Tag Archives: Randolph Scott

The Bounty Hunter

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 9, 2014

The Bounty Hunter—Randolph Scott, Dolores Dorn, Ernest Borgnine, Marie Windsor, Dub Taylor (1954; Dir:  Andre de Toth)

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A formulaic western with an improbable plot, which is nevertheless engaging on a minor level.  Randolph Scott is the titular merciless bounty hunter Jim Kipp, engaged by the Pinkerton agency to find three unknown train robbers responsible for several deaths near Dodge City a year previously.  After a shoot-out with a posse killed four of the seven robbers, the three survivors had escaped with the loot into somewhere in the New Mexico-Texas-Colorado area. 

Scott tracks the three off into the badlands with a cowboy’s minimal baggage, figuring how far they could have gone with the water available to them.  Yet when he arrives in the remote and unfriendly town of Two Forks, over the course of a couple of days he demonstrates that he’s brought with him at least three hats and several changes of clothes.  The local Doc Spencer (Harry Antrim) lies to Kipp about having treated a wounded man shot in the leg; Kipp is intrigued both by the lie and by the Doc’s comely blonde daughter Julie Spencer (Dolores Dorn).  Nobody seems to like Kipp much.  (“Well, you know what they say about you:  you’d turn in your grandmother on her birthday if there was a reward on her.”).  But that doesn’t get to him. 

BountyHunterWindScott Getting the drop on Kipp.

Kipp demonstrates his humanity by letting a young prison escapee go and revealing how his storekeeper father’s killing set him on his present course.  He acts as an agent provocateur to get the bad guys to reveal themselves, and, surprisingly, Ernest Borgnine (as antagonistic, limping hotel clerk Bill Rachin) ultimately isn’t one of them.  The three improbably turn out to be the local postmaster (Dub Taylor), the sheriff (Howard Petrie), and a resourceful and not unsympathetic saloon girl Alice Williams (frequent movie bad girl Marie Windsor).  The movie ends with two of them having been killed by others of the three.  In the end, Kipp gets the girl and converts to being a lawman in Two Forks, much like Henry Fonda’s redemption in the more convincing The Tin Star.

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The doc’s prim daughter (Dorn) takes on the saloon girl (Windsor).

The editing’s not great, with a few jerky cuts.  You can also see too clearly where doubles are used (for Scott while riding bareback, and for stocky character actor Dub Taylor jumping off a roof), for example—sloppy directing where the camera’s too close.  The movie is well paced, however, and modestly engaging, with Scott mostly in his cheerfully confident mode.  Romantic interest Julie Spencer is played by Dolores Dorn, 36 years younger than Scott and married to Franchot Tone.  She’s eclipsed by Marie Windsor, though.  Vance Edwards has a bit part as Tyler MacDuff, and at the end look for a young Fess Parker as one of three wild cowboys who ride into Two Forks and quickly back out again.  One of several westerns made by De Toth in the late 1940s and early 1950s, mostly with Randolph Scott.  The low-wattage cast and sloppy editing seem like evidence of a low budget and quick production, but the movie’s not bad.  The color wasn’t good on the print I saw.  Even on TCM, which makes a point of using the best prints available, the print looked dingy and in need of restoration.  Not available on DVD. 

Not to be confused with the terrible 2010 movie of the same name with Jennifer Anniston and Gerard Butler.

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The Spoilers (1942)

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 26, 2014

The Spoilers—John Wayne, Marlene Dietrich, Randolph Scott, Harry Carey, Margaret Lindsay, Richard Barthelmess, William Farnum (1942; Dir:  Ray Enright)

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In the early 1940s, Randolph Scott had been the hero in a couple of better-than-average westerns (Last of the Mohicans, Frontier Marshal) and had persuasively played an unusually ethical villain in a couple more upscale westerns (Western Union, Virginia City), in which his character does not survive.  Here he is called upon to play a charming but unambiguously bad guy for a change.  His good-guy counterpart is rising star John Wayne, three years after his star-making turn in Stagecoach.  The balance between these two attractive actors makes this story work.

