Tag Archives: Town Taming


Nicholas Chennault ~ September 2, 2015

Wichita—Joel McCrea, Vera Miles, Lloyd Bridges, Wallace Ford, Edgar Buchanan, Peter Graves, Keith Larsen Robert Wilke, Jack Elam, Walter Coy, Mae Clarke (1955; Dir: Jacques Tourneur)


Director Jacques Tourneur is best remembered today for such 1940s fare as Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie (starring Frances Dee, Joel McCrea’s real life wife) and one of the very best films noirs, Out of the Past (1947), with Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas and Jane Greer.  In the 1950s he made several westerns with Joel McCrea, of which the best is probably Stars in My CrownWichita is one of those Tourneur-McCrea collaborations, a supposed retelling of the early pre-Dodge City part of Wyatt Earp’s career as a lawman.

The railroad has just been brought to Wichita, Kansas, by Sam McCoy (Walter Coy).  It’s starting to attract more cattle herds and those in search of new business opportunities, like young Wyatt Earp (played by not-so-young Joel McCrea).  He camps overnight with one of those herds, and two of their cowboys, the Clements brothers (one played by Lloyd Bridges), try unsuccessfully to rob him while he sleeps.  Foiling that, he moves on to the town, where he meets the local newspaper editor Arthur Whiteside (played as a typical heavy-drinking western newspaperman by Wallace Ford) and his young assistant Bat Masterson (Keith Larsen).  His first action in town is to break up a bank robbery, getting him lots of attention from the law-and-order part of the citizenry.


When wild cowboys shoot up the town and kill a young boy, Wyatt accepts the marshal’s badge and starts to clean things up.  Not everybody is happy with that, including Sam McCoy, who’d like to see the town a little more open to promote business.  McCoy’s daughter Laurie (Vera Miles) is romantically interested in Wyatt, though.  Wyatt bans the wearing of guns in town.  Doc Black (Edgar Buchanan), the most corrupt of the town fathers, tries to hire a couple of slick-looking newcomers to kill Earp, but they turn out to be his brothers Morgan (Peter Graves) and James (John Smith).  When Wyatt runs Doc out of town, he seeks out the Clements brothers and engineers an attack on Wyatt as he leaves the McCoy house.  Instead of Wyatt, they kill McCoy’s wife Mary (Mae Clarke).  Giving chase, the Earp brothers kill one and capture another.

As gunman Ben Thompson (Robert Wilke) and the rest of the cowboys are about to try to get Wyatt, they reconsider as Doc Black’s role in the killings and trying to take down Wyatt is revealed.  Presumably Wyatt and Laurie can now get together, although of course that didn’t happen in real life.


Laurie McCoy (Vera Miles) romances the new marshal (Joel McCrea).

In general, this is a pretty typical town-taming story.  Joel McCrea can play Wyatt Earp’s stern rectitude easily, but at 50 he’s too old for a young Wyatt, and too old for the lovely 27-year-old Vera Miles, who is fine but not very central to the story here.  Wallace Ford is also fine as hard-drinking newspaperman Arthur Whiteside, but we’ve seen this character before—notably Edmund O’Brien in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (also with Vera Miles, this time romanced by the too-old James Stewart and the too-old John Wayne), and even Thomas Mitchell’s Doc Boone in Stagecoach.  Edgar Buchanan does well as a villain, as he did in Texas (1941), with Glenn Ford and William Holden.  Robert Wilke and Jack Elam appear as bad guys, and the rest of the supporting cast is good.  You might even see future director Sam Peckinpah in an uncredited appearance as a bank teller.

So how do these goings-on relate to the actual Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson?  In real life, Wyatt Earp’s first law enforcement job was for a year in Wichita in the late 1870s, where he was deputy sheriff, not the main man.  He was 28 at the time.  Although Bat Masterson finished his career as a New York sportswriter, at this early stage he’d met Wyatt Earp when they were both hunting buffalo.  Wyatt didn’t take up any long-term romantic relationships in Wichita.  His brother James never did much in the law enforcement business, unlike Morgan and especially Virgil.  All in all, this isn’t very accurate historically.


But it is worth watching, if not the most memorable of Joel McCrea’s westerns.  McCrea was a good actor, and in the late 1930s and early 1940s was a bigger star than John Wayne.  Like Gary Cooper, even if he’s too old for the role, he’s watchable.  This movie makes him the only star to play both Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson (The Gunfight at Dodge City, 1959).

The title song, sung by Tex Ritter, is forgettable.  Shot in color, at 81 minutes.

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Black Spurs

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 2, 2015

Black Spurs—Rory Calhoun, Linda Darnell, Terry Moore, Scott Brady, Lon Chaney, Jr., Bruce Cabot, James Best, Richard Arlen, DeForest Kelley (1965; Dir: R.G. Springsteen)

The black spurs of the title belong to an outlaw called El Pescadore (The Fisherman with an extra “e”), who robs a bank in the movie’s first scene.  Santee, a cowhand with ambitions, takes up his pursuit as a more lucrative line of work, and appropriates the black spurs when he gets his man.  Returning to his town in Texas in 1885, he finds that his girlfriend has married a sheriff from Laredo and moved on.

Eventually, Santee comes up with an idea to make his fortune in Kile, Kansas.  The railroad will come through Kile or Lark, but the railroad company avoids disorderly towns when making those decisions (historically, then they become disorderly after the railroad has arrived).  Santee makes a deal with Gus Kile (Lon Chaney, Jr.) to open up Lark, causing the railroad to avoid Lark and go through KIle.  He brings in more gamblers, gunmen (Bruce Cabot) and women (led by Linda Darnell), and backs off Sheriff Henry Elkins (James Best), now married to Santee’s former girl Anna (Terry Moore).  Santee is unable to completely control some of his men, who tar and feather Sheriff Elkins.  Anna reveals that her son is Santee’s, and that she had to marry Elkins to become respectable while he was out hunting El Pescatore.


Santee (Rory Calhoun) wins his spurs (black ones).

