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

Friday, December 9, 2016

High Lonesome (Eagle-Lion, 1950)

Worth seeing for Chill and Jack

High Lonesome ought really to have been a very good Western. Made in color with quite high production values, and starring quality Western actors of the caliber of Chill Wills and Jack Elam, it was written by Alan Le May. Now Mr. Le May, as doubtless you are aware, was a leading light of the Western genre. He wrote two great novels which were made into great movies by great directors, The Searchers (John Ford) and The Unforgiven (John Huston). He also wrote the source novel of the rather charming Along Came Jones, produced by and starring Gary Cooper, and wrote or co-wrote the screenplay of North West Mounted Police (also starring Coop), two Randolph Scott Westerns (adapting a Zane Grey novel for Gunfighters and using his own story for The Walking Hills) and two Errol Flynn ones (San Antonio and Rocky Mountain), as well as the little-known but rather fine Raoul Walsh work Cheyenne. It’s quite an impressive record for a writer.
Sadly, though, as director (and High Lonesome was his only picture in that role) he didn’t have much of an idea. John Ford or John Huston he wasn’t.

The film was made and distributed by Eagle-Lion, an Anglo-American outfit set up by J Arthur Rank in 1947 when he acquired PRC Pictures (often referred to as Poverty Row Corp) but the movies they made and released were often above average in terms of quality. High Lonesome was produced by George Templeton, who was involved with Westerns from 1944, when he produced another Le May effort (also starring Wills and Elam), Trailin’ West, until Sam Peckinpah’s The Ballad of Cable Hogue in 1970. So he knew the genre.

High Lonesome and its companion piece The Sundowners the same year launched the career of John Drew Barrymore, son of John and nephew of Ethel, who plays a neurotic and mysterious youth who apparently sees ghosts. Unsurprisingly, the Texas locals take him for a liar or madman or both. Barrymore had a tempestuous career marked by significant drug and alcohol abuse and he was an intense actor, let us say. These two pictures were his only big-screen Westerns and it was TV shows after that. He bore an uncanny resemblance to a young Sean Penn. Mr. Penn was -10 when the film came out; otherwise I would have sworn he was in it.
The late 1940s were of course the high point of noir Westerns and curiously perhaps the Technicolor does High Lonesome no favors. If it had been in black & white, shot by James Wong Howe perhaps, directed by Raoul Walsh, say, and had starred, instead of Barrymore, Robert Mitchum maybe, it could have been as good as Pursued or Blood on the Moon. As it was, it didn’t make that grade, despite some obviously classy writing here and there.

For it has a sinister tinge and the basic idea is that the troubled youth sees long-dead victims of an old Texas feud, shadowy figures whom none but he perceive. Of course we know there must be some rational explanation, as indeed there turns out to be, but meanwhile we can enjoy the apparent other-worldliness of the spectral gunmen. The poster contained the slogan Haunted! Hunted! Hounded!

The patriarch of the ranching Davis clan is Horse Davis, played by an austere and authoritative Basil Ruysdael, former bass-baritone at the Metropolitan Opera and then radio announcer, turned character actor who played judges and doctors and the like, who appeared in seven big-screen Westerns. He wears no gun but has a stout walking stick and you feel that that would more than suffice. He has a beautiful daughter, Abby (Kristine Miller, a protégée of Hal B Wallis’s) and she is the fiancée of local rancher Pat Farrell, of the clan the Davises used to feud with, played by Western regular John Archer, in his fourth oater. Archer was born Ralph Bowman but won an RKO contract in the name of John Archer in a competition so went from being a Bowman to an Archer. However, the old feud rears its ugly head again and Abby and Pat go their separate ways.
Meanwhile, the youth nicknamed Cooncat (Barrymore) takes a shine to Abby’s younger sis, Meagan (Lois Butler, in her only Western) – or rather she takes a shine to him. He seems rather bewildered at the idea.
The good news is that the mysterious and to most people invisible gunman is Jack Elam, billed simply as Smiling Man. He smiles in that pitiless, cruel way that villains adopt. He has a henchman whom he bosses about unmercifully (Dave Kashner, former cattleman and a trick whip artist, a superb portrait of whom is below). Elam was in the early stages of his career and for some time to come was to take minor roles as henchman himself – ‘Knife murderer (uncredited)’, for example – and was to get a name as One-Reel Jack because of his propensity of being shot to death before the second reel of the film had begun. But here he has a key role (even if only appearing intermittently) as the main bad guy. And he doesn’t get shot till the last reel. How I love Jack Elam, one of the best baddies ever.
Chill (he’s the Davises’ foreman) calls the square dance and then sings a song (he had a fine voice). There’s a good bit where Chill and Meagan choose a hat for the boy. They take some time before arriving at the right item and the importance of the hat in Westerns will soon be the subject of a wonderful post on this superlative blog, so stay tuned and hold your breath.
At one point someone asks the youth who he thinks he is, Billy the Kid? And at another point, Abby asks, Who do you think I am, Calamity Jane? So there are plenty of references. They don’t help to date the action, though. The characters wear rather 1950s clothes and hair, especially Barrymore who is clearly going for a James Dean vibe – a vibe intensified by the fact that the Big Bend country the film was shot in was the same as the setting for Giant.

