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

Saturday, December 31, 2016

War Paint (UA, 1953)


Tough cavalry Western




 
 
In 1953 (a vintage year for oaters) there were two good, gritty cavalry Westerns filmed in Death Valley. The better of them, certainly, was MGM’s Escape from Fort Bravo, because it was shot by Robert Surtees, directed by John Sturges and starred William Holden. But able to hold up in comparison and with its own merits was the other, War Paint, produced by Howard Koch and Aubrey Schenck, a Bel-Air Productions picture, directed by old hand Lesley Selander and starring Robert Stack.

Stack generally avoided Westerns, making only six in his long career, even when, in the 50s, studios were churning them out at a rate of knots and all their stars were expected to climb into the saddle. He didn’t become Eliot Ness until 1959, of course. But he was good in oaters, I think, and it’s a pity he didn’t do more. See for example Badlands of Dakota (1941), his first, or Conquest of Cochise, the same year as War Paint, in which he also played a tough but wise Army officer in the Indian wars. Neither movie was top-drawer but Stack was good in both.

The movie has one of those plots where a statesmanlike Indian chief wants peace but his firebrand son seeks the warpath. That story’s been done to death, of course, but this one is well handled. Lt. Billings (Stack) leads a patrol of ten men on a grueling The Lost Patrol-type journey to deliver the treaty in time to Gray Cloud but little does he know (at first) that his guide, Taslik (Keith Larsen, Brave Eagle on TV) is the firebrand son who will do everything to thwart the mission and cause war. Taslik is aided by his Amazonish sis, Wanima (Joan Taylor), a maid who is very handy with a Winchester, as the opening dramatic scene showed us.

The good news is that among the troopers are Robert J Wilke, John Doucette, Peter Graves, Douglas Kennedy and Charles McGraw. They are all more or less surly but as the ordeal is prolonged (Taslik deliberately leads them to where there is no water) the bad eggs get badder. Peter Graves as Trooper Tolson is especially nasty. Graves was usually a goody but also had quite a useful sideline in bad guys. This was only his second Western in what was to be a very long career in the genre (IMDb credits him with appearances in 180, from 1951 to 1969). It’s one of those movies in which the members of the party get picked off one by one, till there’s only badman Graves and hero Stack left, so they can have a showdown fight. No prizes for guessing who will win.

Doucette, whom I always like seeing in Westerns, was another who had a long and worthy career in the genre, appearing in 200 big- and small-screen oaters, from Station West in 1948 to an episode of How the West Was Won in 1979. Respect. In War Paint he plays the Pole Charnofsky with a squeezebox, with quite a good accent, in fact. Gravelly-voiced Charles McGraw, eternally, it seemed, a dogged cop or soldier, here in only his fourth Western, plays the loyal, tough (not to say dogged) Sergeant Clarke who backs up the lieutenant. Good old Bob Wilke was of course the heavy in Western after Western, one of my heroes, and he was very well cast here as the boorish bully Trooper Grady. As for Kennedy, Trooper Clancy, he bravely volunteers for a rescue mission but is bushwhacked by the deadly Wanima. He was soon to become Steve Donovan, Western Marshal on TV but he did a lot of big-screen Westerns too with (usually small) parts, from North West Mounted Police in 1940 onwards. Also in the troop were Charles Nolte as the corporal who dies of thirst, and Paul Richards, James Parnell and Walter Reed as troopers. They all fall, one by pitiless one.

There’s a message, of sorts, namely that peace might well fail but they have to try, and the alternative is endless people dying on both sides. Even the homicidal Wanima comes round to that view.
 
Mean shot with a Winchester
 
The Pathécolor is bright, the terrain shot by DP Gordon Avil brutally arid and harsh, the almost Star Wars-y music (Arthur Lang and Emil Newman) underlines the threat and hardship, director Selander keeps up the tension (and this was only one of five flicks he directed that year), and the whole thing is acted well enough to pass muster as a decent Western. It’s tough and economical. Characters develop.

Recommended.



Thursday, December 29, 2016

Buckskin Frontier (UA, 1943)


Good fun




 
 
Harry Sherman Productions made over seventy movies, mostly Westerns, from 1918 to 1954. My favorite was the charming Four Faces West in 1948 but the biggest claim to fame of 'Pop' Sherman (left) was the introduction of Hopalong Cassidy to the screen. Like John Ford he had his own ‘stock company’ of actors who appeared again and again in his productions, among them Richard Dix, Albert Dekker, Lee J Cobb and Victor Jory. All of these were present in Sherman’s 1943 picture, released through United Artists, Buckskin Frontier.

