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)

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

THEIR FATHERS' GOD by O.E. Rolvaag




O.E. Rolvaag (1876-1931) was born in a small fishing village in northern Norway about five miles from the Arctic Circle.  In 1896 he emigrated to South Dakota to work on his uncle's farm.  He later enrolled in St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, graduating with a bachelor's degree in 1905, and becoming a professor of Norwegian literature at the school the following year.  In 1910 he earned a master's degree at St. Olaf.
 

Two years earlier, he had become an American citizen and had married Jennie Marie Berdahl.  They would have three sons and one daughter.  One of the sons, Karl, would become governor of Minnesota in the 1960's.
All of Rolvaag's books were written and originally published in his native Norwegian language and were then translated into English.  They were popular in both Norway and the United States.
He published the first of his six novels in 1912.  But it was in 1927 that his masterpiece, Giants in the Earth, was translated and published in America.  It is a classic study of the immigrant experience in America and even more so the classic book about the Norwegian immigrant experience.

It is a book about the reality of contending with the harsh elements that characterized the South Dakota plains -- drought, locust swarms, blizzards, and, especially for women, loneliness, isolation, and often despair.  And the wind -- always the wind -- and the flat, treeless plain, where there was a
[b]right, clear sky over a plain so wide that the rim of the heavens cut down on it around the entire horizon. . . . Bright, clear sky, to-day, to-morrow, and for all time to come.

. . . And sun! And still more sun! It set the heavens afire every morning; it grew with the day to quivering golden light--then softened into all the shades of red and purple as evening fell. . . . Pure colour everywhere. A gust of wind, sweeping across the plain, threw into life waves of yellow and blue and green. Now and then a dead black wave would race over the scene . . . a cloud's gliding shadow . . . now and then. . . .

It was late afternoon. A small caravan was pushing its way through the tall grass. The track that it left behind was like the wake of a boat--except that instead of widening out astern it closed in again.

Yes, as in the rest of the West, life was harder for women.  Men tended to be optimistic that whatever the obstacles might be, they could be overcome.  And sometimes it was necessary for them to travel many miles to the nearest town in order to purchase necessary equipment and supplies.  But the women remained at home to care for their children and tend the livestock and they rarely saw anyone outside of the family.
There are stories of how the monotony of this existence drove women out of their minds.  And in one case in Giants in the Earth it does that very thing.
Two years later, a sequel, Peder Victorious: A Tale of the Pioneers Twenty Years Later, was published.  Whereas Giants in the Earth was epic in scope, the sequel narrowed its focus.  There were still occasional droughts and harsh winters, but because of the growth of population in the ensuing years the isolation and monotony had lessened as did the despair.  The land had been conquered.
The great struggle now became one of how to become Americans.  And an essential element of that struggle was the pain and dismay among the immigrants who resisted but could not prevent the Americanization of their first-generation children.  This struggle is at the heart of the story of young Peder Holm and his Norwegian mother, Beret.

Two years after Peder Victorious, the third book of the trilogy was published.  Their Fathers' God begins in the late 1890's and extends into the new century.  The farmers of the South Dakota plains have to contend with a long drought and, like the rest of the country, with an economic depression.  But there is another struggle, one that is much more deep-seated and more lasting than the others.  It is the division that exists between two groups of immigrants, the Norwegian Lutherans and the Irish Catholics.
The two groups are able to live as accommodating neighbors as long as -- well, as long as each is able to maintain its own culture, including language, but especially religion, without any interference from the other; and as long as there is no intermarriage between Protestants and Catholics.
But there is that.  Peder Holm, the young rebel from the second book, has married Susie Doheny, a devout Catholic.  Peder thinks the Catholic religion is no more than myth and superstition and he probably could live with that except he and his young wife live on the farm and in the house owned by his mother, Beret, who is as devout in her Lutheran faith as her daughter-in-law is in her faith.

Peder, of course, has been raised in the Lutheran church, but in truth he opposes any organized religion.  But he is caught in the middle.  Soon his marriage is being severely tested.  It is tested not only by drought and depression, but even more troublesome it is tested by family bickering, and maybe, as Susie believes, it is being tested by their father's god.  
 
There might have been a fourth book in the series.  In fact, the conclusion of Their Fathers' God would seem to point in that direction.  But it was not to be.  O.E. Rolvaag died the year that book was published.  He was fifty-five years old. 

   

Monday, February 9, 2015

RANDOLPH SCOTT: Ridin' the High Country, 1956-1962

RANDOLPH SCOTT: The Paramount Years, 1932-1938 can be read here.

RANDOLPH SCOTT: Western Star, 1938-1945 can be read here.

RANDOLPH SCOTT: The Man in the Saddle, 1946-1956 can be read here.




In the early days violent action depended much more on the style of acting than on elaborate effects.  The early cowboys ... had to impress as men of action without the help of bloody wounds, yells and gunfire, and they tended to rely on their faces and their gestures to communicate toughness.  As sound and color moved in visually the cowboy hero became smoother and smoother ... from Tom Mix through Rock Hudson .... But most of the spare effect of silent black and white was lost.

