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

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Arizona Bushwhackers (Paramount, 1968)


Farewell, Lesley Selander, and thanks




 
 
One of my favorites of the Westerns that producer AC Lyles made in the 1960s, the ones starring aging actors well known for their 50s oaters, is Arizona Bushwhackers, which was made back-to-back with Buckskin (with Barry Sullivan). Arizona Bushwhackers was released in March ’68 and Buckskin in May of that year. They were the last of the Lyles ‘geezer’ Westerns for Paramount – though in 1975 there would be a TV movie following the same formula, The Last Day, with Richard Widmark.

The great thing about these pictures was not their production values (budgets were limited) or originality (far from it) but the casts. The leads were such figures as Dana Andrews, John Ireland, George Montgomery, Dale Robertson and Rory Calhoun, who were more than competent – in fact talented – Western actors. Unfortunately, though, Lyles used Howard Keel for three of them, and Keel was not in the same class.

Having said that, to be fair, Keel was not at all bad in Arizona Bushwhackers as the tough sheriff who is also secretly a Confederate agent (it’s 1865). It was probably his best Western performance (not that that is saying much).

Howard is the new lawman

His co-star is once again Yvonne De Carlo, not my favorite leading lady in Westerns I must admit, but once again she does a reasonable job. She plays Jill, a (rather unconvincing) Confederate spy posing as a respectable milliner in the town, who is supposed to make contact with the new sheriff and tell him where a big supply of arms and ammunition, desperately needed by the Confederacy, is hidden. She explains her lack of Southern-belle accent by saying she was born in the North but brought up in South Carolina. She was indeed born in the North (Vancouver, Canada to be precise).

Deputy Ireland wants milliner De Carlo

The saucier dame, the saloon moll Molly, is supposed to be a Southerner from N’Orleans, with an accent, though this inflexion is from the deep south of Iowa, because it’s blonde Marilyn Maxwell, the less talented perhaps of the two Marilyn sex symbols of the 50s. She only did a couple of Western features and a few TV shows.

The new sheriff romances saloon gal Maxwell

So once again it’s not really the leads that distinguish this Western. It’s the supporting cast of character actors. We have John Ireland as the one-armed Reb-hating deputy, good old Barton MacLane as the sheriff on the take, Scott Brady as the crooked saloon owner who gives out the bribes, James Craig as badman Ike Clanton and Brian Donlevy as the frock-coated mayor. It’s an excellent line-up and very much in tune with Lyles’s formula of using well-known Western stars from the 40s and 50s.

Old Sheriff Barton is on his way out

Another reason I like this movie is because it was directed by Lesley Selander, the B-Western fan’s hero, who specialized in bringing low-budget oaters to life with pace and action. Actually, it was Selander’s last Western - indeed, his last film. He ended his eminent career in the genre by directing 45 episodes of Laramie and a handful of Lyles features. It was an illustrious CV which had started with his work as second unit director on a silent Buck Jones flick in 1925 and included, by the end, close to 200 Westerns. Respect.

Lesley Selander the Great

The screenplay was by Steve Fisher, Lyles’s go-to writer for these pictures, a fellow who bashed out large numbers of TV shows on his typewriter but also did some big-screen Westerns – not bad ones, either: the likes of The Quick Gun with Audie Murphy, Noose for a Gunman with Jim Davis, The Restless Breed, also with Scott Brady, and others.

Writer Fisher

Arizona Bushwhackers is narrated by James Cagney (uncredited but unmistakable) and we have a debutant Roy Rogers Jr. in a small (and actually rather pointless and irrelevant) part, and Regis Parton (billed as Reg) as henchman Curly and also stunt-doubling Keel.

The opening scenes are of booming cannons and we are told that the Civil War is raging and the military prisons of both sides are bulging, so Abe Lincoln allows Reb POWs to enlist in the Union army to serve out West, fighting Indians or even occasionally bringing law ‘n’ order to wide-open frontier towns. Thus stocky Lee Travis (Keel), former riverboat gambler and gunslinger, is wearing Union blue when he rides to Colton, Arizona, a town treed by crooked saloon owner Tom Rile (Brady) who has the corrupt sheriff (MacLane) in his pocket. Travis is to kick out the lawman, pin on the star himself and make the community a bit more law-abidin’.

Scott Brady is the crooked saloon owner

The snag is that Rile doesn’t care for this notion at all, so he sends out a few henchmen (Craig as Ike Clanton, Parton as Curly and Eric Cody as Jones) to bushwhack (hence the title) the new peace officer, and then the town will be able return to the old corrupt ways.

