Some Westerns of Jay Silverheels

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Today is the birthday of Jay Silverheels (Harold J. Smith, 1912-1980). Most famous of course for playing Tonto on the tv series The Lone Ranger (1949-1957) and some Lone Ranger films, Silverheels also played similar roles in films and on television from the late 1940s through the mid 1970s. A Native American from Canada, he began his career as a lacrosse player, and was hired by Joe E. Brown as a stunt man in the 1930s. Gradually he began to graduate to extra roles, and finally to speaking parts. One of his first was in Key Largo (1948) as one of the Seminoles who seeks refuge in the hotel during the hurricane.

Here are some notes from my notebooks on various westerns Silverheels appeared in.

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Yellow Sky (1948)

Directed by William Wellman.(Silverheels, not yet a star, is an extra in this film)

Much like John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, Yellow Sky is a really excellent film made with a sort of flagrant disregard for real life. The element that makes me say that is the opening title: “The West, 1867”:  an irritatingly vague place, combined with a needlessly specific time.

When one watches the movie, one gleans the reasoning for both. As for the location, a major scene in the film clearly takes place in Death Valley, California. Unfortunately, the region also appears to be inhabited by Apaches, who belong in Arizona. The date is also silly. We later learn that some of the characters are Civil War vets, and they have remained a little wild (robbing banks) after the war. But since this movie has nothing to do with any real, historical events, that title at the top is just silly.

But it’s okay. This movie is like the scenario Lee spins in True West. It’s simply preposterous and keeps being preposterous but you keep forgiving it for being preposterous because it’s great! A gang of crooks rides into town and quietly robs a bank. The leader is Gregory Peck; his rival for leadership is Richard Widmark. Harry Morgan is “Half-Pint”. There’s also a fat guy, a kid, and a guy who seems to have fewer morals or scruples than any of the rest of them. They are pursued by a posse, then head out across the salt flats, a deadly proposition which none of them want to partake of, but when Peck decides to do it, the rest follow. It is a grueling ordeal which kills one horse, and nearly kills the men. Particularly bad off is the fat guy, who’d filled his canteen with whiskey instead of water just before they left town.

They finally get across, and collapse in a ghost town called Yellow Sky. (This is one of the film’s preposterous elements, but it’s magical). It turns out there are two people in the town, an old prospector and his gorgeous daughter (Anne Baxter–yowza!). The meat of the film is the men squabbling over the gold and the woman. At one point, Peck, who is supposed to be the decent one of the bunch, the one with character, comes really close to raping Baxter—but then he implausibly backs off , saying it was just to show her how safe she was around him. that’s another preposterous scene. Hollywood getting as racy as it dared—and then making it “okay”. Perhaps they felt Peck, fresh off of Duel in the Sun, needed the same kind of wild sex scene. But he does turn out to be decent. When they discover that the prospector has gold, Peck tells him he can keep half of it if he’ll tell the men where it is. In love with the girl, he vows to keep to the bargain, even though it means fighting Widmark and the others.

In the end, there is a general melee. Half the gang dies. Peck and a couple of the others return the money they stole from the bank in the opening scene. (uh, they crossed Death Valley again to do that?) and then Peck and the others leave—what happened to the romance with Baxter, which seemed very much like it was headed toward “settling down”? Anyway, this is one of the most beautifully shot b&w westerns I’ve seen. Every single shot wonderfully composed. It’s worth seeing on that basis alone. The acting and stuff is fine even if the story is silly, but this movie is really about the photography. It’s incredible.

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The Lone Ranger (1949-1956) and various movies

The Lone Ranger started out as a radio series in 1933 — it’s sort of Zorro transplanted to Texas. The lone ranger is the lone Texas Ranger, who adopts his disguise so Butch Cavendish’s gang won’t know he survived the murderous ambush that killed his brother and a group of other Rangers. He was saved from death by Tonto (Jay Silverheels), whom he had saved in childhood.