This was not the first (or the last) cinematic version of Rex Beach’s story of claim jumping in Nome, Alaska, in 1900, but it is probably the best.  Not only are the two main roles well-cast, but they are ably supported by Marlene Dietrich and Harry Carey.

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Cherry Malotte (Marlene Dietrich) meets Helen, the judge’s niece (Margaret Lindsay), and is not amused.

Roy Glennister (John Wayne) and his mining partner Al Dextry (Harry Carey) are the proprietors of the wealthy Midas gold mine, and things are going well when new mining commissioner Alexander McNamara (Randolph Scott) shows up.  Glennister has a regular relationship with Cherry Malotte (Marlene Dietrich), owner of The Northern saloon, and he’s returning from a trip to Seattle.  When he does, he’s in the company of the attractive Helen Chester (Margaret Lindsay), niece of the new federal judge Horace Stillman (Samuel S. Hinds).  He’s more attentive to Helen than he needs to be, and Cherry is offended.  Meanwhile, questions on the legitimacy of the Glennister-Dextry ownership of the Midas have been raised, and Dextry wants to respond directly with guns.  Glennister urges trying the legal way first.

What it gets them is having their mine and gold impounded, with several months before their case is heard, in which much more gold can be taken out by the authorities, McNamara and Stillman.  As Glennister and Dextry try to get their gold back, the local marshal is killed by Cherry’s manager-dealer Bronco Kid Farrow (played by silent star Richard Barthelmess in one of his last roles).  As tensions build between Glennister and Cherry, Bronco figures the blame for the marshal’s death will attach to Glennister, giving Bronco a better chance with Cherry.  It works to a point, and Glennister is jailed.

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Glennister (John Wayne), while wearing feathers, gets arrested by the bad guys.

McNamara hatches a plan for Glennister to be killed in an escape attempt, but Cherry gets wind of it and aids a real escape.  Glennister and Dextry take back the Midas, but Bronco is mortally wounded in a train crash during the attack.  As he dies, he admits he killed the marshal.  Cherry has been distracting McNamara while the Midas was retaken, and now Glennister shows up at the Northern to save her from McNamara’s attentions.  This leads to an epic fight, in which much of the Northern is wrecked.  In the end, McNamara, Stillman and supposed niece Helen are apprehended before they can get away.  The Midas is in the hands of its real owners again, and Glennister and Cherry are back together.

The fight between John Wayne and Randolph Scott is one of the most storied in the history of westerns.  This sequence took about five days to lay out and film.  It’s unusually vigorous and well-staged, but not perfect.  For example, at one point a stand-in for Scott is a little too obvious, and there are a couple of spots in which it looks like the film was speeded up.  Still, in most of the key roles, the actors are a step up from the 1955 remake, for example.  John Wayne is a better actor than Jeff Chandler, Randolph Scott is more charming than Rory Calhoun, and Marlene Dietrich did this kind of role better than anyone else (although Anne Baxter was also excellent in 1955), even if her wigs are a bit extravagant.  And Harry Carey is more restrained but watchable than John McIntire.  The movie is tightly-paced and works well.

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Randolph Scott and John Wayne wreck the Northern during an epic cinematic battle.

Barthelmess is an interesting side note in one of his last movie roles, as is William Farnum, who plays the Glennister-Dextry lawyer Wheaton.  He was the brother of early silent star Dustin Farnum (The Squaw Man, credited with being the first feature-length movie), and he had played Glennister himself in the 1914 movie version of the story–probably the first of five movies to use Beach’s 1906 novel as its basis. And there’s a brief vignette where Cherry encounters the poet Robert W. Service, writing about the shooting of Dan McGrew in The Northern.

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John Wayne and Marlene Dietrich were having an affair at the time this movie was made.

Note that Wayne got third billing on the posters, after Dietrich and Scott.  That would not long be the case.  Wayne and Dietrich have good chemistry in their relationship, perhaps because it mirrored their three-year affair in real life.  This was also Wayne’s first opportunity to appear in a film with Harry Carey, who had long been a mentor.  They would work together again in Red River and Angel and the Badman.

