Monthly Archives: January 2014

Westbound

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 20, 2014

Westbound—Randolph Scott, Karen Steele, Virginia Mayo, Andrew Duggan (1959; Dir:  Budd Boetticher)

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Although this is usually reckoned about the least of the Boetticher-Scott westerns, it’s not terrible.  According to Boetticher, after the third of his pictures with Randolph Scott, he was told that Scott had an obligation to Warner Brothers to make one more picture, and this was it.  The Ranown movies were made for Columbia.  The best of the Ranown movies were written by Burt Kennedy; this was written by Bernie Giler.  The score is standard western movie music by Elmer Bernstein, though.

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Heading west, and meeting the young couple.

Scott is Captain John Hayes, returning to Julesburg, Colorado Territory, during the Civil War to make sure that gold from California gets to the Union, where it’s going.  Near Julesburg, he drops off a young couple, the Millers; the husband is a one-armed Union veteran (Michael Dante) and the wife is played by the Jane-Russell-esque Karen Steele.  In town, Hayes finds the Overland Stage in disarray, with its station closed and its stock gone.  His former flame, Norma (Virginia Mayo), has married Clay Putnam (Andrew Duggan), a long-time rival with Confederate sympathies.  Putnam and Mace (the swarthy Michael Pate, an Australian actor who frequently played Indians), a hired gun, are behind the depredations against the Overland Stage.

Hayes hires the young couple to run a stage station at their ranch.  There are raids on various stage stations and various murders before Hayes has it out with Putnam and Mace in Julesburg.  At the end of the movie, Putnam is dead (as is the young one-armed Miller), and there is a visual implication that Hayes and Norma may resume their relationship.  But then Hayes makes it clear that Norma is going back East, and he’s more interested in the young widow Jeanie Miller (as was Budd Boetticher; she became Mrs. Boetticher).

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It’s short, about 75 minutes, and it’s not bad.  It just isn’t as good as most of the Ranown westerns Boetticher and Scott made.  Written by Berne Giler  This was one of the last Boetticher westerns to be released on DVD, in 2009.

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Blood on the Moon

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 18, 2014

Blood on the Moon—Robert Mitchum, Robert Preston, Barbara Bel Geddes, Walter Brennan, Phyllis Thaxter (1948; Dir:  Robert Wise)

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A watchable range war saga based on a 1941 novel by Luke Short.  Jim Garry (Robert Mitchum) is drifting from Texas, when he’s invited by old friend Tate Riling (Robert Preston, in his sleazy friend mode) to join him in a get-rich-quick scheme with corrupt Indian agent Jake Pindalest (Frank Fayden). 

John Lufton (Tom Tully) is the local cattle baron, who has long provided beef for the reservation while grazing his herds on reservation land.  Pindalest, on Riling’s urging, has given Lufton notice that he’ll no longer be buying Lufton’s beef, and Lufton has to find new grazing land.  He’s trying to move his cattle back to the basin where he used to graze, but now there are homesteaders there to resist, led by Riling.  Kris Barden (Walter Brennan), who used to work for Lufton, is prominent among them. 

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Lufton has two daughters, one of whom, Carol (Phyllis Thaxter), is romantically interested in Riling and the other, Amy (Barbara Bel Geddes), takes a few shots at Garry.  After being fully informed of the set-up and participating in stampeding Lufton’s herd, Garry decides the scheme isn’t for him and saves Lufton from two of Riling’s gunmen.  He’s hurt in a fight with Riling but gets Pindalest to tell the army to back off on the deadline for removing Lufton’s herd. 

Riling, PIndalest and a couple of gunmen come after Garry, who’s wounded and holed up at Barden’s place.  Amy Lufton shows up to give medical care and help fight off the bad guys.  (You can tell Riling’s sleazy because of the loud plaid jacket he wears.)  In the end Garry kills one of the gunmen, shoots it out with Riling and gets Amy. 

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A good cast, with a complicated story for the 90-minute length of the movie.  Note Garry’s authentic-looking hat, different than 1950s-style hats in westerns.  Some shots look like Monument Valley, but mostly it was filmed on the RKO lot in Encino, with some outside of Sedona, Arizona.  Like Yellow Sky, released the same year, it has some noir-ish elements, especially in the use of light and shadow.  An RKO release in black and white, directed by Robert Wise (best known for The Sound of Music).  Not yet available on DVD in the U.S. at the end of 2013.

According to Lee Server’s 2001 biography of Mitchum (Robert Mitchum:  “Baby, I Don’t Care”), director Wise claimed “the first scene we shot after Mitch got outfitted was in the barroom.  Walter Brennan was sitting at a table with a couple of pals, and Brennan was very interested in the Old West, it was a hobby of his.  And I’ll never forget when Bob came on the set, just standing there, wth the costume and the whole attitude that he gave to it, and Brennan got a look at him and was terribly impressed.  He pointed at Mitchum and said, ‘That is the goddamndest realest cowboy I’ve ever seen!’”

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Strange Lady in Town

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 17, 2014

Strange Lady In Town—Greer Garson, Dana Andrews, Cameron Mitchell, Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez, Robert Wilke, Lois Smith, Nick Adams (1955; Dir.:  Mervyn LeRoy)

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The strange lady is Dr. Julia Winslow Garth (a very red-haired Greer Garson, 51 and playing twenty years younger quite convincingly in the only western of her career), and the town is Santa Fe in 1880.  Originally from Boston, she has come to Santa Fe to escape the oppression of the overwhelmingly male establishment in the medical profession, only to find it present in her western refuge in the person of widower and rancher Dr. Rourke O’Brien (Dana Andrews).  She lives with her brother, Lt. David Garth (Cameron Mitchell), who seems to have considerable personal charm along with an unfortunate predilection for cards and the shadier side of the law.  When Julia shows up, Lt. Garth is unable to meet her because he is the subject of a court of inquiry for selling the army stolen cattle.

Julia’s home in Santa Fe is next door to the Catholic church run by Father Gabriel Mendoza (Walter Hampden), a saintly priest who also runs a hospital on the side, presided over medically by O’Brien.  Julia establishes her medical bona fides by healing a blind Mexican boy and others, although she runs afoul of the brusque O’Brien by espousing the modern methods of Dr. Joseph (referred to for some reason as Jacob) Lister, which O’Brien views as a passing fad.  Meanwhile, it becomes clear that O’Brien’s tomboyish daughter Spurs (Lois Smith) is attracted to Julia’s brother.

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The two doctors, talking things over.

Although they are at odds professionally, O’Brien is attracted to Julia personally, trying to get her to agree to marry him.  But they keep falling out over O’Brien’s overbearing and authoritarian ways.  At the governor’s ball, Julia rescues the territorial governor Lew Wallace from his too-tight celluloid collars, although O’Brien has already advised him that the trouble is his weak heart.

