Monthly Archives: April 2015

Fort Vengeance

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 30, 2015

Fort Vengeance—James Craig, Keith Larson, Rita Moreno, Reginald Denny (1953; Dir: Lesley Selander)

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This low-budget effort from journeyman director Lesley Selander is a northern western.  It takes place in Canada, during Sitting Bull’s sojourn there after fleeing the U.S. in the wake of the Battle of Little Bighorn.  (See Saskatchewan [1954], with Alan Ladd, for another story of Mounties and Sitting Bull in Canada.)

The Ross brothers, Dick (James Craig) and Carey (Keith Larsen), head north from Montana into Canada, pursued by a posse that pulls up at the international border.  Riding into Fort Vengeance, said to the western headquarters of the Mounties (that would actually have been Fort Macleod in southwestern Alberta), Dick applies for a position as a Mountie, although Carey has reservations.  Inspector Trevett (Reginald Denny) leads the Mounties out to the camp of Blackfoot chief Crowfoot, whom Sitting Bull has been trying to convince to join him in an uprising.

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The Ross brothers, Dick (James Craig) and Carey (Keith Larsen), join the Mounties.

Out scouting one day, Carey sees trapper Luboc stealing a cache of Blackfoot furs and convinces him to share the stolen proceeds.  However, Crowfoot’s son Eagle Heart is the owner of the furs and complains to the authorities.  Trader Fitzgibbon has bought the furs, but Eagle Heart can identify them.  Fitzgibbon fingers Luboc as the seller and probable thief.  But Carey gets to the trapper’s cabin first, kills Luboc and then disappears.  Dick goes after and finds him; while Dick is making the arrest Carey is shot by a Sioux warrior.

Meanwhile, Eagle Heart has been blamed for Luboc’s killing, but Dick showing up with Carey’s body and telling the real story vindicates him.  Having seen the Queen’s justice to work in fairness to the Blackfeet, Crowfoot declines to join Sitting Bull.

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Blackfoot chief Crowfoot finds that the Queen’s justice is good.

On the whole, this is lacking in star power and is not one of Selander’s most memorable works.  Rita Moreno plays the half-Indian daughter of Fitzgibbon; Selander often used her as an Indian or Mexican maiden at this early stage of her film career (see Yellow Tomahawk, for example), which she performed without much subtlety.  All the Indians look like white actors, and Sitting Bull is much too young.  If it doesn’t look much like Canada, it was shot at the Ray Corrigan ranch in Simi Valley in southern California.  The red coats and fur hats must have been uncomfortable.

Crowfoot was an actual Blackfoot chief in Canada.  Victor McLaglen’s son Andrew is listed as an assistant director on this, learning his trade before going on to direct Gun the Man Down, McLintock! and The Way West.  In dingy color, at 75 minutes.

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Man from Del Rio

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 27, 2015

Man From Del Rio—Anthony Quinn, Katy Jurado, Peter Whitney, Guinn Williams (1956; Dir: Harry Horner)

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Anthony Quinn played the lead in a couple of small but good westerns in the mid-1950s.  One was The Ride Back (1957), with William Conrad; and this was the other.  It clearly had a small budget and a director otherwise known principally for television work, but it was good.

It presents an unusual social twist on a traditional western gunfighter story, this time with a Hispanic slant.  As the movie opens, gunman Dan Ritchy rides up to a saloon in the town of Mesa, a quieter version of Hays City, Ellsworth and Dodge City on the cattle trails north from Texas to the railroads in Kansas.  He encounters a down-at-the-heels cowboy, who stops him and asks if he remembers Del Rio five years ago, where he killed three men.  A fourth was with them:  Dave Robles (Anthony Quinn), who says that it has taken him five years to learn how to use a gun.  He’s wounded in the exchange, but Ritchy is dead.

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Dave Robles (Anthony Quinn) apparently owns the town after taking down Dan Ritchy.

The cantankerous local doctor, Doc Adams (Douglas Fowley), whose sign advertises that he is also the dentist, undertaker and veterinarian, patches Robles up, and Robles meets the doc’s housekeeper and medical assistant Estella (Katy Jurado).  Back at the saloon, the proprietor Ed Bannister (Peter Whitney) chats Robles up.  He claims to have been a gunman when he was younger, and he apparently invites gunmen to town (as he did Ritchy) in the hopes of finding one that will buy into his vision of the town as a more vigorous trail town.

As Robles tries to get to know Estella better, she’s having none of him.  Three more of Bannister’s potential gunmen come to town, and they tie up the sheriff in a tree to use for target practice.  When they want to make off with Estella, Robles shoots it out with them and wins.  (If one of the three looks familiar, that’s because it’s Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, in an uncredited role.)  Impressed, the local town fathers offer him the job of sheriff at $100 a month and lodging, along with new clothes.

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Dave Robles (Anthony Quinn) has reason to be wary, even after he is made sheriff of Mesa.  And Estella (Katy Jurado) tries to dissuade Robles from a showdown with Bannister.

But the job and situation are not as good as Robles thought.  Social acceptance does not come with the job, and when he attends a dance, neither Estella nor any of the other respectable women in town will dance with him—apparently because he is Latino and a gunman.  When Ed Bannister renews his offer because Robles is drinking heavily and feeling ostracized by the community, the two get into a fight.  Robles wins, but he breaks the wrist on his gun hand.  Notwithstanding that, he is successful at running out a young gunman who thinks he can go along with Bannister’s plan.  And he gives Bannister until noon the next day to leave town.

