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

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Young Guns of Texas (Fox, 1962)


Move over, Dad, it's our turn




 
 
By the early 1960s the Western movie was still alive and people still bought theater tickets to see one but it was definitely showing its age, and TV Westerns were by now all the thing. Studios needed gimmicks to renew the appeal. Color was one way: the first color TVs had been introduced in the US in 1954 but they were expensive. By the start of the next decade, however, sales of color TVs were well up and feature-film Westerns were losing their edge. CinemaScope and variations on the theme were the next way that studios competed with television. It cost more but it offered something that the still small screens at home could not. Other commercial stunts and devices were tried.

Fox had the bright idea of gathering the offspring of some of the big Western stars of the 50s and drawing in the curious that way. Robert Mitchum’s eldest son James, then 22, topped the billing. He looked, talked and walked like his dad (though sadly didn’t have the acting ability).

Alana, Alan Ladd’s nineteen-year-old daughter, came next. She’d had small parts in some of her pa’s movies as a girl but wasn’t really destined for the silver screen – this was her last picture.

Westerns weren't quite her thing

And Jody McCrea, 28, son of Joel McCrea and Frances Dee, tall and handsome like his father but once again without, perhaps, quite the same talent, was recruited too. He also had appeared in some of dad’s movies, quite a few in fact, and was Pa’s deputy in Wichita Town on NBC from September 1959 until April 1960. In 1967 and ’70 he would lead in two Westerns, Sam and Cry Blood, Apache, co-producing the latter.

Jody, Alana, Jim

Lastly, a sort of honorary son: Gary Conway’s mentor and father-figure was Gene Barry. The following year Conway would be Detective Tim Tilson to Barry’s Amos Burke, often getting to ride in the captain’s Rolls Royce Silver Cloud, in Burke’s Law. Conway did a few Western TV shows but this was his only feature in the genre.

I don’t think anyone would accuse Chill Wills in 1962 of being a young gun. He was 60. But I guess they needed some weight. He plays a self-ordained preacher, Jody’s father, a bit of a reprobate in his youth (in fact we are told that some annoyed husbands hanged him and though he was cut down he ever after had a crooked neck, Judge Roy Bean-like). Now he is nervous around ruthless rich rancher Jesse Glendenning but shows he still has the tough stuff in him when the going gets rough – as it inevitably does.

Rancher Glendenning is played by Robert Lowery, another experienced Western hand. He had been in John Ford’s Drums Along the Mohawk in 1939 and would later be entertaining as the political hack governor to whose character John Wayne waspishly gave the name Humphrey, in the otherwise largely unfunny Mclintock! Lowery was in a great number of B- and TV Westerns and did actually lead in Universal’s 1944 serial Mystery of the Riverboat and then some B-Western features.

This Glendenning has a daughter, natch (Alana) who has fallen for Jim Mitchum but daddy disapproves because the boy was raised by the Comanche and no daughter of his was going to marry any damn Indian. Alana and Jim have other ideas and indeed, the Reverend Chill is on hand to conduct a horseback ceremony. Nevertheless, Mr. Glendenning raises a posse of his gunsel ranch hands and sets off in pursuit, quite spoiling the honeymoon.

Dad doesn't approve of her intended

There’s a subplot of Gary Conway’s character searching for an Army patrol. We learn that his brother is commanding it. To West Pointer Gary’s undying shame this brother (whom we never meet, only his corpse) was a Northerner who “forgot what side he was on” and disappeared down to the Confederacy and his Atlanta belle with 30,000 Yankee dollars. Gary wants it back.

It’s nicely shot in Old Tucson and surroundings in good color, so it’s easy on the Western eye. There’s Paul Sawtell music too, some of it cleverly tailored to the scenes (e.g. variations on the theme of Mendelssohn’s wedding march when Jim kisses Alana).

Calamity Jane appears, as Martha Jane Canary, pronounced like the yellow bird. She is appropriately feisty and a crack shot. Not quite sure what she was doing down on the Texas/Mexico border just after the Civil War (when she would have been 13 or 14) but never mind. She is played by Barbara Mansell, not, I fear, the greatest of all the actresses that have played Martha Jane.

