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

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Hannah Lee: An American Primitive (Realart Pictures, 1953)


Interesting




 
 
Despite the low budget and minor production company/theatrical release, Hannah Lee: An American Primitive is a high-quality 50s Western drama. It has suffered, in its life: first released in color and 3D (all the rage in ’53), it was most often seen in black & white and 2D, as simply Hannah Lee, or, on re-release, as Outlaw Territory. Nowadays the color print (or the print I have seen anyway) is scratchy, with washed-out tones and poor sound, and it jumps. It’s not easy to appreciate the film’s qualities. But qualities it has, without a doubt.

The story is from Mackinlay Kantor's book, Wicked Water (he also wrote the screenplay) which was based on the life of Tom Horn. This is a very fictional Tom Horn (and indeed he even has a different name) but then most novelistic and celluloid Tom Horns were fictional. Credited also with the writing is the colorfully named Alford van Ronkel, whose only Western movie this was.

It was produced and directed by John Ireland and Lee Garmes. Garmes was an innovative cameraman who had been taken up by with the great Thomas Ince and went to Paramount as a director of photography. He worked with Josef von Sternberg on Marlene Dietrich pictures but Selznick replaced him on Gone With the Wind (good thing too, it was a dreadful film). He worked on eleven Westerns, eight of them very good and/or famous. He was co-director and co-producer on Hannah Lee, as well as being the director of cinematography, so had key input.

As for Ireland, he was another very interesting character and, for me, always a top-class Western actor. Born in Canada (but you can’t hold that against him; so were Glenn Ford and Bat Masterson) he was raised in New York and started on Broadway in minor roles. He became a heavy in movies but he was justly admired as Cherry Valance in Red River in 1948 and was nominated for best supporting actor in All the King’s Men in 1949. He was excellent in the underrated Little Big Horn in 1951. Later, he was to have played the role of the patriarch of the Ponderosa in Bonanza: The Next Generation (1988) but the series was not picked up. Hannah Lee was quite a personal project for him, and he co-produced and co-directed it with Garmes, and starred as the US marshal who brings Tom Horn (or Bus Crow anyway) to book.
 
 
Now this Bus Crow, the Tom Hornish hired gun (he says he has killed 62 men “but I exclude Indians and Spaniards”), is played by Macdonald Carey. Although we all think of Mr. Carey as Dr. Tom Horton on Days of Our Lives, he actually had a previous reputation as ‘King of the Bs’ in Hollywood. He’d even been the detective in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt in 1943. And he did eight Westerns. He was, for me, memorable in his first, Streets of Laredo, as bandit Lorn Reming. He was also (a hopeless) Jim Bowie in Comanche Territory (best left unwatched) and Jesse James in The Great Missouri Raid (ditto). But I must say, he was absolutely terrific in Hannah Lee, far and away his best Western performance. He plays the hired killer as if he had a past, as if there were trauma in his life which explained (though did not excuse) his current profession. “When I was a kid I was paid for killing gophers,” he says, “then I was paid for killing Indians. Now I’m just paid for killing.”
 
 
Of course he’s a badman. We know this instantly because he slaps a young boy in the opening scene (and you don’t need a degree in Hollywood semiotics to read that one). And he shoots rustlers (the cattlemen have a list) with a bolt-action rifle with telescopic sights (we are in a post-Spanish-American war period), sometimes in the back. In Hollywood Western terms, you couldn’t be much badder. Yet Carey manages to make you wonder why he’s doing it, and while you don’t exactly sympathize or empathize with him, you still catch yourself being half on his side. Well, 20% maybe.

Actually, the boy he wallops is Willie Nickell – in fact he’s named Willie Stiver in the movie and he’s Peter Ireland, John’s son. And later in the film Bus will shoot the boy. He’ll not realize it’s just a kid in the bushes, and he’ll look desolate when he discovers what he has done, and furthermore the boy will survive, so it’s not really the Tom Horn story, but still, it’s a powerful interlude.

Another good thing: Frank Ferguson is one of the cattlemen. I always like to see Frank. He’s reluctant to draw up the death list and hire gunfighters but he goes along with the scheme.
 