Santee has a change of heart now.  (We always knew he was decent somewhere inside, because he was nice to kids.)  He takes up Elkins’ badge and cleans out the saloon he had set up, taking on four gunmen at once. A preacher with a broken arm, Anna and even the all-but-immobile Elkins take shots during the battle.  Finally, Santee takes down Henderson (Bruce Cabot), who is shot, falls, and is last seen being dragged screaming out of town by his frightened horse.  As Santee rides out of town the next day, he discards the black spurs (reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe’s red slippers in River of No Return, among many other such cinematic gestures).  The truly dreadful theme song intones: “He had no love of his own, because he wore … black spurs.”

This low-budget feature was late in the careers of Rory Calhoun (starting to get a little gray in his hair), Linda Darnell (still beautiful but thickening a bit), Bruce Cabot, who had been playing similar bad guy roles thirty years (Last of the Mohicans, Dodge City) and twenty years (Angel and the Bad Man) previously, and Lon Chaney, Jr.  For Calhoun, this and Apache Uprising (also 1965, also directed by R.G. Springsteen) were his last significant western movies.  It was Darnell’s last movie; she died tragically in a fire the same year at the age of 41 after 25 years in the movies.  Director R.G. Springsteen was nearing the end of his movie career as well, with several low-budget westerns produced by A.C. Lyles.  This is not among the best of Calhoun’s westerns, but it’s not the worst, either.


Santee (Rory Calhoun) puts on the badge; co-star Linda Darnell behind the scenes with producer A.C. Lyles.

In the 1960s, A.C. Lyles produced a series of thirteen low-budget westerns for Paramount, of which this was the fourth.  One of the ways the budget was kept down was to use journeyman directors (like Springsteen) and to use stars with recognizeable names but who were past their primes–like those in this film.  Silent screen star Richard Arlen was in several of them, including in this as a hard-bitten saloon owner.  Shot in color at Ray Corrigan’s ranch in Simi Valley, California, at 81 minutes.

For better Rory Calhoun, see Dawn at Socorro or Apache Territory.  For better Linda Darnell in a western (and her role here as Santee’s imported madam from New Orleans is quite minor, although she received major billing with Calhoun), see The Mark of Zorro, My Darling Clementine and Two Flags West, all from the 1940s.  For another bounty hunter named Santee, see Glenn Ford in Santee (1973)—not one of his better westerns, either.

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Trail Street

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 1, 2015

Trail Street—Randolph Scott, Robert Ryan, George “Gabby” Hayes, Anne Jeffreys, Madge Meredith, Steve Brodie, Billy House (1947; Dir: Ray Enright)


The Trail Street of the title is the main street of Liberal, Kansas, a reference to the route of the cattle drives from Texas.  Here, the trail-driving cattlemen are the bad guys, pitted against the good but defenseless farmers.

On  the side the farmers is sympathetic local banker (!) Alan Harper (Robert Ryan), who is running out of money to finance them and who is romantically interested in Susan Pritchard (Madge Meredith).  Susan, who wants to movie to the big city, can’t decide between the obviously decent Harper and Logan Maury (Steve Brodie), saloon owner on the side of the cattlemen, who is trying to buy up the farmers’ land as they leave one by one.  Maury is wealthy and offers to take Susan to Chicago.  Saloon girl Ruby (Anne Jeffreys) grew up with Harper but ran away to her present life and sees Maury as hers.


Susan Pritchard (Madge Meredith) is romanced by decent banker Alan Harper (Robert Ryan).

Amid the gathering chaos, local character Billy Burns (Gabby Hayes) persuades the mayor to send for Bat Masterson (Randolph Scott).  Masterson quickly sizes up the situation and sides with Harper against Maury and the sleazy saloon operator Carmody (Billy House is excellent in the duplicitous role).  While Susan dithers, Harper is framed for the murder of a farmer he was trying to help, and he discovers the farmer had a new type of winter wheat that will make the Kansas prairies fertile fields for wheat production.  As Maury tries to bust the actual murderer out of jail, a battle breaks out, with the departing farmers pitching in against the cowboys and Maury.  Ruby burns the deeds of the farmers that Maury had acquired, and he shoots her in the back, causing his own men to turn on him.  Susan (not terribly convincingly) comes to her senses about Alan.  Bat Masterson leaves for New York to become a “journalist.”  (The real Bat Masterson became sports editor for the Morning Telegraph in New York.)


Recently-deputized Alan Harper (Robert Ryan), Bat Masterson (Randolph Scott) and even the indecisive Susan Pritchard (Madge Meredith) prepare to defend the jail.

This was made about the time that Randolph Scott was turning his career to making only westerns, and this was not his best work.  At this stage he sometimes adopted a relentlessly cheerful demeanor, notwithstanding what was going on around him, and the result was (a) a kind of dissonance, and (b) a sense that, whatever the problems, they weren’t all that serious, even if slaughter and mayhem were taking place.  Scott would be better in future westerns, especially those made a decade later with Budd Boetticher.  Another weakness, common in Randolph Scott westerns, is an insipid female lead, both in the writing and in performance.  Bad girl Anne Jeffreys is much more interesting than indecisive good girl Madge Meredith.  And a third problem is that Gabby Hayes’ brand of toothless, aw-shucks performance must have been much more attractive 70 years ago than it seems now.  As toothless sidekicks go, Walter Brennan was a much better actor.  Steve Brodie’s bad guy Logan Maury suffers from an inconsistent mustache, among other things.

In black and white, at 84 minutes.  Randolph Scott (Frontier Marshal, Trail Street) joins Joel McCrea (Wichita, The Gunfight at Dodge City) as actors who have portrayed both Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson on film.  Some posters for the movie show Scott using two guns (as he did in Canadian Pacific), but he wears only one in the film.  He was better with one.  The German title was much more fun:  Die Totesreiter von Kansas (Death Rider of Kansas).


The dying Ruby (Anne Jeffreys), having taken one for the team, makes a graceful exit, surrounded by Susan Pritchard (Madge Meredith), Bat Masterson (Randolph Scott) and Alan Harper (Robert Ryan).

