Redemption Song: John Wayne in ANGEL AND THE BADMAN (Republic 1947)

John Wayne  starred in some of the screen’s most iconic Westerns, but I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for ANGEL AND THE BADMAN. Perhaps it’s because the film fell into Public Domain in the mid-70’s, and I’ve had the opportunity to view it so many times. Yet I wouldn’t keep coming back to it if it weren’t a really good movie. It’s Wayne’s first film as producer, and though it has plenty of that trademark John Wayne action and humor, it’s a bit different from your typical ‘Big Duke’ film.

Wayne plays Quirt Evans, an outlaw on the run. The wounded Quirt encounters a Quaker family, the Worths, who take him to file a land claim before the big guy finally passes out. They bring him back to their family farm to nurse him back to health, and pretty daughter Penny, unschooled in the ways of the world, falls in love with the mysterious stranger. A romance blooms just as Quirt’s arch-rival Laredo Stevens and his gang ride in. Quirt’s gun has been emptied by the peace-loving Father Worth, but he manages to bluff his way through the encounter in an effectively dark scene.

Also arriving on the scene is the ominous presence of Marshal ‘Wistful’ McClintock, a rifle-toting lawman who’d like nothing better than to put a rope around Quirt’s neck. When Penny and her family take Quirt to meeting, the love among the Quakers gives him cold feet, and he rides off with his old pal Randy to bushwhack Laredo’s crew, who’re plotting to rustle a cattle drive. Quirt relapses to his old ways of wine, women, and song before having a change of heart and returning to Penny. But while the lovers are out picking blackberries, they’re ambushed by Laredo and company, causing their wagon to go over a cliff and grievously injuring Penny. Quirt has to once again strap on his guns, and goes out seeking revenge…

Wayne’s Quirt Evans is not a “good guy”; he’s a killer and a thief who becomes a changed man by the love of Penny and her family. The theme here is spiritual vs secular, with love conquering all in the end, and not in a corny way. Writer/director Grant doesn’t hit the viewer over the head with a Bible to get his point across; he simply and effectively uses the “show, don’t tell” method. Grant was a former Chicago newspaper man who came to Hollywood in the 30’s and worked for MGM. After WWII, he began a long and fruitful collaboration with Wayne, working on ten of Duke’s films, including SANDS OF IWO JIMA , HONDO, THE ALAMO, and MCLINTOCK!. Grant, like most of Duke’s cronies, was a heavy drinker, who fortunately got sober through AA, and became actively involved in the program’s Hollywood chapter.

Not so fortunate was the beautiful but tragic Gail Russell, who sweetly plays the role of Penny. Gail was a Paramount contract player dubbed “The Hedy Lamarr of Santa Monica” by studio publicists. She was also what was then called “painfully shy”, suffering from an acute anxiety disorder. Someone suggested to the young Gail she take a few drinks before going on set to calm her nerves, and soon her alcoholism was off and running. She made a splash in the films THE UNINVITED and OUR HEARTS WERE YOUNG AND GAY before co-starring with Duke in ANGEL AND THE BADMAN; the scenes between the two show an obvious fondness for each other, and rumors of an affair abounded, which the ever-gallant Wayne always denied. They also appear together in WAKE OF THE RED WITCH, but a series of drunk driving charges curtailed her career. Producer Wayne gave her the female lead in Budd Boetticher’s 1956 SEVEN MEN FROM NOW opposite Randolph Scott . She continued to act in low-budget films and television, though by this time her disease was far too powerful for someone of her sensitive nature. In 1961, her body was discovered in her small studio apartment, dead of heart and liver failure, empty bottles strewn all over the place. Gail Russell was just 36 years old.

Duke’s pal Bruce Cabot has the part of rival outlaw Laredo, and mentor Harry Carey Sr. turns up as the marshal. Other Wild West characters dotting the landscape include Symona Boniface , Joan Burton, Lee Dixon, Kenne Duncan, Louis Faust, Paul Fix Olin Howland (in a great comic relief part), Brandon Hurst, Rex Lease, Tom Powers, Marshall Reed, Irene Rich, and Hank Worden , as well as the beautiful vistas of Monument Valley. The rousing cattle rustling scene and obligatory barroom brawl are well staged by second unit director Yakima Canutt and his ace stunt crew, which included Richard Farnsworth and Ben Johnson .

