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

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Texas Terror (Lone Star, 1934)


A bit short on Terror but still fun




 
 
John Wayne, 28, is a young sheriff, John Higgins, in Texas Terror. Chasing some Dastardly Robbers, he shoots into a cabin and upon rushing in thinks he has shot dead his friend, a rancher (though it was the DRs that did it). He resigns, grows a beard and becomes a recluse in the woods, befriended by Black Eagle and his tribe. No one knows who played Black Eagle but his performance was a masterpiece of bad acting.
 
I think that's supposed to be John Wayne on the right
 
Then one day the dead rancher’s daughter (Lucile Browne, twelve Westerns 1930 - 37) arrives on the stage. The stage is attacked. Nothing unusual for a B-Western there, you may say. But hold! For the stage is a Model T with the word STAGE painted on it. The driver is killed by the bandits and bearded John, scooping up the damsel, takes the wheel and speeds into town.
 
Duke romances Lucile
 
For the further ramifications of this gripping plot you will have to watch the movie.

There’s a lot of rather odd staring into the camera and saying lines slowly, presumably ordained by B-Western specialist, director RN Bradbury (who also wrote the story). The dialogue is wooden and the delivery of the lines by the actors equally so. The music is desperately old-fashioned; just like a silent movie.

There’s a Hallowe’en dance with a Virginia reel and a milking contest won by Aunt Martha (Fern Emmett). Gripping stuff, you will think, and I bet you can’t wait to buy the DVD. I hope they haven’t censored it by cutting out the scenes of gratuitous cow-milking, though.

The baddy, Dickson, looks a bit like Richard Nixon. He is played by Leroy Mason.
 
Richard Nixon                Leroy Mason
 
One of his cronies is played by Buffalo Bill Jr. (Wilbert Jay Wilsey). Yakima Canutt does the stunts, of course, though he doesn’t appear as an actor as he did in many of these Lone Star pictures. The already bearded Gabby Hayes, who accompanied Wayne in Westerns throughout the 1930s, is the sheriff who takes over from him once Wayne has grown his own beard.
 
Sheriff Gabby
 
Wayne’s beard soon goes, however, as he shapes up and becomes the ranch foreman. He wears an unDukelike and rather dudish gunbelt. He does, however, exhibit that dandy roundhouse punch with both his right and his left. Quite impressive. A very handy addition to your armory in your next saloon bar fight.

Archie Stout was behind the camera again, though uncredited.

In the end a sidekick delivers himself of the opinion which you doubtless share, “Women are sure queer critters”.
 
But perhaps, because it all comes right and John  gets the gal and all the misunderstandings are cleared up, champion milker Aunt Martha sums it all up best by saying, “Like this fellow Spearshake says, ‘All’s well that ends well’.”

 

Friday, August 30, 2013

Elmore Leonard (1925 - 2013)

 
The master
 


Elmore Leonard died on 20th August.

Much as I love Leonard’s crime fiction, it is his Westerns that I re-read most often. He started with Westerns, partly, he said, because he liked Western movies and he wanted to sell to Hollywood, and partly because there was a market for them. He sold his first story, Trail of the Apache, in 1951. Western stories in magazines were still immensely popular in the early 50s and Leonard sold to pulp outlets such as Gunsmoke and Dime Western but increasingly also to more quality publications like Argosy or the Saturday Evening Post. His first novel, The Bounty Hunters, appeared in 1953 and was followed by The Law at Randado (1954), Escape from Five Shadows (1956) and Last Stand at Saber River (1959). In all he wrote nine Western novels:

 
Leonard was self-deprecating about the authenticity of his Western writing. “I cribbed most of my research. I subscribed to Arizona Highways, a pictorial magazine … full or articles about the old west… I began to sound as if I knew what I was talking about.” In fact, his stories do ring true and the research he did, his deep knowledge of Western movies and his finely attuned ear for dialogue made his books gripping. Many were set in southern Arizona, an area I still today associate with him. Yet he was New Orleans-born and lived in Detroit.

