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

Friday, October 28, 2016

The Great Train Robbery (Edison, 1903)

The birth of the Western movie

The Great Train Robbery is often regarded as the first Western movie. It wasn’t, of course. Cowboys had been captured on celluloid before and short Western scenes were quite common. As early as 1894 Buffalo Bill Cody’s troupe had been filmed and there had been a motion picture Lasso Thrower. These were viewed by a single person in a kind of what-the-butler-saw device. In 1896 motion pictures were first commercially projected onto large screens in the US. In 1898 there was Cripple Creek Bar-Room Scene and the following year Poker at Dawson City. Earlier in the same year as The Great Train Robbery, Biograph released A Bucking Broncho, with the camera panning with the movement of the horse, and when the bronc backs up suddenly, the audience must have thought it would end up in their laps. A more ambitious attempt than these vignettes came when in the summer of ’03 Biograph produced the 21-minute Kit Carson, eleven fictional scenes of the life of the great pioneer, including a violent scalping. Western thrills had come to the masses.
Cripple Creek, 1898

So no, The Great Train Robbery was not the first Western movie. But when it was released at the end of the year the Western movie as we know it was effectively born. Suddenly we have a dramatically creative story film constructing an illusion of reality – the magic at the heart of the whole motion picture industry. It told a story visually. And it established the crime-pursuit-showdown element that was to become standard to the Western. There was gunplay and galloping. There was even the comic scene of cowboys shooting at the feet of a tenderfoot in a saloon to make him dance.

That tenderfoot was Maxwell Henry Aronson (left), soon to become Gilbert M Anderson and even more famous as Broncho Billy. He also played a bandit and the train passenger who is shot. It was his first Western of over 300 in a career that was to last till an entertaining performance at the age of 85 in The Bounty Killer. In 1904 he was in another Edison/Edwin S Porter film, Western Stage Coach Hold Up. Four years after The Great Train Robbery he founded the film company Essanay with George Spoor (the name comes from their initials, S&A) and in hundreds of shorts he became in effect the first cowboy film star. He went on to write, direct and produce Westerns too. He was presented with an honorary Oscar in 1957 and died in 1971 at the age of ninety.

It is easy for us sophisticated movie-goers to mock the short picture and think it crude - it seems prehistoric. The substitution of a dummy for the trainman then thrown from the train, for example, is laughably bad to us now, and the flimsy stage set of the station seems to come from some amateur theatrical production.  But we should remember that many who saw it had never seen a motion picture at all. It must have been amazing suddenly to be transported into an imaginary world which seemed so real. The final (inspired) scene of Justus D Barnes (right) firing his pistol into the camera – and thus, it appeared, directly at the audience – was said to have caused people to faint.
And of course there was no cinema as an art form. It was a technical advance. Thomas Edison (left), who was a difficult man to get on with, was no artist and even distrusted those who were. No one (yet) had pretensions of creating a beautiful or 'literary' motion picture. They were too busy photographing a scene as realistically as they could (which to our modern eyes isn't very, but it was then startling).

Another point worth recalling is that the Wild West was so recent then. Wild West shows were at the height of their popularity (in fact the new movie Westerns would contribute to their rapid decline). Horses and guns and Western clothes were common. In March 1903, six months before The Great Train Robbery came out, Kid Curry of The Wild Bunch died in the attempt to rob a train. Imagine! That’s like a film of some daring robbery early in 2016 to us now! Westerns weren’t history; they were current events.

The Great Train Robbery was a commercial success on a scale never before seen. It was this as much as any artistic innovations that made it the progenitor of the great genre. Edison and his competitors exploited it for all it was worth, rapidly producing a whole series of ‘Westerns’ such as The Great Bank Robbery, The Bold Bank Robbery, The Hold-Up of the Rocky Mountain Express, and so on. There was even Edison’s The Little Bank Robbery (1906) in which children took the parts and the bandits steal toys and candy. In 1904 the Lubin company made a scene-by-scene copy of The Great Train Robbery and released it with the same title – copyright laws were much laxer then. It reminds me of the spaghetti western boom of the 1960s: a couple of commercially successful movies were followed by a whole glut of knock-off imitations until there seemed to be nothing in Italian movie theaters but Westerns. By 1908 the genre was so well established that distributors’ catalogues listed releases under Drama, Comic and Western.

