He's a bad man
While big color A-Westerns were coming out in 1953, the likes of Paramount’s Shane, MGM’s The Naked Spur and Warner Bros’ Hondo, the humble black & white B-Western was also in full spate. In fact the early 50s were the heyday of such pictures. Allied Artists churned out one Western a month that year and Jack Slade was released in November. It was not the usual fare, though. It is dark, brooding, grim, violent, almost a tragedy.
Nice 50s posters. I like the French one best because it highlights Dorothy's derringer.
It is supposedly based on fact but of course that was a doomed enterprise for a Western movie. The real Joseph A Slade (1831 – 64) was a stagecoach superintendent who gained a reputation as a killer. Born in Carlyle, Illinois, he grew up there and then served in the Mexican War. In the 1850s he was a freighting teamster along the Overland Trail, and in the late 1850s became a stagecoach driver in Texas. He then became a stagecoach division superintendent along the Central Overland route. He helped launch and operate the Pony Express in 1860 - 61. As superintendent, he enforced order and assured a regular supply of horses, thus ensuring a reliable mail and passenger service.
In March 1860, Slade was ambushed, shot several times and left for dead by Jules Beni, the dishonest and drunken station keeper at Julesburg, Colorado, whom Slade had fired. Slade remarkably survived, and eighteen months later Beni was killed by Slade's men after ignoring Slade's warning to stay out of his territory. This affair grew and grew until it was a cause célèbre all over the country. Slade himself, the legend went, had shot Beni to pieces, body part by body part, while he was tied to a corral post. He then cut off Beni’s ears and used one for a watch fob. Before long Slade was a bloodthirsty professional gunfighter with 22 notches on his gun.
In fact only one killing by Slade is undisputed, that of a certain Andrew Ferrin, a corrupt employee, in May 1859. But his ferocious reputation, combined with a drinking problem, caused his downfall. He was fired by the Central Overland for drunkenness in November 1862. He moved to Virginia City, Montana, where after an alcohol-fueled spree he was lynched by local vigilantes on March 10, 1864, for disturbing the peace. His wife, Maria Virginia (maiden name unknown) had his body immersed in alcohol to preserve it so that she could take it back to Illinois for burial but it did not work, the corpse rotted and Slade had to be buried in Salt Lake City, Utah, on July 20, 1864. Such are the facts.
In 1871 Mark Twain wrote an account of his travels in the West in the early 1860s, Roughing It. This highly entertaining book was enormously popular and it greatly contributed to the Slade legend. Twain met Slade and got a real frisson from the encounter. “I found him so friendly and so gentle-spoken that I warmed to him in spite of his awful history.” You get the feeling that Twain loved to tell of Slade’s victims and their grisly fates. It’s an interesting illustration of how even at the time exaggeration was an integral part of Western tale-telling. To read Twain, you’d think Slade was a bloodthirsty serial killer on an unprecedented scale, and we are told with hushed delight about his 26 shootings (Twain added a few more for luck).
Sam Clemens meets Jack Slade
You’d think therefore that Jack Slade would be the ideal subject for the Hollywood Western. In fact, though, there were remarkably few portrayals. That I know of, there are only four. Apart from this AA movie, an entirely fictional Slade is in the 1941 Randolph Scott picture Western Union and there was a 1955 Stories of the Century TV episode about him, almost as fictional, which you can watch on YouTube here if you wish. It’s pretty bad. A certain John Dennis Johnston played Slade in the 1999 made-for-cable fantasy Western movie Purgatory. In 1955 AA came out with a sequel, The Return of Jack Slade, with the same director as the ’53 picture, but this was a story of an imagined son of our Jack Slade and so can’t really count.
In Jack Slade, the story opens with a quote from Mark Twain:
There was such magic in that name. SLADE! A high and efficient servant of the Overland, an outlaw among outlaws and yet their relentless scourge, Slade was at once the most bloody, the most dangerous, and the most valuable citizen that inhabited the savage fastnesses of the mountains.
Then we see a young boy, Joey (Sammy Ogg) in ‘Carlysle’, Illinois who throws a stone at a bully and accidentally kills him. Joey’s loving daddy (Nelson Leigh) takes him away to Texas to avoid the consequences and on the way they meet up with the kindly Tom Carter (Harry Shannon) who takes a shine to the lad. When the stage is held up and a wicked bandit knocks the boy down and shoots his dad dead, Joey swears he will kill all bad men. Tom gives him a Navy Colt to do it with (the boy fires it into the camera) and adopts the youth, who chooses the name Jack now, and he grows up with Tom in San Antone. Well, I suppose it could have happened…
Seven years pass. We now see Mark Stevens as a grown Slade, back from the war (we assume the Mexican War) as an officer, dark of mien and telling Tom how he has killed many a man. Immediately he gets into a fight with Lee Van Cleef in a saloon. “I’m gettin’ mad, soldier boy,” Lee tells Slade. “And when I’m mad, I’m bad.” Of course Jack dispatches Lee pronto but he does seem to draw trouble to him alright, “like a dead horse draws flies.”