The town drunk Breezy (Whit Bissell) tells Bannister what he has overheard at the doc’s office (he was sneaking the doc’s booze) about Robles’ wrist, however, and Bannister now thinks he can take Robles.  As Robles goes to meet Bannister, Estella begs him to leave town instead (shades of Grace Kelly and Gary Cooper in High Noon, with the same result).  Robles walks purposefully toward Bannister in the street, taking off the wrapping on his wrist, although we know he can’t move his fingers.  Bannister braces to meet him, and …

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Dave Robles (Anthony Quinn) marches to his apparent end against Ed Bannister (Peter Whitney, left).

Well, watch it and see. The result is both consistent with Robles’ character as we have come to know it, and with his medical situation.  Although it’s not a long movie at all, it takes its time as Robles develops from the penniless, good-with-a-gun near-alcoholic he was at the start to whatever he may be at the end.  Like The Ride Back, this is largely a character study, and it’s good, if not quite as good as The Ride Back.  Both Anthony Quinn and Katy Jurado were very good actors, and they carry this film, although Estella’s transition to being fond of Robles is sudden and not entirely persuasive.

For Anthony Quinn as a quasi-villain in bigger westerns, see Last Train from Gun Hill (1959) and Warlock (also 1959), where he brings a dimension of humanity to what would otherwise be standard bad-guy roles.  Katy Jurado is remembered mostly for her excellent performance in High Noon, but she’s also good in The Badlanders (1958), with Alan Ladd.  Peter Whitney has another role as a bad guy in Domino Kid (1957), with Rory Calhoun.

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Filmed In black and white at Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch in Placerita Canyon in southern California (destroyed by fire in 1962), at 82 minutes.

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A Distant Trumpet

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 23, 2015

A Distant Trumpet—Troy Donahue, Suzanne Pleshette, James Gregory, Diane McBain, Claude Akins, William Reynolds (1964; Dir: Raoul Walsh)

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This ambitious film is a highly fictionalized retelling of the surrender of Geronimo (here called War Eagle) and the supposed role of young Lt. Gatewood (here called Matt Hazard) and Gen. George Crook (here named Alexander Upton Quait).  It’s all based on a novel of the same name by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Paul Horgan, and it’s famed director Raoul Walsh’s last western, and his last movie of any kind.

Fresh from West Point, young 2nd Lt. Matt Hazard (Troy Donahue) is sent to dusty Fort Delivery in southern Arizona Territory, where boredom seems as much an adversary as War Eagle’s Apaches, lurking over the border in Mexico’s Sierra Madres.  Bringing with him White Cloud as an Apache scout, he finds the men at Fort Delivery lax and undisciplined.  The temporary commander of the fort is Lt. Mainwaring (William Reynolds), whose wife Kitty (Suzanne Pleshette) is the only woman at the post.  Mainwaring leads a detail off to retrieve long-requisitioned replacement mounts, while Kitty is supposed to head back to Washington, D.C.  While out collecting lumber, Hazard and his detail are attacked.  The men react badly and flee; Hazard fights and is separated from them.  He rescues Kitty Mainwaring, who was also attacked by Indians, and they spend the night in a cave together before returning to the fort.  Hazard’s attentions are now consumed more by Kitty than they are by his own distant fiancée Laura Frelief (a very blonde Diane McBain), niece to bachelor Gen. Alexander Upton Quait (James Gregory), a famous Apache fighter.

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Lt. Hazard (Troy Donahue) rescues Kitty Mainwaring (Suzanne Pleshette).

Mrs. Kitty Mainwaring:  “You’re a hard man, a duty man.  It’s your only love, really.”
2nd Lt. Matt Hazard:  “Is there a better kind?”
Mrs. Kitty Mainwaring:  “Well, speaking as a normal woman, yes; as an Army woman, no.”

Hazard works at shaping up the men, including the uncooperative Sgt. Kroger.  He also resists the corrupting influence of Seely Jones (Claude Akins) and his troop of prostitutes.  While on patrol, Hazard finds Mainwaring and his men all killed, and uses the opportunity to steal back the remounts and other horses from the Apaches.  Upon returning to the fort, he finds Laura there, along with a new commanding officer, Maj. Hiram Prescott.  Hazard seems more attracted to the newly-widowed Kitty Mainwaring than to Laura, and Laura senses that while making plans for them to be married as quickly as possible.

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Kitty Mainwaring (Suzanne Pleshette) and Laura the fiancee (Diane McBain) engage in a little verbal sparring.

An inquiry led by Gen. Quait seems to take Hazard and Prescott to task, but it’s a sham.  Quait is impressed by Hazard as he leads his men into a battle which is technically a victory but results in War Eagle retreating into Mexico again.  Hazard is sent with White Cloud to persuade War Eagle to surrender on generous terms from Quait.  When Hazard returns successfully, he finds that Quait is no longer in charge, that the terms have been changed, and that all the Indians, including the faithful White Cloud, are to be sent to Florida.

Hazard is summoned to Washington, where he is awarded the Medal of Honor for his feat and promoted to captain long before he otherwise would have been.  Feeling betrayed, however, he and Quait both resign in an attempt to get Pres. Chester Arthur to reverse some of the decisions made.  In the end, Capt. Hazard is shown commanding Fort Delivery and married to Kitty Mainwaring.

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At the big battle.

Troy Donahue and Suzanne Pleshette had enjoyed success with 1962’s Rome Adventure, and Warner Bros. apparently thought their casting in this cavalry tale would appeal to younger audiences.  The year this film was released, Donahue (real name: Merle Johnson) and and Pleshette were married in January and divorced in September.  (Donahue was married four times, and none of the marriages lasted longer than a couple of years.)  Donahue was very attractive in a blonde, hunky sort of way, but as an actor he was limited, and his film career was entering its downhill side as his limitations became more apparent.  The romantic triangle in this film looks doomed from the start, with the fiancée (Diane McBain) played rather unattractively.  Neither 77-year-old director Walsh nor star Donahue would ever make another western; Suzanne Pleshette would show up again in a few years in the comedy Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971), with James Garner and Jack Elam.

