Tag Archives: Donna Reed

Hangman’s Knot

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 11, 2014

Hangman’s Knot—Randolph Scott, Donna Reed, Lee Marvin, Claude Jarman, Jr., Frank Faylen, Ray Teal, Guinn Williams, Jeanette Nolan, Richard Denning, Clem Bevans (1952; Dir: Roy Huggins)


A Civil War Confederates-after-Yankee-gold film, and one of Randolph Scott’s best from his pre-Boetticher period.  (Note that the producers here are Scott and Harry Joe Brown—later the combined “Ranown” of the Boetticher-Scott films.  At this point they still needed to find a reliable director and writer for their team, although Roy Huggins does well in both those roles here.)

Eight Confederate soldiers from Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia are in Nevada, led by Major Matt Stewart (Randolph Scott).  As the movie starts, they’re planning to steal a shipment of Union gold to save their all-but-defeated southern cause.  They waste no time in carrying out that plan, killing the Yankee soldiers and taking the $250,000 in gold the Yankees are transporting.  Unknown to them, however, the Civil War has ended a month before the attack, and they just hadn’t heard about it.  Now they’ve killed a bunch of Union Nevada volunteers, are in possession of a lot of gold in the middle of hostile territory, and are liable to be hung when they get caught.  The five survivors of the raid agree to try to get back south with the gold and perhaps split it up.  Stewart doesn’t want to become an outlaw, but Rolph Bainter (Lee Marvin in one of his first significant movie roles) wouldn’t mind at all.


Capturing the gold wagon is only the start.

They can trust no one, and Rolph impulsively kills Capt. Peterson, their contact who he thinks has been holding out information on them and plans to take the gold for himself.  They take Peterson’s medicine wagon with Stewart driving.  When they encounter a posse, Stewart tells them the Confederates have already been captured in a town behind them, and they move on.

That’s fine until the wagon is ruined in an accident.  The Confederates flag down a stagecoach and take it over.  The two passengers inside are Molly Hull (Donna Reed), a former Union nurse, and her fiancé Lee Kemper (Richard Denning), a cattle trader who is not all he seems.  They all take refuge in a stage line way station in a rocky mountain pass and are trapped there by the posse of “deputies” (read: gold-hungry drifters) led by Quincey (Ray Teal).  It’s pretty clear that they intend to kill the remaining Confederates and anybody else in the station and take the gold for themselves.  They capture Cass Browne (Frank Faylen), one of Stewart’s men, and drag him nearly to death.


Stewart (Randolph Scott) drives the getaway stage.

Stewart’s men are now besieged in the way station, with the aging stationmaster Plunkett (Clem Bevans) and his middle-aged daughter Mrs. Margaret Harris (Jeanette Nolan), whose husband was killed at Gettysburg and whose son was in the Union patrol guarding the stolen gold; he’s now dead, obviously.  Molly helps care for a badly wounded Confederate while the others try to figure out how they’re going to escape.  Stewart, under the guise of trying to make a deal, plants the seed with the posse that the gold is back where they left the medicine wagon.

After taking their captives’ word not to yell out, the Confederates try to escape through the back door.  But Lee breaks his word, and Stewart’s men are forced back inside.  In exchange for two bars of gold, Lee gives Stewart a token that he says will enable them to get horses, supplies and passage from the local Paiute Indians.  Molly isn’t really his fiancée, but now she’s even more disgusted with him.  Both Stewart and Rolph have eyes for Molly, but Stewart is much more gentlemanly in his approach, as we would expect from Randolph Scott.


Rolph (Lee Marvin) finds his brand of charm doesn’t work on Molly (Donna Reed), or on Stewart (Randolph Scott), either.

At one point, the “deputies” put a noose around Cass Browne’s neck, and Stewart uses dynamite for a distraction to rescue him. (Anachronism alert:  Dynamite wasn’t patented until 1867 and was not used during the Civil War.)  Some backstory emerges on young trooper Jamie Groves (Claude Jarman, Jr.):  he watched his family killed and their farm burned by Sherman’s men in Georgia, and, although he was in the raiding party after the Yankee gold, he’s never shot any one during his brief military service.  Rolph tries to seduce/attack Molly, until Stewart pulls him off. They fight, and Rolph, when he’s losing, tries to shoot an unarmed Stewart.  Jamie shoots Rolph—the first man he has ever shot.  Now they’ve lost one of their best (but most unscrupulous) fighters.

