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, August 24, 2014

BORDER PATROL (Sherman/UA, 1943)

What are the odds that the cast of a B-Western movie would include a future superstar, a future Cisco Kid, a future Superman, and a boss villain (the galoot wearing the suit and tie) portrayed by the former Pa Joad?  Well, as it turns out, the odds are great.  The film is Border Patrol.

(L-R): William Boyd, Claudia Drake, Andy Clyde, Jay Kirby

DIRECTOR: Lesley Selander; PRODUCER: Harry Sherman; WRITERS: screenplay by Michael Wilson based on characters created by Clarence E. Muhlford; CINEMATOGRAPHER: Russell Harlan

CAST: William Boyd, Andy Clyde, Jay Kirby, Russell Simpson, Claudia Drake, George Reeves, Duncan Renaldo, Pierce Lyden, Bob Mitchum

Hoppy and Topper

Producer Harry Sherman possessed the good luck, or great skill, that allowed him to receive financial backing from major studios for his independently produced Hopalong Cassidy B-Western series.  That backing was provided first by Paramount and later by United Artists.  The result was production values not usually found associated with B-Westerns.  The only series that came close were those produced and distributed by RKO, also one of the major studios.

Sherman's series also benefited from stellar casts headed by William Boyd as Hoppy; excellent photography (especially that provided by Russell Harlan, who at one point photographed forty-four in a row); and competent directors at the helm (Lesley Selander, for example, who directed twenty-eight of the sixty-six films in the series).

The Hoppy series, inaugurated in 1935, was the first so-called trio series.  It featured a strong down-to-earth figure (Hoppy), a younger sidekick to handle the romance angle and some of the more strenuous physical action, and an older sidekick to provide the humor. The partnership could be described as a stable big-brother; impetuous younger brother; and older, irascible uncle, who, unlike the other two with their fancy pistols, horses, and tack  was always armed with a plain old pistol and rode a plain old nag with a plain old saddle and bridle.  Such was the lot of the B-Western comedic sidekick. 

The success of the trio alignment would lead other producers and studios to attempt to repeat Sherman's success.  Some of the other series differed in that their trios had names: The Three Mesquiteers (Republic), The Range Busters (Monogram), The Rough Riders (Monogram), The Texas Rangers (PRC), The Frontier Marshals (PRC), and The Trail Blazers (Monogram).  In addition, there were numerous untitled trio series down through the years.

Only Republic's Mesquiteers and Monogram's Rough Riders came close to achieving Sherman's success in terms of quality or popularity.

The Three Mesquiteers underwent a number of cast changes over the years.  This combination starred Raymond Hatton on the left and Ray "Crash" Corrigan on the right along with the tall hombre in the middle who probably needs no introduction.

The Rough Riders (L-R): Buck Jones, Tim McCoy, Raymond Hatton

Like the other long-running trio series, The Three Mesquiteers (1936-43; fifty-one films), the Hoppy series (1935-48; sixty-six films) underwent many cast changes down through the years.  However, the Hoppy series differed from the other series in an important aspect.  While the other two trio members would change hands several times, William Boyd was always Hopalong Cassidy.

The original Hoppy trio (This is a poster for a re-release of an earlier film as indicated by the "presenter," that it is a "Goodwill Picture," and that George Hayes is billed as "Gabby."  He only became "Gabby"  after moving to Republic.

The early Hoppy films found Boyd supported by Jimmy Ellison, who, as Johnny Nelson, was perfect as the younger member of the trio.  Then after a couple of false starts, George Hayes settled in as a cantankerous old-timer named Windy Halliday.  It was in this role that Hayes perfected his "Gabby" persona that would serve him so well when he left the Hoppy films and rode over to Republic where he became the most popular sidekick in the business.

Another re-release
Over the years, others would follow Ellison in the sidekick role, beginning with Russell Hayden, which was okay.  Then things began to go downhill when Hayden was followed by Brad King, Jay Kirby, Jimmy Rogers (Will's son), and finally Rand Brooks.   

There was much less turnover in the casting of the old-timer.  When Hayes left for Republic, Andy Clyde took on the role after a few films and, as California Carlson, remained with the series until its conclusion.  He wasn't Gabby Hayes (who was?), but he was much better than many of the unfunny, buffoonish sidekicks that were foisted onto many a movie cowboy hero.

