Monthly Archives: May 2014

The Outriders

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 13, 2014

The Outriders—Joel McCrea, Arlene Dahl, Barry Sullivan, James Whitmore, Ramon Navarro, Claude Jarman, Jr., Jeff Corey, Ted de Corsia (1950; Dir:  Roy Rowland)

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A good cast in a better-than-average Civil War-era wagon train-with-gold western (e.g., Virginia City, Westbound).  Will Owen (Joel McCrea), Jesse Wallace (Barry Sullivan) and Clint Priest (James Whitmore) are the outriders of the title.  At the start, they are Confederates held as prisoners by Yankees in Missouri.  They escape, only to be caught by Keeley (Jeff Corey), a Quantrill affiliate whose dirty exterior and expressionist makeup advertise his moral dubiousness.  Keeley.forces the three, since Owen is the only one in the band who knows the Santa Fe Trail, to go to Santa Fe, where they are to join a wagon train to St. Louis laden with Yankee gold.  It is led by Don Antonio Chaves (silent film star Ramon Novarro), who politely refuses their offer to accompany his train.  He does have a stagecoach carrying war widow Jen Gort (Arlene Dahl) and her youthful brother-in-law Roy Gort (Claude Jarman, Jr.) to St. Louis. 

Keeping their distance initially, Owen, Wallace and Priest shadow the train until they are able to rescue it from attack by Apaches; then Chaves welcomes them.  Owen becomes the trail guide and honcho, all the while planning to leave the train to be attacked by Keeley once they reach Cow Creek in Missouri.  Aside from the usual wagon train complications (storms, horse stampedes, yet more Indians, fording a raging river, near mutiny by the drovers), Owen and Wallace both develop a romantic interest in Jen Gort; Owen’s misgivings about his deception deepen.  While fording a swollen river, young Roy Gort is drowned.

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Widow Jen Gort (Arlene Dahl) and her young brother-in-law Roy (Claude Jarman, Jr.).

As they near the attack point in Missouri, Owen gets the news that the war is over.  Wallace doesn’t care, and presumably neither does Keeley.  They just want the gold whether the war is over or not.  Owen leads the defense against the now-outlaws, his former colleagues.  Wallace escapes the train to join the raiders, both Keeley and Chaves are killed in the early moments of the attack, and Owen’s military tactics start to turn things in favor of the train until his final confrontation with Wallace.  And he and Jen ride off into the sunset together.

This is a watchable film, although not much seen these days.  The print I saw (on Encore Westerns) was serviceable but not great.  At this point McCrea is in the final stage of his career, appearing solely in westerns.  But he’s good, if getting to be a little long in the tooth, here.  He’s been a star for almost twenty years but still has more than a decade to go in movies.

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Still of Joel McCrea and Arlene Dahl; McCrea, James Whitmore and Barry Sullivan shadowing the wagon train.

With the possible exception of the beautiful Arlene Dahl, the cast is excellent, although Whitmore is mostly obscured by a wig and false beard.  Novarro, once one of the biggest stars in silent films, is very good, playing Chaves with depth and smoothness.  Perennial villain Ted de Corsia is one of Keeley’s henchmen.  In a career of minor supporting roles, Jeff Corey would show up eighteen years later in both Butch Cassidy (as a friendly sheriff) and the original True Grit (as Tom Cheney, the killer of Mattie Ross’s father).  Claude Jarman, Jr., now remembered exclusively (if at all) for The Yearling, managed about this time to appear with all three of the major western film stars:  with John Wayne (Rio Grande), Joel McCrea (The Outriders) and Randolph Scott (Hangman’s Knot, another good Confederates-at-the-end-of-the-Civil War western) before his career fizzled.  Of the three, Randolph Scott was the biggest box office star in 1950.  In fact, he was the biggest male box office star in Hollywood that year.  In color, just over 90 minutes.

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Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 12, 2014

Shoot-Out At Medicine Bend—Randolph Scott, James Garner, Angie Dickinson, James Craig, Gordon Jones, Dani Crayne (1957; Dir:  Richard L. Bare)

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Made in black and white at a time when most westerns, even such low-budget productions as Budd Boetticher’s Ranown movies starring Randolph Scott, were in color.  To the modern viewer, the attraction is the cast, with Randolph Scott in his prime, James Garner in an early movie role about the time he was starting out in television’s Maverick series, and the young Angie Dickinson two years before Rio Bravo.

Ex-cavalry Captain Buck Devlin (Randolph Scott), Sgt. James Maitland (young James Garner) and Pvt. Wilbur Clegg (Gordon Jones) are trying to find out who’s providing the faulty ammunition that’s getting soldiers killed in fights with the Sioux.  They are helped by Quakers, and claim to be Quakers themselves as they go undercover to investigate thefts in the area of Medicine Bend, and look for the poor quality powder.

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Three ex-soldiers as Quakers:  Maitland (Garner), Clegg (Jones) and Devlin (Scott).

Devlin develops a romantic relationship with the much younger Priscilla King (played well by Angie Dickinson–an even greater age difference than she would have with John Wayne in Rio Bravo), and Maitland with Nell Garrison (Dani Crayne), a saloon singer who works for E.P. Clark (James Craig).  Maitland and Clegg infiltrate Clark’s shady business by taking jobs at his store. Clark, now suspicious of the three strangers in town, tries to lure Devlin into a trap, but fails.  Devlin steals Clark’s ill-gotten gains one night and gives the money back to the pioneers from whom it was originally stolen.  As matters develop, Clark is behind the robberies and shoddy merchandise, and Maitland and Clegg almost get hanged before Devlin bails them out.