Obviously intended as a large-budget epic, the movie feels more lightweight than that.  It is visually impressive, with excellent cinematography by William Clothier, and music by Max Steiner.  Shot in color on location in northern Arizona and around Gallup, New Mexico, at 117 minutes.

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Lt. Hazard and White Cloud on their big mission.

A better version of the Geronimo-Gatewood story, using the real names, is Walter Hill’s Geronimo:  An American Legend (1993), with Jason Patric, Matt Damon, Robert Duvall and Gene Hackman.  In fact, after Gen. George Crook had done the hard work of getting Geronimo to surrender (a second time), he was supplanted by Nelson Miles, who took the credit and shipped both Geronimo and the Apache scouts who had supported the cavalry off to Florida.  Geronimo died in 1911 at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, having never seen his homeland in Arizona again.  The real disillusioned Lt. Gatewood did not receive the Medal of Honor.

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Arrow in the Dust

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 20, 2015

Arrow In The Dust—Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Tom Tully, Keith Larsen, Tudor Owen, Lee Van Cleef (1954; Dir: Lesley Selander)

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Prolific director Lesley Selander seldom had a lot to work with, either in terms of budget or with casting.  This is one of his better casts.  Sterling Hayden was in a number of westerns and other movies in the mid-1950s, most notably Johnny Guitar (also from 1954).  Coleen Gray is now remembered principally as the girl on the wagon train John Wayne leaves behind in Red River (1948), only to see the Comanches slaughter the rest of the train—and for a smattering of films noir (Kiss of Death, Copper Sky).  Both Hayden and Gray appear together again in Stanley Kubrick’s film noir The Killing (1956).  This is both a wagon train and a cavalry story–as the poster proclaims, a “Flaming Saga of the Savage West.”

Here army deserter Bart Laish (Sterling Hayden) is on the run, somewhere east of Fort Laramie in western Nebraska-eastern Wyoming.  In Indian country, he’s trying to link up with a wagon train for safety as he makes his way west.  This is generally Sioux country, but the Pawnees seem to be on the warpath as well.  He hears of a Major Andy Peppers heading to take command of Camp Taylor, and finds the remnants of a small burnt-out wagon train, with Peppers dying in one of the wagons.  Peppers, it turns out, is his cousin, and they had started at West Point together before Laish had dropped out to become a gambler and gunfighter.  The dying major tries to persuade Laish to find a way to rescue the wagon train ahead.

Maj. Andy Peppers:  “It doesn’t matter what you’ve been or what you’ve done.  There must still be some good left in you.  Or have you changed so much, Bart?”

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Stars Coleen Gray and Sterling Hayden in a publicity still.  And feisty doctor’s daughter Christella Burke (Coleen Gray) fights the attacking Pawnees with the best of them.

Camp Taylor, too, is burned out, and Laish dons Peppers’ uniform and insignia of rank.  He comes upon the wagon train, and he claims to be Peppers.  The few remaining troopers, led by Lt. Steve King (Keith Larsen), take him at face value; the experienced scout, Crowshaw (Tom Tully), has reservations but goes along.  The train itself includes attractive young Christella Burke (Coleen Gray), in whom King is interested, and freighting businessman Tillotson (Tudor Owen) with several wagons.  Laish-Peppers does well enough as the train is under almost continual attack, but Crowshaw knows he’s not Peppers.  They lose people and wagons fighting Pawnees and allied Apaches (?), but get ever nearer to Fort Laramie.  Finally, they discover Tillotson is hauling new Henry repeating rifles, and that’s really what the Indians want.  Tillotson is killed trying to attack Crowshaw, and they destroy his wagon, while Laish-Peppers is wounded fighting a rear guard action while the train moves out.

Laish had intended to leave the train before Fort Laramie to head south for Santa Fe.  But now Christella, who knows his story, Crowshaw and Lt. King will all speak up for him based on how he got the wagon train through, and he decides to go into Fort Laramie with the train.  In 1954, Laish and Christella weren’t allowed to just take off together for California, as they probably would have in real life.  Laish has to face the music, even though it will happen after the end of the movie.  For similar endings, where somebody who’s committed a crime has to give himself up instead of just moving on, see Four Faces West [Joel McCrea], Face of a Fugitive [Fred MacMurray] and The Moonlighter [MacMurray again].  The alternative seemed to be expiating one’s sins by taking a bullet (fatally) while doing something honorable, as Randolph Scott did in Western Union, and not getting the girl.

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Lt. King (Keith Larson) introduces the faux major (Sterling Hayden) to the redoubtable Christella Burke (Coleen Gray).

This is a fairly good story, but it is marred by Selander’s pedestrian direction and by Hayden’s stiff, unnatural demeanor as the false Peppers.  Nevertheless, it’s one of Selander’s better films.  Coleen Gray is very good, and so are Tom Tully and some of the other supporting players.  Lee Van Cleef is one of Tillotson’s henchmen; he does not survive the movie, like his boss.

The writing, by Don Martin. is not dazzling.  In color, at 79 minutes.  Many of the prints of Selander’s low-budget movies from this period were not of good quality originally or have become dingy through poor preservation.