Randolph Scott, Gabby Hayes and Steve Brodie had starred the previous year in Badman’s Territory.  Four of these actors, Scott, Ryan, Jeffreys and Hayes would appear together the next year in director Enright’s slightly better Return of the Bad Men.  This time Ryan would be a bad guy (the Sundance Kid), Gabby Hayes would be a wildly improbable bank president and Anne Jeffreys still wouldn’t get the guy despite being more interesting than the ostensible female lead.  Ray Enright, who had directed movies since the 1920s including the 1942 version of The Spoilers with Randolph Scott and emerging star John Wayne, directed several of Scott’s westerns of the late 1940s (Albuquerque, Coroner Creek), as well as Errol Flynn and Alexis Smith in Montana (1950).

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The Oklahoma Kid

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 23, 2015

The Oklahoma Kid—James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Rosemary Lane, Donald Crisp, Harvey Stephens, Hugh Sothern, Ward Bond (1937; Lloyd Bacon)


The most obvious feature of this western from 1937 is that the two best-known actors in it have the most urban personas of any from the 20th century.  That’s perhaps one reason why James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart didn’t make many westerns.  They don’t sound all that authentic in a western, either.

The Oklahoma Kid:  “Listen, I learned this about human nature when I was but so high, and that is: that the strong take away from the weak, and the smart take it away from the strong.”

Cagney plays the outlaw of the title, the Oklahoma Kid.  It is 1893, the eve of the famous Oklahoma land rush into the Cherokee Strip (the largest land run in U.S. history).  There were several Oklahoma land rushes, the most famous in 1889 and 1893, featured in Tumbleweeds (1925, William S. Hart’s last film), Cimarron (both 1931 and 1960 versions) and Far and Away (1992), among other movies.  The land to be opened to settlers this time has been bought from the Indians for a pittance, but even that pittance is robbed from a stagecoach by the evil Whip McCord (Humphrey Bogart) and his gang.  However, it is also stolen from them by… the Oklahoma Kid.  McCord sees to it that the original crime is attributed to the Kid, instead of to his own gang.


Wes Handley (Ward Bond) is inclined to take on the Oklahoma Kid (James Cagney) over his choice of music.

Meanwhile, law-abiding folk are planning to set up the town that will become Tulsa.  The Kincaids, father John (Hugh Sothern) and son Ned (Harvey Stephens), will ride their fastest horses and claim the site.  Judge Hardwick (Donald Crisp) and daughter Jane (Rosemary Lane) will come along shortly after, with law and civilization.  However, McCord and his men are Sooners, sneaking across to the land the night before the gun goes off, and they claim the Kincaid’s site first.  The Kincaids strike a deal:  they get the town site they want, but have to agree that McCord gets exclusive rights to saloons, booze and gambling.  That sets up a conflict between the forces of law (regular folks) and chaos (McCord).

When there’s talk of setting up a vigilance committee, McCord frames John Kincaid for a murder.  It turns out that the Oklahoma Kid is Jim Kincaid, John’s wild son, and he comes back to help the old man.  He brings back Judge Harwick to hear the case, but he’s too late, and a venal hack judge has sentenced John to hang.  John refuses to be busted out of jail, though, and, as Ned, now the local sheriff, pursues the Kid, McCord whips a mob into a fury.  By the time Ned and the Kid get back to town, their father is dead.


Whip McCord (Humphrey Bogart) and the Kid (James Cagney) come to an impasse.

The Kid starts to hunt down the four of McCord’s men who led the mob:  Indian Joe, Wes Handley (Ward Bond), Curley and Ace Doolin.  The last is Doolin, whom he wounds, and Doolin testifies to McCord’s involvement.  Ned goes to arrest McCord, but McCord gets the drop on him and shoots him.  The Kid comes up the back way, and McCord looks like he will get him, too.  But the dying Ned shoots McCord, the Kid’s name is cleared of the original robbery charges, and he gets Jane Hardwick, who had previously been engaged to Ned.  (Ned was apparently unaware that guys named Ned never get the girl in movies.)

This had a bigger budget than most 1930s westerns, as we can tell from the top-flight stars and main-line director.  Cagney’s particular form of screen energy dominates the movie, making the Kid seem kind of a pre-gangster of the plains.  Cagney was a bigger star than Bogart at this stage of Bogart’s career.  Cagney and Bogart didn’t get along well on the set, much as their characters didn’t, although they went on to make Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) and The Roaring Twenties (1939) together—gangster movies, for which they seem much better suited.  Cagney made two more westerns in the 1950s as his career was coming to a close:  Run for Cover (1955), and Tribute to a Bad Man (1956).  Bogart made at least one more; he shows up as a Mexican bandit chieftain in Virginia City (1940).  This film is surprisingly watchable, considering the apparent unsuitability of the casting and the fact that it’s from an era when westerns were generally made very cheaply and had little cinematic prestige.  Director Lloyd Bacon was versatile (his work includes 42nd Street and other musicals with Busby Berkeley as choreographer and Knute Rockne, All American), but he didn’t make many westerns.  According to Cagney, Bacon wasn’t the director originally slated to direct.


Cagney wasn’t entirely happy with the way the project turned out.  In his 1976 autobiography Cagney by Cagney, he described how the project started:  “The picture was an idea of [writer] Ted Paramore’s, who conceived of doing the story of the mountain men, particularly of their paragon, Kit Carson.  We researched it and I came up with some things I wanted to do, pretty exciting things, I thought.  Warner’s, without warning pulled Paramore off the script and without a word to me, changed directors.  When I got the final script it had as much to do with history as the Katzenjammer Kids.  It had become typical horse opera, just another programmer.”  Bogart, profiled in the New York Times just before the film’s release, seemed not all that wild about it.  “I speak the same lines and do the same things as I do in any other Warner picture.  The only difference is that I snarl at the Injuns from under a ten-gallon hat.”  Actually, Cagney’s hat is significantly larger than Bogart’s.  Bogart seemed preoccupied by the hats; he was famously quoted as saying that “Cagney looked like a mushroom under [his] huge western hat.”

Music is by Max Steiner; cinematography is by the legendary James Wong Howe.  Shot on the Iverson Ranch in Chatsworth, California.  In black and white, at 81 minutes.

