Tag Archives: Frontier Doctors

Yellowstone Kelly

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 31, 2014

Yellowstone Kelly—Clint Walker, Edward (Edd) Byrnes, Claude Akins, John Russell, Ray Danton, Andra Martin, Rhodes Reason, Warren Oates (1959; Dir: Gordon Douglas)

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Luther “Yellowstone” Kelly was a real frontier trapper and scout, whose particular expertise and knowledge was in the Montana area from which he got his nickname.  He served as the chief of scouts for Gen. Nelson A. Miles in the Yellowstone district during the Sioux wars of 1876-1877, the same time period as this movie.  He was not, as the prologue of the movie would have it, the first white man to cross the Yellowstone Valley.  He was more than thirty or forty years too late for that.  Some of Lewis and Clark’s party had gone down the Yellowstone Valley even seventy years earlier on their return from the west coast.

In this version, Kelly (Clint Walker) rides into Fort Buford (at the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers on the western border of North Dakota) to replenish his supplies.  Custer’s defeat at the Little Bighorn has already happened, so this is after June 1876.  While at Fort Buford he advises inexperienced but ambitious Major Towns (Rhodes Reason) against his plan to hunt the Sioux and refuses to go with the cavalry.  He ends up fighting with several soldiers, led by a sergeant (Claude Akins), and he acquires Anse Harper (Edd Byrnes) as a kind of unwanted apprentice.

Major Towns:  “In other words, you refuse.”
Yellowstone Kelly:  “In any words, I refuse.”

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Clint Walker as Kelly and John Russell as Gall; and Ray Danton as Sayapi.

As Kelly and Harper ride into the Snake River country with their two supply mules, they encounter hostile Sioux, who capture them.  They are taken to Gall (John Russell), chief of the Hunkpapa Sioux.  It develops that seven years earlier Gall had been shot on the Snake, and Kelly had cut out the bullet and healed him without knowing who he was.  In return, Gall has allowed Kelly to trap the Snake country for seven years.  Now he wants Kelly to remove a bullet from another Indian—from a captive Arapaho maiden, Wahleeah (Andra Martin).  A complication is that Wahleeah’s captor is Gall’s nephew Sayapi (Ray Danton), who does not trust Kelly.

Kelly is successful in removing the bullet; in return Gall allows Kelly and Anse to leave with their mules.  As they move into Kelly’s cabin and set up traps, they see an Indian rider approaching and then fall off his horse.  It’s Wahleeah, who has escaped from Sayapi and is now all but dead.  As she lies recovering, Gall rides up and decides she can stay the winter with Kelly and he will retrieve her when he returns from his winter hunting ground.  An angry Sayapi breaks with his uncle and rides off with a few followers.

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Kelly (Clint Walker) rescues Wahleeah (Andra Martin).

As Kelly and Anse get to know Wahleeah, she tells them she intends to escape to her Arapaho people, who appear to be near the area of Yellowstone Park, a hundred miles away.  Kelly intends to turn her back over to Gall in the spring.  Anse, who appears to be falling for her, thinks Kelly might be wrong.  As Anse is about to help her escape, Sayapi shows up, shoots Anse, takes Wahleea and burns the cabin.  Kelly comes back, follows the Sioux trail and overtakes them at night.  He attacks, kills several of them, including Sayapi, and takes back Wahleeah.  Heading back for his burned-out cabin, he encounters Major Towns’ column about to cross the Snake River to find and attack the Sioux.  Towns will not be dissuaded.  “I’ll tell you once more, Major. On this side [of the river] you’re in trouble.  Over there, you’re dead!”

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Wahleeah (Andra Martin) talks the impressionable Anse (Edd Byrnes) into letting her escape.

Kelly and Wahleeah ride back to home ground, but are soon overtaken by the remnants of Major Towns’ column.  The major is dead, and the column and Kelly are soon surrounded by Gall and his warriors.  Gall offers to let Kelly depart in peace if he gives up Wahleeah, but Kelly refuses.  After a couple of attacks demonstrate that the column is likely to be wiped out, Wahleeah breaks for the Sioux.  When she falls, Kelly and Gall meet over her, and Gall makes the same offer again.  But finally he recognizes that Wahleeah has chosen Kelly, and he departs in discouragement or disgust.  Kelly and Wahleeah ride off together.

The screenplay for this movie was written by Burt Kennedy, then in the middle of his fruitful collaboration with Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott.  It was originally intended for John Ford to direct, with John Wayne starring as Kelly, but they opted for The Horse Soldiers instead.  Several of the principal actors were under contract to Warner Bros. for television series:  Clint Walker in Cheyenne, Edd Byrnes in 77 Sunset Strip (known more for his hair than for his acting), John Russell (Lawman) and Ray Blanton (The Alaskans).  Walker even rides Brandy, his big horse from the Cheyenne series.  This is Clint Walker’s best-known western, but not the best.  That would probably be Fort Dobbs, made the previous year, also with director Gordon Douglas.  John Russell made this the same year he played bad guy Nathan Burdette in Rio Bravo, with John Wayne.  The shifty Ray Danton had played Blackie in The Spoilers before moving into television work.  Blue-eyed Andra Martin was a Warners starlet, and this may have been the high point of her movie career.  Warren Oates has a non-speaking role as a trooper who gets killed.  You have to look fast to catch him.

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Clint Walker as Yellowstone Kelly; and the real Luther Kelly during his scouting period in the 1870s.

There are several problems of geography and tribal history with this story.  Fort Buford was in far western North Dakota, and the Snake River rises in southwestern Wyoming, hundreds of miles to the west across the wide breadth of Montana, and never even makes it into Montana before heading west across Idaho.  The Snake River and Yellowstone Park were not in Sioux country; the dominant tribe would likely have been the Shoshonis (or Snakes), although you could perhaps find Blackfeet or even Crows in the vicinity.  But not the Sioux, who were enemies of the Shoshonis and Crows.  The Arapahoes were not enemies of the Sioux but were, like the Cheyennes, traditional allies of the Sioux.  Still, if you like Clint Walker, this is a watchable western with kind of a meandering plot and a seductive blue-eyed Arapaho maiden.  In color, at 93 minutes.

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The Hanging Tree

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 14, 2014

The Hanging Tree—Gary Cooper, Maria Schell, Karl Malden, George C. Scott, Ben Piazza, Karl Swenson, John Dierkes, Virginia Gregg (1959; Dir:  Delmer Daves)

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Gary Cooper in one of his last roles plays wounded-in-spirit gunslinging frontier doctor Joseph Frail—apparently not the doctor’s real name.  He comes to the Montana gold camp of Skull Creek in 1873 and sets up his medical practice in a cabin overlooking the town.  It’s a rough place, plagued by outlaws, giving rise in turn to a vigilante movement.  We see quickly that this has resulted in a rough, quick and sometimes misdirected form of justice, represented by the hanging tree.

Doc Frail is known by several of the townspeople.  The town itself is full of undesirables; among them Frenchy Plante (Karl Malden), with whom the doc has some history.  We can tell from the beginning that Frenchy is an undesirable because of the ugly ear-flap hat he wears.  We first see him taking shots at a young man stealing gold out of his sluice boxes.  The doctor takes in the young man (Rune, played by Ben Piazza ) and removes the bullet; as payment he says Rune must be his bondservant for an undetermined period of time. 