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Shooting Stars, Part 2

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 16, 2015

Shooting Stars:  A Ranking of the 29 Greatest Western Actors Since 1939
Part 2—Filling Out the Top Ten

For the top five, see our post Shooting Stars, Part 1.

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6.  Joel McCrea  [Barbary Coast, Wells Fargo, Union Pacific, Buffalo Bill, The Virginian (1946), Four Faces West, Ramrod, The Oklahoman, Colorado Territory, The Outriders, Frenchie, Stars in My Crown, Cattle Drive, Saddle Tramp, The San Francisco Story, The Lone Hand, Black Horse Canyon, Border River, Wichita, The Tall Stranger, Gunsight Ridge, The First Texan, Stranger on Horseback, Trooper Hook, Cattle Empire, Fort Massacre, The Gunfight at Dodge City, Ride the High Country, etc.]

For current audiences, McCrea can be the most underestimated actor on this list.  In the early stages of his career during the 1930s he made all kinds of movies.  By 1939, when he made Foreign Correspondent with Alfred Hitchcock and Union Pacific with Cecil B. DeMille, he was a significantly bigger star than John Wayne, and he was about to appear in brilliant comedies with such directors as Preston Sturges (Sullivan’s Travels, Palm Beach Story) and George Stevens (The More the Merrier).  He had always made some westerns, but by the late 1940s, like Randolph Scott he began to concentrate almost entirely on the genre.  His quiet demeanor projected a basic decency, even when he was playing an outlaw (Four Faces West, Colorado Territory).  Neither he nor Scott worked with the very greatest directors of westerns of their time until very late in their careers, but McCrea did have a productive relationship with director Jacques Tourneur (Stars in My Crown, Stranger on Horseback, Wichita).  He appeared in the first of Andre de Toth’s two best westerns (the underrated Ramrod) as well.

McCrea had his own ranch, and he always described himself in his tax returns as a rancher.  He and Scott were among the very best riders in westerns, and he always looked like he knew what he was doing on a horse.  (Watch him in Colorado Territory and Gunsight Ridge, for example.)  His very best western was also Randolph Scott’s best, and the last significant western for both of them:  Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country.  McCrea’s unbending Steve Judd is remembered for his resonant line in that film:  “All I want is to enter my house justified.”  He does, always playing it straight on.

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7.  Randolph Scott  [Heritage of the Destert (1932), Last of the Mohicans (1936), The Texans (1938), Frontier Marshal, Western Union, Jesse James, Virginia City, When the Daltons Rode, The Desperadoes, The Spoilers (1942), Belle Starr, Belle of the Yukon, Gunfighters, Abilene Town, Badman’s Territory, Trail Street, Albuquerque, Coroner Creek, Return of the Bad Men, The Doolins of Oklahoma, Fighting Man of the Plains, Santa Fe, The Walking Hills, Sugarfoot, The Cariboo Trail, The Stranger Wore a Gun, The Man Behind the Gun, Thunder Over the Plains, The Bounty Hunter, Hangman’s Knot, Ten Wanted Men, Man in the Saddle, The Nevadan, Colt .45, Fort Worth, Carson City, Riding Shotgun, Tall Man Riding, Rage at Dawn, 7th Cavalry, Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend, Seven Men from Now, The Tall T, Decision at Sundown, Westbound, Buchanan Rides Alone, Ride Lonesome, Comanche Station, Ride the High Country, et al.]

At mid-century (1950), Randolph Scott was the top male movie star at U.S. box offices—not because he appeared in big blockbusters, but because his lower-budget and sometimes formulaic westerns played well in rural America.  Like Joel McCrea, he had always done some westerns (Last of the Mohicans [1936], Frontier Marshal, Jesse James) but in the 1930s he played a wide range of roles.  In larger-scale westerns (Western Union, Virginia City), he tended to play an unusually principled semi-bad guy who didn’t get the girl because he died before the end of the movie.

By the late 1940s, he had decided to concentrate almost exclusively on westerns, much like Joel McCrea.  Also like McCrea, he seldom worked with top-flight directors during this stage, although he worked frequently with Andre de Toth (The Bounty Hunter, Thunder Over the Plains, Carson City) and Lesley Selander (Tall Man Riding).  There were always some very good westerns (Hangman’s Knot, Ten Wanted Men, The Bounty Hunter) among the more formulaic work.  He would not be nearly this high on the list except for an amazing burst of great work near the end of his career with two great directors—Budd Boetticher (Seven Men From Now, The Tall T, Decision at Sundown, Ride Lonesome, Comanche Station) and Sam Peckinpah (Ride the High Country, Scott’s last film).

With his courtly North Carolina accent, his riding ability, his weathered good looks as he aged and his ability to project stern rectitude, Scott just needed the right team to work with and was lucky enough to find it in the last seven years or so of his career.  In the 1950s and Ride the High Country, look for him wearing his trademark worn leather jacket, often riding his beautiful dark palomino horse Stardust, who always went uncredited.  In the sheer number of westerns he made, he’s remarkable, and most of them, even the formulaic ones, are pretty watchable.

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8.  Kevin Costner  [Silverado, Dances With Wolves, Open Range, Wyatt Earp]

Kevin Costner is the youngest actor on this list, and he hasn’t made that many westerns.  But of his four westerns, three of them are on the list of 55 Great Westerns and the fourth (Wyatt Earp) is a notable addition to the impressive list of westerns telling the Wyatt Earp story.  Like Robert Duvall, he has both been lucky and has chosen well when selecting his movie roles in westerns.  Like Clint Eastwood, he has been unusually successful in directing himself in westerns (Dances With Wolves, Open Range).

