Tag Archives: Western Comedies

Go West, Young Lady

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 5, 2015

Go West, Young Lady—Penny Singleton, Glenn Ford, Ann Miller, Charles Ruggles, Onslow Stevens, Jed Prouty, Allen Jenkins (1941; Dir: Frank R. Strayer)

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For current fans of westerns, the obvious star of this western musical comedy would be the young Canadian actor Glenn Ford.  But at the time this was made in 1941, he was not the biggest star; first billing went to Penny Singleton, then known for having appeared as Blondie in a series of slight films based on the Dagwood and Blondie comic strips.  (She and Arthur Lake would make 28 of them between 1938 and 1950, including one with Glenn Ford in 1940; many were directed by Frank Strayer.)  Here, she is Belinda “Bill” Pendergast, the young lady of the title.

The once-tomboyish Bill is headed west to join her uncle Joe Pendergast (Charles Ruggles) in the lawless town of Headstone, now terrorized by the outlaw gang of Killer Pete.  In the stage with her is Tex Miller (Glenn Ford), a federal marshal being sent as temporary sheriff to clean things up in Headstone.  When the stage is attacked by Indians, Tex is surprised to find Bill outshooting him in the stage’s defense (like Mae West in the previous year’s My Little Chickadee).  Uncle Joe owns the Crystal Palace saloon, where the principal entertainment (and most of the movie’s musical numbers, along with some anachronistic but well-executed tap dancing) are provided by Lola (Ann Miller).  He is shocked to find that Bill Pendergast is a young woman.  Unfortunately, Lola and Bill do not get along well.

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Young Belinda “Bill” Pendergast (Penny Singleton) is surprisingly adept with a gun.

Uncle Joe owes more and more of his saloon to his financial backer, Hannegan (Onslow Stevens), but both of them seem to be losing money to Killer Pete.  [Spoilers follow.]  Unknown to almost everyone, however, Hannegan is in fact Killer Pete.  Tex does his best to bring a little law and order.  As Tex keeps fighting with bad guys who are bigger than he, in a running gag Bill tries to help him but always ends up bashing Tex.  He warns her off (to no effect) in one fight.  “Don’t hit him!  It’ll be me!”  It always is.

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Bill (Penny Singleton) and Lola (Ann Miller) don’t get along.  Eventually physical hostilities erupt.

Elements of this are reminiscent of Destry Rides Again, from two years earlier, with the corrupt town, the diffident-seeming (but actually forceful in his way) young lawman, and the exuberant fight between two women (Marlene Dietrich and Una Merkel in Destry, Singleton and Miller here).  Other than those references, the writing here is desultory and the comedy predictable, with pies in faces, law and order prevailing against Killer Pete, and the young lovers getting together after multiple misunderstandings.  Like Belle of the Yukon, this is edging more into musical comedy than western.  Along with all the other musical numbers (several written by Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin), one is provided by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

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After numerous altercations, misdirected punches and the occasional pie in the face, finally the young lovers (Penny Singleton and Glenn Ford) get together.

Shot in black and white at the Iverson ranch in Chatsworth, California, at only 70 minutes.  Not available on DVD in the U.S.  Not to be confused with Go West, Young Girl, a 1975 made-for-television movie with Karen Valentine.  Or with the better-known Go West, Young Man, 1936, with Mae West, Warren William and Randolph Scott.

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A Ticket to Tomahawk

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 30, 2015

A Ticket to Tomahawk—Dan Dailey, Anne Baxter, Rory Calhoun, Walter Brennan, Arthur Hunnicutt, Chief Yowlatchie, Will Wright, Connie Gilchrist, Jack Elam, Charles Stevens, Marilyn Monroe (1950; Dir: Richard Sale)

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One more musical number, and this western comedy would have been a full-fledged western musical.  The fictional Tomahawk & Western Railroad needs to get a train to Tomahawk, Colorado, in early September 1876 to fulfill its charter, or it will lose its right to operate there.  But it has enemies, primarily Col. Dawson, who runs the stage line in the area and doesn’t want the competition, and his henchmen; and the disgruntled Arapahoes led by Crooked Knife.  And a few minor problems, such as the fact that of the final sixty miles of the line from Epitaph to Tomahawk, forty of those miles have no track.  (Apparently fabricated in England, the rails were lost in transit off Cape Horn).

A paying passenger has bought the ticket of the title; he is Johnny Behind-the-Deuce (Dan Dailey), a footloose, well-traveled card shark and drummer selling mustache cups.  He arrives in Epitaph in company with Dawson henchmen, who wound Marshal Kit Dodge (veteran character actor Will Wright) so that his straight-shooting granddaughter Kit Dodge Jr. (Anne Baxter) has to take over the effort to get the train the last sixty miles.  And they are joined by Dakota (Rory Calhoun), secretly another of Dawson’s henchmen; Madame Adelaide (Connie Gilchrist) and her troupe of theatrical “ladies”; a Chinese laundryman; and Kit’s stoic Indian watchdog Pawnee (Chief Yowlatchie, best remembered now for his role in the classic Red River).

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Miss Adelaide (Connie Gilchrist), young Kit Dodge (Anne Baxter) and Johnny (Dan Dailey) survey the damaged trestle, backed by Dakota (Rory Calhoun) and Pawnee (Chief Yowlatchie).

Figuring that determination will overcome all obstacles, strings of mules are hitched up to the locomotive to tow it where the tracks don’t go.  Initially that works, until they arrive at Massacre Creek to discover the railroad trestle has been blown up by Dawson’s men. It turns out that Johnny knew Crooked Knife from their time together in a wild west show, and Johnny persuades the Arapahoes to help disassemble the locomotive and get the train up over an alternative route via Funeral Pass.  As the deadline approaches, the train is still just outside of Tomahawk until Johnny convinces the Tomahawk town fathers to extend the city limits to where the locomotive is.  He plans to be on his way, but young Kit has other ideas.  “Maybe you wouldn’t be so loose-footed if I gave you a permanent limp!”

