Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 13: ALL-STAR WESTERN ROUNDUP!

Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game is tomorrow night, and in honor of that All-American pastime I’ve corralled an All-Star lineup of (mostly) All-American Westerns filled of blazing six-guns, galloping horses, barroom brawls, sexy saloon gals, and wide-open spaces. Hot damn, that DVR sure enough gets filled up mighty fast! Saddle up and enjoy these capsule looks at one of my favorite genres, the Western:

THE CARIBOO TRAIL (20th Century-Fox, 1950; D: Edwin L. Marin) – Randolph Scott   rides tall in the saddle driving his cattle to Vancouver gold rush country in this exciting oater filled with stampedes, Indian attacks, bad hombres, shoot outs, and fisticuffs. There’s a pretty saloon keeper (Karin Booth), a mean town boss (Victor Jory), and Scott’s bitter ex-pardner (Bill Williams), who had to have his arm amputated along the trail. Scenic Colorado stands in for Canada’s Great Northwest, shot in gorgeous Cinecolor by DP Fred Jackman Jr. Look for young Jim Davis and Dale Robertson in supporting parts. The movie doesn’t break any new ground, but for genre fans it’s a real treat! Fun Fact: The always delightful Gabby Hayes plays loveable old windbag Grizzly in his final feature film appearance.

FACE OF A FUGITIVE (Columbia 1959; D: Paul Wendkos) – Escaped outlaw on the run Fred MacMurray settles in the town of Tangle Blue, where he gets tangled up with pretty shopkeeper Dorothy Green, her sheriff brother Lin McCarthy, and evil landowner Alan Baxter. Routine ‘B’ Western elevated somewhat by MacMurray’s low-key performance, Wendkos’ taut direction, and Wilfred M. Cline’s moody cinematography. Fred is always watchable. Fun Fact: Young James Coburn   makes his second film appearance as one of Baxter’s hired hands.

ARIZONA RAIDERS (Columbia 1965; D: William Whitney) – Above-average Audie Murphy   ‘B’ outing, with the star and his pal Ben Cooper a pair of ex-Quantrill Raiders sprung from prison by the newly appointed head of the Arizona Rangers to hunt down some remaining guerillas terrorizing the territory. Some well-staged action by director Whitney, a veteran of Republic Pictures serials and sagebrush sagas. It’s fun to see another serial & sagebrush vet, the great Buster Crabbe as Ranger Captain Andrews, and the supporting cast features slimy baddies Michael Dante and George Keymas, Gloria Talbott as an Indian maiden, and Ray Stricklyn as Audie’s kid bro. I could’ve done without the opening exposition by Booth Colman as a newspaper editor talking directly to the camera; otherwise this is highly recommended! Fun Fact #1: Unintentionally funny line – Stricklyn (while lying mortally wounded): “Clint, it’s… it’s getting kinda dark” Murphy: “Well, it’s a little cloudy, Danny”! Fun Fact #2: Miss Talbott is well-known to horror genre buffs for her roles in DAUGHTER OF DR. JEKYLL, THE CYCLOPS, and I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE!

RIDE BEYOND VENGEANCE (Columbia 1966; D; Bernard McEveety) – An interesting if flawed attempt at a psychological Western, aided by a solid supporting cast. A modern-day bartender in Cold Iron, Texas (Arthur O’Connell) relates to a census taker (James MacArthur) the legend of “The Day of the Reprisals”, a fateful night in town history. Flashbacks take us to 1884, when buffalo hunter Jonas Trapp (Chuck Connors), returning home to his wife (Kathryn Hays) after 11 years, gets bushwhackers by a trio of nasties (Michael Rennie, Claude Akins, Bill Bixby), who brand him with a red-hot iron and steal his $17,000 savings. Now Jonas goes out for revenge to reclaim both his money and his wife. The mainly backlot sets and a sometimes weak script keep this strictly ‘B’ level, but a game attempt nonetheless. The impressive cast features Buddy Baer, Joan Blondell , Jamie Farr, Paul Fix (Chuck’s RIFLEMAN costar), Frank Gorshin, Gloria Grahame , Robert Q. Lewis, Gary Merrill, and Ruth Warrick. Folk singer Glenn Yarbrough (“Baby, the Rain Must Fall”) sings the title tune. Not a classic, but definitely worth a look. Fun Fact: Production company Goodson/Todman were better known for their myriad TV game shows – BEAT THE CLOCK, FAMILY FEUD, MATCH GAME, PRICE IS RIGHT, WHAT’S MY LINE, et al.