Meanwhile, Lt. Garth falls out with his captain over cards and punches him, forcing Garth to flee to avoid another court martial.  He joins a bunch of outlaw acquaintances in robbing the local bank, and Father Gabriel is killed when the gang’s escape goes awry.  Finally Julia persuades her brother to surrender, but in doing so he makes as if to escape and is shot down.  The resulting condemnation of her by the close-minded community convinces Julia she must now leave, until O’Brien stands up for her and finally persuades her to marry him.

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In addition to the the historical New Mexico governor, 19-year-old Billy the Kid makes a brief appearance (Nick Adams in a cameo), theoretically making this 1879 or so.  In all, this is more watchable than you’d think for a movie you’ve never heard of.  Garson, Andrews and Mitchell are good in their respective roles; some like Lois Smith as Spurs, while others find her occasionally grating.  This was part of a trend in the 1950s to have an established actress as the center of a western–the so-called cattle queen westerns, with stars like Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich.  And now Greer Garson.  In real life, she and her husband had a ranch a few miles from Santa Fe.

Mervyn LeRoy was not a natural director of westerns.  He was much more at home in upscale romances.  Frankie Laine provides the title song.  In color partially shot in Old Tucson, Arizona.  Not a great title.

For Dana Andrews in other good westerns, see him as the primary lynching victim in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), and as an almost-lynching-victim in Three Hours to Kill (1954).

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The Last Sunset

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 16, 2014

The Last Sunset—Kirk Douglas, Rock Hudson, Dorothy Malone, Joseph Cotton, Carol Lynley, Jack Elam, Neville Brand  (1961; Dir:  Robert Aldrich)

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Gunman Brendan O’Malley (Kirk Douglas) arrives at the Breckenridge ranch in Mexico, to find that lady of the ranch is old flame Belle (Dorothy Malone) and that her weak alcoholic husband John (Joseph Cotton) is preparing for a cattle drive to Texas that they are unlikely to be able to accomplish.  Their nubile daughter Melissa (or Missy, played by Carol Lynley) is coming along, too.  O’Malley offers his help (for a price:  one-fifth of the herd plus Belle); now all they need is a trail boss who knows the way, and he promptly shows up in the form of Dana Stribling (Rock Hudson), a Texas lawman who is hunting O’Malley for killing his no-good brother-in-law.  The two agree to put aside resolution of their differences until the herd gets to Texas.

As was often the case, Douglas made an unconventional protagonist for a western.  He wears tight-fitting black and uses a derringer instead of a larger gun.  He has been hunting Belle since the Civil War, when they had something going in Virginia.  This is a cattle drive western, with the usual incidents:  unreliable drovers (the nefarious Dobbs brothers, played by Neville Brand and Jack Elam); inclement weather (a dust storm), Indians (Yaquis), and a stampede.  As they head the herd north, Breckenridge encounters former Confederates in a bar; they were from his unit under Stonewall Jackson and confront Breckenridge with having run at Fredericksburg.  They’re forcing him to show them his wound (in his backside) when O’Malley and Stribling intervene.  As the three leave, one of the Confederates shoots Breckenridge in the back. 

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Now Belle is a widow, but Stribling shows romantic interest in her.  O’Malley rescues Stribling during a storm, and the Dobbs brothers make their move.  Belle shoots one, and O’Malley and Stribling recover the herd.  O’Malley gratuitously shoots a Yaqui (whose corpse is unusually cooperative in being moved to a horse), and Stribling gives the tribe a fifth of the herd to mollify them—O’Malley’s share.  As Belle develops feelings for Stribling, O’Malley and the much younger Missy also start to bond romantically.  On the night before the herd crosses the Rio Grande to Crazy Horse, Texas (presumably making this after 1876), Missy wears Belle’s yellow dress from a night long ago, and she and O’Malley make plans.

[Spoilers follow.]  Once the herd is in Texas, however, Belle discloses to O’Malley that Missy is his daughter.  Stribling and O’Malley (with his derringer) carry out their showdown, O’Malley characteristically without his hat.  When Stribling wins, he finds that O’Malley’s derringer wasn’t loaded. 

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The women are more central to what’s going on here than they are to most westerns, giving this sort of a melodramatic feel with several sudden revelations along the way.  Malone is very good.  Hudson is adequate but pales beside Douglas in the meatier role.  And he wears a strange hat.  Adapted by Dalton Trumbo from a novel by Howard Rigsby, Sundown at Crazy Horse. Not bad work from director Aldrich, who had directed Vera Cruz in 1954 and would yet do Ulzana’s Raid ten years later.  Shot in Aguascalientes, Mexico.

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Great Directors: John Ford

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 15, 2014

John Ford.

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Even those who are not fond of John Ford concede that he’s probably the greatest director of westerns ever.  And it’s not even close.  Ford made more great westerns than anybody else, even if most of his work in silent films has disappeared.  He pioneered location shooting, being the first to use the dramatic landscape of Monument Valley as a setting.  He was also known for a certain kind of long shot, showing his human protagonists against a vast western terrain and sky.  He made a star of John Wayne, the biggest star western movies have yet seen, although he’s not the one who gave Wayne his first starring role.  (That would be Raoul Walsh, in 1931’s The Big Trail.)  Ford’s visual sense remains with you after his movies are over. 

Born John Martin Feeney in Maine in 1894, Ford was the son of Irish immigrants.  He moved to California and began working in film production in 1914 with his older brother Francis (1881-1953), using “Jack Ford” as a professional name.  Ford had an uncredited appearance as a Klansman in D.W. Griffith’s classic Birth of a Nation, as the man who lifts up one side of his hood so he can see clearly.  Despite an often combative relationship with Francis, within three years Jack had progressed to become his brother’s chief assistant and often worked as his cameraman.  By the time Jack Ford was given his first break as a director in 1917, Francis’ career as a director was hitting the skids, and he ceased working as a director soon afterward.

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Ford as a young director, and directing 1924’s The Iron Horse (on the right).

Ford started working as a director in 1917, probably on the silent two-reeler The Tornado, and he was an active director for the next fifty years.  Of the seventy silent movies he made, sixty are considered to be “lost.”  Although he made westerns almost from the start, he did not specialize in them at this stage of his career.  He made everything else, too.  He made 25 films with silent western star Harry Carey, only two of which survive.   Of his surviving silent westerns, probably the two best are The Iron Horse (1924), an epic account of the building of the first transcontinental railroad, which was one of the biggest cinematic successes of the 1920s, and Three Bad Men (1926), his last silent western.  He would not make another western for thirteen years, until Stagecoach in 1939.

