Tag Archives: Joel McCrea

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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The Outriders

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 13, 2014

The Outriders—Joel McCrea, Arlene Dahl, Barry Sullivan, James Whitmore, Ramon Navarro, Claude Jarman, Jr., Jeff Corey, Ted de Corsia (1950; Dir:  Roy Rowland)

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A good cast in a better-than-average Civil War-era wagon train-with-gold western (e.g., Virginia City, Westbound).  Will Owen (Joel McCrea), Jesse Wallace (Barry Sullivan) and Clint Priest (James Whitmore) are the outriders of the title.  At the start, they are Confederates held as prisoners by Yankees in Missouri.  They escape, only to be caught by Keeley (Jeff Corey), a Quantrill affiliate whose dirty exterior and expressionist makeup advertise his moral dubiousness.  Keeley.forces the three, since Owen is the only one in the band who knows the Santa Fe Trail, to go to Santa Fe, where they are to join a wagon train to St. Louis laden with Yankee gold.  It is led by Don Antonio Chaves (silent film star Ramon Novarro), who politely refuses their offer to accompany his train.  He does have a stagecoach carrying war widow Jen Gort (Arlene Dahl) and her youthful brother-in-law Roy Gort (Claude Jarman, Jr.) to St. Louis. 

Keeping their distance initially, Owen, Wallace and Priest shadow the train until they are able to rescue it from attack by Apaches; then Chaves welcomes them.  Owen becomes the trail guide and honcho, all the while planning to leave the train to be attacked by Keeley once they reach Cow Creek in Missouri.  Aside from the usual wagon train complications (storms, horse stampedes, yet more Indians, fording a raging river, near mutiny by the drovers), Owen and Wallace both develop a romantic interest in Jen Gort; Owen’s misgivings about his deception deepen.  While fording a swollen river, young Roy Gort is drowned.

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Widow Jen Gort (Arlene Dahl) and her young brother-in-law Roy (Claude Jarman, Jr.).

As they near the attack point in Missouri, Owen gets the news that the war is over.  Wallace doesn’t care, and presumably neither does Keeley.  They just want the gold whether the war is over or not.  Owen leads the defense against the now-outlaws, his former colleagues.  Wallace escapes the train to join the raiders, both Keeley and Chaves are killed in the early moments of the attack, and Owen’s military tactics start to turn things in favor of the train until his final confrontation with Wallace.  And he and Jen ride off into the sunset together.

This is a watchable film, although not much seen these days.  The print I saw (on Encore Westerns) was serviceable but not great.  At this point McCrea is in the final stage of his career, appearing solely in westerns.  But he’s good, if getting to be a little long in the tooth, here.  He’s been a star for almost twenty years but still has more than a decade to go in movies.

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Still of Joel McCrea and Arlene Dahl; McCrea, James Whitmore and Barry Sullivan shadowing the wagon train.

With the possible exception of the beautiful Arlene Dahl, the cast is excellent, although Whitmore is mostly obscured by a wig and false beard.  Novarro, once one of the biggest stars in silent films, is very good, playing Chaves with depth and smoothness.  Perennial villain Ted de Corsia is one of Keeley’s henchmen.  In a career of minor supporting roles, Jeff Corey would show up eighteen years later in both Butch Cassidy (as a friendly sheriff) and the original True Grit (as Tom Cheney, the killer of Mattie Ross’s father).  Claude Jarman, Jr., now remembered exclusively (if at all) for The Yearling, managed about this time to appear with all three of the major western film stars:  with John Wayne (Rio Grande), Joel McCrea (The Outriders) and Randolph Scott (Hangman’s Knot, another good Confederates-at-the-end-of-the-Civil War western) before his career fizzled.  Of the three, Randolph Scott was the biggest box office star in 1950.  In fact, he was the biggest male box office star in Hollywood that year.  In color, just over 90 minutes.

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Frenchie

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 5, 2014

Frenchie—Joel McCrea, Shelley Winters, John Russell, Elsa Lanchester, Marie Windsor, Paul Kelly, John Emery, George Cleveland (1950; Dir:  Louis King)

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In color, so it had a pretty good budget for a western in 1950—a time when many, if not most, westerns were still in black and white.  That would not be true by the end of the 1950s.  It’s an obvious but less effective remake of Destry Rides Again.  The title refers to a saloon owner, just as it was the name of Marlene Dietrich’s saloon girl character in Destry.

