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

Friday, August 1, 2014

Jeff Arnold's West is getting wider!


The world of the Western

Interest in this blog has been slowly but steadily growing. We’ve just passed a milestone: I was pleased to see from blog stats that there were over 10,000 visits to Jeff Arnold’s West in July.

I know that is a puny amount compared with most blogs but it still seems a heap of a lot to a humble home blogger like me and it speaks to the worldwide interest in the Western.

I thought you might like to see the details:

There were 10,897 pageviews in the month of July 2014.

The most popular posts were:



Mar 8, 2013

137

Dec 7, 2012

55

Sep 28, 2013

42

Aug 10, 2013

40

Apr 1, 2013

38



The interest is worldwide but the US clearly dominates, unsurprisingly. C’est clair également que les français adorent le western ! Ma l’Italia è indietro. Forza, ragazzi!



United States

4883

France

1425

Germany

828

Turkey

459

United Kingdom

458

Ukraine

435

Russia

217

Italy

119

Canada

101

Netherlands

95

Well, keep on clicking. Come back soon!

 

Jeff

John Payne


The restless gunman


John Howard Payne (1912 – 1989) was an interesting fellow.
 

 

The star of Miracle on 34th Street and The Restless Gun started as a singer on New York radio shows and had a pleasant high tenor voice. He signed for Fox and took the lead or support part in a number of popular musicals. After World War II, in which he was a flight instructor, he was attorney Michael Gailey in Miracle on 34th Street, his last film for Fox and probably his most successful role.

Later in his career Payne changed tack and started appearing as tough guy in films noirs. His first Western was El Paso with Gail Russell for Paramount in 1947 (we discount a musical ‘Western’ of 1939, The Royal Rodeo, and a 1940 logging picture King of the Lumberjacks). El Paso wasn’t bad – yes, it’s a B Western but with redeeming features. Payne plays a smooth Easterner gradually turning into a tough Westerner – which was just what was happening to him!

There followed nine other Westerns, starting with Paramount’s The Eagle and the Hawk with Rhonda Fleming in 1950 (a Civil War/Mexican spy drama) and the wagon train story Passage West, this time with Arleen Whelan, in 1951, again for Paramount.

There was something Hollywood-beefcake about him and he could have done Tarzan pictures or something but he was capable of some acting subtlety.

 
Beefcake


The Vanquished appeared in 1953, another Pine-Thomas production for Paramount, this time with Jan Sterling, about the evils of Reconstruction. The following year he did two oaters, Rails Into Laramie for Universal and immediately afterwards Silver Lode, a Benedict Bogeaus production for RKO, both with Dan Duyrea entertaining as the villain and acting as lively counterweight to Payne’s stolidity.  Both are entertaining B Westerns well worth a watch, Rails being the better of the two and in fact Payne’s best so far. Payne was looking quite good in the saddle now.


 

In 1955 there were three Westerns, Tennessee’s Partner, Santa Fe Passage and The Road to Denver. They were colorful B movies. The first, once more with Rhonda Fleming,  was loosely based on a Bret Harte story and the last-named, with Mona Freeman, was a typical Republic offering with some good character actors, especially the bad guys. The middle one was the weakest. Slim Pickens was in it but even he couldn’t save it and John Payne was at his most ordinary too. It was really rather a silly story and it also had an unpleasant anti-Indian tinge.

Rebel in Town in 1956 was Payne’s last Western feature before he concentrated on his TV series The Restless Gun. It was different: the only one of his oaters in black & white, it was a tense Western noir, well written and showing subtlety and power. Payne himself was very good in it. In fact it was his best Western of all.
 

Rebel in Town, dark and powerful
 

In every case but the last Payne shrewdly insisted that his movies be shot in color, or he wouldn’t do them, and retained the later TV rights. This made him rich. In later life he added to his wealth as a real estate developer in California.

The Restless Gun
 

 

In the 30-minute black & white pilot of The Restless Gun, aired on CBS in 1957 as part of the Schlitz Playhouse series, written by NB Stone Jr. from a Les Crutchfield story, Payne introduces his character Britt Ponset, gunslinger with a conscience. Riding to visit his friends, former Marshal of Laredo Dan Mailer and his wife (William Hopper and Joyce Cunning), Ponset runs into Red Lawson (Andrew Duggan, the sheriff in Decision at Sundown and the sentimental Catholic priest in The Bravados) who tells him that he is gunning for Mailer. Marshal Mailer put him in prison in Laredo four years ago and he’s out for revenge.
 

