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

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw (Fox, 1958)

Weird but it works

In some ways The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw was the bizarrest Western ever. It brought together Raoul Walsh, dashing eye-patched director of some of the most famous (and rip-roaring) Westerns of all time (The Big Trail, They Died With Their Boots On, Colorado Territory and many more); blonde bosomy bombshell Jayne Mansfield, a sort of poor man’s Marilyn Monroe; and Kenneth More, a posh British actor who had been noble with Scott in the Antarctic and on the Titanic, had driven a veteran car from London to Brighton and had appeared in various other ‘comedies’ that the Brits found funny such as Carry On London and Doctor in the House. What a combination.
Who would have thought it?
There was a reason. The British had passed an astute if protectionist law that forbade foreign film companies to export the profits of any movies made in their country. As a result, Fox had money tied up in the UK that it could only use making another film there and so in some (financially unlearned) execs’ eyes, Fractured Jaw would be essentially free. Fox therefore hired a well-known British star or two, shipped over Walsh, Mansfield and some character actors, set up in England with British technicians and shot a few scenes of the wide open West country in Spain.
Despite the poster, it's a good film
Amazingly, it worked. Fractured Jaw was a very funny Western which is a delight to watch.

The story opens in England where Jonathan Tibbs, the aristocratic nephew of a pompous and stupid lord (Robert Morley) finds that his family company, which sells sporting guns, is on the verge of bankruptcy, so he sets off to the land of opportunity to sell large quantities of firearms to those that love them best, the Americans. Arrived by stage in the Wild West (another passenger, a drunk, was well-known star of the Carry On comedies Sid James) he subdues the Indians who attack by hooking the chief’s tomahawk arm with his brolly and telling him to “run along now, there’s a good chap”, and is greeted as a hero in the rough town of Fractured Jaw.
I say, my dear fellow, this really won't do
This town is run by the pusillanimous mayor, Henry Hull in a top hat, hamming it up as usual,
Mayor Henry Hull caves in to cowpokes
and the saloon owner, Kate, played by Mansfield, whom all the townsmen lust after yet respect. She’s not only curvaceous and sings (songs for morons) sweetly – she mimed to Connie Francis’s voice - she’s also damn handy with a Colt. Well, actually, she's hopeless and can't even hold it right but an off-camera marksman hit some targets for her. Ms. Mansfield had a couple of points in her favor but really was not exactly Sarah Bernhardt. She had a bigger bust than Marilyn but only half the acting talent. Still, she says her lines dutifully.

The shooting lesson: he's distracted
Tibbs wows the townsfolk and us Western gun-loving spectators as he cows the cowboys with a device that catapults a hidden sleeve derringer into the hand. We’ve seen these before, of course; gamblers often have them in Westerns. Think of Slick in Silverado as an example. But we get this one in great and glorious detail. The movie’s worth watching just for that.
One of the best ever derringer movies
The film is nicely pro-Indian. There’s a range war going on between the Lazy S and the Box T: all the white men bar Tibbs, now sheriff, are cowardly skunks. One of them is Bruce Cabot, Errol Flynn and John Wayne’s drinking companion and veteran of 29 Westerns from Scarlet River in 1933 to Big Jake in 1971. He is, though, looking a little the worse for, er, wear.
Bruce Cabot
Tibbs recruits the Indians, his new friends, to help him bring law ‘n’ order to the wide-open town (they also serve tea) and it’s the Indians who are dignified and decent.

The trailer for the movie is appalling. It rivals that for The Gunfighter (in which Gene Tierney reads from a card and her eyes swivel like ping pong balls) for the title of Worst Western Trailer Ever Made. Still.
Stiff upper lip
The whole movie has a George Marshall tone to it (and I mean that as a great compliment). Raoul Walsh showed that he had a deft hand with comedy Westerns too. It’s entertaining, amusing and despite all prejudiced indications to the contrary, a very good Western.


Sunday, June 29, 2014

Hard Money by Luke Short

Drive that tunnel through, whatever the cost

Hard Money is quite an early Luke Short, the eleventh of fifty-three Western novels. It was first serialized in the magazine Argosy in 1938 under the title of Golden Acres.

