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

Saturday, December 16, 2017

THE ACTORS


They rode the celluloid West



On Jeff Arnold’s West we have looked at the Westerns of quite a few actors, both leads and character actors. Others will follow. I thought it might be helpful for readers to have easy access to the career retrospectives, so they are listed below with links and you can always find the list, which I will update as new essays are posted, at the top of the sidebar on the right under aab WESTERN ACTORS.

 
 
 

Thursday, December 14, 2017

King of Texas (TNT, 2002)


Villains by necessity




 
 
You wouldn’t necessarily expect Hallmark and TNT to produce King Lear for TV. But in 2002 they did just that, setting the tale in post-Alamo/San Jacinto Texas and casting Patrick Stewart as ranch patriarch John Lear. Sir Patrick, when not commanding the Enterprise or managing the X-Men, has of course distinguished himself on the Shakespearean stage, though I am not sure he has ever been Lear in Stratford or London. He goes the whole hog in this movie, though, with a very un-Picardian white mane and other Old-Testament-prophet attributes too.
 
Stewart's Lear goes for a Willie Nelson/OT prophet look
 
Stewart’s Lear, however, rather pathetically feels victimized and he is pretty vigorous rather than the senile and doddery figure we are used to. He’s a Texas rancher who has built an empire, a figure we are well used to in Westerns. In oaters such men usually have weak and immoral sons, of course, and sometimes a decent, strong son-like figure who really ought to inherit – and sometimes does. Lear has not had the foresight to produce a son who survives so is saddled with his ghastly daughters.
 
How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is To have a thankless child
 
The director, Uli Edel, known for TV movies such as Tyson and Rasputin, and his writer, Texas historian Stephen Harrigan (Murder on the Orient Express, Take Me Home: The John Denver Story, etc.) took considerable liberties with the Bard’s play but that’s OK. Actually, both had some track record in the Western arena, Mr. Edel having directed Purgatory and Mr. Harrigan having written The Colt, both of which have considerable merit.

Foolish, petulant and egocentric though Lear is, we can’t help feeling he didn’t deserve his appalling daughters, and Marcia Gay Harden, especially, and Lauren Holly give us really foul women with great skill, I thought, as Susannah (Goneril) and Rebecca (Regan). The Cordelia figure, Claudia Lear, played by Julie Cox, has a lower profile and comes across as a straight goody. In the end she is not hanged but falls victim in the battle to her father’s stupidity and disobedience.
 
Scheider excellent
 
The Gloucester figure is neighboring rancher Westover, played by the admirable Roy Scheider (what a pity he didn’t do Westerns) and it is Susannah who blinds him. There’s no king of France, of course, but instead there is Mexican landowner Menchaca (Steven Bauer). Lear has promised his friend Sam Houston that he will not attack Menchaca’s enclave but his ne’er-do-well family have other ideas, prompting invasion and the climactic battle in which Claudia is shot and Lear dies, finally, of grief, we are to suppose.

The king’s fool is rather good; he is the slave Rip (David Alan Grier) who, like all good fools, speaks wisdom, and truth unto power. Grier is known as a comic actor but there’s nothing comic about this fool.
 
Grier is the Fool
 
Visually, the movie is fine with Durango locations standing in for Texas photographed by Paul Elliott and Guillermo Rosas. It’s a good widescreen DVD with high quality picture.

Not the first adaptation or re-setting of Lear for the screen (one thinks of Kurosawa’s 1985 Ran and the 1997 A Thousand Acres), this one is certainly worth a look. Whether it is a Western is open to debate.

 

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

WESTERN FILM DIRECTORS


In the chair


Jeff Arnold’s West has so far posted the following essays on the Westerns of some great directors. You can click on the links below to read them. As I write about others in the future I will update this list, which you will find at the top of the sidebar on the right under aac WESTERN DIRECTORS.

Not that I am one of those auteuristes who believes that a movie is the sole work of a man with a megaphone. I rarely refer to a Western as "Anthony Mann's The Naked Spur" or "Delmer Daves's Broken Arrow". Still, movie directors are obviously key people in the production of a Western and usually have a huge creative input, especially if they exercise control over the cinematography, screenplay and casting.



Can you match the pictures to the names?

 
 

Saturday, December 9, 2017

PIONEERS, LAWMEN AND OUTLAWS


PIONEERS, LAWMEN AND OUTLAWS –
 

Great Western characters in fact and fiction
 
 


So far Jeff Arnold’s West has posted essays on the following real characters of the old West, comparing their true lives to how they have been represented in Western movies.


