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

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Saddle Tramp (Universal, 1950)

Nice little Western

Joel McCrea loved being a cowboy. He was in 35 Western features and in 26 episodes of Wichita Town on TV. His first real role in a Western was in Barbary Coast in 1935, an entertaining San Francisco melodrama, then he had major lead roles in big manifest destiny nation-building Westerns, Wells Fargo in 1937 and Union Pacific in 1939. He was Buffalo Bill in 1944 and The Virginian in ’46, then starred in the outstandingly good Ramrod in ’47. Later big roles were in the Raoul Walsh-directed Colorado Territory in 1949, as Wyatt Earp in Wichita (1955) and Bat Masterson in The Gunfight at Dodge City (1959). Probably his greatest achievement was one of his last, the magnificent Ride the High Country (1962) for Sam Peckinpah, in which he was electrifying. My own personal Joel McCrea favorite was Four Faces West, a delightful little 1948 Western of great charm. McCrea rode extremely well and was always convincing in an oater, especially as the quiet but tough Westerner.
Joel McCrea, 35 Westerns from 1933 to 1976
Saddle Tramp was a fairly unremarkable and slightly juvenile picture in Universal’s long series of color B-Westerns but it had undoubted charm. Universal did a good job with these very popular movies starring, often, ever so slightly 'B' stars, Audie Murphy, for example, or Jeff Chandler, and there’s no denying they were pretty formulaic but they had high production values, often an excellent supporting cast and were usually very nicely photographed in attractive Western locations. This one was directed by Italian-Argentinian Hugo Fregonese, B-movie expert, who as far as Westerns are concerned directed and/or wrote The Raid with Van Heflin, did four South American Westerns, Shatterhand, and a spaghetti (Find a Place to Die). Solid though not epic work.
Enjoyable B
The movie is very attractive visually with often verdant but very 'Western' Californian locations standing in for Nevada ("Nevada, crazy country, crazy people," opines Joel perceptively), nicely photographed by Charles P Boyle (who learned the Western trade under Winton Hoch on She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, one of the few Westerns to win an Oscar for cinematography).

It starts amusingly (and indeed there is much comic about the film; it hovers on the brink of a comedy Western) when our hero is musing to himself about the freedom of being a saddle tramp, no responsibilities, no taxes, when old-timer Russell Simpson in one of his best roles takes a potshot at him. When they get to talking the conversation goes like this:
-      Did you take me for someone else?
-      You ain’t, are you?
-      Ain’t who?
-      Someone else.
Such dialogue, almost surreal, entertains us at several points in the drama. It was written by Harold Shumate (When the Daltons Rode, Blood on the Moon, Abilene Town) and is well done. Shumate also gets away with the line "They went thataway!"
Old-timer Russell Simpson
The story concerns a wandering cowboy named Chuck Conner (I thought it was Chuck Connors for a moment). Well, our footloose saddle tramp gets saddled (inevitably) with a family. His old pard Slim (John Ridgely), a widower with four sons of descending height, is killed in an accident and there’s no one else to look after the boys, so off they and Chuck all set off together. They are joined by a runaway girl (Wanda Hendrix, then Mrs. Audie Murphy) and before Chuck knows it he is a fully-fledged family man.
More than he bargained for
He gets work on the ranch of crusty, irascible old John McIntire who has John Russell as his no-good foreman. Russell turns out to be less than honest. The runaway’s fat uncle and guardian (abuse is hinted at) is played by good old Ed Begley. So the cast is pretty good.
Crusty McIntire
This is an enjoyable, if rather wholesome and family-friendly film. It has something of Stars in my Crown about it, a film McCrea made earlier that year, but is, happily, less treacly and more of a true Western.

The Joseph Gershenson music is based around a song popular in 1950, The Call of a Wild Goose, which serves as the motif for the footloose hero.

Joel lifts the picture (he always lifted films he was in) and I can recommend it for an enjoyable watch. It has a similar vibe to Cattle Drive, a Universal offering of the following year, also with McCrea.

Once again, McCrea never fires a gun, or even draw one from a holster.


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