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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Saturday, August 17, 2013

THE OUTCAST (Republic, 1954)

DIRECTOR: William Witney; ASSOCIATE PRODUCER: William J. O'Sullivan; WRITERS: John K. Butler and Richard Wormser based on story by Todhunter Ballard; CINEMATOGRAPHY: Reggie Lanning; STUNTS: Chuck Hayward, Chuck Roberson

CAST: John Derek, Joan Evans, Jim Davis, Catherine McLeod, Ben Cooper, Taylor Holmes, Nana Bryant, Slim Pickens, Frank Ferguson, James Millican, Bob Steele, Nacho Galindo, Harry Carey, Jr., Bill Walker, Buzz Henry, Nicolas Coster, Hank Worden

In 1937, Republic was experiencing problems with one of the co-directors of a serial, THE PAINTED STALLION.  The problem was that he was drinking on the job, so he was fired.  The assistant director, William Witney, was promoted to take his place and finish the picture.  He was all of 21-years old.

The Oklahoma native eventually became one of the most prolific and most accomplished of all action directors.  Specializing in serials prior to WWII, often with co-director John English, he became the studio's number one B-Western director after the war.  He became known primarily for downgrading the music and upgrading the action in the postwar Roy Rogers series, much to the delight of the popcorn-munching youngsters sitting in the front row. 

When Rogers became disenchanted with Republic's boss, Herbert J. Yates, he retired from feature films and made plans to follow William Boyd and Gene Autry and take his act to television (first having to sue Yates in order to do so, but that's another story).  When that happened, Witney took over Republic's Rex Allen series.  It was not only that studio's last B-Western series, it was the last for any studio.  After Witney left the series in 1953, only two more films were produced before it was shutdown the next year.

young William Witney and pal

So ended the B-Western chapter in Witney's life, but he remained as busy as ever.  Republic employed him to direct feature films and TV productions right up to the point that the studio discontinued all film and TV production in 1959.

The studio had removed Witney from the Rex Allen series in 1953 because it wanted him to direct something a bit more ambitious.  His new assignment was THE OUTCAST.


John Derek (born Derek Devevan Harris) was born in Hollywood in 1926.  His father was a film actor, producer, director, and writer during the 1920's.  His mother was an actress during the same era. As a teenager, he began acting in films in the early '40's.  His big break came in 1949 when he was cast in important roles in two prestigious films.  In the role of a young criminal, he received second billing after Humphrey Bogart in KNOCK ON ANY DOOR (Columbia, directed by Nicholas Ray).  He was a little farther down in the cast list for ALL THE KING'S MEN (Columbia, directed by Robert Rossen), but his role as Willie Stark's son was nevertheless an important one.

Based on his performances in those two films Columbia signed him to a contract.  The studio then cast him in his first lead role.  ROGUES OF SHERWOOD FOREST (Columbia) was an old story with a new twist.  King John was still up to his greedy and dastardly ways, but Derek, as the son of Robin Hood, reorganizes his father's band of Merry Men in order to oppose the scoundrel.  One interesting aspect of the film is the fact that Alan Hale, in his last film, portrayed Little John for a third time.

After that, Derek was cast in the lead or in supporting roles in several run-of-the-mill films, several of which were of the costume adventure genre, which did nothing to advance his career.  Nevertheless, he stayed busy appearing in five films in 1953, including his first two Western roles.  The first was AMBUSH AT TOMAHAWK GAP (Columbia), a 73-minute programmer starring John Hodiak, with Derek, known only as "Kid," in a co-starring role.  THE LAST POSSE (Columbia), also 73 minutes long, found Derek supporting Broderick Crawford. (The fact that Crawford had the lead pretty well says all that needs to be said about this film.  He was never believable in a Western role and should never have been cast in one.  Considering that both he and Derek had appeared as father and son in ALL THE KING'S MEN just four years earlier, the Western indicated that the careers of both were heading in the wrong direction.)

This was also the year that Derek said goodbye to Columbia.  His last film that year was SEA OF LOST SHIPS, a Republic production directed by old pro Joseph Kane, the director that William Witney had succeeded as the studio's principal B-Western director.  Derek's next film was also for Republic.  It was THE OUTCAST.