But just as the spaghettis soon exhausted themselves and already by the early 70s the audiences thought there could be too much of a good thing, so too by 1914 reviewers were complaining that Westerns were tiresome clichés, old hat, a thing of the past. The critics were wrong, of course. Cecil B DeMille directed the first movie version of The Virginian in that year. William S Hart was just getting into his stride. Tom Mix was ridin’ the range. Shorts were becoming feature films. People packed the nickelodeons to see them. The celluloid West was only just beginning.
The bandits escape with their swag
The movie industry itself moved West. The Great Train Robbery and its imitators had been filmed in New Jersey. But soon Tulsa, San Antonio, Prescott, Las Vegas NM, and then Los Angeles became the centers of the industry, and Westerns as subject matter seemed even more natural and logical.

And just as real Western lawmen and outlaws had cashed in on their former glories by appearing in Wild West shows, now they ‘advised’ on or even appeared in Western movies. Wyatt Earp wanted Hart to make a film of his life. Al Jennings starred in four Westerns between 1914 and 1920.

In 1899 Edwin Stanton Porter (left) joined the Edison Manufacturing Company. He rapidly took charge of motion picture production at Edison's New York studios, operating the camera, directing the actors, and assembling the final print. During the next decade Porter became the most influential film maker in the United States. He was an innovator. For instance, he seems to have invented the dissolve: instead of using abrupt splices or cuts between shots Porter had gradual transitions from one image to another, helping audiences follow complex movement. He has never, though, been thought of as a founding father of film in the way Griffith or Ince are.

Though uncredited, Porter directed and wrote The Great Train Robbery and with Blair Smith did much of the cinematography and editing (still in its infancy) too. It was a very personal creation. Taking a story so well-known from dime novels and stage melodramas (such as Scott Marble’s The Great Train Robbery of 1896) was an inspired move.

The one-reel film, with a runtime of only twelve minutes, was put together in twenty separate shots. It was so well done that intertitle cards were not needed. The film cuts freely from interiors to exteriors and there is a narrative flow. It was one of the earliest to use the technique of cross cutting, in which two scenes are shown to be occurring simultaneously but in different locations. The camera placed on the rear of the tender, the long and smoothly executed panning shot as the bandits escape into the woods, these were a revelation in 1903. It’s still a fun watch even today. Then, it was a sensation. It lasted for years, being shown all over the country.

Although the original negatives of the film are long gone, there are modern prints of good quality and the film is entirely watchable today. There are several versions on YouTube or you can get a DVD, and it's definitely worth the effort.

The Great Train Robbery is the first great milestone in the history of the Western movie and as such is a must-see for any Westernista. Along with silent movies such as TheVirginian (1914), Hell’s Hinges (1916), The Covered Wagon (1923), The Iron Horse (1924), Tumbleweeds (1925) and The Great K & A Train Robbery (1926) - a movie that owed more than a little to its 1903 progenitor - it is essential viewing and you cannot understand the Western genre without it.

Happy trails, pards!

Murder most foul

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

In Old Montana (Spectrum Pictures, 1939)

Fred croons on the range

In 1939 the big studios decided that Westerns weren’t just juvenile programmers; they could be big box-office A-pictures for adults too. Stagecoach came out that year with United Artists, as did Fox’s Jesse James, Universal’s Destry Rides Again and Warner Brothers’ Dodge City. And they were big hits. But that didn’t mean that the sixty-minute  B-Western disappeared, far from it. It was alive and well in countless movie theaters in the US and throughout the big wide world.

The singing cowboy was a staple of such fare and of course we think first of Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Tex Ritter but there many others. Fred Scott, for example.

Fred Leedon Scott (1902 – 1991) was a genuine singer if not a genuine cowboy. He had been resident baritone at the San Francisco Opera. But he got into movies with a small part in a Harry Carey oater and from 1936 to ’42 led in fourteen Westerns of his own (sometimes produced by Stan Laurel) for the Poverty Row outfit Spectrum Pictures. Known as The Silvery-Voiced Buckaroo, he galloped over the plains on his horse White King, pausing occasionally to sing a song, romance a girl (chastely, of course) or thwart a villain. Seen now, he was, frankly, a very wooden actor and his pictures were rather clunky, but the undemanding and probably juvenile audiences didn't seem to mind. He did have a certain charm and you could do worse than watch a Fred Scott oater. He retired from movies to go into business. He said, “I don't ride anymore. I have a deal with horses - I don't get on them and they don't sell real estate.”