Anthony Mann recaptured some of this sparseness.  Ford moved right away from it.  Boetticher Westerns, RIDE LONESOME and COMANCHE STATION for instance, have a certain style, helped by Randolph Scott who physically was not at all like the soft heroes of the period.  Boetticher tends to avoid towns and isolate his characters, and his heroes fairly consistently avoid involvement with women.  But in Boetticher the violence is casual, the heroes and villains continually facing a gamble on life and death which is accepted philosophically.

---- There Must Be A Lone Ranger
       Jenni Calder
       McGraw-Hill (1974)


By the early '50's, Randolph Scott, as one of the top ten box office stars, had reached the peak of his popularity. But the best was yet to come.

From 1956 through 1960, Scott starred in seven films directed by Budd Boetticher that collectively made Western film history.  Most were produced by Harry Joe Brown, were filmed by the Scott-Brown production unit (Ranown), and four of the scripts were written by Burt Kennedy, who also did uncredited repair work on a couple of the other scripts.

In these films Scott is at his peak as an actor.  Although he was in his late fifties when the series began, he did not show it.  As the years had passed his weather-beaten features, dignified voice and manner, coupled with his improved acting, had made him appear even more authentically a man of the West.

In many ways the Scott-Boetticher films were a throwback to the silent films of William S. Hart and Harry Carey.  They were sparse, lean films with mature plots that usually found the hero embroiled in a solitary quest, avenging wrongs, and never riding around anyone or anything.


Budd Boetticher
Boetticher, like Scott, launched his career in the "Bs."  His first film as director was a non-Western, ONE MYSTERIOUS NIGHT (Columbia, 1944), an entry in the Boston Blackie series, starring Chester Morris; his first Western was a B-Western, THE WOLF HUNTERS (Monogram, 1949), starring Kirby Grant.
 
In the Western genre Boettcher followed his initial effort with THE CIMARRON KID ( UI, 1952, starring Audie Murphy); BRONCO BUSTER (UI, 1952, starring John Lund and Scott Brady); HORIZONS WEST (UI, 1952, starring Robert Ryan and Rock Hudson); THE MAN FROM THE ALAMO (UI, 1953, starring Glenn Ford); and WINGS OF THE HAWK (UI, 1953, starring Van Heflin).







SEVEN MEN FROM NOW (Batjac/WB, 1956)

DIRECTOR:  Budd Boetticher;  PRODUCERS:  Andrew McLaglen,  Robert E. Morrison, John Wayne;  WRITER:  Burt Kennedy;  CINEMATOGRAPHER:  William H. Clothier

CAST:  Randolph Scott, Gail Russell, Lee Marvin, John Larch, Walter Reed, Donald Barry, Stuart Whitman, Pamela Duncan, John Berradino, Cliff Lyons, Chuck Roberson, Fred Graham 

The first of the Scott-Boetticher films is technically not a Ranown film, but was produced by John Wayne's Batjac Productions and distributed by Warner Brothers.

I earlier reviewed the film as one of my "Top 21 Favorite Westerns," which I rated as number 14.  Some days I think it should be rated higher.  You can read the review here.



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THE TALL T (Ranown/Columbia, 1957)

DIRECTOR: Budd Boetticher;  Writers: screenplay by Burt Kennedy based on Elmore Leonard's story, The Captives;  PRODUCER: Harry Joe Brown;  CINEMATOGRAPHER: Charles Lawton, Jr.

CAST: Randolph Scott, Richard Boone, Maureen O'Sullivan, Arthur Hunnicutt, Skip Homeier, Henry Silva, John Hubbard, Robert Burton

The second Scott-Boetticher collaboration was another top-notch Western.  The title was never satisfactorily explained -- not even by the writer or the director.  In the studio's ad campaign it implied that the "T" stood for terror, but no one seemed to know for sure.  The title of the original story, written by Elmore Leonard, was The Captives.  However, that title had already been registered and the studio stuck the other title on the picture.

Regardless of the confusion concerning the title, the film is a classic in the medium-budget category, is one of Scott's finest, and one of the best Westerns of the '50's.

Boetticher is on record as saying that in these films he wanted to give Scott's adversaries equal time and it was made easier by the fact that Boetticher also said that Scott was the most unselfish star that he knew.  It is one of the primary reasons why these films rise above most of the Westerns of that era.  And it worked especially well when the adversary was somebody like Lee Marvin or Richard Boone.
  


In the film the credo of the Scott hero is established when he tells Miss O'Sullivan that "there are some things a man can't ride around."  This was not a new theme in Westerns, of course, for many classic Westerns dealt with the theme.  But this theme, along with the revenge motif, was the basic underlying feature of the Scott characterization down through the years, but especially in the Boetticher films.


O'Sullivan, Scott, and Boone



DECISION AT SUNDOWN (Ranown/Columbia, 1957)

DIRECTOR: Budd Boetticher;  PRODUCER: Harry Joe Brown;  WRITERS: screenplay by Charles Lang based on story by Vernon L. Fluharty;  CINEMATOGRAPHER: Burnett Guffey

CAST: Randolph Scott, John Carroll, Karen Steele, Valerie French, Noah Beery, Jr., John Archer, Andrew Duggan, James Westerfield, John Litel, Ray Teal, Vaughan Taylor, Richard Deacon

The story for this film was not written by Burt Kennedy, but was one that the director inherited.  He was later quoted as saying that Charles Lang did his best to shape it, but that he didn't think that Lang had been entirely successful in his efforts. 

