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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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

B-WESTERNS: RKO-Radio Pictures

RKO-Radio Pictures was created in 1928 with the merger of the KAO (Keith-Albee-Orpheum) theater chain and Joseph P. Kennedy's production company, Film Booking Offices (FBO).  The merger had been brought about by RCA which wished to get involved in the film business by providing sound for films.  RKO stood for Radio-Keith-Orpheum and Radio was added to the title as an acknowledgement of RCA's position as a major stockholder.

During the silent era, FBO had been responsible for several outstanding B-Western series starring Fred Thomson, Tom Tyler, and Bob Steele.  After leaving Fox, the most popular Western star of all, Tom Mix, joined FBO for his final series of silent Westerns.

Fred Thomson and Silver King
Fred Thomson was a great all-round athlete and an ordained Presbyterian minister who became a superstar cowboy at FBO during the '20's.  In 1928, he stepped on a nail in his stables while tending his horses and he contracted tetanus.  His illness was wrongly diagnosed and he died on Christmas day that year.  He was 38-years-old.

Tom Tyler

Bob Steele
Tom Mix, the "King of the Silent Cowboys," and Tony

After the creation of RKO, Tom Tyler and Bob Steele hit the independent trail at Poverty Row and Tom Mix signed with Universal to star in his first and only sound series.  After a pause in the action to allow the dust to settle, RKO embarked on a number of superior B-Western series.  The studio never produced as many Western series as B-Western factories such as Republic or Monogram, for example, or as many as the two second tier major studios, Columbia and Universal.  However, the RKO series that were produced were consistently better than any produced by any other studio.

Their first B-Western cowboy star was born George Duryea.  That moniker wasn't going to cut it and consequently he became Tom Keene.  Keene's tenure at RKO began in 1931 and ended in 1933 when the studio decided to discontinue its B-Western series.   Like Tyler and Steele before him, he hit the independent trail before eventually settling in at Monogram.

Tom Keene, RKO's first cowboy star
For two years after the Keene series ended, RKO produced no B-Western series.  Then in 1936, the studio re-entered the field with a series starring George O'Brien.

How good was this series?  When Don Miller wrote Hollywood Corral, his seminal study of the B-Western, he titled one chapter "How to Make Good Westerns: Fox, RKO and O'Brien."

During the silent era, O'Brien had been a popular leading man in prestigious  films produced by Fox, a few directed by John Ford.  In 1930, with the advent of sound he began starring in a quality B-Western series for the same studio.  When that series was terminated in 1935, he moved over to RKO and began another topnotch series. Because of the influential popularity of the Autry Westerns over at Republic, RKO felt obliged to add music and provide O'Brien with a comic sidekick.  Therefore, in some of the entries, Ray Whitley provided the music and the sidekick was often Chill Wills, who portrayed a character known as "Whopper."

George O'Brien

O'Brien's tenure at RKO ended in 1940.  A member of the naval reserve, he was activated when the U.S. entered WWII.  Looking around for a new cowboy the RKO executives found one on their lot.  He was Tim Holt, the son of former silent film star, Jack Holt.  As a teenager, he had begun acting in films in 1937.  He even had a small role as a cavalry officer in John Ford's STAGECOACH (1939).  By that time, he had attracted RKO's attention and he had been cast in a number of that studio's films, including a couple of Westerns.

His series was inaugurated in 1940.  He would eventually star in more B-Westerns at RKO than any other actor and in the process he would become the cowboy most identified with that studio.

(L-R): Ray Whitley, Tim Holt, Lee " Lasses" White

Holt possessed many of the necessary attributes needed by a cowboy star.  He was boyishly handsome, was an excellent horseman (in fact, a champion polo player), and a good athlete who could more than hold his own when it came to the action.  The problem was, however, that only 21-years-old when the series began, he looked even younger, more like a teenager than an adult.

That said, the series was supported by all the good production values that the studio provided for its B-Westerns and it proved to be popular with the juvenile audiences who were the primary fans of the genre. Don Miller even titled one of the other chapters in his book on B-Westerns, "...Or Anyway, Better Westerns Than Most: Keene, Holt & other guys at RKO."

As mentioned, the producers of the O'Brien series had added music and a comedy sidekick to some of the features.  The trend was continued with the Holts.  Ray Whitley would continue to provide the music, while the role of Whopper was given to Emmett Lynn, who always was more irritating than funny.  The role was later given to Lee "Lasses" White, which was only marginally an improvement.  Finally, Cliff Edwards, a much better actor than Lynn or White, was cast as a character known as Ike.  It was a marked improvement.

Holt's first series ended in 1943 when he entered the Air Force and flew missions as a bombardier in the Pacific theater.  The decorated veteran would be off the screen for four years.

