Category Archives: Westerns Worth Watching

The Furies

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 20, 2015

The Furies—Barbara Stanwyck, Walter Huston, Wendell Corey, Judith Anderson, Gilbert Roland, Beulah Bondi, John Bromfield, Thomas Gomez, Blanche Yurka, Albert Dekker, Wallace Ford (1950; Dir: Anthony Mann)

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Niven Busch was a well-known novelist and screenwriter during the 1930s and 1940s and into the early 1950s, leaving Hollywood in 1952.  Among his non-western screenplays were He Was Her Man (1934) with James Cagney and the original The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) with John Garfield and Lana Turner.  But by the 1940s, he was also writing significant westerns, like The Westerner (1940) with Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan and Pursued (1947), one of the early westerns noirs, with Robert Mitchum, Busch’s then-wife Teresa Wright and Judith Anderson.  His biggest-selling novels tended to be western sagas with a lot of melodrama, family angst, overtly classical references (like this one, trying to make connections with Greek tragedy) and Freudian overtones.  His best-known such novel was Duel in the Sun (1946), made into an overheated potboiler by David O. Selznick.  But The Furies was probably the best movie based on his novels, just as it was probably the best of Barbara Stanwyck’s cattle queen sagas from the 1950s (The Maverick Queen, Cattle Queen of Montana, The Violent Men, Forty Guns, et al.).  And maybe the best of anybody’s cattle queen movies, although Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954) with Joan Crawford has its partisans, too.

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Adversaries T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston) and Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey) frame Vance Jeffords (Barbara Stanwyck).

Set in New Mexico of the 1870s, the title “The Furies” refers to the self-conscious name of the huge ranch of T.C. Jeffords, as well as to the female deities of vengeance in Greek mythology.  The aging Jeffords (Walter Huston in his last role) has long been a law unto himself, now spending most of his time in San Francisco.  He put together the cattle empire, sometimes issuing his own scrip (called “TCs”) when money was tight.  The best part of his land is referred to as the Darrow Strip, which T.C. acquired through dubious legal means and by killing the Darrow who owned it.  There are also “squatters” on Jeffords’ range, most prominently the Herreras, who have lived there for generations.  It is not primarily an “Anglos vs. Hispanics” situation, though.  The most ardent anti-squatter is Jeffords’ range boss El Tigre (Thomas Gomez), who is obviously of Hispanic origin.

At the beginning of the film, T.C.’s two grown children are waiting for his arrival.  The son Clay (John Bromfield) is about to get married; he doesn’t get along with his father and is not the favored child.  That would be daughter Vance Jeffords (Barbara Stanwyck), who has more of her father’s aggressive personality and can manage him better.  He has promised that she will get The Furies and a $50,000 dowry if she marries some one of whom he approves.  At the ball celebrating Clay’s marriage, one of the less desirable attendees is gambler and saloon owner Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey).  When Vance is taken with him, he maintains his independence.  And when Vance wants to marry him, T.C. offers him the $50,000 dowry if he won’t.  Darrow takes the money without blinking and starts a bank in town.

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T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston) and daughter Vance (Barbara Stanwyck) don’t always get along, either.

Vance takes some solace in her long-time “friendship” with Juan Herrera (Gilbert Roland).  She is taken aback when T.C. returns from Washington with a widowed companion, Flo Burnett (Judith Anderson).  Flo is after independence/money, and T.C. gives her his remaining $50,000.  More significantly for Vance, Flo is planning to take over as the lady of The Furies and to sideline Vance, despite T.C.’s promises to Vance.  Furious, Vance attacks Flo with scissors, severely gashing her face and causing facial paralysis on one side.  Seeking refuge with the Herreras, Vance is followed by T.C. and his men.  Using dynamite to shake the Herreras into surrender in their mountain home, T.C. ruthlessly hangs Juan Herrera, and Vance enters her vengeance phase.

Using the $50,000 given to Rip Darrow, Vance travels the west, buying up TCs at a huge discount.  She persuades T.C.’s San Francisco bankers to extend the Jeffords loans for another 90 days by going through the banker’s wife, Mrs. Anaheim (Beulah Bondi) and giving T.C. enough time to round up and sell 20,000 cattle.

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Vance Jeffords (Barbara Stanwyck) gets ready to attack Flo Burnett (Judith Anderson).

T.C. is desperate enough to try to get back Flo’s $50,000, but in a surprisingly touching scene she refuses now that she’s uglier, lonelier and drinking more.  T.C. makes his roundup on time and sells his cattle, only to discover that the buyer is Vance, using his own TCs.  So she buys his cattle with worthless scrip, and he’s still broke.  Nevertheless, the two make a sort of peace with each other, and Vance plans to marry Rip at last, giving him back the Darrow Strip for his part in the maneuver.  As T.C. announces his plans to start over, he is shot down by Juan Herrera’s mother (Blanche Yurka).

