THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)





"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Monday, December 31, 2012

B-WESTERNS: Universal Pictures


No Hollywood studio produced more B-Westerns than the two B-Western factories, Republic and Monogram.  But three studios among the majors -- Columbia, RKO, and Universal -- were responsible for a large number and they turned out a consistently good product.

At the end of the silent era Universal had Ken Maynard and Hoot Gibson, two of the top movie cowboys, under contract.  In 1930, the films of the two cowboys were only part-talking at the beginning of their respective series that year, but by the middle of the year had become all-talking.

Ken Maynard riding "Tarzan"
autographed picture of a very young Hoot Gibson

Universal, however, like most of the other studios, was not sure what the future held -- especially for films being shot outdoors with the crude sound recording equipment of the day -- and the studio decided that Westerns did not have a future.  The decision was made in 1931 to drop the two stars and to discontinue Western film production.

By the following year, some of the technical problems had been eliminated, or at least lessened, and the studio began a series with the most popular silent B-Western cowboy of them all, Tom Mix.  He had been off the screen since 1928 and had been making personal appearances and headlining a circus.  The series that was filmed in 1932-33 would be the only series of "talkies" for the aging cowboy, though he would later star in THE MIRACLE RIDER (Mascot), a Western serial that was released in 1935.

Tom Mix and "Tony"

When Mix's contract expired Universal turned back the pages of time and re-signed Ken Maynard, who had been busy making Westerns, but had been reduced to working for a Poverty Row independent production company.  His new series would be the best of his career during the sound era, but it would last but one year primarily because he could be a difficult man and soon wore out his welcome.  

Maynard was replaced by another famous cowboy star, Buck Jones, who was probably the most popular B-Western star of them all in the early 30s -- and justifiably so.  He was a good rider, a good fighter, and, as a bonus, he was one of the best actors to specialize in B-Westerns.

Buck Jones and "Silver"

After four years, because of conflict with the powers to be at the studio, Jones went back to Columbia, where he had made his films prior to signing with Universal.  By this time, Gene Autry (and Dick Foran and Tex Ritter) had made the singing cowboy popular, and Universal decided to replace Jones with singer Bob Baker, who in 1937-38 would star in his only series.  The comedic sidekick had also, sadly in many cases, become almost mandatory for B-Westerns and consequently Fuzzy Knight would fill that role, not only in Baker's films, but until Universal got out of the B-Western business in 1946.

Bob Baker (born Stanley Leland Weed, nicknamed 'Tumble') with his horse "Apache."  Because of the shadows, it isn't apparent, but Apache was a pinto.  That's veteran character actor Forrest Taylor to Baker's left.

After just one year, Baker was replaced by Johnny Mack Brown, who had starred in a couple of independently produced series and had been gaining popularity starring in Universal's Western serials.  He would headline the studio's B-Western series from 1939 to 1943, in what would turn out to be the studio's longest running series.  Baker would be kept on for a year in support of Brown and the two, along with Fuzzy Knight, would comprise a Western trio capitalizing on a format that had been established in the Hopalong Cassidy Westerns at Paramount and The Three Mesquiteers series at Republic.  After one year, Baker would be gone and for the next three years actress Nell O'Day would become the third regular in the series.

Johnny Mack and "Rebel"

Nell O'Day, Johnny Mack, and "Rebel"

Fuzzy Knight, Universal's house Western comedic sidekick


There were significant changes made in the Mack Brown series during its last two years.  Jennifer Holt replaced O'Day and the studio reinstated the trio format by adding one of the original singing cowboys, Tex Ritter.  In addition, a musical group, the Jimmy Wakely Trio, was added.

When Mack Brown left for Monogram in 1943, Russell Hayden, who had first gained prominence as Hopalong Cassidy's young sidekick, Lucky Jenkins,  joined Ritter, Knight, and Holt to finish out the year.

Jennifer Holt was a member of an acting family.  Her father, Jack , was a Western star during the silent era and a character actor in many Westerns during the sound era.  Brother Tim was RKO's last B-Western star.