Chill looks approving at Calamity after her bath in a barrel

The Mescalero Apaches play a key role but only in that old-fashioned Western way as extras to be shot down in droves by the heroes. One gets Jody with an arrow in the back but a few minutes later he is seen with just his arm in a sling and is able to ride home so I don’t guess it hurt that much.

Without wishing to give away the ending (spoiler alert because I shall) at one point, when the young elopers are being hard pressed by the ruthless posse led by Alana’s dad, Jim Mitchum says there’s going to be a fight and she’s soon gonna be “either an orphan or a widow”. A bit tough for a new bride. Actually, though, in the last reel she will become both. Oops.


It was produced and directed by Maury Dexter and written by Harry Spalding (as Henry Cross). Mr. Dexter started as a teenage actor in Three Stooges pictures and graduated to producing and directing B-movies for Robert Lippert. He was interviewed about Young Guns of Texas in Wild Wild Westerners by Tom Weaver (Bear Manor, 2012), if you’re interested. Spalding also worked for Lippert. He said he used the name Henry Cross because "I wrote 18 original scripts in three years, and I didn't want people to start thinking that the only writer in Hollywood was Harry Spalding!"

Young Guns of Texas is uninspired but watchable.

The Young Guns idea would of course be taken up, notably in 1988 and 90.

 

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Waco (Paramount, 1966)


OK if you're desperate for a Western




 
 
Waco was an AC Lyles production. Andrew Craddock Lyles, Jr. (1918 – 2013), pictured left, was, as you probably know, a film producer for Paramount Pictures, best known for producing a variety of Westerns in the 1950s and 1960s. Lyles said that he was asked by Paramount to do a Western when they realized they had none on their schedule of releases. When Law of the Lawless did well at the box office in 1964, Paramount asked him how many more he could do a year. Lyles replied "five" and he was given the green light to produce more second features for the studio (though not five a year). Lyles filled his cast with many older, experienced actors who were his personal friends. The glory days of the Western were pretty well over and Lyles’s 60s oaters tended to be rather cheap looking, slightly lurid and the actors were often showing signs of middle-aged spread. The glory days of the 1950s were definitely over.

Waco had Howard Keel and Jane Russell topping the billing. Keel, then in his late forties, had been the brawny baritone of MGM who had them swooning in the aisles. He’d been Frank Butler to Betty Grable’s Annie Oakley in the movie version of Annie Get Your Gun in 1950 and three years later he was Wild Bill Hickok to Doris Day’s Jane Cannary in Calamity Jane. He had tried a slightly more serious Western part in Ride,Vaquero! the same year but it was back to form in the dire (but popular) Seven Brides for Seven Brothers the following year. These musicals can only be defined as Westerns by a stretch. He would be Levi Walking Bear in John Wayne’s The War Wagon the year after Waco but in all honesty one would hardly define him as a leading Western actor. He would become well kown on Dallas. Still, he was good enough for Lyles.

Lyles, Russell, Keel on the set

As for Ms. Russell, well, she was ‘only’ forty-five at the time but, without wishing to be ungallant (though I fear that an occasional lack of gallantry is one of your Jeff’s rare faults) she looks rather bizarre in this picture, with a small cosmetically altered head on a, ahem, rather substantial body. I am sure she was a very nice person and all but she was, I fear, another who was slightly unsuited to the Western – though she was doubtless a good actress in other kinds of movie. She had famously started in our noble genre with the (then) sensational The Outlaw in 1943, a perfectly dreadful picture, had redeemed herself in 1948 as Calamity Jane (another one) in the highly entertaining The Paleface with Bob Hope in 1948, and returned in the 1952 sequel (which I think was even better) Son of Paleface in 1952. The same year she was Montana Belle, then she appeared with Clark Gable in the interminable, plodding and turgid The Tall Men. Waco was her seventh and last big-screen oater.

La Russell does her thing

By 1966, though, I’m not sure that the Keel-Russell billing was going to have them waiting in lines round the block to see a B-Western.

