THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

Sunday, January 15, 2017

GABBY HAYES, Part I: B-western sidekick

"Ya dur-r-r-n tootin, ya flea-bitten varmint"

He was born George Francis Hayes (1885-1969) in the little town of Stannards, near Wellsville, New York. In fact, the third of seven children was born in a hotel, the Hayes Hotel, which was owned by his father.  In 1902, at the age of seventeen, he ran away from home and joined a touring acting company. In 1914 he married Olive Ireland and the couple toured as a song and dance team on the vaudeville circuit.

In the late '20s the couple moved to California where Hayes hooked up with a film producer named Trem Carr, one of the co-founders of Monogram Pictures, which led to steady employment as an onscreen character actor.  Since Monogram specialized in B-westerns, Hayes, despite his eastern background, found himself acting primarily in films starring a number of cowboy stars, but especially Bob Steele and John Wayne.  Already in his forties, one of the first things he had to learn was how to ride a horse.  Over the years, to his credit, he became a competent horseman. 

In these films he was usually cast as a sympathetic character and despite being only in his forties, he often portrayed old-timers who befriended the hero.  In these roles he was given colorful names such as Walrus, Squint, Slack, Altooney, Shamrock, Stingaree and -- well, you get the idea.  But he wasn't always a good guy.  

In RIDERS OF THE DESERT (World Wide, 1932) he is Hashknife Brooks, the leader of a notorious outlaw gang.  In the final reel he and Bob Steele engage in fisticuffs, with Hayes being shot and killed by Steele's sidekick, portrayed by Al St. John, who would later become a prolific sidekick, particularly in series starring Buster Crabbe and Lash LaRue.

He was a ubiquitous presence in the cast of the John Wayne Lone Star/Monogram westerns that were made in 1934-35 under the supervision of Carr and Paul Malvern.  In these films he continued to sharpen and refine the old-timer comedic character that would later make him famous -- but, again, not always.         

(L-R) Three future legends: John Wayne, George Hayes, and Yakima Canutt in RANDY RIDES ALONE

In RANDY RIDES ALONE (Lone Star/Monogram, 1934), Hayes is Matt the Mute, a businessman who communicates by writing out his comments. Secretly, however, he is Marvin Black, who always dresses in black and is the leader of an outlaw gang.  Yakima Canutt, stunt man extraordinaire, is Black's chief henchman, Spike.

In the very next entry, THE STAR PACKER (Lone Star/Monogram, 1934), to the public he is prominent citizen Matt Matlock, but behind the scenes he is a mysterious outlaw known as "The Shadow."

In 1935, Hayes began a profitable association with producer Harry Sherman. Sherman was in the process of launching an independently produced B-western series that would be financed and distributed by Paramount.  The association with a major studio ensured that the series would be far superior to the output of most of the Poverty Row studios that specialized in the genre.

It was the good fortune of Hayes to be cast as Hopalong Cassidy's (William Boyd) old-timer sidekick, Windy Halliday, in the long-running series.  There were some false starts, however.

Uncle Ben looks a lot like Windy and Gabby.
In the first entry he portrayed Uncle Ben, who, unfortunately, was killed off at the end.  In the second film he is a bartender named Spike who is a less sympathetic character, but who also doesn't live to the end of the film. In the third film, THE BAR 20 RIDES AGAIN (1935), he finally portrays a character named Windy (no last name), who makes it through the entire film and is invited to join the Bar 20 ranch. However, in the next release, CALL OF THE PRAIRIE (1936), he is the same old timer, but one who is known as Shanghai.

Despite being only fifty-years old at the time, from the outset the crotchety old-timer"Windy" (later 'Gabby') characterization appeared full blown.  However, it wasn't a characterization that was created on the run, but one that he introduced and refined in earlier films, especially those starring John Wayne and Bob Steele.

Finally, with THREE ON THE TRAIL (1936), Hayes was cast as Windy Halliday, a continuing role that would consist of seventeen more Hoppy features.  Finally, he had the role that in a sense he had been auditioning for ever since his association with Trem Carr began at the beginning of the sound era.  He was on his way to becoming the definitive B-western sidekick.

The poster is for an obvious re-release of the film since Hayes was not billed as 'Gabby' until after he left the Hoppy series

a rather pensive Gabby
Gabby Hayes was ... the measuring stick by which to judge all of the other cowboy sidekicks.  He was the quintessential sidekick before anyone got around to really understanding what a sidekick's role and function were to be in western films. -- David Rothel, Those Great Cowboy Sidekicks

Due to a contract disagreement with producer Harry Sherman, in 1939 Hayes left the series after appearing in the first twenty-two (eighteen as Windy Halliday) Hoppy films, and rode over to Republic.  It might have been considered a comedown from Paramount except for the fact that Republic Studios was a specialist, one that specialized in B-westerns while consistently producing a superior product.