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Mom Herrera (Blanche Yurka) prepares to take her revenge.

All of this is carried out with tempestuous emotions, overweening hubris, Shakespearean drama and psycho-Freudian father-daughter overtones that never become explicit.  On the whole, with all that’s going on in this plot, the film could have been a bit longer; it seems a little compressed at 109 minutes.  The cast is excellent, especially Walter Huston (only a couple of years after his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Treasure of the Sierra Madre) and Barbara Stanwyck.  The two seemed to get along well off-screen as well.  Huston observed of his co-star, “Barbara Stanwyck loved doing westerns more than anything where she had to dress up frilly and chase after a man.  At heart, she’s a cowgirl.  Or a cowboy—she’s one of the toughest, most no-nonsense women in this town, and she stopped playing the old cat-and-mouse game years ago.”

Judith Anderson is very good in a small but critical part (see her also in Pursued), and Beulah Bondi in what amounts to a cameo.  Gilbert Roland, after almost 30 years in movies since the days of the silents, is always a pleasure to watch, although he seems a little too old for Juan Herrera here.  The weakest spot in the cast is Wendell Corey, who usually played forms of policemen (see The Wild North and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window) and was kind of a stone-faced actor; he doesn’t seem to have the personality or flamboyance to be gambler Rip Darrow.

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Gambler-banker Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey) and Vance Jeffords (Barbara Stanwyck) try to work things out.

1950 was a good year for the great director Anthony Mann, who was then making the first of his westerns:  Devil’s Doorway, with Robert Taylor, Winchester ’73 with James Stewart, and this.  They’re all worth watching, and you can’t consider you’ve seen the best of westerns without Mann’s work from this period.  This one shows some of his noir-ish tendencies, with lots of wild night skies and dark shadows, especially with the frequent shots of the sign over the main gate of the ranch against the night sky.  The best way to watch The Furies (other than on the big screen) is on the 2008 Criterion Collection DVD, with the usual Criterion interesting extras and excellent print transfer.  The screenplay is by Charles Schnee.  Shot in black and white, mostly on location in Arizona by Victor Milman.  Music is by Franz Waxman.

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For other western family sagas in addition to Duel in the Sun (1946) and The Furies, see The Sea of Grass (1947), with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, and, more recently, Legends of the Fall (1994), with Anthony Hopkins, Brad Pitt and Aidan Quinn.  And maybe even Robert Redford’s A River Runs Through It (1992).  For other westerns based on the works of Niven Busch, see Belle Starr (1941), Distant Drums (1951) with Gary Cooper, Budd Boetticher‘s The Man From the Alamo (1953) with Glenn Ford, and The Moonlighter (1953) with Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck.

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Last Stand at Saber River

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 16, 2015

Last Stand at Saber River—Tom Selleck, Suzy Amis, Keith Carradine, David Carradine, Tracey Needham, David Dukes, Rachel Duncan, Haley Joel Osment, Harry Carey, Jr., Lumi Cavazos (Made for television, 1997; Dir:  Dick Lowry)

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A story from Elmore Leonard is usually a good starting point for a western.  (See, for example, The Tall T, 3:10 to Yuma [original and remake], Hombre, Valdez Is Coming and Joe Kidd.)  In the 1990s and into the early 2000s, Tom Selleck and Sam Elliot appeared in a series of westerns that were initially shown on Ted Turner’s TNT television station, with higher production values than normally seen in that medium.  Often they were based on stories from the heyday of westerns in the 1950s and 1960s by such masters as Leonard and Louis L’Amour, but also on classics by writers like Jack Schaefer (Monte Walsh).  Tom Selleck not only starred, but often took a production role in getting the movie made, as was the case with this Leonard story from the 1950s.

In early 1865 Paul Cable (Tom Selleck; we seldom hear him called anything but “Cable”) is returning from the Civil War, where he has spent four years riding with Confederate cavalry commander Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest.  There are multiple references to Fort Pillow in Tennessee in 1864, where Forrest and his men committed an atrocity by gunning down more than 300 Union prisoners, most of them black soldiers.  Burned out on the war, Cable just wants to pick up his wife and children in Texas and move back to their ranch in Arizona Territory.  Cable’s wife Martha (Suzy Amis) has spent the interim as a schoolteacher and gunsmith, working with her gunsmith father (Harry Carey, Jr. in his final acting role).  It’s not easy to put the Cable family back together again.  Martha is still traumatized by the death of baby Mary three years ago, by not understanding why (and resenting that) Cable went to fight, by seeing that he’s changed while he’s been away (more willing to kill if necessary) and by being uprooted again.  Frictions in the Cable marriage are one of the basic two conflicts that flow through the story.

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The Cables (Haley Joel Osment, Suzy Amis and Tom Selleck) try to sort things out, now that Paul Cable is home from the war.

