My Revolutionary Relatives

Posted in AMERICANA, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, ME, My Family History with tags , , , , , , on July 3, 2015 by travsd

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It’s Independence Day weekend!  I’ve recently uncovered details about several ancestors who fought in the American Revolution. Today seems like the ideal time to share the information.

As I’ve already written, I am distantly related to John Adams, Sam Adams and George Washington (In each case, I’m descended from their great-grandfathers, although not from them directly). But for the most part (actually, for the entire part) unlike the Pilgrim and Puritan generation of a century earlier and more, my direct Revolutionary War ancestors weren’t among the leaders driving the historic events. But it gives me pride and fires my imagination to know that many took part.

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By the 1770s, my mother’s various ancestral lines which had been spread across Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island had begun to converge around the area where she would be born, Woodstock, Connecticut. As it happens Woodstock, was the Connecticut town that would supply the greatest number of soldiers (184) to the Battle of Lexington and Concord (April 1775). If you look at a map, this makes sense; it’s in the northeast corner of the state, and thus closest. Still, it was a 60 or 70 mile march away. One of the most important generals of the war Israel Putnam was from the next town, Pomfret; the town of Putnam, Connecticut was named after him. Leading the Woodstock men was Captain (later General) Samuel McClellan, grandfather of Civil War general and Presidential candidate George B. McClelllan and great-grand father of New York City Mayor George B. McClellan, Jr. (Later Samuel McClellan would also distinguish himself at the Battle of Groton Heights, the closest Revolutionary battle to my hometown. (I’m not related to Putnam or McClellan; I just thought it was cool)

Among my ancestors at Lexington and Concord were Jonathan Marcy (1742-1822) who marched with his brother Capt. Nathaniel Marcy’s company, and Ichabod Turner (1725-1809), who enlisted as a private though he was 50 years old (he was from Wrentham, Mass., not Woodstock). Other Woodstock relatives (though not direct ancestors) who went to Lexington and Concord included Benjamin Bugbee and Benjamin and Nebediah Cady (my grandmother was a Cady). I see my Woodstock ancestor Jonathan Bugbee listed in the “Graves of the Revolutionary Patriots” but haven’t learnt yet where he served. (I do know he was one of the founders of Chautauqua, New York, so I suspect he served in western or upstate New York).

My (5th) great grandfather James Ledoyt (almost all the guys I’m mentioning as “ancestors” are either my 4th or 5th great grandfathers) was in the 4th Connecticut Regiment, which took part in the Invasion of Canada (1775) and the Battles of Brandywine and Germantown (both 1777) and Monmouth (1778)

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Another Woodstock area ancestor Joseph Griggs (1748-1840) enlisted three times.  In 1775 he served as a corporal in the Connecticut militia in Colonel Joseph Spencer’s regiment, which saw action at the Siege of Boston, including the Battle of Bunker Hill. In August 1777 he enlisted again and took part in the three month campaign against General Burgoyne. He marched all the way from his home in Connecticut to upstate Sarataoga, New York to take part in the Battle of Saratoga. In a written account I found, claimed to have been close to General Arnold (the ad hoc battle commander) when Arnold’s horse was shot and killed from under him, resulting in the leg injury that would plague him thereafter. (I am of course talking about Benedict Arnold. He was one of the Revolution’s most important leaders prior to his treason, which is why his switching sides was such a momentous event). Griggs mustered out in Peekskill in December 1777, and then re-enlisted in 1778, although I haven’t yet found where he served the third time.

Here’s a story that me both excited and sad. My (4th) great grandfather, Deacon Samuel Crawford (1748-1824) served in 1776, and took part in the fighting in New York City and the of Long Island. This is what made me excited. Much of the fighting in the battle took place in Brooklyn right near where I live. You could almost throw a rock from my house to hit some of the battle sites from that campaign. So that was cool. What was sad? Well, I don’t think he took much part in the fighting because he came down with camp fever. His brother John came and brought him home, and John and their father Hugh cared for him. Samuel recovered — but John and Hugh caught his fever and died!  Samuel went on to further service eventually attending the rank of lieutenant colonel. After the war, he became a prosperous land owner in West Woodstock (1000 acres) and also operated a mill. He became a selectman and state representative, and (obviously) a church deacon.

Another ancestor, Ezra Bellows (1750-1827)  of Worcester, Mass served as a private and was injured in the Mt. Hope Bay Raids (some of the only fighting that happened on Rhode Island soil) in 1778.

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My (5th) great grandfather David Ladd (1727-1796), of Norwich, CT  was a private in Col. John Durkee’s company of matrosses. He joined Colonel Durkee’s Regiment when they went into camp in Peekskill, NY in Spring 1777. In September, the Regiment was ordered to join General Washington’s army in Pennsylvania. The Regiment was engaged in the Battle of Germantown, Pennsylvania, October 4, 1777. Soon after, the Regiment was ordered to Fort Mifflin on Mud Island near Red Bank on the Delaware River. They were engaged in the defense of Fort Mifflin for about five or six weeks, lost a great many men, retreated and took up winter quarters at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Ladd left the unit at that point (as many did).

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OKAY! That’s my mom’s side of the family (at least, those I know about). Here’s the ones I know about on my dad’s side. As you saw above, the northern theatre mostly saw action at the front end of the war. My dad’s folks were from the south, which mostly saw action at the back end of the war. (Something we often forget — the Revolutionary War dragged on for EIGHT years!)

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My dad’s family comes from Tennessee, and several of his ancestors were among the state’s founders. The American Revolution played a big role in the creation of the state in the first place — it was settled largely by veterans of the war who were awarded land grants in the new territory for their service (mostly men from Virgina and the Carolinas). And some people who had already settled the area at the time of the war (when it was still officially part of North Carolina) went back over the mountains to take part. They were known as the Overmountain Men. One of these backwoods Over Mountainmen was my (5th) great grandfather John Hale (1743-1816) who fought at the incredible Battle of King’s Mountain (1780) and was one of the members of the Wautaga Association, one of the first attempts to set up an autonomous (non-British) government on American soil (much more on that later in a separate post) . At any rate, these guys are the reason Tennessee is known as the Volunteer State. Also, if you look at a map of Tennessee, you will that huge percentage of the counties are named after Revolutionary era military and political leaders.

One of my Southern ancestors Nathaniel Bilbrey (1751-1836), of Edgecombe County, NC was clearly one of those guys who is addicted to action. He pretty much served the ENTIRETY of the war. Most guys served three month hitches. If you remember your American history, Washington’s number one problem was the constant evaporation of his troop strength. Nathaniel Bilbrey was not part of the problem. He first enlisted as a private in 1776, re-enlisted numerous times, and was mustered out for the last time near the war’s end in 1783. In 1777 and 1778 he took part in all the major battles in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. For the last years of the war (1780 til the end) he served in the Carolinas. His rank went from private to lieutenant to sergeant major. You can read much more detail about it here. 

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Another North Carolina ancestor Joseph Howell Jr (1733-1835) served at a fairly old age, but he had valuable experience. He had served in the NC militia ten years prior to the revolution. He was 43 when Independence was declared and given the rank of captain in the NC, militia, serving in the Battles at Guilford Courthouse and King’s Mountain. He also furnished supplies and money to the Continental Army. His father-in-law, Col. William Starling (1756-1826) (also my ancestor) was in charge of a temporary local regiment whose mission was to defend Mecklenburg County, Virginia, although the unit didn’t see action.

My (6th) great grandfather William King (1750-1818) William King served  in the Duplin County (NC) Militia under his brother, Capt. Michael King. William King’s son William Rufus Devane King was America’s 13th vice president. (much more on THAT later).

Here’s an interesting one: my (5th) great grand father John Nichols (1743-1817) was an immigrant from Yorkshire, England who came over as a child. Despite this, he chose not to be a Loyalist, but a Patriot serving in the Orange County (NC) militia at the beginning of the war.

I save the best for last. Best, because it’s my patrilineal line and I’d been trying to find the answer for months, and my DNA test came in just under the wire to help me solve it. And I found this out yesterday. Sgt. William Stewart (1762-1848) served in both the Continental Army and the Virginia Militia from 1778 until the end of the war. The biggest action he saw was in the Siege of Yorktown — the climax of the war. To my delight, he has the same birthday as me. (November 8) .

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One last salvo:

Another Virginia ancestor, James Cox, (1760-1810) is listed in the Revolutionary War rolls as having served in the continentals as a “musician.” And, folks? If the war were to be fought again today? That’s probably me.

Happy Independence Day!

 

Stars and Stripes Forever!

Posted in Burlesk, Contemporary Variety, PLUGS with tags , , , on July 3, 2015 by travsd

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OK, this card is a little hard to read, so I’ll tell you all you need to know. Our friend Lefty Lucy is presenting this patriotic burlesque show at Coney Island USA tonight at 10pm, featuring herself, Julie Atlas Muz and a bunch of other “A” list burlesque stars. Plus it’s a Friday night at Coney and that means fireworks! See ya there!

The Goldwyn Girls! et al

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Hollywood (History), Impresarios, Jews/ Show Biz, Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 2, 2015 by travsd

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In July 1879 was born one Szmuel Gelbfisz in Warsaw, Poland. Later to become Samuel Goldfish, finally to become Samuel Goldwyn. Around the turn of the century he came to upstate New York and made a pile of money in the garment business.

In 1913 he threw in his lot with his brother-in-law Jesse Lasky and Cecil B. DeMille to make the hit feature The Squaw ManThe company would merge would Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players which would later become Paramount Pictures. But by then, Goldwyn was long since out.

In 1916 he formed Goldwyn Pictures with Edgar and Archibald Selwyn. (The name “Goldwyn” was made by smashing up his name, Goldfish, with the Selwyn’s) In 1924, Marcus Loew would acquire Goldwyn Pictures and turn it into MGM (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer), but by then Goldwyn was out of that one, too.

