Monthly Archives: June 2014

The Lawless Breed

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 7, 2014

The Lawless Breed—Rock Hudson, Julia (Julie) Adams, John McIntire, Mary Castle, Lee Van Cleef, Hugh O’Brian, Dennis Weaver, Michael Ansara (1953; Dir:  Raoul Walsh)

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Rock Hudson in his first significant starring role plays John Wesley Hardin, a misunderstood young man with strong interests in guns, gambling and horse racing; he’s also a killer and eventually a family man.  His story is told in flashback after his release from prison.  Initially young Hardin is oppressed by his preacher-father, played by John McIntire looking like John Brown.  McIntire in a second role also plays Hardin’s more understanding (and less religious) rancher-uncle John Clements.  Mary Castle is Jane Brown, Hardin’s foster sister and fiancée (until she gets shot). 

This is a very melodramatic, sympathetic and not terribly factual look at the sociopathic killer.  Hardin claims “I never killed any one who didn’t try to kill me first.”  Julia Adams as his saloon-girl wife Rosie is lovely as always.  In this account, Hardin is hounded into killing by the brothers of his initial victim (Michael Ansara; the brothers are played by Hugh O’Brian, Glenn Strange and Lee Van Cleef).  In the end, Hardin is released from prison in Huntsville after serving 16 years, shakes hands with the warden in unlikely fashion, and goes home to Alabama, where he finds his 16-year-old son (Race Gentry) has taken up a gun and is about to get himself in a fight in a saloon.  He breaks up the fight, gets shot in the back and goes home to live happily ever after.  Apparently he died on the saloon floor in the original ending, but audiences didn’t like it. 

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Hardin (Rock Hudson) with doomed fiancee Jane Brown (Mary Castle); a grieving Hardin takes up with saloon girl and eventual wife Rosie (Julia Adams).

In this, young Hudson is kind of a wooden actor.  This was the first of three films director Raoul Walsh made with Hudson in 1953, along with swashbuckler Sea Devils and 3D western Gun FuryIn color.  Note character actor Francis Ford, brother of director John Ford, as a saloon sweeper.  This version of Hardin’s life is an obvious attempt to white-wash one of the west’s nastiest gunfighters.  In real life, the ill-tempered Hardin was no family man, may have killed as many as 43 men (by his claim), practiced law (sort of) when he got out of jail, and drifted to a saloon in El Paso, where he was shot in the back of the head by John Selman the year after he was released.  He did, however, write down his version of his life, upon which this movie claims to be based.

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If you want to read about the real Hardin, check out Leon C. Metz’ John Wesley Hardin:  Dark Angel of Texas (1998).

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Jesse James on Film

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 5, 2014

Jesse James and the James-Younger Gang in Movies

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Jesse James has captured the popular imagination since the days of 19th-century dime novels, to the extent that, beginning during his lifetime, he has become one of the two most famous outlaws in U.S. history (with Billy the Kid).  After visiting Jesse’s home town in Missouri, Oscar Wilde wrote in one of his letters home to England that “Americans are certainly great hero-worshippers, and always take [their] heroes from the criminal classes.”  Much like the Australians with Ned Kelly, perhaps.

Jesse and his older brother Frank rode with William Quantrill’s Missouri bushwhackers and with Bloody Bill Anderson during the Civil War.  Frank is thought to have participated in such atrocities as the raid on Lawrence, Kansas, and both of them in the Centralia massacre.  Jesse was not yet 18 when the war ended.  After the war, the brothers formed a gang with the Youngers, robbing banks and trains.  The dime novels tended to depict them as romantic Robin Hood-type figures, but that reputation fit them less than it did, say, Butch Cassidy later in the century.  Some wanted to see them as righting lingering Civil War wrongs, or fighting the railroads and Yankee carpetbaggers that oppressed settlers and farmers in the region after the war, but it’s not clear that they were anything other than outlaws with guns, more successful than most and looking for personal gain and loot.

Jesse was a leader of the gang, a hard man leading other hard men.  He had a flair for public relations, and several of his letters were published in a Kansas City newspaper, burnishing his image.  The gang’s most active period was from 1866 to 1876, when their raid on the bank in Northfield, Minnesota, went disastrously wrong.  His brother Frank was said to have been better (faster) with a gun.  Cole Younger, whom they had initially met while riding with Quantrill, was seemingly just as tough.  As Cole put it after the gang’s Northfield raid, during which Cole and two of his brothers were shot up and captured and only the James brothers themselves escaped, “We tried a desperate game and lost.  But we are rough men used to rough ways, and we will abide by the consequences.”

