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Sunday, August 4, 2019

The Westerns of Rory Calhoun


Best of the rest?


Movie titles with live links will take you to this blog’s full reviews of those pictures.

 
Many of the Western heroes of my childhood (Bronze Age) have remained with me all through my time shuffling on this mortal coil. I grew up with the great Western actors of the 1950s and thrilled to their movies. But on a few, just a few, I have changed my opinion. One or two whom I admired at the time seem now to me rather wooden or even unsuited to the genre, and conversely, a few I didn’t much like at the time I now think rather good. Rory Calhoun (left) falls into this latter category for me. I don’t know why I didn’t care for his Western movies back in the day; I just didn’t. Now, though, age has brought wisdom (you laugh) and I perceive the qualities Mr. Calhoun had as a star of sixgun and saddle.

From 1949 to 1990 Calhoun appeared in 29 feature or TV-movie Westerns, and co-wrote another, as well as producing three of them. He was The Texan on TV for two seasons, co-producing the series too, and he also made guest appearances in episodes of ten other Western TV shows. It’s a splendid record. And he always wore that black Stetson.

He was tall (over six foot), dark and handsome – or put another way, lean and mean - and looked the part in the saddle. He seemed to specialize in playing gunslingers or ex-gunslingers. He could fight convincingly and charm the ladies too.

Of course the movies weren’t universally brilliant. Whose were? But there were enough really good ones, and Rory was convincingly ‘Western’ in enough of them to elevate him to the higher echelons of the ranks of actors in our beloved genre. Maybe he’s not quite up there with Gary Cooper or James Stewart or Henry Fonda, and he himself would have been the first to admit it, but he can certainly hold his own with the likes of Sterling Hayden, George Montgomery or Rod Cameron, and you could argue that he was the ‘best of the rest’. I’m sure that Rory now resides, along with them, somewhere on the lower slopes of the Western Mount Parnassus (probably up in the Rockies).

Early life

Francis Timothy Cuthbert McGown was born in Los Angeles in 1922, the son of a professional gambler who, however, died when Frank was still an infant. His mother remarried but the family was poor. Frank dropped out of school and drifted into petty crime, stealing a revolver from a hardware store and landing in the Reformatory School in Ione. He escaped from there and robbed some jewelry stores before stealing a car and crossing the state line to avoid the cops. Several prison sentences followed before a stretch in San Quentin (fellow Western actor Leo Gordon was also an alumnus of that establishment) from which he was paroled just before his 21st birthday.

Six foot four and burly, ‘Smoke’, as he was known because of his addiction to cigarettes, took a number of manual jobs, such as lumberjack, cowpuncher, miner, boxer and truck driver. In 1943 he was out riding in the Hollywood Hills when he came across Alan Ladd and his wife, Sue Carol, an agent, who was taken with the handsome young man and arranged a screen test through the offices of David O Selznick. That got him a contract at Fox. He won a few small roles before being cast, as Frank McGown, in the part of James ‘Gentleman Jim’ Corbett in Fox’s picture A Man Called Sullivan – where his boxing skills came in handy. He is said to have had a fling with co-star Linda Darnell too.

Young actor Rory

Changing his name to the snazzier Rory Calhoun, he became something of a Hollywood celeb, escorting several famous actresses, including Lana Turner, Yvonne De Carlo, Rhonda Fleming, Rita Hayworth and Corinne Calvet, among others, though his relationship with the last-named suffered a tad when he shot at her. When Rory's second wife Lita Baron sued for divorce, she named 79 women with whom he had allegedly committed adultery. Calhoun responded, "Heck, she didn't even include half of them".

The first Westerns

Rory’s first big role came in the DelmerDaves-directed noir thriller The Red House in 1947 but it not being a Western we shall scorn this as unworthy of our attention and pass directly to 1949 when he starred with Guy Madison, another Western neophyte and another Selznick protégé (who became a great friend of Calhoun's) in Massacre River, produced by Julian Lesser and Frank Melford and released by Allied Artists.

Guy and Rory rivals for Cathy

There's more action in later reels

Massacre River was a tightly directed (by John Rawlins) and beautifully photographed (by Jack MacKenzie) black & white oater shot in rather fine Canyon de Chelly locations in Arizona, and was a torrid frontier romance, with a love triangle (Madison and Calhoun both woo Cathy Downs) central to the plot. The New York Times wasn't very polite about the picture, calling it "a snarled romance" with "stilted, amorous bickering" and added that it was "murder in more ways than one" but though it is very much a late 40s oater, and rather more a 'who'll get the girl?' picture than an action Western, Massacre River is nevertheless enjoyable, especially in later reels, and it has certain qualities. It was a good start anyway.

