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)

Friday, May 15, 2015

THE PICTURE BOX




BY BROWNELL SISCOE III

Riley Sullivan quickened his pace, reached down, and said, "Well, I'll be dogged!  I just found a quarter."

Alf Faircloth hurried to Riley's side and watched him pick up the coin, removed the ever-present cigar from his mouth, and exclaimed, "Gee whiz!  For a old man you got the eyes of a hawk.  You find more money than anybody I ever did see. I got to start looking, too.  There must be a fortune out here on this road."

They continued on their way: Alf talking, puffing on his cigar, pointing, gesticulating, periodically stopping to gaze at somebody's house or commercial establishment, or at E.B. Reeves' cotton and soybean crop that filled the gaps between the buildings on both sides of the muddy, rutted, gravel road that served as Gumbo Valley's main, and nearly only, street; and Riley walking slowly, but steadily, with head down, shoulders slumped, hands in pockets, not saying anything.

Six-days-a-week, the only exception being Sunday, the two made the sojourn they were now making.  Their destination was Nathan Hallstead's general store, which also housed the town post office.  Ostensibly, they made their almost daily pilgrimage to get their mail -- though they rarely received any.  It didn't matter.  For them it was an opportunity to get away from the house and the wife, to relax, learn the latest gossip, exchange tall tales and bald-faced lies, play checkers, watch others play checkers, or listen to Nathan's radio.  Most important, it helped to fill the day.  It gave them a purpose in life, in what sometimes seemed to them to be an almost purposeless life.

It was essentially a male ritual.  There were women who had no men, or whose men were too ill, or were working, or off on a drinking bout, that sometimes came to get their mail, but they usually arrived only minutes before the scheduled four o'clock delivery, and left immediately after it had been distributed.  The men, on the other hand, depending on field conditions and the time of the year, began to filter in early in the afternoon.  

The largest congregations gathered on winter afternoons when little work could be accomplished, or when wet conditions during the rest of the year prohibited work in the fields.  But some, such as Alf Faircloth, who, after losing half of his right hand in an accident while working at E.B. Reeves' sawmill, survived on relief, or such as Riley Sullivan, who, after working many years for E.B. Reeves, both at his sawmill and his cotton gin, was retired, or others who were simply too old or too ill or disabled and were supported by others, made the afternoon journey, six-days-a-week, rain or shine, hot or cold.

It was mid-October, and ordinarily at that time of the year, for it was the peak of the cotton harvest, there would have been a small contingent at the store, limited to the unemployed and unemployable, but a week of almost continuous rain or drizzle meant that it would be several days before the men could return to the fields.  Consequently, there were several cars and pickup trucks, some old and dilapidated, others fairly new, but all covered with mud, parked in front of the store.

Although it was not raining hard, there was a cool drizzle blowing in the wind and those awaiting the arrival of the mail were inside and were not, as was their custom on a warm day, sitting on the porch on the two benches that stood against the wall on each side of the front door.  They would be in the back of the store, sitting around the large Warm Morning coal stove that would later inadequately heat the building during the cold Missouri winter -- talking, gossiping, lying, playing checkers, watching others play checkers, listening to the radio.

Riley and Alf mounted the porch steps, walked across the wide porch, opened the screen door, heard the bell jingle, and stepped inside.  It took a moment for them to accustom their vision to the dim interior, but momentarily they spied Nathan Hallstead stocking shelves behind the counter.

While they waited for the storekeeper to turn and acknowledge their presence, Zeke, Nathan's large black and white spotted dog rose from a corner, stretched, yawned, shook himself, and walked to Alf and began to nuzzle his hand with his cool, wet nose.  Theoretically, Zeke was Nathan's watch dog, but hardly anyone had ever heard him bark and he was everyone's friend.  Alf patted him on the head and he dropped to the floor by the counter and resumed his nap.  Nathan claimed Zeke was a cross between a white bull terrier, the kind General Patton had with him in Europe during the war, and a German shepherd, the same as Rin-Tin-Tin.  Riley said he thought Zeke was a setter, because he was most proficient at that.

"How ya'll doing today?" Nathan said as he looked over his shoulder to see who had entered the store.  Then he glanced at his watch.  "Running a little bit late, ain't you?  It's already three."

"Yeah," said Alf.  "I had to wait till Riley was ready.  Dolly had him doing some painting.  Gee whiz, I didn't think she's never going to let him leave."

"You find any money today, Riley?" said Nathan.

"Gee whiz," said Alf.  He always does, don't he?"

"Yeah, I did," replied Riley.  "Since I found a quarter, Alf, it'll be my treat.  Gimme a Dr. Pepper out of the cooler."

After Alf left Riley winked at Nathan.