The “deputies” now try a short tunnel under the station’s floorboards, but that doesn’t work.  The second night they set fire to the station, just before a brief downpour cuts visibility.  The first out the door is Lee, who is shot down while trying to make a deal.  Taking what they can of the gold, the three remaining Confederates make a break for it.  Some of the deputies leave to hunt for the gold supposedly left by the medicine wagon; Quincey shoots Smitty (Guinn “Big Boy” Williams) and is shot and then dragged himself.  Cass Browne is shot while trying to get to the posse’s horses, but he gets another posse member.


The way station falls in flames.  From left to right:  Claude Jarman, Jr., Randolph Scott, Jeanette Nolan, Clem Bevans, Richard Denning, Donna Reed and Frank Faylen.

Finally, it’s only Stewart and Jamie left.  Now that they could actually get away with it, they choose to leave the gold at the station for Molly to turn in.  Plunkett and Margaret give them a couple of stagecoach horses for their escape and offer Jamie a place with them if he wants to come back.  Stewart and Molly make plans to reunite, too.

The film is very well-cast, and the writing (by director Roy Huggins) is very good.  Randolph Scott looks good in his dark clothing, light-colored neckerchief and worn leather jacket.  That leather jacket is one of the trademarks of Scott’s later career, like his dark palomino horse Stardust; look for him wearing it in many of his movies from this period, including Ten Wanted Men and Ride the High Country (his last film).  Marvin is very effective as a villain in an early screen role, and even Claude Jarman, Jr., known principally as a child actor in The Yearling, does well with his small part, in one of his last significant movies.  All the Confederates seem well-defined and distinct, with their own personalities, and some of the posse as well.  This is a small gem, one of the best of Randolph Scott’s pre-Boetticher years. This is rare for a movie from the early 1950s in that it allows Stewart and Jamie, at least, to get away without having to surrender to the authorities, if not with their loot intact.


Molly and Stewart, finally together, featuring Randolph Scott in his trademark jacket..

The action is good, since the stunts were overseen by second-unit director Yakima Canutt.  The stunt double for Scott during his fight scenes with Lee Marvin is a little too obvious.  Writer-director Roy Huggins never directed another movie but took his talents to television, with Maverick, Cheyenne, The Fugitive and eventually The Rockford Files.  Shot in the Alabama Hills at Lone Pine, in color, at just 81 minutes.

For other Confederates-after-Yankee-gold westerns, see Virginia City (1940) with Errol Flynn and Randolph Scott, Westbound (1959), also with Randolph Scott, and The Black Dakotas (1954).  Even Rio Lobo (1970), Howard Hawks’ last movie, may fit into that category, although it’s not a very good film.  For more Lee Marvin as a bad guy, see him in Seven Men From Now (1956), again with Randolph Scott, in Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), with Spencer Tracy and Robert Ryan, and The Comancheros (1961), with John Wayne, before he gets to his ultimate villain role:  as Liberty Valance in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).

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Gun Fury

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 30, 2014

Gun Fury—Rock Hudson, Donna Reed, Philip Carey, Leo Gordon, Pat Hogan, Roberta Haynes, Lee Marvin, Neville Brand (1953; Dir: Raoul Walsh)


Three of the principal characters in this western from the early 1950s are still wallowing in the aftermath of the Civil War. Ben Warren (Rock Hudson in an early starring role) fought for the Union, has had more than enough killing and now wants only to marry his fiancée Jennifer Ballard (Donna Reed) and live on his large California ranch.  He doesn’t even wear a gun any more.  Jennifer is from Atlanta and is anxious to start a new life where the the desolation of Sherman’s March is not remembered.  And Frank Slayton (Phil Carey) is an embittered former Confederate, now an outlaw in the southwest.

As the film starts, Jennifer is on a stage carrying a large amount of gold and two former Southern gentlemen, along with a cavalry escort.  They stop in Haynesville, Arizona Territory, where Jennifer is meeting her future husband Ben.  He joins the stage passengers, and after it takes off Ben and Jennifer discover that the two Southerners are the noted outlaws Frank Slayton and Jess Burgess (Leo Gordon), and their new cavalry escort are Slayton’s men.  They rob the stage and think they’ve killed Warren, and Slayton abducts Jennifer, for whom he has developed a fascination.


Strangers on a stagecoach:  Slayton (Phil Carey), Burgess (Leo Gordon), Warren (Rock Hudson), Ballard (Donna Reed), and a real stranger.

Slayton and Burgess have a falling out over the abduction, and Slayton leaves Burgess tied to a corral post for the buzzards.  Meanwhile, Warren discovers he isn’t really dead and takes one of the stagecoach horses in pursuit.  He releases Burgess, and they join forces to pursue Slayton for vengeance and to rescue Jennifer.  They are joined by an Indian Johash (Pat Hogan), whose sister was also taken by Slayton’s men in an earlier raid on Taos.