 

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The Desperadoes

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 14, 2014

The Desperadoes—Randolph Scott, Glenn Ford, Claire Trevor, Evelyn Keyes, Edgar Buchanan, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams (1943; Dir:  Charles Vidor)

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In 1943, Randolph Scott was moving to the phase of his career where he would concentrate on making westerns, when he was paired with the young Canadian actor Glenn Ford in this western set in Utah in 1863.  Shot in color (Columbia’s first color feature, in fact), this was a big-budget western for its time.

In the town of Red Valley, Utah Territory, the sheriff is Steve Upton (Randolph Scott), who might be interested in Allison McLeod (Evelyn Keyes), proprietor of the local livery stable.  The local banker and several others are conspiring to have the bank robbed every time the army pays for horses, only to make off with the money themselves.  Uncle Willie (Edgar Buchanan), Allison’s father, is in on it and has sent for an outlaw to do the robbing.  Wanted outlaw-gunman Cheyenne Rogers (Glenn Ford) and his pal Nitro Rankin (Guin Williams) show up, but he’s late and the bank has already been robbed by somebody else.   

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Cheyenne (Glenn Ford) steals the sheriff’s horse, without the sheriff (Randolph Scott) seeing who he is.

Cheyenne’s horse goes lame as he enters the valley, and he comes upon the sheriff watering his horse while out looking for the robbers.  Without allowing the sheriff to turn around, Cheyenne takes his horse, leaves the lame one and heads for town.  When the Steve does finally see him, it turns out they are old friends from Wyoming, along with the Countess (Claire Trevor), who runs the town’s principal gambling establishment.  Taking the imaginative name Bill Smith, Cheyenne develops an interest in Allison himself and decides to go straight.

That’s not so easy in the corrupt environment of Red Valley.  Steve orders Cheyenne and Nitro out of town when local elements want to push them into a fight, and, unknown to Cheyenne, Nitro robs the bank for real on the way out.  The judge insists that Steve arrest Cheyenne and Nitro for the robbery and intends to hang them.  Steve thinks hanging is too severe a penalty for a robbery in which the money was returned and nobody was hurt.  Cheyenne had nothing to do with it, anyway.  So Steve lets them escape, only to be put in the jail himself for his efforts.  The bad guys wait for Cheyenne to return and rescue Steve; they’ll get him then and blame the previous bank robbery on him, too.

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The Countess (Claire Trevor) chats up the bad guys.

Stampeding a herd of horses as it nears town gives Cheyenne a cover to slip in and bust Steve out of jail.  There is a showdown with the most belligerent of the bad guys, Allison marries Cheyenne, who presumably will be able to carry out his intention of going straight, Uncle Willie goes to jail peaceably, and Steve is able to get rid of the corrupt banker, judge (Raymond Walburn) and other elements in town.

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Randolph Scott, Glenn Ford and Big Boy Williams fooling around with set visitor Fred Astaire during the making of The Desperadoes.

There’s a lot of action and good fights, with some comic undercurrents provided by Williams (who wears the most mismatched plaids in cinematic history) and a long-suffering bar owner (Irving Bacon) whose establishment keeps getting smashed up.  The horse stampede is very well done–Randolph Scott used one again the same way in The Doolins of Oklahoma a few years later.  Nitro’s use of nitroglycerin is anachronistic for 1863; it wasn’t available for two or three more decades.  Although Randolph Scott was the bigger name in movies at the time, the concentration here is more on Ford’s character than on Scott’s.  They don’t really look the same age.  Director Charles Vidor, the less prominent brother of director King Vidor, was married to Evelyn Keyes, who gives a good performance as Allison.  John Ford’s brother Francis Ford is one of the townsmen.  Uncle Willie is one of Edgar Buchanan’s juicier roles, too.  Young Budd Boetticher was an uncredited assistant to director Vidor; his own directing was still almost ten years in the future.  The film moves right along, at only 87 minutes.