In some ways Leonard bucked the trend because although Westerns were declining in popularity and the magazines no longer buying up stories, Hollywood did indeed take an interest in his writing. The Tall T, one of the series of excellent Randolph Scott Westerns directed by Budd Boetticher, was made in 1957 and the same year Columbia turned a 9000-word story of Leonard’s into 3:10 to Yuma, directed by Delmer Daves and starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin. The movie took considerable liberties with the story but Leonard didn’t seem to mind. It is one of the best of all Western movies based on a Leonard story.

Leonard’s 1961 novel Hombre was filmed in 1967, directed by Martin Ritt and starring Paul Newman, another fine Western. His outstandingly good book Valdez is Coming (1970) was immediately made into an equally excellent movie of the same name by United Artists, starring Burt Lancaster. Leonard also wrote the screenplay for Joe Kidd, a 1972 film directed by John Sturges and starring Clint Eastwood.
 
 
In 1980 Leonard wrote the High Noon sequel High Noon, Part II: The Return of Will Kane, not the greatest TV movie it must be said but not that bad either. In the late 1980s Leonard wrote Desperado for TV and four sequels. They starred Alex McArthur as Duell McCall.

In 1990 Law at Randado was made into the movie Border Shootout, notable as being the great Glenn Ford’s last Western appearance. In 1997 Tom Selleck made an excellent version for TV of Last Stand at Saber River and in 2007, the fiftieth anniversary of the Delmer Daves 3:10 to Yuma, an energetic remake appeared starring Russell Crowe and Christian Bale.

So Leonard was involved in screen Westerns for most of his professional life.

I have referred before in this blog to the crossover between Western stories and hard-bitten crime novels. Think of Robert B Parker, author of the classic crime stories featuring the private eye Spenser, who also wrote the excellent Westerns about the gun-for-hire Marshal Virgil Cole and his deputy Everett Hitch (one of which was made into the first-class Western movie Appaloosa by Ed Harris). Leonard understood entirely the similarity. The central characters of his crime stories are often men with a fundamental sense of decency who sometimes break the law in order to combat the mean bad guys, like any Western hero, in order to stay alive in the badlands (of Detroit or Miami, usually). The crime story City Primeval was sub-titled High Noon in Detroit.

In 2001 Elmore Leonard published in the New York Times his slightly tongue-in-cheek but nevertheless salutary ‘Ten Rules of Writing’. They are fun and worth keeping in mind by any western writer (or blogger).

Never open a book with weather.
Avoid prologues.
Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said”…he admonished gravely.
Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. 
Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

There still seems to be a silly notion, at least in intellectual circles, that Western fiction is not quite respectable. Anyone who thinks that should read a Western short story or novel by Elmore Leonard.
 
We’ll miss him.

 

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Big Stampede (Warner Bros, 1932)










Wayne at Warners




 
 
After his starring role in The Big Trail for Raoul Walsh in 1930, it all went pear-shaped for John Wayne. He had a few bit-parts in romantic comedies and appeared in non-starring roles in three dire Westerns for Columbia, and in 1931 reached his nadir playing a corpse. In 1932, however, he secured the starring role in Ride Him, Cowboy, the first of six Westerns for Warners, and in the same year the second of these was a talkie remake of the Ken Maynard silent Land Beyond the Law (1927) called The Big Stampede.
 
I see Duke is billed as "his devil horse". That's a bit unfair.
 
It’s about rustlers in New Mexico, led by evil cattle baron Sam Crew (Noah Beery Sr., who had started acting in movies in 1913 and was still at it after the Second World War), aided by the vicious Arizona (Paul Hurst, a character actor in over 300 films, many of them Westerns). Arizona wears his hat-string in front of his face which must have been as uncomfortable as it looks silly. He is seen beating a child, so is obviously evil (standard Hollywood code). Governor Lew Wallace (Berton Churchill, later the crooked banker Gatewood in Stagecoach) signs up undercover cop Deputy Sheriff John Steele to foil Arizona & Crew, and bring law ‘n’ order to the Territory.
 