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A Lawless Street

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 10, 2014

A Lawless Street—Randolph Scott, Angela Lansbury, Warner Anderson, Wallace Ford, John Emery, James Bell, Michael Pate, Jeanette Nolan (1955; Dir: Joseph H. Lewis)


The lawless streets in question are in the town of Medicine Bend.  Calem Ware (Randolph Scott) has been brought in as marshal by large rancher Asaph Dean (James Bell), founder of the town of Medicine Bend.  (See Randolph Scott in another Medicine Bend the next year, in Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend.)  Ware is good with a gun and demonstrates that he doesn’t mind using it, but he seems a bit haunted by something.  When Dingo Brion tries to kill him as he’s getting a shave, he finds five $20-dollar gold pieces in Dingo’s pocket, meaning that somebody’s paying to get Ware killed.

There is little hiding that one of the prime candidates as this paymaster is saloon owner Cody Clark (John Emery), who thinks he’d do better business in a more open town. His silent partner is businessman Hamer Thorne (Warner Anderson), who similarly hopes to prosper when a mining boom hits. The sleazy Thorne has been carrying on an affair with Dean’s wife Cora (Jean Parker), but plans to throw her over for Tally Dickinson (Angela Lansbury), a stage performer he’s just brought into town.


Marshal Calem Ware (Randolph Scott) and Doc Wyatt (Wallace Ford) head toward trouble.

However, Tally is still married to Calem Ware, although they haven’t been together in eight years.  When he was the marshal in Apache Wells, she couldn’t take worrying about the violence of his profession.  When they meet again, it seems they still have feelings for each other, but neither changes the attitudes that drove them apart.  Thorne and Cody bring in a gunfighter with a special enmity for Ware, Harley Bascomb (the saturnine Michael Pate).  Intrigued by the high price they’re offering, Bascomb demands a third of their operation.

Unaware that Ware has injured his gun hand in a fight, Bascomb calls him out and creases his skull when Ware can’t handle his gun as well as usual.  As Ware falls, his friend Doc Amos Wyatt (Wallace Ford) pronounces him dead and removes the body to where he can recuperate in private while everybody thinks he’s dead.  Meanwhile, the town blows wide open, and Thorne and Cody challenge Dean.  Seeing what’s happening, both Tally and Dean’s wife desert Thorne.  When Ware recuperates enough, he has it out with Bascomb again, this time winning by a stratagem.  As Thorne and Cody prepare to leave town, Thorne kills Cody thinking he’s Ware, and Ware captures Thorne.  Turning both Thorne and his marshal’s badge over to the newly-invigorated forces of good in the town, Ware heads off to his ranch with Tally, leaving his career as a marshal in Medicine Bend and giving his gun to Doc Wyatt.


The second time, Ware (Randolph Scott), bad hand and all, gets gunman Harley Bascomb (Michael Pate).

This is a fairly complicated plot for a movie of only 78 minutes, with lots of coming and going.  Scott seems a little too sunny of disposition for a man who kills several people in the course of the film and has several large-scale personal problems.  Angela Lansbury is a step up from the usual female lead in a Scott movie, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of actual chemistry between them.  Still, this is a better-than-average Scott western from the early 1950s, made just about the time he was starting his association with Budd Boetticher.

Screenplay by Kenneth Gamet, who wrote eight Scott westerns in all.  In color.

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Wyatt Earp (1994)

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 27, 2014

Wyatt Earp—Kevin Costner, Dennis Quaid, Michael Madsen, Gene Hackman, Mare Winningham, Catherine O’Hara, Linden Ashby, Mark Harmon, Joanna Going, Jeff Fahey, Bill Pullman, Isabella Rosselini, Tom Sizemore, JoBeth Williams, Jim Caviezel, Annabeth Gish, James Gammon (1994; Dir: Lawrence Kasdan)


In the 1980s, director Lawrence Kasdan was riding high, with successful movies in a variety of genres:  neo-film noir (Body Heat), Boomer nostalgia (The Big Chill) and even the deeply unfashionable genre of westerns, with Silverado.  By the mid-1990s, Kevin Costner was at the peak of his acting/directing career, having appeared in Silverado and having directed and starred in Dances With Wolves, which accomplished the then-unthinkable—Best Picture and Best Director Oscars for a western, the first to be awarded a Best Picture Oscar in sixty years.  So if Kasdan and Costner were to join forces on another western, revisiting the ever-popular Wyatt Earp story, how could that be anything but great?

It’s not a failure, exactly, but it did not turn out to be great.  It was complicated by the fact that this was one of two Wyatt Earp movies in production at the same time.  Tombstone, with Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer, was released first and turned out to be the better (and more enjoyable) western.  Even without comparisons with Tombstone, Wyatt Earp feels overlong, sometimes turgid and dour.  It is also perhaps the most accurate telling of the Earp story on film so far (although it has a few inaccuracies of its own), making it worth while to watch, and doubly so if you’re fond of the Wyatt Earp-Doc Holliday gunfight story.

The first hour or more is spent setting up the story, and, although we haven’t seen a lot of this stuff before, it feels slow.  It starts with a brief scene setting up the famous gunfight in Tombstone and then cuts to Wyatt’s childhood in Illinois during the Civil War.  Oldest brothers James and Virgil are off at the war, and we see patriarch Nicholas Earp (Gene Hackman), a lawyer and farmer, instilling his own version of family values.  “Remember this, all of you.  Nothing counts so much as blood.  The rest are just strangers.”  After the war Wyatt spends some time out west, freighting in Wyoming and refereeing the occasional bareknuckle fight.


Young Wyatt (Kevin Costner) freighting out west in Wyoming; and the tubercular dentist-gambler-gunfighter, Dr. John Holliday (Dennis Quaid).

Returning to Missouri, Wyatt plans to study law with his grandfather, a judge, and to marry Urilla Sutherland. He succeeds in the second, only to see Urilla (Annabeth Gish), who is expecting their child, succumb to typhoid.  Wyatt goes off the rails, and we next see him as a drunk, robbing a man and stealing a horse in Arkansas.  Thown in jail, he is bailed out by his father, and he is next seen as a dour teetotaler, hunting buffalo on the southern plains, where he employs Ed (Bill Pullman) and Bat Masterson (Tom Sizemore) as skinners.

