Tag Archives: Virginia Mayo

The Tall Stranger

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 9, 2015

The Tall Stranger—Joel McCrea, Virginia Mayo, Barry Kelley, Michael Ansara, Whit Bissell, Leo Gordon, George Neise, Michael Pate, Ray Teal (1957; Dir: Thomas Carr)


The stranger of the title is played by Joel McCrea, coming toward the end of his career, and he’s a bit long in the tooth for the role he plays in this combination wagon train-range war story with a convoluted plot based on a story by Louis L’Amour.  But he is still Joel McCrea, and, like Gary Cooper, he can still hold our attention and make us forget about his age.

Ned Bannon (Joel McCrea) is heading home to Bishop Valley in Colorado Territory from the Civil War, when he spots rustlers and one of them ambushes him, shooting him and killing his horse.  All he saw of his assailant was a gold-plated rifle, along with fancy spurs.  He wakes up in a wagon heading west; a wagon train had found him, and Ellen (Virginia Mayo), a widow with a young son, had found room for him.  There is some hostility toward him among members of the wagon train.   Bannon was wearing parts of a Union uniform, and most of them are southerners and former Confederates.


Ned Bannon (Joel McCrea) returns home from the war to have it out with his brother (Barry Kelley).

He finds that they are led by a man named Harper (George Neise), and, although they think they are going to California, they are far south of the normal trail, heading for Bishop Valley, from which there is no good trail farther west.  Bannon is unlikely to get much of a welcome from the local cattle baron Hardy Bishop (Barry Kelley), his half-brother.  During the recent war, Bishop’s only son Billy had joined Quantrill’s Missouri border raiders, and Bannon had led the Union cavalry that captured him, among others of Quantrill’s men.  The son had been executed.  Bannon has to fight Bishop before Bishop will listen to him at all, but Bannon persuades Bishop to give him three days to talk the wagon train into leaving the valley.

Bishop approaches the wagon train with Stark (Leo Gordon, in a rare good guy role), Bishop’s foreman, and Red.  Harper goads Red into drawing his gun and shoots him; in the melee that follows, Mrs. Judson is killed, although Bannon sees that she was shot from behind with a hollow-point bullet—the same kind with which he had been ambushed.  Ellen is bathing in a stream when she is attacked by Zarata (Michael Ansara), leader of Harper’s rustlers; he has a gold-plated rifle and fancy spurs.  Bannon fights Zarata and seems to be winning, until Zarata grabs Ellen’s son and uses him as a shield, breaking the boy’s arm.


Young widow Ellen (Virginia Mayo) defends herself and her son.

[Spoilers follow.]  Bannon takes Ellen and son back to Bishop’s ranch, where they are doctored by Bishop’s cook Charley (Michael Pate).  Now Bannon knows that Harper plans to use the settlers and Zarata to take over the valley, and Harper and Zarata’s men attack the ranch.  After a protracted siege, Bannon and Bishop use a makeshift smokescreen to allow Bishop’s men to escape from the bunkhouse and get weapons, swinging the battle in their favor.  Bishop gets Zarata but is himself mortally wounded.  Harper is killed.  In the end, Bannon, presumably the new owner of the ranch and the valley, offers to let the wagon train stay and build a town.  Although Ellen reveals that she has a sordid past in St. Louis with no husband (kind of like Anne Baxter in Three Violent People), she and Bannon appear to have a future together.

This is can be hard to find now, since it’s not on DVD, but it is worth watching. The print I saw (on Amazon) was both grainy and inconsistent in color, and it’s obviously in need of restoration. This is one of McCrea’s better westerns from the late 1950s, like Trooper Hook and Gunsight Ridge (both also from 1957).  Notwithstanding McCrea’s age, the fight scenes with Barry Kelley and Michael Ansara are well-staged and persuasive.  Virginia Mayo is also good here, and there is an excellent supporting cast as well.  Leo Gordon and Michael Pate are particularly good.


Hardy Bishop (Barry Kelley) and Ned Bannon (Joel McCrea) are besieged by Harper and his minions.

Director Thomas Carr had started as a child actor in silent movies.  He was an extra in John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1924) and became a director of B movies at Republic in the 1940s.  When he made The Tall Stranger, he was near the end of his movie-directing career before going exclusively into television work.  Filmed in color in southern California, at 81 minutes.

Virginia Mayo’s best other westerns are Colorado Territory (1949), also with Joel McCrea, and Fort Dobbs (1958) with Clint Walker, but you can also see her in The Proud Ones (1956) with Robert Ryan, Westbound (1959) with Randolph Scott and in the [inaccurate] Jim Bowie biopic The Iron Mistress (1952) with Alan Ladd.