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Vidor directed Glenn Ford again three years later after Ford’s return from the war in the classic film noir Gilda.  By then Ford was starting to look more his age.

Not to be confused with 1969’s The Desperados (without the second “e”), with Jack Palance, Vince Edwards and George Maharis.  Or with Ron Hansen’s excellent 1979 novel Desperadoes, about the Dalton gang.  Or with Desperado, the song made famous by Linda Ronstadt in 1973.  Take your desperadoes where you can find them.

 

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The Cariboo Trail

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 12, 2014

The Cariboo Trail—Randolph Scott, Gabby Hayes, Bill Williams, Karin Booth (1950; Dir:  Edward L. Marin)

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The plot for this resembles Anthony Mann’s better known The Far Country, which would follow in a couple of years.  A cattleman takes a herd north to mining country in western Canada, only to encounter trouble from a corrupt town boss and his minions, while developing romantic interests with both a woman who runs a saloon and a more plebeian but more obviously honest young woman.  In this case, the cattleman is Jim Redfern (Randolph Scott, at the height of his box office appeal), bringing a small herd to the wild gold strike country of British Columbia with Mike Evans (Bill Williams), and a Chinese chuck wagon cook (Lee Tung Foo). 

Refusing to pay an exorbitant toll on a bridge, they stampede their herd across and meet prospector Grizzly Winters (Gabby Hayes).  The town is run by Frank Walsh (Victor Jory), a bookkeeper-looking boss with more obvious gunmen around him.  Walsh’s men rustle the cattle, and Evans loses an arm in the stampede.  Redfern and Evans find some sympathy with Frances Harrison (Karin Booth), who owns the Gold Palace and has refused to sell out to Walsh. 

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Getting the wounded Evans (Bill Williams) to a doctor.

Although he’s a novice prospector, Redfern finds a gold strike, which he uses to buy into a large herd being brought in from the south.  (The foreman of this new herd is Will Gray, played by Dale Robertson.)  Meanwhile, the embittered Evans both joins and fights Walsh, while he blames Redfern for the loss of his arm.  In the resolution, Walsh’s men try to stampede the new herd, and Evans leads miners to the rescue but is killed. 

In color, but a curiously flat color.  The plot’s not as coherent as it might be, and the end is abrupt.  Serviceable, but not as good as The Far Country or Scott’s later work with Budd Boetticher.  This is Hayes’ final film, and he’s not as obnoxious as in some of his earlier Roy Rogers vehicles.

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7th Cavalry

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 20, 2014

Seventh Cavalry—Randolph Scott, Barbara Hale, Jay C. Flippen, Denver Pyle, Harry Carey, Jr., Michael Pate (1956; Dir:  Joseph E. Lewis)

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The producer on the credits is Harry Joe Brown, Randolph Scott’s partner in Ranown, the production company that produced most of Budd Beotticher’s westerns with Randolph Scott.  And this appears to be a Scott-Brown production.

It’s not as good as the best Boetticher stuff.  This cavalry movie stars Scott as Captain Tom Benson, first seen approaching Fort Abraham Lincoln in Dakota Territory with his fiancée Martha Kellogg (Barbara Hale) to find nobody there.  The 7th Cavalry, which had been based there, has now been mostly destroyed by the Sioux-Cheyenne allies at the Little Bighorn, and the few survivors straggle in as Benson watches.  The survivors and others blame Benson for cowardice, not realizing or not believing that Custer ordered him to go get his bride.  That includes her father, General Kellogg, who never liked Benson anyway and is at Fort Lincoln conducting hearings on what happened.

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Benson (Randolph Scott) and fiancee (Barbara Hale) are distressed to find nobody holding the fort

Benson, a former gambler and faro dealer, was close friends with Custer and resists versions of the events that would impute bad judgment to Custer.  With his military career and his marriage in question now, Benson leads a detail of prisoners from the guardhouse on a mission to retrieve the bodies of the officers.  It’s dangerous because the Sioux hold the ground and now believe it to hold big medicine for them.  Benson has fights on his hands with a couple of his men, and insubordination from others.