The rest of the cast had a certain Western cachet, I guess, but they too were hardly John Wayne. Brian Donlevy got third billing but it was a real cheat because he only had a couple of scenes and total screen time was about one minute. I like Donlevy in other genres (e.g. as Quatermass), and he had a fascinating life, but he was another who never quite convinced in Westerns - unless as a saloon heavy in Barbary Coast, Destry Rides Again or Union Pacific. He was the worst ever and very ridiculous Trampas in the post-war color remake of The Virginian, for example, a lousy Grat Dalton in When the Daltons Rode, hopeless as the Pat Garrettish figure in the 1941 Billy the Kid (the Robert Taylor one), and an unconvincing Quantrill in Kansas Raiders. No, I fear he should have stuck to other kinds of movie.

Donlevy makes a token appearance

Now, who else can I be rude about? Oh yes, Wendell Corey.

Corey (right) was a Hal B Wallis discovery and got a Paramount contract but he tended to be cast in supporting roles and then from the 1960s did a lot of TV work. His career wasn’t exactly helped by an alcohol problem. As far as Westerns were concerned, he’d started second billed but weak in The Furies (produced by Wallis), he’d been Frank James in the B-movie The Great Missouri Raid and then he was brother Jesse (a very unconvincing one) in Alias Jesse James, another Bob Hope comedy. But he really didn’t ‘do’ Westerns, not properly. In Waco he plays a pastor - appropriately, actually, as he was the son of a clergyman. He’s Jane Russell’s husband. They both wear somber black throughout.

John Smith (left) had been Slim Sherman on Laramie on TV (he was the heart-throb of one of my sisters; another preferred Robert Fuller). Here, with a little more avoirdupois, he plays the crooked saloon owner and would-be town boss (all proper Westerns have to have one). Blonds can play villains in Westerns, though rarely goodies (it’s one of the reasons why Alan Ladd was unconvincing in the genre). Smith’s OK, I guess, though the picture really needed that smarmy blond saloon owner de luxe, Lyle Bettger, who was still going strong in 1966 – in fact he was in another Lyles Western, Johnny Reno. One good thing, though: as is only right and proper, the slimy saloon owner has a derringer! Excellent. In fact he does for the pastor with it. No bad thing. Of course the preacher had to croak so that Waco could go off with Jane Russell.

Lower down the cast list we have John Agar in a small part. He had started at the top in Westerns but worked his way down. He married Shirley Temple and was cast by John Ford as one of her suitors in the great Fort Apache in 1948, and also got a part in its sequel She Wore a Yellow Ribbon the year after. Ford, who could be a nasty bully, made Agar’s life hell on the set but John Wayne stood up for him (as he often did; he was a decent man) and later in life gave the out-of-work actor parts in his 60s commercial movies: in fact Agar’s last three were The Undefeated, Chisum and Big Jake. Waco, and Johnny Reno, were the last he did before those Wayne vehicles.

Robert Lowery is the mayor. He had been in John Ford’s Drums Along the Mohawk in 1939 and would later be entertaining as the political hack governor to whom John Wayne waspishly gave the name Humphrey, in the otherwise largely unfunny Mclintock! Lowery was in a great number of B- and TV Westerns and did actually lead in Universal’s 1944 serial Mystery of the Riverboat and then some B-Western features. He is consigned to a bit part here, though.

Further still down the billing we have Gene Evans as the drunk deputy, DeForest Kelley as saloon owner Smith’s henchman and Willard Parker in a bit part as heavy. I always like to see Gene, credited by IMDb with no fewer than 157 Western appearances. Kelley, best known of course as Bones in Star Trek, did quite a few feature Westerns and wasn’t at all bad in them. Parker did a lot of Westerns too, mostly B ones; he was Cole Younger in Young Jesse James and was star of Tales of the Texas Rangers on TV. Waco was his very first outing in the saddle.

DeForest is Smith's henchman

Silent star Richard Arlen, then 67, was wheeled out for a cameo. He plays the sheriff shot down by DeForest in the first reel. In his first talkie Arlen had been Steve in the greatest of all movie versions of The Virginian, the 1929 Gary Cooper one.

And Fuzzy Knight is there too, in a 30-second micropart as the telegraph operator.

Well, that’s enough rambling on about the actors.

