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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Sunday, July 28, 2013

DAY OF THE OUTLAW (Security/UA, 1959)


DIRECTOR: Andre deToth; PRODUCER: Sidney Harmon; WRITER: Philip Yordan from novel by Lee E. Wells; CINEMATOGRAPHY: Russell Harlan

CAST: Robert Ryan, Burl Ives, Tina Louise, Alan Marshal, Venetia Stevenson, David Nelson, Nehemiah Persoff, Jack Lambert, Frank DeKova, Lance Fuller, Elisha Cook, Jr., Dabbs Greer, Betsy Jones-Moreland, Helen Westcott, Donald Elson, Robert Cornthwaite, Michael McGreevey, George Ross, William Schallert, Arthur Space, Jack Woody, Paul Wexler

Is there any doubt what this poster is selling?  It was a case of false advertising since nothing remotely approaching this scene appeared in the film.  Maybe it was left over from the previous year's steamy GOD'S LITTLE ACRE, which also starred Ryan and Louise, and was made by the same production company that made DAY OF THE OUTLAW.

The film has three assets: 1). Robert Ryan; 2). Burl Ives; and 3). Russell Harlan.  Unfortunately, the plot isn't one of them.

The story begins as a conventional range land conflict between ranchers and homesteaders. There is, however, another complication.

Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan):  "I'm through being reasonable. I told Crane what would happen if he strung that wire."

Dan (Nehemiah Persoff):  "Blaise, we've pulled over some hard hills together, and I've rode behind you all the way. But a wire fence is a poor excuse to make a widow out of Crane's wife. What have you been thinking about all winter -- Crane's barb wire fence, or Crane's pretty wife, Helen?"

Helen Crane (Louise) is the woman that Starrett loved, but he let her get away.  And now she is married to Hal Crane (Marshal), the leader of the homesteaders.

Helen has just told Blaise that she no longer loves him.  I don't know if I believe her or not.  I know Blaise doesn't.

It could have been a Luke Short story, something like Ride the Man Down, for example, one of the many range land conflict stories he wrote or maybe Ernest Haycox; Man in the Saddle comes to mind.  It is set in the aptly named village of Bitters, Wyoming.  Early on, rancher Blaise Starrett (Ryan) lectures the homesteaders about what he and his partner, Dan (Persoff), had to do twenty years earlier in order to make the valley a safe place to live in and how the homesteaders think that they can now move in, fence off the range, and take away what rightfully belongs to the cattlemen.

"You got a big mouth, farmer. You got big eyes, too. You came here a year ago in your broken down wagon looking for a choice spot to settle and you think you found it. But you never stopped to think what made it such a good place. When Dan and I came here, Bitters was a nesting place for every thief and killer in the territory. A man's life wasn't worth the price of a bullet. No woman was safe on the streets, let alone in a lonely farmhouse. It took more than a big mouth to get rid of the lice who infested every bend of the road you ride so safely on. I'm not saying Dan and I did it alone, but we did more than our share. We hunted them down in the freezing cold while you sat back in the East hugging your pot-bellied stove. Nobody thanked us. Nobody paid us. We did it because we felt we belonged. We earned the right to belong. And all you've done is ride in here and put down your stinking boots. And now you tell us that you belong and we don't. Mr. Crane, you said you'd fight to keep what you want. Well, I've been doing that for twenty years and I intend to keep doing it, and no pig-belly farmer is going to stop me!" -- Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan)

It is the kind of declaration that the rancher Ryker could have made in SHANE (Paramount, 1953)In fact, he did.  Since that story was also about a rancher-homesteader conflict in Wyoming, DAY OF THE OUTLAW, up to this point, might have been written by Jack Schaefer.

Starrett confronts the homesteaders
However, the plot makes a complete turnaround at about the twenty-minute mark of this ninety-minute movie.  It occurs when the showdown between Starrett and the homesteaders is interrupted by the appearance of a gang of seven outlaws (naturally; gangs nearly always consisted of seven members) led by a former army officer named Jack Bruhn (Ives).  The gang is being pursued by the cavalry and is looking for a place to rest.  Only three members of the gang possess any redeeming qualities whatsoever.  The other four are unredeemable.  These four are not only looking for a place to rest, but are also seeking liquor and female companionship, probably in that order.

