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Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Massacre Canyon (Columbia, 1954)


Carey in uniform again




 
 
Massacre Canyon was another Wallace MacDonald-produced Western starring Philip Carey. MacDonald had used Carey the year before in The Nebraskan and would do so twice in ’54, Massacre Canyon, released in May, and The Outlaw Stallion, released in July, both directed by good old Fred Sears. Then there would be Wyoming Renegades in 1955 and Return to Warbow in ’58. So the producer clearly liked Phil. Rightly, because Carey was suited to the genre.
 
Phil Carey good in Westerns

MacDonald’s Westerns were a mixed bag, ranging from the enjoyable B-movie (The Nebraskan) to the pretty dire C-Western (Gunmen from Laredo). But Carey always improved the ones he was in – even saved them. He had a big screen ‘presence’ and authority. Tall and rugged, he look right in Western roles, and was especially good as the charismatic baddy, such as in Raoul Walsh’s Gun Fury in 1953. Time and again he was an Army officer, and Massacre Canyon is no exception. We first see him out of uniform, drunk and brawling in some squalid cantina, and we think he’s going to be the villain, especially as we’ve already been introduced to Douglas Kennedy as tough Sergeant Marlowe, and he’s going to be the hero. But once Phil dons his Union blue and reveals himself as Lieutenant Faraday, he shapes up (and sobers up) and it will be he who saves the day from the marauding Apaches.

Wallace MacDonald back in his silent movie days

Kennedy was another big, powerfully-built man, who often appeared in both Westerns and thrillers as the bad guy. The year after Massacre Canyon he would become Steve Donovan, Western Marshal on the small screen but by the time of the MacDonald oater he was already mighty experienced in the saddle.

Pre-Steve Donovan Douglas
 
He went right back to a small part in North West Mounted Police, Cecil B DeMille’s Gary Cooper picture of 1940. He’d been in Fighting Man of the Plains, South of St. Louis, The Cariboo Trail, The Texas Rangers, War Paint and many other feature Westerns, always in support roles, never as lead. Playing a character named Marlowe opposite Carey in Massacre Canyon was quite a coincidence because Philip Marlowe would be Carey’s role in 1959 – 60 on TV.

Fred in a Durango Kid oater

Fred F Sears had been a Western actor (the picture above shows him in the Durango Kid picture Fort Savage Raiders in 1951, and he started directing Charles Starrett soon after; the photo below shows him as director). He spent his entire career at Columbia and was a favorite of quickie producer Sam Katzman because he brought in his films on time and under budget. He made juvenile-delinquent crime films, rock musicals, action thrillers and sci-fi ‘epics’ like Earth vs. Flying Saucers, but he also specialized in B-Westerns. He did Ambush at Tomahawk Gap and The Nebraskan for MacDonald in ’53, and he would direct Outlaw Stallion and Wyoming Renegades later. He also helmed the occasional quite classy oater (I think) such as Utah Blaine with Rory Calhoun. Sadly he died in 1957 of a heart attack, aged only 44.

Fred behind the camera

Massacre Canyon is a Geronimo story – or at least that is what we are led to believe. The Apache is mentioned twice in the opening speech and the plot centers around a cargo of Henry rifles that is being brought to the fort and which must not, at any cost, fall into the hands of the Indians. “If Geronimo gets his hands on ‘em, we can all cut our throats.” However, very soon the story morphs into a non-Geronimo one: the fearsome Indian chief who is the villain of the piece is a certain Black Eagle (Steve Ritch, who wrote some Wagon Train episodes and was also the Indian Sharp Knife in a few), who broke away from Geronimo’s band with his renegades and is now terrorizing the area.

There's a good title screen at the start, when arrows thud into the name of the movie.

Thud!

The fort is Fort Collins, as the actors often say, though it says Fort Collier on the poster. Fort Collier was a Confederate redout in Virginia. Lt. Gen. Jubal Early used it as part of his defensive works in the 3rd Battle of Winchester. So I’m not quite sure what it was doing out West, in Arizona or New Mexico. Perhaps it was purchased, moved and reassembled, like London Bridge. Fort Collins, on the other hand, was a Union post built in Colorado in 1864 and it became a boom town in the 1870s. It must be that one. Actually, we never see the fort, and this is not a 'cavalry Western' per se.