There are a couple of good Le May lines, such as when Meagan says that men don’t fight about a reason. They fight about they got in a fight. That’s true as often as not, I reckon.

Do watch High Lonesome. You’ll probably enjoy it. It’s not The Searchers or The Unforgiven but it’s not bad either.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Finger on the Trigger (Films Internacionales/AA, 1965)

Rory rides again - in Spain

In 1965 Rory Calhoun led in three big-screen Westerns. He was nearing the end of his career: he would make a comeback to lead in one more, Mule Feathers, in 1977 and would do a few bit parts and walk-ons in a couple of others (one of them a country music Western in 1992, when he was 70, just five years before he died) and some TV shows. But really 1965 was pretty well the end of the trail.

I found Finger on the Trigger on YouTube and happily sat down to watch it but my suspicions were immediately aroused when in the very opening scene we heard over-loud clip-clops dubbed onto the soundtrack and background music of electric guitar. Yup, it’s a spaghetti western. Also known as Blue Lightning, Le chemin de l’or, Il sentiero dell’oro and, what came up on the screen of the print I saw, and closer to the English title, El dedo en el gatillo. Call it what you will, it's a pulp Eurowestern.

Yup, Rory too did a fin-de-carrière spaghetti. Or at least a paella western, for this one was made by a Spanish company, written by Luis de los Aros and shot in Spain. At least the director was American, Sidney W Pink (1916 – 2002), a producer and writer known for schlock sci-fi B-pictures, many in 3D, who is said to have discovered Dustin Hoffmann. Pink (right - he's the one in the foreground) lived in Madrid for a time and got heavily into spaghetti/paella oaters.

This review will therefore be short. I don’t do spaghettis as a rule. As a lifelong lover of true Westerns I find the spaghetti kind generally disrespectful of the genre, and dreadfully badly written, directed, acted, and produced, with the worst music ever.

Still, it is Rory, so we owe him at least one watch of the movie. It’s a story set just after Appomattox (so they all have 1870s and 80s clothes and guns, obviously) in which two troops of ex-soldiers, or soon to be ex-soldiers, Union and Confederate (the latter in very unconvincing gray uniforms) are after some Confederate gold. Rory is the bluecoat captain. But both parties are riven: members of each group want to keep the gold for themselves, whereas their captains and a few loyal men want it to go to their respective governments, in Washington DC and in exile in Mexico respectively. That’s basically the plot.

The aging Calhoun (left) had an almost George Clooney look to him, and he does the usual solid job as the decent but tough soldier, despite the ropey script and some very iffy acting going on around him. James Philbrook plays Calhoun’s Confederate counterpart. Philbrook had co-starred with Rory in an episode of The Texan but was usually confined to small or even uncredited parts in Westerns. Many of the rest of the cast were locally-recruited Spaniards.

All in all this movie is a low-grade Eurowestern with little to recommend it. You might want to watch it once for the curiosity value. It scraped up to a two-revolver rating because of Rory.