In Old Montana starts with a sonorous and rather long on-screen text:

When the links in the chain of States that made up the great United States were forged, there were many conflicts, dramatic and spectacular, that often threatened the prosperity of the frontier and the economic structure of the whole nation. Such was the war that broke out in Montana in 1860 between the cattle barons and the sheepherders. The cattlemen had priority and also claimed sheep polluted the land and streams, cropping the grass so short the grazing land was ruined for years. The sheepmen claimed that raising sheep was more profitable and that "the spread" was Government land and they had as much right to it as anyone else. The series of events chronicles here took place in the Lobo Valley just below the fertile grazing lands of the Powder River Basin. Although frankly a Western story, with fictitious characters, each one originally had its counterpart in fact.

Yup, it’s a cattlemen vs. sheepherders plot. We are in the Powder River country, 1880 – though there’s little specifically Montana about the story, which could have been set anywhere in the generic ‘West’. But the Montana setting gave Fred a chance to sing the title song.
Fred is an Army officer sent in plain clothes (well, not very plain; rather dudish duds if the truth be told) to put a stop to the sheepmen v. cattlemen feud. He is accompanied by comic old-timer sidekick Harry Harvey (it was often Al St. John in his movies but this time it’s Harry). Of course they sing a song on the way there and Harry is the hilariously worst mimer ever seen: his lips don’t even remotely match the words of the ditty. Considering he had the second-biggest part it was rather mean of them only to bill him eighth. Harry was a vaudeville player who went into movies in the early 30s and took character parts for over forty years. Later he was a regular on the The Roy Rogers Show as Sheriff Blodgett. You can often spot him in Westerns, from being a stage passenger in the 1932 Tom Mix version of Destry Rides Again to a small part as Drew on a 1974 episode of Hec Ramsey, with, incredibly, almost 350 Western appearances between the two. In In Old Montana he does the old-timer act though in fact he was only in his thirties.
The picture has all the features we have come to expect and which, doubtless, the Western-loving audience (mostly of boys) would happily forgive. Cheap sets, lots of action (actually rather too many horse chases; they become monotonous), ‘comic’ interludes, intercut stock footage from earlier movies to save money, and so on. There’s a stereotype “squaw” (Jane Keckley) who can be made fun of. There are many songs in which Fred’s fingers in no way match the strumming that is heard and somehow an invisible violinist has got into the girl’s kitchen to accompany him. You spot who the villain (Frank LaRue) is instantly. The hero is unjustly imprisoned and breaks out with the aid of his sidekick.

Never mind, it’s all harmless fun. Right triumphs over might, the sheepmen and cattlemen kiss and make up, Fred gets the girl (Jean Carmen) and the bad guys are carted off to jail by the sheriff. I enjoyed it. I know I’m easy to please as far as Westerns go but still, I enjoyed it.


Monday, October 24, 2016

Dakota Lil (Fox, 1950)

Tom Horn, secret service agent

Dakota Lil is another 50s Western with a B-movie line-up, George Montgomery, Rod Cameron and Marie Windsor. But actually it turns out to be rather better than hoped.

For one thing it’s about Tom Horn (left). OK, yes, a very fictionalized Tom Horn, and also a rather unconvincing one in the shape of Montgomery, but still. Between his time in Arizona and the Johnson County War Horn did in fact work as a Pinkerton detective in Colorado and Wyoming, including tracking train robbers. During the Wilcox Train Robbery investigation, Horn learned that Sheriff Josiah Hazen, killed during pursuit of the robbers, had been shot by either George Curry or Kid Curry. Both outlaws were members of Butch Cassidy's Wild Bunch, then known as The Hole-in-the-Wall Gang. Horn passed this information on to detective Charlie Siringo, who was working the case for the Pinkertons. So there was a semblance of plausibility in the plot, even if Horn himself did not, as in the movie, track down the Wild Bunch and kill Kid Curry.

Then it was directed by good old Lesley Selander (right), a B-movie director, yes, but one who had learned his craft as assistant director under Fritz Lang, and who had loads of experience and a dash of verve. Later, as the market for Westerns declined, he turned to TV shows but he worked on very many feature-film oaters before that, starting in the 20s on silent movies as assistant to the famous (or infamous) Lynn Reynolds and then directing a whole heap of B-Westerns with the likes of Buck Jones and William Boyd (he did many of the Hopalong Cassidy pictures). To this day, Selander remains one of the most prolific directors of feature Westerns in cinema history. He had directed Montgomery and Cameron in Belle Starr’s Daughter in 1948, so this was something of a reunion.

