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

Friday, April 29, 2016

40 Guns to Apache Pass (Columbia, 1967)



Audie's last starring role




 
 
40 Guns to Apache Pass was the last Western Audie Murphy, now 43, made for Columbia, and in fact the last movie he starred in tout court. He did have a cameo role (as Jesse James) in A Time for Dying in 1969 but to all intents and purposes, 40 Guns to Apache Pass was his last outing in the saddle. He died in 1971.
 
 
It was not a glorious filmic farewell, being an average Western at best. It was also the last Western movie to be directed by William Witney (though he went on with TV Westerns till ’82). Witney was a Mascot/Republic alumnus, experienced in B Westerns - he’d done many Roy Rogers oaters. He’d also directed Audie before, in Arizona Raiders in 1965, also for Columbia. He was not one of the greats, I fear, though reliable and pretty competent.
 
 
By the late 60s we had a right to expect slightly more nuanced films about Apaches. But the Apaches in this picture are out-and-out baddies, referred to as savages and no one contradicts that. Their leader is Cochise and Cochise had of course, since 1950 anyway, been portrayed as a statesmanlike and wise leader – one thinks in particular of Jeff Chandler in Broken Arrow, but other Cochises too were serious figures. Here, though, Cochise (Michael Keep) is just a fierce chief who has taken a vow to exterminate all palefaces from his lands, and his Apaches are just nameless and faceless extras to be shot down at will, as they were in countless bad Westerns of the 1930s and 40s.
 
 
We are in Arizona in the late 1860s. Cochise and his braves are on the warpath and the US Army is undermanned and ill-armed (though of course far better armed than the Apaches). Captain Coburn (Murphy) is a brave but strict officer charged by a beleaguered colonel (Byron Morrow) at Apache Wells with bringing in a vital cargo of forty repeating rifles (Henrys, I think) so that the soldiers can protect themselves and the settlers they have gathered there.
 
 
Among these settlers are the children of good old Kenneth MacDonald, farmer: they are Ellen (Laraine Stephens, in her only Western movie), the inamorata of the captain, and her two brothers, just young boys, who join up to wear the blue when their daddy is killed by the Indians. They want revenge. The older lad, Mike (Michael Blodgett, actually 27 but looking younger) is OK as a soldier, full of gung-ho in fact, but his younger sibling, Doug (former child actor Michael Burns, who was 19 but looks about 15) is a tender flower, afraid of the sight of blood and, to be frank, a bit of a coward. The expedition doesn’t go well. Doug freezes up when Mike is beset by Apaches, and his brother is horribly killed. The captain brands Doug a “yellow boy”. To make matters worse, the rest of the troop are pretty bad eggs.

They are led by ex-Confederate Corporal Bodine, played by orange-haired Kenneth Tobey, always rather good as a baddy. In Westerns, -ine or –een names tend to be rotters. Bodine hates Capt. Coburn and will do anything to get him killed. He whips up the other troopers, including poor Doug, into mutiny, nabs the forty rifles and plans to sell them to Cochise. Now you know that in Westerns, selling guns to the Indians comes somewhere between cannibalism and matricide on the scale of heinous crimes.
 
 
This whole rather old-fashioned skullduggery plot was penned by the Willinghams, Willard and Mary, pals of Audie who wrote his Whispering Smith TV show as well as various other Murphy oaters on the big screen. Willard also appears in the farrago as an actor, one of the mutinous troopers, Fuller (he was also Frank James in A Time for Dying).

The best actor in the cast is probably Robert Brubaker as the crusty veteran Sergeant Walker. He makes the most of the part and there’s a good bit with him in a rocking chair. Brubaker was Floyd the bartender in Gunsmoke and Deputy Blake in US Marshal on TV but he’d also done a few big-screen Westerns, including another, similar Murphy/Witney Western, Apache Rifles in 1964.

40 Guns to Apache Pass also features a rather tiresome voiceover narration that adds nothing and which could well have been dispensed with. The music (Richard LaSalle) is unWestern and uninspired. The titles are very 60s. There are California locations and the camerawork was done by Jacques Marquette, who had started in Hollywood back in 1919 as a gofer and then technician, graduating to cinematographer. He did mostly TV work but he’d shot Arizona Raiders with Audie in 1965.