There are thirty-odd. I will update the list, which you will find at the top of the sidebar on the right, under aad PIONEERS LAWMEN AND OULAWS, as and when I write new ones.

Click the links to read!
 

(You can also have fun matching the pictures to the names...)
 






Thursday, December 7, 2017

Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend (Warner Bros, 1957)


Not Randy's finest hour




 
 
We’re getting mighty close to the end of that long trail which we have been following since May 2010, whose destination is the nirvana of having seen and reviewed all Randolph Scott’s Westerns. Only half a dozen of the sixty-odd remain, and one of those is about to be dealt with. The others, a few of Paramount’s Zane Grey second-features of the early 1930s and Warners’ Sugarfoot (1951) are not currently available either on DVD or YouTube, so they’ll have to wait.
 
Director Richard Bare, on set with one of his stars
 
Yes, Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend was a 1957 Randolph Scott Western. But the first thing to put out of your mind is any idea that this one was on a par with that year’s Decision at Sundown or The Tall T, for Columbia. We are not talking color, for one thing: this was a black & white B-Western released under Warners’ First National brand. And forget Budd Boetticher, too: Medicine Bend was directed, clumsily, by Richard L Bare, who did mostly TV, working on a number of different small-screen Western shows, but whose last big-screen Western this was of only a handful he did, all weak.
 
Actually, the poster is wrong: he doesn't call himself a preacher at all
 
So don’t expect too much. Furthermore, the writing was clunky, despite the contributions to the screenplay of DD Beauchamp the Great. The plot is implausible, verging on the silly. Some of the dialogue is leaden. Quakers feature strongly – they are called Brethren – and so there is much theeing and thouing, but Beauchamp and his co-writer John Tuttle Battle have no idea at all of the difference between the pronouns, so the characters get it all wrong. This was a common fault with thee-and-thou Westerns. One thinks of Proud Rebel, Angel and the Badman, Friendly Persuasion, and others.

But the movie does have interest. For one thing, it was an early Western of both James Garner and Angie Dickinson. It was in fact Garner’s feature Western debut. He plays an Army sergeant recently mustered out along with his pals, while Angie is a prim and prudish storekeeper’s daughter, who prefers to refer to sour-belly pork as sourbosom because it is more genteel. Such idiocies were of course common among women in the nineteenth century but they didn’t have to include them in the dialogue; it does Angie’s character no favors at all.
 
Sourbosom
 
It opens with the three recently ex-military amigos, Randolph Scott, Jim Garner and Gordon Jones, turning up at Randy’s brother’s farm and driving off Indians who are attacking it. Unfortunately, though, the brother is killed because he has bought faulty ammunition, which won’t fire at the vital moment. So Randy vows to go to Medicine Bend, where the farmer bought it, and get his own back on the crooked merchant who sold it. On the way, the three bathe in a pool and some Medicine Bend thieves steal their clothes and horses, so we have the memorable scene of Scott, Garner and Jones walking up to the camp of some religious brethren in grass skirts. The brethren kindly give them some clothes and they decide to keep wearing them once in town, disguising themselves as brethren.
 
He restrains Garner from enjoying himself too much in the saloon
 
See what I mean by a bit silly?

There are some enjoyable character actors in town. Trevor Bardette is the corrupt and lazy sheriff, Myron Healey is a henchman and good old Harry Harvey is Angie’s dad, the honest storekeeper. You might spot Jack Perrin as a customer in the saloon.

The chief villain, who owns the rival store and who sold the dud ammo to Randy’s bro, is second-billed James Craig (left), suitably attired in frock coat and silk vest and sporting a caddish mustache and oiled hair, but missing, sadly, a derringer, which would have completed the ensemble to a T. Craig was a poor man’s Clark Gable at MGM in the 40s but descended into B-Westerns before calling it a day and going into real estate. Fort Vengeance in 1953 was about his best big-screen oater but it was only relative. He is satisfactory as the crook who owns most of the town and wants the rest. Naturally he will get his come-uppance, along with his henchpersons, once Randy and his pards get going. Randy cheats rather, by exchanging his Quaker garments for some black duds stolen from the villain’s store and appearing masked in town from time to time exactly like the Durango Kid.

There’s another lady, a saloon gal with the required heart of gold, Nell (Dani Crayne) and she gets a song, Kiss Me Quick, and later helps out the hero, finding her employer (Craig) too skullduggerous for her liking. You see, it’s all pretty formulaic and by-the-Western-book. Actually, I think Ms. Crayne did a better job than Angie in this one, but then Angie’s part was saccharine to a degree.
 
