Walter Brennan: The Westerns

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Today is the birthday of the great Hollywood character actor Walter Brennan (read more about his early career beginnings here). For better or worse, Brennan is chiefly remembered today almost exclusively as a gimpy, toothless, grizzled old western sidekick. In reality he had much vaster range — he played all sorts of roles and was a three time Oscar winner. Even within the western genre, he was versatile — some of his best roles were scary villains as opposed to comical codgers. Here are some (but hardly all) of his western performances (just the ones I have seen). Warning: we always include spoilers!

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Two Fisted Law (1932) 

Tim McCoy picture for Republic with John Wayne as one his two buddies, and Brennan as one of the villain’s henchmen who happens to be a sheriff’s deputy. McCoy (who wears a preposterously huge cowboy hat) is losing his ranch: he’s being swindled out of his property by a hissable villain. The sheriff has to serve the papers but he doesn’t like it. McCoy loses the ranch and goes off to do some silver prospecting. Two years pass. The bad guy is now going after Tim’s old girlfreind’s property and trying to force her into marriage. Tim shows up just as he’s manhandling her and makes him stop. She gives Tim a horse named Pal who comes when you whistle (actually a colt he entrusted to her 2 years earlier). The sheriff is about to serve papers on the girl, when Tim rides up with the money to save her property. He can’t say where it came from so it looks suspicious. The bad guys frame him for a Wells Fargo robbery in which a man was killed. It looks bad for Tim. The sheriff lets him play detective — a nice luxury when you’re accused of a crime! He notices a bloody boot print that matches the boot of one of the henchmen. A shoot out with the bad guys ensues, and Walter Brennan dies with a lengthy and unsolicited confession on his lips.

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Barbary Coast (1935)

Set in the thick of the Gold Rush, when San Francisco was a brand new boom town. Miriam Hopkins arrives via ship (the only way out there before the transcontinental railway) to find that her mail-order husband has been killed. She becomes the consort of the casino-owning gangster who runs the town (Edward G. Robinson). This works out okay for awhile until she actually falls in love with the noble, poetry-spouting prospector Joel McCrea. The classic Camille-like dilemma transpires. She eventually chooses McCrea just as his shot-up body is about to leave on the next packet, and Robinson is about to be hung by vigilantes. Brennan plays a one-eyed, thievin’ prospector, and a very young mustache-less Brian Donlevy is also a slick character. Great movie!

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The Texans (1938)

Courtly, gentlemanly Virginian Randoph Scott often played ex-Confederates in films.  In this one he and his cohorts return to Indianola, Texas following the  surrender with nothing but the uniforms on their backs to find the town overrun with carpetbaggers who are appropriating everything of value. Scott meets up with Joan Bennett, heir to “the largest ranch in Texas”, who is scheming with her Reb officer boyfriend (Robert Cummings) to take part in a plan to smuggle guns to some Confederates who have gone to Mexico in hopes of enlisting Emperor Maximilian to their side. Scott wants no part of this scheme of fighting with foreigners against a reunited America. When the carpetbaggers move to take the lady’s cattle, Scott organizes a drive to take them to Kansas and sell them—it will be the first such cattle drive ever. Along the way they fight Comanches, and then Union troops acting under the orders of a carpetbagger administrator. When the latter is killed, the Union troops decide to let them go. The drive is successful. Bennett is about to go back with her Confederate officer (whose scheme has fallen apart) until he tells her of a new scheme….a little operation called the Ku Klux Klan! She changes her mind and goes back with Scott. Brennan is the comic relief, a ranch foreman with a long shaggy mustache. I didn’t recognize him until I heard him speak a few times!