CHISUM (Warner Bros 1970; D: Andrew V. McLaglen) – Cattle baron John Wayne takes on rival town boss Forrest Tucker during the famous Lincoln County Cattle War, with William Bonney, aka Billy the Kid (Geoffey Deuel) thrown in for good measure. This will seem like a rehash to fans of Duke’s older, better movies, with so many Familiar Faces from previous vehicles ( John Agar , Christopher George, Richard Jaeckel Hank Worden , etc etc) the set must’ve seemed like old home week. Ben Johnson adds some spice as Wayne’s mumbling, grumbling sidekick Pepper, William Clothier’s shots of scenic Durango, Mexico are breathtaking, and the finale (featuring a cattle stampede through town and a knock-down, drag-out brawl between Wayne and Tucker) is fairly exciting. Not one of his best outings, but hey… it’s a John Wayne Movie! That alone makes it worth watching! Fun Fact: Country star Merle Haggard   sings the tune “Turn Me Around”, and actor William Conrad does a hip-hop rap over the title credits. Just kidding about that last tidbit, I wanted to make sure you were still paying attention!

       

ADIOS, SABATA (United Artists 1971; D: Gianfranco Parolini) –  Lesser but highly enjoyable entry in the Spaghetti Western canon. This is the second of Parolini’s Sabata Trilogy, with black-clad Yul Brynner taking over for Lee Van Cleef in the title role (Van Cleef returned for the final film). “Soldier of Fortune” Sabata teams with frenemy Ballantine and a colorful band of Mexican revolutionaries to steal Emperor Maximilian’s gold and defeat the sadistic Colonel Skimmel. The bare-bones plot is just an excuse for Parolini (billed in the U.S. print as “Frank Kramer”) to assault our senses with an almost non-stop barrage of violent set pieces, well shot by DP Sandro Mancori. Yul gets off some snappy one-liners, and his sawed-off repeating rifle is way cool, as is Bruno Nicolai’s ersatz Ennio Morricone score. Kick back, pop open an adult beverage, and enjoy the action! Fun Fact: Minor late 50s/early 60s teen idol Dean Reed, who embraced leftist politics and became more successful as an ex-pat entertainer, plays the part of Ballantine.      

Ride along with other “Cleaning Out the DVR” posts:

Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 11: Five from the Fifties

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The 1950’s were a time of change in movies. Television was providing stiff competition, and studios were willing to do anything to fend it off. The bigger budgeted movies tried 3D, Cinerama, wide-screen, and other optical tricks, while smaller films chose to cover unusual subject matter. The following five films represent a cross-section of nifty 50’s cinema:

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BORDERLINE (Universal-International 1950; D: William A. Seiter)

BORDERLINE is a strange film, straddling the borderline (sorry) between romantic comedy and crime drama, resulting in a rather mediocre movie. Claire Trevor plays an LAPD cop assigned to Customs who’s sent to Mexico to get the goods on drug smuggler Pete Ritchey (Raymond Burr , being his usual malevolent self). She’s tripped up by Ritchey’s rival Johnny Macklin (Fred MacMurray , channeling his inner Walter Neff), and taken along as he tries to get the dope over the border. What she doesn’t know is he’s also an agent, and thinks she’s a smuggler! The movie usually gets shoehorned into the noir category, but besides the drug smuggling angle, it’s just an average ‘B’ flick. Fun Fact: Claire’s husband Milton Bren was the film’s producer.

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THE NARROW MARGIN (RKO 1952; D: Richard Fleischer)

Highly influential ‘B’ noir about a tough cop escorting a mobster’s widow from Chicago to Los Angeles via train to testify on corruption, with hired killers onboard out to stop her by any means possible. Gruff-voiced Charles McGraw and sexpot Marie Windsor deliver Earl Fenton’s hard-boiled dialog with gusto; the film was Oscar-nominated for Best Story, but lost to THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH (they were robbed!). Director Richard Fleischer and DP George Diskant create a textbook example on how to make a tense, exciting movie for under $250,000, with a big plot twist I won’t spoil for those of you who haven’t seen this gem. The ambient sounds of the train travelling take the place of the usual music score, making the violence even more ultra-realistic. A must-see! Fun Fact: Marie Windsor was once a gag writer for Jack Benny. When the comedian finally met her in the flesh, he was stunned by her good looks and helped her secure a Hollywood contract.

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THE BIGAMIST (The Filmakers 1953; D: Ida Lupino)

San Francisco couple Edmond O’Brien and Joan Fontaine want to adopt a child, but when the child welfare investigator (Edmund Gwenn) looks into the case, he discovers O’Brien has another wife (Ida Lupino) in LA. O’Brien gives a sympathetic performance as the man leading a double life, and Lupino handles the sensational material with depth and sincerity. Watch for the scene where O’Brien meets Lupino on a Hollywood tour bus for glimpses of the homes of stars Barbara Stanwyck, James Stewart, Jack Benny, and Gwenn himself! A quiet but powerful film that’s worth your time. Fun Fact: Producer/screenwriter Collier Young was married to Fontaine at the time; before that, he had been the husband of director/star Lupino! Ah, Hollywood!

