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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Friday, December 2, 2016


There will probably never be another stuntman who can compare to Yakima Canutt.  He had been a world champion cowboy several times and where horses were concerned he could do it all.  He invented all the gadgets that made stunt work easier. One of his clever devices was a step that attached to the saddle so that he had leverage to transfer to another moving object, like a wagon or a train.  Another was the 'shotgun,' a spring-loaded device used to separate the tongue of a running wagon from the horses, thus cutting the horses loose.  It also included a shock cord attached to the wagon bed, which caused wheels to cramp and turn the wagon over on the precise spot that was most advantageous for the camera. -- William Witney, Director

Enos Edward Canutt was born in 1895 on a farm in the Snake River Hills in eastern Washington. He began his rodeo career at age 16 when he won the bronc riding competition in nearby Colfax, Washington.

Although the details differ depending on the source of the story, it is generally conceded that he received his nickname Yakima, Yak for short, during the Pendleton Round-Up in 1914.  

During a decade of competing in the top rodeos of the day, Yak became a champion bronc rider and bulldogger, and on several occasions had the honor of All-Around Cowboy bestowed upon him.

How good was he?  He was the only cowboy to ever ride the legendary bucking bronc, Tipperary.  Not only that, he rode him twice.  And this was after the horse had bucked-off more than eighty riders.  It is only fitting, that both Yak and Tipperary were inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame in 1976.

Like many another cowboy, Yak was lured to Hollywood and in 1923 he signed with independent producer Ben Wilson to star in a series of silent B-Western quickies.

He was not a natural in front of the camera when it came to scenes that called for interaction with other actors, especially when it involved scenes with his leading lady, but when action was called for he was a natural.  

In those early days the stars were called upon to perform at least some of their stunts.  Yak, on the other hand, performed all of his.  As good as he was, he was seriously injured on several occasions during the filming of the series.

But he also began to experiment with new techniques and equipment that made stunting less hazardous.  This would become his major contribution to film production.

The clip below will demonstrate why it was not good business to allow the star of a film to do his own stunts and it may also be the first instance of Yak performing his under the stagecoach stunt.  The clip also contains an interview with an older reminiscing Yak and scenes from his most famous starring role: THE DEVIL HORSE (Roach/Path, 1926).

The end of the silent era and the advent of sound spelled trouble for the cowboy.  His voice sounded, as he admitted, "like a hillbilly in a well." He said that his flat voice which lacked resonance was the result of a bout of flu that he had contracted in 1918 when he was in the navy.  After starring in one independent quickie, CANYON HAWKS (Big 4, 1930), Yak realized that if he was going to have a further career in the movies it was clear that it was not going to be as a western star.

In the five years between 1925 and 1930, fifty-five people were killed making movies, and more than ten thousand injured.  By the late 1930s, the maverick stunt man willing to do anything for a buck was disappearing.  Now under scrutiny, experienced stunt men began to separate themselves from amateurs by building special equipment, rehearsing stunts, and developing new techniques. -- Garrett Soden, Falling: How Our Greatest Fear Became Our Greatest Thrill

In the early '30s Canutt began appearing in supporting roles in westerns starring a young actor by the name of John Wayne.  It was an association that would last four decades and one that would advance the respective careers of both men.  Wayne readily admitted that he admired Canutt because he was the genuine article -- a real cowboy.  In fact, Wayne copied Canutt's rolling walk, his speech pattern, and many of his gestures.

Since Yak was nearly always a villain and found himself in a fistfight with Wayne, he devised a plan to make the fights look more realistic while reducing the landing of accidental punches.  He persuaded directors to place the camera in such a manner that it faced one of the participants thus making it appear that punches were actually landing on the adversary.  It was a method that was soon adopted by other directors and stunt men.

For an example of the brawling techniques of Canutt and Wayne, you can watch the following clip.  It is taken from a colorized version of PARADISE CANYON (Lone Star/Monogram, 1935).

It was also during that time that Yak became a much sought after stunt man in the cliffhanging serials of the day.  He often did double duty by filling a supporting role in the chapter plays.  Republic produced several serials featuring masked heroes such as the Lone Ranger and Zorro.  These were ideal for they made it much easier for Yak to disguise himself as the hero.

In 1939, he doubled Reed Hadley in ZORRO'S FIGHTING LEGION, a serial that many consider to be the most action filled ever filmed.  That reputation is due in no small part to Yak's stunting skills.

Click on the clip below and you will see Yak make Reed Hadley look very good:

However, it was two films in 1939 that catapulted Yak into the big leagues. First up was John Ford's STAGECOACH (UA), in which Yak not only doubled John Wayne, but also doubled Apaches attacking the coach as it raced across the western landscape.    

In the clip below you can view Yak as an Apache biting the dust several times when his horse goes down head over heels.  He is also the Apache who jumps onto the stagecoach's team of horses and is shot by Ringo (John Wayne) causing him to fall between the running horses and eventually passing under the stage.

In addition, when the driver (Andy Devine) is wounded and loses control of the stage's team, Yak doubles Wayne who regains control by leaping from the stage to the back of the horses.  Watch the clip and you will see what I mean.


As a follow-up to STAGECOACH, Yak doubled Clark Gable in GONE WITH THE WIND (Selznick/MGM).  In a famous scene it was he who drove a buggy through a burning Atlanta.