He was thus in at the founding of TWO major Hollywood studios. But he was a very independent character. What he would be best known for (besides his famous malapropisms) was for being the most successful independent Hollywood producer of his day. Samuel Goldwyn Productions made pictures from 1923 through 1959. And while there were many prestige pictures to his name, I thought I would focus today instead of a very unique contribution of his — The Goldwyn Girls.

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This innovation couldn’t have been more timely. The Depression had pretty much killed the Broadway Revue (and its foremost exponent Flo Ziegfeld). But before he passed on, Ziegfeld had dabbled a little in bringing his pulchritudinous brand of showmanship to the screen with Glorifying the American Girl (1929) and Whoopee! (1930). The latter was a transfer of his popular Broadway hit starring Eddie Cantor and it was produced at Goldwyn’s studio. Ziegfeld was to pass away in 1932, but Goldwyn would continue producing Cantor’s pictures, and adorning them with the Goldwyn Girls, his very own chorus line, often directed by Busby Berkley. (Palmy Days, The Kid from Spain, Roman Scandals, Kid Millions, Strike Me Pink). Among the ladies to have toiled as Goldwyn Girls were Lucille Ball, Paulette Goddard, Betty Grable, Virginia Mayo, Ann Sothern and Toby Wing.

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And when Ziegfeld’s grave had sufficiently cooled Goldwyn experimented with The Goldwyn Follies (1938), his first Technicolor picture, with a flimsy plot about film producer Adolphe Menjou seeking “Miss Humanity” (Andrea Leeds), and all star cast including The Ritz Brothers, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Bobby Clark, Kenny Baker, Phil Baker and the American Ballet of the Metropolitan Opera. And of course the Goldwyn Girls. The picture was directed by George Marshall, and is the last film George Gershwin worked on before he died. It’s far from a work of art, but holds up to repeated viewings because of all the swell vaudeville turns. The Goldwyn Girls were trotted out regularly as late as the mid 1940s, but after that chorus lines were way out of fashion. Too bad! I like ’em!

To learn out more about show business history consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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A History of the Comedy Western #4: 1970s-1980s

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Westerns with tags , , on July 2, 2015 by travsd

This is part four of a five part series. For part one, covering the years of silent comedy, go here.  For part two, covering 1930s and 1940s, go here. For part three, covering the 1950s and 1960s, go here.

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The Cheyenne Social Club (1970)

A squaresville comedy western, starring Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda and directed by Gene Kelly.

The plot is: Stewart and Fonda are a couple of cowboys in an outfit that apparently employs geezers to do demanding physical work. Stewart gets a letter that says his no-good brother is dead and has left him some property. They ride all the way from Texas to Cheyenne, and learn that the property is a whorehouse, run by madam Shirley Jones. Stewart is appalled, tries to unload the whorehouse, but the law won’t let him. The town turns against him. A roughneck beats up Jones. Stewart kills him in a gunfight. Then a bunch of his relatives show up and Fonda and Stewart kill THEM in a fight. Then more relatives are coming. Stewart signs the whorehouse over to Jones and the two men head back to  Texas.

For a sex comedy, The Cheyenne Social Club is mighty prissy for even 1970. The film is lightly humorous, but very slight and doesn’t feel like enough of an event somehow. It strives mightily to trade in on the public’s affection for Stewart and Fonda as beloved Hollywood actors, right down to have them banter about their real life identities as a republican and a democrat.It feels a lot like some of John Wayne’s last movies, very much out of step with the times. Stewart in particular seems too old for the part he is playing, his lanky body now sagging in fifteen places like melting paraffin. It’s maybe one of the more comedic roles he had been called upon to do in decades, in some ways having more in common with his work in the thirties than his later westerns.  At any rate, it might have been a better role for a young Gary Cooper, whose persona to my mind always contained a certain stiffness around women.

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Dirty Dingus McGee (1970)

The Chairman of the Board as you’ve never seen him — and afterwards you’ll wish you could burn the sight from your retinas. The 60s-ish Frank Sinatra plays the titular Dingus in a Beatle wig and a mouthful of flashy dentures. A character who might be at least passable with a Michael York or Albert Finney in Tom Jones mode. Here it as distrurbing as Mae West in Sextette. The character is a sort of unwashed, semi-retarded naïf. When George Kennedy is your foil and you’re about evenly matched you know you’re in trouble. Kennedy is made sheriff of a town that has a cathouse madame (Ann Jackson) for a mayor. Kennedy keeps trying to catch Dingus for various infractions, and Dingus, stupid as he, is keeps outwitting him. The movie is full of infantile double entendres (“you forgot your cock!”) and farcical bedroom encounters. Harry Carey Jr has a small role (unrecognizable in a beard). Jack Elam plays a John Wesley Harding who has nothing to do with the real one. Worst, it’s yet another of those films that refer to “Indians” with no tribal affiliation, e.g. “Indians are attacking! ”— one of my litmus tests for a worthless western.

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Cockeyed Cowboys of Calico County (1970)

Blacksmith Dan Blocker (Hoss from Bonanza) spends his life savings on a mail-order bride but makes the mistake of paying in advance. She never shows up. He is so despondent he plans to leave the western town he lives in (the experience has been humiliating) but the town needs his blacksmithing skills so they persuade dance hall girl Nanette Fabray to portray the missing wife. The whole town has to conspire to prevent him from knowing the truth. This is essentially a sit-com length plot, stretched out to three times that. What keeps it going is all the character actors playing the town. It’s actually a throwback to Esssanay’s old Snakeville series, an effective comic idea that has been done surprisingly infrequently. In the cast are Jim Backus, Henry Jones, Mickey Rooney, Wally Cox, Jack Elam, Stubby Kaye, Noah Beery Jr, Iron Eyes Cody, and former western star Don “Red” Barry. 

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The Over the Hill Gang Rides Again (1970)

This movie actually better than its predecessor. Funnier jokes! And  it has an actual star (as opposed to a half dozen sidekicks) at its center: Fred Astaire joins Walter Brennan, Edgar Buchanan, Andy Devine, and Wills this time. The gang reunites to save their buddy (Astaire) from a hanging, but are saddened to learn that they are too late. But then they discover the hanged man was an impostor. Astaire, who is now a drunk, is made marshall of the town. He cleans himself up, and his friends backs up all his plays without him knowing it. He develops a kind of false confidence. He romances a dance hall girl (Lana Wood), but she lets him know the others have been backing him. He goes back on the bottle. A gang of bandits comes in to do a robbery. The heroes fight them off (including Astaire). A nice little family film.

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Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971)

A sequel of sorts I guess to Support Your Local Sheriff, directed also by Burt Kennedy and  also starring James Garner but sharing no other characters…and since THIS character isn’t really a character it’s hard to say what the continuity is. Garner skips out on a marriage to a madam, his pockets full of money. He gets off the train in a town called Purgatory, which appears to be populated entirely with familiar character actors. Harry Morgan returns, but as an entirely different character from the first movie. Here, he is a mine owner. His daughter Suzanne Pleshette is a wild hellion who shoots up the town. Morgan competes with another mine owner (John Dehner) to reach a mother lode of gold. First everyone mistakes Garner for a famous gunfighter who has been summoned to provide muscle by one mine company against the other. After a certain amount of business about this, Garner claims the gunfighter is Jack Elam, who just happens to be in town rolling his eye. After a certain amount of business about that, the real gunfighter (Chuck Connors) comes to town. There is a showdown, which garner subverts by riding to it on a mule laden with dynamite. The mule bucks and carries Garner into the bank. Explosion. The mother lode is discovered. Then Garner (who has twice lost all his money at roulette) wins a big stake and marries Pleshette.

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Lock Stock and Barrel (1971)

Fairly tedious tv movie comedy western starring a very young, long haired Tim Matheson as a dirty smelly farm kid. He elopes with girl (Belinda Montgomery). The girl’s father Jack Albertson is in hot pursuit. They get separated when he has to stay aand work for a farmer who sent the pursuers in the wrong direction. He falls in with some rough soldiers (Neville Brand et al)  and wins all their money at poker. They turn the tables , take all his money, and send him on his way. He catches up with his wife and finds her with the man the soldiers are chasing (Claude Akins). The guy is full of crap, flattering them, he wants to travel with them. He’s wanted for a murder which he says was self defense. The soldiers arrive, which scares the guy off. The soldiers are too interested in the wife, so Matheson keeps them at bay with his rifle until they leave. Next they are menaced by a mountain lion. Once the creature is dispatched, the father and brother catch up with them again and then they are saved by Akins, who holds the men at gunpoint. The title comes from a line in the film “We are married, man and wife; lock stock and barrel”. The father relents and leaves with kind words. Then Akins and the couple learn that they each have deeds for the same plot of land, sold to them by a crooked “reverend” (Burgess Meredith). They assume they’re not really married since the preachjer was bogus, then they lose a lot of their belongings crossing a rickety bridge. They fight and separate. He spens a night with a widow at her ranch although he doesn’t sleep with her. The next day he finds the girl working as a dance hall girl. The young man and akins finally go to stake their claim. The preacher talks a good line. Then the soldiers show up to get Akins, etc etc. I confess that I lost in this rambling movie interest after this.

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Evil Roy Slade (1972)

A made for tv comedy western produced and written by Gary Marshall, directed by Jerry Paris, starring John Astin. As you can imagine, it’s frequently very stupid and frequently very funny. It is especially interesting that it predates Blazing saddles, because much of the humor is of a similar type. A bit of an all star cast, with the never-funny Mickey Rooney as the villain,  Henry Gibson  in a thankless role as a henchman, Edie Adams as dance hall girl, Dick Shawn as a singing transvestite marshall, Pat Morita as his Asian servant, Dom Deluise as a 19th century shrink, and Milton Berle as his girlfriend’s relative, who tries to make the hero reform by hiring him as a shoe salesman. (Penny Marshall has a walk-on as a bank teller. They didn’t have female bank tellers back then, but whatever.)