Nicholas Earp: “You know I’m a man that believes in the law.  After your family it’s about the only thing you’ve got to believe in.  But there are plenty of men who don’t care about the law. Men who will take part in all kinds of viciousness.  Don’t care who gets hurt.  In fact, the more that get hurt, the better. When you find yourself in a fight with such viciousness, hit—hit to kill.  You’ll know, don’t worry….you’ll know when it comes to that.  The Earps always know.”

When he takes care of a violent man the marshal won’t handle in Wichita, Wyatt is hired as a deputry.  He develops a direct way of dealing with disorder and shows a talent for handling disorderly groups.  Hired away as a deputy by Dodge City, he brings along the Masterson brothers and his own brother Morgan as deputies, too.  Some think he’s too quick to bust a rule-breaker over the head, but he tells Ed that talking too much and being too affable can get a man killed.  While on the outs with the Dodge City fathers, he meets John Holliday (Dennis Quaid) in Fort Griffin, Texas, and the two form a friendship.  Then he is called back to Dodge because things have gotten out of hand without his firm approach.


Bad guys hanging out in Tombstone. That’s Ike Clanton (Jeff Fahey) in the middle in the long duster.

Eventually, Wyatt talks his brothers into moving to Tombstone, to get out of the law enforcement business and take up new opportunities in mining and gambling.  He does this against the wishes of his brothers’ wives and quasi-wives.  He himself brings along Mattie Blaylock (Mare Winningham), to whom he is not married.  His older brother James’ wife Bessie (JoBeth Williams) is a prostitute, and Virgil’s wife Allie (Catherine O’Hara) is not fond of Wyatt’s influence in the family.  Doc Holliday follows along, with his paramour Big Nose Kate Elder (Isabella Rosselini).

Bessie Earp:  “We are your wives.  Don’t we ever count more than the damn brothers?”
Wyatt: “No, Bessie, you don’t.  Wives come and go, that’s the plain truth of it.  They run off.  They die.”


Heading to the OK Corral:  Doc Holliday (Dennis Quaid), Morgan Earp (Linden Ashby), Wyatt Earp (Kevin Costner) and Virgil Earp (Michael Madsen).

In Tombstone the film is finally entering familiar territory.  The brothers acquire some mining and gambling interests, and Virgil signs up to be the town marshal when Fred White is killed by Curly Bill Brocius.  This brings in three of the brothers, including Wyatt, and they begin to run afoul of the Clanton-McLaury faction and slippery Cochise Co. Sheriff Johnny Behan (Mark Harmon).  Wyatt slips away from Mattie Blaylock and takes up with Behan’s young Jewish paramour, Josie Marcus (Joanna Going).  While attempting to disarm the Clanton group, the famous gunfight erupts, with three Earps and Holliday taking on two Clantons, two McLaurys and Billy Claiborne.  It ends with all of the Clanton group but Ike Clanton dead.

In revenge, the Clanton group shoots Morgan Earp in the back with a shotgun blast, killing him, and on the same night bushwhacking Virgil as he does his rounds.  (Those events actually happened three months apart.)  Virgil’s arm is crippled.  Wyatt takes his father’s words to heart, and the vendetta ride is on.

Strangely for such a long movie, not so much of the vendetta ride is shown, just the killing of Frank Stilwell in the Tucson railroad station, the shooting of Indian Charlie and the fight at the river where Brocius is killed.  The implication is that Ike Clanton and Johnny Ringo were both killed there as well, which was not the case.  Neither Brocius nor Johnny Ringo is developed much as a character, making the end of the vendetta seem inconclusive.  Doc’s death in a sanatarium in Colorado is not shown as it is in some cinematic versions of the story (Hour of the Gun, Tombstone).  For the rest of Wyatt’s life, there is just one scene on a boat heading into Nome, Alaska, where a young man asks about Wyatt holding off a mob that wanted to lynch his uncle, Tommy Behind-the-Deuce.  There is nothing about Wyatt’s subsequent career as a prospector, a prize-fight referee or even as an adviser on Hollywood westerns in the late 1920s.  For such a long movie, there are a lot of loose ends remaining.


Wyatt (Kevin Costner) taking back the streets.

Costner and Quaid are very good in the two main roles of Wyatt and Doc.  Unfortunately Costner isn’t as good as Henry Fonda (My Darling Clementine) or Kurt Russell (Tombstone), and Quaid is second to Val Kilmer (Tombstone) as a cinematic Doc Holliday.  Quaid lost thirty pounds for this role, and he’s excellent, managing to convey a sense of meanness under the tubercular exterior.  Costner shows the relentlessness and direct nature of Wyatt, but less the charisma and leadership.  He makes Wyatt seem dour even when he takes up with Josie Marcus, and the part needs lifting somehow.  Still, Costner has a flair for westerns, as he showed later in directing and starring in Open Range.  The film has a huge cast, many of whom have worked with Kasdan before and many of whom are very good.  Among the casting notes that don’t seem to work is Joanna Going as young Josie Marcus.  She doesn’t have the dramatic heft to balance Wyatt, as the story seems to call for.  Bill Pullman as Ed Masterson and Linden Ashby as Morgan Earp are good in smallish parts, and Mark Harmon is suitably distasteful as Johnny Behan.

Among westerns strongly grounded in history, the Wyatt Earp story has generated an unusual proportion of good films and successful retellings:  Frontier Marshal, My Darling Clementine, Gunfight at the OK Corral, Hour of the Gun and Tombstone.  Although this is not the best of them (probably My Darling Clementine and Tombstone), it does belong in that excellent company.  It keeps closer to the actual events than most, but don’t look for complete accuracy here, either.


Wyatt (Kevin Costner) romances Josie (Joanna Going) in Tombstone.

