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

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Under California Stars (Republic, 1948)

Western Post-Times: TRIGGER KIDNAPPED!

Watching Roy Rogers movies today is not at that all easy. The word cheesy hovers dangerously in the air. But of course in those innocent days of yore his pictures were enormously popular. As a boy, born in the year Under California Stars was made, I grew up not caring much for singing cowboys. I was much more at home with the grittier 50s Westerns aimed at adults. Songs had little place in oaters, I thought, and even at that tender age I could tell that the duds that Autry, Rogers & Co. wore were far too fancy. Worst of all, for me, was the contemporary setting, with automobiles and telephones and so on. No, these ‘Westerns’ wouldn’t do.

And Roy looked a bit weedy, don’t you think? He was too slender and those slanty eyes were odd. Still, there’d no denying he was a giant in the history of the genre. And he still has legions of fans. I wouldn’t want to offend them. So I’ll be nice to this film.
Actually, Roy’s late-40s efforts had quite high production values. Republic wasn’t MGM but it wasn’t Poverty Row either and there was some budget available, even under famed cheapskate studio boss Herb Yates. For one thing, these pictures were in Republic’s Trucolor process. Where other singing cowboys had to do with black & white second features of an hour (or less), Roy’s films were 70-minute bright color epics with quite fancy sets (in this case Roy’s rather plush ranch home). The DP was Jack Marta, Republic go-to for Autry and Rogers Westerns, who knew the game backwards and also shot some big Westerns like Dark Command and, later, Cat Ballou.

For another, although these were very much family fare, the Rogers movies at this period were actually quite tough. In this one, beneath the heart-warming and folksy dialogue (how I dislike heart-warming movies) there was a plot of murder, double-crossing and even a threat to kill Trigger! Yes, the villains kidnap the Smartest Horse in the Movies. Of course, they deserve everything they get but that everything includes death from lead poisoning. And Roy’s fisticuffs with the bad guys (or Roy’s stunt doubles anyway, with the bad guys’ doubles) are really quite down-and-dirty. California Stars could hold its head up as a proper Western. Almost.
And then Andy Devine was doing his sidekick act again and that’s always a plus. In the story, he’s the one who writes the title song of the movie (though his singing of it at the piano is hilariously bad) and Roy hires him to come to Hollywood and write his songs. There’s shtick about all the ranch hands being cousins of his. One of them is rather gorgeous cousin Caroline (Jane Frazee). Dale isn’t around, you see, though she and Roy were married by this time. The Roy/Caroline relationship is very chaste but they do sing Andy’s song together, and she had a bright, pretty voice to add to Roy’s pleasant tenor (for he really could sing). That song kinda sticks in the head and I bet a lot of the patrons came out of the theaters in ’48 happily whistling the tune.
She has fainted because she saw a mouse. Oh, those innocent days of yore.
Another cousin is a small boy, Ted (Michael Carver) and this lad has a wicked stepfather, obviously (Wade Crosby). After an accident the stepdad won’t pay for an operation on the boy’s leg (in those pre-PC days he is referred to as a cripple). Worse, this stepfather is in league with the local horse buyer Pop Jordan (George Lloyd) and a henchman named Ed (House Peters Jr., rather good as a thug, in fact) who brutally round up wild horses on the range and sell them for glue (Do you think the makers of The Misfits had seen this film? No, you’re probably right). But they abandon this heartless scheme (Roy’s fists help) and get the brainwave of holding Trigger to ransom instead. They horsenap the palomino while Roy is singing on the radio. Luckily, the boy is of the kind that used to be called plucky, and he helps save the day (and Trigger). Such infants in these Westerns were ideal for 90% of the audience to identify with.

Another reason for the (relative) quality of this movie was that Republic had William Witney direct it. Witney had started at Mascot doing serials and when they merged with Republic he continued there. He really knew his craft. He did his first Rogers flick in 1946 and never looked back. California Stars was just one of six Roy Rogers pictures he did in 1948 alone – amazing, really. Late in life Witney wrote two books, In a Door, Into a Fight, Out a Door, Into a Chase (about his serial directing career) and Trigger Remembered. They’d probably make entertaining reading and I must try to get hold of a copy of them.
The Sons of the Pioneers are there, of course. Amazingly, I believe they are still going. Of course none of the original line-up is still alive but still. That close-harmony 1940s ‘Western’ singing does have a certain charm, especially when Roy joins in.

Trigger obviously does his bit. At one point he helps a cowhand win at poker by advising him which card to play.

Oh, and there’s a great dog, Tramp (Tramp). He also helps save the day. He’s a proper mutt, all shaggy (not like my beautiful hound Wyatt).
Excellent pooch
Yup, I have to say it, this film is recommended.


Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Badge of Marshal Brennan (AA, 1957)

Looks like a 50s TV show

In 1957 – 58 producer/director Al Gannaway made a handful of low-budget black & white B-Westerns, with a stock company of actors he had gathered around him. The pictures were released mostly by Republic, though The Badge of Marshal Brennan was for Allied Artists.