The fact that the hero needs to reform at all is of course the angle of the picture. The hero is a villain. Astin is playing against type, and his performance is very broad. Since there really is no character for him to play (aside from gags about how nasty he is), there is a sort of black hole in the center of the picture. But there are funny gags. Dick Shawn sings very funny cowboy songs. His gang rides around on his wagon tooting a stolen train whistle. The hero makes an escape on a Shetland pony. Some of the gags are painful, e.g., the blacksmith is a black guy named Smith. The picture has no ending really — Slade merely escapes

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Three Musketeers of the West (1973)

A hilarious spaghetti western comedy. Lots of slapstick. A rough similarity to The Three Musketeers, Dartagnan is Dart, Jr. who comes from Cheese Valley (where they make stinky cheese and have a big slapstick cheese fight in the opening scene) and wants to become a Texas Ranger. He rides with 3 rangers McAthos, Portland and Aramirerez. They are after a stolen gold shipment headed for a Mexican revolutionary general. Along the way they start helping a lady doctor with a shipment of medicine. It turns out the doctor is the smuggler and the wagon contains the gold. But not before there is A) a hilarious barroom brawl; B) for some reason they wind up in a Chinese village and have a martial arts brawl; and C) they have a fight on a train with a bunch of circus clowns. In the end they wind up with the revolutionary army and we are promised more adventures.

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The Brothers O’Toole (1973)

A fairly lame western comedy starring John Astin (in two roles)and Steve Carlson as his younger brother. The best thing about it is the lingo written for Astin as a a con man, but though his speech is florid…nothing happens with it, he does no cons or swindles and never even convinces anybody of anything. He gets mistaken for a desperado (also played by Astin) and sits in jail and then has a trial. There is almost no plot and the movie is almost entirely inert. Eventually it is learned that the town’s mysterious name Molybdenum (which is pronounced as Molly Be Damned by some, and others cant pronounce it at all) is actually an element used to produce steel and the town is rich in it, and most of the people in town own stock in the local mine. Also in film is Jesse White as the mayor, Lee Merriwether as the desperado’s wife, and Hans Conried as an industrialist named Brigadier Vandergeld.

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Dusty’s Trail (1973)

A tv sit-com by Sherwood Schwartz, of Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch fame.  For Dusty’s Trail, Schwartz essentially just took the characters from Gilligan’s Island and transplanted them to the Old Weston a perpetually lost wagon train. Of the old cast, apparently he was only able to get Bob Denver, who played “Dusty” a distinctly Gilliganesque bumbling mule skinner. For the “Skipper” equivalent, apparently Alan Hale, Jr. was unavailable, so Schwartz did the next best thing — he cast Forrest Tucker of F Troop in the Skipper-like leadership role. And the rest? A group of familiar character actors portraying a rich banker and his wife, a farm girl, a schoolteacher and a dance hall girl. (Sound anything like a millionaire and his wife, a farm girl, a professor and a movie star?) And instead of racist depictions of South Sea Islanders we get racist depictions of American Plains Indians that are SO out of step for 1973 that it’s mind-boggling. It’s “how, Ugh” stuff, but several years after landmark shifts in Native American characterization like Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970).

In short, Schwartz barely lifted a finger in the generation of this “new” idea, he just took old Gilligan’s Island scripts, crossed out “island” stuff and wrote in “western” stuff. I had never even heard of it until I found a bootleg DVD in the 99 cent bin a few years ago. And naturally watched every single episode (there are 26 of them. My favorite is the one in which Forrest Tucker dresses in drag. Oh, it’s disturbing, alright, plenty disturbing)

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Blazing Saddles (1974)

Mel Brooks spoof of westerns is certainly one of the most famous and successful comedy westerns of all time. I have grappled for years with why it doesn’t work for me (whereas it seems to work for almost everybody else. If this entry offends you, please feel free to skip it!). The main trouble, I think, is that Brooks doesn’t seem to understand, know, or appreciate westerns. Time has shown that what he understands best is musical comedy and burlesque-style black-out sketches. Hence the perfection of the film and stage vehicles The Producers, and isolated numbers like “The Inquisition” section of The History of the World, Part One. (Or the Roman section of that film which he stole entirely from Eddie Cantor’s Roman Scandals, a fact no one seems to have noticed) Blazing Saddles is reputed to “send up” the  western genre without any understanding of it, nor does it make any intelligible satirical comment on the white man’s treatment of blacks, Indians, etc, all for the same reason.

The parts that work best in this film are Brooks’ own role as Governor (heavily burlesque inflected), and the performances of Harvey Korman and Madeline Kahn (whose centerpiece is, again, a musical number). For me, the best part of the whole movie is when it unravels at the end, and the cast runs cavorting through studio sound stages, where they disrupt the shooting of what? A Hollywood musical. And of course, the title song (sung by Frankie Laine) nails it.

The rest is occasionally dreck — in the case of the much beloved “baked beans/ farting interlude”, quite literally. The rest of the cast seems at sea, neither playing it straight in the Zucker Brothers fashion (which I think might be the preferred technique) nor as funny as Brooks, Korman and Kahn. They seem ill at ease with all the use of the N word, which makes it doubly hard to laugh at from this historical vantage point. (This might have been addressed, ironically, by making the film more realistic, which would also have reinforced the social point, using a wide variety of disparaging euphemisms, insulting names, etc for black people.

The N word seems there just for shock value, which would have made more sense if the original star and co-writer (Richard Pryor) had come along for the ride. He undoubtedly would have been among the hilarious handful in the movie — in fact, would have been the centerpiece of the film. Instead, we have the singularly weak Cleavon Little, which in the end, ironically, strikes me as a basically racist (safe) choice. Pryor would have been a out-and-out comedy threat, in the time honored tradition of Chaplin and the Marx Brothers. Little is no more a threat than Stepin Fetchit and company, despite the fact that he occasionally ridicules such old school Uncle Toms here. He is no improvement. The deck is stacked on the side of the white people. (Brooks has demonstrated his latent racism on other occasions — maybe most heinously in the form of the black character in Robin Hood: Men in Tights).

Also weak here is the usually superlative Gene Wilder. He decides to play against type here. Originally cast in Harvey Korman’s role (which would have been appropriate) he opted instead to play the gunslinger. What the hell he is doing with this performance is to me the central enigma of the movie. Wilder is at his best with his signature hysteria, either losing his shit or just barely holding in an outburst. Here he decides to be ridiculously relaxed. Is he a stoner? Is he gay? What is the point of the portrayal? Is he commenting on some other actor, some other type? If he is, I don’t recognize it.

But above all, though countless reviewers have commented on how expertly Brooks sends up westerns, I don’t see it — and I have seen 800 westerns. If anything, it seems of a piece with the decadent, slapdash, late westerns of its own era. There are a thousand little rich details (and major, core elements) I can think of that are missing. Even  F Troop is a better western spoof than Blazing Saddles. 

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Posse (1975)

An extremely interesting artifact, both thought-provoking and entertaining. Kirk Douglas produced, directed and stars in this political satire/ western. Influence of spaghetti westerns, and possibly Robert Altman here. It’s certainly a much better film than Altman’s Buffalo Bill and the Indians. Douglas plays a vain, strutting marshall who’s running for senate. His vanity is justified in some ways. He’s very good at his work. But his character is fatally flawed, as we shall see. The only thing between him and a career of perfection is the fact that bank robber Bruce Dern is still at large. After a couple of very memorable, clever set pieces, Dern is caught…and, again very cleverly, we watch as he contrives to escape, and manages to do so. Just as the hero proves to have faults, Dern’s robber eventually becomes sort of likable, at least to the characters in the story. In the end, Dern kidnaps Douglas and demands an immediate ransom of $40,000, the amount he lost from his bank robbery. Douglas orders his posse to go get the money—and they do, by looting the town and killing one of its leading citizens. THEN, the posse joins up with Dern (they’d earlier learned that Douglas wasn’t going to retain them on staff when he became a senator…instead they were to get railroad jobs at a cut in salary). Douglas has in a single instant lost all political goodwill, all possibility of the senate seat that seemed assured, and he is completely alone in the world. It is clearly an allegory about Richard Nixon. Very well made— so odd for it to be this obscure.

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The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975)

A pretty tough pill to swallow. Disney “comedy” aimed strictly at children — and children from 30 years ago at that. Echoes of The Courtship of Eddie’s Father: Bill Bixby is a gambler who is tricked into taking care of three orphans in fictional Quake City, California. The supposedly worthless mine they inherited turns out to contain gold. Suddenly they’re rich. Bixby marries a Calamity Jane like female stage driver in order to take care of the kids. David Wayne plays her southern gentleman father. Harry Morgan is the town sheriff.  David Tomlinson (Mr. Banks in Marry Poppins)  is the town banker. Painfully unfunny, mechanical comic relief by Don Knotts and Tim Conway who try to do crimes, including stealing the gold, but bungle every attempt. A gang of genuine crooks, led by Slim Pickens, heats things up a trifle. A relative comes to claim the kids. The kids encourage the two clowns to steal the gold so they can have their family back. Slim Pickens, dressed as a reverend, robs it first. The kids are kidnapped. There is a hair-raising chase in a fire wagon — a fancy type this small town would never have. Bill Bixby fights Slim Pickens in rapids. The movie has a wacky but inappropriate bluegrass soundtrack.

