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

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Virginian (Paramount, 1929)









If you wanna call me that, smile!




 
 
The Virginian in its 1929 incarnation was a milestone in the history of the Western for many reasons. The famous novel by Owen Wister, the first really successful Western story, had sold an astonishing 1.6 million copies by 1929.
 
 
Seminal novel

 
It was the Western. A young Cecil B DeMille directed a silent movie version of the book, with Dustin Farnum in the title role, as early as 1914, only 12 years after the book came out. In 1923 it was remade, and the new Tom Forman-directed picture starred Kenneth Harlan (and Russell Simpson as Trampas!). This talkie Paramount treatment was therefore already the third filming, still only 27 years after the novel’s publication. (There was yet another remake in 1946, starring Joel McCrea, and then of course the almost entirely unrelated 1960s TV series, which took some of the characters’ names but otherwise had little or nothing to do with the novel.)

The 1929 film was a first in many ways. It was the first major talkie ever shot outdoors and the first seriously famous Western on a worldwide level. Gary Cooper was already quite well known but this made him a major star. And The Virginian became in a way the definitive Western movie: it established the famous Western code of honor, it treated the basic themes of good and evil and the struggle for law and order on the frontier, and it established that a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. The final walk-down shoot-out was prototypical. The heroine is a virginal schoolma’am. The rustlers drink whiskey and play cards. The rough justice, the cattle drive, it’s all there.
 

One of the great Western movies
 

Certain lines have passed into legend, notably when Trampas calls the Virginian “You long-legged son of a –“ and Coop draws a pistol on him, slightly adapting Wister’s famous line and saying between clenched teeth, “If you wanna call me that, smile!”

Sadly, it’s quite hard to get. As far as I know it’s not on DVD. Mine is a very old VHS. They need to re-issue it!

It was directed by Victor Fleming who had been a cinematographer on The Half-Breed in 1916 and had directed four silent Westerns. Henry Hathaway was assistant director. It was shot in only 24 days for a budget of $415,000, quite big money for those days but still peanuts by later standards. Coop got $3,400.

At the time Coop had been miscast in various glitzy jazz-era comedies in which he felt uncomfortable and he was thrilled to be doing The Virginian where he could work outdoors, wear comfortable clothes and ride. He used to say that it was his favorite film.

Co-stars were Richard Arlen as Steve, Mary Brian as Molly Stark Wood and Walter Huston, in his first of eight Westerns, as the villain Trampas. Huston got to say the famous line, “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us.”
 

Coop too good to risk being upstaged by the villain...
 

Arlen said, “There was some concern … that Walter Huston might steal the picture, but, as usual, Coop underplayed. He never tried to shout, snarl or rush. He didn’t have to.”

Thin, tall and with that loose-limbed stride, Cooper speaks, almost drawls, slowly when he speaks at all. He got voice coaching from a real Virginian, Randolph Scott. He is shy yet self-assured. It must be said that Huston did a great job alongside him. He gives the Virginian “till sundown to get out of town.” These phrases sound very clichéd and corny now, don’t they, but they work in this film which is still a good watch today more than 80 years on. As Molly begs him not to go and the townspeople flee, High Noon is prefigured. He walks rangily down the wooden sidewalk…
 

Prefiguring High Noon
 

In his biography of Gary Cooper Gary Cooper, American hero (Robert Hale, London, 2001), Jeffrey Myers writes, “The romantic image of the cowboy as the embodiment of male freedom, courage and honor was created by men who had lived a rugged life in the West: in words by Teddy Roosevelt and Owen Wister, in art by Frederic Remington and Charles Russell, and in film, preeminently, by Gary Cooper.” Coop is truly magnificent in The Virginian – in fact he is the making of it. No other actor, in all those versions, came even close to his Virginian.

Of course in a 91-minute talkie, only a selection of the novel’s episodes can be included but Victor Fleming and his many writers (Kirk La Shelle, Grover Jones, Keene Thompson and Howard Estabrook) did a good job. They highlight the rustling and lynching, of course, and the love story with Molly, and they include the baby-swapping incident for light relief, as well as the famous saloon scene with, “If you wanna call me that, smile!”
 

Take your dirty hands off her!
 

