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Sunday, December 9, 2018

Duel in the Sun (Selznick Releasing Organization, 1946)


Lust in the Dust




 
 
I watched Duel in the Sun again the other night. I had forgotten how bad it was. OK, yes, it’s splendid if you like lurid huge Hollywood melodramas and if you are a fan of 1940s torrid kitsch. I’m not saying that David O Selznick was a megalomaniac, I’m not saying that, but I don’t think he was the most self-effacing or humble fellow either, or entirely realistic as to his own personal capacities and artistic perception.

Selznick

Duel in the Sun was very much Selznick's project and it had his own stamp on it. Enormous-budget vulgar potboilers were what he did, as the dreadful Gone With the Wind had proved (which was nothing other than an expensive filming of a cheap romance) and he was certainly never involved in a half-decent Western, about the nearest being RKO’s 1932 Richard Dix picture The Conquerors. Still, he has his admirers.
 
A spectacular dud

Part of the problem with Duel in the Sun is the casting, principally that of Jennifer Jones as the half-breed heroine Pearl. She was absolutely awful. Her most restrained form of performance was Overacting. Mostly she chewed the scenery. On location she probably had to be restrained from chewing the rocks. The IMDb bio calls her “One of the world's most underrated Academy Award-winning actresses” and perhaps she was, in other genres. I’m not qualified to say. But judging by her part in this movie she was very far from that. She was of course a, what shall we say?, protégée of Selznick and they would wed three years later (at the time of Duel both Selznick and Jones were already married). Jones had had a small part in a John Wayne Three Mesquiteers picture before the war. That and Duel were her only Westerns. Just as well, my friends.

Selznick insisted on lots of soft sultry lighting

Then second billing went to Joseph Cotten, who was another actor unsuited to Westerns. He was only ever good in one (Two Flags West in 1950) but he seemed to like the genre, unfortunately, for he did ten, among them some real clunkers, as well as making appearances on Western TV shows. He plays the ‘good’ son Jesse in Duel - and struggles.

He should have stuck to tracking down Harry Lime

Gregory Peck was one of our leading Western actors, and watching him in The Gunfighter, say, or The Bravados, you appreciate his real quality. In Duel, however, his first Western, he had to play the wicked son, Lewton, known as Lewt, the spoilt ne’er-do-well who seduces Pearl but would never dream of actually marrying such a lower-class half-breed. It is a huge credit to Peck that he did it so well, so convincingly, but he was acting against type, and furthermore the Cotten/Peck combination simply didn’t work.

Peck playing the bad boy with gusto

Is it me or is the body language showing a lack of rapport?

Once you get to an older generation of actor, however, you do get real quality. Jesse and Lewt's father, rich rancher Senator McCanles, is Lionel Barrymore, a giant of the profession. Ruling his million-acre empire in Texas from a wheelchair, he is magnificently loathsome as the patriarch. Barrymore didn’t do many Westerns, considering that his career was so long, but he was in quite a few silent ones (they were so common in those days he couldn’t really avoid it). Incidentally, whether because of Barrymore's part in this or not, rich ranchers in wheelchairs or on crutches became quite the thing (Arch Strobie in Vengeance Valley in 1951, Dan Wells in The Lonesome Trail in 1955, Lew Wilkison in The Violent Men the same year, or John Forbes in The Last of the Fast Guns in '58).

Ruthless rancher

Senator McCanles's wife, the boys’ mother, Laura Belle, is played by veteran Lillian Gish, who started in our noble genre as a girl way back in the silent days, appearing for DW Griffith in The Battle of Elderbush Gulch in 1913, and was memorable again for Griffith in The Birth of a Nation two years later. She stunned audiences in 1928 as the frontier woman driven mad in The Wind. As an older lady she played memorably in Duel, was superb in The Night of the Hunter and The Unforgiven, her last Western (though she went on working right into the late 1980s). Looked at today, the style of acting in the old silent movies is almost painful; over-the-top melodramatics were expected. And there are moments when she slips into that in Duel (for example, she can’t resist cornily overdoing her death) but mostly she is sweetly maternal, and stoic in dealing with her highly unpleasant husband, and she often simply and subtly steals the show. It’s worth seeing the movie just for her.