A year later Yak suffered his most serious injury while doubling Gable in BOOM TOWN (MGM) when a horse went over backward and the saddle horn slammed into his stomach.  After undergoing major surgery and a long recovery, Yak returned to work only to break both ankles when a stunt went awry during the filming of a Roy Rogers film, IDAHO (Republic, 1943).

Already forty-four years old at the time of the accident, Yak began to phase out his personal stunt work in favor of stunt coordination and eventually second-unit directing.  Throughout the 40's and 50's he staged stunts in serials and western films.  During the latter decade he also began to coordinate stunts in Hollywood spectaculars, films that required organizing scenes involving large numbers of extras engaging in huge battle scenes.

First up was IVANHOE (MGM, 1952).  Filmed in England, it was Yak's first movie to be produced outside the United States. Even though it was a different experience for him, the producers had nothing but praise for the way that he organized and staged the action.

Then in 1959 came BEN HUR (MGM).  It was this film that cemented Yak's place at the top of any list of legendary stunters and stunt coordinators.  Shot in Rome, the chariot race directed by Yak may very well be not only the most famous action scene ever filmed, but also the finest.  And it was done without any serious injury to either stunt men or horses.  It is a remarkable achievement. 

After BEN-HUR, Yak was hired to stage the action scenes in other Hollywood spectaculars: SPARTACUS (Universal, 1960), EL CID (AA, 1961)THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE (Paramount, 1964), and KHARTOUM (UA, 1966).  

He finally retired in 1976.  He was eighty-years old.

As earlier noted, Yakima Canutt is in the Cowboy Hall of Fame; he also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; and in 1967 he received an honorary Academy Award for his accomplishments as a stunt man and for devising safety techniques and equipment designed to make stunting a less dangerous line of work.  It was only fitting that Charlton Heston made the presentation.  

Yak died in 1986.  He was ninety-years old.

Yak was simply the best that ever was at what he does. -- Charlton Heston

Monday, October 3, 2016


THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES is a sequel to JESSE JAMES (Fox, 1939).  You can read a review of the latter film here.

DIRECTOR: Fritz Lang;  PRODUCER: Darryl F. Zanuck; WRITER: screenplay by Sam Hellman; CINEMATOGRAPHER: George Barnes

CAST: Henry Fonda, Gene Tierney, Jackie Cooper, Henry Hull, John Carradine, J. Edward Bromberg, Donald Meek, Eddie Collins, George Barbier, Russell Hicks, Ernest Whitman, Charles Tannen, Lloyd Corrigan, Victor Killian, George Chandler, Matthew "Stymie" Beard, Milton Kibbee

Well, after all it is a movie; therefore, it is mostly fiction.  Here are the historical facts presented in the movie (this won't take long):

  • There were two outlaw brothers from Missouri named Frank and Jesse James;
  • They led a gang that held up banks and trains;
  • Jesse was assassinated in his living room in St. Joseph, Missouri by gang member Bob Ford, who was assisted by his brother, Charlie;
  • The Ford brothers were tried and convicted of murder, but were pardoned by the governor and received a reward;
  • Frank surrendered, was tried and acquitted.

The rest of the film is pure fiction, a product of the screenwriter and director's imaginations.  Since no one should go to a movie for a history lesson, if done right, the film could still be an enjoyable experience for the viewer.  It is a sequel to the classic JESSE JAMES (Fox, 1939) and although it doesn't measure up to the high standards of that film it is, for the most part, an entertaining film.

Frank (Henry Fonda) has quit the outlaw trail and has settled down to the peaceful pursuits of a farmer somewhere in the Missouri Ozarks.  Only two people know of his whereabouts: an ex-slave named Pinky (Ernest Whitman) and Clem (Jackie Cooper), the young son of a former gang member killed during a hold-up.

Then one day Frank learns that Jesse was shot and killed and that the killer was Bob Ford (John Carradine), who had help from his brother Charlie. Since the Fords were tried and convicted and sentenced to hang, Frank was satisfied that justice was being served.

Bob Ford, the dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard and laid poor Jesse in his grave.

Later Frank reads in the newspaper that the Fords have not only been pardoned by the governor, but that they have received a reward for killing Jesse. This news spurs him to ride off in search of the Fords, who skedaddle farther west, eventually holding up in Denver.

Frank, Clem, and Pinky learn that justice has been denied.
In his quest to track down the Fords, Frank is assisted (hampered) by young and impetuous Clem, who idolizes Frank and has visions of following in the footsteps of both his idol and his late father.

Frank has another problem; he needs money to finance his efforts.  Consequently, he decides to rob the railroad express office since it was the railroad that provided the reward money that was paid to the Fords.  Unfortunately, Clem, who has been trailing Frank, decides to make his presence known to Frank at the time of the robbery. Everything goes haywire at that point and the watchman is accidentally killed and Frank becomes a murder suspect.

In Denver, Frank and Clem concoct a story about Frank's death in Mexico, a story that they pass on to Eleanor Stone (Gene Tierney), a gullible young female reporter working for her father's newspaper.

Gullible, but beautiful
Meanwhile, Frank and Clem are able to locate the Fords, but in a hot pursuit Bob escapes, while Charlie meets his end by falling off a cliff.