40 Guns to Apache Pass (the story has nothing to do with the 1862 battle with Cochise at Apache Pass) is not a bad Western. It isn’t lousy or anything. But it’s routine and Audie had certainly done better.

 

Monday, April 25, 2016

Bufalo Bill by Francesco De Gregori


He sings of the prairie

 
In the 1980s and 90s I lived in Italy and there I became an admirer or the work of Roman singer-songwriter Francesco De Gregori. I had several of his albums but my favorite (unsurprisingly, given my love for all things Western) was the 1976 record, Bufalo Bill (the buffalo only has one L in Italian).
 

 

The title track is glorious: melodic, triste, hopeful, and altogether beautiful.
I thought you might like to hear it. I know some of my readers might struggle a little with the Italian text so I have translated it for you, and you’ll find it below with the original words below that.
 
Francesco de Gregori (then)
 
Click here for the song on YouTube.

 
Buffalo Bill did of course tour Italy, and I remember going to the site in Florence where he pitched his tents and put on his show. Perhaps that was the start of the love affair the country has had with the Western.
 
Cody and Indian friends in Venice
 

Lyrics:

The country was very young,
The cavalry was its defense.
The brilliant green of the prairie
Proved, in a shining way, the existence of God,
The God who pushes forward the frontier and builds the railroads.
At that time I was a boy
Playing rummy, whistling at the girls.
Gullible and romantic, with mustaches that made me a man
If I could have chosen between life and death,
Between life and death, I would have chosen America.
The difference between a locomotive and a buffalo is obvious:
The locomotive has its path marked out,
The buffalo can swerve to the side and fall.
This decided the fate of the buffalo,
The future of my mustaches and my profession.
Now I want to tell you: there are those who kill in order to steal
And those who kill for love
The hunter kills for sport
I killed to be the best.
My father, a cowherd,
My mother, a countrywoman,
I, their only son, almost as blond as Jesus,
I wasn’t many years old, and twenty years indeed seem few,
Then you turn and look at them and they aren’t there any more.
And in fact I remember a sad afternoon,
There I am with my pal ‘Rubber Ass’, a famous mechanic,
On the edge of a road, looking at America.
Fewer horses, more optimism.
I was fifty and they presented me with a contract
To tour Europe with a circus
And I signed, with my name, and I signed
And my name was Buffalo Bill.

 
Il paese era molto giovane,
i soldati a cavallo erano la sua difesa.
Il verde brillante della prateria
dimostrava in maniera lampante l'esistenza di Dio,
del Dio che progetta la frontiera e costruisce la ferrovia.
A quel tempo io ero un ragazzo
che giocava a ramino, fischiava alle donne.
Credulone e romantico, con due baffi da uomo.
Se avessi potuto scegliere fra la vita e la morte,
fra la vita e la morte, avrei scelto l'America.
Tra bufalo e locomotiva la differenza salta agli occhi:
la locomotiva ha la strada segnata,
il bufalo può scartare di lato e cadere.
Questo decise la sorte del bufalo,
l'avvenire dei miei baffi e il mio mestiere.
Ora ti voglio dire: c'è chi uccide per rubare
e c'è chi uccide per amore,
il cacciatore uccide sempre per giocare,
io uccidevo per essere il migliore.
Mio padre guardiano di mucche,
mia madre una contadina.
Io, unico figlio biondo quasi come Gesù,
avevo pochi anni e vent'anni sembran pochi,
poi ti volti a guardarli e non li trovi più.
E mi ricordo infatti di un pomeriggio triste,
io, col mio amico 'Culo di gomma', famoso meccanico,
sul ciglio di una strada a contemplare l'America,
diminuzione dei cavalli, aumento dell'ottimismo.
Mi presentarono i miei cinquant'anni
e un contratto col circo "Pacebbeene" a girare l'Europa.
E firmai, col mio nome e firmai,
e il mio nome era Bufalo Bill.
 

Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Iron Sheriff (UA, 1957)


Sheriff Hayden solves the crime




 
 
I must admit to quite liking Sterling Hayden B-Westerns. He was good at gritty films noirs and those were transferable skills for tough-guy Western roles. Have a look at Flaming Feather (1952), for example, or Shotgun (1955). Best of all, Denver & Rio Grande (1952). Hayden himself didn’t like them though. He called them “wretched” and only did them as a job, to pay for his sailing and alimony (he was a serial divorcee).
 
