"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Westerns of Jack Palance


Jack Palance (1919 – 2006)


The artist Loren Kantor contacted me about a woodcut he had done of Jack Palance. Thanks, Loren, and congratulations on the woodcut.
 
Loren Kantor's woodcut of Jack Palance
 
He writes on his website:

I worked with Jack Palance in 1992 on the tv series "Legends of the West." He was intimidating. His height, his sharp cheekbones, his intense silence--all added to an aura of quiet menace. Yet when I gained the courage to speak with him I learned his silence was merely shyness. He told me about his fondness for watercolor painting, his love of poetry, his huge cattle ranch in Bakersfield.

Loren adds:

The attached woodcut shows the fierce Jack Palance, ala the gunslinger from "Shane." Behind the mask he was a great guy. He was also a hell of an actor.

This prompted me to write more about Jack. He has often been mentioned in this blog but it’s time for a fuller appraisal.

Early life

Володимир Палагнюк, or Volodymyr Palahniuk, whom Western fans know as Jack Palance, was an interesting man. He was born in 1919 in the mining district of Pennsylvania to Ukrainian immigrant parents. His father was an anthracite miner who died of black lung disease. Jack, 6’ 4”, worked in coal mines during his youth before becoming a professional boxer in the late 1930s under the name Jack Brazzo (he achieved 15 consecutive victories with 12 knockouts before losing a close decision to future heavyweight contender Joe Baski). Jack said, "Then, I thought, you must be nuts to get your head beat in for $200".

In World War II, for years the story was that while bailing out of a burning B24 on a training flight over Arizona, Palance (which he pronounced with the accent on the first syllable) was badly burned, and reconstructive facial surgery left him with the distinctive appearance we all got to know so well. That seems to have been Hollywood myth. Palance said, "Studio press agents make up anything they want to, and reporters go along with it. One flack created the legend that I had been blown up in an air crash during the war, and my face had to be put back together by way of plastic surgery. If it is a 'bionic face,' why didn't they do a better job of it?" Palance was anyway awarded a purple heart and left the forces in 1944.

Acting career

After attending Stanford University, he became a sportswriter for the San Francisco Chronicle. He got his first acting break as Marlon Brando’s understudy in A Streetcar Named Desire, and he eventually replaced Brando on stage as Stanley Kowalski. Palance got an Oscar nomination for only his third film role, as Lester Blaine in Sudden Fear.

His first Westerns

Jack Palance’s first Western role (billed as Walter Jack Palance) was as the hired gunfighter Wilson in the famous Shane (Paramount, 1953) and it made him a star. He was Oscar-nominated for it, as Best Actor in a Supporting Role. In fact, just as Alan Ladd had a big problem with guns (the shooting scene with Joey took 116 takes…), Palance couldn’t handle horses. He was supposed to have galloped into town when we first saw him but in the end he had to walk his horse in – actually that seems even more threatening. Director George Stevens, wanting to emphasize Wilson’s almost superhuman catlike agility, instead of shooting him clumsily mounting his horse, played the film of his dismounting in reverse. It works: it’s almost creepy.
 
Jack Wilson in Shane
 
Jack Wilson was actually the name the whites gave Wovoka (1856 - 1932), the Paiute leader who founded the Ghost Dance movement, but I don't think he and Palance were related.

Jack Wilson (left).       Jack Wilson (right).

As you doubtless knew, the comic book villain Phil Defer from Lucky Luke contre Phil Defer (1956) is based on Palance's Jack Wilson. Essential Palance must-know info.

Immediately after, second-billed to Charlton Heston in Arrowhead (also Paramount, 1953), Palance did a solid job as the Apache chief Toriano. His gaunt face and slightly exotic appearance suited him to this kind of role. It’s a nasty little film, though, unpleasantly racialist in tone, directed and written by Charles Marquis Warren and best left unwatched.

Palance’s third Western appearance was on TV in 1956; he had the leading role in Lariat, an episode of Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theatre. He played a man imprisoned for five years for what he regarded as an accident who swears to get revenge on the judge who sentenced him. Palance was very good in the smiling villain bits but was less convincing when he was supposed to be reforming. The half-hour show isn’t too bad; it was directed by Felix Feist who did the Kirk Douglas picture The Big Trees. It suffers, however, from an irritatingly flippant intro from Dick Powell.