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The Westerner (1940)

Absolutely magic, a perfect movie directed by William Wyler. It deserves to be revered as a classic but somehow has fallen by the wayside.  Brennan and Gary Cooper are playing their “A” game, rocking their symbolically freighted characters, with much comedy resulting.  Brennan won best supporting actor Oscar for his portrayal as Judge Roy Bean.  This is one of the great characters and characterizations in all Hollywood cinema, Brennan’s best work. He has created a human being, who actually seems to exist independent of the cinematic machinery. His work is that thorough: funny, tragic, full of detail and just simply HIM. Gary Cooper is also wonderfully cast as a drifter accidentally arrested on a charge of horse stealing, who is dragged into hanging judge Bean’s saloon/courtroom. He talks his way out of his pickle by claiming to know actress Lillie Langtry (Bean’s obsession) personally. Along the way he sort of gets to be Bean’s friend, gradually trying to get him to be less favoritistic toward the cattlemen in their war with farmers. In the end, though, Bean, a stubborn, one-track-mind type of character, orchestrates a bloody violent war against the farmers, burning down all their crops and houses and killing people. The farm girl Cooper loves associates him with Bean, so he has to take action. He rides to the city where Bean is going to see Langtry perform (he has bought up every ticket), and catches him there. A shootout in the theater. Bean’s last vision is of Langtry. Cooper goes back, marries the girl, and they start again.

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Northwest Passage (1940)

Set in 18th century during French and Indian war. Based on part of a popular novel. Robert Young washes out of Harvard and comes home and announces he wants to be a painter rather than a clergyman. He runs afoul of his fiance’s father and a crooked British nobleman and flees to the wild with his sidekick (Brennan). In the country side they meet up with Spencer Tracy, commanding officer of “Rogers Rangers”, a unit of Indian fighters. He wants Young’s skills as a mapmaker. A beautiful Technicolor movie, about a subject seldom treated cinematically, and well constructed. Tension between American troops and the more formal, bureaucratic English troops. Battles with Indians, Frenchmen etc. in the end, they go on exploratory expedition for Northwest Passage. Nat Pendleton is well cast as a tavern keeper.

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My Darling Clementine (1946)

It’s a classic  though not among John Ford’s best or most significant westerns (in my view) but the one that launched his permanent return to the genre with which he had started his career back in the silent days. Just a well made film. The title always confuses me, I can never remember that this is the one about the Gunfight at the OK Corral. They named it after Doc Holiday’s fictional love interest Clementine and obviously to identify it with the famous folk song. It’s not a good title for the movie though. The story is almost completely fictionalized. Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) comes to Tombstone with his brothers on a cattle drive.  After a badly needed trip to the barber shop he returns to find his cattle are stolen and the youngest brother is killed, and it seems pretty clearly to have been done by Old Man Clanton (Brennan) and his oafish sons. Earp decides to take a job as town marshall.  He gets to know Doc Holliday (a rather lackluster Victor Mature) who runs a saloon and gambling place, and is known to use his guns. The two share a sort of mutual admiration and a wary respect. It all ends in the showdown in which the Clantons are defeated and Doc is killed (which did not happen. Holliday lived to fight for many a day after this famous gunfight). Earp leaves town in the denouement, giving the titular Clementine a chaste kiss on the cheek before he goes.

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Red River (1948)

Howard Hawks’ best western without a doubt, and one that would rate inclusion on a very short list of best westerns ever. It is an epic, “true story” describing the first cattle drive along the Chisholm trail.  John Wayne plays Thomas Dunson, an Ahab-like figure (one of many he played in his career) insanely driven to finish the drive. Montgomery Clift is his adopted son Matt. Brennan is of course the sidekick — in a characterization so out-there and indelible it would remain hugely in demand for the next quarter century.

