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Saturday, March 23, 2019

Desert Flight, a Budd Boetticher-directed episode of Zane Grey Theatre


Budd gives us a classy TV show


Many directors of B-Westerns in minor studios embraced TV with gusto. As the market for crowd-fodder Westerns migrated from the big screen to the small, they were perfectly happy to move with it. Work was work after all. But some famous directors of Westerns remained aloof. You wouldn’t catch Howard Hawks or Henry Hathaway directing a Western TV show, or Anthony Mann or Delmer Daves, or even John Sturges. Some did. John Ford directed an episode of Wagon Train, The Colter Craven Story. He managed to maintain to Ward Bond that he had never seen a TV Western and that Bond’s Wagon Train was very bad, seeming to be impervious as to the inconsistency of these two views. André De Toth directed a few TV shows too, such as The Lonely Gun, a 1959 episode of Zane Grey Theatre, and we will soon be reviewing his episodes of The Westerner. Many of the well-known TV Westerns had episodes directed by the great and good, such as Gunsmoke, The Rifleman and Have Gun - Will Travel. We have been looking at a few of these. Today, Budd Boetticher.
 

Boetticher is of course best known for those Randolph Scott Westerns of the late 50s, and very good they were too, but he also helmed the likes of Horizons West, The Cimarron Kid, The Man from the Alamo, Seminole, Wings of the Hawk, A Time for Dying and Two Mules for Sister Sara. They weren’t all great though there were some ‘important’ Westerns among them. But he also directed five episodes of Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theatre, three of Maverick, one of The Rifleman and one of Death Valley Days. Last night I watched one of the Zane Grey ones, Desert Flight, 1960.

I am always astonished at how really good directors managed to establish and even develop character in what were only half-hour low-budget black & white shows. And even that half hour was often largely taken up with sponsor’s announcements, credits and so forth. This one starred Powell himself, as many of them did, as a smooth bank robber who has, however, allied himself with a green kid, Sandy (Ben Cooper, Turkey Ralston in Johnny Guitar) and the homicidal Doyle (James Coburn, since 1958 a hardened regular on Western TV shows, and this episode came out in the same month as The Magnificent Seven, which made Coburn’s name). Doyle unnecessarily shoots and kills the bank clerk at the establishment they are robbing and also a rancher they come across. "He was only an old man". Doyle’s a nasty bit of work. Brenner (Powell) is one of those ‘decent’ badmen who rob and such but never kill anyone.


They decide to take the desert route as being the least likely to suffer pursuit from a posse (an erroneous decision) and in this it reminds us of Yellow Sky (though they suffer less). 

Of course the bad guys fall out under pressure but Brenner will show his good-badman credentials at the last. It’s a quality show and you can detect Boetticher’s hand. Expanded, this would have made one of those Randolph Scott features shot up at Lone Pine. Even within the limitations of the studio-bound set and minimal location work Boetticher manages to convey the pitiless terrain. It was written by Jim and Joe Byrnes.


Recommended (available on YouTube).

 

2 comments:

  1. Jeff, good write-up. I would like to echo Jerry Entract's comment that this is a good notion to review individual TV episodes directed by a notable western director. There are many really good episodes out there. We grew up watching them in the days when there was at least one Western TV show on every night during prime time.

    Another good episode of DICK POWELL'S ZANE GREY THEATER is "The Sunrise Gun" which has Ben Cooper, Dennis Hopper, Everett Sloane, and Karl Swenson in a Bruce Gellar script directed by Phil Karlson. It aired in April, 1959 nine months after Karlson's GUNMAN'S WALK(1958) was released. I'm not going to give away anything about this episode, just enjoy.

    One director that came to TV with gusto was Republic Pictures William Witney. He directed some really good episodes, especially of BONANZA. His directed episodes were a cut above. He liked to get the Cartwrights out of the studio and on location. His January, 1966 two-parter "Ride the Wind" was released as a feature movie overseas in 1967.

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  2. As Walter says, these western 'expert' directors made some great TV episodes occasionally. William Witney really boosted "BONANZA" in his work there. Similarly, Les Selander and Joe Kane on "LARAMIE" and, of course, Sam Peckinpah on "THE RIFLEMAN". Somehow, their episodes are indeed always a cut above.

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