[Spoilers follow.]  In the last scene, Johnny is about to board yet another train.  But finally he puts on the conductor’s hat and bids a temporary farewell to young Kit and their five daughters, who seem to bear the same names as Miss Adelaide’s girls.

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Miss Adelaide (Connie Gilchrist) and her girls. The one in yellow might look familiar.

Of course, none of this is very serious and the sensibility is very much like Annie Get Your Gun, from about the same time.  The gender roles and romantic expectations are very much of the 1950s, too, although Anne Baxter’s role as the younger Kit Dodge is a reversal of sorts.  Dan Dailey showed up in musicals of the time (There’s No Business Like Show Business, Give My Regards to Broadway) but this may have been his only western.  Anne Baxter was an excellent actress, but this isn’t among her most memorable outings generally (All About Eve, The Ten Commandments) or in westerns (Yellow Sky, Three Violent People, Cimarron).

There’s a superb supporting cast, many of whom are underused.  Walter Brennan does his shtick as the engineer of the Emma Sweeney (the locomotive involved).  Rory Calhoun, in the early part of his movie career, keeps to his pattern of playing bad guys in big-budget productions like this (River of No Return, The Spoilers) and good guys in more modest efforts (Dawn at Socorro, Apache Territory).  Arthur Hunnicutt was in his most productive period as a character actor (Two Flags West, Broken Arrow, The Big Sky) but has nothing here as Sad Eyes, the locomotive tender.  If you have quick eyes, you might recognize Marilyn Monroe in an early role as one of Miss Adelaide’s girls; so you would be wrong if you thought her only western was River of No Return (1954), with Robert Mitchum and Rory Calhoun.  Will Wright is perfectly cast as the elder Kit Dodge, and veteran villain (and former studio accountant) Jack Elam shows up without many lines as one of Col. Dawson’s henchmen.

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This is watchable, but not terribly memorable.  Director Richard Sale was known more as a writer (he provided the improbable story and the screenplay for this) than a director, and his directing career (twelve films, of which this was the third) was not particularly notable.  Shot in color, in and around Durango, Colorado, using the Denver & Rio Grande track.  90 minutes.

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Paint Your Wagon

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 29, 2015

Paint Your Wagon—Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood, Jean Seberg, Harve Presnell, Ray Walston (1969; Dir: Josh Logan)

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Of course Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood are naturals for westerns, but for musicals?  Not so much.  So the question for Paint Your Wagon is:  Is it more a western or more a musical?  Despite the fact that it has Broadway star Harve Presnell (as gambler Rotten Luck Willie) on hand to sing the major musical number “They Call the Wind Maria,” Presnell’s big-time voice simply emphasizes that Marvin, Eastwood and Jean Seberg (whose singing is dubbed but still not impressive) are not really singers themselves.  The musical numbers mostly aren’t terribly memorable or well sung, but this isn’t very satisfying as a western, either.

By 1960, Alan Jay Lerner (the lyricist) and Frederick Loewe (the composer) were the apparent successors to Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II as the pre-eminent team turning out musicals for the stage and movies (My Fair Lady, Gigi, Brigadoon, Camelot).  Josh Logan, as a director, was known principally for his work in big stage and movie plays and musicals.  By the end of the decade, though, large-scale movie musicals were becoming an endangered species despite the success of Funny Girl (1968), and Paint Your Wagon and Hello, Dolly represented the last gasp of the genre.  This is perhaps the least memorable of all the movies made of Lerner and Loewe musicals.  And the American public seemed to be losing its taste for such things in any event.

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Pardner (Clint Eastwood) and Ben Rumson (Lee Marvin) make a discovery.

In the gold country of northern California, statehood seems imminent, so it is about 1850.  A landslide kills a Michigan farmer making his way to the goldfields and injures his brother (Clint Eastwood).  As Ben Rumson (Lee Marvin) and others prepare to bury the deceased brother, they discover gold in the grave.  A mining camp (No Name City) springs up on the site, and Rumson and the brother, known only as Pardner, become partners in a gold claim.

Jacob Woodling (John Mitchum), a Mormon with two wives, is passing through; they are enthralling to the exclusively male inhabitants of No Name City.  The wives don’t get along and the Woodlings need money, so Jacob is willing to auction off the younger wife, Elizabeth (Jean Seberg), with her consent.  An inebriated Ben Rumson buys her for $800, and she agrees to the arrangement if he’ll build her a permanent cabin.  He does.

Clint Eastwood, Jean Seberg, and Lee Marvin in Paint Your Wagon, 1969.

The newly married couple and their Pardner (Clint Eastwood, Jean Seberg and Lee Marvin).

In order to divert unwanted attention from his wife, the only woman in the vicinity, Rumson leads an expedition to hijack a stage carrying six “French bawds.”  They set up an establishment in No Name City and the settlement grows like a weed.  While Rumson was gone, Pardner and Elizabeth formed a relationship, and Rumson, Pardner and Elizabeth become a more or less comfortable threesome.  But matters are complicated by the arrival of a preacher, and by the Fentys, a farming family recovering after a near-death experience while trapped in the mountains.  They are staying at the Rumson cabin and are religious people who would be horrified at the unorthodox relationships in the household.  So Ben moves (temporarily) to accommodations in town, while he corrupts the Fenty’s son Horton (Tom Ligon), who takes readily to liquor, gambling and loose women.

[Spoilers follow.]  Meanwhile, Ben and Mad Jack Duncan (Ray Walston) tunnel under the establishments in town in order to get the gold dust that falls through the floorboards.  With Rumson and Duncan having honeycombed the town with tunnels, those tunnels and the town itself begin to collapse during a large bull vs. bear sporting event.  Rather than rebuild, most of the inhabitants of No Name City decide to move on, including Ben Rumson.  Elizabeth has always been adamant that she wants to stay permanently with her cabin, but after the influence of the Fentys she is no longer comfortable with her former domestic arrangements.  But Pardner stays with her, and with the departure of Rumson her situation becomes more conventional.  His name turns out to be Sylvester Newel, although he is still addressed as Pardner.