Brother with a gun
 
Randy seems to have forgotten that he had been marshal of Medicine Bend only two years before, in A Lawless Street. Perhaps it was amnesia.

The basic idea seems to be that the best way to deal with thieves is to steal from them. That may be right, though I’m not sure the great philosophers (or indeed the Brethren elders) would quite agree with its moral foundation.
 
Awkward moment for Jim
 
Of course poetic justice prevails when at the showdown villain Craig loads his rifle with his own ammo and guess what, it won’t fire. I said he should have had a derringer.

I fear that Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend is far from Randy’s best oater. Of course it’s watchable; any Randolph Scott Western is (well, except Belle of the Yukon, maybe). But with the best will in the world (and anyone will tell you I have that, hem hem) I couldn’t give it more than two revolvers, even with Randy in it.

Thee has been warned.

These studio publicity stills...


 

 

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Wild Wild West (Warner Bros, 1999)


Vorsprung durch Technik




 
 
Many readers will remember the late-1960s TV show The Wild Wild West (which I always felt needed a comma after the first wild), which ran for four seasons and a total of 104 episodes. It wasn’t my favorite, combining, as it did, an I Spy vibe with elements of The Man from Uncle and Jules Verney Victorian gadgets. But it was certainly popular.
 
The orginals
 
There were two TV movies spun off from it, in 1979 and 1980, with the stars of the TV show, Robert Conrad and Ross Martin, returning as James West and Artemus Gordon, secret agents extraordinaires to President Grant. The movies were slightly camper, though Conrad and Martin played them straight as ever.

Surprisingly, in a way, Warner Brothers thought in 1999 that the time was ripe for a new blockbuster movie. And although Mel Gibson was first announced to star, they finally got Will Smith to be Jim West, while Kevin Kline took the part of Artemus Gordon. If you are a Will Smith fan you will probably enjoy the movie greatly. Personally, I think it didn’t quite come off. Actually, nor did Will Smith; he kind of apologized for it later.
 
Where there's a Will there's a way
 
It was certainly big-budget. They had the famous train – a sure sign of $$$ these days – and of course late-90s special effects came into their own. The most famous arch-villain of the TV show had been Dr. Miguelito Quixote Loveless, played by Michael Dunn, a dwarf. This time they got Kenneth Branagh to be Loveless and the technicians cleverly cut him in half. This gives rise to a great many rather weak puns as Smith’s Jim West continually refers to his cut-down status. I must say, Branagh was highly amusing as a kind of camp Bond villain, an evil megalomaniac Confederate with Napoleonic ambitions who believes in a Western version of Vorsprung durch Technik.
 
Rather different from Hamlet
 
Kline’s Gordon goes in, as the original had, for a series of disguises, and of course comes up with endless scientific inventions with which to thwart the bad guys, including a flying machine built from Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings. Star of the show is an 80-foot high steam driven mechanical tarantula. Kline and Smith, though, do not hold back, nor do they play it as straight as the originals did. Some of the humor is, um, broad.
 
There wasn't much chemistry
 
Derringers featured large in the TV show and I was very pleased to see Gordon’s belt buckle. He saves the day with what Loveless calls a “pea-shooter” but which achieves a fatal accuracy.
 
Excellent
 
The movie opens with the split-screen titles, paying homage to the famous 60s originals. There are other nods to the series.

Wikipedia tells us that

Robert Conrad reportedly was offered the role of President Grant, but turned it down. He was outspoken in his criticism of the new film, now little more than a comedic Will Smith showcase with virtually no relationship to the action-adventure series. In a New York Post interview (July 3, 1999), Conrad stated that he disliked the movie and that contractually he was owed a share of money on merchandising that he was not paid. He had a long-standing feud with producer Jon Peters, which may have colored his opinion. He was offended at the racial aspects of the film, as well as the casting of Branagh as a double amputee, rather than a little-person actor, in the role of Loveless.

The entry adds that

Conrad took special delight in accepting the Razzie Awards for the motion picture in 1999. It was awarded Worst Picture, Worst Screenplay, and Worst Original Song.

The movie was produced and directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, who started as cinematographer with the Coen brothers and went on to direct the acerbic comedy The Addams Family. I must say that later efforts like Get Shorty and Men in Black were pretty good. There is something slightly Men in Blackish about Wild Wild West.
 
That's no way to treat the President. But the deus ex machina approaches.
 
Some of the critics didn’t like it. Roger Ebert called it “a comedy dead zone. You stare in disbelief as scenes flop and die. The movie is all concept and no content.” Myself, I didn’t think it was that bad.

