"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Raw Edge (Universal, 1956)


I learn a lot from my readers, and I much enjoy it when they leave comments. Reader John Knight, commenting on my recent review of a Rory Calhoun Western, Ride Out for Revenge, put me onto other good Calhoun Westerns, mentioning in particular “the weird and wacky anti-Feminist Western RAW EDGE.”

Actually, I’m not sure how anti-feminist the movie is, as we shall shortly see. But John went on to say that Raw Edgeis possibly the most anachronistic Western ever. Herbert Rudley turns 1840's Oregon into a medieval fiefdom whereby any ‘unattached’ woman becomes the ‘property’ of the first man to claim her. With the likes of Neville Brand, Emile Meyer and Robert Wilke slugging it out, no Western gal ever had it so bad.”

So that sets up the plot well. John added that the “Film is too dumb to offend and at least the scenery is nice - should look great on Blu-Ray. It’s an Albert Zugsmith production-you have been warned.” So those were useful and interesting comments.

Well, I got the DVD (on the French Sidonis brand, which has annoying subtitles that you can’t turn off and some rather waffly and superficial commentary by Patrick Brion) and watched it. And in many ways I see what John means. But read the following and watch the movie yourself and see if you agree!

The picture was directed by John Sherwood, which is already a plus because Sherwood had learned his Western craft as assistant director under Anthony Mann on Bend of the River and The Far Country, Hugo Fregonese on Saddle Tramp, Rudolph Maté on The Mississippi Gambler and The Rawhide Years and John Sturges on Backlash. He himself directed Yvonne de Carlo in Calamity Jane and Sam Bass (not a great credit to him, admittedly) and Maureen O’Hara and Macdonald Carey in Comanche Territory. Yup, he knew what he was doing. The direction of Raw Edge is skillful and technically very good.

The writing of the curious plot was by Harry Essex and Robert Hill from a story by William Kozlenko and James Benson Nablo. These were not names I knew but Essex had worked on the screenplay of three B-Westerns before Raw Edge and would later contribute to The Sons of Katie Elder; as for Hill, Kozlenko and Nablo, this was their only Western. So the writing team were pretty well newbies. But they had a quirky and interesting story to work with.

As for John’s red flag on producer Albert Zugsmith (right), he was known for such mighty epics as Sex Kittens Go to College, which doubtless you have seen. Founding newspaper editor, sharp lawyer, band publicist then Hollywood producer, he specialized in salacious B-movies. He only produced five Westerns, all B, two of them with Calhoun.

DP Maury Gertsman shot 28 Westerns for Universal between 1947 and 1967, mostly what you might call quality B-pictures with the likes of Jeff Chandler, Audie Murphy and Joel McCrea in the leads. Universal did not stint on color or locations and many of their 50s Westerns, including Raw Edge, are visually attractive. The ‘Oregon’ of the setting was California but the locations chosen did very well for Oregon. The Technicolor of the modern print is bright and high-quality.

So you see we’re not talking ultra-low-budget B-movies here.
It kicks off with a bad ballad under the bright turquoise credits, as 50s Westerns were wont to do, but we forgive the writer, Terry Gilkyson, because he also wrote Bare Necessities from The Jungle Book which may just possibly be the best song ever written.

The top-billed names in the credits don’t exactly fill you with confidence (apart from Calhoun): Yvonne De Carlo and Mara Corday. Oh dear. But then your eye scans the ‘also starring’ list and joy, we see Neville Brand, Emile Meyer and Robert J Wilke, among other old friends. Excellent. Always enjoyable Western character actors, those - especially as bad guys. Rex Reason is also there, as a smooth gambler.

The patriarch Montgomery (Herbert Rudley) who has established the disgusting local law that an unmarried woman may be claimed as a chattel by the first man to see her, has a glam wife, Hannah (De Carlo), first seen with a daring glimpse of ankle and leered over by Neville. Emile is Neville’s dad and just as full of lust. (Actually Emile was only ten years older than Neville but anyway). Hannah is discreetly raped in a stable. Can you be discreetly raped? Well, you could in 50s movies, with much done in shadows and much suggested. Odds are that it was Neville, Emile or Bob, but we don’t see. Anyway, they blame young Dan Kirby (John Gavin, later Destry on TV, later still Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to Mexico, as John Gilmore) and, as was the way in Westerns, hastily hang him. Even while the lynching is proceeding, the lustful men are leering at his soon-to-be widow, and Hannah tries, unsuccessfully, to whisk her away to her people (for you might think it’s Mara Corday in half a ton of make-up but she’s actually Paca, Indian maid). It’s all pretty creepy. Probably the creepiest leerer, though, better even than Neville Brand, is Robert J Wilke, who manages to claim her, though he has to shoot a rival (sword-and-sandal star Ed Fury) to do it.
Bob Wilke. What a sneer.
As a result of these shenanigans the Indians recall all their people to the village. You should see the horror of Hannah, suddenly left without servants. Whatever will she do? She might have to cook herself!