He would remain there for a decade, eventually surpassing Smiley Burnette as the screen's most popular western sidekick.  Not only that, his popularity even eclipsed most of the six-gun heroes of the day.

Of course it must be said that his popularity was greatly enhanced by the fact that the studio placed Hayes in a co-starring role with a young actor named Roy Rogers who was on his way to becoming the most popular B-western star in the business.  The pairing of the "King of the Cowboys" and the "King of the Sidekicks" was a fortuitous development for star, co-star, and studio.  It created a western movie combo that no other studio could hope to match, much less surpass.

First up was SOUTHWARD HO! (Republic, 1939) in which his character was called Gabby Whitaker, which would become the name of his character in most of the Rogers films. From that day forward George Francis Hayes would be forever known as Gabby Hayes. 

"ya flop-eared jug head mule"
SOUTHWARD HO! finds Roy and Gabby as two Confederate Civil War veterans returning to Texas after the war. Gabby has inherited a half interest in a ranch and that is their destination with the goal of settling down to a peaceful existence.

But in a plot involving carpetbaggers and corrupt military officers, one that has seen much service in westerns, the two are not allowed to settle down. Instead they must rally the local ranchers in order to oppose the corrupt military government that has been established.

Were they successful in their efforts?  Well, of course.  Did Roy and Gabby ever fail?

Gabby giving advice to "young whippersnapper" Little Beaver (Bobby Blake) in a scene from MARSHAL OF RENO, the first Red Ryder feature (starring Wild Bill Elliott)

Bill Elliott is Red Ryder and Bobby Blake is Little Beaver

Gabby co-starred with Roy in forty-one films between 1939 and 1946. However, in 1943 Bill Elliott left Columbia and joined the Republic stable of western stars. In order to help guarantee the success of the Wild Bill Elliott series, the studio decided to give him the best possible comic sidekick. Therefore, Gabby supported Elliott in his eight films in 1943-44.  In 1944, Republic launched a new series about the adventures of the comic book hero, Red Ryder. Elliott was chosen to play the lead, with Bobby Blake as Little Beaver, and Gabby as the comic sidekick.  But after two films Gabby was transferred back to the Roy Rogers series.

It was in that return that Gabby was given his best roles in the series. And he delivered by proving once again that he could not only provide comedy, but that he was also a fine actor.

In DON'T FENCE ME IN (1945) Gabby steals the show by giving a memorable performance as a famous ex-outlaw known as Wildcat Kelly.  The film turned out to be one of the most popular entries in the entire series, partly because of the hit title song, but also as a result of Gabby's strong performance.

In MY PAL TRIGGER (1946), Gabby was afforded the opportunity to do some serious acting when he played the owner of a ranch that raised palomino horses. Yes, he did provide some comic touches, but in other scenes he expressed anger and grief.  It was a touching performance.

Gabby could be very funny, but he was never the buffoon, like Smiley Burnette, for example, who hindered the hero more than he helped him. When the chips were down Gabby could be counted on to help the hero out of a tough spot.       

SUNSET CARSON: "He wasn't just a comedian, but he had the ability to turn in some mighty fine acting when needed. Gabby could make you cry as well as make you laugh." -- quoted by David Rothel, Those Great Cowboy Sidekicks

UTAH (1945)

"durn persnickety female"



In 1946, Gabby parted ways with Republic Pictures.  HELDORADO (1946) turned out to be Gabby's last film with Roy. But Gabby wasn't through acting, no siree, bob.  He went on to co-star with the likes of John Wayne and, especially, Randolph Scott in a number of A-westerns.

But that's another story.  Stay tuned. 

Not --- 

No siree, bob!

Friday, December 2, 2016


There will probably never be another stuntman who can compare to Yakima Canutt.  He had been a world champion cowboy several times and where horses were concerned he could do it all.  He invented all the gadgets that made stunt work easier. One of his clever devices was a step that attached to the saddle so that he had leverage to transfer to another moving object, like a wagon or a train.  Another was the 'shotgun,' a spring-loaded device used to separate the tongue of a running wagon from the horses, thus cutting the horses loose.  It also included a shock cord attached to the wagon bed, which caused wheels to cramp and turn the wagon over on the precise spot that was most advantageous for the camera. -- William Witney, Director

Enos Edward Canutt was born in 1895 on a farm in the Snake River Hills in eastern Washington. He began his rodeo career at age 16 when he won the bronc riding competition in nearby Colfax, Washington.