However, when he did make another western, Stagecoach revolutionized how Hollywood saw western films.  The genre had mostly fallen out of favor with the studios in the late 1920s, and almost all westerns made during the 1930s were low-budget quickies.  Stagecoach was not expensive to make, but it had a good story, an excellent acting ensemble, strong visuals both in the landscape and in shot composition, and state of the art stunt work for its day.  Westerns were starting to be a more significant cinematic art form.  Reportedly, Orson Welles watched Stagecoach forty times as part of his preparation for making Citizen Kane.

This immediate pre-World War II period was also the time when Ford was making such box office and critical successes as Drums Along the Mohawk, Young Mr. Lincoln, The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley—a remarkable string for anybody.  The last won both Best Picture and Best Director Academy Awards.

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Ford-Fonda Prewar Collaborations:  Young Mr. Lincoln, and The Grapes of Wrath.

He made documentaries for the Navy during the war, and was wounded during filming on Midway during the Battle of Midway.  He won two more Academy Awards for this documentary work.  It was on his return from the war that his impressive string of westerns began, with the story of Wyatt Earp in Tombstone in My Darling Clementine, followed by his cavalry trilogy (Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande), 3 Godfathers and Wagon Master.

Writer Nunnally Johnson said of Ford and his need for control (not uncommon among directors), “I think John Ford almost dies because he can’t write.  It just runs him nuts, that he has thoughts and ideas and has never trained himself to put them down on paper.  And I’ve found that true of so many directors.  They’re just so thwarted.”  But as a writer, Johnson also thought that writers were among the least appreciated participants in the movie processes.

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In the 1950s, he didn’t make as many westerns.  He won another Best Director Oscar for The Quiet Man in 1952; it was his fourth such award.  But one western he did make during the 1950s was one of his very best:  The Searchers, with John Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter.  And he closed the decade with the Civil War cavalry story The Horse Soldiers, with John Wayne and William Holden.  As he moved into the 1960s, his best remaining western was 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  There were other good westerns—Two Rode Together, Sergeant Rutledge and Cheyenne Autumn—but they were not among his greatest.  His health declined in the late 1960s, and he died in 1973.

Ford was known for “cutting with the camera,” especially when he was younger.  That meant shooting only the film he wanted to use, and it also meant visualizing the finished film as it was being shot.  According to Ford that practice reduced opportunities for the studios to mess around with his work.  He did that with Stagecoach, for example.  While it saved on film and gave him a greater degree of control over the final results, it was in effect working without a net.  “I don’t give ’em a lot of film to play with.  In fact, Eastman used to complain that I exposed so little film.  I do cut in the camera.  Otherwise, if you give them a lot of film ‘the committee’ takes over.  They start juggling scenes around and taking out this and putting in that.  They can’t do it with my pictures.  I cut in the camera and that’s it.  There’s not a lot of film left on the floor when I’m finished.”

He was also known for having a recurring cast of characters, most of whom are still strongly associated with his work today.  Most prominent among these was John Wayne, although he also used Henry Fonda and James Stewart, among the biggest stars of their time.  It was the supporting characters who came back time after time:  Ward Bond, Mae Marsh, Victor McLaglen, Jane Darwell, Harry Carey, Harry Carey, Jr., John Qualen, George O’ Brien and a number of others.   There have even been books written about “the John Ford stock company.”  (See Bill Levy’s Lest We Forget, 2013.)  Loyalty was important to Ford.

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Ford with a portrait and an Oscar, and an aging Ford in his natural habitat.

That doesn’t mean he was always pleasant to work with; he was known for riding even his stars and treating them badly during shooting.  He thought it produced better performances, and he’s not the only great director to take that approach.  In 1955, Warner Brothers hired Ford to direct Mr. Roberts, with Henry Fonda, who had played the role on Broadway and who had misgivings about some of Ford’s direction.  In a meeting with Fonda and producer Leland Hayward, Ford lost his temper and punched Fonda, creating a lasting rift between the two.  After repeated clashes during the filming of 3 Godfathers, Pedro Armendariz would never work with Ford again.  Some stars, like Wayne, would put up with Ford’s sometimes abusive style.  Maureen O’Hara said of him, “John Ford was the world’s greatest storyteller because he was the world’s most convincing liar.  He rarely told the truth and rarely lived the truth.”  Taking its title from Ford’s last silent western, the 2013 book Three Bad Men by Scott Allen Nollen applied that title to Ford, Ward Bond, and John Wayne, in part because of their politics.  That’s too harsh, but Ford could be difficult to work with and in his private life as well.  And he was always one to tend his own legend, too.

On the other hand, a story is also told about how during the McCarthy era of the 1950s, he bluntly and effectively stood up to a bullying Cecil B. DeMille, who was trying to get Joseph L. Mankiewicz removed as head of the Directors’ Guild of America and require a loyalty oath.  After four hours of DeMille and his supporters dominating the meeting, Ford stood and made this statement:  “My name’s John Ford.  I make Westerns.  I don’t think there’s anyone in this room who knows more about what the American public wants than Cecil B. DeMille—and he certainly knows how to give it to them…. [looking at DeMille]  But I don’t like you, C.B.  I don’t like what you stand for and I don’t like what you’ve been saying here tonight.”  After the vote, Mankiewicz remained president.

Ford’s work can sometimes seem old-fashioned, and it probably did in his day to some degree.  His occasional sentimentality, nostalgia and fondness for a certain kind of comic relief do not always play well today.  But for Ford, more than for any other director, you can’t know westerns without being familiar with his work.  There have been a number of biographies of Ford; my favorite is Scott Eyman’s Print the Legend:  the Life and Times of John Ford.  Ingmar Bergman called him “the best director in the world.”  Frank Capra referred to him as “the king of directors.”  And Alfred Hitchcock said that “A John Ford film is a visual gratification.” 

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Directing The Horse Soldiers, 1959.

Ford Essentials:  Ford has a larger body of must-see work than any other director of westerns.  These include Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Searchers, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

Second-Rank Ford:  Not as good as his top-flight work, most John Ford westerns are nevertheless well worth watching.  These include Drums Along the Mohawk, 3 Godfathers, Rio Grande, Wagon Master (said to have been a personal favorite of Ford’s), The Horse Soldiers, Two Rode Together, Sergeant Rutledge and Cheyenne Autumn.  Counting the Essentials and the Second-Rank, that makes fourteen westerns.

Non-Western Essentials:  The Informer, Young Mr. Lincoln, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley, and The Quiet Man.

Best Director Oscars:  A four-time winner of the Best Director Academy Award, Ford won for The Informer (1935), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941), and The Quiet Man (1952).  Interestingly, none of those was a western, although he was nominated for Stagecoach in 1939.

