A Dying Man, Scared of the Dark: John Wayne in THE SHOOTIST (Paramount 1976)

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THE SHOOTIST is John Wayne’s valedictory statement, a final love letter to his many fans. The Duke was now 69 years old and not in the best of health. He’d had a cancerous lung removed back in 1964, and though the cancer was in remission, Wayne must’ve knew his days were numbered when he made this film. Three years later, he died from cancer of the stomach, intestines, and spine. There were worries about his ability to make this movie, but Wayne loved the script and was determined to do it. The result is an elegy to not only the aging actor, but to the Western genre as a whole.

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The movie begins with footage of older Wayne westerns (EL DORADO, HONDO, RED RIVER, RIO BRAVO) narrated by Ron Howard (Gillom). “His name was J.B. Books…he wasn’t an outlaw. Fact is, for a while he was a lawman…He had a credo that went, ‘I won’t be wronged. I won’t be insulted. I won’t be laid a hand on. I don’t do these things to other people, and I require the same from them’ “.  Books arrives in Carson City, Nevada in the year 1901, a thriving city in a changing world. He’s come to visit his old friend Doc Hostetler (James Stewart), and get a second opinion. Hostetler examines him and gives Books the bad news, ” You have a cancer…advanced”. The doctor can’t do anything to help his friend, except give him Laudanum for the pain. Describing how the end will come, Hostetler says, “I don’t think the death I just described to you is the one I would choose”.

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Books decides to spend his last days in Carson City, taking a room with widowed Bond Rogers (Lauren Bacall) and her restless son Gillom. The young man idolizes Books when he finds out his identity, treating him like rock-star royalty. Others in the town aren’t so welcoming, including Marshal Thibido (Harry Morgan) and Mike Sweeney (Richard Boone), an ornery cuss whose brother was killed by Books. News of the celebrity in Carson City spreads, with faro dealer Jack Pulford (Hugh O’Brien) and local tough guy Jay Cobb (Bill McKinney) wondering how they would fare against the dying gunfighter.

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Others seek to cash in on Books’ pending demise. Newspaperman Dobkins (Rick Lenz) wants to write up a series of articles on Books’ colorful career, only to receive a gun in the mouth and a boot in the ass for his nerve. Former flame Serepta (Sheree North) wants to marry him and trade in on his name.  Undertaker Hezekiah Beckum (John Carradine in a wonderful cameo) offers a free funeral, hoping to put Books’ body on display, but ends up paying Books. The doomed Books, who only seeks to die with dignity and honor, devises a plan once the pain becomes too great to bear. He has Gillom invite Pulford, Sweeney, and Cobb to join him Monday morning for a last stand that’s tensely staged… and comes with a surprise twist.

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Don Siegel  directed THE SHOOTIST with his usual style, handling the well-stocked cast of veterans. Bacall, Boone, Carradine, and Stewart had all costarred with The Duke in films past, making this a sort of last round-up for them all. Bacall is particularly good as the widow Rogers, who despises Books at first until she learns he’s dying of cancer (Bacall’s first husband, the great Humphrey Bogart, died of the disease). Then her Christian charity shines through, and though she disapproves of his former lifestyle, the two gain a mutual respect. Ron Howard has what’s probably his best film role here, a long way from Opie in THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW and Richie in HAPPY DAYS. The superstar director of today gives a terrific performance, having honed his acting chops by working with so many legendary actors and directors in his career. Gillom is a young wastrel with no solid direction in his life until he meets Books. His involvement in the final shootout scene evokes strong emotions in anyone who watches this film.

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The screenplay by Miles Hood Swarthout and Scott Hale is full of memorable dialogue. I love the use of language in this film, it has a poetic quality to it that separates it from the usual Wayne Western. The actors all deliver their lines with conviction, and it’s no surprise considering that marvelous cast. Besides those I’ve mentioned, Scatman Crothers also shines in his small role. But it’s John Wayne who dominates the show. The Duke may move a little slower, and his voice may be ravaged by time and illness, but he’s still The Duke. The cancer that eventually killed him hadn’t been detected yet, but somewhere in the back of his mind I’m sure Wayne knew THE SHOOTIST would be his last cinematic stand. His final public appearance was at the 1979 Academy Awards:

(One trivia note: Charles G. Martin plays the man who guns down Wayne. The Duke also bit the dust onscreen in only six other films. Can you name them?)