Though I am not the world's greatest Rod Cameron fan, I must say he is terrific in Dakota Lil as Harve Logan aka Kid Curry. Brutal and tough, this Logan, crooked saloon owner and thug, really comes across as a bad guy. He strangles poor old Wallace Ford, a detective under cover, and discards the body as if it were nothing. He quirts hero Horn (also undercover) while two of his henchmen hold him. He is a thoroughly bad egg, and furthermore is heavily into counterfeiting, often a theme of B-Westerns, particularly in the 1930s when undermining the currency was indeed an especially grave offence. Cameron’s height and build add to his menace. It’s an excellent performance.

The title’s lady is played by Marie Windsor (right). Ms. Windsor was a stalwart of noir B-movies but she also had a very good sideline in B-Westerns. She never made it to A-picture Hollywood stardom but I think she was always good in oaters (especially, later, TV Westerns). She usually played ‘the other woman’ or a rather racy saloon dame and her rep as a gun moll from the thrillers helped. She was very beautiful in a 1940s way. The year before Dakota Lil she had got the female lead in a Bill Elliott oater and it seemed she was on the up. Look out for her also in the underrated Little Big Horn the following year and she topped the billing in Outlaw Women the year after that. Her Dakota Lil is definitely on the dubious side (as women with place names usually were, like Dallas in Stagecoach, Colorado in Colorado Territory, Denver in Wagonmaster, Chihuahua in My Darling Clementine, Vienna in Johnny Guitar, Waco in The Silver Whip, and so on). She is a glamorous saloon singer (her mimed songs were actually sung by Anita Ellis) who is a very handy forger. The way she sees off the resident singer in Harve’s saloon so she can take her place is just brilliant.

I also like her because not only does she have a derringer, she draws it (from a very ladylike holster on her garter) no fewer than four times! You know how I like derringers. Of course she’s a classic derringer-user.

As for George Montgomery (left, with Windsor), well, I’m afraid I’m not really a fan. But I will say that this was one of his better roles. He makes of Horn almost a Lassiter-type man in black, even if his pants are so high-waisted they seem to be belted under his armpits. He has Geronimo’s knife in a harness strapped to his back. I think Montgomery was not as good as Cameron or, say, Calhoun and was perhaps one of the weaker Western stars but he did do a good number of oaters and was quite popular in the 1950s. Maybe you are a fan. But I don't think the Montgomery Fan Club is overpopulated, really.

The best actor, though, I thought, was John Emery (right) as the poor sap who loves Dakota Lil despite all. A concert pianist from a posh Philadephia family, he has sunk to playing the joanna in a seedy bar in Matamoros. He knows he’s pathetic, and he also knows he will never win her, but he can’t shake free. Emery gives the part just the right amount of self-pity mixed with loyalty. It’s very well done. He often played dapper gentlemen or posh types. He was at one time Mr. Tallulah Bankhead. He only did three Western movies but he is very good in this one. You should see the glares he gives would-be lovers of Lil. If looks could kill, they’d all be six foot underground.

Of the rest of the cast, Wallace Ford is good (he always was) as a gang member, secretly a cop, Jack Lambert, always a splendid heavy, does well as a psycho gang member who favors dum-dum bullets, Walter Sande is a briefly seen Butch Cassidy (there’s no Sundance) and you can spot Jack Perrin, Kenneth MacDonald and J Farrell MacDonald in bit parts. Kid Curry is head of the gang, not Butch, and he runs it like a military operation, having the bandits train for hours a day in shooting, riding, escaping and so forth. Not very plausible, I know.

The music is by Dimitri Tiomkin, so classy. It’s that kind of score tailored to the action, with, for example, clashing chords at each knife thrust. The cinematography is by Jack Greenhalgh, very much a B-Western expert but competent, and there are some nice California and Nevada locations doing duty for Wyoming.
It was in color and would probably be rather nice that way but sadly it’s usually watched these days in black & white, which is the way I have seen it. Still, it’s slightly noirish in tone and has similarities with a B gangster flick so the monochrome kinda suits it.

Well, the plot is foiled and Harve comes to a, er, sticky end. Horn and Lil ride off into the sunset. Amiable tosh, I would say.