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Rancho Deluxe

An Altmanesque countercultural hippie comedy, about a couple of ne’er-do-wells who become rustlers so they “don’t fall asleep”. Jeff Bridges is a bored rich boy, Sam Waterston is an Indian named Cecil. The setting is latter day Montana. They keep escalating pranks on local a cattleman (who formerly owned a string of hairdressing chops in Schenectady with his wife Elizabeth Ashley) until they become full fledged rustlers, with Harry Dean Stanton and another dude as inside men. The film is leisurely moving in the style of that time. Much cannabis influence. And the irritating thesis (so common at the time) that free-spirited youth are justified in committing all manner of crimes so long as they do it to capitalist assholes. But it has its moments.

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Goin’ South (1976)

A very funny comedy western and a special treat for Jack Nicholson fans, for he not only stars in this film but he directed it as well. Nicholson plays a guy who about to get hung but then is saved at the last minute by a local ordinance from the Civil War days that says a man can be freed if any eligible woman in the town wants to marry him. Mary Steenburger offers to do it, mostly so she can use him as slave labor to work the gold mine on her land. Other characters include Christopher Lloyd and John Belushi as deputies (Belushi as a Mexican — boy, how I miss him roles like this, offensive as it is). Danny Devito and some others play Nicholson’s old gang. (Clearly Nicholson had bonded with Lloyd and Devito on the set of the previous year’s triumph, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). There are a couple of distasteful rape scenes played for comedy which really don’t make the grade today, but otherwise, it’s mighty enjoyable A buddy picture, with the prim virgin Steenburgen and the stinky, bearded roughneck Nicholson growing on one another until they are a bona fide couple. Ed Begley, Jr.’s in it too as a fellow “gallows groom”.

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The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox (1976)

George Segal and Goldie Hawn. A comedy western that follows the It Happened One Night double chase formula. She’s a prostitute on a mission to marry a rich Mormon; he’s a good looking card cheat who’s hooked up with her because she stole the money he stole from some bank robbers. While his name is “Molloy”, Segal’s character is extremely Jewish. When you factor in the fact that he’s constantly smoking a huge cigar, it’s very like having George Burns or Georgie Jessell in the movie. The script and comedy are mostly annoying. Segal’s character is creepy and sleezy (the creators seem to think he’s simply cute and loveable) and I’ve never cared much for Goldie Hawn aside from her Laugh-In character (although I do find it amazing that she did this picture the same year as Foul Play. She was really on a roll briefly). Naturally over the course of the film they fall in love. They actually abandon their plan. He’s shot up and we think he will die, but mostly because he thinks he will die. She goads him back to life. The film is mostly significant because of the influence of Blazing Saddles in it. While it functions on its own terms as a “real” comedy western, i.e. we care (or are supposed to care) about the characters and plot, it also plays with the genre. Segal whistles to call his horse, and makes references to the way other cowboys do things in movies. There is a lot of Jewish stuff, including a whole scene where the two characters crash a Jewish wedding in San Francisco in order to escape. Early on , Goldie has a British music hall number that’s clearly influenced by Madeline Kahn’s in Blazing Saddles. Lastly, Bobby Vinton sings a Sammy Kahn song over a romantic MOS segment that is clearly meant to parody the “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The other notable element is a surfeit of 70’s era profanity.

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Adios Amigo (1976)

Former football star and blaxploitation hero Fred Williamson wrote, produced, directed and starred in this reportedly terrible film, and Richard Pryor, then on the cusp of exploding into superstardom, co-starred as a favor.

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Hot Lead and Cold Feet (1978)

Better than average Disney family fare. Rather ingenious mix of The Comedy of Errors and The Tortoise and the Hare. Jim Dale plays a pair of twins who don’t know about each other. One is a rootin’, tootin’ shoot ’em up bad guy. The other is a Salvation Army preacher. He also portrays their father, who plays dead in order to test the boys. The founder of a town, he leaves his enormous wealth to whichever of the sons wins a deadly cross-country race through the wilderness, down rapids, up a mountain. The funniest scenes are when good brother Dale arrives in the town with his two obligatory orphan wards and schoolteacher Karen Valentine. The entire town is engaged in fistfights, robberies, shootouts, hangings etc. The other funny scenes are the Comedy of Errors ones…when everyone thinks good guy  Dale is his mean brother, giving him all sorts of deference much to his bewilderment (kind of like Along Came Jones). Darren McGavin is brilliant as the banker/mayor who conspires to bump off both brothers so he can have all the wealth for himself. To the consternation of many, good guy Dale holds his own through the race, mostly by accident. He ends up saving his bad brother’s life. Not surpisingly, In the end, the mean one is a bit more civilized, and the good one, a bit more assertive. In a sort of superfluous subplot, Don Knotts plays a sheriff and Jack Elam, a criminal he keeps trying to duel with.

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The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again (1979)

This sequel is more palatable then its predecessor. There is a greater emphasis on comedy without the saccharine cutesy kid plot. Don Knotts and Tim Conway now attempt to go straight but run afoul of crooks.  The purported stars are as tedious as ever, but the rest of the cast is rewarding. Kenneth Mars is a hilarious Wild Bill Hickok parody named Wooly Bill Hitchcock. Tim Matheson as a young cavalryman. Harry Morgan as a general. Roger C. Carme; (Harry Mudd from Star Trek) as a bank robber; Jack Elam one of the gang. Ruth Buzzi as an obnoxious old lady. On the lam from Mars, the two guys are enlisted into the army. They do a horrific drag turn as dance hall girls towards the end. The nice lieutenant who’s going to marry the general’s daughter turns out to run the smuggling ring; Tim Matheson emerges as the hero.

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The Villain (1979)

An atrocious comedy western by Hal Needham, the rocket scientist behind the Smokey and the Bandit and Cannonball Run franchises. Kirk Douglas is woefully miscast as a bumbling, Wile E. Coyote like bounty hunter, trying to kill sheriff Arnold Schwarzenegger (yes!) and the always sexy Ann-Margaret. When I say Wile E. Coyote, I mean Wile E. Coyote…the film literally recreates Warner Brothers cartoon gags in live action. But Douglas has no comic ability or knack and what’s the point of cartoon gags without cartoon exaggeration? The film also contains a thousand character actors, some of whom we laugh at, some we laugh with: Mel Tillis (who also supplies the movie’s lame soundtrack, and I think co-produced), Paul Lynde (as an Indian!) Strother Martin, Foster Brooks, Ruth Buzzi, Jack Elam. The film limps along from gag to gag for the duration and then suddenly ends out of left field. Ann-Margaret has been trying to shtup Schwarzenegger right along….and he must be gay because he’s not interested (some joke!) In the end, she simply decides to go with Douglas, who leaps around in fast motion like Daffy Duck in response. End of movie.

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The Frisco Kid (1979)

A terrific idea wasted. Gene Wilder as a rabbi in the old west — how could it lose? It does, on just about every level. It fails as both a comedy and as a western. The premise is that it’s 1850 and that Gene Wilder is hired from his village in Poland to be the rabbi for a congregation in San Francisco. When he gets to Philadelphia, he has missed the boat (the best way for getting cross country at the time) and so must go by land. He has mishaps along the way: some guys steal his money and dump him off in western Pennsylvania. He is nursed by some Amish people. Then he hooks up with Harrison Ford, a bank robber, who sees him across the continent. Indians, mountains, deserts, etc. They become friends. When they get to the coast they encounter the bad guys from the beginning of the film and have a run in. The Rabbi takes a life. In the end, he becomes the rabbi AND runs the last bad guy out of town, AND marries a pretty girl.

The arc of the story is fine. Here’s where it fails. Director Robert Aldrich, usually a workmanlike director of action films and the like,  has a tin ear for comedy. He has what I think of (rightly or wrongly) as a German sense of humor — a weird lack of compassion. I felt this above all in the early scene where the rabbi is stripped, beaten and thrown off the back of a wagon. It is played for wacky comedy, as though we are supposed to laugh along with the thugs who are doing this cruel thing. And while the scene comes across as anti-Semitic I think that’s accidental. The real issue is a lack of sensitivity which would make one notice the wrongness right off the bat. The whole movie is like that: very clumsily and clunkily — indifferently — shot and edited. Wilder’s performance, though humorous and touching, is lost and wasted.

Equally unforgivable is the historical ignorance that subtly undermines the whole thing. We are accustomed to westerns taking occasional historical liberties. In such cases however we get the sense that the authors have at least had a grammar school education in American history and are simply toying with facts to make a better story. Here, it seems like the writers have not only never been near a classroom but have probably never seen a western! Set in 1850? They did this I guess because the “gold rush” is on, presumably the motive for lots of people going west. Since it plays no role in this story, they should have thrown it out and set it at a later date because every single aspect of the production has more to do with the 1870s or ’80s, from the clothes they are wearing, to the fact that the rabbi is familiar with western lore and “cowboys”, to the fact that San Francisco is already a big flourishing city with a fancy hotel (the boom only started in 1849). Furthermore, along the way, they are attacked by some vague group of people called “Indians” See above for my problem with THAT. It’s rare to find film-makers so slipshod and inexpert that they wouldn’t identify what tribe was attacking, and that they wouldn’t put some knowledge of the tribe into to the supposedly knowledgeable character’s (Harrison Ford’s) mouth. “Indians”! What is that? It’s like saying “Europeans”!

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Draw! (1984)

Kirk Douglas as an aging desperado on his way to Mexico to retire when he finds himself holed up in a hotel room with a beautiful blond hostage (Linda Sorenson). James Coburn, the drunken ex-sheriff who was his nemesis back in the day, is hired to take him down. I’ve not seen this one; copies seem a little hard to come by.

