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

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Massacre River (AA, 1949)


The first Western of Calhoun and Madison




 
 
You, dear e-reader, and indeed theater audiences in 1949 too, might have expected a cavalry Western named Massacre River to be full of action. However, this black & white Allied Artists effort is rather more of a torrid frontier romance, with a love triangle central to the plot.

Lts. Guy Madison and Rory Calhoun, real pals, both love the colonel’s daughter Kitty (Cathy Downs, a Fox player who was the Clementine of the title of John Ford’s Wyatt Earp saga and was Rod Cameron’s squeeze in Panhandle, but who later descended to 1950s B sci-fi flicks). Kitty turns Rory down in favor of Guy. Rory is awfully decent about it.
 
Rivals for Cathy's hand
 
But then the triangle becomes a love quadrilateral because Guy meets and falls for a racy saloon gal, Laura (Carole Mathews, in her fifth of nine B-Westerns – she did a lot of Western TV shows later, especially The Californians). This does rather complicate things.
 
But then there's the other woman...
 
There’s a hint of snobbery because Rory is a West Pointer and Kitty very posh while Guy, and of course Laura, are from the other side of the tracks.

There is a background of Indian trouble. Chief Yellowstone (Iron Eyes Cody) and Colonel Reid (Art Baker) want peace but the chief has trouble controlling his young hothead braves, who prefer the warpath. But honestly, this only really is a setting; the movie happens to be set in the Wild West but that’s incidental. It could just have easily been a gangster movie or a war film.

Still, to be fair, it does get a bit more Western in the last reel.
 
 
It was in fact Guy Madison’s first Western. Madison had been a handsome young actor spotted by David O Selznick late in the war. From 1951 he would be James Butler Hickok, with the portly Andy Devine as his comic sidekick Jingles, in one of the most successful radio and Western TV shows ever, Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok. This lasted for eight full seasons, pretty well all through the 50s, and Madison became really associated with the part. But he did a few big-screen Westerns too, such as The Command, Reprisal! and Bullwhip. At the end of his career he did a good number of spaghetti westerns, which were not very good (to put it mildly). Generally, though, he was OK in Westerns.

As for Calhoun, he was the same age as Madison and debuted at a similar time, having been spotted by Mrs. Alan Ladd and getting a screen test at Fox and being also taken up by Selznick. Massacre River was his first Western too, so he and Madison were a real pair.  He featured in Fox’s A-movie A Ticket to Tomahawk, which was to have been a John Ford picture (but in the end wasn't), and also with Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe in the Otto Preminger-directed River of No Return, but really he became a B-Western specialist, and was very solid in the genre too. You might want to try Utah Blaine, say, or The Yellow Tomahawk, The Silver Whip or Raw Edge.
 
Nice AZ locations
 
So Massacre River does benefit from the leads. In minor parts you can also spot Franklyn Farnum, Kermit Maynard, Jason Robards Sr and Douglas Fowley. The problem isn’t the acting, more with the script and direction. The former was by Louis Stevens, who wrote a few Roy Rogers oaters but also quality work such as Streets of Laredo or Horizons West. This time, though, he couldn’t really break away from the six-gun romance aspect. The director was John Rawlins, a movie jack-of-all-trades who helmed a few B-Westerns – like Fort Defiance or The Arizona Ranger. Competent, we might say, if uninspired.

The picture was shot by Jack MacKenzie in rather fine Canyon de Chelly locations in Arizona, and the print quality is good. There are some luminous landscapes. Allied Artists had grown out of Poverty Row studio Monogram and had, well, I won’t say delusions of grandeur but let’s say grand ambitions to make A-pictures, and they did throw some budget at movies like this.

Very much a late 40s/early 50s B-Western, though, and rather more a 'who'll get the girl?' picture than an action Western, Massacre River is nevertheless enjoyable, especially later on, and it has certain qualities. It's interesting, too, as the Western debut of Guy 'n' Rory. Give it a go, e-pards!

 

7 comments:

  1. Having read some widely differing opinions of this film (from disparaging to almost minor classic), I was keen to finally see it and when that did at last happen I was very pleasantly surprised. Pretty good western overrall.

    Madison made a few western features, some very good, others not so. Calhoun though is a big favourite of mine. As you say, Jeff, his work in the genre was solid and I would endorse the titles you mentioned but many others too.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Jerry
      Yes, Calhoun was superior to Madison in Westerns, I think. Tomorrow a review of one of Rory's best ever!
      Jeff

      Delete
  2. Actually MASSACRE RIVER was one of Rawlin's Ventura Productions
    released through Allied Artists. FORT DEFIANCE is even better and
    ROGUE RIVER (also with Calhoun) a modern day Western is pretty good
    too.A cynical modern day audience might site "gay subtext" especially
    with Rory and Guy "horsing" around in the bathtub.
    I like the scene where Guy returns to barracks to find Rory busy
    sewing,,,"a woman's work is never done" sighs Rory...cute!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Jeff have you managed to track down THE HARD MAN...Madison never better.
    I wish that he had made more Westerns of that quality.
    I agree his Spaghetti's are often dreadful although he aged well and
    looked fine in those films...what a waste. I would rather he stayed
    home and did some A.C.Lyles epics even those would have been a step up
    from his Spags.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi John
      I agree about Fort Defiance - good Western and Ben Johnson rarely better.
      No, I haven't seen The Hard Man yet. Will try to do so.
      Best wishes,
      Jeff

      Delete
  4. Hi Jeff
    'The Hard Man' is available in the collection 'westerns de legende' (Sidonis), you know with the annoying subtitles. Nevertheless they have already released many fifties westerns and they continue to do so. For me it's the only way to get these "oaters".
    Bart

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, I ordered it yesterday! Review soon...
      The subtitles are annoying but to be fair the picture quality is always high.
      Jeff

      Delete