Although the details differ depending on the source of the story, it is generally conceded that he received his nickname Yakima, Yak for short, during the Pendleton Round-Up in 1914.  

During a decade of competing in the top rodeos of the day, Yak became a champion bronc rider and bulldogger, and on several occasions had the honor of All-Around Cowboy bestowed upon him.

How good was he?  He was the only cowboy to ever ride the legendary bucking bronc, Tipperary.  Not only that, he rode him twice.  And this was after the horse had bucked-off more than eighty riders.  It is only fitting, that both Yak and Tipperary were inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame in 1976.

Like many another cowboy, Yak was lured to Hollywood and in 1923 he signed with independent producer Ben Wilson to star in a series of silent B-Western quickies.

He was not a natural in front of the camera when it came to scenes that called for interaction with other actors, especially when it involved scenes with his leading lady, but when action was called for he was a natural.  

In those early days the stars were called upon to perform at least some of their stunts.  Yak, on the other hand, performed all of his.  As good as he was, he was seriously injured on several occasions during the filming of the series.

But he also began to experiment with new techniques and equipment that made stunting less hazardous.  This would become his major contribution to film production.

The clip below will demonstrate why it was not good business to allow the star of a film to do his own stunts and it may also be the first instance of Yak performing his under the stagecoach stunt.  The clip also contains an interview with an older reminiscing Yak and scenes from his most famous starring role: THE DEVIL HORSE (Roach/Path, 1926).

The end of the silent era and the advent of sound spelled trouble for the cowboy.  His voice sounded, as he admitted, "like a hillbilly in a well." He said that his flat voice which lacked resonance was the result of a bout of flu that he had contracted in 1918 when he was in the navy.  After starring in one independent quickie, CANYON HAWKS (Big 4, 1930), Yak realized that if he was going to have a further career in the movies it was clear that it was not going to be as a western star.

In the five years between 1925 and 1930, fifty-five people were killed making movies, and more than ten thousand injured.  By the late 1930s, the maverick stunt man willing to do anything for a buck was disappearing.  Now under scrutiny, experienced stunt men began to separate themselves from amateurs by building special equipment, rehearsing stunts, and developing new techniques. -- Garrett Soden, Falling: How Our Greatest Fear Became Our Greatest Thrill

In the early '30s Canutt began appearing in supporting roles in westerns starring a young actor by the name of John Wayne.  It was an association that would last four decades and one that would advance the respective careers of both men.  Wayne readily admitted that he admired Canutt because he was the genuine article -- a real cowboy.  In fact, Wayne copied Canutt's rolling walk, his speech pattern, and many of his gestures.

Since Yak was nearly always a villain and found himself in a fistfight with Wayne, he devised a plan to make the fights look more realistic while reducing the landing of accidental punches.  He persuaded directors to place the camera in such a manner that it faced one of the participants thus making it appear that punches were actually landing on the adversary.  It was a method that was soon adopted by other directors and stunt men.

For an example of the brawling techniques of Canutt and Wayne, you can watch the following clip.  It is taken from a colorized version of PARADISE CANYON (Lone Star/Monogram, 1935).

It was also during that time that Yak became a much sought after stunt man in the cliffhanging serials of the day.  He often did double duty by filling a supporting role in the chapter plays.  Republic produced several serials featuring masked heroes such as the Lone Ranger and Zorro.  These were ideal for they made it much easier for Yak to disguise himself as the hero.

In 1939, he doubled Reed Hadley in ZORRO'S FIGHTING LEGION, a serial that many consider to be the most action filled ever filmed.  That reputation is due in no small part to Yak's stunting skills.

Click on the clip below and you will see Yak make Reed Hadley look very good:

However, it was two films in 1939 that catapulted Yak into the big leagues. First up was John Ford's STAGECOACH (UA), in which Yak not only doubled John Wayne, but also doubled Apaches attacking the coach as it raced across the western landscape.    

In the clip below you can view Yak as an Apache biting the dust several times when his horse goes down head over heels.  He is also the Apache who jumps onto the stagecoach's team of horses and is shot by Ringo (John Wayne) causing him to fall between the running horses and eventually passing under the stage.

In addition, when the driver (Andy Devine) is wounded and loses control of the stage's team, Yak doubles Wayne who regains control by leaping from the stage to the back of the horses.  Watch the clip and you will see what I mean.


As a follow-up to STAGECOACH, Yak doubled Clark Gable in GONE WITH THE WIND (Selznick/MGM).  In a famous scene it was he who drove a buggy through a burning Atlanta.