Andrew Duggan as villain
 

The trouble is, Mailer has now hung up his gun, married and settled down as a farmer and they couple have a ten-month-old baby. He’s as rusty as his gun is, while Lawson is greased lightning. What can Britt do to help? Mailer won’t let Britt fight his battles for him…

There’s a punk kid in town, too, Sandy, excellently played by Michael Landon, 21 and already an experienced TV western hand. He challenges Britt to a quick-draw contest, the fool, and rather than injure or kill the boy, Britt makes him look foolish. Uh-oh. He teams up with badman Lawson in the saloon and they hatch a fiendish plot.
 

Michael Landon as punk. No one's gonna make a fool outa me!
 

But never fear, John Payne’s here…

At the end of the episode Britt rides off to take a job near Waco, and the series is launched.

Britt Ponset, now renamed Vint Bonner, will roam the West on his horse Scar and although he is a gunslinger, he will always defend the weak and decent folk against the badman and avoid gunplay if he can but be lightning fast if he can’t… The series had something in common with Have Gun, Will Travel and Wanted: Dead or Alive in that the hero is a slightly dubious character but always managed to do good.

The basic idea (and the Britt Ponset name of the pilot) came from a radio show starring James Stewart, The Six Shooter.

The Restless Gun ran for two seasons and a total of 78 episodes, from September 23rd, 1957 to June 22nd, 1959. It was not perhaps the most popular TV western but it didn’t do badly.

You can see the pilot and several episodes on YouTube. A few will probably be enough and it must be admitted there was a certain sameness in the plotting. But they are quite well produced and directed. Payne himself was executive producer on 77 episodes (though it may have been just a vanity credit) and the series was very much his baby. Edward Ludwig was the director of most of them. He had made his first Western as a silent back in 1922, then from 1947 on did three B Westerns before moving into TV. Many writers were used. Payne himself wrote three episodes.

Payne was pretty stolid generally but he could produce flashes of anger and toughness which were quite good. He’s sometimes been called a poor man’s Dick Powell (they were both song ‘n’ dance men who turned to films noirs) but that’s a bit unfair. He did have a certain presence, I think.
 

A certain presence
 

Some of the great Western character actors guest-starred on The Restless Gun, the likes of Claude Akins, Jack Elam, Edgar Buchanan, Royal Dano, Denver Pyle, Anthony Caruso, Glenn Strange, J Carrol Naish, Alan Hale Jr., and many more.

If you want just one episode, try Man and Boy. In this, Vint comes by chance to Clay City where the sheriff is Emile Meyer (not for the first time) and the blacksmith is Dan Blocker in a handlebar mustache. With Landon and Blocker that was half the future Cartwright family right there; in fact David Dortort produced The Restless Gun before going on to… Bonanza.
 

 Dan Blocker, Emile Meyer, Martin Braddock


Vint learns there has been a hold-up of the express office and the robber slew the express men in cold blood. All the clues point to the sheriff’s son Ted, a spotty youth (Martin Braddock). Sheriff Meyer is more than reluctant to pursue the bandit, to the point of dereliction of duty. It takes John Payne to track down the culprit and bring Meyer back to his sense of duty.

“It’s surprising how little people know about one another; even those with the closest of bonds,” Vint says in his habitual voiceover. “It takes a little more effort to see the good in people as well as the bad, but it’s worth it.”

They even had the luxury of some location shooting (about twenty seconds anyway). You don’t get that in every 1950s half-hour TV western.
 

Some location shooting (but very little)
 

Well, don’t expect too much, either from the stories or from Payne. But don’t expect too little either. The Restless Gun was far from the worst Western TV show.
 

 
Comic spin-off


In March 1961 Payne was hit by a car in New York and nearly died from his injuries. He survived but they left him scarred. At the very end of his Western career he appeared in a couple of Frontier Justice episodes and a Gunsmoke.
 
I certainly wouldn't put John Payne in the top rank of Western movie or TV stars but he was a reliable player, had the tough mien of a Westerner and was capable sometimes of sensitivity.
 

