Monthly Archives: October 2013

Ride Lonesome

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 18, 2013

Ride Lonesome—Randolph Scott, Pernell Roberts, James Coburn, Lee Van Cleef, Karen Steele, James Best (1959; Dir:  Budd Boetticher)

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One of the last Ranown westerns, and generally thought to be one of the better ones.  (The four best are Seven Men from Now, The Tall T, Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station.)  Randolph Scott is bounty hunter Ben Brigade, who captures stupid young killer Billy John (James Best) in the movie’s opening scene.  This is a manhunt/vengeance western, in which Brigade really wants to use Billy as bait for his older brother Frank (Lee Van Cleef, in his 1950s bad guy mode).  When Brigade was a lawman years ago in Santa Cruz, he had brought Frank to justice only to see him given a light sentence by a cooperative judge.  Frank then captured and hanged Brigade’s wife at the movie’s most potent symbol, the hanging tree.

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The young widow (Karen Steele) is not pleased.

The interesting relationship here is not Brigade’s with Frank or Billy John, or even with young blond widow Mrs. Carrie Lane (Karen Steele).  It’s with Sam Boone (played well by Pernell Roberts, with a very resonant voice), a sometime outlaw and longtime acquaintance of Brigade who wants to go straight and thinks possession of Billy John will enable him to obtain amnesty for his past crimes.  When Brigade doesn’t trust him and won’t give him Billy John, it’s not clear how far Boone will go to get Billy John.  He has some good instincts, but also some not so good.  The trip to Santa Cruz is complicated by hostile Apaches (who have caused Mrs. Lane to be a widow at the start of this movie), and supposed pursuit by Billy John’s brother Frank, who is apparently untroubled by the Indians.

Roberts’ Boone has the quintessential Boetticher-Scott-Kennedy line:  “Some things a man can’t ride around.”   Scott said it in The Tall T.  The line wasn’t exclusive to a Kennedy script; John Wayne had a version of it in Stagecoach and it has been used many times in westerns.

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Partners Sam Boone (Pernell Roberts) and Whit (James Coburn).

There is a final showdown at the hanging tree, and things are sorted out.  Brigade doesn’t end up with the woman in this one (as he also doesn’t in Comanche Station, for example).  The movie’s memorable final image is of Brigade standing in front of the burning hanging tree, as his long-awaited vengeance crumbles to ash. 

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Brigade at Hangtree with Billy John.

A very good western, but not quite as good as Seven Men from Now and The Tall T, which both feature better bad men.  Pernell Roberts isn’t written to be bad enough, the opposite of Claude Akins in Comanche Station, who’s too obviously only bad.  Still, Roberts provides one of the principal dramatic questions:  Will he actually try to kill Brigade?  We think we know what the result will be if he does, and until we find the answer he’s the most talkative character in the movie.  However, if he were more obviously bad, maybe the ending wouldn’t work.

It has kind of a meaningless title with generic western resonance; “The Hanging Tree” or something like that would have been better, although it was used in a Gary Cooper movie about the same time.  Frank needs a little more development, maybe a little more explanation of the hanging.  There are indications he might be interesting if given a little more screen time.  Brigade spends almost all of the movie just being implacably righteous.  This was the first film for a young James Coburn (as none-too-smart Whit, Boone’s sidekick), and it got him cast in Face of a Fugitive and, more significantly for his career, The Magnificent Seven.  Steele is fine, but too 1950s blond and too young-seeming for Scott.  (She’s also in the Boetticher-Scott Westbound and Decision at Sundown, and she eventually married Boetticher.)  She does provide sex appeal and a certain kind of focus for the group; it just isn’t clear where she’s going at the end of the movie.  She’s not as helpless as many women in westerns, though.

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The movie’s most potent symbol burns.

The movie has the typical Boetticher opening shot, of a lone rider emerging from the distance weaving his way through Lone Pine rocks.  There are not a lot of close-ups; mostly the director uses middle-distance shots, with those and other shots using the dramatic scenery.

This has the usual Ranown team:  Boetticher directing, Burt Kennedy writing, Scott starring, Harry Joe Brown producing; cinematography by Charles Lawton, Jr. (not Laughton), and score by the Wisconsin-born composer Heinz Roemheld.  References to the territorial prison at Yuma sound like Santa Cruz (and Rio Bravo) are in Arizona Territory, although they may be in New Mexico or they may be entirely fictional. 

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The Tall T

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 17, 2013

The Tall T—Randolph Scott, Richard Boone, Maureen O’Sullivan, Henry Silva, Skip Homeier, John Hubbard (1957; Dir:  Budd Boetticher)

It is not clear what the title refers to; it is said to relate to Tenvoorde, owner of the 10-4 Ranch.  At one time the working title of the movie was “T for Terror” (see the trailer on the DVD).

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Patrick Brennan (Randolph Scott) is a former ramrod for that large Arizona ranch (the 10-4), now trying to establish his own ranch in the mountains.  While trying to get his former employer to sell him a seed bull for his own stock, he instead loses his horse in a bet.  (We see early on that he’s capable of making bad judgments, although he takes the consequences without complaint.) 

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He hitches a ride on a stagecoach driven by old friend Ed Rintoon (the excellent Arthur Hunnicutt) that is hijacked at a way station by Frank Usher (Richard Boone) and his two low-life confederates Chink and Billy Jack (Henry Silva and Skip Homeier).  They’ve already killed the station manager and his young son and callously thrown their bodies down a well.  They soon do the same to stage driver Rintoon.  Usher and his gang try to carry out a plan to get a ransom for Doretta Mims, the woman traveling on the stage.  Maureen O’Sullivan plays Doretta, the daughter of the owner of the largest copper mine in the territory, who’s just been married that morning to her father’s accountant Willard (John Hubbard)—a scurvy choice for a husband, as he shortly demonstrates.  Brennan plans to get away.  He ultimately does, and apparently ends up with the woman, too. 