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Doc deals with Frenchy (Karl Malden); Doc Frail and Elizabeth (Maria Schell)

The haunted doctor gambles (he seems to be good at it) and drinks some, and he’s not very good tempered.  Some of his backstory comes out, involving his dead wife and brother and a house on a hill overlooking the confluence of the Ohio and the Mississippi in southern Illinois, deliberately set on fire.  Meanwhile, a stage is robbed and crashes down a hill.  Passengers include Elizabeth Mahler (Maria Schell), a young Swiss woman, and her father.  The father is killed and Elizabeth is left blind and otherwise in bad shape due to exposure by the time she is found. 

The doctor takes over her care in a cabin near his.  Aside from those consumed with lust (Frenchy), those envious (Society Red, played by John Dierkes, and George Grubb [George C. Scott in an early role], a faith healer and alchoholic who sees the doctor as competition and a tool of the devil), there is also a self-righteous wife, Edna Flaunce (Virginia Gregg), of an otherwise decent general store keeper, suspicious that there’s something improper going on.  After all, the doc was known to treat loose women, too. 

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When Elizabeth can finally see again, she and Rune are released by the doctor, who also, unknown to them, provides them with a grubstake.  They use it to set up a mining partnership with Frenchy.  Just as Frenchy is on the verge of quitting for good, they have a big strike.  In the partying afterward, Frenchy tries to rape Elizabeth and the doc shoots him.  Grubb leads a mob to hang the doc; he is rescued when Elizabeth and Rune give the mob their claim.  Presumably the doc and Elizabeth live happily ever after, even without the claim.

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Delmer Daves directs star Gary Cooper on location near Yakima, Washington.

The story is based on a novel by Montana author Dorothy M. Johnson.  Montana native Cooper seems old for the part, as he has for most of his western romantic leads during the 1950s (High Noon, Garden of Evil, Man of the West, etc.), but he’s still effective.  Although Cooper was ill with lung cancer, he’s ironically shown smoking in several scenes.  Maria Schell is very good as Elizabeth, and Ben Piazza is fine as Rune.  The community seems a little too deliberately loathsome and the doctor a little too unreasonably haunted. 

Not much seen these days, and the print I saw (on TCM, even, which makes an effort to show the best prints available) was not great.  Still, it’s a pretty decent western.  It’s also one of the last westerns directed by Delmer Daves (3:10 to Yuma, Cowboy, The Last Wagon, The Badlanders) in a very productive career as a director of westerns.   In color, filmed around Yakima, Washington.  Score by Max Steiner, with a theme sung by Marty Robbins (better than most such, and nominated for an Oscar).  Finally released on DVD in 2012.

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The Horse Soldiers

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 30, 2014

The Horse Soldiers—John Wayne, William Holden, Constance Towers, Ken Curtis, Judson Pratt, Willis Bouchey, Denver Pyle, Strother Martin, Althea Gibson, Hank Worden, Hoot Gibson (1959; Dir:  John Ford)

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Not exactly a western, since it takes place entirely in Mississippi during the Civil War.  But it stars John Wayne and William Holden riding horses and fighting battles, and it’s directed by John Ford.  So the western genre seems to be where it fits most comfortably—specifically, it’s a cavalry western.

Gen. U.S. Grant has besieged Vicksburg on the Mississippi River but not yet taken it, so that puts the time of this story in the first half of 1863.  Grant calls in cavalry Col. John Marlowe (John Wayne) and gives him the assignment of destroying supplies and railroads to the south in Newton Landing, between Vicksburg and Baton Rouge.  Marlowe’s officers include Col. Phil Secord (Willis Bouchey), an older man from Michigan with political ambitions, and Maj. Henry Kendall (William Holden), a surgeon who is almost instantly at odds with Marlowe.

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Hannah Hunter, Marlowe and Kendall at Greenbriar; Marlowe with one of his scouts.

Heading south and trying to keep the Confederates in ignorance of their whereabouts and objectives, the cavalry stops at the plantation of Greenbriar, run by Miss Hannah Hunter (Constance Towers).  She receives them hospitably, given that her sympathies are southern, and discovers that they plan to destroy the supplies at Newton Landing and then head for Baton Rouge.  Kendall finds Hannah and her slave Lukey (Althea Gibson) listening, and Marlowe is forced to take them along so his plans are not prematurely revealed.  Hannah’s attempts to escape and hostility to the Yankees provide another source of tension within the column.

Hannah Hunter:  “They’ll catch up to you and cut you to pieces, you nameless, fatherless scum.  I just wish I could be there to see it!”

Col. John Marlowe:  “If it happens, Miss Hunter, you will be.”

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Trying to figure out why the Confederates aren’t putting up more resistance.

As they move toward Newton Landing, Marlowe’s men discover a couple of Confederate deserters (Denver Pyle and Strother Martin), whom Marlowe lures into giving information on Confederate units in the area before he turns them over to the southern sheriff.  At Newton Landing, there are a few Confederate soldiers led by a one-armed Col. Jonathan Miles (Carleton Young), known to Kendall from their days fighting Indians out west.  It turns out Miles has telegraphed for reinforcements, and when those additional men arrive on a train, Marlowe’s men are reluctantly forced to fight a battle. The Yankees win handily before destroying the supplies and railroad, which pains the one-time railroad worker Marlowe.  When the Confederate army asks a local military school to send its young men into battle, led by their reluctant headmaster/minister (Basil Ruysdael), Marlowe and his men are forced to leave the field rather than shooting them down, once more demonstrating Marlowe’s comparative humanity.  The political Col. Secord continually gives poor and self-aggrandizing advice, and when Marlowe takes to referring to Kendall as “Croaker,” Kendall responds by calling Marlowe “Section Hand.”

Col. John Marlowe [during firefight]:  “I didn’t want this. I tried to avoid a fight!”

Maj. Henry Kendall:  “That’s why I took up medicine.  

With Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederate cavalry on their heels, they move south toward Baton Rouge, only to find their way blocked by another Confederate unit at a bridge about 40 miles from their destination.  Hannah’s slave Lukey is killed by the initial Confederate attack.  Meanwhile, Marlowe and Hannah get to know each other better as Hannah nurses Marlowe’s wounded men with Kendall and sees that Marlowe cares about his young wounded soldiers.  His hostility to doctors is rooted in the period before the war, when he was a young railroad section hand and his wife was killed by a medical mistake.  Marlow’s cavalry finds a way to ford the river and flank the blocking Confederates while their attention is fixed on a direct charge across the bridge.  Marlowe takes a leg wound, which Kendall binds up.

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The Colonel lights the fuse and dashes across the bridge.

Marlowe has to blow up the bridge so Forrest can’t follow him so closely.  He is the last across the bridge and tells Hannah he loves her, taking her bandanna for a neckerchief.  He barely makes it across the bridge, leaving Kendall and Hannah tending the wounded and Kendall presumably bound for captivity in Andersonville prison in Georgia.  Marlowe and Kendall are to some degree reconciled, with some mutual respect at the end.

Director Ford does well in managing his large cast and the action in this film.  There are typical Fordian touches, such as the opening shots of a column of cavalry riding along railroad tracks against the sky and supposedly singing a Civil War song over the initial credits.  There are the low-angle shots of cavalry riders as they charge across the bridge.  The story is based on an actual historical incident from the Civil War:  Grierson’s Raid, from Legrange, Tennessee, in April 1863, led by Col. Benjamin Grierson.  Grierson was a music teacher who was afraid of horses because one kicked him in the head as a child.  Joining the Union army to fight slavery (he was a staunch abolitionist) he wanted infantry duty but was assigned to the cavalry by mistake.  He turned out to be good at it and stayed in the cavalry after the war, becoming the first Colonel of the 10th Cavalry (buffalo soldiers).  It’s unclear why the names are changed, but presumably it was to give the writers and director greater freedom to deviate from the real historical events.  There probably wasn’t much of a love story involved in the real raid, nor such animosity with the regimental doctor.