Now a Lassiter-ish man in black, Slade joins a wagon train to Colorado, killing some attempted robbers on the way, and goes looking for station manager Jules Beni in Julesberg to get a job, only to find out that the drunken Beni (Barton MacLane) has just been fired by the boss, Dan Traver (Paul Langton), who then gives the job to Jack. So now he’s a superintendent.
Barton is Jules Beni
Not only that, he meets Virginia Maria Dale (Dorothy Malone) and they hit it off right away (as indeed who would not?) He warns her that he is no good but she won’t listen and they are married.
It's lerve at first sight
There are some Clantonite rustlers, the Dantons, stealing company stock. Jack goes to their ranch and casually shoots them all down but finds a frightened boy (David May) cowering in the corner, just the same age he was when his daddy was shot, and Jack wants to adopt him, but one of the rustlers isn’t quite dead and shoots the boy dead. Jack is distraught, and drinks.
It’s all downhill from there on, what with the demon drink and all. Here, though, is where it starts to get a bit more interesting. There is an attempt to find out what makes a killer tick. His wife says, “He kills, he drinks, he hates himself.” But why? Childhood trauma, a violent nature, wartime experience? Or all of them? Mark Stevens does this part quite well. Stevens was an artist and singer who had grown up in England and Canada and got into amateur dramatics in his Ohio home. Darryl Zanuck took him up and a contract at Fox was the result. They darkened his red hair and gave him roles in B noirs. He never won major star status, though he led in quite a few B-Westerns. In the 50s moved into TV, directing Wagon Train episodes. He ended his Western career with a Spanish spaghetti (he was living in Spain, running a restaurant and writing novels). In Jack Slade he is somber, grim, sweat-stained and unsmiling, very far from a hero. “Funny,” he says, “the one thing I hate most in the whole world is a killer. I guess that’s why I don’t like myself too much.”
Beni gets the drop on Slade. Not for long.
Disgruntled and vengeful Reni teams up with some more outlaws, the Prentice boys, and they are gunning for Slade. Slade goes straight to their cabin to kill them. Beni escapes but Slade shoots the Prentices efficiently, though one surrenders. This one plays the guitar and in the saloon had sung (Slade says, rightly, that he has a nice voice) mocking songs about Slade, who clenched his teeth. This fellow, though, comes to a memorable, if gruesome end. Slade hangs him. The director, with a deft touch, has the corpse’s feet strum the fallen guitar as the body swings from the tree branch.
In an unlikely plot twist, Slade’s old guardian has fallen in with the Prentice/Beni gang and Slade shot him when he came out of the cabin. Oops. Back in the saloon, drinking, Slade tells the barman, “I’m a bad man.” It’s undeniable really. Especially because he then maims a little girl in a hit-and-run as he gallops down the street. Though Judge John Litel tries to calm them, the townsfolk rise against him. “I say hang him!” a couple of townsmen cry. They did love their lynching. The mother of the injured girl tells Slade, “This country will be a lot better off when all you gunmen are dead and buried.” That has the ring of truth too. Her speech reminds me of Amy Kane in High Noon, Marian Starrett in Shane or Edith Cabot in Canadian Pacific. They all rail against the destruction wreaked (or is it wrought?) by gun men.
Well, the inevitable showdown, which takes place in the ratty old saloon (one of those in which the bar is just a plank over some barrels), is splendid. The main reason is that Virginia Maria participates – with a derringer! You know how I like derringer Westerns.
Slade must fall. It was Hollywood morality. He was too bad to survive. But he doesn’t fall to Beni. An earlier character is re-introduced to do that job. This character sententiously announces, “So died Jack Slade, a builder of empire in the West.” Well, as we know, that was not how he died, and he didn’t build an empire. In other respects, though, it was an accurate summary.
Dead 'n' buried
As B-Westerns go, I think this one is rather good. It has something. Historical hokum, of course, but when have we let that stop us?
It was directed by Harold Schuster, who started as an actor (he had an uncredited part in The Iron Horse) but become a respected editor. As a director he did Fox’s successful My Friend Flicka in 1943, and Dragoon Wells Massacre in 1957 would be really rather good. Otherwise, though, he only did Western TV shows.
The writer on Jack Slade was Warren Douglas, who also wrote Dragoon Wells Massacre, as well as The Night of the Grizzly and a lot of Cheyenne and Sugarfoot episodes. There are some thoughtful parts to the Jack Slade script.
The picture was produced by Lindsley Parsons, who wrote so many of those 30s Monogram programmers, including the John Wayne ones. He sure knew B-Westerns.
Stevens is good (it was perhaps his best Western), Malone beautiful, some of the support acting – though unstellar – solid. The direction and writing are more than competent. It all adds up to a decent little Western.