A year later Yak suffered his most serious injury while doubling Gable in BOOM TOWN (MGM) when a horse went over backward and the saddle horn slammed into his stomach.  After undergoing major surgery and a long recovery, Yak returned to work only to break both ankles when a stunt went awry during the filming of a Roy Rogers film, IDAHO (Republic, 1943).

Already forty-four years old at the time of the accident, Yak began to phase out his personal stunt work in favor of stunt coordination and eventually second-unit directing.  Throughout the 40's and 50's he staged stunts in serials and western films.  During the latter decade he also began to coordinate stunts in Hollywood spectaculars, films that required organizing scenes involving large numbers of extras engaging in huge battle scenes.

First up was IVANHOE (MGM, 1952).  Filmed in England, it was Yak's first movie to be produced outside the United States. Even though it was a different experience for him, the producers had nothing but praise for the way that he organized and staged the action.

Then in 1959 came BEN HUR (MGM).  It was this film that cemented Yak's place at the top of any list of legendary stunters and stunt coordinators.  Shot in Rome, the chariot race directed by Yak may very well be not only the most famous action scene ever filmed, but also the finest.  And it was done without any serious injury to either stunt men or horses.  It is a remarkable achievement. 

After BEN-HUR, Yak was hired to stage the action scenes in other Hollywood spectaculars: SPARTACUS (Universal, 1960), EL CID (AA, 1961)THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE (Paramount, 1964), and KHARTOUM (UA, 1966).  

He finally retired in 1976.  He was eighty-years old.

As earlier noted, Yakima Canutt is in the Cowboy Hall of Fame; he also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; and in 1967 he received an honorary Academy Award for his accomplishments as a stunt man and for devising safety techniques and equipment designed to make stunting a less dangerous line of work.  It was only fitting that Charlton Heston made the presentation.  

Yak died in 1986.  He was ninety-years old.

Yak was simply the best that ever was at what he does. -- Charlton Heston

Monday, October 3, 2016


THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES is a sequel to JESSE JAMES (Fox, 1939).  You can read a review of the latter film here.

DIRECTOR: Fritz Lang;  PRODUCER: Darryl F. Zanuck; WRITER: screenplay by Sam Hellman; CINEMATOGRAPHER: George Barnes

CAST: Henry Fonda, Gene Tierney, Jackie Cooper, Henry Hull, John Carradine, J. Edward Bromberg, Donald Meek, Eddie Collins, George Barbier, Russell Hicks, Ernest Whitman, Charles Tannen, Lloyd Corrigan, Victor Killian, George Chandler, Matthew "Stymie" Beard, Milton Kibbee

Well, after all it is a movie; therefore, it is mostly fiction.  Here are the historical facts presented in the movie (this won't take long):

  • There were two outlaw brothers from Missouri named Frank and Jesse James;
  • They led a gang that held up banks and trains;
  • Jesse was assassinated in his living room in St. Joseph, Missouri by gang member Bob Ford, who was assisted by his brother, Charlie;
  • The Ford brothers were tried and convicted of murder, but were pardoned by the governor and received a reward;
  • Frank surrendered, was tried and acquitted.

The rest of the film is pure fiction, a product of the screenwriter and director's imaginations.  Since no one should go to a movie for a history lesson, if done right, the film could still be an enjoyable experience for the viewer.  It is a sequel to the classic JESSE JAMES (Fox, 1939) and although it doesn't measure up to the high standards of that film it is, for the most part, an entertaining film.

Frank (Henry Fonda) has quit the outlaw trail and has settled down to the peaceful pursuits of a farmer somewhere in the Missouri Ozarks.  Only two people know of his whereabouts: an ex-slave named Pinky (Ernest Whitman) and Clem (Jackie Cooper), the young son of a former gang member killed during a hold-up.

Then one day Frank learns that Jesse was shot and killed and that the killer was Bob Ford (John Carradine), who had help from his brother Charlie. Since the Fords were tried and convicted and sentenced to hang, Frank was satisfied that justice was being served.

Bob Ford, the dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard and laid poor Jesse in his grave.

Later Frank reads in the newspaper that the Fords have not only been pardoned by the governor, but that they have received a reward for killing Jesse. This news spurs him to ride off in search of the Fords, who skedaddle farther west, eventually holding up in Denver.

Frank, Clem, and Pinky learn that justice has been denied.
In his quest to track down the Fords, Frank is assisted (hampered) by young and impetuous Clem, who idolizes Frank and has visions of following in the footsteps of both his idol and his late father.