Marshal Brennan had huge similarities with Raiders of Old California of the same year. Jim Davis led in both. Louis Jean Heydt, Lee Van Cleef, Arleen Whelan, Harry Lauter, Douglas Fowley and Marty Robbins backed him up. They used a very similar crew, the actors wore the same costumes, and they even repeated some footage of Davis killing three Indians. The pictures were also similar in quality (or lack of it), though Badge was a little better than the others.
Probably the best of 'em
Gannaway was keen on using country singers in his Westerns (of course later that became a real fashion). Faron Young and Marty Robbins were in several of them. This one has Carl Smith as Sheriff Carl Smith. He isn’t too bad, actually, a lot better than Faron Young anyway. He plays it in a laid-back way. So laid back, in fact, he’s almost horizontal.
Sheriff Carl Smith
It’s the good-badman plot, with a bit of arrogant rich rancher vs. decent townsfolk thrown in. Davis is man on the run from the law (though innocent, naturally – it was self-defense) who escapes the posse by riding into Apache lands and meets up with a dying US marshal. One would have hoped, especially given Gannaway’s propensity for giving his characters their real names, that this Marshal Brennan would have been played by Walter Brennan, but budget constraints being what they were… Still, we did get good old Douglas Fowley, always enjoyable to watch. This marshal, with his dying breaths, puts outlaw Jim on the straight and narrow. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do and all that. So Jim takes the late lawman’s badge and passes himself off as a US marshal.
The badge
Once in the town of Banock (I would have thought it was Bannock but the sign reads BANOCK) we are introduced to the arrogant rancher Col. Doniphan and his evil son Shad. They are played by Louis Jean Heydt (who was a goody in Raiders while Jim was the baddy so they have rung the changes) and Lee Van Cleef. Heydt was a reliable but rather forgettable character actor and did a lot of Westerns, usually just bit parts, but Gannaway gave him some prominence in his movies. Van Cleef was still relatively early in his splendid Western career (debuting, of course, as one of the gunmen in High Noon) but he’d already appeared in twenty Western movies and a whole host of Western TV shows so was quite well known. He’s great in Marshal Brennan, really nasty.
Louis Heydt, looks rather good as ruthless rancher
There’s a decent doc (Harry Lauter, another Gannaway regular) who believes the Doniphans’ cattle have black spot fever and are infecting the locals, who begin dying in droves. The Doniphans won’t admit it, though, and will stop at naught to prevent the herd being put down. Only a US marshal has the legal right to do something about that and lo, here comes a US marshal – or that’s what he says he is. Sheriff Smith has seen the Wanted dodgers and knows different, but he doesn’t let on.

Well, mucho skullduggery follows, you may be sure of that, and outlaw-on-the-run Jim is persuaded to stay and help out, using his marshal’s badge. Who persuades him? Why, a fair maiden of course. Well, Arleen Whelan anyway. Ms. Whelan, erstwhile John Ford alumna but now on the downside of her career, plays Murdock, the café owner. The doc moons over her but she prefers the mysterious marshal. Jim is also persuaded by a mangy dog, which he befriends (well-known Western code to show he is a goody at heart).
Marty Robbins is one of the Doniphan men. He’s Felipe, a blond Mexican, or at least I think his accent is supposed to be Mexican. He’s callously murdered by Lee when he gets the fever. There’s an Indian in a wig, Chicamon (Lawrence Dobkin), who wants to kill the doc because the medico let his son die (which seems a bit unfair) but he later comes round and fights those really responsible for the demise of Chicamon Jr. alongside the doc. And there are sundry other forgettable characters, including the governor, whom rich rancher Doniphan thinks he has in his pocket but who actually turns out to be rather more independent.
Don't worry, Jim, it's not going anywhere
The look of the thing is very much that of a 50s TV show, with cheap staging and a grayish monochrome. There’s the occasional half-good shot, such as the one of Jim’s shadow (he makes a good deal of not being able to escape your shadow, which is rather stating the obvious). And at one point Lee throws the vial containing the doc’s blood sample at the camera and the goo oozes down the lens rather memorably.
Lee throws blood at the lens
The music by Ramez Idriss is annoying, played on a Fender guitar, we are told, occasionally augmented in the ‘exciting’ bits by kettle drums. Electric guitar accompaniment only really works, though, if you are Neil Young.

Well, well. I have seen worse, definitely. Jim Davis was growing as a Western star and Lee Van Cleef is never less than excellent. Some of the other acting is in the iffy department though. The writing, direction and staging are on the ropey side – it was after all a very low-budget affair. But it’s probably the best of these Gannaway Westerns and you could certainly watch it if it came on TV, though I would not recommend a DVD purchase (actually I’m not even sure it’s available).


Friday, August 26, 2016

Raiders of Old California (Republic, 1957)

A bit of a clunker

Raiders of Old California is a pretty ropey black & white Republic B-Western of the late 50s, produced and directed by Albert C Gannaway. Mr. Gannaway was perhaps best known for being married to the tempestuous starlet Corinne Calvet, for a few months, but he made some Westerns, seven in all, such as Daniel Boone, Trailblazer (with Faron Young) and The Badge of Marshal Brennan, with Jim Davis. Raiders starred both Young and Davis. I fear none of the pictures was very good. The budgets were low, the writing plodding and the acting mediocre at best.
Very low-grade stuff
Country musician Faron Young, known as The Singing Sheriff though he only appeared in three Westerns (all Gannaway productions) was, sorry to say it, an utterly unconvincing Western actor. He must have had shares in Brylcreem, judging by the way he applied it. In Raiders Faron Young is Marshal Faron Young, a lawman with superpowers, including a punch like Rocky Marciano and marksmanship with a pistol which would have won an Olympic gold in rifle shooting.
Faron Young, hopeless
His opponent is Jim Davis, whose B-Western career had started in 1942 at Republic supporting Bill Elliott and was still going strong. He’d been very popular as railroad detective Matt Clark in Republic’s Stories of the Century on TV in 1954-55 and had won increasingly big roles but Raiders was his first top-billing. He is corrupt Captain MacKane in California, 1847, who extorts land from a noble hacienda owner and becomes a power-mad cattle baron. His sergeant, Pardee, is Lee van Cleef, in quite a big part, and he becomes MacKane’s chief henchman and murderer in civilian life. Among the troop too is Marty Robbins, in a tiny part as a corporal (this and two other Gannaway oaters were his first Westerns) so it’s quite a country singer outing, though fortunately the harmonic talents of neither Young nor Robbins are called upon.
Power-mad cattle baron Jim Davis
There’s also Lt. Harry Lauter but he’s a goody and disapproves of the Davis/Van Cleef skullduggery. Later he will agree to testify against them but get shot for his pains. Lauter was popular because of Tales of the Texas Rangers on TV.