The three are the sole survivors of an Indian attack on a wagon train. They get to Texas and usurp some land from its rightful Mexican owner and start a ranch. 15 years pass. Much has changed. Dunson has built a huge ranch. Matt has just returned from the Civil War where he fought for the Confederacy. Since the south is destroyed, Dunson is cash poor and has no place to sell his beef. He decides on a cattle drive all the way to the railhead in Missouri: 1000 miles. Many have tried but no one has succeeded. But he is uniquely driven. He has changed. he is no longer the young man who loved a girl in the wagon train. He is hard, relentless, uncompromising. A couple of things jar us right away. One is his relationship with Walter Brennan. In the earlier scenes they seemed to be partners of a kind. Now the status has changed dramatically. Brennan is now just the cook for the huge ranch. To him, the John Wayne character is now “Mr. Dunson”. The gulf between them now seems huge. Second, Dunson’s new ruthlessness becomes apparent when we see him brand cows belonging to other ranches that have gotten mixed up with his herd — an expediency of unqualified moral dubiousness. Its just plain theft. The meat of the story seems influenced by Mutiny on the Bounty. Dunson as the cruel Captain Bly figure. Matt as the Fletcher Christian figure or the Brutus. Eventually Matt ousts Dunson, who vows revenge — and tries to get it.

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Blood on the Moon (1948)

Directed by Robert Wise. A fairly routine programmer about battles for turf between cattlemen. Robert Mitchum as a drifter caught in between.  As in all of these tales, Mitchum is an independent sort, flips sides a couple of times. First he’s a hired gun for the bad guys, because he was hired by his old friend Robert Preston. Then he feels bad about it and sides with the good guys. Brennan plays the father of a man who was killed by the bad guys, who shelters and assists Mitchum. Beautifully shot black and white. Spectacular stampedes, but not a lot of originality.

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Best of the Badmen (1951)

Technicolor western about the about James Gang. Set in Missouri after the Civil War. Robert Ryan as Jeff Clanton captures Quantrill’s men and makes them swear allegiance to the Union if they turn themselves in. They do and then are double crossed by carpetbagger Robert Preston. The bunch of them become outlaws. Brennan portrays one “Doc Butcher”; Bruce Cabot is Cole Younger.

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Along the Great Divide (1951)

Directed by Raoul Walsh.  The Southwest Desert: Walter Brennan is being lynched. Marshall Kirk Douglas and his men rescue him, so they can take him to civilization for a proper trial. The ringleader of the lynching vows to get them. (Brennan is supposed to have killed his son). Brennan claims to be innocent. Virginia Mayo is his feisty, gun-totin’ daughter. Brennan tries various schemes to get out of Douglas’s custody (including tormenting him about his own dead father, a marshall who was lynched with his prisoners), but Douglas hangs on to him and protects him throughout the treacherous journey. It is an ordeal but Douglas is unswerving. Many twists and turns. In the end Brennan is found guilty by the jury, but at the last minute, Douglas notices that the brother of the kid who was killed has his watch – it was he who committed the murder. He ends up shooting his father, then gets shot to death himself.

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The Far Country (1955)

Directed by Anthony Mann; this film really shows his noir background. Cattle man Jimmy Stewart’s creed is “I look out for myself. It’s the only way”. In the end, he saves a town. The plot has him and Brennan bringing cattle to Alaska on a boat from the lower 48. Stewart’s on the run; he killed two men for rustling. When he gets to Alaska his cattle are seized by a cheerfully crooked sheriff. The villain is congenial, one of many such Mann characters. Stewart is forced into helping the saloon lady and her crew bring a load of provisions into a camp farther inland. Because he is stubborn, Stewart goes and steals his cattle back, and brings those. The villains can’t pursue him past the Canadian border. They prospect alongside folks in the town. People seem to be starting to build a community. Then the villain and the gang show up and invalidate everyone’s claims. Brennan is killed In the end, Stewart—who’d planned to take his gold and leave—decides to leave. Despite the fact that he has been shot, he comes back into town and has the climactic shoot out and achieves redemption. With J.C. Flippen, Jack Elam and Harry Morgan. 