That’s when ex-Ranger Tex Kirby arrives (he’d been fighting with Sam H at San Jacinto) and finds only the hanging boots of his brother. Any viewer of Westerns knows that it’s going to be hard times for the townsfolk that hanged him. Actually, though, Calhoun does well as the thoughtful revenger.
When patriarch Montgomery is killed by the Indians, the boot is suddenly on the other foot, and Yvonne is fair game under the Montgomerys’ own law. Hoist with her own petard, you might say. Now the men (Neville and Emile to the fore) are after her. As reader John said, a Western gal never had it so bad. You sense, though, that it will be Rory to the rescue.

The town is named Twin Peaks, which was to become quite amusing. Though we are in 1840s Oregon, they all wear Stetsons (invented in the 1860s) and have Colt Peacemakers (1870s). But never mind.

There’s plenty of action before the bad guys get their come-uppance.
Yvonne 'n' Mara
My above-mentioned doubts about the male chauvinism of the piece concern the fact that the law is so obviously vile, and leads to such cruelty and bloodshed, and is finally vanquished, so that the movie ends up being a pro-woman statement. Probably not Mr. Zugsmith’s intention, but that’s the way I see it.

At any rate, John was right: it’s a curious, oddball Western. And I think I am slowly revising (upwards) my opinion of Rory Calhoun. He was a better Western actor than I have previously given him credit for.


Thursday, October 20, 2016

Riders of the Purple Sage (Fox, 1931)

The man in black

Riders of the Purple Sage is probably the most famous Western novel of them all. It has achieved a wider audience than even Wister’s The Virginian and for many people stands as the Western story.

It was a huge hit when it came out in 1912 and movie versions were inevitable. Only six years after publication, Fox produced a big (five-reel) movie, starring William Farnum, Dustin’s brother, as Lassiter. I haven’t seen it (I’d like to; so many important films are still so difficult to find).

That was followed by the Tom Mix one (he was Lassiter, of course) in 1925, when Mix was at the height of his fame. I don’t know about the first one but the Mix version took very considerable liberties with the story, devoting much of its only 56 minutes to an invented backstory, all about how Millie was abducted in Texas. The picture was quite sober, for Tom, but it wasn’t a good treatment of the novel.

The 1931 talkie was much truer to the book, and I think in fact, considering all, it goes a fair way to doing to justice to the novel.
The story does make a good movie. Long novels have to be radically slimmed down for the screen but luckily Riders had pages and pages of soppy love and descriptions of nature that could be immediately discarded, and the novel’s action, which is genuinely good, would remain for the film.

You probably know the story. In fact, though, there are two parallel stories (though unlike parallel lines, they occasionally intersect): everyone thinks of Riders as the tale of the mysterious gun-man in black, Lassiter, who comes into the life of beautiful cattle rancher Jane Withersteen, champions her cause and steals her heart. But in fact a greater part of the book is devoted to the other story – how Jane’s rider (or cowboy) Bern Venters shoots the famous ‘masked rider’, sidekick of rustler Oldring, and discovers he has shot a girl. He nurses her back to health in a hidden cañon, falls in love with her and they eventually live happily ever after.

The 1931 film, in common with other versions, plays down Venters and elevates Lassiter. The famous horse chase when Venters on Wrangle rides down jockey Jerry Carn leaping at full gallop between the blacks Night and Black Star as they hurtle across the sage is one of the genuinely thrilling parts of the book, but in the movie it’s Lassiter who does the gallopin’. And Bern Venters has, for some reason, become Vern Venters (James Todd, billed only fifth).

