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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 (I’m not quite sure why he chose the rather unusual name of Dehner; perhaps it was in the family) 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 fiancé 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."


Friday, July 31, 2020

The Fastest Gun Alive (MGM, 1956)

No matter how fast you are, there's always somebody faster

The essay I wrote the other day about the quick-on-the-draw hooey in Hollywood Westerns (click the link for that) prompted me to have another look at a movie which was in many ways the apogee (or nadir if you prefer) of that myth, MGM’s The Fastest Gun Alive.

That great Western actor Glenn Ford was at the top of his form in the mid-1950s and made two superb Westerns for Columbia directed by the talented Delmer Daves, Jubal, released in February 1956, and 3:10 to Yuma, which came out in August 1957. All the more surprising then that between these two fine pictures Ford would do one at MGM which verged on the lurid. The Fastest Gun Alive was released in June ’56.

Great Western actor

It was produced by Clarence Greene, known for his films noirs but whose only Western this was (unless you count Thunder in the Sun) and directed and co-written by Greene’s close collaborator Russell Rouse, who was in the same boat.

Production team

It did well for a low-budget black & white quickie, grossing $3.5m, not bad for ‘56. It seemed to strike a chord with the public, besotted by the fast-draw malarkey and eager to see the showdown. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times said, “The Fastest Gun Alive does manage to hit the target most of the time” and commented that “The production team of Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene … have handled some familiar Western ingredients with intelligence and dexterity.” Not sure I quite agree with that last part.

The picture had several weaknesses apart from the rather silly subject matter. One was third-billed Broderick Crawford as the lightning-fast bad guy, fanning his double-action Colts (you try it). Crawford loved Westerns and did as many as he could, sixteen features and eight TV shows, starting as a highly improbable Grat Dalton in When the Daltons Rode in 1940 and ending with an Alias Smith and Jones episode in 1973. For me the only one he was remotely good in was The Last Posse (1953). He was too bulky and above all used that quick-fire semi-gangster lingo which jarred in an oater. He was an Easterner, born in Philadelphia and making it on Broadway before moving to Hollywood. He was a large flapping fish out of water in Westerns.

He was good, though, at the tough-guy side of it, and to give him credit he brings that to The Fastest Gun, imposing his authority on all and sundry, including his two henchmen. Said henches were both very good in Westerns, John Dehner and Noah Beery Jr. Dehner especially, as Taylor Swope, really makes the most of his part and in fact comes near to stealing the show. This one came between his parts in A Day of Fury and Tension at Table Rock – he made three feature Westerns in ’56. He was always excellent in the genre, especially as a heavy. Beery was never less than completely convincing as a tough Westerner. For him this one, as badman Dink Wells, came between Jubal and Decision at Sundown. His name is one of those which makes you say “Oh, good’” when you see it in the crédits.

Great henchmen though

The story symmetrically opens and closes with one of those “Draw!” duels that the cheaper kind of Western (and evidently audiences) loved. Vinnie Harold (Crawford) and his two thugs have come into the town of Silver Rapids with the sole object of challenging a certain Clint Fallon (our old pal Walter Coy) to a fast-draw combat. Harold is ready to kill a man he does not know, or even be killed himself (if he loses) just to see who is the faster of the two. Well, he does that, and Fallon’s bit-part comes to a sudden end, but a philosophical blind man (Walter Baldwin) tells him that while he might be the faster today, there’s someone else faster still. Who? Harold asks angrily. The blind man doesn’t know but he just says, “However fast you are, there’s always somebody faster.” Harold looks somewhat disconcerted. The triumphal splendor of his victory has been tarnished.

Fallon isn't faster

The blind man is right, of course, for now we see Glenn Ford (Ford was reputed to be one of the fastest draws in Tinseltown) practicing outside his home of Cross Creek, and mighty quick he is too. We know for sure that in the last reel there will be a showdown between Glenn and Brod, and we shall finally learn who is the fastest gun of all – though not necessarily alive.

As I said the other day, it’s all moonshine. There was no tradition of fast draw in the West. Gunfights were usually a matter of impetuosity, fueled by liquor and hot tempers, often in and around saloons, rather than formal pre-announced duels in Main Street. Those low-slung open holsters didn’t exist, and the premium was on coolness and deliberation, not speed. Famous Westerners who perished from gunshot wounds tended to be shot from behind (Wild Bill Hickok, John Wesley HardinJesse James), or shotgunned (Bob Ford), or bushwhacked from hiding (Pat Garrett, Belle Starr), shot when unarmed (Billy the Kid) or committed suicide (John Ringo). Never mind. The face-to-face quick-draw showdown is an essential part of the Wild West mythos.