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The cast and director behind the scenes during filming; Alan Jay Lerner chats with Clint Eastwood.

The play was first produced on Broadway in 1951 and took eighteen years to make its way to film.  It was not thought to represent Lerner and Loewe’s very best work.  The film is said to bear little relation to the original play, however.  After the success of several musical films in the 1960s, most notably My Fair Lady (1964) and The Sound of Music (1965), producers went looking for other projects to make, and the idea of Paint Your Wagon was revived for consideration.  The original plot, about an inter-ethnic love story, was discarded as being too dated.  The only elements retained from the original were the title, the Gold Rush setting and about half of the songs. In the play, Elizabeth has a very minor role, Pardner does not even appear, and Ben Rumson dies at the end.

There was a lot of talent at work on this film, with a big budget that unintentionally got bigger as production went along.  In addition to director Logan and the Lerner-Loewe team, the principal writer in adapting Lerner’s screenplay was Paddy Chayefsky.  Additional music is by André Previn, and Nelson Riddle and Roger Wagner conducted.  Incidental music is provided by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, whose members show up as extras and townspeople.  The movie was sumptuously shot by William A. Fraker near Baker, Oregon, and Big Bear Lake in California, and it’s long at 158 minutes (more than two and a half hours).  It often feels slow, with excessive drunken roistering by Rumson.  The collapsing tunnels and town sequence takes too long and is too elaborately staged.  (“Over-produced” is the term Roger Ebert used.)  The central conflict, with the evolution of Elizabeth’s domestic arrangements, does not feel all that organic or convincing.  For a fan of westerns, the principal interest in this is as a curiosity, to watch Eastwood and Marvin, both normally excellent actors, out of their element in a musical.  Although he appears much older in the film, Marvin was in fact only six years older than Eastwood at the time.  Marvin’s version of “Wand’rin’ Star” rose to No. 1 on the charts in the U.K., strangely enough.

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Relics of another era:  A poster by psychedelic master Peter Max; and a Swedish poster.

Lee Marvin was set to star in The Wild Bunch, but Paramount offered him $1 million plus a percentage to star in this one instead.  Apparently Josh Logan found Lee Marvin’s drunken roistering excessive as well, especially that not captured on film.  Unlike normal film practices, the liquids Marvin consumed on film were mostly actual liquor.  “Not since Attila the Hun swept across Europe, leaving five hundred years of total blackness, has there been a man like Lee Marvin,” according to Logan.

For another western comedy that starts with the discovery of gold in a grave, see Support Your Local Sheriff (also 1969).

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The Scalphunters

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 12, 2015

The Scalphunters—Burt Lancaster, Ossie Davis, Telly Savalas, Shelley Winters, Armando Silvestre (1968; Dir: Sydney Pollack)

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This is one of two western comedies from the late 1960s-early 1970s that uses slavery as a critical element of its plot.  The other is Skin Game, and in both cases the slave in question is something of a con man who gets by in dicey circumstances by outsmarting everybody else.

Fur trapper Joe Bass (Burt Lancaster) is making his way to sell his winter’s catch of pelts, when he encounters old acquaintance Kiowa chief Two Crows (Armando Silvestre).  Two Crows and his Kiowas make off with Bass’ furs, but not without making a trade of sorts.  They give him Joseph Winfield Lee (Ossie Davis), whom they have captured from the Comanches.  Lee turns out to be very well-educated, able to read, write, cipher and quote Latin; in fact, he is much better-educated than the Massachusetts-born Bass, who is illiterate.

As Lee explains matters to Bass, he has run off from Louisiana, hoping to reach Mexico, where there is no slavery.  He had fallen in with Comanches and keeps arguing that he is a Comanche, but had the misfortune to be captured by Kiowas, who have now traded him to Bass.  Bass has no use for a slave but figures he can recoup something by selling Lee in St. Louis.  Bass may not have much book learning, but he’s a masterful fighter and tactician, and he can live off the arid lands of the west.  Bass and Lee banter back and forth, while they follow the Kiowas.  Bass knows there’s a cask of whiskey in with his furs and figures to take back the furs as soon as the Indians incapacitate themselves with the whiskey.

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Joe Bass (Burt Lancaster) and Joseph Lee (Ossie Davis) look to recover Bass’ furs.

Joe Bass:  “You ever fight twelve drunk Indians?”
Joseph Lee:  “No, sir, but I’d like to see it done.”

It almost works, but just as Bass and Lee are about to make their move, the Kiowas are slaughtered by a group of scurrilous scalphunters led by Jim Howie (Telly Savalas).  In addition to killing the Indians for the $25 bounties their scalps will bring, they make off with Bass’ furs.  Only Two Crows escapes.  Bass and Lee follow the scalphunters.  As they spy on them, trying to figure out how to get the furs, Lee falls down a steep escarpment and is captured by the scalphunters.

Jim Howie plans to sell Lee in Galveston on their way to Mexico.  Lee ingratiates himself with Howie’s woman Kate, hoping to make himself indispensable enough that they’ll take him to Mexico.  Bass ambushes the scalphunters and orders them to leave the mule with the furs behind while they move on; he kills the two scalphunters Howie orders to flank him.  But the mule runs off and is taken by the scalphunters again.  Bass orchestrates a landslide that takes out several of the scalphunters, but they manage to hang onto the furs.

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Jim Howie (Telly Savalas) thinks he finally has Joe Bass (Burt Lancaster) where he wants him.

When the scalphunters are about to make a stop, Bass puts loco weed in the water their horses will drink.  He ridicules Lee for not being able or willing to fight, and Howie has set a trap for Bass.  As the Bass and Lee argue and brawl, Howie springs out of hiding with a gun.  Lee grapples with him and in the struggle it goes off; Lee is the survivor.  As Bass and Lee continue their interminable fight, Two Crows shows up and takes over the furs and Kate, killing the few remaining scalphunters. As Bass and Lee ride off on Bass’s horse, Lee points out that the scalphunter wagon has Howie’s drinking whiskey, and that by nightfall the Kiowas should be quite drunk.