Frank has another problem; he needs money to finance his efforts.  Consequently, he decides to rob the railroad express office since it was the railroad that provided the reward money that was paid to the Fords.  Unfortunately, Clem, who has been trailing Frank, decides to make his presence known to Frank at the time of the robbery. Everything goes haywire at that point and the watchman is accidentally killed and Frank becomes a murder suspect.

In Denver, Frank and Clem concoct a story about Frank's death in Mexico, a story that they pass on to Eleanor Stone (Gene Tierney), a gullible young female reporter working for her father's newspaper.

Gullible, but beautiful
Meanwhile, Frank and Clem are able to locate the Fords, but in a hot pursuit Bob escapes, while Charlie meets his end by falling off a cliff.

Frank makes plans to ride after Bob when Eleanor informs him that back home in Missouri Pinky has been arrested and convicted for the robbery of the railroad freight office and has been sentenced to hang.  Frank rides back to Missouri in order to save Pinky and is arrested and charged with the murder of the watchman.

Major Cobb (Henry Hull)
Frank's friend and advocate, newspaper editor Major Rufus Cobb (Henry Hull), serves as his defense counsel in the subsequent trial.  The major is able to sway the jury by making the railroad a culprit that had a history of taking advantage of small farmers -- the very kind that made up the jury.  It worked.  Just before the jury's verdict was announced, Bob Ford entered the rear of the courtroom, hoping to see the jury hand down a guilty verdict.  When the jury instead announced a not guilty verdict, Bob Ford fled from the courtroom with Frank close behind.

Outside the courtroom, and off-camera, Clem and Ford engage in a shoot-out in which both are fatally wounded.

Now that Jesse's death has been avenged, Frank can go back to his Ozark farm, but not alone.  No, traveling with him is Eleanor, his new bride.

No, just kidding, that didn't happen.

Here's why:

Fox produced four movies based on Stuart Lake's "biography" of Wyatt Earp. In making the first two the studio was plagued by threatened lawsuits by Wyatt's widow, Josephine, who was concerned about how she or her late husband might be portrayed in the films. In the first instance the studio changed Wyatt's name to Michael Wyatt and in the second they settled with her out of court -- and left her out of both films. Finally, with Josie's death, the studio was able to make the other two films without any interference from that quarter.

When the studio filmed JESSE JAMES, the screenplay mostly ignored historical fact, but it did allow for Jesse's marriage to Zerelda Mimms.  This was done even though Zee had died in 1900.  However, her son, Jesse Edwards James, who happened to be a lawyer, was very much alive.  At any rate the studio did not want to deal with lawsuits from the family that might object to any indication that Jesse had been involved with women other than Zee.

On the other hand, Frank remained a bachelor in the film, when in fact he had married Annie Ralston only a few weeks after Jesse and Zee had wed.  Annie was very much alive when the movie was filmed (she died in 1944), but apparently did not object to having been left out of the screenplay.

ITHE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES, Frank is still single and there is no doubt that he and Eleanor are infatuated with each other.  In the film's closing scenes Eleanor is heading back to her home in Denver and there is an implication that Frank might make his way there later.  But they part with a handshake and a wave.

Henry Fonda (1905-1982) was on his way to becoming one of the most highly sought after and critically acclaimed actors in the business.  He was also in the process of becoming John Ford's favorite actor, which turned out to be good news for director and actor.

In 1939, the busy actor appeared in five films, including the aforementioned JESSE JAMES, as well as YOUNG MR. LINCOLN (Fox) and DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK (Fox), both directed by Ford.  

In 1940, he not only starred in THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES, but also gave what was his greatest performance (not just my opinion) in another Ford film, THE GRAPES OF WRATH (Fox).

Gene Tierney (1920-1991), on the other hand, made her screen debut in THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES.  She had done some acting on the stage but this was her first film and she probably should not have been given such an important role so early in her career.  It isn't that she was awful, but when compared with the large group of professionals appearing in the film, her novice status was apparent.

Variety went so far as to say that "the only member with whom fault can be found is Gene Tierney....[She] is plenty pretty but for oomph she just isn't." The writer went on to say that she seemed to lack what it takes to make an impression on the screen.

The Harvard Lampoon even named her "The Worst Female Discovery of 1940."  At least, they spelled her name right.

Both are harsh assessments, too harsh, and theirs was not a universal view. Some critics thought she showed promise. And Brian Garfield wrote in his book, Western Films: A Complete Guide, that Tierney was excellent in the film.  In fact, as you can read below, he liked her much more than he liked the film.

