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

Friday, April 24, 2015

Cat Ballou (Columbia, 1965)


Hanging day in Wolf City, Wyoming




 
 
Comedy Westerns can be unfunny parodies (and to the serious Westernista, faintly sacrilegious) or affectionate, smiling tributes. You can probably think of examples of both. In the latter category I would place the Buster Keaton Go West, the 1939 Destry, the Bob Hope Paleface pictures, The Sheepman and, of course, Blazing Saddles. Among others. I love these films and will watch them any time they come on. Cat Ballou just about makes it into the list of affectionate tributes. It’s not a mocking effort and it laughs with rather than at the genre. It’s not the most hilarious film, though, and for me anyway doesn’t come in the must-watch department when it appears in the TV schedules. Still, it has quite a lot going for it.

Derringers for one thing. You know how I like the villainous little guns. Usually they appear in the hands of saloon gals, gamblers or besuited crooks. But in Cat Ballou semi-goody Jed (Dwayne Hickman), dressed as a priest to rescue his pardner from the clutches of Sheriff Bruce Cabot, conceals a derringer in a bible. In a bible! Boy, is that sneaky. Dean Martin copied that idea in 5 Card Stud three years later. So that was a great bit in Cat Ballou. Better still, Cat Ballou is a two-derringer movie (a rare bird indeed) because later on Cat shoots Sir Harry (Reginald Denny) with one (no more than he deserved), and that’s what leads her to the gallows in Wolf City, WY in 1894.
 

 
A two-derringer Western

That’s where the story is set, and it’s the time of the Hole in the Wall Gang, though their glory hath departed and Butch Cassidy is played by Arthur Hunnicutt, 55 but doing his old-timer routine. Actually, Butch (Robert Leroy Parker) didn’t start his depredations or recruit the Sundance Kid until 1896, when he was 30, but we won’t worry about that too much.
 
Paul Newman seems to have aged a bit
 
In fact the cast of Cat Ballou is pretty good. It is true that the good-badmen heroes, Michael Callan as Clay and Dwayne Hickman as Jed, were not top-line Western stars, though Mr. Callan was in They Came to Cordura and The Magnificent Seven Ride! and Mr. Hickman was in several TV Westerns, but other members of the cast were a delight to watch. Jane Fonda is a rather charming Cat. Arthur as Butch Cassidy has to be worth seeing and there’s Jay C Flippen as the corrupt sheriff complementing the great Bruce Cabot as lawman. Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye provide an entertaining Greek chorus with banjos (which they strum very unconvincingly to the soundtrack, sometimes not even bothering). Above all we have Lee Marvin as both the drunken gunslinger Kid Shelleen and the evil noseless assassin Tim Strawn.
 
Lawman Cabot
 
Lawman Flippen
 
Marvin was in 20 Western movies (if you regard The Missouri Traveler, Pocket Money, Raintree County and Bad Day at Black Rock as Westerns) and one or two of his appearances were perhaps less than epic but his Liberty Valance, his Monte Walsh, his Masters in Seven Men From Now and his part as the leader Fardan in The Professionals make him a leading Western star. He had the right level of grit and toughness and he always lifted even an indifferent movie. Four years after Cat Ballou he starred in another famous box-office hit comedy Western, Paint Your Wagon. Luckily, in Cat Ballou he does not break into song. He certainly hams it up as the drunk Shelleen but he is splendidly menacing as Strawn. And the part where he cleans up, and his squire, the Sioux Jackson Two Bears (Tom Nardini), dresses him in his gunslinger armor like some medieval knight, is memorable. The idea of the broken-down gunfighter getting back into shape is of course a familiar trope, and the getting the old guns and clothes out of a drawer or trunk is instantly recognizable to us. Marvin won an Oscar for his part(s).
 
Marvin fine
 
Yakima Canutt was the 2nd Unit director too, so the stunts are good.