Joel McCrea is Tom Banning, the son of the former sheriff of Bottleneck, returning to restore some law.  His character has echoes of two James Stewart characters—Destry’s aw-shucks, don’t-need-a-gun mild demeanor, and Ransom Stoddard’s bringing-eastern-law-to-the-uncivilized-west earnestness.  Frenchie Fontaine (young Shelley Winters) is also returning from running a New Orleans gambling hall, to find the murderer of her father from 15 years ago.  She sets up the Scarlet Angel, with the help of Lance Cole (John Russell) and the Countess (Elsa Lanchester).  The new establishment ends up taking business away from the seedier but long-established Chuck-a-Luck, owned by quasi-outlaw Pete Lambert (Paul Kelly). 

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Banning (Joel McCrea) and Frenchie (Shelly Winters) fence verbally.

Meanwhile, Banning’s former girlfriend Diane (Marie Windsor) had decided to marry the local banker (John Emery) three years earlier but now regrets passing up true love.  By the end, the murderer of Frenchie’s father is punished (dead), the banker is dead and Banning and Frenchie get together, although there is little apparent chemistry between McCrea and Winters. 

The direction is pedestrian and the writing isn’t great.  The plot is too convoluted.  McCrea’s dialogue is too down-home, aw-shucks in a sort of replay of James Stewart’s mannerisms, and Winters seems too young, a bit too slutty and not smart enough for the character she’s playing, who’s supposed to be the principal romantic interest.  It’s much the same as she played a bit later in Winchester ’73, but it doesn’t work as well when she’s got a larger part and more depends on her.  (Compare her with the young Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo, who plays the role much more successfully.)  As a Destry remake, this is not much remembered.  Audie Murphy would show up in another in 1954, but neither of these is anywhere as good as the 1939 movie.

 

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Fort Massacre

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 16, 2014

Fort Massacre—Joel McCrea, John Russell, Anthony Caruso, Denver Pyle, Forrest Tucker (1958; Dir:  Joseph M. Newman)

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This is a grim psychological cavalry western, with Joel McCrea as Sgt. Vinson of Company C in southwest New Mexico in 1879, a variant of the “lost patrol” story. 

At the start of the film, the captain and lieutenant of Company C have been killed by Apaches, and the decimated company is trying to get back to Fort Crane under the leadership of Sgt. Vinson.  Forrest Tucker is Pvt. McGurney, a particularly malcontent Irishman; Anthony Caruso is Pawnee, the patrol’s sardonic Indian scout.  Vinson is experienced but influenced by the death of his wife and son at the hands of Indians.  His men gripe and seem on the point of mutiny the entire film, but he forges ahead, attacking the Apaches twice with the resulting reduction in his own numbers. 

Only Pvt. Travis (John Russell) becomes something of a reluctant confidant for the embattled sergeant.  “Fort Massacre” is the name given by the men to the cliff dwelling where they take refuge, only to have a war party of Apaches show up.  In the end, Vinson is shot by the last of his own men, Pvt. Travis, when Vinson tries to shoot a couple of non-hostile Paiutes at the cliff dwelling. 

FortMassacreMen Sgt. Vinson and Company C.

In some ways this can be compared with They Came to Cordura, released about the same time.  It’s a cavalry movie with a revisionist view of the cavalry.  Joel McCrea being who he was, we keep waiting for him to reveal his good side, but it’s apparently not there in this movie.  In some ways, McCrea toward the end of his career seemed to be looking for roles that were more varied than he had tended to play for the previous decade. 

The movie is short at around 80 minutes; in color.  Filmed at three locations:  Gallup in New Mexico, Red Rock State Park, New Mexico, and Kanab, Utah.

For a couple of other variants of the mutinous patrol story from the late 1950s, see 7th Cavalry with Randolph Scott (1956) and They Came to Cordura with Gary Cooper (1959).

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Gunsight Ridge

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 9, 2014

Gunsight Ridge—Joel McCrea, Mark Stevens, Joan Weldon, Addison Richards, L.Q. Jones (1957; Dir:  Francis D. Lyon)

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This late Joel McCrea film seems more formulaic than it ought to; somehow the whole is less than the sum of its parts.  McCrea, getting a bit long in the tooth (he was 52 at the time), plays Mike Ryan.  He and the attractive Molly Jones (Joan Weldon) are passengers on the stage to Bancroft near the Arizona border with Mexico, where her father is the sheriff.  On the way the stage is held up by two robbers, one of whom has distinctive eyes above his bandanna-mask.  During the robbery the other’s mask slips, and he is recognized by the stage driver (Slim Pickens in a small role).  Molly berates Ryan for not trying to thwart the robbery, as her father would have done.  As the bandits make their getaway, the one who was recognized is shot down by the other.