 
We are in Pearl City (not Hawaii) and this gives rise to a couple of good lines, such as the marshal saying that he might find pearls here, or maybe swine (such biblical references would have been understood then, and even in 1953). But it’s clearly supposed to be Wyoming and Pearl City is Cheyenne.

The leading lady is the then Mrs. Ireland, Joanne Dru, playing Hallie McLaird, saloon owner. She’s not Hannah Lee at all, though presumably was in the past. She and the marshal ‘go back’. But they broke up and now she is more than half attracted to gunman Bus Crow. It’s interesting because with her head she knows Bus is guilty of the murders and in fact builds a strong case against him, yet with her heart she feels he could never shoot anyone in the back from hiding, still less shoot a small boy (a boy she is kind to in the first reel, counterbalancing Bus’s striking the lad).
 
 
Ms. Dru does a good job of playing the hard-as-nails saloon woman who nevertheless yearns for love. She and John had of course been together on Red River for Howard Hawks and she would take the female lead in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon the year after and, again for John Ford, be in Wagon Master the year after that. In 1951 she’d starred in Vengeance Valley with Burt Lancaster, so she had a damn good Western CV by the time of Hannah Lee.
 
 
In her saloon a cheery trio sing

High, high, high are the gallows
Long is the rope that waits for me

which kinda sets the tone. Tristram Coffin is the bartender: his looks were as lugubrious as his surname and he also helps set the tone in the saloon. Baby boomers will probably remember him as the captain of Arizona Rangers in the 1957 series 26 Men.
 
 
Some of the Kantor/Van Ronkel writing is actually quite good, for example the double-meaning dialogue when Bus and Hallie are playing cards.

There’s a gunman/marshal showdown with rifles in the rocks very reminiscent of Winchester ’73 and a sort of inevitable ending as Mr. & Mrs. Ireland ride off into the sunset.
 
 
It was shot up at Chatsworth, Cal., and doesn’t look at all Wyomingish but just like a million other Westerns. There’s bad continuity/editing (Sampson/Schaeffer) and that adds to the B-Western feel to the movie. Still, there are so many strong points that you overlook these matters, and all in all Hannah Lee (I’m not quite sure in what sense she was a primitive) is an interesting Western.



 


Monday, September 26, 2016

The Ghost Rider (Argosy Productions/Superior Talking Pictures, 1935)


Franklyn Farnum rides the range




 
 
This low-budget 30s programmer is introduced on the title screen as

Bobby Nelson in…
THE GHOST RIDER
…with Rex Lease.

This is rather a curious highlighting of the name of the child actor who featured in this story of skullduggery on the range, as had become standard in such oaters. It was very common to have a courageous lad to help catch the rustlers or other bad guys, often the younger brother of the leading lady. 90% of the audience at the theaters where these movies were shown were small boys and they could identify with the lad who was plucky (and lucky) enough to ride the range as sidekick to a screen cowboy.
 
A lot of fun
 
In this one we are in Arizona, 1903. Strange to think, isn’t it, that when this picture was made 1903 was only three decades before – rather like present-day movies set in the 1980s. In 1935 you were still able (just) to believe that the West was still Wild.

Rex Lease was one of the most prolific screen cowboys. He had first appeared in Tim McCoy silent oaters in the late 1920s and coped with the move to talkies as the decade ended, starring in B-Westerns for Poverty Row studios. In 1935 alone he was in six (see, for example, Fighting Caballero). He slipped back a bit in the 1940s, playing second fiddle to the likes of Roy Rogers, and later took smaller and smaller parts. He did Western TV shows in the 1950s and altogether in his career made over 160 Western appearances, the last one being an episode of The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp in 1960. He died in 1966.
 