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John Ford directs Wayne and Towers in an intimate scene.

Overall, the film seems to take an anti-war stance.  The movie takes an interesting attitude toward southerners and their slaves.  It does not condone slavery, but it shows close relationships between owners and slaves, as with Hannah and Lukey.  It seems sympathetic to the Union side generally, but it does not shy away from showing nobility in southerners in a way that now seems slightly old-fashioned (the sheriff to whom Marlowe turns over the deserters, the military school headmaster and his charges, the courtliness of Forrest in offering medical assistance to Kendall at the end, for example).  In modern times, when there can be no cinematic tolerance at all for slavery, it could probably not be done this way, although arguments could be made that Ford’s approach is historically accurate or defensible.  The incident with the two Confederate deserters is reminiscent of several situations in Cold Mountain (2003).

This is one of Ford’s last movies and not, perhaps, among his very best, although it is still a very good western.  There are a host of Ford’s usual character actors, such as Strother Martin, Hank Worden and his son-in-law Ken Curtis in one of his better performances, but there is no Ben Johnson or Harry Carey, Jr.  1920s cowboy star Hoot Gibson shows up in a small role as a Union sergeant in his penultimate movie.  (His last appearance was as an uncredited deputy in Ocean’s Eleven.)  1950s African-American tennis star Althea Gibson appears as Lukey.  Judson Pratt is good as Marlowe’s hard-drinking Sergeant-Major Kirby, the sort of role in which Ford once would have cast Victor McLaglen.  This is one of three Civil War cavalry movies for William Holden, along with Escape from Fort Bravo (1953) and Alvarez Kelly (1966).  He was drinking heavily at the time and during production broke his arm falling off a bridge.

Strother Martin on working with John Ford:  “I did a tiny bit in The Horse Soldiers (1959) first, and that’s when I met him; and he liked me, I guess.  Ford said to somebody I knew, ‘I’ve got to get something else for that Stuffer.. Smucker… Stoofer… whatever the hell his name is,’ and he put me in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).”

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John Wayne and Hoot Gibson trading stories behind the scenes.

Constance Towers, who otherwise didn’t have much of a movie career, appears in one of her two Ford movies (along with Sergeant Rutledge), with her curiously 1920s-style looks.  Gen. U.S. Grant, appearing briefly at the start of the movie, is played by songwriter Stan Jones, who composed the movie’s featured song “I’ve Left My Love” which plays over the opening credits and elsewhere in the film and three years earlier had written “The Song Of The Searchers,” sung by the Sons Of The Pioneers over the titles of the The Searchers (1956).

Cinematography is in color by William Clothier.  The film was shot on location in Mississippi and Louisiana, giving it an authentic look.  Screenwriters were John Lee Mahin and Martin Rackin, based on a novel by Harold Sinclair.  The score is by David Buttolph, with the title song by Stan Jones.

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The film marked the beginning of mega-deals for Hollywood stars.  John Wayne and William Holden received $775,000 each, plus 20% of the overall profits, an unheard-of sum for that time.  The final contract involved six companies and numbered twice the pages of the movie’s script.  The movie was a financial failure, however, with no profits to be shared in the end.

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Stars in My Crown

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 16, 2014

Stars In My Crown—Joel McCrea, Ellen Drew, Dean Stockwell, Lewis Stone, James Mitchell, Juano Hernandez, Charles Kemper, Arthur Hunnicutt (1950; Dir:  Jacques Tourneur)

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This is a slice-of-small-town-Americana film, with a dose of traditional religion thrown in, as one might guess from the title, which is also the title of an old-time hymn.  Josiah Dozier Gray (Joel McCrea in his most overtly decent moral-guy mode) is a Civil War veteran and a preacher in Walesburg, Tennessee, a town that is afflicted by lack of a church, and subsequently by typhoid, racial bigotry and a young doctor who doesn’t believe in God.  When Gray first shows up in town, he gives his first sermon in a saloon, using his guns to quiet the unruly non-church-going crowd.  The town builds a church, and Josiah settles in and marries Harriet (Ellen Drew).  They take in her orphaned nephew John Kenyon (Dean Stockwell) to raise, and from time to time it’s John’s adult voice that narrates the film (with the voice of Marshall Thompson).

StarsCrownPreachSaloonPreaching in the saloon.

Life happens in Walesburg.  Beloved and crusty old Doc Harris (Lewis Stone) dies, and his place is taken by his son young Doc Harris (James Mitchell), who believes in science, not religion.  He doesn’t fit in well and wants to move to a larger city, but he also wants to marry the school teacher Faith Radmore Samuels (Amanda Blake, with a symbolically named character).  Faith doesn’t want to leave Walesburg and postpones responding to young Doc’s proposal of marriage.

John comes down with typhoid, and young Doc warns Josiah to stay away from people to avoid passing on the contagion.  He doesn’t listen, and the disease spreads.  John recovers, but it looks like teacher Faith won’t.  Josiah feels guilty that he didn’t do what Doc said, even though they both know the disease is water-borne, and he withdraws from the town and from his preaching, questioning his faith and his role in the community.  When Faith is dying (both literally and figuratively), young Doc sends at last for Josiah.  When she doesn’t die, Josiah and young Doc are reconciled; young Doc Harris has regained his Faith, and Josiah regains his faith as well.  John figures out that it was the schoolhouse well that spread the disease, and Josiah is vindicated.

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Uncle Famous (Juano Hernandez) at his cabin after the place has been trashed; Gray faces down the nightriders armed with only his moral authority and his wits.

An old black former slave, Uncle Famous Prill (Juano Hernandez), is targeted by white-sheeted night riders, who plan to hang him when he won’t leave.  The old Josiah would have used his guns, but now he faces down the night riders armed only with his moral authority and a little guile.  The Isbell family, led by patriarch (and old war friend of Gray) Jed Isbell (Alan Hale, Sr.) with several sons, backs him up, silently and unknown to Josiah, with guns.  But they too, even as non-church-goers, are impressed with the parson’s moral authority.  As the movie ends, the entire Isbell clan shows up at church at last.

In one of the movie’s better lines, after Gray has read Uncle Famous’ will to the nightriders and shamed them into leaving, the two-page document  falls to the ground, and John picks it up.  Seeing two blank pieces of paper, he says, “There’s no will here!”  “Sure there is, son,” responds Josiah.  “It’s the will of God.”  Not everybody could make that work, but McCrea handles its weight effortlessly with a mix of natural authority and humor.

By the end of the movie all has been conquered (including the preacher’s own doubts in himself), and the preacher and the young doctor have come to a certain appreciation of each other.  Joel McCrea is perfectly cast as parson Josiah Dozier Gray, and he said on at least one occasion that this was his personal favorite among his movies.  And in a long career, he was in some very good ones, working with such directors as Alfred Hitchcock, Preston Sturges, George Stevens, Cecil B. DeMille and Sam Peckinpah.  Ellen Drew is good as his supportive wife, and Dean Stockwell was at his peak as a child actor.  Stockwell and McCrea would appear together again in Cattle Drive (1951) the next year.  The supporting cast is very strong, with some very good character actors—Alan Hale, Arthur Hunnicutt, Juano Hernandez, Charles Kemper (as Professor Sam Houston Jones, a genial medicine show proprietor), and Ed Begley.  Perhaps the weakest performance is by James Mitchell as young Doc Harris, and he’s not bad.