With the appearance of the outlaws, the rancher-homesteader conflict not only becomes secondary to the plot, it becomes completely meaningless and almost non-existent.  Suddenly it becomes a conflict between the community (rancher and homesteaders) and a  band of murderous outlaws. 

Rancher Starrett finds himself in the same position that he was in twenty years ago.  He must once again find some means of ridding the community of forces that might very well destroy it.  Complicating matters is the fact that he must depend on the co-operation of Captain Bruhn in order to carry out his mission, for it is only the Captain's iron hand of discipline that keeps four of the band -- Tex (Lambert), Pace (Fuller), Denver (DeKova), and Vause (Wexler) -- from going on a murderous rampage and having their way with the four women in the town.  Only the oldest gang member, Shorty (Woody), and the youngest, Gene (David Nelson), can be trusted to act in anything approaching a civil manner.  However, Captain Bruhn has been badly wounded and there is no medical doctor in the community, only a veterinarian (Greer) who is charged with the responsibility of ensuring that the Captain survives.

three bad men (L - R): Tex (Jack Lambert), Captain Bruhn (Burl Ives) and Pace (Lance Fuller)

Despite the abrupt change in the storyline, which can be startling and somewhat disconcerting, this is still a conventional Western. It just happens to have two separate and distinct conventional plots -- one that accounts for the first twenty minutes and one that takes over for the remaining seventy minutes. In that sense, it is, of course, unconventional.

Robert Ryan broke into films in 1940, but it took almost a decade before anybody noticed. His breakthrough role came as an anti-Semitic soldier in CROSSFIRE (RKO, 1947). For his performance, he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. It was his only nomination.

Under contract to RKO, Ryan appeared in a number of Westerns, primarily in supporting roles. Released a few months before CROSSFIRE was TRAIL STREET (RKO), which found Ryan as the bad man who attempts to prevent Bat Masterson's (Randolph Scott) efforts to tame Liberal, Kansas. A year later, in RETURN OF THE BAD MEN (RKO), U.S. marshal Scott takes on what seemed to be every desperado that ever rode the outlaw trail in the Old West. Ryan received second billing as "The Sundance Kid."

In 1949, RKO finally saw fit to cast Ryan in a starring role -- and it was a good one. THE SET-UP is one of the best films about professional boxing ever produced. In no small part, that was due to Ryan's performance as a washed-up fighter. Adding to the authenticity of the film was the fact that Ryan had been a champion boxer during his college years.

Ryan's first starring role in a Western occurred in BEST OF THE BADMEN (1951), the third RKO production to feature an all-star line-up of Western desperadoes. However, it was in supporting roles that Ryan seemed to do his best work in Westerns. Among the best examples are his villainous roles in THE NAKED SPUR (MGM, 1953) and, if we can count it as a Western, BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (MGM, 1955). In 1956, he got to play a good Westerner, a lawman, in THE PROUD ONES (Fox).

After DAY OF THE OUTLAW (1959), he gave outstanding performances in a number of superior Westerns. The three that stand out are: THE PROFESSIONALS (Columbia, 1966), HOUR OF THE GUN (Mirisch/UA, 1967) and THE WILD BUNCH (WB, 1969).

Manohla Dargis wrote in the New York Times, "[Ryan] was known for his villains, and it is the complexity of these characters, their emotional and psychological kinks, that elevated even his lesser roles." I would say that sounds just about right.

Captain Bruhn and Blaise Starrett, adversaries or co-conspirators?  Gang member, Gene (David Nelson), is in the background.

Burl Icle Ivanhoe Ives gained prominence as a singer, specializing in folk ballads, before he became an actor. Moreover, even after he made it as an actor he continued to pursue a singing career that resulted in several hit records.
Four of Ives' first five screen roles were in Westerns. His debut was as a singing cowboy in SMOKY (Fox, 1946), followed by roles in GREEN GRASS OF WYOMING (Fox, 1948), STATION WEST (RKO, 1948), and SIERRA (UI, 1950).  For his role in THE BIG COUNTRY (UA, 1958), a big-budget Western directed by William Wyler, he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. It was the only nomination of his career. In that same year he brought one of his defining roles to the big screen, one that he had originated on Broadway, that being "Big Daddy" Pollitt in CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (MGM).