The most enjoyable character, though, is Douglas Fowley doing a bewhiskered old-timer sheriff part. He was still only in his forties at the time but you can see he was having fun hamming it up.
Having fun
I will not regale you with the plot. It’s all predictable anyway. Marshal Young’s dad is Judge Young (Louis Heydt) and they make a hot-shot legal team. There’s a dame (Arleen Whelan) but no love interest for the main characters because she is happily married to Lauter and hardly has anything to say apart from loyally supporting him. Ms. Whelan had been quite a big star, and a favorite of John Ford, but now her career was on the wane and Raiders and another Gannaway epic the same year, The Badge of Marshal Brennan, were her last movies.

It’s set in 1850 but of course all their clothes and guns are 1880s. Well, you couldn’t ask too much of Republic’s props and costumes department. Jim wears a cavalry shirt and low-slung holster and looks a bit like Matt Clark.

There’s a stampede at the end but it looks like stock footage (if you’ll excuse the pun) and the trampling done to remove a couple of characters is very poorly staged indeed. In fact it’s dire. Father-and-son judge ‘n’ marshal then ride off into the sunset, presumably to bring law ‘n’ order to another town.

Well, it had to get one revolver in the Jeff Arnold rating system. I mean it’s a Western, isn’t it? But it sure don’t deserve more. Still, if it came on TV or something you’d have to watch it. Van Cleef is good.

Van Cleef, never less than excellent, even in junk


Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Escort West (UA, 1958)

Victor Mature's last Western

Victor Mature’s last Western was a satisfactory if not great one. He was an unlikely hero in a Stetson, matinée idol and sword-and-sandal expert that he was, but after surprising everyone when John Ford chose him as Doc Holliday in My Darling Clementine in 1946 – and stunningly good he was too - he acquitted himself in four other oaters with some skill: Fury at Furnace Creek was a tight little noir Western in 1948; The Last Frontier was not perhaps Anthony Mann’s finest work in 1955 but it has quality nevertheless; yes, Mature was faintly ridiculous as Chief Crazy Horse the same year (though it was actually an interesting picture); and then came Escort West, a little cavalry Western of some merit (though some flaws). So it’s a short but not at all bad career in the saddle. He was back to swords afterwards and never did another oater, being anyway more interested in golf than acting.
Victor matured into a solid Western actor
Escort West was made by John Wayne’s Batjac company, and Duke brought to the project the best ever Army unit you could wish for: Troopers Harry Carey Jr., Leo Gordon and Ken Curtis were commanded by Corporal Slim Pickens and Lt. Noah Beery Jr. Beat that. Only Ben Johnson was missing – he was busy being a Captain in UA’s Fort Bowie - though Dobe’s character was called Travis in a sort of homage-cum-in-joke.
I wouldn't say he was on a rampage but that's posters for you
It was co-written by Leo Gordon. As well as being one of the best Western heavies ever, Leo also penned quite a few big- and small-screen oaters (mostly small) and very competent they were too. His co-writer was Fred Hartsook, who had done the screenplay for the Joel McCrea Western Gunsight Ridge the year before, for the same director.
Leo Gordon gets the drop on Vic. Well, Leo wrote it so he could do what he wanted.
This director was Francis D Lyon. He was no John Ford, I fear. He was an editor (his first Western work was editing Red River, no less, so respect) who turned his hand to directing and later did a solid job on Disney’s The Great Locomotive Chase. Towards the end he did TV work, especially Laramie and Tales of Wells Fargo episodes. He did reasonably well on Escort West, it must be said, though struggled to manage pace and tension.
Francis D Lyon
It’s the story of an ex-Reb captain (Mature) who rather cheekily goes by the name of Lassiter. It’s Nevada, 1865, just after the end of the Civil War, and after the death of his wife, Lassiter is taking his daughter of maybe twelve or thirteen, Abbey (Reba Waters), to Oregon to start a new life. They encounter a mix of kind welcomes and ugly scorn. They meet up with Capt. Poole (William Ching, at the end of his slightly less than stellar career) who is escorting two posh dames to Oregon too. These are the sisters Beth and Martha, who are different. Beth (Elaine Stewart, often a vamp or temptress but here demure and sweet) is polite, gentle and kind, while Martha (Faith Domergue, who curiously insisted that her name be pronounced demure) is a veritable pain in the posterior.
The sisters, Domergue and Stewart
Ms. Domergue’s part was a thankless one as she had to be perfectly foul throughout, arrogant, snobbish, foot-stamping and superior. A Howard Hughes, er, protégée, she was supposed to be the new Jane Russell but her career faltered. She descended into B horror pics then TV work. She did a lot of Westerns though and I think she was quite good at the genre. See for example The Duel at Silver Creek, The Great Sioux Uprising or Santa Fe Passage – all admittedly iffy B-Westerns but she isn’t at all bad in them.

We kinda guess right away that Vic’s going to end up escorting Elaine and Faith to safety in hostile terrain and sure enough it turns out to be that good old brave-hero-saves-Eastern-ladies-from-Indians plot. That one goes right back to Fenimore Cooper but was still going strong in 1958, and indeed still is.
The oldest plot in the business?
There are definitely similarities with Fox's Delmer Daves-directed The Last Wagon of two years before. Francis Lyon was no Delmer Daves though.

