Big Bad Bob: Robert Mitchum in MAN WITH THE GUN (United Artists 1955)

Rugged Robert Mitchum is pretty much the whole show in MAN WITH THE GUN, a film by first  time director (and Orson Welles protege) Richard Wilson. It seems a strange choice at this juncture of Mitchum’s career. He was just coming off four big films in a row (RIVER OF NO RETURN, TRACK OF THE CAT, NOT AS A STRANGER, NIGHT OF THE HUNTER ), then makes a low budget Western that harkens back to his days making ‘B’ Zane Grey Westerns at RKO. But that was Mitchum; always the maverick who did things his way.

The film itself isn’t bad: Mitchum plays a notorious gunslinger, a “town tamer” hired by Sheridan City to clean things up from the clutches of boss ‘Dade Holman’ (who isn’t seen til the end, but whose influence is everywhere). There’s a subplot with his ex-wife Jan Sterling, now running the dance hall girls at The Palace, and the whereabouts of their five year old daughter. Another subplot involves Karen Sharpe, daughter of town council leader Emile Meyer, catching feelings for Mitchum, to the chagrin of her young, headstrong fiance  John Lupton. But don’t let the soap opera elements fool you: MAN WITH THE GUN is an exercise in violence, with Mitchum a killing machine who has no problem mowing down bad guys. Wilson and N.B. Stone Jr’s script dips briefly into the psychological reasons Mitchum’s character does what he does, making him more than just a one-dimensional gun-for-hire.

Wilson had helped stage plays for Welles’ Mercury Theater of the Air, and worked as Welles’ assistant on CITIZEN KANE and THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, and associate producer on LADY FROM SHANGHAI and MACBETH. He completed the documentary IT’S ALL TRUE: BASED ON AN UNFINISHED FILM BY ORSON WELLES shortly before his death in 1991, and appears posthumously in THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND . While he’s no Welles, Wilson manages to create some moody, almost film noir-ish scenes with the help of ace cinematographer Lee Garmes (the burning down of The Palace in particular is well staged). His directorial filmography is skimpy, but includes some interesting vehicles, like THE BIG BOODLE (starring a dissipated Errol Flynn), AL CAPONE (with Rod Steiger as Scarface), the well-regarded noir PAY OR DIE, and the AIP sex romp THREE IN THE ATTIC.

MAN WITH THE GUN also benefits from a supporting cast of Familiar Faces, including veteran Henry Hull as the ineffective town marshal, Ted de Corsia as the Palace’s manager (complete with bad French accent!), Leo Gordon and Claude Akins as heavies, young Angie Dickinson as a saloon girl, and Jay Adler, Barbara Lawrence (as a dizzy blonde), Burt Mustin, Maidie Norman, Maudie Prickett, Stafford Repp, Buddy Roosevelt, Amzie Strickland, and James Westerfield (who sets up the film’s finale). The film’s no classic, but will satisfy fans of both Westerns in general, and Robert Mitchum in particular. I fall into both categories, so of course I liked it; the rest of you will have to watch and judge for yourselves!

 

 

Ride the Trail to DODGE CITY with Errol & Olivia (Warner Brothers 1939)

1939 has been proclaimed by many to be Hollywood’s Greatest Year. I could make a case for 1947, but I won’t go there… for the moment. Be that as it may, 1939 saw the release of some true classics that have stood the test of time, including in the Western genre: DESTRY RIDES AGAIN, JESSE JAMES, STAGECOACH , and UNION PACIFIC. One that doesn’t get a lot of attention anymore is DODGE CITY, the 5th screen pairing in four years of one of Hollywood’s greatest romantic duos, heroic Errol Flynn and beautiful Olivia de Havilland.

DODGE CITY was Warner Brothers’ biggest hit of 1939, and the 6th highest grossing picture that year, beating out classics like GOODBYE MR. CHIPS, GUNGA DIN, NINOTCHKA, and THE WIZARD OF OZ. It’s a rousing actioner with plenty of romance and humor thrown in, shot in Glorious Technicolor by Warners’ ace director Michael Curtiz . And with a cast that includes Errol, Olivia, Ann Sheridan, Alan Hale, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, and a trio of Hollywood’s orneriest baddies (Bruce Cabot, Victor Jory, Douglas Fowley), it’s hard not to love this exciting sagebrush saga!