With both O'Brien and Holt in the military serving their country, RKO produced no B-Westerns in 1944.  However, wishing to begin another series, the search was on for another cowboy.  Once again, their man was found right in their own backyard.

Robert Mitchum began his career as a heavy in the Hopalong Cassidy films, before eventually working his way up to good guy roles.  RKO took notice and cast him in several non-Westerns.  In 1945, the studio starred him in two Westerns, both based on Zane Grey stories.  In the first, NEVADA, he was given not one, but two sidekicks.  Neither was a singer and both were assets.

Hoppy and Bad Man Mitchum

Guinn "Big Boy" Williams was always a welcome presence in a Western and maybe he wasn't able to provide brains but he was able to provide brawn as well as comedy.  Richard Martin portrayed the character of Chito Jose Gonzalez Bustamente Rafferty, the character that he would be closely identified with for the rest of his acting career.  Martin, without Williams, would fill the same role with the same characterization in WEST OF THE PECOS.  As it turned out, it would be Mitchum's final B-Western.

Good Man Mitchum
The same year that the two Westerns were released, RKO gave Mitchum an important role in William Wellman's WWII drama, THE STORY OF GI JOE, and a star was born.  There would be Westerns, but no more B-Westerns in the actor's future.

Enter James Warren.  He was no O'Brien, or Holt, or Mitchum, but he was as good as Tom Keene.  However, the studio seemed to be marking time by starring Warren in only three films, also based on Zane Grey stories, released over the course of three years.  Richard Martin was there for the first, but was replaced by John Laurenz in the Chito role in the other two.  It was a step back.

James Warren and friend

Perhaps what RKO was waiting on was the return of its young hero.  But the first role for Tim Holt after the war was an important supporting role as Virgil Earp in John Ford's MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (Fox, 1946).  Two years later, he would receive his best notices for his role as one of three gold seekers in Mexico in John Huston's THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (WB).  In between these two classic films, however, he had already begun a new series of B-Westerns at RKO.

Still only in his twenties, the war years had matured Holt and he looked more like what a sagebrush hero should look like.  Holt had the good fortune of inheriting Richard Martin as his sidekick.  Both were good actors who enjoyed an easy rapport on the screen with the happy result being one of the best hero-sidekick pairings that the B-Western genre ever produced.

The music was absent from these postwar films.  Furthermore, Holt's range wear tended toward plain boots and denim without any fringe or frill.  The stories contained enough action to satisfy the juvenile faithful while at the same time containing enough plot that even adults could enjoy them.  In addition, the black-and-white photography, often in the Alabama Hills near Lone Pine, California, was excellent.
Holt did adopt one affectation at the beginning of the series.  He wore two guns, but the left hand gun was turned butt forward.  Eventually, thank goodness, the gimmick was discarded.

The young males in the audience were probably thankful that Holt did not engage in much mushy romance.  That part of the plot was usually left to Chito, who was a cowboy Casanova.  That seemed to be more acceptable to the young male crowd, who would just as soon have had no romance in their Westerns.

Tim, Chito, Friend (Myrna Dell)

Oddly enough, while the Holt character usually had a different name in each film, Martin was always Chito Rafferty.  It was only toward the end of the series that Holt's character became Tim Holt.  This is also one of the few series in which the sidekick was taller than the hero.

RKO's B-Western series, like those of other studios, could not overcome TV's competition in the early '50's.  Hoppy, Gene, and Roy had already ridden onto the small screen when, in 1952, Tim and Chito rode into the sunset for the last time.  And so ended what was one of the best B-Western series ever filmed and what many believe was the best of all the post-war series.

I need to add a final note.  In UNDER THE TONTO RIM (1947), a gent by the name of Richard Powers portrayed the leader of an outlaw gang.  Powers had been born George Duryea, but later changed his name to Tom Keene.  After his starring days ended, he changed it again and was often cast in supporting roles in RKO films.  In the final shoot-out, Tim was forced to shoot and kill the outlaw.  I wonder if anyone appreciated the irony that RKO's last cowboy hero had just killed the studio's first cowboy hero?







