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

Friday, May 31, 2013

Go West (MGM, 1940)

A twenty-gallon hat

I don’t always go for comedy Westerns. I find the genre faintly sacrilegious.

But I do sometimes like them. There are honorable exceptions to be made. Buster Keaton's Go West of 1925 was truly wonderful and, of course, Blazing Saddles. Destry. Glenn Ford in The Sheepman. Among the acceptable ones is the Marx Brothers’ romp Go West which has all the usual ingredients: preposterous plot, musical interludes and gags galore.
It’s all about Chico and Harpo getting the deed to a mine but being cheated out of their ownership by a crooked saloon keeper, and stealing it back. And so on.

It’s nearly all filmed in the studio (including the Monument Valley bits!)

Great scenes are in the railroad ticket office and when they are drinking mint juleps in the saloon with the dancing girls. The best part, however, (which MGM nearly axed as being too expensive) is towards the end where the Marx Bros take over the train and race the baddies in a buggy galloping alongside. Harpo, Chico and Groucho have to break up the cars for wood to burn in the boiler.
Harpo’s obligatory harp playing is provided in an Indian village where a loom is set up that happens to be strung tightly enough to play. Chico, of course, plays the saloon piano. Diana Lewis sings in her fine baritone.

There are a few quite daring bits for 1940: Groucho is ‘S. Quentin Quayle’ (San Quentin quail is of course jail bait). At one point he exclaims to a saloon girl, “Lulubelle, it's you! I didn't recognize you standing up”.

Though it’s not at all the funniest Marx Brothers film, it’s good for a chuckle and Harpo wears a twenty-gallon hat. We forgive them for stealing Buster Keaton’s 1925 title.

Say, didn't we meet at Monte Carlo the night you blew your brains out?


Thursday, May 30, 2013

Go West (Metro-Goldwyn, 1925)


The Marx Brothers, Bob Hope, WC Fields, all comedians had to Go West or be a Paleface sooner or later but Buster Keaton did it first. This 69-minute 1925 classic set the standard.

Down and out in Indiana, ‘Friendless’ heads first for New York, then boards an AT&SF boxcar for the trip out West.
Riding the boxcars
There he gets hired on as a cowboy and proceeds to have adventures.
Cowboy having an adventure

He plays poker with a card sharp, accuses him of cheating and the villain replies (on the inter-title, of course), “When you say that, SMILE.” The reference would not have been lost on audiences of the time and nor is it on you, dear readers, avid readers of Owen Wister as you all are. Of course, Buster does not smile.
He gets into all sorts of scrapes such as a gun fight on the railroad, bronco busting and cattle wrangling. Naturally he does his own stunts. In fact, Keaton even doubled for other actors, doing their stunts too. He falls from a train, in a barrel. He falls from a suspension bridge. He also falls for a beautiful heroine with brown eyes, though in a black & white film we have to take that on trust. Just to be sure, however, Brown Eyes is her name. You need to see the movie truly to appreciate the allure of Brown Eyes.
It's not what you think
In the end we see him in downtown Los Angeles dressed in a devil’s costume (we are told it is red) herding thousands of cattle into the stockyards. The grateful rancher, whose livelihood he has saved, offers him any prize he wants. He says, “I want HER.” The movie finishes with Buster and his true love driving off in a car.
The LA scenes are hilarious, still, and the way Buster plays the whole story with a sad, wry warmth is wonderful. Written and directed by Buster Keaton “assisted by Lex Neal”, it was filmed at Kingman, Arizona and at the Coca-Cola building on E 4th Street in LA.

Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle (uncredited) is one of the women in the department store.

I love this film.

Gun The Man Down aka Arizona Mission (UA, 1956)

James Arness on the big screen in a cloud of gunsmoke



This is in many ways little more than a mid-1950s black & white B-Western. Gunsmoke had recently moved from radio to TV and James Arness was its star. Arness and Gun The Man Down’s director Andrew V McLaglen (his debut) were protégés of John Wayne, who produced and promoted the movie, as he had plugged the TV series. (Click here to see Wayne introducing Gunsmoke.)