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Production still of Angie Dickinson, Randolph Scott and Dani Crayne.

Clark’s operation is eventually uncovered and Devlin kills him in, ironically given the film’s title, a fistfight. The film ends with Devlin preparing to ride into the sunset with Priscilla King.

Warner Brothers was worried about declining revenues on Scott movies in the mid-1950s, as well as competition from television (in which it was gleefully participating, with programs like Cheyenne and Maverick).  For those reasons, they held down costs here by shooting the film in black and white.  It’s not exactly great; for example, it’s not as good as the westerns Scott made with Boetticher about this time.  But it’s not terrible, either.  It’s almost like recent movies with comic-book heroes, with the protagonist (Scott, in this case) assuming a secret identity and fighting crime with a mask.

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Bandolero!

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 10, 2014

Bandolero!—James Stewart, Dean Martin, Raquel Welch, George Kennedy, Andrew Prine, Will Geer, Jock Mahoney, Harry Carey, Jr., Dub Taylor (1968; Dir:  Andrew V. McLaglen)

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Director Andrew McLaglen was the son of actor Victor McLaglen, and through his father long had contacts with John Wayne and his Batjac production company.  He made his initial reputation as a television director on many Have Gun Will Travel episodes in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  By the mid-1960s he had graduated to movies, making a string of not-terribly-distinguished westerns.  This is one of two westerns directed by McLaglen with ! in the title, along with the John Wayne vehicle McLintock!  It’s kind of miscast and schizophrenic.  The first half, with James Stewart as Mace Bishop saving his outlaw brother Dee Bishop (Dean Martin) from hanging, has some humor.  The second half, with its chase into Mexico and desperate fight against bandidos, turns grim.  Apparently the word “bandolero” is another Spanish term for outlaw or bandit. 

The movie opens in Val Verde, Texas, in 1867.  James Stewart and Dean Martin don’t seem much like brothers; supposedly they were on opposite sides in the late Civil War, with Dee (Martin) riding with Quantrill in the nasty guerilla war on the Missouri borders, and Mace (Stewart) fighting for the Union with Sherman.  Raquel Welch has big 1968 hair (not to mention other attributes), and this is not her worst performance.  She is a former Mexican prostitute, now the trophy wife of wealthy rancher Stoner (Jock Mahoney), who gets killed when Dee’s gang tries to rob the local bank in Val Verde in an early sequence.  The robbery is botched, and the robbers are captured and sentenced to hang, necessitating their rescue by Mace. 

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Dee Bishop (Dean Martin), Maria Stoner (Raquel Welch) and Mace Bishop (James Stewart) during their escape, with Mace still dressed as a hangman.

Mace shows up disguised as the hangman.  In making their escape, the outlaws snatch Mrs. Stoner (Welch), for whom the sheriff July Johnson (George Kennedy) has romantic intentions now that her husband is barely dead.  Johnson leads the posse in pursuit, with his deputy Roscoe (Andrew Prine).  In the chase, Maria Stoner falls in love with Dee Bishop, who is badly in need of redemption through the love of a good (even if formerly bad) woman with big hair.  Mace is increasingly ill at ease with Dee’s outlaw compatriots.  But Mace isn’t as clean as he might seem, either.  On the way out of town, he also robbed the local bank, largely because it seemed easy.

Dee Bishop [incredulous]:  “You robbed a bank?  You, Mace?”

Mace Bishop:  “Well, Dee, the bank was there… and I was there… and there wasn’t very much of anybody else there… and it just seemed like the thing to do.  Y’know, it’s not like you didn’t – something you never heard of.  Lots of people rob banks for all sorts of different reasons.”

Dee Bishop [now bemused]:  “You just walked into a bank and helped yourself to ten thousand dollars ’cause it seemed like the thing to do?”

Mace Bishop:  “That’s about the way it was, yeah, as, as well as I can remember, yeah.”

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Heading south into the northern Mexico deserts, the outlaws’ escape and, to be fair, the posse’s pursuit, is complicated by a swarm of Mexican bandidos.  Obviously they like Maria Stoner, too, and the lure of the bank money doesn’t hurt.  After the extended final shootout with the bandidos in the deserted Mexican town of Sabinas, hardly anybody is left alive, and the survivors aren’t who you’d expect according to the classic formulas. 

The movie’s not terrible, but not particularly memorable.  As a general principle, beware movies with “!” in the title.  Stewart made a string of not-so-good westerns beginning in the mid-1960s (Shenandoah, The Rare Breed, Firecreek); he obviously missed directors John Ford and Anthony Mann.  Dean Martin is better in this than he is in Rough Night in Jericho or in his movies with Frank Sinatra and other ratpackers, but he’s unusually dour for Martin.  Raquel Welch was at the peak of her fame (or notoriety), and she appeared during this window in a few westerns.  Look for her, for example, in 100 Rifles with Jim Brown and Burt Reynolds, and in the female revenge saga Hannie Caulder.  This may be the best of her westerns, but that’s not saying much.

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There’s good music by Jerry Goldsmith, and excellent cinematography by William Clothier.  Shot mostly in southern Utah and northern Arizona, with a couple of other stops, in color at 106 minutes.

Note:  Did Larry McMurtry have something to do with this film?  Note the character names that get used in the Lonesome Dove novel and mini-series in the mid-1980s:  a sheriff named July Johnson, with a deputy named Roscoe.  And a bad man named Dee, to be hanged.