Rex Lease
 
But in this picture he was almost in the shadow. He is not the ghost rider of the title and he doesn’t even appear until almost half way through the movie. The real star is good old Franklyn Farnum, the eponymous spectral horseman. Farnum (not related to Dustin or William) was born in 1878 and was on the vaudeville stage by the age of 12. He didn’t even enter movies till he was 39 (1917) but he liked the saddle, churning out Western shorts at a rate of knots and working a lot with Francis Ford, John’s brother. He was Billy the Kid in the 1925 silent version (at 47, a bit geriatric for Bonney, but then Billy actors often were). He gave up riding the celluloid range in the late 20s but tried to come back into talkies, taking, however, smaller and smaller parts in more and more ‘B’ Westerns. Farnum’s last feature-film Western was a tiny part (Barfly, uncredited) in North to Alaska in 1960 with John Wayne but he was still doing walk-ons in TV Western shows into the early 60s.
 
Franklyn Farnum
 
In The Ghost Rider he was still very active and quite athletic despite his 57 years, and he rides about Arizona dealing out death and leaving a playing card (an ace, natch) on the corpse of each victim. You see, he had been framed and wrongly imprisoned by the Rascobs, “a clan from the Ozarchs, all related”. “Sounds bad,” is the retort. Well, it is bad, for these are heavies of the worst kind. You know very well a character is bad when he abuses a child or animal in the first reel. Here, a boy is beaten and a dog is kicked, so they must be really bad.
 
Will Rex get the gal? Rhetorical question.
 
The boy hero (Nelson) is Bobby, the convict’s son, determined, “when I’m big”, to get his daddy’s ranch back from the rascally Rascobs. When Deputy Rex finally appears, he will of course fall for the boy’s sis Linda (Ann Carroll, in her only film) and together they will all foil the baddies.
 
Bobby saves the day
 
Nelson, 13, looked a rather skinny, hunched and asthmatic kid but he rode well and manages to dash about the place boldly. Rex is always cheerful (his performances bordered on the comic) and in the prime of life (he was a strapping 32). Carroll was 30s-blonde (or peroxide blonde) which is quite striking in the black & white print (which by the way is of much better quality than many similar survivors from the era).

The movie was both written and directed by Jack Jevne. Mr. Jevne deserves a permanent place on the Western Mount Olympus because he wrote the sublime Laurel and Hardy Western Way Out West (1937), one of the truly greats.
 
Jack Jevne
 
The fistfights are clumsy scuffles with speeded-up film and not at all the more balletic stunt-man style pugilism of later movies. There are quite a few of them.

There’s a secret passage: 30s B-Westerns loved these.

Franklyn bravely sacrifices himself, entrusting his son to Rex’s care (Rex and the boy will soon become brothers-in-law). Rex, Linda and Bobby will thus live HEA.

The picture opens and closes with a song by Jack Kirk on his banjo.

OK, I know, these movies are ineffably corny. But I can’t help it, I just like them.

 

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Outlaws of the Range, reissued as The Call of Justice (Ray Kirkwood Productions/Spectrum, 1936)


Pal acts naturally anyway




 
 
Pretty well indistinguishable from a thousand other 60-minute black & white programmer B-Westerns of the 30s, this one (take your pick on the title) is a Bill Cody oater, one of only two he made in 1936 (his career was on the slide).

It was one of the four that featured his son, the then eleven-year-old Bill Cody Jr. Bill Jr. is in fact the best actor on the set, full of energy and vim. The second most natural actor was Bill Sr.’s horse Pal. The rest of the cast was dismally wooden, I fear.

It’s an ultra-low budget affair from Ray Kirkwood Productions, one of nine B-Westerns they made at that time, and distributed by Spectrum Films, which also did very few before folding. We’re talking real Poverty Row here. Blazing Justice the same year was another Cody/Kirkwood/Spectrum collaboration.

Bill Cody might be thought to have assumed that very Wild-West name but in fact he was born William Joseph Cody in 1891 in St. Paul, Minnesota (some say in Manitoba, Canada). He was no relation to the great Buffalo Bill, but his birth name was a happy coincidence for a star of horse operas. He started as a stuntman and bit-part actor in 1922. Curiously, he adopted a stage name, Paul Walters, for his early roles; you’d think he’d want to make the most of his real one. Then he got to feature under his own name in a series of eight silent second-feature Westerns starting in 1924. Unlike many silent Western stars, Cody made the transition to sound quite successfully (in a minor studio way) and made Westerns in the early 30s for Monogram. But as the decade progressed, Cody made fewer and fewer movies, alternating work with circuses and Wild West shows with short movie contracts for real Poverty Row outfits. His Awyon Picture The Border Menace (1934) has been called (probably unfairly) "the worst B-Western ever made".