"When you going to stop pulling that trick on him?" said Nathan.  "For years now he's thought you been finding money on that road.  I don't see how he can keep falling for that."

"Well, I tell you.  He's a easy one to fool.  He's always got his head going side to side like a drag line.  All I got to do is get a little lead on him and flip the coin out in front of me.  He never sees me do it."

Riley removed the floppy, sweat-stained felt hat from his head and ran skinny, freckled fingers through his reddish-gray hair, and said "Wouldn't it be funny, though?  What if he knows what I'm doing?  And what if he don't want to ruin a good thing by letting on he knows?  Hell, he always gets a cold drink out of the deal."

"Knowing Alf, though, I don't think he knows."

"No, I don't neither.  He's too busy a looking and a talking.  Old Alf's main passions is smoking cigars, a talking, and a looking.  I know why he ain't had no kids.  It's too damn hard to talk, look, smoke cigars, and make babies all at the same time."

The two men glanced down the aisle and watched Alf experience his usual indecision in deciding what kind of drink he wanted.

"Now you take Elf," Riley said, referring to Alf's twin brother, who was currently married to his third wife and had sired twelve children, ranging in age from forty-two years to eight months.  "You notice he don't talk much -- and he don't smoke -- just chews -- and he don't spit much neither."

Alf returned to the counter and handed Riley his drink.  He turned up his RC and consumed half of its contents in one sustained gulp.  Riley shook his head in amazement and said, "Well, let's go to the back and see who all is here."

Nathan watched as they walked away.  A glint came into his eyes as he relished the thought of catching Riley off guard.  Pulling the wool over Alf's eyes was a cinch, but rare was the occasion when one could catch Riley by surprise.

The two men walked down the central aisle of the store.  To their right was a counter that ran almost the entire length of the long building and behind it was shelves of canned goods.  To their left was the assorted miscellany -- brooms, mops, shovels, hoes, rakes, livestock feed, potatoes, onions, lettuces, cabbages, apples, oranges, bananas, buckets, tubs, cotton sacks, dry goods -- that was always part of the inventory of country stores in the Missouri bootheel.  About midway through the store the odds and ends were interrupted by the post office cage where Nathan sorted and dispensed the mail, placing it in rented combination lock mail boxes -- numbered one through 135 -- or in slots, not accessible from the outside, lettered from A through Z, for general delivery customers.

"They must be a listening to the radio," Alf said, referring to the sounds coming from the back of the store, an area that was obscured by the post office cage.

"Must be," replied Riley as he reached into a bin and snatched an orange which he placed in his shirt pocket.

As they rounded the corner of the post office cage and stepped into the open area around the stove they saw what the object of the group's attention was on this day -- and it wasn't radio.

"Gee whiz!" said Alf.  "Nathan's done gone and bought one of them picture boxes."

It was the first television that either man had ever seen.

In a semicircle around the set were about twenty people, sitting on old cane-bottomed chairs, nail kegs, soda crates, and the floor, watching a western movie.  Since all the possible seats were occupied, and Josh Dove was the only black person in the store, he arose, indicated the nail keg upon which he had been sitting, and said in a soft drawl, "Here, Mr. Alf, Mr. Riley, one of you gentlemen can have this here seat."

Riley declined, but Alf said, "Gee whiz.  Thank you, Josh.  I am a little bit tired."

Alf sat and Josh moved to stand beside Riley.

Periodically, the movie was interrupted and a bewhiskered and toothless old man, dressed in a tattered, beat-up hat and patched shirt and vest, appeared on the screen.  He was known by all the viewers in the store.  They had all watched him ride the range with the likes of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers on the big screen in the Reeves Theater across the street.  It was Gabby Hayes.  Addressing his audience as "buckaroos," he extolled the culinary delights of Quaker Puffed Wheat and Puffed Rice, which was shot from cannons, so he said.  During one break he demonstrated the process by firing a muzzle load toward the camera.

"I'll be dogged!"  It was Jake Pierce who could contain himself no longer.  "Boy howdy, I didn't know that was how they puffed that dad-gummed stuff up."

Riley, standing behind Jake, said, "You didn't know that, Jake?"  He looked down and winked at Nathan's son, a small towheaded, freckle-faced boy seated on the floor between Jake and Sarge Carstairs.  "That's the only way they can do it.  Of course, the big job's gathering the stuff up afterwards and washing it off."

Jake nodded his head that he understood.  Several others in the area stifled laughter and gave each other knowing looks.  Jake was never all that bright, but his mental capacity had been further overloaded by an accident while working for E.B. Reeves' lumber company.  A large limb had prematurely cracked and fell about twenty feet and landed squarely on Jake's head.  His skull encased a steel plate that saved his life but caused his perceptions to be even more clouded.