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The Bounty Hunter

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 9, 2014

The Bounty Hunter—Randolph Scott, Dolores Dorn, Ernest Borgnine, Marie Windsor, Dub Taylor (1954; Dir:  Andre de Toth)

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A formulaic western with an improbable plot, which is nevertheless engaging on a minor level.  Randolph Scott is the titular merciless bounty hunter Jim Kipp, engaged by the Pinkerton agency to find three unknown train robbers responsible for several deaths near Dodge City a year previously.  After a shoot-out with a posse killed four of the seven robbers, the three survivors had escaped with the loot into somewhere in the New Mexico-Texas-Colorado area. 

Scott tracks the three off into the badlands with a cowboy’s minimal baggage, figuring how far they could have gone with the water available to them.  Yet when he arrives in the remote and unfriendly town of Two Forks, over the course of a couple of days he demonstrates that he’s brought with him at least three hats and several changes of clothes.  The local Doc Spencer (Harry Antrim) lies to Kipp about having treated a wounded man shot in the leg; Kipp is intrigued both by the lie and by the Doc’s comely blonde daughter Julie Spencer (Dolores Dorn).  Nobody seems to like Kipp much.  (“Well, you know what they say about you:  you’d turn in your grandmother on her birthday if there was a reward on her.”).  But that doesn’t get to him. 

BountyHunterWindScott Getting the drop on Kipp.

Kipp demonstrates his humanity by letting a young prison escapee go and revealing how his storekeeper father’s killing set him on his present course.  He acts as an agent provocateur to get the bad guys to reveal themselves, and, surprisingly, Ernest Borgnine (as antagonistic, limping hotel clerk Bill Rachin) ultimately isn’t one of them.  The three improbably turn out to be the local postmaster (Dub Taylor), the sheriff (Howard Petrie), and a resourceful and not unsympathetic saloon girl Alice Williams (frequent movie bad girl Marie Windsor).  The movie ends with two of them having been killed by others of the three.  In the end, Kipp gets the girl and converts to being a lawman in Two Forks, much like Henry Fonda’s redemption in the more convincing The Tin Star.

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The doc’s prim daughter (Dorn) takes on the saloon girl (Windsor).

The editing’s not great, with a few jerky cuts.  You can also see too clearly where doubles are used (for Scott while riding bareback, and for stocky character actor Dub Taylor jumping off a roof), for example—sloppy directing where the camera’s too close.  The movie is well paced, however, and modestly engaging, with Scott mostly in his cheerfully confident mode.  Romantic interest Julie Spencer is played by Dolores Dorn, 36 years younger than Scott and married to Franchot Tone.  She’s eclipsed by Marie Windsor, though.  Vance Edwards has a bit part as Tyler MacDuff, and at the end look for a young Fess Parker as one of three wild cowboys who ride into Two Forks and quickly back out again.  One of several westerns made by De Toth in the late 1940s and early 1950s, mostly with Randolph Scott.  The low-wattage cast and sloppy editing seem like evidence of a low budget and quick production, but the movie’s not bad.  The color wasn’t good on the print I saw.  Even on TCM, which makes a point of using the best prints available, the print looked dingy and in need of restoration.  Not available on DVD. 

Not to be confused with the terrible 2010 movie of the same name with Jennifer Anniston and Gerard Butler.

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The Westerner

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 8, 2014

The Westerner—Gary Cooper, Walter Brennan, Doris Davenport, Forrest Tucker, Dana Andrews, Lilian Bond, Tom Tyler, Chill Wills (1940; Dir:  William Wyler)

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This slow-moving and highly fictionalized biopic about Judge Roy Bean (Walter Brennan, 46 at the time he made this movie) is often viewed as a classic, but it isn’t really much watched these days.  Walter Brennan gives a superb performance in the role of a basically unsympathetic character (Judge Roy Bean, the Law West of the Pecos), and Gary Cooper does well as his friend Cole Harden.

In the early 1880s, Harden is brought into Bean’s courtroom/bar in Vinegarroon, Texas, as a horse thief, and is sentenced to hang.  Noting the judge’s fondness for English actress Lillie Langtry, Harden claims to be able to get the judge a lock of her hair.  Ultimately, it turns out that he bought the horse from the real thief, and he and Bean become unlikely friends. 

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Bean (Walter Brennan) in front of his saloon, The Jersey Lilly [sic].

On his way out of town, Harden stops at a nearby homestead, where he is taken with the beauty of Jane Ellen Mathews (Doris Davenport), daughter of Caliphalet Mathews, the leader of the homesteaders generally.  While helping them out, he finds that cattlemen have let their cattle into the homesteaders’ valley and won’t let the homesteaders fence them out of their crop areas.  Basically, the structure of the remainder of the story is as a range war saga, with the cattlemen led by Bean against the homesteaders.  Harden tries to maintain his relationships with both sides and has an idea.  He charms Jane into letting him take a lock of her hair. 

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Harden (Gary Cooper) takes a lock of hair from a momentarily compliant homesteader (Doris Davenport).

When he tries to mediate between Bean and the homesteaders (after he has taken Bean’s gun), the two sides can’t agree.  But claiming that the lock of hair came from Lillie Langtry, Harden gets Bean to promise to have the cattle removed.  They are, and the homesteaders proceed to give thanks, until they see that the cattlemen have started fires to burn them out instead.  Harden fights the fires with the homesteaders, but Jane Mathews’ father is killed and she won’t listen to him any longer.  Most of the homesteaders leave, but Jane is determined to stay.