Friday, December 2, 2016

Utah Blaine (Columbia, 1957)

Really rather good!



Rory Calhoun’s seventeenth Western (the ninth as lead) was a black & white Columbia B-movie but it was really rather good. It most definitely repays a watch, even for those who are not dyed-in-the-wool Rory fans. I recommend it.

The plot is pretty standard (brave small rancher against ruthless land-grabber) but it’s well done and both acting and writing stand out as above average.

It was directed by actor/producer/director Fred F Sears. He had started in front of the cameras as sidekick in low-budget Westerns but graduated to directing Columbia’s Durango Kid series starring Charles Starrett. He was one of those directors who reliably brought in pictures on time and on budget, which of course endeared him greatly to studio heads. His best film is generally regarded to be the sci-fi cult classic Earth vs. Flying Saucers, the year before Utah Blaine, but he also directed some (slightly) classier Westerns such as The Nebraskan and Ambush at Tomahawk Gap. He wasn’t a Poverty Row z-movie man. The direction of Utah Blaine is pacey and quite suspenseful here and there.
Fred F Sears
Utah Blaine is helped by being a Louis L’Amour story (his ninth novel, 1954), well adapted for the screen by Robert E Kent. Kent was very experienced: this was the fourteenth of thirty B-Westerns he wrote.
The 1954 novel
In the opening scene, somewhere (we presume) in Texas, Rory, a well-known gunslinger back from a Mexican revolution, sees some vigilante thugs casually hang a man, and when they callously leave him dangling to strangle to death Utah Blaine (for it is he) cuts the unfortunate fellow down and saves his life. The man with a sore neck turns out to be rancher Joe Neal (Ken Christy, a notably good actor) whose spread, the 46 Connected, is being seized by unscrupulous and brutal Russ Nevers, who wants the whole valley – you know how they do. The really good news is that the ruthless rancher Nevers is played by one of my favorites, Ray Teal, always reliable as solid sheriff or ruthless rancher, whatever the part called for.
The bad guys. Ruthless rancher Ray Teal (right) orders thug henchman George Keymas to do the dirty on hero Rory
Unusually, in his first scene Rory has neither horse, gun nor hat. It's very rare to see a Western hero without those. But he soon straps on a fancy two-gun rig (a rather cool one, actually, that he used in several movies, such as Red Sundown, for example). One of the reasons Rory has come back is to get revenge on gunhand Rink Witter (George Keymas with an odd accent) – for a never really defined reason, though we know Rink had done the dirty on Utah. Rink is now a chief henchman of Nevers, so Utah, whom Joe Neal has appointed manager, has all the more reason to go for him.

So plenty of skullduggery and ruthless ranchery, with courageous resistance to the bullies. Rory pals up with a big ox, Gus (Max Baer) and an old pal with a shotgun he calls Matilda, Rip Coker (Paul Langton) and together they take on the might of Nevers’s hired guns. So it’s all set up for mucho action.
Naturally there are two dames, a plucky rancher, Angie (Susan Cummings, left, a regular of TV Western shows) whose dad has been murdered (by Rink) just like Joe Neal but she is determined to carry on, and though she at first dislikes Rory as a professional gunslinger, we know perfectly well that she’ll come round and it’ll be true lerve in the last reel. Then there’s a posher rancher lady, Miss Blake (Angela Stevens, George Montgomery’s leading lady in Jack McCall, Desperado). Rory goes for Angie and sidekick Rip takes a shine to Miss Blake, so that’s alright. The standard pattern was to have a demure, respectable lady and a slightly racier dame, maybe a saloon gal, but this time they are both rancheresses.

That's Matilda he has in one hand and Miss Blake in the other

There’s a proper action climax, with Ray leading his thugs in at the gallop, in a scene that reminded me of Forty Guns (the same year) and much blazing away. You may guess the outcome.

All good stuff. You could certainly see this one.


Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Northwest Trail (Screen Guild Productions, 1945)

Bob Steele gets his man

North-of-the-border tales of how red-coated Mounties got their man are not really Westerns, even if they are filmed in California and star Bob Steele. But we’ll make an exception for this one. Actually, I also made an exception for North West Mounted Police, Saskatchewan, Pony Soldier, Susannah of the Mounties and Dan Candy’s Law, but we won’t talk about that now.

Unusually for a Poverty Row B-Western of the period, this one is in color, even if today the Cinecolor is a bit degraded and the print not too hot. But otherwise it’s rather a low-budget affair. Still, it’s a lot of fun.
And it’s interesting for another reason: the appearance of Madge Bellamy (left). Now Ms. Bellamy was the big star in Fox’s massive The Iron Horse, directed by John Ford, and as such was pretty famous. She also had the female lead in a silent Western the following year, The Golden Strain and was in Fox’s first talkie in 1928, Mother Knows Best. But she was a notoriously prickly person, always arguing over roles, and when she refused to do a part in a movie expressly bought for her, her contract was terminated and her career crashed. She descended into bit parts in B-movie talkies and by the time of Northwest Trail, her very last picture, she was reduced to playing the slatternly wife of one of the bad guys. How are the mighty fallen! She was rather beautiful in a 1920s way, as you can see from the photograph. But beauty alone is not enough (I know) and you need brains as well, which in Ms. Bellamy's case were apparently in short supply.
That's Madge Bellamy on the left
It’s a contemporary Western (another reason purists will discard it) in which Mountie Bob, on a fancy Palomino, comes across a tiresome and rude woman (Joan Woodbury, right, who took roles as an ‘exotic’ woman in various Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy and Johnny Mack Brown oaters) in her stranded convertible, which he politely repairs notwithstanding her facetious and irritating remarks. Then he finds that he is ordered to escort the dame up to a remote camp. The car is soon left behind, though, and it becomes a straight Western from there on in, with horses, guns and a gang of bad guys illegally mining gold.

Most of the story is set up in a remote settlement which has a ratty saloon (in which Raymond Hatton is the barman) and there’s a predictable bad guy in a suit (John Hamilton) with henchmen (various). There’s also a local Mountie sergeant (John Litel) who appears to be very laissez-faire about the evident skullduggery going on.

Bob saves the day and unravels the plot, obviously, and is also saddled in the closing scene with the odious woman as they kiss in the convertible, with the Palomino trotting behind.

Traditional fare. I’ve seen worse. But then I’ve seen a lot better too.


Monday, November 28, 2016

Stampede (AA, 1949)


With a title like that there are no prizes for guessing what the climax of this B-Western will be, and the stampede is combined with dynamiting a dam, mucho shootin’ and a fatal fistfight in a moonlit lake. Lesley Selander directed and while he may not have been an arty director of fine films, he sure knew how to handle Western action scenes. Stampede is in fact an actionful B-Western with quite a lot to recommend it.

It’s a classic cattleman vs. homesteaders plot but just before you switch off, saying Been there, done that, I would just add that there are complex plot twists, some good dialogue and even developments of character, as cattle baron Rod Cameron starts off an out-and-out ruthless rancher of the old school but gradually becomes more sympathetic. He’s Mike McCall (no relation to Jack, I’m sure).

Cameron was rather in the second rank of Western leads but he was always solid and reliable. His imposing build and gritty character made him suitable for the genre. And he is well supported in this one, with a rather charming Don Castle as his happy-go-lucky young brother Tim and the dramatically named if diminutive Gale Storm as the tomboy homesteader Connie who starts hostile and gradually comes to love Rod. Storm was a Monogram contract player who had starred in Allied Artists (a sort of grown-up Monogram)’s 1947 hit It Happened on Fifth Avenue. She’d been in a few Roy Rogers oaters. Castle specialized in fresh-faced kid roles and had featured in Hardy boys movies. In 1942 he’d been in Tombstone, The Town Too Tough To Die, but he was only ever in five Westerns and never led in one.
In addition we have Johnny Mack Brown as a likeable sheriff. Of course Johnny had been appearing in movies since the silent days and had then been Billy the Kid in the King Vidor-directed talkie of 1930. But he had descended to studios like Mascot (and worse) and led in dozens and dozens of very B Westerns, occasionally taking smaller roles in bigger ones. He’d already made over a hundred oaters before this one.

