Monthly Archives: February 2015

The Violent Men

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 23, 2015

The Violent Men—Glenn Ford, Babara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Brian Keith, Dianne Foster, May Wynn, Richard Jaeckel, Basil Ruysdael, James Westerfield (1955; Dir: Rudolph Maté)

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This belongs to the “cattle queen western” subgenre, along with Johnny Guitar, Rancho Notorious, Forty Guns and various others from the 1950s, in which a dominant character is played by an established and prominent Hollywood actress of a certain age.  The violent men of the title are played by Glenn Ford, Edward G. Robinson and Brian Keith, but it turns out to be Barbara Stanwyck who dominates the course of the plot.

Capt. John Parrish (Glenn Ford) is a wounded veteran of the Union cavalry in the recent Civil War. He had come west three years previously to recover from a wound that went through his lung.  He receives a clean bill of health at the start of the movie and intends to marry Carolyn Vail (May Wynn), sell his ranch and movie back east.  The only potential buyer is Lew Wilkison (Edward G. Robinson), the crippled owner of the huge Anchor Ranch, by far the largest in the valley.

Lew Wilkison:  “Here at Anchor we don’t pay much attention to that hogwash about the meek inheriting the earth.”

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Meeting the Wilkisons: Cole (Brian Keith), Lew (Edward G. Robinson), and Martha (Barbara Stanwyck), with John Parrish (Glenn Ford).

Wilkison has long been trying to expand his Anchor Ranch to encompass the entire valley.  Twelve years previously during a burst of violence in the valley he was crippled, and he now walks only with crutches and even then with difficulty.  Parrish notices the Anchor men, especially gunman Wade Matlock (Richard Jaeckel), renewing their efforts to chase off other landowners; Matlock shoots the local sheriff in the back, and he is replaced by the unctuous Magruder (James Westerfield), who is more completely in Anchor’s pocket.  Lew Wilkison and his brother Cole (Brian Keith) offer Parrish only $15,000 for his ranch.  Wilkison’s alienated daughter Judith (Dianne Foster) is outraged at her father’s behavior, but his wife Martha (Barbara Stanwyck) appears to be pulling the strings and to have developed a relationship with Cole.

John Parrish:  “Don’t force me to fight, because you won’t like my way of fighting.”

Matlock and several Anchor riders try to push Parrish by killing one of his hands, but Parrish, who has been a determined pacifist to this point, takes the hand’s gun, confronts Matlock, and kills him.  No one attends Wade Matlock’s funeral, and one of Parrish’s riders wonders if there will be reprisals from Matlock’s friends.  John Parrish: “Matlock wasn’t the kind to have any friends after he was dead.”

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Gunman Wade Madlock (Richard Jaeckel) meets Parrish (Glenn Ford).

[Spoilers follow.]  Parrish brushes off his military skills from the war and prepares for battle.  Carolyn is appalled and ends their engagement when Parrish refuses to go east immediately.  Using his own ranch as bait, he sets up an ambush in a canyon when Anchor riders burn it down and take the shortest way home.  In retaliation,  Parrish and his men stampede Anchor’s horses and cattle, and use the distraction to burn most of the Anchor buildings.  Martha escapes the burning mansion, tossing away Lew’s crutches and leaving him to die in the flames.  Cole and Magruder lead a small army of riders attacking all the smaller ranchers and farmers, until Parrish finds that Judith has rescued her father.  In a confrontation at the Anchor ranch, Lew orders the riders away.  Parrish and Cole have a classic showdown, and Martha is killed by Cole’s Mexican paramour.  At the end, Lew wants to hire Parrish to run the Anchor ranch, and Judith and Parrish appear to be striking up a relationship.

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This is a good melodramatic range war western for its time, but pedestrian direction takes it out of the really excellent category.  Neither the Stanwyck nor the Dianne Foster character has much nuance.  Glenn Ford is good in his tenth western; he’s wearing the same hat he’ll be wearing for the next 15 years, and it’s not yet as disgusting and shapeless as it would become.  Edward G. Robinson was an excellent actor, and his presence, along with Stanwyck’s, reminds us of Double Indemnity (1944), giving this more of a western-noir flavor.  Robinson didn’t make many westerns, in part because, like James Cagney, he seems to have a modern, urban presence.  But he works well here, hard but able to shift tone convincingly.  Brian Keith, in dark hair and a thin mustache, makes a fine bad guy early in his career.  And Richard Jaeckel is good as a gunman without conscience.  An uncredited Richard Farnsworth is one of the Anchor riders.

During its second half, the action is interesting enough but not well developed, as the two sides progress through strike and counter-strike.  In particular, the shootout between Ford and Keith at the end is not well-edited (compare it with Budd Boetticher’s handling of Randolph Scott and Lee Marvin in Seven Men From Now [1956] in a moment of similar dramatic intensity, for example), nor is Stanwyck’s death.  The end seems very quick, not fleshed-out, and a bit out of character for Parrish.