Boettcher didn't like the fact that the story is confined to the town of Sundown.  He much preferred to incorporate his characters into the landscape of the Alabama Hills out near Lone Pine, California.  He also complained that the script did not allow any clear resolution at the end.  In short, it wasn't his kind of Western. 

Despite Boetticher's reservations, Scott liked the film -- and so do I.  My own feeling is that the director was too harsh in his criticism.  It was a change of pace for the director and his star, but the result was a fascinating psychological study of a man on the revenge trail, as usual, but who finally realizes that he is in the wrong.

The plot finds Scott in search of another villain, this time portrayed by John Carroll, who was responsible for luring Scott's wife away from him, and whom Scott unfairly blames for her subsequent suicide.  There is a poignant scene when Scott's pal, portrayed by Noah Beery, Jr., apprises Scott of the fact that his wife had never been any good, anyway.  Scott is exceedingly believable as a husband who deep down knows his friend is right, but is unwilling to accept his wife's unfaithfulness.

Beery, always underrated as an actor, and much misused during his career, added a great deal to the film with his Will Rogers physical appearance and manner.  


Noah Beery, Jr.
 

BUCHANAN RIDES ALONE (Ranown/Columbia, 1958)

DIRECTOR: Budd Boetticher; PRODUCER: Harry Joe Brown;  WRITERS: screenplay by Charles Lang, Jr. and Burt Kennedy (uncredited) based on Jonas Ward's novel, The Name's Buchanan; CINEMATOGRAPHER: Lucien Ballard

CAST: Randolph Scott, Craig Stevens, Barry Kelley, Tol Avery, Peter Whitney, Jennifer Holden

Boetticher was much happier with this film than he was with DECISION AT SUNDOWN, partly because the landscape, the area in and around Old Tucson, Arizona, was much closer to his vision of what he wanted in a Western film.  And it is a fairly good film that deals with Scott's confrontation with a family that controls a border town.  The cast, however, was not a strong one.  It was especially weakened by the fact that Scott's main adversary is not portrayed by a Lee Marvin or a Richard Boone, or even a Forrest Tucker, but by the much too urbane Craig Stevens.

However, in comparison to what came next it was quality entertainment.



WESTBOUND (WB, 1959)

DIRECTOR: Budd Boetticher;  PRODUCER: Henry Blanke;  WRITERS: screenplay by Berne Giler based on story by Giler, Albert S. Vino, and Burt Kennedy (uncredited);  Cinematographer: J. Peverell Marley

CAST: Randolph Scott, Virginia Mayo, Karen Steele, Michael Dante, Andrew Duggan, Michael Pate, Wally Brown

This film was made because Scott discovered that due to an earlier contractual agreement he owed Warner Brothers a final film.  Boetticher, proud of what he and Scott were accomplishing and wanting to protect his star became involved in the project because he volunteered to direct it.  However, there was a limit to what he could do.

Warner Brothers was quite adept at making a certain kind of picture, but not Westerns. It is true that a few quality Westerns bearing the Warners' logo had been produced, but practically all of them, SEVEN MEN FROM NOW is an example, were filmed by independent production units and were then distributed by that studio.  Many of the weakest of the Scott vehicles of the past had been full-fledged Warners productions -- and such was the case with WESTBOUND.  It is the weakest of the Scott-Boetticher films, but better than those Scott had made for the studio earlier in the decade. 


Scott and Mayo

Scott does what he can with the role and receives his best support from second female lead Karen Steele and from Michael Pate, who portrays a gunman leading a gang of outlaws.  Since it is a Warner Brothers film it is no surprise that it is beautifully photographed, in this case by Peverell Marley, who had been filming movies for forty years.  However, the film is done in by a clunky plot.

   

RIDE LONESOME (Ranown/Columbia, 1959)

DIRECTOR: Budd Boetticher;  PRODUCER: Budd Boetticher;  EXECUTIVE PRODUCER: Harry Joe Brown; WRITER: Burt Kennedy;  CINEMATOGRAPHER: Charles Lawton, Jr.

CAST: Randolph Scott, Karen Steele, Pernell Roberts, James Coburn, James Best, Lee Van Cleef, Boyd Morgan, Roy Jenson, Boyd Stockman

RIDE LONESOME, the best of the Scott-Boetticher collaborations, got things back on the right track.  Although the story again features Scott in pursuit of revenge, it does so in a different fashion.

I rank it number twelve on my list of "Top 21 Favorite Westerns," and you can read a full review of the film here



Equal adversaries: Pernell Roberts and Randolph Scott

 
 


COMANCHE STATION (Ranown/Columbia, 1960)

DIRECTOR: Budd Boetticher; PRODUCER: Budd Boetticher; EXECUTIVE PRODUCER: Harry Joe Brown; WRITER: Burt Kennedy;  CINEMATOGRAPHER: Charles Lawton, Jr.