After DAY OF THE OUTLAW the following year, Ives appeared in only one other Western, THE MCMASTERS (1970).

At 6'1" and in the neighborhood of 300 lbs, Ives was an imposing physical presence and intimidating personality on the screen. And this is much in evidence in DAY OF THE OUTLAW. He and Ryan (and Russell Harlan) saved the film. Brian Garfield wrote in Western Films: A Complete Guide that "Ryan and Ives are utterly superb."

Tina Louise had been acting on TV for a couple of years and had appeared in a Broadway play when she made her movie debut in GOD'S LITTLE ACRE (Security/UA, 1958). The controversial movie was based on an even more controversial Erskine Caldwell novel that had been published twenty-five years earlier. It was controversial for both its sexual content and its sympathy for striking textile workers in the South during the Great Depression.
In the film, Louise was perfectly cast as Robert Ryan's sexy, sultry daughter-in-law. It was an auspicious beginning. She won a Golden Globe for "most promising newcomer" and it seemed that the sky was the limit for the red-haired, green-eyed beauty. However, something happened on the way to Gilligan's Island.

She was a very busy actress the following year, appearing in three films, all Westerns. First to be released was a contemporary Western, THE TRAP (Paramount), followed by THE HANGMAN (Paramount), and then DAY OF THE OUTLAW.

I've never seen THE TRAP, and though I have seen THE HANGMAN, I don't remember enough about it to pass judgment. But I believe that she was miscast in DAY OF THE OUTLAW, and her performance indicates that she may have known that, too. There is no way that she is believable as a homesteader's wife. She appeared to be far too glamorous to have spent the preceding year on a homestead. At any rate, once the film's plot abruptly changed her role was greatly diminished.

After such a promising start as a serious actress, and with her movie career stalled, she became a pop culture icon on one of the silliest sitcoms ever to see the light of day. As movie star Ginger Grant, she became a household name as one of the people stranded on Gilligan's Island. However, not only was Ginger Grant, fictional movie star, stranded on the island, so was Tina Louise, actress. She would never again be taken seriously as an actress.

Alan Marshal (one l), as Hal Crane the leader of the homesteaders, is even more miscast than Tina Louise. He doesn't look like a homesteader; he doesn't sound like a homesteader; and he certainly doesn't dress like a homesteader. He could have been a banker, but never a farmer.

Venetia Stevenson is the town's youngest female. She is attracted to Gene, the youngest and most decent member of the outlaw gang, who is portrayed by David Nelson. The attraction is mutual. The couple is attractive. Unfortunately, neither was much of an actor despite the fact that both grew up in show business families. Nelson, of course, was a featured member of the TV cast in the long-running (fifteen years) sitcom, The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, in which he co-starred with his father, mother, and brother. However, I never thought he, or brother Ricky, ever looked comfortable in front of the camera. (The same year that David was in DAY OF THE OUTLAW, Ricky had an important role in a bigger budget, more prestigious Western: RIO BRAVO [WB, 1959]. But neither film did anything for either brother's acting career.)

David Nelson and Venetia Stevenson

Two very good actors, Nehemiah Persoff and Elisha Cook, are wasted in the film. Persoff even got special billing in the opening credits ('and as Dan, Nehemiah Persoff'). He doesn't have much to do during the rancher v. homesteader portion of the film and nothing once the outlaws appear on the scene. Cook was even more wasted. He hardly makes an appearance and has practically no dialogue. Maybe his scenes ended up on the cutting room floor.

Jack Lambert, one of those veteran characters with a familiar face that people have a time putting a name to, gives the best and most believable performance of any of the supporting players. With a face that only a mother could love, Lambert, as the lowdown, meanest of a lowdown, mean bunch, gives what is perhaps the best performance of his career.

Tex (Lambert) has designs on Helen (Louise).  Only Captain Bruhn's (Ives) iron hand of discipline (holding a gun) prevents him from exercising them.