Noah gets the drop on Duke
 
Unfortunately, it also has the horse Duke in it (he usually got second billing) and Duke was one of those ‘intelligent’ nags who when ordered, can round up cattle, knock on a door and so forth. He was probably a role model for Trigger. Doubtless it was considered hilarious then, or lovable. Now it’s just dumb.
 
Duke gets the drop on Noah
 
Catalan Luis Alberini plays Sonora Joe, a joke Mexican guaranteed to annoy all south of the border. He becomes Steele’s deputy (for the hero cleverly recruits the less bad baddies to thwart the badder baddies) and provides ‘comic’ relief. There’s also an irritating small boy with a slingshot, Sherwood Bailey, who was then famous for nine films he made as the boy Spud. He has the same comic aim as Sonora but is equally annoying.

The love interest is pretty Mae Madison, fresh from roles such as ‘second nurse’ and ‘café maid’. This appears to be her only co-starring role.
 
Quite big, in fact
 
Tenny Wright directed it, one of only four films he did. These Wayne movies for Warners got gradually better and the following year Wright directed Wayne in the very enjoyable and really quite professional The Telegraph Trail.

54 minutes of black & white, The Big Stampede is energetic enough and there are thousands of head of cattle, so no expense spared.

Well, some.

 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Dead Man’s Walk (novel, Simon & Schuster, 1995 and TV mini-series, De Passe/ABC TV, 1996)


Great Western




 
 
The book and subsequent TV mini-series Lonesome Dove spawned a considerable number of prequels and sequels.

The first story in terms of the chronology of McMurtry’s heroes Woodrow Call and Gus McRae was Dead Man’s Walk, published in 1995 and made into a TV mini-series aired in 1996.
 
 
While the novel Dead Man’s Walk has little of the majestic sweep of Lonesome Dove, it is still an entertaining book, especially for Gus & Call fans who want to know about their youth. Lonesome Dove was essentially about two grizzled old men trying to recapture the old days of adventure, and towards the end describes the death of one of them. They were such larger-than-life characters that we inevitably want to know about those days of adventure of their youth, when they were Texas Rangers.

Mr. McMurtry starts us off on the banks of the Rio Grande with another strongly-drawn whore, this time the Great Western, the buxom Matilda Roberts, walking “naked as the air” from the river with a snapping turtle held by the tail. It is a memorable image. Of course in the TV version she is clothed in long underwear and throughout the film, as was the case with Lonesome Dove, language, nudity, violence (especially Indian torture) and sex are discreetly toned down for 'family viewing'. For this reason the books are earthier, saltier and more authentic too. Not that they are salacious. But they are more fun.

The two boys are on their first Rangers expedition, under a Major Chevallie (Chevallier in the movie), mapping a stage route to El Paso through Comanche country. Early on, Gus and Call come up against the feared Indian chief Buffalo Hump. McMurtry has a way with fearsome Indians. Blue Duck in Dove was pretty ferocious and here, Buffalo Hump, the horse- and child-stealer Kicking Wolf and, to a slightly lesser extent in terms of character and fear factor, the Apache Gomez are real malevolent presences. It is really Buffalo Hump who dominates and we get a real sense of the sheer power and ferocity of the Comanche. The Rangers, even the experienced ones, are completely outclassed.

On returning to Austin, Gus just has time to fall for the storekeeper’s daughter Clara Forsythe before the boys sign on for another, bigger enterprise: they are to march to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and take it from the Mexicans. Commanded by sea-pirate turned colonel Caleb Cobb, with a drunken General Phil Lloyd in tow as ballast, the rag-tag army sets off to pick up all the gold and silver they believe is lining the New Mexican streets.

