Jed. Western veteran Bob Steele plays one of the lynchers who turns himself in; his scene with Eastwood in prison is a symbolic passing of the cowboy torch. Other stars appear briefly: Bert Freed, Jonathan Goldsmith (the original “Dos Equis” guy!), Arlene Golonka , Roy Glenn, Alan Hale Jr. Dennis Hopper (as a madman called The Prophet), Ben Johnson (Marshal Bliss), Charles McGraw , Joseph Sirola, Russell Thorson, and Ruth White. A special shoutout goes to stage actor Michael O’Sullivan as the condemned alcoholic murderer Duffy.

Inger Stevens plays Rachel Warren, who is granted permission to observe all prisoners brought in to try to identify the men who raped her and killed her husband. Like Jed Cooper, Rachel is a damaged soul, and the two are destined to get together. Stevens, too, was a damaged soul; a Swedish immigrant whose mother abandoned the family, she ran away at age 16 and hooked up with the Midwest burlesque circuit. By 18, Inger was working as a chorus girl in New York, and began learning at the Actors’ Studio under Lee Strasberg. She gained notice in 1957’s MAN ON FIRE opposite Bing Crosby, and won a Golden Globe for her role in the TV sitcom version of THE FARMER’S DAUGHTER (1963-66), co-starring William Windom. Her other films include THE BUCCANEER, THE WORLD THE FLESH AND THE DEVIL, MADIGAN, and FIVE CARD STUD. Stevens was secretly married to black actor Ike Jones in 1961, a move that would’ve been career suicide in those pre-Civil Rights days. In 1970, she was found on the floor of her Hollywood home, overdosed on barbiturates. Inger Stevens was just 35 years old at the time of her death.

HANG ‘EM HIGH was just the beginning for Clint Eastwood. He has gone on to become one of our greatest filmmakers, a true renaissance man of movies: acting, directing, producing, even writing some of his own music scores. And the Spaghetti Western genre he helped usher in would make its mark on Hollywood Westerns for years to come.