Tag Archives: John Ireland

Vengeance Valley

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 30, 2016

Vengeance Valley—Burt Lancaster, Robert Walker, Joanne Dru, John Ireland, Hugh O’Brian, Sally Forrest, Ted de Corsia, Ray Collins (1951; Dir:  Richard Thorpe)

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If you were making a western in the 1940s or 1950s, you could do worse than start with a story from western writer Luke Short, as was done here.  This was Burt Lancaster’s first western, and its brother-gone-bad story is fueled by the excellent actors Lancaster and Robert Walker, who was nearing the end of his career and short life.

Owen Daybright (Burt Lancaster) is the foster son of range baron Arch Strobie (Ray Collins).  In addition to being Strobie’s foreman, part of his responsibilities includes training Strobie’s real son Lee (Robert Walker).  Although relations are apparently good between the foster brothers, it’s unclear how much real tension might be there.  As the movie starts, the two are returning from an extended period caring for the herds during the winter.  In town, they hear that Lily Fasken (Sally Forrest), who formerly worked at a restaurant, has borne a baby out of wedlock.  Mostly shunned by the respectable people in town, Owen finds her being cared for by Lee’s new wife Jen (Joanne Dru).  He gives her some supplies and $500, leading her brother Dick (Hugh O’Brian) to suppose that Owen is the father and send for brother Hub (John Ireland, then married to Joanne Dru).

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Good brother Owen Daybright (Burt Lancaster) tries to talk bad brother Lee Strobie (Robert Walker) into doing the right thing.

We soon see that Lee is the real father of Lily’s child, and that Owen has feelings for Jen that he’s mostly hiding.  As the Fasken brothers try to take action against Owen, they are thrown in jail, and Owen and Lee head off to the spring roundup.  Lee is looking for a way out of his situation, and he tries to focus more of the blame for his own actions on Owen.  After Owen has a fight with a small-time rustler (Ted de Corsia), Lee arranges for the Faskens to be allowed into the roundup, where they can ambush Owen.

Meanwhile, Lee gets his father to make him a full partner in the ranch, and during the roundup he arranges to seel the Strobie stock for $40,000.  He hopes to make off with the money and use it to start anew in another location.  His marriage with Jen is falling apart because Jen has seen his selfish behavior for what it is.  But Owen crosses paths with Lee’s new buyer and confronts Lee, who then tries to lead him into the Fasken ambush.  Owen is wounded, but gets the Faskens, and Lee escapes.  Owen intercepts Lee, and there is a final confrontation between the two.

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The nefarious Fasken brothers Dick (Hugh O’Brian) and Hub (John Ireland) are convinced that Owen ruined their sister Lily.

Despite the good performances by Lancaster and Walker, and Dru’s usual attractiveness, this is somehow lacking a spark.  Dru is mostly underused.  The subplot involving Dru falling out with Lee and Owen falling for her is underplayed, although a still from the studio (below) would seem to make it more overt.  One is mostly inclined to attribute the lackluster results to journeyman director Richard Thorpe, who had been directing movies for almost thirty years.  Lancaster would go on to better westerns (Vera Cruz, Gunfight at the OK Corral, The Professionals, Valdez Is Coming, Ulzana’s Raid) over his long career.  Walker would soon be dead of alcohol and a broken heart, with Hollywood mogul David O. Selznick having stolen his wife Jennifer Jones.  He could be an excellent actor in roles like the one he has here, as we have seen in Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train.

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Lancaster, Dru and Walker in a studio still. Their situation never became this overt in the movie.

Shot in color in various Colorado location, at 83 minutes.  At a time when movies, including upscale westerns, were moving to widescreen forms of presentation, this is still in what is called “academy aspect,” the ratio in which movies had been shown for the previous decades.

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The Walking Hills

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 24, 2016

The Walking Hills—Randolph Scott, John Ireland, Ella Raines, William Bishop, Edgar Buchanan, Josh White, Jerome Courtland, Arthur Kennedy, Charles Stevens (1949; Dir: John Sturges)

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The enigmatic title of this treasure-hunting noir western set in modern times (ca. 1950) refers to a large area of dunes that move around in strong winds.  An 1852 wagon train supposed to have been full of gold was been lost there, and in a back room card game in Calexico, young Johnny (Jerome Courtland) refers to having seen what might be a line of wagons out in the sand.  Old Willy (grizzled former dentist Edgar Buchanan) supplies the legend, and it is determined that everybody in the room must go, lest anybody staying behind later follow with his own search party and cut them out.

