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

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Pony Soldier (Fox, 1952)

Tyrone Power, on Her Majesty's service

Tyrone Power didn’t really do Westerns. Any big studio star in the 1950s had to climb into the saddle occasionally but he was much more comfortable romancing exotic dames or buckling swashes. He was, of course, Jesse James in Fox’s big picture of that title in 1939 and a pretty dashing Jesse he was too. He also starred in a smaller but really rather good Fox Western in 1951, Rawhide, about a remote stage station being besieged by bandits. But he only did six cowboy films in total and apart from Jesse James and Rawhide, two were Canadian Mountie pictures, one was a Brigham Young biopic and in the other he was Zorro; they hardly count as Westerns at all.

After a tiny (uncredited) part as a Mountie in a small-studio B-picture, Northern Frontier, in 1935, his very first Western appearance, Power returned to the northern wastes in a red tunic for his last oater, Pony Soldier. Immediately, you recognize the (rather attractive) scenery of this ‘Canadian’ film as being Sedona, AZ. It’s all orange rocks and very unSaskatchewany. At least Universal’s rather unconvincing 1954 Raoul Walsh-directed Mountie picture Saskatchewan starring Alan Ladd had been shot on location in Alberta (and very nice the photography was too). Fox’s Saskatchewan was situated a tad further south. Never mind, it looks nice (the scenes not shot in the studio anyway).
Canada, AZ
It’s supposedly based on a true story (but we all know how that goes in Hollywood) about a young, inexperienced Mountie named Constable Duncan MacDonald. It’s 1876. The RCMP has only being going for three years and no one has yet told Duncan that the Mountie always gets his man. As a result, he returns to base having let the fugitive he was pursuing escape. After this faux pas he is assigned to bringing the whole Cree tribe, which has fled its "reserve" over into the US, back into Her Majesty’s domains, as well as rescuing two captives that the Cree have taken. To achieve this mission he only has one helper, the comic-relief fat half-breed sidekick Natayo Smith, played, with gusto, by Thomas Gomez. New Yorker Gomez is one of the highlights of the movie, in fact. He was entertaining as the ship's captain in the New Orleans Dale Robertson flick The Gambler from Natchez. Here he brings life to what otherwise risks being a rather plodding ‘Western’.
Tyrone with heavweight sidekick Gomez
Well, Duncan is brave and resourceful, you won’t be surprised to hear. And one of the captives (Penny Edwards, already in her tenth Western) is glamorous, which won’t surprise you either. The other is Flint McCullogh! What’s he doing here? A bit out of his way, isn’t he? Although the Wagon Train might have passed through Sedona, I guess. Anyway, Robert Horton is a bad guy, sneering and criminal. He has escaped from one of Her Maj’s jugs north of the border. Don’t worry, Duncan will see he gets back behind bars.

As part of the peace treaty, Duncan is semi-obliged to adopt a ten-year-old orphan boy of the tribe so Fox could have a kid in it. He’s played by Anthony Earl Numkena but I fear you will search Burke’s Peerage in vain for this Earl Numkena.
Duncan with adopted son
Always in these Indian pictures there’s a statesmanlike chief and a younger hothead brave who is all out for war. Pony Soldier is no exception and we have Stuart Randall (whose part had to be redubbed as his accent was too Texan) as the noble Standing Bear, while Cameron Mitchell (Buck Cannon from High Chaparral; I think of him more though in The Outcasts of Poker FlatGarden of Evil and as the sheriff gone bad in Hombre) is very well made up and quite convincing as the warrior Konah (second billed, no less).
Stuart Randall as Candian chief with Texan accent
They say Richard Boone was in it but I didn’t spot him. Sadly. IMDb also says it was Earl Holliman’s film debut. What part did he play? I don’t know.

Is it a Western? When is a Western not a Western? Click here to find out.

Anyway, Pony Soldier is watchable, in a generic sort of way, but don’t expect too much.

