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

Monday, August 10, 2020

JW Coop (Columbia, 1971)

There never was a cowboy that couldn't be throwed

Cliff Robertson’s personal project JW Coop is one of the batch of 1970s Westerns (or semi-Westerns) which use the rodeo as a symbol of the decline of frontier values, and indeed the decay of American society more generally. We think in particular of Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show of the same year. As I was saying the other day, in the post Rodeo and the Western (click the link for that) Hollywood’s fascination with the arena went right back to the early silent days – in fact one of the first ever motion pictures was Bucking Broncho in 1898. Western movies and the rodeo circuit had much in common – both forms of show biz have always tried to make money from idealized notions of the Old West. The late-1960s and early 70s boom in rodeo, accompanied by its professionalization and increasing commercialization, was reflected in an interest in movies about it, such as JW Coop, Stuart Millar’s When the Legends Die (1972) and Sam Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner (1972), just as an earlier flurry of interest had resulted in such pictures as Budd Boetticher’s Bronco Buster and perhaps the finest of all rodeo Westerns, Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men (both 1952).

JW Coop is also a member of the get-out-of-jail club of movies which feature ex-cons slightly bewildered by the world that has moved on without them, though this time the central character is not tempted to slip back into crime. In fact all he wants is to get right back to rodeo as if the last ten years inside had never happened. It opens with Coop’s release from prison, sent on his way by an appallingly breezy warden (Paul Harper). We later learn that Coop was serving a sentence for passing a dud check which a friend had said he would hold on to till there were funds for it to be cashed but who reneged on that promise, the offense exacerbated by Coop’s beating up on the tyrannical local sheriff (Richard Kennedy). The lawmen wear low-slung holsters as if they are playing cowboys, but in deadly earnest.

The hero’s name Coop can be no accident. It was the way the greatest of all screen cowboys, Gary Cooper, was commonly addressed. That Coop had himself been a rodeo star in The Cowboy and the Lady in 1938. Robertson, who directed, starred in, produced and co-wrote this picture, was a great lover of the Western – and, evidently, a rodeo buff. Surprisingly, perhaps, he only made two oaters, this one and, the following year, another pet project of his, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, a James gang picture of mixed quality which he also produced and starred in. JW Coop was a considerably superior movie, which successfully created an atmosphere at once elegiac and regretful, and painted a fairly bleak picture of contemporary American life. In his debut in the director’s chair Robertson showed talent and promise. I wonder why he only directed one other picture, The Pilot, in 1980.

Cliff at the camera
(Getty Images photo)

Released from the pen (this part shot at the McAlester State Prison in Oklahoma), JW makes use of his free bus ticket to return to his home in small-town Texas, where his widowed and clearly mentally ill mother, played by the great Geraldine Page (though here overdoing it, in my view) behaves as if he had just nipped out to the drugstore. Actually, Page was one year younger than her ‘son’. Right away JW notes the segregated bus, with the whites all grouped in the back seats, and it won’t be the last image of what is wrong with American society. Deep-seated racism, in particular, is shown in all its loathsome reality, and it isn’t only redneck morons who practice it routinely. Rodeo star Myrtis Dightman, the first African-American to get to the National Finals, figures as one of JW’s friends, and some cretins take exception when the pair drink together in a ‘white’ bar.

Ms Page

We see images of JW’s past, the dusty trumpet he used to play (and the film's score, by Don Randi and Louis Shelton, features mournful solo trumpet, though often the action pans out in complete silence) and the disused arena where he started his boyhood bronc riding. He also exhumes his late daddy’s 1949 Hudson (actually, I think it’s a 1951 model but hey), which smokes like a considerable number of chimneys, and he is pulled over for it by an intellectually-challenged petty fascist cop (Son Hooker). This is what prompts him to leave – there is in any case nothing but unemployment and closed-down businesses in the town – and he hits the road, hitching rides, to get to his first rodeo since the old days.


The rides he gets, first from a hog farmer and then the driver of a big semi, are brilliant vignettes which add little to the narrative but much to the tone, as the men explain in authentically rambling, inarticulate and illogical discourse, what in their view is wrong with America today. Between rides JW meets a fellow hitcher, a hippie girl, known as Bean (because she chews soya beans for the protein), played by Cristina Ferrare. In some ways the early-70s portrayal of hippiedom is pretty clumsy but Ferrare is excellent, as she gradually ‘hippiefies’ her new consort, persuading him, for example, to grow a trendy but unfortunate mustache. They embrace (physically and metaphorically) each other’s free-rolling way of life, as they travel the rodeo circuit in an Army-surplus ambulance JW buys (old but strong), to which Bean gives a hippie paint job.