That was followed later the same year by Sand, a Fox picture directed by Louis King, with Mark Stevens and Coleen Gray in the leads and Rory billed third as a shady type who comes good. It was a modern-day sagebrush saga based on Will James’s 1932 novel and is one of the few Rory Calhoun Westerns not to be reviewed on this blog because it is unavailable commercially, very sadly. I rely on Barry Atkinson’s view of it in his chapters on Calhoun in Six-Gun Law 2. He says Stevens was wooden throughout in a role that should probably have gone to Calhoun but Calhoun enjoyed playing more doubtful characters and good badmen, and was happier in that part.

The early 50s

Fox’s A Ticket to Tomahawk in 1950 was a popular light-hearted Western with a splash of song and dance. It was a big-budget picture that was to have been directed by John Ford but the studio was a bit cross with the great man at the time and yanked it, handing it to writer/producer Richard Sale instead. It features former vaudeville star, New Yorker Dan Dailey in his only big-screen Western, and Anne Baxter, who had had a hit in  William A Wellman's Yellow Sky with Gregory Peck, co-starred as a Calamity Jane-ish figure. Rory got third billing as Dakota, the chief heavy. He was clearly having fun in the role. He says that “Wild Bill Hickok taught me” to shoot and he adds that he was “one of Wild Bill’s deputies in Deadwood,” as if Bill was ever marshal there (he was not, of course). The New York Times said, correctly, that it was "a pretty good show." The whole thing is deeply silly but is entertaining.

He took A Ticket to Tomahawk

Fox loaned Calhoun out a fair bit and Rory’s next outing in the saddle was Warner Brothers’ Return of the Frontiersman. Once again he was third billed and once again he was the bad guy, named Larabee. If you like a vigorous old-fashioned oater with plenty of action you’ll enjoy this one. There are posses and fistfights and canyons and caves, and an attack on the stagecoach, and a bank robbery; it’s all very exciting. Best of all, a derringer features largely in the plot and the two-timing Larrabee, who never wears a Colt, finally pulls one of the little pocket guns. In Western semiotics that is enough to brand him a villain of the worst kind, as derringers were reserved for louche gamblers and saloon girls. Of course for me, the derringer element sent this Western, er, shooting up in my estimation.

More of a Gordon McCrae vehicle really but Rory's good in it

Way of a Gaucho (Fox, 1952) isn’t credited as a Western at all by IMDb, which in terms of genre brands it as ‘Action, Adventure, Romance’. Fox deserved credit for taking a cast and crew to Argentina and engaging Jacques Tourneur to shoot it in Technicolor. They threw budget at it ($2.24m, I believe). And it rewards in the sense that it is attractive, colorful and occasionally even beautiful. In the last resort, though, the plot and tone of the movie are pretty straightforward Western – which is why it is included in most accounts of Calhoun oaters. When Rory Calhoun rides the range in a wide-brimmed hat in the 1870s and there are guns and chases and outlaws, it doesn’t really matter if it’s prairie or pampas. He does a moody doomed gaucho with aplomb. It’s an ‘end-of-the-West’ tale set in a different West. The New York Times was snooty about Calhoun, calling him "sturdy but sullen" but I think he was rather good. He’s a little Tyrone Powerish in a way. In any case the picture was quite a hit and it boosted Rory's screen career.

Good way to see far

Doing his Tyrone act

The Silver Whip in 1953 was really a Dale Robertson vehicle, with Rory again in support, this time as the by-the-book sheriff. It was a 73-minute black & white with no great pretensions (note I do not call it a B-Western!) but it had its moments, especially the chase in the rocks, and though Rory wasn’t perhaps quite as strong playing the decent lawman as he might have been as the villain, or good badman anyway, still, he was pretty solid, and acted well against Dale. It’s is an actionful and pacey oater that was typical of Fox’s early-50s output. It’s good fun.

The good sheriff this time

Later that same year (the wondrous Western vintage of 1953) came the highly enjoyable Powder River, still for Fox. On some levels little more than a pale low-rent My Darling Clementine remake, it nevertheless succeeds on its own terns as a Technicolor early-50s Western, with solid direction (Louis King again), capable writing (Daniel Mainwaring as Geoffrey Homes) and a good cast which included John Dehner, Robert J Wilke, Frank Ferguson, James Griffith and Hank Worden, with Cameron Mitchell as the Doc Holliday figure, and a Calhoun flame (the one he shot at), Corinne Calvet, as leading lady. In the best bit of the movie, she offers Rory a derringer to go shoot somebody. He obviously declines the pop-gun as unworthy of him. He is, naturally, the Earpish marshal.

He seems to be taking aim at Corinne (again)

The New York Times called it "a mess" and "baffling". Nonsense, it's neither. Excellent stuff, and well worth a watch.