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This was shot with a limited cast and budget in Lone Pine, as were the rest of Boetticher’s westerns with Scott.  This has a few edges to it, reminiscent of the Mann westerns of the 1950s.  It is spare movie-making, with the story told in relatively unadorned fashion in less than 80 minutes.  Nevertheless, there’s a lot of interest in the psychology of the characters, as in Seven Men from Now.  Richard Boone is great as a not-entirely-unsympathetic bad guy.  There’s an interesting balance between Scott and Boone; in some ways, Usher sees Brennan as who he himself might have been in other circumstances.  And might still be, only richer with the proceeds of this kidnapping-robbery-murder.

Randolph Scott and Richard Boone are great in this.  Maureen O’Sullivan, known mostly from her appearances as Jane in the Tarzan movies with Johnny Weismuller in the 1930s, is also very good.  Henry Silva and Skip Homeier make reliably nasty henchmen, in different ways.  Silva, with his Jack Palance face, went on to make a modest career of playing bad guys (see The Law and Jake Wade and The Bravados).  Homeier played a series of kids with guns in the early 1950s (The Gunfighter, Dawn at Socorro), but you can’t do that forever.  Sooner or later, you meet somebody faster with a gun, or drift into television parts.  Or both.

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Getting the girl, for once.

Note Henry Silva’s cooperative corpse helping Brennan rope his legs to drag him into the hut.  The plot is similar to Rawhide and Man of the West, with regular people being held prisoner by outlaws.

[Pat, to the freshly widowed and weeping Doretta, after he has killed three murderous kidnappers]:
“Come on, now.  It’s gonna be a nice day.”  [And they walk off arm in arm.  You might think they’d try to get the outlaws’ horses instead of walking all the way to wherever they’re going.]

From a story by Elmore Leonard (“The Captives”); the screenplay is by Burt Kennedy, as was usual with Boetticher’s better Ranown westerns.  As in Delmer Daves’ 3:10 to Yuma (also from an original story by Leonard), some of the early action takes place in the town of Contention.  As with others of the Ranown-Boetticher westerns, this was not generally available until the release of the Boetticher set in 2008, so they have not been seen as widely as they deserve.  This is one of the four best of them.

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Gunfight at the OK Corral

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 16, 2013

Gunfight At The O.K. Corral—Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Rhonda Fleming, Jo Van Fleet, John Ireland, Lyle Bettger, DeForest Kelly, Dennis Hopper, Jack Elam, Earl Holliman, John Hudson, Martin Milner, Lee Van Cleef (1957; Dir:  John Sturges)

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This is the first and bigger-budgeted (and not necessarily the better) of two effective retellings of the story of Wyatt Earp in Tombstone directed by John Sturges.  A decade later he’d do it again with a lower-wattage cast in a version that told the story better.  This version owes something to My Darling Clementine, and it’s not much closer to the facts than John Ford’s classic was.   The gunfight itself is the end, rather than the middle, of the story as shown here. 

Two Hollywood giants of their day, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, play Wyatt and Doc Holliday—the second of seven films the two made together.  Douglas, although an excellent actor here, is obviously from the Victor Mature school of robust tuberculars, very different physically from the spindly homicidal dentist of history.  Rhonda Fleming is lady gambler Laura Denbow, a romantic interest for Earp in Dodge City, although she refuses to follow him to Tombstone and actually isn’t very necessary to the proceedings.  Jo Van Fleet is Kate Fisher, Doc’s not-very-faithful prostitute girlfriend, obviously based on Big Nose Kate Elder.  Dennis Hopper is good as a conflicted young Billy Clanton, but Lyle Bettger isn’t terribly memorable as Ike. 

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Doc (Kirk Douglas) and Wyatt (Burt Lancaster) join forces against Shanghai Pierce and Ringo in Dodge City.

The gunfight, like that in Clementine, is nothing like what actually happened.  In addition to all the choreography, it shows Ike and Finn Clanton getting killed, and ultimately Billy, too.  In fact, Ike ran away from the fight and survived intact, and Finn wasn’t there.  Doc shoots down Ringo (well-played by John Ireland), but Ringo wasn’t there either.  As with Clementine, the action is precipitated by a Clanton killing of the youngest Earp brother, James (Martin Milner).  In fact, James was the oldest Earp brother and was not involved in the events in Arizona at all.  The actual gunfight lasted a mere 30 seconds, resulting in three dead men after an exchange of 34 bullets.  In this adaptation, the movie gunfight took four days to film and produced an on-screen bloodbath that lasted five minutes.  And there’s nothing about the subsequent murder of Morgan or the maiming of Virgil Earp, or Wyatt’s vendetta ride.  Like most versions from this era, the story steers clear of Wyatt’s irregularities in his relationships with women. This movie works by itself as a story, as long as you’re not remembering the real story too much.  This also makes Earp’s role as a Dodge City lawman more important than it was.  As a cinematic matter, a nice touch is the montage of shots of concerned women just before the gunfight:  Ma Clanton, worrying about her errant sons, especially young Billy; Allie Earp, Virgil’s wife; and the faithless Kate Elder. 

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Heading for the corral with a low camera angle–clearly not a social call.

An interesting comparison is with Sturges’ second version, Hour of the Gun, which features James Garner in his grim mode as Wyatt and Jason Robards as a sardonic Doc—not as lustrous a cast, but it works better. Much of this film was shot at the famous Old Tucson facility, not far from the real Tombstone.  However, its “town street” set was used surprisingly as Fort Griffin, Texas, in the opening reels, while later Tombstone street scenes were shot in southern California, on the same Paramount Ranch set that was later used as Virginia City, Nevada, on TV’s “Bonanza” (1959).  The theme song is sung by Frankie Laine, who had a voice made for western themes.  Excellent score by Dimitri Tiomkin; cinematography by Charles Lang.  The co-writer on this was apparently Leon Uris, author of the best-selling novels Exodus and Battle Cry. 