ANGEL AND THE BADMAN may not be the Greatest Western Ever Made, but it’s as entertaining as all get-out, and as I stated holds a special place in my heart. Those who still believe John Wayne only played one type of character should watch this one, and the chemistry between Duke and the tragic Miss Russell is on a par with the great screen teams of the past. It’s a Western for people who don’t even like Westerns, filled with romance, action, good humor, and, most importantly, redemption. You really don’t want to miss this one, and if, like me, you’ve seen it before… see it again!

ANGEL AND THE BADMAN is now streaming on The Film Detective! 

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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!

 

Special Veterans Day Edition: John Wayne in SANDS OF IWO JIMA (Republic 1949)

Critics of John Wayne gave him a lot of flak for not serving his country during World War II, especially in the turbulent 1960’s, labeling him a phony patriot and celluloid warrior. The truth is Wayne DID try to get into the war, but was stymied in his attempts on two fronts: Republic Studios boss Herbert Yates, who filed for deferments so he wouldn’t lose his cash cow, and Wayne’s first wife Josie, who failed to forward letters from OSS Chief Wild Bill Donovan’s office. Be that as it may, The Duke was no phony, and did what he could on the home front for the war effort.

SANDS OF IWO JIMA was made four years after the war as a tribute to the brave souls of the United States Marine Corps who fought against the Japanese in the South Pacific. Wayne plays the tough top kick Sgt. John Stryker, charged with molding a batch of new recruits into a fighting Marine Rifle Squad. Among them are Conway (John Agar ), the resentful son of Stryker’s former C.O.; Thomas (Forrest Tucker ), an ex-sergeant with a grudge against Stryker; Regazzi (Wally Cassell ), the obligatory hustler from Brooklyn; and the battling Flynn brothers (Richard Jaeckel , Bill Murphy).

Stryker’s hard-ass attitude causes many to dislike him, but the Marine lifer cares about the men’s safety and wants them all to come back alive. When the men are granted a brief leave, Conway meets and falls in love with Allison (Adele Mara ) at a dance, and marries her. But the honeymoon’s a short one as the squad is shipped to Tarawa, where a fierce battle is being fought. The island is taken, but at a deadly cost, as Stryker’s battlefield heroics saves the lives of many (but not all) of his squad, and Thomas’s slacking off to drink coffee gets one killed and another seriously wounded.

When Stryker finds out about Thomas’s lollygagging, they have it out in a knock-down, drag-out brawl that almost gets the sarge locked up, but Thomas turns out to be a stand-up guy, and his remorse is evident. After a brief stopover in Hawaii, their next mission is Iwo Jima, a raging battle that goes on for days and results in many casualties before they finally take Mt. Suribachi. But Stryker doesn’t live to see the iconic flag raising as he’s cut down by a sniper’s bullet. The men gather around their fallen leader, and Thomas reads an unmailed  letter Stryker wrote to his estranged ten year old son (and if your eyes don’t well up with tears during this scene, there’s something wrong with you). The flag is raised, and Conway calls the men back to battle using Stryker’s favorite saying – “Saddle up!”.

Wayne’s Sgt. Stryker is a contradiction in terms. He’s tough and relentless with his men for a reason – he wants to give them the tools to survive the brutal war. He’s a Marine Corps lifer whose dedication to service cost him his wife and child, and that in turn caused him to hit the bottle hard. The scene where, while on leave in Honolulu, he picks up a bar girl (Julie Bishop ) and goes back to her place, only to discover she’s doing what she does to feed her fatherless child, is a tender moment in a tough film, and went a long way to help Wayne receive his first Oscar nomination.

Director Alan Dwan was an old pro who made his first film in 1913. While not a stylist like Wayne directors John Ford or Howard Hawks, Dwan was more than competent in any genre, and his action scenes are second to none. Among his many film credits are the 1922 ROBIN HOOD, REBECCA OF SUNNYBROOK FARM, THE THREE MUSKETEERS (’39 version) , BREWSTER’S MILLIONS, THE WILD BLUE YONDER, CATTLE QUEEN OF MONTANA, and THE RESTLESS BREED. Actual newsreel footage of the battles of Tarawa and Iwo Jima are cut into the film to match DP Reggie Lenning’s studio-lensed shots, and editor Richard Van Enger’s work earned an Academy Award nomination, as did T.A. Carmen and Howard Wilson for their use of sound. Harry Brown’s original story was also nominated; he cowrote the screenplay with Wayne’s personal writer James Edward Grant. Besides those previously mentioned, the cast includes James Brown, Peter Coe , Hal Feiberling (later Baylor), Arthur Franz , Don Haggerty, Martin Milner , William Self, George Tyner, Richard Webb, and Dick Wessel.