As Ryan arrives in town, some of the town fathers have their misgivings about whether the sheriff is too old for the job.  Four cowboys from a local ranch (the Lazy Heart) ride in and proceed to shoot up the town.  The sheriff squares his shoulders and goes out to stop them without obvious help.  But Ryan tucks a gun in his belt and helps the sheriff stop them.  Since Ryan needs a job, the sheriff hires him as a deputy.  Meanwhile, the penniless Ryan inveigles a place at Mrs. Donahue’s upscale boarding house, where one of the other boarders is Velvet Clark (Mark Stevens), a gambler-miner, who (as is immediately obvious to the viewer) has the eyes above the bandanna in the stage robbery.

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Mike Ryan (Joel McCrea) and Velvet Clark (Mark Stevens) get acquainted.

As Ryan starts about his duties, he observes Clark playing the piano in the parlor when Clark figures nobody is around.  Clark then proceeds to the saloon, where he loses.  He explains to his paramour, saloon girl Rosa (Darlene Fields), that he had the talent but not the funds to develop that talent; it appears that his turning to crime was because of the frustration.  Leaving for the Oriental across the street, he instead robs the bank, being careful not to be seen.  During the investigation of the robbery, Ryan displays his credentials as a Wells Fargo detective and steps in to support the sheriff. 

The train is robbed by the four drunken cowboys from the ranch.  On his way to arrest them, the sheriff crosses paths with Clark and Clark shoots the sheriff rather brutally.  Ryan is also on their trail and finds the murdered sheriff.  Clark sees the robbery of the train and plans to take the $30,000 in proceeds from the drunken cowboy-robbers.  Meanwhile Ryan is following and gets a Mexican to show him a short cut by an old Indian trail over the mountains to their likely destination.  The townspeople there have captured the four cowboys, but Clark takes the loot, killing one of the captors.  He shoots Ryan’s horse as Ryan pursues, and Ryan has to get another.

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Ryan negotiates with an irate farm girl.

At a ranch house, Clark charms a farm girl into giving him a replacement horse.  Ryan still pursues, and catches up with Clark at Gunsight Ridge.  They shoot it out in the rocks, and Ryan wins.  He returns to Bancroft to Molly and to become sheriff as her father’s successor.

McCrea is good as always, and rides better than anybody else in the cast.  Stevens is excellent as Velvet Clark, and his character and performance are what make this movie better than average.  However, Stevens was a career second-tier actor in movies, and, except for McCrea, this is a low-wattage cast.  L.Q. Jones in an early role is one of the train-robbing cowboys.  In black and white, filmed in part at Old Tucson.

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Trooper Hook

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 14, 2014

Trooper Hook—Joel McCrea, Barbara Stanwyck, Earl Holliman, Royal Dano, John Dehner, Edward Andrews, Rodolfo Acosta (1957; Dir:  Charles Marquis Warren)

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This is both a cavalry movie and a strangers-on-a-stagecoach movie, based on a short story by Jack Schaefer (author of Shane and Monte Walsh).  It makes good use of the decency Joel McCrea always projected; the strong cast, led by McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck, elevates the movie slightly over what it might have been. 

Sgt. Clovis Hook (McCrea) is 47, a veteran of the Civil War and graduate of Andersonville Prison during that war.  He’s in charge of a detail that captures Chiricahua Apache chief Nanchez (Rodolfo Acosta) and his band, including Cora Sutliff (Stanwyck), a white woman captive who has borne Nanchez’s son.  She was taken by the Apaches a few years ago while traveling from the east to rejoin her husband on his new ranch in Arizona.  Most of the movie concerns Hook’s attempts to reunite her with her husband, while both Nanchez and well-meaning whites try to part her from her son.

Cora comes in for a fair amount of hostility and abuse from whites over the course of the movie.  Hook reacts with more humanity. One of the best scenes comes as their relationship develops.  Cora talks about the humiliations for her in dealing with the reactions of other whites; Hook tells her about his survival at Andersonville, where he pretended to be a dog in order to get more food in that hellish environment.  There are references to Hook’s own wife and family, who never appear.

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Hook with the captured Nanchez; the recently liberated Cora Sutliff and her son by Nanchez.

Hook, Sutliff and her son take a stagecoach toward the modest ranch her husband has built up.  The stagecoach passengers include young cowboy Jeff Bennett (Earl Holliman), a Mexican grandmother and granddaughter and a talkative Charlie Travers (Edward Andrews), with a colorful ex-Confederate driver (Royal Dano).  Along the way they hear that Nanchez has escaped, and he catches up with the stage.  Hook resorts to a strategem to get Nanchez to let them depart, but we haven’t seen the last of him.

When they arrive at the Sutliff ranch, Cora’s husband, who hasn’t seen her for years, takes the approach most whites have.  He hadn’t heard about, and wants nothing to do with, the half-Apache kid, and Cora won’t let the child go.  Nanchez finds them, and the four of them make a run for it in the Sutliff wagon.

TrooperHookApachesNanchez seeks his son.