Jack Ingraham has the drop on (L-R) Jennifer Holt, Johnny Mack Brown, and Tex Ritter


Tex Ritter and "White Flash"


http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-YoCyaaq_xRc/T6pxN9TjhuI/AAAAAAAAECc/85O0CPfnoCI/s1600/06_1943+Marshal+Of+Gunsmoke.jpg
In 1943 Russell Hayden (L) replaced Johnny Mack Brown to form a trio with Fuzzy Knight and Tex Ritter (R) in a short-lived series


A new cowboy rode onto the Universal range in 1944. He was a tall, rugged Canadian who was born Nathan Roderick Cox in Calgary, Alberta, but whose stage name was Rod Cameron. He had been knocking around Hollywood for years doubling and stunting with an occasional bit speaking role thrown in. He finally received some notice in 1943 when he starred in two well-received non-Western serials at Republic.  His timing for once was good, because Universal was looking for a new cowboy and he fit the bill.  He could ride and because of his stuntman past he could throw a punch and he looked like a cowboy.  Nothing else was expected, but he was a good actor, too.


Rod Cameron on the left holding a pistol and in the lower right looking through magnifying glass in one of two Republic serials in which he starred in 1943


Rod Cameron, Universal B-Western cowboy

Fuzzy Knight and Jennifer Holt continued in support and Eddie Dew was added to the regular cast.  Dew had been given his shot at stardom a year earlier when he was paired with comedian Smiley Burnette in the "John Paul Revere" B-Western series at Republic.  He failed the test, however, and was replaced by Robert Livingston after only two films.  In fact, he was replaced even before the films were released.  He did star in one Universal Western, in all probabililty because Cameron was unavailable at the time.


In the Universal series, Dew would sometimes be an adversary and would other times join Cameron and Knight to form a trio of heroes.

Also added to the cast of regulars was singing cowboy Ray Whitley and his Bar-6 Cowboys.  Whitley, best known for writing Gene Autry's theme song, "Back in the Saddle Again," filled a role much like Bob Nolan at Republic and Columbia.  He did provide music with his pleasant singing voice, but he also nearly always played an important supporting role, often joining with the hero(es) to round up the outlaws at the end.




Ray Whitley, singing cowboy



There would be only one more Cameron B-Western after this one.


By the time film numbers five and six in the series were being made in 1945, Universal had already promoted Cameron to its low-budget A-Westerns (longer-running times and better production values than the B's), the first three co-starring with Yvonne DeCarlo.  And he would specialize in low-budget A-Westerns for the remainder of his movie career, though he would occasionally star in a non-Western.

Ten years after he became a B-Western star he hit the jackpot in a film for which I will always remember him: RIDE THE MAN DOWN (Republic, 1953).  It was another low-budget A-Western, but it was head and shoulders above nearly all the rest, and certainly the best that Republic ever produced.


Brian Donlevy is the star of this film?  I don't think so.  Look at the poster.


Brian Garfield wrote in his fine book, Western films: A Complete Guide, that "RIDE THE MAN DOWN is one those rare little movies in which everybody does everything right.  It's strictly traditional, wholly slick-magazine formula, but originality isn't the only hallmark of excellence and movies like this manage to transcend the formula without departing from it....There's nothing arty or profound about it, God knows, but RIDE THE MAN DOWN is a fine example of its genre."

In real life Cameron was an extremely brave man.  He proved this when he divorced his wife and married her mother, thus making his ex-wife his stepdaughter.  It's enough to make one's head spin.

When Cameron left the B-Western range for greener pastures, Universal found its next cowboy star already under contract.  He had been appearing in their B-musicals and comedies.

He was born Kirby Grant Hoon, Jr. in Montana and began his professional career as a singer and bandleader.  Along the way he dropped his last name and became Kirby Grant. 

In 1944-45, Grant and Fuzzy Knight starred in a series of seven films, with actress Jane Adams replacing Jennifer Holt in most of them. And although Grant had been a professional singer, he, like Bob Baker before him, did not do much singing in his series.