Director Sydney Pollack only made two westerns.  This was the first; the second (and better) one was Jeremiah Johnson in 1972, with Robert Redford.  Lancaster and Ossie Davis are quite good.  The movie depends on their relationship, and it works well.  Telly Savalas had a modest career as a heavy in movies (McKenna’s Gold, for example) before moving on to become a cop as television’s Kojack.  Shelley Winters was excellent casting as as Howie’s blowzy companion, given to singing Mormon hymns on Sunday mornings.  One anachronism sticks out:  in the pre-Civil War period of this movie, Joe Bass sports a repeating rifle, which would not then have been available.  The fights become a little tiresome.

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Shot in color on location in Durango, Mexico.  At 102 minutes, it seems a slight film that doesn’t stick in the memory long.  Music is by prolific movie composer Elmer Bernstein.  The unusually literate script is by William Norton.  For another western featuring slavery, see Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, which has a few comic moments but is not generally a comedy.  To see Burt Lancaster in another comedic western role, check out The Hallelujah Trail (1965).

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Skin Game

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 19, 2014

Skin Game—James Garner, Louis Gossett, Jr., Susan Clark, Ed Asner, Brenda Sykes, Andrew Duggan (1971; Dir: Paul Bogart, Gordon Douglas [uncredited])

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This was the third and last of the three good western comedies starring James Garner in his amiable con-man persona.  Some might also consider Sunset and Maverick from late in Garner’s career to belong in the same category, but this is Garner in his prime.  Here he is ably joined by Louis Gossett and Susan Clark.

Not long before the Civil War, Quincy Drew (Garner) and his friend and partner Jason Rourke (Gossett) are running a con in Missouri.  Jason is a free black man from New Jersey; the two met in a Pennsylvania jail and started working together.  The two of them ride into a town in a border state, with Quincy pretending to be an impoverished slave owner reduced to selling his favorite slave.  He conducts an impromptu auction, usually in a bar, and rides out of town with the proceeds.  Jason later escapes at an opportune moment and rejoins Quincy, to repeat the con in another town.

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Selling Jason (Lou Gossett) again.

They find themselves in Kansas, which is voting on whether to adopt slavery amid high political feelings on both sides.  Quincy puts Jason in a larger slave auction, but things don’t run smoothly this time.  Jason becomes enamored of Naomi (Brenda Sykes), another young slave up for sale.  Quincy is attracted to Ginger (Susan Clark), with whom he strikes up a liaison.  Matters are further complicated when fiery abolitionist John Brown (played by Royal Dano) shows up and violently liberates the slaves, and Quincy finds that Ginger has liberated him from his stash of money.

Jason and Quincy manage to find each other again, but matters still do not run smoothly.  Trying the con just one last time, Quincy’s con is exposed by Plunkett (Ed Asner), a nasty slave trader who has already bought Jason once.  Plunkett takes Jason south and sells him down the river, and Quincy is tossed in jail.  To Quincy’s surprise, Ginger manages to spring him from jail and volunteers to help him rescue Jason.

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Quincy (James Garner) is taken with (and by) Ginger (Susan Clark).

They pose as medical missionaries seeking a slave with leprosy, as they look for wherever Jason may have been sold.  They find him at the Calloway plantation in Texas, with Naomi and several African recent arrivals who don’t speak English but have a way with horses.  The Africans have adopted Jason as their leader, and he refuses to leave without them.  Quincy is exposed while plotting their getaway, and is given a taste of the whip.  But the group manages to escape and head for Mexico.  It looks like Quincy and Ginger will stick together, although they still have issues about who’s in control and who holds the money.

As a western comedy, this is fairly successful.  It seems unlikely that a comedy with slavery as one of its central elements would be made today.  Among filmmakers, the current sensibility is not to see slavery as an element of history, but to portray it as so unrelievedly evil and patently wrong that no comedy can exist in its presence.  But in the late 1960s and early 1970s there were two good western comedies involving slavery: this, and 1968’s The Scalphunters, with Burt Lancaster and Ossie Davis.  Django Unchained (2012) also comes to mind as a recent western involving slavery with some comedic elements, but it is not primarily a comedy and Quentin Tarantino is unusually strong-minded in going his own way as a director.  The slavery element will rub some viewers the wrong way, but this movie does not condone slavery in any way.  If anything, it expresses some slightly anachronistic but perhaps accurate views of how slavery affected people, as Quincy is educated in how it feels.  It’s worth watching but seldom seen.

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James Garner is the principal reason to watch this, but Lou Gossett balances him nicely in a strong performance.  The friendship between them is persuasive.  To see more comedic Garner from the same period, look for Support Your Local Sheriff (1969, perhaps his very best movie and role of this kind) and its sequel of sorts, Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971, with mostly the same team but not as successfully done).  Susan Clark is surprisingly good as the amoral pickpocket-con woman Ginger, a good match for Garner’s Quincy.  To see her in another western, check her out as Burt Lancaster’s reluctant hunting companion in Valdez Is Coming, also from 1971.  Ed Asner as Plunkett also makes an excellent despicable slave trader and villain.  As another villain, see him as greedy range boss Bart Jason in El Dorado (1966), with John Wayne and Robert Mitchum.

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A taste of the lash for Quincy when he is discovered trying to free slaves.

In color, at 102 minutes.  As with Django Unchained, there is heavy use of the “N-word,” which is probably historically accurate.  Not to be confused with the seldom-seen Alfred Hitchcock movie from 1931, The Skin Game.  The characters from the movie later appeared in a made-for-television sequel Sidekicks (1974) directed by Burt Kennedy, with Lou Gossett reprising his role as Jason Rourke (or O’Rourke) and Larry Hagman playing the part of Quincy (or Quince) Drew.  This time the two con artists after the Civil War hatch a scheme to collect a $15,000 bounty offered for the capture of an outlaw.  For another comedy from the same period with slavery as one of its key points, see The Scalphunters from 1968.

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McLintock!