I wouldn't say she was either excellent or terrible. It was obvious that the camera loved her and that she possessed real potential.  Unfortunately, Fox didn't know what to do with her. The following year she was miscast in two films: TOBACCO ROAD and BELLE STARR. The latter was a follow-up effort to cash in on the studio's success with the two featuring the James brothers by bringing the notorious "bandit queen" to the screen.  Not only was it almost totally fictional, but it was hokey and had few redeeming qualities.

After all those false starts, the studio finally cast her in a film that was tailor made for her.  She gave her greatest performance (not just my opinion) as murder victim Laura Hunt in LAURA (Fox, 1944).  She followed that film a year later with an Oscar-nominated Best Actress performance in LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (Fox).  

During her remaining career she would appear in only one more Western: THE SECRET OF CONVICT LAKE (Fox, 1951).

Gene Tierney was nominated for an Academy Award at age twenty-five and Henry Fonda was first nominated for an Oscar at age thirty-five for his performance in THE GRAPES OF WRATH.  Jackie Cooper was nominated for a Best Actor Award in 1931.  The film was SKIPPY, and he was nine-years-old.

Jackie Cooper (L) and Robert Coogan (R) in a scene from SKIPPY.
At the time of his nomination he was the youngest performer to be nominated for an Academy Award and is still the youngest to be nominated for a Best Actor Award.

Besides SKIPPY, his best known performances were in co-starring roles with Wallace Beery in THE CHAMP (1931) and TREASURE ISLAND (1934).

Like many (most?) child actors Cooper experienced difficulty in making the transition to more mature roles.  Many years later, however, he made a comeback in television as an Emmy Award winning actor/director.

By the way, Jackie Cooper first gained prominence when he became one of the most popular members of the "Our Gang" troupe in 1929-31.  Ironically, another former popular member of that gang, Matthew "Stymie" Beard, has a couple of scenes in THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES.

The supporting cast in THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES is superb and in many cases it consists of performers reprising their JESSE JAMES roles, including: Henry Hull as Major Cobb; John Carradine as Bob Ford; Charles Tannen as Charlie Ford; J. Edward Bromberg as George Runyan, railroad detective; Donald Meek as McCoy, the head of the railroad; Ernest Whitman as Pinky; and George Chandler as Roy, Major Cobb's assistant.

J. Edward Bromberg (L) as railroad detective George Runyan and Henry Hull (R) as Major Rufus Cobb

John Carradine as a worried Bob Ford
I would be remiss if I didn't mention that John Carradine, in the same year that he portrayed the despicable turncoat Bob Ford, also gave a touching and haunting performance as the preacher Casy in THE GRAPES OF WRATH.  In fact, he had become one of John Ford's favorite supporting actors. 

Friedrich Christian "Fritz" Lang (1890-1976) was an accomplished director who specialized in film noir.  Therefore, he was a surprise choice to direct THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES, since he not only had never directed a western, he had never even directed a color film.  The film is overly slow moving at times, but that may be the fault of the script as much as Lang's direction. Regardless of that criticism, the film was a winner at the box-office.

Fox, pleased with the financial success of Lang's first Western, signed him to film one the following year, and the results were even better.  If WESTERN UNION  an epic film about the stringing of the telegraph, does not achieve classic status, it comes very close.  And for sure, it provided Randolph Scott with one of his very best performances.

Lang directed only one other western, and though RANCHO NOTORIOUS (RKO, 1952) has its partisans, I confess that I am not one of them.  It isn't Lang's direction but the cast that makes it a weak film. There were just too many performers in the film who were never believable in western roles.


Frank and Clem pursue Bob and Charley with the Rocky Mountains (Sierra Nevadas) as a backdrop.    

Bob and Charley cross on a treacherously narrow bridge -- and in hot pursuit Frank and Clem will do the same.

One of the great strengths of JESSE JAMES was the lush, lavish color photography provided by George Barnes (1892-1953).  Added to the appeal of the film was the fact that much of it was shot on location in Missouri where most of the story takes place. The entire sequel was filmed in California, with the Sierra Nevadas standing in for the Colorado Rockies.

For the most part it is also beautifully photographed except for some Denver town scenes marred by obviously fake snowcaps in the background. That, however, was not Barnes' fault, but was a cost-cutting measure.