In the late '40's, writer Philip Yordan and producer Sidney Harmon created a film production company which they named Security Pictures.  Yordan usually provided the scripts for their films while Harmon was the producer of record.  However, Yordan was nearly always involved as a producer as well, but in an uncredited capacity.  

In the '50's the duo produced three movies starring Robert Ryan.  The first was MEN IN WAR (1957), a Korean War drama directed by Anthony Mann that co-starred Aldo Ray, with Nehemiah Persoff in a supporting role.  Ben Maddow, who had been blacklisted during the communist witch-hunt, wrote the script.  The writer of record was Philip Yordan, who fronted for Maddow on more than one occasion.  GOD'S LITTLE ACRE (1958), also directed by Mann, once again featured Aldo Ray in a co-starring role, and, as earlier mentioned, provided Tina Louise with her screen debut.  Maddow wrote this script as well, with Yordan fronting and receiving the credit.

DAY OF THE OUTLAW was the third Security production with Robert Ryan in the lead role.
This time Yordan wrote the screenplay.  Unfortunately, it isn't nearly as good as the Maddow scripts in the other two films.  That is not to say that Yordan wasn't a talented writer.  He was nominated for Academy Awards on three occasions, wining one award.  His first nomination was for his screenplay for DILLINGER (King/Monogram, 1945), followed by a nomination for best screenplay for DETECTIVE STORY (Paramount, 1951).  He won the award for best story for BROKEN LANCE (Fox, 1954).

Andre deToth, the one-eyed native of Hungary, was best known for his direction of the  horror classic, HOUSE OF WAX (WB, 1953), which most critics consider to be the best 3-D movie ever produced.  Ironically, because of his lack of depth perception, the director was never able to enjoy the result of his efforts.  But he also directed Westerns.

RAMROD (Paramount, 1947), starring Joel McCrea and deToth's wife at the time, Veronica Lake, brought the director his first good critical reviews.  In the early '50's, Randolph Scott starred in twelve Westerns.  DeToth directed half of them.  They were not the best Scott vehicles ever produced, but neither were they the worst either.  For the most part, they were enjoyable films. My personal favorite in the group is the initial film, MAN IN THE SADDLE (Columbia, 1951).  

DAY OF THE OUTLAW was his final Western and one of his last feature films.  It was not a bad finish.

Russell Harlan began his career as a cinematographer in 1937 working for producer Harry "Pop" Sherman on the Hopalong Cassidy B-Westerns.  B-Westerns they may have been, and there may have been better ones, but none were as beautifully photographed as this series.  Harlan collaborated with director Lesley Selander on more than thirty films, most of them in the Hoppy series. 

When Sherman sold the Hoppy enterprise to the series star, William Boyd, and went out of the B-Western business, he set about to film two Westerns, both starring Joel McCrea.  The first was the aforementioned RAMROD (1947), directed by deToth and co-starring Veronica Lake, who was the director's wife at the time.  A year later Sherman produced FOUR FACES WEST (UA), co-starring Charles Bickford and Frances Dee (Mrs. Joel McCrea).  Both are extremely well made and enjoyable little films that some (including yours truly) consider to be classics.  Both benefit from the excellent black-and-white photography provided by Russell Harlan.

Though he never won, he was nominated six times for an Academy Award -- once for two films in the same year:

THE BIG SKY (RKO, 1952), directed by Howard Hawks
HATARI! (Paramount, 1962), directed by Howard Hawks
HAWAII (Mirisch/UA, 1966)  

Among his other notable films are two other Westerns directed by Howard Hawks:
RED RIVER (UA, 1948)

DAY OF THE OUTLAW supposedly takes place in Wyoming, but was filmed in the mountains of Oregon.  Not only that, it was filmed in late November and early December and that meant snow -- a lot of snow -- which was an important element of the plot.  In fact, without the snow the story would have had to be rewritten.