The movie was directed by Elliott Silverstein, not perhaps in the front rank of Western directors but he had done some TV shows and in 1970 he was to direct A Man Called Horse. The story came from a Roy Chanslor novel (as did Johnny Guitar) and was written up into a screenplay by Walter Newman, who worked with Nunnally Johnson on The True Story of Jesse James and also contributed (uncredited) to The Magnificent Seven, and hugely experienced Frank Pierson, who did loads of Have Gun – Will Travel episodes. Some of the lines are amusing and the story nips right along so no complaints there.
 
Jane charming as Cat
 
The DP was Jack Marta (Dark Command) and there are some nice locations with Buckskin Joe, Colorado standing in for Wyoming.

The Frank De Vol music sticks in your memory too.

And who will ever forget the cross-legged horse?

Great shot

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Fighting Kentuckian (Republic, 1949)










Only just a Western but still quite fun




 
 
The late 1940s were a golden age for John Wayne. The endless Poverty Row B movie programmers of the 30s were a thing of the past and he now starred in some big pictures for Republic, RKO and even, in the case of 3 Godfathers, MGM. The pleasant Angel and the Badman of 1947 was followed by mighty examples of the genre, notably the Howard Hawks-directed Red River, which screened in 1948, and, from 1948 to 50, the great cavalry trilogy of John Ford, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande. Still, Duke found time to produce his own film for Republic (the titles proudly say A JOHN WAYNE PRODUCTION) which appeared between Fort Apache and Yellow Ribbon, The Fighting Kentuckian.
 
Hardly a Western at all, but entertaining
 
Now The Fighting Kentuckian is only barely a Western at all, as The New York Times commented, being more of an historical romance. Set in 1819, it has backwoodsmen with single-shot muskets and coonskin caps, and gentlemen with top hats and cutaway coats. Still, if you are not a purist in your definitions you will let this movie pass as a Western because it has Western themes and tropes, and well, it smacks of one.

It is no Red River or Fort Apache, let’s be clear on that at the outset. It’s a pleasant enough excursion into Alabama, rather slow to begin with but picking up the pace to quite an exciting climax, with some weak acting, notably from Vera Ralston as the heroine and good old Hank Worden (hardly at the top of his game: he dutifully announces the lines he has learned - luckily it’s a small part) but also with some quite good playing, especially from Wayne and, as his obese sidekick, Oliver Hardy, sans Laurel.
 
Oliver Hardy is the comic sidekick
 
It was directed by George Waggner, the 77 Sunset Strip fellow (how I loved that series as a boy). But Waggers had been involved in Westerns (as actor, writer or director) since the Stone Age – well, 1922. The Fighting Kentuckian was probably his biggest Western, maybe his biggest film, though he also directed Randolph Scott in Gunfighters in 1947. He could handle action, and while the screenplay saddled him with sluggish plot development in the first reel and too little action (that was his own fault as he wrote it), once the pace picked up he showed he knew how to do it alright.
 
George Waggner
 
Despite the unusual historical context, the plot is in fact standard Western fare. Congress has granted some Napoleonic exiles land in Alabama, and they have founded Demopolis. This means that the actors speak English wiz a Franche accent, at which Ms. Ralston is not too good, but never mind. Actually, Hugo Haas as the French general (and father of the girl) and Philip Dom as his right hand man Colonel Geraud (well, he would have been a right hand man had he not lost his arm in ze war) are rather good, and they manage quite a moving portrayal of defeated soldiers trying to hold on to their pride and start a new life in a weird world populated by the likes of John Wayne and Ollie Hardy in buckskins. So far, so quite unusual.
 
Duke doing his Davy Crockett/Dan'l Boone act
 
But in fact it turns out that a slimy boss of the town (in a mustache, natch) wants the land which Congress has granted the exiles for himself, and he and his henchmen (one of whom is Wayne’s pal, the excellent Paul Fix) are prepared to stoop to unscrupulosity to get it. The hero will thwart their evil schemes.