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A Missouri wanted poster for the James brothers, and the brothers (Jesse on the left and Frank on the right) in the 1870s.

Jesse was famously killed by Bob Ford, a young quasi-member of his gang, in April 1882, a death that sealed his romantic legend.  Brother Frank stood trial in Missouri and was acquitted (a highly fictionalized version of this process is presented in Fritz Lang’s The Return of Frank James from 1940); Frank later toured with Cole Younger after Cole’s release from jail, lecturing on the evils of their former lives of crime.  (Frank and Cole during this phase are depicted briefly at the end of the remake of True Grit.)

Jesse is hard to depict on film, with his elusive charisma; his brother Frank usually comes across more sympathetically.  If you’ve never seen a Jesse James movie, start with 1939’s Jesse James, with Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda as Jesse and Frank, for the romantic image and very little historicity.  Although there have been some interesting depictions of Jesse and the James gang, the best on film is probably Walter Hill’s The Long Riders (1980).  Perhaps the best performance as Jesse James was given by Brad Pitt in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), a beautifully shot but slow-moving film.

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Brad Pitt as Jesse, and the real Jesse Woodson James ca. 1882, the year of his death at 34.

Each generation seems to feel the need to make its own cinematic versions of Jesse and Frank.  Most of these films play fast and loose with the actual history of the James brothers and their gang, and many of them are pretty bad as movies.  (See, for example, Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter [1966], directed by William “One-Take” Beaudine.)  Jesse James was often used as an incidental character in completely fictional movies, as in Fighting Man of the Plains (1949), where he (played by Dale Robertson) rides in at the end to rescue Randolph Scott from hanging.  His long exposure in dime novel stories and his colorful end are such that he easily lends himself to fiction.  The most historically accurate so far is probably The Long Riders again, which uses four sets of actual brothers to depict the brothers involved with the James gang.

An extended discussion of films dealing with Jesse is available in Jesse James and the Movies by Johnny D. Boggs (2011).  He says, among many other things, that the best movie about Jesse James is Ride With the Devil (1999), a Civil War movie about Missouri bushwhackers that doesn’t mention the names of Frank or Jesse James or Cole Younger.  “The best movie about Jesse James is Ride with the Devil, which isn’t about Jesse James, but that’s all right because the best movie about George Custer is Fort Apache, which isn’t about Custer, either, and the best movie about the O.K. Corral is My Darling Clementine, which gets almost all of the facts – including the year of the famous gunfight – wrong.”  The theory is that, while not specifically about the Jameses, it does capture the spirit of the bushwhackers better than any other movie.  It’s a superb movie, but you won’t find it on the list below.

If you want to know how it really was with Jesse, the definitive biography to date is Jesse James:  Last Rebel of the Civil War, by T.J. Stiles (2003).  A recent engaging account of the botched Northfield, Minnesota, raid is Shot All to Hell:  Jesse James, the Northfield Raid, and the Wild West’s Greatest Escape, by Mark Lee Gardner (2013).

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The James Boys in Missouri (1908, 18 minutes)

Jesse James Under the Black Flag (1921, with Jesse Edward James, 46, as his father) 

Jesse James as the Outlaw (1921, again with Jesse Edward James)

Jesse James—Fred Thomson (1927)

Days of Jesse James (1939)

Jesse James—Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda (1939; Dir:  Henry King, Irving Cummings)

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Tyrone Power as Jesse James, 1939.

The Return of Frank James—Henry Fonda, Gene Tierney (1940; Dir:  Fritz Lang)

Jesse James at Bay–Roy Rogers (1941)

Bad Men of Missouri (1941)

Badman’s Territory (1946)

Jesse James Rides Again—Serial (1947; Dir:  Fred C. Brannon)

Adventures of Frank and Jesse James—Serial (1948; Dir:  Fred C. Brannon)

The James Brothers of Missouri—Serial (1949; Dir:  Fred C. Brannon)

Fighting Man of the Plains (1949)

I Shot Jesse James—Foster, Ireland (1949; Dir:  Sam Fuller)

Kansas Raiders—Murphy (1950)

The Return of Jesse James (1950)

Best of the Badmen—(1951)

The Great Missouri Raid—Carey (1951)

The Great Jesse James Raid (1953)

Jesse James’ Women (1954)

Hell’s Crossroads (1954)

Jesse James vs. the Daltons (1954)

The True Story of Jesse James—Robert Wagner, Jeffrey Hunter (1957; Dir:  Ray)

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Robert Wagner as Jesse and Jeffrey Hunter as Frank in The True Story of Jesse James.