And I also thought a couple of the other characters well done, notably John Miljan as the conflicted banker who gradually loses his dignity, Jonathan Hale as the lawyer and John Eldredge as the land agent for the settlers. The writing of these parts is subtle and the acting classy enough to carry it off.
The main villain, though, Stanton, who owns the town and will go to any lengths to beat cattleman Rod, including several murders and provoking the aforementioned stampede/dam-dynamiting, is a bit over-the-top and impossibly evil. He is played by Donald Curtis who’d had small parts in B-Westerns throughout the 1940s and later became a religious self-help writer. I don’t know how he was as a scribbler but his Westerns weren’t too hot.

Anyway, there is some good writing and acting. The screenplay was an early effort of Blake Edwards, later Mr. Julie Andrews and the Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Pink Panther fellow. He had first done another Rod Cameron oater, Panhandle, the year before and would later go on to write and/or direct several oaters including Wild Rovers and Sunset. His co-writer was John C Champion, who also started on Panhandle.
The black & white photography is by Harry Neumann and occasionally rather good. The stampede of cattle over a cliff is skillfully done in miniature that is almost convincing (thank goodness it wasn’t real). There are a lot of night scenes and these contribute to the noir atmosphere (of course noir Westerns were all the rage in the late 40s). The fistfight which becomes a gunfight and then again a fistfight is especially well done, and full marks to director and cinematographer. Oh, and actors, I guess.

A Rod Cameron B-Western, yes, with all that implies, but actually this is rather a superior one.



Saturday, November 26, 2016

River Lady (Universal, 1948)


Rod Cameron made three Westerns with fellow Canadian Yvonne De Carlo. River Lady was the best of them (Salome Where She Danced and Frontier Gal were frankly dire) but it’s only relative. While Cameron was a good, solid Western lead, and River Lady also benefits from Dan Duryea as the bad guy, De Carlo was unsuited to the genre. That didn’t seem to stop her, though. The same year as River Lady she starred with Duryea (but sans Rod) in another, Black Bart, and the following year she was a ludicrous Calamity Jane, with an equally implausible Howard Duff as outlaw Bass in Calamity Jane and Sam Bass. And so it went on (and on), with TV Westerns replacing features as the 60s wore on. The nearest she came to being any good in an oater was opposite Van Heflin in Tomahawk, also directed by George Sherman.

Despite being a Universal picture, in Technicolor, with an experienced director (Sherman) and writer (DD Beauchamp) it was below par for the studio. There are some nice location shots of logging (it’s a lumberjack tale) but very few - they must have done a couple of days location shooting at most - and the majority of the picture is done in the studio, with very obvious back projection for ‘exterior’ shots. Cinematographer Irving Glassberg, capable of classy Western work (such as Bend of the River), had no opportunity to shine at all on this picture. The whole thing is a very B Western.

The eponymous fluvial dame is not Sequin (De Carlo) but the Mississippi riverboat she owns. As her unsuccessful suitor Beauvais (Duryea) tells Sequin, she herself will never be a lady (which is perhaps why he was unsuccessful as a suitor). Sequin is rich but highly ambitious, and she loves Irish logger Corrigan (Cameron) but wants him to be a big man, not just a Mick timber jack. Even the riverboat is a sham; we only see a couple of shots of it on the Mississip and the rest is done on a soundstage and could be any old saloon, and its owner any saloon gal. She sings a (quite catchy) song but only one, which is a relief.
De Carlo as saloon madam
The excellent John McIntire, looking quite young, is an independent lumber merchant that Duryea and his syndicate is trying to buy out. He has a pretty young daughter, Stephanie (Helena Carter, who had a short contract with Universal and was best known for Invaders from Mars). Stephanie has designs on Rod too, and finally gets him to the altar, though he doesn’t love her. It’s all a bit of a low-on-passion potboiler, to be honest.
Dad John McIntire warns daughter Helena Carter about the ruffian Rod
Jack Lambert is a thuggish logger who hates Rod but there are few familiar-face character actors otherwise. Robert J Wilke appears in the cast list but I didn’t spot him; it must have been a micropart.