Harlan's black-and-white photography took full advantage of the snow, the snow-capped mountains, the bleak, overcast weather, and the authentically designed town set.  Here are some examples:



DAY OF THE OUTLAW will never be considered a classic Western, but the performances of Ryan and Ives and Harlan's photography make it worthwhile viewing.

the writer

the director

the cinematographer




Saturday, July 20, 2013

SOUTHERN LEAGUE:A True Story of Baseball, Civil Rights, and the Deep South's Most Compelling Pennant Race by Larry Colton

People of a certain age will remember Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. On the nightly news, viewers watched as the city's police force under the leadership of the Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene "Bull" Connor, beat Civil Rights marchers with clubs, attacked them with dogs, and sprayed them with high-pressure water hoses. So how could they forget? In his "Letter from Birmingham Jail," written after his arrest in April for marching in the city's streets without a permit, Martin Luther King wrote, "Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States." President Kennedy would later state that Bull Connor did more for racial integration than anyone since Abraham Lincoln.

In late August of that year, King made his famous "I Have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Seventeen days later the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed on a Sunday morning and four little black girls died and twenty other people were injured. The bombing became a touchstone of the Civil Rights Movement, but it wasn't the only bombing of a black church in Birmingham. No, in fact it was the seventeenth in seven years. As a result, the city earned the dubious nickname, "Bombingham."

Birmingham had a long history of fielding professional baseball teams -- both black and white. However, they were segregated teams. The Birmingham Barons played in the all-white Double-A Southern League and the Birmingham Black Barons played in the Negro League. Few white fans ever attended the Black Barons games while the black fans who attended the Barons games were restricted to an area in the right field corner stands. A chicken-wire fence was used as the boundary that separated the two races. (In St. Louis, there was no fence separating the races, but black fans up through the 1950's were restricted to the right field bleachers in Sportsman's Park in what was called "the pavilion." Moreover, this was in the major leagues.)

At the end of the 1961 season, Major League Baseball mandated that all minor league teams be integrated. The KKK pressured Barons owner Albert Belcher to disband his team. He gave in and the whole Southern League collapsed. However, Belcher was able to get Charlie O. Finley, the colorful and often outrageous owner of the Kansas City (later Oakland) A's, to become the parent organization of a resurrected Barons team. Finley, a Birmingham native, agreed and the Southern League was reborn in 1964.

Just one year after the terrible events of 1963, the 1964 edition of the Birmingham Barons became the first integrated team -- in any sport -- in Alabama's history. The team had two black players and three Hispanics on the roster when the season began. One other black player, John "Blue Moon" Odom, was added when he graduated from high school after the season began. Adding further uncertainly was the fact that the seating in the stadium would also be integrated, creating a distinct possibility that there would be conflict in the stands and the clubhouse.

The manager was Haywood Sullivan, a native of Dothan, Alabama who was in his thirties and had just retired as a player after spending seven years as a catcher with the Red Sox and A's. There was much speculation about how this rookie manager, a native of the Deep South, would deal with what could very well be a volatile situation. He had attended an all-white high school, an all-white university, and was signed to a large bonus by the Red Sox, the last major league team to have a black player on its roster; twelve years after Jackie Robinson integrated the sport.

Larry Colton's book concentrates on Sullivan and four players. The players are Tommie Reynolds, Blue Moon Odom, Hoss Nowlin, and Paul Lindblad. In addition, Campy Campaneris would have gotten more ink, but the A's called him up during mid-season. The reader also learns about the contentious relationship that developed between Belcher and Finley. Of course, any relationship involving Finley had to be contentious. He was never involved in any other kind.

Larry Colton does a good job of covering the racial divide that plagued Birmingham during this era, but it is baseball that he knows best and it is about the game that he is the most insightful. As a former professional player himself, he has an intimate knowledge of the game and is able to transmit that knowledge to the reader. He also knows from personal experience something about the Southern League, since he pitched in that league in 1966.

In a discussion of the book on C-Span, Colton joked that he had a higher strikeout ratio than either Nolan Ryan or Sandy Koufax -- which is true. He pitched in only one major league game. He faced nine batters and struck out two. That means that he struck out almost one-fourth of all the batters he faced. He was traded from the Phillies to the Cubs but never played in the majors again. He was the infamous "player to be named later" in that deal.

One of the most interesting chapters in the book is the epilogue which details what happened in the lives of the players and the other principals in the years after 1964. I haven't given any details about what happened during that season or later because I don't want to ruin it for anyone who hasn't read the book. I'll leave that to people who don't mind doing that sort of thing. But I certainly encourage you to read it -- even if you are not a baseball fan.