The ending is a bit contrived, with both Nanchez and husband Fred Sutliff (John Dehner) dead and Hook riding off into the sunset with the woman and her son. Hook admits he has no family; he just invented one to fend off the questions and good intentions of others.  He remarks, “I’m 47.  Nearly 30 of that in the Army makes a man rough.  Got four months ‘til the end of my last hitch.” It sounds like a proposal, sort of.

The movie has intrusive, clunky theme music (e.g., Rancho Notorious and Will Penny) sung by Tex Ritter; such music seldom works as well as it did in High Noon.  There are good supporting performances by Royal Dano as Mr. Trude, an ex-Confederate stagecoach driver, and Earl Holliman as Jeff Bennett, a good-hearted young cowboy.  Rodolfo Acosta as Nanchez isn’t bad, either, in a role very similar to what he did in Hondo.  Barbara Stanwyck isn’t very convincing at first, but she can act and becomes more believable as her character develops. 

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 A still of Hook (McCrea), Quito, Cora (Barbara Stanwyck) and Fred Sutliff (John Dehner).

This was the sixth and last film McCrea and Stanwyck made together.  McCrea and Stanwyck teamed in this modest western 18 years after being in DeMille’s more epic Union Pacific.  The boy who plays Cora’s mixed-race son in a black wig (Terry Lawrence) isn’t great; the direction may be at fault for some of that.  Unresolved question:  Who got Charlie Travers’ $15,000?  In black and white.  Both the Four Corners setting and the stagecoach elements recall John Ford, but the direction obviously isn’t as good.  In black and white.

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Four Faces West

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 27, 2013

Four Faces West—Joel McCrea, Frances Dee, Charles Bickford, Joseph Calleia, William Conrad (1949; Dir:  Alfred E. Green)

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An independent production, in which McCrea had a hand.  This is an excellent part for him, using to good effect the basic decency he always projected.  The title’s not great; it’s not clear who the four faces are.  It’s kind of a generic title that doesn’t fit the story.  Presumably McCrea (as Ross McEwen), Frances Dee (McCrea’s real-life wife, playing romantic interest and nurse Fay Hollister), Charles Bickford (as Pat Garrett), and Joseph Calleia (as Monte Marquez, looking nefarious but maybe not).  Look for William Conrad in a bit part as a sheriff pursuing bank robber McCrea.  Based on a story (“Paso Por Aqui,” first published in 1926) by Eugene Manlove Rhodes.  From a vantage point sixty years after its release it seems to have a sentimental Christian morality from the era about it.  (Compare it to John Ford’s 3 Godfathers, for example.)  Not much seen these days, but it’s good.

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McEwen (Joel McCrea) meets nurse Fay Hollister (Frances Dee) on a train and is immediately taken with her.

Ross McEwen is escaping from having robbed the bank in the small New Mexico town of Santa Maria.  He committed the robbery when the bank refused to lend him the money he needs to help his father–$2000, for which he leaves an IOU signed “Jefferson Davis.”  He is bitten by a rattlesnake shortly before boarding a train, and on the train he is tended by railroad nurse Fay Hollister, with whom he falls in love.  She figures out that he is the man wanted for the bank robbery as they travel together on the train to Alamogordo, and she urges him to turn himself in.  He gives her a ring and a kiss but takes off for the border.

Although he took only $2000, the vengeful banker has offered a $3000 reward for McEwen, dead or alive.  Much of southern New Mexico gets involved in the manhunt, it seems.  An ambiguous Mexican gambler Monte Marquez (the Malta-born Joseph Calleia), whom he also met on the train, ends up helping McEwen and being helped by him.  When McEwen wins a substantial amount of money at Marquez’ gambling tables, he sends much of it back to the bank in Santa Maria to start repayment of what he took. 

After an arduous pursuit, it looks like McEwen will get away, but he stumbles on a Mexican family dying of diphtheria and loses his chance at escape by taking the time to nurse them back to health.  The family turn out to be cousins of Marquez.  Sheriff Garrett is moved by this sacrifice to help McEwen resolve his affairs in the most favorable way possible.  In the 1940s and 1950s, even sympathetic not-so-bad guys were seldom allowed to escape punishment, even when the whole movie has been geared toward getting the audience to want that.  (Just look at 3 Godfathers for a similar case and a similar result.  And, if you’re into Christmas movies, look at what happens to Barbara Stanwyck’s character at the end of 1940’s Remember the Night.) 

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Nurse Hollister tries to talk McEwen into giving himself up.

At the end, it looks like he’ll go to jail, but maybe not for long.  And Nurse Hollister will wait for him.  As a western, this is better than average and well worth watching, despite the slightly snarky tone of this summary.  It’s visually arresting.  The cinematographer was Russell Harlan, who did Red River and many others as well.  And no actor looked better on horseback than McCrea did.