They make it to the battlefield site and begin to collect remains.  The Sioux appear and make it clear that they do not intend for Custer’s remains to be taken, and they surround the small detail.  Cpl. Morrison (Harry Carey, Jr.) rides into Fort Lincoln and talks to Martha, telling her he was standing beside Custer when he ordered Benson to retrieve her instead of going to Little Bighorn.  He then rides out after Benson’s detail, riding Custer’s second horse, Dandy.

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Almost to the battlefield, Morrison is shot off his horse by an Indian.  Riderless, Dandy makes his way to Benson’s beleaguered body collection detail.  The bugler sounds charge, and Dandy charges in.  The Sioux recognize Custer’s horse and take that as a sign that the detail is to be allowed to depart.  Apparently Morrison’s news about Custer’s order has changed Gen. Kellogg’s view of Benson, and everything is fine now back at the fort.

This takes the old school view of Custer as a gallant soldier.  Within ten or fifteen years, the revisionist view of Custer as a foolhardy glory hound would be more common, fueled in part by disillusionment with the Vietnam-era military.  Randolph Scott is fine, with excellent military bearing, although he seems a bit old for Barbara Hale, since he was nearing 60.  She is also fine, although there is nothing remarkable in her part.  The movie is short, at around 75 minutes, which doesn’t give enough time to answer all the questions that arise in the course of the story.  Based on a short story by Glendon Swarthout.  In color.

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Buchanan Rides Alone

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 6, 2014

Buchanan Rides Alone—Randolph Scott, Craig Stevens, Manuel Rojas (1958; Dir:  Budd Boetticher)

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One of the Ranown westerns based in a town, like Decision at Sundown, instead of being shot out in the Lone Pine countryside.  Agry Town, on the California-Mexico border, is corrupt, like Sundown.  The genial Texan Buchanan rides in from Mexico and has trouble riding out.  The sheriff, the judge and the hotel keeper are all brothers named Agry, with a son of the judge as a short-lived trouble-maker.  That seems to make four Agrys.

In a saloon, Juan de la Vega (Manuel Rojas), a wealthy young Mexican seeking revenge, kills Roy Agry, son of Judge Simon Agry.  Buchanan helps him as the sheriff’s men proceed to beat him, and both land in jail, Buchanan with his $2000 from his years in Mexico confiscated.

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Buchanan rides in–alone.

Sheriff:  “Oh, you don’t like this town?”

Buchanan:  “I don’t like some of its people.”

Sheriff:  “Me included?”

Buchanan:  “You especially.”

Sheriff:  “Oh, you’d like to kill me maybe?”

Buchanan:  “I’d like to give you what your boys gave me.”

Sheriff:  “Take the law into your own hands, is that it?”

Buchanan:  “No, just you.”

As matters play out, Buchanan is sent out from town in the company of two deputies who obviously have instructions to kill him.  One of them, Pecos Hill, upon finding that Buchanan is a fellow West Texan, turns on the other and kills him.  Buchanan is released and they hold a non-stereotypical impromptu funeral for the deceased gunman.  Pecos has a speech in which he declares that his deceased friend was a cheater and a thief who couldn’t be trusted, but otherwise was not a bad guy.

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Pecos (L.Q. Jones) delivers an impromptu funeral soliloquy, while Buchanan (Randolph Scott) looks on.

The three senior Agrys are all conspiring against each other.  Judge Simon is the most powerful, and has his own gunman, Abe Carbo (Craig Stevens).  Sheriff Lew Agry has several deputies.  And hotel keeper Amos Agry is playing one against the other for his own advantage.  Simon keeps trying to extract a $50,000 ransom from Juan’s family, while Luke wants to get the money and hang Juan, too.  Amos wants a cut of the money.  Juan escapes and is recaptured; Buchanan is released and recaptured.   After several reverses, all the players end up at the border scrabbling over the $50,000.  The Agrys are on the U.S. side, and Juan and Buchanan are on the Mexican side.  The money is on the bridge in the middle, and there is a stand-off.  Lew sends Simon to get the money and then shoots him while he’s on the bridge. Lew then gets shot in turn.  With the two effective Agrys dead, Buchanan gets most of his $2000 back and then hands the $50,000 to Juan and the town over to Carbo.