The other involves the Kidstons, a family consisting of two brothers Vern (Keith Carradine) and Duane (David Carradine) and Duane’s free-thinking daughter Lorraine (Tracey Needham).  They’re Union sympathizers (Duane had been kicked out of the Union army) who have come to dominate the area while the Cables have been gone.  When the Cables approach their own ranch house, they find it occupied by Kidston men and prostitutes; Martha shoots down two of them when they threaten Cable, and she is appalled that she did it.

Cable is jumped by two brothers of one of the deceased men; he kills one and captures the other, but eventually lets him go.  He takes his family to the general store, where Edward Janroe (David Dukes), a Confederate veteran himself, promises protection for them.  Returning to his cabin, Cable finds Lorraine Kidston there, claiming to have been thrown from her horse.  She makes it obvious he can have a dalliance with her; it is less obvious whether the attraction is real, or she’s just making mischief.  Cable politely resists in any event.

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Daughter of a gunsmith, Martha Cable (Suzy Amis) can both make and shoot guns.

[Spoilers follow.]  As news of the end of the war reaches Arizona Territory, Janroe, who has been smuggling British Enfield rifles across the border with Mexico and then sending them east to the Confederate army, volunteers to take the news to Cable.  But Janroe seems to have become unhinged by this development.  Cable is out working, and in his absence Janroe trashes the Cable cabin.  He then stops by the Kidston ranch, and shoots Duane twice, with no witnesses.  Vern Kidston thinks it’s obvious that Cable did it.

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Cable (Tom Selleck) negotiates with storekeeper Edward Janroe (David Dukes).

When Kidston and his men besiege Cable at his cabin, he’s rescued by Martha taking out yet another of their gunmen.  Cable and Vern Kidston finally talk and figure out that Janroe didn’t give Cable the news, and that if he was out that way he might have been the one to shoot Duane. Heading for the Janroe store, they find that Janroe has (a) abducted Cable’s daughter Clare (Rachel Duncan), (b) shot Luz (Lumi Cavazos), his Hispanic mistress, when she tried to stop it, and (c) taken his stock of rifles to the Mexican bandits along the border.  Cable and Vern head out in pursuit.  The rescue involves an extended chase, Vern shooting Janroe, Cable rescuing his daughter from a runaway wagon, and finally Cable fighting off the bandits and taking a wound himself.  Back at the Cable cabin, indications are that there will be peace with the remaining Kidstons and perhaps between Cable and Martha.

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Cable (Tom Selleck) is pinned down in the rocks by superior numbers.

Selleck was usually good in these high-quality made-for-television westerns, almost single-handedly bringing back the big hat that was more or less authentic to the time of the story.  (Perhaps the best example of a Selleck hat is in Quigley Down Under, which was not made for television.)  Both Suzy Amis (near the end of her acting career at only 35) and Tracey Needham have strong female roles well-integrated with the story (unusual for a western); Amis’ character is both harder-edged and more sympathetic.  David Dukes makes an effective fanatical one-armed villain.  Rachel Duncan and Haley Joel Osment as the Cable children are unusually effective, too. The Carradine brothers most famously starred together in Walter Hill’s The Long Riders (1980) as two of the Younger brothers, but you can also see them together in The Outsider (2002), another made-for-television western.

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Keith Carradine as the more sensible Kidston brother Vern; and David Carradine as Duane.

Dick Lowry was a long-time television director, who also worked with Selleck on one of his Jesse Stone police procedurals in 2011.  This was shot in New Mexico, around Santa Fe, in color at 96 minutes.

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Canyon Passage

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 12, 2015

Canyon Passage—Dana Andrews, Brian Donlevy, Susan Hayward, Patricia Roc, Ward Bond, Hoagy Carmichael, Lloyd Bridges, Andy Devine (1946; Dir: Jacques Tourneur)

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Dana Andrews is remembered these days primarily for such modern roles as he played in Laura (1944) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).  But he was also in several good westerns, such as The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), Three Hours to Kill (1954), Strange Lady in Town (1955)… and this one.

The movie opens in Portland, Oregon, in 1856.  Logan Stuart (Dana Andrews) is a freighter, running strings of pack mules from San Francisco to Portland.  While in Portland, he gets paid $7000 and arranges to take Lucy Overmire (Susan Hayward), fiancée of his friend George Camrose (Brian Donlevy), back to George in Jacksonville in southern Oregon.  He is also attacked by a robber, whom he thinks to be Honey Bragg (Ward Bond) and with whom he has unpleasant history.  The robbery is not successful, and the thief gets away.

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Lucy Overmire (Susan Hayward) and Logan Stuart (Dana Andrews) head south for Jacksonville.

On the way south to Jacksonville, they stop at the ranch of Ben Dance (Andy Devine) and his family, where Caroline Marsh (Patricia Roc) is staying.  Stuart is attracted to Caroline, but he seems also to have a relationship with Lucy.  At a cabin raising, he asks Caroline to marry him and she accepts, although she wants to stay put and is troubled that Logan is so footloose, constantly concentrating on expanding his freighting business.