Much of what doesn’t work so well here probably has to be chalked up to Kasdan’s direction and editing.  The cinematography by Owen Roizman is elegant, but it contributes to the slow moving of the first hour, with drifting shots of corn fields, flowering trees and extended plains.  There is excellent music by James Newton Howard, but it feels in some ways like it lacks a western connection.  The movie is more than three hours long at 191 minutes, although there is also an extended cut at 212 minutes.

If you’re interested in the real history of the Earps, in addition to the sources cited elsewhere there is a recent biography of Josephine Marcus Earp, often referred to as Wyatt’s wife or common-law wife since there is no record of them having been married:  Lady at the O.K. Corral by Ann Kirschner (2013).

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Tension at Table Rock

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 15, 2014

Tension at Table Rock—Richard Egan, Dorothy Malone, Cameron Mitchell, Angie Dickinson, Royal Dano, DeForest Kelley, Billy Chapin, John Dehner, Edward Andrews (1956; Dir: Charles Marquis Warren)


This is basically a bad-guy-goes-straight western, with overtones of the search for family and 1950s lawman-and-community tension.  Deep-voiced Richard Egan (his voice is reminiscent of Clint Walker’s) was never a big star, but he does well as the lead in this small western with an excellent and well-chosen supporting cast.  And it has an unusual and effective poster.

Wes Tancred (Richard Egan) has followed outlaw leader Sam Murdock (Paul Richards) since they both rode with Quantrill during the Civil War.  But when Murdock gratuitously kills a wounded gang member while fleeing a posse, Tancred decides to pull out.  Murdock’s girlfriend (a young Angie Dickinson in a very brief role) has a thing for Tancred and pours oil on the distrust between the two as Tancred tries to leave.  They shoot it out just as the posse arrives, and the girl tells them Tancred shot Murdock in the back.  However, he receives a complete pardon and even the reward for Murdock, which he spurns.


Tancred (Richard Egan) and Murdock’s girl (a young Angie Dickinson).

Now wherever he goes he hears “The Ballad of Wes Tancred,” referring to him as a cowardly backshooter.  He keeps moving and is at a stagecoach outpost when three robbers try to take a stage.  The caretaker tries to break it up and is killed, but Tancred, now going by the name John Bailey, gets the three and agrees to take the caretaker’s young son Jody (Billy Chapin) to his uncle, the sheriff in Table Rock.

The tension in Table Rock is because a herd from Texas is about to arrive, and the sheriff (Cameron Mitchell) is nervous about his ability to control the cowhands.  He was badly beaten and physically and psychologically scarred in an earlier incident, and has lost his confidence.  Tancred/Bailey understands because he has his own scars.  He helps Jody get a job with the local newspaper editor Harry Jameson (Royal Dano), who is vocal about keeping law and order.  Kirk (Edward Andrews), owner of the biggest saloon, welcomes the cowhands, whatever it takes.  The sheriff’s wife is loyal to him but shows signs of being attracted to Tancred/Bailey.

When big rancher Hampton (John Dehner) brings in his herd with fifty trail hands, he drives it across the land of a local farmer, destroying fences and crops (for which he is willing to pay, but he gives no choice).  The hands are mostly just barely under control, but that night one of them shoots the farmer and puts a gun in the farmer’s hand to make it look like self-defense.  The sheriff and Tancred/Bailey are witnesses, though.  In court the next day, the sheriff tries to back out, but Tancred/Bailey testifies straight, including his real name.  It’s a turning point for both Tancred and the sheriff.  Hampton threatens to come back the next day and get his man, and Kirk arranges for a gunfighter to take out the sheriff.


Tancred (Richard Egan) is attracted to the sheriff’s wife (Dorothy Malone); bad guys abound.

Gunfighter Jim Breck (DeForest Kelley) arrives the next day and turns out to be an old friend of Tancred.  Tancred asks him not to call out the sheriff, and it looks like he might accede.  But Kirk’s $2000 is too much for Breck, and Tancred and Breck have a classic showdown in the street.  Tancred wins, and Kirk is about to shoot him in the back when the sheriff takes down Kirk.  When Hampton and his fifty men ride in, they face the sheriff and Tancred—and the town’s populace with guns from the windows.  And Tancred leaves town so as not to threaten the sheriff’s marriage.

It sounds like a standard western tale from the 1950s, but the execution of it is better than average, even though it was from bargain studio RKO.  Egan, Mitchell, Chapin, Dano, Dehner, Kelley and Edwards are all good; Dorothy Malone is also good but is largely wasted in a small part here.  Kelley was in several westerns about this time, usually as some form of bad guy (The Law and Jake Wade, Warlock), as he bounced back and forth between movies and television before finding his greatest fame in Star Trek.  The development of the moral crises of Tancred and the sheriff is nicely done.  The story is slightly understated but mostly convincing.  This is better than you’d expect from the relative lack of star power and low budget.


Charles Marquis Warren was a screenwriter, director and producer who made ten low-profile westerns as a director in the 1950s.  His best were probably this and Trooper Hook (1957), with Joel McCrea.  He even directed Charro!, Elvis Presley’s western in 1969.  The screenwriter here was Winston Miller, based on a story by western writer Frank Gruber, with music by Dimitri Tiomkin.  In color, at 93 minutes.

For a similarly good story about a man on the run who rides into town under an assumed name and comes to the aid of a beleaguered sheriff, see Face of a Fugitive, with Fred MacMurray (1959).

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The Gunfight at Dodge City

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 11, 2014

The Gunfight at Dodge City—Joel McCrea, Julie Adams, John McIntire, Richard Anderson, Nancy Gates, Don Haggerty, Harry Lauter (1959; Dir: Joseph M. Newman)


An aging Joel McCrea is Bat Masterson, out hunting buffalo when the movie begins.  He returns to Hays City, Kansas, to sell his hides and has a shootout with a sergeant who fancies a grievance over a girl.  Bat moves on to Dodge City, where his brother Ed (Harry Lauter) is the town marshal, but the Ford County sheriff Jim Regan (Don Haggerty) is corrupt.