Lillian Gish with DW Griffith when he visited the set

Then we have the fine Charles Bickford as rancher Sam Pierce, who proposes to Pearl and (again rather improbably) is accepted, but is gunned down by Peck in the saloon before they can marry. Bickford was always good, and was often to be seen in Westerns, from an early 3 Godfathers-style picture, the William Wyler-directed talkie Hell’s Heroes in 1929, to the talkie version of Cecil B DeMille’s The Squaw Man in 1931, his part as the villain in DeMille’s The Plainsman in ’36 (he was mauled by a lion in 1935 and in the absence of lead roles took character parts thenceforth) and many others. He was Pat Garrett in the Joel McCrea Western Four Faces West in 1948 and was also memorable in The Unforgiven. He would be back with Peck (and Wyler) in 1958 in The Big Country.

Bickford proposes

And who should be the tough railroad detective who has to combat the ruthless rancher but Harry Carey Sr., one of the truly great Western actors. He dominated the genre from the silent days under DW Griffith and John Ford, then in talkies he was the Doc Holliday figure in the ’32 Law and Order with Huston, and would go right through to Red River with Howard Hawks in 1948.

Harry Carey working on the railroad

And lastly, of the towering figures of Hollywood, we have Walter Huston hamming it up unmercifully (and clearly hugely enjoying himself) as the very dubious preacher The Sinkiller. Huston only did eight Westerns but who can forget his Trampas in the Gary Cooper 1929 The Virginian (the best ever version)? Or his Wyatt Earp-like figure in Law and Order with Harry Carey? Or his part in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre with Bogart, directed by his son John in 1948? OK, he was completely ridiculous as Doc Holliday in The Outlaw but then anyone would have been; that Howard Hughes movie was utterly appalling.

Huston is the reverend

Duel in the Sun therefore had a remarkable line-up and it is only a pity that the leads were so miscast.

Orson Welles does the intro voiceover.

Huston and Barrymore pay court to the great man

As for the directing, King Vidor was credited. Vidor is in the Guinness Book of Records as having had the longest career as a film director, spanning 67 years, 1913 to 1980, and of course he was nominated for the Best Director Oscar five times, finally winning an Honorary Award. He only directed five Westerns though, starting with the 1930 Billy the Kid with Johnny Mack Brown, helming the Fred MacMurray version of The Texas Rangers in ’36, co-directing the pretty dire Northwest Passage starring Spencer Tracy in 1940 and, after Duel in the Sun, directing Kirk Douglas in Man Without a Star in 1955. It wasn’t really a top-notch CV in the genre. But in Duel his hands were tied by constant usurpations of the director’s role from Selznick himself, and not only that, Selznick used, for different scenes, Otto Brower, B Reeves Eason, William Dieterle, Sidney Franklin, William Cameron Menzies and even Josef von Sternberg, among others. No wonder the end result was a hodge-podge. As the Rough Guide to Westerns says, it had “a cast of 2500 and only 2443 fewer directors.”

Nominally director

Selznick himself cooked up the screenplay from a novel by Niven Busch (a fine writer, himself a screenplayist - I especially admire Pursued - whose stories were filmed several times: The Man from the Alamo, The Furies, The Moonlighter and Belle Starr) but once again there were contributions from others - notably Oliver HP Garrett and Ben Hecht. I don’t think Busch was responsible for Jones’s screeched line, “I’m trash, I tell ya, trash!”

And there were three directors of photography. Lee Garmes did a lot of it but Ray Rennahan and Harold Rosson were also credited as DP and shot several scenes. Selznick had a particular ‘look’ in mind for the Technicolor picture and best way you could describe it would be lurid. Violent filters, especially orange, were much used. At one point Harry Carey says, “There’s a funny glow in the sky tonight, ain’t there?” You’re telling me!

A funny glow in the sky

You have certainly heard the expression ‘Too many cooks spoil the broth’, and it comes to mind when you watch this picture.

Of course money was no object and the budget was gargantuan. Production costs were six and a half million mid-1940s dollars (the biggest budget to date) and a further $2m went on a publicity campaign. Selznick released the picture himself. Though the film was ‘successful’ in terms of numbers of viewers, it only barely broke even. A re-release in 1954 helped.

Some stunning shots

Wow

People bought tickets in enormous numbers and it was certainly spectacular. The train crash (Lewt derails a shipment of explosives to help out his dad) was itself an amazing - and doubtless extremely expensive - scene.

But the critics panned the movie, understandably. It rapidly gained the nickname Lust in the Dust, and the name stuck. Perhaps that even improved ticket sales. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times said, “Despite all his flashy exploitation, Mr. Selznick can't long hide the fact that his multimillion-dollar Western is a spectacularly disappointing job.” Crowther talked of “the ultimate banality of the story and its juvenile slobbering over sex”. He was as polite as possible when talking of Jennifer Jones: “She has to pretend to be the passion-torn child of nature in the loosest theatrical style.” Very diplomatic. Variety called it “raw, sex-laden, western pulp fiction, told in 10-20-30 style”. Other reviewers have said that “It’s big, it’s sprawling, it’s overheated, it’s colorful, but it’s not very good” and called it “One big, overblown stinker, a pretentious B-Western not worthy of its all-star cast.”