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Rustler’s Rhapsody (1985)

Tiresome, witless “comedy” that’s supposed to parody westerns of late ’30s through ’40s. Never mind the fact that by 1985 the clichés the movie parodies would only have been appreciated by senior citizens — it’s also not funny. It keeps calling attention to the clichés, but with no real “joke” attached. There is a lot of gay humor, poking fun of the overly costumed, virginal hero Rex O’Herlihan the Singing Cowboy (Tom Berenger) as well as the cattle baron villain (Andy Griffith). The presence of Griffith is to me an indication of how hard-up (and ignorant) the era is. “Country” and “Western” had long since split, but some people are tone deaf to the difference. This is true of the casting of the North Carolinian Griffith (who was never associated with westerns) and of the horrible orchestration of the cowboy songs in the movie, which are made to sound like they come from modern Nashville. Apparently because the writer couldn’t think of enough comic material to be gleaned from ’40s westerns (I can think of enough for five pictures) he includes digs at spaghetti westerns, too. The film was badly directed (shot-wise for comedy) by its screenwriter Hugh Wilson. And everbody’s hair is way too fucking long if this is supposed to represent a 1940s vision. Marilu Henner is the dance hall girl (thankless), Patrick Wayne, a rival, and G.W. bailey,Bthat distinctly unlikable guy who played Rizzo on M*A*S*H is the town drunk/sidekick. Is there anything good about the picture? Well, yes— there is a very impressive dancing horse. I’m quite in earnest. I’d watch that horse dance again any time.

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Lust in the Dust (1985)

A Paul Bartel (Death Race 2000, Eating Raul) comedy western, with a John Waters cast (Tab Hunter and Divine. Also Edith Massey was planned, but she died so they cast another old lady). Cast also has Cesar Romero and Lainie Kazin. The film is just about precisely what you’d expect. Bartel’s style of camp is to be self-consciously bad, but is infectious. Like when you go to a drag show at a cabaret, there is a joy in it that can only be found in amateur and community theatre productions. The whole cast is totally committed to this preposterous scenario which casts Divine and Lainie Kazin as sisters who were separated at birth, each of whom has a treasure map tattooed to her ass. Kazin is directed to be as much of a nightmare as Divine is. Hunter (doing a take on Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name) and Henry Silva (a leader of a gang of bad guys that includes a black, a Chinese man, and a little person) square off in search of the gold. The gold plot gets short shrift though, it’s really an excuse for all sorts of sexual shenanigans. In one of the film’s best recurring gags, Divine’s fat thighs break the neck of every man who goes down on her. There are two musical numbers — Divine’s is as bad as you would imagine; Kazin’s as good as you would imagine. Anyway, in its way, this movie is better at what it does than either Pale Rider or Silverado (or Rustler’s Rhapsody), also released that year. By the way, Lust in the Dust was the original title of Duel in the Sun. 

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Three Amigos  (1986)

Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, and Martin Short co-star in a film co-written by Martin and Lorne Michaels, and directed by John Landis. For some reason I was completely uninterested in seeing this movie when it came out. It may have been because I was disappointed in the sight of men I considered brilliant satirists behaving like much stupider comedians (another example would be the one where john candy and Eugene levy play security guards). But I watched it a couple of years ago and found it very enjoyable, with a strong comic premise. It is 1916. The three stars are the titular amigos, three movie stars of a western adventure series with a Mexican setting reminiscent of Zorro or the Cisco Kid. Suddenly out of work, the actors answer a summons for help from a Mexican village, thinking it is a mere request for a personal appearance. When they get down there, they are forced to fight an evil bandit and his large gang. The best comedy comes from the first two-thirds of the film when they don’t yet know their confrontations are for real. The last third is the “serious comedy” stuff…when they save the day etc. This is also played mostly for laughs and is weaker than it should be because there are no real emotional stakes. Landis seems to have phoned in his direction — a caring hand would have made a better picture out of this screenplay. The whole thing feels oddly impersonal…none of the the stars is precisely themselves — any competent comedians could have played these parts. This is not to say that it is not full of funny gags. The best bit has the three of them on a very artificial western desert set singing a cowboy number, accompanied by the local animals.

For more on comedy film history please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etcchain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

Tomorrow A.M. on TCM: The Best Witch Movie Ever (& the Worst “Wizard”)

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Larry Semon, Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , on July 1, 2015 by travsd

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Tomorrow morning at 6:00am, Turner Classic Movies will be showing perhaps the most hauntingly effective witchcraft movie ever made. A silent Danish/Swedish co-production from 1922,  Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (by Benjamin Christensen) purports to be a sort of anthropological documentary along the lines of Nanook of the North, but the bulk of it is taken up by fictional dramatization. In the tradition of the best romances, its fiction of “truth and realism” lends it added power. The movie tells of witches and devils, secret rites and ceremonies, orgies, communion with Satan, depictions of hell, late night flights on broomsticks, human sacrifice, literal ass-kissing (an unholy practice, which caused the film to be banned) etc. Plus the film shows (ironically) all the horrors and tortures of the Inquisition. The imagery in the film is gorgeous, powerful and scary. It is a compendium of visual source material to inspire artists of all sorts: film-makers, painters, theatre designers — all those who want to depict what goes on at Midnight. It puts us back in touch with the superstitious part of our brain and the fear inspired by old legends, something most modern stabs at the genre fail to do.

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Tomasin en el Reino de Oz - El Mago de Oz - The Wizard of Oz - 1925 - Cartel007

Then at 8:00 a.m. Turner Movie Classics will be showing the notorious 1925 Larry Semon silent version of The Wizard of Oz. This was actually the second screen version. A 1910 adaptation had been made by the Selig studio, with L. Frank Baum’s direct involvement and Bebe Daniels in the role of Dorothy. Semon’s was the first feature length version.

Any resemblance between this film and the Baum book is purely coincidental. Despite the fact that the film opens with an old man reading from a book of The Wizard of Oz scarcely any story detail remains intact (although Semon’s nose does resemble Margaret Hamilton’s). In this film, the Wizard is a mere toady of a mean despot named “Emperor Kruel”. Oliver Hardy is in the film, although, amazingly, he is not the heavy. That role can be said to be played by Fatty Alexander, here cast as Uncle Henry, a mean bully! Will the heresies never cease? Farm hands Hardy and Semon are rivals for the affection of Dorothy, who is about to turn 18.

While we are anxiously awaiting the arrival of a plot, Semon runs afowl of a duck who spits animated white liquid in his face; and then a bunch of animated bees which sting his butt, but not before his fundament has been kicked by a mule, sending Semon flying into an enormous patch of cactuses that have mysteriously been transplanted to Kansas. (Semon anticipates Jerry Lewis by wearing inappropriate jewelry—in this case a large ring—that his character would never wear).

There is a third farm hand played by an African-American whose SCREEN name is G. Howe Black”. You can imagine the kind of comedy this character generates. He is first discovered rolling his eyes and slurping a stolen watermelon. Later he will run through the skies as lightning keeps zapping his butt.

But we are ahead of ourselves. We learn in a flashback that Dorothy is not really related to Henry and Em, she was left on the doorstep as an infant (played by the ugliest baby I’ve ever seen on celluloid). A note in the basket says to open the attached envelope when she turns 18—she is clearly the lost Queen of Oz. Bad guys from Oz come to steal the note before she reads it. (They leave Oz in a tri-plane; arrive in Kansas in a biplane. Must be like heaven, when you leave, you lose a pair of wings.)

The tornado arrives by divine intervention bringing Hardy, Semon, Dorothy, Uncle Henry and the black guy to Oz.  Dorothy learns she is to be queen, but the bad guys show up. Semon hides by dressing as a Scarecrow. Hardy, the Tin Man. They are arrested, but only Semon and the black guy are thrown in the dungeon. Everyone else is perfectly happy about the situation. While Emperor Kruel schemes to marry Dorothy, our friends in the dungeon try to escape. The black guy dresses in a lion costume, thus completing the trilogy and fulfilling aesthetic mandate. The film’s best (or most original) sequence emerges…one I believe resuscitated by Abbott and Costello for Africa Screams. Semon and the costumed black guy (do you WANT me to call him G. Howe Black?) get amongst some real lions. Of course at a certain point Semon will think he is with his human friend and get very saucy and confident with an actual lion. Well…you had to be there.

Anyway, in the end, Prince Kynd (remember him?) has a sword fight and defeats Emperor Kruel, thus making all the other male characters in the plot superfluous.

EPILOGUE: The requisite Semon set piece on towers with the acrobatic swinging of stunt men. Semon’s character jumps onto an airplane just as the tower he is on is smashed by a cannon—this would go in ANY action film today. Back to the little girl’s dream. End.

For more on silent film don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Tonight on TCM: “White Men Among Native Americans”

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies, Native American Interest, PLUGS, Westerns with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 1, 2015 by travsd

Hey, that’s THEIR title – -I didn’t make it up! The theme tonight on Turner Classic Movies is westerns with “White Men Among Native Americans” at their center.

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8:00 pm (EST):  Jeremiah Johnson (1972) 

While Redford was to name his independent film complex after his character in the above-described western, it is really Jeremiah Johnson that captures the moment he fell in love with the country that became that centre’s location, the area around Provo, Utah. I saw this film many times as a kid as well, and remembered it over the years as a beautiful film full of micro-events in which nothing much happens. Seeing it again a few years ago I realized that this is very much not the case. It is true that the titular character spends much of his time alone, or with mutes, crazies or non-English speakers, hence little dialogue. But there is a huge central event: he acquires a family which he dearly loves and they are tragically massacred. Then he kills several Indians in revenge and from then on his life is a constant harassment, as individual Indians keep trying to pick him off. Set in the mountains and desert of Utah in the early 1850s (it’s hard to tell how much time passes as the story progresses– one of the film’s few flaws, although you could justify it as a choice. For Johnson has no idea how much time passes either, with no calendars around).