John Payne (1912 - 1989)


Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Road to Denver (Republic, 1955)


Starting up a stage line




 
 
Not the best of the ten Western films John Payne made before devoting himself to The Restless Gun on TV, The Road to Denver is nevertheless a fun B Western with certain qualities. It was in many ways a typical Republic offering of the period, with Joseph Kane directing, slightly unstellar leads and some good character actors in support.
 

John Payne, tough guy
 

Kane (whose fan I am because like me he was a cellist) was Republic’s top Western director. He handled a lot of those early John Wayne efforts as well as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers programmers. "I like the outdoors. The horses. The cowboys. I like that,” he said. Sensible fellow. He started on silent Westerns in 1926 and if you count episodes of TV shows (especially Laramie) he directed 161 oaters altogether, an impressive feat. But there wasn’t a single ‘A’ picture among them.
 

An entertaining color B
 

The picture was written by Horace McCoy and Allen Rivkin, from a Saturday Evening Post story by historian and novelist Bill Gulick, who also wrote the stories that became Bend of the River and The Hallelujah Trail. Rivkin only co-wrote three Westerns, all B, but McCoy worked on some very good oaters, such as Rage at Dawn, Western Union, and The Lusty Men, so he knew what he was about. The writing of The Road to Denver is conventional and fairly predictable but competent and professional, with plenty of action and some good lines, such as “This town better be big enough for both of us.”

The story concerns two Texan brothers, Bill and Sam Mayhew (Payne and Skip Homeier in unlikely casting) who quarrel. They seem to be based on Ben Thompson and his wild younger brother Billy. Sam is as stupid as he is belligerent and gets the pair into endless trouble until finally the more sober Bill can stand no more and goes his own way.
 

Brothers slimy Skip and judicious John
 

Homeier specialized in punk roles. He’d had a small part as Forrest Tucker’s son in The Big Cat in 1949 but his first big part was as the punk kid who shoots Gregory Peck in The Gunfighter in 1950 and from there on he did little else. He was good punking in Ten Wanted Men and The Tall T, two of those excellent Randolph Scott/Budd Boetticher Bs, and later he punked in a great many Western TV shows. In The Road to Denver he is suitably annoying and deserves to be shot but makes an unlikely reformation in the last reel. It would have been more dramatically appropriate if he had bled out in the dust of the main street.
 

Punk
 

Bill gets a job from liveryman John Sutton (Ray Middleton) in Central City and becomes a partner in a new stage line they set up. Town boss and saloon owner Jim Donovan (Lee J Cobb, unusually not overacting and quite menacing) and his henchmen, an excellent crew (Glenn Strange and Lee van Cleef) are determined to prevent the stage line being set up, and, when they fail in that thanks to Payne’s derring-do, take it over.
 

Lee J Cobb, crooked town boss
 

So a predictable, been-there-done-that type of plot but it’s well executed and actionful.

Naturally Payne’s partner has a glamorous daughter, Elizabeth (Mona Freeman, from Streets of Laredo and Branded) and when (annoyingly) the punk brother arrives in town, both brothers romance the girl, who hesitates between the two but obviously finally opts for the steady one.
 


Mona Freeman
 

Equally obviously there’s an amusing old-timer, this time Andy Clyde as Whipsaw. There’s a fat sheriff (Paul Maxey), a good saloon (with Streets of Laredo played on the piano) and a dance. The stage is a proper Concord. Hank Worden is a horse owner (uncredited). A bad guy gets punched and lands in the water trough. Yep, many of the classic ingredients are there.
 

Andy Clyde as old timer
 
Paul Maxey as fat sheriff
 

The picture was shot in very nice color (Trucolor) in red-earthed Utah locations by Reggie Lanning, B Western expert (his first oater was John Wayne’s first Three Mesquiteers picture).

There’s a corny ending as the happy couple ride off in the stage with Just Married tacked to the back.
 

Excellent heavies, Glenn Strange and Lee van Cleef
 

The Road to Denver is a mainstream B Western with few pretensions. Payne was capable of much better (such as the gritty little noir Rebel in Town). But it’s dynamic, fun and pacey. You could do a lot worse.



Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Rebel in Town (United Artists, 1955)


Surprisingly good B Western noir




 
 
Rebel in Town was the last of the Western movies John Payne starred in before devoting his time to The Restless Gun TV series. It was perhaps his best.

It’s a good noir psychowestern which is well directed and well acted, notably by Payne himself, with excellent support, especially from Ruth Roman who is outstanding.
 

 

It was directed by Alfred L Werker for Bel Air Productions, released by United Artists. I didn’t know Werker much but I found that he did the 1939 Sherlock Holmes, which was very well received, as well as the police thriller He Walked by Night. As far as Westerns are concerned, he directed ten silents including the 1927 Jesse James and the 1928 Kit Carson. He then did a lot of B talkies, and Rebel in Town was his last oater. It was well done: tense, visually interesting and quite powerful.

The screenplay was by Danny Arnold, who only wrote two Westerns but they were both good (this one and Fort Yuma) and it’s a pity he didn’t do more. He made of the Rebel script an interesting study in character development containing an accessible (but not dumbed-down) discussion of important themes.

It was unique among Payne Westerns in that it was shot - by Gordon Avil, who did the 1930 Billy the Kid - in black & white. Payne normally insisted that all his movies be in color, and by 1955 that was the norm, but in fact the black & white suits the intense, claustrophobic noirish style of the film. There is little location shooting; it’s mostly done in town and at the Willoughby farm.
 

 

For the Willoughby family, John and Nora (Payne and Roman) with a feisty young son, Petey (Bobby Clark, Casey Jones Jr. in Casey Jones), are at the center of this tale. John is an ex-Union captain and his son is also obsessed with the Union army but the boy’s mother just wants to forget the war and settle down to farming. The little boy consoles his father amusingly, saying, “You know how women are.” Then one day, the kid's birthday, five ex-Confederate soldiers, a father and four sons, now renegade robbers, send two of their number into town and the lad sneaks up on the Rebels and fires his cap gun at them. One of the Rebs instinctively turns and fires, killing the child. The boy’s body catapults brutally across the street in the way that George Stevens had pioneered for the death of Stonewall Torrey in Shane.
 

 

The death of the boy and his parents’ difficulty in coping with the tragedy (it even strains their formerly loving relationship) are compassionately and sensitively handled. The shot of John cheerfully bringing in a small saddle he has bought for the boy’s birthday party and letting it gradually drop from his hand as he hears the news, for example, is movingly done. The funeral of the child, the wife’s hearing the boy’s ghostly yahoos when they return home in black and the father’s gazing at the boy’s toy sword also. Top class writing and direction - and acting.

The renegade Rebs are no mere two-dimensional bad guys either. They are not like Donald Pleasance’s over-the-top crazed father and homicidal sons in Will Penny or their forebears, Charles Kemper as Uncle Shiloh and his sadist white-trash sons Hank Worden and James Arness in Wagonmaster. Instead, they are almost sympathetically drawn.

 

 
J Carrol Naish is the stolid, sage paterfamilias Bedloe Mason, and his sons are interestingly named Gray, Wesley, Frank and Cain. Gray, the good one, for the Confederate origin, I suppose; Wesley the bad one for JW Hardin perhaps; Frank maybe for Frank James; and Cain, in a twist, the one whom his brother tries to kill. The most interesting of them is Frank because he is played by Ben Johnson although sadly he has almost nothing to say and is wasted by writer and director. He is nevertheless quietly powerful in the background. Amusingly, Cain Mason is played by Cain Mason.
 

 

The decent feet-on-the-ground town marshal Adam Russell is played by the solid James Griffith, whom you will certainly recognize as he was, in various B Westerns, William Quantrill, Bob Dalton, Pat Garrett and Doc Holliday – what a Western CV! His thin face and beaky nose were distinctive.
 

 

There’s a fistfight under horse’s hooves that reminds you of High Noon and Night Passage.

Rebel in Town is actually a surprisingly good B Western which, had it had, say, Anthony Mann behind the camera and James Stewart in front of it would have been a classic. It talks of loss, the futility of revenge and sacrifice.

Give it a go, e-pards.

 

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Tennessee’s Partner (Bret Harte short story 1869/RKO movie 1955)


Classic gold-mining story hits the silver screen


 
 
 
 
1     The story

The short story Tennessee’s Partner by Bret Harte first appeared in the October 1869 issue of The Overland Monthly, a San Francisco magazine which Harte was editing.