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 26, 2014

McLintock!—John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Yvonne De Carlo, Stephanie Powers, Jack Kruschen, Patrick Wayne, Jerry Van Dyke, Chill Wills, Strother Martin, Bruce Cabot, Hank Worden, Michael Pate, Leo Gordon (1963; Dir: Andrew McLaglen)

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Variations on a theme of The Taming of the Shrew.

Many find this John Wayne-Maureen O’Hara western comedy enjoyable; others claim it has no plot and is just a string of situations that worked in previous Wayne movies (Rio Grande, North to Alaska) put together without a real story keeping them together.  With all the familiar actors in familiar roles, it does feel like we’ve seen much of it before.  The exclamation point in the title is not a good sign, either.

George Washington McLintock (known to most of his neighbors, friendly or not, as GW or just McLintock) is a local land and cattle baron in an unspecified territory out west near the turn of the 20th century.  That makes it either Arizona, New Mexico or Oklahoma, which were the only territories left then, and there are references to the Mesa Verde and Comanches.  GW’s wife Katherine (Maureen O’Hara) hasn’t been living with him for some time (years, in fact), and he is given to drunken roistering.  When he comes home to his ranch from that, he tosses his large hat at the house’s third-story weathervane and it generally lights there.  Whichever of the Mexican boys gets to it the next morning can have it.  By the end of the movie, he’s made 310 tosses in a row without a miss.

Things are happening in the town of McLintock.  Homesteaders are arriving to settle the Mesa Verde, the local Comanches on the reservation are restless, the Comanche chiefs are coming home from exile, GW’s daughter Becky (Stephanie Powers) is coming home from school in the east, and various anti-McLintock forces (developers, the territorial governor, bureaucrats) are making things more difficult. Early in the movie GW hires young Devlin Warren (Patrick Wayne), son of a recently-deceased homesteader, as a hand on the ranch and his mother Louise (Yvonne De Carlo) as the ranch cook.

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Stills of the estranged couple (John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara) and the young lovers (Stefanie Powers and Patrick Wayne).

During the remainder of the movie, taking place around the town’s traditional July Fourth festivities, GW argues on behalf of the Comanches before a commission headed by the territorial governor; participates in a rollicking fight at a local mudhole involving homesteaders, ranchers and an unfortunate Indian agent (Strother Martin); watches his daughter flirt with the clearly unfit son (Jerry Van Dyke) of someone he has long despised while it become obvious that Becky and Devlin should be together; and tries unsuccessfully to get back together with his estranged wife Kate.

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“Somebody oughta belt you in the mouth.”

GW McLintock:  [Yelling at homesteader played by Leo Gordon.]  “You’ve caused a lot of trouble this morning.  Might have got somebody killed.  Somebody oughta belt you in the mouth, but I won’t… I won’t.  [Reconsiders]  The hell I won’t!”  [Knocks the man down a muddy hill, precipitating a free-for-all.]

By the end, Louise Warren resigns to marry the local sheriff, Becky and Devlin are engaged and, in a taming-of-the-shrew fashion, GW and Kate are reconciled.  Even the Comanches may get a fairer shake from the government, although that is not established.  There are way too many characters and too many situations, leading to a lot of loose ends.  If you enjoyed all the action and supposed good humor without inspecting it too closely, you had a good time.

Becky McLintock:  “You are my father, and if you do love me, you will shoot him [indicating Devlin].”
GW McLintock:  “I’m your father, and I sure love you.”  [Grabs a pistol from his cabinet and shoots Devlin point-blank in the chest.]
Becky McLintock:  “You shot him!  You really shot him! If he…..
GW McLintock:  [Interrupting Becky]  “If he dies, he’ll be the first man killed with a blank cartridge. [Brandishing the pistol]  We use this to start the races on the Fourth [of July].”

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Mud fight, with Edgar Buchanan, Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne.

Director Andrew McLaglen was the son of Irish actor Victor McLaglen, long a friend of John Wayne’s mentor John Ford and of Wayne himself.   Andrew had gotten into the industry through directing television, especially episodes of Have Gun Will Travel.  With his comparative youth and inexperience, he was cheaper than Wayne’s first choice, Henry Hathaway, who had directed North to Alaska three years earlier.  There are evidences of his television background in the rollicking music, played very obviously to signal that the fight or whatever else is happening is not serious.  It’s a little heavy-handed.  The screenplay was written by James Edward Grant, another Wayne favorite, who also wrote and directed Angel and the Badman and had written The Alamo, Wayne’s big-budget production from three years earlier.

Of the large and rambunctious cast, Yvonne De Carlo and Jack Kruschen are particularly good as the new cook Louise Warren and Jake Birnbaum, the local Jewish merchant who is a long-time friend of GW.  Stefanie Powers and Patrick Wayne are fine as the young lovers, but Jerry Van Dyke plays Junior much too broadly for him to be considered a seriously competing suitor.  Chill Wills as GW’s majordomo Drago is less irritating here than he is in The Alamo, for example.

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If you enjoyed North to Alaska, you’ll probably want to watch this as well.  But you may have a hard time remembering the plot afterward.  More likely you’ll remember it as a series of vignettes, like the mud fight or the two spanking-with-a-coal-shovel episodes.  It’s like an extended television sitcom.  That spanking probably won’t play well with modern feminists, either.  This was the fourth of five films in which Wayne and O’Hara starred together, and the estranged married partners shtick was wearing a little thin without real issues.

In color, 127 minutes.  The lively theme song “Love in the Country” is sung by the folk trio The Limeliters.

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Belle of the Yukon

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 24, 2014

Belle of the Yukon—Randolph Scott, Gypsy Rose Lee, Dinah Shore, Bob Burns, Charles Winninger, William Marshall, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, Robert Armstrong, Victor Kilian (1944; Dir:  William A. Seiter)

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This as much a musical as a western, with new songs by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke, often sung by a young and dark-haired Dinah Shore.  As the title suggests, this takes place during the Canadian Gold Rush, mostly in a saloon, in the isolated city of Malamute.  This was two years after Randolph Scott played a con man in a northern gold rush in The Spoilers (1942), and in his return he is apparently again a con man as Honest John Calhoun, owner of the largest saloon in town.