Arriving at Jacksonville, Stuart fights Bragg and wins.  Lucy has been putting off setting a date for her marriage to George, but plans to go through with it after she goes to San Francisco with Logan to get a wedding dress.  Meanwhile, George is acting as a banker for miners in Jacksonville.  He has also been gambling and losing, and has been covering his losses by stealing from the gold deposited with him.  We see that George is also a man of restless affections, not limited to Lucy.  Eventually George stands accused of murdering one of his depositors for his gold, and Logan helps him escape before he can be hung.

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George Camrose (Brian Donlevy) finally persuades Lucy Overmire (Susan Hayward) to set the date for their wedding.

[Spoilers follow.]  As Logan and Lucy head south, they are attacked by Bragg.  They are unhurt, but their horses are killed, and they have to walk back to Jacksonville.  By that time the Jacksonville miners, led by Johnny Steele (Lloyd Bridges), have found and killed George in their absence.  After ambushing Logan, Bragg has also attacked an Indian woman, and now the Indians are torching farms and ranches in retaliation, including Ben Dance’s and Logan’s way stations and general store.  Dance is killed and the Indians are after Caroline Marsh, with Logan and the militia also in pursuit.  The Indians catch Bragg and take care of him, which seems to satisfy them for the moment.  Caroline decides she can’t marry Logan because he won’t settle down in one spot.  So Logan heads to San Francisco again to buy more mules to rebuild his operations.  And Lucy joins him.  They’re better suited to each other than Logan and Caroline were, anyway.

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A suspicious Johnny Steele (Lloyd Bridges) speaks for a band of vengeful miners.

Logan Stuart:  “There was a lot of good in George.”
Johnny Steele:  “He sure panned out no color.”
Logan Stuart:  “There’s a thin margin, Johnny, between what could be and what is.”
Johnny Steele:  “Yeah.  It was thin for you last night.  We were of a mind to hang you.”
Logan Stuart:  “You see how thin the margin is.”

Based on a story by Ernest Haycox, this is stuffed full of complicated and not-too-predictable plot and romantic triangles, densely populated with a good cast.  Dana Andrews plays Logan Stuart with the same stoic independence he did Det. Mark MacPherson in Laura.  Susan Hayward, an excellent and often fiery actress, has kind of a generically-written part that doesn’t really allow her to show what she can do.  She’s better in Rawhide [1951] and Garden of Evil [1954], both with meatier roles for her when she had become a bigger star.

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Ben Dance (Andy Devine) offers Caroline Marsh (Patricia Roc) a little avuncular advice.

Brian Donlevy didn’t always play villains (see him in Billy the Kid [1941] and Cowboy [1958], for example), but at this stage of his career he’s so identified with bad guys (the corrupt saloon owner Kent in Destry Rides Again and the sadistic Sgt. Markov in Beau Geste, as just two examples from 1939) that we don’t trust him from the start.  The role of George Camrose calls out instead for somebody like Robert Preston, who specialized during the 1940s in friend-gone-bad roles, in which he established himself as charming first.  Ward Bond also has one of his occasional bad guy roles (e.g., The Oklahoma Kid), and he’s very effective.  This has one of Andy Devine’s better roles, too, where he is not used simply as a form of comic relief.  Hoagy Carmichael plays Hi Linnett, supposedly a small merchant, but mostly there to provide musical interludes, as in To Have and Have Not, and to comment on the action.  Carmichael’s song “Ole Buttermilk Sky” got the movie’s only Oscar nomination.  Several of the film’s significant events happen off-camera:  Bragg’s attack on the Indian maiden, the killing of George by the miners’ mob, the killing of Ben Dance by Indians, etc.

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Hoagy Carmichael as minstrel Hi Linnet provides musical interludes, occasional commentary and the film’s only Oscar nomination.

Jacques Tourneur was a good director of westerns, although he wasn’t best known for them in the 1940s.  Later on in the 1950s, he made a few of them (Stars in My Crown, Wichita, etc.) with Joel McCrea.  Ernest Pascal adapted the Haycox story into a screenplay, with some crisp, sometimes even philosophical, dialogue.  Music, except for that provided by Carmichael, is by Frank Skinner.  This was filmed on location in Oregon in color (a rarity for westerns in 1946) by Edward Cronjager, so it must have had a significant budget for its time.  92 minutes.

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Logan Stuart’s mule train wends its way past Oregon’s Crater Lake.

The title doesn’t seem to mean much; there are no obvious canyons involved.  For other “passage” westerns, see Northwest Passage (1940), California Passage (1950), Passage West (1951), Desert Passage (1952) Southwest Passage (1954), Oregon Passage (1957) and Night Passage (1957), which are otherwise unrelated to this one or to each other.