These two 1936 efforts were the last time Cody topped the billing. He was soon reduced to ‘Henchman, uncredited’ parts and last worked at all in 1948.

The original title screen highlights Cody’s name but the re-issue title screen doesn’t mention Cody at all. It says ‘The Call of Justice, with Catherine Cotter’. This was even odder as Catherine Cotter didn’t exist. She was Marie Burton (1912 – 75). This was her last Western apart from a role as ‘Pioneer girl, uncredited’ in Wells Fargo the following year.
 
 
It opens with the principal characters watching old stock footage from some silent movie of a bucking bronc, and laughing. Well, that was cheaper than actually having a bucking bronc.

Then the heroine (Cotter-Burton) is rescued by Cody when her cinch breaks and she is dragged along in an extremely unconvincing stunt (well, stuntwomen cost money). Of course she twists her ankle, as rather pathetic girls did in those days, and Bill picks her up, saying that he doesn’t often meet “a sweet little girl like you” (I fear this movie wouldn’t pass muster in these feminist days). And naturally, she takes a shine to Bill despite the 21 years between them.
 
 
She has a little brother, Jimmy (Cody Jr.), of the kind known in those days as plucky. Fair maidens with plucky younger brothers were very useful in juvenile Westerns because most of the audience could identify with the lad while their older brothers could admire the sis.

This formula was repeated endlessly. In fact our next post will be a Rex Lease Western of the same period in which the plot was repeated almost exactly.

Well, there’s rustlin’ goin’ on, obviously, and equally obviously Cody Sr. will track down the bad guys with the help of plucky Cody Jr., and then get the girl in the last reel. The rustlers have a smooth-talkin’ boss, Grant (Gordon Griffith, a former child actor who had had the honor of being the first celluloid Tarzan and the first screen Tom Sawyer, who was also the rustlers’ boss in Blazing Justice) but we all know that this rotter will get his just deserts in the final moments.

The best scene is when Bill Jr. busts Bill Sr. out of jail.

The acting is dire, the plot utterly predictable, the writing plodding and the production values abysmal. In all other respects, it’s rather good.

Incidentally, Bill Jr.’s story is rather a sad one. His career didn’t do much better than his dad’s had, and after Army service in World War II, which affected him profoundly, he never acted again. Suffering from depression, he committed suicide in 1989.
 

 

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Law of the Desert Born, A Graphic Novel by Louis L'Amour


The Western movie as book


I have been largely a stranger to the graphic novel. It is not a genre I have ‘got into’, really. That’s maybe odd, though, because I love Western movies and Western novels too, and graphic novels are a kind of blend of the two. And some of them are quite adult and intelligent. They aren’t just ‘comic books’.

My very kind and generous nephew James recently gave me one, Law of the Desert Born, A Graphic Novel by Louis L'Amour (Bantam, New York, 2013), hardbound, A4 size, and I’ve just read it (it doesn’t take long!) It is ‘new’ in the sense that it is, apparently, the first time a Louis L’Amour work has been given this treatment. I’ve always been a bit of a Louis fan on the quiet. Well, not so quiet, in fact. Anyway, I was pleased to try it.
 
 
It started life as an early L’Amour short story published in the April 1946 edition of Dime Western magazine. The 40s and 50s were of course the heyday of the Western short story. Louis’s son Beau has produced and co-written the graphic novel and he says that up till then L’Amour had concentrated on adventure and crime genres, and Law of the Desert Born was only the third Western story he ever sold. Beau makes an interesting point about the shift (or shift back) to Westerns:

…after three years of war, America’s taste for exotic locales was waning. Too many GIs had returned from traumatic experiences in the Far East or on the high seas, and too many had spent their time on tropical islands or in the deserts of Africa dreaming of home. A new sort of adventure was needed, one located in North America and set reassuringly in the past.