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McEwen risks diptheria and capture.

Interestingly enough, the film’s end is different from that of the Manlove story on which it is based.  While the film ends with Garrett taking McEwen into custody, albeit with humane intentions, the original story ends with the two men gathering firewood together and not acknowledging each other’s true identities.  A nurse from the East learns that this is the way of the West.  The story’s end is better.

The story takes its time developing, and it is the sort of thing that would not be made today, more than sixty years later.  But it’s good.  This is the better of two westerns in which McCrea stars with his real-life wife Frances Dee.  For the other, see Wells Fargo (1937).  For another good western with the excellent Joseph Calleia as a maybe-not-so-bad guy, see him as a Mexican bandit chieftain in Branded (1950), with Alan Ladd.

Not to be confused with 1940’s Three Faces West, starring John Wayne, or Two Flags West from 1950, with Joseph Cotton, Jeff Chandler and Linda Darnell.  In the John Wayne film, he’s the leader of a town in the 1930s that takes in a doctor fleeing the Nazis in Europe with his attractive daughter.  The entire town has to flee the dust bowl of the southern plains and head for Oregon.  Or Four for Texas, a ratpack western from the 1960s with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.

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Great Performances in Westerns, Part 3

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 5, 2013

Burt Lancaster as Bill Dolworth in The Professionals

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As one of the leading actors of the 1950s and 1960s (and one of the most versatile), it’s a little unusual to find Burt Lancaster as something other than the lead, but he was willing to do whatever interested him.  Here, he’s a supporting actor, although an important one.  Bill Dolworth is a former participant in a Mexican civil war, a dynamiter and demolitions expert, a womanizer, and a man of action.   A garrulous counterpart to Lee Marvin’s taciturn leader, he pushes the action forward with his trademark athleticism and big smile.  Some would claim that Lancaster’s leading performances in Lawman and Valdez Is Coming belong on this list, too, and maybe the old scout in Ulzana’s Raid.  Along with perhaps his charismatic mostly-bad guy in Vera Cruz, and his Wyatt Earp in Gunfight at the OK Corral, although this last is eclipsed by Henry Fonda and Kurt Russell in the same role.

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Joel McCrea as Steve Judd in Ride the High Country , Rev. Josiah Dozier Gray in Stars in My Crown, and Jeff Butler in Union Pacific

Excellent in westerns generally, his greatest western role was one of his last.  However, McCrea was good in any number of smaller movies, such as Ramrod, Colorado Territory, Four Faces West, Stars in My Crown and Trooper Hook, which are not so well remembered today.

  • As aging lawman-turned-bank guard Steve Judd, McCrea was the heart of Sam Peckinpah’s classic Ride the High Country.  Playing with another retired legend of the western screen, Randolph Scott, Judd never wavers in his view of right and wrong and where he stands in that spectrum, come what may.  His signature line in this role:  “All I want is to enter my house justified.”  And he does, against significant odds. 

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  • Shortly after the Civil War, the former soldier Rev. Josiah Dozier Gray shows up in the small town of Walesburg, Tennessee, preaching his first sermon in a saloon with his guns drawn in Stars in My Crown (1950).  He builds a church, marries, adopts a son and becomes part of the life of the town, fighting typhoid and racist nightriders as he can.  He also must fight his way through his own crises of faith and conquer other issues that don’t yield to conventional weapons.  McCrea usually projected a quality of moral decency, even when playing an outlaw (Four Faces West, Colorado Territory).  This role is the epitome of that decency, and it’s a measure of his performance here that we not only believe him, we understand why the rest of the town believes him, too, in their various ways.  McCrea said that this was his favorite of all his movies.  He played variations on this role as the town doctor in The Oklahoman and as a circuit-riding judge in Stranger on Horseback.

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  • 1939’s epic Union Pacific provides a defining role for the younger McCrea, who was a bigger star than John Wayne at the time.  Directed by Cecil B. DeMille, it has DeMille’s signature scope and train crashes (two of them).  McCrea as railroad troubleshooter Jeff Butler fends off bad guys, romances an Irish Barbara Stanwyck, deals with a best friend gone bad (Robert Preston) and fights both Indians and the elements to get the trains through.  It’s still a highly watchable movie.

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Randolph Scott as Gil Westrum in Ride the High Country

At mid-century (1950), Randolph Scott was the biggest male box office star in the country, appearing almost exclusively in westerns by then.  The westerns he was making at that time are now mostly forgotten, and his very best work was still ahead of him.  In his last movie, he was very memorably partnered with Joel McCrea as a couple of underappreciated old timers taking a job guarding a bank’s gold, just to finish out their string.  Scott’s Gil Westrum is a little more elusive than McCrea’s Steve Judd, but in the end they stand together.  Scott was usually thought to be a more inexpressive actor than McCrea, perhaps more in the stone-faced William S. Hart mold, but they were both perfect here.  In fact, Scott could be on this list with his best performances for director Budd Boetticher in the late 1950s:  Seven Men From Now, The Tall T, Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station, a remarkable string.  He was also very good as a conflicted good-guy/bad-guy in the early 1940s in Virginia City and Western Union.