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The Mark of Zorro (1940)

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 14, 2014

The Mark of Zorro—Tyrone Power, Basil Rathbone, Linda Darnell, J. Edward Bromberg, Gale Sondergaard, Montagu Love, Eugene Pallette (1940; Dir:  Rouben Mamoulian)

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This is a quite serviceable version of the oft-remade tale of the fictional black-clad Robin Hood of early California.  The two romantic leads of Tyrone Power and Linda Darnell are extraordinarily beautiful, but one supposes that Errol Flynn would have brought more dash to the role of Zorro.  It’s not a standard western, using swords more than guns, but the setting is in the American West at a time when it was on the frontier.

Young Diego Vega returns from years of education in Spain to his family’s home in southern California ca. 1820, only to find that his father Alejandro (Montagu Love) is no longer the alcalde in Los Angeles.  The new alcalde, Luis Quintero (J. Edward Bromberg) is corrupt and oppressive, with the commander of the local garrison, Capitan Esteban Pasquale (Basil Rathbone), providing the muscle and real brains behind the oppression of local hidalgos and peons alike.  Quintero’s wife Inez (Gale Sondergaard) is very interested in Diego’s knowledge of the social life of Madrid and new fashions, and Quintero’s almost 18-year-old niece Lolita (Linda Darnell, in a negligible role) is also interested.

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Diego adopts the manners of a fop and the secret identity of Zorro (a la The Scarlet Pimpernel) to avenge the wrongs of Quintero and Pasquale and to champion the cause of the people.  Ultimately it comes down to a duel between Esteban and Zorro, and of course Zorro wins.  Rathbone had a reputation as perhaps the best fencer in Hollywood, but since he normally played villains (except when he was Sherlock Holmes), he was seldom allowed to win on film.  In the end, Esteban is killed (a little too soon), Quintero is banished and Lolita and Diego are together.

This version was a hit in its time and remains highly watchable, with more modest pretensions and a simpler story than the more elaborate 1998 remake with Antonio Banderas.  The 1920 Douglas Fairbanks version (the first film version, since the source story by Johnston McCulley, The Curse of Capistrano, was only published in 1919) is probably more fun.

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The famous duel between Diego and Esteban was staged by the resident Hollywood fencing master of the time, Fred Cavens.  Cavens specialized in staging duels that relied more on actual fighting than on the participants jumping on furniture and leaping from balconies.  Cavens’ son Albert doubled for Tyrone Power in the more challenging parts of the duel (mostly with his back to camera), such as the extended exchange with Esteban that ends with Diego’s sword smashing into the bookcase.  Fast fencing shots were under-cranked to 18 or 20 frames per second (as opposed to the standard 24fps); and all the sound effects were post-synchronized.  Rathbone was asked how well Tyrone Power did in their scenes in which stunt doubles were not used.  Rathbone responded, “Power was the most agile man with a sword I’ve ever faced before a camera.  Tyrone could have fenced Errol Flynn into a cocked hat.”

In DC comics lore, this version of Zorro with Tyrone Power is the movie that a young Bruce Wayne goes to see the night his parents are mugged and shot by Joe Chill.  Parents and child are coming out of the movie and walking through an alley when they are mugged, and that leads to Batman’s creation.

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In black and white, with an Oscar-nominated score by Alfred Newman.  The gravel-voiced Eugene Pallette as Fray Felipe is doing a sort of reprise of his role as Friar Tuck in Robin Hood, and the voice and uni-dimensional character can become tiresome.  Tyrone Power didn’t make a lot of westerns, but he was pretty good in Jesse James and in Rawhide.  Linda Darnell is pretty much just window dressing in this movie, but catch her as the fiery Chihuahua in My Darling Clementine and as the beautiful cavalry widow in Two Flags West.

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Riders of the Purple Sage

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 13, 2014

Riders Of The Purple Sage—Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Henry Thomas, Robin Tunney, Norbert Weisser, G.D. Spradlin (Made for television, 1996; Dir:  Charles Haid)

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This is the fifth and most recent film version of Zane Grey’s 1912 bestselling novel, which is perhaps as some call it “the most popular western novel of all time.”  Having said that, it should also be noted that this, as some other oft-retold western stories dating from near the turn of the 19th century, does not wear its age lightly.   The film’s strengths:  very good cast, attempt to be true to the language of the novel, beautiful locations (Moab, Utah).  Weaknesses:  poor direction and editing, failure to use the scenery well.

This is a Shane story, from before Shane—the Mysterious Stranger.  An unknown gunman rides alone into a tense situation and turns things around by siding with the underdogs.  In this case, the underdog is Jane Withersteen (Amy Madigan), spinster-rancher in a religious community in southern Utah (presumably, by the looks of the terrain).  Without much help, she is facing (a) rustlers, (b) Deacon Tull (Norbert Weisser) of her own church, who wants her to marry him and is trying to force her hand, and (c) Pastor Dyer (G.D. Spradlin), who also wants her to marry Tull.  When Tull and his men are attempting to hang Bern Venters (Henry Thomas), one of her hands, she prays for help, and into this mess rides Lassiter (Ed Harris, balding with otherwise long hair), who backs them off and they ride away without completing the hanging. 

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Lassiter (Ed Harris) and Jane Withersteen (Amy Madigan).

Lassiter, who spends most of the film without a first name, tells Jane he is looking for the grave of Millie Erne and wants to know how she came there.  Jane seems to have harbored friendly feelings for the late Millie and is willing to show him the grave, but does not give him any of the other information he seeks.  He agrees to stay and work for her until she does tell him.  Meanwhile, Bern rides out looking for rustled cattle and finds Oldring’s rustlers, including a strange masked rider.  When they come after him, he shoots them.  The masked rider turns out to be Bess (Robin Tunney), a female.  Bern hides her in an Indian cave dwelling and nurses her back to health.

Back at the ranch, Pastor Dyer shows up to lecture Jane and pulls a gun on Lassiter, who wounds him.  Jane’s one remaining hand, Judkins, is killed and her two best riding horses (Black Star and Night) are stolen.  Bern crosses paths with the thieves, recognizes Jane’s horses, and exchanges shots with them.  He gets several of them, including Oldring, but is captured by Tull, who is riding with the rustlers and takes Bern off to be hung (again) for stealing the horses and killing Judkins, which he obviously did not do.

At this point, Jane tells Lassiter that Pastor Dyer was the one who stole Millie Erne from her husband and family and gave her to Jane’s own father.  When her father tried to force Millie, she shot him and then herself.  Meanwhile, her father had given away Millie’s infant daughter.  Lassiter straps on his guns and heads to the church, where he blasts all the bad guys except Tull, including Dyer.  Taking Black Star and Night, Lassiter and Bern pick up Jane and head for the cave where Bess is waiting.  It develops that Bern and Bess are in love, that Bess is in fact Millie’s missing baby (although she thought she was Oldring’s daughter), and that Lassiter is Millie’s brother and has been following her trail for thirteen years.