At the time Law of the Desert Born was a tale which earned less than sixty dollars (at a cent and a half a word), quickly written and just as quickly forgotten after publication. It resurfaced forty years later as the title story of a Bantam collection. Then Beau made it into an audio book, then he wrote a screenplay based on it. Now it lives again – though with many changes from the original.
 
 
It is very well drawn by Thomas Yeates, in gray and white, like an old B-Western. It does rather remind me of the comics of my (distant) youth. But the text is more adult and addresses interesting themes of racism. Beau L’Amour and experienced writer Katherine Nolan co-authored the audio version, filling out the original very short story, then cutting it back when they realized they had overdone it, then brainstorming a different ending. Graphic novel hand Charles Santino worked with Beau on the text of the graphic novel version.
 
 
Set in New Mexico in 1887, it’s a pursuit story, as a tough old sheriff sets out with a small posse to catch the foreman of a rancher who has shot and killed the rival rancher and then gone on the run. An imprisoned Mexican-Apache (with certain similarities to Massai in Apache) has his own reasons for wanting to catch the fugitive and persuades the sheriff to let him scout for the posse. The reasons behind all this death and destruction become gradually clear as the story progresses (there are many flashbacks).

Recommended.

 

 

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Invitation to a Gunfighter (UA, 1964)


Chris is back




 
 
It was perhaps strange that a Mongolian from Brooklyn should so love Western movies. Yuly Borisovich Briner, or Юлий Борисович Бринер if you prefer, better known to us as Yul Brynner, just loved strutting about with a sixgun on his hip, and the Stetson he could wear all the time, even indoors, helpfully covered his bald pate.

Brynner was in seven big-screen Westerns in the 1960s and early 70s, including a weak Magnificent Seven sequel, a shockingly bad Pancho Villa picture, and a couple of spaghettis, ending with the sci-fi Western Westworld in 1973. They were all mostly low-key and low-budget affairs after the first, The Magnificent Seven, which was a huge hit – and still is.

Four years after starring as Chris in the Seven, Brynner did a much smaller second Western which has gone largely unnoticed. But it’s actually quite an offbeat, unusual affair.
 
I'm not sure he did say crawl actually
 
He plays a fancily-dressed Creole from New Orleans who operates as a gun for hire partly because he thinks getting paid by white folks to kill white folks helps him avenge his slave mother who had been sold when she got too annoying to her white owner. That’s already quite an unusual premise and there are other psychological twists and turns which add to the interest.

Produced by Stanley Kramer, with a runtime of 92 minutes, it’s in color and the DP was Joe MacDonald so it’s no cheap B-Western. There were also some good character actors, such as George Segal, Strother Martin, Brad Dexter (Harry Luck in the Seven) and Pat Hingle. The director was Richard Wilson, who was not maybe in the very top flight of directors but he had been assistant and admirer of Orson Welles and had directed Robert Mitchum successfully in Man With the Gun in 1955, quite an atmospheric noir B-Western.

New Mexico Territory, 1865. In the first reel we are introduced to a Reb, Matt Weaver (Segal) walking wearily home from the war, and a dandy (Brynner) riding on a stage (his stunt double athletically climbs from inside onto the box) and they both arrive in the one-horse town of Pecos. The Reb finds that his farm has been auctioned off by town boss Brewster (Hingle) and is now occupied by Yankee-sympathizers. He vows to get it back and invades Brewster’s home with his army rifle. But Brewster whips up the town to hunt down the Reb (he’s the only Confederate in the place) and sends Crane Adams, a one-armed henchman (Clifford Davis) off to hire a gunfighter to do it. Little does he know that the fastest gun of them all is already in town. It’s dandy Yul, Jules Gaspard d’Estaing (which he tries in vain to get the townsfolk to pronounce correctly), in a very frilly dress shirt, silk vest, frock coat and the inevitable black Stetson he wore when he was Chris.
 