Saturday, October 22, 2016

Raw Edge (Universal, 1956)


I learn a lot from my readers, and I much enjoy it when they leave comments. Reader John Knight, commenting on my recent review of a Rory Calhoun Western, Ride Out for Revenge, put me onto other good Calhoun Westerns, mentioning in particular “the weird and wacky anti-Feminist Western RAW EDGE.”

Actually, I’m not sure how anti-feminist the movie is, as we shall shortly see. But John went on to say that Raw Edgeis possibly the most anachronistic Western ever. Herbert Rudley turns 1840's Oregon into a medieval fiefdom whereby any ‘unattached’ woman becomes the ‘property’ of the first man to claim her. With the likes of Neville Brand, Emile Meyer and Robert Wilke slugging it out, no Western gal ever had it so bad.”

So that sets up the plot well. John added that the “Film is too dumb to offend and at least the scenery is nice - should look great on Blu-Ray. It’s an Albert Zugsmith production-you have been warned.” So those were useful and interesting comments.

Well, I got the DVD (on the French Sidonis brand, which has annoying subtitles that you can’t turn off and some rather waffly and superficial commentary by Patrick Brion, but the picture quality is very good) and watched it. And in many ways I see what John means. But read the following and watch the movie yourself and see if you agree!

The picture was directed by John Sherwood, which is already a plus because Sherwood had learned his Western craft as assistant director under Anthony Mann on Bend of the River and The Far Country, Hugo Fregonese on Saddle Tramp, Rudolph Maté on The Mississippi Gambler and The Rawhide Years and John Sturges on Backlash. That's quite a list of mentors. He himself directed Yvonne de Carlo in Calamity Jane and Sam Bass (not a great credit to him, admittedly) and Maureen O’Hara and Macdonald Carey in Comanche Territory. Yup, he knew what he was doing. The direction of Raw Edge is skillful and technically very good.

The writing of the curious plot was by Harry Essex and Robert Hill from a story by William Kozlenko and James Benson Nablo. These were not names I knew but Essex had worked on the screenplay of three B-Westerns before Raw Edge and would later contribute to The Sons of Katie Elder; as for Hill, Kozlenko and Nablo, this was their only Western. So the writing team were pretty well newbies. But they had a quirky and interesting story to work with.

As for John’s red flag on producer Albert Zugsmith (right), he was known for such mighty epics as Sex Kittens Go to College, which doubtless you have seen. Founding newspaper editor, sharp lawyer, band publicist then Hollywood producer, he specialized in salacious B-movies. He only produced five Westerns, all B, two of them with Calhoun.

DP Maury Gertsman shot 28 Westerns for Universal between 1947 and 1967, mostly what you might call quality B-pictures with the likes of Jeff Chandler, Audie Murphy and Joel McCrea in the leads. Universal did not stint on color or locations and many of their 50s Westerns, including Raw Edge, are visually attractive. The ‘Oregon’ of the setting was California but the locations chosen did very well for Oregon. The Technicolor of the modern print is bright and high-quality.

So you see we’re not talking ultra-low-budget B-movies here.
It kicks off with a bad ballad under the bright turquoise credits, as 50s Westerns were wont to do, but we forgive the songwriter, Terry Gilkyson, because he also wrote Bare Necessities for The Jungle Book, which may just possibly be the best song ever written in the history of music, eat your heart out, Schubert.

The top-billed names in the credits don’t exactly fill you with confidence (apart from Calhoun): Yvonne De Carlo and Mara Corday. Oh dear. But then your eye scans the ‘also starring’ list and joy, we see Neville Brand, Emile Meyer and Robert J Wilke, among other old friends. Excellent. Always enjoyable Western character actors, those - especially as bad guys. Rex Reason is also there, as a smooth gambler.

The patriarch Montgomery (Herbert Rudley) who has established the disgusting local law that an unmarried woman may be claimed as a chattel by the first man to see her, has a glam wife, Hannah (De Carlo), first seen with a daring glimpse of ankle and leered over by Neville. Emile is Neville’s dad and just as full of lust. (Actually Emile was only ten years older than Neville but anyway). Hannah is discreetly raped in a stable. Can you be discreetly raped? Well, you could in 50s movies, with much done in shadows and much suggested. Odds are that it was Neville, Emile or Bob, but we don’t see. Anyway, they blame young Dan Kirby (John Gavin, later Destry on TV, later still Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to Mexico, as John Gilmore) and, as was the way in Westerns, hastily hang him.