The movie is no great shakes really, pretty well a black & white B-Western, but it had a strong cast, more than competent direction from the highly experienced Lesley Selander (especially good at action scenes), some lovely music by Victor Young and David Buttolph, and some classy photography of Oklahoma locations by the great Russell Harlan, of Red River fame. So it gets up to three revolvers in the ratings!
 
Director Selander
 
It’s an 1850s railroad picture (though of course they all have 1870s clothes and guns) in which, most unusually, the railroad company is the goody, with bold engineer Stephen Bent (Dix) determined to run the road through Kansas in the teeth of opposition from diehard rich freighter Jeptha Marr (Cobb). Marr can’t stand Bent and would cheerfully see him “off my land or under it”, as he puts it. But it’s complicated because he has a lovely young daughter, Vinnie (second-billed Jane Wyatt) and railroad man Bent is soft on her.
 
Lee J Cobb as elderly dad
 
Dix was now into his fifties so didn’t make an entirely convincing young suitor. But never mind. Wyatt herself was 33 by then and Cobb plays her elderly father (“I’m an old man,” he complains to her) but, born in 1911, he was actually a year younger than his ‘daughter’. Oh well.
 
Wyatt and Dix as romantic young couple
 
I said it was complicated. Well, it’s even more complicated because Marr’s second-in-command, Gideon Skene (Dekker) is in love with Vinnie too and jealous of Bent, whom, however, he can’t help admiring. He disapproves of his boss’s high-handed ways and ruthless determination to stop the railroads. Conflicted, let’s call him. Dekker was to earn undying Western fame for his Harrigan in The Wild Bunch late in life but he had a distinguished career in oaters before that. He’d been a Broadway actor in the 20s and when he went to Hollywood he tended to do handsome tough-guy parts, notably his gang boss in The Killers in 1946, but starting with a Fred MacMurray Western of 1940, Rangers of Fortune, he had several outings in the saddle over the years. He’s good in Buckskin Frontier, mixing toughness and decency.

Then there’s another woman, the rich Rita Molyneaux (Lola Lane) of whom Vinnie is instantly insanely jealous, though Rita's relationship with hero Bent is strictly a business one. Rita starts flirting with Gideon. Yup, it’s a tangled web alright.
 
Brave buckskin-clad Dekker with the girl he's soft on and 'the other woman'
 
Dix of course was a very seasoned performer in the genre. He had been RKO’s leading man since the birth of talkies and 1943 was the year his contract there finally ended. His big frame and deep voice made him an impressive figure and he was even nominated for Best Actor for his part in Cimarron in 1931. He did nineteen Westerns altogether, from the Victor Fleming-directed silent To the Last Man for Paramount, through Cherokee Strip in 1940, his Wyatt Earp in Tombstone, The Town Too Tough to Die in 1942, American Empire the same year and Buckskin Frontier, his penultimate oater (he finished the same year with The Kansan).
 
There's a Royal Gorge-style railroad war with rival companies battling it out.

The best thing, though, for me anyway, is that the villain is played by Victor Jory (left). Not only that, he uses a derringer! You know how I love derringers, especially in the hands (or up the sleeves) of no-good gamblers, saloon owners and crooked town bosses. Jory was never less than excellent, nearly always the bad guy and his sinister mien was ideally suited to crooked town bosses in Westerns. In this one he also has a top hat. Superb. Of course he is finally bested by the hero after a fistfight in the rocks. Dix knocks him out in the river and does not trouble to try to save him as he sinks beneath the surface, a fitting end for such a rascal.

The script is curiously prudish, perhaps trying for Victorian authenticity (but if so, failing). At one point the heroine says that she would prefer to walk than take a carriage as she would like to stretch her – that is, take some exercise.
 
Stirring stuff
 
Max Baer has an entertaining part as the hypochondriac big-ox henchman Tiny.
 
Max Baer

The ending is rather too neat, with bad guy Cobb suddenly converting to railroad man and Dix winning Wyatt’s hand with Cobb’s blessing, but there you go. I enjoyed this picture and recommend it to your attention, e-pards, as long as you are not too demanding, that is.


Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Badman’s Country (Warner Bros, 1958)


Pat Garrett, Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson and Buffalo Bill gun down the Wild Bunch




 
 
I bet you didn’t know that in the mid-1880s, after having killed Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett went to Kansas to marry a blonde doctor’s daughter and, with the aid of Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson and Buffalo Bill, killed or captured Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid and all the rest of the Wild Bunch, as well as Black Jack Ketchum. No, nor did I. But he did. It must be true because it was the story of a 1958  Warner Bros. B-Western.

Badman’s Country has a title suspiciously like Badman’s Territory. In 1944 and ’45 Universal had had hits by grouping as many horror characters as you could think of in movies like House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, in which Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, wolf men, hunchbacks and mad doctors crowded the cast list, and in 1946 RKO thought that was a good wheeze and they would have a go at that with outlaws. They put the James gang, the Daltons, Sam Bass and Belle Starr all in the same movie, with Badman’s Territory. Surprisingly, it was a box-office success. The public liked it and in 1948 they followed up with Return of the Badmen, one of those sequels which is better than the original, in fact. Mind, Hollywood is still pulling that trick, with cartoon superheroes jostling cheek by, er, jowl in blockbusters of unending direness. Well, in 1958 producer/writer Robert E Kent decided to pull the stunt with lawmen.

Mr. Kent had started in 1940 by writing a lumberjack movie for John Payne and had written two early frontier tales, Fort Ti and The Pathfinder, for George Montgomery in 1952, and he would write more oaters for Montgomery afterwards, one of which, Gun Duel in Durango in 1957, was Kent’s first as producer. Kent’s Westerns were rather, er, traditional (I don’t want to say cheesy). But they are energetic and fun.

He didn’t write Badman’s Country; he got Orville H Hampton to do that. Mr. Hampton wrote all those Cowboy G-Men episodes in 1952.  And Kent got good old Fred F Sears (right) to direct. Sears was for years a Columbia stalwart who had acted bit-parts in 1940s Westerns, including in some Glenn Ford oaters. He appeared in a number of the Ray Nazarro-directed ‘Durango Kid’ B-Westerns starring Charles Starrett (there were literally dozens through the late 40s and early 50s), and finally in 1949 made the leap to directing some. Sears excelled at churning out on-time and on-budget movies, and studios loved him. Yes, he made some real junkers, sci-fi dross like The Giant Claw, but in fact some of his oaters were really rather good: tough, gritty B-Westerns. Utah Blaine with Rory Calhoun, The Nebraskan with Philip Carey and Ambush at Tomahawk Gap with John Hodiak are good examples. He did a solid job on Badman’s Country, within the constraints of the rather silly story.

George Montgomery as Pat Garrett was a bit of a stretch. But he was 6’3” (1.9m) and had been raised on a Montana homestead. He could look tough when he had to. The costumiers duded him up too much; he would have been better in a suit. But Western heroes then were expected to wear range duds and a Stetson and have a big gunbelt.

He rides into Abilene to marry the fair Lorna (Karin Booth, also Montgomery’s leading lady in Cripple Creek and Seminole Uprising), very 50s in looks and dress. Her doctor dad doesn’t approve but gradually comes round as his future son-in-law does what a man’s gotta do. Pat arrests three of Sundance’s gang after a shoot-out in the saloon because the local marshal, McAfee (Dan Riss) is afraid to. Strange they had the fictional nonentity McAfee when they could have had Wild Bill Hickok as marshal of Abilene. The fact that Hickok was dead by the time of the 1880s shouldn't have worried them.
 
 
Sundance’s gang are Kilpatrick (presumably Ben Kilpatrick, Wild Bunch member), Carver (it couldn’t be Doc Carver, I suppose), Harvey Logan and, rather the odd man out, Black Jack Ketchum. And Butch Cassidy, Kid Curry and sundry other bad guys are heading into town to liberate their jailed colleagues. So Pat sends to Dodge for Wyatt and Bat to help him out.

Sundance was played by the Professor from Gilligan’s Island, Russell Johnson. Butch is Western stalwart Neville Brand, second billed in the cast. He had been Butch Cassidy already, two years before, in The Three Outlaws, also written by Orville Hampton. Neither Butch nor Sundance much resemble Paul Newman or Robert Redford (but they do vaguely resemble the photographs of the real Cassidy and Longabaugh). Brand’s Butch is a standard Western heavy, snarling and tough. TV Western show regular Richard Devon is Harvey Logan and former Wayne stuntman Fred Graham is Black Jack Ketchum.