Costner has always connected well with the western sensibility.  His first large-scale film role was as the scapegrace younger brother Jake in Silverado, adept with two guns, physically restless and gymnastic but impulsive.  He next showed up as both director and principal actor in Dances With Wolves, with its extraordinarily long running time.  This was the first western in more than 60 years to win the Best Picture Oscar.  He went on to work with Lawrence Kasdan again in the interesting but not-entirely-successful Wyatt Earp, and finally to direct himself and Robert Duvall in Open Range.  In fact there are those who would say that many of his films are westerns regardless of their supposed settings: the futuristic Waterworld and The Postman, for example, and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, with his abominably American accent in the title role.  On the down side of his career now, he may not make more westerns, but he has been extraordinarily successful in those he did make.

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9.  Henry Fonda  [Drums Along the Mohawk, Jesse James, The Return of Frank James, The Ox-Bow Incident, My Darling Clementine, Fort Apache, The Tin Star, Warlock, A Big Hand for the Little Lady, How the West Was Won, The Rounders, Firecreek, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Cheyenne Social Club, There Was a Crooked Man, My Name is Nobody, Welcome to Hard Times]

With his All-American looks, demeanor and speaking voice, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that Henry Fonda was a superb actor.  Yes, he did seem to be playing a version of himself as Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath and in The Ox-Bow Incident, but those are carefully-edited versions.  After service in World War II, he played it more laissez-faire as Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine (possibly the best Wyatt Earp on film) and much more tightly wound as the martinet Col. Owen Thursday in Fort Apache.  His version of outlaw Frank James, played in two films (Jesse James, The Return of Frank James), may also be definitive.

In the first half of his career, he worked with some great directors: Fritz Lang (The Return of Frank James), John Ford (Drums Along the Mohawk, Young Mr. Lincoln, My Darling Clementine, Fort Apache), William Wellman (The Ox-Bow Incident), and Anthony Mann (The Tin Star).  After the excellent Warlock (1959), his career in westerns went into a long, slow fade, although he was usually worth watching.  The most notable of his westerns in the post-Warlock period is probably Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, in which he plays (effectively) against type as a remorseless, blue-eyed killer.  After that, he took what he was offered, including the occasional spaghetti western, but the era of great westerns was fading along with his career.  Fonda’s career arc, normal for his time, demonstrates by comparison why John Wayne was so unusual in his ability to produce the occasional great western even at the end of his life.

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10.  Glenn Ford  [Go West, Young Lady, The Desperadoes, Texas, The Man from Colorado, Lust for Gold, The Redhead and the Cowboy, The Man from the Alamo, The Violent Men, 3:10 to Yuma, The Fastest Gun Alive, Jubal, Cowboy, The Sheepman, Cimarron (1960), The Rounders, The Last Challenge, Heaven with a Gun, A Time for Killing, Day of the Evil Gun, Santee]

Canadian-born actor Glenn Ford was a very durable and versatile leading man, beginning in the early 1940s.  Among his earliest westerns were Texas (1941), where he was paired with William Holden, and The Desperadoes (1943), with Randolph Scott, before he left for service in World War II.  Upon his return, he made his mark with several movies in the new film noir genre (see especially Gilda [1946], for one classic example).  But he also moved back into westerns (The Man from Colorado, Lust for Gold), showing that he was not afraid to play against his generally wholesome image.  Indeed, in one of his very best westerns (the original 3:10 to Yuma) he plays outlaw chieftain Ben Wade, making the unlikable more attractive, and being attracted to the code of good guy Van Heflin more than he expected.

Some of his best work during this middle period of his career was done with the excellent director Delmer Daves (3:10 to Yuma, Jubal, Cowboy), who obviously liked working with him.  He fought Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson and Brian Keith (The Violent Men), and spent a whole movie trying not to fight Broderick Crawford (The Fastest Gun Alive).  As film noir faded in popularity, he was sometimes cast in romantic comedies (The Courtship of Eddie’s Father) and military comedies (The Teahouse of the August Moon, Don’t Go Near the Water, Imitation General), and he brought some of that restrained comedic talent to the westerns The Sheepman and Advance to the Rear as well.  If given a choice, through the 1950s and 1960s, he always wore the same beat-up hat, which was looking pretty disgusting by the early 1960s.  The remake of the western epic Cimarron (1960) with director Anthony Mann and Ford in the lead didn’t really work well, but that wasn’t Ford’s fault.

His later career followed an arc similar to Henry Fonda’s, where the quality of the westerns he was offered declined.  As he played out his string (The Last Challenge, Heaven With a Gun, Santee), he often effectively played a kind of father-figure.  But the scripts weren’t as good, and the popularity of westerns as a genre was fading generally.

To continue the list, see Shooting Stars, Part 3.

 

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Shooting Stars, Part 1

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 13, 2015

Shooting Stars: A Ranking of the 29 Greatest Western Actors Since 1939
Part 1—The Top Five

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1.  John Wayne  [The Big Trail, Stagecoach, Red River, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande, Angel and the Badman, The Searchers, Rio Bravo, The Horse Soldiers, The Alamo, North to Alaska, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, McLintock!, The Sons of Katie Elder, The Comancheros, El Dorado, The War Wagon, Chisum, Cahill US Marshal, Rio Lobo, The Train Robbers, Big Jake, The Cowboys, The Shootist, et al.]

Wayne’s image is the first that comes to mind when we consider westerns between 1939 and the present.  He made many forgettable westerns while learning his craft during the 1930s in low-budget quickies, but beginning with Stagecoach in 1939 he made a surprising number of appearances in really good westerns.  While his career in westerns included a number of duds and clunkers, particularly toward the end (The Undefeated, Rio Lobo, The Train Robbers, etc.), for a long period he was consistently good—and often great.