Masterson is befriended by Doc Sam Tremaine (John McIntire, playing virtually the same role as he did in The Tin Star).  Ed introduces Pauline Howard (Julie Adams in an unusually sedate role), daughter of the local reverend, as his fiancée, and Bat buys into the Lady Gay (see Dodge City for a saloon of the same name in the same town), owned by young widow Lily (Nancy Gates), which is on the verge of being forced out of business by Regan.  After Ed is shot from ambush, Bat runs for sheriff and wins.  He hires sleazy Dave Rudabaugh (Richard Anderson) to deal faro, unaware that it was Rudabaugh who shot Ed.


Bat Masterson (Joel McCrea) and saloon owner Lily (Nancy Gates).

As Bat cleans up the town, both Lily and Pauline become more interested in him, and it looks like he’s leaning toward Pauline.  When a friend from Hays City has a mentally-impaired brother who is sentenced to hang, Bat is asked to spring the kid so he can be dealt with in a more humane way.  He does it, but loses legitimacy in the eyes of his Dodge City constituency.  Regan comes back and they shoot it out.  Bat takes out Rudabaugh as well.  Bat is tired of Pauline’s judgmental attitude and ends up with Lily.

The plot doesn’t hang together terribly well.  Ed Masterson was killed in Dodge City, but not as depicted in this movie.  Note that in Wyatt Earp, when Earp meets Doc Holliday in Fort Griffin, Texas, he’s chasing Dave Rudabaugh, of whom Holliday has a very low opinion. In color.  This means that Joel McCrea played both Bat Masterson (here) and Wyatt Earp (in Wichita).


Joel McCrea as Bat Masterson, and the real Bat Masterson in Dodge City in 1879.


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Nicholas Chennault ~ April 2, 2014

Warlock—Henry Fonda, Richard Widmark, Anthony Quinn, Dorothy Malone, Dolores Michaels, DeForest Kelley, Tom Drake, Frank Gorshin (1959; Dir:  Edward Dmytryk)


This excellent psychological western feels overstuffed, with a little too much plot and more good actors than it quite knows what to do with. It has two competing town tamers, one legitimate and the other less so, a Doc Holliday-character with a spotted history, a scarlet woman (often really dressed in scarlet), a wealthy if inexperienced young mining heiress, and a Clanton-esque gang of cowboy-outlaws, all coming together in one town where the law is not working.

Warlock is a mining and ranching town in Utah, but so remote that the county sheriff seldom makes an appearance.  There is a town marshal of sorts, but the opening scene shows him getting run out of town by Abe McQuown (McEwen?  McCune?  Played by Tom Drake), head of the San Pablo ranching crowd.  He’s presumably a rancher, but of the Ike Clanton sort—given to various forms of crime (rustling, stage robbery) and intimidation of the town.  His men, including Johnny Gannon (Richard Widmark), his brother Billy (Frank Gorshin, uncredited) and Curley Burne (DeForest Kelley), appear to be a bunch of thugs and back-shooters.


The local citizens send for gunman Clay Blaisdell (Henry Fonda) from Fort James, a sort of marshal-for-hire.  He brings with him Tom Morgan (Anthony Quinn), a gambler-gunman with a clubfoot, who sets up his own saloon-casino (calling it “The French Palace,” a sign they have brought with them) and who keeps off the backshooters.  Blaisdell has pleasant manners but few illusions about the cycle of civic support and distaste he can expect.  “I’m a simple man, handy with Colts,” of which he has a gold-handled pair that he only uses for Sunday best.  He gets paid a lot for his skills ($400 a month), but he expects his sojourn in Warlock will be brief.  The citizenry will soon have second thoughts about the gunman they have brought in to impose law in their town.  Blaisdell wastes no time in confronting the San Pablo gang, which he initially does effectively but without bloodshed.

Johnny Gannon appears to be having second thoughts about his participation in the San Pablo gang as well.  Lily Dollar (Dorothy Malone), a former saloon girl with a past relationship with Morgan, shows up.  She was bringing a brother of Ben Nicholson, whom Blaisdell had once killed.  She seems to be trying to get back at Morgan, and thinks killing Blaisdell may be the quickest way to do that.  However, the brother is killed by Tom Morgan with a rifle during an attempted stage holdup by the San Pablo gang.  Two of the San Pablo men (including brother Billy Gannon) are arrested and Blaisdell saves them from being lynched.  They are ultimately let go in a legal proceeding in the county seat, Bright City, by a jury intimidated by McQuown.  The distant sheriff visits, doesn’t like Blaisdell’s presence, and points out to the crowd that none of them will take the deputy sheriff’s job.  But Johnny Gannon does, which sets his new authority in potential opposition to Blaisdell’s.

Meanwhile, Blaisdell quickly develops a relationship with young mining heiress Jessie Marlow (Dolores Michaels) and begins to think about marrying her and putting down roots.  Johnny Gannon forms a relationship with Lily Dollar.  Tom Morgan would prefer that neither of these happen; he wants Blaisdell to think of moving on to the next town, Porfiry City. 


Blaisdell to new deputy sheriff Johnny Gannon:  “I remember when I first killed a man. It was clear and had to be done.  Well, I went home afterward and puked my insides out.  I remember how clear it was.  Afterwards, nothing was ever clear again.  Except for one thing.  That’s to hold strictly to the rules.  It’s only the rules that matter.  Hold onto ’em like you were walking on eggs.  So you know yourself you’ve played it as fair and as best you could.  But there are things to watch for … in yourself.  Don’t be too fast.  When there are people after you, you know it and you worry it.  Then you think, ‘If I don’t get drawn first and then kill first–.’  You know what I mean?”

Blaisdell has posted the San Pablo gang, meaning that they can’t enter town without an armed confrontation with Blaisdell.  Brother Billy Gannon and another come into town in defiance of that posting.  Gannon tells Billy, “I ain’t backin’ him, because you’re my brother, and I ain’t backin’ you, because you’re wrong.”  Blaisdell, with a slight deference to Gannon, tries not to kill Billy but is left with no choice.  Gannon, thinking to avoid further such bloodshed, goes to the San Pablo ranch to dissuade them from coming to town.  They beat him up, and Abe McQuown puts a knife through his right (gun) hand. 