Frank makes plans to ride after Bob when Eleanor informs him that back home in Missouri Pinky has been arrested and convicted for the robbery of the railroad freight office and has been sentenced to hang.  Frank rides back to Missouri in order to save Pinky and is arrested and charged with the murder of the watchman.

Major Cobb (Henry Hull)
Frank's friend and advocate, newspaper editor Major Rufus Cobb (Henry Hull), serves as his defense counsel in the subsequent trial.  The major is able to sway the jury by making the railroad a culprit that had a history of taking advantage of small farmers -- the very kind that made up the jury.  It worked.  Just before the jury's verdict was announced, Bob Ford entered the rear of the courtroom, hoping to see the jury hand down a guilty verdict.  When the jury instead announced a not guilty verdict, Bob Ford fled from the courtroom with Frank close behind.

Outside the courtroom, and off-camera, Clem and Ford engage in a shoot-out in which both are fatally wounded.

Now that Jesse's death has been avenged, Frank can go back to his Ozark farm, but not alone.  No, traveling with him is Eleanor, his new bride.

No, just kidding, that didn't happen.

Here's why:

Fox produced four movies based on Stuart Lake's "biography" of Wyatt Earp. In making the first two the studio was plagued by threatened lawsuits by Wyatt's widow, Josephine, who was concerned about how she or her late husband might be portrayed in the films. In the first instance the studio changed Wyatt's name to Michael Wyatt and in the second they settled with her out of court -- and left her out of both films. Finally, with Josie's death, the studio was able to make the other two films without any interference from that quarter.

When the studio filmed JESSE JAMES, the screenplay mostly ignored historical fact, but it did allow for Jesse's marriage to Zerelda Mimms.  This was done even though Zee had died in 1900.  However, her son, Jesse Edwards James, who happened to be a lawyer, was very much alive.  At any rate the studio did not want to deal with lawsuits from the family that might object to any indication that Jesse had been involved with women other than Zee.

On the other hand, Frank remained a bachelor in the film, when in fact he had married Annie Ralston only a few weeks after Jesse and Zee had wed.  Annie was very much alive when the movie was filmed (she died in 1944), but apparently did not object to having been left out of the screenplay.

ITHE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES, Frank is still single and there is no doubt that he and Eleanor are infatuated with each other.  In the film's closing scenes Eleanor is heading back to her home in Denver and there is an implication that Frank might make his way there later.  But they part with a handshake and a wave.

Henry Fonda (1905-1982) was on his way to becoming one of the most highly sought after and critically acclaimed actors in the business.  He was also in the process of becoming John Ford's favorite actor, which turned out to be good news for director and actor.

In 1939, the busy actor appeared in five films, including the aforementioned JESSE JAMES, as well as YOUNG MR. LINCOLN (Fox) and DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK (Fox), both directed by Ford.  

In 1940, he not only starred in THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES, but also gave what was his greatest performance (not just my opinion) in another Ford film, THE GRAPES OF WRATH (Fox).

Gene Tierney (1920-1991), on the other hand, made her screen debut in THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES.  She had done some acting on the stage but this was her first film and she probably should not have been given such an important role so early in her career.  It isn't that she was awful, but when compared with the large group of professionals appearing in the film, her novice status was apparent.

Variety went so far as to say that "the only member with whom fault can be found is Gene Tierney....[She] is plenty pretty but for oomph she just isn't." The writer went on to say that she seemed to lack what it takes to make an impression on the screen.

The Harvard Lampoon even named her "The Worst Female Discovery of 1940."  At least, they spelled her name right.

Both are harsh assessments, too harsh, and theirs was not a universal view. Some critics thought she showed promise. And Brian Garfield wrote in his book, Western Films: A Complete Guide, that Tierney was excellent in the film.  In fact, as you can read below, he liked her much more than he liked the film.

I wouldn't say she was either excellent or terrible. It was obvious that the camera loved her and that she possessed real potential.  Unfortunately, Fox didn't know what to do with her. The following year she was miscast in two films: TOBACCO ROAD and BELLE STARR. The latter was a follow-up effort to cash in on the studio's success with the two featuring the James brothers by bringing the notorious "bandit queen" to the screen.  Not only was it almost totally fictional, but it was hokey and had few redeeming qualities.

After all those false starts, the studio finally cast her in a film that was tailor made for her.  She gave her greatest performance (not just my opinion) as murder victim Laura Hunt in LAURA (Fox, 1944).  She followed that film a year later with an Oscar-nominated Best Actress performance in LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (Fox).  

During her remaining career she would appear in only one more Western: THE SECRET OF CONVICT LAKE (Fox, 1951).

Gene Tierney was nominated for an Academy Award at age twenty-five and Henry Fonda was first nominated for an Oscar at age thirty-five for his performance in THE GRAPES OF WRATH.  Jackie Cooper was nominated for a Best Actor Award in 1931.  The film was SKIPPY, and he was nine-years-old.

Jackie Cooper (L) and Robert Coogan (R) in a scene from SKIPPY.
At the time of his nomination he was the youngest performer to be nominated for an Academy Award and is still the youngest to be nominated for a Best Actor Award.