Ferrare is Bean

He meets up with old rodeo buddies who simply shrug off his ten-year absence. Among these is the great RG Armstrong, one of my favorite Western character actors, and several men who are professional rodeo artists rather than professional actors, though as I have said there is a great commonality, as great Hollywood cowboys such as Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson, Yakima Cannutt and Slim Pickens have proved.

JW finds that the circuit has changed. “Rodeo’s goin’ to shit,” as one of the old boys observes. Now the stars move from meet to meet in their own private Beechcraft, get valuable sponsorship for advertizing crappy products and are mobbed by teenage girls as if they were pop stars. Yet JW goes his old-school way, and bit by bit matches the top man of the day, Billy ‘Hot Pistol’ Hawkins (Dennis Reiners), point for point and therefore dollar for dollar.

More commercial razzmatazz

As with the other rodeo movies, the authenticity quotient is raised by intercutting footage from actual rodeos, and this gives the picture a semi-documentary feel. The bronc-riding and bulldogging scenes are real as hell and you can almost feel the bone-jarring falls and taste the dust. It’s very well done, and you can hardly tell when it’s Robertson and when his stunt-double (great editing, by Alex Beaton – who gets an in-joke mention as one of the bronc-riders announced in the arena). Robertson followed the rodeo circuit for some time in preparation for this picture, and taped many conversations. The movie benefits.

The picture shows its age a bit now with all the ultra-trendy (for 1971) gimmicks, horse-mounted cameras, split-screen and such, but all in all it comes off well.

JW calls home a lot at first but then less, and the death of his mother is superbly handled, with great obliqueness. We see JW hang up, looking grim, we see him arriving back home in a taxi, we see him coming out of the little wooden Methodist church, and that’s all. Nothing is said, but we immediately understand. The picture in silhouette of JW forlornly riding a nodding-donkey in the twilight is masterly.

Growing success on the circuit brings its rewards and now we see JW in fancy duds and Elvis shades, taking commercial flights from venue to venue. He aspires to his own airplane but at first can only run to a beat-up ex-crop duster biplane, the aeronautic equivalent of that antique Hudson, which is eventually eaten by dairy cattle. It’s done with gentle though wry humor.

Finally JW proposes to Bean. “A loner is a lonely man,” he explains, rather obviously, but meaning, I think, that while a cowboy prizes the solitary life (think of all those Western titles with the word lone in them) in the end he needs a mate. But Bean remains true to her hippie faith and the next morning she is gone.

The movie climaxes at the National Finals in Oklahoma City. JW is only just behind Hawkins in the rankings but he explains that “second is last”. The ending is downbeat, even tragic.

Robertson’s own performance is very fine, and his writing and directing too. The movie doesn’t have all that much of a plot, and it is also slow-paced - maybe the picture was too long at 1' 52". Vincent Canby in The New York Times commented that “Robertson's screenplay is no great shakes as narrative, but it takes a certain courage to amble as amiably as it does. JW Coop is nevertheless one of the great films of its era (not the greatest cinematic era, I will agree) in terms of reflecting life at the time in a thought-provoking way – and that’s what great movies do. As a Western it couldn’t compete with McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Big Jake that year, and in fact it came pretty well nowhere in the box-office rankings and got lukewarm reviews, but it isn’t really a Western in the true sense anyway and as a document it’s more than worth a viewing, I do assure you.



Thursday, August 6, 2020

The First Fast Draw by Louis L’Amour: Cullen Baker

Not a nice man

The First Fast Draw was a Louis L’Amour novel that was published in 1959, coming between Radigan and Taggart. In my opinion it was not one of L’Amour’s best, for three main reasons: firstly because the hero is a less than savory character; secondly because of the preposterous basic plot that the hero invented the whole quick-on-the-draw hoohah; and lastly because it’s told in the first person.
Very fictional

Western novels do really depend on a central character with those ‘Western’ virtues of toughness, taciturnity and survival skills. A Western hero has to be resourceful but modest, has to be really good with fists and/or guns but say little about it. He (it’s always a he) also has to be decent, and follow the Western code of honor. It’s not easy when recounting the action from the point of view of ‘I’, to bring those skills and character traits out without the fellow appearing to boast. And if you are going to make that ‘I’ someone like the Texas reprobate Cullen Baker, it’s harder still.

Cullen Montgomery Baker (1835 – 1869) was Tennessee-born but operated after the Civil War in northeast Texas and southwestern Arkansas. Like his contemporaries such as Bill Longley and John Wesley Hardin (and Longley figures in the story) Baker was notorious for fighting in saloon brawls and his fiery temper, resorting willingly to firearms and perfectly happy to gain any advantage going, no matter how ‘unfair’ or ‘unsporting’. It is impossible to know how many men he killed but it was a very considerable number.