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The preacher and his family:  McCrea, Stockwell and Drew.

The pacing in the film is slightly leisurely at only 89 minutes, but it matches well with the subject matter, giving relationships and issues time to develop.  If anything, it could be a bit longer.  French director Jacques Tourneur (Out of the Past, perhaps the greatest film noir ever made, and the gothic classic Cat People) was at the peak of his game.  He and McCrea would make a couple more westerns together, although they’re not as good as this one:  Stranger on Horseback (1955, with McCrea as a circuit-riding judge) and Wichita (also 1955, with McCrea as Wyatt Earp).  As with McCrea, this was said to be Tourneur’s favorite of all his films.  The titular hymn “Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown?” works well in this film, as do “Beulah Land” and “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” near the end.  It’s good to hear those instead of the over-used “Shall We Gather at the River” (John Ford’s favorite for such films) although there are some strains of that one, too.  It’s based on a novel by Joe David Brown, shot in black and white.  It’s an underappreciated gem in its quiet way, a forerunner of such more celebrated films as To Kill a Mockingbird.

The film was respectably profitable in its time although not a blockbuster, making about $225,000 in profit.  By some definitions, this may not actually be a western, since there are no Indians and the town seems somewhat established if not large.  Much of Tennessee was rural, but not exactly western after the Civil War.  But it has Joel McCrea, guns and cowboy hats in the 19th century.  This was apparently Alan Hale’s last movie.  James Arness (uncredited, as the oldest of the Isbell sons) and Amanda Blake, yet to star in television’s Gunsmoke, are bit players in this one.  It has been available in remastered form on DVD since 2011.

 

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Strange Lady in Town

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 17, 2014

Strange Lady In Town—Greer Garson, Dana Andrews, Cameron Mitchell, Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez, Robert Wilke, Lois Smith, Nick Adams (1955; Dir.:  Mervyn LeRoy)

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The strange lady is Dr. Julia Winslow Garth (a very red-haired Greer Garson, 51 and playing twenty years younger quite convincingly in the only western of her career), and the town is Santa Fe in 1880.  Originally from Boston, she has come to Santa Fe to escape the oppression of the overwhelmingly male establishment in the medical profession, only to find it present in her western refuge in the person of widower and rancher Dr. Rourke O’Brien (Dana Andrews).  She lives with her brother, Lt. David Garth (Cameron Mitchell), who seems to have considerable personal charm along with an unfortunate predilection for cards and the shadier side of the law.  When Julia shows up, Lt. Garth is unable to meet her because he is the subject of a court of inquiry for selling the army stolen cattle.

Julia’s home in Santa Fe is next door to the Catholic church run by Father Gabriel Mendoza (Walter Hampden), a saintly priest who also runs a hospital on the side, presided over medically by O’Brien.  Julia establishes her medical bona fides by healing a blind Mexican boy and others, although she runs afoul of the brusque O’Brien by espousing the modern methods of Dr. Joseph (referred to for some reason as Jacob) Lister, which O’Brien views as a passing fad.  Meanwhile, it becomes clear that O’Brien’s tomboyish daughter Spurs (Lois Smith) is attracted to Julia’s brother.

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The two doctors, talking things over.

Although they are at odds professionally, O’Brien is attracted to Julia personally, trying to get her to agree to marry him.  But they keep falling out over O’Brien’s overbearing and authoritarian ways.  At the governor’s ball, Julia rescues the territorial governor Lew Wallace from his too-tight celluloid collars, although O’Brien has already advised him that the trouble is his weak heart.

Meanwhile, Lt. Garth falls out with his captain over cards and punches him, forcing Garth to flee to avoid another court martial.  He joins a bunch of outlaw acquaintances in robbing the local bank, and Father Gabriel is killed when the gang’s escape goes awry.  Finally Julia persuades her brother to surrender, but in doing so he makes as if to escape and is shot down.  The resulting condemnation of her by the close-minded community convinces Julia she must now leave, until O’Brien stands up for her and finally persuades her to marry him.

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In addition to the the historical New Mexico governor, 19-year-old Billy the Kid makes a brief appearance (Nick Adams in a cameo), theoretically making this 1879 or so.  In all, this is more watchable than you’d think for a movie you’ve never heard of.  Garson, Andrews and Mitchell are good in their respective roles; some like Lois Smith as Spurs, while others find her occasionally grating.  This was part of a trend in the 1950s to have an established actress as the center of a western–the so-called cattle queen westerns, with stars like Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich.  And now Greer Garson.  In real life, she and her husband had a ranch a few miles from Santa Fe.

Mervyn LeRoy was not a natural director of westerns.  He was much more at home in upscale romances.  Frankie Laine provides the title song.  In color partially shot in Old Tucson, Arizona.  Not a great title.

For Dana Andrews in other good westerns, see him as the primary lynching victim in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), and as an almost-lynching-victim in Three Hours to Kill (1954).

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Frontier Marshal

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 4, 2013

Frontier Marshal—Randolph Scott, Cesar Romero, Nancy Kelly, John Carradine, Binnie Barnes, Eddie Foy, Jr., Ward Bond, Lon Chaney, Jr. (1939; Dir:  Allan Dwan)

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The poster seems to indicate that Wyatt (Randolph Scott) and Sarah (Nancy Gates) may eventually get together, which they never do in the movie.

This film is interesting for two external reasons:  (1) It catches Randolph Scott in the early flush of his career as a lead in westerns (think Last of the Mohicans, Western Union and Virginia City), and he’s good; and (2) it represents an early attempt at the cinematic legend of Wyatt Earp, one that influenced such better-remembered movies as My Darling Clementine.  When this was made, Earp had only been dead for ten years, and there were many still in Hollywood who remembered him.  John Ford claimed to have received Wyatt’s rifle as a gift from the old man before his death.  Stuart Lake’s (more or less) biographical work on Wyatt was fairly recent; the first movie based on his 1931 book Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal was in 1934, and this is better.

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Wyatt Earp (Randolph Scott), the new man in town, corrals Indian Charlie (Charles Stevens).

In this version Wyatt shows up in Tombstone alone, without brothers.  Apparently he has a reputation as an Indian scout for Nelson A. Miles (the historical Wyatt did no Indian scouting for the Army, for Nelson Miles or anybody else); no mention is made of Dodge City.  Much as in the beginning of Clementine, Wyatt takes on a drunken miscreant Indian Charlie when nobody else will, impressing local authorities.  Beaten up by the miscreant’s compatriots led by Curley Bill, Wyatt then takes the badge full time, with battle lines drawn.  He meets Doc Halliday [sic] (Cesar Romero), who clearly has a death wish, and they strike up an unlikely friendship, comparing shooting irons at a bar in an unintentionally Freudian scene (much like John Ireland and Montgomery Clift in Red River).  Or maybe we’re just too cynical about such things.

Doc’s former girl friend Sarah Allen (Nancy Gates), a nurse, shows up to remind him of his past life and loves.  He has left all that behind him in order not to saddle her with a dying consumptive.  Wyatt thinks Sarah will be good for Doc, but Doc’s current dance hall companion Jerry (Binnie Barnes) is filled with consternation, not to say hostility.

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Wyatt (Randolph Scott), Doc (Cesar Romero, drinking milk) and Jerry (Binnie Barnes).

Wyatt and Doc rescue comedian Eddie Foy (played by Eddie Foy, Jr.) when he is kidnapped by a rival saloon, and they find themselves on a stage carrying gold and silver that is about to be robbed.  Jerry has provided Curley Bill with information about the stage and its contents, thinking only that it’ll get Wyatt killed.  However, much of the outlaw gang is shot down in the attack, and Wyatt, a wounded Doc and Foy make it back to Tombstone.