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The masked rider is (gasp!) a girl!  It’s Bess (Robin Tunney).

They see Tull and his riders heading for them, and Bern and Bess take off on Black Star and Night, leading the pursuit away and heading for a new future together.  Lassiter and Jane have only one horse for the two of them and head up the canyon to where Bern was hiding Bess.  As Tull eventually realizes his mistake in being led away and returns to follow Lassiter and Jane, they tip over a huge rock and cause a landslide on to him.  And presumably they live happily ever after.

As with Conan Doyle’s “A Study in Scarlet,” the 1912 Zane Grey novel makes Jane’s religious group specifically Mormons, following cultural conventions current when the book was written, what with Mormon reclusiveness, their practice of polygamy and supposed related woman-stealing.  This film makes the bad guys a non-specific religious cult, now that Mormons are more mainstream.  The action takes place in 1871, so Lassiter has been following the evildoers since before the Civil War, apparently.  This is only about 90 minutes long without commercials, and it does not flow well.  The Oldring thread of the story is not very developed.  The direction (by Charles Haid, once an actor on television’s Hill Street Blues in the early 1980s) seems like television direction, not using the spectacular canyon landscapes as well as it might.  The red rock shots seem like postcards, not related well to the surrounding terrain or to the story.  John Ford would have done it better; even Gore Verbinski did it better (in the otherwise forgettable The Lone Ranger), but they both probably had much bigger budgets.  There is good use of light and dark, which gives an appropriate 19th-century feeling and perhaps an occasional sense of the moral confusion Jane Withersteen is feeling.

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Deacon Tull and his henchmen, in hot pursuit of Lassiter and Jane.

All in all, not great but worth watching—perhaps the best version on film of this antique story.  The previous most recent film version was made almost 60 years before this, in 1941.  This and several other often-retold western stories from its era (The Virginian, Whispering Smith) can seem kind of clunky and dated to modern viewers.  This story has a great title–good enough to be adopted by a country-rock group in the late 1960s and by three separate country-western groups.  But it’s unclear what riders are referred to in this story.  Everybody rides the purple sage:  rustlers, religious zealots, ranchers, spunky spinsters and mysterious gunmen.  Zane Grey is not read nearly so much as he was a hundred years ago, and his cultural assumptions and floridly romantic sensibility have not worn well.  His writing style is not much to modern tastes, either.  But he still tells a good story if one takes the trouble to read him.

Ed Harris and Amy Madigan, the leads, were married when this was made, and they were also executive producers.  All four of the leads here give good performances, and it’s a shame the film doesn’t have a good flow to make better use of them.  Apparently Ed Harris liked westerns enough after this experience to direct and star in his own several years later:  Appaloosa in 2008.

This was made for television’s TNT network which, in the late 1990s and early 2000s was one of the best places to see new westerns and remakes of old western stories, often with Tom Selleck or Sam Elliot.  Another classic western story from this period of TNT’s sponsorship is the 2000 version of The Virginian, directed by Bill Pullman and starring Pullman and Diane Lane.

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The Last Frontier

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 11, 2014

The Last Frontier—Victor Mature, Guy Madison, Robert Preston, Anne Bancroft, James Whitmore, Pat Hogan (1955; Dir:  Anthony Mann)

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Since this is an Anthony Mann western (albeit without James Stewart), there are not one but two psychologically tortured characters.  The first is Jed Cooper, an almost feral man-child played by Victor Mature, a trapper who has apparently been raised in the wilderness by Gus (James Whitmore).  The other is Col. Frank Marston (Robert Preston), who got 1500 men killed in the Battle of Shiloh in 1862 and is now referred to as “the Butcher of Shiloh.”  He seems both unbalanced by that experience and surprisingly confident in himself. 

It’s 1864 in the mountains of northern Wyoming and southern Montana, the land roamed primarily by the Sioux.  Three mountain men-fur trappers (Gus, Jed and Mungo, an Indian of unspecified tribe) are taking the results of their annual labors to sell, when they are stopped by Indians who are painted for war.  It turns out they are led by Red Cloud, who takes their guns, horses and furs and tells them they are no longer welcome in his lands because of the new fort built by white men.

The three decide to head for newly-built Fort Shallan (fictional, apparently), which is understaffed because of the Civil War still raging in the east.  Capt. Glenn Riordan (Guy Madison) is in charge, since his commanding officer was killed by Indians.  He takes on the three as civilian scouts.  Jed is fascinated by the military and civilization and its trappings, although he’s never been around white people much.  Riordan won’t let him enlist in the military, judging correctly that he’s temperamentally and developmentally unsuited to such a regimented life.  Jed is also taken with Corinna Marston (a blond Anne Bancroft), wife of the missing Col. Marston.  She’s having none of his roughness, though.  For now.

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Jed (Victor Mature) and Mrs. Marston (Anne Bancroft).

Marston has been commanding Fort Medford (also fictional), from which his forces have been driven off and which has been burned to the ground by Indians.  He arrives with a few soldiers and by virtue of his higher rank assumes command at Fort Shallan.  Marston is obsessed with getting back at the Indians in battle, whereas Riordan thinks the only hope for survival in hostile territory is to wait out the approaching winter in the fort, after which the Civil War may end and allow for more troops to be sent out to this remote wilderness.  Fort Shallan’s troops are both untrained and too few to attack the Indians with any chance of success. 

It also becomes clear that there are tensions between the Marstons in their marriage.  And Jed and Corinna become more attracted to each other; that is, Corinna allows Jed to get closer.  He never had much restraint about his attraction to her.

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Col. Marston (Robert Preston) trapped in a bear pit.

Marston insists on accompanying a patrol stocking up on water near Red Cloud’s camp.  He and Jed scout the camp and Marston falls into a bear trap pit.  Jed refuses to help him out of it unless he agrees to give up his foolhardy plans to attack the Indians.  Back at the the fort, Gus and Corinna talk him into rescuing Marston anyway.  Marston gloats, “She wouldn’t let you do it, would she?”

Far from giving up his plans for attack, Marston proceeds with them.  He encourages a sadistic sergeant to attack Jed and when the fight results in the sergeant’s death, Marston calls for Jed’s execution.  Jed escapes into the forest and observes as Marston leads out a force guided by Gus.  The force is ambushed by Sioux, and Jed joins in the fighting, leading as many of the soldiers as can disengage back to Fort Shallan.  Both Gus and Marston are killed.  In the final scene, Jed is shown as a sergeant in a blue uniform at Fort Shellan in the winter.  Corrina Marston is still there.   Mungo (Pat Hogan) has gone back to the mountains.

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Jed scouts during the foolhardy battle with the Sioux.