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For another crippled cattle baron in a range melodrama, see Lionel Barrymore in Duel in the Sun (1947).  For Barbara Stanwyck as another cattle queen, see her in Forty Guns (1957, with Barry Sullivan); she doesn’t win there, either.  She’s better in Trooper Hook (1957, with Joel McCrea) and The Moonlighter (1953, with Fred MacMurray).  For Glenn Ford in another range melodrama, see him in Jubal (1956), which is better than this.  For James Westerfield displaying the same unctuousness in a range war, see Man With a Gun (1955, with Robert Mitchum).  For another Union Civil War veteran trying unsuccessfully to revert to pre-war pacifism because of the horrors of the war, see Rock Hudson in Gun Fury (1953).

There is some well-written dialogue here, by Harry Kleiner.  The music is by Max Steiner.  Shot in Lone Pine and the Alabama Hills, in California, and in Old Tucson, Arizona.  In color, at 96 minutes.

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Musical Westerns

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 19, 2015

Big Budget Musical Westerns

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Or are they western musicals?  The two movie genres of musicals and westerns make for an uneasy mix (see, for example, the ballet sequence in Oklahoma!), but it has been done several times.  It appears to have been most successful in the early 1950s, when Howard Keel was the king of the mixture, partnering with Betty Hutton (Annie Get Your Gun), Doris Day (Calamity Jane) and Jane Powell (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers).  Some of the biggest names in the American musical theater, such as Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Leowe, tried their hand at these.  Finally, as big musicals were fading from cinematic favor in the late 1960s, one of the last of them was Paint Your Wagon.  For hard-core fans of westerns, these are not usually the sort of thing they like, even if they do star Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin.

Some westerns have a significant musical number, usually provided by a dance hall performer, like “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have” sung by Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again (1939) or “Some Sunday Morning” sung by Alexis Smith in San Antonio (1945).  But they don’t have enough of them to qualify as musicals.  Howard Hawks liked to throw in an occasional musical number as an indication of male bonding, as he did with the duet featuring Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo.  But musicals weren’t really his genre, although he had an unusually wide range as a director.

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Marlene Dietrich as Frenchy in Destry Rides Again: “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have.”

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Alexis Smith as Jeanne Star in San Antonio: “Some Sunday Morning.”

Go West, Young Lady (1941).  This comedy/musical follows the new sheriff (Glenn Ford) in Headstone, as he romances the niece (Penny Singleton) of the owner of the Crystal Palace saloon.  Ann Miller sings and dances as the principal entertainer at the saloon.  And Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys show up as well.  Some of the songs are by Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin.

Belle of the Yukon (1944).  Set in the gold-rush Yukon in northwestern Canada at the turn of the last century, most of the music is provided by a young and dark-haired Dinah Shore as a dance hall entertainer.  The main action is provided by stars Randolph Scott and Gypsy Rose Lee.

The Harvey Girls (1946).  Not much of a western, but it is set in the southwest as the railroads extended into that part of the country.  And what list of musicals would be complete without Judy Garland somewhere on it?

Two Guys from Texas (1948).  Two vaudevillians (Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson) on the run from crooks try to pass themselves off as cowboys.  With Dorothy Malone.

Annie Get Your Gun (1950). Judy Garland was originally slated to star in this, but her star was just beginning to fade at MGM and the role of Annie Oakley went to Betty Hutton in the film.  She and Howard Keel as Frank Butler cavort their way through Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show.

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Calamity Jane:  Which is the real one?

Calamity Jane (1953).  In appearance, it would be hard to get farther from the actual Martha Jane Canary of Deadwood, Dakota Territory, than Doris Day.  And Howard Keel doesn’t look or act much like Wild Bill Hickok, either, but in 1953 you couldn’t make a musical movie based in the west without him.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954).  Set in Oregon in 1850, this is one of the biggest hits of Howard Keel’s career, as he plays Adam, the oldest of the seven brothers, who marries Jane Powell and inspires his six brothers to abduct their own intended brides.

Oklahoma! (1955).  One of the first of the string of successful Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals on Broadway, this took its time making it to film with Gordon McCrae and Shirley Jones.

Paint Your Wagon (1969).  Set in gold rush northern California of 1850, Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood demonstrate that while they rank among the best actors in westerns, they’re not entirely comfortable in a musical, especially when they have to sing.

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Frank and Jesse

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 16, 2015

Frank and Jesse—Rob Lowe, Bill Paxton, Randy Travis, Dana Wheeler-Nicholson, Maria Patillo, Sean Patrick Flanery, William Atherton (1995; Dir: Robert Boris)

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This was not in fact originally made for television, although something about it has that feel.  The best actor in this film is Bill Paxton, who plays Frank James, although Rob Lowe as Jesse James is better than you’d expect.  There are lots of historical inaccuracies, but it’s not terrible; there are many worse Jesse James movies out there.  This sticks to some of the facts about the James brothers, using the dates for some of their better-known depredations.  But it juggles around others and feels free to invent things whenever it wants.