Next, Palance, now 38, starred as an aging gunfighter whose eyesight is going in the psychological black & white Western The Lonely Man (Paramount, 1957). The movie was pretty B but Palance is fine. His son (Anthony Perkins) hates him because he reckons his dad deserted his ma. Erstwhile gunman cronies Lee Van Cleef and Elisha Cook Jr. also hate him and want revenge. Everyone hates him. Poor Jack. It's an unusually low-key performance for Palance and all the better for that.

No Westerns for a while

Then there was quite a pause in Palance’s Western career. He didn’t appear in another one until nine years later, when he was the Mexican bandido Raza in the Richard Brooks-directed The Professionals (Columbia, 1966). He’s good in this. It was not a huge part but he carried off the role of bandit chief very well.

Spaghetti

Sadly, though, it was then off to do Italian Westerns. A full third of all Palance’s Westerns were spaghettis or other Eurojunk. Il Mercenario (A Professional Gun) appeared in 1968. It was a Sergio Corbucci-directed effort with Franco Nero and is supposed to be a ‘comedy’. It is pretty well unwatchable.
 
Jack overdoing it in The Desperados
 
As if that weren’t bad enough, the same team got together again in 1970 for Compañeros, equally dreadful. In between, The Desperados (1969) was also shot in Spain. Vince Edwards leads, very weakly, with miscast Londoner Sylvia Sims in a story in which Palance hams it up unmercifully as a Civil War guerrilla parson. It’s really bad.

Monte Walsh

Happily for serious Western fans, though, it was then back to the States to do The McMasters (Ind, 1970) and Monte Walsh (NGP, 1970).
 
Confederate vet in The McMasters
 
The McMasters is about a black man coming back from the Civil War, taking an Indian bride and hoping to be treated as an equal by local farmers. Fat chance. It’s all a bit predictable but the acting is very good and with Palance, not to mention Burl Ives, two Carradines, LQ Jones and RG Armstrong, that’s not surprising. Jack is a very nasty ex-Confederate officer again, one-armed, with LQ as his thuggish henchperson. Spaghetti-ish titles and music almost spoil quite a good little film.
 
Very fine indeed in Monte Walsh
 
Monte Walsh might have been Palance’s best western. It was originally a series of short stories by Jack Schaefer tacked together into a novel, and it shows a bit, but the film doesn’t. It’s the end-of-the-West tale: soulless corporations are taking over the ranches and two aging cowpunchers (Palance and Lee Marvin) are increasingly out of place and out of time. Jim Davis is excellent as the ranch boss and Jeanne Moreau is very good too as the whore waiting for Lee to marry her. The movie is elegiac and beautifully photographed (David M Walsh). It’s got Will Penny-style gritty authenticity but a lot more humor. Jack Palance is absolutely superb in it as Chet Rollins.

More spaghetti

The McMasters and Monte Walsh were only a temporary relief, though. There followed more Eurotrash. Why? Well, $$$, I suppose. After those two good movies Jack surely can’t have needed to appear in these low-grade pulp rip-offs. Si può fare … amigo (1972) was even worse than the Corbucci crap. It was a Bud Spencer ‘comedy’ Western, probably about as low as the genre ever sank.
 
More hamming: Si può fare … amigo
 
The same year Tedeum was misspelled; it would have been better titled Tedium. It was known in the US as Father Jackleg. Then came the dire Blu Gang e vissero per sempre felici e ammazzati the following year, US title The Short and Happy Life of the Brothers Blue. I don’t know if I’ve even got the energy to list all these junk Westerns. Palance himself said, “Most of the stuff I do is garbage” which in the case of these Eurowesterns was very perceptive of him.

Marginally (but only marginally) less trashy was the very poor Michael Winner-directed Chato’s Land (1972) with Charles Bronson as an Apache hunted by a posse led by, yet again, an embittered ex-Confederate officer, Quincey (Palance), not one of Jack’s better roles, I fear, though he does try to make the character as sympathetic as possible - not easy for the leader of a bigoted, racist lynch party.
 