OK, I know unscrupulosity isn’t a word but I like it, so it so it is now.
 
Paul Fix henching away
 
This plot has of course adorned almost every Western there ever was.

Although there are no sparks at all between Wayne and Ralston (in fact he appears more attracted to the naughty saloon gal Marie Windsor), there is an evident chemistry between Duke and Ollie. Mr. Hardy even manages to mount a horse at one point, though he is usually seated on a log and blowing on a bugle, or waddling about in that hammy way he had. Still, though, he shows an unexpected talent for the thespian arts, even if his role is hardly Shakespearean, or if it is, it is more in the Macbeth porter class than Falstaff. Vera Ralston appears to have been warned against woodenness and overcompensates by overacting. She was actually in eleven Westerns, amazingly, but the fact that her husband was the studio boss may have had something to do with that.
 
Vera Ralston
 
There’s a good high-speed wagon chase and an actionful climax, with the brave Kentuckians (they are Andy Jackson veterans) coming to the rescue of the brave Frenchies and beating the dastardly land-grabbers. Wayne marries Vera and they go off on their honeymoon. Duke asks rather hopefully if Ollie can come along but is given a firm no.

Not perhaps Duke's finest hour but perfectly watchable

Friday, April 17, 2015

The Treasure of Pancho Villa (RKO, 1955)


A gringo adventurer in the Mexican revolution? Where I have seen that before?

 

 

 

 
I admit to having a soft spot for Westerns set in revolutionary Mexico, especially if there’s a connection to Pancho Villa: Viva Villa! and Viva Zapata! (they usually had exclamation points in their titles and in fact the 1958 Brian Keith/Cesar Romero effort had two, Villa!!) There was Pancho Villa (a 1972 Telly Savalas clunker, the worst of them), and there was And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself, a very good 2004 HBO drama. If you like that kind of thing, there was A Bullet or the General, the only spaghetti ever made that is watchable. The Wild Bunch got involved, didn't they. Of course Robert Mitchum was constantly down there as a gringo in the revolution; he was rarely out of The Wonderful Country. Van Heflin went south of the border too, in Wings of the Hawk. I liked James Carlos Blake’s novel The Friends of Pancho Villa. There’s plenty of fodder for pro-Mexican Westernistas.

Of course purists don’t consider these stories Westerns at all, being set in Mexico as they are and in the twentieth century. But for me they are Westerns alright, no doubt about it.

Well, Rory Calhoun was the gringo in old Mehico in 1955. And a mid-50s RKO color Western with Rory, directed by good old George Sherman and with Gilbert Roland and Joseph Calleia in the cast, hell, what’s not to like?


I don't know about history... Hollywood history maybe.


It’s 1915 (as is right and proper for these tales) and two adventurers out for gold, one a Mexican colonel (Gilbert, of course) and one a Yankee gringo (Rory, naturally), are after gold bullion destined for Pancho Villa to fund his revoluciόn. Yup, they want it for themselves. 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 mercenary Tom Bryan but of course he is secretly a goody, deep down.

 
I was never a Rory Calhoun fan as a Western-obsessed boy in the 50s but in my dotage I have come round to thinking he was pretty damn good in the saddle. He’d started by co-starring with Guy Madison in Massacre River in 1949 and got his first Western lead (if Western it was) in the Jacques Tourneur-directed Way of a Gaucho in 1954. The following year he famously starred with Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe in River of No Return. Pancho Villa was his thirteenth big-screen Western and I think he’s rather good in it.