The outlines of the James brothers’ story are familiar by now.  Frank and Jesse are veterans of the Missouri border wars in the Civil War, having ridden as guerrillas with both William Quantrill and Bloody Bill Anderson.  (Frank refers to both of them having participated in Quantrill’s infamous raid on Lawrence, Kansas.  Frank was probably there, but Jesse wasn’t.)  They are less than comfortable in a post-war Missouri where carpetbaggers and avaricious Yankee railroads play prominent roles, oppressing honest citizens.  Pinkertons hired by the railroad attack their mother’s home (the famous attack is out of sequence in their career, and the results weren’t exactly as depicted); the brothers pay the mortgage for a widow who helps them.

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The James brothers (Rob Lowe as Jesse, Bill Paxton as Frank) on the run.

They are driven deeper into a life of crime, assembling a gang with the Younger brothers, Bob and Cole (Randy Travis), Clell Miller, Archie Clements (who was actually killed during the war) and the Ford brothers (much earlier than the Fords were actually involved with the Jameses).  They rob the Gallatin bank in 1869 (it actually took place in 1866), killing the Yankee manager who insults their Confederate service.  Frank is depicted as against killing and being the brains behind the gang’s public relations activities.  Jesse is colder and quicker to kill.  We are glad when Frank loses the distracting tricorn hat.  The gang robs trains, on one of which they encounter Allan Pinkerton (William Atherton, whom we are quick to recognize as slimy after his roles in the Die Hard movies), which never happened.  Jesse and Allan Pinkerton never met, as far as we know.

The famous Northfield raid of 1876 is not very accurate.  When the gang arrives in September, there is snow on the ground.  The gang shoots down a number of townspeople; in fact, two people were killed, aside from gang members.  It shows Charlie Ford having previously warned the Pinkertons of the raid, which didn’t happen.  Both Cole and Bob Younger, as well as their brother Jim, who is not shown in the movie, were shot up.  But Cole didn’t kill a dying Bob, as shown here.  All three Youngers were taken prisoner, and Bob died in prison some years later.  Nothing much is shown of the six years between the Northfield raid and Jesse’s killing in St. Joseph, Missouri, in 1882.  Both Jesse and Frank get married, to Zee (Maria Pitillo) and Annie (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson), and attempt to have family lives while on the run.

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Allan Pinkerton (William Atherton) has the James gang in his sights.

In the end, the Ford brothers approach Jesse with the intention of killing him, motivated by both threats and promised rewards from Pinkerton.  This shows Charlie doing the shooting, when it was Bob who killed Jesse.  It depicts Jesse as knowing what was coming, cooperating with it, returning the gun and even deliberately turning his back for the shot, thinking it would get the authorities off Frank’s back.

This is not in the same league with The Long Riders (1980) and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), but it doesn’t have that kind of ambition.  It’s better than American Outlaws, for example.  It’s worth watching for its version of the interplay between Frank and Jesse.  A little familiarity with Jesse and Frank’s careers and chronology is helpful, but don’t take them all that seriously.  Just enjoy this for what it is, including the fact that Rob Lowe isn’t as bad as you expect.  He makes a decent Jesse James, better than many on film.  Enjoy William Atherton’s malevolent self-righteousness as Allan Pinkerton.  Bill Paxton and Dana Wheeler-Nicholson had parts in 1993’s Tombstone, as Morgan Earp and Mattie Blaylock, respectively.  Normally, the presence of a country music star in a western is not a good sign, but Randy Travis is better as Cole Younger than some others have been, with a distinctive voice that seems to fit.  Sean Patrick Flanery shows up as a Chicago Tribune reporter, a sort of sympathetic counterpoint to Pinkerton.

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In color, rated R, written and directed by Robert Boris at 105 minutes.  Apparently its numerous departures from the facts were made consciously.  At the end of the movie, it makes this disclaimer:  “This motion picture is based upon actual events.  However, some of the characters and incidents portrayed and many of the names used herein are fictitious; any similarity of such character, incident, or name, to the name, characters or history of any person, whether living or dead, is entirely coincidental and unintentional.”  The title is sometimes written as Frank & Jesse.

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Young Guns II

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 12, 2015

Young Guns II—Emilio Estevez, Kiefer Sutherland, Lou Diamond Phillips, William Petersen, Christian Slater, James Coburn, Viggo Mortensen, Alan Ruck, Jenny Wright, Scott Wilson (1990; Dir: Geoff Murphy)

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Poster art for the Gang 2.0, with the addition this time of Tom O’Folliard (Balthazar Getty) and Hendry French (Alan Ruck) on the left, and Arkansas Dave Rudabaugh (Christian Slater) on the right.