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THE WILD ONE (Columbia 1953; D: Laszlo Benedict)

The granddaddy of all biker flicks! Marlon Brando is leather clad Johnny, leader of the Black Rebels MC, who terrorize a small California town. Brando’s existential, iconic performance dominates the film, but Mary Murphy is equally good as Kathie, the girl who falls for him. Lee Marvin also deserves a shout-out as Chino, leader of rival gang The Beetles. The scene where Murphy is chased down by the bikers, saved by Johnny, still retains its power. Jerry Paris, Alvy Moore , and that great oddball actor Timothy Carey are among the cyclists; Jay C. Flippen, Ray Teal, and Will Wright represent some of the “straight’ citizens. A bona fide cinema classic, not to be missed! Fun Fact: Brando’s Johnny was the basis for Harvey Lembeck’s goofball Eric Von Zipper character in all those “Beach Party ” movies.

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ROCK ROCK ROCK (DCA 1956; D: Will Price)

13 year old Tuesday Weld makes her film debut as a teenybopper trying to raise money to buy a strapless evening dress for the prom, but you can forget about the dumb plot and enjoy a veritable Rock’n’Roll/Doo Wop Hall of Fame lineup: LaVerne Baker, Chuck Berry (“You Can’t Catch Me”), Johnny Burnett Trio, The Flamingos, Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers (“I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent”), The Moonglows, Big Al Sears, and others, hosted by pioneering rock DJ Alan Freed. Tuesday’s vocals are dubbed by Connie Francis, and co-star Teddy Randazzo was a minor singing star who later wrote the hits “Goin’ Out of My Head” and “Hurts So Bad”. Lots of energetic teenage dancing; just sit back and have a foot-wiggling good time! Fun Fact: This was the first film for the production team Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky, better known for their Amicus horror anthologies.

Hillbilly Deluxe: MURDER, HE SAYS (Paramount 1945)

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George Marshall has long been a favorite director of mine. Though he excelled in all genres (particularly Westerns), it’s his comedies that first caught my attention. Marshall guided W.C. Fields through his first for Universal, YOU CAN’T CHEAT AN HONEST MAN (with radio foils Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy), did some of Bob Hope’s best films (THE GHOST BREAKERS, MONSIER BEAUCAIRE, FANCY PANTS), and directed MY FRIEND IRMA, the debut of Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis, later teaming with the pair for SCARED STIFF. He’s also responsible for the classic comic Western DESTRY RIDES AGAIN with James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich, and the remake with Audie Murphy. But his wackiest comedy is undoubtably the off-the-wall MURDER, HE SAYS.

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This black comedy gem stars the underrated Fred MacMurray as Pete Marshall, pollster for the Trotter company (“Like the Gallup Poll, but not as fast”), sent to tiny rural Potowanamie to find missing coworker Hector P. Smedley. He rides his bicycle to the home of the Fleagle family, a murderous gang of hillbilly outlaws led by the whip-cracking Maw Fleagle Smithers Johnson. Falling into a hole, he’s taken to the dilapidated old house, meeting Maw’s homicidal twin dimwits Mert and Bert, Maw’s latest husband Mr.  Johnson, and crazy daughter Elany. Gun-toting Grandmaw Fleagle is dying (the brood has poisoned her, causing her to glow in the dark!), and she’s harboring a secret- bank robber son Ollie Fleagle stashed $70 Grand somewhere, and the only clue is a nonsense song that only his daughter Bonnie will recognize.

Grandmaw kicks off, leaving the lyrics to the tune on a sampler she gives to Pete. Then brazen Bonnie shows up, having escaped from prison, clutching a cigar in her teeth and gun in her hand. Only it’s not Bonnie, it’s Claire Matthews, whose father was falsely imprisoned in the robbery and wants to find the loot to clear him. The Fleagle brood attempt to kill Bonnie/Claire with poisoned gravy on her grits, winding up with Mr. Johnson’s untimely demise instead. Soon the REAL Bonnie shows up and the game’s afoot…

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This premise sets up a heapin’ helping of slapstick gags and goofiness, with MacMurray showing off his comic skills to good advantage. He mugs, double-takes, pratfalls, and tosses off one-liners with the best of them (there’s even a quick quip referencing his noted saxophone playing!). The scene where he tricks the doltish twins by pretending to converse with the ghost of Hector Smedley is a comic highlight, as is the riotous ending in the hay barn. If you’re only familiar with Fred MacMurray for his dramatic roles, gentle Disney comedies, or the long-running MY THREE SONS, watch him put his clowning hat on, he’s a delight!