It is very short, 3600 words, and succinctly told. The action takes place at Sandy Bar, a gold camp in Calaveras County, California, sometime around 1850.

It tells of a gambler and thief, Tennessee, and his rustic, almost simpleton partner, who is never named. The partner marries a (nameless) waitress in Stockton and brings his new wife back to the cabin he shares with Tennessee. Soon, however, Tennessee and the girl go off together. When Tennessee returns, sans woman (she has run off with another man) to everyone’s surprise (including that of the reader, really), Tennessee’s partner is the first to shake his hand and welcome him home. The miners, cheated of their expected gunfight are annoyed, and when Tennessee robs a stranger and shoots his way out of a saloon they determine to try and hang him.
 

1869 short story
 

Tennessee is captured by “a small man on a gray horse” with two pistols and a knife who turns out to be the judge. At the ‘trial’ Tennessee’s partner arrives to speak for his friend but is so inarticulate that he is unable to say anything germane. He generously offers all his acquired gold to save Tennessee but the judge is affronted at what he takes to be an attempted bribe and Tennessee is sentenced to death and duly hanged from a tree by the miners.

Tennessee’s partner takes the body in his donkey cart back to the cabin where he buries his friend. He then declines in health and soon follows his pal to the grave. “And so they met”.
 

Francis Bret Harte (1836 - 1902)
 

It is almost a homosexual love affair, although of course such a relationship could only be hinted at.

Harte heard of a true story that took place in 1855. At the camp of Second Garrote, a newcomer had committed a capital crime. The miners organized a court and gave the miscreant a trial and decided to hang the culprit. But "Old Man Chaffee" stepped forward, drew a bag of gold-dust from his shirt, and said that he would give his "pile" rather than have a lynching occur in the camp. He begged the crowd to turn the prisoner over to the authorities and let the law take its course. His proposal was adopted with a cheer and the man was taken to the jail at Columbia.

Chaffee's partner, Chamberlain, seems to have had no part in the affair; but the two were clearly united by a love similar to that of his partner for Tennessee. Long after the trial the two old men lived in their cabin, Chaffee mining and Chamberlain farming. At last, in 1903, their 54-year partnership came to an end when Chaffee died. Within eight weeks Chamberlain had followed him.

 
Chamberlain and Chaffee


In Harte’s version, the tale is told by an outside observer whose own tone of amused irony contrasts with the homespun talk of the rough miners.

When the miners speak the language is pretty hokey:

And now, what's the case? Here's Tennessee wants money, wants it bad, and doesn't like to ask it of his old pardner. Well, what does Tennessee do? He lays for a stranger, and he fetches that stranger; and you lays for him, and you fetches him; and the honors is easy. And I put it to you, bein' a far-minded man, and to you, gentlemen all, as far-minded men, ef this is isn't so."

Mark Twain criticized Harte (who was somewhat of a rival) for his over-quaint dialogue but that was rather the pot calling the kettle black (Twain was capable of worse on occasions).
 

They made their own law
 

There is a certain historical basis in truth to this kind of rough-justice story. When the mining-camps, which were in a part of California that had not been settled by the Mexicans and were occupied by men who knew nothing of their system or laws, were set up, they had little or no system of law and made their own.  Each camp elected its own officers and punished lawbreakers. Theft was considered an especially heinous offense. As there were no jails, whipping and expulsion were common, but in some cases it was death. Even after the state government was organized, the law for a short while permitted a jury to prescribe the death penalty for grand larceny.

Tennessee's Partner, the story is in the public domain and available to read here free if you want.

2     The film

There were three silent films inspired by Harte’s story. In 1916 Paramount released the Jesse L. Lasky production Tennessee's Pardner, directed by George Melford and starring Fannie Ward as Tennessee. Producers Distributing Corp released The Flaming Forties in 1924, directed by Tom Forman and starring Harry Carey. And in 1925 Paramount released The Golden Princess, directed by Clarence Badger and starring Betty Bronson. 

In addition, Paddy Chayefsky's adaptation of Alan Jay Lerner’s story in the film version of Paint Your Wagon owes a lot to Tennessee's Partner: two close friends – one named "Pardner" – share the same woman.