As it turned out, Kirby Grant was the last Universal B-Western star.  There would be no more -- unless one counts a series of Western musical shorts starring Tex Williams -- and I don't.


http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-_GlWt3TtH_k/T-sW6MWx7_I/AAAAAAAAE_E/AtdxGqBJKz0/s1600/06_Trail+to+Vengeance+(1945)+OS.jpeg
Kirby Grant, the last Universal B-Western star
Kirby Grant, Jane Adams, Fuzzy Knight

The studio could take pride in what it accomplished in the B-Western field, their line-up of stars -- Hoot Gibson, Ken Maynard, Tom Mix, Buck Jones, Johnny Mack Brown, and Tex Ritter --  were among the greatest of all the stars in that genre.  It may not have been art, but it sure was entertainment.

A couple of final notes: when Kirby Grant was dropped by Universal he signed with Monogram and starred in a series of Canadian mountie pictures and then in the 50s he achieved the pinnacle of his popularity when he starred in the SKY KING TV series; and Fuzzy Knight, after continuing to act here and there in movies, also landed on TV in the 50s, supporting Buster Crabbe in CAPTAIN GALLANT OF THE FOREIGN LEGION.



  




 


























Sunday, December 30, 2012

HARRY CAREY, JR.




Harry Carey, Jr., age 91, has died.  It is ironic, but I just finished reading Company of Heroes, his informative and entertaining memoir about his years in John Ford's stock company.  I had also just finished posting my review of WAGON MASTER, the John Ford Western in which he co-starred with friend Ben Johnson and mentor Ward Bond.

He was nicknamed Dobe at birth by his father because his red hair resembled the color of adobe brick, and as an adult he acted in some of the greatest Westerns to ever be filmed.  He was the last of a breed, an immediately recognizable character actor who never disappointed. 


 




































 

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

TOP 21 FAVORITE WESTERNS -- WAGON MASTER



# 13

WAGON MASTER (Argosy/RKO, 1956)


DIRECTOR: John Ford; PRODUCERS: John Ford and Merian C. Cooper; WRITERS: John Ford, Frank S. Nugent, and Patrick Ford; CAMERA: Bert Glennon

CAST: Ben Johnson, Joanne Dru, Harry Carey, Jr., Ward Bond, Charles Kemper, Alan Mowbray, Jane Darwell, Russell Simpson, James Arness, Hank Worden, Francis Ford, Cliff Lyons, Jim Thorpe, Ruth Clifford, Kathleen O'Malley, Don Summers, Movita Castenada, Chuck Hayward, Frank McGrath, Dickie Moore




 DENVER (Joanne Dru):  And don't call me ma'am.

TRAVIS BLUE (Ben Johnson): Yes, ma'am.



The mean, low-down Clegg clan:

SHILOH (Charles Kemper)

LUKE (Hank Worden)

REESE (Fred Libby)

FLOYD (James Arness)

JESSE (Mickey Simpson)


Harry Carey, Jr. (L) rode "Mormon,"  his personal horse, in the film




A couple of young horse traders, Travis Blue (Ben Johnson) and Sandy Owens (Harry Carey, Jr.), have just sold their herd in the town of Crystal City.  They are approached by two Mormon elders, Jonathan Wiggs (Ward Bond) and Adam Perkins (Russell Simpson), who wish to hire them to lead their wagon train to the San Juan Valley in Utah.  The Mormons are making the journey because they have been forced to leave the area because of their religion.

The two young horse traders reluctantly agree to take on the job.  In the course of the journey westward the wagon train meets up with a group of medicine show performers, who have run out of water after also being forced to leave Crystal City.  Despite some reluctance on the part of the Mormons, the performers are allowed to travel with the wagon train.

As they continue your trek westward, the settlers have to contend with weather, topography, Indians, and, most dangerous of all, the Cleggs, a family of five murderous fugitives headed by Uncle Shiloh (Charles Kemper).



Mormons heading West



On occasion Ford enjoyed taking a pause to catch his breath by making a low-budget film for the sheer enjoyment of it.  WAGON MASTER is such a picture and Ford always said that it was one of his favorites.

Ford's stock company is well-represented here, but there is one difference: there is no John Wayne, no Henry Fonda, meaning there is no star.  No stars and shot without fanfare, it seemed to be Ford's response to a world of increasing complexity and a tribute to the abiding values of courage and endurance, loyalty, and faith in troubled times.  It is a return to the simple world of Ford's early Westerns, to the sweat and hardship, detail, and dirt of the lives of the settlers and outlaws.