The three gents in the middle (L-R) are Andy Clyde, Jay Kirby, William Boyd.  The gentleman in the suit is Russell Simpson.  The fellow standing on the far right pointing a pistol is Bob Mitchum. 
BORDER PATROL is a typical Hoppy film, meaning that it is an entertaining B-Western that could be enjoyed by the juvenile crowd and yet have some qualities that could be enjoyed by an adult audience.  As always, the black-and-white location photography was easy on the eye and as was also typical there wasn't a lot of action until the last reel and then all hell broke loose in a flurry of gunfire and fisticuffs.

Boyd, Kirby, and Clyde are three Texas Rangers who are disarmed and taken hostage by a young Mexican senorita named Inez, (Claudia Drake) who accuses them of murder. (I know, I know.  How could that happen?  These are three Texas Rangers; she is one woman.)  She then takes them across the border into Mexico and brings them before the local commandant, LaBarca (Duncan Renaldo).  It is there that the Rangers learn that Mexican laborers are being recruited to cross the Rio Grande in order to work in the Silver Bullet Mine.  But there's a big problem; they are never heard from again.

One of the missing is Don Enrique Perez (George Reeves), the young woman's sweetheart.  He went to investigate the situation, but had never returned.  Neither Cassidy nor the commandant is able to convince her that the Rangers are innocent.  Nevertheless, they are released and make their way back across the border to see if they can discover the mysterious disappearance of the laborers.  She trails them to Silver Bullet City.

When the Rangers arrive, they are once again disarmed and taken hostage.  This time it is by the henchmen of one Orestes Krebs (Russell Simpson).  He is a Judge Roy Beanish fellow who is the mayor, sheriff, and judge of Silver Bullet City as well as the owner of the Silver Bullet Mine.  With the aid of a gang of cutthroats, he rules with an iron hand over his little kingdom.

One of the orneriest of the cutthroats is a fellow named Quinn, who is portrayed by a young actor billed as Bob Mitchum.  Mitchum was in a number of the Hoppy films, always a bad guy at the beginning, but by his fourth appearance appearing in more sympathetic roles.

Bad Bob

Of course, the Rangers eventually prevail.  In the climactic scenes, Hoppy plugs Quinn and rides down Krebs who is attempting to escape and, in a scene that no self-respecting B-Western would fail to include, jumps off the galloping Topper onto the back of Krebs' horse and then the two tumble down a slight, sandy, slope .  At the bottom of the slope, Hoppy knocks Krebs cold with a roundhouse haymaker.  It is amazing how many times such a soft landing is available for our heroes when they need it.

Everything is well that ends well and it always does when the Hoppy trio takes charge. The miners are liberated and Inez is reunited with Don Enrique

Russell Simpson was cast against type and he seemed to have a good time in this film.  Viewers were accustomed to seeing him in films such as THE GRAPES OF WRATH, in which he portrayed Pa Joad, a broken, brooding man who did not have much to say, or as a disapproving Mormon elder in WAGON MASTER.  In BORDER PATROL, he had a lot to say and in some ways his character was the best thing the film had going.

Duncan Renaldo, the future Cisco Kid, had a fairly long scene early in the film, but was not seen again.  George Reeves, like Mitchum, appeared in a number of the Hoppy films during this period.  Unlike Mitchum, he always played a sympathetic role.  In fact, when Kirby left the series, Reeves substituted as the young sidekick in a couple of films, before being replaced by Jimmy Rogers.  In BORDER PATROL, however, he doesn't show up on the screen until the final reel and only has a couple of lines, which he speaks with a bad Mexican accent. It would be almost another decade before his casting as Superman would make him a TV star.

Good George, Hoppy sidekick

Another Three Mesquiteers combo (L-R): Raymond Hatton, Robert Livingston, Duncan Renaldo. Sometimes the old timer didn't even get to ride a horse.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

BLESSED MCGILL by Edwin Shrake

Edwin "Bud" Shrake was a crime reporter, sportswriter, magazine writer, and screenwriter. He also wrote novels -- ten of them. A native of Texas, most of his novels were about that state, its history, and its people. Among his novels are several Westerns. They were what are now classified as "literary Westerns," meaning they were less formulaic and more serious than the "genre Westerns" churned out by Louis L'Amour and many others (I don't mean this as a putdown, because some of the skilled practitioners in the genre field have given me many hours of pleasure.)