One of the forts anyway

Sgt. Marlowe, in plain clothes (i.e. range duds) has charge of delivering the invaluable arms shipment to Fort Collins/Collier. With him are the angry, belligerent and grumpy Private Peaceful Allen (Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams in a classic Big Boy part) and Pte. George Davis (Ross Elliott), who was a major but was busted to the ranks for cowardice. Marlowe believes in him. Marlowe’s dad was shot by the army, which only later realized he was innocent, so he wants to give Davis a second chance, you see.

Privates Davis and Allen with their boss, Sergeant Marlowe

The sergeant has put in his papers for a commission and is confidently expecting to become ‘Mr. Marlowe’ very soon. Imagine his disappointment, therefore, when he learns that Lt. Faraday has been appointed to the post and he, Marlowe, must remain a humble NCO. This adds fuel to his resentment of Carey’s character, as if the lieutenant's drunkenness and generally being a lout were not enough.

Segeant and lieuteant eventually overcome their animosity
and arrive at a grudging mutual respect

They come to Spanish Gap, a way station run by the drunken and slobbish Gonzalez (Mel Welles) and his Apache wife Gita (Charlita, from that great epic Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla). There is a no-good peddler (or pedlar) there, one ‘Parson’ Canfield (Ralph Dumke). Now this traveling salesman is a lowdown skunk because he wants to appropriate those Army 15-shot repeater Henrys and sell them to the Indians, and as you well know, dear movie-lover, selling guns to the Indians in Westerns is situated on the scale of criminality and awfulness somewhere between matricide and cannibalism. Gita says she can arrange the sale but then she double-crosses the parson and stabs him in the back, which isn’t very sporting.

The parson had with him two fair maidens (well, perhaps they used to be) whom he was aiming to sell off as wives (it’s 1954 so they couldn’t be hookers). They are blonde Flaxy (second-billed Audrey Totter) and brunette Cora (Jeff Donnell). Flaxy sets her metaphorical cap at Lt. Faraday, while Cora is determined to wed Peaceful. The lieutenant seems quite taken with the idea but Peaceful is more doubtful. At any rate, the ladies now join the party. Ms. Totter was often a hard-bitten moll in gangster flicks but she did some Westerns too. In fact she had been the Woman They Almost Lynched in 1953 (a Western that we shall soon be reviewing, you will be ecstatic to hear) and would later co-star with Scott Brady in The Vanishing American. In 1958 she would become Beth in Cimarron City. Jeff Donnell, who, unlike me, took her first name from 50% of the duo with Mutt in the cartoon strip, had a father who ran a boys’ reformatory and a mother who was a schoolteacher. But she survived. She occasionally got minor parts in A-pictures though she was usually, according to the IMDb bio, a “breezy girlfriend or spirited bobbysoxer.” But she too did the odd Western and you can spot her in the Tim Holt classic Stagecoach Kid or as one of the lady soldiers in The Guns of Fort Petticoat.

Glam Totter and Donnell

There’s a vague attempt at a backstory and a bit of character development when we learn that Lt. Faraday is a drunk because his girl died a year ago, and Flaxy is an actress who has descended to mail-order bride status in desperation (the lieutenant suggests she could become the schoolmistress at the fort, because of course schoolma’ams were respectable whereas actresses were, er, not). But it’s just a line or two of dialogue and it isn’t taken any further. It’s a token nod to a slightly better kind of film. The screenplay was by David Lang, who spent most of his time on Western TV shows, though he wrote a few big-screen oaters, including several for MacDonald.

It’s a 66-minute black & white B-Western, clearly meant as a second feature, but that doesn’t mean it’s junk. It does have its points.

They see the horrible massacre

There’s an action finale in which Pte. Davis shows enormous courage and self-sacrifice (as he was bound to do) and there’s a stalwart defense of the wagons with the whooping Indians riding round and round them in a circle being shot off their horses, as usually happened. Why Indians would ever be that stupid was never satisfactorily explained. Of course the defenders had those Henry rifles while the Apaches have bows and arrows. Dynamite comes into it, too, and a tunnel through the rockface. You may guess who wins.

The locations are the usual ones of the Simi Hills, the Iverson Ranch and the Bronson Caves in Griffith Park, LA. We recognize them fondly. The DP was Lester White (Gun Fury, The Stranger Wore a Gun, Fort Ti, et al). There’s a dust storm (MacDonald liked those).