(L-R) "Steel," Ben Johnson, Joanne Dru
Some have speculated that Ford did not cast any stars because he wished to elevate Johnson to leading man status with this film the way he did John Wayne in STAGECOACH (UA, 1939), a film that was also without stars in its cast.  It didn't happen, though there is no reason why it shouldn't have, for Johnson was very good.

Johnson was a native of Oklahoma who grew up on a ranch and was an expert horseman.  He became involved in the movie business when he was contracted to deliver a herd of horses to Arizona to be used in the Howard Hughes film, THE OUTLAW (UA, 1946).  He was then hired to wrangle the horses and perform some stunts.  For most of the rest of the decade he did similar work.

He came to the attention of John Ford during the filming of FORT APACHE (RKO, 1948) when he saved several people involved in a runaway team and wagon.  Ford rewarded the young cowboy by signing him to a contract.

Johnson was given a speaking part as a member of the posse in Ford's 3 GODFATHERS (MGM, 1948); co-starred with Terry Moore in MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (RKO, 1949), which was filmed by Ford's Argosy Pictures production company; and was cast in a prominent role in the director's SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (RKO, 1949), which led to his starring role in WAGON MASTER.  That same year he excelled in the third film in Ford's so-called "cavalry trilogy," RIO GRANDE (Republic, 1950).

However, something occurred during the making of that film that led to an estrangement between Ford and Johnson to the point that Johnson did not appear in another Ford film until CHEYENNE AUTUMN (WB) in 1964.
     
Johnson was a busy actor throughout the 50s and 60s, appearing primarily in Westerns, and in 1971 he won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for his outstanding performance in THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (Columbia, 1971), which was set in the modern West.

Be sure to watch for the scenes in WAGON MASTER involving Johnson's flight from a band of Indians on what appears to be his favorite movie horse, a magnificent sorrel named Steel.  However, Johnson has said that in those scenes that he was actually riding Steel's double, "Bingo."  It seems that by this time Steel had become so valuable that precautions were taken to ensure that he would not be injured.

 
Harry Carey, Jr., like Johnson, was an important member of the Ford stock company.  And the two would eventually appear in eight films together, becoming the best of friends.

Carey was the son of Harry Carey, Sr., who had been Ford's first star during the silent film era.  Father and son appeared together in only one film, RED RIVER (UA, 1948), but never in the same scene.  When Ford made 3 GODFATHERS, he co-starred the young Carey with John Wayne and Pedro Armendariz and dedicated the film to Harry Carey, Sr., who had starred in Ford's silent version of the film.

Ward Bond first began appearing in films in 1929.  For years he acted in low-budget films, usually as a heavy, or was given only bit parts, usually portraying a thug, a cab driver, or a cop in the more prestigious films.  He became part of the Ford stock company in the 30s, but his roles did not become significant until his role as Morgan Earp in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (Fox, 1946).

From 1957-61, Bond starred in the hit TV western, WAGON TRAIN, which was loosely based on WAGON MASTER.  Some of the episodes of the program were aired after his death.  He died in 1960.  He was 57-years-old.

Joanne Dru's (born Joanne Latitia Lacock) film career got off to a great start with her second film, RED RIVER.  Just a year later she found herself playing the lead role in Ford's SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON, and the year after that, WAGON MASTER.

The same year as WAGON MASTER, she co-starred with John Ireland (her husband) and Broderick Crawford in the classic story about southern politics, ALL THE KING'S MEN (Columbia).  After that she worked steadily but neither her roles nor the films she appeared in came up to the standards of her earlier work. 

Cliff Lyons, stunt coordinator and stuntman extraordinaire, has a speaking role as a sheriff.  He seemed to be too pudgy and out of shape to be a stuntman, but was nevertheless very athletic and earlier in his career was a perfect double for the pudgy, but unathletic, Gene Autry.