Another big picture

So far Rory had only topped the billing in two of his seven Westerns, Way of a Gaucho and Powder River, and the following year it was a return to the back-up role, this time supporting leads Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe, in River of No Return. Rory liked rivers: he had done Massacre River and Powder River before this River. In fact 37.5% of his Westerns to date had been about rivers. I tell you this on a need-to-know basis, of course. Like A Ticket to Tomahawk, River of No Return was a big-budget Fox movie launched with much ballyhoo. It was directed by the famous Otto Preminger, his only Western (just as well).

Smooth gambler talks to his ex

It had dramatic Canadian Rockies locations in the brand new CinemaScope. It should have been a wow, and indeed it did well at the box office. But it was a hodge-podge. Rory is Marilyn’s ex, a ne’er-do-well gambler who abandoned her but now that Bob Mitchum is interested, well, he wants her back.  We know Calhoun had been in Marilyn's epic of the previous year, How to Marry a Millionaire, so they got on. In River of No Return, though, he only got 16 minutes of screen time so we can't really consider this a Calhoun Western, not properly speaking, though it was probably his most celebrated role to date.

The classic mid-50s Rory oaters

River of No Return was Calhoun’s final Fox Western. We now enter the freelance period of what Atkinson in his chapter calls “The classic Bs, 1954 – 1958”, though of course I myself eschew such a term. The first of these, The Yellow Tomahawk, released by United Artists in May, was produced by Howard Koch of Bel Air, and directed by Lesley Selander. It had a strong cast which included Noah Beery Jr., Peter Graves, Lee Van Cleef (as an Indian chief) and James Best, with Rory by now topping the billing. For such a colorful title, it comes as a disappointment to find that the movie is black & white. In fact it was shot in Technicolor but released for TV in monochrome, which is the way we see it today. Pity. Time for a fancy new remastered DVD release. It’s a Wyoming/Red Cloud story, featuring Calhoun as buckskin-clad scout Adam Reed, the well-known ‘man who knows Indians’ figure who seems as omniscient as he is omnipotent. There is an attempt at a serious theme, that violence only begets violence and nobody wins.

The scout in buckskins

The second ’54 oater, Universal’s Dawn at Socorro, released in August, was not only excellent; it is, I reckon, a good candidate for the best Western Calhoun ever made. Produced by experienced hand William Alland (below),

Producer Alland

directed with a sure touch by vet George Sherman, written by George Zuckerman (who penned Written on the Wind and The Tarnished Angels for Douglas Sirk), and with a first-class cast that included David Brian as the bad guy, Alex Nicol, Edgar Buchanan, James Millican and Skip Homeier, it was an almost perfect example of the 80-minute color mid-50s Western. You will hardly do better. Rory plays a Doc Holliday-ish consumptive Southern gambler who stands by Earpish Marshal Millican. There is a perfectly splendid Main Street showdown.

Doc Holliday-like

Great shoot-out, shot from above

That was followed later the same year by another Alland production, also for Universal, Four Guns to the Border. This too was a good ‘un. It was directed by actor Richard Carlson, who had had a medium-sized part in Seminole with Rock Hudson the year before; this was his first Western as director. Two of the titular quartet of (not very good) bank robbers were John McIntire and Jay Silverheels, so that was a big plus already. Then Walter Brennan plays Colleen Miller’s crusty dad. We’ve also got Charles Drake as the sheriff and Nestor Paiva as the café owner, Greasy. New Mexican Paul Brinegar (you know, Wishbone) is the barber. It’s a good cast alright. There’s lovely Apple Valley scenery as they ride through dangerous but beautiful Apache lands (1881 New Mexico), photographed by the great Russell Metty in Technicolor.

Rory at the typewriter

So 1954 was an excellent Western year for Rory Calhoun. In 1955 he had a stab at writing, a picture that he was to have starred in, Allied Artists’ Shotgun, but changed his mind at the last mo' and it went to Sterling Hayden. The script is gritty and tough, and there are some good punchlines.

This time he wrote

It was also in ’55 that revelations about his criminal past came to the fore. His agent, Henry Willson, learned that the scandal-sheet Confidential was set to publish a great exposé of the secret gay life of Rock Hudson, also a Willson client, and the agent did a deal with the magazine, letting it print details of Rory’s colorful past in return for keeping quiet about Rock. As Willson may have guessed, the story did not impact negatively on Calhoun’s career at all. If anything, it enhanced his bad-boy image and gave fans a thrill.