Young Guns was a surprise hit in 1988, striking a chord with the youthful end of the movie-going public. It gave rise to a new idea at movie studios:  Perhaps there was a market for youth-oriented westerns, a genre whose principal audience had been considered to be among the aging population that still remembered, and harbored a fondness for, John Wayne.  The new idea resulted in such westerns with young actors as American Outlaws (2001) and Texas Rangers (2001), neither of which did much at the box office because they were not good movies.  And, of course, it led inevitably to a sequel to Young Guns.  As with the first movie, the sequel consists of several facts mixed with a lot of fiction.

When last seen in the first movie, Billy (Emilio Estevez) and several of his compatriots were escaping from the burning McSween house in Lincoln, New Mexico, after an extended battle in 1877.  Alexander McSween himself and Charlie Bowdre (Casey Siemaszko) were killed, but Billy got out; Doc Scurlock (Kiefer Sutherland) returned to the East and José Chavez y Chavez (Lou Diamond Phillips) headed west to California.  As Young Guns II opens a year later in 1878, Billy is now riding with a couple of new comrades:  Arkansas Dave Rudabaugh (Christian Slater), who envies Billy his notoriety, and Pat Garrett (played briefly by Patrick Wayne in the first movie, here by William Peterson with luxurious sidewhiskers in a more significant role).

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Pat Garrett (William Petersen) during his days of riding with Billy.

The initial scenes show Doc Scurlock, now teaching children in a school in New York, being abducted and thrown into a pit-jail in Lincoln, where he is reunited with Chavez.  Billy meets with Gov. Lew Wallace (Scott Wilson), and they negotiate a deal:  Billy testifies against the Murphy-Dolan faction in court after a brief token imprisonment, and in return he is to receive a full pardon.  But the Lincoln County prosecutor is a member of the Murphy-Dolan ring, and he intends to hang Billy.  Billy manages to escape, along with Scurlock and Chavez.  Pat Garrett leaves the gang for a more respectable life, but they are joined by Hendry William French (Alan Ruck), a farmer who has lost his family and farm, and Tom O’Folliard (Balthazar Getty), a 14-year-old who looks younger.

Billy tells the other members of the gang they’re heading south to Mexico along a trail he calls the Mexican Blackbird.  They stop by the ranch of John Chisum, an ally of Billy’s murdered former boss John Tunstall.  Chisum (James Coburn, who had played Pat Garrett almost twenty years earlier in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid [1973]) resists financing Billy’s expedition south, and they shoot two of his men.  When they leave, Chisum decides to “set a thief to catch a thief,” and he recruits Garrett as the new sheriff of Lincoln County to hunt Billy down.

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Billy (Emilio Estevez) is captured more than once, but never intimidated.

Garrett’s posse includes a newspaperman and John W. Poe (Viggo Mortensen in a small role), a representative of the cattlemen’s association who is there to see that Garrett takes his responsibilities seriously.  At White Oaks, Billy and his men are enjoying themselves at Jane Greathouse’s sporting place when accosted by a local mob wearing hoods.  Billy negotiates an exchange of Chavez for the mob to hang, but sends Deputy Carlyle out in Chavez’ clothing and hat, and the mob shoots him to pieces.  Garret burns down Jane’s establishment in retaliation (despite their past history), and she leaves town in Lady Godiva fashion for unknown reasons.

Finally the gang is cornered in a remote cabin at Stinking Springs.  O’Folliard and Scurlock are killed; Chavez is badly wounded, and Hendry and Rudabaugh barely escape.  Billy surrenders and is jailed in Lincoln.  Jane Greathouse is not allowed to talk with him privately but plants a gun in the outhouse, and Billy pulls off his famous jailbreak, killing Bob Ollinger with his own shotgun, as well as Deputy James Bell.  Billy heads for Fort Sumner, where he sees a dying Chavez and encounters Pat Garret waiting for him in the dark.  We see Billy’s funeral in Fort Sumner.  But we also have a framing story from 1950, claiming that Billy’s friend Pat Garret did not kill him, and that Billy lived until 1950 as Brushy Bill Roberts.

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Emilio Estevez in heavy makeup as the aged Brushy Bill Roberts, ca. 1950.