The Indians are Modocs, which is a nice change, though they look like standard Apaches from central casting. Their chief is Tago (X-Brands), and Wayne stuntman Chuck Hayward is another. A couple are even real Indians, such as Eddie Little Sky, though not, I am sure, Modoc. They are typical Hollywood Indians, however: threatening renegades whom it is quite OK to shoot down.
Our hero comes face to face with the Modoc chief. You are unlikely to have a problem guessing who wins.
After Noah Beery, the best actor in the picture is Rex Ingram who plays Nelson, the black mule-skinner who survives the Modocs’ attack which decimates his troop. Lassiter sets his broken leg and he is carried on a travois (it must be hell to act from a travois) as they try to get away (though of course nasty Martha suggests leaving him behind). Later he sacrifices himself nobly to save the others, taking a pesky Modoc with him, though. Ingram had famously been Jim to Mickey Rooney’s Huck Finn but he only did this and one other Western. Pity.
Rex Ingram, very good
There’s a moving bit of business with a cigar tin, and the cigar tin then becomes a handy bomb. If you watch the movie you’ll see what I mean.

L Gordon and K Curtis turn out to be bad guys (Leo, obviously) so Lassiter has to combat them too, as if a band of Modocs were not enough. But he bravely comes through, you’ll be relieved to hear. There’s a last-reel 1:1 showdown between Lassiter and Tago, as there was bound to be, and a huge rattler comes in handy.
Noah Beery, probably the best actor on the set
There’s love interest, natch. Beth is kinda engaged to Capt. Poole but she comes to love Lassiter. You may guess the outcome. Martha gets her come-uppance, though in extremis does ‘the right thing’. She’s not mourned by many.

The father/daughter relationship is done well, and Mature is tender towards the young girl. Reba Waters does a good job as the naïve and trusting daughter.

It’s all shot in CinemaScope but black & white, an unusual and interesting mix. Effective California locations were shot by the great William Clothier (doubtless another Wayne contribution) and there are some striking shots in the rocks of ‘Nevada’.
See it, but don't expect greatness
The film seems long (though it is actually only an hour and a quarter) and I think that’s because it’s rather episodic and the action not ‘unified’ enough. In fact one critic, Erick Maurel, has referred to ses laborieuses et interminables 75 minutes qui sont une véritable atteinte au plaisir cinématographique ou, au choix, un somnifère de premier ordre (its laborious and interminable 75 minutes which are a veritable attack on cinematic pleasure or, if you prefer, a top-quality sleeping pill). That does seem a bit harsh. It doesn’t drag for me, though I admit I’m not the most demanding of viewers. If it’s a Western I’ll watch it. And it does have a superb cast. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not a great film. But you could do worse than watch it.

That’s what I think, anyway.



Monday, August 22, 2016

Day of the Badman (Universal, 1958)

High eleven o’clock



To me, there’s a difference between a bad man and a badman. While the former describes many (male) people, your present writer doubtless included, the latter is a specific Western entity, an outlaw, gunman or brigand. The title screen (at least of the print I saw) gives us Day of the Bad Man, while the poster has the rather more appropriate Day of the Badman. Anyway.
Take your pick

It’s a late 50s Fred MacMurray oater. Filmgoers of my generation (and possibly, dear e-pard, yours) can only really think of flubber when they see Fred on screen but actually he had quite a little sideline in Westerns, and was surprisingly good in them. He made 12 (not counting a couple of contemporary rom-coms with a slight Western tinge). Perhaps his biggest were The Moonlighter in 1953, a passionate affair with Barbara Stanwyck, and The Far Horizons in 1955 when he was Lewis to Charlton Heston’s Clark. Otherwise they were pretty well B-Westerns, for a variety of studios. They weren’t bad, though. See, for example, The Texas Rangers (1936), Gun for a Coward (1957) or Face of a Fugitive (1959).
Fred in Westerns, surprisingly good
The screenplay of Day of the Badman (I’m calling it that) was written up (by Lawrence Roman) from a story by John W Cunningham. Cunningham of course wrote The Tin Star upon which it is claimed High Noon was based, and it is clear from early on in Badman that this movie is going to be a poor man’s High Noon. A sort of high eleven o’clock. There’s even a clock face shown, ticking away to the dread hour of eleven, when Judge Fred will pass sentence.
Fightin' Judge Fred
For Fred is not the marshal but a judge, in a rather dashing frock coat. He is about to sentence ne’er-do-well Rudy Hayes to death for first-degree murder. The thing is, though, Rudy’s brothers appear in town with the clear intent of helping him escape the noose. They are Robert Middleton, as paterfamilias Charlie (rather Ike Clantonesque) and Skip Homeier as younger brother Howard. Later they are joined by Monte (Chris Alcaide) and even cousin Lee van Cleef. So that’s four to have a showdown with, as in High Noon.

Robert Middleton excellent as tough guy

Now, Robert Middleton, as well as being in pretty well every Western TV show you care to name at one time or another, was also in a heap of big-screen Westerns, from Love Me Tender in 1956 (when he was a very unlikely Charlie Siringo) onwards. Usually his ample frame was clothed in a suit and he was a crooked banker or cigar-chewing town boss, so it’s a surprise to see him here unshaven and in range duds doing almost an action-man bit. He’s good, though, and communicates smiling menace with panache. Skip Homeier had started as the sneering punk kid in The Gunfighter in 1950 and went on to corner the sneering-punk-kid market, but by 1958, now pushing 30, he was beginning to drop the kid part and concentrate on just being a sneering punk. Fred gets it right when he says, “Why, you squirt!”
Skip doing his sneering punk act
There are some excellent character actors to back Fred, Rob and Skip up.