Even while the lynching is proceeding, the lustful men are leering at his soon-to-be widow, and Hannah tries, unsuccessfully, to whisk her away to her people (for you might think it’s Mara Corday in half a ton of make-up but she’s actually Paca, Indian maid). It’s all pretty creepy. Probably the creepiest leerer, though, better even than Neville Brand, is Robert J Wilke, who manages to claim her, though he has to shoot a rival (sword-and-sandal star Ed Fury) to do it.
Bob Wilke. What a sneer.
As a result of these shenanigans the Indians recall all their people to the village. You should see the horror of Hannah, suddenly left without servants. Whatever will she do? She might have to cook herself!

That’s when ex-Ranger Tex Kirby arrives (he’d been fighting with Sam H at San Jacinto) and finds only the hanging boots of his brother. Any viewer of Westerns knows that it’s going to be hard times for the townsfolk that hanged him. Actually, though, Calhoun does well as the thoughtful revenger.
When patriarch Montgomery is killed by the Indians, the boot is suddenly on the other foot, and Yvonne is fair game under the Montgomerys’ own law. Hoist with her own petard, you might say. Now the men (Neville and Emile to the fore) are after her. As reader John said, a Western gal never had it so bad. You sense, though, that it will be Rory to the rescue.

The town is named Twin Peaks, which was to become quite amusing. Though we are in 1840s Oregon, they all wear Stetsons (invented in the 1860s) and have Colt Peacemakers (1870s). But never mind.

There’s plenty of action before the bad guys get their come-uppance.
Yvonne 'n' Mara
My above-mentioned doubts about the male chauvinism of the piece concern the fact that the law is so obviously vile, and leads to such cruelty and bloodshed, and is finally vanquished, so that the movie ends up being a pro-woman statement. Probably not Mr. Zugsmith’s intention, but that’s the way I see it.

At any rate, John was right: it’s a curious, oddball Western. And I think I am slowly revising (upwards) my opinion of Rory Calhoun. He was a better Western actor than I have previously given him credit for.


Thursday, October 20, 2016

Riders of the Purple Sage (Fox, 1931)

The man in black

Riders of the Purple Sage is probably the most famous Western novel of them all. It has achieved a wider audience than even Wister’s The Virginian and for many people stands as the Western story.

It was a huge hit when it came out in 1912 and movie versions were inevitable. Only six years after publication, Fox produced a big (five-reel) movie, starring William Farnum, Dustin’s brother, as Lassiter. I haven’t seen it (I’d like to; so many important films are still so difficult to find).

That was followed by the Tom Mix one (he was Lassiter, of course) in 1925, when Mix was at the height of his fame. I don’t know about the first one but the Mix version took very considerable liberties with the story, devoting much of its only 56 minutes to an invented backstory, all about how Millie was abducted in Texas. The picture was quite sober, for Tom, but it wasn’t a good treatment of the novel.

The 1931 talkie was much truer to the book, and I think in fact, considering all, it goes a fair way to doing to justice to the novel.
The story does make a good movie. Long novels have to be radically slimmed down for the screen but luckily Riders had pages and pages of soppy love and descriptions of nature that could be immediately discarded, and the novel’s action, which is genuinely good, would remain for the film.

You probably know the story. In fact, though, there are two parallel stories (though unlike parallel lines, they occasionally intersect): everyone thinks of Riders as the tale of the mysterious gun-man in black, Lassiter, who comes into the life of beautiful cattle rancher Jane Withersteen, champions her cause and steals her heart. But in fact a greater part of the book is devoted to the other story – how Jane’s rider (or cowboy) Bern Venters shoots the famous ‘masked rider’, sidekick of rustler Oldring, and discovers he has shot a girl. He nurses her back to health in a hidden cañon, falls in love with her and they eventually live happily ever after.

The 1931 film, in common with other versions, plays down Venters and elevates Lassiter. The famous horse chase when Venters on Wrangle rides down jockey Jerry Carn leaping at full gallop between the blacks Night and Black Star as they hurtle across the sage is one of the genuinely thrilling parts of the book, but in the movie it’s Lassiter who does the gallopin’. And Bern Venters has, for some reason, become Vern Venters (James Todd, billed only fifth).