A picture often said to be Cullen Baker but almost certainly not.
At least he holds the favored Baker weapon.

One newspaper called Baker "the Arkansas brigand" and “the most feared gunman in the Lone Star State who had spread a reign of terror in Texas." The Athens Post referred to Baker as a “notorious guerrilla, of Red River notoriety”.

Baker started young. At the age of 18, while out drinking with friends, he became involved in a verbal altercation with a youth, grabbed a whip, and beat the boy nearly to death. He then shot a witness to this crime in the legs with a shotgun and left him lying in front of his house, where he died a few days later.

Baker fled to Arkansas where a local woman berated him. He took several hickory switches to her house and threatened to beat her. When her husband protested Baker stabbed him to death.

Baker joined the CSA during the Civil War and according to The Memphis Daily Appeal “he shot and killed at least three African Americans, killing a black woman in an immigrant train and later shooting a black boy six times with a pistol after taking the Oath of Allegiance and becoming an overseer of Freemen.”

By 1864 he had either been discharged or had deserted, and he joined the notorious ‘Independent Rangers’, supposed to pursue and capture deserters from the Confederate Army but in reality taking more time over murder, rape, theft and extortion.

With much of Arkansas under the control of the Union army, often using African-American troopers, Baker was enraged. Near the end of 1864 in a saloon in Spanish Bluffs, Baker shot and killed three soldiers and a sergeant.

After the war Baker joined forces with outlaw Lee Rames, and the gang of desperados killed and looted. Baker’s favored modus operandi was to shoot from ambush with a shotgun.

Louis had a good imagination

None of this occurs in L’Amour’s novel, of course. There, Baker is a put-upon man trying to farm his dead daddy’s land in peace but driven into the alligator-infested Caddo Lake area by unjust persecution. He has a few loyal friends but is not a gang leader.

It is at this time that he realizes the necessity for being ready to shoot to defend himself at a moment’s notice, and practices long and hard until he can pull a revolver (he doesn’t use a shotgun) with lightning speed, thus becoming “the first fast draw”. The quick-on-the-draw legend was of course to become a mainstay of pulp literature and Hollywood Western movies.

Cullen’s time of mayhem was in fact relatively and mercifully short. Eventually his homicidal wildness was too much even for Rames, and a split occurred, with all but one of the gang members, a certain Kirby, siding with Rames.

Cullen Baker was killed in January 1869 by one Thomas Orr, a schoolteacher, said to be romantically involved with Baker’s (inevitably estranged) wife, who  immediately cashed in with a book, Life of the Notorious Desperado, Cullen Baker, from His Childhood to His Death, with a Full Account of All the Murders He Committed.

The papers loved it

A newspaper at the time recounted: 

Texas outlaw Cullen Baker was killed by a schoolteacher named Orr who had married Bakers ex-wife. Baker had once hung Orr but cut him down too soon in order to save his rope. Orr, with three others, followed Baker and an accomplice to a hideout in southeastern Arkansas, coming upon the two men just as they were squatting next to a fire, having lunch. Orr and the others did not call out to the outlaws to surrender, knowing what their answer would be. The teacher and his companions rode down on Baker and his henchman with their six-guns blazing, shooting both men dead on the spot. Orr found that his old adversary was a walking arsenal. Strapped to his side was a double-barreled shotgun. Baker was also wearing four six -guns, three derringers, and six knives. Also found on Baker's corpse was a carefully kept packet of newspaper clippings.

L’Amour won’t have this, though. In his story Baker generously gives a man in rags one of his distinctive shirts, and it is this man whom Orr kills and who is taken for Baker. Baker finds it convenient to be ‘dead’ and so does not disabuse the world of his reported demise. He goes out West with his lady love. Believe that if you will. Actually, L'Amour was fond of Baker and the character appears in other books by him too, such as Lando

Of course with all outlaws there are escape stories. Billy the Kid got away from Fort Sumner, Jesse James escaped the assassination at the hands of the Fords, and so on.

Equally predictably, Baker was elevated to Robin Hood status. He was a noble defender of the rights of the poor and downtrodden against political and corporate exploiters. Jesse James would get the same treatment. This was exacerbated in Baker’s case by the fact that some of the authorities he rebelled against were Reconstruction ones, and as we know, in much of white Texas – and indeed in Western movies and novels – Reconstruction was all bad, with no saving graces. It was all about corrupt Northern carpetbaggers unjustly favoring “uppity nigras” at the expense of decent white folk, and there was nothing positive about the system at all.