The New York Times review of the time makes quite amusing reading now. Mordaunt Hall (what a name!) wrote,

Paramount-Famous-Lasky have produced a noteworthy talking film, in which the voices are nicely modulated and the acting pleasingly restrained. The story is cleverly developed by the director, Victor Fleming, who deserves great credit for the production and especially for the effective but at the same time gentle humor that pops up periodically. It is also a capitally timed picture, with characters going here and there with natural movements.

He adds,

There is good suspense when the Virginian gets the drop on Trampas and in the latter stages of this film the glimpses of Trampas looking for the Virginian recall the doings of Wild Bill Hicock [sic], Bret Harte's men and even Buffalo Bill's thrilling encounters. It is a picture with a fine conception of the necessary atmosphere and one in which Mr. Fleming has happily refused to introduce extraneous incidents.

Hall approves of the acting:

Aside from the intelligent acting of Mr. Huston and Mr. Cooper, Richard Arlen gives an agreeable portrayal of Steve. Mary Brian does her share to help the picture along, but she might have been more persuasive with less rouge on her lips.

And in 1929 the critic was still marveling at the talking picture:

The sounds, whether footfalls, horses' hoofs, rumbling wheels or voices, are really remarkably recorded and reproduced. A good deal of this film was made in the open and it would seem that stories of Western life, if pictured in a rational fashion, would be unusually successful, for they are aided immeasurably by the audibility of the screen.

The 1929 Virginian is one of the great examples of the Western genre and very much worth the effort of getting hold of a copy if you possibly can.



Monday, April 14, 2014

The Buckskin Lady (UA, 1957)


It can be safely missed




 
 
It isn’t entirely clear why this B picture is called The Buckskin Lady as the dame concerned, Angela Medley (Patricia Medina) doesn’t wear buckskins or ride one. And to be perfectly frank, if a tad ungallant, she isn’t much of a lady either, being reduced to dealing poker in a saloon to support her drunken father.

Top-billed Ms. Medina was born in Liverpool, England to a Spanish father and English mother. She specialized in sword-and-cloak farragos and had looks that were usually termed sultry but she did appear in a couple of B Westerns and some TV shows, including a few episodes of Have Gun, Will Travel.
 

Medina, being sultry
 

The Buckskin Lady is a torrid town drama about two men vying for the hand of the sultry lady in question, buckskins or no. They are a lowdown gunslinger named Mr. Slinger and a decent physician named Dr. Merritt (get it?) You may guess which of the two finally wins out. Richard Denning plays the doc; Mr. Denning once said, “I am very grateful for a career which wasn’t spectacular” and apart from being the Governor in Hawaii 5-0 I can’t in fact think of anything he was in, though he did have small parts in Westerns now and then, starting with Wells Fargo in 1937, and The Buckskin Lady was his last. He is, I fear, verging on the bland.

 
Richard Denning (left) being unspectacular

 
His rival, the gunman, is played by Gerald Mohr who looked vaguely like Humphrey Bogart and suited noirs, though he did a lot of B Westerns, starting with a Roy Rogers epic in 1943 and appearing in any number of TV shows.
 

Sort of like Humph
 

So you see the acting isn’t exactly stellar. I only watched it because Henry Hull and Hank Worden were in it.

Hull was a disgraceful ham but was rather amusing in Westerns. One thinks of him chiefly as a cranky opinionated newspaper editor (Jesse James and The Return of Frank James, obviously, but don’t forget also Rimfire in 1947). He was out of character but actually rather good as the sheriff in Robert Mitchum’s Man With the Gun in 1955. I like Henry.

 
Henry Hull not a newspaper editor this time

 
And as for Hank, well, he was one of the great stalwarts of the John Ford/John Wayne stock company, and he was in no fewer than 169 Westerns of all kinds from Barbary Coast in 1935 to Once Upon a Texas Train, a 1988 TV movie. Like Gary Cooper he was raised on a Montana ranch and like Slim Pickens started as a rodeo star. Most people think of him chiefly for his part in The Searchers. In The Buckskin Lady Hull is the drunken father of the heroine and Worden is the decent factotum Lon. Together they are the best thing about the movie.


The great Hank Worden

 
Director and co-writer was Karl K Hittleman who was more of a producer but did direct a couple of oaters such as Kentucky Rifle and Gun Battle at Monterey, neither, I fear, very good.

