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, June 18, 2014

FOUR FACES WEST (Sherman/UA, 1948)

DIRECTOR: Alfred E. Green; PRODUCER: Harry Sherman;  WRITERS: screenplay by C. Graham Baker and Teddi Sherman;  adaptation by William and Milarde Brent; based upon Eugene Manlove Rhodes novel, Paso Por Aqui;  CINEMATOGRAPHY: Russell Harlan

CAST: Joel MCrea, Frances Dee, Charles Bickford, Joseph Calleia, William Conrad, Martin Garralaga, Raymond Largay, Dan White, Eva Novak, Sam Flint, Forrest Taylor, William Haade, Gene Roth, Paul Burns

On the day that Pat Garrett (Charles Bickford) is being introduced to the citizens of Santa Maria, a cowboy by the name of Ross McEwen (Joel McCrea) robs the bank, which is easy to accomplish because every bank employee but one is down the street listening to Garrett give a speech.  A polite outlaw, he first asks for a loan of two thousand dollars.  When Frenger (John Parrish), the banker, asks him for collateral he pulls his six-gun and declares it all the collateral he needs.  He then writes out an I.O.U. for the money and signs it "Jefferson Davis."

Later we learn that McEwen in desperation has resorted to robbery so that he can send the money to his father who is about to lose his ranch. 

He forces the banker to ride out of town with him.  Once they have traveled several miles he leaves the banker without a mount or his boots and forced to walk back to town.  After arriving in town and announcing the hold-up, the incensed banker places a reward of three thousand dollars, dead or alive, on the head of McEwen.  That amount of money leads to a frenzied manhunt all out of proportion to the crime committed and includes not only Garrett and his deputy Clint (Dan White), but also members of a deputized posse as well as free-lancing bounty hunters.

While making preparations to board a slow-moving train, McEwen is bitten by a rattlesnake.  In a weakened condition, it is only with the aid of Monte Marquez (Joseph Calleia) that he is able to board the train.  Luckily, one of the passengers on the train is a nurse, Fay Hollister (Frances Dee), and she is able to treat McEwen's snakebite.  Fay feels an immediate attraction to McEwen and  senses that he is in some kind of trouble.  The attraction is clearly reciprocal.

Eventually, Ross and Fay arrive in Alamogordo where Fay will be working in a hospital.  Alamogordo was also Monte's destination.  He owns a saloon in that town.  He has befriended Ross on their journey and has helped the outlaw out of several tough spots along the way.  Now he helps Ross get a job working on a nearby ranch.  Ross sends some of the money that he earns on the job (and gambling) to the bank in Santa Maria to pay off part of the I.O.U. that he gave the banker.  However, he is forced to flee when Garrett and his deputy ride into town.  But before leaving, he gives Fay a ring.

Ross says goodbye

As he makes his way southward in an effort to reach the border, McEwen resorts to an unusual mode of transportation to escape from his pursuers.  He saddles a steer and rides it across New Mexico's White Sands.  The scene is wonderfully filmed by Russell Harlan, who had worked with Sherman on the Hopalong Cassidy series, which was the best photographed B-Western films of them all, and also on Sherman's other post-Hoppy Western, RAMROD (Sherman/UA).  In fact, Harlan's photography is one of the best qualities found in all of Sherman's exceptional productions.  He would go on to an outstanding career as one of Hollywood's best cinematographers.

McEwen is on the verge of making his way across the border when he stops to steal a horse.  Inside the house, however, he discovers a Mexican family of four, all stricken with diphtheria.  Does he ride on and escape into Mexico?  Or does he stay and do what he can for the family?  

Well, the answer is obvious, isn't it?  This is Joel McCrea after all. During the hold-up, he writes an I.O.U. and gives it to the banker.  Later, he even begins to pay the money back. He doesn't even fire a shot in the entire movie, but does neither Pat Garrett nor anyone else.  In fact, that is the one thing the film is noted for: a Western in which there is not a single gunshot.  Weapons are pulled and aimed, but never fired.

Of course he stays.  Eventually he even lights a bonfire in an attempt to attract help.  It works.  But guess whom it attracts.  How does it all end?  Revealing that would spoil the story.

In the history of Western movies, Harry "Pop" Sherman (1884-1952) was one of the more interesting producers.  Throughout most of his career, he was able to produce independent films that were then released and distributed by major studios.