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Wyatt and a wounded Doc head back to Tombstone.

In yet another shootout with the remainder of the gang, the Mexican bartender’s son is shot, and the wounded Doc is pressed back into service as a surgeon by Sarah.  He operates in a saloon and is successful in saving young Pablo.  As he steps outside for a breath of air, Doc is gunned down by Curley Bill, who yells to Wyatt that they’ll meet him at the OK Corral.  Wyatt heads there alone, and kills them all.  In the end, Jerry shoots down the fleeing Curley Bill in revenge for Doc.

As we all know by now, Doc didn’t die in Tombstone but in Colorado six years later.  You can almost hear studio gears grinding:  “Yeah, but we have to have somebody on Wyatt’s side die to convey the gravity of the evil he’s facing.  And Doc is so doomed and expendable anyway.  And the situation with the two women is unsalvageable.”  Even John Ford will play it that way in seven years, and the dance hall floozy will die then, too, for good measure.

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Wyatt takes on the bad guys.

Scott makes a strong, clean-cut Wyatt Earp, who never makes a play for Sarah, although he seems attracted.  Romero is an effective, dark Doc, although one can think of at least five better Docs (Victor Mature, Kirk Douglas, Jason Robards, Dennis Quaid and, perhaps the best, Val Kilmer).  Nancy Gates as Sarah is stronger than Cathy Downs would be seven years later as Clementine in practically the same role.  Director Dwan was an experienced front-line director from the days of silent movies, so this was a bit more reputable than most low-budget B westerns of the 1930s.  In fact, Dwan was said to have directed 171 westerns from 1911 to 1957, and this may have been his best.

Ward Bond is the local Tombstone marshal who won’t go after the miscreant and is replaced by Wyatt.  He had been a bad guy in the 1934 film (now thought to be lost) starring former silent star George O’Brien.  Bond would get promoted to playing Morgan Earp in Clementine, his third Wyatt Earp film in 12 years.  Lon Chaney, Jr. is Pringle, one of Curley Bill’s gang.  The bad guys seem kind of middle-aged and thick around the waist for current notions of western badmen.  But they are certainly rotten.  John Carradine is appropriately serpentine as the owner of a rival saloon and business manager of Curley Bill’s outlaw gang, playing this the same year he did his better-known acting as Hatfield in Stagecoach.  Charles Stevens, who played the drunken Indian Charlie, repeated the role in John Ford‘s remake, My Darling Clementine.  Stevens, who was half Mexican and half Apache, was supposedly the grandson of legendary Apache leader Geronimo. 

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Wyatt goes it alone at the OK Corral, in the dark.

Don’t expect much historical accuracy here, or length, either, at just 71 minutes.  There are no Earp brothers and no Clantons, so it’s a pretty stripped-down version of the story.  If you’re only going to see one early Earp-Holliday movie, it would be Clementine.  But it’s also interesting to compare the two and think about why one is good (for its time) and why one is great (still).  And why the great would not exist without the good.

It was Lake’s 1931 book that first brought the Earp myth to public prominence, although Lake’s version deviated substantially from the actual history.  Walter Noble Burns had also published in 1927 a pro-Wyatt, factually-deficient version of events in Tombstone.  Prior to these books, nobody much was familiar with what has since become the most famous gunfight in western history.  Since the 1934 film is apparently lost, this 1939 version is the earliest available cinematic recounting of the Earp-Tombstone story.  Lake did an updated edition of his book in 1946, on which John Ford’s Clementine was based.

 

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Stagecoach

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 2, 2013

Stagecoach—John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Thomas Mitchell, George Bancroft, Andy Devine, John Carradine (1939; Dir:  John Ford)

In addition to being the first of the modern westerns, this was also director John Ford’s first use of Monument Valley, which became his favorite filming location for westerns, and his first association with John Wayne in a starring role.  It was Ford’s first sound western and his first western of any kind in 13 years.  When the film was made, Claire Trevor was the biggest star in the cast and was paid the highest salary.  Wayne had been in a number of low-budget westerns in the 1930s, but this was his first big lead in an upscale film since 1930’s The Big Trail with director Raoul Walsh almost a decade earlier.  That one had bombed on its theatrical release, although it’s been rediscovered by many in the DVD age.   Casting Wayne in Stagecoach was Ford’s idea; the studio preferred Gary Cooper, but ultimately went along with Ford’s recommendation.   This film put John Wayne on the track to being an even bigger star than Trevor, especially when he was teamed with Ford in future projects. 

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The movie is based on a 1937 short story by western writer Ernest Haycox, which is in turn said to be based on Guy de Maupassant’s famous story “Boule de Suif,” which takes place in Normandy during the 1870 Franco-Prussian War.  In this film, several strangers board the crowded Overland Stage in Tonto, Arizona, heading for Lordsburg, New Mexico.  One is Dallas (Claire Trevor), a prostitute being run out of town by the respectable women.  Another is Mrs. Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt), a pregnant army wife going to meet her husband, although her pregnancy is neither mentioned nor shown until it’s time for the baby’s birth.  The male passengers include alcoholic Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), also being run out of town; Samuel Peacock (Donald Meek), a timorous whiskey salesman; Hatfield (John Carradine), a professional gambler with a southern accent and an occasional chivalrous streak; and Henry Gatewood (Berton Churchill), a bank president clutching his bag with suspicious tenacity.  Riding shotgun to stage driver Buck (Andy Devine) is Marshal Curley Wilcox (George Bancroft), looking for the Ringo Kid (John Wayne), who has just busted out of jail.  All these stories would seem complicated enough, but these passengers aren’t on just any stage trip:  Geronimo’s Apaches are on the warpath in the area the stage will be traveling through.

stagecoachRingo The stage stops for Ringo.

As the stagecoach rounds a bend, there’s a figure waving it down, rifle in one hand and saddle in the other.  The camera zooms in on his face, and it’s Ringo, in one of the most memorable shots of this film.  He’s been in prison because he was framed by the Plummer brothers, who killed his father and brother and sent him to prison before he was 17.  Now that he has escaped from jail, he’s on his way to Lordsburg for a final confrontation with the Plummers.  Both Curley and Doc Boone know Ringo and like him, and Curley takes him prisoner, in part to keep him alive. 

There are two stage stations and a ferry between Tonto and Lordsburg.  At the first station, all is well.  The stage changes horses but loses its cavalry escort; the passengers eat, and Dallas is shunned by the more respectable passengers:  Hatfield, Mrs. Mallory and Gatewood.  Ringo and Doc Boone are friendlier, and Ringo suggests that he’s the one being shunned.  “I guess you can’t expect to break out of prison and into society in the same week.”   There’s amazingly quick character development, including one brief but revealing scene where a canteen is passed around the stage.

The cavalry detail that was to pick up the stage at the first station is out chasing Apaches instead, and after taking a vote among the passengers the stage moves on toward the second station.  Here matters develop more quickly.  Mrs. Mallory collapses, and as there are hurried instructions for hot water, we realize she’s about to give birth.  (At least two of the other passengers didn’t recognize that she was pregnant, either, with the reticence of a bygone era.)  Doc Boone sobers up and delivers a baby girl, with the help of Dallas.  Outside in the moonlight, Ringo proposes marriage to Dallas and with her help he almost escapes.  However, Chris, the Mexican station master, has an Apache wife, who leaves with several vaqueros and the station’s spare horses.