Still today Baker has his defenders, especially in Texas. A recent biography of him (2018) bears the title The Robin Hood of Caddo Lake. The town of Bloomburg, Texas commemorates Baker with the annual Cullen Baker Country Fair, held the first weekend in November - proceeds to the Bloomburg Volunteer Fire Department.

Bloomburg (I don't think the MG was original)

Baker hasn’t appeared much in Western movies or TV shows, perhaps surprisingly. There was a Mexican spaghetti, La Mula de Cullen Baker, with Rodolfo de Anda as Baker, in 1971. You’d think at least that detective Matt Clark would have captured him on Stories of the Century, yet nay. Do please leave a comment if you know of any other Bakers on the big or small screen.

A more serious biography of Baker is available, if you want to know more, Cullen Montgomery Baker, Reconstruction Desperado (Louisiana State University Press, 1997) by Barry A Crouch and Donaly E Brice.

But I’d skip the Louis L’Amour one if I were you.

What about a figurine?



Monday, August 3, 2020

The Westerns of John Dehner

All links in this post are internal, i.e. they will take you to other reviews on this blog, unless explicitly stated.

What a voice! What a mustache!

John Dehner (left) was one of the very best character actors in Westerns. He only led in one feature, topping the billing in Revolt at Fort Laramie in 1957,but he was present, and usually high up the cast list, in no fewer than 152 Westerns altogether, comprising 43 features and 109 episodes of Western TV shows, between 1946 and 1981. He was also a leading participant in the radio Western. It’s a great record.

The IMDb bio says of him that he was a “tall and distinguished looking man with a rich voice and somewhat flamboyant demeanor”.  I'll go along with that. His suave appearance (one of the best mustaches in the business) and craggy, instantly recognizable face (often with quizzically raised eyebrow), as well as great acting talent, made him an authoritative presence in our noble genre, above all through the 50s. He could play the goody well but for me he was supreme at the droll bad guy.

John Dehner Forkum was born in 1915 in Staten Island, NY. His father was an artist and John evidently inherited and learned some artistic skills. He was schooled in Paris, France, Norway and New York, studied art at the University of California and after working as a disc jockey, professional pianist and bandleader, he became an animator for Walt Disney in Burbank at the princely salary of $18 a week. He contributed to several classic feature sequences on Fantasia (1940) and Bambi (1942), as well as a few Donald Duck epics. He was a champion fencer and spoke four languages.

Almost unrecognizable without that 'tache

After leaving the Disney art department, Dehner did a stint as a public relations officer in the army during World War II and then returned to California as a radio announcer and news editor for stations KMBC and KFWB. He and his colleagues earned his radio station a Peabody Award for their coverage of the UN conference in San Francisco.

So you see John Dehner had a rich and varied career well before he took up acting.

An early appearance as a train robber in Tim Holt's Hot Lead (that's Bob Wilke he's talking to)

He started in Westerns in 1946 with smallish parts in Republic oaters with Monte Hale and Allan Lane, directed by the likes of Lesley Selander and RG Springsteen, moving on to Charles Starrett Durango Kid pictures. In 1951 he played a kind of Temple Houston character in Columbia’s Al Jennings of Oklahoma, trying to get the drop on Dan Duryea with a hidden gun but perishing in the attempt. Several pictures with George Montgomery followed, notably The Texas Rangers in 1951, in which he played the Texas killer John Wesley Hardin, rather duded up. He was Ringo (though Matt Ringo, not Johnny), in Montgomery’s Gun Belt (1953). It was an excellent start.

He goes for a hidden .45
In Gun Belt

Also in 1953 Dehner was nicely cast as the crooked saloon owner in Fox’s kind-of remake of My Darling Clementine, Powder River, with Rory Calhoun. The following year he was the corrupt Indian Agent in Apache, and a really nasty bad guy in Southwest Passage. He was developing nicely as the villain.

With Burt in Apache

He cemented this characterization when he appeared in four Westerns in 1955, a good year, Warners’ Tall Man Riding (crooked lawyer), United Artists’ Top Gun (outlaw), Universal’s The Man from Bitter Ridge (chief bad guy with Ray Teal as henchman) and Columbia’s Duel on the Mississippi (bad guy).

With Sterling Hayden, as outlaw Tom Quentin in Top Gun

Three more feature Westerns followed in ’56, including one of his best-ever bad-guy performances as Broderick Crawford’s henchman Taylor Swope in The Fastest Gun Alive – in fact he almost stole the show in that one – as well as A Day of Fury (slimy preacher) and Tension at Table Rock (ruthless cattleman).