There's a bit where a mirage appears and Ty claims it is big medicine of Queen Vic, so they better toe the line

Friday, November 29, 2013

A Man Called Horse

Short story by Dorothy M Johnson (in the 1953 collection Indian Country) & NGP film starring Richard Harris (1970)

The commendable upsurge in interest in the real life and culture of American Indians in writing and movies from the 1950s on was largely the work of Anglo people, and the Indian life was, understandably perhaps, seen through a white lens. The stories were (still are, actually) usually recounted by having a white man join a tribe of what he at first thinks of as savages, then he comes to respect their culture. James Stewart as Tom Jeffords did this with the Apaches in Broken Arrow, Jack Crabb did it with the Cheyenne in Little Big Man, and in more recent times there was Lt. Dunbar (Kevin Costner) in Dances with Wolves with the Sioux and Eli McCullogh in The Son by Philipp Meyer with the Comanche. One of the pioneers, however, was Dorothy M Johnson, who did it with the Crow people. She wrote two quite well received novels in the 1970s but is better known for her short story collections Indian Country (1953) and The Hanging Tree (1957). A Man Called Horse comes from Indian Country.
Dorothy M Johnson (1905 - 1984)
A Man Called Horse is a brief, 15-page story which tells of an unnamed young man, member of a rich Boston family, who while out in the West in 1845 is captured by a party of Crow, who kill and scalp the guides and servants he has engaged. The Crow take him to their village where he is given as a slave to an old woman, Greasy Hand, mother of a leading warrior, Yellow Robe. He must endure many hardships, not least of which is being treated as sub-human and as a beast of burden. He gives himself the name of Horse, as being better than no name.

He gradually acclimatizes and after four months begins to pick up the language. He manages to overcome one of two passing Indians, “a member of some enemy tribe”, and wins two horses which he presents to Yellow Robe for the hand of his sister, Pretty Calf, whom he calls Freedom. The wife and child perish in premature childbirth, and “he went home three years later”. He remains, when back in “civilization”, very reserved about his ordeals.

The story is tersely told, without embellishment and in a matter-of-fact, practical way. There is, however, occasionally some elegant writing (I like it, for example, when Horse in love is described as being “enslaved by Freedom”).

Many details of this short story and, more, the essential tone of it were changed radically for the motion picture. By 1970 (the year of Little Big Man, the film and also of Soldier Blue) we were in full revisionist mode but if we were all going to movie theaters to see more Indian-oriented movies than the old cowboy ones, we were still watching commercial pictures which slightly reveled in the cruelty, and never mind too much if it were accurate. You don’t go to the movies to see a Western for an anthropology lecture.

A huge change is that the Crow were replaced by the Sioux. I don’t know why. The hero, now named as John Morgan, has become an English aristo with rather 1970s blond hair. You’d think the Indians would have wanted that scalp on their lodge-poles or bridles but nay. Morgan is played (and this is one of the major weaknesses of the film) by Irishman Richard Harris, a notorious ham. The old hag Greasy Hand is strongly, if stereotypically played by Australian Judith Anderson, and Yellow Hand (no longer Yellow Robe – maybe the Yellow Hand moniker brought back vague notions of Buffalo Bill) is played by Fijian Islander Manu Tupou (who popped up briefly again as the pawnbroker in the excellent Payback). Pretty Calf has been renamed Running Deer and is played by a Greek, Corinna Tsopei, attractive in a sweet way. Some of the actors in the smaller parts were American Indian, however, and the movie was partially shot on location in South Dakota. Some of the Robert B Hauser photography, especially early shots of Indians running, is very classy.
Irishman woos Greek
Mr. Harris is, early in the picture, often seen pinkly naked and this heightens his vulnerability and non-person status.