Somehow that seems an unsatisfying ending for a spirit as independent as Jed’s.  Mann said that the ending was forced on him by the studio.  Victor Mature seems a little old to be as wild as Jed acts sometimes, but he’s fine.  Mature was actually eight years older than James Whitmore, who plays his father-figure Gus and is said in the film to have raised him.  The best performance in this film is given by Robert Preston as the snakily out-of-kilter Col. Marston (reminiscent perhaps of the Captain Queeg character who provokes a mutiny in the the World War II story The Caine Mutiny).  Madison is good as Riordan, and Anne Bancroft is fine as Corinna. 

This is a watchable western, but not among Mann’s best.  Based on the novel “The Gilded Rooster” by Richard Emery Roberts.  In color, 98 minutes.  Not to be confused with a 1986 television movie with the same title, set in Australia and directed by Simon Wincer.   On television, this has sometimes been shown with the title Savage Wilderness.  Although the story is set in the Northern Rockies, filming was done on location in Mexico.  That snow-capped mountain looming above the fort and the forests is Mt. Popocatapetl.

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Historically, the events in this seem a little premature.  Red Cloud’s War is usually dated from 1866 to 1868, when it was ended by the Treaty of Fort Laramie and the U.S. army gave up Fort Phil Kearney, which was burned to the ground by the Sioux as soon as it was vacated.  It’s still generally considered the only white-Indian war in U.S. history which the Indians won.  The effects of that victory lasted only eight years, however, until the next Sioux war, in which Custer’s Seventh Cavalry was wiped out but the Sioux, Cheyennes and Arapahoes were forced onto reservations and lost these lands in Wyoming and Montana.   Some summaries place the events of this film in Oregon, perhaps because of the reference to Fort Medford and the beautiful mountain scenery, but Red Cloud’s war never got anywhere close to Oregon.  It was concentrated along the Bozeman Trail from central Wyoming to the gold mines of western Montana.

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Garden of Evil

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 10, 2014

Garden of Evil—Gary Cooper, Susan Hayward, Richard Widmark, Cameron Mitchell, Hugh Marlowe, Victor Manuel Mendoza (1954; Dir:  Henry Hathaway)

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During the California gold rush (putting this more or less in the 1850s), passengers on a steamship are stranded in Puerto Miguel on Mexico’s Pacific coast.  They include Hooker (Gary Cooper), a former sheriff from Texas; Fiske (Richard Widmark, in what turns out to be a good-guy role), a gambler; and Daly (Cameron Mitchell), a bounty hunter.  Leah Fuller (a husky-voiced Susan Hayward) arrives in town, desperate for help in getting her mining engineer husband John out of a gold mine, where he lies trapped with a broken leg.  The title of the film refers to the region surrounding the mine, about three days of rough travel into Apache country.

Fiske:  “You know, at first I thought she was one of those women who come along every so often and fascinate men without even trying or even knowing why.”

Hooker:  “And now what?”

Fiske:  “She tries, and she knows why.”

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Hooker, Fiske and Daly sign up for $2000 each, along with Vicente Madariaga (Victor Manuel Mendoza), a Mexican.  After an arduous trip on which Daly makes a move on Leah, they find the mine, rescue Fuller (Hugh Marlowe) and fix his leg.  The unreliable Daly gets his fill of gold and they head back, followed by Apaches and slowed down by the injured and embittered Fuller. 

At the first stop, Daly helps Fuller escape on a horse to get rid of him.  Daly is killed by the Indians, and the group finds Fuller’s body hung upside down from a cross.  The party is now on the run. Vicente is killed, and they reach the narrow trail down a cliff just ahead of the Apaches.  Fiske stays behind to hold them off, and Hooker and Leah make their escape.  Hooker goes back to help Fiske, but it’s too late.  The suggestion is that Leah and Hooker go off together, perhaps with some of the gold from the cursed mine.

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Motivations are uneven.  Leah appears to love her husband (he doesn’t think so), but she also appears to be attracted to Fiske (maybe) and Hooker, though not to Daly.  It’s taken for granted that she drives all the men crazy with lust, although only Daly seems to act badly on that impulse.  (What, no bathing in a stream scene?)  The Apaches’ motivation doesn’t appear to be all that consistent, either, and they don’t look much like Apaches.  Clothes and equipment (guns, particularly) don’t fit the 1850s.  The writing is a little spotty, and there are obvious comparisons to Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  One or two of Cooper’s brief speeches get a little heavy-handed, but his presence is strong as always.  This story could have used a bit more character background development. 

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“I guess if the earth were made of gold, men would still die for a handful of dirt.”

There are questions left at the end.  For example, did any of the gold get out, and what happened to it?  Did Hooker get his $2000?  This is watchable, but not the unrecognized gem some would claim.  Spectacularly shot on location in Mexico in early Cinemascope and Technicolor, but there are occasional obvious painted backdrops, too.  Good score by Bernard Herrman and competent direction by Henry Hathaway.  If you like Susan Hayward in this, catch her in Rawhide with Tyrone Power, where she’s even better. 

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Western Comedies

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 9, 2014

Western Comedies

“Dying is easy.  Comedy is hard.”  A version of this quotation has been attributed to a variety of actors, from Edmund Kean, the premier Shakespearean of his time about two hundred years ago, to Edmund Gwenn, the English actor best known for his role as Kris Kringle in the original Miracle on 34th Street (1947).  More recently, it was a line spoken by Alan Swann (played by Peter O’Toole) in My Favorite Year (1982), an excellent movie but unfortunately not a western. 

It refers to the fact that, while the point of comedy is to make the audience laugh, provide it with lightness of heart, and, occasionally, even make it think in a genial sort of way, getting there is far from easy.  Tragedy can be more forgiving of mistakes in tone or judgment.  And the line between the two is not always easy to see.  It’s no coincidence that two of the silent screen’s three best comics (and directors of comedies) typically played characters of a melancholy nature and produced their laughs by playing off that melancholia.  (That would be Chaplin and Keaton, for those who are still wondering.)  It’s complicated by the existence of wide variations in what people find funny, how they respond to jokes or what they think comedy is.  The image that comes to mind is the outrageous Groucho Marx playing against an apparently humorless Margaret Dumont in Duck Soup and other films.  It’s said that she never understood what made any of that funny.  Some find the Three Stooges funny; some tend not to get their humor at all and find them infantile.

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With westerns, comedy becomes even trickier.  There are only a handful of successful western comedies.  Partly that’s because, along with the variations in personal senses of humor, you have variations in what people expect of westerns.  It is further complicated by changes in the popular culture.   A western is usually a view of an earlier and more rustic time and place, seen through the lens of the time in which the movie is made.  Although western comedies have been made since the start of movies, some forms of that comedy just don’t seem very funny in the context of modern social attitudes, conventions and assumptions.  It’s always good to watch older movies, especially westerns, with a broader and more tolerant view than you’d have to bring to a current film at the multiplex.  And even if you do, some comedies just don’t age that well.