Back in front of the camera

The Treasure of Pancho Villa was an RKO picture released in October ’55, a ‘gringo in Mexico’ story with Rory alongside a dashing Gilbert Roland. All these pictures have a gringo gun-runner or whatever and a charismatic Mexican rebel; it was de rigueur. Gilbert is dashing as ever and you can tell he is Mexican because he whistles La Cucaracha. Rory is the tough Yankee mercenary Tom Bryan but of course he is secretly a goody, deep down. It was again helmed by George Sherman. I must say, derivative though the plot may be, Rory is durned good in it.

Gringo Rory with dashing revolutionary Gilbert

In the fall of ’55 Universal decided to shoot yet another remake of The Spoilers. Film versions of Rex Beach’s Alaska gold-rush novel had been made since the silent days and the second talkie, with Randolph Scott and John Wayne, had been a big hit for Universal in 1942. It was time for a color one, with Rory, Jeff Chandler and Anne Baxter back from A Ticket to Tomahawk in the lead parts (and McIntire again backing up). Personally, I don’t think this one, directed by Jesse Hibbs, was quite up to the standard but still it’s colorful and noisy, and Rory is suitably tough. The picture was released for Christmas, to some plaudits.

Yet another film version of the Rex Beach novel

Two more Westerns came along in 1956. First, Red Sundown, another Universal offering, this time directed by Jack Arnold (sadly no relation), more of a sci-fi expert really though he did the odd Western. The IMDb bio says “His films are distinguished by moody black and white cinematography, solid acting, smart, thoughtful scripts, snappy pacing, a genuine heartfelt enthusiasm for the genre and plenty of eerie atmosphere” and that applies to his Westerns too, even the tinge of eerieness. He directed the superior Audie Murphy Western No Name on the Bullet, for example, which has slight horror touches, or at least a sinister atmosphere, though most of the oaters he directed were TV shows. Red Sundown was another cracking Western.

Red Sundown, with fellow San Quentin alumnus Leo Gordon

On the set of Red Sundown with Lita Baron

Raw Edge, the next oater, another Universal picture, came out soon after. It’s odd, even wacky, with its bizarre plot about women as chattels. It was directed by John Sherwood, which is already a plus because Sherwood had learned his Western craft as assistant director under Anthony Mann, and the direction is skillful and technically very good. It was produced by Albert Zugsmith, 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, Zugsmith specialized in salacious low-budget movies.

A cheery card, it seems

He only produced five Westerns, two of them with Calhoun. 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. And what’s more Rory seems to be showing signs of knowing how to act. In any case this oddball oater is very well worth a watch.

In the oddball Raw Edge

At the very end of 1956 Rory appeared for the first time in a Western TV show, an episode of Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theatre titled Muletown Gold Strike. Calhoun plays a no longer practicing lawyer from Kentucky but now in Wyoming, apparently bitter from the Civil War, being given a job as schoolteacher. One of his new pupils is obsessed with finding gold.

Is he stealing the boy's gold?

Though everyone scoffs at the boy’s dream, he does in fact find nuggets but he is apparently exploited by his new teacher, who takes and keeps the gold. Of course there is explanation, but the townsfolk won’t listen…

1957, a very good year

1957 was a bumper year with no fewer than four Calhoun Westerns. Rory fans must have been in seventh heaven. First came one of my favorites, Utah Blaine, Calhoun’s first oater for Columbia. The plot is pretty standard (brave homesteader against ruthless rancher) but it’s well done and both acting and writing stand out as above average. It was directed by good old Fred Sears and Utah Blaine is pacey and quite suspenseful here and there.

Fred at the helm

It is helped by being a Louis L’Amour story (his ninth novel, 1954), well adapted for the screen by Robert E Kent. Kent was very experienced: this was the fourteenth of thirty Westerns he wrote. Rory is a gunslinger who intervenes to stop a lynching and finds himself ranged against the lynchers, who are thugs of the ruthless rancher (Ray Teal, excellent). Another good ‘un.

Utah Blaine. He often wore that double gun rig, one handle back and the other forwards.

Next came The Hired Gun, this time for MGM. At this time Calhoun and agent/producer Victor Orsatti set up a company, Rorvic Productions, to make Westerns. It didn’t last too long but there were a trio of Western features, a couple of TV films and the series The Texan on CBS. The Hired Gun was the first fruit of this collaboration.

The Producers

Visually, the picture is very attractive. Though in black & white, it benefited greatly from cinematographer Harold J Marzorati’s excellent use of CinemaScope and also of the splendid Lone Pine locations. It was directed by Columbia stalwart Ray Nazarro, a really safe pair of hands. The two writers were also experienced scribblers, Buckley Angell and David Lang. On The Hired Gun they did a really competent job, managing to bring in a little tension and even some character development. Rory is a gunslinger hired by a rancher but he goes over to the sight of truth and light. This was a plot as old as the hills. Harry Carey Sr. made a specialty of it back in the silent days. Brian Garfield called this Western “dutiful and ordinary” and I suppose he had a point but I like it rather better than that. It’s a bit predictable but it’s brisk, visually fine, has a strong cast and the DVD is good. And there was the derringer.