Besides SKIPPY, his best known performances were in co-starring roles with Wallace Beery in THE CHAMP (1931) and TREASURE ISLAND (1934).

Like many (most?) child actors Cooper experienced difficulty in making the transition to more mature roles.  Many years later, however, he made a comeback in television as an Emmy Award winning actor/director.

By the way, Jackie Cooper first gained prominence when he became one of the most popular members of the "Our Gang" troupe in 1929-31.  Ironically, another former popular member of that gang, Matthew "Stymie" Beard, has a couple of scenes in THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES.

The supporting cast in THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES is superb and in many cases it consists of performers reprising their JESSE JAMES roles, including: Henry Hull as Major Cobb; John Carradine as Bob Ford; Charles Tannen as Charlie Ford; J. Edward Bromberg as George Runyan, railroad detective; Donald Meek as McCoy, the head of the railroad; Ernest Whitman as Pinky; and George Chandler as Roy, Major Cobb's assistant.

J. Edward Bromberg (L) as railroad detective George Runyan and Henry Hull (R) as Major Rufus Cobb

John Carradine as a worried Bob Ford
I would be remiss if I didn't mention that John Carradine, in the same year that he portrayed the despicable turncoat Bob Ford, also gave a touching and haunting performance as the preacher Casy in THE GRAPES OF WRATH.  In fact, he had become one of John Ford's favorite supporting actors. 

Friedrich Christian "Fritz" Lang (1890-1976) was an accomplished director who specialized in film noir.  Therefore, he was a surprise choice to direct THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES, since he not only had never directed a western, he had never even directed a color film.  The film is overly slow moving at times, but that may be the fault of the script as much as Lang's direction. Regardless of that criticism, the film was a winner at the box-office.

Fox, pleased with the financial success of Lang's first Western, signed him to film one the following year, and the results were even better.  If WESTERN UNION  an epic film about the stringing of the telegraph, does not achieve classic status, it comes very close.  And for sure, it provided Randolph Scott with one of his very best performances.

Lang directed only one other western, and though RANCHO NOTORIOUS (RKO, 1952) has its partisans, I confess that I am not one of them.  It isn't Lang's direction but the cast that makes it a weak film. There were just too many performers in the film who were never believable in western roles.


Frank and Clem pursue Bob and Charley with the Rocky Mountains (Sierra Nevadas) as a backdrop.    

Bob and Charley cross on a treacherously narrow bridge -- and in hot pursuit Frank and Clem will do the same.

One of the great strengths of JESSE JAMES was the lush, lavish color photography provided by George Barnes (1892-1953).  Added to the appeal of the film was the fact that much of it was shot on location in Missouri where most of the story takes place. The entire sequel was filmed in California, with the Sierra Nevadas standing in for the Colorado Rockies.

For the most part it is also beautifully photographed except for some Denver town scenes marred by obviously fake snowcaps in the background. That, however, was not Barnes' fault, but was a cost-cutting measure.

Barnes photographed his first feature in 1918 and went on to film two Rudolph Valentino films, including his final one, THE SON OF SHEIK (UA, 1926). Nominated eight times for an Academy Award, he won for his work on REBECCA (UA), released the same year as THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES


"'s not a bad picture but it doesn't have the spirited flavor of JESSE JAMES.  Lang's directorial hand was heavy and humorless....A big movie lamentably dated." -- Brian Garfield, Western Films: A Complete Guide

"Where Henry King's film [JESSE JAMES] is romantic, lush even, Lang's, despite the revenge motive which occurs so often in his work as the force behind the narrative, is almost a sentimental celebration of the Old West...The result is a slow-moving and strangely anonymous looking film. -- Phil Hardy, The Western

"Though neither one of Lang's nor the Jesse James cycle's best films, [it is] a rewarding curiosity." -- Richard Collins, The BFI Companion to the Western

Sunday, September 18, 2016

HILLBILLY ELEGY: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

hill-bil-ly (noun)
a term used by people from the country to describe themselves with pride, but used by others as an insult for people whom they regard as ignorant and unsophisticated

el·e·gy (noun)
a mournful or reflective poem

I am a hill person. So is much of America’s white working class. And we hill people aren’t doing very well….Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash. I call them neighbors, friends, and family. – J.D. Vance

J.D. Vance grew up in the town of Middletown, Ohio. However, his grandparents were originally from Jackson, Kentucky, a coal mining town in the Appalachian area of the state, and had migrated to Middletown in 1947 so that his grandfather could take a job in the Armco steel mill. Their move was part of a large wave of migration from the same region to the same area and for the same reason. He says that he lived in Middletown, but his heart was always in Jackson, an area that he often visited with his grandparents when he was a youngster, and that he considered himself to be a hillbilly.

At first the migrants fared much better than they had in the areas they had left. They worked hard, of course, but their jobs required no education and little technical skill and their union insured that they were paid well and that their fringe benefits were substantial.

But then came globalization, automation, conglomeration, de-unionization, and things went south for the whole Midwest, literally in some cases, and a region that once led the world in industrial production became known as the Rust Belt.