Barnes photographed his first feature in 1918 and went on to film two Rudolph Valentino films, including his final one, THE SON OF SHEIK (UA, 1926). Nominated eight times for an Academy Award, he won for his work on REBECCA (UA), released the same year as THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES


"'s not a bad picture but it doesn't have the spirited flavor of JESSE JAMES.  Lang's directorial hand was heavy and humorless....A big movie lamentably dated." -- Brian Garfield, Western Films: A Complete Guide

"Where Henry King's film [JESSE JAMES] is romantic, lush even, Lang's, despite the revenge motive which occurs so often in his work as the force behind the narrative, is almost a sentimental celebration of the Old West...The result is a slow-moving and strangely anonymous looking film. -- Phil Hardy, The Western

"Though neither one of Lang's nor the Jesse James cycle's best films, [it is] a rewarding curiosity." -- Richard Collins, The BFI Companion to the Western

Sunday, September 18, 2016

HILLBILLY ELEGY: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

hill-bil-ly (noun)
a term used by people from the country to describe themselves with pride, but used by others as an insult for people whom they regard as ignorant and unsophisticated

el·e·gy (noun)
a mournful or reflective poem

I am a hill person. So is much of America’s white working class. And we hill people aren’t doing very well….Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash. I call them neighbors, friends, and family. – J.D. Vance

J.D. Vance grew up in the town of Middletown, Ohio. However, his grandparents were originally from Jackson, Kentucky, a coal mining town in the Appalachian area of the state, and had migrated to Middletown in 1947 so that his grandfather could take a job in the Armco steel mill. Their move was part of a large wave of migration from the same region to the same area and for the same reason. He says that he lived in Middletown, but his heart was always in Jackson, an area that he often visited with his grandparents when he was a youngster, and that he considered himself to be a hillbilly.

At first the migrants fared much better than they had in the areas they had left. They worked hard, of course, but their jobs required no education and little technical skill and their union insured that they were paid well and that their fringe benefits were substantial.

But then came globalization, automation, conglomeration, de-unionization, and things went south for the whole Midwest, literally in some cases, and a region that once led the world in industrial production became known as the Rust Belt.

Vance begins his book with a confession:

I find the existence of the book you hold in your hands somewhat absurd. It says right there on the cover that it’s a memoir, but I’m thirty-one years old, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve accomplished nothing great in my life….The coolest thing I’ve done, at least on paper, is graduate from Yale Law School, something thirteen-year-old J.D. Vance would have considered ludicrous….I have a nice job, a happy marriage, a comfortable home, and two lively dogs.

So I didn’t write this book because I’ve achieved something extraordinary. I wrote this book because I’ve achieved something quite ordinary, which doesn’t happen to most kids who grow up like me. You see, I grew up poor, in the Rust Belt, in an Ohio steel town that has been hemorrhaging jobs and hope for as long as I can remember. I have, to put it mildly, a complex relationship with my parents, one of whom has struggled with addiction for nearly my entire life. My grandparents, neither of whom graduated from high school, raised me, and few members of even my extended family attended college. The statistics tell you that kids like me face a grim future – that if they’re lucky, they’ll manage to avoid welfare; and if they’re unlucky, they’ll die of a heroin overdose, as happened to dozens in my small hometown just last year….

I want people to understand what happens in the lives of the poor and the psychological impact that spiritual and material poverty has on their children. I want people to understand the American Dream as my family and I encountered it.”

The book has become a publishing sensation. Just type in the author’s name or the title of the book in Google and you will see what I mean. Political conservatives love it because Vance, a conservative Republican, lays a lot of the blame for the ills of the Rust Belt citizenry on the lack of individual initiative and responsibility. While he admits globalization and automation have played a role, and that government policies might help a little, he also believes that “the problems were not created by the governments or the corporations or anyone else. We created them, and only we can fix them.” By “we,” he means the very people whose lives have become unmoored by political and economic forces and who face uncertain futures.

Some of his solutions strike me as being overly simplistic. For example, he says that those who have no future in the Rust Belt should go where the jobs are. After all, that is what his grandparents and many others did when they left Kentucky and migrated to Ohio. And there have been many other mass migrations through the years in which people who experienced economic dislocation pulled up stakes and headed west or north in search of a better life.

But those people had a chance of purchasing cheap farm land or finding good unskilled jobs that paid well. Today, however, neither the cheap land nor the unskilled jobs exist. Both are gone. What good does it do one to go where the good jobs exist if one has neither the education nor the skills to get one?

But I heartily agree with one reviewer who wrote that Vance chooses “to adopt a tone of thoughtful reflection with a genuine desire for mutual understanding – almost a lost art in this soundbite-talking-head age" and another reviewer who wrote, “Mr. Vance doesn’t have all the answers. But he’s advancing the conversation.”