Dennis Hopper, interestingly enough, was born and raised in Dodge City, Kansas, where the first half or more of this movie takes place.  Billy Clanton: “I don’t know why I get into gunfights. I guess sometimes I just get lonely.”  This was also the second time John Ireland was gunned down in Tombstone; here he plays Ringo and in Clementine he was Billy Clanton.  Wyatt’s last word on the subject:  “All gunfighters are lonely.  They live in fear.  They die without a dime, a woman or a friend.”

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3:10 to Yuma (the Original)

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 15, 2013

3:10 to Yuma—Glenn Ford, Van Heflin, Leora Dana, Felicia Farr, Richard Jaeckel, Robert Emhardt (1957; Dir:  Delmer Daves)

Dan Evans:  What’s the matter?
Mrs. Alice Evans:  Nothing. It seems terrible that something bad can happen and all anybody can do is stand by and watch.
Dan Evans:  Lots of things happen where all you can do is stand by and watch.

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There’s an undercurrent of fatalistic courage in the Dan Evans character played by Van Heflin.  Dan struggles with his obligations the whole movie, but when it counts he doesn’t just stand by and watch.  The inevitable comparison is with the 2007 remake.  Well, this unpretentious 1957 original from a story by Elmore Leonard has much less action than the remake; it’s more a psychological study, with Glenn Ford’s excellent performance as ruthless but charming outlaw boss Ben Wade at its heart.  The plot holds together a little better, and the ending is simpler and makes a bit more sense, although there have always been those who don’t find this original ending believable, either.  For a western, there’s a lot of talk in this movie.

Van Heflin as Dan Evans is good, but he’s doing a version of his solid rancher character from Shane, the sort of role for which he is now mostly remembered.  This one is deeper and more complex, with more camera time for his character.  Evans is an Arizona rancher about to go under financially.  When a reward is offered to get captured outlaw chieftain and gunman Ben Wade on the 3:10 train to Yuma, where the infamous territorial prison is located, Evans takes the job as a way to address at least some of his difficulties.  Unexpectedly, a relationship of sorts develops.  Heflin’s stolid and beleagured Evans gives Ford’s Wade a worthy opponent to play against, as Evans’ courage develops while he’s faced with temptation.  Evans’ ambivalence is obvious the entire movie as he is forced to hear Wade’s Mephistophelean blandishments during a lengthy stretch in an upper hotel room (the bridal suite, in fact) in Contention.  As things turn out, Wade also has more ambivalence than he has showed most of the time. 

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Outlaw chieftain Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) chats up barroom girl Emmy (Felicia Farr).

Leora Dana, as Evans’ wife Alice, seems realer than Gretchen Mol does in the remake, but she’s also given a meatier role than Mol.  It’s a little surprising how much of Wade’s interlude with a saloon girl Emmy (Felicia Farr) was in the original; it seems a little frank in its implications for a 1950s western.  Richard Jaeckel as Wade’s second in command Charley Price doesn’t have Ben Foster’s psychotic edge, but the role wasn’t written that way the first time around.  Missing from the remake is Henry Jones’s role as Alex Potter, the town drunk cum outlaw guard, replaced by Alan Tudyk as Doc Potter in a different kind of role.  Also not in this original:  the nastiness of the lender and his repulsive henchmen; the father-son developments between Dan and his oldest son; Dan’s disability and Civil War background; the morally-blinkered Pinkerton man killed by Wade on the trip to Contention; and the Indians and the railroad men who try to the keep the party from making it there.  In fact, the arduous segment from Evans’ ranch to Contention is not in the original.  Wade’s gang in Contention seems a little more human and less invincible, although Dan Evans still seems very overmatched. 

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Wade (Glenn Ford) and his lieutenant Charley Prince (Richard Jaeckel).

In the end, Alice shows up in Contention to try (unsuccessfully) to talk Dan out of walking Wade to the train; and as Dan and Wade get to the train under attack from Wade’s gang, they just roll into an empty boxcar on the moving train.  Dan has earned Wade’s respect, and it’s Wade who suggests getting onto the train to get Dan out of an otherwise untenable situation.  He ends by saying that he’s broken out of Yuma before, and the feeling is that he’ll do it again.  That’s probably okay with Dan, who just sees his job as getting Wade to Yuma and is not concerned with what may happen after that.  He’s developed a little affection for Wade, too, if not any admiration for his moral character.

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Wade (Glenn Ford) and Evans (Van Heflin) look to make a run for the 3:10 train to Yuma.

You can see this as another of those 1950s meditations on the uneasy relationship between the law enforcer and the town he protects, as with High Noon, The Tin Star, and Warlock, although the emphasis here is on the developing relationship between Evans and Wade.  Dan is one of those ordinary citizens who steps up, not a professional gunman or career law enforcement man.  There are obvious noir influences here.  This original version of the story is highly watchable and ought to be seen by any fan of the remake.  This could legitimately be placed on a list of great westerns, and probably would be if it weren’t eclipsed by the showier remake.  At 92 minutes, it’s also considerably shorter than the remake.  This is more about psychology (in a good way); the remake is more about action.  Glenn Ford dazzles in the juicier Ben Wade role.

In general Delmer Daves seems a workmanlike director who made some good westerns in the 1950s.  His work is usually worth seeking out.  But he has his champions as something more.  Bertrand Tavernier pointed out in Film Comment, “What first impresses the viewer is Daves’ attention to landscape, to nature, expressed in shots that intimately and sometimes inextricably mingle lyricism and realism.

“He actually insisted on personally supervising the kind of material many Hollywood filmmakers would leave to second-unit directors–extreme long shots, transitional moments filmed at dawn or twilight.”

