Claudette, pretty little babe, Claudette - er, no, actually, not that one
The famous Hollywood actress Claudette Colbert (left), one of the top celebs of her time, who in the 1930s had starred in comedy-romances such as It Happened One Night (for which she won an Oscar) and Midnight, didn’t do Westerns. They weren’t her thing. She was cast for John Ford in the eighteenth-century drama Drums Along the Mohawk in 1939, if you call that a Western. In fact she got top billing in it, even though she was unconvincing as Henry Fonda’s frontier wife and her acting was very old-fashioned. Colbert also returned as co-star to Clark Gable (the male lead in It Happened One Night) in Boom Town in 1940, a drama-romance about wildcatters (Gable and Spencer Tracy) becoming oil tycoons and loving the same woman (la Colbert) but I wouldn’t call that a Western either. No, in reality, Texas Lady was the only true Western she made. Perhaps she thought the genre beneath her, I don’t know. But in any case she wasn't terribly suited to it.
Texas Lady was a proper Western, though, and it has certain points in its favor – though also some weaknesses. It was directed (his last film) by Tim Whelan, The Thief of Baghdad chap, who also didn’t really do Westerns, though he helmed two perfectly satisfactory Randolph Scott oaters, Badman’s Territory in 1946 and Rage at Dawn the same year as Texas Lady, both also for RKO.
Director Whelan (Alamy photo)
The writer was Horace McCoy, who worked on twelve big-screen Westerns, including the very fine The Lusty Men. It was a Nat Holt production. We might fairly call Holt a Western specialist. He did a lot of Randolph Scott oaters, including Rage at Dawn with Whelan and McCoy.
Horace was at the typewriter
Producer Nat Holt on the set of another picture, with Ann Jeffreys
There are some nice Columbia State Historic Park locations shot in ‘SuperScope’ and Technicolor by the great Ray Rennahan, and some chirpy (though occasionally slushy) music by Paul Sawtell.
We open in 1885 with Barry Sullivan well cast as a smooth riverboat gambler being taken to the cleaners by a superior poker player. He is not worried about losing the fifty grand, just the damage to his reputation. This is because the winning gambler is a woman (it’s Claudette, of course). It turns out that the very competent card player has been in training for years, specifically in order to clean Barry out. You see, her pa had embezzled fifty thousand dollars from the bank where he worked, lost it all to Barry at cards and then committed suicide. So she was out for revenge. She gets it, but still, you can sense an attraction of one gambler to the other.
Well, Prudence (Colbert’s character is named Prudence) pays off her dead daddy’s debt and then sets off for darkest Texas where she intends to take charge of the only asset her late pa left her, a small-town newspaper, The Fort Ralston Clarion.
Unfortunately, the managing editor, Clay Ballard (our old pal Douglas Fowley) refuses to accept the ownership document and is generally surly. He is anyway in the pocket of the two local rich men who run the whole place. Mica Ralston and his partner Whit Sturdy founded the town, driving out the Indians and taking over the land, two million acres of it. They are classic ruthless rancher types, and will have no truck with a woman (a woman, indeed!) running a paper and maybe criticizing them for being overbearing. Ralston is played by Ray Collins and Sturdy by Walter Sande, two regulars of our beloved genre. Sande’s character is a bit on the bland side, and he is overshadowed by Collins’s Ralston, who takes ruthlessness to quite some lengths. Collins was good in this, I thought.
The ranchers have a hired gun, an illiterate thug who nevertheless wears a deputy’s badge, Jess Foley, played by Gregory Walcott (right), a square-jawed former Warners contract player who did a lot of TV Westerns but who started big-screen oaters in ’55 with this picture and another lady-in-town one, Strange Lady in Town with Greer Garson. The thing is, Deputy Foley and the would-be newspaperlady Prudence are supposed to feel a mutual electricity, a sort of fatal attraction. Alright, but even Barry Sullivan, whom she had semi-romanced in the first reel (but who has been written out of all the middle part of the movie), was nine years her junior. OK, true love knows no age and all that. But Walcott was almost young enough to be Colbert’s grandson and this part is implausible, if not even slightly creepy. Walcott himself said, “I had done so many great films and worked with so many great directors that I didn’t want to be identified with such a piece of trash.” That was perhaps a bit harsh but he was right that his part in the movie was not terribly convincing.
Prudence gradually manages to win over the townsfolk to her side, aided by a broken-down alcoholic lawyer whom she reforms and who acts for her (James Bell) and the saloon owner, who is, unusually for Westerns, a goody (our chum John Litel), and, especially, by gambler Barry when he turns up. Of course deputy Foley is very jealous of the gambler, and being a hired gun, vows to kill him. There is to be a classic Main Street showdown, though at the rather unhabitual hour of four p.m. (we are rather more used to dawn, noon, sundown, etc.) Are you ready for the good news? You might have guessed it already. Barry defeats the gunslinger, wounding him and sending him off with his tail between his legs, with a derringer! Not only that, one of those sleeve types that you can dash into you palm because it’s on a spring. Well, that certainly sent the film up in my estimation.
Saloon owner Litel is a goody
There’s another good bit when the widow in black (Celia Lovsky, below) of a homesteader that the deputy murdered goes to visit the gunman, with a shotgun.
Widow v. gunslinger
There’s a ‘fandango’ at the local saloon, the Wigwam. So that’s good too.
In this one the railroad is a symbol of progress and a force for good. Once she gets control of her newspaper, Editor Prudence campaigns for one, while the old-style ranchers are dead set against the idea. You’d think they’d be in favor, for getting their cattle to market, but no. We are so used to railroads being the very exemplar of corporate greed, riding roughshod over the rights of decent homesteaders, that it comes as rather a refreshing change to see them portrayed as goodies.
"Such a piece of trash." Maybe a bit harsh.
Well, spurred on by the power of the popular press the people rise up, kick out the ranchers’ corrupt officers and elect a new judge, mayor and sheriff. Will ‘the people’ win out over the tyrannical bosses, and succeed in bringing ‘progress’ to the West? Of course they will, assisted by a couple of Texas Rangers who turn up in the last reel to being some law ‘n’ order, to whom the ruthless ranchers rather surprisingly meekly and suddenly bow.
To be brutally frank (and when, dear e-readers, is your Jeff anything less?) Texas Lady was not the best Western to come out in the mid-1950s. The late Brian Garfield summed it up pithily as “Predictable, rambling, slow.” And I think Ms. Colbert was probably right to eschew the genre. Poster slogans like WOMANLY WILES WERE HER WEAPONS! and A LADY TILL THE FIGHTING STARTED, THEN WHAT A WOMAN! sound a bit outdated these days. Still, it does have its plus points here and there. I wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand, e-pards. You could give it a go.