REVIEWS:

"Perhaps not a masterpiece, but thorougly enjoyable and one of Ford's own favorites among his Westerns....Leisurely but pleasant.  -- Steven H. Scheuer

"It has been called lyrical, poetic and beautiful; for the most part I fail to find those qualities in much of it, except in Bert Glennon's photography, some of which is stunning.  It is an overrated movie by and large....Still, the two leading men [Johnson and Carey] have great charm and appeal." -- Brian Garfield in Western Films

Like STAGECOACH, the film is also a comedy of social prejudice as well as a hymn of praise of community in adversity...." -- Andrew Sinclair in John Ford

"It is a lovely, leisurely movie, full of romanticized reincarnation of the pioneer spirit, all beautiful images and stirring ballads.  Photographically, it is extremely simple.  The camera moves only once or twice in the entire film...." -- William K. Everson in A Pictorial History of the Western Film

"Once described as an 'intimate epic' and several times named by Ford as his favorite film...[it] is surely [his] most optimistic and uncomplicated Western....Johnson in particular...gives a marvellous, dignified performance.  This is a great film." -- Phil Hardy in The Western

"...very rich in gentle, nostalgic emotion, underscored by comedy....This deceptively unpretentious film is in many ways the high point of Ford's Westerns.  Ford's optimism and pessimism are in perfect balance." -- J.A. Place in The Western Films of John Ford


Character actress Jane Darwell, seen here in a scene from WAGON MASTER, was "Ma" Joad in Ford's THE GRAPES OF WRATH (Fox, 1940). 





Sunday, December 23, 2012

TOP 21 FAVORITE WESTERNS -- SEVEN MEN FROM NOW



# 14

SEVEN MEN FROM NOW (Batjac/WB, 1956)


BEN STRIDE (Randolph Scott):  What happened up there?

BILL MASTERS (Lee Marvin):  Payte Bodeen...I killed him.

BEN STRIDE:  Why?

BILL MASTERS:  Why not? 


DIRECTOR:  Budd Boetticher;  PRODUCERS:  Andrew McLaglen,  Robert E. Morrison, John Wayne;  WRITER:  Burt Kennedy;  CAMERA:  William H. Clothier

CAST:  Randolph Scott, Gail Russell, Lee Marvin, John Larch, Walter Reed, Donald Barry, Stuart Whitman, Pamela Duncan, John Berradino, Cliff Lyons, Chuck Roberson, Fred Graham 


SEVEN MEN FROM NOW was the first teaming of director Budd Boetticher and star Randolph Scott -- and it almost didn't happen.  The film was produced by John Wayne's Batjac production company and it was his intention to star in the film.  The fact that he had a conflict and did not leads to one of the big "what ifs" in Western film history.  What if he had starred in the film and had been directed by Boetticher?  Who knows what that may have led to.  One possibility is that Boetticher might never have teamed with Randolph Scott to film seven outstanding Westerns, with at least four of them considered to be classics in the genre.

Beginning with the next film in the series, THE TALL T (Columbia, 1957),  Harry Joe Brown would take over as producer, and Ranown, Scott and Brown's production company that had been making Scott's pictures, would take charge of five of the final six.  The one exception, and the weakest of the Scott-Boetticher films, was WESTBOUND (1959), which was produced by Warner Brothers.




This movie is a precursor in many ways to what would follow in the Scott-Boetticher-Brown collaboration.  It is a “journey” Western; Scott is a loner seeking vengeance who finds himself against his will forced to take on the task of protecting a woman; and the villain (in this case, Marvin) receives as much screen time and as many lines of dialogue as Scott; and it is shot almost entirely on location in and around Lone Pine, California, which was Boetticher's favorite location.  In addition, the screenwriter was Burt Kennedy, who was responsible for the four best scripts in the series.

Ben Stride (Scott) is an ex-sheriff in Arizona who is on the vengeance trail looking for the seven men who killed his wife while holding up a freight office in Silver Springs.  Stride had lost his re-election and his pride kept him from taking the job of deputy that was offered him.  His wife was forced to take a job that put her in the line of fire when the holdup and shoot-out occurred.  Therefore Stride feels partly responsible for her death.

The stage for the rest of the movie is set in its opening scene when Stride, during a torrential thunderstorm, approaches two of the men he is seeking. After that it was “five men from now.”  It was one of the two best scenes in the film.