This is based on the 1956 novel The Name’s Buchanan by Jonas Ward.  The writing credit for this one is attributed to Charles Lang (as is Decision at Sundown), and Randolph Scott as Buchanan is talkier than in Burt Kennedy’s scripts, with more humor.  However, Boetticher later confirmed that he found the Lang script unsuitable and had Burt Kennedy re-write it.  Since Lang’s wife was gravely ill and they needed the money, Kennedy generously allowed the writing credit (and the fee) to stay with Lang.  Still, it’s not really Kennedy’s best work as a writer. 

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Buchanan (Scott), Carbo (Craig Stevens) and a nameless horse.

Interestingly enough, there is no significant female role in this film, not even for Karen Steele (the statuesque Mrs. Boetticher).  Television private eye Craig Stevens (“Peter Gunn”) plays Carbo, Simon’s hired gunman who always rides in a carriage.  Stevens gets second billing, but his character isn’t very developed.  There is an early screen appearance by L.Q. Jones as the chatty young Texan Pecos Hill. 

This is not one of the more highly-regarded Boetticher-Scott efforts, but it’s enjoyable enough to watch.  Cinematography is in color by Lucien Ballard.  Like all the other Ranown westerns, this is fairly short, at 78 minutes.  Filmed in Old Tucson-Sabino Canyon, in Arizona, not at Lone Pine like most of the other Ranown series.  So, although it’s the only one of the Ranown films to be set in California, it’s the only one not to be filmed in California.  Director Taylor Hackford has commented that Scott’s Buchanan is a sort of precursor to Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, the character at the center of Sergio Leone’s influential Dollar movies. .

 

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Westbound

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 20, 2014

Westbound—Randolph Scott, Karen Steele, Virginia Mayo, Andrew Duggan (1959; Dir:  Budd Boetticher)

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Although this is usually reckoned about the least of the Boetticher-Scott westerns, it’s not terrible.  According to Boetticher, after the third of his pictures with Randolph Scott, he was told that Scott had an obligation to Warner Brothers to make one more picture, and this was it.  The Ranown movies were made for Columbia.  The best of the Ranown movies were written by Burt Kennedy; this was written by Bernie Giler.  The score is standard western movie music by Elmer Bernstein, though.

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Heading west, and meeting the young couple.

Scott is Captain John Hayes, returning to Julesburg, Colorado Territory, during the Civil War to make sure that gold from California gets to the Union, where it’s going.  Near Julesburg, he drops off a young couple, the Millers; the husband is a one-armed Union veteran (Michael Dante) and the wife is played by the Jane-Russell-esque Karen Steele.  In town, Hayes finds the Overland Stage in disarray, with its station closed and its stock gone.  His former flame, Norma (Virginia Mayo), has married Clay Putnam (Andrew Duggan), a long-time rival with Confederate sympathies.  Putnam and Mace (the swarthy Michael Pate, an Australian actor who frequently played Indians), a hired gun, are behind the depredations against the Overland Stage.

Hayes hires the young couple to run a stage station at their ranch.  There are raids on various stage stations and various murders before Hayes has it out with Putnam and Mace in Julesburg.  At the end of the movie, Putnam is dead (as is the young one-armed Miller), and there is a visual implication that Hayes and Norma may resume their relationship.  But then Hayes makes it clear that Norma is going back East, and he’s more interested in the young widow Jeanie Miller (as was Budd Boetticher; she became Mrs. Boetticher).

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It’s short, about 75 minutes, and it’s not bad.  It just isn’t as good as most of the Ranown westerns Boetticher and Scott made.  Written by Berne Giler  This was one of the last Boetticher westerns to be released on DVD, in 2009.