They are soon joined by Chris Jackson (Ella Raines), who works at a local lunch counter and has romantic history with two members of the group.  Aside from Old Willy, the most experienced hand is Jim Carey (Randolph Scott), a rancher and horse breeder, who brings along a mare he expects to foal at any time.  He supplies the expedition with horses, wrangled by his Indian hand Cleve (Charles Stevens).  Chris and Jim were a romantic item before she left him for rodeo rider/gambler Shep/Dave (William Bishop).  Shep in turn abandoned her in the rain in Denver.

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Jim Carey (Randolph Scott) is the center, figuratively and visually, of the group of gold hunters.

Frazee (John Ireland) is a private detective who was pursuing Shep but is now more interested in gold.  He has a gun and a heliograph, with which he signals a confederate in the foothills.  Bits of backstory are told in flashback, such as the fact that Shep had been in a card game in Denver that resulted in an accidental death, for which he is now wanted by the law.  That’s why he left Chris in Denver.  Johnny sees Frazee burying something and jumps him; he is shot by Frazee and initially thought to be paralyzed.  Chris insists that Jim get Johnny to a doctor, but Jim can’t leave his mare and thinks that Johnny won’t make it anyway.  He doesn’t, although he supplies a couple more bits of information before his demise.

[Spoilers follow.]  Old Willy discovers a wagon, giving the group new energy.  But there’s no gold in the wagon, and the band is hit by a sand storm, during which Frazee battles Shep, Chalk (Arthur Kennedy) and Jim with shovels and fists before Chalk shoots Frazee with his own gun.  Jim scrambles to round up the scattered horses in the storm, while the others seek cover.  When the storm passes, the wagon train stands revealed, but with no gold.  Shep takes off to turn himself in and sort things out; Jim gives Chris one of the few remaining horses to follow him.  And he forces Old Willy to reveal that he has in fact found $10,000 in gold, which he will have to split with the survivors.  Jim takes the remaining horse and the new foal, saying that he will send horses for them.

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Treasure-seekers and romantic triangle Chris (Ella Raines), Shep/Dave (William Bishop) and a shirtless Jim Carey (Randolph Scott).

The cast is very good.  Randolph Scott was the biggest star at the time, and he is the moral center of the movie, although he doesn’t seem all that moral at the start.  He’s in good physical shape for a man in his 50s, as his shirtless scenes remind us (for more of those, see him in Carson City).  His strong, taciturn role here reminds us of his work ten years later with director Budd Boetticher.  Sultry Ella Raines is good as Chris; this may have been the peak of her modest movie career, though.  John Ireland was also at the early peak of his long movie and television career following Red River, My Darling Clementine and I Shot Jesse James and before All the King’s Men.  Look for Scott and Ireland together again the same year in The Doolins of Oklahoma, a more conventional western.  William Bishop was fine in this, but did not have a particularly notable career before his early death at 41.  Arthur Kennedy doesn’t have much to do or much camera time.  For Edgar Buchanan in another role as a grizzled gold seeker about this time, see him with Glenn Ford in Lust for Gold. Geronimo’s grandson Charles Stevens gets more screen time here than he usually did, and he looks authentic.

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Fights break out, mostly centering on private investigator Frazee (John Ireland).

Surprisingly for a relatively short film, this includes a couple of musical interludes by bluesman Josh Smith.  Note the camera angles used by director Sturges during those interludes to provide visual interest and prevent things from becoming too static during the songs.  The birth of a foal in the desert provides a symbol of hope and renewal when things are going badly.

The classic Treasure of the Sierra Madre had come out the previous year (1948), and this was obviously influenced by the success of that film.  It was shot in Death Valley and Lone Pine in beautiful black and white by Charles Lawton, Jr., who later worked with producer Harry Joe Brown and Randolph Scott several more times on the Boetticher westerns.  The sandstorm scenes are particularly effective.  He also worked with eminent western directors Delmer Daves, including the marvelously shot 3:10 to Yuma, and John Ford.

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At a compact 78 minutes, much is revealed by flashback, but not everything.  The story is left with a few holes in it, and that appears to be by design.  Story and screenplay are by Alan LeMay (Gunfighters, San Antonio, Rocky Mountain, novels for The Searchers and The Unforgiven).  This is from early in the career of excellent director John Sturges (Escape from Fort Bravo, Bad Day at Black Rock, Last Train from Gun Hill, The Magnificent Seven, Hour of the Gun et al.).  It is not as polished as some of his later work, but it is well worth watching (and even re-watching), although it can be hard to find

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Southwest Passage

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 26, 2015

Southwest Passage—John Ireland, Joanne Dru, Rod Cameron, John Dehner, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, Darryl Hickman (1954; Dir: Ray Nazarro) SWPassagePosterSWPassageTall

Joanne Dru (the former Joanne Letitia LaCock) was unusually effective in westerns in a time when the casting of most female roles was usually a secondary consideration at best.  Even now, her performances shine in such classics as Red River, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Wagon Master.  Like Claire Trevor in Stagecoach, she was excellent at portraying a bad girl who showed signs of turning out well if given half a chance (Red River, Wagon Master).  This particular expertise resulted in her being somewhat typecast in westerns, which was fine when they were at their peak but stalled out her career as they lost popularity by 1960.  She married John Ireland in 1947, and one result was their collaboration in this cavalry and camels vs. Apaches story.