Frank Slayton (Phil Carey) leaves Jess Burgess (Leo Gordon) to die.

As Slayton and his men get closer to the Mexican border, Burgess and Warren find a couple of his men buying supplies in a town and kill one of them.  Now Slayton knows they are following.  He stops by a village notable for its cantina and Mexican ladies of easy virtue, where Slayton has a girl Estella Morales (Roberta Haynes).  He has Jennifer cleaned up and has his way with her, although the camera doesn’t show that very explicitly.  Estella is enraged at being abandoned so casually.  Slayton makes a deal with Warren and Burgess: he’ll trade Jennifer back to Warren in exchange for Burgess.  Although Warren isn’t minded to make that trade, not trusting Slayton in the slightest, Burgess insists he can take Slayton.  It doesn’t work, and Burgess is killed.

Now it’s Warren and Johash against Slayton and the remainder of his band of outlaws.  Estella tries to get Slayton and is killed for her pains.  It comes finally, as we knew it would, to former pacifist Warren and the ruthless outlaw Slayton.  Just when it looks like Slayton has the advantage, it turns out he has forgotten Johash, and Slayton ends with a knife in his back.  Warren and Jennifer ride off to their California ranch.


Jennifer Ballard (Donna Reed) is fit to be tied; Ben Warren (Rock Hudson) seeks vengeance.

This is one of three movies from 1953 in which director Raoul Walsh used his new discovery Rock Hudson. (The Lawless Breed and Sea Devils are the other two.)  None of them are particularly memorable.  Like Hondo, this film was made in the 3-D process that was all the rage that year, and the camerawork, especially in the second half, shows the usual evidence of that in the angles of thrown objects, striking rattlesnakes and such.  Carey as the sociopathic outlaw Slayton and Leo Gordon as the vengeful Jess Burgess give the best performances in the cast.  Leo Gordon was just breaking into movies, the same year that he played Ed Lowe (Geraldine Page’s despicable husband, shot by John Wayne) in Hondo.

Donna Reed is beautiful but nothing special as Jennifer (she’s more notable in Hangman’s Knot and Backlash later in the decade, for example), and Rock Hudson was never a dazzling actor, but he was more wooden here than he would be later in his career.  Lee Marvin and Neville Brand have early roles as members of Slayton’s gang, but they have neither enough lines nor enough camera time to distinguish themselves here.  Roberta Haynes is modestly interesting in a limited role as Mexican spitfire Estella, but one does feel that actual Mexican Katy Jurado could have done it better, and that the smoldering Linda Darnell did do it better in My Darling Clementine.


The script by Irving Wallace and Roy Huggins is fine, based on Kathleen George’s novel Ten Against Caesar.  Warren has interesting exchanges with lawmen and townsfolk of the small towns he and Burgess go through in their pursuit, as he tries without success to get some help.  The title of the movie doesn’t mean anything in particular, which was common enough with westerns of that era.  One does expect better camera work from the experienced director Walsh; camera placement and angles here often telegraph what’s coming.  The one-eyed Walsh could not himself see the 3-D results of his work, but he had done better westerns—Colorado Territory, for example.  Shot on location in Sedona, Arizona.  83 minutes.

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Nicholas Chennault ~ March 7, 2014

Backlash—Richard Widmark, Donna Reed, John McIntire, Robert Wilke, Harry Morgan, Barton MacLane (1956; Dir:  John Sturges)


Director John Sturges was in the middle of a pretty good run of westerns.  He made this just after Bad Day at Black Rock and just before Gunfight at the OK Corral, The Law and Jake Wade (also starring Widmark, but that time as a psychotic bad guy) and Last Train to Gun Hill.  This is a step below those, but it’s still quite watchable.

This one opens with a rider in black, who turns out to be Karyl Orton (Donna Reed) in a curiously flat-crowned had, obviously made for women.  She encounters Jim Slater (Richard Widmark) digging at the site in Gila Valley, Arizona Territory, where Apaches had killed five men.  Slater, a Texan from Nacogdoches and veteran of the Civil War who never knew his father, thinks that his father was one of the five.  And he’s looking for a sixth man who escaped the Indians with $60,000 in gold.  Orton’s husband, also a Confederate veteran whom she hasn’t seen since the war, was in the group, too.  While they’re getting to know each other, somebody starts shooting at them from the rocks above.  Slater outflanks the shooter and kills him when he won’t put down his gun; Slater is obviously both good with a gun and doesn’t back down from a challenge or from authority.  The dead man has a badge that says he’s a deputy sheriff in nearby Silver City, and they take him back there.