Although, like most male stars, he sometimes seemed to show up in roles too young for him as he aged, he was more successful than most at playing age-appropriate roles as he grew older.  He successfully played older than he was in Red River and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and he moved into more mature roles naturally in The Searchers and Rio Bravo.  (He’s probably too old for Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo, but somehow it works.)  He even made a couple of great westerns during the final stage of his career (The Cowboys, The Shootist).

Some of his position at the top of this list is due to his long-time relationship with John Ford, the greatest director of westerns, which helped both of them earn their pre-eminence in the field.  But he also made very good westerns with directors Howard Hawks, John Farrow, Don Siegel and others.

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2.  Clint Eastwood  [A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Hang ‘Em High, Paint Your Wagon, High Plains Drifter, The Beguiled, Joe Kidd, Two Mules for Sister Sara, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Bronco Billy, Pale Rider, Unforgiven; Rawhide on television]

Eastwood is the greatest living star in westerns, although he is now in his 80s and is unlikely to make any more westerns either as a leading man or as a director.  Remarkably, he accomplished this mostly during a period when westerns were out of cinematic fashion; although he didn’t appear in nearly the number of westerns John Wayne did, his high position on the list results from the unusually high quality of the few westerns he did make.  Beginning with his central role in Sergio Leone’s influential Man With No Name Trilogy in the 1960s, he went on to appear in good westerns in the 1970s (Hang ‘Em High, for example) and to direct better ones with himself as the star (High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Pale Rider, Unforgiven).  Director Eastwood benefited from having an iconic western star (actor Eastwood) at the center of his films, and he knew how to use him.

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3.  James Stewart  [Destry Rides Again, Winchester ’73, The Naked Spur, The Man from Laramie, Night Passage, Two Rode Together, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Bend of the River, The Far Country, Shenandoah, How the West Was Won, Firecreek, The Rare Breed, Bandolero!, The Cheyenne Social Club, The Shootist, et al.]

Before leaving for World War II, he made his reputation in modern films by Frank Capra and The Philadelphia Story (1940), directed by George Cukor.  His only western in that period was 1939’s Destry Rides Again.  Upon returning from the war, he revived his film career once again with Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life) and by working with such directors as Alfred Hitchcock, Delmer Daves and Anthony Mann.  His high position on this list is due to the five films he made with Mann, in which he usually played a character on the psychological edge in some way.  Between them, Mann and Stewart re-defined in many ways the world of western movies and the stories they told.  The quality of westerns he made in the 1960s after his relationship with Mann fell apart tails off noticeably, although he made three late westerns with John Ford, one of which is particularly memorable (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance).

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4.  Gary Cooper  [The Virginian (1930),The Spoilers (1930), Fighting Caravans, The Plainsman, The Westerner, Along Came Jones, Dallas, High Noon, Garden of Evil, Springfield Rifle, Vera Cruz, Man of the West, The Hanging Tree, They Came to Cordura, etc.]

Dave Kehr sees him as John Wayne’s principal rival.  “Cooper, for whom the words lanky and laconic seem to have been invented, was identified by the Department of the Treasury as the nation’s highest paid wage earner in 1939….the mildly satiric Westerner (William Wyler, 1940) already finds Cooper playing an inflated archetype — the Man of the West — rather than a character, much as he would in his most overrated film, Fred Zinnemann’s didactic political fable High Noon (1952).”

In his biography of Gary Cooper, Gary Cooper, American Hero (Robert Hale, London, 2001), Jeffrey Myers quotes Robert Warshow’s essay on westerns:  “The romantic image of the cowboy as the embodiment of male freedom, courage and honor was created by men who had lived a rugged life in the West:  in words by Teddy Roosevelt and Owen Wister, in art by Frederic Remington and Charles Russell, and in film, preeminently, by Gary Cooper.”  Cooper was an authentic westerner from Montana, and he had a natural way with western roles.  Cooper would challenge John Wayne for the top spot on this list, except that he didn’t make many westerns during the 1940s when his career was at its peak.  His reputation in westerns was substantially made by movies released before 1939, until he revived his career in the 1950s beginning with High Noon.  One consequence of this career arc is that in several of his best westerns from the 1950s he seems too old for the roles in which he’s cast.  He’s good enough that we mostly look past that, though.

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5.  Robert Duvall  [True Grit, Lawman, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, Joe Kidd, Tender Mercies, Lonesome Dove, Geronimo: An American Legend, Broken Trail, Open Range]

His position on this list comes from what Duvall refers to as his Trail Boss Trilogy (Lonesome Dove, Broken Trail, Open Range).  In all of them he plays a trail boss moving his herd somewhere against considerable obstacles.  These three are of surprisingly high quality, despite the fact that two of them were not movies but were made-for-television miniseries.  Like Wayne, Eastwood and Stewart, Duvall has benefited from working with unusually capable directors of westerns, John Sturges, Simon Wincer, Walter Hill and Kevin Costner among them.  His Augustus McCrae (Lonesome Dove) is one of the most indelible characters in the history of westerns.

At an age similar to Eastwood’s, his career also took place largely during a period when not many westerns were made.  His Best Actor Oscar comes from a modern western of sorts; he played country singer Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies (1983).  If you like him in more traditional westerns, give Tender Mercies a try.  He is one of the pre-eminent movie actors of his time generally, not just in westerns.  Unlike the others this high on the list, he has seldom played a conventional romantic lead.

To continue the list of top stars in westerns, see Shooting Stars, Part 2 and Shooting Stars, Part 3.