Gunman Clint McDonald (John Ireland), Jeb (Darryl Hickman, a child star of the 1940s) and Jeb’s sister Lilly (Joanne Dru) are escaping with $20,000 taken in a bank robbery, pursued by a posse.  Jeb is shot, and Lilly returns to town looking for a doctor.  The one she finds turns out to be a veterinarian on his way to join a cavalry patrol heading into the desert with camels to survey a new route to California.  McDonald pays the vet for his kit and takes his place, claiming to be the doctor.

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Fake doctor Clint McDonald (John Ireland) patches up suspicious muleskinner Matt Carroll (John Dehner).

The head of the patrol is Edward Fitzpatrick Beale (Rod Cameron), experimenting with the camels and mapping the Arizona desert.  He is accompanied by three Arab camel drivers led by High Jolly (Hadji Ali, played by Mark Hanna), nasty-tempered head mule teamster Matt Carroll (John Dehner), colorful scout Tall Tale (Guinn Williams) and several cavalrymen, led by Lt. Owens.  Lilly joins them, claiming to have gotten lost from a wagon train; Jeb didn’t survive his wound. Clint is unusually good with a gun for a doctor, and Matt Carroll distrusts Clint, dislikes the Arabs and lusts after Lilly.  Lilly is coming to admire the ambitious but seemingly selfless Beale.

The party is followed by Apaches, who believe the camels are gods, until one of the beasts breaks a leg and has to be shot.  Lilly tries to persuade Clint to go straight, but the lure of $20,000 is too great.  When Tall Tale is bitten by a gila monster, Clint treats the wound but it gets infected.  Although he’s not qualified to do so, he prepares to amputate Tall Tale’s arm, until Lilly speaks up and Clint’s real identity becomes known.  After a fight with Beale, he is exiled from the group, looking for a town 80 miles south, and is joined by Carroll, who wants half the loot.  They find a water hole in the rocks, and Carroll gets the jump on Clint, intending to take both canteens, both horses and all the loot.  But Clint’s non-medical skill with a gun comes in handy, and Carroll ends up face down in the pool.

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Lilly (Joanne Dru), Beale (Rod Cameron) and Tall Tale (Guinn Williams) fight off Apaches.

Clint rides back to the patrol with news of water only 30 miles distant, but the Apaches now know that the camels are mortal and attack the party from the rocks around the water.  Clint redeems himself by drawing off the Indians with the remaining camel so the rest of the patrol can make a dash for the water and the protection of the rocks.  When it’s over, he’s wounded but asks Beale to give back the loot to the bank, and he and Lilly are together again.

Although Rod Cameron seems to get top billing, Joanne Dru is the best thing in the movie.  Ultimately Lilly finds Cameron’s character Beale more interesting than we do.  John Ireland was an intriguing mix of hard-edged tough guy with an ability to learn, but he’s never very convincing as the doctor.  John Dehner makes an excellent villain as dastardly muleskinner Matt Carroll..

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Lilly (Joanne Dru) can defend herself if she needs to.

This was made in the 3-D fad of the early 1950s (like Hondo, Gun Fury, The Stranger Wore a Gun and The Moonlighter), which faded out almost as soon as it began.  There are a couple of things that show a lack of careful direction.  As the patrol drives its wagons along the side of some dunes, Clint and Lilly are riding downhill from them, where they’ll be crushed if the wagons tip over, as it seems they might.  And as Clint rides back to the patrol from the water hole, he leaves Carroll’s body in the water.  With the desert heat and decomposition of the corpse, that will leave the water hole fouled and unusable by the time the patrol gets there. Filmed on location in southern Utah, near Kanab.  The direction is by journeyman Ray Nazarro.  The unexceptional screenplay by Harry Essex has some clunky dialogue, especially Lilly’s lines to Clint about going straight.  In color, at only 75 minutes.

SWPassageBelgKONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA Dru was good in westerns, but she didn’t always enjoy them.  “I simply hated horses,” she said in a 1957 interview with Hedda Hopper.  “And those long gingham dresses with boned bodices are miserable things to wear.”  By the end of the 1950s she had drifted almost entirely into television work, and she and Ireland were divorced in 1957.