Vance begins his book with a confession:

I find the existence of the book you hold in your hands somewhat absurd. It says right there on the cover that it’s a memoir, but I’m thirty-one years old, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve accomplished nothing great in my life….The coolest thing I’ve done, at least on paper, is graduate from Yale Law School, something thirteen-year-old J.D. Vance would have considered ludicrous….I have a nice job, a happy marriage, a comfortable home, and two lively dogs.

So I didn’t write this book because I’ve achieved something extraordinary. I wrote this book because I’ve achieved something quite ordinary, which doesn’t happen to most kids who grow up like me. You see, I grew up poor, in the Rust Belt, in an Ohio steel town that has been hemorrhaging jobs and hope for as long as I can remember. I have, to put it mildly, a complex relationship with my parents, one of whom has struggled with addiction for nearly my entire life. My grandparents, neither of whom graduated from high school, raised me, and few members of even my extended family attended college. The statistics tell you that kids like me face a grim future – that if they’re lucky, they’ll manage to avoid welfare; and if they’re unlucky, they’ll die of a heroin overdose, as happened to dozens in my small hometown just last year….

I want people to understand what happens in the lives of the poor and the psychological impact that spiritual and material poverty has on their children. I want people to understand the American Dream as my family and I encountered it.”

The book has become a publishing sensation. Just type in the author’s name or the title of the book in Google and you will see what I mean. Political conservatives love it because Vance, a conservative Republican, lays a lot of the blame for the ills of the Rust Belt citizenry on the lack of individual initiative and responsibility. While he admits globalization and automation have played a role, and that government policies might help a little, he also believes that “the problems were not created by the governments or the corporations or anyone else. We created them, and only we can fix them.” By “we,” he means the very people whose lives have become unmoored by political and economic forces and who face uncertain futures.

Some of his solutions strike me as being overly simplistic. For example, he says that those who have no future in the Rust Belt should go where the jobs are. After all, that is what his grandparents and many others did when they left Kentucky and migrated to Ohio. And there have been many other mass migrations through the years in which people who experienced economic dislocation pulled up stakes and headed west or north in search of a better life.

But those people had a chance of purchasing cheap farm land or finding good unskilled jobs that paid well. Today, however, neither the cheap land nor the unskilled jobs exist. Both are gone. What good does it do one to go where the good jobs exist if one has neither the education nor the skills to get one?

But I heartily agree with one reviewer who wrote that Vance chooses “to adopt a tone of thoughtful reflection with a genuine desire for mutual understanding – almost a lost art in this soundbite-talking-head age" and another reviewer who wrote, “Mr. Vance doesn’t have all the answers. But he’s advancing the conversation.”

Vance is a good writer and a natural born storyteller – and what an inspirational and touching personal story he has to tell. He has lived an amazing life in which he has overcome tremendous obstacles that the vast majority of people have never confronted or even imagined. And against all odds, seemingly insurmountable, he has achieved the American Dream. At one point he admits “I am one lucky son of a bitch.” Well, yes, he is, but sometimes we make our own luck and his life is exhibit number one.

Monday, September 12, 2016

TRIALS OF THE EARTH: The True Story of a Pioneer Woman by Mary Mann Hamilton

One of my favorite novels of last year – or any year, for that matter – was The Tall Woman by Wilma Dykeman.  Set in the Appalachians in North Carolina it is the story of one woman’s struggle to cope with the trials and tribulations of a pioneer woman during the Civil War and its aftermath.
Recently, I finished Trials of the Earth about another pioneer woman and I was struck by the similarities between the two stories.  However, there is one big difference: Trials of the Earth is not fiction.

It is rather amazing that it was ever published.  The book’s serendipitous path to publication began in the early ‘30’s when a young Mississippi writer, Helen Dick Davis, first met Mary Mann Hamilton (1866-ca. 1936), who was living nearby in her daughter’s home.  After they became friends, Davis became enthralled by the stories that the older woman told her about her life as a pioneer wife and mother who spent many years cooking for boarding houses located in lumber camps in the Mississippi Delta.
Davis encouraged Hamilton to write down what she remembered about those experiences.  At first Davis resisted but eventually relented and became obsessed with getting it all down on paper.

In the preface to the manuscript Davis wrote in 1933:

When I began to beg her to write down the account of her life, if only as a record for her children and grandchildren, she did it just to please me.  She wrote it piecemeal at first, just scattered experiences, ten or fifteen pages at a time written with pencil on cheap tablet paper; stories of terrible floodwaters, cyclones, feuds to the death, escaped Negro convicts….

By spring of 1933 Mary Hamilton had given me 150,000 words on this book.  I have edited it, worked over it with her, and guided her in her choice of material, but I have in no case added to nor changed what she wrote….

I want to reassure the reader that my presence does not enter the book.  I have not touched her style, nor embellished her material.  It is a direct and simple autobiography.

Despite what Davis wrote, her editing task was monumental.  Hamilton had received practically no education and her spelling, grammar, and punctuation had to be corrected in order to make the manuscript readable.  But Hamilton’s voice comes through clearly; the storytelling is unpolished and unvarnished.

After my morning work of milking, churning, cleaning house, getting dinner and supper at one time, and cutting a dress for someone, I would help the children in the field all afternoon.  Then I would come in at sundown and milk, while Leslie [her young daughter] finished supper…. After we ate supper…while the children did the dishes, I started making a dress I had cut out that morning, and I never got up from the machine till that dress was finished.  Everyone I made meant a dollar cash…. I would make a dollar sewing almost every day.