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A former soldier from the Mexican War, he decides to be a “mountain man”, a trapper, a pioneer among pioneers. There have been few films about this important chapter in the west, for the very good reason that it is hard to make a film about solitude. But this one succeeds. After his rudimentary frontier skills cause him much suffering, he meets the incomparable Will Geer, a favorite character of mine, who plays a far better established hermit (who, delightfully, keeps calling Johnson “Pilgrim”). Geer teaches him better skills. After some time, Johnson stumbles on the site of a massacre. There is no sign of a husband, the wife is crazy, and her children have been killed. One boy is left, a mute (whether he was always such or whether it was caused by the trauma remains unanswered). When Johnson gives some horses and rival Indian scalps to the French-speaking Chief of the Flatfeet, he gives him his daughter for a wife. With his new wife and son Johnson builds a home. But the Shangri-La is all spoiled when soldiers come and beg him to be their guide to rescue some starving families trapped in a mountain pass. The soldiers insist that they proceed through a holy Crow burial ground.  This enrages the Crow, who kill Redford’s new family.

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The format of the film, an initial voiceover and recurring theme song, make the events feel like a true story which one is being told (and I believe the character is a composite of many such real characters). Anyway, it’s a terrific film. It has many aspects of true epic structure:a mentor (Geer), a series of trials, and of course, the hubris of crossing the Gods and the subsequent retribution.

And of course it represents a chance to see Robert Redford, at his hairiest, living in environmentalist Nirvana.

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10:00 pm: (EST) Little Big Man (1970)

Like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid this is one I thought highly of in my youth but has sunk a little in my estimation since.  I first saw Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man as a child, and watched it many times thereafter. Looking at it now I realize there is a certain odd inconsistency of tone to the movie. It keeps shifting back and forth between a picaresque satire with slapstick elements to genuine tragedy. As a kid that didn’t bother me but now I am able to look at it with some clarity. In and of themselves, the scenes where the Indians are massacred are completely moving and alarming, shot with a cruel fidelity, benefiting from Dustin Hoffman’s terrific acting. Likewise, the intimate scenes with Hoffman and his adopted Indian grandfather (Chief Dan George) are touching and real, sometimes sad, if occasionally gently humorous. These scenes clearly seem influenced by the book “Black Elk Speaks”.

But one is in a quandary as to how to fit it into the rest of the film, which is a silly tall-tale about a guy who appears to have been everywhere and done everything connected with the legends of the Old West. Hoffman’s Jack Crabbe is rescued from a Crow Indian massacre and raised by the Cheyenne. When his tribe is attacked by soldiers he rather cravenly reveals himself as white and is brought to live with a preacher and his hot, oversexed wife (Faye Dunaway). Disillusioned, he takes up with a snake oil salesman (a somewhat miscast Martin Balsam) who progressively keeps losing body parts. Meeting his sister he becomes a gunfighter, and comes to know Wild Bill Hickok. At various points he is a muleskinner for Custer, who is played by Richard Mulligan (Soap) for broad comedy as a vain, delusional madman. At a certain point Crabbe runs a store with a Swedish wife. Between these interludes he keeps going back to the Cheyenne. There is even broad comedy with some of the Indian segments—a gay Indian, and a rival brave who goes insane with the many inadvertent insults Little Big Man commits against him. He also amasses four wives — screwing three of them in a row as the fourth bears his child. Even Custer’s Last Stand is played for broad, slapstick comedy. (Yet the shooting of Hickok, whom we’ve only spent about two minutes of screentime with, is played for unearned pathos).

Is Little Big Man a tragedy about the destruction of the Indians? A comedy about American myth-making? It can’t be both but it tries to, as though Penn had intercut two different movies together.

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12:30 am: The Searchers (1956) 

John Ford’s masterpiece. Texas 1868. John Wayne is a Confederate vet (and outlaw). His family is massacred by Comaches. (The film’s most memorable scene: the horrible tension when the family realizes Indians are coming and they’re all alone. They put the lights out. The daughter screams, goes into hysterics. They hide). Wayne takes a large posse out to look for her, led by Ward Bond, who is both a reverend and a captain in the Texas Rangers. Also along is Wayne’s adopted nephew (Jeffery Hunter), who is an Indian or half-breed.

They keep on the chase long after the rest of the posse quits. One niece is raped and killed. (Wayne is called upon to do some of the most emotional acting of his career in the scene where he finds her. He doesn’t quite pull it off but he gets an A for trying). Another niece (Natalie Wood) is kidnapped. Wayne is mean to the boy the whole time though he has more reason to want his sister back than Wayne does. Wayne is merely an angry man who wants blood payment. In time, the posse drops out and it’s just Wayne and the young man. When they finally reach the girl, several years later, she is now a squaw, the wife of a chief. Wayne wants to kill her. The kid won’t let him. They bring the girl back to live with another family. The film has a lot in common with Red River: an epic cross-country quest led by Wayne with an Ahab-like obsessiveness, and countered by a younger, more reasonable young man, who’d been raised as a son from infancy as an adopted foundling. Wayne’s catchphrase: “That’ll be the day”. The film has Ford’s most famous shot, going from the inside of the cabin to the gorgeous outside of Monument Valley. And the reverse, at the end of the picture. The theme song puts a chill up my spine. This picture makes me wanna bawl just thinkin’ about how great it is.

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2:45 am (EST) The Last of the Mohicans (1936)

Reliance Pictures version of the James Fenimore Cooper tale starring Randolph Scott as Hawkeye and Bruce Cabot as Magua. I’ve not yet seen this verision, so my DVR is set.

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4:30 am (EST) The Paleface (1922) 

Buster Keaton silent comedy short.   In this western parody Buster plays an innocent butterfly collector who accidentally walks onto an Indian reservation whose inmates have vowed to “kill the next white man [they] see”. The natives are treated sympathetically (they are being swindled by unscrupulous agents, a common western theme) though they are a bit on the “how, ugh” side and want nothing more than to burn Buster to a crisp at the stake. Although he hilariously best them at one point by pulling up the stake he is tied to and bonking his captor’s on the head with it while he is still trussed up. In the end Buster saves the day and as his reward picks out a pretty “Indian squab” of his own, kissing her passionately on the lips…for two years! This is racially progressive stuff for 1922, so bravo, Buster.

A History of the Comedy Western #3: 1950s-60s

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Sit Coms, Television, Westerns with tags , , , , , , on July 1, 2015 by travsd

This is part three of a five part series. For part one, covering the years of silent comedy, go here.  For part two, covering 1930s and 1940s, go here.

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Punchy Cowpunchers (1950)

Surprise! The Three Stooges continue to dominate the field of comedy westerns for some time to come! In this one, they play wash-out cavalry soldiers assigned to go undercover as saloon waiters so they can foil a gang that has taken over a town. Christine McIntyre is a damsel in distress. By the 1950s you can see they are beginning to repeat themselves.

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Merry Mavericks (1951)

The Three Stooges are falsely advertised to be three famous marshalls so as to rattle a murderous gang which has taken over a western town. To scare people away from the loot, one of the gang member’s masquerades as the headless ghost of an Indian. The middle part of the picture is a ghost comedy as the Stooges find themselves wandering around a “haunted house”. In the end, Shemp learns the truth, knocks the “ghost” out, takes his place in the costume and knocks the rest of the gang out with his tommyhawk.

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My Friend Irma Goes West (1950)

The second and last of the “Irma” pictures starring Marie Wilson, with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis again part of the ensemble. This one is a contemporary western comedy so we give it honorable mention. The gang goes out west to Las Vegas to pursue show biz opportunities. When Irma gets kidnapped and held for ransom, Lewis goes in disguise as an “Indian” to rescue her.

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The Tooth Will Out (1951)

The Three Stooges again! This one is actually an extended out-take from Merry Mavericks, expanded to fill out a short. Apparently in the previous film they had originally gone undercover as dentists. Here, they wash out and a number of restaurant jobs so they enroll in dental school. When they complete the course, the instructor (Vernon Dent) suggests they set up practice in the far west. Which they do…the rest is more of a dental comedy than a comedy western.

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Gold Raiders (1951)

Interesting hybrid of B movie western and a Three Stooges picture.  In addition to the Stooges it co-stars George O’Brien, Lyle Talbot and Fuzzy Knight. The plot is the standard hokum. O’Brien is an insurance salesman in the old west! But he gets roped into adventure because he insures gold shipments which need protection. As security guards he hires medicine show con men the Three Stooges! Talbot leads a gang of robbers, as is the custom, going incognito as a solid citizen. The Stooge’s slapstick business is sort of shoehorned in here, seemingly merely tolerated by the rest of the cast who are trying to tell a real story.

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Skipalong Rosenbloom (1951)

In this obscure western parody out of shape Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom is recruited to be the sheriff of a town to foil  the dastardly Butcher Baer (fellow ex-boxer Max Baer). The cast also includes  Jackie Coogan, Fuzzy Knight and the vaudeville team of Shaw and Lee.  The movie is quite hard to see nowadays (I’ve not seen it) but you can learn about it in this terrific article by Jonathan Rosenbaum. 

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Son of Paleface (1952)

Though directed by the great Frank Tashlin, this sequel to The Paleface is not nearly as great as the original. Hope plays the son of the hero of the last movie, a Harvard educated dude in white ducks and an automobile. The deceased father has been revised to being (or seeming to have been) an actual frontier hero, one whose shadow the son must now live under. (I’ve never quite understood the appeal of such heros. Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton often played them. I find it very hard to root for spoiled young rich boys, and it is a flaw in this film). Jane Russell returns as his love interest, although oddly she has nothing to do now with Calamity Jane. Roy Rogers plays a law man. There are several extremely embarrassing musical numbers—you could with justification call this a musical. Some of the jokes are very funny. Many more are embarrassing hackwork.