French poster. Legitimate defense.
Gun The Man Down, also known as Arizona Mission, has the look of a TV Western and in some ways is little more than a 78-minute episode of Gunsmoke. It was shot in nine days on a low budget. It opens with three bad guys and a dame in a cabin, planning a bank robbery. But it ain’t Gunsmoke because one of the bad guys is Arness! The moll is Angie Dickinson, in her debut. The robbery goes wrong, the bad guys run out on Arness, leaving him to the law, and thereafter it’s a straight revenge drama.

But the picture has qualities. It was written by Burt Kennedy from a Sam Freedle story that almost has the feel of a Luke Short (praise indeed). The photography was by William H Clothier, presumably drafted in by Wayne. There is superior music by Henry Vars.
Good support acting
The support acting is quality too. Harry Carey Jr. plays the deputy and good old stand-by Robert J Wilke plays the leading heavy. He had the advantage that a sneer was his face’s default setting. Emile Meyer (the rancher Ryker in Shane) had the Matt Dillon part, as the wily, calm town marshal. There’s even Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez as the hotel keeper, practicing for his part in Rio Bravo, again with Angie Dickinson, three years later. All the cast did a good, solid job.

It was supposed to be Arizona but looks very like California, somewhere behind the studios. That’s OK.
Jim Arness on Buck
Arness has his Matt Dillon gun and rides Buck. In fact this movie helped launch James Arness. He had started in Westerns in an uncredited bit part in 1948, then had small roles in various B-Westerns. He was one of the evil Clegg sons in Wagonmaster in 1950. His biggest role in the early days was probably alongside Ward Bond again in the Charles Marquis Warren-directed Hellgate in 1952. Wayne had him as a foil in Hondo in 1953. Partly thanks to Wayne, who had turned down the role of Matt Dillon, Arness secured the part in Gunsmoke in 1955, becoming quite a star, and this film, Gun The Man Down, was his first movie lead.

However, his Western feature-film career never happened and he was really limited to TV Gunsmoke (astonishingly, 635 episodes over 20 years, 96 of them directed by McLaglen) and later some spin-off Gunsmoke movies (which I think not bad, in fact) in the 1990s when he was in his 70s.

But Gun The Man Down is a classy B-Western of a superior kind. I recommend it. It’s not a classic. It probably wouldn’t get into many people’s top hundred. But it’s a sound, reliable oater with merit.


Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Frontier Gal (Universal, 1945)

Seriously bad

Yvonne De Carlo specialized in cheesy 40s Westerns. She was CalamityJane in one. In this one she is accompanied by Rod Cameron, doing his best to pretend to be Randolph Scott, but not succeeding. So we have two Canadians leading and neither very good. Furthermore, to cast gallantry totally aside, Ms. De Carlo was a pound or two over par.
Yes, quite
Not so much a Western as a romantic comedy, this trite film has a feisty saloon keeper Madam tamed by macho Cameron with alternate kissing and spanking. It’s all enough to give modern viewers with even the slightest feminist sensibilities the vapors.

It is a Technicolor special and probably had a reasonable budget behind it but in reality it is only a B-movie. Perhaps the film was amusing escapism for post-World War II audiences.
But I doubt it.
Both pretty hopeless
The worst part of it is the songs: all anachronistic, all awful. Fuzzy Knight’s ditty is about the best but it’s only relative. Fuzzy does his usual amusing cowardly deputy act. Andy Devine is the sheriff, so that's one good thing. Yvonne looks thin beside him.

Of the acting and the writing, the role of the judge (played by Andrew Tombes in a sub-Edgar Buchanan way) is the best. But again, it’s only relative.

There’s a very early attempt at special FX in the scene which has Rod rescuing a brat from a tree over a waterfall. The brat is his and De Carlo’s daughter. She gets spanked too.

Is it a coincidence that a film with so much spanking in it was written by someone called Michael Fessier? (French joke).
Not good
There’s a fair bit of chasing about on horses and Rod escapes quite often.

The scenery is nice. It looked like Colorado but it’s Dernville, Cal, shot by Charles P Boyle and George Robinson.