Ringo decides not to escape here because he sees Indian sign and holds up.  Curley takes him back into custody, and the stage heads warily for the ferry, after which they all figure they’ll be safe.  The ferry and its station are burned out, though.  Buck, Curley and Ringo rig supporting logs to help the stage float across the river, and they head for Lordsburg with a sigh of relief.  But we know the Apaches are somewhere around, and inevitably they show up and give chase.  After an extended chase (featuring some superb, state-of-the-art stuntwork by Yakima Canutt), the stage’s defenders run out of ammunition, with Hatfield saving his last bullet to spare Mrs. Mallory the indignities of capture by the savages.  And then ….

stagecoach-1939 Under attack by Geronimo.

Well, Ringo has to make it to Lordsburg, and he does.  He has it out with the nefarious Plummer brothers (three Plummers against one Ringo), and matters work out as they should, perhaps not with complete believability.  Doc Boone does not miraculously become a respected teetotaler, and Dallas is unable to leave her past completely behind, but things work out for them as they should, too.

It’s great storytelling, with bits of social commentary unobtrusively scattered along the way.  John Wayne captures the screen whenever he’s in the frame, and Claire Trevor is magnificent.  Wayne has the iconic western line:  “There are some things a man just can’t run away from.”  If Thomas Mitchell’s hard-drinking Doc Boone seems a bit stereotypical from our vantage point (almost identical to Edmond O’Brien’s hard-drinking newspaperman in Liberty Valance 25 years later, in fact), well, he was perhaps less so in 1939.  Donald Meek’s whiskey drummer, whom every one mistakes for a clergyman, is very effective.  And we despise the overbearing banker Gatewood as we are meant to do.  The Apaches actually look like Indians, which you can’t say of many western films of this era; Ford generally used Navajos instead of Apaches, though.

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In addition to being the first use of Monument Valley as a setting (and the first of seven Ford films to use it), there’s other good filmmaking going on here.  Ford doesn’t use a lot of close-ups, so we tend to pay attention when he does.  The interior ceilings are low, which must have presented problems for the lighting of the time.  That adds to the claustrophobic feeling as the movie progresses, and was imitated by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane two years later.  And the stunt work by Yakima Canutt was later imitated in such films as Raiders of the Lost Ark and Maverick.

Although there were a couple of other well-made westerns in 1939, it was largely this film that rejuvenated the genre, brought it an element of respectability and started the modern era for westerns.  (Many 1940s westerns would still show evidence of low budgets, singing cowboys and lots of stereotypes—the revolution didn’t happen overnight.)  But Stagecoach was a real accomplishment and remains highly watchable today.  In what is still thought of as Hollywood’s single greatest year, Stagecoach was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Interior Decoration, Best Film Editing, Best Supporting Actor (Thomas Mitchell’s Doc Boone) and Best Score.  It won for the last two. 

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Dallas (Claire Trevor) and Ringo (John Wayne) in Lordsburg, about to confront reality.

In an interview for a 1971 article, Ford reminisced about casting Wayne.   ‘I got a call from [producer] Walter Wanger who had one more picture to make under his United Artists contract. So I sent him the short story and he said, “That’s a pretty good story. I’m thinking of Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich,” he said.

“I don’t think you can go that high on salary with a picture like this,” I said. “This is the kind of picture you have to make for peanuts.”

“Have you got anybody in mind?” Wanger asked me.

“Well, there’s a boy I know who used to be an assistant prop man and bit player for me,” I said. “His name was Michael Morrison, but he’s making five-day Westerns and calls himself John Wayne now.”

“Do you think he’s any good?” he asked.

“Yes, I think so,” I said. “And we can get him for peanuts.”‘  And John Wayne became a star.

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A production still of the cast, from Claire Trevor on the left to George Bancroft on the right.

As Ford recalled it, he had plenty of confidence in the film, but it wasn’t always obvious that it would be a hit.  ‘After I shot Stagecoach, I worked closely with the cutter.  But there wasn’t a helluva lot to do.  I cut with the camera.  When the picture was put together, Wanger invited a few top people – brilliant brains of the industry who proceed to say how they would have done Stagecoach.  Sam Goldwyn said, “Walter, you made one mistake:  You should have shot it in color.  You should start all over again and make it in color.”  Douglas Fairbanks Sr. said: “The chase is too long.”

‘Then it was shown to the great producers at RKO, who had turned the project down in the first place.  One of them said, “It’s just a B picture.”  Another said, “It’s all right, but it’s still a Western.”  Well, of course, the picture went out and hit the jackpot.  It started a flood of Westerns, and we’ve been suffering from them ever since.”‘

It was also made at a particularly productive period of John Ford’s career, the same year that he made Drums Along the Mohawk and Young Mr. Lincoln and just before he made The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley.  It was an amazing streak for a great director.

The 1966 remake of Stagecoach was pleasant enough, but a pale and much less charismatic imitation of the original.  A made-for-television version in 1986 seemed to be merely a vehicle for a number of aging country music stars (mostly without much acting ability) and didn’t work at all.  The best other variation on this theme (strangers on a stage under attack, complete with social prejudices and hypocrisy, the supposedly respectable but actually corrupt businessman) is the 1967 movie Hombre.

For the 1971 article with comments from various participants in the production (including John Wayne and Claire Trevor), see:  http://www.dga.org/Craft/DGAQ/All-Articles/1004-Winter-2010-11/Features-On-John-Fords-Stagecoach.aspx

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My Darling Clementine

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 30, 2013

My Darling Clementine—Henry Fonda, Victor Mature, Linda Darnell, Walter Brennan, Cathy Downs, Tim Holt, Ward Bond (1946; Dir:  John Ford)

Of all the cinematic versions of the Wyatt Earp story, this is the least accurate historically.  (Well, with the exception of 1939’s Frontier Marshal, which is a pretty good movie, too.)  But this elegant black and white retelling, with Henry Fonda as a mythic Wyatt, has a visual spareness and beauty that remain unmatched more than sixty years later.  If you know much about the historical events in Tombstone, maybe the best way to watch this classic is to just enjoy the story John Ford tells here for what it is without weighing it against the actual history.  Bear in mind the line from another Ford western (Liberty Valance) about legends becoming fact.  Ford was helping that process along for the Earps.

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Filmed in Ford’s favorite western location (Monument Valley, where he made nine movies), there are images from this movie that linger long after it’s over:  Fonda sitting in a chair on the boardwalk, tipped back on the rear legs with his leg propped against a post as he watches the town’s comings and goings; Fonda and Downs at a church social, dancing outdoors on the newly-built floor of what will be the church; Fonda and his brothers finding the body of the youngest brother in the pouring rain; a hack actor getting help from Victor Mature’s Doc Holliday in finishing Hamlet’s soliloquy; a badly shot Mature calmly looking through the poles of a corral, his hand holding a white handkerchief near his head as he selects and shoots his next target.

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Bruce Willis in a visual Fonda reference (Last Man Standing, a gangster-era remake of Yojimbo directed by western aficionado Walter Hill).  Even the chair is the same.

The most eye-catching female role here is not the Clementine Carter of the title, played by Cathy Downs, but smoldering Linda Darnell as Chihuahua, a Mexican saloon girl and prostitute in love with Doc Holliday. 

At the movie’s start, Wyatt Earp (Fonda) and his three brothers, Morgan (Ward Bond), Virgil (Tim Holt) and James, are driving a herd of cattle to California when they arrive outside Tombstone in Arizona.  Leaving young James to watch the herd, they go into town for a shave and a drink.  They return in the driving rain to find the herd stolen and James dead.  It’s obvious to us that it’s the work of Old Man Clanton (an unusually malevolent Walter Brennan) and his four sons, who were coveting the herd earlier and tried to buy it.  The surviving brothers return to town, where Wyatt, already known as a peace officer from a stint in Dodge City, accepts a job as the town marshal with his brothers as deputies.