Larry Colton, spring training, 1968

I own over a hundred baseball books -- fiction and nonfiction -- and have no idea how many I have read. However, this one goes near the top of my list of favorites.

I see Colton's book as a companion to one of my other favorites: "October 1964" by David Halberstam. Both books deal with baseball in the same year, but at a different level. And race relations are at the forefront of both. In 1964, the St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series. They could not have won without their four young black stars -- Bob Gibson, Curt Flood, Lou Brock, and Bill White. They defeated the New York Yankees, a great dynasty, but one of the last major league teams to integrate. The Cardinals would win two other pennants and one World Series in the 1960's, while the Yankees would have to wait more than a decade to play in their next World Series. It is not coincidental that by that time the team was thoroughly integrated.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

YELLOW SKY (Fox, 1948)

DIRECTOR: William A. Wellman; PRODUCER: Lamar Trotti; WRITER: Lamar Trotti from story by W.R. Burnette;  CINEMATOGRAPHER: Joseph MacDonald

CAST: Gregory Peck, Anne Baxter, Richard Widmark, Robert Arthur, John Russell, Henry (Harry) Morgan, James Barton, Charles Kemper, Robert Adler, Harry Carter, Victor Kilian, Paul Hurst, Hank Worden, Chief Yowlachie

(L-R) Victor Kilian, bartender; Paul Hust,barfly; and soon-to-be bank robbers: Stretch, Bull Run, Dude, Lengthy, Half-Pint, Walrus, Jed

The Civil War has been over for a couple of years but some ex-soldiers find it difficult to adjust to peaceful postwar conditions.  Some even resort to a life on the wrong side of the law.  It was such a group of men, seven in all, who rob the Rameyville bank.  A detachment of cavalry pursues them as they make their getaway.  One of the gang, Jed (Adler), is killed, but the other six escape by riding into an area of desolate salt flats (filmed in Death Valley).  In fact, the area is so forbidding that the cavalry commander halts the pursuit believing that the fugitives will perish in the desert.


However, they do survive, but just barely. Badly dehydrated and quarreling among themselves they see what appears to be a town in the distance. They make their way there only to discover that what they had spotted was in reality a ghost town. Yellow Sky was once a booming mining town, but now it has only two inhabitants: an old man (Barton) and his young tomboy granddaughter, Mike (Baxter).
The men do not receive a warm welcome from Mike.  She does direct them toward the water source that saves their lives, but she makes it clear that she wants them to clear out.

There is no honor among these thieves and it is all their leader Stretch (Peck) can do to keep them in line.  In fact, it is more than he can do. He orders the other gang members to stay away from Mike and her grandfather, but two of them are especially hard to restrain.  Dude (Widmark) has a hankering for wealth.  He is certain that there is something of value to be had in Yellow Sky or why would the old man and his granddaughter choose to live there (he is right).  He is determined to find out what it is and to make it his.  Lengthy (Russell) has a hankering for wealth – and the woman.  Despite his orders to the men to stay away from her, Stretch finds it impossible to apply the same restrictions to himself.

Mike and Stretch

Dude and Lengthy challenge Stretch’s leadership causing the gang to split into two factions.  The other three gang members – Walrus (Kemper), Half-Pint (Morgan), and Bull Run (Arthur) -- are born followers and rather malleable and therefore it soon becomes apparent that since they are easily influenced they might continue to follow Stretch or they might side with Dude and Lengthy.  They, in effect, hold the balance of power.


Lengthy with Bull Run in background

The final three-way shoot-out takes place in an old saloon and is staged in an extremely effective fashion.  We hear the shots and see the flashes of gunfire from Mike’s perspective outside the saloon.  After the firing ceases, she enters the saloon and we discover with her who, if anyone, has survived the altercation.

That’s enough about the plot, except to say that only three gang members survive the conflict that embroils the group.  However, I’m not saying which three.  One more thing, as has happened before in Western movies, beginning with those starring William S. Hart (practically all of them), a bad man is reformed by the love of a good woman. I’m not going to say which bad man, but it wasn’t Lenghty.  You already knew that, didn’t you?

