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, January 7, 2015

RANDOLPH SCOTT: The Paramount Years, 1932-1938

Even knowing Randolph Scott was one of the highlights of my career...There has never been such a complete gentleman in the long history of the motion picture business ... Randy was also the most unselfish star I have ever met. 

-- Budd Boetticher in the foreword of Last of the Cowboy Heroes by Robert Nott

THE VIRGINIAN (Paramount, 1929), one of the first sound Westerns, was a significant one for several reasons: 1) it starred young Gary Cooper who was developing into one of the best actors in the business; 2) it featured an able supporting cast headed by the consummate actor Walter Huston (his film debut) and Richard Arlen; 3) the story was based on a famous novel by Owen Wister; and 4) it was directed by Victor Fleming, with assistance from Henry Hathaway. In 1939, Fleming would direct GONE WITH THE WIND (MGM) and Hathaway later became one of the more famous directors of Western films.

But one of the more significant aspects of the film is not readily apparent. A young native Virginian, attempting to break into movies, was hired by the producer to serve as voice coach for Cooper.  He also appeared in the film as an unbilled extra.  It was Randolph Scott's first Western role.  He and Hathaway would ride the same trail many times in the next few years.

He was born George Randolph Scott in 1898 (or 1903; dates vary) in Orange County, Virginia, but grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina. His father was a textile executive and his mother was a member of a wealthy North Carolina family. Both parents were direct descendants of Virginia settlers.

He studied the textile business at Georgia Institute of Technology (later Georgia Tech) but sustained an injury while playing football. He then transferred to the University of North Carolina where he graduated with a degree in textiles and manufacturing.

The textile business held little or no interest for Scott and as he approached age thirty, he headed west to California, armed with a letter of introduction from his father to a slight acquaintance who was dabbling in the movie business, a fellow by the name of Howard Hughes. With Hughes' aid Scott landed several bit parts as an extra, all uncredited, but was finally cast as the male lead in WOMEN MEN MARRY (1931).

He then signed a seven-year contract with Paramount.  At first the studio didn't quite know how to utilize the actor after signing him.  After all, it had Gary Cooper for Westerns, Cary Grant for romantic leads, and Buster Crabbe for "B" features.

Reportedly, author Will James wanted Scott to star in his autobiography, which was to be filmed by Paramount.  Unfortunately for Scott, since the story would have provided him with an ideal vehicle, the deal fell through.

Finally, Paramount gave him a starring role, the first of many, many starring roles in Western films.  It was HERITAGE OF THE DESERT (1932), with a script adapted from the Zane Grey novel. Henry Hathaway made his directorial debut on the film. 

From 1932 to 1935, Scott starred in ten Paramount Westerns based on Grey's novels .  The first six were directed by Hathaway, the first of several accomplished directors to associate themselves with Scott during his career.

These Paramount films were not A-Westerns, nor medium-budget Westerns (what could be labelled A minus or B plus Westerns), but B-Westerns that looked more expensive than they were.  The illusion was created by the studio's practice of intercutting footage, panoramic vistas, and some non-action long shots from its Jack Holt silent series that had been filmed at much greater expense. Consequently, Scott and the other actors wore costumes and rode horses that matched the stock footage and, whenever possible, actors from the silent series were cast in the same roles in the Scott films.

Other studios often used stock footage as well. For example, Warner Brothers spliced silent footage from their Ken Maynard films into their John Wayne and Dick Foran series that were produced during the '30's.  But no studio ever utilized stock footage to the degree that Paramount did in the Scott films.

HERITAGE OF THE DESERT, despite its melodramatic plot (after all, it was a Zane Grey story), proved to critics that Scott was a natural actor who could deliver the goods in the Western genre, and that his future was a bright one.  The supporting cast included Sally Blane (sister of Loretta Young) as the heroine, David Landau as the chief villain, as well as Guinn "Big Boy" Williams and J. Farrell MacDonald.  

WILD HORSE MESA (1932) is one of the better entries in the series.  Scott again filled the lead role that belonged to Jack Holt in the studio's silent version.


Fred Kohler was cast as the villain, a dastardly individual who trapped wild horses by using barbed wire, a role that had belonged to Noah Beery in the silent version.  Sally Blane was again the leading lady.  Hathaway as usual utilized silent footage for the action sequences and emphasized characterization and character relationships in the new footage.

MAN OF THE FOREST (1933) was a superior entry, if for no other reason than its stellar cast that included Harry Carey, Buster Crabbe, Verna Hillie, Big Boy Williams, and, as the villain, Noah Beery.

If one were forced to choose the best of the series, it might be TO THE LAST MAN (1933).

Directed by Hathaway, the film was adapted from one of Grey's better novels. The story was based on the historic Tonto Basin, Arizona range war of 1887, a conflict involving cattlemen and sheepmen. Appearing in an uncredited role was little Miss Shirley Temple, making her film debut at age four.

While starring in the Zane Grey series, Scott was also appearing in non-Westerns, but not in any that served to advance his career.  He even found himself cast in two Astaire-Rogers musicals.

His most prestigous role during this period was in King Vidor's SO RED THE ROSE (Paramount, 1935).  Although Scott received some favorable critical notices, the film, with a plot similar to the later GONE WITH THE WIND, did not.  It not only failed artistically, but also financially, leading one studio executive to dub it SO RED THE INK!

By 1935, Scott had completed the Zane Grey series with ROCKY MOUNTAIN MYSTERY.  The following year he received his initial starring role in an A-Western, THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS, while on loan-out to United Artists.  Directed by George B. Seitz, it is one of the best of many screen versions of the James Fenimore Cooper novel -- which is hardly worth boasting about since most of them have not been good.  That is to be expected, I suppose, since Cooper was not a very good writer. 

Scott is the white hunter Hawkeye and Robert Barrat is his faithful Indian companion, Chingachgook.  Also in the cast is Binnie Barnes, Heather Angel, and Bruce Cabot.

In 1938, after appearing in several more Paramount features, Scott completed his contract with the studio by starring in James Hogan's THE TEXANS, his second starring role in an A-Western.  The remake of NORTH OF '36, based on Emerson Hough's novel about post-Civil War Texas, was not a successful effort.  An epic about the opening of the Chisholm Trail, the origins of the Ku Klux Klan, and the transcontinental railroad should be anything but dull -- but this one was.

Despite an excellent cast headed by Joan Bennett and Scott, with support from May Robson, Walter Brennan, Robert Cummings, and Raymond Hatton, the film clumsily failed as a result of having its continuity disjointed by an even greater reliance on stock footage from the Jack Holt silent version than had been true in the Zane Grey series.

Scott's career, however, was about to receive a big boost.  He reached an important decision when he signed a non-exclusive contract with Darryl Zanuck and 20th Century Fox.  As a result, he would be cast in several deluxe Westerns during the late '30's and early '40's.



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