Later he hooks up with greenhorn John Greer (Reed) and his wife (Russell), who are traveling by wagon to California.  Since it is apparent that they will never get there on their own, he agrees to travel part of the way with them.  Along the way, they pick up more traveling companions, a couple of hardcases (Marvin and Barry) who are looking for the same men as Stride, but for different reasons.  They want the gold that the outlaws stole.

The other great scene in the movie occurs inside the Greer’s wagon, also during a thunderstorm, when Masters (Marvin) taunts both Stride and Greer in the presence of Mrs. Greer.  It was a scene-stealing performance by Marvin, who was in the process of perfecting a screen persona that would make him one of the great villains in both Western and non-Western roles.

This was not the first time that Marvin found himself playing a badman in a Randolph Scott film.  In HANGMAN'S KNOT (Columbia, 1952), he portrays a violent character very much related to his character in SEVEN MEN FROM NOW, but without the leavening humor he brings to the latter role.  In between the two Scott Westerns Marvin would appear in THE WILD ONE (Columbia, 1953) and BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (MGM, 1955) in which he would receive good notices for his bad guy characterizations. 


Randolph Scott first appeared on the screen in 1929.  His first starring roles were in well-crafted, low-budget Westerns, many of which were based on Zane Grey stories. But over the years he appeared in a variety of films, including a number of Westerns.    

WESTERN UNION (Fox, 1941), also based on a Zane Grey story, was a landmark Western in which he received favorable critical reviews for his portrayal of a "good-badman."  Beginning with ABILENE TOWN (UA) and BADMAN'S TERRITORY (RKO) in 1946, he would for the rest of his career, with only a couple of exceptions, appear only in Westerns.  And along the way there would be some outstanding ones, such as CORONER CREEK (Columbia, 1948),  THE WALKING HILLS (Columbia, 1949), and MAN IN THE SADDLE (Columbia, 1951).  Harry Joe Brown was the producer on all three of those as well as the other Westerns that Scott starred in during the years prior to SEVEN MEN FROM NOW.

By 1956, when SEVEN MEN FROM NOW was released, Scott was 58-years-old, but he didn't look it.  Tall and lean and weathered, he looked even more like an authentic westerner than he did earlier in his career.  And he sounded like one, too.  John Wayne could have played the role, but it is hard to see how he could have done it any better than Scott.  Furthermore, if Wayne had been the star, Marvin's role might have been reduced and that would have been a detrimental development.

Lee Marvin and Don Barry, two unwanted traveling companions


Gail Russell, in her early thirties, was still beautiful in 1956; however, time had not been good to her.

Born in 1924, her first screen role came in 1943.  A few years later John Wayne chose her to co-star with him in ANGEL AND THE BADMAN (Republic, 1947) and WAKE OF THE RED WITCH (Republic, 1948).  But Russell was a troubled soul who suffered from a severe case of shyness, insecurity, and stage fright which she attempted to combat by resorting to alcohol.  As a result she became addicted.


Gail Russell and Randolph Scott
 

She had been off the screen for five years when Wayne attempted to resurrect the career of his friend by choosing her to play opposite him in SEVEN MEN FROM NOW.  Wayne had a conflict and consequently Russell found herself co-starring with Scott.  She would appear in only three more films, the last in 1961.  She died that year as a result of malnutrition and liver damage brought on by her addiction to alcohol.  She was 36-years-old.

Don Barry first gained prominence by starring in the popular Republic western serial, ADVENTURES OF RED RYDER (1940).  From 1940 to 1945, he starred in a B-Western series for the same studio, always billed as Don "Red" Barry, a nickname that he hated.  After his Republic series ended he starred in low-budget films, mostly Westerns, and became an extremely busy character actor in movies and on television.  His role in SEVEN MEN FROM NOW ranks among his best.

Don "Red" Barry as Red Ryder riding double with Tommy Cook as Little Beaver



SEVEN MEN FROM NOW was filmed on location in the Alabama Hills near Lone Pine, California.  The hills were part of the Sierra Nevada range and Mt. Whitney can often be viewed in the distance in films shot there.  Boetticher would later return there to film other movies in his favorite location.