Rory has firepower


There has to be love interest, of course, and Shelley Winters is the pro-revolutionary daughter of a mine owner. She kinda fancies Rory but is put off by his lack of crusading zeal. Ms. Winters was never, I thought, that good in Westerns. It would be ungallant of me to suggest that she had a weight problem and indeed, in this one, her girth is still relatively modest. It wasn’t that. She just never seemed right, somehow. She was better as a gangster’s moll or something. She had started her prairie career in a very small part as an uncredited dance hall girl in Red River in 1948 but came to fame, as far as oaters are concerned, as the luscious Lola for James Stewart to woo in Winchester ’73 in 1950. She was the eponymous Frenchie in Universal’s Destry remake the same year, then starred with Joseph Cotten (they were both unsuited to the genre) in Untamed Frontier in ’52 and she romanced Mountie Alan Ladd in the Raoul Walsh-directed Saskatchewan in ’54. Pancho Villa was her sixth, and last oater until a late ‘comedy’ Western, The Scalphunters in 1968 with Burt Lancaster and Telly Savalas. To be brutally frank, it was a less than glorious Western career.

 
Shelley not quite right in Westerns


You have to love Gilbert Roland (Luis Antonio Damaso de Alonso), born in Mexico in 1905. He combined Latin-lover flair and Western swagger (and a caddish mustache) with - there’s only one word for it - aplomb. He was a natural for Westerns, even before The Cisco Kid, especially if a Mexican were needed, and he had starred in them since Men of the North in 1930. He was a Mex Colonel to a Hollywood gringo again in Bandido! the year after Pancho Villa, so the formula obviously worked. In ’56 the gringo was of course Bob Mitchum, as per usual. Anyway, I always like Gilbert. I mean just look at this photo. Is that cool or what?

 
Dashing Gilbert Roland


Joseph Calleia was another of Hollywood’s tame Mexicans. I think he was never less than excellent. I first came across him in the delightful 1948 Joel McCrea outing Four Faces West (an outstanding Western) but he was in a lot. He had actually started on the writing team of the 1936 Joaquin Murrieta tale Robin Hood of El Dorado and he had first appeared as an actor in an oater in The Bad Man of Brimstone in 1937. Wallace Beery was the badman in question, and Calleia appeared with Beery again in Wyoming in 1940. That year too he was the best thing about the WC Fields/Mae West romp My Little Chickadee where he played Jeff Baxter, the saloon owner and town boss, who is also the Zorroesque “Masked Bandit”. He had parts in two Alan Ladd Westerns, Branded and The Iron Mistress, and Pancho Villa, where he is Pablo Morales and, it turns out, rather a stinker, was his ninth horse opera. Watch out for him; he always lifted a movie.


The excellent Joseph Calleia


I also spotted Jorge Martinez de Hoyos, Hilario from The Magnificent Seven.

 
So much for the cast. As to the direction, well, George Sherman (1908 – 1991) was a more than reliable helmsman of oaters. He did a lot of those Three Mesquiteers pictures in the 1930s and Wayne remembered him on big later Batjac Westerns, though by then Sherman was really only director in name, Duke himself having to do most of the work on Big Jake. But pint-sized Sherman (he barely reached five foot) was involved in 158 Westerns altogether, from 1935 to 1971, nearly all Bs. He was a real pro, and knew exactly what was needed and how to do it.


George Sherman knew his Westerns


The writing on The Treasure of Pancho Villa was, on paper, surprisingly classy. A story by Mexico-born J Robert Bren and Gladys Atwater, a husband-and-wife team who had collaborated on El Paso, The Great Sioux Uprising and Siege at Red River, among others, was worked up into a screenplay by novelist Niven Busch, no less, writer of Duel in the Sun for King Vidor, The Westerner for William Wyler and The Furies for Anthony Mann, who had also worked on The Man from the Alamo, Distant Drums, and, my favorite, the Raoul Walsh-directed 1947 noir Pursued. I mean, respect.
 
 
Niven Busch

 
Given all these top-notch hired pens, the screenplay of Pancho Villa was in fact surprisingly clunky and pedestrian. But never mind.


Rory and Gilbert, after the gold. Dig the boots.


Morelos locations were used and the DP was William E Snyder of The Man from Colorado and The Americano fame so the picture is visually attractive.