Still, critics are one thing, viewers are another. Duel in the Sun and The Outlaw may have been bad but they were the biggest-grossing Westerns of the 1940s. Sex pays, even in 1940s censored form.

Passion

A movie censor in Memphis told the producer that the picture “contains all the iniquities of the foulest human dross.” Selznick ought to have put that on the poster. Sales would have been even better.

Most of the ticket-buyers probably weren’t hard-core Western fans. If true Westernistas did go, hoping for another classy 1946 oater along the lines of Canyon Passage, say, or My Darling Clementine, they were sorely disappointed.

Lust in the Dust is certainly too long. It was first shown at 2 hours 24 minutes, though mercifully later shortened to the common present-day version of 129 minutes. Some of the Dmitri Tiomkin music is grating, some overblown, though perhaps suitable for the show. Lillian Gish sings Beautiful Dreamer at the piano and subsequently whenever she appears or is mentioned Hollywood angels croon the tune in their slushiest way, like a (very) poor person's Wagner opera. It certainly doesn’t get you to the end any more quickly, though it does increase your urge to.

The character of the ‘Negro maid’ Vashti (Butterfly McQueen) is just plain toe-curlingly embarrassing to us now, though probably considered hilarious by the (white) audience then. Senator McCanles’s viciously racist language when Pearl (whose mother was Native American) arrives in his house is also hard to listen to for modern ears (and how modern, dear e-readers, our ears indubitably are). Actually, these figures are so very offensive that I think right-minded people, even at the time, would have disliked them.

Barely acceptable even in those days

Certain scenes do stick in the memory of a Western-lover, it must be said. The train crash I mentioned but also the hundreds of riders converging on the railroad camp, Peck taming a stallion, and much of his riding (though doubtless some of it was stunt-doubled), the US Cavalry arriving in the nick of time, the Cotten/Peck showdown in the main street (the loud clip-clops and boot tramps must have been an influence on spaghetti directors) and so on.

The ending is completely over the top and your last word, once The End comes up, will probably be, “Jeez!”

Restrained it ain't

Not being an auteuriste, I hesitate usually to refer to “King Vidor's Billy the Kid", for example, or “Howard Hawks's Red River” but I can’t really help thinking of this film as David O Selznick’s Duel in the Sun. It’s such an immensely personal creation. It’s a massive, stylized, soap-opera extravaganza grafted onto a rancher/nesters/railroad Western. In the last resort, though, it’s a must-see, a hugely amusing bad movie that can’t be missed.

 

Friday, December 7, 2018

The Westerns of Joel McCrea


I did the best I could without trying too hard

 
Having now reviewed on this blog all of Joel McCrea’s Westerns individually, it is time for an overview, a career retrospective such as we have done with John Wayne, Randolph Scott, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck and other giants of the genre, as well as lesser lights but great character actors such as Edgar Buchanan, Slim Pickens, Bruce Dern and others. More will follow.

Myself, I regard McCrea (left with his horse Dollar) as one of the truly great Western actors, and I know from various comments left after reviews of his movies that I have written that I am not alone. Not all his Westerns were superb - whose were? Yet there was an extraordinarily high number of outstandingly good ones, and he lifted the mediocre ones just by being in them. You'll never see a bad performance from Joel McCrea, and furthermore you believe him as a Westerner. He looked right, he rode superbly, he could wear the clothes.

The young Joel

Joel Albert McCrea (1905 – 1990) was a local boy, born in Woodland Hills and never living more than fifty miles from Hollywood in his life. His paternal grandfather fought in the campaigns against the Apaches and later established a stagecoach line, and his maternal grandfather came West in a wagon train. That’s a pretty Western heritage. Joel himself always wanted to be a rancher, and only really went into the movies to make enough money to buy land. It was his mentor Will Rogers who advised him to borrow as much as he could to do that. It was a shrewd investment. McCrea said that when he sold off the land late in life, “I made more money than I had in thirty years of making pictures.”

Early days

But he went to school with the children of Louis Meyer and Cecil B DeMille, he rode his bike down Sunset Boulevard to watch DW Griffith filming, and he hugely admired William S Hart, whom he would later meet and with whom he would become friends. There are even those who say McCrea’s acting style in Westerns was modeled on Hart’s, though I find that difficult to see, and McCrea himself said, “I never even tried to copy my idol, William S Hart.” McCrea added, “I liked him better than Tom Mix because, although Mix was colorful, Hart was sincere. He thought everything he did on the screen was real, he was great on authenticity and I admired that.” In fact McCrea always tried for authenticity in his own Westerns. Being a working rancher helped.