As for the lawmen, we have Buster Crabbe as Wyatt Earp, all lantern-jawed and growly. Typical Crabbe, in fact, and rather good actually. And Bat Masterson (whom Montgomery himself had been four years before in Masterson of Kansas) was played by another Western TV show stalwart, Gregory Walcott. His Bat is rather overshadowed by Wyatt, who is clearly the boss. As honorary lawman, though sans badge, Buffalo Bill is in town, recovering at the doc’s from a buffalo hunting accident, and he grabs his Sharps and steps up to help out Pat, Bat and Wyatt. He is Malcolm Atterbury, not the most charismatic or memorable of Codys, I fear, but he had been taking bit parts in Westerns since Man Without a Star in 1955 and was still doing TV Westerns in the late 1970s. Pat rather incongruously greets him by saying, “Hi, Buffalo!” He does have a good line, when blazing away with his buff gun at the outlaws: “I sure wish they was buffalo. Can’t make a rug out of an outlaw.”

But it’s a good line-up, Garrett, Earp, Masterson and Cody, in the Abilene street facing down the entire Wild Bunch.

So we have the slightly Rio Bravo-ish plot of holding bad guys in prison despite the siege by their accomplices, and there’s also a High Noonishly pusillanimous group of citizens who won’t back the brave lawmen, though they do later recant and blast away at the gang in a Northfield-style gunfight at the bank when the Wild Bunch arrive.

Well, it all ends with plenty of action and then Pat ‘n’ Lorna riding off in a buckboard to a new life in California, you know how they do. There’s an introductory and closing cheesy (though irritatingly catchy) ballad, penned by Robert Kent himself and crooned by The Mellowmen, so we are serenaded for the credits. It’s in black & white but there are a few nice Iverson Ranch location shots (Benjamin H Kline DP) and also some chirpy Irving Gertz music. Obviously it’s historical tosh but that doesn’t matter. Fun is fun.

 

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Jack McCall, Desperado (Columbia, 1953)

 
Wild Bill, badman




 
 
This Christmastide, let us reflect that in the 953rd year of the 2nd millennium, the 53rd year of the 20th century, and the 4th year of the 1950s decade, the year 壬辰年 (Water Dragon) was giving way to 癸巳年 (Water Snake), while Queen Elizabeth was being crowned, Stalin was dying, Sir Winston Churchill was being awarded the Nobel prize for Literature, Watson and Crick were discovering DNA, Jonas Salk was announcing his polio vaccine, Ian Fleming was writing Casino Royale, Frank Sinatra and Nelson Riddle were recording at Capitol Records, Everest was being conquered, the Rosenbergs were languishing on death row, Jack Kennedy was marrying Jaqueline Bouvier, Hugh Heffner was putting together the first issue of Playboy and George Stevens was directing Shane, it is refreshing to know that in the real world the likes of Sam Katzman were producing B-Westerns of the quality of Jack McCall, Desperado.

Mr. Katzman excelled, even by Hollywood B-Western standards, in twisting history into the jaw-droppingly mad. He was ahead of the time – for 1953 was also the year of Waiting for Godot and the theatre of the absurd was only just beginning.

In virtually all movies featuring Jack McCall, assassin of Wild Bill Hickok in 1876, McCall is a runty bad guy. Hollywood may have invented more or less understandable motives for his deed, but they rarely actually made him the goody. But in the 1950s there was a bit of an anti-Hickok movement (see, for example, I Killed Wild Bill Hickok) and in Katzman’s production Hickok was a scheming and murderous crooked politician while McCall was a war hero fighting courageously to reclaim his family honor and good name. Well, OK, why not? We don’t watch Westerns for documentary history, after all. We can still sit back and enjoy.
 
 Geo Montgomery as Jack McCall
 
Jack McCall as Jack McCall
 
So forget history. Slot the DVD in, turn on your new wide-screen TV and marvel.

You’ll see a Technicolor extravaganza rich in action even by the standards of the genre. There are endless prison breaks, shoot-outs, battles with Indians, stage hold-ups (there’s even an instance of grand theft stagecoach) and Western derring-do of all kinds. Sidney Salkow may not have been John Ford but boy, could he cram in the action scenes. From a Bing Crosby singing Western in 1936 to The Great Sioux Massacre in 1965, via vast numbers of TV shows (especially Fury) and several B-Westerns starring George Montgomery, Salkow 'did' Western action. Salkow (below right) and Katzman (below left) were made for each other.
 