That doesn’t really mean that the oldest movies are the least successful comedies.  On the contrary, some of the oldest (Buster Keaton’s The General, Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush) are probably as funny now as when they were released 90 years ago.  The humor of some, though, hasn’t aged as well—Bob Hope’s humor in The Paleface (1948), for example, although some may still like that.  And some probably weren’t that successful as comedies to start with, like perhaps 2013’s The Lone Ranger.

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Some comedies aren’t entirely consistent in tone.  That is, they might be primarily comedic but with some serious elements, like Cat Ballou, with its killings and threatened hanging.  Or they might not be sure what they are, with comedic elements but a very uneven tone, like the recent film The Lone Ranger (sometimes referred to as Pirates of the Caribbean Ranger for director Gore Verbinski’s  antic attempts to import.the sensibility of those uneven pirate movies, along with Captain Jack Tonto, to the time-honored story of the Lone Ranger).  Some seem as if they would have been more successful as comedies if they’d toned down the broader elements of that comedy (like the cartoonish bird-twittering during brawls in North to Alaska, for example), while it would be a mistake to try to tone down the broad comedy of Mel Brooks in Blazing Saddles.

One of the traditional western themes tends to show up a lot in comedies:  the easterner who goes west and has to cope with a new environment and new rules.  Various aspects of this oldest of western stories (it was part of the plot of the first western novel, The Virginian, in 1902) are exaggerated, with a fish-out-of-water tale, and hilarity ensues.  Or it does if all goes well.  Most of the silent comedies used this line, and so do such recent successes as City Slickers (1991).  Even 2010’s Gunless is a variation on this theme, with The Montana Kid doing a sort of reverse by ending up in more civilized Canada.

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Below is an attempt to collect chronologically and in one place a more-or-less comprehensive list of this sub-genre, for those who’d like to explore more than they’ve seen already.  As with all such lists, there are certain to be some films that aren’t here.  Feel free to leave a comment, and we’ll add them.  Be aware, however, that this list is likely to be like trying to assemble a complete list of westerns generally: it will probably never be absolutely complete.  It is further complicated because it’s not always clear what is a comedy and what is not.

Those films marked with a (*) are thought to be the most successful comedies.  Some of these have been written about elsewhere in this blog, and others will show up in due course.  If there’s a link, you can read more specifically about the film in question.  If there isn’t yet, we’re always adding things, so check back. 

At the bottom are a few more specific sub-genres of western comedy that might be interesting.  Although there were a couple of interesting western comedies dealing with the subject of slavery in the late 1960s-early 1970s, for example, it’s hard to imagine a current film doing so.  (However, the pre-KKK scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is pretty funny, although you wouldn’t say that the movie as a whole is a comedy.)  The Rat Pack westerns of the 1960s, on the other hand, did well enough at the box office when they were released, but they haven’t aged very well.  Animated western features (as opposed to shorts and brief cartoons) seem to be a creation of the last twenty years, although it would not be surprising to find that there had been one with Mickey Mouse in the 1930s.  There should probably be another sublist for Spaghetti Western Comedies.  Any suggestions about what to put on it?

Western Satires and Comedies:

     Silents:

The Americano (1916, Douglas Fairbanks)

Wild and Woolly (1917, Douglas Fairbanks)

Two-Gun Gussie (1918, Harold Lloyd)

Out West (aka The Sheriff, 1918, Roscoe Arbuckle, Buster Keaton)

The Knickerbocker Buckaroo (1919, Douglas Fairbanks, now lost)

Billy Blazes, Esq. (1919, Harold Lloyd, Bebe Daniels)

The Mollycoddle (1920, Douglas Fairbanks, Wallace Beery)

An Eastern Westerner (1920; Harold Lloyd)

The Paleface (1922, Buster Keaton)

The Frozen North (1922, Buster Keaton)

The Pilgrim (1923, Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance)

Sawdust Trail (1924, Hoot Gibson)

Curses (1925, Al St. John; Dir:  Roscoe Arbuckle)

Go West (1925, Buster Keaton)

*The Gold Rush (1925, Charlie Chaplin, Mack Swain)

*The General (1926; Buster Keaton)

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 Buster Keaton in The Paleface, 1922.

     The Age of Sound:

Ruggles of Red Gap (1935, Charles Laughton)

The Gay Desperado (1936; Nino Martini, Ida Lupino)

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Way Out West (1937, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy)

The Terror of Tiny Town (1938)

*Destry Rides Again (1939, James Stewart, Marlene Dietrich)

Go West (1940, Marx Brothers)

My Little Chickadee (1940, Mae West, W.C. Fields)

Go West, Young Lady (1941, Penny Singleton, Glenn Ford)

Ride ‘Em Cowboy (1942; Abbott and Costello, Ella Fitzgerald)

Belle of the Yukon (1944; Randolph Scott, Gypsy Rose Lee)

Along Came Jones (1945, Gary Cooper, Loretta Young)

Rockin’ in the Rockies (1945, The Three Stooges)

Heaven Only Knows (1947, Robert Cummings, Brian Donlevy)

Bowery Buckaroos (1947, Leo Gorcey and the Bowery Boys)

The Paleface (1948, Bob Hope, Jane Russell)

The Dude Goes West (1948, Eddie Albert)

Feudin’, Fussin’ and A-Fightin’ (1948, Donald O’Connor, Marjorie Main)

The Gal Who Took the West (1949, Yvonne DeCarlo)

The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (1949, Betty Grable)

Fancy Pants (1950, Bob Hope, Lucille Ball:  remake of Ruggles of Red Gap)

A Ticket to Tomahawk (1950, Dan Dailey, Anne Baxter, Rory Calhoun)

Callaway Went Thataway (1951, Fred MacMurray, Dorothy McGuire, Howard Keel)

Son of Paleface (1952, Bob Hope, Jane Russell)

Pardners (1956, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis)

Sheriff of Fractured Jaw (1958; dir:  Raoul Walsh)

Alias Jesse James (1959, Bob Hope)

*North to Alaska (1960, John Wayne, Ernie Kovacs)

Sergeants 3 (1962, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin)

Four for Texas (1963, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin)

McLintock! (1963, John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara)

Advance to the Rear (1964, Glenn Ford, Stella Stevens)

*Cat Ballou (1965, Jane Fonda, Lee Marvin)

*The Hallelujah Trail (1965, Burt Lancaster, Lee Remick)

The Rounders (1965, Glenn Ford, Henry Fonda)

The Outlaws Is Coming! (1965, The Three Stooges)

Texas Across the River (1966, Dean Martin, Alain Delon)

Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966, Henry Fonda, Joanne Woodward)