Much like Derek, Joan Evans hit her peak early in her career, but at even an earlier age.  At age fourteen, she made her film debut when she co-starred with Farley Granger as the title character in ROSEANNA MCCOY (Goldwyn/RKO, 1949), loosely based on the infamous Hatfield-McCoy feud.  She won the role as the result of a nation-wide talent search conducted by producer Sam Goldwyn.  He didn't have to look very far since she was right there in his backyard.  Born Joan Eunson, she was named after her godmother, Joan Crawford.  Her parents, Dale Eunson and Katherine Albert, were Hollywood writers.  Reportedly, the parents added two years to their daughter's age in order to make it appear that she was sixteen when the film was made.  It was Goldwyn who changed her name to Joan Evans.

Because Evans and the film received some good reviews, Goldwyn followed it up with two more films featuring her with Farley Granger, both released in 1950.  Even though she was still only a teenager, those three films represented the apex of her career.  Like Derek, her career leveled out and never approached the stardom that many had predicted for her.

In 1953, she was cast in her first Western, COLUMN SOUTH (Universal), starring Audie Murphy.  Her next film was also a Western.  It was THE OUTCAST.

Jim Davis as Matt Clark, railroad detective

Beginning with BRIMSTONE (starring Rod Cameron, directed by Joseph Kane) in 1949 up through THE MAVERICK QUEEN (starring Barbara Stanwyck, directed by Joseph Kane) in 1956, Jim Davis appeared in practically every Western produced by Republic Pictures.  In nearly every case, he portrayed a villain.  One of the films during that period was THE OUTCAST.  The film's main villain was portrayed by, you guessed it, Jim Davis.

However, that year he also got to portray a hero.  In fact, in 1954-55 he got to play the role for two years on television.  Stories of the Century was a Republic TV production that starred Davis as a railroad detective named Matt Clark who was in on the capture of thirty-nine famous outlaws during the show's thirty-nine episodes.  The series might have lasted longer but the Old West ran out of outlaws.

It is hard to fathom how Davis was able to star in this series, guest star in other TV shows, and appear in as many movies as he did while Stories of the Century was being filmed, but somehow he  managed  -- and so did the show's director.  William Witney directed the first thirty episodes in the series.

Slim Pickens always sounded as though he hailed from the Texas plains or maybe Oklahoma, but was born in central California, not far from Fresno.  His real name was Louis Burton Lindley, Jr.  He came by his stage name when at age fourteen he signed up to appear to ride in a rodeo, but since Louis Burton Lindley, Sr. was opposed, he told the manager he would have to perform under another name.  The manager said something to the effect that he would see nothing but "slim pickins" on the rodeo circuit.  Slim said that would work as a name.  The man wrote it as "Slim Pickens" and that became his name.  At least that's the way Slim told it and if it ain't true, it should be.

He might not have been from Texas but he was as much cowboy as any Texan.  He rode bareback and saddle broncs in rodeo competition and later learned the art of acting and comedy as a rodeo clown.  He got a late start in the movie business but once he started it was bombs away (literally; see conclusion of DOCTOR STRANGELOVE [Columbia, 1964]).

He was 30-years old when he broke into films in the Errol Flynn Western, ROCKY MOUNTAIN (WB, 1950).  It was two years later before his second role but after that, he became an extremely busy actor.  Republic signed him to replace Buddy Ebsen as the comedy sidekick in the Rex Allen series.  He played the role for eleven films before the series was discontinued in 1954.  As fate would have it, both William Witney and Slim Pickens joined the series on the same film.  Under Witney's direction, Pickens underwent a crash course not only in movie acting, but especially movie stunting.  His rodeo background made it much easier than it might have been.  He was a natural.

Can you guess from the photo which cowboy is the hero?   It most assuredly was not a still from one of William Witney's films.  He wouldn't have allowed the fancy costume.  This was probably a publicity still for a public appearance.  In Rex's films, he dressed rather conservatively, especially for a singing cowboy.  In addition, he was always a one-gun man. 
While appearing in the Allen series Pickens acted in a few other pictures.  The most notable was THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT (1953), directed by John Ford, produced by his Argosy Productions, and distributed by Republic.  A year earlier he had appeared in THUNDERBIRDS (Republic), starring John Derek, on loan-out from Columbia.

When the Allen series ended, Pickens didn't miss a beat.  His next film was THE OUTCAST, reuniting him with Witney and Derek.

Catherine McLeod is in the film because there were two women in the story.  Enough said.

Black actor Bill Walker is the town blacksmith who quietly opposes the Major and rekindles his friendship with Jet.  He gives one of the best performances in the film.