I’ve watched many episodes of the tv show and it contains more unintentional laughs than even the B movie westerns of the 1930s. As the titular character Clayton Moore is one of the worst, most unnatural actors I have ever seen, and everyone else in the cast is in his league. He says absolutely every line the exact same way…a very peculiar way.  And as Tonto, Silverheels is forced to speak in the most ridiculous patois ever devised, going well out of its way not to use prepositions and articles even when it makes it much harder to say then just, um, speaking English. The moral code of the show is very liberal and humane however. Though Tonto speaks “how, ugh talk”, he is depicted as wise and good-hearted, and people who have anti-Indian prejudice are shown in a bad light. The Lone Ranger not only calls Tonto his friend, but vows not to be the “master” of his horse Silver: “horse and rider will be as equals”. Furthermore, he vows not to kill the bad guys, just to do what it takes to bring them to justice (i.e., the courts system). Not bad stuff for kids to fill their minds with, all told. Unlike the recent remake. 

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Broken Arrow (1950)

A classic of its kind, based on real events, and told very economically and movingly. The title refers to a Native American symbol for peace. It’s Arizona in the 1870s. Jimmy Stewart plays real life Tom Jeffords who has the audacious idea to go alone and speak to the Chiricahua Apache leader Cochise (Jeff Chandler) to stop the war that has been raging for ten years. To do so, he approaches a “half-breed” to get him to teach him the Apache language and customs. He goes alone and proposes to Cochise that he let the mail through (it hasn’t gone through in 7 weeks.). Arthur Hunnicut plays the guy in charge of the mails. As a second stage in the diplomacy, Jeffords brings in a General and they establish a 3 month trial peace treaty. Will Geer plays a white settler who heads up efforts to undermine the peace efforts. The core of the story is Jeffords’ love affair and marriage to a pretty Indian girl who is then killed by whites. Jeffords now finds himself eager for war and revenge. Ironically, it is Cochise who urges patience: a great and timely lesson. Silverheels portrays the great leader Geronimo. 

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The Nebraskan 1953

A 3D picture, and one of the most effective I’ve seen from this era, believe it or not. Maybe it was the angle at which I was sitting ( I saw it at the Film Forum a few years ago). The illusion really worked for me, and the 3-D films from this era almost never do. Things like rocks and trees in foreground for depth, with lots of gratuitous stuff like knives, arrows, flames coming straight out at you.

The plot: two prisoners escape an army stockade. One, a real criminal (Lee Van Cleef), the other an Indian scout (Jay Silverheels) framed for killing his Chief. They bump into other soldiers in desert who don’t know they’re escapees and force them to ride with them. The troops rescue a stagecoach from an Indian attack, with the aid of the movie’s hero (Philip Carey), a white scout whose job is to bring the Indian (his friend) back to a court of justice, rather than let the Sioux get him (because they’ll kill him without a trial). The folks they rescue are a couple, a shifty gambler and his wife, who happens to be the white scout’s old flame.

The cavalry men go in the other direction and our party stops off at an old army vet’s house. Most of the movie is set here—trapped in this house, fighting against the attacking Indians. Van Cleef repeatedly tries to turn the tables, as does the gambler. They both die at the hands of the Indians. The woman is grabbed by them, forcing the heroes finally to come to the table. When they do, it emerges that the new Chief of the tribe had actually killed the old Chief, vindicating the Indian scout. The couple kisses each other and the old army vet rolls his eyes.