The gals join the party but have to take their turn at guard duty

It’s all harmless fun, at least if you don’t mind seeing horses driven too fast or Apaches treated as nameless savages to be shot down. It’s not great art, and I don’t think Kurosawa, Bergman or Welles would have been furiously jealous of Fred. Still, if you go for minor early-50s low-budget black & white B-Westerns (and why are you reading this blog if not?) this could be for you.

 

 

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Gunmen from Laredo (Columbia, 1959)


Not a stellar cast





 
 
We were talking the other day about Wallace MacDonald, producer of B-Westerns. Some of them were not bad – I am thinking of the likes of The Hard Man with Guy Madison or The Nebraskan with Philip Carey or Ambush at Tomahawk Gap with John Hodiak – though others were pretty routine, like Return to Warbow or The Black Dakotas. I’m afraid Gunmen from Laredo was in the latter category. It was MacDonald’s only stab at directing a Western as well as producing it. As a director, he made a good producer.
 
Wallace MacDonald in Fighting Thru, 1930

Actually, I’d go further. Gunmen from Laredo is stilted, and it has a clunky script and some wooden acting to add to the rather ham-fisted directing. Like all 50s Columbia oaters it had something. It wasn’t a total dud. It was in color, with some nice ‘Western’ locations (California standing in for Texas). But all in all it’s a bit of a bore. It was MacDonald’s last foray in the genre. He’d started as an actor right back in the silent days: he was in Fighting with Buffalo Bill (1926) and Whispering Smith Rides (1927).

Robert Knapp topped the billing. Knapp was a regular in minor parts of Western TV shows and also appeared in small roles in a few big-screen oaters such as Jubal, Revolt at Fort Laramie and a couple more but this was the only time he led in one, big screen or small, and to be brutally honest, I’m not surprised. In Gunmen he plays rancher Gil Reardon whose cattle drive is attacked and his Mexican cowhand (Martin Garralaga) and wife (Jean Moorhead, Playmate Of The Month, October 1955) are brutally slain. He too is left for dead. The perpetrator of this heinous crime is Laredo resident Ben Keefer (Walter Coy). We are told that Reardon killed one of Keefer’s cowboys in Dodge City, and though it was in self-defense, Keefer has exacted revenge.

His only lead in a Western

Well, Reardon survives – the bullet just creased him, you know how they do. And of course he wants Keefer, and sets off, afoot, for Laredo. So it’s a revenge Western.

Coy had been Aaron Edwards in The Searchers, so respect, but he was more memorable for me in a tiny but powerful part in Warlock as the sheriff run out of town by the ruthless rancher and his yahoo cowboys. I also quite liked him as henchman in Five Guns to Tombstone, when he disarms a fellow of a derringer and scornfully tosses it aside. But like Knapp he did TV work mostly. He’s competent here as the bad guy. He owns a saloon, natch, for bad guys in Westerns were almost obliged to.

Walter Coy

Coy as bad guy Keefer

Reardon finds El Dorado (the saloon) and quickly dispatches Bob Sutton (John Cason), one of the Keefer henchmen, but though Sutton drew first, Reardon is promptly arrested for murder. Keefer tells him that there isn’t “room in the Territory for the both of us” (MacDonald and his writers – in this case Clarke Reynolds, who also worked on Shotgun and Shalako - specialized in corny clichés). There’s a trial but it’s the usual travesty of justice that we see in Westerns. The circuit judge (Harry Antrim) is obliged to find Reardon guilty after the perjury of witnesses and the verdict of the bought-and-paid-for jury. So it’s ten to twenty-five years in the state pen. Actually, it’s not the state pen. For some odd reason, though they are in Texas, Reardon has to serve his time in Unionville, New Mexico.

You wonder why Columbia bothered

Of course he can’t stay there for a quarter of a century, or even a decade, because the movie would kinda stop. So he escapes.

One good thing: a new US marshal arrives and it’s Paul Birch. So at least we got some good acting and a believable tough Westerner. This marshal, Matt Crawford, immediately understands that Keefer has treed the town and is a villain, and sets about proving it.

Marshal Birch is tasked with taking Knapp to prison

Well, there’s a (very phony) jailbreak. Guards shoot Reardon’s two fellow escapees easily but curiously fail to hit Reardon.