Today’s print (or at least the one I saw) is unfortunately very crackly and washed out, and it jumps a great deal, making you miss key moments of dialogue. It’s a pity. Still, you can see well enough to appreciate some of the cinematography (George Schneiderman, with Ernest Palmer, the most prolific cinematographer at Fox in the 1920's; he worked a lot on early John Ford Westerns). Yes, there are some obvious studio shots with cardboard rocks but there is also some nice location shooting filmed round Sedona and some unusual pans and moving-camera shots (movies were just breaking away from the very static camera). Director Hamilton MacFadden also handled the exterior action shots well, especially the horse chase, which includes a spectacular leap. MacFadden was signed as director by Fox in 1930 but in 1934 his contract not renewed after the merger with Zanuck's 20th Century Productions, after which he appeared as an actor in small film roles until the mid-40's. While at Fox he only directed two Westerns, this one and a Tom Mix oater. A pity: he seemed to have the knack.

George O’Brien is actually quite impressive as Lassiter. His entry especially is good (but then it’s a gift scene in the book). He talks more slowly than the other characters and this gives weight. Navy boxing champion in World War I, he was, as a virtual unknown, picked by John Ford to star in The Iron Horse in 1924. In ’26 he was one of Ford’s 3 Bad Men, in the silent version. He made the transition to sound, but not that well and his parts started to decline in stardom, and he became a Western specialist, at a time when many Westerns were pretty juvenile and low-budget affairs. All in all, though, he does a fairly good job in Purple Sage.
His Jane is Marguerite Churchill. Ms. Churchill had been strikingly good opposite a young John Wayne, I thought, in Fox’s Raoul Walsh-directed epic The Big Trail the year before. She only did these two Westerns, though. Two years after Purple Sage she would become Mrs. George O’Brien. As Jane she was not, I thought, as good as she was in The Big Trail, falling into overacting in a rather silent-movie style.

The bad guy Dyer is Noah Beery (Sr., obviously). In common with the other versions, he is Judge Dyer, not a bishop. The whole Mormon plot is done away with. Grey was uncompromising in his anti-Mormonism. The Mormons are very clearly the bad guys. Under the hypocritical cover of their religion, they steal, spy, covet, lust, kidnap and kill. Sometimes all on the same day. The Elder Tull and the Bishop Dyer, in particular, are very nasty and, in the best Western tradition, deserve the come-uppance that they will inevitably get under the guns of the good guys.

Movie versions of the book were mealy-mouthed about this and excised the Mormon element of the story. The O’Brien one is no exception. Perhaps Fox didn’t want to offend potential audiences, or perhaps the studio bosses were more pro-Mormon, I don’t know. Maybe it was just 30s PCism. Anyway, Dyer is a judge and Elder Tull becomes just the judge’s henchman, Tull (Frank McGlynn Jr.) Beery is excellent, as he always was. Though he never achieved the fame of his younger brother Wallace, he carved out a niche for himself as a Hollywood heavy, especially in Westerns – he appeared in fifty, from 1917 to 1945. Impressive. His bulk and growly voice (once talkies came along) were great assets, and he is a suitably villainous judge. He wants to take over the whole valley and drive the small ranchers out, you know how villains do.
His demise is quite well handled. In the Tom Mix version the judge hides behind his desk and so we don’t see him shot, only the sinister tell-tale bullet holes in the wood. But the 1931 one had more gunplay as the judge pulls a pistol but Lassiter has a faster draw and a better aim.

Don’t get me wrong: this Purple Sage is no great film. It’s a one-hour programmer with no great pretensions. But it manages to telescope the main action of the book into the hour quite well, and there are sufficient qualities in the movie to warrant your having a look at it.

It was remade in 1941 (with the rather weak George Montgomery as Lassiter) and there was a TV movie with Ed Harris in 1996. I think it could be time for another.


Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Once Upon a Texas Train (CBS TV, 1988)

Old guys rule

There is a genre of movie comedies which relies on the gag of lots of old-timers getting back together, with much humorous bickering and badinage, comically demonstrating their frailties and unsuitability for a tough task, then showing up the youthful pretenders: when the going gets tough, the oldies get going, that kind of thing. Space Cowboys was a recent example. These pictures appeal to an old-fogey audience that has fond memories of the movies of older (or former) stars and wallows in nostalgia as they return to the screen. In Western vein, such a picture was The Over the Hill Gang (1969) and its sequel the following year. And in fact Once Upon a Texas Train is a remake of that geriatric outing. Yes, TV movies are now remaking TV movies.