The director Charles Lamont has 252 titles to his credit, if credit’s the word, between 1923 and 1959. None of them was a good Western.
Romantic tosh.
Rod Cameron could be OK in Westerns but he is poor here, and De Carlo worse.

If you enjoy badly-acted love stories you’ll like this film.

So long.


Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Flaming Star (Fox, 1960)

A very good Western

You might think that a Western with Elvis Presley in it would be a popular, ultra-commercial vehicle, just a showcase for a few songs. Love Me Tender, his first Western, four years before, was a bit more than that but not much. And later ‘Westerns’ were, frankly, pretty dire. In 1965 we had Elvis as the Panhandle Kid in a ‘comedy musical Western’ called, wait for it, Tickle Me. After that, Stay Away, Joe was just as awful in 1968 and his last oater was the American spaghetti Charro, in 1969, better than Tickle Me or Stay Away, Joe but that’s about all you can say. I’m afraid Elvis’s Western record is far from distinguished.
However, his very first one wasn’t half bad. In fact I think it’s rather good. And it showed that Elvis did in fact have some histrionic talent. Flaming Star is a taut, gritty Western with a lot to say about racism, bigotry and loyalty.

In what ways is it good?

Sam Burton (John McIntire) has a Kiowa wife (the great Dolores del Rio) and two sons, Steve Forrest (by a previous marriage so he is all ‘white’) and Elvis Presley, a ‘half-breed’. The Kiowas go to war, the Burtons try to remain neutral but can’t and we watch the family disintegrate before our eyes. The townspeople are bigoted but you can understand it. The Indians are enraged but you can understand it. It’s unusually nuanced and subtle.
I have a lot of time for John McIntire. He was first class in Westerns. I must review his career in its McIntirety one day. For now, I would highlight his performances in Winchester ’73 as the creepy gun salesman, The Lawless Breed as John Wesley Hardin’s father (and uncle), his Al Sieber in Apache, his smiling-rogue judge in The Far Country and his brilliant docs in The Tin Star and The Gunfight at Dodge City.
I also think Dolores Del Rio (or del Rio, it varied) was a most interesting and very beautiful woman. A hugely glamorous Hollywood figure of the 1920s, she became the shining star of Mexican cinema. You could compare her with Katy Jurado. She didn’t do many Westerns, more’s the pity. She did a silent Klondike picture in 1928, then a Leslie Fenton-directed B-movie with Wallace Beery in 1940, The Man from Dakota. Then came Flaming Star. And in 1964 she was quite wonderful as ‘Spanish Woman’ in John Ford’s not-so-wonderful Cheyenne Autumn. She was graceful, noble and powerful.

Apart from the title song, Elvis only gets to do one number (probably insisted upon by Col. Parker) and that is right at the beginning.

The script is intelligent and thought-provoking (Clair Huffaker and Nunnally Johnson from the Huffaker novel). The characters are very well developed. There is plenty of action. The music (Cyril J Mockridge) is a little ponderous and there are rather obvious orchestrations of ‘Indian’ music when the Kiowa appear but it’s quite gripping. A lot of the movie was filmed in Utah but the scenery makes an effective Texas. Charles G Clarke’s photography is good.
This film was powerfully directed by Don Siegel, although he might be accused of making the message too obvious at times, especially in the final scene.

It was originally planned for Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra. I like it better this way.

Andy Warhol’s famous diptych of Elvis as cowboy came from a shot in this movie.
Don’t get me wrong, this is no truly great Western. If you want to see a really fine movie on such themes, you need to watch The Unforgiven or The Searchers. But neither is it a pot-boiler. It’s a well-produced, fast-paced motion picture with good acting, and it has something to say.

And Elvis is really rather good.