How The West Was Fun: SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF! (United Artists 1969)

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SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF! is played strictly for laughs. It’s broad performances and slapstick situations won’t strain your brain, but will give you an hour and a half’s worth of escapist fun. Easy going James Garner has the lead, with solid comic support from Joan Hackett, Walter Brennan, Harry Morgan, and Jack Elam. Director Burt Kennedy made quite a few of these, and this is probably the best of the bunch.

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While burying an itinerant drifter, the townsfolk of Calendar, Colorado discover a mother lode of gold. The subsequent boom turns Calendar into a lawless, rowdy town that can’t keep a sheriff alive long enough to tame it. The town elders also can’t get their gold through without paying a 20% tribute to the mean Danby clan. Enter our hero Jason McCullough (Garner), who applies for the sheriff’s position “on a temporary basis…I’m on my way to Australia”.  Jason is a crack shot and fast on the draw, but prefers to use his brains over his gun. He locks up Danby brother Joe, much to the consternation of Old Man Danby.

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Mayor Perkins gives Jason free room and board to stay in town and clean it up. He’s got a klutzy daughter named Prudy, who first discovered the gold, and keeps getting into embarrassing predicaments whenever Jason’s around. Jason hires “town character” Jake as his deputy after Jake backs him up in a saloon showdown. After several attempts at killing Jason fail, the Danbys gather all their relatives to descend on Calendar. Mayor Perkins and the townsfolk cower in fear, and Jason has only Jake and Prudy to rely on in the frenetic final confrontation with the Danby clan.

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Credit director Burt Kennedy for his homages to the films of John Ford in this. Of course there’s triple Oscar winner Walter Brennan, lampooning his role of Old Man Clanton in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE. There’s another nod to CLEMENTINE with Garner sitting on the porch, leaning his chair back and trying to put his feet up a’la Henry Fonda. Ford regular Danny Borzage has a bit as the accordionist at the drifter’s gravesite. And that climactic gunfight has echoes of the OK Corral, only with a much more humorous outcome.

Burt Kennedy got his start writing for John Wayne and Randolph Scott before penning and directing the 1965 hit THE ROUNDERS, starring Fonda and Glenn Ford. Some of Kennedy’s other sagebrush spoofs were THE GOOD GUYS AND THE BAD GUYS (1969, with Robert Mitchum), DIRTY DINGUS MAGEE (1970, featuring Frank Sinatra), and the TV movies ONCE UPON A TRAIN and WHERE THE HELL’S THAT GOLD? (both 1988) starring singer Willie Nelson. There was also a sequel of sorts, 1971’s SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL GUNFIGHTER, reuniting Garner and Elam. He also made some serious Westerns, like WELCOME TO HARD TIMES (1967), HANNIE CALDER (with Raquel Welch, 1971), and Wayne’s THE TRAIN ROBBERS (1973). Kennedy wrote the screenplay for Clint Eastwood’s WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART (1990), and directed his last film SUBURBAN COMMANDO (with Hulk Hogan) in 1991.

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Besides Garner doing his laid-back thing, the rest of the cast also gets into the silly spirit. Joan Hackett was an underrated actress who never really got her due, adept at both comedy and drama. Some of her films were THE GROUP (1966), WILL PENNY (1968), and her Oscar nominated role in Neil Simon’s ONLY WHEN I LAUGH (1981). Harry Morgan brings his comic expertise as Mayor Perkins, while vets Henry Jones, Walter Burke, and Willis Bouchey are the other town fathers. Brennan is fine as always, and a young Bruce Dern shines as his deadly but dumb son Joe.

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The standout here is Jack Elam. After many years of  playing gunfighters, gangsters, and goons, Burt Kennedy gave Elam a chance to show his comic side, and the old rascal nails it. His Jake is a simple-minded, reluctant deputy, and the perfect comic foil for sharp sheriff Garner. Elam even gets to break the Fourth Wall at film’s end to deliver the movie’s punchline. Elam went on to be a go-to comic sidekick for the rest of his career, passing away in 2003.

SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF! doesn’t blaze any new Western trails and probably won’t make anyone’s Must See lists. It will make you laugh, though, and it’s fun to watch genre vets like Garner, Brennan, Morgan, and especially Jack Elam go through their comic paces. Recommended for one of those days when you need a good chuckle to chase the blues way.

Christmas Confection: HOLIDAY AFFAIR (RKO 1949)

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On September 1, 1948, movie star Robert Mitchum went to a house party with an acquaintance and two young women. The quartet was raided by LA police and arrested for possession of marijuana.  Local cops were out to clean up the Hollywood “dope scene”, and Mitchum was used to set an example. Sentenced to 60 days in jail, Mitchum and his bosses at RKO figured his career was over. But during all this hubbub, the studio reluctantly released RACHEL AND THE STRANGER, a Western with Loretta Young and William Holden that Mitchum finished before the bust. It was a hit with audiences, who cheered at the sight of the laconic pothead on-screen! Mitchum did his time, then went on to make THE BIG STEAL with his Out of the Past costar Jane Greer. It looked like all was forgiven, but RKO was still unsure, and tried to soften Mitchum’s image by casting him in the Christmas themed romantic comedy HOLIDAY AFFAIR.

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This lightweight holiday tale has Mitchum playing Steve Mason, an idealistic dreamer who we find selling toy trains at a large department store in New York City. Pretty young Connie Ennis (a 22-year-old Janet Leigh) pushes her way through the crowd to buy a train set for her son. She’s really a “comparison shopper” working for a rival store, and Steve sees through her right off the bat. She brings the train set home, to return tomorrow, but her precocious 6-year-old son Timmy (Gordon Gebert) peeks inside the box and thinks it’s for him. When she returns it the next day, Steve is supposed to turn her in for being a spy. But after they talk, he has a change of heart and lets her go, causing him to get fired.

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Connie’s a war widow dating lawyer Carl Davis (Wendell Corey), a practical guy who wants to settle down. Timmy’s not too crazy about Carl, at one point kicking him in the shins and saying, “You’re not my father!” Carl and Steve become rivals for Connie’s affections, and complications arise. But it’s all pretty harmless, and you know from the get-go Janet’s going to wind up choosing Mitchum over boring Wendell Corey, who’s got all the charisma of a doormat. HOLIDAY AFFAIR will make you smile, but it’s not laugh-out-loud funny. There’s some good moments, and it’s a rare chance to see Mitchum do romantic comedy, but this isn’t a can’t miss film. In fact, it didn’t do well at the box office,  and RKO put Bob back in noir territory with his next film, Where Danger Lives. It’s only when HOLIDAY AFFAIR began showing on television that it developed a devoted following.

Young Janet Leigh is lovely to look at, and showed glimpses of better things to come. I never cared that much for Wendell Corey, who seemed stiff and boring in most of the roles I’ve seen him in. He’s stiff and boring here, too. But little Gordon Gebert is swell as Timmy, a natural child actor who actually acts like a child. Harry Morgan (billed as Henry) has a small part as an exasperated cop, and gives the scene he’s in a boost. Director Don Hartman was primarily a comedy writer, with credits including some Hope and Crosby “Road” trips and two Danny Kaye vehicles (WONDER MAN, THE KID FROM BROOKLYN). Screenwriter Isobel Lennert was responsible for films like ANCHORS AWEIGH and EAST SIDE WEST SIDE. After being sidetracked by the House Un-American Activities committee (where she named names), Miss Lennert continued her career with PLEASE DON’T EAT THE DAISIES and FUNNY GIRL.

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Robert Mitchum went on to a long and successful film career after his marijuana arrest and incarceration. Photos from the pot trial show Mitchum with co-defendant Lila Leeds, a 20-year-old bit player married to Lana Turner’s ex. Miss Leeds also did sixty days in stir, and upon release she chose to star in something called I SHOULDA SAID NO! (aka WILD WEED), an exploitation movie along the lines of REEFER MADNESS. The film, and the pot bust publicity, did nothing to further her acting career, and she tumbled into a cycle of more arrests, heroin addiction, and prostitution. Lila Leeds eventually found religion, and volunteered at local missions in LA. She died in obscurity in 1999.

Merry Christmas, everybody!!

 

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