The good news is that it was produced, written and directed by Burt Kennedy (left). Now it is true that Mr. Kennedy was responsible for a couple of less-than-wonderful Westerns (such as The Canadians or Return of the Magnificent Seven) but he deserves eternal praise for penning those Randolph Scott/Budd Boetticher B-Westerns at the end of the 50s, which were outstanding. I also liked his Clint Walker ones, Fort Dobbs and Yellowstone Kelly. He did have a particular penchant for the comic, and he handled comedy Westerns well. That’s not always easy to do but Kennedy managed to convey a fondness and respect for the genre which not all parodies did. Personally, I love his Support Your Local movies with James Garner, and I also think The Rounders charming and enjoyable. All in all, I’m a bit of a Kennedy fan.

Well, there are two groups of oldies, roughly segregated into good guys and bad guys but they are all pals deep down and we sense they will end the movie shoulder to shoulder, which they duly do. Governor (presumably Texas governor) Kevin McCarthy instructs retired Texas Ranger captain Richard Widmark (right) to get his men together and round up the outlaw Willie Nelson and his gang. Willie has just been released after twenty years in the pen for a failed train robbery (which we see in the opening scene) and six hours later dynamites a bank. Widmark is cross because he got Willie released on parole in the first place and this is how he is repaid!

So he sends a coded telegram, Brazos, to his former Rangers and we are introduced to these one by one: Sergeant Chuck Connors is seen in an old folks home vainly trying to teach Hank Worden (left), oddly billed as Hank Warden, to draw on a man. There’s a subtle in-joke about Hank’s rocking chair. Gentleman George Asque is a roguish, bearded and portly Stuart Whitman, playing with gusto. The scout is portly (well, pointless to repeat; they are all portly) Jack Elam, equally bearded, but he has no horse and uses a bicycle, and his vision would be scorned as inadequate by any passing bat. He does get to do the old Indian joke, though, with his ear to the ground. His long-suffering brother is Harry Carey Jr. but he doesn't go on the mission. I guess he's not an ex-Ranger.

On the other side, Willie’s gang includes Dub Taylor, getaway driver (who crashes the wagon), gunman Gene Evans (who grabs the wrong end of his Winchester), gambler Ken Curtis (who has almost nothing to say; he was near the end of his life and I wonder if he was well), and nitro ‘expert’ Royal Dano (as amusingly lugubrious as ever).
They were obviously having fun
Oh, and the dame the leaders of both parties love is Angie Dickinson.

So you see the names are there alright. Some of the great Western character actors.
Willie Nelson. Yes, well.
Willie got top billing. Unfortunately, as we know, as an actor Willie makes a great singer. Still, there he is, in his long hair and with his gravelly voice. He leads the singing in one scene. Actually, Willie is an even worse dancer than he is an actor. There’s a flashback scene of a ball when he and Dick in Confederate officers’ uniforms are dancing with Angie. Dick is no better, mind.
They both lover her. Whom will she choose?
There are some good Burt Kennedy lines. I liked

-          Outlawin’ ain’t what it used to be.
-          It never was.

And while their first reaction is to mock the geriatric gunfighters, one of the young-punk outlaws reminds the others that “those old men got that way by stayin’ alive.”

Yes, there are four young-punk outlaws who try to take Willie’s gold away and keep it for themselves. This is naughty; outlaws are supposed to rob their own banks, apparently. I hadn’t heard of any of these outlaws (Shaun Cassidy, Jeb Stuart Adams, David Michael O’Neill and John Calkins; doubtless they will be known to younger viewers) but they are OK, I guess. They aren’t very good outlaws, though, and come the final showdown they look a bit scared. Well, by then Chuck’s Rangers and Willie’s outlaws have united so there are nine aged but experienced gunmen with an arsenal of rifles, a shotgun and several .45s to walk down on but four callow youths. No wonder they were scared. But they needn’t have worried too much: it’s a family movie and so they are only wounded at the end.

The train of the title is a one-car affair but still, it’s a train. Where earlier Westerns used trains with abandon, even crashing them (Denver & Rio Grande even crashed two, in a head on collision) Western trains became increasingly rare, and costly, and so it’s nice to see one in a TV movie.

It’s all very Arizona for Texas, being shot round Old Tucson with loads of saguaros, and some scenes in California and Nevada. Never mind. It’s ‘Western’.

Well, it’s all harmless fun. Who gets Angie in the end? Ah, that would be telling.



Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Virginian (Paramount, 1914)

A seminal Western movie

Owen Wister’s great Western novel The Virginian was published in 1902 and was an immediate and long-lasting success. It was certainly seminal; you might even describe it as the leading example of the genre. It beame the foundation rock of the whole Western mystique. The following year what is generally regarded as the first narrative Western movie, The Great Train Robbery, was also a sensation and it was inevitable that a filmed version of The Virginian would very soon appear. In 1904 Wister collaborated with Kirke La Shelle to produce a Broadway theatrical adaptation of the novel, starring the well-known Dustin Farnum (billed as ‘The Favorite American Actor’), and it was this that was picturized, as the credits have it, by Cecil B DeMille in 1914. The picture was produced and released by the Jesse L Lasky Feature Play Company, later to morph into Paramount Studios. The print we see today is a 1918 reissue, which is why the Paramount name appears on the title cards.

Owen Wister (right) lived to see several other film versions of his book (he died in 1938). In 1923 BP Schulberg Productions made another silent version of The Virginian, released by Al Lichtan and starring Kenneth Harlan as the Virginian and Russell Simpson as Trampas. In 1929 Paramount struck back with the first talkie The Virginian, directed by Victor Fleming, with Gary Cooper as the Virginian and Walter Huston as Trampas. This remains probably the best film of the book. In 1946 Paramount remade The Virginian in color, directed by Stuart Gilmore, with Joel McCrea as the Virginian and Brian Donlevy as Trampas. In 2000 Bill Pullman directed and starred in a TV movie of The Virginian, with Colm Feore as Trampas. And latterly there was a straight-to-video The Virginian directed by Thomas Malowski with singer Trace Adkins as the Virginian and Steve Bacic as Trampas. This last is certainly the worst. You can read reviews of all of these films and the book by clicking the live links. Only the play is missing because I haven’t seen it and can’t find a copy of the script.

The TV series, of course, only borrowed some names and was in no sense a filming of the Wister novel.

But today, the first movie version.

Cecil B DeMille (left) directed or co-directed thirteen Westerns in his career. The Virginian was his first as solo director; it followed the popular but rather clumsier The Squaw Man earlier the same year. He was to remake The Squaw Man on his own in 1918, and he did it yet again as a talkie in 1931. Among his other pictures was a version of The Girl of the Golden West in 1915, A Romance of the Redwoods starring Mary Pickford in 1917, and four big Hollywood efforts, The Plainsman (1936), Union Pacific (1939), North West Mounted Police (1940) and the not-very-Western Unconquered in 1947. These last four benefited from good acting – indeed Gary Cooper was in three of them and you couldn’t ask for more than that. But they were turgid fare, big-budget pot-boilers with very many flaws as Westerns. He was one of the most famous film directors of all but for me was not one of the Western greats. Still, DeMille was a huge influence on the genre, introducing many innovative techniques and establishing many plot elements which would become tropes, even clichés, and this very early DeMille Western is most definitely worth a watch.

The modern print is very good, too. It must have been remastered. Many of these early silent films (including The Squaw Man) are crackly, dark and they jump. The Virginian can still be viewed as a proper movie.
All movie versions of The Virginian have to make radical cuts and select ‘the best bits’ for their audiences. The book is long and discursive, and crowded with episodes. Stripping such a tome down to a film of less than an hour is almost impossibly difficult, especially if you want to try to develop the characters in any way. In many respects, though, I would say that DeMille, probably because he adhered closely to the play which Wister had written or co-written, was one of the better achievers in this regard. He managed to capture at least some of the spirit or tone of the book.

In this one, after a few short scenes and title cards establishing that Dustin is the Virginian out West, (we are also introduced to “the easily led, lovable Steve”) we go to Molly struggling to make a living in Vermont, then taking a job as a schoolteacher in Bear Creek, Wyo. Back to Wyoming and “The leader in all deviltry at Bear Creek is Trampas – broncho-buster, tinhorn gambler and bully”. Actually this is not a successful intro because we see a card table with three players and the eye is immediately drawn to the one on the left with a large hat, not Trampas on the right. Never mind, we soon realize our error. The big-hat, by the way, is a ‘Mexican’ (Horace B Carpenter) in blackface, and he will be an evil henchman of Trampas when the rustlin’ starts. It was standard to have Mexicans (sometimes called far worse) as the bad guys.

This is when we get the famous remark. “Deal, you son of a-“ Trampas says, at which the Virginian draws his pistol and replies, “When you call me that, Trampas, you smile!” Each movie version had its own slightly different version of the famous line.