Sterling Tough-Guy Hayden
 
Like Valerie, another Hayden picture of 1957, The Iron Sheriff is more of a courtroom drama than a proper Western (though Hayden as sheriff is not at the trial but out tracking down the murderer, so that’s good) but that’s one of the reasons I like it. Not that I am a great Perry Mason fan or anything but you see in this trial you have the ideal personnel: the prosecutor is stern Frank Ferguson, the judge is a sterner Will Wright and the defense attorney is alcoholic, cynical, laid-back John Dehner (in an excellent performance). Three of my favorite Western character actors, in a legal triangular duel of words. Can’t be bad. Talking of Perry Mason, writer Seeleg Lester, whose only Western movie this was, penned several Perry Mason episodes on TV, and it shows. I wonder why his momma named him Seeleg? But that's by-the-by.
 
In the poster Hayden looks more like Robert Ryan
 
We are in South Dakota, 1891, and in the opening scenes a buckskinned stagecoach driver is shot and killed (it's a good stunt fall). The sheriff’s son Benjie (former child actor and later regular of TV Westerns, Darryl Hickman) is blamed and locked up. The newspaper owner (Kent Taylor in extraordinarily 1950s hairdo) seems to have it in for the boy and whips up the town against him (and his dad). Mr. Taylor, you doubtless know, was a B-Western vet from a Henry Hathaway/Randolph Scott picture of 1933 until a 1967 episode of Rango on TV. Quite a career.
 
Judge Will Wright skeptical of the arguments of Prosecutor Frank Ferguson
 
So the movie is really a whodunnit, and we ride up false trails and down garden paths as we are led to believe the guilty party was first one town resident, then another.

Directed by lifer Sidney Salkow (writer on Bing’s 1936 singing Western Rhythm on the Range and director of B-Westerns right through to The Great Sioux Massacre in 1965), The Iron Sheriff is solid, OK, but honestly not much more. It’s Hayden that makes it, even if he was sleepwalking through the part. He’s Iron by the way because he does the right thing with steely resolve and gives testimony that incriminates his own son because he believes it to be true.

There’s lerve in the SD air, for both brylcreemed Kent and the sheriff love Constance Ford, and that’s why Kent hates the sheriff and wants him out. However, Constance naturally opts for Sterling (whose hair oil has been kept modestly in check). And Benjie the son also has an inamorata, Kathleen (Kathi Walden), who testifies that she is still at school though she was 24 and looks it. Perhaps she was a late developer.
 
The sheriff's son is in jail for murder. Lawyer Dehner has to get him off.
 
There’s a range detective (Mort Mills), rather a tough nut, and a US marshal (Walter Sande) also turns up in town, sent by the governor, to baby-sit the sheriff in case he tries to get his son off. So the character actors are there alright.

Finally Sheriff Sterling IDs the killer and sets off in hot pursuit. But will he bring him in alive or does he have revenge-murder on his mind? The tension isn’t that great, though, in fact, and we kinda know the answer in advance.
 
John Dehner, fine actor
 
Indeed, the whole thing lacks tension, and even credibility, and there’s a bit which is prudishly puritan, even for 1957, when the whole courtroom is shocked by the suggestion (hinted at, obviously, not voiced, dear me, no) that the sheriff’s son and his gal might actually have had “unnatural relations” – they mean sex - before they married. The music (Emil Newman) is grim too, seeming to be the soundtrack of a cheap gangster flick. So I fear that The Iron Sheriff is not exactly from the very top drawer of Western movies – far from it. Still, Sterling’s in it and with Will, Frank and John in the courtroom, it’s worth a watch.

 

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Apotheosis of Jesse James


Jesse James in fact and fiction

Well, almost apotheosis. If he hasn’t become a god, he’s been pretty well sanctified or beatified since his death. The Jesse James of popular understanding is a good man: or at the very least a bad man with many saving graces. On the screen he has been a hero. It’s in many ways curious that a sociopath, a young guerrilla fighter from a slave-owning family who participated in atrocities and what today would be called war crimes, a man who after the war turned to robbery and murder, a vain and violent fellow, a plain bad egg in other words, should become the gallant knight of myth and popular legend.
 