Enter the Indians. Fleeing Reardon finds a Mexican-Mescalero maiden, Rosita (second-billed Maureen Hingert, aka Jana Davi, Miss Ceylon 1955 - so she was almost Indian) tied to a tree and he fights the cruel Chiricahua Delgados who has done this. It’s Pahoo! Well, X Brands, anyway. Reardon cleverly manages to get Delgados to stab himself. Now he has a companion in the shapely shape of Rosita, who, luckily, knows the way across the desert to Laredo. He also just happens to find fresh horses, some guns and some clothes to replace his prison suit. Lucky, wasn’t it.

Saving the Indian maiden

But the cruel Chiricahuas, whom Rosita detests, notably Delgados’s dad Coloradas (stuntman Charles Horvath, often an Indian) are hot on their trail. A lengthy chase ensues. It’s a curiously green, arboreal and lush desert they cross. It looks remarkably like Bronson Canyon in Griffith Park, LA. At one point there’s a fake dust storm. They shelter from it in one of the Bronson Canyon caves (also used as the Batcave) and she picks up a stiff stuffed rabbit, which I suppose she means to cook.

Horvath is Chiricahua chief Coloradas

After supper they canoodle, but the camera discreetly pans away. It was 1959, after all. He doesn’t seem to have mourned his dead wife very long.

There’s quite a lot of to-ing and fro-ing now as Marshal Birch and a couple of deputies get involved, as well as the Chiricahuas under Chief Horvath, who finally catch up to them. Reardon challenges the chief to a hand-to-hand combat, winner take all, loser skedaddle. You may guess who wins (though I’d back burly Horvath any day against skinny Knapp). So the whites ride off.

Improbable victor

They get back to town. “Laredo,” announces Reardon, so that we know. Badman Keefer has got wind of Reardon’s return and he has stationed one of his ne’er-do-well brothers, Walt (Ron Hayes) on a roof, in bushwhacker mode, and the other, Jordan (Jered Barclay) by his side. But Reardon makes short work of both brothers (they deserved it because they were in on the first-reel wife-murder too) and Keefer weasels out of a 1:1 showdown by throwing away his gun. Of course he knows that no Western hero, even a B-movie one, can shoot an unarmed man. But he can’t resist a sneaky move. All these ‘deaths’ are remarkably badly staged; they do those fake grimaces and clutching of stomachs before falling.

"Laredo," they announce, as they enter the Iverson Ranch

The ending has a whiff of Stagecoach about it as the marshal sends the escaped prisoner on his way with the gal. Married bliss and a Mexican rancho loom.

Sorry to be so critical but really, this Western isn’t very good. Still, I suppose they tried to cram every known Western trope into it. It’s only 67 minutes and has all the air of a cheap second feature. Odd that Columbia thought it was worth a release in those full-on TV Western days. I gave it two revolvers rather than the one it probably deserved for Paul Birch and also because it's not a spaghetti. It's not that bad.

Like the French poster

 

Friday, October 26, 2018

Return to Warbow (Columbia, 1958)


Phil good as bad guy with saving graces




 
 
I’ve grown to appreciate Philip Carey in Westerns. Tall and rugged, he suited the genre, especially as bad guy (he was blond so not suitable for goody roles). He started with John Wayne in a submarine drama in 1951 but his first Western outing was as the Army captain in Springfield Rifle, Warners’ rather pedestrian Gary Cooper oater of ’52. He was also an Army man, the dashing young lieutenant, in Calamity Jane in ’53, and he would don the Union blue yet again in The Man Behind the Gun the same year (promoted back to captain). He stole the show as the charismatic but crazed badman in Gun Fury that year too, and (he was busy out West in ’53) he led for the first time in an oater in The Nebraskan, in which he was a brave and resourceful Army scout in buckskin fending off a siege of the Sioux. It really was an excellent start in the genre.
 
Phil Carey

He led again, twice, in 1954, in Massacre Canyon (soon to be reviewed) and The Outlaw Stallion, and he was yet again an Army officer (he was getting typecast) in They Rode West that year as well. He did a lot of TV Westerns too (later he would be the tough captain of Texas Rangers in Laredo) but he continued with the big-screen version, often Bs. By ’58 and Return to Warbow he was very experienced in the saddle. He was always better as bad guy and I like Westerns in which the headline star is a baddy.