There’s a climactic fight on the river as Rod tries to free up a logjam with dynamite and Dan tries to stop him. You may guess the outcome.
Cameron: solid
Cameron is reliable and solid, as ever. Duryea is unusually subdued and does not ham it up. He has a splendidly caddish mustache though. McIntire has little chance to shine. The female leads are weak. It’s a bit low on action, with too much talking. Though 1948 was a fabulous year for Westerns, they couldn’t all be great.
Duryea: unusually restrained
If you want to know if logger Rod goes off finally with Yvonne or Helena, you’ll have to watch it yourself. But I don’t think you’ll find the tension unbearable.


Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Iron Horse (Fox, 1924)

John Ford's first great Western

When Paramount came out with The Covered Wagon, in 1923, things changed. For years Westerns had been one- or two-reelers, the occasional feature, theater fodder for the masses – popular, yes, but never considered adult or mature entertainment really, and often looked down on by the critics. The rather somber and sober William S Hart Westerns had an adult aspect but they had given way to lighter fare with dashing celluloid cowboys in dudish costumes, as the likes of Tom Mix galloped across the silver screen for the entertainment of, mainly, a juvenile audience. But The Covered Wagon gave us a huge, nation-spanning epic as it told the story of the wagon train pioneers on the Oregon Trail. It wasn’t long before William Fox replied with his own great project, the tale of the building of the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s (the subtext being that the movie would outclass Paramount’s picture just as the railroads rendered obsolete the wagon trains). And Fox had John Ford to direct it.

Jack Ford (left) had followed in the footsteps of his brother Francis and had worked for Carl Laemmle’s Universal in the 1910s, making Westerns with Harry Carey, before moving to Fox in December 1920. In the following four years he made half a dozen oaters with actors such as Carey (who moved to Fox too), Hoot Gibson and Buck Jones, and even one, Three Jumps Ahead, with Fox megastar Tom Mix. [Daughter Barbara Ford remembered being invited to the birthday party of Mix’s daughter, and the star rode into his Beverley Hills mansion and shot out all the lights of the chandelier, to the utter rapture of all the children. But that’s another story]. Ford campaigned hard to get to direct Fox’s new railroad epic; he really wanted it. He was only 31 but had had already amassed a vast amount of experience, much of it with Westerns – he had directed more than a dozen two-reelers and over thirty-five features, which is more than most directors will do in a complete working life. He got the job.

In his biography of John Ford, Scott Eyman says that the West was only slightly less hazardous for filmmakers of the 1920s than it had been for the railroad builders of the 1860s. He has a point. The Indians didn’t attack the film crews but the elements did. Cameraman George Schneiderman said of the location work done in Mexico that they shot scenes from dawn to dusk, “sleeping at night under the well-known Mexican skies”. Most was filmed in Nevada where snow and bitter cold were a frequent scourge but the actors had to work in their shirtsleeves pretending it was summer. The film’s logistics were difficult as well as costly. There were three hundred in the company, most living in tents or railroad cars. The only hot water was from the boiler of the locomotive. They constructed complete railroad towns of North Platte and Cheyenne. Tempers flared. Ford went on a two-day alcoholic bender with the crew of Chaplin’s The Gold Rush which was filming in nearby Truckee. The whole thing cost a quarter of a million dollars.

They rigged up a projection room in a railroad car but it was so cold no one could stand it. Ford never saw a foot of the film in rushes. But it was all in his head. There were very few scripts in circulation. That was the way Ford liked it: the cast were forced to rely on him for guidance.
Everyone doubled up. Assistant editor Harold Schuster played eight or nine parts. Every Western actor there ever was seems subsequently to have claimed to have been a railroad worker on The Iron Horse.

It’s a very long picture, 150 minutes (133’ in the TCM cut). And it moves at a leisurely pace – sometimes you get the feeling that the railroad would have been built faster. But there is no denying it is a fine film, and way superior to James Cruze’s rather plodding work on The Covered Wagon the year before.