Many Luke Shorts were knowledgeably based on one or other aspect of working in the West, cattle driving, mining, freighting and so on, and this one is about tunneling. The hard money of the title is the capital that self-made-man Charles Bonal is trying, with great difficulty, to raise in order to drive through a tunnel which will drain a number of rich mines which are being flooded. So we get quite a lot of interesting info on nineteenth century tunneling, though lightly presented and not over-technical.
But the real hero is Phil Seay, a younger version of Bonal who has made his way in all sorts of métiers in the West and is now running a saloon he has won from the previous owner at faro. Bonal recognizes his qualities and recruits him (by winning the saloon in his turn). Seay turns out to be an outstanding tunnel boss who rapidly earns the respect of his crew. Of course there is a cave-in (deliberately caused), allowing Seay to move heaven and lots of earth to save the trapped workmen, earning their undying (for they survive) gratitude.
Luke Short
Naturally, too, Bonal has an attractive daughter, Sharon, and equally naturally Seay gradually falls for her despite mutual dislike at first. As is also conventional, there is another, slightly racier dame, Vannie, and Seay dallies with her before finally realizing that true love lies in the arms of Sharon.

The evil mine boss out to thwart (no other word but thwart will do) the Bonal/Seay tunnel scheme and cash in for himself is a muscular villain, Feldhake, backed up by various flunkies and henchpersons. There is a final confrontation. You may guess who wins out.
Yes, all pretty conventional, I suppose, and there is little original or new about the resourceful Western hero who, through grit and skill, outwits the bad guys and gets the girl. But Hard Money, like all Luke Short books, is well written, tightly plotted, authentic and it rattles along. The characters are strong and appear real people, with their weaknesses as well as strengths.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Dodge City (Warner Bros, 1939)

Swashbuckling the West

All through the 1920s and 30s, with a few notable exceptions Westerns were for youthful audiences. Sometimes a ‘big’ one would appear that seemed aimed at adults as well. One thinks of The Covered Wagon in 1923, The Iron Horse in 1924, The Virginian in 1929 and The Big Trail in 1930, as well as some others. But by the 1930s the vast majority of Westerns produced were serials or programmers that starred flashy duded-up ten-gallon-hat-wearers or, worse, singing cowboys. If you take the mid-year of the decade as an example, 1935, you find that there were 147 Westerns produced, so clearly they were immensely popular, but with the possible exception of EGR in Barbary Coast and Barbara Stanwyck as Annie Oakley, they were boy-fodder. Tom Mix in The Miracle Rider, for example, or William Boyd as Hopalong Cassidy. There were three Hopalong movies that year alone, John Wayne was in eight B-Westerns and Gene Autry was in five. Not that they were bad. In fact some of them (not the Wayne ones) were fab. But they weren’t serious Hollywood ‘A’ pictures for grown-ups.

Then along came John Ford. The story of Stagecoach is well known. It is not always remembered, however, that although Ford had acted in or directed 44 silent Westerns in his career before Stagecoach, he had not done one since his 1926 version of 3 Bad Men and had never done a talkie. He appeared to have abandoned the genre. Stagecoach was very hard to get produced. A Western in which the actors are all cooped up in a stage and just talk? And the heroes are an escaped convict and a prostitute? The big studios just didn’t want to know. In the end Walter Wanger produced it for Ford, United Artists released it and it was, gradually, a huge success.

Then, suddenly, the big studios did want to know. Westerns for adults? Wait a minute, we might be onto something. Fox’s Tyrone Power, for example, a huge star, had done comedy/romance/dramas like Café Metropole, Second Honeymoon or Love Is News. They were getting a bit samey. But he’d also made historical dramas like Suez and Marie Antoinette. Why shouldn’t he be Jesse James? Put a bit of romance in there, throw a big budget at it, produce it in color (still quite rare then) and you have a hit, surely? Universal could put immensely popular James Stewart alongside megastar Marlene Dietrich in a big Western saloon (black & white; we can’t throw too many dollars at it). Paramount could have Cecil B DeMille direct Stanwyck and this handsome new star Joel McCrea in a Manifest Destiny epic about crossing the continent with a railroad. And of course Warners wanted in too. After all, if Errol Flynn could bring in the big bucks by buckling swashes on the Spanish Main in Captain Blood (1935), lead dashing cavalry attacks in The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) or shoot longbows in Lincoln Forest in Robin Hood (1938), why can’t we give him a six-gun and have him clean up Dodge?