In black and white; cinematographer Charles Lawton (not Laughton), Jr., also worked with Budd Boetticher during this period.  This would get some votes as the most beautifully shot black-and-white western ever made, if you watch it in high definition (either the Criterion Collection DVD or somewhere like TCM).  The Contention-Bisbee railroad connection figured again in Leonard’s story for Hombre.  The theme song is sung by Frankie Laine:  “Though you’ve got no reason to go there, and there ain’t a soul that you know there, when the 3:10 to Yuma whistles its sad refrain, take that train . . . . . .”

Note:  The hat Glenn Ford wears in this movie he wore for most of his westerns in the 1950s and 1960s, long past when it should have been retired.  He joins John Wayne and James Stewart as western stars with recurring hats.

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Westward the Women

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 11, 2013

Westward the Women—Robert Taylor, John McIntire, Denise Darcel, Hope Emerson (1951; Dir:  William Wellman)

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Surprisingly effective wagon train story, perhaps the best ever made.  Despite the title, the lead character is Buck Wyatt (Robert Taylor), the hard-bitten wagonmaster leading an international wagon train full of women from Independence to California in 1851.  Although the cast of women has no big names in it, it’s an effective group with good differentiation between characters.  Perhaps that’s Wellman’s doing. 

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Buck Wyatt (Robert Taylor) gets things moving. Actually, he’s trying to stop a horse/mule stampede.

Buck Wyatt is recruited by Roy Whitman (John McIntire), founder of a town in California without women, to guide the wagon train from Independence, Missouri.  That’s a long way, and many of the men initially hired can’t keep the rules imposed and leave the women alone.  So it’s mostly Wyatt, Whitman and the women, who have to adapt to the harshness of the trail.  Whitman intends the women as potential brides for all the unattached men in his town, and for a woman to be willing to undergo this trek, there must be some backstories to them.  There are, and many of them come out bit by bit.

Taylor is excellent, as is Denise Darcel as Fifi Danon, his eventual romantic interest.  There are good scenes of what it takes to get wagons through difficult terrain, and what it cost in terms of life.  There’s an Indian attack, during which no actual Indians are shown, flash floods, mule stampedes and equipment failures.  A particularly effective scene is the aftermath of the Indian raid, when various women call out the names of the dead and the camera pans to each victim’s lifeless body.  It shouldn’t work as well as it does; Wellman again.  Henry Nakamura as Ito the cook is also very good, as is Hope Emerson as Patience.  In black and white with very good use of what appear to be southern Utah locations. 

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There are the usual mistakes with women wearing pants (they absolutely wouldn’t have in Victorian times), and, with the exception of Patience, they don’t appear to wear hats or other headgear in the desert nearly as much as they would have had to.   We know that’s so we can see their faces and differentiate among them, but still.  Wellman appears to have minimized the makeup on the women as well.  As with most westerns set in the 1840s and 1850s, the guns are anachronistic.  In black and white, with cinematography by William C. Mellor; story by Frank Capra.  Robert Taylor played a character named Wyatt in his last western as well:  Return of the Gunfighter (1967).

Director Wellman was notoriously disdainful of actors, but he liked Robert Taylor.  “I have never gotten along with actors but I was crazy about Bob Taylor.  I think he’s one of the finest men I’ve ever known.  He was probably handsomest of them all.  I had no trouble with him at all.  He did everything I asked him to; he was wonderful.”

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Danon (Denise Darcel) and Buck Wyatt (Robert Taylor).

This was shot on location around Kanab, Utah, so even the scenes where they take off from Independence, Missouri, look like southern Utah.  Southern Utah may have a lot of variety in the scenery available around Kanab, but none of them look much like Missouri.  The desert scenes were shot in the Mojave Desert.  The movie has no music except over the opening and closing credits, and it’s one of the things that gives it verisimilitude.

This was finally available on DVD in May 2012 from the Warner Archive.  The DVD contains an excellent commentary by film historian Scott Eyman.  For another good wagon train movie from the same period, check out John Ford’s Wagon Master (1950).  For another good Robert Taylor western from about the same time, see him in Ambush.(also with John McIntire).  For another good western directed by William Wellman from this period, see Yellow Sky with Gregory Peck and Anne Baxter.

 

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The Gunfighter

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 10, 2013

The Gunfighter—Gregory Peck, Helen Westcott, Millard Mitchell, Karl Malden, Skip Homeier, Richard Jaeckel (1950; Dir:  Henry King)

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Right after the opening credits:  “In the Southwest of the 1880’s the difference between death and glory was often but a fraction of a second. This was the speed that made champions of Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid, and Wild Bill Hickok. But the fastest man with a gun who ever lived, by many contemporary accounts, was a long, lean Texan named Ringo.”  Despite this invoking of historical figures, Jimmy Ringo is a fictional character, with the name apparently adapted from John Ringo, the Arizona gunman.  It has been popular as a name for cinematic gunfighters and outlaws, used in Stagecoach, innumerable Spaghetti westerns and many others.  Although this Ringo is said to be very fast with a gun, with expert film editing we never actually see him draw during the movie.

Heading for Cayenne, New Mexico, Jimmy Ringo’s reputation as a gunfighter catches up with him yet again in a Santa Fe saloon.  A kid named Eddie (Richard Jaeckel in one of his shortest roles) won’t leave him alone until he forces Ringo (Gregory Peck) to draw, and Ringo kills him easily but not happily.  Eddie has three brothers who take out after Ringo.   He waylays them and sets them afoot on the trail.

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Ringo (Gregory Peck) spends much of the movie in saloons, this time facing off against Richard Jaeckel.