Then we have the comic episode of the Virginian betting his pals that he will get a bed to himself that night, even though every hotel bed is already occupied by two men. He wins by getting into a bed with his spurs on and his bedmate soon departs. The other somnolent unfortunates are run out of town on a rail amid much shooting and whooping, both, we imagine, loud.

Now Molly arrives on the train and is persuaded to get up on the box of the Overland stage to ride alongside the driver but she is soon horrified to see that the driver (James Griswold) is intoxicated. “I insist that you throw that disgusting liquor away immediately – you brute!” This was six years before Prohibition came into force but there was a growing groundswell of anti-booze sentiment among many in the States. The river crossing and the Virginian’s rescue of Molly is well handled; it is convincing (the stage looks perilous) and Farnum handles his horse well. He dunks the drunken driver in the cold river to sober him up.
Next we have the barbeque in Molly’s honor and of course the baby-swapping scene: movie versions can't resist that. The Virginian and Wister’s other hero Lin McLean (Hosea Steelman) get into hot water with angry parents when they exchange the position and clothes of the bairns so that the mummies and daddies take home the wrong infant.
After that the Virginian is engaged by the cattlemen to lead a posse to track down the rustlers and of course though Trampas escapes with Shorty (Tex Driscoll), “the weakling” Steve is caught. DeMille does some clever early special FX with double-exposure as the Virginian and Steve reminisce during the death-watch and their memories are seen in the fireplace. Of course the ‘Mexican’ is craven while Steve shows fortitude.

The hanging is done with grimacing reaction shots, then shadows of hanged men. The 1914 version, like all the versions, and indeed the novel, have this basic problem: how to make an illegal lynching justifiable and a suitable act for the hero to commit. None of them succeed. Of course in a short silent movie they can hardly go into the moral conundrum.

There’s the business of Steve’s note scribbled on the old newspaper. Goodby pard i couldn’t speak to you without acting the baby Steve. Then the Virginian sets out in pursuit of Trampas, who shoots Shorty in order to flee on the only horse they have. But rather than bushwhack the Virginian himself, Trampas rides to an Indian village and persuades them to do it. There’s a dramatic ride through a valley (DeMille handled these action scenes well) and the Virginian is hit, though not before dispatching several Indians to their happy hunting grounds.

There’s a telling scene next where schoolchildren playing ghoulishly re-enact the lynching, with one of their number, a small boy, in the unfortunate role of Steve. Molly, their schoolmistress, comes along and puts a stop to it but learns what the Virginian has done and is shocked. She writes a (rather cursory) note to the school board resigning with immediate effect, and sets off on her horse (no mention of how she got the nag) back East. Interestingly, she rides astride. But she comes across the stricken Virginian, gets him back to her house, nurses him back to health and of course it’s lerve. All this is managed in a couple of minutes. The movie was fast running out of reels.
The penultimate scene is the one of the showdown in town on Molly and the Virginian’s wedding day. She tries to dissuade him from fighting, he says he must (or so we imagine: it’s done with gestures) and the shoot-out is done reasonably well for the time, though later versions would of course build up the tension and have the famous walk-down, lacking here.

Trampas is shot dead, the Virginian and Molly are reconciled, and the last scene is of a tent and a campfire as the happy couple daringly kiss.

So it’s all telescoped into the 55 minutes, quite skillfully. It’s a different choice of episodes than other versions, probably, as I say, because Wister was involved.

There’s a lot of parallel editing so that we flit back and forth between different narrative strands – the Virginian chasing rustlers and Molly back in Vermont, for example. This must have been quite advanced for the day (though of course DW Griffith was doing it).

There are quite a few night shots which may be the first time they were used. A mirror is used in the scene where Molly and the Virginian are reunited and it’s impressive framing and lighting. Some film experts have suggested that it was taken from Danish films of the time where mirrors were often used to reflect off-screen action and comment on the narrative. I wouldn’t know.

Certainly DeMille and his cinematographer Alvin Wyckoff (whom DeMille would stick with) managed many of the shots with skill and artistry – way beyond that of The Squaw Man.

There is some good location shooting (DeMille would later become famous for constructing huge in-studio sound stages, anything to avoid going on location) with Newhall, Santa Clarita and San Diego countryside standing in for Wyoming.