Fine cinematography on The Hired Gun

Domino Kid was another Calhoun/Orsatti production, this time back at Columbia, but again with Nazarro at the helm. Honestly, compared with the previous efforts this was vin ordinaire. It has the look of a TV show (though it was made for theatrical release) and is a quite interesting example of reverse-engineering, as TV oaters, influenced by low-budget big-screen Westerns, gained ground and in turn started to influence big-screen films, which began to look like lengthened episodes of Gunsmoke. There are painted Monument Valleyesque backdrops for the sequential studio scenes. Rory’s a gunslinger again, a bit long in the tooth now to be doing ‘kid’ roles but never mind. All in all, it’s no great shakes, and if you missed this Western you would not repine for evermore, but it’s still a Rory oater, and it has its moments, like all of them.

The Domino Kid woos Kristine Miller

Ride Out for Revenge, Calhoun’s last Western of 1957, was back to form. Some have dismissed it as an over-preachy film but I think it’s rather good. And therefore it’s rather good. It’s in black & white but (and it’s a huge but) it was shot by Floyd Crosby. The black & white is luminous, with stark contrast, making the most of long shadows, and some of the framing and composition is absolutely first class. Crosby’s town shots, especially, are beautiful and it’s as if he has come back to the Hadleyville of High Noon five years after. The modern print, by the way, is very good indeed.

Rory on the set of Ride Out for Revenge talking to the 'Cheyennes' Joanne Gibert and Vince Edwards. No idea who the guy in the T-shirt is.

The plot, too, has been accused of boing overdone and didactic but I found it thought-provoking and sensitive. It’s basically a pro-Indian anti-racist story, with a man-who-knows-Indians hero (Rory, of course) standing alone against a bigoted and hateful township. Calhoun plays the central character, the mononymous Tate, in an understated, low-key way that underlines the gritty determination of the character.

The last two 50s Westerns

In early ’58 Rory did a fair bit of non-Western work, the scoundrel, but later in the year he took the title role in his last picture for Universal, The Saga of Hemp Brown, which was released in October. Directed by Richard Carlson, like Four Guns to the Border, it was a classic Universal 80-minute color Western but this time shot in CinemaScope with nice Conejo Valley locations and Philip Lathrop at the camera. John Larch was the excellently slimy villain. There was a time when sagas were Nordic tales of daring deeds and valor; then they became just family soaps. But The Saga of Hemp Brown at least tried to tell a tale of a noble man on a quest – Rory, natch.

Hemp Brown poses with Beverly

And finally in that wonderful decade for our noble genre Calhoun and Orsatti got together again and produced Apache Territory, released by Columbia in October 1958. Rory stars in the movie as Logan Cates, a tough loner who knows the Apaches and their territory. The story, based on Last Stand at Papago Wells, a Louis L’Amour novel of the previous year, is a basic siege tale, directed by Ray Nazarro, and a little static and studio-bound. The good news is that the group of besieged contain Leo Gordon as a demoted cavalry sergeant and John Dehner as the unworthy fiancé of Rory’s former flame. Sadly, though, the movie doesn’t fire. There is little fear or tension. As the whites are picked off one by one, you know full well that Rory and his amour (Barbara Bates) are going to get out alive. I'm afraid the script contains the lines "It's awful quiet out there" and "It's just a flesh wound". It wasn’t Rory’s best-ever Western. Never mind, it isn’t bad.

It became Apache Territory

But that, for the 1950s big-screen oater, was that.

Bill Longley

On September 29, 1958 CBS screened the first episode of its new series The Texan. It was a Rorvic production (in other words Rory and Vic’s company) in collaboration with Desilu, and it was a hit. It ran for two seasons, for a total of 78 black & white 30-minute episodes. According to writer Billy Hathorn, the series could have been extended for yet a third season had Calhoun been willing to continue, but he wanted to return to feature films. The Texan faced direct competition from NBC’s The Restless Gun, with John Payne, also popular, but came out on top, finishing at #15 in the ratings while The Restless Gun fell out of the top 30 and ended its run in 1959. It was ideal casting for Rory because he played a gunslinger roving the West, righting wrongs and defending the put-upon. It was a well-tried formula, that. His character was Bill Longley, the famous Texan gunman, but I’m reading a life of Longley at the moment (review when I’ve done) and I can assure you that Rory’s Longley had nothing whatever to do with the real one, a racist serial killer who ended on the gallows. Calhoun’s Longley is a decorated ex-Confederate officer with a tragic past (his wife died) who is quietly decent and courageous, and drifts all through the 1870s Wild West being noble. Calhoun's then wife, Lita Baron, appeared in several episodes.