The film starts with one of those mendacious prologues:

Accurate and faithful in every particular of fact and atmosphere is this pictorial history of the building of the first transcontinental railroad.

This statement is what is commonly known as a lie but no one seemed to mind. Westerns often made the claim to be historically accurate. Why? Perhaps it made them seem more weighty and valuable and added a documentary feel. But if viewers seriously believe that it is accurate “in every particular of fact” then they must be very gullible indeed. I don’t mind if Westerns play fast and loose with history. But I do object when they claim to be true and patently aren’t. Ford did this a lot: he even claimed that he had spoken to an elderly Wyatt Earp who had told him all about the OK Corral and so they shot it in My Darling Clementine exactly as it had happened. As in Ford’s version Doc Holliday is killed, either Earp’s memory was failing or Ford was talking B.S. But then Ford was an inveterate liar.


The opening scene is a pastoral one of sheep being herded. This was serendipitous: a Basque sheepherder drove his flock across the line of sight while they were setting up. Ford said, “We’ve got to get this in the picture”. The shot is actually rather well framed and beautiful.

Ford could have chosen any number of scenes to illustrate the story of the construction of the railroad. He decided to start in Illinois with an austere and saintly young Abe (Charles Edward Bull) presiding over the community and a visionary surveyor, and his son Davy, gently mocked by a skeptical engineer, and his daughter Miriam. The children (left) are sweet on each other. Abe sides with the surveyor and shares his dream of a transcontinental railroad. The New York Times said of the film that at the première "his make-up as the martyred President is so good that the mere sight of him brought volleys of applause from the spectators."

Now we see the surveyor and his boy out West “in the Cheyenne hills” seeking out a route for the Union Pacific. They find a steep pass which will save miles (filmed at Beale’s Cut, Newhall, where Ford had shot some of Straight Shooting in 1917). The boy in hiding sees his father murdered and scalped by a sinister half-breed with only two fingers. The scene was pretty brutal for the time and must have had a big impact. Some mountain men find the boy and adopt him.

Other memorable scenes include horses pulling a locomotive up a slope (the poor beasts look to be suffering). In fact one day it was so cold that the engine froze and the train would not budge. Ford invented a solution by moving the camera past the stationary train to give the impression of movement.

There is a frankly absurd episode when the railroad workers sing, drop their tools and pick up rifles, fight off Indians for thirty seconds, then immediately resume work. It is (unintentionally) funny. In fact the song they sing wasn’t written till the 1880s, so that must have slipped by Ford’s “accurate and faithful in every particular”.

Being Ford, there is of course comic relief involving drunken Irishmen. Because it was mid-Prohibition the drinking had to be implied rather than shown but the ‘amusing’ trio of Sergeant Slattery, Corporal Casey and Private Schultz (Francis Powers, J Farrell MacDonald and Jim Welch, right) are given several scenes, such as the comic extraction of a bad tooth by a frontier dentist. The trio are, though, closer to the Three Stooges than they are to Kipling's Soldiers Three.

Semi-comic are the scenes showing Hell on Wheels, Judge Haller (James A Marcus)’s mobile courtroom/saloon, very much a take on Judge Roy Bean. The judge marries a couple and divorces them ten hours later. Saloon gal Ruby (Gladys Hulette) is insulted by a card player so she shoots him with a derringer (studio publicity said it was Wild Bill Hickok's derringer). She is promptly acquitted by the judge. In a classic scene barmen take down the mirror before a fight.

Ford is true to his principle of showing ordinary folk as the real doers and makers in American society. The Irish workers, Davy and Miriam, these are everyday people. Even Lincoln in the White House, of couse, whom Ford revered hugely, is from the famous log cabin and 'one of us'.

Various famous characters appear. Buffalo Bill (George Waggner, as George Wagner) provides meat for the crews, and Wild Bill Hickok (Jack Padjan), with a lawman’s badge, drives a herd of cattle up from Texas to Cheyenne to feed the workers. General Dodge (Walter Rodgers) is engineer in chief, anxious to find the shortcut. And Frank North (Charles O’Malley) and his Pawnee scouts ride to the rescue when Cheyennes attack the railroad workers.