When the gang comes in force, Lily begs Blaisdell to help Gannon.  He’s willing, but Gannon insists that it’s his duty alone.  He tries to help anyway, but Tom Morgan holds him out with a gun, revealing the truth about the Nicholson brothers and their deaths.  When Gannon confronts the gang, one of them, Curly, unexpectedly keeps off the backshooters and the wounded Gannon is even more unexpectedly successful with the help of a few of the townsfolk.  But he’s not done.

Tom Morgan doesn’t like the way things have gone, with Gannon having become the local hero, and has been drinking heavily.  He tries to push Gannon into a shootout.  Blaisdell intervenes now, locking Gannon in one of his own cells and killing Morgan, going slightly crazy.  Gannon then orders Blaisdell out of town, and Blaisdell says he won’t go, setting up yet another confrontation the next morning.


As Blaisdell walks down the street the next morning, he’s wearing the gold-handled Colts.  Gannon’s wounded hand doesn’t work very well, and Blaisdell outdraws him easily with his right hand.  Then he throws the gun in the dirt.  He outdraws him again with his left hand, and throws that Colt in the dirt, too.  He gets on his horse and rides out of town, seemingly leaving Jessie behind.

This is black-listed director Edward Dmytryk’s best western, and it put him back in the directing mainstream.  Richard Widmark has top billing, but Henry Fonda has the dominant character.  Anthony Quinn is excellent, and so is Dorothy Malone.  Tom Drake and DeForest Kelley are both very good in smaller roles.  Dolores Michaels is adequate but mostly forgettable.  Based on a very good novel by Oakley Hall, the story brings with it echoes of the Wyatt Earp story and of Fonda as mentor to an inexperienced lawman, as in Anthony Mann’s The Tin Star two years previously.  It has a memorably articulate screenplay by Robert Alan Aurthur.  Leigh Harline, who had won Academy Awards for Pinocchio (1940) and done the music for Broken Lance, among many others, provided an excellent score.  Shot in color around Moab, Utah, and on the 20th Century Fox lot.


This is another of those 1950s westerns that makes a point about about how townspeople are uneasy with those they hire to enforce the law and with the violence used to do it (e.g., High Noon, The Tin Star).  But it has a lot of other things going on, too.  It moves right along and could probably have been a bit longer, to wrap up some of the plot’s loose ends.

Dorothy Malone was in several good westerns, from Colorado Territory to Quantez to The Last Sunset.  DeForest Kelly showed up as a gang member in other films, like The Law and Jake Wade and Tension at Table Rock, and this is one of his best.  Richard Widmark and Henry Fonda were at the peaks of their careers in westerns, although they would continue to make more through the 1960s, with Fonda moving into a couple of memorable spaghetti westerns (Once Upon a Time in the West, My Name is Nobody) around 1970.  Anthony Quinn, who was always good in westerns (The Ride Back, Man from Del Rio, Last Train from Gun Hill), did not make many more, moving more into ethnic roles in big movies (The Guns of Navarone, Zorba the Greek, Lawrence of Arabia).  Silent film star Richard Arlen has a small supporting role.


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Man With the Gun

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 3, 2014

Man with the Gun—Robert Mitchum, Jan Sterling, John Lupton, Karen Sharpe, James Westerfield, Leo Gordon, Henry Hull, Ted de Corsia, Joe Barry, Claude Akins (1955; Dir:  Richard Wilson)


Robert Mitchum is Clint Tollinger, who is made marshal in the town of Sheridan in order to clean it up.  Sheridan is controlled and terrorized by Dade Holman (Joe Barry), the local land and cattle baron.  Tollinger specializes in quick taming of wild towns and is good with a gun, but the town becomes uncomfortable because of that, especially when some businesses suffer.  Tollinger is in town to see his estranged wife Nelly Bain (Jan Sterling), who is madam of a bunch of unusually attractive “dance-hall girls” (including a very young and uncredited Angie Dickinson as Kitty).  Impetuous young swain Jeff Castle (John Lupton) gets shot by Holman’s men, and his girl friend (Karen Sharpe) seems to be transferring her affections to Tollinger. 

Tollinger can take care of most of the trouble and politics thrown at him until the madam reveals the fate of their daughter.  Unbalanced emotionally by the news, Tollinger then burns down Holman’s saloon and shoots it out with its manager Frenchy Lescaux (Ted de Corsia) after goading Lescaux into the confrontation.  Holman develops a trap for Tollinger; in the final shootout, Tollinger wins but is shot when he defers to the swain at the last moment so he can look good for his girl.  Presumably Tollinger’s wound is not fatal, though. 


Tollinger (Robert Mitchum) rides into the town of Sheridan.

Kind of a western-noir, this compact movie is one of those westerns from the 1950s dealing with the uneasy relationship between a gun-slinging law enforcer and the townsmen he’s protecting (High Noon, The Tin Star, Warlock, Lawman, etc.).  It’s also a gunslinger coming to terms with his past (The Gunfighter, Lawman, The Shootist, etc.)  Mitchum is very good at playing a character who is quite competent but possibly more on the edge than anybody realizes, with unresolved fatherhood issues in this case.  The resolution of the movie doesn’t feel entirely satisfying. 


Facing down bad guys from the upper story of a barn.

Claude Akins, never a subtle bad guy, has a small role as Jim Reedy, one of Holman’s gunmen, who tries to get Tollinger with a gun hidden in his hat.  Henry Hull is the sheriff and Tollinger’s deputy in a colorful role verging on irritating.  James Westerfield is a supposed traveling drummer, who’s actually Holman’s lawyer; he’s a bit unctuous in the role.  Joe Barry, who plays Holman, isn’t seen until the film’s climax, and that works quite well.  Except for Mitchum, there’s not much star power here. 


Better than most westerns, this is worth watching, although not often seen any more.  Shot on a back lot in black and white; the town has an unusual hillside feel to it.  The cinematographer was Lee Garmes.  Music is by Alex North, who later did Spartacus and recycled some of the music from this in it.  Director Wilson, a protégé of Orson Welles, did a similar movie again with Yul Brynner in Invitation to a Gunfighter in 1964.  This one is better.

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