Silence descended as the commercial interruption concluded and the western movie resumed.  A few minutes later Gabby reappeared, informed the buckaroos that the story would continue tomorrow -- you durn tootin' -- same time, same station, and after a final word about his sponsor, fired one last muzzle of cereal, and faded from the screen.

The timing was exquisite.

Just as Riley extracted the pilfered orange from his shirt pocket and began to remove the peeling, a young, pretty, well-dressed woman appeared on the screen, and began to pour orange juice into a glass.  An off-camera announcer meanwhile intoned a running commentary informing the viewers of the great taste and healthful qualities of Sunkist Orange Juice.

"I'll be dogged!  That's pure amazing!"  It was Jake Pierce again.  "That must be dad-gummed good orange juice.  I swear I can smell it!"

Those situated where they could see the orange in Riley's hand could not contain themselves.  Gus Brandtmeier pounded the floor with his cane; Sarge Carstairs bent double with laughter; Alf Faircloth let go with a rapid succession of gee whizzes; Josh Dove smiled, dropped his head and shook it slowly from side to side; and Coy Doyle overturned the soda crate he was sitting on, fell to the floor and pounded his fist.  Riley quickly returned the half-peeled orange to his shirt pocket before Jake, looking around in bewilderment, could spot it.

A few minutes later, after the group had returned its attention to the television screen, Sarge Carstairs turned to the boy beside him and patted him on the head.

Sarge was one of the town drunks; there were several; but if the town had decided to appoint an official town drunk, it would have been Sarge.  Needing a shave and a bath, as usual, he was today wearing a long, tattered, heavily stained, dirt-encrusted overcoat, and a red and black plaid lumbermen's cap was perched atop his head.  At least it was once red and black.  The black had long ago become the dominant color.  Mingling with the various odors that swarmed in the air around Sarge was the ever-present smell of his favorite drink; his favorite drink being anything that was cheap, available, and contained alcohol.  But Sarge was an affable, gregarious drunk and most everyone, with one notable exception, liked him, or at least tolerated him.  The exception was Amos Stubblefield.  And Sarge, which was out of character for him, had absolutely no use for Amos.

"You go to school today, boy?" Sarge said.

"Naw.  We don't have school during cotton picking time."

"Well -- yeah -- I reckon that's right.  I forgot."  After a pause Sarge said, "When school starts again, you be sure to go every day.  Cause you don't go to school all the time, the teacher going to ask you how to spell shit one day and you ain't going to be able to."

Reaching inside his coat Sarge removed a stubby lead pencil and picked up a discarded candy wrapper from the floor and handed it to the boy.

"Let me see if you can," said Sarge.  "Let's see if you can spell shit."  The boy grinned shyly, took the pencil and paper, and printed the word.  He handed the paper back to Sarge, who stared at it for a long moment.

"Well, can he?" asked Gus Brandtmeier, whose attention had been temporarily diverted from the television screen.

"Damn if I know," said Sarge.  "Hell, I never went to school."

It was then that Amos Stubblefield made his appearance on the scene.  With his thumbs hooked in his overall galluses the tall, bulky man rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet and launched one of his sermons: "Nathan Hallstead is a wolf in sheep's clothing.  The dad-blamed devil is working through Nathan Hallstead.  He's caused him to buy a dad-gummed contraption and to place it here where it'll dad-blamed tempt and dad-gummed mislead you down the dad-blamed path to dad-gummed hell and dad-blamed damnation."

In the silence that followed the boy looked at the television, but he didn't see the devil, just a freckle-faced marionette dressed in a cowboy suit talking to a clown.  The silence was broken by Sarge who stood and walked toward Amos.

"Hold on just a minute, Amos," said Sarge.  I want to show you something."  He handed the candy wrapper to Amos and asked, "What does that say?"

Amos took the wrapper, his features creasing as he stared at it, and then handed it back.

"Just as I thought, Amos," Sarge said.  "You don't know shit, neither."

Again the rear of the store erupted with laughter, knee-slapping, and floor-pounding.  Amos, muttering to himself, turned on his heel, and waddled to the front of the store with his unique pigeon-toed stride, and after pausing to tell Nathan what he thought of his television set, walked out the front door.

After the four o'clock mail delivery most of the group reluctantly drifted, one by one, out of the store.  For some had lingered longer than normal today, attracted by the sights and sounds of the picture box, but eventually the afternoon gathering departed.  As others came in to purchase a few groceries, to check their mail, or to mail a letter, they, including the women, found themselves attracted to the television.  A few had seen television before, but none owned one.  It was Gumbo Valley's first.  Not even E.B. Reeves owned a television.










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 immigrated 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 ----