CAST: Randolph Scott, Nancy Gates, Claude Akins, Skip Homeier, Richard Rust


Scott and Boetticher concluded their association on a high note with this excellent little film.  It is a consistently taut and exciting tale with Claude Akins filling the Lee Marvin/Richard Boone/Pernell Roberts role.

I rated it number twenty-one on my "Top 21 Favorite Westerns" list and you can read the review here.


(Claude Akins and Nancy Gates) Where is Randolph Scott when you need him?
 
 
 

RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY (MGM, 1962)

DIRECTOR: Sam Peckinpah;  PRODUCER: Richard E. Lyons;  WRITERS: N.B. Stone, Jr. and Sam Peckinpah (uncredited);  CINEMATOGRAPHER: Lucien Ballard

CAST: Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea, Mariette Hartley, Ron Starr, Edgar Buchanan, R.G. Armstrong, Jenie Jackson, James Drury, L.Q. Jones, John Anderson, John Davis Chandler, Warren Oates, Byron Foulger, Percy Helton

With the release of COMANCHE STATION Boetticher went off to Mexico on an ill-fated venture to film the ultimate bullfight film and Scott, reportedly one of Hollywood's wealthiest citizens, decided it was time to call it quits.  Although he was in his early sixties (he did not look it), he could have continued as a star, much like John Wayne, for some years to come.  In fact, he looked more like an even more authentic Westerner in the later years than he did at the beginning, or for that matter, in the middle years of his career.



(L-R): Mariette Hartley, Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea, and Ron Starr ride the high country.
 
But, as fate would have it, there was one more movie in Scott's future, and RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY was his best ever.  What a way to finish a long and successful career!

I rate it number five on my list of "Top 21 Favorite Westerns" and here is where you can read my review.

After RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY, Randolph Scott unsaddled his horse and put it out to pasture. He could reflect on a film career that spanned thirty-four years, thirty as a leading man.  He appeared in sixty-three Westerns, sixty as the leading man, and one as co-star. 

In his career he appeared in fifty-two A-Westerns, starring in forty-nine.  No other Western star can match that statistic.  With few exceptions his films were tightly-knit, fast-paced, medium-budget productions -- the kind that they just don't make anymore.



(1898-1987)
 







 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

RANDOLPH SCOTT: The Man in the Saddle, 1946-1956




You can read Randolph Scott: The Paramount Years, 1932-1938 here.

You can read Randolph Scott: Western Star, 1938-1945 here.


 
1946 was a pivotal year for Randolph Scott.  At the mid-point of his career the actor had risen from the ranks of bit player to leading man.  Over the years he had alternated between Western and non-Western roles (including five military pictures during the war years) and a memorable performance as a William S. Hart-like "good badman" in WESTERN UNION (Fox, 1941) that resulted in him stealing the picture from its putative star, Robert Young.  In the coming years, with a couple of exceptions, he would not ride the good badman trail, but he would often portray a character seeking revenge who did not hesitate to take the law into his own hands.

Approaching fifty, Scott, still tall and lanky with features becoming more weathered and rough-hewn, looked more and more like an authentic westerner.  Then there was the voice.  His southern accent lent an air of authenticity to his characterizations, for many a southerner, looking to escape the economic ruin of the post-Civil War South had heeded Horace Greeley's advice and gone West.  It was easy to believe that the characters portrayed by Scott had been among those who had traveled westward in search of a new beginning.   


Randy gets the drop on the always menacing Jack Lambert in ABILENE TOWN


But in 1946, the actor reached a major turning point in his career.  It occurred when he starred in two more medium-budget Westerns: ABILENE TOWN (UA, directed by Edwin L. Marin) and BADMAN'S TERRITORY (RKO, directed by Tim Whelan).  After these two, Scott, with only three exceptions, devoted his remaining career to making Westerns.  In the years from 1946 to 1956, he starred in thirty-one Westerns.  It is significant that those films fell into the medium-budget category.  It is true that some of them were no better than routine, but most were above average, and at least three were truly outstanding.  But no matter the quality of the film, there was one constant that the viewer could depend on: Randolph Scott.  He gave every film his best effort and he was always good --  and on a few occasions even better than good.  

ABILENE TOWN, based on an Ernest Haycox (one of the greatest of all Western novelists) story contained all the elements of a traditional Western and, in fact, combined a number of concurrent themes that are ordinarily dealt with on a separate basis in most Westerns.  Scott portrayed town marshal Dan Mitchell, who must contend with conflicts between his town and the cowmen -- between cowmen and homesteaders -- and between the town merchants and the marshal himself, since it would harm their business if he puts too tight a rein on the cowmen.

If that isn't enough to occupy the lawman's time he must also oppose a crooked saloon owner (weren't they all?) who wants a wide-open town.

The film is unnecessarily slowed by too many pauses for musical interludes by saloon girl, Ann Dvorak.  However, the presence of the beautiful Rhonda Fleming was an asset.  The same could be said for Edgar Buchanan (except for the beautiful part), who, as a cowardly sheriff, provides a light touch that is easy to take.