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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)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Buck and the Preacher

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 5, 2015

Buck and the Preacher—Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Ruby Dee, Cameron Mitchell (1972; Dir: Sidney Poitier)

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The Buck of the title is Sidney Poitier in his second western, playing a former slave and former buffalo soldier who is now a wagon master helping free blacks move west in the face of night riders who are paid to drive them back to their southern homes to pick cotton.  The Preacher is Harry Belafonte, also a former slave, now a con man who uses a religious background for cover.  As you might guess from those two main characters, this western focuses primarily on black characters, a novelty for its time.

After the Civil War, newly free blacks seeking greater freedom than they can find in their Mississippi delta homeland.  The Pecos River is mentioned several times, so they seem to be in Texas.  At the same time, Deshay (Cameron Mitchell, wearing the remnants of a Union uniform of sorts) and his night riders are paid to terrorize them and drive them back to Louisiana, so they will once again be a source of cheap labor.  Deshay is also consumed with finding and killing Buck, for whom he offers a reward of $500.  Buck, trail-wise and good with guns (he has a special pair of cut-down shotguns in holsters, in addition to his regular pistol) is not so easy to find or kill.

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Black families heading west for more freedom.

When Deshay not only hits a wagon train that Buck has led but lays an ambush for Buck at his woman’s cabin, Buck barely escapes.  In his need to keep moving, he switches horses with the Preacher, whom he catches bathing in a stream.  (The Preacher says he is Willis Oakes Rutherford of the High and Low Orders of the Holiness Persuasion Church, but that sounds much too grandiose for the footloose ruffian he appears to be.)  The wagon train Buck is currently leading is hit by Deshay and his men, and Buck heads for Copper Springs, where Deshay is based; the Preacher tags along.  The two of them attack Deshay and his men while they are sporting at Miss Esther’s, killing eight, including Deshay.

Making their escape, they find that Deshay had spent almost all of the $1400 he had stolen from Buck’s people.  To recover it, they decide to rob both the express office and the bank in Copper Springs while the posse is chasing them.  It’s not without incident, but they are successful, and the robbery nets them $1800 each.  The Preacher plans to return to Illinois, but finds his way blocked by the posse on their heels.  As they run for Buck’s wagon train, the pursuers are blocked by Indians (of an unspecified tribe), who say they will allow the blacks passage through their land but will not fight for them.

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The Preacher (Harry Belafonte) and Buck (Sidney Poitier) prepare an assault.

[Spoilers follow.]  Deshay’s nephew kills the Copper Springs sheriff (who appears not to have anything against blacks) and continues the pursuit with the remnants of the posse.  Buck and the Preacher draw them off but are trapped in some rocks, killing several posse members but are also wounded themselves.  As things look hopeless, their Indian guides begin picking off posse members.  In the final scene, the patched-up Buck, the Preacher and Buck’s woman (Ruby Dee) are headed on their way with the wagon train (and presumably the proceeds of the robberies).

This is watchable, but not as good as Poitier’s first western (Duel at Diablo, 1966).  Poitier was the pre-eminent black actor of his time, and, although he is not a natural in westerns, he brings his considerable acting ability and strong sense of dignity and authority to the role.  Belafonte does well as the skeevy Preacher, playing off that dignity.  Ruby Dee is excellent as Buck’s woman, who wants to be freer than Texas allows and maybe move to Canada, but her role, as that of many women in westerns, is mostly extraneous.

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Poitier was here making his first foray into directing (he has nine directing credits), and the direction here is mostly unexceptional.  For what turns out to be mostly an action movie, there are several slow-moving sections, particularly in the first half of the film.  But Poitier and Belafonte get points for putting together and executing something that had largely not been done before.  They also get some credit for not making all the whites unrelievedly nasty (e.g., the decent sheriff of Copper Springs, who does not survive the movie).  In keeping with the spirit of the times, the Indians are all noble and oppressed, too.  Shot in color in Durango, Mexico, at 103 minutes.  Rated R for brief nudity (principally Belafonte’s derriere) and mostly for all the violence.

For other westerns featuring black people, see our post on Blacks in a White and Hispanic West.  For a good western featuring con men (one of whom is black) from about the same time, see Skin Game (1971), with James Garner and Louis Gossett, Jr.  For another black con man in Texas before the Civil War, see Ossie Davis (Ruby Dee’s husband) in The Scalphunters, with Burt Lancaster (1968).

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Wichita

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)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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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Four Guns to the Border

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 26, 2015

Four Guns to the Border—Rory Calhoun, Colleen Miller, Walter Brennan, John McIntire, Jay Silverheels, George Nader, Nina Foch, Charles Drake, Nestor Paiva (1954; Dir: Richard Carlson)

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Based on a story by Louis L’Amour, this unpretentious western also has an excellent cast.  The writing and direction aren’t quite as good as the cast and story, but but it’s worth watching, particularly if you like Rory Calhoun.  At this stage of his career, Calhoun played the protagonist in lower-budget movies (e.g., Dawn at Socorro, Apache Territory), while he was often the villain in big budget productions (The Spoilers, River of No Return).  Here he is something of both, but mostly the protagonist.  The cast includes John McIntire and Walter Brennan, both excellent character actors who didn’t often appear in the same movie, since they tended to play the same kind of old-coot-ish roles. (But see them together in The Far Country, where they’re both pretty good.)