As for the acting, Farnum as the Virginian wasn’t bad. He was the obvious choice, being well known and having taken the part on stage, though he was an Easterner, forty and quite stocky, not really the long and lean Virginian that we expect from the book (and which Coop gave us perfectly). He had been DeMille’s Squaw Man earlier that year (the two pictures were his first Western movies). He made two others in 1914, shorts directed by his brother Marshall, and he was Davy Crockett in 1916 and starred in the first version of The Light of Western Stars in 1918. Altogether he made 22 Westerns, ending with The Flaming Frontier in 1926, when he was third billed in a Hoot Gibson oater. Dustin Hoffmann claimed to be named after him.
He was married to Winifred Kingston (Molly) from 1924 and starred with her in several pictures. Kingston overacts badly in The Virginian, as early silent movie actors were wont to do (Farnum was mostly restrained) but she has a leading part (more so than the book) though only billed fifth. She had been Lady Diana (no, not that one) in The Squaw Man, and given that she was English-born and convent-educated that fitted well. DeMille got her back for his third Squaw Man, the talkie, as an extra (party guest, uncredited).

As for the Trampas, he was William Elmer and, with Kingston, was the hammiest of the overactors, doing a Victorian melodrama villain which is frankly laughable today. DeMille used him quite a lot. His Trampas has brilliantined hair, a heavy black mustache and fancy chaps.

Second billed Jack W Johnston was Steve. He was another DeMille stock company player and manages to transmit cheery insouciance (until he’s about to be hanged, that is) quite well.
Russell Simpson the Great was apparently in it in a bit part but I looked hard and couldn’t spot him. Simpson would be promoted to Trampas in the 1923 silent version, and would go on to become a favorite in Westerns, often as a clergyman or elder, taken up by John Ford, and always entertaining.

Just as Wister’s novel was seminal, so too DeMille’s ‘picturization’ was to the Western movie. Already in 1914 the theme of rustlers and a last-reel showdown in the street between the good guy and the bad guy was established. As I have said, The Virginian itself would be remade many times but it wasn’t only The Virginian. Countless Westerns were to take up that plot; it became a standard. Other aspects, too, were incorporated, such as the green Easterner in the West (Molly in this case) and the notion that a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.

Westernistas worthy of the name need to see this.



Friday, October 14, 2016

Relentless (Columbia, 1948)

By no means the worst Western of 1948

Robert Young and Marguerite Chapman star in this light Western from Columbia from that stellar year of 1948.

More on the cast in a moment but first let’s say that it was directed by George Sherman (1908 – 1991). Sherman (left) is important in the history of the Western because he limited himself pretty well to that genre, only occasionally moonlighting with a horror or romance. He did those Three Mesquiteers movies of John Wayne in the 30s; Variety, writing about his handling of the Mesquiteers series, wrote that he gave a "poetry in motion" to his "unified timing of cowboys mounting, riding, wheeling, galloping and dismounting of steeds". Wow. Are those the same movies I’ve seen? The diminutive Sherman (he only just made five foot) contributed to over 150 Westerns, one way or another, from 1935 to 1971. Respect! In the late 40s he was turning out reliable low-budget fare for Columbia.
Relentless was a Kenneth Perkins story (he wrote Ride ‘im, Cowboy!, Tumbleweed and Riding Shotgun), and the screenplay was by Winston Miller who rewrote the screenplay of Gone With the Wind for Selznick but that was no qualification for writing Westerns (or anything, really). However, he’d been a child actor in The Iron Horse in 1924 and had co-written My Darling Clementine in 1946. In 1948 he whipped up the screenplays for three Westerns, this one, Fury at Furnace Creek and Station West. Not bad going. So we’ll give him a pass on Gone With the Wind.

Lastly, in the non-acting department, a word about director of photography Edward Cronjager (right). He’d worked (uncredited) on the 1929 Gary Cooper The Virginian and then was Oscar-nominated for his photography on Cimarron in 1931. Western Union for Fritz Lang in 1941 (also with Robert Young) and Canyon Passage for Jacques Tourneur in 1946: these were classy Westerns. Cronjager was one of the greats. In Relentless - shot, unusually for Columbia then, in Technicolor - he photographed some lovely Sedona and Tucson, Arizona locations, and the picture is visually of a high quality. Great shots, too, of the town in the rain and snow scenes, and Cronjager also indulged in some ultra-close-ups of faces that doubtless appealed to later Italian directors. There are too many sound-stage sets with phony back-projection but that wasn’t Cronjager’s fault – just Columbia’s studio boss Harry Cohn’s famed parsimony. No, the cinematography on this picture is absolutely first class, and it's a good reason on its own to  see the movie.