In 1947, Vernon Clark was said to be producing a version of the story, starring Joel McCrea, for executive Harry Sherman. But that version was never made.

The best-known film version came in 1955 with RKO’s movie starring John Payne, Ronald Reagan and Rhonda Fleming, Tennessee’s Partner.
 

 
As it really was?
 

It must be said at the outset that the film version, although it boasts in the title screen that it is “Bret Harte’s Tennessee’s Partner”, is only nominally based on the story. Let’s say ‘inspired by’ rather than ‘based on’. The great DD Beauchamp (among others) worked on the screenplay.
 

Bret Harte's... Well, yes and no.
 

In the movie version frock-coated smoothie Tennessee (John Payne) is partner with Duchess, the madam of a thinly-disguised bordello (Rhonda Fleming). She manages the whores and he runs the gambling. Arrogant would-be town boss Turner (Anthony Caruso as Tony Caruso) loses a fortune to Tennessee and accuses him of cheating. Turner sends a hired killer to deal with Tennessee but a simple cowpoke, named Cowpoke (Ronald Reagan), gets the drop on the killer and saves the Doc Hollidayesque gambler. Tennessee and the cowpoke become friends.
 

Fleming and Payne: bordello madam and slick gambler
 

Cowpoke aims to marry gold-digger Goldie Slater (Coleen Gray). To save Cowpoke, Tennessee lures Goldie to go with him to San Francisco, then puts her on a ship. Tennessee returns and there is a brutal fistfight as Reagan beats the daylights out of Payne.
 

Reagan beats up Payne
 

Old-timer prospector Grubstake (good old Chubby Johnson), Tennessee’s (other) partner in a mine, is killed and the sheriff (excellent tough-guy Leo Gordon) arrests Tennessee for the murder.

 
Sheriff Leo

 
The real culprit was of course Turner. There is a climactic shoot-out in which Cowpoke is killed, Tennessee looks sad and says “I didn’t even know his name”, then weds Duchess, closes up the whorehouse and sets sail with his new bride. The end.
 

Prospector Chubby
 

That’s really quite different from Bret Harte, isn’t it.

The bordello is amazingly vulgar but is described by everyone as “classy”. Payne looks a little like Karl Malden in this one, though one difference is that Payne can act. There’s a good bit where he is accused of cheating and uses a derringer.

Morris Ankrum is the judge. A young Angie Dickinson in one of her first roles is one of the girls.
 

Payne defends himself with a derringer
 

The film was directed by Allan Dwan, who lived to be 96 and had a 52-year career. Dwan understood the Western. He should – he directed 171! But 157 of these were silent movies produced between 1911 and 1917. Then there was a long pause until the very average Tide of Empire in 1929, one of those movies on the cusp between silents and talkies. Frontier Marshal, Fox’s Wyatt Earp picture with Randolph Scott, was his first proper talkie Western and his first oater for a decade. Later he seemed to specialize in Westerns with powerful leading women such as Belle le Grand, Montana Belle, Woman They Almost Lynched and Cattle Queen of Montana. Dwan liked Payne and also directed Silver Lode.

Dwan also managed to extract one of the best performance ever from the normally very wooden Ronald Reagan.
 
In the original Bret Harte story his character is described as very florid, "short and stout". Harte writes, "his aspect under any circumstances would have been quaint, and was now even ridiculous" but Ron didn't attempt that part. 
 

Doc Hollidayesque
 

The color film was in SuperScope, RKO's widescreen process. Payne always shrewdly insisted that his films be in color (and kept the TV rights). It was photographed by John Alton, who did eight Westerns, including Cattle Queen of Montana, Devil’s Doorway and Silver Lode.

Essential knowledge: the film inspired one of the hits of The Four Seasons. As the character based on Bob Gaudio explains in the musical Jersey Boys, "I'm watching the million dollar movie. Some cheesy John Payne western. He hauls off and smacks Rhonda Fleming across the mouth and says, 'What do you think of that?' She looks up at him defiant, proud, eyes glistening - and she says, 'Big girls don't cry.'”

Well, well. I think Tennessee’s Partner the movie is rather better than “some cheesy John Payne western”, although I would certainly not say it’s a Western classic. Have a go, dear e-readers. You may enjoy it.