In Cayenne, Ringo sets up in the Palace, where he encounters the local marshal, Mark Strett (Millard Mitchell).  Strett once rode with Ringo, knows Ringo’s past and the fact that Ringo’s estranged wife Peggy (Helen Westcott) is in Cayenne.  Living under another name, she’s the local schoolteacher and wants nothing to do with Ringo and his notoriety.  All the boys in town skip school to catch a glimpse of the infamous gunfighter, including Ringo’s own son Jimmy, now nine years old.

Ringo encounters the usual problems in Cayenne.  Hunt Bromley (Skip Homeier), a young local who fancies himself fast with a gun, prods Ringo.  An older man thinks Ringo was responsible for the death of his son and is determined to ambush him from an upstairs hotel room.  Eddie’s three brothers make it to Cayenne.  And the local female forces of righteousness want Marshal Strett to lock him up or hang him.

Ringo copes with these one by one, hoping that his wife Peggy will just talk with him before he leaves town.  Molly, an aging saloon girl and old friend of both Jimmy and Peggy, finally talks Peggy into seeing him.  Ringo describes how he plans to leave his gunfighting life and says he’ll be back in a year for her.  He talks with his son without revealing their relationship.  And Strett gets antsier for him to leave town before something happens.

gunfighter&son Ringo and son.

Finally Ringo leaves out the back of the Palace, where the camera shows Eddie’s brothers lurking in wait for him.  Strett’s deputy backs them off just when it looks like their ambush will succeed.  Jimmy gets on his horse and is about to leave town, when Hunt Bromley shoots him in the back.  As he lies dying, Jimmy tells Strett that he drew first on Bromley, and Bromley thinks Ringo’s trying to keep him from being arrested.  Ringo’s actually dooming Bromley to a short life of the kind he’s had, with a reputation that draws challengers like flies.  Peggy reveals her connection with Ringo at the funeral.

Gregory Peck wears a mustache in this film, unusual for him.  The studio hated the mustache and, after the film didn’t do well at the box office, figured that it was the mustache’s fault.  Peck was a natural at conveying decency and rectitude (he and Joel McCrea come to mind first in that regard), and this is one of his best westerns notwithstanding the mustache.  Maybe it was the unattractive hat.  In any event, these qualities lend him credibility in persuading us that Ringo at the advanced age of 35 does want to change his life.  Ringo could have killed the old man waiting for him with a Winchester but doesn’t.  Asking about the man’s son, it becomes clear that Ringo had nothing to do with the kid’s death and has been blamed for all kinds of things he didn’t do.  In one of the best scenes, Ringo is alone in the marshal’s office when the decent women come looking for the marshal.  They don’t know who Ringo is, and he kind of explains himself to them without telling them of his identity.  The ending is strong and really makes the movie.  The entire film depends on Peck carrying it, and he does that well.

gunfighterTwo Ringo and Strett.

Millard Mitchell was in three good westerns in the early 1950s:  Winchester ’73 and this one in 1950, and The Naked Spur in 1953.  He looks like a regular person (rather than an actor), but he’s good in all of these.  Helen Westcott is adequate but nothing special.  Skip Homeier is good as Hunt Bromley; he could always play a mouthy kid with a gun (see Dawn at Socorro, Ten Wanted Men, The Tall T and Comanche Station, for example).

Henry King was an experienced workmanlike director, and this is one of the better efforts late in his career.  It’s in black and white and feels like it was shot with a limited budget.  Nevertheless, it tells one of the quintessential western stories (the aging gunfighter who can’t escape his past) well.  King directed Peck again in The Bravados (1958), a pretty good revenge-manhunt western.  The original story was by William Bowers and B-movie director Andre de Toth, and the screenplay was by Bowers and William Sellers.

In the late 1990s Richard Jaeckel was dying of cancer and his wife was suffering from Alzheimer’s; they had lost their home in Brentwood, California, and were more than a million dollars in debt.  Gregory Peck was one of those instrumental in getting Jaeckel admitted to the Motion Picture and Television Hospital in Woodland Hills, California, where he died in June 1997.

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Virginia City

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 9, 2013

Virginia City—Errol Flynn, Randolph Scott, Miriam Hopkins, Humphrey Bogart, Alan Hale, Guinn Williams, Moroni Olsen (1940; Dir:  Michael Curtiz)

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Errol Flynn is Irish-born Kerry Bradford, a Yankee captain in Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia, in 1864.  Col. Vance Irby (Randolph Scott) is the commander of the prison and is on the verge of spoiling Bradford’s attempt to tunnel out when he is given another assignment—to help Confederate sympathizers in Virginia City smuggle $5 million in gold back to the dying Confederacy.  Meanwhile, Bradford succeeds in his escape, with friends Moose (Alan Hale) and Marblehead (Guinn Williams) and the three of them are sent to foil Irby’s plot in Virginia City. 

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Marblehead, Bradford and Moose

Once in Virginia City, Bradford falls in love with saloon girl Julia Hayne (Miriam Hopkins, usually better in more urban roles) whom he meets on the stagecoach, unaware that she is a Southern agent.  During this period, Scott was often cast as a noble bad guy trying to reform (see Western Union, for example, in which he also named Vance).  The Confederates get away with the gold, taking Bradford as a prisoner with Julia’s connivance.  He escapes and manages to get the Union cavalry on their trail through the desert. 

Miriam Hopkins and Randolph Scott Hopkins and Scott

Meanwhile, the gold-laden Confederates are also running out of water and are pursued by Mexican bandit John Murrell (a badly miscast Humphrey Bogart, just before his breakthrough roles in High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon).  Eventually, the cavalry helps the Confederates fight off the Mexican bandits, Bradford hides the gold, Irby and Murrell are killed (although in Irby’s case it’s not clear whether he dies), the South loses the war, Bradford is sentenced to hang at a court martial, and Julia pleads to Pres. Lincoln on the day of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox for Bradford’s sentence to be commuted.  Lincoln agrees and recites parts of his second inaugural address to her.  The plot doesn’t make a lot of sense, especially at the end, but it’s one of Flynn’s better westerns.  (The three to see are Dodge City, Virginia City, and They Died With Their Boots On; maybe Santa Fe Trail.) 