The movie centers on the famous and deeply unpleasant scene of initiation which involves Harris being hauled up in the air on rawhide thongs attached to knives inserted in his pectorals. This rite is completely invented; it was not in the Johnson story and was never practiced by either Crow or Sioux. It has a lurid and salacious ring to it and has always put me off the film. The film is one of those which irritatingly claims to be authentic and factual historically. It is nothing of the kind. As I have so often said in this blog, I have no objection to Western movies distorting historical truth – they are there to tell an exciting story, not give you a history lesson – but when they mendaciously claim to tell the factual truth, then I do object.
He looks more Fijian than Sioux
There are other changes. The film invents another captive, Batise (third-billed Jean Gascon) who conveniently speaks English and French – which of course was perfectly possible – and that overcomes Harris’s language problems. In the movie, unlike the story, he never really learns the lingo. (The decision to have a lot of Sioux dialogue with no subtitles was a brave one but was the right way to go; it highlights Horse’s isolation, and we can anyway usually infer what is meant.) Horse kills two enemy Indians, Shoshone, in the film and scalps one. Makes it a bit bloodier. One detail, however, is gorier in the book than the on the screen: old Greasy Hand beheads an annoying dog in the story. Pierced pecs are one thing, but showing a pooch killed on screen, such horrors would never do, so that was quietly dropped.
The director was Elliot Silverstein, who had only done one other Western - and that was Cat Ballou.

By the way, long before Richard Harris, a 1958 episode of Wagon Train also used the story (this time it was Yellow Rope for some reason, played by Hollywood’s resident Indian chief, Aussie Michael Pate) and used the same title, A Man Called Horse. It had as Horse Ralph Meeker – Roy Anderson in The Naked Spur and Lt. Driscoll in The Run of the Arrow, another lurid Indian-rites flick with an overacting star not suited to Westerns.

Read the 1953 story but skip the 1970 movie is my advice.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Eurowestern

Le western européen

The Western, like jazz, was in origin a specifically American genre. The two could almost be thought of as the defining American genres. But both had a huge impact outside America. The Western, any more than jazz, does not belong exclusively to Americans. Europeans, especially, have been and still are writers of Western stories and makers of Western movies as well as readers of Western fiction and avid moviegoers. Long before the spaghetti westerns of the 1960s, the French, British and Germans, among others, were producing novels and motion pictures.

In France, in 1896 Gabriel Veyre shot Repas d’Indien (Indian banquet) for the Lumière brothers and Joe Hamman starred as Arizona Bill in films made in the horse country of the Camargue in 1911. The book Il était une fois... le western européen : 1901-2008 by Jean-François Giré (2008) gives a whole history of the Western in France and Europe. The modern sport of fast draw first became popular in France (and figured in the 1908 Olympics…) New Lucky Luke and Blueberry bandes dessinées are eagerly sought at the FNAC. French hip hop and rap artist MC Solaar had a great track, Nouveau Western, on his 1994 album Prose Combat.

Arizona Bill, Lucky Luke, Blueberry, MC Solaar: French Western heroes
In Italy, Puccini’s opera La Fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West) was first performed in 1910, was filmed twice as a silent movie (which must have been odd) and twice as a talkie – or singie. Sergio Leone’s father directed the silent La Vampira Indiana in 1913 (with Sergio’s mamma as the title Indian princess). Il western italiano, a book by Alberto Pezzotta (2012) tells the story of the whole Italian Western experience. Francesco de Gregori’s wonderful album Bufalo Bill (1976) is an Italian hymn to the West and one of my favorite CDs.
Puccini with derringer
Il bufalo sulla prateria: De Gregori, grande
In Germany, already in the 1890s Karl May was writing enormously popular Western stories starring Old Shatterhand, made into silent movies in the 1920s (when 1920s Bela Lugosi also starred in German films as Uncas), and Shatterhand and Surehand B-movies filmed in Yugoslavia, starring Lex Barker and Stewart Granger, were big hits in the 1960s.
Yeehar, Karl
In the UK, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show was a monster hit in British (and many other European) towns and much appreciated by Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales. The first color Western was British (Fate, 1911). Silent Westerns were enormously popular and Tom Mix was fêted as a hero on his visit to London. British or semi-British Westerns like The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw or The Savage Guns pre-dated spaghettis by several years. The leading authority on Wild Bill Hickok, Joseph G Rosa, was from Ruislip, Middlesex.
Tom Mix in England fêted by small boys of all ages
In 1971, Edwin Sherin directed Burt Lancaster in the Elmore Leonard story Valdez Is Coming. How American can you get? It was filmed in Spain. When Tombstone and Wyatt Earp were being made in the early 1990s, where did Wyatt Earp have to get its costumes from? Europe.