Bean admits that he was behind the fires, and Harden goes to Fort Davis to get a warrant for his arrest; he’s also appointed a deputy sheriff to serve it.  Meanwhile, Lillie Langtry (Lilian Bond in a very brief and non-speaking role) arrives in Fort Davis to perform.  Bean changes the town’s name to Langtry and buys up all the tickets to her performance so he can enjoy it privately in his Confederate uniform.  As the curtain goes up, it reveals on stage not Lillie but Harden. 

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Bean (Walter Brennan) finally gets to meet the real Jersey Lily.

The finale is a shootout in the theater, and Bean is mortally wounded.  Harden carries him to Lillie’s dressing room, where he meets her and then expires.  Cut to the Jane Mathews homestead, miraculously rebuilt in 1884.  Harden is there with her as they watch the wagons of returning homesteaders to other farms.  Swelling music, fade to credits.

Other than portraying Bean’s cranky, arbitrary nature, this isn’t very factual.  Davenport is effective enough but a bit stodgy.  She never became much of a star because of an automobile accident that forced her into retirement.  Forrest Tucker is Wade Harper, the younger leader of the homesteaders and rival for Jane Mathews’ hand.  There’s an early Dana Andrews role as a homesteader here, too, and Chill Wills.  The first half of the movie, while the sort-of-friendship between Harden and Bean develops, is fairly slow, but the pace picks up in the second half.  In black and white, filmed on location in Arizona. Music is by Alfred Newman and Dimitri Tiomkin.

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Although he was quirky as a judge/justice of the peace, the real Roy Bean wasn’t the kind of quasi-criminal depicted in this film.  He did fight on the Confederate side at Chickamauga, as the film says.  He was not involved in any range wars of the sort shown here, although many Texans were.  Rather than dying in a shootout in the early 1880s, however, he died peacefully in 1903, still a justice of the peace.  His bar, originally in Vinegarroon, was named The Jersey Lily in honor of Miss Langtry, a famous English beauty, royal mistress and sometime actress, but Vinegarroon itself disappeared in 1882 after the railroad bypassed it.  Bean moved his bar to the town of Langtry, Texas, which was named not after the actress but after George Langtry, a railroad foreman.  Lillie Langtry did make a profitable tour of the U.S., appearing on stage in late 1882 and early 1883. 

Although the historical Bean wasn’t much like the character depicted in this movie, Walter Brennan is excellent in the role.  In fact, Gary Cooper was reluctant to take the Cole Harden role because after reading the initial script he thought the story would be too dominated by Bean’s character and there wasn’t much for him to do.  Brennan won his third Oscar (in five years) as Best Supporting Actor for this role, making him one of only three men to win three Academy Awards for acting.  (The other two are Jack Nicholson and Daniel Day-Lewis.  You don’t normally think of Walter Brennan the same way as those two, do you?)  Cooper looked good in this film, and looks particularly good riding a beautiful appaloosa.

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Cooper astride one of his co-stars; and the central relationship of the movie–Bean (Brennan) and Harden (Cooper).

This was shot in just four weeks, with Tucson, Arizona, and surrounding country standing in for Texas.  Cooper was at the peak of his career, but he only made three westerns during the 1940s:  this and North West Mounted Police in 1940, and the comedy Along Came Jones in 1945.   William Wyler did not direct many westerns, but he did do the large-scale The Big Country (1958) with Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston, among many others, almost twenty years later.  And Civil War movie Friendly Persuasion (1956), again with Gary Cooper, if you count that as a western.

For another (and revisionist) take on Bean and his life, see Paul Newman in The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972).  And another deliberately ahistorical Bean appears in The Streets of Laredo (MfTV, 1995).  For another town named Vinegarroon (a type of scorpion, apparently), see Heaven With a Gun, a late (1969) Glenn Ford film with Ford as a preacher-gunman.

 

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Other Wests: Canada, Alaska and Australia

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 6, 2014

Other Wests:  Westerns Set in Canada, Alaska and Australia

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Northern Westerns:

In the early days of the movies, the Alaska and Klondike gold rushes were only twenty years in the past.  Many people remembered them, including those who had only read of them when they were taking place.  The gold rushes had also given rise to popular novels that used the wild northern country as a setting for adventure stories, like the stories of Jack London, James Oliver Curwood and Rex Beach.  The narrative poems of Robert W. Service, about “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” and “The Cremation of Sam McGee”, were well known.  In the 1920s, Charlie Chaplin (The Gold Rush) and Buster Keaton (The Frozen North) made movies set in the northern gold rushes, as did Rin Tin Tin.  Some of these stories, like The Call of the Wild and Rex Beach’s 1906 novel The Spoilers have been made as movies multiple times.  Although used less frequently as a setting now, more than a hundred years after the northern gold rushes took place, they still have some interest for modern audiences, as seen in the recent (2014) television miniseries Klondike.

The use of the frozen north as a setting has much in common with westerns—themes of civilization vs. lawlessness, self-reliance in defense of one’s life and property, surviving in an often-hostile nature, ranching and mining, Indians and outlaws.  It just happened there a decade or two later than it did in what we normally think of as the American west.  Indeed, many of the figures in the American west, such as Wyatt Earp, drifted northward with the gold strikes.  If Bill Hickok hadn’t been dead for more than twenty years, he might have been tempted as well.

As usual, there are probably other movies that could be added to these lists.  If you have one, please leave a comment.