Compared to many young actors, Gregory Peck was extraordinarily lucky.  True, he was in his late twenties before he made his film debut (DAYS OF GLORY [RKO, 1944]).  However, unlike most actors appearing in their first film, he had the lead role.  Furthermore, for his performance in his second film, THE KEYS OF THE KINGDOM (Fox, 1944), he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor. 

Three more nominations came in the next four years, giving him four in just five years.  The other nominations were for THE YEARLING (MGM, 1946), GENTLEMEN’S AGREEMENT (Fox, 1947), and TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH (Fox, 1949).  It was quite a beginning to what would be a long and successful career.  True, he had to wait another fourteen years before receiving another nomination, but the fifth time was the charm.  For his defining role as Atticus Finch in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (UI, 1962), he was awarded his only Best Actor Oscar.  It was also his last nomination.

During those early years, in among his Oscar-nominated roles, he starred in some other rather successful films.  In addition to a couple of Hitchcock films, he starred in three Westerns.  The first was DUEL IN THE SUN (Selznick, 1946), in which he was cast against type as Lionel Barrymore’s mean, lowdown son, Lewt.  Then there was YELLOW SKY in 1948 and two years later a true classic, THE GUNFIGHTER (Fox).

In the ensuing years, Peck starred in eight more Westerns of varying quality.  The best of the eight was THE BRAVADOS (Fox, 1958).

It seems that practically every Western begins with the female and male leads getting off on a bad footing with each other.  That was true of both A- and B-productions – especially the latter.  Think back to all those Gene Autry and Roy Rogers movies (if you are old enough to remember them) and how the two cowboys nearly always did something early on (usually inadvertently) that led the leading lady to dislike them.  In the end, of course, everything would work out for the best and they would become friends (but rarely more than that).  The A’s differed in that the relationship usually evolved into something more serious.

Anyway, there seemed to be a rule in the Western Writers Handbook that mandated that a Western story simply had to have a female among the leading players even if her presence added very little to the plot.  YELLOW SKY was an exception in that Anne Baxter’s role was just as essential as Peck’s.

She played the tomboy role very well and I have only one quibble with her performance.  It is perhaps a minor one, but it is one of those minor things that bother me.  Here she and her grandfather are living alone in this godforsaken ghost town located on the edge of the desert and the Levis she wears for the duration of the film look as though she bought them at the local general store – that very day -- only there is no local general store. However, as I said, it is difficult to find fault with her performance.

Despite being only in her mid-twenties at the time she starred in YELLOW SKY, she was already a show business veteran.  She made her Broadway debut at age thirteen and appeared in her first film when she was only seventeen.  That first film was a Western, but not a particularly good one.  It was 20 MULE TEAM (MGM, 1940). Incidentally, both it and YELLOW SKY featured scenes filmed in Death Valley. All told, she appeared in eight Westerns, but none of the others came close to the high standards of YELLOW SKY.

Two years before YELLOW SKY, Baxter was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in THE RAZOR’S EDGE (Fox).  Two years after YELLOW SKY, she appeared in the film with which she would become most closely identified, ALL ABOUT EVE (Fox).  Both she and the film’s other leading lady, Bette Davis, received Academy Award nominations for Best Actress, which probably resulted in the fact that neither won and Judy Holliday did.  It was Baxter’s last nomination.

Richard Widmark, a veteran radio actor, was in his thirties when he made his screen debut in KISS OF DEATH (Fox) in 1947.  But what a memorable debut it was.  Widmark portrayed Tommy Udo, a psychotic mob enforcer who murdered a wheelchair-bound old lady by shoving her down the stairs.  If that wasn’t bad enough he giggled with relish while perpetrating the crime.

For his performance, he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.  It would be his only nomination.  He also won a Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer.

YELLOW SKY was his second film and he makes the most of it.  His performance as Dude, the gambler and outlaw with a bad lung, who becomes Stretch’s main rival for control of the outlaw gang, is one of his best.  He may have gotten off to a late start in movies, but he was certainly making up for lost time.