They just call him Jewel
 
Of course there’s love interest. Ruth Adams (Janice Rule), the wife of henchman Crane, had been in love with Reb Matt before he deserted her to go off to the war and she married Crane in pique. But she is unhappy with one-armed (and, it is hinted, incomplete in other ways too) hubby. Now Matt is back she has mixed emotions but helps him. But Jules moves in with the Adams couple as a boarder and begins to take an interest in Ruth too. He plays the spinet and guitar and knows poetry and stuff so she is attracted to him.
 
Cultured, you see
 
There’s a hilariously bad bit when the gunfighter Crane hired arrives, a real weirdo in a stupid hat and two guns (Dal Jenkins) who goes all slitty-eyed, like Jack Crabb in Little Big Man, when faced with danger. He takes one look at Jules and beats it with a speed to worry Usain Bolt. Do look out for this 30-second interlude if you watch the movie. You’ll chuckle all day.

Jules pals up with the Mexicans in town (oppressed minority, you see) and they like Matt so the big question is, will Jules kill Matt, as he has been paid to do? There’s a No Name on the Bullet (1959) vibe as the town is all set on edge by the presence of this gunman. Tension mounts, or anyway the director hopes it does.
 
Hingle leads the townsmen in a witch hunt
 
It all gets twisted when town boss Brewster sees that gunfighter Jules is out of control and approaches Reb Matt with a view to changing sides. Will Matt kill Jules? Ah, there’s the rub. Well, there’s an action climax involving much tomato sauce on white shirt fronts.

All in all it’s a B-Western, I guess, but it does have a certain interest. And Yul gets to swagger about with his hat on. It’s a far cry from The Magnificent Seven but then all his other Westerns were. Still, you could watch it.

 

 

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Geronimo (Paramount, 1939)


The first screen Geronimo




 
 
The Mescalero-Chricahua Apache Goyaałé, usually known as Geronimo, was played by many different actors on the big and small screen. Jay Silverheels was Geronimo three times and Michael Pate made a specialty of the role too. Ian MacDonald, Monte Blue, John Doucette, Peter Mamakos, even Chuck Connors were all Geronimo. In an age when it was usual for white actors (like Pate) to play Indian chiefs, there were, to be fair, quite a few ‘Indian’ Geronimos. In 1993 there were two pictures entitled Geronimo and in those Joseph Runningfox and Wes Studi did the honors, but even in the early days Chief Yowlachie was Geronimo in 1954. And the very first screen Geronimo was Chief Thundercloud.
 
I suppose he looks a bit like the real Geronimo
 
The Mescalero-Chricahua Apache Goyaałé, usually known as Geronimo

It is not quite clear how Indian Chief Thundercloud (Victor Daniels) really was but he identified himself as a Cherokee. He had been the original Tonto in 1938 and was an Indian in very many Westerns (including The Searchers, his last) for thirty years.

Of all the thirty odd screen Geronimos, though, only four pictures actually centered on him and had his name in the title: those two in 1993, the Chuck Connors one in 1962 and this one, the first, a black & white Paramount affair of 1939.

Having said that, the 1939 movie was just a generic cavalry Western in which the fearsome Indian chief could have been anyone. It happened to be Geronimo because the name was a good box-office draw. The story is entirely fictional, and in fact is a bit of a pot-boiler. And Geronimo is only billed ninth. Thundercloud has very few lines and it’s almost a silent movie for him (and old-fashioned in other ways too).

Though much ballyhooed, Geronimo was really only a Western remake of the studio’s Henry Hathaway-directed Lives of a Bengal Lancer with Gary Cooper in 1935. It used much stock process footage from other movies and much of it was shot on back-lot sound stages. They also make great use of those dreadful fake horses which actors ‘ride’ with laughably bad back-projection behind them. The writing is stodgy and the ‘heroine’ (second-billed Ellen Drew) spends most of the movie unconscious.
 
Preston Foster as brave captain, Ellen Drew as unconscious fiancée, William Henry as colonel's son, in a remake of Lives of a Bengal Lancer
 
It was both written and directed by Paul H Sloane, who had been under contract at Paramount since the silent days. But he only directed two oaters, this and a forgettable Jackie Cooper B of 1933, and he clearly had little understanding of the genre.