BADMAN'S TERRITORY was indicative of what had happened to the outlaw biography trend in Westerns.  Beginning with JESSE JAMES (Fox) in 1939, all the major outlaws had had their biographies filmed by 1946, therefore in order to be different BADMAN'S TERRITORY pitted practically every outlaw in the West (the James brothers, Belle Starr, the Dalton brothers, the Younger brothers, Sam Bass) against lawman Scott.  A similar thing occurred two years later in RETURN OF THE BADMEN (RKO), when Scott took on the Sundance Kid (Robert Ryan), who had united a band of badmen that included the Daltons, Youngers, and Billy the Kid (I don't know how the Kid missed being in the earlier film.).

Both RKO productions appealed to both "A" and "B" Western devotees; they were fast-paced oaters with many of the elements of the B-Western and the cast included actors that were familiar to B-Western audiences, including long time B-Western sidekick, Gabby Hayes, who appeared in both, but the films were also characterized by bigger budgets and longer running times than the more modest "B's".  Included in the casts were Tom Tyler, Robert Ryan, Anne Jeffreys, Tom Keene, Steve Brodie, James Warren, Chief Thundercloud, Kermit Maynard, and Lane Chandler.  Several of the actors appeared in both films.


See the scene depicted in the upper right hand corner?  The viewers did not see it in the film, for it occurred off-camera.

In 1948, after a number of so-so movies, Scott hit the jackpot with CORONER CREEK (Columbia).  Based on a solid Luke Short novel, it is one of the three best Scott Westerns produced between WESTERN UNION in 1941 and the Scott-Boetticher-Brown films of the '50's.  In many respects, primarily because of its revenge motif (Scott searches for the murderer of his wife), the solid Western was a precursor of those films.

There are also two rather brutal scenes in the film.  In the first, Forrest Tucker, after a lengthy fistfight with Scott, drags him into a creek and then proceeds to stretch Scott's gun hand across a rock and crushes it with his boot heel.

When, as a youngster, I first saw this film I thought the scene was more explicit than it actually was.  I recalled that when Tucker stamped on Scott's fingers that there was a close up of boot on fingers.  I later realize that I thought this because I apparently looked away at the last moment, unable to view the horror that was occurring.  After viewing the film many years later, I discovered that the camera had cut away at the last instant and that the violence had not been as graphic as I had assumed.  Evidently, my mind's eye had completed the scene for me.

The second brutal scene is a reversal of the first.  Scott ruins Tucker's gun hand in the same manner.  And again I would have sworn that I saw Scott's boot crush Tucker's hand, but I didn't.



Two big men who were always believable in badman roles; (L-R) Forrest Tucker and Bruce Cabot, in a scene from the Randolph Scott film GUNFIGHTERS (Columbia, 1947). Tucker played a prominent role in several Scott films and the two (and their stunt doubles) often engaged in brutal fisticuffs.

Scott receives a lot of good support in CORONER CREEK from Marguerite Chapman, George Macready (always a chilling presence on the screen), Forrest Tucker (a welcome presence in Westerns, especially those starring Scott), and Edgar Buchanan and Wallace Ford (two old-timers who always added to the enjoyment of the films they appeared in).


In this scene it appears that Scott is left handed.  But note his bandaged right hand.  This scene with Edgar Buchanan and William Bishop occurred after Scott's brutal fight with Forrest Tucker.
In 1949, Scott formed separate production units with Nat Holt and Harry Joe Brown.  While his association with Holt (just three films) failed to produce the hoped for results, his partnership with Harry Joe Brown would be an extremely happy one and would result in the production of some highly enjoyable Westerns.

Brown's career in Western film making extended all the way back to the silent days when he had been in charge of an outstanding series of First National B-Westerns that had propelled Ken Maynard to stardom.  Brown also directed several of Maynard's early sound Westerns at Universal.  He also produced a number of Scott films before the two formed their production company.

Scott and Brown began their partnership with THE NEVADAN (Columbia, 1950, directed by Gordon Douglas).  The film is not one of the team's better efforts, but it is noteworthy for a solid supporting performance by Forrest Tucker and great stunt work by the incomparable Jock Mahoney, who also has a featured supporting role as a villain.  Dorothy Malone provides romantic interest while George Macready is the boss villain.

As mentioned earlier, CORONER CREEK was the first of the three best Scott films during the era being discussed; the second is THE WALKING HILLS (Columbia, 1949). 



Randolph Scott, William Bishop, and Ella Raines in THE WALKING HILLS (Columbia, 1949)



Unappreciated at the time of its release, the noirsh Western is set in the modern West, and covers some of the same ground as THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (WB), which was released a year earlier.  Allan Le May's screenplay revolves around the efforts of an unsavory group of characters who band together in an effort to find a long-lost wagon train. Reportedly transporting gold, it had disappeared a hundred years earlier and had been buried in the windblown sand dunes of Death Valley.