As Bill Longley, The Texan

The inevitable spin-off

I’ll be reviewing the whole of The Texan later this month, I hope. I’m watching them all now and am just nearing the end of the first season. It’s pretty durn good and definitely one of the better TV Western shows – certainly a lot better than Audie Murphy’s Whispering Smith, for example. The last episode was screened on September 12, 1960.

Rory next traveled to Italy to appear in a Sergio Leone sword-and-sandal drama, followed by historical epics of various kinds, and forsook the Western for an extended period. The only exception was The Artie Matthewson Story, an episode of Wagon Train aired on November 8, 1961, in which he played the eponymous Artie. Flint McCullough's dying foster mother (Jane Darwell, no less) asks Flint to check on her son Artie whom she hasn't seen in five years. He has a reputation for getting into trouble with the law…

The glory is departed

But it was 1963 before Rory returned to our beloved genre in any serious way, and that was a long lay-off. The Western had almost died in the interim. Allied Artists’ The Gun Hawk, released in August ’63, marked his return to the saddle. It was a pairing of Rory with Rod Cameron, with a strongish support cast of regular Western character actors such as Morgan Woodward, John Litel and Robert J Wilke, and it was directed by Edward Ludwig, who’d helmed a lot of The Texan episodes. Actually, Rory acts rather well as he falls ill from the wound given him by Rod (Rod’s the sheriff and Rory the gunslinger). But the picture was too long and dragged in the last reels, it was disfigured by a trendy 60s guitar score and there was a lot of regrettably jokey dialogue, or at least lines that were supposed to be jokey. Both Rory and Rod were graying a bit, and had added an inch or two to their girths, but then who am I to talk? This film is never going to be in anyone’s top ten best Westerns ever, and there is already the suspicion that the glory days of the mid-budget Western are over. This one was not a patch on the vibrant self-confident Westerns of the 50s. Still, a Rory oater’s a Rory oater, and you do get Rod too.

With Rod and Morgan, all looking a tad older (but they had the right)

Once AC Lyles started his low-budget retro-Westerns, using slightly anno domini actors from the 50s, Ichabods all, the writing was definitely on the wall. Rory did three, starting in 1964 with Young Fury (he was actually hired to do the first one, Law of the Lawless, but pulled out for health reasons, Dale Robertson taking over the lead, so Young Fury was Calhoun’s Lyles debut).

Producer AC Lyles

Once again he was the taciturn gunslinger (he could have done it on auto-pilot by now) whom Sheriff Richard Arlen would prefer to run outa town, especially as a ruthless gang, led by John Agar, is coming in after him. The picture was better than The Gunhawk, perhaps, being directed by safe-pair-of-hands Christian Nyby and having a rousing Paul Dunlap score, but its main interest is 50s-actor-spotting. Even William Bendix has a cameo as a blacksmith.

No quite so Young Fury. With Virginia on the set.

Next Rory followed that well-beaten trail followed by a posse of Western actors, the one that led through the departure lounge of LAX to take an Iberia flight to Almeria, Spain, to make a paella  western, in Rory’s case Finger on the Trigger. You know it’s going to be bad immediately, when you hear the over-loud clip-clops dubbed onto the soundtrack and background music of electric guitar. At least the director was American, Sidney W Pink (1916 – 2002), a producer and writer known for schlock sci-fi pictures, many in 3D, who is said to have discovered Dustin Hoffmann. The aging Calhoun had an almost George Clooney look to him, and he does the usual solid job as the decent but tough soldier, despite the ropey script and some very iffy acting going on around him.

Clooneyesque Rory still had his Finger on the Trigger

Two more Westerns followed that year (1965). You feel that Calhoun, now in his mid-40s, was milking the genre for the last drops that could be squeezed out of it. I rather wish he had stopped in the late 50s, when Westerns were still Westerns. Oh well. Black Spurs and Apache Uprising were Rory’s other two AC Lyles pictures. EVERY TIME HE COMES TO TOWN – SOMEONE’s GONNA DIE! the poster for the first screamed, mendaciously. Rory is a reformed gunslinger (obviously), named Santee (no relation to Glenn Ford’s Santee). Former Rory flame Linda Darnell got second billing, though she has a fairly incidental part as Sadie, the saloon madam. It was her last film: she died April 10, 1965, one month before the movie was released, after being severely burned in a house fire. Scott Brady was there as town preacher, Bruce Cabot as saloon heavy, James Best as the marshal and DeForest Kelley as a corrupt sheriff, so it was a ‘geezer Western’ alright. It was directed for Lyles by old stalwart RG Springsteen.