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Equally delightful is Marjorie Main as Maw, a warm-up for her Ma Kettle role, only this hillbilly matriarch is deadlier than a rattlesnake. Whether killing a fly on the wall with her whip or slyly commenting on her home décor (cattle skulls, quipping to MacMurray, “Pretty, ain’t they?”), Main broadly plays this grotesque caricature of motherhood to the hilt. Peter Whitney  in a dual role as twins Mert and Bert made a living off playing no-account white trash types. Helen Walker (NIGHTMARE ALLEY ) acts tough impersonating killer Bonnie, vulnerable as Claire, and is more than a match for MacMurray. That perennial slimeball Porter Hall shines as Mr. Johnson, Jean Heather (who costarred with MacMurray in DOUBLE INDEMNITY) is loony Elany, and Barbara Pepper (who’d later play Arnold’s “mom” Mrs. Ziffel on GREEN ACRES) is the real escaped con Bonnie.

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MURDER, HE SAYS benefits from Marshall’s fast-paced direction, it’s 91 minutes flying by faster than the train to Potowanamie. It’s full of physical schtick, in-jokes, and demented black comedy that classic film lover’s will eat up like Maw’s grits… just make sure you pass on the gravy!

 

Let’s Get Buzzed With THE SWARM (Warner Brothers, 1978)

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The 1970s were the decade of the all-star disaster movie, and nobody made ’em like Irwin Allen. The Master of Disaster opened the floodgates for this genre with 1972’s THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, following quickly with the red-hot 1974 mega-hit THE TOWERING INFERNO. Soon Hollywood was unleashing one disaster film after another: EARTHQUAKE, AVALANCHE, SKYJACKED, and so on. But Allen was a sci-fi guy at heart, having made his mark with TV shows like LOST IN SPACE, VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA, THE TIME TUNNEL, and LAND OF THE GIANTS. Combining the two seemed natural for Allen, so together with screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, they concocted THE SWARM.

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A missile base has been mysteriously attacked, killing the communications crew. General Slater (Richard Widmark) rides in on a chopper, leading the troops. Brad Crane (Michael Caine), a Ph D entomologist (studier of bugs), is on base for reasons unknown, so the General holds him prisoner. A “moving black mass” on the radar screen reveals a giant cloud of “millions of bees”, that attacks some military helicopters, which crash and burn (lots of crashing and burning in this one!) Meanwhile, the sleepy little town of Marysville is holding their annual flower festival, where we’re introduced to a love triangle between two elderly gentlemen (Ben Johnson and Fred MacMurray) and a spinster schoolteacher (Olivia de Haviland,,,,hey, what’s SHE doing here!!)

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The President places Crane in control of the bee problem, to the chagrin of General Slater. Crane assembles a crew of experts including immunologist Dr. Krimm (Henry Fonda) and Dr. Kildare, I mean Dr. Hubbard (Richard Chamberlain). There’s a military doctor, Captain Anderson (Katherine Ross), on board, too, and of course she and Crane get all googly-eyed and lovey-dovey during the movie’s course. Slater assigns his assistant (Bradford Dillman) to keep an eye on the scientist. The rest of THE SWARM is a bunch of set-pieces for the action. Killer bees attack picnickers! Killer bees attack Marysville! Killer bees attack a train! Killer bees attack a nuclear facility!! The military attack the killer bees, burning down half of Houston in the process! Killer bees retailiate and attack the military! Finally (thank God!), Crane comes up with the answer to stop the bees from attacking by luring them to sea via sonic waves (shades of INVISIBLE INVADERS!!), where the military blows the swarm to kingdom come with missiles!!

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Allen directed THE SWARM himself, and he pretty much lets the actors do what they want, which is to overact and collect their paychecks. Those slo-mo shots of bee attacks are ludicrous, not frightening at all. Stirling Silliphant’s script is paint-by-numbers hokum, a far cry from his Oscar-winning IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, not to mention his classic TV series ROUTE 66. Besides those I cited earlier, we get what amounts to cameo roles from Patty Duke, Slim Pickens, Lee Grant, Jose Ferrer, Cameron Mitchell, and Donald ‘Red’ Barry. Sadly, this was Fred MacMurray’s last film appearance.

THE SWARM came at the tail end of the disaster cycle. Allen made a couple more (BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, WHEN TIME RAN OUT) before returning to television. The all-star disaster epic was spoofed by 1980’s AIRPLANE!, and is revived every now and then (ARMAGGEDON, of instance). I guess if your interested in playing Spot the Star, you might enjoy this film. Otherwise, I suggest you find another way to get your buzz on than watching THE SWARM.

An Oddball Bit of Americana: WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE? (1945)

fred     I’d never heard of this musical fantasy until running  across it while scrolling through channels looking for movies to review. The premise caught my attention and I decided to DVR it and take a look. WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE? is definitely dated, with it’s World War 2 slang and constant references to Brooklyn, but is charming enough to merit at least a look.

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