It’s not just the name; he has taken pains to establish a reputation for honesty, turning down offers from George (Robert Armstrong), a more corrupt gambler, to set up games more explicitly rigged in the house’s favor.  As the movie opens, a boatload of new female entertainers from Seattle led by Belle de Valle (Gypsy Rose Lee) show up to supplement the singing of Lettie Candless (Dinah Shore), daughter of Honest John’s manager Pop Candless (Charles Winninger).  Belle and Honest John had some history back in Seattle, where he was more obviously a con man, then known as Gentleman Jack.

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Belle and Honest John meet again; Belle in her working gear.

The relationship between Belle and Honest John rekindles.  Lettie has her own relationship with Steve Atterbury (blonde William Marshall), who may or may not already be married, and also appears to be wanted by the Seattle police.  Honest John keeps trying to get him out of town so the Seattle police won’t arrive and take him and others in his employ into custody as well.  Young love keeps messing up his attempts.  Honest John also employs a professor (Victor Kilian) who purports to be able to predict when the harsh northern winter will set in.  He starts a bank to hold the gold produced by betting on the professor’s report, and it becomes a magnet for those who want to rob it, especially George and the sheriff, Mervin Maitland (Guinn “Big Boy” Williams).

Thereafter there are several currents running through the story.  (1) Is Honest John really honest now, or is he just running another scam?  (2) If it is a scam, is he scamming George and Mervin, or everybody?  (3)  Will Honest John be honest with Belle, or will he break her heart again, as he did in Seattle?  (4)  What is Steve Atterbury running from, and will young love win in the end?  Most of those questions you could answer without even seeing the movie.  The way they’re answered in the movie doesn’t always make sense.

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The Young Lovers:  Dinah Shore as Lettie Candless and William Marshall as Steve Atterbury.

It’s pretty light stuff.  Some say that Gypsy Rose Lee can’t act, but she certainly has a presence.  She and Dinah Shore wear some of the smallest-waisted costumes on film, obviously with the help of corsets.  And they are elegant costumes, with the exception of one dress worn by Shore on stage which looks like she has on a long-sleeved black T-shirt under the dress.  Randolph Scott is good as Honest John Calhoun, with enough of his usual rectitude to make you think he could be honest, and with enough charm so you’d forgive him if he isn’t.  There doesn’t seem to be much heat in the rekindled romance between Belle and Honest John.  Bob Burns plays a con-man subordinate of Honest John who repeatedly gets the better of Sheriff Mervin, both played for comic relief.  While it’s not clear that this is entirely a “western comedy,” it certainly has a number of comedic elements.

In color, so it had a good budget in 1944, when color westerns were still quite rare.  It’s short, at 83 minutes, and quickly paced, so you don’t have much time to think about the plot.  The screenplay is by James Edward Grant (Angel and the Badman), a favorite writer of John Wayne.  Dinah Shore sings “Like Someone in Love” and “Sleigh Ride in July,” which both became popular generally and were covered by such other singers as Bing Crosby.

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Along Came Jones

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 1, 2014

Along Came Jones—Gary Cooper, Loretta Young, Dan Duryea, William Demarest, Arthur Loft, Ray Teal (1945; Dir. Stuart Heisler)

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Although he was known for westerns earlier in his career, Gary Cooper didn’t make many of them during the 1940s when he was at his peak.  He had won an Oscar as Best Actor for 1941’s Sergeant York.  He was nominated again in 1943 and 1944 for Pride of the Yankees and For Whom the Bell Tolls.  He would win again in 1953 for High Noon, of course.  Loretta Young only made three westerns during her entire career.  By this time, they had both been making movies for almost twenty years, since the days of the silent films.  This was the only time they appeared together.

This comedy is an extended case of mistaken identity.  It doesn’t start out as a comedy; in the opening scene, a stage is robbed by a masked Monte Jarrad (Dan Duryea), who shoots both the driver and the shotgun guard.  At least one of them survives to wound Jarrad badly.  Wanted posters go up for Jarrad and his geezer companion Uncle Roscoe.

Cut to a sign outside Payneville (pronounced “painful”), where George Fury (William Demarest) and Melody Jones “out of high Montana” (Gary Cooper) determine that they’ve taken the wrong fork three or four hundred miles back.  In Payneville, the MJ initials on Melody’s gear are taken to mean that he’s Monte Jarrad.  And he spots the beauteous Cherry de Longpre (Loretta Young), with whom he is instantly taken.  What he doesn’t know is that Cherry is Jarrad’s childhood pal and now girlfriend.  She’s caring for Jarrad because he can’t ride, due to his wound.

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George Fury (William Demarest), Melody Jones (Gary Cooper) and Cherry de Longpre (Loretta Young).

Cherry talks Melody into taking Jarrad’s saddle south so the posse hunting Jarrad will follow him, but he goes back to town.  Now he’s caught between most townsfolk, who think he’s Jarrad, and those who know Jarrad, who think he’s killed Jarrad.  Neither side wishes him any good.  This is complicated by the fact that, although Melody carries a gun like everybody else, he’s not very good with it.  Jarrad is very good indeed, and nasty.

Just as one of Jarrad’s gang is about to shoot Melody, he’s rescued by Cherry.  Meldoy notes, “If there’s anything in the world I like, it’s gettin’ saved from being shot.”  Now Cherry wants him to take back the loot from Jarrad’s robbery, which Jarrad has stashed in an old adobe house.  When they get to the hiding place, the express agent is there and takes them prisoner, until somebody from outside the house shoots him.  They don’t get away quickly enough, and the posse finds them and takes them prisoner again, two or three times.  One almost expects the Marx brothers to show up. 

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Cooper as Jones, Duryea as Jarrad.