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Shot in the Frontier (1954)

This parody of the recent hit High Noon, pits the Three Stooges against the Noonan Brothers, who are out to kill the Stooges for marrying girls they felt were their’s.

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Pals and Gals (1954)

This late Columbia Three Stooges short is a re-make of the team’s earlier Out West with the incorporation of some of the business from Goofs and Saddles. A portion of the film is made out of stock footage.

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Pardners (1956)

Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis’s penultimate picture together casts them as the sons of two ranchers who were killed by bad guys out west. Raised in the east, the two now want to prove themselves. Martin is a successful rodeo competitor; Lewis wants to be but is too inept. The two end up foiling a gang of masked bandits. The most memorable thing about this picture is the title song, by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen. It’s directed by Norman Taurog. 

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The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw (1958)

Directed by Raoul Walsh and a far cry from his landmark The Big Trail! A comedy western, and a great idea for a film although very weakly realized. Kenneth More plays a British inventor and heir to a gun factory. He decides to make good by traveling to the American west. Surely they’ll want to buy his guns there? The film’s humor stems from the fact that he is a stereotypical Englishman — everything is proper, he never gets ruffled, and he honors tea time at 4 o’clock. This sense of propriety (and naivete, which has him walking right up to dangerous characters and giving them a piece of his mind), the fact that he says he is in the “gun business”, and he wears an invention that drops a derringer out of his sleeve into his hand whenever he wills it, have the whole town thinking he is a tough and formidable guy, and they make him sheriff. He ends up bringing about peace between rival gangs, and making friends with nearby Indians. The bulk of the movie, however, seems concerned with his romance with inn-keeper Jayne Mansfield, who spars with him and has several musical numbers. The two marry in the end

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McLintock (1963)

I am tempted to call this movie best non-spoof comedy western. It’s definitely John Wayne’s best comic performance, although that’s not saying much. His comic scenes in John Ford’s and his own movies are usually irritatingly bad, just self-conscious and clumsy. Here it’s a bit of self-mockery and works really well. His comical foil is Maureen O’Hara, his traditional leading lady, also here at her best. Like Wayne, she is not really an actress but more a force of nature. Very little real subtlety.  But neither does a freight train possess much subtlety and it can be beautiful nonetheless. O’Hara seems to me the person the phrase “you’re beautiful when you’re angry” was devised for.

In the film, Wayne plays the title character, and the founder of the fictional town that also bears his name. He is a big man in every sense of the word. The whole town loves him, not just because he is the most powerful man in town but because he is a straight up guy to boot — and nice.  He lets Mexican kids climb up his trellis. His best friend is the Jewish merchant from town. His ranch is in the Cherokee Strip and they are about to let settlers in (it’s the 1895 run), but his run-ins with them are all humanitarian. Unlike a neighboring rancher he doesn’t vow to “run ‘em out”. He explains to them that the land they’ll be getting is bad. And he stops the lynching of an Indian by settlers. He even hires one of the young settlers (played by his actual son Patrick Wayne) for a cowhand, and his beautiful mother (Yvonne DeCarlo, va va voom) for a cook.

McLintock’s utopia is upset when his wife (O’Hara), from whom he has been separated for two years, returns to town from back east. She wishes to prevent their daughter (Stephanie Powers, again with the va va voom) from moving back home. The wife and daughter are both snobs, despite the wife coming from the same upbringing as McLintock did it. She puts on airs, bosses people around. The fact of the couple’s separation seems to recall their earlier film together Rio Grande, as does the fact that they really love one another. Bit by bit O’Hara starts to melt as she begins to remember who she is. (This is egged along by an astounding Taming of the Shrew scene, where McLintock pursues his wife through the town in her underwear. She and one of the town prostitutes are dunked in a water trough, in a somewhat problematic and sexist scene that climaxes with a good, hard spanking. Meanwhile the daughter falls in love with the ranch hand and they live happy ever after. There must be ten recognizable character actors from westerns in the film, including Strother Martin as a dude Indian agent in spectacles. Jerry van Dyke as the daughter’s dude boyfriend from college who does a hilarious cakewalk “it’s the latest thing!” A minor classic of the genre.

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Four for Texas (1963) 

A Rat Pack western!  Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra are the stars, and the film is mostly a non-comical western. We give it honorable mention in this post, because the film contains a brief scene featuring the Three Stooges as a trio of pornographic portrait painters. This is the fourth incarnation of the comedy team, with Curly Joe DeRita as the third stooge.

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The Outlaws is Coming (1965)

This is the last Three Stooges movie, not including the terrible (and non-slapstick) 1970 tv pilot Kook’s Tour. At this stage, Moe Howard was 68 years old — it was time to hnag up his spurs (but he actually never did. Ten years later when he died he was still trying to get another Stooges feature off the ground). In this last hurrah, the Stooges and a pre-Batman Adam West come west to save the buffalo from an evil villain who plans to take over the west by eliminating the Indians’ principal game, causing them to go one the warpath. I’m sure no one has ever made this observation, but this is the exact same plan that Charles Manson would attempt to put into effect three years later, substituting the Indians with African Americans. I wonder what films they were showing the inmates at that prison….?

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Cat Ballou (1965)

I’ve always thought this popular movie is not nearly (in fact not at all) as funny as it tries so desperately to be. It has that energy I so hate from musicals of that period: a lot of pedestrian jokes, sold with a hyperactive soundtrack and aggressively “comical” performances by performers who aren’t primarily comedians. At rise, Cat Ballou (Jane Fonda) is about to be hung. Flashback to what brought her there: it’s 1895. She returns to Wyoming from finishing school on a train, where she encounters a couple of outlaws, one of whom hides out in her berth for a while before jumping off the train. (The other is his uncle Dwayne Hickman, dressed as a priest) I’ve always thought this scene (in the berth) promised a better movie, a sort of reverse Tom Jones with a female lead. I still contend that that would have been a better movie, and Jane Fonda would have been perfect for it: a sort of naïve sexual magnet. (I guess we’ll have to settle for Barbarella.) Anyway, she gets to her father (John Marley)’s ranch. It and he are in a bad way. A company is harassing him to move off his ranch so they can open a slaughterhouse. He is fighting it. They hire some muscle.

Now we get to the keystone of the film: the irritating, talentless, and unaccountably Oscar-winning Lee Marvin plays duel roles: 1) the company’s bad-guy muscle, who dresses all in black and has a metal nose like Tycho Brahe; and  2) the old time good-guy gunslinger (and dime novel hero) whom Cat hires to help her father, who turns out to be a broken down drunk. Then the bad guy kills her father. This turns out to be Cat’s call to adventure. She and her quartet of buddies (the two bumbling outlaws, the drunken gunfighter and a groovy, articulate Indian kid who worked for her father) go to Butch Cassidy (Arthur Hunnicutt)’s Hole in the Wall to hide out and cook up a train robbery, which they proceed to execute, robbing the villainous company’s payroll. Then the drunken gunfighter sobers himself up for a showdown with the guy with metal nose (his brother) and he kills him. The company is bringing in bad guys from all over the country to get them now. So Cat dolls herself up like a hooker and seduces the head of the company (an English lord) and tries to get him to sign a confession. When he doesn’t, she kills him. Back to present. She is about to be hung. Her buddies free her.

Oh yes, and as a narrative device the movie memorably features the singing balladeers Stubby Kaye and Nat King Cole.

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F Troop (1965-67)

One of my favorite “classic era” sit-coms. The show is a VERY knowing parody of John Ford’s cavalry pictures, down to every detail. Forrest Tucker and Larry Storch as frontier cavalry men, with Ken Berry as their bumbling commander, and (during the first season) Edward Everett Horton as an Indian named Chief Roaring Chicken. Old time serial western star Bob Steele as an old fighter from the Alamo. Is it a coincidence that Tucker’s character is named O’Rourke—the name Henry Fonda’s character mistakenly calls one of the main characters in Fort Apache? I think not. And Tucker had starred in many B movie westerns himself. Read my more extensive blogpost on F Troop here. 

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The Wild, Wild West (1965-1969)

Another of my favorite tv shows as a kid. A bizarre mix of spy stories (then VERY much in vogue in both film and television) and westerns. Robert Conrad and Ross Martin as two secret service men in the Grant administration with amazing gadgets and disguises and a very cool credit sequence. They travel on their own private train. A proliferation of steampunk inventions by both good guys and bad guys. Cartoonish Supervillains. Pirates, big game hunters, etc,  often disfigured or freaks, missing an eye, a hand, a leg.

The best villain of them all is Migelito Loveless, a genius dwarf…mad scientist (who has somehow already single-handedly  invented all of the major inventions of the twentieth century several decades early) and is also a musical and artistic genius. The actor who played him Michael Dunn was extremely talented — a very good actor, he could even sing, and co-wrote some of his scripts. Loveless’s assistant, a giant named Voltaire, was played by Richard Kiel, a.k.a “Jaws” from the James Bond pictures.

Another of my favorite actors Victor Buono played a Chinese villain named Wing Fat. The show was anachronistic in numerous ways, notably in attitudes towards sex. The pompadoured James West exceeds even James Bond in somehow making time with every beautiful woman five minutes after meeting her — and this in the Victorian Era. Also, he goes shirtless…and many of the women wear sleeveless or strapless gowns.  Never!

I recently re-watched some episodes after a break of several decades and found the star Robert Conrad to be just creepy and oily. The sex stuff is weird, but he is also a jerk, unlikable, not charming.  He gives a fake, mirthless laugh when Ross Martin’s Artie tells a joke. He’s all sex and violence. I vastly prefer Ross Martin’s ham actor — but I always did, and it shouldn’t be surprising! This show was made into an awful film in the 1990s – -we’ll cover that two posts from now.