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Return of the Bad Men

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 9, 2015

Return of the Bad Men—Randolph Scott, Robert Ryan, George “Gabby” Hayes, Jacqueline White, Anne Jeffreys (1948; Dir: Ray Enright)

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Indian Territory Marshal Vance Cordell (Randolph Scott) is retiring as a lawman to marry Madge Allen (Jacqueline White), the young and attractive widow of another lawman.  Early in the movie is the 1889 Oklahoma land rush, and the hasty settlement of the town of Guthrie.  The local military authority persuades Cordell to accept a temporary appointment as marshal, just in time for a gang of all the known outlaw names of the old west to start a crime spree (Youngers [out of commission since 1876], Daltons, the Arkansas Kid, Billy the Kid—who was long dead by 1889—and especially the Sundance Kid [Robert Ryan]).  They’re led by Bill Doolin (Robert Armstrong), whose niece Cheyenne (Anne Jeffreys) decides to go straight and joins Cordell as his assistant.

It’s all very counter-historical, and somewhat formulaic.  Gabby Hayes as a toothless bank president?  That’s neither formulaic nor believable.  Things work out as you’d expect.  There’s supposed to be some sexual tension with Cordell and Cheyenne, and some competition between Madge and Cheyenne, but since Randolph Scott’s in his ultra-straight mode you know how that’s going to work out, too.   Cheyenne’s more interesting than Madge, though, and it makes you wonder about Cordell’s judgment.  Note also that the actress playing Cheyenne (Anne Jeffreys) gets higher billing than the one playing Madge (Jacqueline White).  There is a good performance by Robert Ryan as a hard, ruthless Sundance Kid.

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Two legs of a romantic triangle:  Production stills of Marshal Vance Cordell (Randolph Scott) captured by Cheyenne (Anne Jeffreys).  And Robert Ryan as the Sundance Kid.

The “return” of the title is an apparent reference to a successful film Scott and Hayes had made two years earlier, also about a law officer in Oklahoma territory:  Badman’s Territory (1946).  This is not really a sequel in any meaningful sense, except that it also includes a variety of unrelated and implausibly-gathered outlaws.

For another western in which Randolph Scott works things out with a woman (Angela Lansbury) unalterably opposed to his being a lawman, see A Lawless Street.  One recurring lesson seems to be to watch out for the attractive young widows and daughters of deceased lawmen—they tend to want you to leave the profession. (See The Tin Star, for example.)

Note: This is at least the third movie in which Randolph Scott’s character is named Vance, along with Virginia City and Western Union, which are both better than this is.

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Copper Canyon

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 6, 2015

Copper Canyon—Ray Milland, Hedy Lamar, Macdonald Carey, Harry Carey, Jr., Ian Wolfe, Mona Freeman, Hope Emerson (1950; Dir: John Farrow)

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Welsh actor Ray Milland didn’t make many westerns, and the best of the few he did make is probably A Man Alone (1955).  The beautiful Austrian actress Hedy Lamarr made even fewer; this movie, from late in her career, seems to be her only western.  Nevertheless, they both show up in this watchable and busy story of North-South disputes and nefarious doings in a post-Civil War western mining town.

Shortly after the Civil War, a group of Confederate veterans approaches Johnny Carter (Ray Milland), who has a stage sharpshooting act.  They are under the impression that he is Col. Desmond, a former southern commander from Virginia.  Captured and placed in a prisoner of war camp during the war, he escaped with $20,000 the camp commandant had; as a consequence, he’s still wanted by the federal authorities, even though the war is over.

The southerners are mining copper but find themselves oppressed by a corrupt local regime in Coppertown and are unable to get their ore to market.  Carter denies that he is Desmond but shows up in Coppertown to put on his act in the local saloon, run by the beautiful and exotic Lisa Roselle (Hedy Lamarr).  Both Roselle and deputy sheriff Lane Travis (Macdonald Carey) have been sent to Coppertown by the mysterious Mr. Henderson (Ian Wolfe) to keep the southerners from smelting and marketing their ore so he can buy them out cheaply.

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Adversaries Johnny Carter (Ray Milland) and Lisa Roselle (Hedy Lamarr) strike up a closer acquaintance.

Carter strikes up a relationship with Roselle to the irritation of Travis, who has been trying to develop his own interests there.  While Roselle tries to keep Carter involved with her and not joining a miner’s wagon train to Mesa City, he slips out to give the miners cover by pinning down Travis’ attacking men.  Back in Coppertown, he is betrayed and framed for the robbery of the $160,000 in proceeds from Mesa City.  Carter has finally persuaded Balfour, owner of the local smelting facility, to allow the southerners to use it, but Travis shoots Balfour in the back.  With Roselle’s help Carter gets out of jail and stops the cut-rate sale of claims to Henderson.

Using military skills, Carter organizes an attack on Travis and his men at the smelter, with the support of the local cavalry Lt. Ord (Harry Carey, Jr.).  He wins a shootout with the nefarious Travis.  At the end he takes the stage out of town with Roselle, never having admitted that he is Desmond–if he is.  Lt. Ord is promoted to captain.  And Carter and Lisa take off for Sacramento and San Francisco to start a new theater, with $20,000 Carter happens to have in the lining of his gun case.

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Carter (Ray Milland) is captured by Deputy Sheriff Lane Travis (Macdonald Carey).