In 1881 the four riders of the title are moving through Apache country, presumably in Arizona or New Mexico, when they come upon Simon Bhumer (pronounced “Boomer,” played by Walter Brennan) and his nubile, tomboyish daughter Lolly (Colleen Miller), fresh from finishing school.  Both Cully (Rory Calhoun), the leader of the four, and Bronco (George Nader) are visibly taken with her, but Simon thinks none of them are good enough for her.  In fact, he’s right.  The four are headed to pull off a bank robbery, while Simon and Lolly are going back to his ranch in Shadow Valley through territory infested with Apaches.

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Simon Bhumer (Walter Brennan) and daughter Lolly (Colleen Miller) head for their ranch; but a heated relationship develops between Lolly and Ray Cully (Rory Calhoun).

All six spend the night at Greasy’s general store, while Greasy (Nestor Paiva) reconnoiters in town to verify that the bank currently holds enough money to make robbing it worth while.  Cully has a combustible scene or two with Lolly until Simon breaks it up.  Gang members Bronco and Yaqui (Jay Silverheels) fight regularly, seemingly out of exuberance.  Dutch (John McIntire) has known Simon a long time; they were both quasi-outlaws, until Simon went straight.

The gang’s plan for the bank involves Cully creating a diversion while the robbery takes place, and then the gang bolts for the border.  Cully and Sheriff Jim Flannery (Charles Drake, previously seen as Shelly Winters’ ineffective boy friend Steve in Winchester ’73) were once young hellions, both vying for the affections of Maggie (Nina Foch), who chose Jim.  Cully picks a fight with Jim, which engages the town’s attentions until Maggie breaks it up.  Having completed the robbery as planned, the four head for the border with a posse in pursuit.  Back at Greasy’s store, they find it burned by Apaches, with Greasy dead.

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Sheriff Jim Flannery (Charles Drake) and Cully (Rory Calhoun) fight out old grievances.

[Spoilers follow.]  Meanwhile, Simon Bhumer’s horse goes lame, and he and Lolly are besieged by Apaches.  Cully hands the loot to Dutch and takes off to help.  Dutch gives it to Bronco and follows, and finally Bronco and Yaqui head for the battle, too.  It’s a desperate matter, and one by one Dutch, Yaqui and Bronco are all killed and Cully is gravely wounded.  Yaqui had used the bag of loot to bash an Indian, and the coins are scattered all over the site.  Simon and Lolly take Cully to the Shadow Valley ranch, and when the posse arrives at the battle site to chase off the Apaches, only bodies and the scattered proceeds of the robbery are left.

At the Bhumer ranch, Cully’s wound is bad enough so Simon has to go for medical help.  Flannery and two deputies arrive and start to shoot it out with Cully.  He calls out Flannery, while Lolly tries to talk him out of it.  As Cully and Flannery advance to their showndown, finally Cully surrenders—persuaded at last by the love of a good woman.

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Cully (Rory Calhoun) rides to the rescue, while Yaqui (Jay Silverheels) and Dutch (John McIntire) look on.

As a general matter, this is above average.  Rory Calhoun is good here, and the film has also surprisingly strong female roles.  Both Colleen Miller as Lolly and Nina Foch in a limited role as Maggie are good; Calhoun and Miller have good chemistry together.  Jay Silverheels has one of his best roles, not to mention a very colorful costume.  All in all, this is a good early Calhoun western.  The ending, with Cully giving himself up, is not entirely satisfying, but it’s how such matters were handled in westerns from the 1940s and 1950s (see Joel McCrea in Four Faces West and Fred MacMurray in The Moonlighter for just two other examples).  The good guy could not be allowed to get away with crime even if he was repentant, lest all society fall apart.

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Richard Carlson directs Rory Calhoun and Colleen Miller in their climactic scene.

Richard Carlson is known mostly as an actor in supporting roles, but he directs competently here in his second feature.  In color, at 83 minutes.  This can be hard to find, since it is apparently not available in the U.S. on DVD.

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Getting Married in Buffalo Jump

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 6, 2015

Getting Married In Buffalo Jump—Wendy Crewson, Paul Gross, Marion Gilsenan, Victoria Snow, Kyra Harper (Made for television, 1990; Dir: Eric Till)

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This Canadian television production is a modern romance set in ranching country in Alberta–a variation on the old theme of The Arranged Marriage.  You can tell where it’s going from the title (Buffalo Jump being the fictional town around which this is all going on), but it takes the entire 137 minutes to get there.  So the question is not what will happen, but how it will happen, given the disparate personalities involved.