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A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966)

I found this movie highly irritating, possessing a smug tone that thinks its vastly funnier than it actually is,  with an icky moral universe and a twist I saw coming halfway through. There is a high stakes poker game than that five richest men in Texas partake of. A family comes to town: Henry Fonda, Joanne Woodward and a kid who looks like he could never be their kid, (one of the early clues). Fonda insuates himself into the game and has a heart attack with his life savings on the table, forcing the wife to take the hand. The town banker (Paul Ford) loans her the money she needs to win the game, using the money as collateral. Jason Robards and a bunch of recognizable character actors are in the game. Burgess Meredith is the town doctor. It all turns out to be a con, with the banker and the doctor in on it, and an ironic coda with her playing cards again, she’s really a gambler named Ruby. Cameos by Chester Conklin and Mae Clarke are among the saving graces!

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Carry On, Cowboy (1966)

Part of the British “Carry On” series (which I’ll undoubtedly blog about in future). There’s very little that Blazing Saddles does that this movie didn’t do earlier. A steady stream of verbal and visual jokes, twists on the genre in Mad magazine style. It is quite hilarious…the jokes are very “music hall” just as Mel Brooks’ are very “burlesque”. Jim Dale is a sanitation engineer named Marshall, who accidentally gets hired to be the marshall of violent Stodge city and “clean it up”. The villain is a guy named Rump-o. The story, such as it is, requires Marshall to man up and act like an actual marshall in order to defeat Rump-o. He’s nervous enough about having to fight the villain, but all the gorgeous dance hall girls and prostitutes want to make love to him too. And Jim Dale is the man for this kind of comedy.

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Waterhole #3 (1967)

I can’t account for why this film is so astoundingly obscure. It is typical Hollywood fare, seems to have a normal budget, it’s not terrible or even irritating as I suspected (except possibly for the too present Roger Miller ballad that announces each scene, obviously inspired by the device in Cat Ballou). All I can think is the movie’s non-descriptive title makes everyone not only instantly dismiss it but instantly forget it.

It’s sort of racy, comedy western directed by Blake Edwards, definitely an attempt to replicate the success of Cat Ballou. At the very least, this movie should be studied in women’s studies courses — it is astoundingly, even infuriatingly, sexist. The hero (James Coburn) rapes the daughter of a sheriff (Carol O’Connor), and she of course kind of likes it. And the men all chuckle over this event thoughout the movie. O’Connor is more mad about Coburn’s theft of his horse than the rape of his daughter. You could make the interpretation that it’s satire about sexism, I guess. But I am familiar with Blake Edwards and the tastes of this era. It’s the Sexual Revolution. The idea is “What’s so bad about a little whoopee?” Coburn calls the rape “assault with a friendly weapon”. This icky attitude may be why this movie is dead and buried.

Anyway, the plot is a sort of imperfectly realized “zany farce”. Three guys steal a cache of gold from the army. Claude Akins is the inside man, a sergeant. James Whitmore is his commander). Another is Timothy Carey (that really weird character actor from Paths of Glory). They take a shoemaker (whose store they use to break into the army vault) as a hostage. Coburn kills the third partner in a gambling dispute and finds the map for the gold. Encountering sheriff O’connor (and his deputy Bruce Dern), he locks them in their own jail cell in their underwear, rapes the sheriff’s daughter and steals the horse. O’Connor catches him just as he finds the gold at water hole #3. Then there’s a bunch of back and forth as the gold keeps changing hands. At one point even the shoemaker (who now wants to marry a madam played by Joan Blondell) makes off with it. In the end, Coburn gets it, heading into Mexico, with everyone else on his tail. The plot is good, but Edwards, who is supposed to be good at this sort of thing (farce) actually isn’t. Think of how well Bogdonavich did with What’s Up, Doc?. Knowing what’s possible, Edwards’ limitations are glaring. Still I didn’t hate this one as much as I hate most of his movies.

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The Ballad of Josie (1967)

A feisty feminist western comedy of sorts with Doris Day in one of her last film roles as a Wyoming frontier woman who accidentally kills her abusive husband and has to maintain the ranch on her own, antagonizing the cattle men around her by raising sheep, and then antagonizing them even more by becoming a suffragrette! Women got the right to vote in Wyoming in 1869, btw — long before most of the U.S.

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The Shakiest Gun in the West (1968)

Some people write this movie off as just a rip-off of The Paleface. But really, if we’re going to play that game and only embrace the “original ones”, we’d only look at about four comedy westerns instead of the scores we are treating in this series. And at the moment, I happen to be in a place of maximum Don Knotts appreciation; I’m not really in a “hatin’ on Knotts” place at the moment.

I found this movie quite funny, and unexpectedly eloquent on the subject of gender roles and “manhood” in the old west. Predictably Knotts is a coward, a recently graduated dentist and mama’s boy from Philadelphia (a prologue is set back east). He decides to go “west” (just where he winds up is unspecified—some western town). He gets embroiled in a situation: a lady stagecoach robber (whose father Dub Taylor retires to open a Boston dress shop) is offered an ultimatum by the federal marshall – be an undercover agent or go to jail. She opts to be an agent. Her mission is to find out whom has been smuggling guns to the Comanches. When her male contact is killed, she grabs the nearest man – Knotts – and marries him so they can join a wagon train (with him as her beard). He has no clue about her real identity. Gradually he begins to accrue the reputation for being a hero, because in the heat of various fights, the wife, a crack shot, bails him out, unbeknownst to him. In the end he learns the truth and is demoralized. But he has a chance to redeem himself. He goes undercover as a squaw and rescues the girl from the tribe. He also befriends the Indians Androcles style, when he fashions some dentures for the chief. Many good character actors in it: in addition to Dub Taylor, there’s Jackie Coogan, Carl Ballantine, Pat Morita and many others whose faces I recognized but names I don’t know. Many, many good comedy bits and gags. The Indians are of course treated disrespectfully, with no cultural specificity, they just sort of dance and whoop and grunt and growl. When Knotts goes undercover, they fail to notice that he is neither female nor Comanche mainly because they are drunk. But taking that into consideration, Don Knotts gives a funny performance.

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The Over the Hill Gang  (1969)

A cute rated-G type tv movie light comedy-western with a lot of stars, directed by the one and only Jean Yarbrough. A town has a crooked mayor (the inescapable Edward Andrews). The crooked sheriff is played by Jack Elam. The crook judge is Andy Devine. And they have a few thuggish deputies. Ricky Nelson (somehow looking ten years younger than he had in Rio Bravo ten years earlier), the newspaper editor, is also running for mayor. He is being coerced by the town fathers. His father in law Pat O’Brien, a former Texas Ranger shows up. O’Brien calls up his old squad, consisting of Walter Brennan, Edgar Buchanan (a character I REALLY love) and Chill Wills. They are of course all codgers and not up to the task any more. (This is supposed to be intrinsically funny somehow.) Brennan tries a duel with one of the bad guys — gets humiliated. They resolve to use their wits instead, employing psychology, and getting the three town leaders at each others throats, and getting all the deputies to either flee or shoot each other. But the mayor is onto their plan. He hires some serious thugs. Somehow or other (I’m not really clear how), the old guys scare the bad guys in a shoot out, and they leave town. Another interesting feature of the film is that Gypsy Rose Lee plays the over the hill dance hall girl. The movie ends on a very nice last shot — the three heroes each take a different road on a three-way fork.

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Support Your Local Sheriff (1969)

This and the Over the Hill Gang are good examples of the western form in its decadence, apparently quite exhausted. The Over the Hill Gang at least has a good original angle, the idea of senior citizen cowboys. This one has the same light Sherwood Shwartz level tone, but no angle at all, just a vehicle for James Garner, a tribute to Walter Brennan, and a handful of feeble comical ideas. Garner seems to be reviving his Maverick persona, a very likable, laconic, cheerful and cool character, who delivers even insults affably. That is the germ of an idea that could be quite funny with a stronger script. It’s a sort of variation of Gary Cooper’s character, although Garner’s character travesties “innocence”, whereas Cooper’s is actually innocent.

The story begins with a terrific idea, wasted in this story because superfluous: a funeral which breaks out in a melee when gold is discovered in the freshly dug hole. A wild boomtown results (cheesy art direction — looks like a toy town). Town fathers are led by Harry Morgan as Mayor. They need a sheriff and Garner rides into town and takes the job. He keeps claiming that he’s just passing through on the way to Australia, and he demonstrates that he is such a good shot that he can shoot a hole through a thrown washer (a small metal ring, ya damn fool, not a washing machine). He also coolly dispatches any bad guys he needs to.

Such a character is usually given a backstory. None here. why does he have these skills? We don’t know. He’s just some perfect guy. The main force of evil in the town is Walter Brennan, who reprises his Old Man Clanton persona from My Darling Clementine: he has a gang of wild sons, one of whom is Bruce Dern. The bulk of the film centers around Garner arresting Dern for murder and placing him in a jail with no bars (they haven’t arrived from the store yet) and guarding him from several onslaughts of Brennan’s people. (This is what I think of as the Rio Bravo plot. Another Hawks tribute is a reference Brennan makes to his false teeth, which reminds us of Red River). Also, Garner makes Jack Elam, the “town character” a deputy, another Hawks gimmick. He romances Joan Hackett, Morgan’s daughter, an extremely crazy, accident prone, feisty girl, perhaps the script’s most interesting and promising idea, also squandered. (Note: Hackett had also been in the western Will Penny.) It ends with garner dispatching about 15 bad guys, and an epilogue about him marrying the girl and becoming governor.

For part four of this series go here.

For more on comedy film history please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etcchain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

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