The director here is not the same as the first movie; this may be the best-known movie directed by New Zealander Geoff Murphy.  But the writer, John Fusco, is the same, and the feel of the movie is quite similar, although the story here is more episodic.  There are bits of anachronistic dialogue, as in the first movie.  A feeling of doom pervades this film, since we all know that Billy didn’t live long.  Billy (Emilio Estevez) is his usual immature self, slick with guns, heedless and utterly self-confident.  Jenny Wright is memorable in a brief role as sensual madam Jane Greathouse.  The Tom O’Folliard and Hendry William French characters feel unnecessary, although Alan Ruck is good as Hendry.  This may have been one of Christian Slater’s best roles; Slater has a limited range as an actor, and Arkansas Dave Rudabaugh seems perfectly suited to him.  William Peterson is one of the better versions of Pat Garrett on film, although he is still somewhat enigmatic.  If you liked Young Guns, you’ll want to see Young Guns II.  Together, they constitute their generation’s glossy cinematic version of the Billy the Kid story.  In color, at 104 minutes.

What about historical inaccuracies?  There was no Jane Greathouse; Billy and his compatriots were besieged at the house of James Greathouse in White Oaks.  Scurlock was not killed at Stinking Springs or elsewhere; he returned east, but only as far as Texas, where he lived out his life until 1929 as a respected citizen.  His death in the movie was based on the actual death of Charlie Bowdre, apparently written that way in the movie to accommodate Kiefer Sutherland’s schedule on other projects.  Chavez became a gunfighter and policeman in New Mexico, and apparently died of natural causes in 1924.  Tom O’Folliard was Billy’s best friend in the gang, and he was not 14 but was about 22 (near Billy’s own age) when he was killed by Garrett’s posse.  Pat Garrett and Billy were not close friends and did not ride together; they were at best casual acquaintances.  Garrett did hire a writer to get out his side of the story, since Billy was popular in some quarters in New Mexico.  Dave Rudabaugh was sometimes known as Dirty Dave, a particularly unpleasant New Mexico outlaw with an aversion to water like the Dirty Steve character played by Dermot Mulroney in the first movie.  Rudabaugh never used the name “Arkansas Dave.”  He was captured at Stinking Springs, not fleeing south to Mexico.  After escaping from jail in New Mexico, he joined the Clanton gang around Tombstone, Arizona Territory, fighting the Earps.  The events of the last three years or so of Billy’s life are compressed to make them seem more like two or three months.  That’s for starters.

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Doc Scurlock (Kiefer Sutherland) and Chavez y Chavez (Lou Diamond Phillips) at Stinking Springs.

With famous outlaws (Jesse James, Butch Cassidy) there appears to be an irresistible temptation to come up with some reason they did not die as history records but lived on to a healthy old age under another name.  The same impulse is there with Billy the Kid.  But the best information indicates that he was really killed by Pat Garrett at Fort Sumner in July 1881, about the age of 21.

Dave Rudabaugh shows up in The Gunfight at Dodge City (1959), but his role there is completely fictional.  Wyatt Earp first meets Doc Holliday in Fort Griffin, Texas, when hunting Dave Rudabaugh in Wyatt Earp (1994).

Some music for the film is provided by rock musician Jon Bon Jovi, who also has a cameo as one of the prisoners in the jail-pit in Lincoln. He gets killed early in the movie.

Trivia and obvious question:  At one point in the movie, Doc Scurlock quotes the Edgar Allan Poe poem “El Dorado.”  For no extra points at all, name the other western in which the same poem is quoted.  For the answer, click here.  Kick yourself if you didn’t get this one.

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Apache Territory

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 9, 2015

Apache Territory—Rory Calhoun, Barbara Bates, John Dehner, Leo Gordon Frank DeKova, Francis De Sales, Thomas Pittman, Carolyn Craig, Myron Healey (1958; Dir: Ray Nazarro)

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Based on an early novel by Louis L’Amour (Last Stand at Papago Wells, which would have been a better and less generic title), this is first an Old Scout Takes Charge story.  The Old Scout here is Logan Cates (Rory Calhoun), and he is one of those omni-competent frontiersmen of whom L’Amour was so fond, like Hondo Lane (John Wayne, also in a story by L’Amour), Ward Kinsman (Robert Taylor in Ambush), Shalako (Sean Connery in Shalako) or Archie McIntosh (Burt Lancaster in Ulzana’s Raid).  It is also a Lost Patrol story, like Fort Massacre, from the heyday of cavalry westerns.  It has echoes of Strangers on a Stagecoach stories, except that this time it’s strangers surrounded by Apaches.  If only it had an easterner coming west and learning new ways and a Mysterious Stranger, it might have most of the traditional elements of western stories packed into one relatively short B western.

We first find Cates in the Arizona desert, aided by a little voice-over narration, as he tries to get to Yuma while avoiding hostile Apaches.  He’s successful enough until he spies several white horsemen who don’t see Apaches about to attack them; he fires a couple of warning shots, and they take off, followed by the Apaches.  He cautiously approaches the next water, only to find the whites’ bodies, and a live Apache.  He kills the Apache and finds one young white survivor with a wound:  19-year-old Lonnie Foreman (Thomas Pittman), who joins him.  A bit later Cates comes upon a wagon the Apaches have already left; a quivering young woman, Junie Hatchett (Carolyn Craig), huddles under the sagebrush with the rest of her family slaughtered nearby.