 
But I suppose some of the ‘credit’ ought also to go to Rin Tin Tin writer John O’Dea, who wrote the screenplay from a story by novelist David Chandler, for they came up with a plot so ludicrous it’s fun. How the actors delivered the lines with a straight face it’s is hard to say.

It all starts with McCall shooting Wild Bill Hickok (Douglas Kennedy, aka Steve Donovan, Western Marshal) in a Deadwood saloon (one of those Hollywood saloons we all love), face to face and not in the back, in a quick-draw contest. Hickok is wearing a star because he is ‘marshal of Deadwood City’. Then we see McCall’s trial and as he tells his story it all goes blurry (you know how they do) and the vast majority of the movie is a flashback. It starts in the Civil War when Union Army Private McCall volunteers for a dangerous mission but is unjustly taken for a Reb spy and court martialed. Naturally, he escapes (this is a very good bit because he manages it by making a newspaper cutout of a hanging man and projecting the image onto the wall with a candle) and he rides off to his Southern mansion (for the McCalls are rich plantation owners with loyal Negro slaves/servants). Sergeant Hickok and honest Jack’s evil cousin Bat McCall catch up with Jack and then murder his parents, and Jack meets up with the future Mrs. McCall, Rose (Angela Stevens, the posh rancher lady in Utah Blaine), whom he gallantly helps. From there on (and we are still in the first reel) it only gets more preposterous.

Jay Silverheels is Red Cloud, statesmanlike chief of the Sioux, beguiled by crooked Hickok who wants his lands for the goldfields. Red Cloud’s son is Gray Eagle (Eugene Iglesias) who is a firebrand and wants the warpath, until reprimanded by his wife (Alva Marie Lacy), when he effectively says Yes, dear and behaves better.

Montgomery recites his lines in the usual wooden way (I always think he sounds like Clayton Moore). Kennedy has a rather dashing mustache.

There’s gun running and a massacre of Indians orchestrated by the evil Hickok and heaven knows what else. Brave McCall saves the day and escapes again and again, sometimes with the help of Rose. The bad guys are polished off. It’s all good stuff. Until finally we get the showdown in the saloon and Wild Bill meets his doom. Once they have heard all this the jury naturally acquit, Jack marries Rose and they return to the Southern mansion and loyal Negroes and live happily ever after and Jack is never hanged in Yankton, for of course he was the goody all along, not Wild Bill.

There are some very nice Iverson Ranch locations shot in bright Technicolor by Western regular Henry Freulich. The music was by Mischa Bakaleinikoff, who could do very old-fashioned stuff but this time I thought it was rather good, especially in the Civil War bits.

This movie is terrific entertainment and I heartily recommend this epic film to your attention. I hope Santa brings you a copy, and I also wish you, dear e-pards, all the fun of the festive season.

 

Friday, December 23, 2016

Cripple Creek (Columbia, 1952)


Small and Nazarro ride again




 
 
Cripple Creek was another of the Westerns starring George Montgomery that Edward Small produced and Ray Nazarro directed for Columbia in 1952 – like Indian Uprising which we reviewed a couple of days ago. It had a similar blend of clunky writing and plodding acting and direction; the writer was Richard Schayer, as he was on Indian Uprising. I fear he was in little danger of winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Still, it’s in Technicolor and there is some nice location shooting here and there (most of the action takes place in town and therefore on a sound stage) and some rather pretty painted backdrops when location shooting began to stretch the budget too far.

As the title suggests, we are in Colorado in 1893. It’s a skullduggery plot with crooks and their henchmen and three secret service men, led by George, bent on unmasking the villains who are stealing wagonloads of gold ore and crushing it in a secret smelter in a ghost town. The actors spend much of the time explaining the plot to each other and it all reminded me of an overblown Lone Ranger episode. In fact Montgomery has more than a little of Clayton Moore in his delivery. He was only missing the mask. Or, come to think about it, with the three government agents it could have been one of those Three Mesquiteers flicks of the 30s.

The whole thing is unlikely to the point of preposterousness. But I don’t care. It’s still a lot of fun.
 
Nothing staged or posed, I assure you
 
The actors ‘ride’ those fake horses and there’s speeded-up film in the fistfights. There’s a lot of sneaking about and hiding and discovering the bandits’ lair and so on. It’s very much a boys’ Western from that point of view. The secret smelter is particularly silly.