Monday, May 27, 2013

Bad Day at Black Rock (MGM, 1955)

A menacing game of chess
Bad Day at Black Rock is a very good film. You can argue whether it’s a Western. It’s a Western in the sense that it’s set in the West (Arizona or California, it isn’t quite clear; it’s very well photographed by William C Mellor up at Lone Pine locations in the eastern Sierra Nevada) and contains many references to the West usually in terms of the old West and the passing of the West. The characters in the town wear cowboy hats and have Western names like Reno, Doc and Tim Horn. Spencer Tracy, Clint-like, comes into town, a stranger, and rights wrongs, before leaving again.
In a way it’s a reverse High Noon because the scared but gritty lone good guy comes in on the train and finds a whole town of bad men. It’s an anti-Western in the sense that the good guy wears a suit and is from the city, while the country town Westerners are the corrupt ones.
They stand, vertical, they move: it's a game of chess
This West is dying. Nothing grows but wild flowers on graves. The residents of Black Rock are all men (Anne Francis, probably imposed by the studio, is out of place and overdressed and made-up; her role should really have been another weak man). There are no families. The cowboys do not work and didn’t go to the war. The doc (Walter Brennan) is also the mortician. He is “consumed by apathy” even if he tries, Rio Bravo-like, to redeem the fallen, drinking sheriff (Dean Jagger). The only youthful character, a blond James Dean look-alike (John Ericson) is weak and in on the conspiracy. His sister says “He’s a pushover for a muscleman” - early 50s code, presumably, for homosexuality. The town is ratty and decaying. Lee Marvin is made sheriff at one point and straps on a revolver which he attempts to twirl. He is playing at cowboys.
Tracy and Ryan: both superb
Spencer Tracy and Robert Ryan as the principals are both superb. They face off and come to the inevitable Western showdown with courage, strength and skill, though in this showdown gunmanship is beaten by technological innovation. Tracy and Ryan do not waste time with acting tricks or facial contortions; they simply are John Macreedy and Reno Smith. With Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine as Ryan’s low-life heavies and Water Brennan as the soured Doc, the support acting is also magnificent.
The hotel lobby: it's a play
John Sturges was a man’s director of action films (The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, Gunfight at the OK Corral and so on) yet here he handles a tense psychodrama with great skill. Much of the talking takes place in the hotel lobby, like a play. The characters do a lot of standing still and plotting, then one moves to another part of town. It reminds you of a chess game.
It was actually based on a story, Bad Day at Hondo, by Howard Breslin
It was a ‘big’ film, a CinemaScope MGM star vehicle, yet in its B-movie title, the ‘da-da’ André Previn music over the rushing train and the titles, its shortness (81 minutes) and its small cast it also seems like a minor Western. Sturges and Mellor use the CinemaScope to emphasize the isolation (and creepiness) of the town and characters, the emptiness and loneliness. Macreedy is also lonely and lost. He too is changed by these 24 hours in Black Rock. It could almost be a late Budd Boetticher Western.
The film was one of the few to address seriously the issue of the mistreatment of Japanese Americans in the 1940s. Is it a social-problem film, a noir, an existentialist play or a Western? Bof. It’s a fine movie, anyway. If it is a Western, it undermines the whole myth. It was in any case probably Sturges’s finest work.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Sheriff of Tombstone (Republic, 1941)

Rootin', tootin'
This is a cracking little movie, well worth its three revolvers. Republic churned out standard horse operas all through the 30s and 40s but at their best they were tightly directed, well-written pictures that galloped along at a terrific pace. This one is a classic 53-minute black & white B-picture starring Roy Rogers, before he got all duded up and soppy. He’s still quite soppy but he’s somehow more believable as a tough sheriff. Well, almost.
A classic
Roy leaves Dodge and rides to Tombstone (cue for a song, obviously). There, in a standard plot development, he is mistaken for deadly gunman Shotgun Cassidy and made sheriff by crooked Mayor Keeler (Addison Richards). He hardly has time to fall in love with Elyse Knox before he is plunged into skullduggery and derring-do. Luckily, he has Gabby Hayes as his sidekick. Gabby plays a gamblin', rootin', tootin', shootin' judge of about 100 years old (he was in fact only 56).
It was quite a partnership
Despite the Dodge/Tombstone sheriffing story, the picture is an Earp- and Clanton-free zone. Roy is 'Brett Star' and does it all single-handed, with no brothers or docs. It sure becomes difficult when the real Shotgun Cassidy turns up (Harry Woods) and an ornery critter he is too. This plot was borrowed later by Support Your Local Gunfighter.
Trigger doesn’t have a part to play, there are no tricks and apart from Roy’s two short songs, it’s a straight Western. Even Roy’s costume is standard issue without frills or spangles. These early Rogers Westerns were far better than later ones.
Jay Novello is rather good as a caricature Mexican whose accent falls away when he wants, to reveal a straight American hoodlum. He is also the crooked Wells, Fargo agent in disguise. And I like Zeffie Tilbury, white-haired gun-totin’ granny. “Your bonnet’s crooked,” her granddaughter says. “Me shootin’ is straight,” Granny retorts.
Me shootin' is straight
Sally Payne is a singer in the Bonanza Saloon who gets a couple of songs. The aria ‘Two-Gun Pete’ isn’t half bad. It’s a very 'proper' Western, though, because when she’s finished she asks a saloon heavy, “How about buying me a sasparilla, Mister?”
There’s a splendid shoot-em-up finale and Roy gets the gal in the last 30 seconds of the final reel and it’s all over. It is written by Olive Cooper and Olive sure did a mighty fine job. Photographed satisfactorily by William Nobles, with typical melodramatic music by Cy Feuer, this is a straight down the line B-oater with a lot going for it. Expect no subtlety, just a classic Western yarn. You won’t be disappointed.