The Buckskin Lady can be safely missed.


Sunday, April 13, 2014

I Killed Wild Bill Hickok (Ind, 1956)


Wild Bill is shot down, but not by Jack McCall




 
 
Back in July 2013 I wrote the first part of a two-part post on Wild Bill Hickok in fact and fiction and dealt with the fact. I promised that it would soon be followed by part 2, the fiction. I have not maintained on my promise, dear e-pards, and I am sorry. Perhaps I had bitten off more than I could chaw. Hickok has been in so many novels and films. William S Hart was the first to play him (as far as I know) in 1923 and he appeared in The Iron Horse (Jack Padjan), The Plainsman (a magisterial Gary Cooper), Pony Express (Forrest Tucker), Guy Madison on TV of course, and many, many more. Jeff Bridges in Walter Hill's Wild Bill. Charles Bronson did him in The White Buffalo and Roy Rogers had a go in 1940. Sam Shepard, Sam Elliott. LQ Jones. Keith Carradine did a fine job in HBO’s Deadwood. The list is very long. Well, I will try to write part 2. One day.

John Carpenter (not the same John Carpenter of Halloween but the B-movie producer who died in 2003) specialized in oaters and Western TV shows. He wrote and produced as well as starred in (often under assumed names) five Western movies: Badman’s Gold (1951), Son of the Renegade (1953), The Lawless Rider (1954), Outlaw Treasure (1955) and I Killed Wild Bill Hickok (1956). They were all bad but I Killed Wild Bill Hickok was the worst of them.
 

Be warned...
 

The first thing is to put entirely out of your mind any notion of history. This has nothing whatever to do with Wild Bill Hickok. There is no Deadwood, no gambling, no Jack McCall. He is a crooked sheriff in buckskins shot down in the street by Mr. Carpenter, in a kneeling position, with a Winchester.

Carpenter (billed as John Forbes) is a horse trader known as Johnny Rebel, whose girl (Helen Westcott) refers to him stupidly as “Mr. Rebel.” We start with a shot of a Denver & Rio Grande locomotive taken from somewhere and shown in reverse so the writing looks odd. Soon we are introduced to the villain, Bailey. He must be a villain because of his very fancy vest. It is Denver Pyle. Now, we all love Denver. One of the great character actors of the Western movie. But I don’t think Denver ever held his breath just before the announcement of the Oscar for best actor was announced. In this he is totally awful. A plank would have been less wooden. Mind, he is not helped by the dreadful, stilted, corny dialogue he is obliged to deliver. Laurence Olivier would have struggled with that. But he really is shockingly bad. In keeping with the movie.
 

Must be a baddy - works for the railroad
 

His evil partner-in-crime is Hickok, played by Tom Brown. He wears a very ill-fitting overlong frock coat at the start but soon abandons that in favor of buckskins. New Yorker Brown was in several B and TV Westerns including quite a few episodes of Gunsmoke but I fear he was another who might have decided to give the Oscar ceremony a miss this year. Every year. Though he did get a star on the Walk of Fame in 1960.
 

The worst Hickok ever?
 

There’s a sympathetic Indian played by Roy Canada, who had bit parts in five Westerns 1951-56. He starts off as a Hickok Henchman but realizes the error of his ways. The nearest to a good moment in the film is when he opens a corral gate and sets a herd of wild horses free.
 

You will rarely see worse
 

Some of the writing is shockingly bad. One character tells another at the corral to “step on it”, a slightly anachronistic metaphor for the period but no one seems to have noticed.
 

The hero shoots about fifty badmen, all from a kneeling position
 

It is all amazingly third-rate, especially for 1956. It reminds you of the cheapest of horror pictures shot in black & white, so bad that maybe they have now become cult movies. In some ways it is a prototype of the spaghetti western: bad writing and acting, and very low production values.  

See it if you have a morbid fascination with the grim.


Looks like a 1920s short

Friday, April 11, 2014

Lumberjack (United Artists, 1944)


Hopalong Cassidy rides (yet) again
 





Starting in 1904, Clarence E Mulford wrote a series of magazine short stories and 28 popular novels with the central character of Bill ‘Hop-Along’ Cassidy.
 