The railroad comes to Kansas, bringing progress and prosperity to the frontier town of Dodge City. Handsome Wade Hatton (Errol, of course!) and his pardners Rusty and Tex (Hale, Williams) have cleared the territory of buffalo years before, as well as clearing it of buffalo poachers Jeff Surrett (Cabot) and his henchmen Yancey (Jory) and Munger (Fowley). Now Wade’s leading a combination cattle drive/wagon train from Texas to Dodge, including beautiful young Abbie Irving (Olivia) and her wastrel brother Lee (William Lundigan), whose drunken shooting causes a cattle stampede to trample him, and Abbie blames Wade for it.

Meanwhile, back in Dodge, Surrett and his goons have turned the town into a lawless jungle of “gambling, drinking, and killing”, with his saloon girl Ruby (Sheridan) by his side. Surrett’s reign of terror has made Dodge the most lawless town in the West, until old rival Wade pulls into town, gets himself elected sheriff, and rounds up all the rowdies into the hoosegow. Surrett’s not licked yet though, but when Wade’s young pard Harry (child star Bobs Watson) is caught in a crossfire and dragged by horses to his death, the kid gloves come off…

It all culminates in an exciting climax aboard a burning railway car, and it’s not a spoiler to tell you the good guys emerge victorious, and Errol and Olivia live happily ever after! DODGE CITY serves as the template for many a Western to come, and Curtiz does his usual fine job in handling both the actors and the action. Some of the highlights include Hale swearing off liquor (!!!) and joining a Ladies’ Pure Prairie League meeting while a knock-down, drag-out saloon brawl rages on next door; the shadowy murder of crusading newspaper editor Frank McHugh ; and the aforementioned stampede, horse-dragging, and fiery finale. All of it brilliantly captured in Technicolor by Sol Polito and set to a typically majestic Max Steiner score!

And you want Familiar Faces? DODGE CITY has ’em in droves: classic era actors like Clem Bevans (the town barber), Monte Blue, Ward Bond (who has a good scene as one of Cabot’s henchmen), Wally Brown , George Chesebro, Chester Clute, Joseph Crehan, Thurston Hall (the railroad man), Charles Halton (Surrett’s weaselly lawyer), Gloria Holden (sympathetic as the little boy’s mom), Milton Kibbee, John Litel, Henry O’Neill (Col. Dodge himself!), Renie Riano (leader of the Pure Prairie League!), Russell Simpson, Henry Travers (as Olivia’s uncle), Cora Witherspoon, and others too numerous to mention!

Errol shines in his first of many Westerns to come, Olivia is more than a match for him, Hale and Williams are always welcome, Sheridan gets to belt a couple of tunes, Bobs Watson does his crying thing, the bad guys are totally hissable, and there’s enough material here for at least a half dozen other Westerns! DODGE CITY may not get as much love as other 1939 hits, but it deserves it’s place as one of the all-time greats.

 

West-Teen Angst: GUNMAN’S WALK (Columbia 1958)

GUNMAN’S WALK may not be a classic Western like THE SEARCHERS or HIGH NOON, but it was entertaining enough to hold my interest. That’s due in large part to a change of pace performance by All-American 50’s Teen Idol Tab Hunter as a sort-of Rebel Without A Cause On The Range, an unlikable sociopath with daddy issues, aided and abetted by Phil Karlson’s taut direction and some gorgeous panoramic Cinemascope shots by DP Charles Lawton Jr.

Boisterous cattle rancher Lee Hackett (Van Heflin) is one of those Men-Who-Tamed-The-West types, a widower with two sons. Eldest Ed (Hunter) is a privileged, racist creep who’s obsessed with guns, while younger Davy (played by another 50’s Teen Idol, James Darren) is more reserved. The Hacketts are about to embark on a wild horse round-up, and enlist two half-breed Sioux, the brothers of pretty young Clee (Kathryn Grant,  young wife of crooner Bing Crosby).

Ed kills one of the brothers by riding him off a cliff as they vie to rope a beautiful white mare. The Indians call it murder, but a fellow white man (Ray Teal, later the sheriff on TV’s BONANZA) lies for the kid in order to gain favor with Lee, freeing Ed to carouse and cause trouble with abandon. The man is subsequently given his pick of ten horses, and when he picks that white mare, Ed guns him down in a rage, is arrested again, and escapes after killing a deputy. A posse is formed, including Lee, who must confront his wild child in a final showdown.