William "Bill" Walker is probably best remembered for his brief, but memorable performance as the Reverend Sykes in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (Universal, 1962).  "Miss Jean Louise. Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father's passing."

Ben Cooper portrays a reckless, hardheaded, headstrong kid, who is known only as "The Kid."  If you remember Cooper then you know that he was nearly always a reckless, hardheaded, headstrong character who looked like a kid, a boy trying to be a man.

a boy trying to be a man

THE KID (Ben Cooper):  "Here's for helpin' the lady.  Buy yourself a cigar" [he tosses a coin to Jet].

JET (John Derek):  "You keep it" [flipping it back].  "Until you're old enough to smoke." 

James Millican and Frank Ferguson, both familiar faces in Westerns provide good support.  Harry Carey, Jr. is in the film, but seems out of character.  First, he plays a mean hired gunman (I ain't buying it.) and second, he seems older and more mature than in his previous roles.  However, two years later, when Carey was in his mid-thirties, John Ford cast him as a 19- or 20-year old in THE SEARCHERS (Whitney/WB) (I bought it).  Of course, in Ford's eyes because of his long relationship with the Carey family he always saw Carey as a kid.

Robert "Buzz" Henry, a former child actor, is in the film but has hardly any dialogue.  Moreover, so was another former child actor, Robert Adrian Bradbury, but he had a lot to say.  Like Derek and Evans, he was a member of a Hollywood family.  In addition, like William Witney and Slim Pickens, B-Westerns were an important part of his background.  We know him as Bob Steele. 

Steele's career began in the early '20's when as a pre-teen he starred in a series of shorts with his twin brother, that was directed by their father.  In the late '20's when he became a B-Western star at FBO, his name was changed to Bob Steele.  I plan a more extensive write-up on Steele in the near future, but for now, I will add that Steele was no stranger at Republic.  From 1940 to 1943, he was the last Tucson Smith in the final twenty films in Republic's long-running "Three Mesquiteers" series.  Although William Witney never directed Steele in that series, it is ironic that his third film as director, and first non-serial, was a Three Mesquiteers film.

This is the final combination in The Three Mesquiteers changing cast of stars.  (L-R) Tom Tyler is Stony Brooke; Jimmie Dodd is Lullaby Joslin; and Bob Steele is Tucson Smith.

When Jet (short for Jetthow in the original story) Cosgrave (Derek) was 16-years old his father died.  According to a will, the family ranch had been left to Jet's uncle, Major Linton Cosgrave (Davis).  Jet was sure that he had been robbed of his inheritance, but he was too young to do anything about it.  Eight years later, he returns and he plans to reclaim the ranch.  Because the Major employs a band of hired guns (Millican, Cooper, Carey, et. al.) to protect his interests, Jet hires his own group of mercenaries headed by Dude Rankin (Steele) to help him regain his ranch.  Dude is a merciless killer who doesn't hesitate to shoot a man in the back or string one up from the nearest tree.  He also feels no loyalty to Jet or any other man.

A third party has an interest in the proceedings.  The Polsen hill clan (Ferguson, Pickens, Henry, Coster, and Evans) has been forced off a valley ranch owned by Hal Newmark who has mysteriously disappeared.  Newmark had generously allowed the Polsens to graze their cattle in the valley, but the Major who claims that he is only minding Newmark's ranch until he returns has banished the Polsens from the valley.  Therefore, Jet sees the Polsens as potential allies.

Judy Polsen (Evans), the only female member of the clan, becomes romantically involved with Jet.  Alice Austin (McLeod), a refined lady from Virginia, who arrived in town at the same time as Jet, has come to marry the Major, but that doesn't quite work out.

ALICE AUSTIN (Catherine McLeod): "I'm going home, Linton."

MAJOR LINTON COSGRAVE (Jim Davis):  "As easy as that.  You just walked out on the man you promised to marry."

ALICE:  "I found out you're not the man I promised to marry."

 Jet almost finds himself isolated and alone in the range war.  Dude and his hired guns are bought off by the Major and the Polsens don't trust him.  The Polsens eventually come around and two of them, Boone (Pickens) and Zeke (Henry), join Jet in the big shootout that allows him to take control of the range.