No Earp in sight


Saturday, May 25, 2013

McLintock! (United Artists, 1963)


Taming of the Western Shrew

Beware movies with exclamation points in their titles! They seem to want to make the story more amusing! Or dramatic! Probably because they were a bit weak in the first place!

Hilarious, that spanking
This big box-office mid-Sixties hit was a sort of Taming of the Western Shrew and involved a lot of men spanking rebellious women and a famous brawl in which everyone, including Maureen O’Hara, ends up in a mud pool (a scene that apparently took a week to shoot). It says on the DVD cover that it is a “wild, raucous and hilarious Western comedy”. Yes, well. Personally, I think it’s junk.
The star of the movie, Edgar Buchanan (left) with a couple of extras (center and right) 
in the mudpool scene
John Wayne’s son Michael was a shrewd businessman and knew what makes a commercial success. It was Andrew V McLaglen’s biggest film to date as director. He was a pretty poor director of Westerns in my view, at best second-rate. He was son of John Ford stock company member Victor McLaglen and started on Gun the Man Down, a James Arness semi-TV spin-off which Wayne produced, in 1956. He then did a lot of TV work, notably 116 Have Gun, Will Travel episodes, 1957 - 63. He directed James Stewart in two of Stewart’s weakest Westerns, the soap-opera Shenandoah and the total turkey The Rare Breed, and Wayne used him quite a lot after McLintock!, for The Undefeated (1969), Chisum (1970) and Cahill, US Marshal (1973). To be fair, these last were commercial successes and many people remember Wayne from these late 60s and early 70s motion pictures.
The movie has its moments. It’s photographed by William Clothier in Arizona, for one thing. The supporting acting, for another: in particular, Chill Wills as Wayne’s long-suffering factotum, Strother Martin as the cowardly Indian agent, bald Hank Worden as ‘Curly’ and, especially, Edgar Buchanan as a dirty old trapper or miner. Good old Bob Steele is the train driver and the Indian chief Puma is played, obviously, by Australian Michael Pate, who cornered the market in Indian chiefs from Hondo on.
Duke and Chief Pate
The liberal and insipid Governor is called Humphrey, a 1960s dig at the Democrat Vice-President and Presidential candidate so despised by Wayne.
The snooty Maureen O’Hara and an aging Wayne do their Quiet Man act and there’s a lot of shouting. There’s none of the subtlety of the Wayne/O’Hara relationship of Rio Grande (the only time O’Hara came close to being any good). McLaglen isn’t Ford and the story doesn’t allow it.
Rio Grande it ain't
Just when I was watching and thinking, ‘It could have been worse; there could have been songs,” they had one.
It’s certainly full of energy and the actors probably enjoyed it. But I don’t think we would be justly considered superior or patronizing if we called the humor broad. A lusty Western farce, perhaps. OK if you like that kind of thing.
One of the worst Wayne Westerns ever would be another way of looking at it!!