McMurtry describes the sheer incompetence and amateurishness of these semi-military expeditions. Half a dozen Indians, and later a ragged army of Mexican boys make mincemeat of them. In no time at all they are afoot, starving and lost.

The real Santa Fe Expedition of 1841, a dismal flop, set out to claim the New Mexican capital for the Republic of Texas. It was an unofficial attempt (privately backed by Texas President Lamar) to gain control over the lucrative Santa Fe Trail. The merchants and businessmen were accompanied by a military escort of some 320 men led by Hugh McCleod which included a company of artillery. It was poorly prepared and provisioned and did indeed get lost. An advance guard finally arrived in New Mexico in mid-September 1841 where they were captured and forced to walk 2000 miles to Mexico City. They were held there until diplomatic efforts secured their release the following year. The whole affair increased tensions between Texas and Mexico and contributed to the Mexican-American War of 1846 – 48.

So McMurtry’s story is at best loosely based on the expedition. But as I have often said before in this blog, since when were Westerns supposed to give us historical fact? You want history? Read a history book.

The characters are very strong and were also very well cast in the TV version. Jonny Lee Miller, 23, in his only Western so far, makes an excellent Call, already showing those strong character traits of taciturnity, suppressed violence and almost autistic inability to relate to others, especially women. David Arquette, 24, a rather weak Jack McCall the previous year in Wild Bill, makes a very good young Augustus McRae, a gabby, squeamish, philanderer. They both have excellent accents (they set off for Santa Fy) and both have that slightly gangly, inexperienced naïvety of youth – though they learn fast. If you squint a bit, I guess they do look a little bit like a young Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall.
 
Miller and Arquette make very good Call and McRae
 
Their Ranger friends are distinct, recognizable characters in the book and on TV the actors chosen do an excellent job. They are led by Keith Carradine as Bigfoot Wallace and Harry Dean Stanton as Shadrach. With their long muskets, buckskins and in Shadrach’s case coonskin cap they are hardened scouts, more like mountain men or trappers than Texas Rangers as we imagine them.
 
Carradine fine as Bigfoot

Stanton excellent as Shadrach
 
Ray McKinnon (unforgettable as the parson on Deadwood) is excellent as Long Bill Coleman and I loved Tim Blake Nelson as Bill’s one-eyed pard Johnny Carthage. In his brief part there is Julius Tennon, the brutal killer from Lonesome Dove, as Sam the cook.
 
As for the leaders, F Murray Abraham is Col. Cobb, with a parrot, Beelzebub, on his shoulder (Beelzebub was invented for the TV show but is a happy creation) and the first-class Brian Dennehy, the corrupt sheriff from Silverado, is Major Chevallie in the early part of the tale. Actually, though Abrahams was good, being a bit of a Dennehy fan, I did rather wish that their roles were reversed and Dennehy had led the Santa Fe expedition.
 
F Murray Abraham as Cobb, parrotless
 
The commanders are incompetent and murderous fools. When the pathetic and much-reduced group has finally crossed the Jornada del Muerto which give the story its name, they are handed over as captives to the loathsome Major Laroche, a Frenchman in the Mexican army, who organizes a particularly nasty and sadistic ‘ceremony’ for the prisoners. The only exception to these gutter officers is the stern but noble Captain Salazar, the Mexican soldier who leads them in the ‘dead man’s walk’, very well played by Edward James Olmos in the film.
 
Edward James Olmos as the stern but sympathetic Capt. Salazar
 
As for the women, Mattie is a wonderful creation (don’t get me wrong if I say that McMurtry specializes in whores and Indians) and Patricia Childress does her justice on TV. The film invents a little more of a backstory for her and her relationship with Shad. Playing a young Anjelica Huston was a big ask but Jennifer Garner does an excellent job as Clara. She is sassy, forward, bold and full of spirit. I don’t know who played the veiled Lady Carey or her maid Emerald but they were good too. (Lady Carey sings an aria from Nabucco that Giuseppe Verdi had taught her in Milan in 1839; actually, though, Larry, the first performance of Nabucco wasn’t till March 1842. What, picky, moi?)  Unlike the book, the TV film gives more limelight to Call’s (semi-)relationship with the whore Maggie and ends with that.
 