I have only two quarrels with the film.  First, it is hard to accept the beating that the slightly built Jet gives to the Major who is about three inches taller and at least twenty-five pounds heavier -- especially since Jet was recovering at the time from a bullet wound to the shoulder.  The fight is well-staged by Witney, with Chuck Roberson and Chuck Hayward, doing the doubling and Derek and Davis handling themselves well in the close-ups, but it is still hard to believe that Jet could have emerged the winner in that scrap.

Second, where was the law when this range war was in progress?  The town is Colton, Colorado and the sets indicate that it is fairly large and well populated. For example, Mrs. Banner (Bryant) owns a rather opulent saloon and restaurant.  Yet, there seems to be no law in Colton.  There should be a town marshal and in a town this size, he should have several deputies.  In many Westerns with similar storylines the local marshal is cowardly or corrupt or both.  But not in Colton.  There he doesn't even exist.  What about a county sheriff?  Nope, there doesn't seem to be one.  The cavalry was sent into Lincoln, New Mexico to put a lid on the range war that featured a kid named Billy.  But not in Colton.

Okay, so the rangeland revenge story is a standard Western plot that we have all seen in many films and it develops in a predictable fashion with no surprises.  But let me give a couple of reasons for watching it anyway.  

One reason is veteran cinematographer Reggie Lanning's color photography.  Since this is a Republic film, the color process is Trucolor, which was used primarily in the Roy Rogers series.  It could be rather garish at times, but Lanning was able to use it in such a way as to create some rather subdued outdoor scenes.  The best example is when the Major's men, led by his top hand Cal Prince (Millican) have Jet's Mexican cook Curley (Nacho Galindo) holed up in one of the buildings on the Newmark ranch that Jet has occupied in an effort to regain his own ranch.  Curley is saved by Dude and his men who ride to the rescue.  The rescue is beautifully shot by Lanning and Witney.  With a background of Colorado golden aspens in the background, the rescuers ride down a ridge with guns blazing. (It was always possible to identify a Republic Western by the distinctive sound of the gunfire.  It may not have sounded like real gunfire, but it did sound the way gunfire should sound).  The camera is placed in relation to the sun in a way that the smoke from the gunfire is shown in dramatic fashion and so is the dust stirred up as the riders fan out on their galloping horses as they race down the ridge.

Another reason to watch the film is Witney's staging of the action scenes.  The big shootout with Jet and Boone and Zeke Polsen taking on Dude and his men is a real treat.  Pickens is able to demonstrate his superior horsemanship as he rides at a full gallop, firing his rifle, and without holding the reins, guide his horse with his knees.  It is at this point that it becomes apparent why Buzz Henry is in the film.  He hasn't had much to say because he couldn't act -- despite the fact that he had starred in films at a very young age.  But could he ride!  

It was to be expected that Pickens and Henry would be able to demonstrate superior horsemanship, since they had been practicing practically all of their lives.  The big surprise is Derek.  His abilities didn't quite come up to the other two, but he was no slouch either.

During this sequence, Witney films a stunt that I have never seen before or since.  Derek's double (probably Chuck Roberson) rides alongside Steele's double (probably Chuck Hayward) and jumps off his horse and grabs the other man around the waist and is hanging on the side of the other man's horse.  He then does a pony express mount and leaps onto the horse behind the other rider.  The saddle cinch breaks and the two hit the ground.  It is extremely well done.

In watching this film again after many years, it strikes me that John Derek would have been a great B-Western cowboy.  His handsome looks (some said too handsome), athleticism, and horsemanship would have made him a natural.  He could have acted under his own name.  John Derek would have been as good a name for a cowboy as Roy Rogers, Allan "Rocky" Lane, Monte Hale, and Rex Allen, all Republic cowboys at the end of the B-Western era who acted under their own names.  He would have also been a better actor than any of those range riders. 

Brian Garfield in Western Films: A Complete Guide writes the following with regard to THE OUTCAST:  "Fast-paced yarn has perky direction and good action, marred by Derek's thespic incapacities and a few too many screenplay cliches."  I rarely disagree with Garfield, but I do with regard to Derek's acting.  He wasn't the weak link in the film.  He wasn't that bad.  Garfield did identify the primary weakness, which resulted either from a weak story or a weak screenplay -- or both.

However, if for no other reasons, it is worth viewing for the action scenes and to watch Pickens, Henry, and Derek ride.  Furthermore, for a film that featured a star on his way down, a studio on its way out, and a former B-Western director it was better than what anyone had a right to expect.                



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