The excellent John Dehner is in it, as livery owner Emil Cabeau (which they all pronounce kerBO) though wasted in too minor a part. The rest of the cast are a bit on the B side. It needed a slimier/charming boss crook, Dan Duryea maybe, or Lyle Bettger. But we got William Bishop as the besuited dastardly villain. Mr. Bishop wasn’t bad. He’d led in a couple of Westerns in 1948, Black Eagle and Adventures in Silverado, and had had quite a good part in The Walking Hills with Randolph Scott in ’49. He’d do several more Nazarro-directed Westerns in the following years, some as lead.

Don Porter was Bishop’s henchman and managed a hint of semi-sadistic menace but it really needed a proper heavy like Robert J Wilke or Leo Gordon.
 
Ray Nazarro with Adele Roberts
 
The love interest is Karin Booth but in an unlikely plot twist she turns out in the last reel to be in league with the villains. Spoiler alert. Oops, too late. She was Montgomery’s leading lady two or three times.

In fact unlikely plot twists are this movie’s stock in trade.

George’s partner agents are Jerome Courtland (bland) and Richard Egan (better). Mr. Egan started in Westerns in 1950. I remember him most as a sergeant in The Battle at Apache Pass, as Elvis’s big brother in Love Me Tender and as Jehu in These Thousand Hills.

Tragically, Edward Small had abandoned his amusing logo, a towering sky with a huge godlike SMALL. It always made me smile.
 
Edward Small and his logo
 
 
It all ends with a saloon brawl and a comic undertaker. I rather enjoyed it, I must say.

 

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Fort Ti (Columbia, 1953)


Plastic bats




 
 
Only marginally a Western (for 18th century musket-and-tricorn frontier flicks are really a genre on their own), Fort Ti is also a rather weak picture, and I hummed and hahed whether to review it at all. But I sat through it so I thought I might as well. It does have hostile Indians and the hero does what a man’s gotta do, so it’s vaguely Western anyway.

It’s a Rogers’ Rangers story. Rogers' Rangers (the apostrophe is usually rendered in this way) were initially a provincial company from the colony of New Hampshire, and they were attached to the regular British Army during the French and Indian War (called the Seven Years War in Europe). The unit was trained by Major Robert Rogers (1731-95) as a rapidly-deployed light infantry force tasked mainly with reconnaissance as well as conducting special operations against distant targets. This made them ideal for Hollywood for, though not too American, they could be daring and unconventional and bold. Kenneth Roberts’s 1937 novel Northwest Passage was made into a very poor movie entitled North West Passage, Book 1 – Rogers’ Rangers in 1940, directed by King Vidor and starring Spencer Tracy as Rogers. It became a TV show in 1959. I'm afraid Fort Ti did little to add to the Rangers' screen glory.

The hero of the 1953 effort was George Montgomery (right, with co-star Joan Vohs), rather going through the motions (he appears to be reading his lines from cards at one point). Montgomery was never very good in Westerns, I thought, and still less so in early frontier tales, of which he did several (Ten Gentlemen from West Point, The Iroquois Trail, Davy Crockett, Indian Scout (though that one was bizarrely set in 1848) and The Pathfinder). He looks frankly silly in his green Rangers uniform (as did Tracy and his fellows thirteen years before): he seems to have strayed out of a Robin Hood movie.

To make matters worse, it was a Sam Katzman/William Castle effort. Producer Katzman and director Castle made a whole series of pretty crummy B-movies, many of them schlock horror flicks, and the Westerns they did were historically absurd even by Hollywood B-movie standards. There is one hilariously bad scene in Fort Ti when the good guys take refuge in a cave and the Katzman/Castle plastic bats on wires from one of their horror movies ‘fly’ clumsily out.
 
He looks more like John Wayne than Geo Montgomery. Great poster, though.
 
1953 (the year of House of Wax) was the year of a short-lived 3D craze. Many producers and directors exploited the possibilities subtly but no one would ever accuse Katzman and Castle of subtlety. Every possible opportunity is seized upon to lunge at the camera with knives or burning brands, and to shoot muskets into the audience’s faces. Of course then as now most would have seen it in 2D, so it all looks ridiculous.