Sophie Ware (Wendy Crewson) has returned to Buffalo Jump fifteen years after graduating from high school there. She spent those years going to college in eastern Canada and working as a piano act in lounges in Toronto.  Now her father has died, leaving her his ranch.  She’s determined to keep it despite her Scottish mother’s continual insistence that she sell it, and she needs some one to help her with it.  On the recommendation of Mrs. Bresnyachuk, she hires the woman’s son Alex (Paul Gross), whom she sort of knew in high school.

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Alex Bresnyachuk (Paul Gross) is good at ranching, but not so good at talking.

Unlike Sophie, Alex is good on a ranch, persuading her to run more practical cattle instead of the horses her romantic sensibility is drawn to.  He’s taciturn, seldom communicating much about his feelings.  And he’s more traditional about male-female relationships than the cosmopolitan Sophie.  After Sophie breaks a date with the local principal/math teacher to go out with Alex instead, he makes her a business proposition:  she brings the ranch, he brings the working expertise, and they marry to continue the operation.  This is not really how she’d envisioned this particular life event happening, and she rejects the notion … at first.

Sophie: “All right, Alex, how about we simply court in the traditional, time-honored fashion? Okay, we have a quick bout of nude wrestling, followed by confessions of doubt, leading to mutual rejection and if by some miracle we find it’s true love, we’ll cry, say we’re sorry and then wrestle some more.  I’m not marrying a man I don’t know, Alex.”

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Sophie Ware (Wendy Crewson) and Alex (Paul Gross) get to know each other in a scene that is not exactly typical of the movie.

Alex had dropped out of high school and had come back to finish (in three months) at 22, after working for an oil company.  His family’s farm/ranch is crowded, with four men (his father and two brothers in addition to Alex) in one house, he says.  Sophie learns that Alex left town when he fathered a child with his Indian girl friend Annie Moore.  Sophie finds Annie (Kyra Harper) in a bar, and Annie is initially both tough and hostile.  But they bond over some drinks and start to develop a relationship.  And Sophie accepts Alex’s business proposition, although there are indications on both sides that something besides business is going on.

Annie (about Alex, after discussing his shortcomings as a high school boyfriend):  “He sure is one beautiful man, though.”
Sophie:  “Between you and me, he makes the backs of my knees sweat.”

Meanwhile Sophie’s mom Irene (Marion Gilsenan) invites Sophie’s friend Eleanor (Victoria Snow), a high-powered realtor, for a visit.  Sophie and Eleanor have a good time, although Sophie still wants to keep the ranch.  Eleanor seeks out Alex, and has a conversation with him in which he says nothing.  Afterward, he tells Sophie, “I liked her.”

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Alex and Sophie on the marriage tractor.

The final hurdle is Alex’s parents, the Bresnyachuks, who, in Old World style (they’re Ukrainian), want to negotiate a marriage settlement.  Sophie is deeply offended that they expect her to buy Alex, in effect, with title to half the land.  Alex tries to woo her back with a horse, but ends up giving it to his 13-year-old son Benny, whom he’s never really met before.  Strangely enough, Sophie takes that as a good sign.  The marriage happens, and they drive off into the sunset on a tractor.

As you might guess from this description, a lot depends on how good the two leads are, and they are very good indeed.  This is better than the synopsis sounds, with some crisp and feisty dialogue, although not much of it by Alex (Paul Gross), who is an excellent actor (Gunless, Slings and Arrows) in addition to being good-looking.  This is fairly accurate in its portrayal of family dynamics, the inability of one generation to talk to another, and the temperaments of some people in cattle country, particularly men.  Wendy Crewson, best known as Pres. Harrison Ford’s wife in Air Force One, is very good as Sophie.  Things are wrapped up rather expeditiously at the end, particularly Alex’s new relationship with his son Benny.  But for light romantic fare, you could do a lot worse.  This is a sleeper that should have received more attention.

Shot in and around the towns of Cowley, Lundbeck and Pincher Creek, Alberta; the scenery and surrounding country form a significant part of the ride.  The sound track includes three songs by Canadian country singer K.D. Lang.  Based on a novel by Susan Haley.

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Historical note:  A buffalo jump is a site where Indians, before they had horses, drove buffalo herds over a cliff to collect their meat and hides (not a particularly efficient way to hunt).  One of the best-known buffalo jumps in North America is in southern Alberta, called Head-Smashed-In, used by the Blackfeet.

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Mail Order Bride

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 2, 2015

Mail Order Bride—Buddy Ebsen, Keir Dullea, Lois Nettleton, Warren Oates, Marie Windsor, Barbara Luna, Paul Fix, Denver Pyle (1964; Dir: Burt Kennedy)

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Burt Kennedy started out as a stunt man but quickly moved into writing, particularly for John Wayne’s Batjac production company.  His writing career is most notable for Kennedy having penned the best of the Budd BoetticherRandolph Scott collaborations, beginning with Seven Men From Now (1956). From there he eventually moved into directing, and this was his second movie. The first (The Canadians [1961]) had not been a success.