Confederate would-be lyncher again (with two arms this time though)
 
In 1975 Palance starred opposite Joan Collins in Il Richiamo del Lupo (The Cry of the Wolf), which I am delighted to tell you I have not seen. I have, though, unfortunately, suffered through Diamante Lobo (more wolves), a matzo-ball Western of the following year. It’s very bad. Palance is the boss Clayton, roguish but sadly looking more than his age (56) and often grinning vacuously. Jack’s son Cody (who predeceased Jack, tragically dying of melanoma at the age of 42) is in it too, playing a Clayton son.

TV

There followed three TV Westerns: The Godchild (1974), Welcome to Blood City (1977) and The Last Ride of the Dalton Gang (1979). The first was a cheap rip-off for TV of the old 3 Godfathers yarn. Three escaping Union prisoners of war fleeing both Confederates and Apaches promise a dying woman that they will care for her infant, though they know nothing of babies. Welcome to Blood City is a kind of Westworld sci-fi Western. People find themselves as slaves in a Wild West town, but with no memory of who they are or how they got there. In this town, people advance through killing others. Both of these first two TV movies were very poor.
 
On the set of The Godchild
 
The Last Ride of the Dalton Gang, however, was better. It is another retelling of the legend of the Dalton brothers. Jack Palance is the real star. He plays an icy railroad detective hunting the Daltons. He finally has a Main Street showdown with hanging Judge Isaac Parker (Dale Robertson), just to show you how historically accurate the picture was. Palance hammed it up again, I’m afraid.

Young Guns and City Slickers

In Young Guns, a late-1980s rock ‘n’ roll brat-pack Western, Jack Palance played the part of LG Murphy in the Lincoln County War. In this version of the story, as indeed in most Hollywood Lincoln Wars, Murphy is the out-and-out bad guy. Palance doesn’t meet his doom till the final reel. Cody was in this one too.
 
The sadistic Curly
 
In City Slickers (Columbia, 1991), Billy Crystal turns 39 and goes off with two other 30-something NYC professionals to rediscover himself on a dude ranch. Jack is Curly, the trail boss. The movie’s predictable and slapstick but it also has some great lines and Jack obviously just loved his part as sadistic driver of the urban cowboys. "Did you see how leathery he was?" says Crystal. "He's like a saddlebag with eyes."
 
Age became him
 
Of course there had to be a sequel. City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold came out in 1994. And as Oscar-winning Jack Palance was central to the success of the whole franchise, he had to be brought back from the grave – so the late Curly has a twin brother, Duke Washburn. There follows some silly story about Curly’s map to find gold, etc. etc., and the film isn’t as funny as the first one. Jack hams it up equally though.

Documentary

Between the two Slickers movies, in 1992 Jack Palance headlined in a TV documentary Legends of the West, written by Roger Galloway. I haven’t seen it but apparently two episodes of the TV series Legends of the West hosted by Palance were combined. The manner in which Hollywood films have treated various Western legends is examined. The first deals with Billy the Kid, saloon performers, and Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and the O.K. Corral. The second deals with Custer, Crazy Horse, and the Battle of Little Big Horn. Palance also seems to have taken the part of Judge Roy Bean.

Buffalo Girls was a 1995 Emmy-winning TV movie adapted from the Larry McMurtry novel, with Anjelica Huston as Calamity Jane and Sam Elliott as Wild Bill Hickok. Jack plays old mountain man Bartle Bone, one of Calamity’s friends, who is asked, along with Jim Ragg (Tracey Walter) to play Lewis and Clark in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Bartle Bone is a rich part and the now elderly Palance suited it perfectly.

Jack Palance’s last Western was Ebenezer, another TV affair, in 1998, when he was close to 80. It was a retelling of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, set in the Wild West. Jack’s performance is totally (and appropriately) over the top. If you like the idea of Mr. Scrooge having a showdown at high noon, then this version is for you. Newt is in it too – Rick Schroder from Lonesome Dove.

Jack died in 2006. He had been in 24 Westerns, good, bad and indifferent, over a 45-year span. He was inducted in 1992 into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.