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The Silent Era

The Spoilers (1914)

Etienne of the Glad Heart (short, Tom Mix, 1914)

The Man from the Yukon (1916)

The Dawn Maker (1916)

The Flame of the Yukon (1917)

The Savage (1917)

The Girl Alaska (1919)

Back to God’s Country (1919, 1925, 1953)

The Silver Horde (1920)

The Cyclone (Tom Mix, 1920)

Flower of the North (1921)

O’Malley of the Mounted (William S. Hart, 1921)

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The Frozen North (Buster Keaton, 1922)

The Spoilers (1923)

Where the North Begins (Rin Tin Tin, 1923)

Shadows of the North (Rin Tin Tin, 1923)

The Alaskan (1924)

North of 36 (1924)

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

The Gold Rush (Charlie Chaplin 1925)

Call of the Klondike (1926)

A Hero of the Big Snows (Rin Tin Tin, 1926)

Trail of ’98 (1928)

Code of the Scarlet (Ken Maynard, 1928)

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Poster for Gary Cooper in The Spoilers (1930); Mae West in Klondike Annie (1936).

The Sound Era

The Silver Horde (Joel McCrea, Evelyn Brent, Jean Arthur, 1930)

The Spoilers (Gary Cooper, 1930)

Men of the North (Gilbert Roland, 1930)

McKenna of the Mounted (Buck Jones, 1932)

Call of the Wild (Clark Gable, 1935)

Northern Frontier (Tyrone Power, 1935)

Border Brigands (Buck Jones, 1935)

Klondike Annie (Mae West, 1936)

Call of the Yukon (Richard Arlen, 1938)

Susannah of the Mounties (Shirley Temple, Randolph Scott, 1939)

North of the Yukon (Charles Starrett, 1939)

Queen of the Yukon (Charles Bickford, Irene Rich, 1940)

North West Mounted Police (Gary Cooper, 1940; Dir:  DeMille)

The Spoilers (John Wayne, Randolph Scott, Marlene Dietrich, 1942)

Pierre of the Plains (1942)

North to the Klondike (1942)

Northwest Rangers (1942)

Klondike Kate (1943)

Riders of the Northwest Mounted (1943)

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

Where the North Begins (1947)

Trail of the Yukon (1949)

Canadian Pacific (Randolph Scott, 1949)

Call of the Klondike (1950)

The Cariboo Trail (Randolph Scott, 1950)

Gene Autry and the Mounties (1951)

The Wild North (Stewart Granger, 1952)

Pony Soldier (Tyrone Power, 1952)

Back to God’s Country (Rock Hudson, 1953)

Fort Vengeance (1953)

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The Far Country (James Stewart, Walter Brennan, Ruth Roman, 1954)

Saskatchewan (Alan Ladd, 1954)

Yukon Vengeance (1954)

The Spoilers (five versions on film, most recently 1955)

North to Alaska (John Wayne and Stewart Granger, 1960)

Dan Candy’s Law (Donald Sutherland, 1974)

The Klondike Fever (Rod Steiger,1980) 

The Canadians (Robert Ryan, 1961)

Death Hunt (Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, 1981)

The Grey Fox (Richard Farnsworth, 1982)

Getting Married in Buffalo Jump (Wendy Crewson, Paul Gross, 1990)

White Fang (Ethan Hawke, Klaus Maria Brandauer, 1991)

Black Robe (1991)

North Star (James Caan, Christopher Lambert, 1996)

The Call of the Wild (Rutger Hauer, 1997)

Promise the Moon (Henry Czerny, 1997)

Six Reasons Why (2007)

Gunless (Paul Gross, 2010)

The Way of the West (The Mountie, 2011)

Gold (German, 2013)

Klondike (MfTV miniseries, 2014)

The Timber (2015)

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Heath Ledger as Ned Kelly (2004); the real Ned Kelly in 1880, the year he was captured.

Westerns in Australia:

The Australian frontier offers many of the same conditions that makes U.S. westerns so compelling:  deserts, ranching and mining, aboriginal inhabitants, lawless conditions, survival stories, and outlaws.  If anything, outlaws are an even stronger element of Australian stories, since Australia was settled by outlaws.  And Australia has its own famous historical outlaws, like Ned Kelly.

The Man from Snowy River (1920, now lost)

Robbery Under Arms (Peter Finch, 1957)

The Sundowners (Robert Mitchum, Deborah Kerr, 1960)

Ned Kelly (Mick Jagger, 1970)

Mad Dog Morgan (Dennis Hopper, Jack Thompson, 1976)

The Man from Snowy River (Tom Burlinson, Sigrid Thornton, 1982)

The Last Frontier (MfTV, 1986; Dir:  Wincer)

Return to Snowy River (Tom Burlinson, Sigrid Thornton, 1988)

Wrangler (Minnamurra, Outback, The Fighting Creed, 1989)

Quigley Down Under (Tom Selleck, 1990; Dir:  Wincer)

The Silver Brumby? (1993)

Ned Kelly (Heath Ledger, Orlando Bloom, 2004; Dir:  Jordan)

The Proposition (Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, 2005)

Australia (Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman,  2008; Dir:  Luhrman)

Dark Frontier (2009)

Tracker (New Zealand; Ray Winstone, Tuemura Morrison, 2010, Dir:  Ian Sharp)

The Legend of Ben Hall (2016)

Sweet Country (2018)

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Poster for The Proposition (2005); Mick Jagger as Ned Kelly, 1970.

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Frenchie

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 5, 2014

Frenchie—Joel McCrea, Shelley Winters, John Russell, Elsa Lanchester, Marie Windsor, Paul Kelly, John Emery, George Cleveland (1950; Dir:  Louis King)

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In color, so it had a pretty good budget for a western in 1950—a time when many, if not most, westerns were still in black and white.  That would not be true by the end of the 1950s.  It’s an obvious but less effective remake of Destry Rides Again.  The title refers to a saloon owner, just as it was the name of Marlene Dietrich’s saloon girl character in Destry.

Joel McCrea is Tom Banning, the son of the former sheriff of Bottleneck, returning to restore some law.  His character has echoes of two James Stewart characters—Destry’s aw-shucks, don’t-need-a-gun mild demeanor, and Ransom Stoddard’s bringing-eastern-law-to-the-uncivilized-west earnestness.  Frenchie Fontaine (young Shelley Winters) is also returning from running a New Orleans gambling hall, to find the murderer of her father from 15 years ago.  She sets up the Scarlet Angel, with the help of Lance Cole (John Russell) and the Countess (Elsa Lanchester).  The new establishment ends up taking business away from the seedier but long-established Chuck-a-Luck, owned by quasi-outlaw Pete Lambert (Paul Kelly). 

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Banning (Joel McCrea) and Frenchie (Shelly Winters) fence verbally.

Meanwhile, Banning’s former girlfriend Diane (Marie Windsor) had decided to marry the local banker (John Emery) three years earlier but now regrets passing up true love.  By the end, the murderer of Frenchie’s father is punished (dead), the banker is dead and Banning and Frenchie get together, although there is little apparent chemistry between McCrea and Winters. 

The direction is pedestrian and the writing isn’t great.  The plot is too convoluted.  McCrea’s dialogue is too down-home, aw-shucks in a sort of replay of James Stewart’s mannerisms, and Winters seems too young, a bit too slutty and not smart enough for the character she’s playing, who’s supposed to be the principal romantic interest.  It’s much the same as she played a bit later in Winchester ’73, but it doesn’t work as well when she’s got a larger part and more depends on her.  (Compare her with the young Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo, who plays the role much more successfully.)  As a Destry remake, this is not much remembered.  Audie Murphy would show up in another in 1954, but neither of these is anywhere as good as the 1939 movie.

 

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At Gunpoint

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 3, 2014

At Gunpoint—Fred MacMurray, Dorothy Malone, Walter Brennan, Skip Homeier, Tommy Rettig (1955; Dir:  Alfred L. Werker)

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A variation on the High Noon theme, which was made two or three years earlier than this movie.  Peace-loving storekeeper Jack Wright (Fred MacMurray) kills the leader of an outlaw gang by a stroke of luck while they’re trying to rob the local bank.  Hailed as a hero, Wright realizes deep down that he’s a coward, and, more obviously, he’s not really any good with a gun.  When the surviving gunmen return to town, thirsting for revenge, the townsfolk expect Wright to singlehandedly stand up to the villains. When he asks for help, his neighbors turn their backs on him, ordering him to get out of town to avoid further trouble. Only the doctor (Walter Brennan) and Wright’s wife (Dorothy Malone) remain loyal.  Ultimately, Wright finds that he may not be as cowardly as he had thought.  After Wright gives a stirring speech in a saloon, the townspeople do come to his aid and the gang is captured. 

This is different from High Noon in that the man in danger has not deliberately taken that risk—he’s not a marshal or sheriff—and because eventually the town does stick up for him.  Kind of talky.  Good performance by MacMurray; his son is played by Tommy Rettig, who went on to star in Delmer Daves’ The Last Wagon and in television’s Lassie.  The crusty but beloved town doctor (Walter Brennan) is essentially the same character as John McIntire in The Tin Star.

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This is one of those 1950s westerns dwelling on the interaction between a town and its sheriff, the nature of community and the kind of support a sheriff should expect from those he protects.  The most famous is High Noon, but see also The Tin Star, Warlock and Rio Bravo, as well as the later Lawman.  This also bears some resemblance to The Fastest Gun Alive a couple of years later; the difference is that Glenn Ford in Fastest Gun is good with a gun but doesn’t want to use it.  The cowardly townspeople were becoming a cliché by the time this movie was made.  Another comparison might be with 1967’s Hombre, in which Paul Newman has been rejected by others for living as an Apache.  He clearly owes them nothing, but nevertheless comes to their aid against his own inclinations simply because he is the one best suited to do so.   In color, at 81 minutes.

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The Alamo (2004)

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 2, 2014

The Alamo—Billy Bob Thornton, Jason Patric, Dennis Quaid, Patrick Wilson, Emilio Echevarria (2004; Dir:  John Lee Hancock)

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This is both the best and the most historically accurate cinematic depiction of the siege of the Alamo in San Antonio in 1836 in what is now the state of Texas, and its immediate aftermath.  That is, we know that the siege ended in the deaths of all the defenders, but those deaths are not the real end of the story.  The full story includes the battle of San Jacinto, which was as overwhelming a victory for the Texans as the Alamo had been for the Mexicans.  It was also the occasion for the battle cry “Remember the Alamo,” and it is the reason the Alamo holds its exalted place in the memory of Texans.  For the historically minded, this is still not entirely accurate, but it’s better in that regard than most, and much better than John Wayne’s 1960 version of the story.