While pleasant and watchable fare, this isn’t terribly memorable.  There doesn’t seem to be a lot of chemistry between Milland and Lamarr, as the attraction of these characters to each other overtakes their competing agendas.  According to stories from the production, the two leads couldn’t stand each other.  Milland doesn’t seem like much of a southerner.  Undeniably beautiful (and reportedly very intelligent as well), Lamarr doesn’t exude much warmth.  There are a lot of characters, many of whom remain underdeveloped. Six-foot two-inch Hope Emerson could be excellent in character parts (see her in Westward the Women [1951], for example), but here she is underused as Ma Tarbet, a bartender and associate of Roselle.  Philip Van Zandt is the cheerfully corrupt sheriff of Coppertown, dominated by his deputy Travis.  Harry Carey, Jr., is fine in one of his young lieutenant roles (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, 1949; Rio Grande, 1950).  Macdonald Carey usually appeared in westerns with much lower budgets and less upscale casts, but he makes an excellent villain here.

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Stars Ray Milland and Hedy Lamarr in publicity stills.

Director John Farrow’s best-known western is Hondo (1953), although there are stories he didn’t finish that one.  This is in lively color, with a lot of plot for its 84 minutes.

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The Last Posse

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 2, 2015

The Last Posse—Broderick Crawford, John Derek, Charles Bickford, Skip Homeier, Henry Hull, Wanda Hendrix (1953; Dir: Alfred L. Werker)

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Aging, heavyset Broderick Crawford would seem to make an unlikely leading man, but he was the lead in two “last” westerns in 1953:  The Last Posse and Last of the Comanches.  He’d won the Best Actor Oscar for playing Willie Stark in All the King’s Men (1949) and was moving more into television work, where he would make his mark in Highway Patrol.  And he still had a few westerns left in his career.

This one takes place in Roswell, New Mexico, where the sheriff is hard-drinking John Frazier (Broderick Crawford), who once played a significant role in cleaning up the town.  Now it’s mostly peaceful, but not as peaceful as it may seem.  The posse of the title rides back into town at the start of the film, weary and with Frazier seemingly wounded, but without prisoners or stolen money.  Most of the story is told in flashbacks.

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Sheriff John Frazier (Broderick Crawford) gives a whiskey drummer (Henry Hull) some backstory on Sampson Drune.

The three Romers, rancher Will (Todd Mitchell) and his sons George (Guy Wilkerson) and Art (Skip Homeier) have been unfairly treated by bigger rancher Sampson Drune (Charles Bickford at his most cantankerous).   When they seek redress, they get into a fight with Drune’s adopted son Jed Clayton (John Derek).  Drune concludes a big cattle sale for $205,000 and attempts to deposit the money in the local bank, when it is stolen by the Romers, who take off into the desert with it.  Drune and Clayton head the posse chasing them, which includes the most prominent of the local citizens—the banker and the store owner among them.  Frazier is given an out, but he joins them, too.  He knows, as Jed does not, that Drune killed Jed’s father, and Frazier suspects that Drune has something similar in mind for the Romers, who also know what he’s done.

During the pursuit in the desert, Drune and Clayton get ahead of the rest of the posse, but Frazier knows the desert well and cuts them off.  Drune knocks Frazier off his horse, but Frazier nevertheless reaches the Romers first as they seek refuge in some rocks.  As they try to get away, George Romer falls to his death, and Will and Art surrender to Frazier.

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The two remaining Romers surrender to Sheriff Frazier (Broderick Crawford).

[Spoilers follow.]  As Frazier takes custody of the two arrested Romers, the rest of the posse rides up.  Sampson Drune guns down both Romers, and gets Frazier at least twice as well, as Frazier tries to tell Clayton the truth about Drune.  Clayton reflexively kills Drune.  By the time the posse arrives back in Roswell, Frazier is in very bad shape.  Posse members have agreed to tell a story that has all Romers and Drune being killed in a shootout in the desert.  Clayton will inherit the large Drune ranch, and the others will split up the $205,000, after claiming it was lost in the desert.

As the judge starts an inquest that evening, things proceed as planned, except that Frazier struggles into his clothes and with great difficulty takes a seat at the proceeding.  His presence convinces Clayton to tell the truth to the judge about what happened.  At the end Clayton re-unites with girlfriend Deborah (Wanda Hendrix), and it is discovered that Frazier had died of his wounds about the time he sat down.  They didn’t need to tell the truth after all, leaving the town’s leading citizens to wallow in their own collective hypocrisy.

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John Frazier (Broderick Crawford) and Jed Clayton (John Derek) confer.

Crawford makes an effective sheriff here, the most honest character in the movie although he is either drunk, hung over or badly injured for much of the film.  He does some strenuous riding in the desert, down steep slopes and falling off his horse at least three times, where it is apparent that it is a skinnier stunt double doing the riding and falling.  Skip Homeier does his usual “kid with a gun” sort of performance (The Gunfighter, Ten Wanted Men, Dawn at Socorro, The Tall T, Comanche Station) in a limited role.  He was never a leading character in them, but he managed to be in a surprising number of good westerns.  Charles Bickford is unpleasant (as he could be in real life, apparently; see The Big Country), spiteful and unscrupulous the entire movie.  John Derek does not seem to be much of an actor, and will soon move into photography and become better known for his series of wives than for his acting career.  Wanda Hendrix’s character is extraneous.  The fussy Henry Hull is a whiskey drummer to whom Frazier tells key parts of his story.

This was produced by Harry Joe Brown, experienced with westerns and now remembered principally for his work with Randolph Scott and Budd Boetticher.  In black and white, with a lot of plot for 73 minutes.

For Broderick Crawford in another western role, see him as bad guy Vinnie Harold, challenging Glenn Ford in The Fastest Gun Alive (1956).   Director Alfred Werker also made At Gunpoint (1955), with Fred MacMurray.

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