Vance is a good writer and a natural born storyteller – and what an inspirational and touching personal story he has to tell. He has lived an amazing life in which he has overcome tremendous obstacles that the vast majority of people have never confronted or even imagined. And against all odds, seemingly insurmountable, he has achieved the American Dream. At one point he admits “I am one lucky son of a bitch.” Well, yes, he is, but sometimes we make our own luck and his life is exhibit number one.

Monday, September 12, 2016

TRIALS OF THE EARTH: The True Story of a Pioneer Woman by Mary Mann Hamilton

One of my favorite novels of last year – or any year, for that matter – was The Tall Woman by Wilma Dykeman.  Set in the Appalachians in North Carolina it is the story of one woman’s struggle to cope with the trials and tribulations of a pioneer woman during the Civil War and its aftermath.
Recently, I finished Trials of the Earth about another pioneer woman and I was struck by the similarities between the two stories.  However, there is one big difference: Trials of the Earth is not fiction.

It is rather amazing that it was ever published.  The book’s serendipitous path to publication began in the early ‘30’s when a young Mississippi writer, Helen Dick Davis, first met Mary Mann Hamilton (1866-ca. 1936), who was living nearby in her daughter’s home.  After they became friends, Davis became enthralled by the stories that the older woman told her about her life as a pioneer wife and mother who spent many years cooking for boarding houses located in lumber camps in the Mississippi Delta.
Davis encouraged Hamilton to write down what she remembered about those experiences.  At first Davis resisted but eventually relented and became obsessed with getting it all down on paper.

In the preface to the manuscript Davis wrote in 1933:

When I began to beg her to write down the account of her life, if only as a record for her children and grandchildren, she did it just to please me.  She wrote it piecemeal at first, just scattered experiences, ten or fifteen pages at a time written with pencil on cheap tablet paper; stories of terrible floodwaters, cyclones, feuds to the death, escaped Negro convicts….

By spring of 1933 Mary Hamilton had given me 150,000 words on this book.  I have edited it, worked over it with her, and guided her in her choice of material, but I have in no case added to nor changed what she wrote….

I want to reassure the reader that my presence does not enter the book.  I have not touched her style, nor embellished her material.  It is a direct and simple autobiography.

Despite what Davis wrote, her editing task was monumental.  Hamilton had received practically no education and her spelling, grammar, and punctuation had to be corrected in order to make the manuscript readable.  But Hamilton’s voice comes through clearly; the storytelling is unpolished and unvarnished.

After my morning work of milking, churning, cleaning house, getting dinner and supper at one time, and cutting a dress for someone, I would help the children in the field all afternoon.  Then I would come in at sundown and milk, while Leslie [her young daughter] finished supper…. After we ate supper…while the children did the dishes, I started making a dress I had cut out that morning, and I never got up from the machine till that dress was finished.  Everyone I made meant a dollar cash…. I would make a dollar sewing almost every day.

Accidents, illness, and death were ever present in Mary Hamilton’s life.  And so were tornadoes, fires, panthers, bears, snakes, and even escaped convicts – and floods.  There is a harrowing account of her being trapped in a flood when the nearby Sunflower River overflowed its levee.

She found herself stranded with her small daughter and two month old baby on top of a stump located on a ridge with the rain coming down and the flood waters rising rapidly.  

It was midafternoon, and the water was up over the stump, lapping my feet. The old tree that I had been so afraid of in the morning was still standing.  Now I prayed it would fall on us, kill all three of us at once and end this suspense. About that time I saw the top kind of quiver.  I shut my eyes, clutched my children tight, and to myself said, “Thank God.”  It came down with a crash; cold water poured over us.  I opened my eyes.  It had missed us by a few feet….

Of course, I was glad it had missed us but disappointed to be facing again this slow sure death.  I could see no possible hope….

…[T]he only prayer I could think of to ask God was to let them die first so I could take care of them to the end.

There is even a mystery at the heart of Mary Hamilton’s account of the struggles and adversity that she and her family faced.  I’m not going to give that away.  But her dedication written in the front of the book serves as a teaser:

To my husband’s people
whoever they are,
and wherever they may be

The book was rejected by Little, Brown in 1933.  It resurfaced in the early ‘90’s when it was published by the University of Mississippi Press, but without the permission of Hamilton’s heirs.  After the heirs regained the rights to the book, and eighty-three years after initially rejecting it, Little, Brown published it.

Finally, this: 

A reviewer wrote in the New York Times that Mary Hamilton “was a fairly ordinary woman, but one whom necessity and native grit teased to a grand self-possession and authority.”

The hell, you say.  This was no ordinary woman; this was one tall woman.