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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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Decision at Sundown

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 28, 2013

Decision At Sundown—Randolph Scott, Noah Beery, Jr., Karen Steele, John Carroll, Andrew Duggan (1957; Dir:  Budd Boetticher)

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Unlike most of the other Ranown westerns of the late 1950s, this one takes place mostly in a town.  The opening shot is not a lone rider making his way through the distant rocks of Lone Pine.  And the normally solitary Randolph Scott character has a sidekick played by the amicable Noah Beery, Jr..  And it’s written by Charles Lang, not Burt Kennedy, who wrote the best of the Ranown westerns directed by Budd Boetticher.  There are stories, however, that Kennedy did most of the writing without being credited.

However, Bart Allison (Scott) is seeking vengeance for matters relating to the death of his wife, as is usual with Scott characters in Boetticher movies.  He’s after Tate Kimbrough (played slimily by John Carroll), the corrupt town boss of Sundown, who’s about to marry spunky and beautiful young Kate Summerton (Karen Steele, who was Mrs. Budd Boetticher).  Allison is a Civil War veteran who’s heard that a dalliance with Kimbrough while he was gone led to his wife’s suicide.  There are good side characters in this one:  Ruby James (Valerie French) is Kimbrough’s long-time living-above-the-saloon paramour who’s not entirely reconciled to the marriage; Doc John Storrow (John Archer) has his own questions about Kimbrough, as does local rancher Morley Chase (Ray Teal). 

DecisionSundownWedding Breaking up the wedding.

By speaking up at Kimbrough’s wedding, Allison and Sam immediately are hunted by Kimbrough’s minions, including his pet sheriff (Andrew Duggan).  The battle takes most of the movie, as Kimbrough’s men take out Sam and Allison kills the sheriff.  In the end, however, though Kimbrough is a moral leper, he doesn’t actually deserve Allison’s vengeance because Allison’s wife dallied with a number of men.  The resolution is interesting; Allison gets his revenge, but not the way he thought he would.  And he’s not happy about it.  He’s not as admirable a hero as most of the Scott-Boetticher characters.  This is yet another case where the hero played by Scott doesn’t get Karen Steele, who probably ends up with the doctor.

DecisionSundownScott In desperate straits.

This is an interesting variation on the cowardly townspeople theme, though.  (High Noon, At Gunpoint, The Tin Star, the original 3:10 to Yuma, etc.)  It’s not, perhaps, one of the very best of the Ranown westerns, but better than an average western nevertheless.

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Last of the Mohicans (1936 and 1920)

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 19, 2013

Last of the Mohicans—Randolph Scott, Binnie Barnes, Henry Wilcoxon, Bruce Cabot, Heather Angel, Philip Reed, Robert Barrat, Hugh Buckler (1936; Dir:  George B. Seitz)

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The official 1936 movie poster uses a 1919 N.C. Wyeth illustration from the book (upper left corner).

The successful 1992 version of this story was said to be have been based more on this 1936 movie than on the novel by James Fenimore Cooper.  There are several lines from this version that recur in the 1992 movie and the 1936 screenwriter Philip Dunne even has a credit in the 1992 film, but the two versions are not identical in plot. 

Col. Munro (Hugh Buckler) is at Albany, about to head for Fort William Henry on Lake George, when he is joined by Major Duncan Heyward (Henry Wilcoxon) and Munro’s two daughters, Alice (Binnie Barnes, with dark hair) and Cora (Heather Angel, blond).  Their column is led by adopted Mohawk Magua (Bruce Cabot), who talks Heyward and the Munro daughters into taking a short cut on which he plans to betray them to the invading Hurons.  The small party is rescued by Hawkeye (Randolph Scott) and father and son Mohicans, Chingachgook (Robert Barrat) and Uncas (Philip Reed).  While making for Fort William Henry, they steal canoes and elude the Huron pursuit.  Hawkeye and Alice begin to form a relationship, to the irritation of Major Heyward, as do Uncas and Cora.