Jesse Woodson James (1847 - 1882)
 
As with the likes of Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickok, the process started while he was still pursuing his chosen profession – in Jesse James’s case stealing from and killing innocent people. The James Gang made the leap from local to national fame when they switched from robbing local banks to holding up trains in 1873 to ‘74. Suddenly they were famous in an altogether different way. A story was published as early as 1874 in the New York World describing a gunfight between the James gang and Pinkerton detectives.

In 1877 passionate James partisan JN Edwards published Noted Guerrillas in which he argued that Jesse and his comrades were a knightly warrior class carrying on the Great Cause by other means (he did not call these means thieving and killing). The James boys were ‘natural aristocrats’ and heroic fighters. Edwards placed James and his accomplices within the Southern tradition of ‘honor’, with the right to defend himself, his home and his beliefs with deadly force. James wasn’t just a criminal: he was the inheritor of the whole Southern tradition.
 
James partisan JN Edwards
 
In the wake of the Glendale robbery (1879) there appeared The Life and Adventures of Frank and Jesse James and the Younger Brothers by Joseph A Dacus and this was frequently later revised and updated to include the later criminal career of Jesse, including his assassination. Dacus was a believer in the negative effects on the economy and on society of the great railroad companies, and his Jesse became a hero of the little man battling against corporate greed.
 
The James Gang hold up a train
 
In actual fact, Jesse James didn’t target the railroads at all: he assaulted the express companies. It was a key difference. Express companies oppressed no one, and Missouri farmers had little if anything to do with them. The railroad companies generally ignored the bandits, only really acting from 1881 at the urging of Governor Crittenden. It was the express companies that paid the Pinkertons and the state governors who obsessed about ‘law and order’ for political reasons.

There was huge coverage of the James Gang’s depredations in the press but hardly any mention at all of their targeting railroads or other ‘big business’. The bandits were also perfectly capable of robbing stage travelers, passengers on trains and small banks. The idea of Jesse James as the cavalier fighting corporate America was a later construct.

Right after James’s assassination in 1882 a key book appeared: Frank Triplett’s Life, Times and Treacherous Death of Jesse James. Triplett’s Jesse was a paragon of his white race, trained in Quantrill’s school of “rough riders” (barbarous guerrillas have become brave and skilled horsemen) and “Anglo-Norman Comanches” (Jesse was no common Anglo-Saxon; he was of nobler stock). Jesse treats all women chivalrously and at one point avenges the rape of a girl by Indians.
 
 
The ballad
 
The Ballad of Jesse James also gained currency extraordinarily fast after the outlaw’s death, story-songs being so popular and such an effective way of making a legend ‘go viral’, as we would say today. The author of the song is not known for certain but is often thought to be a certain Billy Gashade, and some versions include a statement to that effect in one of the verses. In the song, Jesse was a Robin Hood:

He stole from the rich and he gave to the poor,
He'd a hand and a heart and a brain.

Of course there is no evidence whatsoever that he had such altruistic motives. We are told that “that dirty little coward” Robert Ford “laid poor Jesse in his grave”. And indeed, the manner of James’s demise earned him a lot of sympathy from those prepared to overlook his past. TJ Stiles, in his fine biography of Jesse James, quotes the diary of a Kansas City rabbi who called the killing of James “a stroke into the face of morality and civilization.”
 
The best book on Jesse James
 
And of course there came the dime novels. Between 1881 (i.e. before Jesse’s death) and 1883 Frank Tousey published a whole series of (wholly fictional) stories which followed the Deadwood Dick formula. The James Gang are chivalrous heroes victimized by the law. Rapidly, Jesse James became the leading hero of the dime novel genre, even more so than Deadwood Dick, in a way that no other outlaw ever did.
 
Dime novel Jesse
 
Earlier Western figures of legend had their origins in Cooper’s hero Hawkeye: they were brave Indian fighters, often rescuing maidens from captivity. But from the Reconstruction period on, pulp literary heroes were more often bold individuals battling for the rights of the individual against corrupt law and greedy corporations. Jesse James’s story could be easily adapted to that agenda. Again and again he was the brave fighter in combat against the wicked and grasping railroad companies. The dime novel industry was booming at the time and the ‘literary’ works were not only read by the poor. All classes perused them eagerly – except of course the illiterate, which included African-Americans deliberately deprived of education.