Not that Howard Hughes, surely?
European directors of Westerns like Fritz Lang, cinematographers like Roger Deakins, writers like Alan Sharp have all contributed enormously to the development of the genre.
Hope you caught Der Schatz im Silbersee back in '62
All over Europe you can find Western film festivals, dude ranches, rodeos, line dancing, fast draw competitions and every kind of Western event. European moviegoers await new Westerns as eagerly as they do Stateside.
...que no se puede perder
Vive le western !


Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Crossfire Trail (TWS/TNT, 2001)

Formulaic but in a good way

Crossfire Trail is really an excellent film. Tom Selleck’s production company TWS teamed up with Simon Wincer (Ozzie director of Selleck in Quigley Down Under and before that the great Lonesome Dove) and a couple of good Dove actors (Barry Corbin, William Sanderson) to make a seriously classy TV Western.

Selleck made his mark back in 1979 in a TV oater, The Sacketts, based on the Louis L’Amour novels, and then in another L’Amour tale, The Shadow Riders, also for TV, in 1982. Later, round about the turn of the century, he made a nice little series of such movies, such as Last Stand at Saber River, Crossfire Trail and Monte Walsh. They were all good, some outstanding.
The novel
Saber River had been based on a high-quality Elmore Leonard novel but for Crossfire Selleck went back to L’Amour, a 1954 book, L’Amour’s eighth. It tells of a tough, decent Rafe (for Rafael) Covington, who makes a promise to a dying friend that he will take care of his ranch in Wyoming – and his widow.

Selleck very good. He convinces.
It was originally aired on TNT on January 21, 2001 and was enormously popular, securing over 12 million viewers. Justifiably so, because it is very well done.

Why? Well, one reason is Selleck himself. He really looked the part and his decent tough-guy act was just right for a gritty Westerner with his mind set on doing what a man’s gotta do.

Another reason is the support acting, especially of Barry Corbin as the bought-and-paid-for sheriff. He had aged somewhat from his bumbling Roscoe in Lonesome Dove and is now gray-bearded, even plumper and absolutely superb. He introduces himself as justice of the peace but warns that around here there ain’t much of either.
Barry Corbin excellent
We also have William Sanderson (Lippy in Lonesome Dove and EB Farnum in the HBO Deadwood) as the bartender. Again, he is top class and lifts the whole movie during his scenes.

William Sanderson also very good behind the bar
The other actors are OK, though would not set the Milk River on fire. Virginia Madsden is the beautiful blond widow. Mark Harmon is the saloon owner who owns half the town and wants the other half, the widow and the widow’s ranch for the oil on it. He had been Johnny Behan in Wyatt Earp. He looks very like a young Randolph Scott. He is satisfactorily bad, slimily charming at first then just plain mean.
Bad guy Harmon. Not bad.
Wilford Brimley is amusing in the tough James Gammon-y old-timer sidekick part. He’d been doing Westerns since the late 60s (he was in True Grit) and is appropriately crusty, wry and stalwart.
Old-timer sidekick: Wilford Brimley
Selleck’s other sidekicks are a bit on the bland side. Glaswegian David O’Hara battles with an ‘Irish’ accent. Also a bit weak, unfortunately, was the fearsome hired gun that bad guy Harmon gets up from Kansas, Beau Dorn (played by Brad Johnson, in his fifth Western). Director Wincer does a good job with making him as sinister as possible, face in shadow as long as possible, that kind of thing, and the costume and props depts. also did well with his fancy clothes and scary long-range rifle with telescope sight. But once he was actually in action he seemed a bit, well, ordinary.
Hired gun Brad Johnson not really frightening enough
The movie was shot in Alberta, as so many Westerns are these days, and it does look wonderful. The photography is by David Eggby, who had worked for Wincer on Quigley in Australia and Lightning Jack (a sort of Crocodile Dundee goes West) in New Mexico. There is a slight Wincer/Eggby tendency to pretty-prettiness and picture postcard views, but not enough to spoil things. Mostly, you just admire the scenery.