Other examples of writers of literary Westerns would include the likes of Cormac McCarthy, Douglas C. Jones, and Larry McMurtry, also a Lone Star native. Another Texan, Elmer Kelton, churned out many a genre Western, but occasionally produced a novel that could be compared favorably with the works of the above writers. Two good examples of his work that are worthy of the literary label would be The Time It Never Rained and The Man Who Rode Midnight.

Blessed McGill, published in 1987, was Shrake's third novel and is generally conceded to be his best.

One Peter Hermano McGill, a half-Irish, half-Spanish adventurer who roamed the American southwest and Mexico in the years after the Civil War, narrates the story.  Although McGill is self-educated, he is a good writer and a great storyteller who weaves his life story through flashback episodes that are not always related in chronological order. True, that narrative device has the effect of keeping the reader in the dark and guessing at times, but in the end, everything converges and the reader learns why the nickname "Blessed" is bestowed upon him; but I'm not telling.

Bud Shrake

Sunday, August 3, 2014

THE SON: A Novel by Phillipp Meyer

Phillipp Meyer’s The Son, a sprawling multigenerational epic set in Texas (which is always a good place to locate epics, especially the sprawling variety), begins with the family patriarch, Col. Eli McCullough. 

Most will be familiar with the date of my birth. The Declaration of Independence that bore the Republic of Texas out of Mexican tyranny was ratified March 2, 1836, in a humble shack at the edge of the Brazos. Half the signatories were malarial; the other half had come to Texas to escape a hangman’s noose. I was the first male child of this new republic.”

He grows up to become one tough hombre. He has not only seen it all, he has lived it. In his lifetime, he was a Comanche captive, Texas Ranger, Confederate colonel, cattle baron, and oil tycoon. Obviously, it had to be a long life -- and it was – one hundred years.  How a young helpless boy at the mercy of his Comanche captors eventually became a wealthy tyrant wielding almost absolute power is at the heart of the novel.

My birthday. Today, without the help of any whiskey, I have reached the conclusion: I am no one. Looking back over my forty-five years I see nothing worthwhile – what I had mistaken for a soul appears more like a black abyss – I have allowed others to shape me as they pleased. To ask the Colonel I am the worst son he has ever had….

Ron Charles perfectly characterizes Peter in his review in the Washington Post as "a prairie Hamlet among the Texas Medicis." There is no way that the son can possibly surpass the father when it comes to achievements, or does he even want to. Instead, he is the novel's conscience and its critic. He deplores his father's status as a giant in the land, but most of all he hates how his father has achieved his status and the harsh measures he resorts to in order to maintain it. There is no reward for such views. In fact, most people see him as a weak man -- and that includes his father.

If she were a better person she would not leave her family a dime; a few million, maybe, something to pay for college or if they got sick. She had grown up knowing that if a drought went on another year, or the ticks got worse, or the flies, if any single thing went wrong, the family would not eat. Of course, they had oil by then; it was an illusion. But her father had acted as if it was true, and she had believed it, and so it was.

even as a child she’d been mostly alone. Her family had owned the town. People made no sense to her. Men, with whom she had everything in common, did not want her around. Women, with whom she had nothing in common, smiled too much, laughed too loud, and mostly reminded her of small dogs, their lives lost in interior decorating and other peoples’ outfits. There had never been a place for a person like her.

If the Colonel had a soul mate, it was his great-granddaughter, Jeanne Anne. He had no respect and little love for his son, Peter, or his grandson, Charles, who was Jeanne Anne’s father. However, he doted on Jeanne Anne and she, who never knew her grandfather and also had little respect for her father, returned her great-grandfather’s affection.

As far as the Colonel was concerned, Peter was too soft and idealistic and in his own way, so was Charles, who was too tied to cattle and the land. The Colonel understood that down through the ages through war and conquest the land had been won and lost many times and he believed that it was subject to occurring again, that historical progress was a matter of destroying what had come before. Therefore, one should extract what one could from the land while one could. Charles wanted only to be a cattleman, but cattle ranching was a losing proposition. The Colonel’s solution – and Jeanne Anne’s – was to drill, drill for oil.