Good idea, you may think. However, the resourceful Travis is a match for the thugs. He changes clothes with Clanton so that the other two malefactors confuse the two and shoot down the wrong guy, viz. their accomplice Ike. Yes, I know Ike Clanton wasn’t killed in 1865 but survived even the gunfight at the OK Corral and was shot dead by detective Jonas V Brighton in September 1887 near Springerville. But we don’t watch Westerns for historical accuracy, now do we?

So Sheriff Travis takes charge in Colton and ex-Sheriff Grover (MacLane) is obliged to quit town. He was ready to, actually, being disgusted at himself for taking bribes from Rile.

Travis thinks that Southerner Molly must be his contact but when she doesn’t respond to the password he realizes he’s wrong. It’s demure milliner Jill who’s the one. Once they get that awkwardness ironed out, the new sheriff and the storekeeper decide to pretend to be lovers so they can associate with each other. As was bound to happen, though, the pretense soon becomes reality. Though the sheriff was rather taken with saloon gal Molly…

Donlevy is the mayor (briefly)

This is where Roy Jr. appears, pointlessly, so announce pompously that he hates Rebs and doesn’t drink. Then he departs. It was his first and last part in a Western.

Deputy Dan Shelby (Ireland) holds a candle for the hat-maker so now he has a double reason to hate the new sheriff: he’s a stinkin’ Reb and he’s wooing Deputy Dan’s flame. So he keeps a close eye on the lawman and it isn’t long before he rumbles that the couple are in cahoots in a dastardly Confederate plot.

The new sheriff, a consummate gambler, now wins the saloon from Rile at dice and the discomfited erstwhile owner is obliged to skedaddle.

The new sheriff wins the whole saloon at craps
 
Now, it appears that before losing his livelihood to the sheriff, slimy saloon owner Rile had discovered those hidden guns in an abandoned warehouse on the edge of town and, shock horror, has been selling them to some renegade Apaches. As you know, providing Indians with rifles in Westerns was a crime considerably worse on the scale of awfulness than cannibalism or matricide.

So it’s all building up to an exciting climax. There’s a curious bit where Sheriff Travis is wounded and has an arm in a sling and gets into a fight with his one-armed deputy so we get an unusual saloon brawl with two brachially challenged men hammering each other unidextrously.

Well, ex-Sheriff Grover now rides back in and tells Mayor Donlevy (who only had a short scene in the first reel and now has an equally short one in the last) that the war is now over, Lee having surrendered, and by the way, angry Rile and the Indians are coming, with their repeater rifles, so beware. Thus we have a last-reel shoot-out as ex-sheriff, new sheriff, former Yankees and former Rebels all join forces to fight the Apaches and the crook. It’s great stuff.

A few chosen characters are hit and expire but Deputy Dan gets the milliner back in his arms, Travis gifts the saloon to Molly and then he rides off into the sunset. The End.

And it's in Technicolor. Hell, what more do you want?

Producer AC Lyles and Howard Keel on the set of another of his Westerns, Waco,
with Jane Russell

 

11 comments:

  1. Hi Jeff. An off-topic comment but I hope you don't mind because it often brings in other opinions and makes for an interesting exchange. 'A Million Ways to Die in the West' was on UK TV last night and I saw it for the first time expecting absolutely nothing. After it seemed to be so universally panned when it came out I didn't expect to watch it for long but to my surprise it turned out I thoroughly enjoyed it from beginning to end. I just read your review and see your experience was the opposite. The thing that stood out for me is underneath the required C21st crude humour it seems to be very much in the spirit of 'Support Your Local Sheriff' and done with the same affection. In fact I would go so far as to suggest 'Support Your Local Sheriff' was used as the main model with the Seth MacFarlane character very much a kind of updated cowardly James Garner. I think the anachronistic C21st language and point of view might also have been influenced by the Owen Wilson character in 'Shanghai Noon' another spoof that IMHO makes for an enjoyable couple of hours. Off to see if you've reviewed that. Paul

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    1. Well, as I said in my review of that picture, Chacun à son goût. What's funny/unfunny is a very personal thing.
      I don't think I've seen Shanghai Noon. can't say that I'm busting a gut to do so tho' I'd probably watch it if it came on TV.
      Jeff

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    2. Hi Jeff - you might find a pleasurable couple of hours if you give 'Shanghai Noon' a try. Don't expect a significant addition to the genre - in fact don't expect a significant addition to anything - but IMHO Jackie Chan is always likable and Owen Wilson's usual and utterly anachronistic laid back slightly stoned schtick works in what's basically a buddy movie. Given the option of giving 'Shanghai Noon' a go or watching 'The Way West' again I don't think you'd end up kicking yourself for missing the first half hour of 'The Way West'. Paul

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  2. Jeff, Lesley Selander(1900-1979) was an excellent, if not great, director of Western movies and TV shows. He gave us the Westerns that we wanted to see. I know that director's probably get too much credit good or bad for movies, but when you see Selander's name on a Western, it will be a good on. Also, he received a Directors Guild nomination for an episode of LASSIE that he directed titled "Friendship" which first aired on September 16, 1956.