Clarence

His hero was a coarse-tongued, dangerous rough but once Hop-Along was transferred to the silver screen, starting in 1935 with Hop-Along Cassidy, starring the then forty-year-old William Boyd, the character was toned down into the clean-living sarsaparilla-quaffing do-gooder we all know today.



Hopalong Takes Command, illustration by Frank Schoonover for the 1905 story
The Fight at Buckskin.

It was to become a hugely successful franchise. After 41 films, the Harry Sherman Productions (amusing logo of pioneer wagon on a plinth)
 

Excellent logo
 

shifted from Paramount to United Artists in 1942. 13 wartime movies followed, of which Lumberjack in 1944 was one, before Sherman gave up (he wanted to break into A pictures) and Boyd himself bought the franchise, continuing to distribute through UA. Twelve more episodes were made before, with B Westerns’ decline, they finished in 1948.

It was far from the end of the story, though, because Boyd was far-sighted, selling the project to NBC TV as the first major regular Western show. At first, they were simply cut-down Hoppy films but then Boyd began making new half-hour episodes especially for TV, with the great Edgar Buchanan as his sidekick. Parallel with this, a very popular radio series, again featuring Boyd, began in 1950.
 

Merchandising
 

Early merchandising boosted profits. For example, in 1950 Hoppy appeared on the first lunchbox to carry an image; manufacturer Aladdin Industries moved from selling 50,000 units to 600,000 units in just one year. There was a syndicated comic strip.
 

Comics
 

In the films, Hopalong (the hyphen got dropped along the trail) usually traveled with an amusing old-timer (Gabby Hayes, then Andy Clyde, who is California in Lumberjack) and a juvenile lead to romance any dames that came their way (James Ellison was the first but there were several; by the time of Lumberjack, Jimmy Rogers was doing duty).

The movies were not junk, by any means. Many, including Lumberjack, were photographed by Russell Harlan (Ramrod, Four Faces West, Red River) and the credits proudly tell us that the movie was “photographed in the HIGH SIERRAS”.  The music was sometimes by Paul Sawtell, as in this one, though here it is a bit old-fashioned and overblown. Direction was by Lesley Selander, who did many Hoppy movies. He was a prolific Western expert who did 124 ‘B’ and TV oaters, 1925 – 68. He knew what he was doing and the movies crack along at a lively pace. A lot of the pictures were written by Michael Wilson (later of Lawrence of Arabia fame) and the screenplays were professional, tight and economical (they usually had less than an hour to fill). Lumberjack’s wasn’t quite as good as some of the others, the work of Norman Houston and Barry Shipman.

The first five minutes contain little but galloping as various ranch hands, including Hoppy, rush here and there looking for an eloping couple. Miss Julie (Ellen Hall) has run off to tie the knot with a certain timber-owning Ben Jordan (John Witney) but she moves from spinsterhood to married bliss to the estate of widow all in three minutes as Mr. Jordan is shot down on the parson’s steps by the bad guys who want his timber land.
 
Gold-digger
 
Actually, she is only a scheming gold-digger anyway and while it was quite normal to have cross, bossy dames in Westerns, who would be redeemed in the last reel thanks to the hero and come round to being sweet, I must say that this one is particularly nasty and we all would have been quite happy if she had been blown up by the dynamite in the end.

There is plenty of logging stock footage and Hoppy in a plaid shirt gets to shout “Timber!” There are several logging songs too as the lumberjacks sing while they saw. The trouble these days is that one is inevitably reminded of Monty Python.
 
I'm a lumberjack and I'm OK...
 
Boyd was pushing 50 by this time and is looking a bit stocky and silver-haired. He has that annoying way of throwing shots, as if by darting the revolver forwards when firing, the bullet would go faster. Authentic it isn’t.

The bad guys are shyster lawyers in suits (Francis McDonald and Hal Taliaferro). Comic relief is provided by Clyde as old-timer California and his badinage with Aunt Abbey Peters (Ethel Wales).
 
California and Aunt Abbey
 
There’s a gripping last-reel action scene involving dynamite and you will not be amazed to hear that Hoppy saves the day.

Not one of the greatest epics in the series, this one will do to get a flavor of them. You could also try Border Patrol of the previous year, a rather better attempt, which in addition stars a young Robert Mitchum.

Happy trails.