Hunter is very good indeed as the spoiled, antisocial Ed, a thoroughly unlikable punk who thinks he can get away with anything he wants… including murder. This was a total departure from Tab’s clean-cut image, and he delivers the acting goods under Karlson’s watchful eye. The underrated director cut his movie teeth directing Charlie Chan and Bowery Boys entries at Monogram Pictures before reinventing himself as one of the premiere makers of films  noir during the 50’s, with titles like SCANDAL SHEET, KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL , 99 RIVER STREET , THE PHENIX CITY STORY, and THE BROTHERS RICO. Karlson was also responsible for one of the biggest hits of the early 70’s, WALKING TALL. I’ve praised Karlson’s work several times on this blog, and if you haven’t rediscovered his films yet, you should!

Equally good is Van Heflin as the hail-fellow-well-met dad, unable to grasp the changing times in the West (then again, Heflin’s always good, isn’t he?). James Darren doesn’t get much to do, but he’s one of my favorites (and for more on Mr. Darren, follow this link to my recent post on FOR THOSE WHO THINK YOUNG ). Kathryn Grant doesn’t get much to do either except look pretty, and the supporting cast includes stalwarts such as Bert Convy (making his film debut) as the doomed half-breed, GET SMART’s Ed Platt (who was also in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE) as a sympathetic Indian agent, Robert F. Simon as the town sheriff, and Mickey Shaughnessy as his deputy.

So while GUNMAN’S WALK may not be a classic in the John Ford mold, it’s worth watching for Hunter’s about-face as a heel, Karlson’s direction, and those beautiful vistas captured by Lawton. Now here’s Tab singing his #1 hit from 1957, “Young Love”. Adios, amigos!:

Off-Brand Spaghetti: MORE DEAD THAN ALIVE (United Artists 1969)

It’s hanging day at a remote Arizona prison outpost, and four men are scheduled to swing from the gallows. After they’re executed, the four pine boxes pop open, and outlaw Luke Santee and his gang commence firing, their six-guns blazing, as they try to free Luke’s baby brother. The escape attempt is an epic fail as ‘Killer’ Cain, a prisoner for 18 years now up for parole, stops the brother from leaving his cell and getting slaughtered, with Luke vowing revenge…

That opening scene, a violent, gory bloodbath, makes one think MORE DEAD THAN ALIVE is going to be a Sergio Leone-inspired American Spaghetti Western. It even stars a former TV Western hero named Clint – big Clint (CHEYENNE) Walker ! But the episodic nature of George Schenck’s script kills that idea, as the film doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. Spaghetti or Traditional Western? Character study, comedy, drama? It plays more like an extended pilot episode for a new TV series, thanks to director Robert Sparr, who worked with Clint on CHEYENNE and whose credits include episodes of VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA, THE RAT PATROL, STAR TREK, and THE WILD WILD WEST.

Clint does get to encounter some colorful characters along the way. Chief among them is Vincent Price , taking a break from his AIP horrors, as carny spieler Dan Ruffalo, who goads Clint into picking up his gun once again and traveling through the Southwest as part of a Wild West sideshow. Price is worth the price (sorry) of admission, though he can’t help looking somewhat demonic after spending all those years with Roger Corman. Anne Francis plays a pretty artist from back East who meets and falls in love with Clint. Another brawny actor, former NFL star and movie Tarzan (and the future Junior Justice of SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT!) Mike Henry is the vengeful Santee. But Paul Hampton, whose claim to fame is as cowriter of the early rock hit “Sea of Heartbreak”, overacts as young psycho sharpshooter Billy, who’s jealous when Clint joins the carny. Some Familiar Faces on the trail include Frank Baxter, Robert Foulk, Emile Meyer , and William Woodson, whose face may not be all that familiar, but you’ll immediately recognize his voice as the narrator of TV’s SUPER FRIENDS and THE ODD COUPLE.

So the question remains, is MORE DEAD THAN ALIVE worth your time? Well, I guess if you’re a Western buff, Clint Walker die-hard, or Vincent Price completist, then you’ll want to view it. I stuck with it til the end (which was quite bizarre and unexpected), but I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it. It’s one of those kinda, sorta in-the-middle movies that are okay for a late-night-can’t-sleep or rainy-day-let’s-clean-out-the-DVR watch. Don’t run away from it, but don’t go out of your way to see it, either.

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! 

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!

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.

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.