At the start of this film, young Lee Carey (Keir Dullea) is fitfully working a small ranch in Montana, although he doesn’t much like to work.  He has fallen in with bad companions, especially his friend Jace (Warren Oates).  Into this situation rides aging former lawman Will Lane (Buddy Ebsen), a friend of Lee’s deceased father—a good enough friend, in fact, that Lee’s father left him title to the ranch.  Lane is supposed to pass title to the ranch along to Lee when/if he decides that Lee is responsible enough to make a go of it, which he isn’t yet.

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Lee Carey (Keir Dullea) is introduced to Annie Boley (Lois Nettleton) by Will Lane (Buddy Ebsen).

Lane decides that what Lee needs is the love of a good woman and the responsibilities of family life, a view that Lee doesn’t share.  Lane heads for Kansas City, where he meets Hanna (Marie Windsor) at her saloon.  When she hears about his quest, she steers him to Annie Boley (Lois Nettleton), a widow with a young son who works cleaning up the saloon/hotel.  She nervously agrees to give the idea a try, and Lane, Annie and son take the train for Montana.

Lee has been hanging out with Marietta (Barbara Luna), his favorite prostitute, when they arrive.  He reluctantly agrees to Lane’s proposition, but he doesn’t anticipate the arrangement will be permanent.  To his credit, he also explains his approach to Annie, so she doesn’t expect anything more.  Meanwhile, he tries to put on a good front, building a new house for Annie and son and working the cattle so Lane will give him the title to the place and he can return to his old life.

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Lee (Keir Dullea) tries to persuade Will Lane (Buddy Ebsen) that he’ll take care of his new family by building a house.

He likes Annie well enough, but finds that Marietta will no longer consort with him now that he’s a married man, since she seems to take marriage (even a sham marriage) more seriously than he does.  In frustration he gives up and sets up a plan with the no-good Jace to steal all the cattle.  Jace tries to expedite things by setting fire to the half-built cabin, almost killing Annie’s young son Matt in the process.  That finally tears it for Lee, who has bonded with the boy (and with Annie, to some extent).  He seeks Lane’s help in rectifying things.  When Jace declines to give back the cattle, a classic showdown confrontation follows.  At the end, although both Lee and Annie want him to stay, Lane rides on because they no longer need him–kind of like an aging western Mary Poppins.  He appears to be headed to Kansas City to renew his acquaintance with Hanna.

This is slight and predictable fare, but quite watchable—more than a synopsis of the plot would suggest.  The two performances that make it work are by Buddy Ebsen, who plays Will Lane with some restraint and believability and a little steel, and Lois Nettleton, as Annie, the hopeful young widow with a son.  Not conventionally beautiful, Nettleton is now remembered principally for her work in middle-aged character parts, but here she is excellent as a young woman in a role that calls for vulnerability and some nuance.  Keir Dullea (now remembered mostly for 2001: A Space Odyssey) does well enough, but, aside from treating Annie reasonably well, his character is written so that there’s not much else to recommend him after he’s spent almost the entire movie as a wastrel.  Warren Oates plays Warren Oates’ usual sort of character very well.  There are also good character actors here:  Paul Fix as the local sheriff, Denver Pyle as the preacher who marries Lee and Annie, and especially Marie Windsor as Hanna, the warm and wise Kansas City saloon proprietor.

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This alternative poster features not Annie Boley but Marietta (Barbara Luna) in the center.

Buddy Ebsen had started on Broadway as a dancer with his sister Velma, eventually co-starring with Shirley Temple (Captain January, 1936), Judy Garland (Broadway Melody of 1938 [1937]) and even being cast as the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, until he had to pull out when the aluminum paint initially used in the makeup almost killed him.  Before this film, he had been seen principally as Davy Crockett’s sidekick George Russell in the Disney films with Fess Parker.  Now he had a television success as one of the principals in The Beverly Hillbillies, and would later go on to star for several seasons as aging detective Barnaby Jones on television.  He’s good enough here to make us wish he had made more westerns.

Burt Kennedy would hit his peak as a director a little later in the 1960s with The War Wagon and especially with his masterpiece Support Your Local Sheriff.  From there it was mostly downhill, as he drifted toward good-ol’-boy westerns with a comedic edge, often featuring country music people.  He could be an excellent writer, and he wrote this modest effort.  Shot in color around Kennedy Meadows in California’s central Sierra Nevadas, at 83 minutes.  It might be hard to find, but it’s decent to watch.

An alternative title was “West of Montana.”  The title Mail Order Bride has been used for a number of other films and books.  Not to be confused, for example, with a 2008 Hallmark made-for-television feature with the same name starring Daphne Zuniga.

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