Sunday, February 9, 2014

RAWHIDE (Fox, 1951)

Interesting poster; of course nothing remotely resembling it appeared in the film

DIRECTOR: Henry Hathaway; PRODUCER: Samuel G. Engel; WRITER: Dudley Nichols; CINEMATOGRAPHER: Milton Krasner

CAST: Tyrone Power, Susan Hayward, Hugh Marlowe, Dean Jagger, Edgar Buchanan, Jack Elam, George Tobias, Jeff Corey, James Millican, Louis Jean Heydt, Robert Adler, Milton Corey, Dick Curtis, Judy & Jody Dunn, Edith Evanson, William Haade, Howard Negley, Walter Sande, Max Terhune, Kenneth Tobey, Dan White

NARRATOR: Gary Merrill


Tom Owens’ (Tyrone Power) father has sent him out west from St. Joe to the Rawhide Pass relay station so that he can learn the stagecoach business under the tutelage of veteran station manager Sam Todd (Edgar Buchanan).  The stagecoach line is known as the “Jackass Mail” because it uses mules to pull stagecoaches that transport mail and passengers between San Francisco and St. Louis.  Rawhide is located in a remote and desolate area halfway between the two destinations and Tom’s father thought it would be a good place for his son to learn the business from the ground up.  Tom’s exile is almost over and he is anxious to return to the more hospitable environs back east.

One day while the passengers of an eastbound stage are eating their meal, soldiers arrive to warn Sam and Tom that an outlaw by the name of Rafe Zimmerman (Hugh Marlowe) and three other convicts have broken out of prison, held up one of the line’s stages, and killed its driver.  Fearing that the outlaws are planning to rob the eastbound stage and since it is the line’s policy that young children are never to be placed in jeopardy, the protesting Vinnie Holt (Susan Hayward) and her little toddler niece (Judy Dunn) are forced to remain at the station to await the next eastbound stage.

Arriving at the station later in the day is a man who claims to be a deputy sheriff.  Believing him, Tom and Sam relax only to have the man pull his gun and announce that he is Zimmerman.  He then calls in his three henchmen, Gratz (George Tobias), Yancy (Dean Jagger), and Tevis (Jack Elam).  Zimmerman’s plan is to allow the westbound stage to pass uncontested that evening and to rob tomorrow’s eastbound coach, which is reportedly carrying a rich cargo of gold bullion. 

With the arrival of the outlaws, the stage is set (pun intended) for one of those basic hostage stories that we have all viewed and enjoyed down through the years, films such as YELLOW SKY (Fox, 1948), THE TALL T (Columbia, 1957), DAY OF THEOUTLAW (UA, 1959), HOMBRE (Fox, 1967), and at least a dozen others that could be listed.  Those are all excellent films and it is a supreme compliment to say that RAWHIDE holds its own against all of them.

And why not?  What transpires after the arrival of Zimmerman and company is a taut story written by a talented scriptwriter (Dudley Nichols; worked on thirteen scripts for John Ford), directed by a veteran director (Henry Hathaway), featuring two A-list stars and an excellent supporting cast, topped off by brilliant black-and-white photography by an artist (Milton Krasner) who took great advantage of the Alabama Hills topography. 

If you have seen the film then you know how it all turns out and if you haven’t then I shouldn’t tell you.  You should watch it and find out for yourself to see what happens – and I don’t believe you will be disappointed.


RAWHIDE was viewed by critics at the time as just another oater.  The Variety reviewer wrote, “Despite a strongly-told story…picture isn’t the proper vehicle for Power, who is wasted in part and comes off second best to a number of other players…Power is never permitted a chance as a hero.”  So, does Power always have to be the hero?  Is anybody this side of John Wayne expected to be always brave, courageous, and bold?  Sometimes the best acting occurs when actors are cast against type.

Power came from an acting family and he always resented the fact that he was celebrated more for his looks than his acting.  By all accounts, he relished his role in RAWHIDE because it was a change of pace from the swashbuckling costume dramas that had been his specialty.  In addition, he said he was thankful that he did not have a single costume change in the whole film (In fact, as far as I can tell, nobody did.).

And despite the view of the Variety reviewer, I would have to say that his character was heroic in the film.  He was an ordinary man who admitted that he was frightened and yet when the showdown arrived, as it inevitably would, he overcame his fear and rose to the occasion.  In the end, he did “what a man’s gotta do.”  Isn’t that how Westerns define a hero?

Power appeared in only a few Westerns, but he did have the good fortune to star in one classic, JESSE JAMES (Fox, 1939), in which he played the title role with Henry Fonda as brother Frank.  And while RAWHIDE, which receives better reviews today than it did at the time of its release, is never going to be considered a classic, it is a good representative of the many fine Westerns that were produced in the ‘50’s, the genre’s greatest decade.

Susan Hayward was known for her beauty, but unlike her co-star, was also recognized for her acting talent.  After being nominated for a best actress Oscar four times, she finally won the fifth time for her performance in I WANT TO LIVE (UA, 1958).

She also appeared in only a few Westerns.  The best of them was RAWHIDE and another excellent and underrated film, CANYON PASSAGE (Universal, 1946).  In RAWHIDE, she portrays a fiery, forceful, and resourceful female not usually found in the Western genre. 