The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin (1967; Roddy McDowell, Suzanne Pleshette)

Waterhole #3 (1967; James Coburn, Carroll O’Connor)

The Scalphunters (1968, Burt Lancaster, Ossie Davis)

The Shakiest Gun in the West (1968, Don Knotts)

The Good Guys and the Bad Guys (1969, Robert Mitchum, George Kennedy)

Paint Your Wagon (1969, Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood)

Sam Whiskey (1969, Burt Reynolds)

The Great Bank Robbery (1969; Zero Mostel, Kim Novak, Clint Walker)

*Support Your Local Sheriff (1969, James Garner, Jack Elam, Joan Hackett)

Little Big Man (1970, Dustin Hoffman)

Dirty Dingus Magee (1970, Frank Sinatra, George Kennedy)

The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970, Jason Robards, Stella Stevens)

The Cheyenne Social Club (1970, James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Shirley Jones)

There Was a Crooked Man (1970, Kirk Douglas, Henry Fonda)

Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971, James Garner, Jack Elam)

Skin Game (1971, James Garner, Louis Gossett)

Scandalous John (1971, Brian Keith)

Evil Roy Slade (MfTV 1972, John Astin, Mickey Rooney, Dick Shawn)

One Little Indian (1973, James Garner, Vera Miles)

Castaway Cowboy (1974, James Garner, Vera Miles)

*Blazing Saddles (1974, Mel Brooks, Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder) 

Rancho Deluxe (1975, Jeff Bridges, Sam Waterston)   

The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975, Bill Bixby, Susan Clark)

From Noon ‘Til Three (1976, Charles Bronson, Jill Ireland)

The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday (1976, Lee Marvin, Oliver Reed)

The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox (1976, Goldie Hawn, George Segal)

Hot Lead and Cold Feet (1978, Jim Dale, Darren McGavin)

Goin’ South (1978, Jack Nicholson, Mary Steenburgen)

The Frisco Kid (1979, Gene Wilder, Harrison Ford)

The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again (1979, Tim Conway, Don Knotts)

The Villain (1979, Kirk Douglas, Ann-Margret)

*Murphy’s Romance (1985, James Garner, Sally Field)

Rustlers’ Rhapsody (1985, Tom Berenger)

Three Amigos! (1986, Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, Martin Short)

*City Slickers (1991, Billy Crystal, Jack Palance)

City Slickers II (1994, Billy Crystal, Jack Palance)

Lightning Jack (1994, Paul Hogan, Cuba Gooding, Jr.)

Wagons East (1994, John Candy, Richard Lewis)

Maverick (1994, Mel Gibson, James Garner)

Tall Tales (1995, Patrick Swayze, Oliver Platt)

Almost Heroes (1998, Chris Farley, Matthew Perry)

Shanghai Noon (2000, Jackie Chan, Owen Wilson)

Shanghai Knights (2003, Jackie Chan, Owen Wilson)

Bandidas (2006, Salma Hayek, Penelope Cruz)

*Gunless (2010, Paul Gross, Sienna Guillory)

The Lone Ranger (2013, Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer)

A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014, Seth MacFarlane)

The Ridiculous 6 (2015, Adam Sandler)

In With the Outlaws (in development, 2012)

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Western Comedies Featuring Slavery

The Scalphunters (1968, Burt Lancaster, Ossie Davis)

Skin Game (1971, James Garner, Louis Gossett)

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Rat Pack Westerns from the 1960s

These usually (but not always) had Frank Sinatra in them; he was the unquestioned leader of the Rat Pack.  These films were an attempt to demonstrate that the alcohol-fueled camaraderie among a select group of friends and entertainers could translate to the screen and bring in cash to finance the continued hi-jinx in real life.  In general, these films did well enough at the box office upon initial release, but they are not watched that much 50 years later.  It’s easy to get the impression that those on the screen are having more fun than the audience is.  Sinatra could be an effective actor in war movies (From Here to Eternity, Von Ryan’s Express) and musicals (Anchors Aweigh, Guys and Dolls, The Tender Trap, Pal Joey, Can-Can, etc.).  Western comedy may not have been a natural fit for his talents.  Other Rat Pack movies of the 1960s included Oceans 11 (the original) and Robin and the 7 Hoods.  

Sergeants 3 (1962)  An attempt to remake the classic Gunga Din as a western.

Four for Texas (1963)  Sinatra and Martin as gamblers with competing riverboats.

Texas Across the River (1966)

Dirty Dingus Magee (1970)

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Spaghetti Western Comedies

The line between comedies and non-comedies gets very confused with spaghetti westerns, especially in the 1970s.  There are those who would say that by 1970 most spaghetti westerns, with all their surreal elements and strange touches, were parodies of westerns.  In any event, it is obvious that at least some of them in the 1970s were made with outright comic intent, whether the humor worked or not for American audiences.  One indication that the comedy was intentional was the presence of Terence Hill, as in the Trinity movies.  Some would say the most successful of these is Companeros.

They Call Me Trinity (1970, Terence Hill, Bud Spencer)

Companeros (1970, Franco Nero, Tomas Milian, Jack Palance)

Trinity Is Still My Name (1971, Terence Hill, Bud Spencer)

Life Is Tough, Eh Providence? (1972, Tomas Milian)

Man of the East (1972, Terence Hill)

My Name Is Nobody (1973, Terence Hill, Henry Fonda)

A Genius, Two Friends and an Idiot (1975, Terence Hill, Patrick McGoohan)

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Animated Western Comedies

Two-Gun Mickey (Disney cartoon short, 1934)

Egghead Rides Again (Warner Bros. cartoon, 1937)

Scalp Trouble (Warner Bros. cartoon, 1939)

The Lone Stranger and Porky (Warner Bros. cartoon, 1939)

El Gaucho Goofy (Disney cartoon short, 1942)

Buckaroo Bugs (Warner Bros. cartoon, 1944)

Hare Trigger (Warner Bros. cartoon, 1945)

Bugs Bunny Rides Again (Warner Bros. cartoon, 1948)

Pecos Bill (Disney, 1948)

Dude Duck (Disney cartoon short, 1951)

Drip-Along Daffy (Warner Bros. cartoon, 1951)

Puny Express (Warner Bros. cartoon, 1951)

Deputy Droopy (MGM, 1955)

The First Bad Man (MGM, 1955)

Wild and Woolly Hare (Warner Bros. cartoon, 1959)

Horse Hare (Warner Bros. cartoon, 1960)

Fievel Goes West (1991)

The Road to El Dorado (2000)

Spirit:  Stallion of the Cimarron (not so much a comedy, 2002)

Home on the Range (2004)

Rango (2011)

Cinderella Once Upon a Time …in the West [also Cendrillon au Far West and Cinderella 3’D] (2012)

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