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Logan Cates (Rory Calhoun) and Jennifer Fair (Barbara Bates) hash over past regrets.

As the three head for Apache Wells, they encounter two more riders:  former Confederate cavalry officer Grant Kimbrough (John Dehner) and his fiancée Jennifer Fair (Barbara Bates), also heading for Yuma.  As they all stop for water at Apache Wells, they are surrounded by Apaches under their leader Churupati and are joined in due course by six surviving cavalrymen from a patrol from Yuma, as well as Lugo (Frank DeKova), a Pima scout and prospector.  The cavalrymen have their own problems, in addition to having lost fifteen men already.  Their sergeant, Sgt. Sheehan (Francis De Sales), is a former desk clerk from St. Louis, and Zimmerman (Leo Gordon), whom he has demoted, is in a state of near constant rebellion.

[Spoilers follow.]  The sergeant defers to Cates in matters of strategy and planning.  Kimbrough initially does the same, but doesn’t trust his fiancée with Cates around and really wants to leave quickly.  Zimmerman wants to take over and is a constant source of tension.  Kimbrough and Zimmerman don’t trust Lugo, but Cates is inclined to, since Apaches hate Pimas.  Cates has a history with Jennifer that puts him at odds with Kimbrough.  He insists that they wait out the attack, since they have water and the Apaches don’t.  He and Lugo think a storm is imminent, and they plan to get out under cover of the weather.  The cavalrymen get picked off one by one, starting with the sergeant and another.  Zimmerman is killed trying to break out, and another (Myron Healey) is driven crazy thinking of his family in Illinois.  Finally, as the storm comes up, Cates, Lonnie, Kimbrough and Conley (the last cavalryman) fashion bombs out of gunpowder and canteens and use the storm as cover to deliver them—except for Kimbrough, who tosses his aside and ducks back to cover.

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By the end, the survivors ride out.  Kimbrough is dead after a fight with Lugo, Cates and Jennifer are back together, and it looks like Lonnie and Junie will ride on to California and make a life together with a little gold given to them by Lugo.  The five are the only survivors.  We never see Churupati.

Rory Calhoun could be a decent actor with good material and direction (see him in Dawn at Socorro, for example).  Here he mostly looks pained while others quarrel with him, as he tries to save people he’s not really responsible for.  He tended to be the protagonist in B westerns but a bad guy in A westerns (see, for example, The Spoilers and River of No Return).  Cates’ backstory of his relationship with Jennifer is not terribly convincing.  One suspects the direction by journeyman Ray Nazarro wasn’t much help.  Nazarro directed a lot of B westerns, and this was his last movie.  John Dehner (The Fastest Gun Alive, Trooper Hook, Man of the West, The Left-Handed Gun) and Leo Gordon (Hondo, Gun Fury, Ten Wanted Men, 7th Cavalry, McLintock!) were both excellent character actors, and they do well enough here. Gordon tends to be on one note of hostility here, and he can do much more than that if allowed.  Barbara Bates is fine; she’s required to move from hositility to Cates to despising Kimbrough to rapprochement with Cates, and it works.  DeKova works well enough as the Pima Lugo.   Pittman and Craig would have done better with better writing for their parts and more nuanced direction.   Both Tom Pittman and Carolyn Craig, who played the young couple, died young and violently—Pittman soon after the release of this movie in a car crash and Craig in 1970 by gunshot (suicide).  Barbara Bates was also a suicide in 1969.

In all, this is a watchable B western, especially for fans of Rory Calhoun.  It’s not perfect, and it’s marred by pedestrian direction.  Among all westerns, it might win the award for Best Performance by a Gila Monster.  Shot in color by Irving Lippman, at 77 minutes.  Not to be confused with Apache Country, with Gene Autry (1952).  Or with the classic Fort Apache, for that matter.

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The Stranger Wore A Gun

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 5, 2015

The Stranger Wore a Gun—Randolph Scott, Claire Trevor; George Macready, Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Joan Weldon, Alfonso Bedoya, Clem Bevans (1953; Dir: Andre de Toth)

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One-eyed Hungarian director André de Toth had gotten off to a good start in westerns, with the sultry Ramrod (1947), followed by writing on The Gunfighter (1950) directed by Henry King.  He then followed with six westerns with Randolph Scott, of which this is one.  With a cast also including Claire Trevor and early bad guy roles for Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine, this could have been great, and it isn’t.  The story and writing (by Kenneth Gamet) just aren’t strong enough.  But if you like De Toth’s work, Randolph Scott, Claire Trevor and Lee Marvin, you nevertheless have to see it.