Directed by John Sturges (the first of his many good Westerns), the film sported a strong supporting cast that included the beautiful and fiery Ella Raines, William Bishop, Edgar Buchanan, Arthur Kennedy, Jerome Courtland, Josh White, and John Ireland.  Always capable of giving an interesting performance when direction and screenplay allowed it, Ireland is especially effective as the most disreputable of the disreputable entourage. 


The other outstanding Scott film during this stage of his career is MAN IN THE SADDLE, based on a superior Ernest Haycox novel.  Besides being an excellent range war film, it is sometimes singled out for special recognition due to Tennessee Ernie Ford singing the title song over the credits (and in one campfire scene).  This occurred a year before Tex Ritter did the same in the more highly acclaimed HIGH NOON (UA, 1952).
 
The night time photography provided by Charles Lawton, Jr. is superb and the extended brawl between Scott and John Russell rivals those engaged in by Scott and Forrest Tucker.  In fact, Scott and Russell's slugfest is so violent that the cabin in which they are fighting is so completely demolished that the walls and the roof collapse.
 
It is one of de Toth's most entertaining Westerns and is easily the best of several Scott-de Toth collaborations.  Alexander Knox, Joan Leslie, Ellen Drew, "Big Boy" Williams, Alfonso Bedoya, Cameron Mitchell, Clem Bevans, along with John Russell, round out a solid cast.
  
 

Two tough hombres.

 

HANGMAN'S KNOT (Columbia, 1952); Scott wears the worn leather jacket that had become a trademark in his later films.


HANGMAN'S KNOT (Columbia, 1952) is not quite on a par with CORONER CREEK, THE WALKING HILLS, or MAN IN THE SADDLE, but it is a cut above the actor's other films of that period.  The supporting cast features Donna Reed, Richard Denning, Claude Jarman, Jr., Frank Faylen, Ray Teal, and "Big-Boy" Williams.  It was interesting to see Williams, usually a Scott compatriot, as one of the ornery leaders of an ornery posse laying siege to Scott and his gang who have taken refuge in a remote stage relay station.
 
 However, the most interesting performance in the film is by a young unknown actor by the name of Lee Marvin, who would soon come into his own as one of Hollywood's most dependable character actors.  Although he is a member of Scott's gang it is apparent from the beginning that their antagonistic relationship would have to be reconciled in one way or the other.
 
It  is also the only film directed by Roy Huggins (who also wrote the screenplay), who later achieved fame as the creator of the Maverick and Rockford Files TV series.
 
With its isolated locale and its emphasis on characterization, and the strong performances of Scott and his supporting cast, the film reminds one of Scott and Boetticher's RIDE LONESOME (Columbia, 1959) and COMANCHE STATION (Columbia, 1960).

But that's a story for another day.

TO BE CONTINUED ----

 
 
 

Friday, January 23, 2015

RANDOLPH SCOTT: Western Star, 1938-1945

  

  




 Randolph Scott: The Paramount Years, 1932-1938 can be read here.


Randolph Scott in one of his finest roles: WESTERN UNION (1941)


In the 1930's, Randolph Scott's movie career was given a huge boost when he was chosen by Paramount to star in a series of Westerns based on the stories of Zane Grey.  When his contract with that studio ended in 1938, he made a wise decision when he decided to sign a non-exclusive contract with Darryl Zanuck and 20th Century-Fox.
  
His first film for Zanuck was a co-starring role with Shirley Temple in REBECCA OF SUNNYBROOK FARM (Fox, 1938), directed by Allan Dwan. Little Miss Temple, nearing the advanced age of ten, received top billing, as she did the following year when the two were paired in SUSANNAH OF THE MOUNTIES (Fox). 

Five years earlier, she had made her film debut in an uncredited extra role in TO THE LAST MAN (Paramount, 1933), which had featured Scott in the lead role.
 
Overall, 1939 was an excellent year for the actor. He supported Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda, and Nancy Kelly in Henry King's classic outlaw biography whitewash, JESSE JAMES (Fox). The hugely entertaining film enjoyed only a glancing resemblance to historical truth, and that included Scott's role as a fictional lawman who befriends the James brothers. However, his future prospects were greatly improved due to the big business that the film enjoyed at the boxoffice.
 
 

In many respects, Scott's most important role of the year was as Wyatt Earp in FRONTIER MARSHAL (Fox), which also featured Nancy Kelly, Binnie Barnes, and John Carradine. Allan Dwan was again the director.  He had begun directing Western films as early as 1911. FRONTIER MARSHAL, however, was his first sound Western.
 
Sam Hellman wrote the screenplay, which was adapted from Stuart N. Lake's book, Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal, purportedly a biography, but one that contains as much fiction as fact. Lake and Fox got a lot of mileage out of that book. In addition to the 1939 film, Fox had earlier used it as the source material for FRONTIER MARSHAL (Fox, 1934, starring George O'Brien). 
 
In 1946, the studio filmed the most famous version, that being John Ford's MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, starring Henry Fonda. The film's script not only utilized Lake's book as source material, it also adapted Hellman's screenplay from the 1939 film. Oddly enough, Ward Bond had a role in all three films, though he portrayed a different character in each one.
 