The sheriff, somewhat hostile, says that the dead deputy was named Welker.  His brother was one of those killed at Gila Valley, and he has two more brothers who are both good with guns and of bad character.  Slater isn’t sure he can trust Orton much, and they seem to go their own ways.  They move on to Tucson separately, where they’re both looking for a Sgt. George Lake, who was in charge of the detail that buried the victims in Gila Valley.  It turns out he’s at Benton’s trading post, and when they get there, it’s under siege by Apaches.


Lake (Barton MacLane) obviously has other things on his mind and isn’t interested in rehashing Gila Valley.  The Apaches run off the whites’ horses, and Lake and Slater figure the only way out is to return the favor and escape with the horses still hitched to the stagecoach.  They carry out that mission and develop more of a rapport, getting away with a couple of Indian horses.  Lake, however, is badly wounded.  Before he dies, he tells Slater that three of the bodies were identifiable (one was a Welker) and of the two that were not, one was missing a left hand from an old injury.  The sixth man, the one who got away, was riding a horse with Major Carson’s Texas brand.  Lake knew, but didn’t think much of, Orton’s husband Paul.

Back in Tucson, the nasty Welker brothers Jeff (Robert Wilke) and Tony (Harry Morgan) commandeer Orton in a hotel, looking for Slater.  As Jeff takes her upstairs in a saloon, Slater walks in and Orton identifies him to them.  He gets both Jeff and Tony, but is wounded himself in the left shoulder and leaves town.  Orton follows him and doctors his wound.  She’s pretty casual about taking off her shirt to use as a not-terribly-effective bandage, and she admits that her Confederate husband never came back because he heard that she was “fraternizing” with the enemy Yankees in Atlanta.  She and Slater come to a rough understanding.


As they approach Carson’s ranch the next day, they are stopped by two of his men, one of whom, Johnny Cool (William Campbell), clearly fancies himself as a gunslinger, in the stereotypical black leather and all.  Carson and other big ranchers are about to move against Jim Bonniwell (John McIntire), a rancher-rustler who has recently taken to hiring gunmen and being more overt in his stealing of cattle.  While at Carson’s ranch, they learn that Carson’s nephew was the corpse with the missing hand.

As Carson’s small army prepares to ride into town early the next morning Slater and Orton head for town, to find that Johnny Cool is apparently working for Bonniwell and still wants to kill Slater.  Bonniwell stops him, and rides out; Slater is put in jail by the local sheriff, who thinks Slater’s working for Bonniwell.  Tony Welker shows up, still looking for Slater, and antagonizes Johnny Cool, who has decided he wants Orton.  Cool wins the shootout with Welker, reducing by one the number of people who want to kill Slater.

Even earlier than Carson, Bonniwell brings his own smaller army into town the next morning to set up an ambush for Carson.  He kills the sheriff, whom he correctly assumes to be on Carson’s side, and he lets Slater out, discovering in the process that he is Slater’s father.  Johnny Cool won’t be dissuaded from trying to kill Slater, and Bonniwell lends Slater his gun.  Slater wins; he’s not as showy as Cool, but he’s faster.  It’s part of his genetic legacy from Bonniwell, apoparently. 


Slater (Richard Widmark) meets his father (John McIntire).

As the ambush develops, Slater warns Carson by firing shots and Bonniwell tries to kill Slater.  As the final shootout between father and son develops (with Bonniwell cheating), Bonniwell is shot in the back by one of the Carson band.  And Slater and Orton ride off together with their dark pasts.

The best line:  When Bonniwell is setting up his ambush in town, he comments in avuncular style:  “You know, I’ve never seen it fail.  When you take a trigger-happy bunch sitting it out like this, somebody’s bound to start fooling with his gun.”  


Widmark and McIntire are good, with McIntire playing much like his role in The Far Country.  Reed isn’t a natural at westerns (this is the last of her eight westerns), but she’s fine here.  Neither Widmark (supposedly from Texas) nor Reed (supposedly from Atlanta) has an accent that relates to their origins, but that’s just as well.  When Widmark tried a southern accent in Alvarez Kelly, it wasn’t terribly persuasive.  There are geographical oddities:  the trip from Arizona Territory to Texas seems to take no time at all.  Lots of ins and outs for just 84 minutes.  From a book by Frank Gruber, the screenwriter was Borden Chase.  In color, shot partially in Old Tucson.

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