Brian Garfield wrote a glowing review of RAWHIDE in his book Western Films: A Complete Guide.  However, the last line was surely the best review that one of the film’s actors ever received.  Garfield wrote, “[m]ost of all, however, it is Hugh Marlowe’s electrifying performance that makes it top-drawer.”

That’s not bad for a guy who came into the world as Hugh Herbert Hipple.  Therefore, he made at least one good move early in his career when he changed his name.  He was never a star but he did have some good supporting roles in a number of acclaimed films. 

He appeared in a number of TV Westerns, but like the two stars, he appeared in only a few on the big screen.  One of them was his role as Susan Hayward’s husband in GARDEN OF EVIL (Fox, 1954)The Western also starred Gary Cooper and Richard Widmark and was directed by Henry Hathaway.

An acting career that lasted fifty years was topped off by his role of the family patriarch on the TV soap opera, Another World, a role that he filled from 1969 until his death in 1982.  Although the New York Times failed to include Marlowe’s tenure in soap opera land in its obituary, it did say that he was survived by his brother G. Worthington Hipple.  I wonder what that G. stood for, but I digress.

Marlowe’s character had his hands full at Rawhide Pass.  He had to plan the hold-up, control the hostages, and keep his three henchmen in line – especially Tevis.  Tevis, as portrayed by Elam, was not only an outlaw; he was a depraved psychopath who could not be trusted to carry out orders.  Not only that, he had designs on the lady and they were not honorable.  And did he ever look the part in what turned out to be his breakthrough role.

The author of Elam’s obituary in The Guardian described him perfectly: “With his bony, stubbled face, beetle-brows looming over a dead left eye, and gravelly voice, he was the very embodiment of a skulking, no-account, two-bit varmint, and the relish with which he played his parts made every appearance, however fleeting, a pleasure.”

The dead eye was the result of a childhood accident that occurred in Boy Scout camp.  It was also the reason Elam became an actor.  He was told by doctors that he could lose sight in his good eye if he didn’t give up his current occupation as an accountant.  Jack was an accountant!

Far too early in the story, Elam kills off another great character actor, Edgar Buchanan.  Shot him, although he was unarmed, and in the back, of course, and enjoyed it.  Surely, Buchanan could have been kept around a little longer for the sake of some interesting interplay between him and Elam.  It reminds me of what happened in THE TALL T, when Henry Silva shot Arthur Hunnicutt.  True, Hunnicutt was reaching for a gun and Silva didn’t shoot him in the back, and perhaps it was necessary for plot’s sake to knock him off, but did it have to happen so early?

Movie audiences in the early ‘50’s must have been taken aback to see Elam dispatch Buchanan in such cold-blooded fashion, but today I have to admit that it doesn’t have quite the same effect that it must have had then.  Part of the reason is that in his later years it developed that Elam had the heart of a clown with a gift for self-parody, which he displayed with amusing effect in SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF! (UA, 1969) and SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL GUNFIGHTER (UA, 1971).  Who knew that accountants could be scary and funny?

One other note: Edgar Buchanan was an ex-dentist.  In what other movie would you find an ex-accountant shooting an ex-dentist – in the back?

George Tobias is okay as the inarticulate lout, Gratz, and Dean Jagger noted for more sophisticated roles in BRIGHAM YOUNG (Fox, 1940), WESTERN UNION (Fox, 1941), and TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH (Fox, 1949) is surprisingly good as the childlike Yancy.

Two other interesting character actors, James Millican and Louis Jean Heydt, have small roles in the film.  I will have much to say about them in a future post.

I have one quibble about what I think is otherwise an excellent film.  The off-screen narration by Gary Merrill at the beginning and the end about the jackass mail was totally out of place.  Moreover, so was the over-blown musical theme that backed him.  Both the narration and the music belonged in an epic film about the building of the transcontinental railroad or the stringing of the telegraph across the West and maybe even the jackass mail if that had been what the film was really all about.  But it wasn’t.  It was about what happened at one relay station and had nothing to do with the historical significance of the jackass mail.

The musical theme would have even been fitting in a film about pioneers headed westward, perhaps a film such as BRIGHAM YOUNG.  In fact, it was the theme for that film, a film directed by Hathaway, starring Tyrone Power, with Dean Jagger in the title role.  A decade later, It was recycled for RAWHIDE.

I am going to give Brian Garfield the final word on RAWHIDE:

The story follows predictable lines to an equally predictable shoot-out but the course it takes in getting there is crisp and gripping, thanks to good characterizations and fine black-and-white photography…and uniformly good acting plus an outstanding performance by Marlowe as the chief villain….”

Alabama Hills