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The Iron Mistress

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 16, 2014

The Iron Mistress—Alan Ladd, Virginia Mayo, Joseph Calleia, Phyllis Kirk (1952; Dir:  Gordon Douglas)


Biopic about Louisiana gambler, land speculator and knife fighter James Bowie, based on the novel with the same title by Paul Wellman.  Shane (also with Alan Ladd in the lead) was made first, but this reached theaters earlier when Shane’s release was delayed.  The poverty-stricken Bowie goes to New Orleans in the 1820s, where he meets poor painter John James Audubon, develops a few social pretensions for his backwoods family, and moves into the fringes of a higher social circle.  Virginia Mayo has one of her best roles as the faithless Judalon de Bornay, a spoiled French creole aristocrat in New Orleans for whom Bowie isn’t socially upscale enough.  Most of the conflict in the film comes from wondering if they’ll ever get together, even after de Bornay marries a weakling.  And from the periodic outbreaks of violence that Bowie’s involved in, which are of course unavoidable as matters of honor but never really his fault. 

Finally Bowie has had enough and drifts toward the frontier–specifically, to Texas.  The film ends with Bowie’s marriage to the daughter of the Mexican governor of Coahuila, which includes Texas—not with the Alamo in 1836, where Bowie met his real end and became a Texas hero.  Just before that, dismayed by the carnage he has wrought (and his own not-very-savory reputation), Bowie tosses his legendary knife (the “iron mistress” of the title) into the Mississippi and is done with it forever. 


Ladd as Jim Bowie in a production still; the knives used in the film–Bowie’s big Bowie knife and Bloody Jack Sturdevant’s Arkansas toothpick.

Much of this (especially his throwing the legendary blade in the Mississippi) is contrary to history, although the film contains some references to real elements of Bowie’s supposed story:  John James Audubon, the Quaker painter of Mississippi birds and wildlife, for example; the legendary Arkansas knifemaker James Black; the Bowie brothers’ not-entirely-savory history as land speculators; and the Sandbar fight on which Bowie’s reputation as a knife-fighter was made.  There’s a visually interesting sequence in which Bowie, armed with his knife, fights a duel with a man with a rapier in a darkened room, lit only by the occasional flash of lightning through the skylight.  Some writing is clunky, the obsession with Judalon becomes tiresome, and there are several outdoor scenes that were very obviously done on an indoor soundstage, but it’s watchable.  In color, with a score by Max Steiner.  Not really much seen these days.


Bowie takes on swordsman Contrecourt in a duel, Bowie knife against rapier, to be fought in the dark.

Alan Ladd is now remembered among fans of westerns principally for his role as Shane, but he made a number of other westerns:  Whispering Smith (the last film version of an often-remade story about a railroad detective), Drum Beat (about the Modoc War), Saskatchewan (with Ladd as a misunderstood Mountie dealing with Sitting Bull’s Sioux in Canada), and The Badlanders (a western version of the caper story The Asphalt Jungle), for example.  For other versions of Jim Bowie on film, see Richard Widmark in John Wayne’s 1960 version of The Alamo or Jason Patric in the 2004 The Alamo (which is a better movie).

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The Proud Ones

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 10, 2014

The Proud Ones—Robert Ryan, Jeffrey Hunter, Virginia Mayo, Walter Brennan, Robert Middleton, Arthur O’Connell, Rodolfo Acosta (1956; Dir:  Robert D. Webb)


The title apparently refers to aging town marshal Cass Silver (Robert Ryan) and young Thad Anderson (Jeffrey Hunter) in Flat Rock, Kansas, a cow town.  Early in the movie, Cass has a run-in with a dealer in a saloon run by Honest John Barrett (Robert Middleton, good here in his slimy mode), with whom he has a long and none-too-cordial history.  Silver, Barrett and Sally (Virginia Mayo) all knew each other in Keystone, where Silver was previously marshal.  A bullet creases Cass’s head and leaves him with impaired vision, and maybe dizziness, when he looks down.  Thad Anderson, just in with a trail herd from Texas, saves Silver from another gunman in the incident but takes a bullet in the leg. 

Cass spends the rest of the movie trying to evade assassins sent by Barrett, while he’s having recurring vision problems (and they’re getting worse).  Cass killed Thad’s father in Keystone, and Thad seems to be looking for revenge.  But he spends most of the movie getting wiser, both about what happened with his father and about Cass.  Cass hires him as a deputy and educates him in various ways:  “Your first lesson comes now.  At night, always walk in the shadows—you can see better.  In the daytime, walk away from the sun–you’ll live longer.” 


Barrett’s public relations campaign with the locals seems to be working; the townspeople are increasingly uncomfortable with Cass and his skill with a gun.  Barrett spreads stories about Cass shooting unarmed men, including Thad’s father.  Cass in turn doesn’t know who he can really depend on, if anyone, since his deputy has a long-term grudge against him that he’s never hidden.  When the chips are down, though, Thad joins with Cass.  In the final shootout with Barrett’s men, Cass and Thad prevail and bond further.  Cass goes off to Kansas City for medical attention and to marry Sally. 