Spindletop, January 10, 1901; Texas' first big one

Comanche warriors, 1892

Despite his capture as a boy by the Comanches and their initial cruel treatment of him, the colonel learned not only to respect them, but also to view them as family.  They were practically the only people that he held in esteem. 

Certainly not the Texas Rangers, with whom he was forced to serve.

Rangering was not a career so much as a way to die young and get paid nothing for doing it; your chances of surviving a year with a company were about the same as not.  The lucky ones ending up in an unmarked hole.  The rest lost their topknot. By then the days of the ace units … were over.  What was left was an assortment of bankrupt soldiers and adventure seekers, convicts and God’s abandons.

Early Rangers
He viewed the poor  Mexicans of the area as people whose labor was to be exploited.  But he also believed that the prosperous Mexicans who owned land were to be exploited as well.  He believed that their time had passed and he viewed their property as fair game for the taking -- and he took.  

His opinion of most of the whites in the area wasn't much higher either, with one exception. He had good things to say about the German settlers living around the town of Fredericksburg:

"Before the Germans came, it was thought impossible to make butter in a southern climate.  It was also thought impossible to grow wheat.  A slave economy does that to the human mind, but the Germans, who had not been told otherwise, arrived and began churning first-rate butter and raising heavy crops of the noble cereal, which they sold to their dumbfounded neighbors at a high profit.

Your German had no allergy to work, which was conspicuous when you looked at his possessions.  If, upon passing some field, you noticed the soil was level and the rows straight, the land belonged to a German.  If the field was full of rocks, if the rows appeared to have been laid by a blind Indian, if it was December and the cotton had not been picked, you knew the land was owned by one of the local whites, who had drifted over from Tennessee and hoped that the bounties of Dame Nature would, by some witchery, yield him up a slave.”


Phillipp Meyer is one of those overnight successes whose success was not overnight.  His first published novel was the critically acclaimed American Rust, but it was his third novel.  The first he didn't attempt to sell and the second he couldn't sell.

Now, The Son has garnered even more praise than his debut, even to the extent of being nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.  What comes next?  In an interview, he said that he planned his next book to be combined with his first two in what he called "an American trilogy."  He gave no clues regarding the subject matter of the third book.



"The greatest things about The Son are its scope and ambition, not its strictly literary mettle. It’s an enveloping, extremely well-wrought, popular novel with passionate convictions about the people, places and battles that it conjures. That ought to be enough." -- Janet Maslin, New York Times 

"I could no more convey the scope of The Son than I could capture the boundless plains of Texas. With this family that stretches from our war with Mexico to our invasion of Iraq, Meyer has given us an extraordinary orchestration of American history, a testament to the fact that all victors erect their empires on bones bleached by the light of self-righteousness." -- Ron Charles, Washington Post

"These are not heroic transplants from the present, disguised in buckskin and loincloths.  They are unrepentant, greedy, often homicidal, lost souls, blindly groping their way through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries." -- Will Blythe, New York Times Book Review

"Meyer's tale is vast, volcanic, prodigious in violence, intermittently hard to fathom, not infrequently hard to stomach, and difficult to ignore." -- Boston Globe

"The Son drives home one hard and fascinating truth about American life: None of us belong here.  We just have it on loan until the next civilization comes around." -- Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"It may not be the Great American Novel, but it certainly is a damn good one." -- Entertainment Weekly

Now for an irritating fly in the soothing ointment of praise:

"On one level, this large-canvas family saga by award-winning novelist Philipp Meyer resembles nothing more than a patchwork of derivative fiction — sort of Edna Ferber meets Thomas Berger meets James Michener, with a dash of Dallas and a touch of The Big Valley thrown in for flavor.

"It’s also a none-too-subtle bashing of Texas history, myths and legends, with a derisive editorial condemnation of all things Texan or Western." -- Clay Reynolds, Dallas Morning News

I must add that other reviews that I read in other Texas publications were positive.  In fact, the above is the only negative review that I found anywhere.