The plot is a bit tired, I fear. Emporia, WY is a wide-open town which drunken cowpokes spend their time hurrahing (rather weakly on the part of the extras). The civic elders send for feared gunfighter Waco (Keel), pardoned from the pen by the governor so that he can come and clean up the town. Crooked saloon owner Joe Gore (Smith) and his henchman Rile (Kelley) don’t care for this idea at all – in fact they were the ones who shot the previous sheriff (Arlen) in the back. They set up two Jenner brothers (Parker and Regis Parton) to gun Waco down on arrival – you see there used to be three brothers but thanks to Waco there are now only two. Their mother, Ma Jenner (Anne Seymour) also wants revenge and she’s pretty handy with a rifle. Of course, Waco easily disposes of these. In fact he makes the two brothers strip (off camera, of course, no nudity here) and burns their clothes on Main Street.

Waco is undecided as to whether to clean up the town as lawman or take it over from Gore. A better actor and writer would have made more of this hesitation. It could have been interesting. Steve Fisher (right) did the screenplay. He worked on a couple of goodish Westerns – The Man from the Alamo and San Antone, for example – but mostly did TV work. He was Lyles’s go-to writer for these 60s B-Westerns. He put in a rape (off camera again, naturally) and the girl attacked (Tracy Olsen) then calls herself “filth” and gets a job as a saloon whore. All rather unsavory. Steve liked the word “filth” though because that’s what Jane Russell has to say to describe Waco. A bit harsh.

You see Waco also wants to come to Emporia to renew acquaintance with his old flame Jill (Russell) but she has wed the local clergyman (Corey) so that’s awkward. Still, he seems to get over it quite quickly.

Everyone appears to have a guilty secret. The pastor rode with Quantrill. Waco wasn’t studying law in prison, as he let it be known, but to become a priest. Naturally he doesn’t want this known. Why not? It’s all rather silly. He has one good line: he says to the town elders, “I’m not as bad as people think I am.” Fair enough. Then he adds, “Maybe worse.”

After that it’s just a straight Earpish-tough-lawman-cleans-up-Dodge type picture with a predictable outcome.

There are too many characters and some of it is confusing. Who are all these people?

It was directed by good old RG Springsteen (left). Mr. Springsteen (I don’t think he’s related to Bruce), Bud as everyone called him, started as a wardrobe assistant at Fox back in the silent days and became a mainstay as B-Western director at Republic in the 1940s and 50s. He subsequently moved to TV and directed wagonloads of episodes of Bonanza, Rawhide, Laramie (which I guess is where he met John Smith), Wagon Train et al. He directed very many feature Westerns, though, from Colorado Pioneers in 1945, a Bill Elliott oater, to Hostile Guns in 1967, a late George Montgomery/Yvonne de Carlo flick. Waco was one of his last.

It starts with an unmistakable Lorne Greene ballad which makes Waco sound very like Ringo. It’s reprised at the end, of course.

It was all shot on the Paramount Western town lot, but in color, and it looks rather low-budget. There are about thirty seconds of location shooting of ropin’ ‘n’ brandin’, probably lifted from another movie.

Maybe if this picture had been made a decade earlier, with, say, Anthony Mann or Delmer Daves at the helm and with, I don’t know, Glenn Ford or Henry Fonda as Waco, and maybe someone really good like Ida Lupino or Nancy Gates in the Russell part – and Bettger as saloon boss, obviously – then it might have been really quite good. As it is, well…

 

Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Gal Who Took the West (Universal, 1949)


Yvonne beats the tough guys




 
 
I’m afraid I’m not a great fan of Yvonne De Carlo (left). Famous for being Sephora in The Ten Commandments and not bad as Lily Munster on TV, the Canadian singer was quite unsuited to the Western genre. But she would do them. She made two in 1945, both with fellow Canadian Rod Cameron, Frontier Gal and Salome Where She Danced. They were both drivel – and the second one didn’t even have a comma in the title. I mean, honestly. Two more followed in 1948, Black Bart and River Lady, and they weren’t much better. In 1949 she was the worst ever screen Calamity Jane opposite dreary Howard Duff in Calamity Jane and Sam Bass. It was a highly undistinguished record. About the best oaters she did were the Jim Bridger movie Tomahawk, with Van Heflin as Bridger, in 1951 (at least she didn’t sing) and the Joel McCrea picture Border River in 1954. But it’s only relative.