It stars Preston Foster in the Coop role. Foster, you probably know, was a songwriter/actor who specialized in he-man roles in the 30s and 40s and had started by co-starring with Barbara Stanwyck in Anne Oakley in 1935. He starred as Oakhurst in the 1937 The Outcasts of Poker Flat and later seemed to make a thing of pictures about horses (My Friend Flicka, King of the Wild Horses, Thunderhoof). In Geronimo he is brave and dashing US Army Captain Starrett on the frontier who knows the Apache but has to deal with a martinet by-the-book superior officer sent out from back East – a standard plotline in cavalry Westerns (Fort Apache did it best).

The superior officer is steely General Steele (there’s no sign of any Crook or Miles), personally entrusted by President Grant (Joseph Crehan) with the task of making peace with Geronimo. The movie opened with such scenes of slaughter of whites by the ferocious Apaches that the US is brought to a halt. In the opening title card we read that “The United States strives to thrust its borders westward – but in its path stands one man alone”. So Geronimo gets quite a build-up. This Gen. Steele is played by Ralph Morgan, often a distinguished-looking villain, here a distinguished-looking general.
 
Chief of scouts Andy Devine and his pal Capt. Foster meet their new commander, by-the-book Ralph Morgan
 
The general has a young son (fresh-faced William Henry, later to be Dr. Sutherland in The Alamo) whom he hardly knows. The boy is just out of West Point and come West to serve with his daddy. But Rio Grande it ain’t. You know that the general won’t show any favoritism and will be hard on the boy, and the boy will resent the lack of affection, but then he will act bravely and probably bring help to his beleaguered dad by getting through Indian lines and coming back with the US Cavalry at the last minute. He does.

That’s the plot really. You see it all coming in the first reel.

One good thing: Andy Devine is the chief of scouts, Sneezer. Of course he plays it in that fatly comic way he had, with high-pitched voice, and entertaining it is too. He has a bit of acting business with sketching cartoons on any surface that will take it.
 
16 of them hold off 3000 Apaches. Yeah, right.
 
There’s a slimy crooked Indian Agent (Gene Lockhart), as there was bound to be, who is (equally inevitably) selling modern repeater rifles to the Indians. He gets his just deserts, though, at the hands of Geronimo himself.

Geronimo’s interpreter is good old Monte Blue, who would be promoted to Geronimo himself in Apache in 1954.

All sorts of excitements occur. There’s a great stunt by Devine’s stand-in when he shimmies down a cliff face and a tree. Geronimo gallops up alongside the mud wagon the lieutenant’s fiancée and mother are traveling on and shoots mama dead, then he orders the torture of the captured good guys; he even dresses up as a captain and sneaks into the Army camp (on a kind of Beecher Island) to do murder.
 
Nice French poster
 
Among the uncredited extras you can spot Syd Saylor, Francis Ford and Russell Simpson, so that’s good. Henry Brandon (Scar in The Searchers) was to have been in it, doubtless as an Indian, but his scenes were deleted, poor chap.

There’s a horribly cruel bit when one of the horses pulling the charging ammunition wagon stumbles as it crosses the river. This reminded me of Cecil B DeMille, who was ready to murder any number of horses to get a shot right, and indeed you get the feeling that Sloane was trying to be DeMille. It is a big picture with too many studio sets, a melodramatic plot and rather turgid action, just as DeMille would have done had he not been working on another Paramount picture that year, Union Pacific.

It all ends with much tear-jerking and flag-waving. It really isn’t a very good movie.

 

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Fort Bowie (UA, 1958)

 
Yet another fort

 



 
 
Ben Johnson was such a good Western actor, one of those stars who raised a mediocre picture and who made a top-drawer Western even more memorable. He seemed to have shone in minor parts in fine Westerns (such as John Ford's) or topped the billing in clunky B-Westerns, but little in between. Why is it that his really minor role in Shane sticks in the memory? Well, partly because the leads were a bit on the weak side but mainly because he was just such a superb actor. Look at One-Eyed Jacks: Johnson in a tiny part brilliantly plays fear in one scene, out-acting Brando by miles. True, Brando was a lousy actor, but Johnson puts him totally in the shade.
 