Pacey direction with tension building to the inevitable showdown and a tight Charles Robert Carner screenplay (Carner’s only Western) from the L’Amour novel mean that this Western grips well and keeps you watching.

Yes, the movie is pretty formulaic but you know, with Westerns that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Westerns follow certain conventions, especially if they are written by famous novelists of the genre. It’s a balance. You want the movie to respect the conventions. You enjoy quotations of past epics. You want to feel comfortable in the West you know, even if it is a mythical one. But you don’t want rip-offs and blatant copies and hackneyed clichés. A good production can get that balance right. This Selleck/Turner/Wincer collaboration did that.

Good movie.


Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Last Stand at Saber River

Novel by Elmore Leonard (1959) and TV movie (1997)

Last Stand at Saber River was the fourth Western novel written by Elmore Leonard (1925 – 2013) and was published in 1959. Nearly forty years later, it was made into a TV movie starring Tom Selleck by Selleck’s production company TWS and it aired on TNT in 1997.

The novel is one of Leonard’s best. His previous one, Escape from Five Shadows in 1956, had been solid but unremarkable but Last Stand has much more vim and zip.
A goodie
The story starts and ends at a familiar Leonard setting, a low adobe in Arizona, a former Hatch & Hodges swing station now serving as a general store. There, on April 9, 1865, a family arrives in a wagon. Paul Cable, his loving wife Martha and their three small children have returned after an absence in Texas when Paul was fighting on the Confederate side during the War. Wounded, he is invalided out and they decide to reclaim their Arizona farm.

They find many changes, not the least of which is the fact that a newly installed family of Union sympathizers, led by the brothers Duane and Vern Kidston, has taken over their house and graze. In addition the former store keeper, their friend, has died and been replaced by a sinister one-armed Confederate gun runner, Edward Janroe.

The plot is based on Cable’s fight over the coming week to regain and hold his property and protect his family.
The Master
Like most of Leonard’s novels, it’s very well done. It has an air of authenticity and the pace of the story is lively: the plot rattles along like a Hatch & Hodges four-up. The writing is spare, economical and unvarnished, which suits the gritty character of the hero and the hard terrain of the setting.

Leonard’s heroes are tough, hard-bitten Westerners but they are not invincible supermen. Likewise, his villains have saving graces and are quite subtly drawn.

Although Duane Kidston’s spoiled daughter sets her cap at Cable and tries to drive a wedge between his wife and him, she fails, straight away, and this story is quite unusual in having no traditional love interest, no girl to be wooed and won, but rather features a happily married couple with loved and loving children.

The Selleck movie changed a lot of this. His story starts back in Texas, before the Arizona trip, with him coming back from the war when his wife (played by Suzy Amis, who had starred in The Ballad of Little Jo in 1993) and family thought he was dead. One of their children has died in his absence and she has consequent psychological issues. Their renewed relationship is difficult and teeters on the edge of collapse. I’m not sure what was gained by this change but whatever the reason for it, the result is that they overdid it and the wife ends by becoming unsympathetic and rather tiresome. OK, dear, so you had a bad time. But so did your husband and so did a lot of people. Get over it. That was my (probably heartless) reaction anyway.
Character of the wife not well done
Selleck does a good job, though. He looked convincing in Western gear and carried it off. He had first come to notice in The Sacketts in 1979, a TV adaptation of the Louis L’Amour novels, and had reunited with Sam Elliott and Ben Johnson in the Andrew V McLaglen-directed The Shadow Riders, also for TV, in 1982. But it was really as Quigley in the excellent Quigley Down Under in 1990, a part scheduled for Steve McQueen which Selleck took because of McQueen’s illness, that he established himself as a leading Western star of modern times. Saber River was one of a series of good TV Westerns that he made around the turn of the century and it was followed notably by Crossfire Trail and an outstanding remake of Monte Walsh.
Selleck: looked the part
Another good thing about the TV Last Stand at Saber River is that there is a brace of Carradines in it. David plays Duane and Keith plays Vern. They do an excellent job, as they always did. Harry Carey Jr. also has a bit part as Martha’s dad, a character not in the novel.
Keith Carradine as Vern Kidston with Spencer rifle
Shot by Ric Waite (The Long Riders) in New Mexico, some of it around delightful Las Vegas (where some of the earliest silent Westerns were also filmed) the movie looks good. The music, by David Shire, is appropriate and strong.