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William Holden as Pike Bishop in The Wild Bunch and as Capt. Roper in Escape from Fort Bravo

An excellent actor with a bit of an urban edge, Holden found a way to be effective in westerns, usually with some form of a hard-bitten personality and his ability to project unquestioned competence.  In addition to these two performances, he’s also very good as the doctor in The Horse Soldiers and the horse trader-cattleman in Alvarez Kelly, two Civil War epics.  In two of his earliest movie roles, see him with Jean Arthur in Arizona and with Glenn Ford in Texas.

  • Pike Bishop, the leader of the aging Wild Bunch, is a signature role for Holden, along with the screenwriter-gigolo he played in Sunset Boulevard.  Bishop’s the one who articulates, as far as it can be articulated, the reason the outlaw band is still together:  “We’re not gonna get rid of anybody!  We’re gonna stick together, just like it used to be!  When you side with a man, you stay with him!  And if you can’t do that, you’re like some animal.  You’re finished!  We’re finished!  All of us!”  They all know it’s not like it used to be, and none more than Bishop himself.  And that’s why he gives the fatalistic words “Let’s go,” as they suit up and head into what they know will be their final battle.  The honor he espouses rings a bit hollow, and it’s not worth as much as they’d like to think.  But in the end it’s all they have, and Bishop is its embodiment.  The way he plays it makes the movie convincingly like a Greek tragedy.

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  • Almost twenty years earlier in his career, Holden was excellent as the relentless Captain Roper, a Union cavalry officer in charge of holding John Forsyth’s Confederates in an Arizona stockade in a desert teeming with hostile Apaches.  Holden keeps the relentless edge and humanizes Roper over the course of the film as he gets to know Eleanor Parker’s Confederate spy, although the end needs a bit more exposition than it gets.

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Gregory Peck as Jimmy Ringo in The Gunfighter

Peck was like Joel McCrea in naturally projecting a basic decency that usually made him the moral center of his films.  Usually, but not always, as he showed in Duel in the Sun and Billy Two Hats, in both of which he was less decent and also less convincing.  As Jimmy Ringo in The Gunfighter, he wears a peculiar short-brimmed black hat as he tries to retire from the gunfighter life and reclaim a family long lost to him.  This film is probably the definitive statement of the proposition (later expressed by Burt Lancaster in Lawman) that you can’t walk away from your past.  You are what you’ve made yourself.  Peck also projects a wary, dangerous edge as he tries to fend off the inevitable challengers drawn by his reputation.  For a more obviously decent good guy, see his performances in the epic The Big Country and in The Bravados.  For an even earlier western with noir-ish elements, see him in Yellow Sky.

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Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine and as Clay Blaisdell in Warlock

For his ability to play the decent mid-American—the guy who rises to the occasion as we’d all like to think we would—Fonda was the definitive Wyatt Earp.  But he also liked to play against that decency, and he was remarkably good in many of those those performances, too. 

  • The story told in My Darling Clementine bears little resemblance to the actual historical events it is supposedly based on, but there’s never been a better Wyatt Earp, either in terms of unbending but not necessarily confrontational straight-ahead decency, or the western images with Fonda as their focus.  As you think of this film, it’s almost impossible to do it without seeing Fonda tipping back in a chair on the wooden sidewalk with his foot propped against a post, or dancing with Clementine on an outdoor floor, with the Monument Valley sky above them.  For a similar role, see Fonda as the cowhand with moral questions about a posse’s conduct in The Ox-Bow Incident.  Incident was his last film before leaving for World War II, and Clementine was his first after returning.

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  • Fonda always had a taste (and a talent) for playing against his natural mid-American type and decent image.  One very good expression of that is Clay Blaisdell in Warlock.  Blaisdell is a gunman with some remaining decency in him, which he disclaims and tries to suppress, mostly successfully.  But that tension fuels the movie.  And the movie has excellent supporting roles played by Richard Widmark and Anthony Quinn as well.  For variations on Fonda as western blackguard, see The Tin Star, in which he returns to his basic decency by the end of the movie, and Once Upon a Time in the West, where as the gunman Frank he may never have had any decency in those chillingly-blue eyes in a darkly made-up face.  He’s also very good as the unlikeable martinet commanding Fort Apache.