In the Western might-have-been department, director Elia Kazan promised to cast him as Marlon Brando’s brother in Viva Zapata! (Fox, 1952) but then changed his mind and cast Anthony Quinn instead. Quinn won a Best Supporting Oscar for the film and Palance never spoke to Kazan again. Palance also really wanted the role of Kid Shelleen in Cat Ballou (Columbia, 1965), for which once again the actor who secured the role (Lee Marvin this time) won an Oscar.

To be brutally honest (and I think Jack would have agreed) the majority of Westerns he was in were very poor and his performances in them were often hammy self-parodies. He was good in The Lonely Man and OK in The Professionals but really, his Western rep depends only on his Jack Wilson in Shane and his Chet Rollins in Monte Walsh. City Slickers, though entertaining, wasn’t a ‘proper’ Western, more of a spoof. Most of the rest was pulp. It’s a pity. Still, he was a strong enough presence for you to welcome his name in the titles, even if you are in for a pretty grim B oater.

Palance the man

Palance was an Oscar-winning actor who also cheerfully performed in complete junk. It was a job like any other. You can’t only do Oscar stuff.

But he was evidently a lot more. He painted and sold landscape art. He was also the author of The Forest of Love, a book of poems published in 1996 by Summerhouse Press

He was a vegetarian who owned a big cattle ranch. He was a linguist who spoke Ukrainian, Russian, Italian, Spanish, French and English.

Wikipedia tells us that in 1969 Palance “recorded a country music album on Warner Bros Records. The album recalled the Lee Hazlewood music that was popular at the time. Recorded in Nashville, the album is a playful country rock romp not unlike other late 60's Nashville recordings and featured Palance's self-penned classic song 'The Meanest Guy That Ever Lived'. The album was re-released on CD in 2003.” Hmmm. Jack also performed on Roger Waters’s first solo album The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking in 1984.

And let’s not forget Jack Palance’s greatest performance of all, as Attila the Hun, with Aldo Ray and Broderick Crawford in the Canada Dry commercial. That was worth an Oscar alone.

Jack Palance (1919 - 2006)

9 comments:

  1. I always thought Shane would've been more interesting with Palance in the title role.

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    1. Now that's a thought! Certainly it needed someone less 'soft' and coiffed than Ladd. Nice man, I am sure, but he was wrong for Shane.
      Jeff

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  2. I worked as the production coordinator on Legends of West (the first one, but not the second) and I worked for Igo Kantor and Major Arts. My experience with Jack Palance was totally different - he was funny and pretty bawdy. He was very down to earth, and so by the way, was Brooke Sheilds. It was a really fun, very cheap shoot. I assume Loren Kantor is Igo's son?

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    1. Hi Batsheva
      That's interesting. I would love to have met him. You are lucky!
      I'll leave Loren to talk about relationship with Igo!
      Thanks for your comment.
      Jeff

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  3. Hello, I am desperately searching for either a TV show or a movie in which Jack Palance played the part of Jeronimo or Geronimo (depending on how you spell it.) Both of my uncles remember his performance where he shoots his adopted mother dead and towards the end of the show or film he ends up raising wheat. That's all I have to go on. Despite endless internet searches I only can find bits and pieces of mentions that Jack Palance did actually play Jeronimo in a production that escapes giving me a name for it. If you know any details on this I would be eternally grateful if you could email at: david.tickner@raindance.co.uk Yours truly, a western fan.

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    1. Hello David
      No, I'm afraid that doesn't ring a bell at all.
      Maybe another reader will know the movie concerned.
      Jeff

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  4. please forgive the bad Spelling Android is acting up and I am unable to make the correction sorry about that.Could the movie title be simply Geronimo and the Stars Chuck Connors? It was just on this TV now and I thought it was jack Parlance like you. So I Googleg: nothing. Then I found your question and so I went to This TV please have a look.
    http://www.thistv.com/view/movie/741/Geronimo
    So far is your major spoiler I do not know if I did not watch the film only skim through it. hope this helps you.

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  5. I lost my message so trying again. Could the movie be Geronimo starring Chuck Connors, a Jack Palance look alike? It was just now on This TV. I also thought that the star was Jack Palance .

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    1. Maybe reader David was thinking of that one, United Artists' 1962 'Geronimo' (which had Batman Adam West as a Lt.)
      I'm pretty sure Jack Palance was never Geronimo.
      Jeff

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