 
Rory has a machine gun. It’s first seen in a ‘cello case, and perhaps that’s where spaghettis got their obsession with machine guns in music cases (and later, coffins). The pursuing Federales have Yaqui scouts and trackers. Rory’s costume makes no allowances for 1915 Mexico but is his classic rig from dozens of B Westerns set in the 1870s.

 
OK, OK, I know, it’s just a 50s B Western. But I like it.

 

 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Desperados (Columbia, 1969)


Junk




 
 
Columbia’s late-60s The Desperados, not to be confused with their 1943 Randolph Scott/Claire Trevor oater The Desperadoes, is pretty trashy. Where the 1940s picture was energetic and fun, the 60s one is a spaghetti-influenced nonentity. In 1943 there was a Max Brand story, directing by Charles Vidor and supporting the principals in the cast were Glenn Ford, Edgar Buchanan and Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams. In the 1969 movie there were only Dr. Ben Casey (Vince Edwards) and Londoner Sylvia Syms. Neville Brand as the marshal and Jack Palance as the guerrilla leader couldn’t do anything to save it: they both act badly and they both have dreadful lines The director was rom-com specialist Henry Levin (though to be fair Levin did make The Lonely Man with Palance in ’57). The screenplay was by Walter Brough and it was his only Western movie; you can see why.
 
OK if you like crap
 
It’s the Civil War or just after. Parson Josiah Galt (Palance) in a Confederate uniform rides on St. Thomas, in a mountainous Kansas (it’s actually Almeria) and lays waste to it using his 1870s Colts. Brave son Davy, in stick-on Elvis sideburns, doesn’t approve of pillaging. He retires to a ranch in Texas, Spain with a wife (Syms) and son (la Syms’s real son) and tries to lead a decent life. But there’s a guerrilla raid on his town which makes Northfield look like a church social. Many stuntmen fall from roofs. Davy’s past has come back to haunt him, you know how it does.
 
I would call it a sub-spaghetti but how can anything be worse than a spaghetti?
 
Palance overacts, as he was wont to do, especially in his later career, and Edwards and Sims weren’t exactly Oscar contenders either. Palance looks about the same age as his son. Very overweight Neville Brand says his (clunky) lines dutifully but really… George Maharis from Route 66 is another Galt son. There’s a train and an inappropriate helicopter shot. There’s a stupid echo. At the end the protagonists fall to their death and really, it’s just as well.
 
Neville Brand. Not his finest hour.
 
The print is poor, and the horses are often blue. There are fades-to-black which speak of a TV provenance. It was an American-British co-production, which is why unsuitable Brit actors are in it. I urge you, dear e-readers, to give this one a miss.

Can't you look a little more crazed, Jack?

 

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Last Command (Republic, 1955)


Remember this Alamo





 
 
The Last Command, no relation to Josef von Sternberg’s 1928 Russian Revolution silent movie, was Republic’s mid-1950s take on the Alamo. On one level it’s just another lesser-studio B Western with Sterling Hayden in the lead but on another it’s rather more than that, and a milestone on the road that told the Alamo tale.

If roads can tell tales. I guess they can.
 
By no means the worst version
 
And as soon as we see the titles we guess that we might be in for something better than a run-of-the-mill B movie. The cast for one thing: Arthur Hunnicutt as Davy Crockett, J Carrol Naish as Santa Ana, Ernest Borgnine, John Russell, Slim Pickens and Jim Davis among the defenders, and Russell Simpson as a parson (obviously). Then we have music by Max Steiner. It was shot in Republic’s Trucolor. Direction is by Frank Lloyd, unstellar perhaps but more than competent; he had started directing those silent Zane Grey Westerns with William Farnum for Fox, including the 1918 Riders of the Purple Sage, and in 1937 he made Wells Fargo with Joel McCrea for Paramount. The Last Command was his last command too, his last Western and indeed last movie. Cast, production and direction (though not really the script) all add up to something a cut above the ordinary.
 