It’s 1759 in upstate New York. The story is centered on Fort Ticonderoga (abbreviated in the title). Howard Petrie is Major Rogers, trying to be imposing and authoritative, and Capt. Horn (Montgomery)’s sidekick is the comic-relief Sergeant Monday Wash (Irving Bacon, clearly having fun), fond of a drop and hamming it up. General Montcalm is there (Alphonse Martell). The ‘French’ actors speak bad French and the ‘English’ ones bad Cockney. There are two dames, Fortune Mallory (Joan Vohs), a mysterious and glamourous lady who may be a French spy, and a rather jealous Indian maiden, Running Otter (Phyllis Fowler). Which will win the hand of brave George? Yawn, who cares.
 
Not a Western
 
The cast is undistinguished but the Robert E Kent script would be difficult to deliver convincingly even if Laurence Olivier were in the company.

Still, as reader John Knight said in a comment posted to the review of another Castle/Katzman picture, Conquest of Cochise, these films did have a certain “cheesy appeal”, and though you shake your head at their absurdity and clunkiness, you do find yourself (or John and I do anyway) smiling quite fondly at them as well.

 

Monday, December 19, 2016

Indian Uprising (Columbia, 1952)


Another Hollywood hero brings in Geronimo




 
 
I own to being not the greatest fan of George Montgomery in Westerns. He never really convinced in the genre, in my view. But I must say that Indian Uprising was one of his better efforts. He comes across as a tough captain in an Arizona cavalry Western.

The movie is derivative and clichéd. Written by Kenneth Gamet (who wrote a lot of Randolph Scott Westerns, including the high quality Coroner Creek) and Richard Schayer (who wrote silent Westerns as far back as 1919) and directed by old stager Ray Nazarro, who churned out Westerns for Columbia for years and years, the picture owes more than a little to Fort Apache and Broken Arrow. It’s a Geronimo story rather than a Cochise one but in other respects has the same plot. In fact Geronimo is played by Miguel Inclán, who was Cochise for John Ford on Fort Apache.

Many of the well-known, not to say hackneyed plot elements are present. Capt. McCloud (Montgomery) is the man-who-knows-Indians, sneered at as an “Indian lover” by white townsfolk goaded on by crooks with commercial interests. He and Geronimo have a mutual respect and seek to make a fair treaty but McCloud is undermined by the crooks, in league with scheming venal politicians back in DC (where the story opens). A new by-the-book martinet officer (Robert Shayne) arrives from the East and, ignoring the advice of experienced and canny Captain York-ish McCloud, gets his men massacred, like Col. Thursday.
 
Tough Capt. Montgomery is nice to Apache kid
 
Sadly, Mr. Nazarro was no Ford, or Delmer Daves, and the whole thing has an air of B-Western about it. Some of the script and acting is distinctly iffy. Still, it’s shot (by Ellis W Carter, who did a lot of B and TV Westerns) in nice Technicolor in attractive and appropriate Sedona locations. And to be fair, Nazarro was quite good at the action scenes.

It was a Bernard and Edward Small production but sadly by ’52 they had abandoned their amusing introductory logo of a massive plinth with a giant SMALL atop it.

McCloud is decent to Geronimo’s young son (Robert Dover) and the boy becomes an ally. Of course being nice to children or animals in the first reel was Hollywood semiotics for good guy.

The picture suffers a little from not having sufficiently nasty bad guys. It really needed Victor Jory, maybe, or Lyle Bettger to be the crooked town boss and perhaps Robert J Wilke or Leo Gordon as henchman. But we only got Hugh Sanders as the slimy boss and Douglas Kennedy as the thug. They were a bit a bland.

There are the usual clichéd Irish sergeants (Joe Sawyer and John Call) to provide an element of comic relief, and an old-timer miner, Sagebrush (Eddy Waller), who will strike it rich on Apache lands but then be murdered by the slimy town boss. They shoot him in the back with an arrow to put the blame on the Apaches but they use an Arapaho arrow. Doh.
 

Perfunctory at best
 
The love interest for Montgomery is perfunctory at best. It’s a pro-Indian schoolma’am (of course) played by Audrey Long, Mrs. Leslie Charteris of The Saint fame, in her final film. But she has little to say or do except be lovey-dovey in the last reel.

Geronimo is described by McCloud as “head chief of all the Apache tribes” so McCloud wasn’t the man-who-knew-Indians-all-that-well. Unusually for such movies, there’s no firebrand Indian who wants the warpath to counterbalance Geronimo’s statesmanlike wisdom. But then traditionally for Hollywood it was Geronimo who was the warlike one (and Cochise the statesman). Inclán (right) joined the long list of Geronimo actors that went back to Chief Thundercloud in 1939 and included John War Eagle, Chief Yowlachie, Jay Silverheels (three times), Monte Blue and Chuck Connors, among others.