In 1953, Fox filmed the fourth version of the story based on Lake's book and and the third utilizing Hellman's screenplay. It was POWDER RIVER, starring Rory Calhoun and Cameron Mitchell.
 
But it didn't end there. Lake served as a consultant for the long-running TV series, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, starring Hugh O'Brian. At least the producers of the series demonstrated a degree of integrity by including the word legend in the title of the series.
 
FRONTIER MARSHAL was the type of entertaining, fast-paced, and unpretentious medium-budget Western that eventually became synonomous with the actor.  Although the film suffered from competition provided by a host of blockbuster Westerns released in the same year, it held its own and was as entertaining and  as satisfying as any of them.
 
In 1940-41, Scott appeared in two big-budget, deluxe epic Westerns when he supported Errol Flynn in VIRGINIA CITY (WB, 1940) and Robert Young and Dean Jagger in WESTERN UNION (Fox, 1941).
 
Unfortunately, VIRGINIA CITY was a flawed production.  It was made by Warner Brothers, and that studio, though proficient in the filming of crime dramas, never learned the art of filming Westerns; and director Michael Curtiz was in a similar predicament -- he too never understood the mythology of the West.  In later years, some of Scott's weakest films were produced by the studio.  The later good Westerns released by the studio -- some starring Scott -- were filmed by independent production units and distributed by Warner Brothers.  Oddly, the studio dominated the production of TV Westerns and produced some rather good ones.
 
 

Scott and Flynn

Bogie as Mexican bandido??!!
 
The cast in support of Flynn was superb.  In addition to Scott, it featured Miram Hopkins, Humphrey Bogart (but unfortunately miscast), Alan Hale, Guinn "Big Boy" Williams, Douglas Dumbrille, Paul Fix, Ward Bond, and Lane Chandler.  However, it was defeated by Curtiz's direction and Robert Buckner's weak script.  This was particularly true of Bogart who was miscast (and knew it) as a sneering Mexican bandit.  Through no fault of his own, for he should not have been in the film, he was pathetic.
 
One would think the studio would have learned its lesson from the previous year when it miscast Bogart and James Cagney as unconvincing westerners in THE OKLAHOMA KID (but it was a profitable film, which explains Bogart's presence in VIRGINIA CITY.)
 
One wonders how the project was ever completed since the relationship between Flynn and Curtiz was always uneasy at best, and neither Hopkins, notoriously difficult to direct, nor Bogart had any faith in the film or the director. 
 
Despite superb second-unit stuntwork by the immortal Yakima Canutt, VIRGINIA CITY is turgid, ponderous, and confused.
 
 
Turgid, Ponderous, and Confused
 
WESTERN UNION, however, represents what is one of Scott's finest screen performances, and perhaps his best before RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY (MGM, 1962).  The plot, based on a Zane Grey story, deals with the establishment of the first telegraph line across the West, despite the efforts of villains and hostile Indians to prevent its completion.  There is a romantic triangle that finds the heroine (Virginia Gilmore) torn between the heroic eastern tenderfoot (Robert Young) and the equally heroic Western good-badman (Scott).
 
WESTERN UNION might be the best of the epic Westerns of its time -- and one of the best of all time.  Scott, supposedly in a supporting role to star Young, steals the picture in the William S. Hart type role.  In addition to Scott, Young, and Gilmore, the cast includes Dean Jagger, Barton MacLane, Slim Summerville, Chill Wills, and John Carradine.  The film was enhanced by Edward Cronjager's glorious Technicolor photography. 
 
In fact, I like the film so well that I ranked it as number six on my "Top 21 Favorite Westerns" list (and RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY is number five). 
 
Fritz Lang was not known for directing Westerns, but this one is the best of the three that he did direct.
The real star of this film is Randolph Scott -- not Robert Young
 
 In the same years as the previous two pictures, Scott starred in two outlaw biopics: WHEN THE DALTONS RODE (Universal, 1940), directed by George Marshall and featuring Kay Francis, Brian Donlevy, George Bancroft, Broderick Crawford, Andy Devine, Stuart Erwin, Frank Albertson, and Edgar Buchanan; and BELLE STARR (Fox, 1941), with Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Chill Wills, and Louise Beavers, directed by Irving Cummings, and co-written by Lamar Trotti, Niven Busch, and Cameron Rogers.
 
Despite the overall quality of the two films each suffered a drawback.  It was difficult to accept the beautiful Miss Tierney in the role of the outlaw queen who in reality was fleshy, big-boned, and homely.
 
 


Gene Tierney as Belle Starr


Belle Starr as Belle Starr
 
 
The film is also a complete whitewash of the life and times of the so-called "Bandit Queen."  Scott is Sam Starr, an ex-Confederate guerilla who becomes an outlaw in postwar Missouri.  He and Belle fall in love and marry.   Belle attempts to get Sam to go straight, which he does, but only after Belle is killed by Jasper Tench (Olin Howland), a horse thief who harbors a grievance against her.
 
In the real world, Sam Starr was Belle's Cherokee husband.  The two served time for horse theft and engaged in a series of petty crimes -- not in Missouri, but in the Indian Territory (Oklahoma).  Sam was killed in a shoot-out at a dance and Belle was shot and killed by a neighbor who harbored a grievance against her. Oh, well.
 