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War Arrow (1953)

A negligible little nothing of a film. My first exposure to the actor Jeff Chandler, its star, who pulls off the miraculous feat of seeming both bland and ethnic at the same time. He plays a maverick cavalry officer who comes to a beleaguered outpost with a Washington-endorsed scheme of subduing the marauding Kiowas by enlisting (exploiting) local Seminoles in the fight. The post commander hates the idea and fights him every step of the way to the point of still grumbling and complaining when Chandler’s plan is a success. The whole thing culminates with a big war, with the Kiowas invading the fort. Maureen O’Hara is the love interest, a widow, whose husband has in reality gone renegade and joined the Kiowas (and is content to kill everyone in the fort including his own wife). That villainous character is underwritten. He’s barely in the story except but by repute, one of the film’s flaws. The bigger flaw is that it’s a big bore! However, a side bonus is that Dennis Weaver plays an Indian. Noah Beery is also in the film as comic relief and it he who, early in the picture, discovers the eponymous WAR ARROW. (One interesting bit, O’Hara sings a comical Irish song and shows she has a very nice singing voice, as well as WAY of singing). Silverheels plays Santanta — one of the Indians.

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Walk the Proud Land (1956) 

A very well meaning movie about an important historical subject. It gets an A for good intentions. As for execution, it’s a cheesy B movie, starring Audie Murphy. It’s about John Clum, the real life federal agent for the San Carlos Apache reservation around 1875.

Like all Hollywood movies, it toys with the facts a bunch. The character of Clum seems merged somewhat with one of the other San Carlos agents. No distinction is made between the various Apache bands. Love interests are introduced. And in the end, Clum decides to stay, rather than leave, when the army returns to the reservation, against his wishes (in real life, he left). But for the most part, the movie conveys the essentials: that Clum tried working WITH the Indians in his charge, rather than a policy of tyranny. He kicked the army off the reservation, created an Apache police force and courts, taught the Apaches to farm and trade and build (not sure if the last bit is true). He armed the Apaches so they can hunt and protect themselves.

Meanwhile, the renegade Geronimo (Silverheels) stirs up trouble. Everyone, all the whites, and many of the Indians hate Clum, but he persists anyway. Murphy, war hero or not, looks about fourteen years old. As an actor, he rates somewhere below Ronald Reagan and somewhere slightly above Kukla, of Kukla, Fran and Ollie. Perhaps the most interesting plot in the story is the cooked-up love triangle though. The Chief gives Clum his daughter (Ann Bancroft in brown shoe polish). He doesn’t take her as a wife, but can’t kick her out without insulting the tribe. This creates tension when Clum’s fiancé (later his wife) shows up. Neither understands why the other is there and there is mutual jealousy. But why on earth does the movie have this title? For at least the third time in his long career, Silverheels plays Geronimo.

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The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (1973)

An interesting and fairly well made movie. I saw it as a child on tv and then again recently. Seems to owe something to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, as well as Little Big Man and Jeremiah Johnson. A good story that starts out as a caper film and winds up as a romance.

Burt Reynolds is the leader of a gang that robs a train. The others are an Indian named Charlie (Jay Varela), and a couple of animals played by Bo Hopkins and Jack Warden. The latter two are low-lifes and actual crooks; Reynolds is a former Civil War hero with actual morals who just wants to do this one job (we eventually learn) so that he can retrieve his children. (They are half-breeds. Cat Dancing was his Indian wife. He has been in jail for jealously killing another man who raped her. We’re not sure but he may have killed her as well). The gang picks up Sara Miles in the desert, she is fleeing her wealthy rancher husband George Hamilton. They are also pursued by Lee J. Cobb, a Wells Fargo man who has a conscience—he wants to retrieve the stolen loot, but has no particular bloodthirst or need for vengeance. In time, the members of Reynolds’ gang are all killed, leaving just Reynolds and Miles, who fall in love at an abandoned mining camp. They make it to an Indian village, where Reynolds encounters his son. (Silverheels plays the old Chief of the tribe). But the authorities are right behind him. He manages to flee; Mills and the boy follow. Reynolds is shot (at first we think fatally) but in a last minute cop out it looks like he will live and Cobb lets the two of them escape.

*****

In later years, Silverheels made lots of cameos and self parodies on television. Here he is in the Grand Canyon episode of The Brady Bunch. 

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