Jennifer Garner as Clara
 
Eric Schweig is always outstanding. Think of his seriously creepy Indian in The Missing. Here he manages to play a humpless hunchback with convincing aplomb. He is great and captures superbly the pure hatred and essential violence of McMurtry’s character.
 
Schweig: superb as Buffalo Hump
 
Many of the elements of Lonesome Dove are carefully inserted, as if to telegraph them (though of course they were written afterwards) such as Gus’s loud voice and his keen eyesight, and Call says, as he did after another explosion of violence in Miles City, that he “won’t tolerate rude behavior”.

Both novel and TV movie are very good and I recommend them. Best is to read the book then watch the film right after.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Ride Him, Cowboy (Warner Bros, 1932)










Duke slowly improving his acting skills




 
 
Ride Him, Cowboy, aka The Hawk, was the first of the six Warners Westerns starring John Wayne that came out in the early 30s. Like the others it has a runtime of under an hour, is in black & white and features pretty corny dialogue but is noticeably better than the three dreadful clunkers he was forced into doing for Harry Cohn at Columbia. And he was the headline star again. The Warners contract must have seemed like a release.
 
Love the 30s posters
 
This one tells how the wanderin’ Texan Wayne (who is called John Drury here) first meets up with the intelligent horse, Duke. Duke gets second billing. In this one, Duke saves Duke’s life because the equine Duke is put on trial in the first reel and the judge is just about to pass sentence when the two-legged Duke comes along and saves the nag. In every film the four-legged Duke does something clever (this time he unsaddles Drury’s mount so proficiently that we confidently expect him to saddle himself up as replacement). Small boys and teenage girls in the 1930s probably thought this was so cute.
 
Duke on Duke
 
Thereafter, it’s a tale of a wicked masked bandit chief (Frank Hagney) known as The Hawk who is terrorizing the local ranchers. You’d need an IQ lower than the equine Duke’s not to guess who the masked villain is.

Duke, aided by Duke, foils the plot and gets the gal (Ruth Hall).
 
The heroines always had 1930s costumes. Odd.
 
In case you were wondering.

It’s set quite late for a Western as one character has stored his dress suit in an old newspaper and the headline of the paper is ‘Dewey Takes Manila’ (and that was 1898, as doubtless you know).

The comic relief this time is two-fold: a comically cowardly deputy (Harry Gribbon) and the sort of incompetent judge, Clarence ‘Necktie’ Jones (Otis Harlan), who would be drunken in any other time than in a Prohibition era B-movie but here is as sober as a, er, judge and uses an empty bottle as a gavel.
 
John holds off a whole saloonful of badmen
 
I don’t mean to be patronizing or dismissive. It’s perfectly decent for a 30s B-Western and, like all six of the series, it has energy and zip. It gallops along. It’s a high-budget A-picture compared with the Columbia dross he had just done.

And it’s interesting to see Wayne gradually growing into roles and slowly improving his acting skills.

 

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Man Called Noon aka Un hombre llamado Noon, Lo chiamavano Mezzogiorno, etc. (NGP, 1973)


British Western filmed in Spain




 
 
If Italian or Spanish cowboy movies are called spaghetti or paella westerns and such films made in Israel are matzo-ball ones, then this is a shepherd’s pie western. The producer and associate producer were British, as were the director, Peter Collinson (The Italian Job), cameraman John Cabrera, and second lead Stephen Boyd. But why not? The Brits actually made quite a few Westerns, some of them, like Shalako, even quite good. This one followed on from Catlow, a British offering from 1971 directed by Sam Wanamaker and starring Yul Brynner. Catlow wasn’t good. This one is a bit better.
 