He called himself a rancher to the IRS, who objected. McCrea rebutted, “Look at these hands. I didn’t get these calluses from acting.” The IRS backed down.

Motion pictures, though, were everyday life to him, rather than some glittering world of make-believe. It was a practical thing he did to enable him to ranch.

First films

He started as a stunt-extra, putting on a dress and wig and riding for Marion Davies and Greta Garbo. It is said that he was considered by Raoul Walsh and Fox for The Big Trail, though he lost out to the young John Wayne. Finally DeMille cast him in the “all-talking picture” Dynamite (a mining drama) at MGM in 1929. As a boy, Joel had delivered newspapers to DeMille and been given a silver dollar by the great man. Later he dated Cecilia DeMille a couple of times.

He kept the silver dollar DeMille gave him

Though he became such a leading figure of Western movies, and in fact devoted the whole of the latter part of his career to them - from 1946 to the end of his career in 1976 only one of his twenty-eight pictures was not a Western - he came late to the genre. Through the early and mid-1930s he appeared, with increasingly high billing, in a series of dramas, thrillers and love-stories. He was handsome but self-effacing and the studios considered him an ideal foil for the leading ladies of the period. By the time of RKO’s Scarlet River (1933) he was well enough known as a Hollywood actor to have a walk-by micropart in a picture about a silver-screen cowboy (Tom Keene) who knows some big stars. The nearest Joel came to acting in a Western himself in this period was his third billing in Samuel Goldwyn’s Barbary Coast, a San Francisco fog-and-waterfront melodrama starring Edward G Robinson and Miriam Hopkins, directed by Howard Hawks.

In Barbary Coast

McCrea said, “Goldwyn was a very strange man in some ways but he loved making movies and he tried for quality. Some actors had trouble with him but he was good to me.” Goldwyn had a famous way of mangling names. “He used to call Errol Flynn ‘Earl Flint’. Me he called Joe McReal. One day one of his executives tried to correct him and he snapped back, ‘Who is it who is paying Joe McReal $3,000 a week, me or you?’”

First Western

Even McCrea’s first major star vehicle in our noble genre, Paramount’s Manifest-Destiny epic Wells Fargo in 1937, was really more of a nineteenth-century costume drama/romance than a true Western. It was more Western than anything McCrea had done to date but crinolines and top hats and carriages featured largely and for most of it Joel wasn’t galloping round the West in a Stetson with a Colt .45, as we became used to after the war. It’s a very enjoyable film, though, well directed by Frank Lloyd, and it made McCrea a big Hollywood star. It co-starred Joel’s wife, Frances Dee. They had met and married while working on an RKO picture in ’33. In 1934 son Jody appeared and the following year second son David. Twenty years later, a third, Peter, would arrive. The boys followed in the ranching business, and in the case of Jody tried movies too.

Frances and Joel age, thanks to the make-up dept

Two years after Wells Fargo, after a couple of intervening rom-coms, McCrea was again at Paramount to make another nation-building epic, this time back with his first director, Cecil B DeMille: Union Pacific. Wells Fargo had told of the spanning of the young nation with a stagecoach line; now it was the turn of the railroads. This picture was the first of several Western collaborations with Barbara Stanwyck, whom McCrea came to admire greatly. "She was, with no reservations, the best I ever met. Every crew we ever worked with loved and admired her and so did I. She taught me a lot and I shall be ever grateful to her."

Stanwyck as chirpy Irish colleen

Stanwyck again

In 1940 came what was perhaps McCrea’s most famous film, Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent. Hitch had wanted McCrea’s friend Gary Cooper but Coop turned it down. He later said he regretted it, but he didn’t regret the fact that it boosted Joel’s career. Another Western didn’t come along for McCrea until 1942, and that was only another semi-Western, The Great Man’s Lady, directed by William A Wellman, again with Stanwyck – in a stunning performance. Really, no one at this time would have thought of Joel McCrea as a Western actor at all. He was only in about half The Great Man’s Lady anyway; it was a Stanwyck tour de force.