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James Garner as Jason McCullough in Support Your Local Sheriff

Nobody’s ever been better than Garner at projecting easy-going good humor in a western, as he showed beginning with his television role as Bret Maverick.  However, the ultimate expression of this ability found a perfect vehicle and team in Support Your Local Sheriff, where he carries the movie lightly and very successfully without the slightest crack in that façade.  It’s hard to envision anybody else playing that role.  Both Mel Gibson (Maverick) and John Wayne (North to Alaska) tried variations on the role.  They’re good actors but not as good at this kind of role.  Not that the good-humored façade couldn’t crack; Garner was also superb in some of his grimmer performances, such as haunted scout Jess Remburg in Duel at Diablo or a dark and relentless Wyatt Earp in Hour of the Gun.  For more light Garner, see Support Your Local Gunfighter, Skin Game, and, late in his career, Sunset and Maverick.

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Jack Elam as Jake in Support Your Local Sheriff

Yes, it was a supporting performance.  With those crazy eyes, Elam was a lifelong character actor, spending a couple of decades as movie villains both modern and western.  And he was brilliant as Jake, the town “character” turned reluctant deputy, a riff on the Dean Martin role in Rio Bravo.  He went on, as he says, to become “one of the most beloved figures in western history.”  Or at least the history of western films.  This performance moved him from the bad-guy henchman roles he’d had for twenty years (look for him in Rawhide, Ride, Vaquero!, The Man from Laramie, The Comancheros and The Last Sunset, for example) into higher-profile and more varied characters.  For a similar role, see Support Your Local Gunfighter, where most of the team from the first movie was re-assembled, with slightly less success.  And of course he spends 20 memorable minutes waiting on a railway platform, often in close-up, in the prologue of Once Upon a Time in the WestNot bad for the one-time studio accountant.

 

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Colorado Territory

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 2, 2013

Colorado Territory—Joel McCrea, Virginia Mayo, Dorothy Malone, Henry Hull, James Mitchell, John Archer (1949; Dir: Raoul Walsh)

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Raoul Walsh’s 1941 gangster movie High Sierra is here remade by the same director as an excellent western, set in Colorado Territory in 1871.  Long-time outlaw Wesley McQueen (Joel McCrea) is in a Missouri jail, waiting transportation to Leavenworth.  He gets sprung from jail at the instructions of The Old Man, acting through one of his agents with the curious name of Pluthner.  McQueen heads west, toward Colorado Territory, where The Old Man, kind of a criminal mastermind by the name of Dave Rickard (Basil Ruysdael), lives. 

On the stage west, McQueen meets a Georgian named Fred Winslow (Henry Hull) and his daughter Julie Ann (Dorothy Malone, with dark hair and her trademark eyes).  When outlaws attack the stage, killing the driver and shotgun rider, McQueen fights them off and brings in the stage.  He heads for the meeting place with a new gang, a deserted mountain village called Todos Santos.  The Winslows head off for their new ranch, Rancho del Sol, which they find to be less than advertised—less water, less stock, etc. 

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The women:  Dorothy Malone as the ultimately faithless Julie Ann.

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And Virginia Mayo in dark makeup as half-Pueblo dance hall girl Colorado Carson.

McQueen at this point would like to go straight, and he’s not impressed by the other gang members The Old Man has lined up:  Duke Harris (James Mitchell), a bully and killer; Reno Blake (John Archer), slick and cowardly with a waspish tongue; and Colorado Carson (Virginia Mayo), a part-Pueblo dance hall girl from El Paso.  He tells Colorado to leave, since he can see she ignites trouble between Duke and Reno.  He wants to go straight, and he’s attracted by Julie Ann. 

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McQueen (Joel McCrea) takes the unruly gang in hand.

McQueen heads for Pacheco to talk with The Old Man, stopping by Rancho del Sol.  The Winslows aren’t doing well, and he hears some backstory about Fred’s worrying about Julie Ann’s attraction to a Randolph back home—much above the Winslows in social class, and who’s never going to marry her.  The Old Man’s in rough shape health-wise, but he talks McQueen into leading this last score.  McQueen has strong misgivings about all aspects of the job:  Reno, Duke, a garrulous, corrupt train conductor (Ian Wolfe), and especially about Pluthner.  He leaves $1000 with the Winslows, but feels (a) he’s sinking deeper into a moral morass, and (b) Julie Ann may not be as pure as he imagines anyway.  Colorado’s obviously attracted to him, and she seems like she could be a better match for somebody like him notwithstanding her past. 

As the gang carries out the robbery, the talkative conductor has squealed to the marshal, and Duke plans to kill McQueen during the robbery.  McQueen is successful in getting the loot, and he escapes with Colorado, a posse in hot pursuit.  As he stops by Pacheco, he finds The Old Man dead and Pluthner going through his stuff.  Pluthner pulls a gun; McQueen kills him but is wounded in the shoulder. 