The murderous half-breed who had killed that surveyor now re-appears, as landowner Deroux (Fred Kohler, left), the principal villain of the piece. He will do anything to get the railroad routed through his land, including getting surveyor Jesson (Cyril Chadwick) to lie about the existence of a pass. Now the children we saw in the first reel are grown. Miriam (Madge Bellamy) and Davy (George O’Brien) meet up again as adults. Miriam has a fiancé, none other than the wretched surveyor Jesson. Davy has become a Pony Express rider, allowing for an exciting scene as he athletically leaps from his horse to the moving train to escape Indians. But Davy remembers his daddy’s dream, and that pass in the Cheyenne hills, and is determined to find it again. He survives attempted murder by Jesson (as he slithers down the Newhall cut) and comes back to Cheyenne to fight it out with the rogue.

George O’Brien (right), 25, was the son of San Francisco’s chief of police and had been light-heavyweight champion in the Navy. Later he had a job minding police horses and was taken up by Tom Mix, and worked lugging cameras and stunting for Fox. He even (unsuccessfully) auditioned for Ben Hur. Ford is said to have tested over fifty actors for the part of Davy before settling on O’Brien. But he had to fight William Fox for the actor. Fox wanted an established star for such a big picture. But Ford was adamant, and won the day. He and O’Brien would prove a good match. O’Brien was a good-natured, straightforward, hearty fellow, actually very similar to the character he played. Ford and O'Brien's common heritage, religion and love of the sea helped the relationship greatly. He is very winning in The Iron Horse, much more so than the ‘safer’ Bellamy as his amour.

Ford had a rough way with actors, who must do his bidding. He had a colorful type known as Pardner Jones who would shoot. Once he had Pardner shoot the clay pipe out of the mouth of a man named McCluskey without McCluskey being aware. It scared McCluskey terribly and he had a sore jaw for two weeks. To Ford, it was all grist to the mill.

Ford’s laborers are Irish, with one shirking Italian (Colin Chase). Later, Davy joins the rival Central Pacific and we see more Chinese workers but Ford was less interested in these (the actors playing the earlier attacking Indians doubled as Chinese).

The final scene, a re-enactment of the meeting of the two railroads at Promontory Point, is done as a tableau, a representation of the famous photograph (left). Fox claimed that the locomotives filmed, the Jupiter and the #115, were the actual ones used on the day. Naturally, the marriage of the two lines, birthing the nation, is symbolized by the union of Davy and Miriam, in connubial bliss.

The look of the picture is very attractive. The print quality is still good today and the film is more than watchable. The title cards are very charmingly illustrated. There are some typical elegant Fordian shots, for example of riders passing, their images reflected in the water. When horses storm into town, their breath and the condensation from their sweating bodies nearly obliterate the figures of the townspeople. It’s an enjoyable watch.

Of course the whole show is firmly in the Manifest Destiny camp. The continent is 'wilderness' and empty - except for the Indians and they had no business being there. Lincoln's scheme binds East and West, just as he struggled to keep North and South together. The American nation will reach from coast to coast thanks to the courageous and patriotic efforts of the railroad builders. The notion of corporate profit is not addressed at all and the railroad companies are, for once in a Western, noble Americans doing a fine job.

The Iron Horse premiered (six months before The Gold Rush) in New York on August 28, 1924. Fox had taken every available billboard. There were skywriters spelling out the name of the movie over Manhattan. There were Indians on stage and two locomotives with a re-enactment of the driving of the golden spike. The reviews were nearly as enthusiastic as the publicity. “I stood up – I admit it – and cheered,” said The New York Journal. Even The New York Times was almost complimentary. Harrison’s Reports, a trade paper known for its sour reviews, enthused, “Today ‘The Covered Wagon’ stands out as the best western that has ever been turned out. ‘The Iron Horse’ is as good. In some respects it is even better.

Scott Eyman wrote, perhaps (forgivably) a little bit hyperbolically, “With The Iron Horse, Ford created his first masterpiece, and staked out his territory as America’s tribal poet.”