With Wellman on the set

Playing the great Western heroes

In 1944, however, McCrea got to star as Buffalo Bill, again with Wellman. This was a Western. Harry Sherman produced a whitewash biopic. It was wartime, and Sherman and Wellman felt it was not the moment to start debunking American heroes (Paul Newman would get round to that in the aftermath of the Vietnam War). Though Buffalo Bill was far from a great film, McCrea was simply magnificent as William F Cody. He looks splendid (and very like) and he endows the character with real nobility. McCrea was always a modest man who knew his limits. He turned down parts that were too challenging for what he regarded as his limited acting skills. But as Buffalo Bill he excelled. He said, “Leslie Howard was a marvelous actor but if he had tried to play Buffalo Bill it would have been silly. On the other hand I could play Buffalo Bill fairly easily and I wasn’t anywhere near the actor Leslie was.”

He really looked the part

With Paramount’s remake of The Virginian in 1946 McCrea made the decision henceforth to specialize in Westerns. He said, “I wasn’t instinctively an actor and I had no burning desire to act, but I liked making movies and wanted to do the Western things I had read, like The Virginian … I had enjoyed doing the comedies but as I got older I was better suited to westerns. The minute I got on a horse, with the hat and the boots, I felt easier. I didn’t feel like I was an actor anymore. I felt like the men I was playing.” By taking the roles of Buffalo Bill, the Virginian, Sam Houston, Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson, McCrea would indeed portray some of the great figures of the ‘Wild West’.

The Virginian was not a great Western. It suffered from poor casting apart from McCrea, and rather wooden direction by Stuart Gilmore. It wasn’t a patch on the 1929 version with Gary Cooper. It’s only real quality was the color. But it started McCrea on the long Western trail which only ended in 1976 with his final film, when he was in his seventies.

He gets Trampas to smile

There were some good Westerns along the way, there were even some great ones, and a few were vin ordinaire, but they were all professionally made, they all brought a good return on investment and McCrea was reliably excellent in every one. He was just right as a Western hero, tall, decent, steady, but getting really tough when the going did. Byron Haskin, director of The First Texan (probably one of the vin ordinaire Westerns if truth be told) said, “I finally ran across the man I consider the greatest pure cinema actor I ever worked with – Joel McCrea. I used to watch scenes on the set and think, Jesus, there wasn’t anything to him – and I’d see him in the rushes the next day and it would knock you off your seat.” People said the same of Gary Cooper. McCrea himself said, “I did the best I could without trying too hard.”

Superb late-40s oaters

Some remember McCrea chiefly for those major A-picture epics he made for Paramount and Fox but for me, some of the very best were the ‘smaller’ Westerns he made in the late 40s. I am thinking especially of Ramrod (1947), Four Faces West (1948) and Colorado Territory (1949). Ramrod had the huge advantage of being a Luke Short story and being directed by the talented André De Toth. It did perhaps suffer from the casting of Mrs. De Toth, the glacial Veronica Lake, as co-star; she was unsuited to the genre. But overall it is a noirish, moody piece of real quality.

Very fine in Ramrod

Four Faces West, a filming of the Eugene Manlove Rhodes novel They Passed This Way, is absolutely charming, a little gem. It’s a rare Western in which no gun is ever fired. Frances Dee co-starred again.

With wife Frances Dee in one of my all-time favorite Westerns, MGM's Four Faces West, 1948

If I didn’t see the opening credits of South of St Louis (1949) I would believe that this beautiful little B-Western was directed by some class act like Jacques Tourneur. Yet it’s good old Ray Enright, workaday helmster of many a routine oater. It’s the visual inventiveness, the little quirky insertions, the surprisingly classy photography, as well as the pace and zip of the movie that make it definitely one of Enright’s very best.

Later that same year McCrea finally did work with Raoul Walsh, on the excellent Colorado Territory, a Warners transcription into the key of Western of Walsh’s own crime/adventure flick High Sierra. It’s superb, and McCrea, in the Bogart part of tough-guy ex-con Wes McQueen, was rarely better. It was an unaccustomedly uncompromising role for McCrea but he carried it off with aplomb. He admired Walsh. "I'd do stuff for him that I wouldn't have done for any other director. He was a gutsy little bastard. And funny."

Raoul Walsh

You could actually argue that these late-40s McCrea Westerns with a noirish tinge were among his best ever work.

The 50s dawn

McCrea made three Westerns in 1950, four if you count Stars in My Crown. He was now fully committed to the genre. The Outriders, back at MGM, was a Civil War story, like South of St Louis. Barry Sullivan is a charismatic bad guy and Jeff Corey a Quantrillesque guerrilla leader. It’s not that special, and certainly not Joel’s best, but it’s a decent Western outing you can enjoy nonetheless. Next came Stars in My Crown, which may be a fine film (Jacques Tourneur directed) but is only a Western in the way that Friendly Persuasion (review coming soon) or The Missouri Traveler are Westerns, more of a bucolic American idyll which happens to be set in the West. Still, McCrea was good in it.