Widmark would go on to appear in sixteen Westerns during his career.  He was even fortunate enough to star in two John Ford Westerns, TWO RODE TOGETHER (Columbia, 1961) and CHEYENNE AUTUMN (WB, 1964).  However, he was unfortunate in that the two, through no fault of his, are Ford’s weakest Westerns.

I am probably in the minority, but I thought he gave a strong performance in his last Western, that is if rodeo pictures can be considered Westerns.  WHEN THE LEGENDS DIE (Fox, 1972), co-starring Frederic Forrest, is considered to be the lesser of several rodeo films that were made at about the same time, but I think that it is an entertaining film with excellent location photography.  Widmark was never better.

With John Russell leading the way, YELLOW SKY’s supporting cast is outstanding.  Russell was a decorated ex-Marine who was awarded a field promotion as a 2nd Lt. while serving on Guadalcanal during WWII.  He also received a discharge due to a case of extreme malaria. 

Somewhat like Jim Davis, for example, he never achieved stardom on the big screen, though he was responsible for some strong performances in supporting roles.  Also like Davis, he did become a star on the small screen.  In 1958-1962, he starred as Marshal Dan Troop in the Western series, LAWMAN.

YELLOW SKY was Russell’s eleventh film, but his first Western.  Clint Eastwood cast Russell in three of his films, including Russell’s last Western, THE PALE RIDER (Malpaso/WB, 1985).

Charles Kemper is probably best known for his role in John Ford’s WAGON MASTER (Argosy/RKO, 1950).  Just as in YELLOW SKY, Kemper portrays an outlaw.  However, Kemper’s Uncle Shiloh in WAGON MASTER is a decidedly more lowdown, vicious example of the breed than the character he portrayed in YELLOW SKY.

Kemper died about a month after WAGON MASTER was released.  He was forty-nine.   

Harry Morgan (billed as Henry in the early years) is primarily known for his work in television. Surely he set a record by having recurring roles in ten TV series, the most famous as Col. Sherman Potter in M*A*S*H.  However, he was also a busy supporting actor in movies during his six decades of acting.  Many of his roles were in Westerns, several classics among them.

Morgan liked appearing in Westerns and always singled out his role as Henry Fonda’s partner in THE OX-BOW INCIDENT (Fox, 1943) as his favorite film role.  And why not?  He probably had more screen time in that one than in any other film.  Directed by William Wellman, it is considered a classic today, but was not a commercial success at the time.
Morgan has a delightful little scene near the end of YELLOW SKY, but I’m not going to spoil it.

And speaking of William Wellman….

William Wellman launched his career as a director at the helm of Buck Jones Westerns during the silent era.  Over the years, he would direct sixteen films in the genre, with THE OX-BOW INCIDENT and YELLOW SKY being the best of the bunch.

Not only was he talented, he was also versatile, possessing the ability to direct films in many different genres.  He received three Oscar nominations for Best Director: A STAR IS BORN (UA, 1937), BATTLEGROUND (MGM, 1949), and THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY (WB, 1954).  However, his only win was as co-writer of the screenplay for A STAR IS BORN.

William A. "Wild Bill" Wellman


It’s not a masterpiece – it’s quite conventional in plot and development – but it’s an excellent, grim, little movie, very taut and involving and suspenseful.—Brian Garfield in Western Movies: A Complete Guide

…the guns blaze, fists fly and passions tangle in the best realistic Western style….Wellman has directed for steel-spring tension from beginning to end.” – Bosley Crowther in The New York Times

The direction by William A. Wellman is vigorous, potently emphasizing every element of suspense and action, and displaying the cast to the utmost advantage.  There’s never a faltering scene as sequence after sequence is unfolded at a swift pace.” – Variety

 Beautifully shot, in a stark black and white, YELLOW SKY is one of the best Westerns of the forties.” – Westerns on the Blog

Well-written, well directed, well cast, the gang is a well-drawn collection of individuals, each with his own personality and intentions. Buddies in the Saddle

Like all the best Westerns, it raises questions about one’s word of honour and, in this case, if that has any value for those who live outside the law. Riding the High Country

 one of the film's greatest strengths is Joseph MacDonald's glorious black-and-white photography in Death Valley and the Alabama Hills near Lone Pine, California