More usually shot from behind

Glenn goes by the name of George Temple and he is the stolid storekeeper in Cross Creek, having to deal with tiresome women who change their mind over the color of an ordered dress and other irritations. His young wife Dora is pregnant. She is played by the glam Jeanne Crain, about whom I was talking the other day, for she was the feisty rancher destined to fall for Alan Ladd in Guns of the Timberland (1960), as well as taking the female lead opposite Kirk Douglas in Man Without a Star (1955). Unfortunately the part allotted to her in The Fastest Gun requires her only to nag, endlessly, at her husband, until he comes close to belting her. It was a thankless role. This was because of the dubious decision by director/writer not to reveal until late in the movie why such a super-fast gun is holed up keeping store in a one-horse town.
She's a nag

On the plus side, this Western features some excellent character actors, such as Leif Erikson, John Dierkes, Rhys Williams, John Doucette and Chubby Johnson, all as townsmen, and in fact the small-town life is quite well portrayed. It is a claustrophobic place, one where everyone knows everyone else's business. Paul Birch is a tough sheriff of another town who with a posse is pursuing the three ne’er-do-wells because they shot his brother in a bank robbery. He will arrive in Cross Creek in the last reel.

Too much standing around and talking

However, another townsman is fourth-billed Russ Tamblyn, and his part really jars. He is only there to show off his acrobatic dancing skills, and for no other purpose, when he does a semi-comic turn at the town dance. This episode is bizarre, damages the atmosphere and tension and is strangely out of place. What he is doing in this movie is a mystery. He had started Westerns in Cave of Outlaws in 1951, did the hugely successful but dire musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (sometimes billed as a Western but not) in 1954, and then the semi-Western (more of a comedy-romance) Many Rivers to Cross in 1955. He would later figure in other oaters (including one, the soapy Cimarron, with Glenn Ford again) before ending up doing dreadful spaghettis in Europe. It was, for me, an undistinguished Western career.

We could have done without this bit

Back to the plus side: there’s some nice black & white photography by George J Folsey, ex-Lasky silent cameraman who in the talkie era at Metro shot Seven Brides but also worked on two of the studio’s good Westerns, Saddle the Wind and Vengeance Valley. Most of The Fastest Gun was done on the Western town set but there’s the odd nice location shot (Red Rock Canyon State Park). And class act André Previn wrote and conducted the music, as he did for some of my all-time favorite pictures such as Bad Day at Black Rock, Devil’s Doorway and Escape from Fort Bravo.

George was at the camera...
...and André had the baton
So you see there are some good things about the movie. Of course Glenn Ford was always superb. Like many Western actors he did occasionally appear in some pretty ordinary pictures, not to say weak ones, but which actor didn’t at some time or another? And Glenn was one of those actors who lifted even a bad film. He once said Doing nothing well is my definition of a good actor” and unlike many colleagues he always tried to pare down his parts, cutting out inessential lines. He came from the Gary Cooper school of underacting which was especially effective in Westerns. He was ideal as the hero who says little but steps up when the going gets tough.
Always top-class

The plot, by Frank D Gilroy from his own story, is pretty simple. It’s 1889. Wanting to prove himself the fastest gun in the West, Vinnie Harold arrives, by chance, at Cross Creek, a town too small to have a sheriff, where he learns from a small boy, Bobby, that a resident of the place is the fastest and most accurate gun anyone has ever seen. Unfortunately, the storekeeper has been goaded into proving his skills, plugging two silver dollars thrown in the air at the same time and shooting a dropped beer glass before it can land. The community knows that if this becomes known outside the town this will certainly draw in all the would-be fast guns of the territory, like flies to a honey-pot, to prove themselves quicker. In the church (in an overlong scene which should have been edited) they all swear never to reveal what they have witnessed. But naughty Bobby did not go to church, and blurts out the facts to the incoming Harold. Now, although Paul Birch’s posse is only about two hours behind, nothing will do for Harold but finding out who this ultra-fast gun is, and challenging him.

Frank wrote it

As I said, a pretty basic (and rather pulp) plot.

It turns out (eventually) that storekeeper George Temple is really George Kelby, son of the ‘sheriff of Laramie’, whose daddy was a famous lawman (he even cleaned up Abilene) and taught his offspring all he knew about fast draw. Now George has his daddy’s gun, complete with notches on the handle. The son excelled at the art of quick-draw, even exceeding his daddy's prowess, but never liked guns. He is extremely proficient at targets and such but has never faced a man – those notches were his father’s, not his. When the bad guys arrive Glenn will be obliged to test his metal for real. Of course he will tell his wife, in the best Western style, “You know I’ve gotta go out there, Dora”. Surely she already knew that a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do? She is in a Western after all.


There’s an attempt at suspense in the last reel, when we see the men face off, hear the shots but do not know until the very end who the victor was. Not that it was all that hard to guess.

Showdown. Who will be faster?
This shot a bit like Carl Guthrie's aerial view of the showdown in Dawn at Socorro two years before.

Overall, there’s too much standing around and talking, and the pacing is uneven. The producers were clearly aiming for a taut The Gunfighter/High Noon psychological Western but writing and direction aren’t good enough for that. The picture does have some tension, and a somber atmosphere is created (though dangerously threatened by the Tamblyn moment), aided by the austere black & white and limited town set. Furthermore, there are some good performances (though it needed someone better than Crawford as main villain).

He liked the parts but

I found it more watchable than I did the first time around, and some people like this film, but if I were you I wouldn’t expect too much.