They were right. Lines (of adults) formed round blocks all through 1939 to get into movie theaters to see Jesse James, Destry Rides Again, Union Pacific and, yes, Dodge City.
Michael Curtiz directed. Hungarian Curtiz had made huge numbers of silent movies in various European countries and come to the US in 1926. He did dramas, crime and war pictures through the late 20s and directed Al Jolson in the famous talkie Mammy in 1930. He even did three Westerns: River’s End with Charles Bickford in 1930, Under a Texas Moon with Frank Fay the same year and Gold is Where You Find It with George Brent (and De Havilland) in 1938 – although none was especially good. Through the 30s he did dramas for Warners, the occasional horror, some rom coms. But in 1935 he directed Errol Flynn and Olivia De Havilland in Captain Blood and the following year repeated the formula with The Charge of the Light Brigade. Then in ’38 the pair were in Robin Hood. The movies were all huge hits. Curtiz was the obvious choice for Dodge City.
Dodge City has Michael Curtiz stamped all over it. Big scenery, huge crowds, noise, bustle, action galore and through it all a romance between De Havilland and Flynn starting in hostility and building to lerve. And yet… Curtiz never really ‘got’ the Western in my view. His pictures were English outlaws or pirates in the West. The true spirit of the Western eluded him. Yes, his oaters were fun, brash, action-packed. But they were commercial hits of the day rather than true cowboy films. Not everyone would agree with this, I know, but while Dodge City is a whole lot of fun and may have made more $$$ for Warners than other grown-up Westerns did for the other big studios, in the last resort it probably runs last in the quality stakes.
The movie opens with titles over some very nice paintings. We are pleased to see in the credits that camera work is by Sol Polito (27 Westerns, including most of the Curtiz/Flynn ones) and Ray Rennahan (Drums Along the Mohawk, Duel in the Sun, Whispering Smith and many other goodies, including the fun B that I was on about yesterday, Denver and Rio Grande). So quality there, alright. And I see special effects (in their early days) were by Byron Haskin, who directed Denver and Rio Grande.
We open with a classic image, a train at full steam filmed head-on, and right away there is a race between the train and a stagecoach (in which the driver [Bud Osborne] whips the poor horses unmercifully). There are lovely wide open scenes of Kansas (California, actually, but it looks like Kansas).

Three amigos appear. They are Wade Hatton (Flynn) and his comic sidekicks Algernon ‘Rusty’ Hart (Alan Hale) and Tex Baird (Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams), come in from buffalo huntin’ and now aimin’ to run down to the new town founded by Colonel Dodge.
Flynn’s rather Australian/English accent is explained away as we are told that he has knocked around the world, serving with the British army in India, been in Cuba and then with JEB Stuart in the recent unpleasantness. Reasonable enough: the real West was full of international adventurers. To be fair, Flynn, gun high on hip and rather dashing Stetson, does look the part and carry it off as a Westerner, despite his accent and pencil mustache.
There is a stampede caused by a drunken fool, Olivia’s brother (William Lundigan), and Wade is forced to shoot the fellow and then the man is trampled to death by the steers. Wade is very polite and apologetic about it but Olivia is extremely cross. Their relationship hasn’t got off to a good start.

In Dodge, Wade looks a bit skeptical as Col. Dodge (Henry O’Neill) outlines the moral and decent future of his new town, filled as it will doubtless soon be by churches, schools and temperance halls. Wade’s right. A rather old-fashioned intertitle card tells us that Dodge rapidly became the “longhorn cattle center of the world and wide-open Babylon of the American frontier, packed with settlers, thieves and gunmen—the town that knew no ethics but cash and killing". Curtiz liked this bit - gunfights in the street, a huge saloon brawl, drunkenness and wildness.

The town is run by crooked saloon owner Jeff Surrett (Flynn’s drinking companion and pal Bruce Cabot)
and his henchmen, including the excellent Victor Jory (he always looked so sinister) and even, in a small part, Ward Bond.
They have run off every lawman and the sheriff’s office is gathering dust with a board marked CLOSED nailed across the door. The S of CLOSED is reversed but sadly I can’t find a key on my computer to render that amusing symbol of the educational level of then Dodge residents for you. Surrett is used to buying cattle and then murdering the vendor so that he doesn’t have to pay, the cad. He even has cattleman Russell Simpson gunned down – Russell Simpson, my hero! It really is too much. The townspeople ask Hatton to pin on a star. At first he refuses – being a policeman is not his line at all – but then, after a small, chirpy boy is killed in the wild gunplay, he looks stern and pins the badge on (to his gunbelt, rather than his shirt, which is quite cool).

This exact plot was repeated in a virtual remake by Warners, Wichita in 1955, directed by Jacques Tourneur, in which Joel McCrea as Wyatt Earp is unwilling to pin on the star until a child is killed, then brings law ‘n’ order to the wild streets. McCrea was excellent and in fact it is a much more serious film which attempts to say something about violence and gun laws. McCrea did it again as Bat Masterson in The Gunfight at Dodge City for Universal in ’59 and indeed it is a well-known cliché. Even when Curtiz did it the hills were relatively youthful by comparison. Errol Flynn is Wyatt Earp (the Earp of legend, not fact) in all but name.

There’s a scene of competitive singing which Curtiz was to repeat in his greatest film, Casablanca, three years later. In the saloon, Tex sets up a chorus of Dixie to drown out the Marching Through Georgia sung by the crowd.  It leads to the famous brawl. Mind, it’s only the embryo of the Casablanca scene, which still unfailingly brings a tear to my eye every time I watch it. Dixie isn’t really the Marseillaise.
There has to be a slightly shady lady as well as the lead, and that was Ann Sheridan as the chief saloon girl. Of course Flynn thinks about dallying with her for just a moment but we all know he’s destined for Olivia.
Douglas Fowley is in town with Russell Simpson, and Monte Blue too, so all’s well with the world. How I like to see them!

There’s a rousing score by Max Steiner.

Well, you know what happens. Hatton duly cleans up Dodge and Olivia falls for him. There’s a good all-shootin’ action climax on a train as it catches fire. Surrett is eliminated by Errol with a Winchester. Flynn and De Havilland set up the Warners sequel by riding off into the sunset to Virginia City (1940) and they all live HEA.
There was a huge movie première in Dodge and the DVD has an excellent feature about that. Flynn rode down Wyatt Earp Blvd on a stallion with a fancy Spanish silver saddle, accompanied by the Governor, la Sheridan, Alan Hale and Guinn Williams. But there was no sign of Olivia at all. I don’t know if she snubbed it or what. Still, huge crowds cheered the stars and the movie. If Flynn had had any doubts about doing a Western he could forget them now. He was right up there on the cowboy Mount Parnassus (somewhere up in the Rockies, doubtless).
Frank S Nugent was a bit snooty about it in The New York Times. “One street fight looks much like another,” he wrote, and “three men being tossed through windows are no more diverting than one would have been”. He added, “There can be no suspense when the hero is as invulnerable as Mr. Flynn's Wade Hatton”. The critic sums the movie up thus: “Michael Curtiz's direction has been flawless part by part, but, as a whole, it has failed to fuse his film into anything approaching dramatic unity. It has become merely an exciting thriller for the kiddies, or for grown folk with an appetite for the wild and woolly.” He had a point.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Denver and Rio Grande (Paramount, 1952)


I have always loved Denver and Rio Grande. I saw it when I was a small boy (Bronze Age) and have never stopped admiring it. Indeed, I made the Royal Gorge railroad war of 1879 the subject of my first Western novel, Fight Back. What really struck me as a lad and still does is the utterly spectacular crash, filmed without special effects, as it happened, with two locomotives smashing at full speed into each other on the single track. In these days when even railroad Westerns like the recent 3:10 to Yuma remake can barely afford a train and have to fudge one with two inches of track and some smoke behind a saloon, to crash two for a B-Western seems incredible profligacy. But it’s great.
Railroads have always played a key part in Westerns. Usually, railway companies were the villains, stealing honest settlers’ land and being resisted by the likes of Jesse James, the Daltons or whoever (all fiction, of course). But in this one, the DRG are the good guys. In my novel the DRG and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe (ATSF) Rail Road, who fought each other for right of way up the narrow Royal Gorge to Silverton and ultimately Leadville, are equally rapacious and ruthless, and this seems to have been the historical case, but in this movie it’s the ATSF who are the villains. They must be because they have a bearded Sterling Hayden as their boss and slimy, smiling Lyle Bettger as his sidekick.
Hayden really tough
For some reason, probably legal, the ATSF is not named. The rival line is called the Cañon City & San Juan RR (CS&SJ).

The movie still has a hell of a lot going for it. Filmed in Technicolor in the Royal Gorge - and by the way you can still take that ride, Durango to Silverton, and absolutely wonderful it is too - with Ray Rennahan behind the lens, it is as spectacular as it is attractive, though it is true that there are too many studio shots on sound stages. There is a cracking pace to the action. Director Byron Haskins had been a cinematographer in the silent era, then had directed Disney’s first live-action picture, the 1950 Treasure Island (the one with Robert Newton as Long John Silver). Later he did The War of the Worlds. He was involved in 18 Westerns, from the cinematography on the silent Broken Chains in 1922 to directing a 1958 TV episode of The Californians. Denver and Rio Grande in ’52 was his last feature film Western and a worthy finale it was too. The film is a rip-snorter.

Royal Gorge, very nice
True, the writing is pretty ‘B’. Frank Gruber has been described by the Great Guru Brian Garfield as “a numbed pulp magazine veteran of every known cliché.” But hell, it’s a B-Western with Sterling Hayden. Of course it’s clichéd. And it sure wasn’t corny to a boy in the 1950s. I can vouch for that. It was just plain gripping. And anyway, as all Western fans know, there is a fine line between cliché and respect for convention/affectionate quotation, and this falls on the right side of that line.

Hayden was, as you know, a veteran himself. He was in 30 Westerns (including TV episodes), many of them real Poverty Row clunkers, and he hated most of them. A pity because he was very good in them, whether as the hero or heavy. D&RG was only his second oater, in fact. He was in another railroad-building flick, Kansas Pacific, the following year, another favorite of mine, and is pretty good in that, though is probably best known for playing the title role in Johnny Guitar, a candidate for the best (and weirdest) B-Western ever filmed. In D&RG you see how tall and tough he was and really quite fearsome as the very bad guy.

Looks like Silverton
We all know, and love to hate, Lyle Bettger. He was one of the best smiling villains ever. The Iago of the West. Here, as Johnny Buff, he wears range clothes but he was really at his best in a fancy silk vest. With his blond hair and Teutonic looks he would have been perfect as a Nazi SS officer but he did a lot of Westerns, almost always as the seriously slimy bad guy. He was in 61 film and TV oaters, from 1952 to 1970 (he died in 2003), and D&RG was his first Western feature. You may remember him as Ike Clanton in Gunfight at the OK Corral. I liked him as the villain in The Great Sioux Uprising. Hell, I liked him everywhere.

On the other side, the goodies, we have Edmond O’Brien as the hero. He was ever so slightly miscast, I think, as action lead, though it is one of his most famous Western roles. I remember him most for his crazed Confederate officer in Rio Conchos, his Dutton Peabody in Liberty Valance and of course his outstanding Sykes in The Wild Bunch (by which time he was still only in his mid-fifties though he appears as a crusty old timer). If he doesn’t quite carry it off as the dynamic railroad man in D&RG all is forgiven for his perfectly splendid hat, a black slouch worn at a rakish angle and one of the Great Hats of Westerns.

Should have worn his hat in the publicity still
We have Dean Jagger, authoritative and competent as D&RG boss General Palmer, and J Carrol Naish (79 Westerns 1931 - 1970, time and again an Indian chief) as the ramrod Harkness.

J Carrol Naish

The great Paul Fix does an amusing comic relief part as the engineer, flirting with an equally good Zasu Pitts, the eternal eccentric spinster.
Comic relief
Only Kasey Rogers (as Laura Elliott) is not very good as the love interest, Linda. She comes across as plain unsympathetic but it was probably the writing, not her fault. However, she does have a really groovy typewriter. I love period gadgets in Westerns.

One disappointment is that the AT&SF in historical fact recruited some Dodge City toughs, including Doc Holliday and led by Bat Masterson, to fight for their side but these make no appearance in the movie. Lost opportunity, really.

There’s some good stirring music by Paul Sawtell.

And the barman quells a saloon fight with a derringer. Hooray!

Looking back on it now, Denver and Rio Grande is, I suppose, really only an average B-Western but for me it will always be one of the great examples of the genre, a movie for which I have always had and still do have, the greatest affection. And you can love B-movies too, you know. It’s a must-see, e-pards.


Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Virginian (BP Schulberg/Al Lichtman, 1923)

Russell Simpson as Trampas

The seminal Western novel The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains by Owen Wister was first published in 1902. It sold hugely straight away and still does. It had a major influence on the whole genre and in many ways was what academics love to call the Western Ur-novel. So many Western characters and situations and so much dialogue has passed into standard, conventional Western usage in book after book, film after film ever since. Click the link above to read more.
Right away, the book was adapted for audiences who preferred to listen and watch than to read. In 1904, well-known actor Dustin Farnum appeared as the hero on Broadway in a theatrical version of the story which had been written by Wister with playwright/producer Kirke La Shelle. (La Shelle was in fact a son of Wyoming and he started as a journalist there. In 1895 he produced the monster theater hit The Wizard of the Nile and made his fortune, following it with other successes, so he was a front-line choice for Wister to collaborate with.) Like most people, I have never seen this play, nor, sadly, can I find the text anywhere, so I don’t know how it was different, if it was. It was, apparently, a hit anyway.
Farnum was the natural choice to star when ten years later Cecil B DeMille directed the first silent movie version (Jesse Lasky/Paramount, 1914). This was released in a new print in 1994 and well worth watching.

Later, of course, there was the greatest film version, the 1929 talkie starring Gary Cooper, as well as a post-war color version in 1946 starring Joel McCrea, which wasn’t bad but wasn’t as fine as the Coop one. And there were even later ones, in 2000 (rather good) and 2014 (poor). That's a lot of Virginians. You can read reviews of those by clicking on the live links.

But today I want to talk about the other movie, the 1923 silent starring Kenneth Harlan, which is readily available (e.g. from amazon) in the Lost Silent Classics Collection of DVDs. It is eight reels, 84 minutes long.
It’s actually quite good. Kenneth Harlan (1895 – 1967) was, Wikipedia tells us, “an American leading man of the silent film era, playing mostly romantic leads or adventurer types”. He was first a lead in 1916 under DW Griffith. Later, “He made a smooth transition to talkies, even singing in a few films, but his film roles remained minor throughout his later career. Harlan worked until the 1940s and retired in 1943.” He was in fact in many Westerns, 29 altogether ending with Daredevils of the West in 1943, but The Virginian in 1923 was his first. He had rather craggy good looks and was quite convincing as The Virginian, at least in appearance (which is after all the main thing in a silent movie). Furthermore, although many of these silent actors hammed it up unmercifully, Harlan was relatively restrained and he managed to communicate the taciturn toughness and decency of the original hero well. Only in the scene where Steve is lynched does he do a really corny closed-eyes look-away to show his grief, and you grimace, but that was standard then and as I say, most of the time he is very solid.
The best thing about the movie, though, is Russell Simpson. Now I am a dyed-in-the-wool Russell Simpson fan and wrote about him recently in my review of the 1930 Billy the Kid, in which he played McSween, so click the link if you want to read more about the Blessed Russell. He had in fact had a bit-part in the DeMille 1914 The Virginian but here is promoted to the key role of Trampas. With his black mustache and evil leer, he is superb. He was 46 at the time, though looks younger. We are so used to seeing Simpson as a religious elder or old timer because John Ford took him up after the Second War, when he was already in his late sixties, and it comes as quite a surprise to see him leap athletically aboard a horse and gallop off. The movie is worth watching for the Simpson Trampas, if nothing else. The scene where he kicks his fallen horse (unfortunately, it looks as though he really did kick it) and the one where he shoots his partner Shorty in the back to get the horse they are then sharing make him a really nasty villain. Sadly, I can’t find a photo of him in this role.

The film was directed by Tom Forman, born 1893, who acted in, wrote or directed eight Westerns (his last was The Flaming Forties in 1924 starring Harry Carey) before shooting himself in the heart in 1926. He does a good job on The Virginian, especially visually. There are some fine scenes with the Alabama Hills up at Lone Pine standing in very successfully for Wyoming. The episode in which the (very large) posse led by the Virginian catches two of the rustlers (including Steve) and huge shadows are projected onto the rockface by the firelight, is especially well done. The cinematography was by Harry Perry who later shot Howard Hughes’s Hell’s Angels and Wings for William Wellman.