 

Monday, April 7, 2014

Another Man’s Moccasins by Craig Johnson


Boy howdy

The fourth of Craig Johnson’s Wyoming police procedural novels with a Western tinge, after The Cold Dish (2004), Death Without Company (2006) and Kindness Goes Unpunished (2007), is Another Man’s Moccasins (Viking Penguin, 2008). Although in some ways Kindness Goes Unpunished was the least Western of them to date, being set in Philadelphia and essentially an urban crime drama, in other ways Another Man’s Moccasins, despite being set back in Wyoming, is less Western because it is the Vietnam book.
 

Vol 4
 

We knew that Sheriff Walter Longmire and his Cheyenne friend Henry Standing Bear had served in Vietnam. This novel is one of those two-in-one plots with parallel (typographically distinguished) mysteries going on, one in present-day Wyoming and the other in the lead-up to the Tet Offensive in 1967/8. The two plots are thematically linked (the Wyoming one concerns the murder of a Vietnamese girl) but essentially distinct.
 

Tet
 

The title, which reminds us of the John Simon song, comes from an old Indian prayer, “Great Spirit, grant that I may not criticize my neighbor until I have walked a mile in his moccasins.” The moccasins concerned are those of a giant Indian found living in a culvert under the highway and at first prime suspect for the murder. But when Walt learns of his life and what he has suffered and has walked a while in his shoes, he builds a rapport with the guy and lets him go.

On one level this is just a straight whodunit, or in this case two whodunits, and on that level I must avow that I guessed quite early, both in Wyoming and Vietnam, who did indeed dun it. But it’s the Western-ness which gives these books their charm. Walt is no Raylan Givens and the TV Longmire is certainly no Justified but in a much more down-home, country-sheriff way Longmire is an attractive hero. There’s also the soap-opera tinge to the extended tale as we follow other characters like daughter Cady (rehabilitating back in Wyoming after her Philadelphia assault and getting it on with Vic’s brother – we’ll see how that pans out) and renew acquaintance with stalwarts like dispatcher Ruby and places like the Busy Bee diner.

Where is the mythical Absaroka County? Well, it has to be Johnson County, doesn’t it? Talking about body dumps, Walt says,

To the north, Sheridan County has two unsolved, and Natrona County to the south has five.

We know that Sheridan is the nearest ‘big’ town and the foothills of the Bighorns lie to the west, where Butch Cassidy and his gang had their Hole in the Wall hideout, which features a lot in this episode. Still, who cares, really where it is. 'Somewhere in Wyoming' will do fine.

There are several other Western references, such as (naturally) to The Virginian. When a Vietnamese bouncer in the red light district invites young Walt to make love to himself and calls him the issue of a female dog, he “slowly smiles his best Powder River grin” and replies, “Smile when you call me that.”
 

Smile when you call me that
 

Once you are ‘into’ this series you’ll have to read Another Man’s Moccasins but anyway it will repay a purchase in terms of enjoyment, especially for Westernistas who also happen to like hard-boiled detectives. Enjoy.

 

Friday, April 4, 2014

Cheyenne Warrior (TV, 1994)


Mr. Hawk falls for Mrs. Travolta




 
 
Cheyenne Warrior was a made-for-TV movie of 1994 which aired on Starz! Network and then moved to DVD. It stars Kelly Preston (Mrs. John Travolta) as a pioneer settler woman but she is sadly miscast with her Beverly Hills tan, with modern coiffure and vowels. She is also very “me, me”, and such a self-centered woman was unlikely to have made it on the frontier. Despite the title, the eponymous Cheyenne brave, Hawk (Pato Hoffmann, a Bolivian of Andes Indian blood, who has been in Geronimo: an American Legend, Wild Bill and five episodes of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman) is only billed ninth. She refers to him as “Mr. Hawk”.
 

Mr. Hawk canoodles with Mrs. Carver
 

The plot is a bit like Winchester ’73 in a way in the sense that a rifle passes from hand to hand, given or stolen, and plays an important part in the story. It’s not a Winchester, though, but a handsome Henry.
 