But High Noon it ain't
 
The Man Called Noon definitely has the look of a spaghetti: filmed in Spain, Roman production company, grunty dialogue (Scot Finch from a Louis L’Amour novel), loads of Italian and Spanish names in the credits, slushy woo-woo music (Luis Bacalov). But it’s a cut above the average Italian pulp. The production values are higher, the photography is classier and the sound better. There’s a train.

The hero (Richard Crenna, who had also been in Catlow) has received a knock on the head and has lost his memory. Who is he? Cowboys & Aliens opened with that idea too. Could he be the feared assassin Noon? Rosanna Schiaffino sees that he is good and falls in love with him. The evil Peg Cullane (Patty Shepard) tries to kill him. She is this film’s Mercedes McCambridge to la Schiaffino’s Joan Crawford, although neither is a patch on those stars of Johnny Guitar. There’s buried gold and double-crosses and so forth.
 
Rosanna, Richard, Steve
 
On the DVD box, American TV actor Crenna is compared to John Wayne and even Gary Cooper. Absurd. Actually, if anything, he looks like a young Johnny Cash. But he is solid enough and reasonably convincing in the mysterious ‘man with no name’ role. Boyd is also competent as his sidekick, slightly Richard Boonesque.
 
A Boone-ish Boyd
 
San Jose (Cal)-born Farley Granger is the judge. He was in a few TV Westerns in the 50s and 60s and in a couple of spaghettis. He isn’t very good.

There’s a scene which perhaps refers to High Noon or One Upon A Time In The West as the two heroes wait for a train in a ruined Hadleyville-esque railroad station.

The cinematography is sometimes quite good, with carefully framed scenes, a lot of darkness and strong contrast.

There’s a bit where a thrown knife sticks in the throat of a corpse. Overkill?

 

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Star Packer (Lone Star, 1934)










Classic




 
 
The Star Packer was the eighth of the series of Lone Star westerns made between 1933 and 1935 and came directly after Randy Rides Alone. John Wayne, in those great calf-length jeans, is John Travers this time and becomes the sheriff when the town’s previous one is shot dead on his first day of office. John doesn’t wear a star though. Maybe he packed it in his saddle wallets and was thus a legitimate star packer.
 
Great poster
 
It’s very much a case of the usual suspects. RN Bradbury directed, Archie Stout was again at the camera and Wayne was accompanied by Yakima Canutt and Gabby Hayes. Mr. Canutt plays the Tonto-like Indian sidekick of John (a Lone Ranger comparison all the more noticeable as the hero rides everywhere on a Silver-like white steed and the Indian is constantly told to stay there and wait). The Indian is called Yak, and were it not for the fact that we know it's Yakima playing the part, we might wonder why an Indian would be named after a Tibetan bovine quadruped, bos grunniens.
 
Hero on white horse, Indian sidekick, let me see, where have I seen that before?
 
Gabby is the (clean-shaven) badman. The plot has very much been done before: Gabby is a leading townsman but really he is The Shadow, boss man of a gang of outlaws terrorizing the town. These films loved secret compartments and hidey-holes and this one has an ample supply. The fifth-billed actor, Billy Franey, is simply listed as ‘Henchman in the stump’ and there is a hollowed-out stump in the main street conveniently placed for shooting down sheriffs.

My hero Earl Dwire is in it too but sadly is not, this time, the sheriff with handlebars but has only a minor part as ‘Henchman Mason’. The gal for John to get is bit-part actress Verna Hillie. We haven’t seen her before but she was to reappear in The Trail Beyond. She screams a lot.
 
Oh, happy days
 
There’s a telephone and a machine gun but the latter is quickly disabled as Wild Bunch-style massacres weren’t quite the thing in 1930s B-pictures.

When the townsfolk gather in a great posse under Marshal Wayne to defeat the outlaw gang, they all considerately wear rather dashing white headbands so that we can easily see who are the good guys.

The film starts and ends with a canoe.

That’s it really.