The title could be attached to almost any western, a genre where all the strangers wear guns.  During the Civil War, Lt. Jeff Travis (Randolph Scott) spies for Quantrill in Lawrence, Kansas, in preparation for the notorious guerilla raid on that abolitionist-sympathizing town.  Disgusted by the indiscriminate slaughter and Quantrill’s callous indifference to the infliction of death and devastation, he drops out, but his reputation follows him.  After the war, Travis is a gambler on a riverboat when he is recognized and attacked.  A mysterious figure saves him with a thrown knife to the back of an attacker.  Sympathetic fellow gambler Josie Sullivan (Claire Trevor) sends him to Prescott, Arizona Territory, to Jules Mourret.

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Jules Mourret (George Macready) meets Jeff Travis (Randolph Scott).

Prescott is a lawless mining town, where two rival gangs raid the Conroy stage line and commit other depredations.  As Travis arrives (he’s the titular stranger with a gun), the territorial capital is being moved to Phoenix in reaction to Prescott’s lawlessness.  Mourret (George Macready), another former Quantrill man, turns out to be the leader of one of the two gangs and Travis’s knife-wielding rescuer from the riverboat.  Using the name of “Matt Stone,” Travis tells the Conroys that he’s a Pinkerton agent sent to help them.  The attractive Shelby Conroy (Joan Weldon), daughter of the line’s owner, is obviously drawn to him.  And Travis finds himself once again working for the bad guys and deceiving decent people, just as he did for Quantrill.

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Josie Sullivan (Claire Trevor) and Travis (Randolph Scott) renew their acquaintance.  And Dan Kurth (Lee Marvin) displays his skills and determination.

Josie Sullivan shows up in Prescott to ply her trade as a gambler and to see how Travis is doing.  She tells him he’s wanted in Louisiana for the riverboat killing.  Conroy is fairly successful at hiding the gold on his stages, but when Mourret’s men Dan Kurth and Bull Slager (played by Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine) kill a friend while trying to beat out of him information he doesn’t have, Travis’s allegiances shift again.  He tries to set the two gangs against each other, with some success.  Nevertheless, he has to shoot it out with Kurth; Lee Marvin traditionally doesn’t have much luck against Randolph Scott (see Hangman’s Knot and especially Seven Men From Now).  Mourret and Travis ultimately fight it out in a burning building (see Scott in burning buildings in Hangman’s Knot, Riding Shotgun, and Ten Wanted Men), and Travis wins.  Shelby Conroy is crushed at Travis’ deceit and betrayal, but it turns out Travis really wants Josie anyway.  And she lied about him being wanted in Louisiana.

There’s a lot of plot stuffed into only 83 minutes; it doesn’t develop organically, it feels at the end as if there are a number of loose ends, and there are a number of elements we’ve seen before. Neither the Travis nor the Sullivan characters is entirely admirable, with their shifty allegiances and casual deceit of friends and innocent people.  But it is a good cast and the film is ultimately worth watching.  Produced by Harry Joe Brown, with Randolph Scott as associate producer, in color; shot at Lone Pine.  It was also shot in 3-D, like Hondo and Gun Fury, during the brief period in the early 1950s when studios were experimenting with that new presentation.  That accounts for the occasional lunge toward the camera with a burning torch, gun or spear.

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A gleefully evil Bull Slager (Ernest Borgnine) enjoys the movie’s 3-D effects.

Claire Trevor (Stagecoach, Allegheny Uprising, The Desperadoes, Best of the Badmen) was coming to the end of an excellent Hollywood career.  Her performances in Stagecoach, Dead End, and Key Largo (an Oscar winner for her) are great ones.  Here she seems to be better than her material.  Joan Weldon never really balances her as a competing romantic interest in this film, although Trevor plays the sort of character who normally shouldn’t win in the end.  Weldon will show up to better effect in 1957’s Gunsight Ridge, with Joel McCrea.  Lee Marvin was starting his memorable career as a heavy (Hangman’s Knot, Seven Men From Now, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), and Ernest Borgnine regularly showed up as a bad guy as well (Johnny Guitar, The Bounty Hunter, Vera Cruz).  Two years later they both turn up as bad guys working for Robert Ryan in John Sturges’ excellent Bad Day at Black Rock.   Alfonso Bedoya’s performance as the Mexican head of the gang rivaling Mourret’s bad guys seems fairly broad and stereotypical now.  If you’re a Scott fan, you’ll be delighted by the appearance of his beautiful dark palomino Stardust and his worn leather jacket, both of which show up here.  Although the directing in this film is nothing dazzling, De Toth went on from this to make the quintessential early 3-D horror movie:  House of Wax.