And the Jesse James of myth was of course taken up by the motion picture industry. There have been over a hundred portrayals of the Missouri outlaw on the big and small screen from 1921 onwards (many reviewed on this blog) and what used to be called Hollywood is still producing them (another is planned for 2017). None show the ‘true’ Jesse James; all show to a greater or lesser degree the mythic one. The pattern was set by the very first, silent movie: it was made by and starred Jesse James’s own son, and viewing it you would say that Jesse was a much-maligned, very good man, a true hero. Little has fundamentally changed since in screen Jesses. Only Brad Pitt’s in 2007 really gave us a glimpse of what the real Jesse may have been like.
 
Jesse James Jr. was the first to play him on screen
 
In the 1950s the Jesse James ‘story’ got a new boost from an unlikely source: the British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, who wrote in Bandits (1959) about what he called the ‘social bandit’, and specifically used Jesse as an example. Social bandits, said Hobsbawm, are “peasant outlaws whom the lord and state regard as criminals, but who remain within peasant society, and are considered by their people as heroes, as champions, avengers, fighters for justice, perhaps even leaders of liberation, and in any case as men to be admired, helped and supported.” James was a good example of the social bandit because he was the victim of injustice; he righted wrongs; he stole from the rich and gave to the poor; he killed only for just revenge or in self-defense. (It seems that Hobsbawm had swallowed the pulp/Hollywood idea of Jesse James rather than the real one.)
 
Eric Hobsbawm
 
The thesis gained international currency and soon all sorts of Wild West figures were being identified as social bandits, but none more so than Jesse James. More recently the idea has received criticism. The Western historian Richard White, for example, pointed out that as there were no peasants in nineteenth century Missouri the theory was a little flawed.

Jesse James was in many ways not a ‘Western’ outlaw at all, but a Southern one. The James Gang were Confederate heroes, even more so after the war was over. Of course many ex-Confederates frowned on the criminal activities of the James Gang, but almost all their supporters (and there were many, from all classes) were former rebels. As the Kansas City Journal of Commerce noted, “These outlaws have been harbored and befriended … by men who harbored and befriended them during the war, and by nobody else, and for no other reason.” James and his cohorts thrived in a context of deep-seated white-supremacist racism, anger at Reconstruction, and nostalgia for the ante-bellum way of life. Jesse James did not stand up for the Missouri farmer against the big corporations: he stood for certain Missouri farmers against those with Union sympathies. JN Edwards wrote in his eulogy for Jesse James, “Would to God he were alive today to make a righteous butchery of a few more of them.” James fans expressed their support after his assassination by chanting “Hurrah for Jeff Davis.”
 
The real Jesse James: he was always a Confederate at heart
 
When Jesse James was killed he was already an anachronism. With the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and the re-emergence of the Democrats, as the Civil War receded into the past, he was less and less relevant, and was branded, by both sides, as just a common robber. The James Gang had anyway been pretty well destroyed as a serious force in 1876 and James’s late 1870s activities were a pale imitation of what he had done in the war and immediately after.
 
Jesse's mother was a formidable woman and a huge influence
 
Jesse James always had an eye for publicity and was a shrewd manipulator of the press, especially in partnership with JN Edwards (for he was a partner of Edwards, not his puppet). He probably got it from his mother, who played the crowd with such skill at the inquest on and funeral of her son. Despite his moderate education, Jesse James was articulate, well-read on current events, and he much enjoyed what we would today call his celebrity status. He did have saving graces: he was a loving husband and father, and he had a sharp sense of humor. But those graces didn’t save much. He was really an unpleasant thug. Yet he is worshiped as a hero. And if he is worshiped, well then, perhaps apotheosis is the right word after all.

Tyrone Power as Hollywood Jesse in 1939

 

 

Monday, April 18, 2016

The Lawless Frontier (Lone Star, 1934)


Excellent stuff




 
 
Issued within weeks of The Lucky Texan, with much the same crew and cast, and, to be frank, pretty well the same plot, The Lawless Frontier was another in that fun series of sixteen one-hour oaters that John Wayne made in the eighteen months or so between the end of 1933 and early 1935. These movies were produced by Paul Malvern’s Lone Star company and released by Monogram Pictures, before it got delusions of grandeur and became Allied Artists and aspired to color A-movies. Poverty Row residents Lone Star and Monogram were a far cry from Fox’s mega-budget Raoul Walsh-directed The Big Trail of 1930 that Wayne had starred in, but at least he was working. And he was learning his craft, too.
 