But enough of this lack of gallantry. I will say that although her second 1949 picture, The Gal Who Took the West, is little more than a silly Western rom-com, it is saved by the excellent performance of two convincing tough guys, John Russell and Scott Brady as the warring O’Hara cousins of Arizona. It also has high Universal production values, with lovely Saguaro National Park locations shot in bright Technicolor by William H Daniels. And there are some very good Western character actors in support. So you could watch it.

I've seen worse. Just not often.

I always liked John Russell. He was, as you know, Marshal Dan Troop in ABC’s Lawman from 1958 – 62 but he also did a lot of big-screen Westerns. This one was only his second (he had been Lengthy in Yellow Sky the year before). He was in Frenchie, Saddle Tramp, Man in the Saddle, The Last Command, Fort Massacre and many others, and always memorable. His last Western was one of his finest, as ruthless mercenary Marshal Stockburn in Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider in 1985.

John woos her over dinner

Scott Brady, Lawrence Tierney’s brother, was famously arrested for narcotics possession in 1957 (charges were dropped and Brady maintained that he was framed) and later he was allegedly involved in illegal bookmaking activities but he was a choirboy by comparison to his boozing, brawling brother. In any case he was excellent as a heavy or tough good-guy. He too was a Western TV star, in Shotgun Slade from 1959 to 61 but he too did a good number of feature Westerns. He was Bloody Bill Anderson in Kansas Raiders (1950), the Dancin’ Kid in Johnny Guitar (1954) and that year started leading in Westerns when he was Billy the Kid in Columbia’s The Law vs. Billy the Kid.

Scott shows her the ranch

Russell and Brady make this picture watchable as the bellicose cousins who both fall for De Carlo. They are believably tough and their fight (staged with no stunt doubles), though doubtless carefully choreographed, looks really good. (Jock Mahoney stunt doubled Brady in other scenes, though).

The cousins are at daggers drawn - or sixguns anyway

It’s one of those pictures that starts in the present day (late 1940s, that is) with a journalist interested in the 1880s O’Hara story plying three old-timers with booze to get the lowdown. Good news: said aged gentlemen are played by Clem Bevans, Houseley Stevenson and (wait for it) Russell Simpson! Clem was always excellent as old-timer, with that white hair and lugubrious face, and as for Russell, well, he was totally great – as John Ford understood. The gimmick is that all three tell their tales (in flashback, obviously) and all three, Rashomon style - though a year before Rashomon - are different. The first has De Carlo as a delicate beauty, the second says she was a drunk and the third that she was a gold-digger.

The three old-timers are not interested in talking - until the whiskey appears

Elsewhere you can spot James Millican as the O’Hara foreman (Clem Bevans’s younger self), John Litel as the Army colonel, Paul Brinegar (Bones from Rawhide) as the uncredited tailor, Jack Perrin as an equally uncredited barfly and, oh joy, Glenn Strange the Great as a cowhand. An excellent line-up.

I must say, to be fair to Ms. De Carlo, her version of Frankie and Johnny was pretty hot.

The whole shebang was directed by the rather grandly named Frederick de Cordova (it was actually his real name), pictured below, Universal’s specialist in musicals and comedies. It was his first Western and he did OK. The following year he would direct De Carlo again in the pirate epic Buccaneer’s Girl. Bet you can't wait to see that one.

Fred

I suppose those of a feminist persuasion might delight in De Carlo holding her own against two alpha males. Maybe.

Who will win her hand?

 
 

 

Friday, April 13, 2018

The Jackals (Fox, 1967)


Stick to the original




 
 
The Jackals is a straight remake of the same studio’s fine 1948 Gregory Peck Western, Yellow Sky. Because it’s such a faithful remake – even many lines of dialogue are identical – there is little to add to what I wrote in my 2011 post on Yellow Sky. Except that the ’67 picture is a very pale imitation.
 
At least the bandits were seven, the Mystical Western Number

It’s unusual in that it is set in South Africa. It was made by Killarney Film Studios, founded and funded in the Johannesburg suburb of Killarney by US citizen Isidore W. Schlesinger. It was shot in South Africa (and, oddly, also in Australia, according to IMDb). The biggest name in the cast and topping the billing is Vincent Price as Oupa Decker, taking the James Barton part of Grandpa (only seventh billed in the original) and I must say he does a good job as the amusing old-timer prospector. Price is of course best known as a horror merchant but in fact he did five big-screen Westerns (and some TV shows) and was rather good in them.