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McQueen (Joel McCrea) looks to get away after a final robbery gone wrong.

At Rancho del Sol, Colorado patches him up, and he realizes that his future, if there is any, lies with her.  In fact, Julie Ann tries to turn McQueen in to the posse for the reward on his head.  At Todos Santos, McQueen and Colorado conclude that they have to head for Mexico immediately, and Colorado hides the $100,000 in loot above the confessional in the old church.  McQueen tries to draw off the posse, heading for an old canyon pueblo called the City of the Moon.  The posse overtakes him there, as does Colorado.  With a ruse, the marshal lures McQueen out to where he is hit by an Indian sniper.  Colorado, blazing away with two guns, is shot down, too.  (See the Italian poster for the movie, above, which focuses on this scene very colorfully.)  They are together in death.

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Colorado Carson (Virginia Mayo) and McQueen (Joel McCrea) are trapped by a posse.

As with Pursued, Yellow Sky and Blood on the Moon, this has a strong noir influence.  McCrea’s basic decency makes a reforming McQueen believable, although some think he’s too decent to be credible as an outlaw.  Watch how naturally McCrea rides in this; he and Randolph Scott were probably the best riders among major western stars.  This may be one of Virginia Mayo’s best roles, although the dark makeup she wears doesn’t go with her light eyes and natural coloring.  When posters feature a prominent female image, you can’t always count on the female being central to the movie.  This one features strong female roles.

In black and white, making good use of mountain settings.  The pueblo where the final shoot-out takes place looks like it might be Canyon de Chelly.  The movie was filmed around Gallup, New Mexico.  A good screenplay by John Twist, with very effective dialogue, although some of it has a 1940s flavor now.  Something about this one spawned an unusual number of colorful posters internationally.

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Union Pacific

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 15, 2013

Union Pacific—Joel McCrea, Robert Preston, Brian Donlevy, Barbara Stanwyck (1939; Dir:  Cecil B. Demille)

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In the movies’ greatest year, we had this rare western by one of the cinema’s greatest showmen.  It obviously had a big budget, being made in the DeMille style, and was promoted very expensively.  As well as being a great year for movies generally, 1939 was also a good year for westerns, with this, Dodge City, Stagecoach, Destry Rides Again, Frontier Marshal and the misbegotten curiosity The Oklahoma Kid.

UnionPacificLeads The romantic triangle.

Joel McCrea, a bigger star than John Wayne at the time, is Jeff Butler, a troubleshooter for the Union Pacific Railroad at the End of Track, wearing two guns with pistol butts facing forward.  His childhood and Civil War friend is Dick Allen (Robert Preston, charming in his first big part), now in the process of drifting over to the dark side for a big score.  They are both romantically interested in Molly Monahan, played with a painfully thick Irish brogue by Barbara Stanwyck.  Brian Donlevy, as one would expect, is the principal villain as Sid Campeau, the slimy saloon owner who corrupts Allen.  (See a young Anthony Quinn briefly as a sleazy gambler and Campeau confederate Jack Cordray, who tries to shoot Butler in the back.  The screen’s original Tarzan, Elmo Lincoln, is said to be an uncredited player in this, too.)

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Its overarching story is the driving of the Union Pacific railroad line westward after the Civil War to meet the Central Pacific, overcoming all obstacles:  outlaws, Indians, snow, unmet payrolls and unfriendly mountain terrain.  The golden spike used in the meeting-of-the-lines scene is the real spike from 1869, borrowed from Stanford University.  McCrea and Preston are very good in this, Stanwyck a little less so, although that may not be her fault with her part written so faux-Irish.  Butler ultimately values his friendship with Allen and is able to escape hanging his friend, even when it becomes obvious that Allen has been involved in train robberies.  As one would expect, Allen redeems himself as he dies at the end.  At this stage of his career, Preston seemed to specialize in this kind of a role–the friend who goes bad (see North West Mounted Police, Whispering Smith and Blood on the Moon, for example).

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There’s a fair amount of spectacle here, with two train crashes (one caused by Indians, one caused by snow) and a major Indian attack, in addition to the nefarious outlaws.  It’s in black and white, but so were most movies in 1939, especially westerns.  (The exception:  see Dodge City, below.)  Compare this with the later (1941) technological western and winning-of-the-west epic Western Union, featuring Randolph Scott as the conflicted lead who has to sort out his loyalties while (a) being tempted by the dark side and (b) playing off straight arrow Robert Young.  Both movies are quite watchable.

DeMille didn’t make many westerns, but some would say that he invented the feature-length western with The Squaw Man in 1914.  By 1939, he’d been making movies for more than 25 years already.

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