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    1. I agree: when you see his name on the credits you say, "Oh, good."
      Jeff

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  3. 'Warlock' is on this again this evening. Saw it again a couple of days ago. It's very good. Seems to get better each time I see it. Spot on review, Jeff. Didn't know about 'satin sheets' being 1950s code. In places a lot like the Tombstone story but seeing it from a different angle - not as cynical as 'Doc' but maybe more neutral with Widmark as an idealised Sheriff Behan. Paul

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  4. Paul, WARLOCK(1959) is a very good Western movie. The source material comes from Oakley Hall's Classic Western Novel published in 1958. The novel is a thinly disguised Tombstone, Arizona during the Wyatt Earp years. WARLOCK the novel came out during the beginning of the revisionist years of the Wyatt Earp story. Historians, semi-Historians, and other writers were beginning to look closer into the stories and documents of the so-called enemies of the Earp's and Doc Holliday. This was probably as a result of a beginning backlash of the ever popular TV show THE LIFE AND LEGEND OF WYATT EARP(1955-61) starring Hugh O'Brian and the box office hit THE GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL(1957). I have read Oakley Hall's WARLOCK novel and it is very good and I think ahead of it's time.

    In my humble opinion there was nothing concerning "satin sheets" in Oakley Hall's WARLOCK Western Historical Novel.

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    1. Yes, definitely something Earpish about Henry Fonda's character in Warlock, and something Doc-ish about Quinn's. The tough marshal cleaning up the town was of course one of the oldest plots in the business.
      I haven't read the source novel but would like to.
      Jeff

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    2. Thanks, Walter. One of the things that made me think of the connection is - my memory is vague in this - but didn't the opposite faction claim at one point the Earp faction was involved in a stagecoach hold up. I might be wrong about that but there is so much of Tombstone in Warlock including the detail that Fonda makes his living more through a gambling house than as a lawman and at one point Fonda pistol whips a citizen in the manner Earp was accused of being much too fond of. In it's fictionalized way IMHO it's one of the best or maybe 'adult' re-tellings of the story. Paul

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    3. Jeff and Paul, I agree there is something Earpish and Docish about Clay Blaisedell(Henry Fonda) and Tom Morgan(Anthony Quinn) in both movie and it's source material novel written by Oakley Hall. Paul, as you so correctly remember, the opposing Earp faction claimed that the Earp's and Holliday robbed a stagecoach, but it has never been proven. Yes, Oakley Hall correctly had Marshal Clay Blaisedell(Wyatt Earp through Henry Fonda) making his living as a gambler, as well as a lawman. Also, the novel and movie portrayed Marshal Blaisedell, as the real Wyatt Earp did, using his pistol to whip someone, instead of shoot them. The novel and movie were a decade or more ahead of the times. I agree that WARLOCK the movie is one of the best "adult" re-tellings of the Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday story, though it drops significant chunks of Hall's novel, which contains contradictory viewpoints. As we know, movies can't re-tell the whole novel, so read the novel, it is a classic.

      I recalled another thinly disguised Wyatt Earp, while reading Jeff's review of the excellent TV series CIMARRON STRIP(1967-68). In Harold Swanton's scripted "Broken Wing" episode, first aired on September 21, 1967, Steve Forrest portrays sly conman, gunslinger Wiley Harpe. Harpe(Earp) arrives in Cimarron by train wearing a heavy coat, because he is coming from the mining boom towns of Idaho. CIMARRON STRIP takes place in 1888. Wyatt Earp was a deputy sheriff and gambler in northern Idaho in the mid 1880's. Earp's time in Idaho was controversial because the opposing faction there, accused him and his brothers of being claim jumpers. Steve Forrest was very good in the role of Wiley Harpe.

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    4. Very interesting, Walter. Even though I watched Cimarron Strip and reviewed it (see https://jeffarnoldblog.blogspot.com/2015/06/cimarron-strip-cbs-tv-1967-8.html) I must say I hadn't associated Harpe with Earp. It's obvious, now that you mention it.
      Jeff

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