Edward Fitzpatrick Beale and his involvement with camels in the American southwest are based on actual history.  In 1857, Lt. Beale, with the support of Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, used 25 camels to survey a route for a wagon road from Fort Defiance in Arizona to the Colorado River, then took the camels on to California.  The Santa Fe Railroad and U. S. Highway 66 subsequently followed this route.  With the outbreak of the Civil War, the Camel Corps was largely forgotten, although there were reports of feral camels in the southwest well into the 1900s—even as late as 1975 in Baja California.  Hadji Ali, an Ottoman citizen, was the lead camel driver of the Camel Corps beginning around 1856 and lived in this country until his death in 1902 in Arizona.  There was even a folk song about him, recorded by the New Christy Minstrels in the 1960s.

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Gunfight at the OK Corral

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 16, 2013

Gunfight At The O.K. Corral—Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Rhonda Fleming, Jo Van Fleet, John Ireland, Lyle Bettger, DeForest Kelly, Dennis Hopper, Jack Elam, Earl Holliman, John Hudson, Martin Milner, Lee Van Cleef (1957; Dir:  John Sturges)

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This is the first and bigger-budgeted (and not necessarily the better) of two effective retellings of the story of Wyatt Earp in Tombstone directed by John Sturges.  A decade later he’d do it again with a lower-wattage cast in a version that told the story better.  This version owes something to My Darling Clementine, and it’s not much closer to the facts than John Ford’s classic was.   The gunfight itself is the end, rather than the middle, of the story as shown here. 

Two Hollywood giants of their day, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, play Wyatt and Doc Holliday—the second of seven films the two made together.  Douglas, although an excellent actor here, is obviously from the Victor Mature school of robust tuberculars, very different physically from the spindly homicidal dentist of history.  Rhonda Fleming is lady gambler Laura Denbow, a romantic interest for Earp in Dodge City, although she refuses to follow him to Tombstone and actually isn’t very necessary to the proceedings.  Jo Van Fleet is Kate Fisher, Doc’s not-very-faithful prostitute girlfriend, obviously based on Big Nose Kate Elder.  Dennis Hopper is good as a conflicted young Billy Clanton, but Lyle Bettger isn’t terribly memorable as Ike. 

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Doc (Kirk Douglas) and Wyatt (Burt Lancaster) join forces against Shanghai Pierce and Ringo in Dodge City.

The gunfight, like that in Clementine, is nothing like what actually happened.  In addition to all the choreography, it shows Ike and Finn Clanton getting killed, and ultimately Billy, too.  In fact, Ike ran away from the fight and survived intact, and Finn wasn’t there.  Doc shoots down Ringo (well-played by John Ireland), but Ringo wasn’t there either.  As with Clementine, the action is precipitated by a Clanton killing of the youngest Earp brother, James (Martin Milner).  In fact, James was the oldest Earp brother and was not involved in the events in Arizona at all.  The actual gunfight lasted a mere 30 seconds, resulting in three dead men after an exchange of 34 bullets.  In this adaptation, the movie gunfight took four days to film and produced an on-screen bloodbath that lasted five minutes.  And there’s nothing about the subsequent murder of Morgan or the maiming of Virgil Earp, or Wyatt’s vendetta ride.  Like most versions from this era, the story steers clear of Wyatt’s irregularities in his relationships with women. This movie works by itself as a story, as long as you’re not remembering the real story too much.  This also makes Earp’s role as a Dodge City lawman more important than it was.  As a cinematic matter, a nice touch is the montage of shots of concerned women just before the gunfight:  Ma Clanton, worrying about her errant sons, especially young Billy; Allie Earp, Virgil’s wife; and the faithless Kate Elder. 

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Heading for the corral with a low camera angle–clearly not a social call.

An interesting comparison is with Sturges’ second version, Hour of the Gun, which features James Garner in his grim mode as Wyatt and Jason Robards as a sardonic Doc—not as lustrous a cast, but it works better. Much of this film was shot at the famous Old Tucson facility, not far from the real Tombstone.  However, its “town street” set was used surprisingly as Fort Griffin, Texas, in the opening reels, while later Tombstone street scenes were shot in southern California, on the same Paramount Ranch set that was later used as Virginia City, Nevada, on TV’s “Bonanza” (1959).  The theme song is sung by Frankie Laine, who had a voice made for western themes.  Excellent score by Dimitri Tiomkin; cinematography by Charles Lang.  The co-writer on this was apparently Leon Uris, author of the best-selling novels Exodus and Battle Cry. 

Dennis Hopper, interestingly enough, was born and raised in Dodge City, Kansas, where the first half or more of this movie takes place.  Billy Clanton: “I don’t know why I get into gunfights. I guess sometimes I just get lonely.”  This was also the second time John Ireland was gunned down in Tombstone; here he plays Ringo and in Clementine he was Billy Clanton.  Wyatt’s last word on the subject:  “All gunfighters are lonely.  They live in fear.  They die without a dime, a woman or a friend.”

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