Edgar in pink

Edgar Buchanan is the judge’s factotum and friend, in a pink apron cleaning the judge’s new house so it is fit to welcome his bride-to-be, who is Joan Weldon from Them! Then there is ‘the other woman’, the less reputable one that the judge dallied with a year or two before, who is Marie Windsor. I always like to see Marie in a Western. Though she was best known for B-movie noirs (like being Elisha Cook Jr.’s double-crossing wife in The Killing) she was in a whole heap of big-screen and little-screen Westerns from 1947 to ’75. She was with John Wayne in The Fighting Kentuckian in 1949 and still with him in Cahill, US Marshal a quarter of a century later. You can tell she’s a bad egg in Day of the Badman because she kicks a dog in the first reel.
Marie Windsor is the racy 'other woman'
I must say, though, that neither of the ladies is Grace Kelly or Katy Jurado (their role-models).

John Ericson is the sheriff. Mr. Ericson had been Pete in Bad Day at Black Rock in 1955 and was still a relatively young and unknown quantity in oaters but he’d been good as Jack Slade's son in a dark, quality B-Western The Return of Jack Slade (which I must review one day). He’d also been one of the Drummonds in the trashy Forty Guns in 1957. In Badman he’s a cowardly sheriff who wants to back down from a fight with the Hayes boys and he’s also the judge’s rival for the hand of the fair Weldon, so he and Fred don’t exactly see eye to eye.
Will Joan go for the sheriff or the judge?
Peggy Converse is excellently malevolent as the vengeful widow of Rudy’s victim who wants “to hear his neck crack”. Kenneth MacDonald, Jack Perrin and Henry Wills are all just about spottable in uncredited bit-parts.

I must say, MacMurray is very good in this. He comes across as tough and decent but with just enough doubt and fear. He is shrewd enough to know and show that true courage is not fearlessness but rather being afraid and doing the right thing anyway.

The picture was directed by Harry Keller who had been a B-Western specialist at Republic but when that studio was on the rocks he moved to Universal, which even trusted him to reshoot certain scenes for Orson Welles's Touch of Evil, so he can't have been a duffer. He had directed MacMurray in a Western, Quantez, the year before and the two seem to understand each other.

Most of the action takes place in town and DP Irving Glassberg (Bend of the River) doesn’t have much scope for Universal’s usual high-quality location shooting, but it’s in CinemaScope and nice Eastmancolor so we get the odd pleasant bit of cinematography. The Hans J Salter music is also quite classy and I liked the way it alternated between pastoral/bucolic as Judge Fred was riding off to check out his new ranch home and menacing/discordant as the camera zoomed in on the villains following him.
Van Cleef, always superb as the bad guy
There’s quite a good fight between Skip and the sheriff which Van Cleef (how brilliant he always was) settles with a bit of hickory, rather like Duke dealing with George Kennedy in The Sons of Katie Elder or Clint dealing out punishment in Pale Rider. And there’s a climactic shoot-out at the judge’s place with fire-bombs before Joan changes her mind about yellow Sheriff Ericson and comes running back to Judge Fred so that they may live happily ever after (with Edgar Buchanan, of course).

Recommended, in a B-Western kinda way.


Saturday, August 20, 2016

Shane (Paramount, 1953)

A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it


Many regard Shane as a monumental film and talk of it in the same breath as High Noon or The Searchers, for example, as one of the greatest ever Westerns. The American Film Institute ranks it as the 45th greatest movie of all time and No. 3 among Westerns.

My own opinion is slightly different: I don’t know how many times I have watched it. A lot, anyway. And fundamentally I haven’t changed my opinion of it: that it is a mighty example of the genre; that it deals with classic Western themes; that it has great merits (notably visually); but that it is fatally flawed by the casting.
Rather an uninspired poster, actually
George Stevens had started in the film business as a cinematographer in 1923 and added directing from 1930 but he specialized in comedies and had no reputation for Westerns. In fact the biopic Annie Oakley (1935) with Barbara Stanwyck was his only Western as director, until he decided in the early 1950s to make ‘the’ Western movie, Shane. And, like William S Hart before him, he seems deliberately to have set out to make the definitive Western, whatever the cost. As Brian Garfield wrote in his splendid 1982 Western Films: A Complete Guide, “Shane is a conscious retelling of the purest elements of the classic Western legend.” In this way it is a most American film.
 George Stevens (right with his Oscar for Giant)

Stevens chose as his starting point the 1949 novel by Jack Schaefer, Shane. Many consider this to be a children’s book and in many ways it is. Schaefer revised the first edition in 1954 (i.e. after the movie had come out), taking out all the damns and hells and making it suitable as a book to be read in school. In fact the first time I read Shane was in a lovely boys’ edition illustrated by Wendell Minor in the Illustrated American Classics series. And it makes a good book for children because it is short, it is written in a direct, straightforward style, it has a noble hero to be admired and the story is told from the point of view of a boy on a farm with whom juvenile readers can identify.
Jack Schaefer and his novel
The 1984 “critical edition”, however, edited by James C Work, University of Nebraska Press, makes excellent adult reading because as well as the unexpurgated text of the novel you get a series of interesting essays about the book and about the author, as well as reviews of the famous film. For of course this novel is more than a children’s book. It has become an iconic statement of the Western myth. It has appeared in more than seventy editions and thirty languages.

Marc Simmons says of the characters in the story in the Foreword to the critical edition:

[They were] cut from noble cloth. They were strong, hardworking, brave, self-disciplined, responsible, honest; ungalled by self-doubt or any sense of inferiority. In short, they possessed those virtues that, by the mid-twentieth century, were increasingly being dismissed as outdated or unattainable.