 
Fort Bowie was in the clunky B-Western department. A predictable black & white cavalry vs. Apaches oater with rather plodding writing (B-movie hack Maurice Tombragel), it could have been a late 50s RKO picture. It was in fact released by United Artists, and made by Bel-Air Productions, which had done Fort Yuma. They liked fort pictures, and indeed Hollywood in general had a soft spot for Westerns centered on forts, as Fort Apache, Fort Courageous, Fort Defiance, Fort Dobbs, Fort Massacre, Fort Osage, Fort Ti, Fort Utah, Fort Vengeance and Fort Worth, to name but a few, will attest.
 
 
We’re at Fort Bowie, AZ, some time after Little Big Horn (so the dialogue confirms) and Victorio’s Apaches are on the warpath. No wonder, because a stupid by-the-book major (J Ian Douglas) has murdered the band of Santos who had come in under a white flag of truce. An obtuse (often Eastern) or political superior officer set alongside a less formal Western ‘man who knows Indians’ is a very standard trope of cavalry Westerns, and indeed, Fort Bowie is in many ways a cut-price Fort Apache, with Ben playing the John Wayne part and Mr. Douglas essaying valiantly (but vainly) to be Henry Fonda. It was Douglas’s only Western, and in fact I think his only movie, and he was hopeless. He probably took up woodwork.

The other ‘stars’ too are very much on the B list. The nearest to high-profile is Kent Taylor as the colonel, whose ghastly wife Capt. Ben is assigned to escort to Bowie. Mr. Taylor was a sort of poor man’s Clark Gable, which isn’t saying much because as far as Westerns go Gable was the poor man's everyone else. True, Kent was Doc Holliday in Tombstone, the Town too Tough to Die, so credit there, but Westernwise, he was largely confined to minor roles in TV shows.

The worst actor on the set without doubt was Jan Harrison as the colonel’s wife, Alison. She was absolutely dreadful. Calling someone a dumb blonde is these days not p.c. but honestly, … She proudly recites the lines she has just managed to learn but she comes across as Marilyn Monroe without the looks or talent.
 
 
Victorio is not Michael Pate as in Hondo five years before but Larry Chance. He’s actually quite good, within the severe limitations of the script. Mr. Chance had been Ponce in War Drums, a Lex Barker B-Western the year before (which also had Ben Johnson in it), and was another stalwart of Western TV shows, though he had reached the heights of ‘Young punk, uncredited’ in the feature film River of No Return.

There’s an Indian maid, obviously, with whom Ben will half-heartedly canoodle, and she will, just as obviously, be played by a white actress in heavy make-up, Maureen Hingert, who had had a very small part as ‘Indian woman, uncredited’ in Pillars of the Sky in 1956. She too was unconvincing.
 
 
Probably the best non-Ben actor was Peter Mamakos as the bearded Greek sergeant, Kukas. He was one of those that Hollywood wheeled on for any ‘ethnic’ part (he'd even been Geronimo once), one foreigner being very much like another, after all.
 
 
The picture was directed by Howard Koch. He later became head of production at Paramount but he certainly wasn't much of a hand at directing Westerns.

Well, the evil major gets his just deserts, perishing at the hands of the warrior Victorio (who has a very flash Henry rifle), but then the Apache chief attacks Fort Bowie (one of those wooden toy forts Hollywood loved) but is killed there by the colonel while he is fighting hand-to-hand with Ben (all this is historically accurate, obviously). Actually, the defense of the fort by the soldiers is totally pathetic and they fully deserved to be overrun. But the rest of the US Cavalry arrives at the last moment, bugles blaring, as the US Cavalry was wont to do in Western movies, the colonel and his lady are reconciled, Ben walks off to do some more canoodling with the Indian maid, and they all lived happily ever after, in what is, frankly, a pretty weak B-Western - one, ne’ertheless, worth watching because of Ben Johnson, which is why it got two revolvers.

The End.