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Williams and Flynn flank the strangely-cast Bogart

In black and white, but apparently with high production values for its time.  Shot in northern Arizona.  Good score by Max Steiner, with threads of “Bonny Blue Flag” and other Civil War tunes.  Hale and Williams are Moose and Marblehead, Bradford’s companions and comic relief, sort of, as in Dodge City the previous year.  In addition to several of the actors, the director, the cinematographer (Sol Polito) and the composer, the writer Robert Buckner is also the same as with Dodge City.  This is not really a sequel to Dodge City, though.  When shooting a pistol, Williams seems to fling it around in a way that would make any accuracy impossible, much like James Stewart in Destry Rides Again the previous year.  This was the ninth of twelve movies that Flynn made with director Curtiz, although they casually loathed each other.  They did well together, though—here as in other efforts.

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Northwest Passage

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 8, 2013

Northwest Passage—Spencer Tracy, Robert Young, Walter Brennan, Ruth Hussey, Montague Love, Addison Richards (1940; Dir:  King Vidor)

Epic version of part of Kenneth Roberts’ 1936 novel about Rogers’ Rangers and their most famous exploit, the raid on the Abenaki settlement at St. Francis in October 1759 during the French and Indian War.  More than half the Rangers died on their grueling return from the raid through very wild country teeming with French and their Indian allies.  The subtitle of the film is Book One:  Rogers’ Rangers.  A sequel was planned but never made, showing Rogers’ deterioration and descent into debt and alcoholism in England after the war, as a loyalist increasingly out of tune with more pro-American colonists.  During arduous filming in northeastern Washington, Tracy came to loath director King Vidor and swore he’d never work with him again.  The film’s music features the old English army tune “Over the Hills and Far Away,” later used in a similar fashion in the Sharpe series set in the Napoleonic wars.

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The posters emphasize Indian-fighting, the epic scale of the story, and its connection with the best-selling novel by Kenneth Roberts.

Young Harvard-educated (until he is expelled) artist Langdon Towne (Robert Young) and his friend Hunk Marriner (Walter Brennan) get in trouble in their native Portsmouth, New Hampshire, for making seditious comments about a local English official (Montague Love).  To avoid jail, they leave for the west.  They join Major Robert Rogers (Spencer Tracy), who offers them the chance to go farther west and paint Indians if they become Rangers and go with him on a raid north into French territory and make maps.  Trying to avoid detection by the French, the Rangers make their way arduously northward from the English fort at Crown Point, at one point portaging their boats laboriously over a mountain and at another wading through interminable swamps. 

The St. Francis Abenaki village the rangers are hitting is not just a peaceful Abenaki settlement.  It has been used for decades as a base for raids by French-allied Indians (Abenakis, Hurons, and Catholic Mohawks) on frontier settlements in the colonies farther south in English territory.  Most of the rangers have experienced the effects of these raids, and the objective is to hit it hard enough so that it won’t be used as a base for future guerrilla activity.  According to Rogers’ subsequent report, the rangers found 600-700 scalps fluttering in the breezes at St. Francis.  Lord Jeffrey Amherst, the British commander, also wanted to divert French military attention and resources from James Wolfe’s army at Quebec.

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The rangers arrive at St. Francis and are successful at their military objective in a harrowing sequence, but they find none of the food they had counted on for their difficult return by a different route.  Towne receives a wound to his midsection, and they gather white captives for the return by way of Lake Memphremagog.  Against Rogers’ advice, they vote to break into four groups for the return trip.  French and Indians pick off some; injuries, starvation and madness take others.  Out of the 142 Rangers, only about 50 make it to the rendezvous at Eagle Mountain.  Straggling into Fort Wentworth where they expect finally to find provisions and support, they instead find it abandoned.  But it isn’t long until a British unit headed in most unlikely fashion by Lord Jeffrey Amherst (Lumsden Hare) himself marches in, replete with supplies.  Towne goes back to his girlfriend (Ruth Hussey), and the Rangers march off to the west, supposedly in search of the Northwest Passage across the continent. 

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Tracy is superb as Rogers, an inspiring leader who carries our attention and commands respect throughout the movie.  He didn’t actually make westerns, though; the closest he ever came again was in the excellent Bad Day at Black Rock, set in the modern west, in Broken Lance and in the range melodrama The Sea of Grass..  Brennan is good and Young pretty good as the two regular characters whose story we’re following.  Addison Richards is also good as an officer who becomes unhinged after the brutality on both sides.  Ray Teal and Hank Worden have uncredited early roles as Rangers.  Much of the film was shot outdoors on location in eastern Washington and the Payette River in Idaho, and it shows on screen.  Shot in color (rare for 1940), this film was nominated for an Oscar for cinematography.  It was also long for its time, at more than two hours.  It finally became available on DVD in Dec. 2011. 

The title hasn’t much to do with the events or subject matter of the movie; it refers to where the Rangers are headed at the end of the film.  However, it probably had to be the same as the best-seller on which it was based.  Compare the plot with Errol Flynn’s World War II movie Operation Burma a few years later. 

