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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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

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