Accidents, illness, and death were ever present in Mary Hamilton’s life.  And so were tornadoes, fires, panthers, bears, snakes, and even escaped convicts – and floods.  There is a harrowing account of her being trapped in a flood when the nearby Sunflower River overflowed its levee.

She found herself stranded with her small daughter and two month old baby on top of a stump located on a ridge with the rain coming down and the flood waters rising rapidly.  

It was midafternoon, and the water was up over the stump, lapping my feet. The old tree that I had been so afraid of in the morning was still standing.  Now I prayed it would fall on us, kill all three of us at once and end this suspense. About that time I saw the top kind of quiver.  I shut my eyes, clutched my children tight, and to myself said, “Thank God.”  It came down with a crash; cold water poured over us.  I opened my eyes.  It had missed us by a few feet….

Of course, I was glad it had missed us but disappointed to be facing again this slow sure death.  I could see no possible hope….

…[T]he only prayer I could think of to ask God was to let them die first so I could take care of them to the end.

There is even a mystery at the heart of Mary Hamilton’s account of the struggles and adversity that she and her family faced.  I’m not going to give that away.  But her dedication written in the front of the book serves as a teaser:

To my husband’s people
whoever they are,
and wherever they may be

The book was rejected by Little, Brown in 1933.  It resurfaced in the early ‘90’s when it was published by the University of Mississippi Press, but without the permission of Hamilton’s heirs.  After the heirs regained the rights to the book, and eighty-three years after initially rejecting it, Little, Brown published it.

Finally, this: 

A reviewer wrote in the New York Times that Mary Hamilton “was a fairly ordinary woman, but one whom necessity and native grit teased to a grand self-possession and authority.”

The hell, you say.  This was no ordinary woman; this was one tall woman. 

Thursday, August 25, 2016

MAN WITH THE GUN (Formosa/UA, 1955)

DIRECTOR: Richard Wilson; PRODUCER: Samuel Goldwyn, Jr.; WRITERS: story and screenplay by N.B. Stone, Jr. and Richard Wilson; CINEMATOGRAPHER: Lee Garmes

CAST: Robert Mitchum, Jan Sterling, Karen Sharpe, Henry Hull, Emile Meyer, John Lupton, Barbara Lawrence, Ted de Corsia, Leo Gordon, James Westerfield, Florenz Ames, Joe Barry, Claude Akins, Angie Dickinson

The film opens with Ed Pinchot (Leo Gordon) riding into the town of Sheridan.  

A boy's dog breaks away from him and begins to bark at the feet of Pinchot's horse.  Irritated, Pinchot pulls a pistol from his shoulder holster and shoots the dog.

While the boy kneels in the street, distraught over his dog, the gunman receives a warm welcome from Frenchy Lescoe (Ted de Corsia), the manager of the Palace saloon, who, like Pinchot, is employed by a land baron named Dade Holman (Joe Barry).  

Although there were a number of eyewitnesses, including the town marshal, nobody raises a hand, not even the marshal. This is a town that has a lot of problems.  What it needs is a town tamer.

And as luck would have it, one is about to ride into town.

Clint Tollinger (Robert Mitchum) has come to Sheridan because he has learned that his estranged wife, Nelly Bain (Jan Sterling), lives there.  Since leaving Tollinger she has made her living by managing a group of "dance hall girls" who are currently employed at the Palace saloon.

Sally refuses to talk to Tollinger or to tell him where their daughter is -- or anything else about her.  Despite her love for him, she had left with their daughter because she could no longer tolerate his dangerous occupation.

Town Tamer's estranged wife
Word gets around that Tollinger is a notorious town tamer who hires out his gun in order to establish law and order. After discussing the issue in a meeting, the town council persuaded by its president, blacksmith Saul Atkins (Emile Meyer), reluctantly hires Tollinger.

Lee Sims (Henry Hull), a man who lacks any semblance of courage or initiative is the town marshal.  One has to wonder how it is that a frontier town ever hired him in the first place. Furthermore, why did he take a job that was clearly beyond his means to execute? And why didn't he resign when the going got tough?  And why didn't the town council fire him after it hired Tollinger? I don't know why, but he remained in the office to the very end. 

At any rate, Sims deputizes Tollinger and tells him that he is on his own. Tollinger makes it clear that he wouldn't have it any other way.

There is a subplot involving young Jeff Castle (John Lupton) who attempts to homestead on a plot of land that the greedy rancher Holman claims but does not have title to, but nevertheless attempts to control through intimidation and other illegal means.  Jeff is engaged to Saul Atkins daughter Stella (Karen Sharpe; not to be confused with Karen Steele).  Although Stella is opposed to the whole notion of violence, even for a good cause, she eventually finds herself drawn against her will to the gunfighter, even though she dislikes his methods.

Tollinger holds a slice of green tomato pie as he talks with (L-R) Jeff Castle, Stella Atkins, and Saul Atkins

And of course as in all of the town tamer westerns the business element begins to complain that Tollinger's methods are too harsh and are having the effect of driving business away. We knew that was going to happen -- and so did Tollinger.