I’m a sucker for Apache stories so I enjoyed Indian Uprising. I wouldn’t pretend that it’s a great classic of the genre or anything but it has its moments. You could watch it. It was certainly a great deal better than Conquest of Cochise the following year.

 

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Conquest of Cochise (Columbia, 1953)


Pretty bad




 
 
Another lurid and historically silly Apache story came from the team that would the following year give us an equally absurd Masterson of Kansas, producer Sam Katzman and director William Castle. Written by DeVallon Scott, who had worked (with several others) on The Big Sky the year before, Conquest of Cochise has a complex plot which hinges on the idea (very common in Westerns) that the Indians are split into two factions, with a statesmanlike chief ready to deal with the palefaces and a firebrand group that prefers the warpath. It’s made much more intricate by the fact that there are two groups of Indians, Apaches and Comanches, and both are riven in the same way, and their enemies are too: the Mexican aristos have a wise party that wants peace and an Indian-hater who wants blood, and the white eyes have a noble cavalry officer who wants a treaty and a slimy town boss who foments discord for pecuniary gain. You see, I told you it was complicated.
 

 
Cochise usually got a positive treatment from Hollywood. In 1950 burly New Yorker Jeff Chandler had portrayed him as a noble and wise chief ready to listen to reason in Fox’s Delmer Daves-directed Broken Arrow, and Chandler returned as Cochise in The Battle at Apache Pass two years later and Taza, Son of Cochise two years after that. In 1956 Broken Arrow became a TV show, with Michael Ansara being noble and peace-loving. Actually, even before the big-screen Broken Arrow, John Ford’s Cochise had been statesmanlike and all-American in Fort Apache (1948). These screen Cochises were brave warriors, yes, but always ready to smoke the peace pipe. Conquest of Cochise continued in this tradition, with John Hodiak as the chief.

Hodiak (left) was one of those who in the 1940s filled a gap left by big stars serving in the armed forces. His early death in 1955, of a coronary thrombosis at the age of 41, meant that he did not become one of the really big Hollywood names and he was only in five Westerns: he was in the musical comedy The Harvey Girls in 1946, then rather good as the Army captain opposite Robert Taylor in Ambush, an excellent movie, in 1950. In ‘51 he appeared with Clark Gable in MGM’s turgid Across the Wide Missouri and he finally topped a Western bill himself in two 1953 Columbia Bs, Ambush at Tomahawk Gap, another Apache story (though Hodiak was a white man, not Cochise) and this one, Conquest of Cochise. He wasn’t bad, in general, but he makes a very unconvincing Cochise.

The shrewd and wise cavalry major who is his white-eyed counterpart is Robert Stack (right, saving Cochise from the Comanches). Like most people I think of Mr. Stack as Eliot Ness but he had been at Universal since the 1930s. Badlands of Dakota (1941) was his first Western, and he only made six, generally eschewing the genre, even in its 1950s heyday. One of them was War Paint, another cavalry Western in which he was a heroic Army officer, the same year as Conquest of Cochise. Actually, he wasn’t bad and it’s a pity he didn’t do more oaters.

Conquest of Cochise was shot in bright Technicolor (the print is still good today) by Henry Freulich (who did Masterson of Kansas, The Nebraskan and Ambush at Tomahawk Gap) in mostly Vasquez Rocks locations (with, in the first reel, a little bit of Saguaro National Park by the look of it). Columbia didn’t stint on this. Castle’s direction is OK for the action scenes but the picture as a whole is on the clunky side, largely because of the lousy script.

We are expected to believe that there are forty thousand marauding Apaches on horseback in Arizona in 1853, firing 1894 model Winchesters.

There has to be a love interest, of course, so the writers invent a very silly romance between Cochise and a Mexican lovely (Joy Page). The crooked town boss would ideally have been Victor Jory or maybe, in ’53, Lyle Bettger, but it’s Robert Griffin, who is very forgettable. It’s a daft part anyway. Actually the adjective forgettable sums up most of the cast, and as for the story, would that it were forgettable. Unfortunately, it’s too idiotic for that. Really, Castle and Katzman should have stuck to schlock horror.