Stars in His Crown

Saddle Tramp was a fairly unremarkable and slightly juvenile picture in Universal’s long series of color B-Westerns but it had undoubted charm. Frenchie, also for Universal, was a paler remake of the studio’s Destry Rides Again, with Joel in the James Stewart part, flirting with comedy, and Shelley Winters taking over from Marlene Dietrich. All in all, Joel’s 1950 Westerns weren’t quite up to those classic late-40s ones. Still, they certainly aren’t bad.

He whittles in Frenchie

Radio

Between Stars in My Crown and Saddle Tramp, Joel started NBC’s radio series Tales of the Rangers. It will be simplest if I quote the relevant paragraph from Tony Thomas’s Joel McCrea: A Film History, Riverwood Press, 2013 - which, by the way, I have used extensively for this post and to which I am grateful:

Like all movie stars in the pre-television era, Joel McCrea ‘appeared’ on radio, mostly in audio versions of his movies adapted for the popular Lux Radio Theater, produced and hosted by Cecil B DeMille. The only series in which McCrea starred was Tales of the Texas Rangers, which was aired for the first time on July 8, 1950. The program ran as a weekly half-hour over the next two years. McCrea voiced the role of Ranger Jace Pearson in stories that were claimed to be based on actual case histories. … The modestly successful radio series was mostly written by Joel Murcott, and produced and directed by Stacey Keach, Sr.”

I myself have never heard any of these broadcasts and can’t comment on their quality (or otherwise).

The film bio

Back to movie Westerns – if a bit on the B side

Cattle Drive (1951) was another of the Westerns McCrea did for Universal in the early 50s (after Saddle Tramp and Frenchie). Universal Westerns of this period were hardly big A-pictures but they had high production values, were shot in nice color in handsome Western locations and usually used quality character actors and solid directors and DPs. Cattle Drive is a typical example. It’s a children’s Western in many ways, or rather a boy’s one, with child star Dean Stockwell as the spoilt brat son of a railroad exec gradually learning how to be a decent man when tutored by Westerner McCrea. It was a common theme, and McCrea would do several Westerns mentoring young boys, right up to his last one, Mustang Country. They were wholesome and family-friendly, which suited McCrea, though to modern tastes they are a bit saccharine.

He often had a boy to co-star

The San Francisco Story (Warner Bros, 1952) had Joel going back to Frisco, as they call it, where he was in his very first Western (or Westernish), Barbary Coast in 1935. It’s an 1856 tale (though of course they all have 1870s Stetsons and Colt Peacemakers) and it does have men being shanghaied and fog and the waterfront, so it’s a real San Francisco story in that way, but most of the plot could have been set anywhere in the West and the action is reminiscent of many a proper Western. It co-starred Yvonne De Carlo.

After a spell in England making the unsuccessful espionage thriller Rough Shoot, his only non-Western between 1946 and the end of his career, Joel was back in the saddle (phew) in The Lone Hand, another Universal oater, with a boy and a dog (Cherokee, playing Cherokee). We are at first asked to believe that Joel is a bad guy, robbing banks and such. The very idea! Of course it turns out he is a Pinkerton man infiltrating the gang to bring them to justice.

Star of the movie Cherokee on the left, with co-stars center and right

Universal’s Border River the following year, directed by good old George Sherman, re-paired McCrea with the less than suited Yvonne De Carlo and was something of a Mexican pot-boiler. It’s another Civil War tale, with Joel as a Confederate officer desperately trying to get guns for the South. A bit ho-hum, honestly. Black Horse Canyon immediately afterwards was another slightly juvenile catching-a-wild-stallion picture, this time helmed by the not-quite-John-Ford-or-Howard-Hawks Jesse Hibbs.

Jacques is back

These Universal oaters were OK but in all honesty not much more, though they were lifted by McCrea in the lead. However, in 1955 serious quality returned when Jacques Tourneur (right) did. Tourneur directed a new brace of pictures with McCrea, Stranger on Horseback and Wichita. McCrea was a great admirer of Tourneur and asked for him when he had the option. Stranger was a Louis L’Amour story about a traveling judge (McCrea) and in fact McCrea recounted a compliment about the film received from L'Amour: "He told me that my playing of his character was exactly what he had in mind when he wrote it. I was very proud to hear that." It’s a fine Western. Wichita was the first of a three-Western contract McCrea signed with producer Walter Mirisch. It had a half-million dollar budget and the enormously experienced Daniel Ullman as writer. It had McCrea almost ideally cast as Wyatt Earp – the Wyatt Earp of legend, naturally – rock-steady and decent, cleaning up a wild cow town. Of course Earp was never marshal of Wichita but who cares? It’s an absolutely classic Western from the golden age of the genre, the mid-50s. McCrea had rarely been better.