Today’s print (or at least the one I saw) is unfortunately very crackly and washed out, and it jumps a great deal, making you miss key moments of dialogue. It’s a pity. Still, you can see well enough to appreciate some of the cinematography (George Schneiderman, with Ernest Palmer, the most prolific cinematographer at Fox in the 1920's; he worked a lot on early John Ford Westerns). Yes, there are some obvious studio shots with cardboard rocks but there is also some nice location shooting filmed round Sedona and some unusual pans and moving-camera shots (movies were just breaking away from the very static camera). Director Hamilton MacFadden also handled the exterior action shots well, especially the horse chase, which includes a spectacular leap. MacFadden was signed as director by Fox in 1930 but in 1934 his contract not renewed after the merger with Zanuck's 20th Century Productions, after which he appeared as an actor in small film roles until the mid-40's. While at Fox he only directed two Westerns, this one and a Tom Mix oater. A pity: he seemed to have the knack.

George O’Brien is actually quite impressive as Lassiter. His entry especially is good (but then it’s a gift scene in the book). He talks more slowly than the other characters and this gives weight. Navy boxing champion in World War I, he was, as a virtual unknown, picked by John Ford to star in The Iron Horse in 1924. In ’26 he was one of Ford’s 3 Bad Men, in the silent version. He made the transition to sound, but not that well and his parts started to decline in stardom, and he became a Western specialist, at a time when many Westerns were pretty juvenile and low-budget affairs. All in all, though, he does a fairly good job in Purple Sage.
His Jane is Marguerite Churchill. Ms. Churchill had been strikingly good opposite a young John Wayne, I thought, in Fox’s Raoul Walsh-directed epic The Big Trail the year before. She only did these two Westerns, though. Two years after Purple Sage she would become Mrs. George O’Brien. As Jane she was not, I thought, as good as she was in The Big Trail, falling into overacting in a rather silent-movie style.

The bad guy Dyer is Noah Beery (Sr., obviously). In common with the other versions, he is Judge Dyer, not a bishop. The whole Mormon plot is again done away with. Grey was uncompromising in his anti-Mormonism. The Mormons are very clearly the bad guys. Under the hypocritical cover of their religion, they steal, spy, covet, lust, kidnap and kill. Sometimes all on the same day. The Elder Tull and the Bishop Dyer, in particular, are very nasty and, in the best Western tradition, deserve the come-uppance that they will inevitably get under the guns of the good guys.

Movie versions of the book were mealy-mouthed about this and excised the Mormon element of the story. The O’Brien one is no exception. Perhaps Fox didn’t want to offend potential audiences, or perhaps the studio bosses were more pro-Mormon, I don’t know. Maybe it was just 30s PCism. Anyway, Dyer is a judge and Elder Tull becomes just the judge’s henchman, Tull (Frank McGlynn Jr.) Beery is excellent, as he always was. Though he never achieved the fame of his younger brother Wallace, he carved out a niche for himself as a Hollywood heavy, especially in Westerns – he appeared in fifty, from 1917 to 1945. Impressive. His bulk and growly voice were (once talkies came along) great assets, and he is a suitably villainous judge. He wants to take over the whole valley and drive the small ranchers out, you know how villains do.
His demise is quite well handled. In the Tom Mix version the judge hides behind his desk and so we don’t see him shot, only the sinister tell-tale bullet holes in the wood. But the 1931 one had more gunplay as the judge pulls a pistol but Lassiter has a faster draw and a better aim.

Don’t get me wrong: this Purple Sage is no great film. It’s a one-hour programmer with no great pretensions. But it manages to telescope the main action of the book into the hour quite well, and there are sufficient qualities in the movie to warrant your having a look at it.

It was remade in 1941 (with the rather weak George Montgomery as Lassiter) and there was a TV movie with Ed Harris in 1996. I think it could be time for another.


Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Once Upon a Texas Train (CBS TV, 1988)

Old guys rule

There is a genre of movie comedies which relies on the gag of lots of old-timers getting back together, with much humorous bickering and badinage, comically demonstrating their frailties and unsuitability for a tough task, then showing up the youthful pretenders: when the going gets tough, the oldies get going, that kind of thing. Space Cowboys was a recent example. These pictures appeal to an old-fogey audience that has fond memories of the movies of older (or former) stars and wallows in nostalgia as they return to the screen. In Western vein, such a picture was The Over the Hill Gang (1969) and its sequel the following year. And in fact Once Upon a Texas Train is a remake of that geriatric outing. Yes, TV movies are now remaking TV movies.