With Jock Mahoney in A Day of Fury

In 1957 he was excellently nasty in the very good Trooper Hook as Barbara Stanwyck’s husband who spurns her because she has been living with the Indians, rejecting her ‘half-breed’ child, and then he conveniently dies so that Joel McCrea and Stanwyck can get it together. He was also excellent as an alcoholic, cynical, laid-back attorney in The Iron Sheriff.

Trooper Hook

The Iron Sheriff

And this was the year he finally topped the billing, in Revolt at Fort Laramie, a Bel-Air production, in which he was back under the command of Lesley Selander. Dehner is a US Army major, out West in 1861 as the Civil War looms, and conflicted because he is a Virginian and his heart is with the Confederacy but he has taken an oath and his honor obliges him to, well, hold the fort. Actually, it was rather an uninspired Western but Dehner made it.

 In command at Fort Laramie

1958 was the year of The Left-Handed Gun, a Billy the Kid pic directed by Arthur Penn and starring Paul Newman, in which Dehner was Pat Garrett, and in fact one of the best Pat Garretts ever (I think). The same year he was Claude, the vicious thuggish nephew of outlaw Lee J Cobb, and cousin of Gary Cooper, in Anthony Mann’s Man of the West. Dehner was also the unworthy fiancĂ© of Rory Calhoun’s former-amour in Apache Territory. Once again he will perish, making the hero morally free to renew the lovey-dovey.

As Patt Garrett opposite Paul Newman's Billy the Kid

1958 was also the year in which Dehner was cast as Paladin in CBS’s radio version of Have Gun – Will Travel, which, unusually, started on TV and migrated to radio afterwards (it was more often the other way round). He would do 106 episodes, between November 23, 1958 and November 27, 1960. But before Have Gun Dehner was already an experienced radio Western hand. He figured in no fewer than 234 of the 480 episodes of Gunsmoke, which ran on CBS for nine seasons from 1952 to 1961. It is said that he auditioned more than once for the role of Matt Dillon, but this went to William Conrad.

A brace of Paladins

Dehner was also featured in Fort Laramie, another CBS radio show that aired on Sunday afternoons from January to October 1956. Again he was considered for the lead part of Lee Quince but that went to a pre-Perry Mason Raymond Burr. Perhaps Dehner’s lead role in the movie Revolt at Fort Laramie was a kind of consolation prize, who knows.

From February thru November 1958 Dehner was also the star of another CBS show. The intro announced: “Herewith, an Englishman's account of life and death in The West. As a reporter for The Times of London, he writes his colorful and unusual accounts. But as a man with a gun, he lives and becomes a part of the violent years in the new territories. Now, starring John Dehner, this is the story of JB Kendall, Frontier Gentleman.” Dehner’s accent is far from English but with e-nun-ci-ation he gets away with it. You can try an episode here if you wish (external link).

Dehner certainly had a great radio voice. Out of the 667 combined network episodes in the four CBS radio series Gunsmoke, Have Gun – Will Travel, Frontier Gentleman and Fort Laramie, he figured in an incredible 394 episodes – nearly 60% of the total.

Back on the big screen, he was Audie Murpy ’s dad in Cast a Long Shadow in 1959, but Western roles were fewer and farther between in the 60s and 70s. He appeared in The Canadians (1961) and was the narrator on The Hallelujah Trail (1965). He had a small part in The Cheyenne Social Club in 1970 and the same year was in the dire Sinatra vehicle Dirty Dingus Magee (like The Canadians, a Burt Kennedy picture) as a senior Army officer. He was a colonel in the fun Support Your Local Gunfighter in 1971, and finished with a TV movie in which he co-starred with Denver Pyle, NBC’s Guardian of the Wilderness.

He cast a long shadow with Audie (well, he was 6' 2")

In fact he had been appearing on the small screen ever since an Adventures of Kit Carson episode in 1953, and from then on appeared in almost any TV show you care to name, often more than once. For example, he was in 12 episodes of Gunsmoke, 5 of Rawhide, 5 of Maverick, 4 of Tales of Wells Fargo, and 4 of The Rifleman. In The Westerner, Sam Peckinpah’s highly regarded series with Brian Keith, he was the colorful repeat character Burgundy Smith, another ‘juicy’ role. In 1967 he was ‘High Spade Johnny Dean’ (rather a combination name) in the TV remake of Winchester ’73.




Amiable rogue Burgundy Smith in The Westerner

He would go on in non-Western roles all through the 1980s, dying from complications of emphysema and diabetes in 1992, at the age of 76.

Still handsome
John Dehner was one of the top Western character actors of the 1950s, and he's one of those actors whose name appearing in the introductory credits always makes you smile and say, "Oh, good."