Joe Rosenthal’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph

Also in the film are Rene Gagnon, Ira Hayes, and John Bradley, recreating that famous flag raising moment caught on camera for all eternity by photographer Joe Rosenthal. Real-life Marines 1st Lt. Harold Schrier, Col. David M. Shoup, Lt. Col. Henry P. Crowe, and Lt. Gen. Holland Smith make appearances as themselves. These men are the real heroes of the battle of Iwo Jima, and today we honor their memories, as well as the memories of all who fought and died in the service of our country, men like 94-year-old Hershel “Woody” Williams, the last surviving Medal of Honor recipient from that grueling battle of Iwo Jima, which resulted in 26,000 American casualties and 6,800 dead…

Semper fi, Marine!

Wherever you are here in America, take the time to stop and thank a vet for their service. And keep those you love close at heart.

The Human Orchid: Gorgeous George in ALIAS THE CHAMP (Republic 1949)

WWE’s annual “Wrestlemania” extravaganza is scheduled for Sunday night in New Orleans, so I thought I’d dig up something wrestling related for tonight’s post…  

George Raymond Wagner (1915-1963), better known by the nom de guerre Gorgeous George, helped sell more television sets in the late 40’s/early 50’s than anyone this side of ‘Uncle’ Milton Berle . Professional wrestling was on the airwaves six nights a week, on every network, and Americans were clamoring to get a glimpse of the flamboyant antics of the  bleached-blonde, sequin-robed “sissy” who grappled like a wild tiger inside the squared circle. But TV sets were over many an Average Joe’s budget back in those days, so Republic Pictures took the opportunity to strike while the iron was hot, signing “The Toast of the Coast” to star in his own movie, 1949’s ALIAS THE CHAMP.

Gorgeous George in his heyday

The movie itself is nothing to write home about: an East Coast gangster tries to muscle in on the West Coast rasslin’ scene, causing George’s manager to enlist the aid of homicide detective Ron Peterson. Peterson is named the new “czar of wrestling” as Athletic Commissioner, so the shifty racketeer Merlo sics slinky chanteuse Colette on him. George’s rival Slammin’ Sammy Menacker (playing himself) is also sweet on the singer with “ze ‘orribile” French accent, and has a beef with Peterson (“No canary dumps me for a flatfoot!”), as well as George, leading to an epic ring confrontation between the two “grunt-and-groaners”. After one fall apiece, Menacker dies in the ring, and George is arrested for murder! It’s up to Peterson to clear the Gorgeous One and free him to fight another day, plus keep the “Sport of Kings” out of the hands of the unscrupulous syndicate…

Manager Audrey Long holds ‘The Human Orchid’ back from detective Robert Rockwell

The script is below the level of Ed Wood , the direction non-existent, and the budget rock bottom. But wrestling fans won’t care about all that; this is a chance to see the one-and-only “Human Orchid” in action. George was in fact a pretty damn good wrestler, and held his own with the best in the business. The film gives us a complete match with George vs. Bomber Kulkovich (actor/wrestler Henry “Bomber” Kulky), and two-thirds of one against Menacker before the latter’s untimely demise (in the movie, that is! Menacker would go on to become a successful TV wrestling commentator in the Midwest). George’s showmanship can be found in every narcissistic wrestling character to follow, from ‘Nature Boy’ Ric Flair to ‘Ravishing’ Rick Rude, and his trash-talking was an inspiration to a young boxer named Cassius Clay (aka Muhammad Ali), who met the grappler after a 1961 Las Vegas match against  Freddie Blassie.

George battles with Slammin’ Sammy Menacker in “Alias The Champ”

Many other wrestling stars of the era make appearances besides George, Menacker, and Kulky. Legendary ring announcer Jimmy Lennon Sr. and referee Mike Ruby are in the wrestling scenes, as is George’s valet Jackson, doing his own little schtick of carefully folding George’s robe, and spraying the ref’s hands with disinfectant. A scene where a brawl breaks out at the gym between the Gorgeous One and Menacker includes Tor Johnson (billed as “The Super Swedish Angel”), Count Billy Varga, Bobby Managoff, and Sockeye McDonald, battling to the strains of The William Tell Overture!