It is well known that the Alamo was defended by about 200 Texans, holding out against the Mexican army of Santa Anna for almost two weeks.  Finally the Texans were overrun by Santa Anna’s army of more than 2000 Mexican soldiers, and all the defenders were killed.  From the side of the Texans, the story revolves around three personalities:  Col. Jim Bowie, former knife fighter and land speculator from Louisiana and commander of a small volunteer militia force; William Barrett Travis, a lawyer, regular army officer and overall commander during the siege; and David Crockett, well-known Tennessee frontiersman and former Congressman.

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Patrick Wilson as William Barrett Travis, Billy Bob Thornton as Davy Crockett and Jason Patric as Jim Bowie.  “We’re gonna need some more men.”

The film does a good job of showing the volatile relationship between Travis and Bowie.  The priggish, authoritarian Travis is the hardest to make likeable, and Patrick Wilson does a good job with him, although he doesn’t have the same dramatic weight as the actors playing the other two principals.  Jason Patric is also excellent as the hot-tempered knife-fighting Bowie, becoming incapacitated with typhoid during the siege.  But best of all is Billy Bob Thornton, the most human Crockett ever portrayed on film.  This is the most carefully written of the film’s roles, with Crockett always aware of the difference between himself as an actual person and his larger-than-life image.   “If it were just me, simple David from Tennessee, I might go over that wall one night and take my chances.  But this Davy Crockett feller—people are watching him.”  He notes that he only wears a fur cap when it’s really cold.

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As the film opens, Crockett in Washington attends a performance of The Lion of the West, a highly fictionalized stage depiction of Crockett’s supposed life and accomplishments.  Out of office, he heads for Texas for a new start, to find himself at the Alamo as Texas’ struggle for independence develops.  As the most publicly prominent defender, he has no authority but what his personality brings.  He mediates quietly between Travis and Bowie and is sensitive to the effects of leadership on the men’s morale.  As the Mexican band plays the threatening Deguello bugle call at twilight, Crockett takes up his fiddle and from a post on the walls provides a string counterpoint to the the musical and military threat.  As the end looms and it is clear that no more reinforcements or supplies will be coming, he urges Travis to be straight with his men, providing the occasion for Travis’ finest moment.  As Bowie lies helpless with typhoid, it is Crockett who wordlessly slips two cocked pistols into his hands on the eve of the attack.  There is a scene at the end in which a captured Crockett is invited to plead for his life and instead gives Santa Anna the opportunity to surrender to him.  That is invented, since the historical authorities differ on exactly how Crockett died at the Alamo.  But it makes for a good story.  There is a brutality to the way the Mexicans overrun the Alamo, as there inevitably would have been to such matters in real life.

Other performances that stand out include actual Texan Dennis Quaid as Sam Houston.  Under the stress of events as they develop, Houston almost always appears harsh and ill-tempered in such depictions (see Richard Boone’s performance in the 1960 version of the story, for example), and that is true with Quaid as well.  Emilio Echevarria is good as the vainglorious Santa Anna, and so is Jordi Moliá in a very limited role as Juan Seguin.

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Dennis Quaid as Sam Houston, riding to the Battle of San Jacinto.

The production design is excellent, with an attempt to depict with the clothes and weapons men would actually have used in 1836.  I’m not fond of Sam Houston’s tricorn hat, but it might be authentic.  There is a painting by Seymour Thomas of Houston at the battle of San Jacinto wearing a tricorn, but it was painted in 1892.  Good music is by Carter Burwell, who also did the score for True Grit (the Remake)The film’s pacing can be a problem, especially when the film is focusing on the ailing Jim Bowie, but it works if you have an eye for the actual historical events.  At 137 minutes, there was a lot that was cut to arrive at the theatrical release version, including most of the role of Laura Clifton as Susanna Dickinson, wife of an officer and one of the few surviving witnesses to the events at the end.  If you enjoyed this, you could wish for an extended cut.  If you didn’t, it’s too long already.

Disney didn’t do a good job of promoting this film, and it was not a success at the box office.  It cost $145 million and made back less than a quarter of that, trounced by Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.  But if you’re looking for a cinematic account of the Alamo and related events from Texas’ fight for independence from the Texans’ point of view, this is the best available.  Modern critics of Manifest Destiny won’t enjoy it as much.

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Roger Ebert pointed out one of the problems with expectations about a film based on iconic events like this.  “The advance buzz on ‘The Alamo’ was negative, and now I know why:  This is a good movie.  Conventional wisdom in Hollywood is that any movie named ‘The Alamo’ must be simplistic and rousing, despite the fact that we already know all the defenders got killed.  (If we don’t know it, we find out in the first scene.)  Here is a movie that captures the loneliness and dread of men waiting for two weeks for what they expect to be certain death, and it somehow succeeds in taking those pop-culture brand names like Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie and giving them human form….

“Much of the picture takes place at night, illuminated by campfires and candlelight, and Hancock’s cinematographer, the gifted Dean Semler, finds color and texture in the shadows that evoke that hour between midnight and dawn that Fitzgerald called the dark night of the soul.  Oddly enough, as Santa Anna’s troops march up to within 100 yards of the Alamo, there seem to be hardly any watchmen to see them, and when they attack, it is a surprise.

“The battle scenes, when they come, are brutal and unforgiving; we reflect that the first Mexicans up the scaling ladders must have known they would certainly die, and yet they climbed them heedlessly.  This intimate hand-to-hand conflict is balanced by awesome long shots, combining the largest sets ever built by modern Hollywood with some special effects shots that are generally convincing.”