So far, so good, then.
 Nice shots
But it starred Robert Young. Now, I have nothing against Mr. Young as such, and in the right part doubtless he was very fetching, but I do rather go along with the author of the IMDb biography, who says:

His movie career consisted of playing characters who were charming, good-looking--and bland. In fact, his screen image was such that he usually never got the girl. Louis B. Mayer would say, "He has no sex appeal," but he had a work ethic that prepared him for every role that he played.

Young had been in (only) two big Westerns but the first, the King Vidor-directed Northwest Passage in 1940, was really bad, and in the second, Fritz Lang’s Western Union, he was unsuited in the part. After leading in an RKO B-Western of 1952, The Half-Breed, he abandoned the genre, and probably just as well. The hero of Relentless needed to be, well, relentless, a tough hombre out for revenge/justice. Soft-spoken Young just didn’t cut it. And he looked rather chinless and weedy.
 Robert Young: not really cut out for Westerns
Co-star Marguerite Chapman was a different kettle of fish. Although she didn’t do many Westerns, the glamorous former-model from New York (known as Slugger) was memorable, for me, for her appearances in Kansas Raiders, when she was Audie’s inamorata, and, especially, Coroner Creek, the same year as Relentless, when she was Randolph Scott’s. In Relentless she plays the lively Luella, who has inherited her dead dad’s traveling merchant business and, rather to the disapproval of unfeminist townsfolk, carries it on. She falls for the cowpoke who is nice to his horse and its foal, and she assists him when he is wrongly accused of murder and there’s a dead-or-alive price on his head. She is pretty and vivacious.
Chapman: vivacious
The plot is, actually, rather episodic and even confused, but at bottom it’s a pretty basic revenge-pursuit drama. It starts with two old-timers who have struck it rich and a shifty fellow eavesdropping (Frank Fenton) – he’s obviously a baddy as he has a small mustache. We know we are in for skullduggery, and the two elderly prospectors are duly murdered – off camera – by the bad guy, Jim. Enter Nick Buckley (Young) with a mare in foal. He’s really nice to the animal and therefore very obviously a good guy (plus, it’s Robert Young).

The action really starts when Jim steals Nick’s mare and rides it to death. You can tell Nick is a sensitive type and he’s not going to pardon that. He sets out in pursuit. He soon shoots Jim. In fact, though, although the movie was known in other languages as Blut und Gold or Du sang dans la sierra, and such-like blood-and-thunder titles, there is no blood and the violence is rather sublimated. It’s 1940s family viewing. Even Relentless isn’t too accurate; Nick is too nice to be that.
But Nick is framed for the murder of the old-timers and a grim lawman is equally relentless in tracking him down. It’s Willard Parker. Sadly, Mr. Parker’s New York accent didn’t suit the part and he doesn’t really convince. He led in quite a lot of B-Westerns in the 40s and 50s. he was both Jesse James and Cole Younger in different B-movies, and was the sheriff on the trail of Sam Bass the year after Relentless in the Yvonne de Carlo masterwork Calamity Jane and Sam Bass. He wasn’t very good.
Young gets the drop on Sheriff Willard Parker
It turns out that the late Jim was only a henchman. The real bad guy is Barton MacLane. We Westernistas know Barton of old. Though a specialist in gangster movies (usually as a heavy) he had a good little sideline in Westerns. He was in nearly a hundred, starting with those Paramount Zane Grey tales with Randolph Scott in the early 30s. He was villain Jack Slade in Western Union, and was the crooked boss McCormick beaten up by Bogart in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre the same year as Relentless. Later he did a lot of TV work, starring as Marshal Frank Caine on Outlaws and appearing in many other shows. I also remember him in Kansas Pacific in 1953 and Gunfighters of Abilene in 1959. His face was striking and memorable and his stocky build helped make him a solid villain. In Relentless, though, I fear he rather hams it up.
Barton: great photo
There’s a small part for one of my favorites, Will Wright, as a horse dealer.

There’s a ghost town and a fire and lots of action. The foal gets a burro as step-mother. Unfortunately the poor burro is shot in the chase but don’t worry, Nick nurses her and she recovers.

I like Relentless, despite its weaknesses. It’s a fun oater and was by no means the worst of the Westerns that came out in that wondrous year. OK, it was no Red River or Fort Apache. But it was superior to many of the B-movies the year produced. Definitely worth a watch.