The Gorgeous One gets groomed as Menacker mans the perfume bottle

Fans of the sport will surely recognize many of the holds and moves still used today: cross-body blocks, arm bars, dropkicks, back elbows, and of course, the dreaded Ref Bump! ALIAS THE CHAMP is a time capsule for wrestling buffs, a look back to when a more grappling-based game was in style, unlike the high-flying acrobatics of today. Unfortunately, it’s not a very good film, so don’t expect CASABLANCA! Clocking in at just over an hour, it’s easy enough on the brain to entertain, and gives you a chance to see the one-and-only Gorgeous George in action. That alone makes it worthwhile for fans of rasslin’ history!

Gorgeous George (1915-1963)

Halloween Havoc!: John Carradine in THE UNEARTHLY (Republic 1957)

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John Carradine hams it up as mad scientist Dr. Charles Conway in THE UNEARTHLY. The actor gave fine performances in first rate productions like THE PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND and THE GRAPES OF WRATH, but by the 1940s,he took anything offered him, mostly B- horror and Western films. One thing you can say about Carradine: he was never boring. The movies might have sucked, but ol’ John put his melodramatic stamp on every one of them.

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Lovely Grace Thomas is brought to Dr. Conway’s sanitarium by her psychiatrist, Dr. Wright. But there’s something fishy going on here! Wright has been bringing patients to Conway so he can conduct his bizarre “glandular experiments”. Conway’s latest victim, Harry Jedloe, has become a zombie-like horror in a catatonic state. The good doctor’s giant servant, Lobo, is another unfortunate result of Conway’s experiments. Lobo is played by Swedish wrestler turned horror icon Tor Johnson. Tor was a 300 lb. bald hulk who couldn’t act, but whose look was perfect for low-grade schlock like this. The character Lobo first appeared in Ed Wood’s BRIDE OF THE MONSTER starring Bela Lugosi. Tor also played Inspector Clay in Wood’s messterpiece, PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE.

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Lobo finds a man sneaking around the grounds, and drags him to Dr. Conway. The man calls himself Mark Houston, but Conway has seen a police bulletin on him. He’s really Frank Scott, wanted for murder. Conway offers Houston sanctuary in exchange for becoming a guinea pig in the doctor’s experiments, which involves planting a “17th gland” in the subject, giving him eternal life and youth. Next day we meet the other patients. There’s beautiful Natalie and anxiety-ridden Danny. There’s also Conway’s lab assistant Sharon, who’s jealous of Grace and secretly in love with the doctor. After dinner, Conway regales the patients with his virtuoso organ playing while Lobo abducts Natalie from her room. The deranged medico does his glandular thing, which once again fails, with horrifying results for poor Natalie.

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Houston warns Grace and Danny they’re in danger, and the trio plots an escape. But Conway catches them and throws the men in a cell with Lobo, while Grace is reserved for the gland transplant. The guys outwit dim-witted Lobo, with Danny giving his life. Houston confronts Conway and reveals he’s not a killer, but an undercover cop! Conway eludes him, only to be caught by the thought-dead Jedloe, who sticks a knife in the madman’s gut. The police arrive, and find a cell filled with more of Conway’s mutated monsters.

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Sounds thrilling, no? It’s really not, except for over-the-top Carradine and fans of Tor Johnson. THE UNEARTHLY was the brainchild of one Brooke L. Peters, aka Boris Petroff. Petroff was an exploitation veteran responsible for silliness like ANATOMY OF A PSYCHO (1961) and SHOTGUN WEDDING (1963), a Hillbilly effort with screenplay by none other than Ed Wood himself. Cowriter of this one Geoffrey Dennis was a pseudonym for John D.F. Black, penner of Blaxploitation flicks SHAFT and TROUBLE MAN. The cast features Allison Hayes (Grace), the one-and-only star of ATTACK OF THE 50-FT WOMAN. Myron Healey (Houston) was a good actor who mostly played Western heavies. Marilyn Buferd’s (Sharon) claim to fame was as Miss America 1946. Arthur Batanides (Danny) was a well-regarded character actor known for his role as Mr. Kirkland in the POLICE ACADEMY series. And Sally Todd (Natalie), besides appearing in FRANKENSTEIN’S DAUGHTER (1959), was Playboy’s Playmate of the Month for February 1957!

THE UNEARTHLY is harmless 50s fun, with Carradine at his overacting best. And now, I’ll let Tor Johnson have the last word: