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

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Black Horse Canyon (Universal, 1954)

Joel at Universal

Black Horse Canyon has what you might expect from a 1950s Universal Western, such as fine color photography of Arizona locations (by George Robinson, who had worked on The Plainsman in 1936 and who was cinematographer on the 1954 Destry remake), a second-rank director and some B-movie character actors. Its greatest merit, however, is the presence of Joel McCrea, who did a few oaters for Universal in the 1950s, starting with Saddle Tramp in 1950, after his more epic Paramount and Fox ones in the 30s and 40s. McCrea was always so quietly powerful that he lifted even the most B of Westerns. And he took the part of horse rancher rather as a duck takes to water.
The story is a pretty juvenile one (though luckily there are no kids in it) about the capture and breaking of a fine wild black stallion, Outlaw, and you just wish he could have been left to run wild. I always hope the horse will escape, but he rarely does. Joel would return to the theme in his last Western, Mustang Country.
All the local ranchers want the horse, to improve their stock. There’s Del Rockwell (McCrea), called Rock by his young partner Ti (Race Gentry).
Race Gentry
They have started up a ranch of their own. Then there’s feisty rancher Aldis Spain (Mari Blanchard) and her Uncle Ben, the doc (Irving Bacon).
Uncle Ben with Aldis
Aldis wants Outlaw too. In fact she claims the stallion is hers, I don’t know why. And lastly bad guy Jennings (Murvyn Vye) and his henchman Duke (John Pickard). They are unscrupulous and will Stop At Nothing to get their hands on the beast, or shoot it if they can’t have it – it isn’t quite clear why, except that they are just plain mean.

These actors, apart from McCrea of course, were not exactly A-list. Burt Lancaster had requested Blanchard for Vera Cruz though Universal wouldn’t let her go. But I doubt whether she would have made it a better film. She was in the Destry remake opposite Audie but George Marshall didn’t rate her at all. She ended up as the town madam in McLintock!
Mari Blanchard
Gentry took the handsome-young-man role for the girls to sigh over. He had had small parts in The Lawless Breed and Rails Into Laramie but otherwise did TV. I’m afraid I find him distinctly unmemorable. Badman Murvin Vye had been in bit parts in Whispering Smith and River of No Return but again did mostly TV. None of these actors stood out.
The pardners win out
As for director Jesse Hibbs, I’ve mentioned him before. He was workmanlike though rarely inspired. He directed a whole heap of TV Western shows (he did 20 episodes of Gunsmoke alone) and his Western feature films, though B, were competently done. He directed Ride Clear of Diablo with Audie and Dan Duryea, and Rails into Laramie with John Payne, both in 1954 before this one, both enjoyable if hardly stellar Westerns. He was to do the 1955 color version of The Spoilers too.

The Wild Horse, the Les Savage Jr. novel on which Black Horse Canyon is based, is raunchier and tougher but honestly, without Joel McCrea the movie would be eminently forgettable. As it is, it will never make anyone’s top ten but is nevertheless an enjoyable watch. There are some lovely shots of running horses.

Joel McCrea, great even in Universal B-Westerns


  1. I saw this movie in 1954, when it was first released, and I loved it, and never forgot any of it. Just goes to show who the audience was -- nine-year-old girls with horse fever.

    1. Yes, I bet there were a lot of horse-mad girls who were fans!