Cole Younger, Gunfighter (1958)

Alias Jesse James—Bob Hope, Wendell Corey, Rhonda Fleming (1959)

Young Jesse James (1960)

Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966; Dir:  William Beaudine)

A Time for Dying—Audie Murphy (1969)

The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid—Robert Duvall, Cliff Robertson (1972)

The Long Riders (1980; Dir:  Walter Hill)

Last Days of Frank and Jesse James—Cash, Kristofferson (MfTV, 1986; Dir:  Graham)

Frank and Jesse—Rob Lowe, Bill Paxton (1995)

Purgatory (MfTV, 1999)

American Outlaws—Colin Farrell, Scott Caan (2001; Dir:  Mayfield)

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Bob Ford–Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck (2007)

American Bandits:  Frank and Jesse James (2010, direct to video)

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Actually, Quantrell (normally spelled Quantrill) wasn’t really wanted because he was dead by the end of the Civil War.  A lot of people wanted to kill him during the war, though.

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A Thunder of Drums

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 4, 2014

A Thunder Of Drums—Richard Boone, George Hamilton, Luana Patten, James Douglas, Arthur O’Connell, Slim Pickens, Charles Bronson, Richard Chamberlain.  Cameos:  country singer Duane Eddy, rodeo star Casey Tibbs (1961; Dir:  Joseph M. Newman)

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A grim cavalry western, with hard-bitten Capt. Stephen Maddocks (Richard Boone) commanding the undermanned frontier outpost Fort Canby in 1870.  George Hamilton is newly arrived Lt. Curtis McQuade, son of a former post commander and current general.  While fighting Apaches, Maddocks roughly schools McQuade, who also renews his former relationship with Tracey Hamilton (Luana Patten), the fiancée of fellow officer Lt. Gresham (James Douglas).  Maddocks doesn’t want the trouble that is bound to come from such a romantic triangle, with the inevitable competition and animosity between his young officers.

“Bachelors make the best soldiers out here.  They have nothing to lose but their loneliness.”  The line might have been interesting if used once; it’s used twice by Maddocks.  Maddocks leads the garrison on a sortie against the hostiles.  As the lieutenants learn their trade in frontier Indian fighting, there is a climactic battle.  Predictably, Gresham is killed; a little less predictably, McQuade lets Tracey go back east so that he can follow Maddocks’ grim dictum and be a soldier without family entanglements. 

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A sergeant (Arthur Connell), lieutenant (George Hamilton) and private (Charles Bronson) fight Apaches.  Or are they Comanches?

There are references to a former officer saying “Never apologize.  It’s a sign of weakness.”  That presumably goes back to John Wayne in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.  It turns out that McQuade’s father made sure that Maddocks stayed a captain for the rest of his career because of an unspecified mistake long ago. 

A bearded Richard Boone is good as the embittered Maddocks, although he’s relentlessly downbeat and mostly hostile.  He’s the center of the movie, as he would be in Rio Conchos three years later, and he’s the primary reason to watch this.  A young George Hamilton isn’t particularly good as McQuade; he will show up again in A Time for Killing, a 1967 cavalry western, as a Confederate major pursued in Utah and Arizona by Yankee Glenn Ford.  Charles Bronson, as a trooper obsessed with women, and Richard Chamberlain (who would soon become famous as television’s Dr. Kildare), as a wounded lieutenant, have small parts.  Arthur O’Connell is probably the strongest supporting player here as a veteran sergeant, the sort of role that would have been played more broadly by Victor McLaglen in John Ford cavalry movies a decade earlier.  

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The print was a bit muddy (on Encore Westerns; watch it on TCM, if possible, where they use a better print).  Written by James Warner Bellah, who also wrote The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Sergeant Rutledge and the stories for Fort Apache, Rio Grande and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.  Shot in color in Santa Clarita, California, and near Old Tucson and Sabino Canyon, Arizona.  97 minutes long.  Notwithstanding the title, there aren’t any drums; lots of “talking smoke,” though.