Finally, Melody, Cherry and George manage to get away and make their way back to Cherry’s ranch.  George has been shot by Jarrad and left for dead until Cherry rescues him.  Jarrad forces Melody to trade clothes with him, and intends to kill him and destroy his face so everyone will think Jarrad is dead.  The posse descends on the ranch, and there is an extended shootout.  Finally, it appears to be Jones against Jarrad, and the odds are all with Jarrad.  He hits Jones three times, calling it each time (much like Liberty Valance would do, twenty years later), when a Winchester bullet comes from behind Jones and catches Jarrad in the forehead.

Melody spends three weeks in jail while all this is sorted out, and he gets the reward for killing Jarrad.  First he figures that George shot Jarrad, but George says he was too weak to move at the time.  Then he realizes it must have been Cherry, shooting at him but getting Jarrad.  After Cherry demonstrates her marksmanship (“When I aim at something, I hit it, and when I hit something it’s what I aimed at“), Melody decides to stay and put down roots with her.

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Cherry takes a hand in the proceedings, but Melody doesn’t see it.

It’s all pleasant enough stuff.  With its time period, the presence of William Demarest and the fact that it’s a comedy, it is reminiscent of the movies of Preston Sturges.  But the producer was Cooper himself, who wasn’t very good at that end of things.  The leads, Cooper and especially Young, are enormously attractive.  Cooper sings “Old Joe Clark” at various points in the movie, and he’s not much of a singer.  He had problems during filming due to lack of preparation and because he often couldn’t deliver his lines in the rapid-fire manner requested by the director. 

One joke usually isn’t enough for a whole movie, but Cooper manages to bring it off.  Joel McCrea called him “the greatest exponent of the manure kicker school of acting ….  The idea is to scuff around barnyard dirt while muttering some phrase like ‘Aw shucks, Miss Nancy.’”  Of course Cooper conveyed much more than that, but he comes closest to that description in this film.  Cecil B. DeMille, who, like the FBI, seemed to have no sense of humor, told Cooper he shouldn’t mock his heroic image in this fashion.  The movie did well at the box office, though.

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For Loretta Young in another good western, see her in Rachel and the Stranger (1947), with William Holden and Robert Mitchum.  Crusty William Demarest makes a fine sidekick; he was good again as the oldest Confederate prisoner in Escape from Fort Bravo.  Duryea could be an excellent villain; see him as Waco Johnnie Dean in Winchester ’73 five years later.  Here he’s unrelievedly nasty.

In an era of singing cowboys, perhaps you could get away with naming one Melody Jones; it wouldn’t work today.  It does seem to be an ironic name, since he can’t sing and shows little talent with a harmonica, either.  The screenwriter was Nunnally Johnson, based on a novel by Alan LeMay (author of the novel The Searchers).  Unusually for a writer, Johnson had enough clout to get his name over the title of the movie in the credits:  Nunnally Johnson’s Along Came Jones.  Norman Rockwell did some of the poster art for the movie.  90 minutes, in black and white.

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Ruggles of Red Gap

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 4, 2014

Ruggles of Red Gap—Charles Laughton, Charlie Ruggles, Roland Young, Mary Boland, Zasu Pitts, Maude Eburne, Lucien Littlefield, Leila Hyams (1935; Dir:  Leo McCarey)

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Nominated for Best Picture in 1935, this is a charming comedy of manners and a traditional eastern-tenderfoot-goes-west story—more a comedy of manners than a western, though.  Originally it was a novel by Henry Leon Wilson, published in 1915.  The stage version by Harrison Rhodes opened on Broadway the same year, and it had been made at least twice as a silent film (1918 and 1923, with a young Edward Everett Horton as Ruggles).  It is apparently only a coincidence that a film with the uncommon name “Ruggles” in the title also stars an actor with the name Ruggles (Charlie Ruggles, to be exact).

The titular Ruggles (Charles Laughton) is a traditional English “gentleman’s gentleman,” or valet, in Paris in 1908 with his long-time feckless employer, the Earl of Burnstead (Roland Young).  As the film opens, the hung-over Earl haltingly tells Ruggles that in a game of draw poker the previous night, the Earl had lost Ruggles’ services to the Flouds, Effie (Mary Boland) and Egbert (Charlie Ruggles), a nouveau-riche couple from the American west.  Effie has social pretensions and sees Ruggles as a way to add polish to her image at the top of the social pyramid back in Red Gap, Washington.  Egbert is a thorough-going egalitarian in the folksy western mode, referring to Ruggles as “Colonel” and “Bill,” although he is actually neither.  It is clear that Egbert is dominated by his wife in most ways; the question is whether some of his better instincts will be overridden by Effie, especially once they are back in their own environment.

RugglesInParis With the Flouds in Paris.

Egbert is fond of loud checked suits; Effie has Ruggles oversee his outfitting in more formal British attire, to which Egbert does not take well.  Egbert and Ruggles bond over drinks at a sidewalk cafe (which Ruggles does not handle well) and an increasing sense of being under siege from the determined Effie.

Once back in Red Gap, Ruggles is introduced to Egbert’s circle of friends, a congenial, hard-drinking bunch led by young blonde Nell Kenner (Leila Hyams), who now all take him to be a colonel retired from the British army.  Effie is torn between liking the Colonel’s social cachet and wanting a traditional British servant, the role in which she originally saw him.  Effie’s mother is Ma Pettingill (Maude Eburne), the source of the family’s oil money, with a personality and approach more like Egbert’s.  Effie’s sister is married to Charles Belknap-Jackson (Lucien Littlefield; we know from the name that he’s pretentious—Americans don’t really take to hyphenated names), a social climber from Boston who sees Ruggles as a threat to his standing in the family and wants to get rid of him.

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Ruggles and sympathizers:  Mrs. Judson (Zasu Pitts), Ruggles (Charles Laughton), Egbert Floud (Charlie Ruggles) and Ma Pettingill (Maude Eburne).