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The racial attitudes will appear dated to the sensibilities of viewers more than 70 years later.  But they weren’t much questioned in 1940, and they were even stronger in the era depicted, 200 years earlier, when many frontier dwellers had been subjected to Indian raids and atrocities.  Viewers who can’t put themselves into the perspective of other historical times may have trouble with this.  The Indians are mostly stereotypical, with Konkapot as the head of Rogers’ Stockbridge Indian scouts not given much to say and little screen time.  Indian tortures and atrocities are described, but not shown.  At St. Francis, almost all of the Indians shown are men of fighting age, not the women and children who would also have been present.  The Indians generally look like plains Indians, rather than their eastern woodland counterparts, especially as they would have dressed late in the year.  The whole idea of slaughtering Indians, admirable in the 1930s, is almost unthinkable today.  Modern animal rights enthusiasts wouldn’t care for the way Rogers silences a barking dog in the Abenaki village, either—with a thrown hatchet.  The movie makes compelling watching if you can get past current social attitudes, though.  This and 1992’s Last of the Mohicans are probably the best movies about the French and Indian War and this phase of American frontier history.

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Lord Jeffrey Amherst here is shown more positively than he is generally remembered these days.  Sir William Johnson’s Mohawks are depicted as unreliable, duplicitous and shifty; Johnson usually gets better press now.  It is true that the actual Rogers didn’t get along well with Johnson, and was regarded with suspicion by the British army structure within which he served.  As depicted, the Indians did call him White Devil.  There have been a couple of good biographies of the father of U.S. special forces in recent years:  see White Devil by Stephen Brumwell (2006) and War on the Run by John F. Ross (2009).  Roberts’ pro-American novel with 1930s attitudes is also good reading, although long out of print now.  Roberts was reportedly horrified at the movie, however.  As a Loyalist (or Tory), Rogers was responsible for uncovering American spy Nathan Hale during the Revolution, with which he disagreed.  He was an American type:  the frontiersman competent and feared while fighting Indians and exploring terrain in the wilderness environment where he felt at home but out of touch in other more civilized surroundings (see George Rogers Clark, Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, maybe even Meriwether Lewis).  It makes Andrew Jackson seem more admirable, as one who could function well in several worlds.

Not to be confused, or even connected, with Southwest Passage (1954).

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Dodge City

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 7, 2013

Dodge City—Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Alan Hale, Bruce Cabot, Ann Sheridan, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, Victor Jory (1939; Dir: Michael Curtiz)

Movie stars didn’t get much bigger than the team of Flynn and De Havilland in 1939.  Although this was the fifth of nine Warner Brothers movies they made together, it was also their first and perhaps best western.  It obviously had a big budget, being filmed in Technicolor at a time when most movies, and certainly most westerns, weren’t.  (For purposes of comparison, the other big color movies that year were Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz—pretty heady company.)  The director, the Hungarian Michael Curtiz, had been responsible for Flynn and De Havilland’s most successful movies, such as The Adventures of Robin Hood (also in color the previous year) and, of course, Flynn’s earlier breakthrough, Captain Blood.

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Flynn is Wade Hatton, and the movie explains his accent by saying that he’s an Irishman with wanderlust and a background in the English military in India.  He fought in the Civil War for the South, and as the movie starts he and pals Rusty Hart (Alan Hale) and Tex Baird (Guinn Williams) are finishing a stint as buffalo hunters for the railroad that has just been completed to Dodge City.  After a run-in with Jeff Surrett (a young Bruce Cabot), they return to Texas while Dodge City itself falls into chaos and lawlessness, under the corrupt domination of saloon owner Surrett.  (His saloon is called The Gay Lady, and features Ann Sheridan in a modest role as his presumably eponymous headliner.)  Interestingly enough, the bad guys are Yankees, and the good guys are southerners, a reversal of the usual situation in westernsalthough there have always been some exceptions.

dodgecityFacingDown Facing down bad guys.

A bit later, Hatton is the honcho for a trail herd coming up from Texas to Dodge City along the Chisholm Trail.  Coming along are Abbie Irving (Olivia de Havilland) and her neer-do-well brother, whose parents have died.  The brother is a drunk who is killed when his constant careless shooting causes a stampede, and Abbie blames Hatton for his death.  Obviously, that relationship will be repaired by the end of the movie.  After (a) Surrett is clearly responsible for the death of a competing buyer for Hatton’s cattle, and (b) out-of-control gunfire results in the death of a boy on a Sunday School outing, Hatton agrees to clean up the town and make it safe for decent people, women and the Pure Prairie League.  Abbie goes to work for Joe Clemens (the name an obvious homage to Mark Twain); Clemens is the crusading anti-Surrett newspaper editor of the Dodge City Star (Frank McHugh), the sort of part you can easily see Thomas Mitchell playing if he hadn’t been busy getting his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for being Doc Boone in Stagecoach that year.  McHugh is fine, though, until he is whipped and then killed by vile Surrett henchman Yancey (the reptilian Victor Jory).  Ward Bond shows up in an early (and brief) role as Yancey’s unconvincing alibi.  (See him also in a fleeting role in the same year’s Frontier Marshal.) 

When Hatton and Abbie get the goods on Yancey and Surrett for Clemens’ death, the climax of the movie is a shootout on a burning train.  Ultimately, of course, Hatton, Rusty and Tex kill Surrett and his minions in the shootout, saving everybody a lengthy and uncertain trial.  The end of this movie sets up the next western for Flynn and De Havilland, with Col. Grenville Dodge asking Hatton to spend his honeymoon cleaning up the mining town Virginia City which is, if anything, in worse shape than Dodge City had been.

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De Havilland with Flynn as sheriff (smaller hat, baby blue tie).

Hatton’s initial wide-brimmed hat in this movie is unusual.  Note how he changes hats to one with a smaller brim (along with changing all his other attire) when he becomes sheriff.  The baby-blue string tie is a stretch; it probably should have been black.  Flynn, especially the younger Flynn, is always watchable, but some don’t find him very convincing in westerns.  De Havilland makes a lively western female lead and has her usual good chemistry with Flynn on screen.  The accounts say that she had a miserable time making the movie, and would have preferred the Ann Sheridan dance hall floozy role, even though Sheridan didn’t actually have much to do.  Of course, this film hasn’t much to do with the real history of cleaning up Dodge City. 