A good B-movie cast.  Virginia Mayo is a local businesswoman and Silver’s long-time romantic interest, but she has little to do here except express concern.  Walter Brennan is the jailor-deputy Jake, Arthur O’Connell is a nervous Silver deputy, and Rodolfo Acosta is Chico, a Barrett gunslinger trying to kill Cass.  In color, with cinematography by Lucien Ballard.  Lots of whistling on the effective soundtrack music by Lionel Newman. 

ProudOnesShooting Shooting contest.

This is said to be a remake of the non-western Red Skies of Montana from four years earlier, also with Jeffrey Hunter.  It can also be seen as another 1950s western exploring the uneasy relationship between the townsfolk and the good-with-a-gun marshal they hire to defend them.  More explicitly, it can be seen as a variation on the Rio Bravo aspect of that theme, as emphasized by the presence of Walter Brennan as the jailer.  Better than average, but kind of talky.  If you like Robert Ryan here, watch him in Day of the Outlaw from about the same time and as a supporting character to Burt Lancaster in Lawman from the early 1970s.  This is one of Jeffrey Hunter’s better roles, although he was always limited as an actor.

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Nicholas Chennault ~ January 20, 2014

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


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.


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).


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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Fort Dobbs

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 6, 2014

Fort Dobbs—Clint Walker, Virginia Mayo, Brian Keith, Richard Eyer, Russ Conway (1958; Dir:  Gordon Douglas)

FortDobbsPoster FortDobbsFren

A variation on a theme of Hondo—remote ranch threatened by Indians, widow with young son befriended by capable scout who may have had something to do with her husband’s death.  Apparently this was kind of a low-budget variation, with a couple of television actors starring.  In black and white in 1958, filmed near Moab, Utah.  Cinematography is by William Clothier.  Written by George W. George and Burt Kennedy (screenwriter of the best Boetticher-Scott westerns), with music by Max Steiner.  The original title was Fifteen Bullets to Fort Dobbs, shortened upon release to just Fort Dobbs.

How much you like this western depends on your tolerance for Clint Walker’s brand of taciturn acting.  Walker is Gar Davis, big and good with a gun but not so good with women, apparently.  As the movie opens, he kills somebody and the sheriff from Largo (West Texas?  New Mexico?) leads a posse after him into Comanche country.  Davis finds a body with an arrow in the back; he switches jackets with the corpse and pushes it into a ravine, hoping that the posse will take it for him without getting close enough to get a better look.  When the posse, already uncomfortable with chasing Davis, finds the body, they are only too willing to head back without investigating further, taking Davis’ horse.  Davis finds a remote ranch and attempts to make off with a horse, only to be shot a glancing blow.  It turns out the ranch is owned by Mrs. Gray (Virginia Mayo, in one of her better roles) and her son Chad (Richard Eyer). 


Gar Davis with Mrs. Gray, and an amusing exchange with Clett the gunrunner.

It further turns out the corpse Davis had found was her husband, and she begins to think Davis killed him.  Davis gets the widow and son out just as the Comanches torch the ranch, and they head for Fort Dobbs.  The trip is complicated by numerous Comanches, encounters with Clett, a garrulous and unscrupulous gun-runner (well-played by Brian Keith), and Mrs. Gray’s headstrong nature and suspicions of Davis. 

When they do make it to Fort Dobbs, they find the garrison has been massacred.  Not far behind them are the survivors from Largo, led by the sheriff (Russ Conway), with Comanches in pursuit.  They’re running out of ammunition, and Davis volunteers to head for Santa Fe for help.  By this time the sheriff has persuaded Mrs. Gray that Davis didn’t kill her husband, but he still intends to hang Davis for a killing back in Largo.  He fills Mrs. Gray in on more of Davis’ background, and that his love for a faithless woman was at the root of his troubles with the law. 


On his way to Santa Fe, Davis encounters Clett the gunrunner again and tries to persuade him to take the guns back to Fort Dobbs.  They shoot it out, and Davis heads back with the guns—new Henry repeating rifles.  Davis gets in just as the Comanches attack again, and the rifles enable the fort’s defenders to ward off the Indians.  At the end, the sheriff sends Davis off to Santa Fe with the Grays, now that they’ve all forgiven him. 

This is quite watchable.  In fact, this is probably Clint Walker’s best western, not primarily because of his acting, which is pretty consistent from movie to movie, but because of the decent script and good supporting actors, especially Mayo and Keith.  For Virginia Mayo in another good western, see her with Joel McCrea in Colorado Territory.  Shot on location near Moab and Kanab, Utah, in black and white.


Douglas also directed the 1966 Stagecoach remake, Rio Conchos, Yellowstone Kelly, and Barquero along with more mainstream stuff like In Like Flint, Robin and the 7 Hoods, The Detective and They Call Me MISTER Tibbs.  He’d been directing movies since 1935—kind of an Andre de Toth type.

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Colorado Territory

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 2, 2013

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


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

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

 Colorado Territory Malone

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

Colorado TerritoryMayo

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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