The decent but dull goody he comes up against is Andrew Duggan. Duggan’s Westerns were mostly TV shows but before he became Lancer for two seasons on NBC, he did do some feature Westerns. He was the sheriff in the Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott oater Decision at Sundown, and he was the smoothie we all at first take for the villain in Domino Kid with Rory Calhoun (another picture directed by Ray Nazarro). He was the rather sickly-sentimental goody padre in The Bravados with Gregory Peck. Later he would return to the Boetticher/Scott fold as the villain in Westbound. Like Carey, he was better as the baddy, and his character in Return to Warbow is, I am afraid, two-dimensional and uncharismatic.

Duggan is dull goody, McLeod is his loyal wife

Return to Warbow was based on the 1955 novel by Les Savage Jr. Savage himself did the screenplay and it is said (I have not read the book so I can’t vouch for this) the writer adapted the story for the screen by cutting out all the good bits.

Source novel

The plot of the movie is briefly summarized: convict at the Yuma Territorial prison in Arizona Clay Hollister (Carey) leads two other felons, the excellent Robert J Wilke (the eternal heavy) as Red and a young slightly James Best-ish William Leslie as Johnny, in a violent escape (stuntman and character actor Fred Graham was one of the guards they do in). Eleven years ago Clay robbed a stage near the town of Warbow with his brother Frank and killed a man. Now he wants to get back to the town and recover his part of the loot. Red and Johnny go with him for a share but they are already planning to double-cross Clay and divide the plunder between themselves.

The three escapees, happy to be out

Now, Murray Fallam (Duggan) was the owner of the stage line that was held up. He has married Clay’s sweetheart, Kathleen (Catherine McLeod) and adopted the son who, it turns out, was really Clay’s. So there are other motives for conflict.

Clay’s brother Frank has become a drunk and a wastrel. He is played by the excellent and slightly cadaverous James Griffith, a favorite Western actor of mine. The trouble is, for the plot development anyway, we are told early on that Frank has gambled and drunk all the stolen money away, and the stash is no more. After that, the story doesn’t have anywhere much to go.

Duggan and Wilke persuade the excellent James Griffith to join his brother Clay

There’s a sheriff (Francis De Sale) and Harry Lauter is one of his deputies. They brace themselves for the return of Clay, for they know he was broken out of Yuma, and the lawman says he wants Clay “dead or alive” (the script has quite a few clichés in it).

Well, the criminal trio descend on the Fallam ranch and take the wife and boy hostage, the swines. The Fallams have an Indian ranch hand and good news, it’s Jay Silverheels. He was blinded by Clay in the hold-up but he is still pretty feisty in opposing the villains, and later he will save the day (my lips are sealed as to how).

The boy (Christopher Olsen) is one of those plucky lads beloved of Westerns, especially the juvenile ones, and he is brave and resourceful, and he too will contribute to the (inevitable) downfall of the bad guys.

The family held hostage. But Clay won't hurt his son.

The badmen go to town secretly and manage to get Frank out of the saloon but they are spotted by the law and a gun-battle ensues in which Frank is hit. But don’t worry, “it’s only a flesh wound.” Clay is arrested but Bob Wilke breaks him out of jail (it’s becoming a habit).

There’s a finale in an old mine, with cave-ins, obviously. We know the villains will fall out and set to shooting each other, which they duly do, and we also know, because it was Hollywood code that the bad guy cannot survive (even if he shows some good traits) for crime must not pay, and Clay will perish (no spoiler here, I think).

Showdown in the old mine

It’s all rather routine, I fear, and though in nice Technicolor was pretty standard fare. The novel’s Montana winter setting was transposed to the usual Columbia Western town and sunny Simi Valley locations, doubtless for budgetary reasons. Carey saves the picture (with no help from the stodgy rest of the cast except Griffith and Silverheels). It’s very much a B-Western and a rather ordinary one at that.

Director Nazarro was an honest workman or, if we are being unkinder, a Columbia hack – he churned out dozens of the studio’s oaters, including many in the Durango Kid series with Charles Starrett. I approve of him, though, because he helmed a Western I like, Kansas Pacific.

Ray Nazarro (with actress Adele Roberts)

The producer was Wallace MacDonald, who also did The Nebraskan and another B-Western the year after Return to Warbow, Gunmen from Laredo, which, you will be thrilled to hear, we shall soon be reviewing.