You could probably watch Wild Wild West. Once. Salma Hayek is pretty sensational.
 
Monstrous

 

 

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Frontier (Netflix, 2016)


War to the knife




 
 
Only a Western inasmuch as eighteenth-century sword-and-musket dramas are ever Westerns, this Netflix series does at least give us badmen and Indians on the (then) far West frontier, so I feel (almost) entitled to review it on this most Western of blogs. We are in the Hudson’s Bay area sometime in the reign of George III (1760 – 1820). The Hudson’s Bay Company has a monopoly on the fur trade, in theory anyway, and its powers-that-be are completely ruthless in their determination to maintain it, while various other interests, local, Scottish and American, are equally decided in their intention to grab a share of the lucrative trade for themselves. That’s about the plot of it.
 
 
It’s a Canadian effort, Netflix making it in association with Discovery Channel Canada and shooting in Newfoundland, Labrador and other Canadian spots (as well as the odd scene in Cornwall, England). Canadian-American Brad Peyton is an executive producer and directed some episodes. Peter and Rob Blackie wrote and produced much of it. It’s all in rather grand “4K ultra high definition” apparently. Anyway, it looks good on my big TV screen.

As with the American series Hatfields & McCoys, made with History Channel, we are probably entitled to a reasonably accurate historical portrayal in Frontier, though it all does seem quite sensational, and I’m not sure if the characters really existed – probably not. Certainly they don’t speak in any authentic eighteenth-century way, for their dialogue is peppered with current usages such as “It is what it is” or twentieth-century ones like “You do not get to walk away” or nineteenth-century ones like “sabotage” or “paranoid”. It must be hard for writers to avoid all such anachronisms. Perhaps they should have read a lot of period texts before sitting down at the computer, to get in the mood and style.

The cast is international. The star is Hawaiian Jason Momoa, formerly of Baywatch, who plays the big, bearded Declan Harp, mixed-race foe of the HBC with an especial loathing for its boss Lord Benton, who used to treat him as an adopted son but was responsible for the death of his wife and child. The main thrust of the series is the war to the knife (literally, unfortunately) between these two men. Benton is brilliantly played by British actor Alun Armstrong. He skillfully invests the character with deeply repellent nastiness.
 
Armstrong excellently repellent as Lord Benton
 
Friend and possibly lover of Harp is the ale-house owner Grace Emberly, played by another Brit, Zoe Boyle, Lavinia Swire in Downton Abbey. Unfortunately, though, in Frontier her Scottish accent is so thick and Mr. Momoa’s diction so poor that I needed subtitles when they were speaking to each other.

There’s another nasty HBC man, a redcoat, Capt. Chesterfield, who supplants Benton and takes over as governor himself, played with a bovver-boy London accent by Evan Jonigkeit, an American, I think. He marries Grace in a business arrangement but they don’t get on.
 
Equally ruthless (or roofless, as he would call it)
 
Then there’s a Yankee trying to muscle in on the fur trade, a certain Samuel Grant (Shawn Doyle). He is no less ruthless and unpleasant than the others, and he has a murderous henchman, Mr. Pond (Greg Bryk), who is also his lover. And no nicer is the cold-as-ice Elizabeth Carruthers (Katie McGrath) who, when Pond murders her husband on Grant’s orders, takes over the company, marries another competitor and starts her own trade war against the HBC.
 
The Yanks are coming, too: Grant and henchman Pond
 
There’s an amusing renegade priest played by Christian McKay. Well, well, there are many other characters. I won’t tell you about them all. Most of them, though, are pretty vicious in one way or another, and few are easy to like. They are all after power, and essentially that is what the series is about. The female characters are all appropriately feisty and in control for 21st-century audiences.
 
The archbishop wouldn't entirey approve
 
There’s plenty of gore, and some sex with moderate nudity. Nothing to get the smelling salts out for.

It’s all quite gripping, in a way, and I was happy to watch till the end, despite the odd weakness. It has little of the quality of Netflix's Godless, though.

Season 2 ends with a classic cliffhanger. I don’t know if season 3 was already signed up when they made the last episode but they more or less have to have another season now. They can’t leave it like that! If they do a season 3, I’ll update this post.

But for now, so long, e-pards all.

 

 

Friday, December 1, 2017

High, Wide and Handsome (Paramount, 1937)


Not as bad as I feared




 
 
In its review of the picture, The Times of London at the time wrote, “As a work of art the film is negligible, but as a musical comedy it is delightfully refreshing.” I must say I agree with Robert Nott, in his excellent book The Films of Randolph Scott, when he suggests that the exact opposite is true: as a musical comedy it is pretty weak, with rather unmemorable and truncated songs, a male lead who doesn’t sing at all and, in the second half, hardly any music, or comedy either.