Florence Vidor is a very pretty Molly. In the book Molly is in my view an essentially silly person but in this film she has a bit more weight and seriousness as a character. Ms. Vidor (King Vidor’s wife) was a famous beauty and it shines through, despite the fashionable cupid’s bow lipstick and 1910s dresses. I don’t know why women in Westerns always wore dresses of this period. Such attire was contemporary when Western films were first made but they remained standard issue right through into the 1930s. Men’s costume made some attempt at 1870s authenticity, especially under William S Hart, but women always wore dresses of about 1910 vintage, whatever the year of making the film or the year it was set in.
The movie concentrates on the usual episodes of the book (as perhaps the play did), namely the opening saloon scene, in which Wister’s famous line is given: “When you call me that… smile!”, followed by the Virginian saving Molly from the stage when crossing the river and then the baby-swapping party. The hanging scene is quite dark and sinister, prefiguring The Ox-Bow Incident in a way, and as in all versions, novelistic, theatrical or filmic, it is a difficult moment dramatically. How to make a man who leads a cold-blooded illegal lynching seem sympathetic? It isn’t easy.

The final climactic Main Street shoot-out, however, is poorly handled, filmed with a tensionless static longshot which lacks drama. Mr. Forman slipped up as director there.

The wedding-day gunfight with unwilling bride reminds us of High Noon, of course and the later Gary Cooper version of The Virginian especially reinforces this link to all Western fans, aka human beings.

I would also just mention Sam Allen as ‘Uncle Hughie’. Allen was a veteran actor who joined Biograph in 1910, was in eight Westerns (this was his first) and has the distinction of being an exact Gabby Hayes lookalike.

Raymond Hatton provides a comic-relief Shorty who also shows pathos and tragedy. Hatton was in over 500 films and is best known to Westernistas as Rusty Joslin in The Three Mesquiteers series and as Johnny Mack Brown’s sidekick.
The 1923 version of The Virginian is not the best one. That prize will forever be reserved for the Coop talkie of 1929. But it is quite classy and for all those interested in this key story in the romance of the West, it’s a must-see.


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A PS to the PS on Colorado Territory

Italian poster

This was the Italian poster to the excellent Raoul Walsh/Joel McCrea Western Colorado Territory, Nicholas says, and I do agree it is very good indeed. Virginia looks to be pretty damn good with those Colts.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Debt of Honor by Luke Short

The classy B-movies of Western novels

Regular readers, both of them, will know of my admiration for the Western novels of Luke Short. Don’t get me wrong, they aren’t really Eng Lit. Having just ‘come down’ from a re-reading of The Crossing trilogy, I have to admit they are in a class way below that. Most of them are full of ‘meanwhile, back at the ranch’ writing and the characters in conversation have an annoying way of using each other’s names in every utterance.

What do you think, Cordelia?
I don’t know, Reeves.
But, Cordelia, do you think he will react?
Maybe, Reeves. Maybe.

And so on.

Still, even if Luke was never in any danger of winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, the fact remains that all his stories are short with well-constructed plots containing action and believable characters. They were ideal for movies and indeed many of his novels were filmed (Ramrod, Coroner Creek and Vengeance Valley among others).

Debt of Honor was a late Short, 1967, the 44th of 51 Western tales. You couldn’t tell it was late 60s, though, if you didn’t know. There’s no hint of revisionism or bad guys as heroes or anything like that. The vast majority of the novels, and Debt is no exception, are basically Western crime stories in which the good guy brings the badman to justice and gets the girl.
And what’s wrong with that?

This one has hero Reeves Cable who answers the appeal of Cordelia, a former mother figure who has been traduced (and raped – that’s quite 60s, I suppose; the crime wouldn’t have been named before) and wants him to get the dirt on the crooked lawyer who is responsible. Reeves rides off to Primrose (a fictional town much used by Short) to find a juror bribed by the lawyer. There are saloons and crooked saloon keepers, tough miners paid to do hatchet jobs, a decent old-time sheriff (Ray Teal would have played him perfectly) and various other conventional but well-drawn elements of the classic Western story. And blow me down, Cordelia has a beautiful and resourceful niece (all Short’s women are resourceful) and guess what, she and Reeves hit it off.
You can read these books on a wet afternoon, much as you would watch a Western movie. They are unchallenging, true, but just as you don’t always want to watch The Searchers or Red River and you sometimes want lighter fare, so Debt of Honor, like any Luke Short, will be a rewarding read. Luke Short books are the classy B-movies of Western novels. In fact as I read unfilmed ones, I often think what a good movie Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott would have made of it.

Frederick D Glidden aka Luke Short (1908 - 1975)