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Walter Brennan as a malevolent Old Man Clanton.

One of his first actions is to meet and establish some kind of relationship with Doc Holliday (Victor Mature), who owns the local saloon where Chihuahua sings.  Doc is volatile and used to having his way, but he and Wyatt arrive at a wary accommodation.  There is a sense of impending doom over Doc, due to bouts of wracking coughs that indicate he has consumption (tuberculosis).  The stage brings Clementine Carter to town, a figure from Doc’s past with whom Wyatt is immediately taken.  Doc is less thrilled to see her, and he tells Clementine to leave town or he will.  The jealous Chihuahua thinks Doc will now go to Mexico with her and marry her.  Meanwhile, Wyatt discovers Chihuahua with an elaborate silver cross that James had bought for his own girl, and she tells him she got it from Doc.  Wyatt chases down the stage for Tucson and retrieves Doc.  He doesn’t come easily; the two finally face off, and Wyatt wins.

On their return to Tombstone, they confront Chihuahua, since Doc knows he didn’t give her the cross.  She finally confesses that she got it from Billy Clanton (John Ireland), and Clanton, who has been lurking outside the window, shoots her and flees on horseback.  Wyatt takes three shots at Clanton to little apparent effect and Virgil pursues him toward the Clanton ranch.  At the ranch, Billy falls dead on the porch from wounds, and Old Man Clanton shoots Virgil in the back with a shotgun. 

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Wyatt delivers an ultimatum to the Clantons at the OK Corral.

Meanwhile, Doc Holliday exercises his now-quite-rusty surgical skills on the badly wounded Chihuahua, using saloon tables for the operation with the assistance of trained nurse Clementine.  It’s apparently successful, and for a time Doc is the skilled surgeon of old.  However, the Clantons return with Virgil’s body to Tombstone, setting up the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral.  Chihuahua dies, and Holliday joins the Earps against the Clantons.  In the extended shootout, all four of the remaining Clantons are killed, with Old Man Clanton as the final member of the family to go down.  Wyatt and surviving brother Morgan (Ward Bond) head for California to tell their father what has happened, and Clementine becomes the schoolmarm in Tombstone.  Wyatt departs, leaving the sense that he’ll be back to resume the relationship.

Tim Holt and Cathy Downs in My Darling Clementine, 1946.

Wyatt and Clementine say goodbye for a while.

Fonda couldn’t be better as Wyatt Earp in his first movie role after returning from service in the navy during World War II.  As it is used in this movie, even Fonda’s hat almost becomes a character itself; both its shape and Fonda’s use of it seem authentic.  Victor Mature, whose most obvious characteristic was his physical size and robustness, is a strange choice to play the slight, tubercular Holliday, but it works well enough in the end.  Walter Brennan is excellent as Old Man Clanton, setting up a similar role for him in the parody Support Your Local Sheriff more than twenty years later.  The Clanton sons never become differentiated and don’t matter much.  There’s something of a Mexican stereotype in Darnell’s Chihuahua, but she doesn’t go so far as to attempt a Mexican accent and after enough fiery close-ups she’s effective.  Cathy Downs is beautiful as Clementine, and she doesn’t actually have to do much.  The character actors such as Alan Mowbray’s Shakespearean hack Granville Thorndyke, Jane Darwell’s townswoman Kate Nelson, and J. Farrell Macdonald as Mac the barman are excellent.  Wyatt to Mac:  “Mac, you ever been in love?”  Mac:  “No, I’ve been a bartender all my life.”

This was also John Ford’s first postwar movie, and it began another amazing run for him.  Over the next ten years, he’d make a string of some of the most remarkable westerns ever filmed.  Ford was said to have known Wyatt Earp as an old man (Earp died in 1929, spending a few of those last years in Hollywood), and this film was loosely based on Stuart Lake’s biography written soon after the old lawman’s death.  Ford claimed that the version of the famous gunfight that he shot was based what Earp personally told him, including a diagram and the passage of a dust-raising stagecoach during the shooting.  But as usual he was “printing the legend”–telling his story the way he thought it should be.  After Ford submitted his film, studio head Darryl Zanuck notoriously took some liberties with it, resulting in some new footage and a shorter cut.  (See Lost Masterpieces.)

The black-and-white cinematography by James MacDonald is remarkable, especially in low shots that bring in the sky; in rain at night; in its use of shadows and light in interior shots; and in long shots that end up in the distance on a feature of Monument Valley geography.  As the surviving Earps and Doc Holliday walk down the dirt street at dawn toward the OK Corral, they’re barely visible in long shots that emphasize the looming sky.  The movie in general has an almost palpable sense of bygone Americana.

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The mortally wounded Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) does not go gently.

If you want a more historical recounting of the Tombstone saga, and in particular the famous gunfight, try Tombstone or Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp.  So what’s incorrect in Clementine?  There was no Clementine historically, and Wyatt’s relations with women were less fastidious than this movie depicts.  James was the oldest of the Earp brothers, not the youngest, and the positions of Morgan and Virgil were switched in this film.  It was older brother Virgil, not Wyatt, who took on the job of marshal in Tombstone.  The Earps did not come to Tombstone driving cattle; they came to a booming mining town looking for gambling opportunities and maybe a quick mining strike.  The country around Tombstone isn’t much like Monument Valley.  Wyatt didn’t meet Doc Holliday in Tombstone; they’d previously met in Fort Griffin, Texas, and had been friends for some years.  Doc came to Tombstone after the Earps were already there.  Doc was a dentist, not a surgeon, and he was from Georgia, not Boston, although he was trained in Philadelphia.  He was not killed at the OK Corral, but died in a Colorado sanitarium six years later.  His mistress was not Mexican, but a Hungarian prostitute, Big Nose Kate Elder, and she outlived Doc by more than 50 years.  The Earps’ opponents at the shootout were not Old Man Clanton and three of his four sons—he had only three and he was dead months before the shootout.  Ike and Billy Clanton were in the fight; Ike ran and survived, and Billy was killed, along with the two McLaury brothers.  The gunfight itself was a more stand-up and shoot-it-out affair than depicted in the movie with less moving around, and it was over much quicker.  Some of the more interesting aspects of the real-life story happen during Wyatt’s vendetta ride after the shootout at the corral, and that aftermath is not depicted at all in this film.  And that’s for starters.

Some of these less-than-historical elements have their roots in earlier cinematic versions of the story.  For example, for a Clementine figure re-entering Doc’s life in Tombstone, Doc as a surgeon rather than a dentist, a dramatic operation on a saloon table and Doc being killed in Tombstone, see Frontier Marshal from 1939, with Randolph Scott as Earp and Cesar Romero as Doc.

For historical reading on the actual Tombstone and the Earps, try Paula Marks’ To Live and Die in the West or recent biographies of Wyatt by Allen Barra or Casey Tefertiller. 

Note:  As of Oct. 2014, this classic was released on a Criterion Collection DVD, complete with commentary, extras, a fully-restored version of the 97-minute theatrical release, and even a 103-minute pre-release cut.  It’s the best way to see the film.  However, the earlier 2004 DVD has an excellent commentary by film historian and Ford biographer Scott Eyman that is worth listening to.