Vincent enjoying himself

The hero of the 1948 picture was of course Gregory Peck as good-badman ‘Stretch’ Dawson, gang leader. Sadly, in 1967 they could only get Robert Gunner, whose eighth-billing in the original Planet of the Apes was about the height of his fame. Gregory Peck he isn’t, I fear.

Gunner takes the Peck part

The Anne Baxter part of feisty granddaughter handy with a rifle was taken by another unknown (at least unknown to me), blonde Diana Ivarson, whose thespian skills were a bit on the limited side.

Ms. Ivarson is Anne Baxter

Bob Courtney, an Englishman who became a South African, took Richard Widmark’s role of the dudish Doc Hollidayesque gambler with a bad lung. About the best after Vincent was Bill Brewer as Stoffel, in the part originally taken by Charles Kemper as the semi-comic-relief fat man.

Bill Brewer as Stoffel

The odd nod to South Africa is made – the stage goes through to Bloemfontein. The Indians of Yellow Sky are now Zulu-like ‘Changas’. We see various examples of African wildlife. But to all intents and purposes it’s a straight Western. The gang rob a bank, wear Stetsons, carry pistols in holsters and so on. The ghost town is very Western.

The music is highly inappropriate, being mostly lounge sub-jazz of an elevator-muzak kind.

That’s about all, really, except to say that in all honesty if you missed this movie you would not be missing much, and certainly not an essential example of the Western genre. But you could watch it for Vincent.

 

 

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Money, Women and Guns (Universal, 1958)


Jock solves the crime




 
 
Jock Mahoney was a great hero of mine when I was a small boy because I was an avid follower of The Range Rider. As an adult I came to realize that he wasn’t the most natural of actors, though he was damn good at riding and Tarzanesque stunts. He stunted and doubled in a host of Westerns but he also did a few big-screen oaters as lead, such as Money, Women and Guns in 1958 (the year Yancey Derringer started). Despite the rather lurid title, it’s a straight Western whodunnit.
 
Quite entertaining

Jock is “the greatest detective in the West”, Silver Ward Hogan, who wears a fancy rig decked out in the precious metal and uses Lone Rangerish silver bullets as well. He is hired to find out who murdered crusty old miner Ben Merriweather (Edwin Jerome). Merriweather was ambushed by three men while working his claim. He got two of them but the third escaped. He just had time to scribble a will on an old piece of a dynamite box. But he seemed to be indicating with his dying breath that one of the heirs was the guilty one. Rather odd. That’s pretty well all Silver has to go on.

There follows a lengthy investigation in which all sorts of characters are visited as inheritors and/or suspects. One of them is a glam redhead, naturally, Mary (Kim Hunter, replacing Barbara Hale, too busy on Perry Mason). She has a young son Davy (Tim Hovey) so we pretty well know right away that Silver, Mary and Davy will become a new nuclear family, just as in Hondo, Yuma, The Tin Star and countless others. They’ll probably go to California. They usually do.

Silver meets his future family

It’s quite interesting in that all the heirs have a guilty secret but they repent and live better lives afterwards, all without violence. The film is episodic, a series of barely related sketches. It was apparently supposed originally to be a Capra-esque Christmas tale with the word dreams replacing guns, and indeed, there are residues of the Christmas spirit with the storekeeper’s sign announcing MERY CRISMAS to his customers and the boy hoping Santa will bring him some red boots (Santa obliges).

Frosty at first but then it's lerve

The picture was written by Montgomery Pittman (who did mostly TV work though he did write the entertaining Rails into Laramie) for director Richard Bartlett, a prolific director and producer of TV Westerns who worked on pretty well every Western TV show you care to name, especially Riverboat and Cimarron City but who also did some big-screen Westerns in the mid-50s, three of them with Mahoney as lead.

Montgomery Pittman

Gene Evans is the sheriff and Lon Chaney surprises by being honest against all expectations. Franklyn Farnum is the (uncredited) postmaster.

One heir, known only as Judas, is especially hard to track down.

It’s a bit short on action but I found it all rather enjoyable, I must say.