He is best known for creating the production company that in 1935 began filming the Hopalong Cassidy B-Western series.  During those years, however, he also produced a number of one-shot B-Western specials that were always entertaining.  In the mid-40's, he turned over production of the Hoppy series to its star, William Boyd, and ventured into A-Western territory.  He produced BUFFALO BILL (1944) for Fox.  What followed was even better, two superior Westerns made by his production company and released through United Artists: RAMROD (1947) and FOUR FACES WEST (1948).  The three films, all starring Joel McCrea, are the last films produced by Sherman.  All in all, it was quite a good track record.

The screenplay was based on a short novel by Eugene Manlove Rhodes that was originally published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1926Its title, Paso Por Aqui (I passed here), was a reference to an inscription on a huge sandstone formation located in New Mexico.  The Spaniards had named it El Morro (The Headland) and the Anglos christened it Inscription Rock.  Today it is a national monument.

The National Park Service finds itself in the somewhat ironic position of protecting the old inscriptions while attempting to prevent any modern additions.
As a result of his days as a cowboy and rancher, Rhodes had an intimate knowledge of this part of New Mexico.  Not only did he live there, but he is  buried there in the San Andres Mountains. 

The inscription on Rhodes gravestone reads "Paso por aqui"

Of course, the screenwriters, which included Harry Sherman's daughter, Teddi, took liberties with Rhodes' original story.  They modified the ending and added the romance angle.  There was a nurse in the original story, but there was no romantic attachment.  The screenplay also makes Pat Garrett something he was not, a U.S. marshal.  The real Garrett was a county sheriff as he was in Rhodes story.  Rhodes would have known that since he was personally acquainted with the lawman.

Pat Garrett

Eugene Manlove Rhodes

The title was changed, too. Monte explains the meaning of the paso por aqui inscription on El Morro to Ross and Fay, but it was not retained as the title.  It is impossible to explain the title that was selected.  I suppose the four faces are represented by Ross, Fay, Monte, and Pat Garrett.  However, the movement in the film is not toward the West, but always southward.

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

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

Mr. and Mrs. Joel McCrea

Frances Dee and Joel McCrea were one of Hollywood's great romantic teams.  No, not because of the films they appeared in, but because they were married to each other for fifty-seven years.  They met during the filming of THE SILVER CORD in 1933.  They married that year and went on to appear together in three other films, with FOUR FACES WEST being the last one. Dee made her final film appearance in GYPSY COLT in 1954.  

McCrea died in 1990 on the date of the couples' fifty-seventh anniversary.  Dee lived another fourteen years, dying at age ninety-six.

Bickford and Dee
Charles Bickford was one of Hollywood's greatest supporting actors.  He received nominations for an Academy Award for his supporting roles in THE SONG OF BERNADETTE (1943), THE FARMER'S DAUGHTER (1947), and JOHNNY BELINDA (1948).  He gave strong performances in Western films such as DUEL IN THE SUN 1947), THE BIG COUNTRY (1958), and THE UNFORGIVEN (1960)In fact, his last film role was in a Western: A BIG HAND FOR A LITTLE LADY (1966).

He was at his peak as a supporting actor at the time that he appeared in FOUR FACES WEST.  In it, he is one of the screen's best Pat Garretts.    

Joseph Calleia was not Hispanic, though he was often cast as one.  He was born Giuseppe Maria Spurrin-Calleja on the island of Malta.  His other Western roles include THE BAD MAN OF BRIMSTONE (1937), MY LITTLE CHICKADEE (1940), WYOMING (1940), BRANDED (1951) and John Wayne's THE ALAMO (1960).

Joseph Calleia

Brian Garfield wrote in Western Films: A Complete Guide that FOUR FACES WEST is "a splendid example of what a low-budget Western can be; its excellence is such that it can make you feel as if you've never seen a Western before."

A reviewer with the New York Times wrote that "FOUR FACES WEST emerges not only as a surprising film, but as an adult and edifying film."

Both FOUR FACES WEST and Sherman's earlier film, RAMROD, received generally good reviews.  Today they are considered to be two of the best Westerns of their era.  Unfortunately, however, neither did well at the box office and Sherman never produced another film.


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