The real hero, the Henry
 

The second-billed Bo Hopkins only appears 70 minutes into the ninety-minute movie and has little more than a cameo. He was hardly a top star but he had been in Westerns, starting in episodes of Gunsmoke, The Virginian and Bonanza and then coming to notice as Crazy Lee in The Wild Bunch – you may remember him in the bank. He was Jumpin’ Joe Joslin in the 1970 Monte Walsh, Clay in Cat Ballou and Billy Doolin in The Last Ride of the Dalton Gang. So he did his Western time and had the CV. However, as I say, he barely appears in this one.
 

Crazy Lee lives on
 

There’s a high body count yet much of the movie is strangely static. Most of it takes place at the trading post. A couple of lowlifes, one with a fake Oirish accent, want the rifle and get killed (Clint Howard and Rick Dean) and the trading post manager Barkley (Dan Haggerty, Grizzly Adams) no sooner establishes himself as a sympathetic character than he is murdered too. Rebecca’s husband is also an early victim (and thus loser of the Henry). Mind, he is so plain dumb that it is a wonder that he got that far West in the first place. In fact, the stupidity quotient of so many whites on the frontier was amazingly high and one wonders how many of them remembered to breathe.
 

Hawk
 

There are some good Pawnee bad guys and I especially liked their leader with a handprint on his face but sadly Rebecca both stabs and shoots him, which seems a little like overkill but there we are.
 

Rebecca
 

I don’t know where it was filmed but the Cheyenne lands are rather nice.
 

Cheyenne lands
 

Like many of these TV movies, everything is too clean, the actors all have perfect teeth, modern cosmetics and they all are evidently wearing costumes. The plot is pretty predictable and well, it’s all a bit ho-hum.

Still, it’s a Western and you could watch it, I suppose.

 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Cherokee Kid (HBO, 1996)


Quite fun




 
 
In 1996 HBO ventured into the dangerous territory of the comedy Western. The Cherokee Kid starred a person called Sinbad, who, I am told, is really a comedian named David Adkins, of Benton Harbor, Michigan, known for such epics as Jingle All The Way and Good Burger, which, tragically, I have not seen.

It’s a sort of black Western because alongside Mr. Sinbad we have Gregory Hines as his twin brother, fellow-gunslinger The Undertaker,

 
The Undertaker

 
and Ernie Hudson as the great Nat Love, aka Deadwood Dick.  There is also feisty Vanessa Bell again (she was in The Return of Desperado, another TV Western). I am still hoping when I see her name on the titles that it’ll be Virginia Woolf’s sister, the Bloomsbury artist, but sadly it never is. I'd have liked to see Virginia Woolf's sis in a Western.
 

Woulda been good in Westerns
 

The saving grace, though, is James Coburn enjoying himself and hamming it up as the villain. He is killing people and stealing their land for the railroad, then he gets to own the railroad. Not only that, we also get Burt Reynolds as Texas mountain man (they have mountain men in Texas?) Otter Bob. Coburn and Reynolds do have a lot of fun and to be fair, do kind of save the picture.

 
Coburn having fun
 
Reynolds too
 
 
Actually there's another saving grace: Sinbad goes for Coburn with a very nifty four-shot pepperbox derringer and you know how I love derringers.
 

Nice one
 

Nat Love (c 1854 – 1921) was an interesting character, in fact. You probably know the story but just in case you don’t: he was born a slave in Tennessee and learned to read and write in defiance of the laws forbidding black literacy. Nat went to Dodge City to find work as a cowboy and was taken on by the Duval ranch in the Texas Panhandle, where he became known as Red River Dick. In the centennial year he won the July 4th rodeo in Deadwood and earned the soubriquet Deadwood Dick.
 
 
Nat Love aka Deadwood Dick (left) and Ernie Hudson doing him

 
In 1877 he was captured by a band of Pima Indians but escaped. In 1907 he wrote his autobiography, Life and Adventures of Nat Love, which is in the public domain and available free here. I always thought that Love spent his last years working as a Pullman porter on the Denver & Rio Grande and died in LA in 1921 but apparently I was wrong; he was actually killed in a gunfight in Texas. It happens in this TV movie so it must be true.
 

 

In the movie Mr. Hudson does quote Nat: he says, "If a man can't go out in the blaze of glory, he can at least go with dignity" and also "Every time you shoot at someone, plan on dying."
 
Most of the humor is rather slapstick and not terribly hilarious but there are occasional funny flashes. Such as Otter Bob’s last words.