The tone of this quotation is perhaps nostalgic, even reactionary, and that is one weakness of the novel (and, by extension, the film). It has a certain naïvety about it, an overly bucolic sentimentality that the “boy’s eye view” cannot wholly excuse or disguise. Another way to say it would be that it now seems terribly dated.

But perhaps this describes the appeal of all Westerns, books, movies or in other guise. They described a simpler time, when justice was administered directly and when if might was right, it was tempered by qualities of decency and fairness in the dispensers of the frontier justice. Of course, this time never existed but it makes a satisfactory myth.

Shane is in many ways the summation of the myth of the gunfighter, that samurai-like knight errant of the plains, sometimes a lawman, sometimes a badman, sometimes a gun for hire, whose skill with a firearm and courage to use it is summed up in the aphorism from the film that I have used as the title of this article. It is a very American notion, at once popular and democratic yet at the same time quite ‘rightist’ and élitist. In an evil world, it seems to be saying, the only effective remedy is a good man with a gun.
At any rate, that was the story Stevens chose. And in many ways it was well suited to his purpose because it was the archetypal treatment of that most Western of themes, the myth of the gunfighter as outsider who comes from nowhere, rights wrongs in a community and then rides off into the sunset.

By 1953, when the movie Shane came out, Westerns had followed a slightly different trail. Through the 1940s the genre had got ‘psychological’. Westerns were noir, Westerns were black & white, Westerns were intense. Movies like Pursued (1947), Blood on the Moon (1948) or The Gunfighter (1950) were dark, powerful films with Freudian touches. In a way the culmination of this type of Western was High Noon (1952), which had none of the sweeping wide-open vistas we usually associate with Westerns. Like The Gunfighter, it was almost a theater play, observing the classical unities, a town-based story with many interiors in which the characters interacted passionately in the face of looming tension and tragedy.

Stevens wanted none of that. He wanted to return to the epic scale of the open range, and he wanted a story of nobility and conflict set in mighty mountainous locations, shot in stunning color. His town, such as it was, was a tiny settlement of shacks dwarfed by the Wyoming vastness. Civilization is frail here. There is no marshal or sheriff. Men must make their own law and seek their own justice.

And of course the plot is another of those classic Western tropes, the big cattle rancher versus the humble homesteader. Although it is not explicitly referred to, there is a sort of Johnson County War theme to the story. This was one of the oldest and most commonly treated Western plots of all. Usually (though there were exceptions) the ranchers were ruthless plutocrats, little kings who had carved out their domains by fighting hostile nature and wild Indians and who were damned if they were going to let sodbusters come in and plow up their cattle graze, whereas the homesteaders were decent farmers, symbols of economic progress and democracy, exercising their rights as Americans to settle on open land. That was certainly the approach of Stevens and his screenplay writer AB Guthrie Jr.
AB Guthrie Jr
Guthrie was, of course, himself a noted Western novelist (Shane was his first screenplay). He depicted a rugged, generally unromanticized West, often filled with authentic historical detail. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1950 book The Way West (made into a so-so film in 1967) and was equally well known for The Big Sky (published in 1947, filmed the year before Shane).

Both Schaefer’s novel and Stevens’s film open with the arrival of the mononymous Shane. The book’s Shane is dark, tall and dressed in the fine clothes we might associate with a high-toned gambler. Stevens elected to have short, blond Alan Ladd (replacing original choice Montgomery Clift) in soft buckskins. Perhaps the clothes were meant to suggest a past as buffalo hunter or plainsman but, with the fancy silver-decorated gunbelt, the costume comes across, as William K Everson says in his 1969 book A Pictorial History of the Western Film, as pretty. And here we come to what is, for me, the principal weakness of the movie Shane. The part called for a classic tall Westerner, with an air of strength and toughness about him, at the very least Peck or Fonda but ideally Gary Cooper. Instead, we got a Hollywood Shane in a Beverly Hills tan and with coiffed blond locks.
Alan Ladd
Alan Ladd was certainly a very nice man and he could also be a good actor but he never suited Westerns. He didn’t look convincing in them, and his clothes always looked like costumes. He led in twelve Westerns, between 1948 and ’60, but the four before Shane had been ordinary at best (and the seven after were no better). Shane revived his Western career, indeed his career tout court, and made him a ‘famous’ Western star among the wider public but he was always one of the weaker heroes in the saddle. Though Shane is by far Ladd’s best Western, and he does surprisingly well in it considering, the movie never recovers from his performance.

They had to do 119 takes of the scene where Shane demonstrates shooting to Joey, which must have tried even the perfectionist director’s patience. The fancy gun-twirling Shane does in the climactic showdown was actually performed by gunsmith-stuntman Rodd Redwing. Other Ladd scenes were doubled by Henry Wills (later stunt coordinator on The Magnificent Seven). Well, that’s OK, most Western stars used stunt doubles.
At least Brandon was shorter
Where Ladd shines is when displaying elegant manners and giving courteous compliments, best seen in his dancing gracefully with Marian, and probably Stevens was going for an attempt at courtly love as the knight of the plains chastely woos the out-of-reach lady. The idea of Western heroes being aristocrats – or at least ‘nature’s aristocrats’ – was an old one. It went right back to Fenimore Cooper. The Virginian had it too.

But the film would have been so much better with an earthier, tougher, taller Westerner who gritted his teeth and did the decent thing.