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The Tin Star

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 13, 2013

The Tin Star—Henry Fonda, Anthony Perkins, Betsy Palmer, Neville Brand, John McIntire, Lee Van Cleef (1957; Dir:  Anthony Mann)

Grizzled bounty hunter Morgan Hickman (Henry Fonda) meets green sheriff Ben Owens (Tony Perkins in one of his first roles):  “How long you had that badge?”  “Since Sheriff Parker…uh, got killed.”  “Nobody else wanted it, huh?  How come they picked you?”  “I’m only temporary.”  “You’re more temporary than you think.”

The title is a generic sort for a western featuring a lawman; in fact, a short story with this name was made into the classic High Noon.  In this case Hickman has come to town to collect the reward on an outlaw he brings in, dead and draped over his pack horse, only to find himself despised by the respectable townspeople.  The inexperienced sheriff is just finding his way in a difficult job and tells Hickman he’ll have to wait for his money until he gets confirmation from the party offering the reward.  This means Hickman will have to spend at least several days in the hostile town until he can get paid.  The town bully and livery stable owner is Bart Bogardus (played by experienced villain Neville Brand, who was said to be the fourth most-decorated American soldier during World War II); Bogardus thinks he’d be a better sheriff than Owens.  Hickman bails Owens out of a difficult situation with Bogardus and unintentionally becomes the young sheriff’s mentor.

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Hickman (Henry Fonda) submits a claim to the green sheriff (Anthony Perkins).

Meanwhile, the hotel won’t rent Hickman a room, and he finds accommodations with young widow Nona Mayfield (Betsy Palmer) and her half-Indian son.  In addition to making a place for himself as sheriff, Owens is also trying to get Millie Parker (Mary Webster) to marry him.  But she’s the daughter of the previous (and now dead) sheriff, and she won’t marry him unless he takes off the tin star.  The beloved town doctor (John McIntire) is killed, and Owens loses control of his posse to Bogardus.  It becomes a mob.  Meanwhile, Hickman and Owens find and capture the killers, but may not be able to hold them against Bogardus and the mob.  As Hickman and Owens become better friends, Hickman reveals that he had been a lawman in Kansas when his own family needed help, and the townspeople he thought were his friends wouldn’t provide the assistance he needed.  He now has few illusions about the relationships between townspeople and those they hire to protect them, and he thinks they ask too much while providing too little in return.

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Hickman gives the youngster a few tips.

In the final confrontation between Owens and Bogardus, Hickman puts on the star again in support of Owens, but Owens, armed with what he’s learned from Hickman, is the one who has to deal with the situation.  And at the end Hickman takes off with the young widow and her son to find another town that wants somebody to wear a star.

tinstarpalmerfonda Romancing the widow.

This is one of a number of westerns from the 1950s that explored social issues, especially one of those concerned with a sense of community and how much townspeople owe to those who enforce the law against the lawless.  (Compare it with High Noon, Man With the Gun, At Gunpoint, 3:10 to Yuma and Rio Bravo, for example.)  The townspeople usually come off badly in such situations, so much so that it has become a cliché (see Support Your Local Sheriff, for example, which exploits that cliche to comic effect).

The cast here is appealing, with a good relationship between American everyman Fonda and the young Tony Perkins.  Palmer is attractive and straightforward as Fonda’s romantic interest.  John McIntire is his usual avuncular self as the town doctor, but he’s basically the same character as Walter Brennan in At Gunpoint.  McIntire was a Mann favorite, and shows up more colorfully in Winchester ’73 and The Far Country, too.  Villains Brand and Van Cleef do exactly what they’re supposed to do.

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Anthony Mann directs Fonda and Perkins in a scene.

This is the better one of the two good westerns directed by Anthony Mann that don’t feature James Stewart.  (The other is Man of the West with Gary Cooper.)  Mann was more interested in psychological and social issues than some directors of westerns in the 1950s, but he knew what he was doing.  This is in black and white, at a time when most movies with ambitions (even westerns) were in color.  But it doesn’t suffer for all of that.

For another movie featuring Fonda as an experienced ex-lawman helping a younger and greener peace officer, see Warlock, made a couple of years later.

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The Shootist

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 20, 2013

The Shootist—John Wayne, Lauren Bacall, Ron Howard, James Stewart, Richard Boone, Harry Morgan, John Carradine, Hugh O’Brian, Bill McKinney (1976; Dir:  Don Siegel)

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The Richard Amsel poster for The Shootist is typical for the 1970s and 1980s.

An elegiac end-of-an-era western, as the titular shootist, gunfighter John Bernard Books (John Wayne), literally and figuratively comes to the end of his road with considerable dignity.  This is also a coming of age story for Gillom Rogers, well played by the young Ron Howard.  And it was the last movie in the remarkable career of John Wayne, then 68 and dying of terminal stomach cancer. 

The movie opens with an effective montage of shots from earlier Wayne movies, from Red River to Hondo to Rio Bravo to El Dorado, as Books supposedly ages, with a voiceover by Ron Howard.  The Books credo sounds persuasive, coming from a character with the physical and historical heft of John Wayne:  “I won’t be wronged, I won’t be insulted, and I won’t be laid a hand on.  I don’t do these things to other people, and I require the same from them.”  In 1901 Books is heading to Carson City, Nevada, where all the action in the movie takes place.  The Old West is passing, and so is Books himself. 

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J.B. Books (John Wayne) arrives in Carson City at the turn of the century.

Books is in fact dying of cancer and is looking to live out whatever time is left to him with as much dignity as he can muster.  How he goes about this makes up the remainder of the movie.  It moves more slowly than most John Wayne westerns, but we’re happy enough to see him on the screen that it doesn’t drag and it never becomes unduly sentimental.  Howard is good as a fatherless, sometimes mouthy, teenager looking for role models.

The movie has some excellent actors in cameos and character roles:  James Stewart as a doctor, Lauren Bacall as the widowed operator of a boarding house and mother of the young Howard, Harry Morgan as an obnoxious marshal, and the funereal John Carradine appropriately cast as an undertaker.  You sense that there could have been a relationship between Books and the Bacall character if only Books had more time left to him, although if she’d known who he was she wouldn’t have let him stay at her boarding house in the first place. 

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Books (John Wayne) teaches Gillom (Ron Howard) to shoot, but also and more importantly, about becoming a man.

And then there are the villains, played by Hugh O’Brien, Richard Boone and Bill McKinney.  One gets the feeling that none of them had enough dramatic weight to balance the Books character, so there were three.  They still don’t balance with Books.  Richard Boone is always good to watch, but this isn’t his best role, and he seems more curmudgeonly than downright bad.  He deserved a better-written character with more lines and personality, and perhaps a touch of his traditional villainous courtliness.  This was one of the last movies for both Boone and Stewart as well as for Wayne.  A generation of actors was passing.

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In his final shootout, Books (John Wayne) takes on three separate bad guys at once.

As in The Cowboys, the John Wayne character doesn’t come out of this alive.  But he wasn’t going to, given the setup of the movie, and it’s a pleasure to watch the grace with which he accomplishes it.  It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role, but it’s said that the producer approached Paul Newman and George C. Scott first.  At the time there was no certainty that it would be Wayne’s last picture, but it was a strong way to go out. 

Don Siegel directed a couple of westerns, but he was known more for his work with Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry and Escape from Alcatraz.  The music is by Elmer Bernstein, a long-time master of the traditional movie score, including many westerns.  This was based on a decent novel of the same title by Glendon Swarthout.

It was the Bicentennial summer, and this was one of two great westerns released.  The other was The Outlaw Josey Wales, and they both remain highly watchable.

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