To me, this makes it a better movie. I must say my heart sank when I put the DVD in the player and settled down to watch. I am not a fan of musicals, at all, and a story about oil strikes and pipelines in Pennsylvania is hardly very Western material either. I only watched it out of a completist desire to see every Randolph Scott Western, including those which are semi-Westerns or barely Westerns. And when the title screen comes up (in black & white) and we are informed that “Adolph Zukor presents Irene Dunne in…”, with all mention of Randy consigned to smaller and later credits, my heart plummeted further. Sorry if you like Irene Dunne, and I know she came straight from stage and screen successes in Showboat (happy for you if you like that kind of thing), but she opens with a galumphing dance which has all the grace of that of a chimpanzee in hobnailed boots and she sings the title song in a voice that is certainly sweeter than the sound of a mule braying in a railway tunnel but not by much. It is not a good start.
 
Dunne serenades a mute Randy
 
She is supposed to be Sally, the daughter of the proprietor of a traveling medicine show. At least said owner is played by Raymond Walburn, amusing as ever (he always gave the same performance, whatever part he was given). And other cast members also lift the picture, especially a wonderful Alan Hale Sr. as the railroad-baron villain Walter Brennan (I don’t know if Walter Brennan ever played a character named Alan Hale but it would have been symmetrical). Hale comes near to stealing the whole show. His henchman is nasty whip-wielding Red Scanlon, excellently played by Charles Bickford (what a fine actor he was). Other memorable actors are Akim Tamiroff as the slimy saloon owner Joe Varese and Irving Pichel as the exceedingly unpleasant puritan Stark who is trying to rid the boom town of its “less desirable” residents, without understanding that he is the least desirable one of all. Pichel was an interesting chap, in fact. He would later direct Randolph Scott in a Western, Santa Fe, and it is his voice narrating She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.
 
Tamiroff is cat-loving saloon keeper
 
But the star of the show, more even than Dunne, is Randolph Scott. Rarely if ever did Scott so throw himself into a part. He plays the country-boy farmer drilling for oil on his land who falls for the show singer, and in this part the character he plays is rather sweet and charming. But gradually he becomes more and more obsessed with the oil until he is not just a workaholic neglecting his new bride, and failing to build the home he has promised for her, but indeed he teeters on the edge of madness, or monomania anyway, as he claws his way to defeating the railroad, whatever the cost, and getting his oil to market through the pipeline he has invented. Scott’s Peter Cortlandt is hard to like, and he is almost as much a ruthless capitalist as the railroad boss he is trying to best. It’s very well done, and as far as the movie is concerned, it starts a rather trite musical but becomes more and more Western as it goes along. Good. Scott himself was proud of his performance, and justifiably so.
 
Rouben Mamoulian, the director, on the set
 
The finale is verging on the weird, for a Western anyway. There’s a last-minute dash to get the oil to market that reminds us of In Old Oklahoma aka War of the Wildcats, a John Wayne/Walter Brennan  picture of 1943 which certainly is a Western. I am sure that the makers of that picture had seen High, Wide and Handsome. But unlike the Wayne one, this film has Dunne, who has left her husband to join the circus, leading a charge of circus folk and animals to save the day and beat the Hale-Bickford thugs. In scenes that appear surreal an elephant lifts Bickford and tosses him to the strongmen and midgets to dispose of. It must qualify as one of the most bizarre come-uppances ever for a Western villain.

The best song, by the way (because I do like a good song in a Western even if I dislike musicals) is when Dunne and ingénue Dorothy Lamour, playing a saloon tart Dunne is trying to help, sing Allegheny Al in an insalubrious ale house. At least we get one memorable tune to hum. The others, even the famous Folks that Live on the Hill, are distinctly forgettable.
 
Lamour (no relation to Louis, sadly) has a good song
 
The picture was not a huge critical or commercial hit. Zukor, who had lauded Oscar Hammerstein fulsomely at the preview, cut him dead when it flopped. Zukor was clearly not a gentleman.

Scott’s contract at Paramount was running out and he had not been a stellar success. He was negotiating deals with other studios. The big-budget The Texans, a more Western Western, with the real Walter Brennan, would be his last Paramount picture.

Ready to give a one-revolver rating and the thumbs down before I saw it, I must say that my opinion changed for the better as the movie progressed, and overall I think you could give this one a go.

So long for now, e-pards.