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Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

A western set in contemporary times, in an isolated place in the desert. Though the film is made in 1955, it is set right after the war ten years earlier. Spencer Tracy plays a mysterious one armed man who gets off the train at the tiny Arizona town of Black Rock. He is greeted with instant suspicion and hostility by everyone in town. They seem to have nothing better to do than saunter and glare, and say “What are YOU doin’ here, mister?” Robert Ryan plays the guy who runs and owns the whole town. His henchmen include Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin. The closest thing to decent guys are two weaklings: the town doctor (Brennan) and the drunken sheriff (Dean Jagger). It is plain to us and to Tracy from the outset that whole town has something to hide. Because they all treat Tracy like he is there specifically to investigate something, we assume he is some sort of investigator. This is one of Tracy’s best roles. The character is a total hero, not just morally, but because he is the ultimate cool customer. Nothing rattles him, he hates jerks and lets them know it, and he very quietly, very bravely ignores their needling in pursuit of what he wants. For example, when he tries to check into the hotel he is told “no vacancy”, but he very calmly signs in and takes a key anyway. His goal is to visit a location in the desert, the home of a Japanese man. He rents a jeep from a girl. When he gets out there, all he finds is a burnt house. Then Borgnine tries to run him off the road. Back in town, Borgnine baits him some more. When Tracy can’t stand it, he beats the shit out of Borgnine, one arm and all, using karate. It is one of the most satisfying fights in all of moviedom. In the end, it turns out that Tracy isn’t even an investigator. The Japanese man’s son saved his life in the war before losing his own. Tracy just wanted to give his medal to his father. But he learns that a drunken mob had killed the father on Pearl Harbor Day and buried him. The location is so remote no one had found out. In the end, Tracy dispatches Ryan with a Molotov cocktail when he gets ambushed in the desert, and Tracy’s cohorts finally get word to the outside authorities, who arrest the remaining conspirators.

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The Real McCoys (1957-1963)

Emphatically not a western — but a rural comedy, certainly a related genre. This tv situation comedy cast Brennan as the patriarch of a family of farmers from West Virginia who come out to ranch in California. Brennan’s close identification with this role strongly colored how we was cast for the remainder of his career.

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Rio Bravo (1959)

In essence this is Howard Hawks’s last truly great film. This is the ultimate multi-generational male bonding picture, with John Wayne as a sheriff, Dean Martin as his alcoholic deputy, Brennan as his old, gimpy other deputy and Ricky Nelson as a kid named “Colorado”, a hired gun who comes in to help out when his boss Ward Bond is murdered. Angie Dickinson is Wayne’s naughty love interest, so all the bonding isn’t male (really, without her the picture would be downright gay). Claude Akins is a bad guy whom Wayne has placed in the pokey. The bulk of the movie is spent in preparation for a showdown with Akins gang, which is going to come free him. The easiest thing for Wayne to do would be to let his prisoner go free. But well, he’s the Duke. He just can’t do that. The majority of the film is about the tension of waiting for the big showdown, with our small handful of heroes hunkered down in the tiny jail, waiting for an army of bad guys to ride in. Can these four dudes and one lady (each with their own vulnerabilities) take on ten times their number and emerge victorious? What do you think?

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How the West Was Won (1962)

All-star, multi-director 2 and 1/2 hour epic about a family’s migration west. Brennan and Lee Van Cleef play crazy, murderous river pirates who live in a cave.. The scene is over in a jiffy. For more about the film see my more extensive post here. 

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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 Brennan, Edgar Buchanan (a character actor 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)

James Garner rides into a boom town and takes a job as sheriff. 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. 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.

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The Over the Hill Gang Rides Again (1970)

Fred Astaire joins Brennan, Edgar Buchanan, Andy Devine, and Wills in this sequel to the popular comedy. 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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Alias Smith and Jones (1971-1973)

Some of Brennan’s last credits (he died in 1974) were on this stylish early ’70s western modeled on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  The forgettable stars of the show were Pete Duel and Ben Murphy. Duel (who had a drinking problem)  committed suicide during the second season. It only lasted a few more episodes after that, then was cancelled.

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