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Wyoming

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 2, 2015

Wyoming—Wallace Beery, Leo Carillo, Marjorie Main, Ann Rutherford, Joseph Calleia, Paul Kelly, Bobs Watson, Henry Travers, Chill Wills (1940; Dir: Richard Thorpe)

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This is a Wallace Beery vehicle, with Beery doing his patented old-cuss-goes-straight-through-love-of-a-child shtick, which had worked so well in The Champ with Jackie Cooper almost a decade earlier.  This time it’s set in the west, in Wyoming, to be exact.  George Custer is still alive, so it’s 1876 or so.  And Custer is still a hero, as he would be in the biopic They Died With Their Boots On (where he was played by Errol Flynn), released about the same time.  This is also the first cinematic pairing of Beery and Marjorie Main as a quasi-romantic cantankerous older couple, which they would repeat in Bad Bascomb, among several other films.  It is also a range war story, with Sitting Bull’s Sioux thrown in for good measure.

Reb Harkness (Wallace Beery) and his partner Pete Marillo (Leo Carillo) are former Confederates who have had to flee Missouri, where they are wanted.  Moving west, they rob trains but make the mistake of robbing one carrying Col. George Custer (Paul Kelly) and the officers of the 7th Cavalry, who give pursuit.  Pete takes Reb’s horse and all the money, and Reb falls in with returning Confederate Dave Kincaid, heading for his ranch in Wyoming.  (One has no idea what Kincaid has been doing in eleven years since the end of the Civil War, but he’s still wearing parts of his uniform.)

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John Buckley (Joseph Calleia) and Reb Harkness (Wallace Beery) become adversaries in the local range war.

Reb in turn takes Dave’s horse and equipment as they get close to the ranch.  Dave happens upon horsemen making off with his cattle and is shot down.  Hearing the shots, Reb turns back and finds Dave’s body.  He takes it to the ranch, where he meets Dave’s daughter Lucy (the young Ann Rutherford) and young son Jimmy (Bobs Watson).  He also meets, and is taken with, Mehitabel (Marjorie Main), the local blacksmith’s sister.  The town and the Sweetwater Valley are increasingly controlled by John Buckley (Joseph Calleia), who feels free to make off with any cattle in the vicinity and wants to acquire all the land.  Reb hopes to even things by robbing a stage with several of Buckley’s men, returning after selling the Kincaid cattle.  In a shootout, Reb kills them all; he gives the money to Lucy.  When Mehitabel shoes his horse, Reb is even more infatuated with her.

The ineffective sheriff (Henry Travers) is under the control of Buckley; he jails Reb when Reb is captured by Custer and his men.  Reb manages to escape without being shot down as Buckley planned, hiding out at the Kincaid Ranch.  Meanwhile, Buckley manages to get Custer ordered to Laramie while he finishes stealing all the valley’s cattle.  Reb leads the ranchers in taking them back, and Buckley retaliates by offering Sitting Bull’s Sioux guns for taking care of Reb and his allies.  As they are besieged on the Kincaid Ranch, Custer and the cavalry ride to the rescue.  They take Buckley into custody, and look the other way with Reb.  So Reb appears to get away with his previous life of crime, unlike most movies of the time.  Custer says he’s off to the Little Bighorn to deal with Sitting Bull, and we know how that ends.

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Marjorie Main and Wallace Beery begin a cinematic association that continues for several more movies.

Beery was a decent actor, as demonstrated by his ability to depict good relationships with children despite the fact he couldn’t stand them and treated child actors badly.  Eighteen-year-old Ann Rutherford, who had been a child actor, was doing ingenue roles in Andy Hardy movies and playing Scarlett O’Hara’s sister in Gone With the Wind.  She did not get along well with Beery, either, but he was a much bigger star.  This kind of story played better in the 1940s than it does now, and the aging Beery (then 55) played variations on it for the rest of his career.  Malta-born Joseph Calleia was a good actor who often played villains in movies; he has better material in Four Faces West and Branded, however, where he played more ambiguous characters.  The blacksmith Lafe is played by an uncredited Chill Wills.  An alternative early title was Bad Man of Wyoming, simplified to just Wyoming.

Director Richard Thorpe had made 50 silent westerns and worked on into the 1960s.  MGM put more money into the production of this film than it did into most westerns, and it was shot on location in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.  In plot and location, this has eerie similarities to Shane more than a decade later. And it also has similarities to Beery’s own Bad Bascomb (1946) with Margaret O’Brien and Marjorie Main, also shot in Jackson Hole.  To modern audiences it seems kind of old-fashioned, and not just because of the cinematic technology of 1940.  In black and white, at 88 minutes.

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The earliest western shot in Jackson Hole is said to have been the silent movie The Cowboy and the Lady (1922), with ingenue Mary Miles Minter.  Part of Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail (1931) had been shot there, with wagons being lowered down cliffs into the valley.  Beery was so taken with the place he built a cabin on the shores of Jackson Lake and even participated in a protest with local ranchers in 1943.

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