The film was directed by Dick Lowry, who had done all those Kenny Rogers Gambler ones. The pace of it is slower than that of the novel and needed a bit of tightening up, though he’s good at the action scenes. The costumes and guns are period-correct and convincing.

Last Stand at Saber River, the TV movie, was probably the least of Selleck’s efforts and it isn’t the world’s greatest Western but it is a solid, entertaining production. Last Stand at Saber River, the novel, is a tight little gripper by a master of Western paperback fiction.

You’ll enjoy both.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Escape from Five Shadows by Elmore Leonard

Probably the least of the Elmore Leonard Westerns but still a good read

Escape from Five Shadows is a 1956 Western novel by Elmore Leonard, his third, and it followed The Law at Randado (1954).

If I say it is probably the least remarkable of Leonard’s Westerns, by that I don’t mean that it is poor. All Elmore Leonard Westerns are well-written and enjoyable. But it doesn’t really have the panache of Randado and is certainly not of the class of great novels like Hombre or Valdez is Coming, partly because the characters are a bit paler.

The Five Shadows of the title is a convict labor camp where our hero, Corey Bowen, has been unjustly sent after a spell in Yuma Territorial Prison for a crime he did not commit, rustling. The camp is run by crooked, cruel Frank Renda who is taking the government funding for himself, mistreating the convicts and hiring out their labor for his own gain to build a road. Renda has a sadistic gunman crony, Brazil, and also a group of Mimbreño Apache trackers in case any convict should run. But Corey is determined to escape…
25. That's what I call good value.
In this way the book has similarities with the Yuma tale Forty Lashes Less One.

There’s a girl, natch. She’s Karla, daughter of the owner of the local Hatch & Hodges stage station (we are in southern Arizona, of course, it being a Leonard Western). Karla knows Convict Corey’s good just by looking at him and she is going to help him prove his innocence, though her dad has his doubts.

Well, it’s fairly predictable but like all Leonard Westerns it’s pacey and actionful. It also has a ring of authenticity. Corey’s relationship with the Apaches is especially well done.
Elmore Leonard (1925 - 2013)
I would say, though, that it’s the most traditional of the stories and reads like a Luke Short. That’s praise, not criticism – I love Luke Short Westerns – but it’s a straight tale of brave Westerner beats crooked thugs and gets girl. No sex, no rude words, a fair bit of violence.

It never made it to the screen but if it had it might have been a Randolph Scott movie with Karen Steele as Karla, Richard Boone as Renda, that kind of thing. It would have been an OK B-Western, with some nice AZ location photography shot round there at Sedona.
You know.

Worth a read, anyway, dear e-readers.

The nine Western novels of Elmore Leonard - all good

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Savage Guns (MGM, 1962)

Early Eurowestern

Just about passable as Eurowesterns go, this fairly early example (original title Tierra brutal) was directed by Londoner Michael Carreras, grandson of the founder of the Hammer studios and himself top dog there at the time. He was taking a break from lurid horror films to go off to Spain to make a Western.