Dade Holman, whose ominous shadow hovers over the town, is not seen until the closing scenes.  He is described to Tollinger as being a reclusive fat man who stays close to his ranch home, and has not been seen in town for several years.  He nevertheless controls the town and the surrounding area by employing gunfighters such as Pinchot to carry out his wishes.  He also owns the Palace saloon, which is managed by Lescoe.

Well, push comes to shove, as one would imagine -- especially after Tollinger nails up notices forbidding guns within the city limits, including the extremely harsh warning that violators will be shot.

It isn't long before he makes his point by shooting the Harkness brothers, two henchmen in the employ of Dade Holman, who refused to obey the rule. 

In response to the killing of the brothers and the weapons ban, four more of Holman's men ride into town looking for a showdown with Tollinger.

They are led by Jim Reedy, the hombre in the big hat, portrayed by a young Claude Akins in an uncredited role. Uncredited, because he isn't going to be in this picture for very long.

Tollinger gets the drop on the four and kills the gent on the left who draws his gun on him.

Reedy has a trick up his sleeve -- er in his big hat.  But he doesn't fool Tollinger and when the smoke clears Holman has lost another man.

That's four.

There are several gimmicks involving guns in the film: Pinchot carries his gun in a shoulder holster; Reedy has one hidden in his hat; and Tollinger carries an extra gun in his belt.

Tollinger, a two-gun man with one holster.  Why?  Beats me.

Along the way Tollinger learns a terrible secret and we learn why he became a town tamer, a man who always uses his gun on the side of law and order -- at least as he saw it.  And, of course, there must be a final shootout involving Tollinger and Pinchot and Holman.  

Dade Holman comes to town

When the smoke clears and the dust settles Tollinger has killed six men. That's pretty good work for just a few days when one considers that Wild Bill Hickok killed a grand total of six during his lifetime and Wyatt Earp accounted for three. Of course the cinematic Hickok and Earp killed many, many more than that. 

As you can tell, there isn't much originality in the plot.  It was done before and would be done again.  In fact, in many ways it combines elements of THE GUNFIGHTER (Fox, 1950) and WARLOCK (Fox, 1959) as well as a number of other films.  And it is true, that given everything that had transpired, the conclusion does fall a tad flat. However, a strong cast and excellent black-and-white-photography make it well worth watching.

Practically the entire film takes place in the town. But I like the town.  It has an authentic look and feel -- at least much more so than the typical western movie town.  According to sources, the film was shot on the Samuel Goldwyn lot, but I don't recall ever seeing the location in any other film. 



Robert Mitchum (1917-1997) began his movie career in 1942-43 by playing bit parts in the Hopalong Cassidy B-western series.  A gang henchman at the beginning he eventually landed a few sympathetic roles in the series.  At the same time he was cast in extra and bit parts in other films.

As luck would have it, RKO had lost its two reigning B-western stars -- first George O'Brien and then Tim Holt -- to military service during World War II.  In 1944, the studio signed Mitchum to a seven year contract to take their place and planned to star him in a series of B-Westerns loosely based on Zane Grey stories.

He starred in two -- NEVADA (1944) and WEST OF THE PECOS (1945) -- and was very good in them.  The two earlier series with O'Brien and Holt had been superior and it appeared that the studio had another winner.  But it was not to be.  These two films were the actor's only starring roles in B-westerns.  

Fate intervened again when, on loan-out, Mitchum was cast in an important role in William Wellman's WWII film, STORY OF G.I. JOE (UA, 1945).  It was a success, garnering four Academy Award nominations, including Mitchum as Best Supporting Actor. Ironically, it was his only nomination, but it meant that he would not become a famous B-western star.  No, instead he would become a famous movie star. And by the way, at the time of his nomination Mitchum was also in the military, having been drafted near the end of the war.

After the war, Tim Holt would return and resume his role as RKO's B-western star and Mitchum would go on to bigger and better things.  His deep voice, physical appearance, and sleepy-eyed demeanor made him perfect in the noir dramas that became his specialty. During that period he also starred in one classic western, BLOOD ON THE MOON  (RKO, 1948), which possessed many of the noirish qualities that characterized his other films. 

In 1954, Mitchum and the studio parted ways.  MAN WITH THE GUN was his first post-RKO film.

Jan Sterling and Paul Kelly in a scene from THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY

Prior to her role in MAN WITH THE GUN, Jan Sterling had appeared in two westerns. The first was an uncredited role as Flo, a saloon girl, in GUNFIRE (Lippert, 1950), a B-western starring Don "Red" Barry. In 1953, she was cast as a tomboy in love with Buffalo Bill (Charlton Heston) in PONY EXPRESS (Paramount, 1953). The first film did nothing to advance her career and the second, a weak film about the beginning of -- you guessed it -- the pony express -- didn't do much for her cause either.

However, the next year after PONY EXPRESS she received great critical notices for her performance in the John Wayne airplane disaster film, THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY (Warner Brothers). It was for that film that she was nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress. It would be her only nomination.


Henry Hull (1890-1977), as Sheridan's incompetent marshal, gives a surprisingly restrained performance in MAN WITH THE GUN. Surprising, because he could chew scenery with the best of them.

His long and successful acting career began on the stage in 1911 and in the movies in 1917.