Black Spurs. Lyles with Darnell.

Apache Uprising, released by Paramount at the dog-end of the year to a less than ecstatic reception, also had RG at the helm and also featured a former Calhoun lover, this time Corinne Calvet again, as well as a list of stalwart Western character actors such as John Russell, Lon Chaney, Gene Evans, DeForest Kelley, Don ‘Red’ Barry, Arthur Hunnicutt and Johnny Mack Brown, to name but a few, all doubtless glad of the work and willing to pretend it was still the 50s. It’s a triangular goodies-baddies-Indians conflict. Rory is, yup, a drifter gunslinger. It’s all quite good fun. It was the last ‘proper’ Western that Rory Calhoun would make.

Well, well, these 60s pictures were pretty unremarkable stuff. I will say that they were done with gusto by the cast, who were clearly enjoying themselves and pleased that happy times were here again. They are a bit creaky, yes, but definitely worth a watch for old times’ sake. Reviews at the time were modest. Variety called Black Spurs “a well-made oater,” but The New York Times disparaged it as “a standard little western”.

More TV

Though there were no more leads in feature Westerns, Rory did make quite a few appearances in episodes of different TV shows. In 1963 he did Measure of a Man, in the Death Valley Days series, when he was a retiring Arizona Ranger chasing one last bad guy, and returned in Water Bringer, in the same show, in 1965, when he was a Boston sailor sent ashore to get water for his ship on arrival in California. In 1964 he did Thanks for Everything, Friend, an episode of Bonanza, and A Father for Toby, a show in The Virginian.


He took the title role in the very last Wagon Train episode in 1965, directed by William Witney, The Jarbo Pierce Story, and that year he also did a Rawhide, The Testing Post, and a Gunsmoke, Honey Pot. In 1967 he was in Custer, an episode titled Blazing Arrows. Even in the 70s he was ready to have a go, making non-lead appearances in Lancer, Alias Smith and Jones and Hec Ramsey episodes. You can catch some of these in YouTube and they are nostalgic curiosities.

The last picture show

There were three late Westerns, or semi-Westerns anyway. Mission to Glory: The Father Kino Story was little more than schmaltzy Catholic propaganda. A TV movie of 1977, it tells the story of a Jesuit missionary in seventeenth-century Mexico and Arizona. Its only interest is the cast, which includes Richard Egan, John Russell, Victor Jory, Henry Brandon, Anthony Caruso, Stephen McNally, Tristram Coffin, John Ireland, Ricardo Montalban, Cesar Romero and Michael Ansara, as well as Rory’s brief appearance as a uniformed officer. In all honesty, e-pards, I don’t think it’s worth the bother of seeking out. Barry Atkinson says “the film is overlong, dull and, from an entertainment point of view, artistically bankrupt.”

Mexican officer

Mule Feathers the same year at least had Rory (now 55) in the lead but it was even worse. It was supposed to be a hilarious comedy which teamed Rory up with a talking mule. Rory was embarrassingly bad and the whole cast mugs and overacts. How are the mighty fallen, in the midst of the Western. Amazingly, it had a theatrical release, though I don’t know if anyone actually went to see it.

All through the 80s Rory contented himself with appearing in non-Western TV shows (though he turned down a role in Dallas) and a few cinematic horror spoofs and the like but nary a Western or anything like it came to the screen, big or small, with Rory in it. Probably just as well.

Rory in 1983

Rory Calhoun’s very last appearance in our beloved genre (unless you count a small part in a country-music romance in 1992, which I don’t) was a cameo in the 1990 picture Bad Jim. In his very short appearance as a rancher he looks desperately gaunt and old, so much so that it’s only the eyes that give away the fact that it’s Rory Calhoun at all.

In Bad Jim

He now quit the business entirely and retired to Burbank to paint. A lifetime smoker, he died of complications aged 76 in 1999.

Rory Calhoun was not the brightest star in the Hollywood firmament, far from it. But to any Western lover (and that’s us, e-pards) he undoubtedly belongs in the ranks of worthy Western leads, and those oaters he made in the 50s were alone enough to earn him honors. And that raised right eyebrow.



 

 

12 comments:

  1. Rick Miller wrote a good biography of Bill Longley, which paints a very unheroic picture. Earlier writers, including Louis L'Amour did portray him in a more favorable light, so it's not surprising that early television would give him his own series. My own personal favorite of Rory Calhoun's movies would be Shotgun.

    Richard

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  2. Rory Calhoun was an actor I always liked quite well in his westerns (perhaps unlike you, Jeff) but (like you) his standing with me in more recent years has risen enormously. I rate him highly and a number of his westerns are solid favourites of mine.