In his review of Shane, Roger Ebert perceptively writes about the gunfighter:

There is a little of the samurai in him, and the medieval knight. He has a code. And yet--there's something else suggested by his behavior, his personality, his whole tone. Here is a man tough enough to handle any threat and handsome enough to win the heart of almost any woman. Why does he present himself as a weakling? Why is he without a woman? There must be a deep current of fear, enlivened by masochism. Is he afraid of women? Maybe. Does he deliberately lead men to think they can manhandle him, and then kill them? Manifestly. Does he do this out of bravery and courage, and because he believes in doing the right thing? That is the conventional answer. Does he also do it because it expresses some deep need or yearning? A real possibility. "Shane" never says, and maybe never knows. Shane wears a white hat and Palance wears a black hat, but the buried psychology of this movie is a mottled, uneasy, fascinating gray.

As Richard Slotkin points out in his essay on Shane in Gunfighter Nation, there is a symmetry to Shane. Sturdy farmer Starrett (Van Heflin) and autocratic rancher Ryker (Emile Meyer) are the leaders of their respective camps but both have to give way to their hired men who will decide the outcome of the conflict: Shane will fight for the common man’s rights and hired gun Wilson (Jack Palance) will seek to assert that might is right. Both are professionals. The first appearance of Wilson in the saloon is as dramatic as that of Shane, though darker, more sinister. We see him as he enters Grafton’s saloon, dressed all in black to contrast with Shane’s light buckskins, viewed from a low angle so that he seems huge, and as he comes in with measured tread a dog gets up and slinks off. Wilson is the anti-Shane and it is crystal clear that the final battle will be between them and them alone. One of the most memorable shots in the film is of Starrett and Ryker exchanging hot words while the camera watches the silent Wilson and Shane sizing each other up for the deadly ritual to come, and smiling slightly.

The choice of Palance was inspired. A stage actor who had made his name as understudy for Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, finally taking over the part, he had made his film debut in Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets. An Eastern, ‘urban’ figure, he was an unlikely casting choice for a professional gunslinger. He knew nothing of horses or guns. But he was brilliant, and conveyed sadism and menace with real steel. Roger Ebert says, “He arrives in town on foot, leading his horse - an effective entrance, even if Hollywood lore says that Palance at the time was so awkward on horseback that Stevens put him on foot in desperation.” Palance’s Wilson is catlike, and this is greatly emphasized by the view of him mounting up: Stevens filmed him dismounting (which Palance could just about do) and reversed the footage.

Jack Palance, sadist
Woody Allen is, surprisingly perhaps, a huge admirer of Shane and he has said:

If any actor has ever created a character who is the personification of evil, it is Jack Palance. We've all read about the size of the horse, how Stevens put Palance on a smaller horse so he'd look even bigger. But when he arrives -- the music is great -- he's all in black; he's so poetically evil. He looks like he'd gladly kill the guys who hired him if they looked at him wrong. He's just bad news. Serpentine. In our minds, he's set off against Shane, one particularly good, almost too good to be true, and the other is totally evil.

Van Heflin, second choice after William Holden - who would have been splendid - turned it down, did a good job as the stolid settler Starrett, tall, broad in the beam, not over-gifted intellectually but basically decent (he was in some ways to reprise that role in 3:10 to Yuma four years later) and as his wife Marian Jean Arthur was very good indeed. She was another unlikely choice. She had been Oscar-nominated for another George Stevens movie, a comedy, in 1943 but Shane was her big-screen adieu. She was in her fifties yet played a young mother with skill, and her sublimated romance with Shane is marvelously well done. It is said that Katharine Hepburn had been considered for the part; certainly, that would have completely changed the character. The book calls for a person of reticence and restraint. Arthur did that admirably and hers was a nuanced, subtle portrayal.
Jean Arthur as Marian
There were many plaudits for child actor Brandon De Wilde as the Starretts’ son Joey. And indeed he was nominated for an Oscar for the part. Myself, though, I found him too young and too whiny, perhaps because I already had a clear idea in my head from the novel of an older boy, a tough teenager. This is no criticism of De Wilde, for many of these child actors were astonishingly good and you can’t expect more from a boy of ten. I criticize the casting choice rather than the child. Rin Tin Tin lad Lee Aaker had originally been penciled in. I always thought Aaker an excellent boy for Westerns and it’s a pity he didn’t do it. He was only nine but he would have been a better pioneer child, I think.
Brandon De Wilde as Joey
But the story revolves around the boy and so that casting was vital. As Philip French wrote in his 1973 book Westerns,

In a rather old-fashioned way, Westerns assume that young people have a lot to learn from their elders and very little to teach them, and that the process of learning is long and painful, that a man must prove himself in a variety of rituals before he can take his place in adult society.

Nowhere is this truer than in Shane.

The farmers are good, particularly Edgar Buchanan as Fred Lewis in a cap and Elisha Cook Jr. as feisty bantam Stonewall Torrey. The death of Stonewall is famously done. Stevens had won the Legion of Merit for his work heading up a combat motion picture unit in World War II. He filmed the Normandy landings and had seen death at first hand. He knew what gunshot wounds were like and he was determined that there would be none of the usual fake B-Western ‘deaths’ in his picture. Elisha Cook had to be jerked backwards on a wire as he was shot by Wilson, and land flat on his back in the mud. Death by gunfire was inglorious and squalid and shocking and loud, and that’s the way Stevens wanted to show it. Woody Allen again: “There's never been a shootout in a cowboy movie to equal it, in terms of evil against innocence.”
Elisha Cook Jr. excellent as Stonewall
And I liked Emile Meyer as Ryker, perhaps his finest Western role (of 70). As Paul Simpson points out in his 2006 The Rough Guide to Westerns, in his shaggy mane he looks like an Old Testament prophet. As ‘old timer’ Ryker, Meyer was actually ten years younger than Jean Arthur’s ‘young mother’ Marian. The first thing Ryker says is that he doesn't want any trouble. At several later points during the movie, Ryker tries to be reasonable, at least according to his own lights. He attempts to convince Starrett to come work for him, and later he tries to hire Shane. He is no cardboard cut-out villain. You can see his point of view even if you are, as Stevens wants you to be, on the side of the homesteaders.
Rancher as Old Testament prophet
Among the extras, two Ladd sprogs feature as ‘little girl’ and ‘little boy’ and Clayton Moore, then in dispute with the producers of The Lone Ranger and being temporarily replaced by John Hart, is a Ryker henchman. Director Stevens’s voice can be heard off-camera shouting encouragement in the saloon fistfight.
In the saloon...
For me, though, probably the best actor in the movie had a minor part. It was Ben Johnson (it is perhaps no coincidence that Johnson was a John Ford protégé) as Chris Calloway, the barroom bully bested by Shane who comes to decency. Johnson was one of the finest Western character actors of all time and he was rarely better than in this small part.