A couple of OK ones

The First Texan (1956) and The Oklahoman (1957), the next two Mirisch/McCrea pictures, weren’t quite up to the standard of the Jacques Tourneur ones. The first was a solid but uninspiring biopic of Sam Houston directed by the unremarkable Byron Haskin, with McCrea possibly even miscast, for Houston was an ultra-energetic, at times violent man who was very fond of the bottle and McCrea gave us a steady, decent, restrained Houston.

Joel as Sam

The second, directed by the also less-than-stellar Francis D Lyon, was a tale of a decent doctor (ideal for McCrea), a modest-budget ‘town’ Western, with the emphasis on character and human interest rather than action. They were solid and enjoyable Westerns both, but you wouldn’t say they were among the very best McCrea did.

Trooper Hook

Later in ’57, however, came a non-Mirisch Western (it was produced by Sol Baer Fielding, his only oater), the very fine Trooper Hook, again with Stanwyck - the last time they worked together. It is a low-budget 81-minute black & white picture released in the year of major commercial color Westerns such as Paramount's Gunfight at the OK Corral and Fox's The True Story of Jesse James, and it was in many ways completely overshadowed. Most of the potential viewers probably stayed at home to watch Gunsmoke on TV. But ’57 was also the year of Columbia's really fine black & white 3:10 to Yuma, and Trooper Hook can justly be compared with that outstanding Delmer Daves picture. McCrea as magnificent as the tough sergeant and Stanwyck was superb as the white woman rescued from the Indians (it has a sort of The Searchers/Two Rode Together plot). I myself put Trooper Hook very high in the canon of McCrea Westerns (though not everyone does).

Very good indeed

Gunsight Ridge, which followed it, was also directed by Lyon. It was a black & white B-Western, really, and in some ways routine but it has good dialogue (by Talbot Jennings) and some nice Old Tucson locations. Joel was ever so slightly anno domini to be playing an Irish lothario and some of the plot is on the improbable side. Perfectly watchable, though.

Three more with Mirisch

In late ’57 McCrea signed up for another three Westerns with Walter Mirisch (left) and the first fruit of this new batch was The Tall Stranger. An absolutely classic, straight-down-the-line 1950s Western, The Tall Stranger has McCrea at the very top of his game as the lead and some top-notch character actors in other parts, notably Virginia Mayo (returning with McCrea after Colorado Territory) Leo Gordon, Ray Teal and Michael Pate. It’s another Louis L’Amour story.

The second Mirisch picture was Fort Massacre and the third was The Gunfight at Dodge City. But first McCrea made a picture back at Fox, Cattle Empire. It was directed, as Trooper Hook had been, by Charles Marquis Warren, an enormously experienced writer and director. In Cattle Empire McCrea acts against type and is harder than his usual quiet, decent but brave persona. He’s almost a SOB in fact, though he turns out, phew, to have been a goody all along. Cattle Empire is no Red River but it’s an enjoyable cattle-drive Western which more than holds its own with the others of the genre.

In Cattle Empire he was tougher than usual

In Fort Massacre, perhaps director Joseph M Newman’s best Western (this or The Gunfight at Dodge City), McCrea took the tough-guy character a step further. Visually splendid, with Carl E Guthrie cinematography in CinemaScope of stunning New Mexico locations, it is also a gritty and intense drama with McCrea as an Indian-hating sergeant who finds himself the ranking officer after an attack and in command. He is racked by doubt as to his worthiness and ability to bring the men to safety but does the very best he can despite an unruly, insubordinate and whining crew.

Tougher than ever

In The Gunfight at Dodge City, which McCrea, now 54, had decided would be his last feature, Joel was back as a tough but decent marshal cleaning up the town, as he had in Wichita. This time he was Bat Masterson, bringing law ‘n’ order to Dodge. It was equally absurd historically but it was equally classic as a Western movie, written once again by Daniel Ullman. It’s a super picture with Joel McCrea on top form.

Joel as Bat

That was to have been that. McCrea’s friend Randolph Scott, seven years older than Joel, made the same decision, after wrapping Comanche Station (shot contemporaneously with Gunfight). Both stars felt they were now too long in the tooth.

