An 1860s gangster/heist yarn
Universal player Stephen McNally (left) was probably better as a heavy, and his most famous role in our noble genre was as James Stewart ’s dastardly brother in Anthony Mann’s splendid Winchester ’73, released in June 1950. But four months later he topped the billing as the goody in Wyoming Mail, a lively B-Western we shall now examine, and the following year he would star in the Hugo Fregonese-directed oater Apache Drums. In 1953 he would lead again in The Stand at Apache River, reviewed by us the other day and very similar to Apache Drums. So Universal did give him a crack at Western leads. After those three Western starring roles, though, it was back down to third and fourth billing as character actor - though he would later take the lead again in a Republic B-Western, Hell’s Crossroads (review in the not too distant future). He’s actually not bad in Wyoming Mail, quite convincing as the tough guy working for the railroad who infiltrates the gang. It’s a well-worn plot, of course, especially in the gangster/noir genre.
A voiceover tells us about how the Pony Express - shot of a rider being pierced by an Indian Arrow - gave way to the stagecoach - camera car driving alongside a six-up - but that in 1869, the year of our tale (though of course they all wear 1870s Stetsons and have Colt Peacemaker 1873 models) the railroad brought in the “Post Office on wheels”. But the trains were as prone to robberies, if you are to believe this picture, as the stages were. Hardly a train got through. We are treated to a perfectly splendid sequence of Lee Marvin’s 20-second Western movie debut: he is an engineer, happily driving his train and whistling until a knife, thrown by a galloping robber, thuds into his back. Well, we all have to start somewhere. Actually, Lee got two debuts because Universal used exactly the same footage in Cave of Outlaws the following year! I tell you this on a need-to-know basis, obviously.
Lee makes his Western debut (twice)
Well, the bandits blow the express car with dynamite (unlikely in 1869 but just about possible) and escape with the loot. The rogues are led by Howard da Silva and among their number we discern James Arness, Richard Jaeckel and Gene Evans, so it was a very good gang. They also have an excellent lair, a sort of Hole in the Wall affair, though it looks remarkably like Arizona.
The outlaws' lair
Now we move back East, where Post Office man George Armstrong (Dan Riss, a future Western TV show regular, here in his first feature) is warned by some high-ups, senators and the like, that all these robberies must stop, and he has three months to do it or the Post Office on wheels will be deemed a failure and abandoned. Armstrong says he has an operative working undercover but the fellow has been rumbled and a top-notch replacement is needed. And he knows just the man…
Now we see a prize fight in progress which Steve Davis (McNally) wins after eleven rounds. He used to be Secret Service and he’s the fellow Armstrong wants. Examining the scars of his current profession in the mirror, McNally decides to give up the prizefight lark and take the job as detective. He arrives at Bitter Springs just in time to find the corpse of his predecessor, the telegraph operative (David Sharpe). He has been shot and we, the viewers, see by whom (an old pal, in fact), though Steve has to detect who it was. He finds a horseshoe print and in the dust the letters TP are clearly identifiable on the shoe. TP?
Now he goes into Cheyenne to ask a blacksmith what the TP might signify and there he comes across a glam singer, stage name Denise Verne, real name the more prosaic Mary Williams and even realer name Alexis Smith, actually even realer name still Gladys, green-eyed, husky-voiced leading lady who would co-star with Errol Flynn in two Westerns but who only did five in all, Wyoming Mail and Cave of Outlaws being her last.
La belle Alexis
She and her troupe have a song-and-dance routine: the gals sing a jaunty Take Me to Town while Denise has more of an operetta number. This was right up director Reginald LeBorg (or Le Borg)’s street because he was a specialist in staging operettas and musicals. He had an interesting life, actually. Vienna born, he majored in political economy and afterwards studied musical composition for a year with Arnold Schoenberg. He then entered his dad’s finance business and traveled the world doing deals. He lived for two years in Paris, studying at the Sorbonne. He was no mug, this chap. In the mid-1920s he traveled to New York to dispose of a collection of paintings on his father's behalf. But the stock market crash of 1929 wiped out the family fortune, and he turned to show business, directing musical comedies all over Europe. He arrived in Hollywood in the 1930s and staged musical sequences in movies for Fox, Paramount and United Artists. After a number of second-unit assignments at MGM, Goldwyn and Selznick, Le Borg joined Universal. Wyoming Mail was his first Western for the studio as director. He would do mostly TV shows though he did later helm a few Western features such as The Great Jesse James Raid for Lippert and War Drums for United Artists.
Reginald checks a script
(photo kindly found for me by reader Walter S)
It turns out that TP stands for Territorial Prison and that’s where the horseshoes are made, by convicts under the supervision of corrupt governor Ed Begley (I do like Ed). He it was who shot the telegraph clerk through the window with his Winchester. And by the way the clerk, when shot by a Winchester rifle from only a few feet away, clutched his breast lightly, sighed regretfully and slumped onto his desk, in a very old-fashioned way. In reality he would have been blasted out of his seat. But we'll let that pass. Anyway, in this same jug languishes a certain Sam Wallace (good old Whit Bissell – I told you the cast was top notch) who has the inside info on the gang, so Steve needs to talk to him and get the lowdown.
Nice painted backdrop of the prison
Steve therefore rigs up a scheme whereby he is a wanted robber and gets thrown into clink, where in no time he finds himself, because he won’t cough up his hidden loot to the greedy governor, in ‘the pit’, a dank hole in the ground, with Sam. There Sam spills the beans and also teaches him morse code, which will come in handy.
Corrupt Governor Begley sees the world only through the stereoscope on his desk
Now US Deputy Marshal Indian Joe (Armando Silvestre) breaks Steve and Sam out of the pen, though poor old Sam is killed in the escape. So it’s off to Crystal City, then Omaha, to follow up the leads the late Sam gave him, where, would you believe it, singer Denise is performing too in both places. She gets about. Is there something fishy about her, we wonder?
Well, Steve succeeds in getting elected to the gang and is appointed telegraph operator, thanks to the skills old Sam taught him. So he’s in on the next heist, to rob the Laramie train. Singer Denise is also in on the plot. Aha, I thought so! But who is Mr. Big? She knows but she won’t tell Steve.
We viewers are pretty sure we know who Mr. Big is because heavy hints have been dropped and we have seen movies like this before. But here, dear e-readers, my lips are sealed. You will have to watch the show to find out. But I’ll give you a clue: the Mayor of Tombstone for John Ford. Dyed-in-the-wool Westernistas will now know who it is.
Of course it will be lerve
It’s all a bit complex and contrived, to be honest, and writers Harry Essex, Leonard Lee and Robert Andrews should probably have simplified it a bit, but it’s an entertaining fandango. There’s loads of action in the last reel before a sudden happy ending.
There’s some nice cinematography by Russell Metty of The Misfits fame, though much is shot on cheapo interior sets.
It was produced by our old pal Aubrey Schenck, a Fox employee who shifted to the newly-formed Eagle-Lion Pictures, teaming up with Howard Koch in Bel-Air Productions. They later went their separate ways but Aubrey remained true to his action B-picture roots, making the likes of Daughters of Satan and Robinson Crusoe on Mars. Wyoming Mail was only his second Western but he would go on to do sixteen more oaters, among them such enjoyable pictures as War Paint, The Yellow Tomahawk, Fort Yuma, Revolt at Fort Laramie, Quincannon, Frontier Scout, Rebel in Town, War Drums, Fort Bowie, More Dead than Alive and Barquero. It’s a pretty damn good CV.
Nice poster (I like the creases where it was folded)