Ben Johnson the Great
Visually, Shane is stunning. As Bosley Crowther said in his New York Times review of April 24, 1953,

Beautifully filmed in Technicolor in the great Wyoming outdoors, under the towering peaks of the Grand Tetons, and shown on a larger screen that enhances the scenic panorama, it may truly be said to be a rich and dramatic mobile painting of the American frontier scene.

DP Loyal Griggs rightly won an Oscar for it (the movie’s only Academy Award) and this despite subsequent cropping to fit the new widescreen format that was all the rage. Long lenses were used to bring the Tetons ‘nearer’ to the characters and the Technicolor is superb. The film has to be seen in a theater; even the new large TVs don’t nearly do it justice.

Loyal Griggs
There have been criticisms of the look of it and indeed there is something almost picture-postcard about the film, like a chocolate-box lid illustrating the beautiful West. It isn’t John Ford. It is only really during the tree-stump scene that the characters truly interact with the land; otherwise it is there as a beautiful backdrop. I myself love the Corot-like trees on the way to town. Stevens has been accused of being ‘mannered’. Certainly Griggs and Stevens took ages to frame shots, often reshooting, using miles of film, to the frustration of Paramount, and then spending almost a year editing the results. But in the last resort, Shane is a visual masterpiece. Crowther added that the cinematography “gives the whole thing the quality of a fine album of paintings of the frontier”.

The chocolate-boxiness is heightened by the Victor Young music which is probably too ‘sweet’ and cloying. Stevens evidently thought so too because he replaced Young’s score for Shane’s ride to the showdown with music previously used in Paramount’s Rope of Sand, and in the saloon before the final confrontation the music is from Ladd’s own crime noir movie The Glass Key.

The film, just under two hours long, has a measured, almost languid pace. Film critic Dave Kehr calls it “Overblown, overlong, and overelaborated.” The Variety review of the day said that “Stevens … never rushes the picture or a scene” and added that “This measured, deliberate handling in many of the sequences may seem too slow for the tastes of the more regular run of audiences.” The action, when it comes, is sporadic, sudden, episodic, which, I suppose, ‘action’ usually is.

Originally scheduled for 48 days of shooting with a budget of $1.9m, it finished after 75 days of shooting at a cost of over $3m. Shot in the summer of 1951, it underwent endless editing and didn’t première at Radio City Music Hall until April 1953. The studio execs despaired and at one point tried to offload it to Howard Hughes but he refused it. When he saw the first cut, though, Hughes changed his mind but that made Paramount hang on to it, rightly, because it was a big box-office hit. It grossed $20m.

Is Shane dying as he rides away? Stevens rightly leaves us guessing. He is slumped over in the saddle. Wounded? Yes, Joey notices blood. Fatally wounded? Remember, earlier, when Ryker taunts him by saying he is “a dead man”, Shane makes the fell retort, “That’s the difference between us. I know it.” Or is he simply deeply sad at leaving Marian and Joey, sad at the failure of his attempt to hang up his gun and find peace? You sense that Shane always leaves after a showdown. "There's no living with a killing," he tells Joey. "There's no going back from it. Right or wrong, it's a brand, a brand that sticks."

''I don't like to think that he's dead,'' Woody Allen said, putting into words what many of us hope. ''Just that he's wounded. I hate to think that he dies in the end. I think they probably are pointing to the fact that he's dying because, you know, he's ascending. But I don't like to think that he's dead yet.'' Shane’s world is dying though, the world of gunfighters and the Old West. He knows it and so do we.
Shane! Come back!
In 1966 David Carradine was Shane in a not very good ABC TV show which only lasted one season. Clint Eastwood made a homage to Shane (you might even call it a remake) in Pale Rider (1985) with cinematography by the great Bruce Surtees and this the equal of Shane visually. Eastwood himself in the central role was much stronger than Ladd. Pale Rider is perhaps less subtle and complex than Shane and of course less original but it is in other respects gutsier.

In The Western Film (1976), Charles Silver said, “[John] Ford sees that progress and history are not necessarily synonymous, while Stevens tries to keep things simple for his audience.” I don’t really agree with that. Dave Kehr says that in ShaneStevens is aiming to have the last word on a genre: everything aims for “classic” status, and everything falters in a mire of artsiness and obtrusive technique.” That too is perhaps being overly harsh. Others have been great admirers: Kurosawa, Peckinpah, Leone, Eastwood. At any rate the movie lost out in the race for Best Picture to From Here to Eternity. You can pick Shane apart, and some film critics (such as François Truffaut) have done so, but despite its apparently clichéd plot and stylized nature it remains moving, entertaining, beautiful and subtle, and it is quite clear why many regard it as ‘the’ Western.

I would suggest that Shane is a must-read and a must-see, and both are leading examples of the Western genre. The movie is one of the great American films. But neither the book nor the motion picture was the greatest ever example of its kind.