    I very much look forward to exploring your epic thread on 78 episodes of "THE TEXAN". I never saw the series back in the day (it didn't make it to TV in England) but I now enjoy it very much. A strong TV western.

    Incidentally, I don't know if you enjoy petty trivia about these things as much as I do but I believe I recognise the voice which introduces each episode of "THE TEXAN" as actor, Larry Keating. I knew his distictive tones well from his long-running role of Harry Morton in the "BURNS AND ALLEN SHOW".
    Probably nobody but me would care anyway but I like such 'little bits of business'.

    By the way, Jeff, thanks for another great in-depth study of a subject close to my heart (all our hearts).

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    1. Probably nobody but you would care ... I care. Spent a lot of my married life saying to my wife say goodnight Gracie when somebody said something that turned out to be completely wrong. Still say it to the kids but the reference is completely lost on them.

      Paul

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    2. I say it to my wife........

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  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    1. The proper title of A Man Called Sullivan is The Great John L, a Bing Crosby Production.

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  4. I quite like River Of No Return. It looks great and for me the story and characters are involving. The climax when the boy shoots Calhoun in the back and learns issues aren't always so clear cut as they seem really moves me. It was watching this picture that I think I got an idea what a good movie actor Mitchum was: the way he unselfishly holds back and gives space and support for Monroe. But it could have been a much better picture with a different female lead and maybe a different director. An actress like Joanne Dru or Susan Heywood could have made such a lot more of it. Some actresses look so much more right in a western than others who just look like actresses. Monroe looked the most wrong of them all.

    Paul

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    1. Yes, poor Marilyn never really cut it in a Western, lovely as she was. I can think of quite a few feisty females who would have done a better job.
      Mitchum could be great even when on autopilot or going through the motions. He just 'had it'.
      Preminger was another who should have steered well away of oaters.
      The picture is disfigured, for me, by all that fake shooting on the raft with back-projection and studio hands spraying water over the actors.
      Jeff

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  5. Hello there, I just stumbled on your blog and am now checking it out. Very nice work there.

    Rory Calhoun is one of my favorite Western actors, he may never have made it into the A league, but he was one of the most charismatic B Western movie stars in the 50s. Great writeup on his career.

    One question regarding Raw Edge, a fantastic movie I think. What's your problem with Yvonne de Carlo?

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    1. Nothing personal. I'm sure she was a lovely person and all. I just think she was no good in Westerns. SHOTGUN and TOMAHAWK she was OK in, but the others…
      Jeff

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  6. Re Albert Zugsmith: These superior and contemptuous comments have to stop. In addition to producing these low class crappy films, his credits include, but are not limited to, Written On The Wind, The Tarnished Angels,
    The Incredible Shrinking Man, and Touch of Evil. I knew him, and he was a good guy.

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  7. I respectfully disagree with your perspective on the subject of Rory, compared to: Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, and Henry Fonda.

    Had Rory had opportunity to play in the roles/movies akin to their, I've little doubt his abilities and performances would not have equaled or outshinedt his peers.

    As with most extremely attractive men and women actors, they experience "Type-Casting", in character/supporting roles and in the genre of Movie subject.

    I saw Rory in the latter part of his career, in a movie one would assume and expect to be mediocre. It was written for an Extremely Successful Vocal
    Artist (George Straight), yet the individual(s) involved in Casting, did a brilliant effort in collecting a group of veteran Best-Supporting Actor/Actresses, and I do mean Excellent, plus one of the focal characters was cast to a female actress with vast experience and a history of successes, "Leslie Ann Warren". (Sadly, I feel it was her absolute worst performances). If not for that flaw the Movie would have really been exceptional to its venue.

    For the record the Movie was "Pure Country", George Strait, and George actually did very much better than I expected, the Supporting Actors including the part of his Drummer, was outstanding, and Rory's part as a Grandfather of the girl George's character falls for and that was actually my first real experience of Rory Calhoun. I found his work so very well done that I actually looked him up and obtained a Movie List and went on to watch all I could track down. BTW, the Boys that played her brothers were also Excellent, that movie had at least 3 Scene Steelers in it, truly impressed me. I never expected such capable actors in this era movie.

    That man captured my attention in his Senior Years, from both his: Acting abilities and his Timeless Physical Appeal. The man was simply in the top 1% of Gorgeous.

    I've a little experience in the Entertainment Business, and a sort of natural knowing of talents.

    I assure you, given the Opportunity, Rory Calhoun could have Shined among the likes of Stewart, Fonda, and Cooper.

    I've no doubt.

    May his NonPhysical Energy Soar with the most Abundant Positive Energies, and should he return in Physical, may God grant him the opportunities and successes with full measure of abundant Joy.

    He oozed goodness.

    Thanks for sharing your interest and Best Wellbeing to all.

    Beth
    USA

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