Sterling Hayden as Bowie
 
Arthur Hunnicutt as Crockett
 
Richard Carslson as Travis
 
Of course Hollywood liked the Alamo. One thinks in particular of John Wayne’s rather ponderous 1960 version but film tellings went right back to DW Griffith and Christy Cabanne’s silent movie of 1915, Martyrs of the Alamo. Glenn Ford had also been The Man from the Alamo in 1953. So one way or another there had been quite a few celluloid Jim Bowies, Davy Crocketts and William B Travises. This one can hold its head up alright. In fact, Wayne had been on at Republic for years to make a big-budget Alamo picture, but when they put together this rather modest offering Wayne turned down the low-level role proposed, and Republic went ahead anyway (to spite him?) It ended Duke’s relationship with Republic. He sank his own money into the huge, lumbering 1960 version which sadly got pretty bad reviews and was indeed too long and too slow. Lloyd was a better director than Wayne.
 
Brave defenders
 
A voiceover intro gives the picture a historical feel (not that actual History ever really troubled Hollywood Alamos much). Sterling Hayden as Jim Bowie arrives early and dominates the picture. He is the undoubted hero of the Alamo and Travis, Crockett & Co. slightly fade into the background when he is around. Quite a bit of the backstory is filled in, with Governor Juan Bradburn (Morris Ankrum) getting Travis released. Jim is at first cautious about independence but he gives it to Santa Ana straight and Santa Ana replies, “I do not wish to be a dictator.” Sam Houston (Hugh Sanders) and Stephen F Austin (Otto Kruger) make appearances – Jim duly gets Austin released from prison, where incarceration has turned him into a fighter for independence.
 
He says he does not wish to be a dictator, but...
 
Well, you know how it all pans out. No need to retell the story here. Suffice to say there are loads of noble heroics as the brave defenders battle it out in the old mission. The Warren Duff screenplay from a Sy Bartlett story does rather ride roughshod over such details as historical fact, but since when did we watch Western movies for a history lesson? The final battle scene is well done. Most Alamo stories suffer dramatically from too long a lead-up to an outcome we already know, but then I guess you could say that of Hamlet
 
Ernest is a Texas landowner...
 
...and Russell is a parson, naturally
 
Hayden does a good job (as always) as the down-to-earth Bowie. Ernie Borgnine is also enjoyable as Mike Radin, a stocky landowner who gets into a knife fight with Jim but then they fight side by side. There’s a sole survivor to tell the story for posterity, the youth Jeb (Ben Cooper), who is sent from the Alamo rather like Glenn Ford in ’53.

Give it a go!

To the death

Friday, April 10, 2015

Hellgate (Lippert, 1952)


Black & white B movie with some quality




 
 
Not so much a Western as a nineteenth century prison drama, Hellgate tells the story of Gilman S Hanley (Sterling Hayden), a Civil War veteran and veterinarian, who, after medically aiding an outlaw, is unjustly incarcerated in the fearsome Hellgate, a federal prison in New Mexico.

The desert prison camp is ruled over by a tyrant, Lt. Voorhees (Ward Bond) and Sgt. Robert J Wilke (as Robert Wilkie) also has it in for Hanley, so the place is a torture. There are Pima Indians who track escapees and get $50 for every dead one they bring back. Recalcitrant prisoners are put in a bake oven. It’s not a nice place.
 
Commandant Bond, Sgt. Wilke and the Pimas
 
In Hanley’s cell are Jumper (Peter Coe), Boyd (John Pickard), Nye (Dick Paxton), the dying Mott (Richard Emory), to whom Hanley ministers, using his veterinary skills, an Indian called Hunchy (Pat Coleman) and an especially unpleasant piece of work, the treacherous and unscrupulous Redfield (James Arness).
 