The good news is that it was produced, written and directed by Burt Kennedy (left). Now it is true that Mr. Kennedy was responsible for a couple of less-than-wonderful Westerns (such as The Canadians or Return of the Magnificent Seven) but he deserves eternal praise for penning those Randolph Scott/Budd Boetticher B-Westerns at the end of the 50s, which were outstanding. I also liked his Clint Walker ones, Fort Dobbs and Yellowstone Kelly. He did have a particular penchant for the comic, and he handled comedy Westerns well. That’s not always easy to do but Kennedy managed to convey a fondness and respect for the genre which not all parodies did. Personally, I love his Support Your Local movies with James Garner, and I also think The Rounders charming and enjoyable. All in all, I’m a bit of a Kennedy fan.

Well, there are two groups of oldies, roughly segregated into good guys and bad guys but they are all pals deep down and we sense they will end the movie shoulder to shoulder, which they duly do. Governor (presumably Texas governor) Kevin McCarthy instructs retired Texas Ranger captain Richard Widmark (right) to get his men together and round up the outlaw Willie Nelson and his gang. Willie has just been released after twenty years in the pen for a failed train robbery (which we see in the opening scene) and six hours later dynamites a bank. Widmark is cross because he got Willie released on parole in the first place and this is how he is repaid!

So he sends a coded telegram, Brazos, to his former Rangers and we are introduced to these one by one: Sergeant Chuck Connors is seen in an old folks home vainly trying to teach Hank Worden (left), oddly billed as Hank Warden, to draw on a man. There’s a subtle in-joke about Hank’s rocking chair. Gentleman George Asque is a roguish, bearded and portly Stuart Whitman, playing with gusto. The scout is portly (well, pointless to repeat; they are all portly) Jack Elam, equally bearded, but he has no horse and uses a bicycle, and his vision would be scorned as inadequate by any passing bat. He does get to do the old Indian joke, though, with his ear to the ground. His long-suffering brother is Harry Carey Jr. but he doesn't go on the mission. I guess he's not an ex-Ranger.

On the other side, Willie’s gang includes Dub Taylor, getaway driver (who crashes the wagon), gunman Gene Evans (who grabs the wrong end of his Winchester), gambler Ken Curtis (who has almost nothing to say; he was near the end of his life and I wonder if he was well), and nitro ‘expert’ Royal Dano (as amusingly lugubrious as ever).
They were obviously having fun
Oh, and the dame the leaders of both parties love is Angie Dickinson.

So you see the names are there alright. Some of the great Western character actors.
Willie Nelson. Yes, well.
Willie got top billing. Unfortunately, as we know, as an actor Willie makes a great singer. Still, there he is, in his long hair and with his gravelly voice. He leads the singing in one scene. Actually, Willie is an even worse dancer than he is an actor. There’s a flashback scene of a ball when he and Dick in Confederate officers’ uniforms are dancing with Angie. Dick is no better, mind.
They both lover her. Whom will she choose?
There are some good Burt Kennedy lines. I liked

-          Outlawin’ ain’t what it used to be.
-          It never was.

And while their first reaction is to mock the geriatric gunfighters, one of the young-punk outlaws reminds the others that “those old men got that way by stayin’ alive.”

Yes, there are four young-punk outlaws who try to take Willie’s gold away and keep it for themselves. This is naughty; outlaws are supposed to rob their own banks, apparently. I hadn’t heard of any of these outlaws (Shaun Cassidy, Jeb Stuart Adams, David Michael O’Neill and John Calkins; doubtless they will be known to younger viewers) but they are OK, I guess. They aren’t very good outlaws, though, and come the final showdown they look a bit scared. Well, by then Chuck’s Rangers and Willie’s outlaws have united so there are nine aged but experienced gunmen, with an arsenal of rifles, a shotgun and several .45s, to walk down on but four callow youths. No wonder they were scared. But they needn’t have worried too much: it’s a family movie and so they are only wounded at the end.

The train of the title is a one-car affair but still, it’s a train. Where earlier Westerns used trains with abandon, even crashing them (Denver & Rio Grande even crashed two, in a head on collision) Western trains became increasingly rare, and costly, and so it’s nice to see one in a TV movie.

It’s all very Arizona for Texas, being shot round Old Tucson with loads of saguaros, and some scenes in California and Nevada. Never mind. It’s ‘Western’.

Well, it’s all harmless fun. Who gets Angie in the end? Ah, that would be telling.