Although he did not appear in a lot of western films, he did have an important role in one classic. In JESSE JAMES (Fox, 1939) he portrayed Major Rufus Cobb, a frontier newspaperman and friend of the James brothers, a role he repeated the following year in the film's sequel, THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES (Fox).

Two years before MAN WITH THE GUN, Emile Meyer (1910-1987) gave his most memorable performance.  It was as cattleman Rufus Ryker in SHANE  (Paramount), a man not unlike Dade Holman, that most western movie fans remember him.  Perhaps not as evil as Holman, Ryker nevertheless also opposed homesteaders settling on land that he claimed but had no legal title to. And he hired a gunfighter, too, one even more lowdown and mean than the character portrayed by Leo Gordon in this film.  Jack Palance was terrific in the role of the gunfighter.

John Lupton (1928-1993) is best remembered for co-starring with Michael Ansara in the TV series Broken Arrow.  The series was based on the movie of the same name which in turn was based on Gilbert Arnold's novel, Blood Brothers.

However, Lupton would not want to remembered, I am sure, for his starring role in the western-horror film, JESSE JAMES MEETS FRANKENSTEIN'S DAUGHTER (Embassy, 1966).  And neither would the late Jim Davis, who was also in the film.  Those must have been lean times for the two actors. 

Karen Sharpe (B. 1934) appeared in three films with her mentor and friend Jan Sterling. One of them was THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY, for which Sterling received her only Academy Award nomination and Sharpe received a Golden Globe Award for "New Star of the Year."

As a result, Sharpe was signed to a contract by Batjac, John Wayne's new production company.  It was on loan-out that she appeared in MAN WITH THE GUN, her only western feature.  During the decade she gravitated to TV where she appeared in many western episodes and in 1959-60 she co-starred with Don Durant in the western series Johnny Ringo, which was cancelled after one season.

In 1966, she married producer Stanley Kramer and subsequently retired from acting and moved into the production end of the business.

It is a well-documented fact that part of Robert Mitchum's appeal was his bad-boy reputation, partly based on the fact that early in his career he spent a few months behind bars due to a marijuana possession charge.

However, his reputation pales in comparison to that of Leo Gordon (1922-2000).

After receiving an undesirable discharge from the military, Gordon was shot by the police during an attempted hold-up of a bar and its patrons.  His conviction earned him five years in San Quentin.

Nevertheless, he eventually broke into acting and in a forty-year career appeared in more than 170 movie and TV productions.  Despite dropping out of school in the eighth grade, Gordon became a screenwriter and provided scripts for a few movies and many TV shows and even wrote a novel.  He attributed his ability to write to the years he spent behind bars reading every book in the prison's library.

Don Siegel, who directed him in RIOT IN CELLBLOCK 11 (ironically, partly filmed in San Quentin), once said that Gordon "was the scariest man I have ever met."  Gordon used that impression and an imposing physical presence to become one of the best brutal heavies to appear on film.  After all, he did shoot a boy's dog in the opening scene of MAN WITH THE GUN.  No villain could top that -- not even Jack Palance.

But neither Gordon nor Mitchum could have been all bad.  Both actors were married only once.  Mitchum's marriage lasted fifty-seven years until his death in 1987 and Gordon and his wife had been married fifty years when he died in 2000.  

Claude Akins (1926-1994) made his screen debut in an uncredited role as Sgt. Baldy Dhom in the WWII classic, FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (Columbia, 1953). In 1959 he had an important part in RIO BRAVO (WB, 1959) and a year later he gave what was perhaps his finest performance when he portrayed Ben Lane, Randolph Scott's nemesis in COMANCHE STATION (Columbia). 

And finally, you might recognize the actress who had a small part as Kitty, one of the "dance hall girls, a role for which she received no billing.  Angie Dickinson (B. 1931) would have to wait until the end of the decade for her breakthrough role in RIO BRAVO, in which she portrayed a female gambler named "Feathers."  


MAN WITH THE GUN was Samuel Goldwyn, Jr.'s (1926-2015) first film as a producer.  Like his father, he preferred to independently produce his films.  In fact, this project was filmed by his Formosa Productions company and distributed by United Artists.  Although he never ascended to the status of his legendary father, he did enjoy a long, successful career as a producer who specialized in offbeat films.  

He is especially remembered for giving Julia Roberts her big break in MYSTIC PIZZA (Samuel Goldwyn Co./1988).  It was also in that film that Mark Damon made his debut.  

Goldwyn wasn't the only rookie involved in MAN WITH THE GUN.  It also marked the directorial debut of Richard Wilson (1915-1991).  In addition to directing, Wilson, who was also a screenwriter (and actor and later producer), co-wrote the story and screenplay for the film.

His co-writer was N.B. Stone Jr. (1911-1967).  Stone wrote mostly for television and in fact provided only one other movie story and screenplay, but it was a beauty.  The film was RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY (MGM, 1952).  There is much speculation, however, that director Sam Peckinpah, a former screenwriter himself, was responsible for some major script rewrites.

Lee Garmes (1898-1978) was one of Hollywood's legendary cinematographers, one who was particularly adept at shooting films in black-and-white.  It is that and some interesting camera angles that make up two of the strongest features of MAN WITH THE GUN.