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Along Came Jones

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 1, 2014

Along Came Jones—Gary Cooper, Loretta Young, Dan Duryea, William Demarest, Arthur Loft, Ray Teal (1945; Dir. Stuart Heisler)

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Although he was known for westerns earlier in his career, Gary Cooper didn’t make many of them during the 1940s when he was at his peak.  He had won an Oscar as Best Actor for 1941’s Sergeant York.  He was nominated again in 1943 and 1944 for Pride of the Yankees and For Whom the Bell Tolls.  He would win again in 1953 for High Noon, of course.  Loretta Young only made three westerns during her entire career.  By this time, they had both been making movies for almost twenty years, since the days of the silent films.  This was the only time they appeared together.

This comedy is an extended case of mistaken identity.  It doesn’t start out as a comedy; in the opening scene, a stage is robbed by a masked Monte Jarrad (Dan Duryea), who shoots both the driver and the shotgun guard.  At least one of them survives to wound Jarrad badly.  Wanted posters go up for Jarrad and his geezer companion Uncle Roscoe.

Cut to a sign outside Payneville (pronounced “painful”), where George Fury (William Demarest) and Melody Jones “out of high Montana” (Gary Cooper) determine that they’ve taken the wrong fork three or four hundred miles back.  In Payneville, the MJ initials on Melody’s gear are taken to mean that he’s Monte Jarrad.  And he spots the beauteous Cherry de Longpre (Loretta Young), with whom he is instantly taken.  What he doesn’t know is that Cherry is Jarrad’s childhood pal and now girlfriend.  She’s caring for Jarrad because he can’t ride, due to his wound.

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George Fury (William Demarest), Melody Jones (Gary Cooper) and Cherry de Longpre (Loretta Young).

Cherry talks Melody into taking Jarrad’s saddle south so the posse hunting Jarrad will follow him, but he goes back to town.  Now he’s caught between most townsfolk, who think he’s Jarrad, and those who know Jarrad, who think he’s killed Jarrad.  Neither side wishes him any good.  This is complicated by the fact that, although Melody carries a gun like everybody else, he’s not very good with it.  Jarrad is very good indeed, and nasty.

Just as one of Jarrad’s gang is about to shoot Melody, he’s rescued by Cherry.  Meldoy notes, “If there’s anything in the world I like, it’s gettin’ saved from being shot.”  Now Cherry wants him to take back the loot from Jarrad’s robbery, which Jarrad has stashed in an old adobe house.  When they get to the hiding place, the express agent is there and takes them prisoner, until somebody from outside the house shoots him.  They don’t get away quickly enough, and the posse finds them and takes them prisoner again, two or three times.  One almost expects the Marx brothers to show up. 

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Cooper as Jones, Duryea as Jarrad.

Finally, Melody, Cherry and George manage to get away and make their way back to Cherry’s ranch.  George has been shot by Jarrad and left for dead until Cherry rescues him.  Jarrad forces Melody to trade clothes with him, and intends to kill him and destroy his face so everyone will think Jarrad is dead.  The posse descends on the ranch, and there is an extended shootout.  Finally, it appears to be Jones against Jarrad, and the odds are all with Jarrad.  He hits Jones three times, calling it each time (much like Liberty Valance would do, twenty years later), when a Winchester bullet comes from behind Jones and catches Jarrad in the forehead.

Melody spends three weeks in jail while all this is sorted out, and he gets the reward for killing Jarrad.  First he figures that George shot Jarrad, but George says he was too weak to move at the time.  Then he realizes it must have been Cherry, shooting at him but getting Jarrad.  After Cherry demonstrates her marksmanship (“When I aim at something, I hit it, and when I hit something it’s what I aimed at“), Melody decides to stay and put down roots with her.

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Cherry takes a hand in the proceedings, but Melody doesn’t see it.

It’s all pleasant enough stuff.  With its time period, the presence of William Demarest and the fact that it’s a comedy, it is reminiscent of the movies of Preston Sturges.  But the producer was Cooper himself, who wasn’t very good at that end of things.  The leads, Cooper and especially Young, are enormously attractive.  Cooper sings “Old Joe Clark” at various points in the movie, and he’s not much of a singer.  He had problems during filming due to lack of preparation and because he often couldn’t deliver his lines in the rapid-fire manner requested by the director. 

One joke usually isn’t enough for a whole movie, but Cooper manages to bring it off.  Joel McCrea called him “the greatest exponent of the manure kicker school of acting ….  The idea is to scuff around barnyard dirt while muttering some phrase like ‘Aw shucks, Miss Nancy.’”  Of course Cooper conveyed much more than that, but he comes closest to that description in this film.  Cecil B. DeMille, who, like the FBI, seemed to have no sense of humor, told Cooper he shouldn’t mock his heroic image in this fashion.  The movie did well at the box office, though.

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For Loretta Young in another good western, see her in Rachel and the Stranger (1947), with William Holden and Robert Mitchum.  Crusty William Demarest makes a fine sidekick; he was good again as the oldest Confederate prisoner in Escape from Fort Bravo.  Duryea could be an excellent villain; see him as Waco Johnnie Dean in Winchester ’73 five years later.  Here he’s unrelievedly nasty.

In an era of singing cowboys, perhaps you could get away with naming one Melody Jones; it wouldn’t work today.  It does seem to be an ironic name, since he can’t sing and shows little talent with a harmonica, either.  The screenwriter was Nunnally Johnson, based on a novel by Alan LeMay (author of the novel The Searchers).  Unusually for a writer, Johnson had enough clout to get his name over the title of the movie in the credits:  Nunnally Johnson’s Along Came Jones.  Norman Rockwell did some of the poster art for the movie.  90 minutes, in black and white.

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