In Red Gap, Egbert finds it easier to stray from under Effie’s thumb than he did in Paris, with Ma’s support.  Ruggles meets Mrs. Prunella Judson (Zasu Pitts), a widowed cook who gives him the idea of using his culinary talents to open his own restaurant in Red Gap, again with Ma Pettingill’s support.  Meanwhile, he also imbibes American ideas of equality much at odds with the traditional British social hierarchy which he has upheld all his life.  There is a moving scene in a bar, when Ruggles recites the Gettysburg Address and the patrons (including Ruggles himself) fall under the spell of Lincoln’s words.

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Ruggles and the Gettyburg address in a barroom.

Matters come to a head when the Earl of Burnstead comes to visit.  Being a decent if muddled chap, he falls in more with Egbert’s congenial egalitarianism than with Effie’s maneuvers toward social supremity.  He is also taken with fun-loving Nell Kenner.  Belknap-Jackson takes advantage of the absence of Egbert and Ma to fire Ruggles, but they haven’t really left town and take him right back.  Ruggles does open his upscale restaurant to considerable acclaim, and throws out Belknap-Jackson on opening night when he behaves badly.  Ruggles is still stuffy and British, but he has also become American, an egalitarian, an apparently successful restaurateur and his own man.

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Nell Kenner (Leila Hyams) teaches the Earl of Burnstead (Roland Young) to play the drums, in an improvised scene.

To modern eyes, several of these characters are stereotypes.  Effie is a fluttery, domineering 1930s nouveau riche aging wife.  Ma is a rough, take-them-as-they-come sort who doesn’t take her daughters’ pretensions very seriously.  Egbert is a slightly addled hen-pecked but well-meaning western sort with lots of aw-shucks dialogue, but Charlie Ruggles somehow manages to give him a little more direction and initiative when called for.  Ruggles and Boland were frequently teamed on screen in the 1930s; they made fourteen movies together at Paramount.

It is Charles Laughton’s performance as Ruggles that elevates this beyond the ordinary, though.  According to the film’s editor Edward Dmytryk (later the blacklisted director of Warlock and Alvarez Kelly), Laughton became so emotional during the scene with the recitation of the Gettysburg Address that it took director Leo McCarey (Duck Soup) a day and a half to film it.  In Nazi Germany, versions of the film dubbed in German were banned because of that scene and Lincoln’s Address.  Laughton later recited the speach to the cast and crews when filming Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), and became an American citizen in 1950.  Daily Variety reported that “for the first time in pictures, he [Laughton] has not been cast as a psychopathic subject.”

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1935 was an extraordinary year for Charles Laughton.  He had starring roles in three films nominated for Best Picture:  Ruggles in Ruggles of Red Gap, Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty and Javert in Les Miserables.  This is of course the lightest of the three, and it’s still enjoyable to watch.  But it’s not really very western.

This movie was made yet again in 1950 as Fancy Pants, starring Bob Hope as an undistinguished actor hired to play a butler for a family (in Arizona this time) expecting a presidential visit from Theodore Roosevelt, with Lucille Ball.  In 1957, the television anthology Producer’s Showcase presented a new musical version with Michael Redgrave as Ruggles, teamed with Jane Powell, David Wayne, Imogene Coca, Peter Lawford, Paul Lynde and Hal Linden, with songs by Jule Styne.  The 1935 movie version is still the best.

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The Sheepman

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 31, 2014

The Sheepman—Glenn Ford, Leslie Nielsen, Shirley MacLaine, Pernell Roberts, Edgar Buchanan, Slim Pickens, Mickey Shaughnessy, Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez (1958; Dir:  George Marshall)

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A congenial range war western, as the cattlemen in town try to cope with and drive out Jason Sweet (Glenn Ford), a newcomer-sheepman who’s good with a gun and has a sense of humor and his own way of going about things.  Not exactly a full-on satire like, say, Support Your Local Sheriff, it nevertheless has a well-developed sense of humor and a lot of satiric elements, especially in the first half. 

Col. Stephen Bedford (Leslie Nielsen), now a respectable local cattle baron, is also the morally slippery Johnny Bledsoe from Sweet’s Texas past.  Sweet has won all these sheep in a card game in Denver and wants to graze them on common range. He begins by winning a fight he picks with the toughest man in town, the none-too-smart Jumbo McCall (Mickey Shaughnessy).

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The conflicts here include not only the obvious cattle vs. sheep, but there are also the conflicted loyalties of Shirley MacLaine’s Dell Payton, who’s attracted to Sweet but all of whose other interests are on the side of the cattlemen.  She’s also engaged to Bedford.  She does participate in a plan to distract Sweet at a dance while his sheep are removed, which Sweet takes as a betrayal.  Sweet will obviously have to confront Bedford’s gunman Choctaw Neal and probably Bedford himself.  The question is less what will happen than how it will happen.

In addition to pitting two Canadian-born actors (Ford and Nielsen) against each other, Pernell Roberts is gunslinger Choctaw Neal, in his pre-Bonanza days (and a year before playing another more nuanced role as a quasi-heavy in Ride Lonesome).  The young Shirley MacLaine is excellent as the cattleman’s daughter/romantic interest in one of her two westerns (with Two Mules for Sister Sara).  Character actors Edgar Buchanan, Slim Pickens and Mickey Shaughnessy are also good in this one.  Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez is good as Sweet’s head sheepherder, a year before playing a Mexican hotelier in Rio Bravo. 

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Altogether, a pretty good and quite watchable western, nicely paced.  It came out the same year as Cowboy, another seldom-seen but good Glenn Ford western.  It has good dialogue; William Bowers and James Edward Grant (a favorite writer of John Wayne’s) got an Oscar nomination for the screenplay.  It should be seen in several ways as a precursor of Support Your Local Sheriff.  It uses the phrase “town character” ten years before Support Your Local Sheriff (which was also written by William Bowers).  It’s one of several good George Marshall-Glenn Ford movies (comedies, some military like Advance to the Rear, Imitation General, It Started with a Kiss; The Gazebo), several of which were written by William Bowers, too.  George Marshall, director of the original Destry Rides Again and the less memorable 1954 remake with Audie Murphy, had a good touch with humor.  In color. 

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