REVIEWS:

"Solid Western....Marvin is terrific." -- Leonard Maltin

"...it's a thrill to watch a filmmaking team that knows exactly what they wanted, and for them, practice made perfect." -- Elvis Mitchell in The New York Times

"Marvin [is] a magnetic, not-so-bad complement to Scott's not-so-good hero." -- Michael Atkinson in The Village Voice
  







 


 

     


 










































Thursday, December 20, 2012

TOP 21 FAVORITE WESTERNS -- RAMROD

      


# 15

RAMROD (Sherman/UA, 1947)

Sometimes the hand-coloring of movie posters got out of hand -- especially since this is a beautifully filmed black-and-white movie.


"From now on, I'm going to make a life of my own.  And being a woman, I won't have to use guns." -- Connie Dickason (Veronica Lake)


DIRECTOR:  Andre deToth; PRODUCER: Harry Sherman;  WRITERS: Jack Moffit, Graham Baker and Cecile Kramer from a novel by Luke Short; CAMERA: Russell Harlan

CAST:  Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, Don DeFore, Arleen Whelan, Preston Foster, Charlie Ruggles, Lloyd Bridges, Ian McDonald, Jeff Corey, Donald Crisp, Hal Taliaferro (Wally Wales); Ray Teal, Sarah Padden, Nestor Pavia, Wally Casell, Trevor Bardette

Luke Short ((l908-1975) was one of our finest Western novelists, especially adept at plotting complex range war stories such as Ramrod, Blood on the Moon, Ride the Man Down, Coroner Creek, and Vengeance ValleyAll were filmed, and the first four are excellent movies, but RAMROD is the best of the lot.

In RAMROD a willful, ambitious woman (Lake) stirs up a range war by attempting to introduce sheep into cattle country and thereby coming into conflict with two land barons, her father (Ruggles) and her would-be suitor (Foster).  McCrea is her ramrod (foreman), a saddle-bum attempting to recover from alcoholism brought on by two heartbreaking tragedies in his personal life.

The plot summary makes it sound as though this is a fairly standard Western -- but it isn't.  It breaks new ground in a number of ways.  To begin with, the driving force in the range feud and the story plot is a woman -- Connie Dickason (Lake).  Later that would not have been all that unusual, but it was so in 1947.

The photography has to be mentioned, also.  This is a moody, psychological film and it is fitting that Russell Harlan's shadowy and atmospheric photography enhances and supports the effect that director Andre deToth was attempting to create.  Short's story, deToth's direction, and Harlan's camera combine to make RAMROD one of the first noir Westerns, which also differentiates it from the standard Western movie fare of the day.




Another significant fact about RAMROD is that location shooting took place in beautiful and majestic Zion National Park in Utah.  That was important in giving the film a look out of the ordinary because not that many movies have been made there and it lacks the familiarity of Monument Valley or Death Valley or the Dakota Badlands or Lone Pine and other commonly used locations.  One would think that a lot of movies might be shot there since it possesses such impressive scenery.  The lack of movies being filmed there might have something to do with the fact that its narrow valleys are rather confining and do not lend themselves to the kinds of panoramic shots that we see in the movies filmed in the locations mentioned above.

However, IN OLD ARIZONA (Fox, 1929), the first outdoor "talkie," was not filmed in Arizona, but in Zion.  A couple of other notable Westerns had some scenes shot there as well -- BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (Fox, 1969) and JEREMIAH JOHNSON (WB, 1972).


Could you picture this actress in a Western?
Another unusual aspect of RAMROD is its offbeat casting.  Who would have ever thought of casting Veronica Lake in a Western?  Well, apparently the director, Andre deToth, since he was married to the actress at the time.  And who would have guessed that she would be as good as she was in the role?  Maybe deToth?

And we get a different Charlie Ruggles, too.  His is a straight dramatic role with none of the endearing and befuddled humor that we had come to expect from him.

Don DeFore was nearly always cast as the star's likable wisecracking buddy who never gets the girl.  Here he plays a similar role, but with an important difference: it is a Western (his only one) and beneath that sunny wisecracking exterior beats the heart of a killer.  Who would have thought he could have pulled that off -- especially when five years later he would become best-known as Ozzie's neighbor and wisecracking buddy, Thorny, on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet?  And then later, in 1961, he became George Baxter, the affable man of the house in support of Shirley Booth in yet another sitcom, Hazel.