It's got vim and zip
 
They were mostly directed by B-Westernmeister RN Bradbury and although some were written by Duke’s drinking buddy Lindsley Parsons, many, including The Lucky Texan and The Lawless Frontier, were penned by Robert Bradbury himself. He was pretty well on auto-pilot when he did them; formulaic is hardly the word. But they are energetic and fun, and still worth a watch today – at least to see them once.
 
Afficher l'image d'origine
Director Robert Bradbury (right) with his son Bob Steele
 
The Lawless Frontier benefits from my hero Earl Dwire, who from certain camera angles bears more than a passing resemblance to Adolf Hitler, hamming it up wildly with a lousy ‘Mexican’ accent as bandit chief Pandro Zanti (they all pronounce him Zanny). Complete with bandolero and sombrero, Zanti despicably marauds the neighborhood, leers lasciviously at the leading lady, and even shoots John Wayne’s dad in the back. We wouldn’t want any anti-Mexican sentiment, though, so we are told (twice) that Zanti is only posing as a Mexican (“he speaks the language fluently”); in reality he is a white-Apache “half-breed”, so it’s perfectly OK that he would be a lowlife, obviously.
 
Gabby rides with Earl Dwire, who is villain Pandro Zanti this time
 
Earl was usually the rather ineffectual sheriff in town, who only takes the baddies into custody at the end once our hero has bested them, but this time he had been promoted to principal villain (it happened occasionally) and it’s Jack Rockwell (nearly always a lawman) who wears the star as incompetent and crooked Sheriff Williams.

Zanti’s right-hand henchman is naturally Yakima Canutt, as Joe again. Wayne’s pal Yak was of course in charge of the stunts, doing many himself, but he often moonlighted as henchman too. It must be said that as an actor, he made a good stuntman. But then none of the cast was really going to pose a serious challenge to Laurence Olivier. Wayne himself was about the best: he was gradually improving.

Buffalo Bill Jr. (Jay Wilsey) is a second henchman (well, we’ve all got to start somewhere). He was in quite a few of these Wayne Westerns.

Gabby Hayes is there, of course, billed as George and with his beard at last properly in place. He is a failed miner whose claim is plumb played out. Zanti lusts after his granddaughter Ruby (Sheila Terry, who had co-starred with Wayne in an earlier Warners Western, Haunted Gold, and would also feature in another Lone Star outing, ‘Neath Arizona Skies). Gabby always had a winsome granddaughter for Wayne to fall for. Gabby is stabbed in the back in this one, oh no!, but luckily it’s only a flesh wound and he is soon back to his old-timerish chuckling.
 
A fair maid to be wooed and won
 
John, by the way, is John again this time, John Tobin. He was usually John Something. In The Lucky Texan he had broken the mold and been Jerry. I ask you. But his flashy white horse Duke is nowhere to be seen in this picture. What has become of him? John rides a black, though he assures us that it is a thoroughbred.

Much is made in this movie of a secret passage in the miner’s cabin and secret passages did feature quite heavily in these pictures.

Zanti’s gang number the right and proper seven. Zanti is finally done for when he drinks from a poisoned water hole, the fool, and serves him right too. Well, he was only an Apache half-breed.

There are some unpleasant stunts, including a brutal horse fall and one of a poor nag ridden off a bluff and into a river. But there’s a good bit where John ties a string to his pistol’s trigger in a canyon and manages both to shoot at the badmen and chase their leader at the same time. Best of all, of course, there’s the sluice-run stunt, also used in The Lucky Texan (they weren’t going to waste a good idea) when John uses an old board to surf down a chute at high speed and overtake the villain.
 
DP Archie Stout goes for an artistic shot
 
There are the usual horse chases and fisticuffs, John employing that robust roundhouse punch he had. There’s dynamite too. Oh yes, it’s all go.

Of course it finishes with wedded bliss for John and Ruby, and John is now the new sheriff.

Excellent stuff.
 

Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Lucky Texan (Lone Star, 1934)


Those Lone Star Westerns




 
 
I do admit to having a soft spot for the sixteen Lone Star Westerns John Wayne did over eighteen months from late 1933 to early 1935. We’ve reviewed quite a few of them already. Yesterday I re-watched one of my favorites of the series, The Lucky Texan. It’s not a favorite because it’s in any way unusual or original (perish the thought) but just because it’s brim-full of energy and fun.
 
A whole lot of fun
 
We start with the good old Lone Star logo to high-speed tiddly-dee music, the credits tell us that RN Bradbury directed and wrote, and Archie Stout was behind the camera, so all’s well with the world, and straight way there’s John meeting up with Gabby Hayes (beardless in those days and billed as George). The pair immediately sit down and explain the plot to each other. They needn’t have bothered because the plot is always the same. John (actually he’s Jerry this time, so that’s new) has been away but is back to live with Gabby on the ranch, as his daddy wanted. But rustlers have taken all the cattle (there will certainly be a baddy in a suit in town who is responsible, you wait) and so the two pals set up as blacksmiths (now that’s new).
 
Gabby wasn't yet 50 but still did the old-timer parts
 
The good fortune of the titular Texan shows itself when Jerry is being nice to a dog (a sure sign of goodiness) and this dog, Friday, is in fact rather splendid. Later in the movie this mutt will show himself to have positively Lassielike abilities, and save Gabby’s hide. Anyway, in the first reel Friday digs up from the dust of the forge floor a gold nugget that has dropped from the hoof of a horse Jerry had been shoeing. And they find the seam it came from in a nearby creek. They are rich!

They decide not to stake the claim, though, which you might think imprudent but you see they don’t want anyone else to know where the bonanza has been found. So the story is all set up for skullduggery. Surely there will be a pencil-mustached besuited villain in town, Lloyd Whitlock most likely, probably with Yakima Canutt as henchman, who will seek to do the dirty on the pals? Yup. There is. There always was. The evil Harris (Whitlock) is the local assayer, very well placed to defraud prospectors out of their claims. He also reveals to sidekick Yak that he was the one who rustled all Gabby’s cattle on the ranch. He wants that ranch as well as the gold, and sneakily gets Gabby to sign it over. What a skunk.
 
Just a minute, mister...
 
Wait! I hear you cry. Where is the girl? Surely Gabby will have a winsome granddaughter who will come to live with her grandad and fall for John? Yup. It’s Betty (Barbara Sheldon, who only did four films and only one of them a Western) and she duly turns up in her 1930s dress and is duly smitten. Well, John was jolly handsome, so you can’t wonder.
 
It ends in wedded bliss
 
There’ll be a sheriff, Earl Dwire most probably, and he’ll be ineffectual until John and Gabby foil the plot. Then he’ll take the badmen into custody. In this one Sheriff Earl has a ne’er-do-well gambling son, Al, who shoots the bank manager (not a great crime, you may opine, shooting a bank manager, but it is frowned upon in this town) and this son (Eddie Parker) takes Gabby’s money and starts spreading it all over town, doh. So we get a sub-plot of villainy, two for the price of one.
 
The usual suspects: Earl Dwire as sheriff, John Wayne as the hero, Yakima Canutt as henchman and Lloyd Whitlock as principal villain
 
Well, there are all the horse chases you could want and several bouts of fisticuffs in which Wayne can use that splendid roundhouse punch he had. There wasn’t much room for actual acting in these Lone Star movies (luckily); they really depended on action. And we get plenty. In this one the crooks, unmasked, try to get away on a motorized railroad buggy and are pursued by Duke on Duke and Gabby in an automobile. There’s some high-class stunt work (by Yak, of course, so Yak is chasing Yak) as the buggy and the car cross and nearly hit each other. There’s also a good bit with Canutt and a recalcitrant mule (you can hear the crew laughing). The best bit, though, is when Wayne rides a wooden pole at high speed through a sluice run to overtake the fleeing Al. Not ones to pass up using a good idea, they did it again in The Lawless Frontier the same year.

In the climactic trial scene Gabby appears in drag (his old Charley’s Aunt costume from his previous career on the boards) and much hilarity is the result. He even shows a rather daring amount of leg.

Friday was the best actor though.