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Bad Bascomb

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 2, 2014

Bad Bascomb—Wallace Beery, Margaret O’Brien, J. Carroll Naish, Marshall Thompson, Marjorie Main (1946; Dir:  S. Sylvan Simon)

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Wallace Beery is the eponymous Zeb Bascomb, leader of an outlaw gang, in this blatant attempt to recapture the sentimentality of his earlier hit with Jackie Cooper, The Champ (1931), which had been in turn a variation on Charlie Chaplin’s sweeter The Kid (1921)–a societal outcast is reformed or saved by the love of a child.   In other ways it uses story elements from the 1940 western Wyoming, in which Beery plays a nasty military deserter who ends up helping the good guys in a range war. 

Shortly after the Civil War, Bascomb and his gang try to rob a bank, only to run into a trap with law officers waiting for them.  Pursued by a posse, Bascomb, Bart Yancy (J. Carroll Naish) and young Jimmy Holden (William Marshall) escape and join a Mormon wagon train headed for Utah.  There is gold hidden on the train, and eventually Yancy finds it.  The plan is to take the gold and flee. 

However, by now Bascomb, going by the name Zeke Smith, has formed a relationship with nine-year-old Emmy (Margaret O’Brien), a member of the lost (and particularly clueless) Mormon wagon train.  And Bascomb further becomes romantically entangled with Emmy’s grandmother Abbey Hanks, played by Marjorie Main.  As the head elder lies dying, he entrusts leadership of the wagon train to Bascomb and makes him promise to get them through to Utah.  Yancy is disgusted and leaves to see if he can find more reliable allies.

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Bascomb (Wallace Beery) with Emmy (Margaret O’Brien) and her grandmother Abbey Hanks (Marjorie Main).

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Bascomb (Beery) and Bart Yancy (J. Carroll Naish) have a difference of opinion.

As the wagon train encounters hostile Indians, egged on by Bascomb’s now-former associate Yancy, Bascomb directs the set-up of the defense and rides off 40 miles to seek help from the cavalry.  (That’s an obvious double doing all the hard riding on film for the 61-year-old Beery.)  He fights off Indian attackers in his desperate ride, and meanwhile the wagon train is attacked.  The defense is led by Bascomb’s young (outlaw) associate Jimmy Holden, who has come to fancy one of the young ladies in the wagon train and, like Bascomb, is forsaking his outlaw ways. 

In the end, after rescuing the wagon train, the reformed Bascomb rides off with the federal officer to face the music for his life of crime.  Even the love of a child can’t save him from that.  In the 1940s and 1950s, outlaws had to be shown receiving the consequences of their crimes and seldom were allowed to just change their ways and get away with it. 

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Al Hirschfeld caricatures of O’Brien and Beery and of Beery by himself.  His characters don’t usually smile, contrary to what both of these seem to show.

Wallace Beery had had a long and successful career as a bad guy (see him as Magua in the 1920 Last of the Mohicans, for example), and, surprisingly, as a rough-hewn not-really-so bad guy with a heart of gold.  He was a big star in his time, even though he obviously lacked matinee-idol looks.  By most accounts, Beery was not as nice to work with as the characters he portrays on screen, especially for child actors; he had all the coarseness his characters usually do, without the heart of gold.  Margaret O’Brien claimed that she had to be protected by crew members from Beery’s insistence on constantly pinching her.  He and Marjorie Main were paired in a number of movies beginning around 1940 (Wyoming), as Beery had been with Marie Dressler in the 1930s.  Bad Bascomb was one of Beery’s last five movies.  It was kind of an old-fashioned film even in 1946; Beery died three years later in 1949.  For current audiences, all the bonding with young Emmy can seem slow and cloying; others find it heart-warming, as the filmmakers intended.  This is interesting as a cultural artifact, a sort of film that isn’t made now.  Use it as a test, to see if you can get into the mindset of an earlier generation of filmgoers from almost seventy years ago.

You might see this as similar in theme to Angel and the Badman, made a year later in 1947, where an outlaw is reformed by his love (fatherly in this case, rather than romantic, as in Angel) for a young religious female.  It is also said that Bascomb inspired Anthony Mann in making one of his own westerns taking a Bascomb theme (bad guy-fugitive seeks refuge in/leads wagon train) in 1954’s Bend of the River. The opening scene of Bend of the River pays homage to Bad Bascomb by having James Stewart ride up to a wagon and receive a piece of food from a little girl. Some say that more than twenty years later in the original True Grit, John Wayne was channeling Wallace Beery as Rooster Cogburn, and winning his only Best Actor Oscar for it.  In black and white, at 112 minutes.  Filmed on location in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

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