Thorny and George Baxter were still in the future when RAMROD was filmed, so it would not have been as surprising to the audiences of that day as it would be later to see him in that role, but it must have been surprising even then just how good he was in an important role in a Western movie.  


Could you picture this actor as a gunslinger?


Of course there was nothing offbeat or surprising about casting Joel McCrea in the title role.


McCrea made his first film appearance in 1924 and was given his first lead role in THE SILVER HORDE (RKO, 1929), an outdoor adventure yarn set in Alaska.  For the next fifteen years the versatile actor went on to star mostly in comedies and melodramas, but also an occasional Western.  But beginning with BUFFALO BILL (Fox, 1944), McCrea would star almost exclusively in Western films.

At the time of the filming of RAMROD, McCrea was in his early forties.

In a 1978 interview, McCrea was quoted as saying: "I liked doing comedies, but as I got older I was better suited to do Westerns. Because I think it becomes unattractive for an older fellow trying to look young, falling in love with attractive girls in those kinds of situations...Anyway, I always felt so much more comfortable in the Western. The minute I got a horse and a hat and a pair of boots on, I felt easier. I didn't feel like I was an actor anymore. I felt like I was the guy out there doing it."

After RAMROD McCrea starred in many entertaining Westerns, with at least three falling into the classic or near classic category:  FOUR FACES WEST  (Sherman/UA,1948); COLORADO TERRITORY (WB, 1949); and RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY (MGM, 1962).

In 1976, the seventy-year-old McCrea appeared in one final film, starring in yet another Western, MUSTANG COUNTRY (1976).  That would be it.  After an acting career that had lasted more than a half century, he retired.

 Hal Taliaferro was an authentic westerner who was born in Wyoming and grew up on a Montana ranch.  Beginning in the silent era and continuing into the early sound-era, he starred in cheaply-made independently-produced B-Westerns under the name of Wally Wales.


B-Western cowboy Wally Wales (Hal Taliaferro)
After Taliaferro's B-Western starring days ended he became one of the busiest character actors in the business, appearing in hundreds of films, primarily B-Westerns and serials, mostly at Republic, nearly always as a villain.  And in his Western roles he always looked and sounded like what he was, a man of the West.

In the history of Western movies, Harry "Pop" Sherman was one of the more interesting producers.  Throughout most of his career he was able to independently produce films, that were then released and distributed by major studios.

He is best-known for creating the production company that in 1935 began filming the Hopalong Cassidy B-Western series, starring William Boyd.  During those years, however, he produced a number of one-shot B-Western specials that were always well-made and entertaining.  In the mid-'40's, he turned over production of the Hoppy series to William Boyd and ventured into A-Western territory when he produced BUFFALO BILL (1944) for Fox.  What followed was even better, two superior Westerns made by his production company: RAMROD (1947) and FOUR FACES WEST (1948).  Joel McCrea starred in all three.


Andre deToth began directing films in his native Hungary.  His first American film was released in 1943.  RAMROD was his first Western and it was also his first film to garner widespread notice.  During the rest of his career he often returned to the genre, especially in six entertaining films starring Randolph Scott,  beginning with MAN IN THE SADDLE (Columbia, 1951).


REVIEWS:

"McCrea gives a fine performance in the title role in this superior Western...but it is Lake...who most impresses....deToth's strong sense of evil informs the film from its bewildered ending to the end, intensifying our sense of the characters not being in control of themselves." -- Phil Hardy in The Western

"[Producer] Sherman's standards were high, and at least two of his most ambitious films, RAMROD...and FOUR FACES WEST...both starring Joel McCrea, were unusually appealing, dramatically strong, intelligently written, and if not major artistic or box-office landmarks, then certainly among the most satisfying Westerns of the period." -- William K. Everson in A Pictorial History of the Western Film

"...tense, complex, fast and excellently plotted little classic....It's excellent -- and still highly entertaining; it's hardly dated at all....in some ways the most 'classic' of all ranchland Westerns; a splendid little Luke Short film, consistently rewarding." -- Brian Garfield in Western Film: A Complete Guide