TV

McCrea did, however, consent to Mirisch’s request to star in a TV series. By the late 50s these shows were all the rage (see my series of three posts on the subject here, here and here) and some, like Wyatt Earp and Gunsmoke, which premièred within four days of each other in 1955 and were by now dominating the airwaves, were immensely popular all over the US – in fact all over the world. Mirisch and McCrea cooked up a series that would in a way be a spin-off of their ’55 picture Wichita, and they named it Wichita Town. It would go out on NBC, as a weekly half-hour show, with Joel as Marshal Mike Dunbar and son Jody as his deputy Ben Matheson.

Joel and Jody
 
Marshal Mike Dunbar
 
Though apparently tailor-made for McCrea and in tune with the zeitgeist (if you can be in tune with a zeitgeist), the series was a disappointment. It turned out to be little different from many other shows of the same type, it had enormous competition (Bonanza started in September ’59 and was a huge hit) and NBC put it out at 10.30 pm, always a difficult slot. The black & white wasn’t a problem, for color TVs were not yet ubiquitous, but the 30-minute format probably was. It was one of the few TV series to go on air without a pilot to test the waters. Perhaps Mirisch and NBC felt that it wasn’t necessary; they had a sure-fire hit on their hands. But they didn’t. Ratings were low, the network didn’t renew for a second season and McCrea said, “With Wichita Town failing to make much of an impression I thought it best to quit. I had nothing to prove and I didn’t need the money or the exposure.” So no TV movies or spaghettis. Luckily. Sadly, Wichita Town is not available now on DVD or elsewhere, so it’s difficult for us to make our own judgement.

So, that really was that.

Or was it?

Two great cowboys ride the high country

In 1961 McCrea received a call from Randolph Scott saying that he had a script, Guns in the Afternoon by NB Stone (writer of Man With the Gun) about a couple of old Westerners, dinosaurs really, down on their luck and hard up for a buck. Two of the richest and shrewdest actors in Hollywood thought that might be amusing to do and both greatly admired the writing.

Two penniless drifters

The two vets set up a meeting with Sam Peckinpah and out of it came one of the finest Westerns in the whole history of the genre, Ride the High Country. At first McCrea was slated to play the charming-rogue Gil Westrum and Scott the flintier and stern Steve Judd, but by mutual consent they changed roles. They tossed a coin in a restaurant for top billing, and Scott won, though actually the posters had their names side by side. It is difficult to decide whose performance is finer in Ride the High Country but it is fair to say that it was a draw and both players were entirely magnificent. Neither had ever been better.

Both magnificent

The last picture show

For Randy that was the end. McCrea didn’t rule out another picture but “The things that had been submitted to me,” he said, “were not very interesting or exciting, and most of them were on the degrading level, which I didn’t ever want to do because I had kind of established an image, such as it was. I saw no reason to become an anti-hero.”  

In 1970, however, Joel’s son Jody co-produced and starred in a Western, Cry Blood, Apache, and well, you have to support the family business. Joel ‘bracketed’ the action by portraying his son as an old man, at the beginning and at the end, reminiscing in flashback on the events of the film. In the film bio mentioned above Tony Thomas says, "With a muddled plot and a cast of unsympathetic characters, Cry Blood, Apache failed to win many bookings and soon drifted into film oblivion, taking with it Jody McCrea's last major stab at a film career."

Four years later Joel McCrea agreed to do the voiceover narration for Kieth [sic] Merrill’s Academy Award-winning rodeo documentary The Great American Cowboy.

Lastly, in 1975, McCrea read another script, which harked back to the old-cowboy-mentoring-young-boy theme he had made his own. He liked Canadian John Champion’s project (Champion produced, wrote and directed Mustang Country). Universal would back it and it would be shot in Technicolor up in the beautiful Banff National Park in Alberta. He said yes. The cast was small, the story simple and the picture frankly unremarkable. The catching-a-wild-horse plot has been done often before (including by McCrea in Black Horse Canyon).

He rides the high country for the last time

The film is very pretty, and there are echoes of Disney and National Geographic with a multitude of critters making appearances. The cinematographer was J Barry Herron, who had in fact done some National Geographic documentaries, including one on America’s national parks. But the picture flopped and McCrea decided never to do another.

So long, Joel

Joel McCrea was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers in Oklahoma City. He said, “I guess I’m like some of the western characters I played, the image of The Virginian, something like that. I tried to be believable and authentic. That’s where I had something to offer. I stayed within my scope more out of common sense than humility. Preston Sturges once told me that you had no right to drag people into a theater and bore them. I tried not to be boring.”

He succeeded.

Joel McCrea died on October 20, 1990, the day of the 57th anniversary of his wedding to Frances Dee, aged 84.