Written by the young Robert Buckner, who also wrote Virginia City and Santa Fe Trail (both Flynn western vehicles), as well as Jezebel, The Oklahoma Kid, Knute Rockne, All-American, Yankee Doodle Dandy and The Desert SongVirginia City, the follow-on, when it gets made, is not an actual sequel and has Miriam Hopkins instead of Olivia de Havilland as Flynn’s romantic interest.

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Destry Rides Again (1939)

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 6, 2013

Destry Rides Again—James Stewart, Marlene Dietrich, Brian Donlevy, Mischa Auer, Charles Winninger, Irene Hervey, Samuel S. Hinds, Jack Carson, Una Merkel (1939; Dir:  George Marshall)

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Another one of the really good westerns from 1939, which was as good a year for westerns as it was for movies generally.  Although it has a large and excellent cast, it depends principally on the two biggest names, James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich, and how they work out things between them.  With both this and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, 1939 was a good year for Stewart, playing Thomas Jefferson Destry in one and Thomas Jefferson Smith in the other, both in obvious appeals to old-fashioned patriotism.  It was Stewart’s first western and the last for eleven years, until he hooked up with Anthony Mann for 1950’s Winchester 73, well after World War II.

Bottleneck is a corrupt town run by Kent (Brian Donlevy in his smooth bad-guy mode), owner of a huge saloon where the principal entertainment seems to be provided by Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich in the first of her three westerns), not that she has a great singing voice.  The local mayor Hiram J. Slade (Samuel S. Hinds), constantly chewing tobacco, is in Kent’s pocket.  And Kent is busily collecting deeds to a strip of land across the valley (by means of rigged card games and other similarly unscrupulous methods), so he can extort a toll from drovers of cattle herds wanting to cross.  Once the local sheriff in Bottleneck was Tom Destry, who moved on to Tombstone, leaving behind deputy Washington Dimsdale (Charles Winninger), now a drunk reduced to cadging quarters and drinks in Kent’s saloon (like the character Dude in Rio Bravo twenty years later). 

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Mischa Auer, James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich

As the movie opens, Kent, with Frenchy’s help, cheats yet another ranch owner out of his land at cards and kills Sheriff Keough.  Mayor Slade cynically appoints Dimsdale, the town drunk, as the new sheriff.  However, Dimsdale sobers up and sends for Thomas Jefferson Destry, Jr. (James Stewart), who is said to have cleaned up Tombstone after his father was shot in the back there.  Destry arrives on a stage in the company of a hot-headed rancher, Jack Tyndall (Jack Carson), and his sister Janice (Irene Hervey), only he doesn’t wear a gun—says he doesn’t believe in them.  He’d rather whittle napkin rings.  He manages to deal with several near-crises without guns, and develops what appears to be an interest in Frenchy.  He pauses long enough to demonstrate an uncommon skill with a handgun in target practice, although to the viewer the casual way Destry handles a pistol (slinging it carelessly at the target) seems unlikely to be accurate.  There’s a truly impressive barroom fight between Frenchy and Lily Belle Callahan (Una Merkel)—right up there with other great fights in westerns.

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Destry (James Stewart), Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich) and Kent (Brian Donlevy) get acquainted in Kent’s saloon.

Meanwhile, Destry looks into the disappearance of former Sheriff Keough, and even manages to discover the sheriff’s body.  Mayor Slade appoints himself the judge, while Destry and Dimsdale secretly send for a federal judge.  When Kent and Slade find out about the federal judge, a war breaks out and Destry is forced to put on his guns.  Dimsdale is killed, and the forces of right and justice attack Kent’s saloon.  Both sides are blasting away when the saloon is invaded by the town’s women (marshaled into action by Frenchy), wielding brooms and such.  Both sides hold their fire and the women appear to be winning the battle in the saloon.  Kent sneaks a shot at an unaware Destry, and Frenchy redeems herself for all her shady dealing when she takes the bullet for him.  (This is the way both this and Rancho Notorious end, with Marlene Dietrich taking a bullet for somebody else to redeem herself for her nefarious misdeeds.)  At the end, Destry’s romantic attentions seem to be turning to Janice, less overtly interesting than the deceased Frenchy but much more appropriate for Destry.

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Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich):  She knows what the boys in the back room will have.

It’s engaging and almost great, but it has a kind of Capra-esque sentimentality and shows its age a bit—more than, say, Stagecoach or even Dodge City from the same year.  The tone is wryly comic (except for the occasional death) with Stewart’s Destry, and more overtly with Mischa Auer as Boris Stavrogin, a Russian dominated by his wife (Una Merkel) to the extent that everybody calls him by the name of Callahan, who was her prior husband.  He’s there for comic relief, mostly effective.  It’s not that easy to pull off, but it flows pretty smoothly here.  In some ways, one can see Support Your Local Sheriff from 30 years later as an attempt to do the same thing, although it’s not exactly a remake.  Some of the humor dealing with roles of the sexes seems a bit outmoded.  Destry’s aw-shucks demeanor and interminable stories about a feller he once knew somewhere are almost as tiresome to his fellow characters as they are to us.  Brian Donlevy is at his nefarious best, the same year as he played another of his memorable villains:  the evil Sergeant Markov in Beau Geste.  This was remade twice in the early 1950s, with Joel McCrea and again with Audie Murphy, but this second version (after a 1932 Tom Mix original) is much better than either of those—or the original, for that matter.  Nobody much remembers the 1959 musical comedy Broadway stage production with Andy Griffiths. 

Director George Marshall (The Sheepman) was a journeyman who started in the age of silents and ended up doing television in the 1960s.  He was not particularly known for westerns.  Lyrics to songs, including “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have” (one of the most effective musical interludes ever in a western), were by Frank Loesser.  In black and white.  “Suggested by” a story by pulp writer Max Brand.

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