Although all the Daltons were killed in the Scott film in their attempt to simultaneously rob two Coffeyville, Kansas (their hometown) banks in broad daylight, all one had to do was read the credits to conclude that one of the Daltons must have survived.  The screenplay was based on the autobiography of Emmett Dalton, who, though badly wounded, did not perish in the robbery attempt.
 
Of course, most viewers did not detect the incongruity and wouldn't have much cared if they had.  Western fans have never allowed distorted history to interfere with their enjoyment of a good Western.
 
The fictionalized plot features Crawford, Donlevy, Erwin, and Albertson as the Dalton brothers who are forced into a life of crime when a land coporation in cahoots with the railroad attempts to steal their farm.  Scott is the sympathetic lawyer and family friend who attempts to assist them in their efforts to go straight and maintain possession of their land.
 
The truth is, Scott didn't have much to do in this film.  Its primary assest was action, a stuntman's picture -- but Scott's character was involved in practically none of that action.  Although he was listed well down in the cast, the real star was Broderick Crawford, who portrayed Bob, the leader of the Dalton clan, and had much more onscreen time than Scott. 
 
The real star of this film is Broderick Crawford -- not Randolph Scott
 
In between Westerns in these years, Scott found time to appear in one major non-Western production.  He supported his personal friend Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in MY FAVORITE WIFE (1940). 
 
By 1942, the dominance of deluxe Westerns was beginning to wane.  THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON (WB) was the only Western in that budgetary category to be released that year, and it was released in January.  Instead studios began to concentrate on less ambitious A-Westerns, many of which could be classified as "A-minus" or "B-plus Westerns" in order to differentiate them from the big-budget A's and low-budget B's.
 
In the long run, this trend toward medium-budget Westerns exerted the single greatest impact on Scott's career.  But first he starred with Marlene Dietrich and John Wayne in a pair of films.  THE SPOILERS (Universal, 1942, directed by Ray Enright) could be classified as a non-Western since it is set in the gold rush in Nome, Alaska.  However, it has the look and feel of a Western and I tend to think of it as such.  PITTSBURGH (Universal, 1942), on the other hand is a non-Western.  These two, by the way, represent the only times that Scott and Wayne appeared together in a film.
 
 
 The Spoilers 1942 Poster.jpg 
 
THE SPOILERS, filmed five times, is known primarily for its rousing display of fisticuffs between Scott, the crooked gold commissioner, and Wayne, the wronged miner.  The supporting cast was outstanding.  It was headed by Harry Carey (as Wayne's crusty partner), Richard Barthelmess (in his final screen appearance), and William Farnum.  Farnum, by the way, had starred in the original (1914) silent version and had served as technical advisor on the 1930  version that starred Gary Cooper.
 
As for that brawl with Wayne, Scott would later engage in other brutal fistfights, most notably with Forrest Tucker and John Russell.  But more about that later.
 
Scott, who was already in his forties when the U.S. entered WWII, did not serve in the military, but did fight the war on the screen.  In 1942, in addition to the films discussed above, Scott co-starred with John Payne and Maureen O'Hara in a war movie, TO THE SHORES OF TRIPOLI (directed by H. Bruce Humberstone). The following year he starred in three more war films: CORVETTE K-225 (first-rate), GUNG-HO! (directed by Ray Enright, it went a bit overboard in its nationalistic jingoism), and BOMBARDIER (the best of the three).
 
1943 also found Scott back in the saddle starring in a good medium-budget Western.  THE DESPERADOES (Columbia, with Glenn Ford, Claire Trevor, and Evelyn Keyes, plus character support from good ol' Edgar Buchanan, good ol' 'Big Boy' Williams, and Porter Hall).
 
Based on a Max Brand story, the plot is about a bandit (Ford) going straight and joining forces with a marshal (Scott) to clean up a town and defeat the villain (Buhanan).  Charles Vidor was the director and Harry Joe Brown was the producer.  It is notable for being Columbia's first color production.
  
Apparently, Dietrich wasn't available

After starring in the musical (gasp!) Western BELLE OF THE YUKON (RKO, 1944, featuring Gypsy Rose Lee and Dinah Shore), CHINA SKY (1945, directed by Ray Enright, and featuring Ellen Drew and Anthony Quinn in support) and supporting Charles Laughton CAPTAIN KIDD (1945), Scott reached a major turning point in his career.
 
It occurred in 1946 when he starred in two more medium-budget Westerns -- Edwin L. Marin's ABILENE TOWN (UA) and Tim Whelan's BADMAN'S TERRITORY (RKO).  After these two, Scott with only three exceptions, devoted his remaining career to Westerns.  The exceptions are HOME SWEET HOME HOMICIDE (1946), CHRISTMAS EVE (1947, directed by Edwin Marin), and a cameo appearance in a Warner Brothers musical, STARLIFT (1951).
 
Significantly, the Westerns he starred in during the remainder of his career were in the medium-budget category.  The best was yet to come in the career of the aristocratic southern gentleman.
 
TO BE CONTINUED ----