Nasty piece of work Arness
 
Four – Hanley, Redfield, Hunchy and Boyd - manage to escape but run into a sandstorm in the desert and are caught by the Pimas. Redfield gets an arrow through the throat and the Pimas also kill Hunchy and Boyd, but Hanley is taken back to Hellgate, and the bake oven.
 
Hayden, always good, even in Z movies
 
Typhus breaks out and there is no water. Hanley will ride to the nearest town for water to alleviate the suffering. But once given this chance of freedom, will he come back? Ah, that is the question.

It’s a gritty, tough tale, written and directed by Charles Marquis Warren (with Andrew McLaglen as assistant). Warren was a successful Western writer for the pulp magazines and got involved in Western movies, especially after the Second World War. He started on the screenplay of Streets of Laredo, then Only the Valiant, and his first directorial Western was also for Lippert, the rather good Little Big Horn in 1951, Hellgate being his second. Unfortunately, he made as his third film one of the nastiest and most racist Westerns ever, Arrowhead. Later, he became a leading light in the creation of classic Western TV shows, Gunsmoke, Rawhide and The Virginian.

Charles Marquis Warren
 
Hayden, though he hated these B Westerns, was excellent in them and really suited the hard-as-nails character he played. Ward Bond was reliably good, even if his change from sadistic commandant to champion of Hanley comes across as rather improbable.

At 87 minutes of black & white and a low budget, this movie is definitely in the B category but it will repay a watch. It is sometimes said to be a remake of John Ford’s The Prisoner of Shark Island, but that’s a stretch.  It has a sort of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang vibe about it though.

Some good b&w photography, DP Ernest Miller

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Gunplay (RKO, 1951)


Tim and Chito ride again
 
 
 
 
 
 
By the early 1950s Tim Holt was very well established as a RKO Western star. He appeared in Westerns for the studio first in 1938 and made 46 in all, all through the 1940s. They were formulaic, not to say repetitive, but they were energetic and fun. Try, for example, Along the Rio Grande. Many were directed by Lesley Selander, a competent oater hand, and he helmed Gunplay in 1951.
 
Tim Holt (1919 - 73)
 
Holt’s winsome smile won many hearts. His career reached a peak in 1948 when he revealed unexpected acting talent as Curtin in the great The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and in that (golden) year he also co-starred with his famous father Jack in The Arizona Ranger. By the 1950s, however, predictable and conventional one-hour black & white second-feature Westerns were beginning to lose their charm, boyish Tim was into his thirties and 1952 saw the end of the series. Desert Passage was Holt’s last Western, if you exclude a couple of appearances on The Virginian on TV in the early 60s. Gunplay, therefore, is rather at the tail end of the story.
 
One of Tim's six Westerns of '51
 
Still, it has something going for it, if you like black & white programmer Westerns. Selander was competent as ever in the director’s chair, Paul Sawtell did the chirpy music, and Robert J Wilke is a henchman. Chito Rafferty is back as sidekick, eying up the ladies (though when one rather feisty example proposes to him he runs a mile). It’s a bog-standard plot of a town owned by a bad man in a suit and with a mustache (Mauritz Hugo, 101 mostly TV Westerns but I remember him as Ely Harrison in Alvarez Kelly). Decent Tim Holt (Tim Holt) and English-mangling Chito (Richard Martin again) take a poor orphan boy (Harper Carter) under their wing and work out that the boy’s dad has been murdered by Bob Wilke on the orders of the evil Mauritz.

One good thing about the movie is that the female is unusually strong and sympathetic. Joan Dixon, who was in five Tim Holt Westerns, plays Terry, pistol-packin’ rancher with plenty of zip. As was often the case in these Holt Westerns, there is no hint of romance. Chito may play the gallant but Tim hardly even seems to notice her.
 
Chito charms Terry but is shocked when she proposes
 
Naturally the bad guys are thwarted (Bob turns on Mauritz and is gunned down by his erstwhile boss), the boy is packed off to boarding school and Tim & Chito ride off to the next adventure. All’s well that ends well. Except for the poor kid maybe.