He got some American stars who were not exactly in the first rank (I'm being polite here) to appear in it. Richard Basehart had done a couple of B-Westerns and some TV shows (he was born in Zanesville, Ohio, birthplace of Zane Grey, so we honor him; Dennis Hopper was born in Dodge, and Stuart Gilmore, director of the Joel McCrea remake of The Virginian, was born in Tombstone - forget about being born with a silver spoon in your mouth, that's like being born with a silver Colt in your holster). Baseheart plays Steve Fallon, an embittered gunfighter in black leather who wants to hang up his irons and settle down in Sonora.
I prefer the Spanish poster
Don Taylor is Summers, an American rancher in Mexico who has been so scarred by his experience in the Civil War that he won’t touch a gun again. Taylor had acted in one B-Western (the Luke Short story Ambush, 1950) but moved into directing TV shows. His face is kinda familiar. He looks a bit like David Janssen, I think that’s what it is. He has a beautiful Mexican wife (Manolita Barroso) and, natch, a glam daughter (Paquita Rico) for the gunfighter to fall for.
There are seven bad-guy riders, you notice
There is the obligatory evil, grasping rancher who wants the whole valley. Well, there had to be. He is Ortega (José Nieto, quite good in a dastardly way) and the noble Don he has dispossessed? They wheeled Fernando Rey out for that part. Sadly, the film is quite crudely dubbed so a lot of the acting is marred. Ortega has a lightning-fast American gunman as a henchman, Danny, and this part is played by Alex Nicol, the no-good Dave Waggoman in The Man from Laramie. The question is, of course, who is faster, Danny or the famed Fallon? Such suspense.
Alex Nicol, gunslinger
Far better than the later spaghettis that were to be made in Spain, this one is more on a par with A Man called Noon or Catlow. No great shakes but you’ve seen worse.

Ortega, the evil rancher


Saturday, November 23, 2013

Susannah of the Mounties (Fox, 1939)


Not quite unwatchable

Randolph Scott was in five films in 1939. There was a coast guard movie, one about pilots, and three Westerns. The first oater was his part in the brash, fun Jesse James with Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda, and the third was Frontier Marshal, when he was the first to play Wyatt Earp on screen.

Sadly, however, the middle one was little more than a Shirley Temple vehicle and, to make matters worse, was set in Canada.

I don’t think that stories of how the Mounties got their men were really Westerns, not proper ones, and Randy looks ridiculous in his ‘British’ mustache and red uniform with silly bell hop's cap. And I didn’t know Her Majesty’s officers rode mustangs with Texas saddles or spoke with Virginia accents. A couple of his brother officers were actually English anyway, so at least central casting got that right.
Not Randy's finest hour
Now I don’t want you to think me a curmudgeon (though you probably will) but I don’t really like children in Westerns. I know there were families with offspring on the frontier and so I guess they have to be shown but so often in Westerns they were Hollywood brats. I didn’t even like the whiny child in Shane. Most people think he was adorable but I think he wasn't a patch on the tough kid in the book. About the best boy was Lee Aaker, the Rin Tin Tin lad, who was first class in Hondo. Some of them could act remarkably well – think of that little girl in Shoot Out with Gregory Peck – but paraphrasing Dr. Johnson, "Sir, a child's acting is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all."

In Susannah, Shirley is indeed in the ‘acting remarkably well category’; she was very talented. Because Westerns weren’t really in those days a girl thing, they also had a little boy in it for Shirley to pal up with, the son of the chief, called Little Chief (played by Martin Good Rider, a Blackfoot), so this is really a children’s movie. And for their mothers. I hope their poor dads didn’t have to go. Maybe they sneaked out at the interval and went for a beer.
Shirley with her little Blackfoot pal
The Indians (it’s an Indians-against-the railroad plot) are even more “Ug, me big chief” than was usual for this time and the script is very weak despite (or because of) the fact that no fewer than nine writers contributed to the screenplay from a Muriel Denison novel. There were even two directors. The Indians also wear their feathered war bonnets and paint all the time, rather like you and me wearing our tuxedos or long dresses to wash the car.

Orphan Shirley speaks to “Mr. Big Eagle” and saves the day.
Shirley saves the day
Margaret Lockwood appears for Randy to fall for. She's the colonel's daughter, natch, though colonels are called superintendents in the RCMP. Good old J Farrell MacDonald is there as Inspector Randy’s Irish servant who cares for the little girl. Victor Jory is the bad Indian Wolf Pelt (there always has to be a bad Indian who wants war). When he joins the real Blackfoot extras in a war dance he is embarrassingly bad. Still, I am a Jory fan so I forgive.
This film is not actually unwatchable (the only truly unwatchable Randolph Scott Western is Belle of the Yukon). But it isn’t very good either. Strictly for Shirley Temple fans only.