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Once at the fort, the British are besieged by the French, Hurons and Ottawas.  Uncas makes an unsuccessful attempt to carry a dispatch to Gen. Webb and is wounded.  Hawkeye tells the colonials their homes and farms are in danger and helps them to escape the fort; for this, he and Chingachgook are put in the fort’s brig.  Montcalm, the French commander, persuades Munro that further resistance is hopeless, and Munro surrenders on the promise of honorable terms and treatment.  Magua whips the French-allied Hurons and Ottawas into a murderous frenzy, and the Indians attack the now-vulnerable British before they are able to leave the fort.  The French are horrified and eventually put a stop to the massacre, but not before Magoa makes off with Alice and Cora and heads north.

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Hawkeye and the Mohicans escape the brig in the melee and head after Magua, encountering Major Heyward on the trail.  Magua brings the sisters to the Huron council, where it is decided that Alice will die by being burned to death, and Cora is given until morning to decide between joining her sister in death or becoming Magua’s squaw.  Uncas sneaks into the camp and rescues Cora, but Magua pursues.  Uncas is killed by Magua and Cora chooses death rather than be taken again by Magua.  In turn, Chingachgook kills the evil Magua.

Hawkeye and Major Heyward argue over who will volunteer to trade himself for Alice.  Heyward knocks out Hawkeye and steals his clothes; the Hurons agree to trade Cora for the disguised Heyward.  Hawkeye shows up and has a shooting match with Heyward to prove who is the real Hawkeye; he ends up being tortured and prepared for burning.  As the Mohicans, Heyward and Alice escape, they find a relief column near and return in time to save Hawkeye. 

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Once back in in Albany with the relief column, Hawkeye faces a court martial for the same changes for which he was imprisoned at Fort William Henry, but this time Heyward comes to his defense.  He is acquitted of all charges in return for joining the British army as a scout in their next expedition northward.

So the blond and dark Munro daughters are switched in this version; the canoe chase takes place before the fort surrenders, Major Heyward surivives, and Hawkeye joins the British army.  These are all changed in the 1992 version of the story.  But this version deserves to be regarded as a classic.  Scott is excellent as Hawkeye in one of the best of his early screen roles, and Wilcoxon does very well as Heyward.  The sisters are also excellent.  Cabot as Magua is neither as evil and leering as Wallace Beery (1920) nor as implacably cruel as Wes Studi (1992).  But this is well worth watching, despite a couple of clunky spots.  It was filmed in the Crescent City and Smith River areas of northern California, using Yurok, Hoopa and Tolowa extras.

The Last of the Mohicans—Wallace Beery, Barbara Bedford, Harry Lorraine, Alan Roscoe, Theodore Lorch, Henry Woodward (1920; Dir: Clarence Brown, Maurice Tourneur)

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The first film version of Last of the Mohicans was a 1911 one-reeler starring James Cruze, better known these days for directing the 1923 silent western classic The Covered Wagon.  The silent version most often seen these days is Maurice Tourneur’s 1920 version.  That same year there was a German version of the story featuring Bela Lugosi as Chingachgook. 

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Bedford and Roscoe as the young lovers Cora and Uncas.

This Tourneur version is notable for Wallace Beery’s leering performance as the evil Magua, for the prominence of Uncas (Alan or Albert Roscoe) as the romantic hero, and for the strangely hayseed depiction of Hawkeye (Harry Lorraine), giving him a much less prominent role in the drama than this character usually has.  The romantic leads of Roscoe and then-17-year-old Barbara Bedford (Cora) were later married.  Boris Karloff is said to be one of the Indian extras in the film, but if so he’s not very obvious.

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This was filmed around Big Bear Lake and the San Bernardino National Forest in southern California, with some shooting in Yosemite.  The directors are top-quality:  Tourneur did most of the movie, but after being injured on the set, he gave Clarence Brown one of his first directing chances in finishing the film and doing much of the outdoor shooting.  The restored print has a lot of color tints in it.  This version is one of the three (1920, 1936, 1992) most worth watching and is said to be truer to Cooper’s novel than most later versions.  At 73 minutes, it’s not terribly long.

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