Tomorrow on TCM: Dawn to Dusk Westerns #4
Even as we speak we are in the midst of Day #3 of Turner Classic Movies month long salute to the Hollywood western (see yesterday’s post here). Every Tuesday and Wednesday in July Turner Classic Movies will be showing westerns the entire day, for a total of 100 movies in all. Here is tomorrow’s line-up. The times below are all Eastern Standard Time, and beware that I always include spoilers.
The day launches with several western musicals. I’ve only seen a a couple of this bunch; completionist mania compels me to DVR the rest for future reference…
6:00am: Montana Moon (1930)
Right off the bat, this one’s an oddity. Almost by definition most western musicals are B pictures from minor studios. But in the early days of talkies there was a certain amount of experimentation to learn which formulas worked. So here we have top MGM talent devoted to the effort: director Mal St. Clair and a cast that includes Joan Crawford, Dorothy Sebastian, Ricardo Cortez, Johnny Mack Brown (the one bona fide cowboy actor here and later a mainstay of the Bs), Benny Rubin, Cliff Edwards and Karl Dane. Further points of interest: it was actually shot in Montana, instead of the usual California or Arizona locations, and (as I think the poster indicates) it’s a racy pre-code story (although portions were cut by censors). Crawford plays the wayward, party-girl daughter of a wealthy rancher who has a hard time fitting in with the ways of the west. And songs by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown.
7:45am: Song of the Gringo (1936)
This is singing cowboy Tex Ritter’s first picture, in which he plays some kind of cop sent to investigate some mine schemes. He grows a beard and poses as a robber and is taken in by the gang, secretly based out of the estate of a kindly Spanish don (whose daughter the love interest). It is filmed in a mansion—it’s a better set than we’re accustomed to in this sort of film (it was probably a set for another film). The gang is justifiably suspicious of the “songbird” in their midst. The script is horrible at integrating Ritter’s talents. The filmmakers make Tex a show off who exhibits his singing ability at the most inappropriate times to the consternation of the gang members, who sit there grumbling while Tex performs for the people in the cinema. He whips gang members’ asses, but it doesn’t help his popularity any. Eventually they get a pretty good idea he’s not one of them and frame him for a shooting. A trial scene, and a shootout in the courtroom. But Tex comes out okay.
9:00am: Song of the Saddle (1936)
B movie western star Dick Foran as the Singing Kid, enacting two of the most common plots of the genre. A villain (the great Charles Middleton) secretly hires gangs to hijack stagecoaches containing goods he has just bought. (I’m not real clear why any charade is required apart from the purposes of drama and intrigue. The mafia does it much more efficiently by just committing the robbery!) Anyway, that’s plot one. Plot two is that the villain killed the Kid’s dad many years ago, and the Kid is now here to put things right. The Sons of the Pioneers (the outfit that gave us Roy Rogers) are here to sing for us as well.
10:00am: The Bronze Buckaroo (1938)
Herb Jeffries in one of the few all-black westerns of the period. The plot is the identical sort of material as in other B movies of the period: villains, deeds, land grabs and the like, it just happens to take place in an alternate universe that is entirely African American. I’m looking forward to the Four Tones singing “The Payday Blues”.
11:00am: Cowboy Cavalier (1948)
A routine Monogram picture. Jimmy Wakely and Dub Taylor work for a lady who runs a stage coach line and her daughter and help them foil a gang of criminals (one of whom is masquerading as a loyal employee — but the mustache is the dead giveaway). Wakely sings several anachronistic songs (with kind of a country swing feel). Taylor pretends to play kazoo. It’s ionic that nowadays sidekick Taylor is way better remembered than Wakely, the titular star of this series of movies.
12:15am: Go West, Young Lady (1941)
Penny Singleton of Blondie fame is a gal from back East named “Bill” who shoots as well as any man. Ann Miller is Lola, the jealous dance hall girl. Glenn Ford is the new sheriff, caught between these two hellcats, and having to clean up the town besides.
1:30pm: In Old Santa Fe (1934)
Ken Maynard (a western star since silent days) never knew what hit him when Mascot Pictures allowed a little screen time in this picture for singing cowboy Gene Autry and his accordionist Smiley Burnett. This was their screen debut and Autry was to become one of the biggest screen stars ever, whereas Maynard is now a footnote remembered by only the most rabid of western fans and scholars. A bunch of mishigas here about horse races, romance, robberies — you know the drill. Gabby Hayes plays the sidekick, one “Cactus”.
2:45pm: Boots and Saddles (1937)
Gene Autry and Smiley Burnett now as full-on stars. Here the boys help acclimate a young British aristocrat who has inherited his father’s ranch. For once the highlight may actually be the songs, especially the title one, which every good American ought to know.
4:00pm: Home in Oklahoma (1946)
The Singing Cowboy torch has now been passed. Roy Rogers, the Sons of the Pioneers, Dale Evans, Trigger and Gabby Hayes star in this one. Ruby Dandridge, mother of the more famous Dorothy Dandridge, plays the cook at the ranch. The plots of B movie westerns reached new heights (or depths) of inconsequentiality in the Roy Rogers pictures. The most superlative element, even above the music, are the preposterous costumes. Here, Rogers is a frontier newspaper editor who must solve a murder. The mystery element is about on the level of a crossword puzzle. Give him an hour — he’ll solve it!
5:15pm: Springtime in the Sierra (1947)
Another Roy Rogers picture, with his usual multi-species repertory company. Added bonuses in this one include Andy Devine as the side-kick and Chester Conklin as “Old Timer”. Filmed in Tru-Color!
6:45pm: Cowboy Canteen (1944)
This is an interesting artifact. It’s the cowboy musical answer to Hollywood Canteen, a revue style film designed to build morale for the war effort.
EVENING: SEVERAL BY JOHN STURGES
8:00pm: Hour of the Gun (1967)
To be accurate, it’s the 1:41 of the gun. While I enjoyed it, this film is definitely only for western fans (meaning fans of the genre prior to 1967) and O.K. Coral buffs. I would imagine others would be somewhat unmoved by this tale. James Garner is Wyatt Earp (and a very good one he is, with a dark mustache, a darker brow and a voice a register lower than his usual. We see him attempting something new here. I associate Garner with light comedy. This performance is appropriately humorless). Jason Robards is Doc Holiday, and he’s better in the role than the other half dozen actors I’ve seen play it. Robert Ryan is Ike Clanton, and a then-unknown Jon Voight one of his henchmen.
The movie starts with the fabled gunfight. We get to know Ike Clanton a bit. He seems to have staged the whole thing to get rid of the Earps. When it doesn’t work, he has his murdered brothers, in their caskets, displayed in a store window, then marches them through town in a parade. He never sheds a tear, however. Then there is a trial scene, just long enough to be preposterous this early in the movie. The Earp gang is exonerated. This prompts Ike’s revenge. His gang lays in wait and shoots both Virgil and Morgan (Wyatt’s brothers) in separate incidents. Virgil is maimed for life; Morgan is killed. Now we get to the meat of the movie. Wyatt, who (in this story) had always been a law and order man, gets up a posse, and pursues all the men responsible for his brothers’ death, just happening to shoot them all dead, including, in the very end, Clanton. (A title at the beginning says this is “the real story”. I would imagine about half of it is.) At the end, Wyatt leaves Doc in a sanitarium, falsely telling him he’s going to take the Marshall job in Tombstone. Be he’s not. He has changed.
It’s fun to see about ten different recognizable character actors in the cast. As a character study of Earp’s journey the film had the potential to go much father, but Sturges seems a rather plodding, old-fashioned and unimaginative director. The whole thing is lit like a TV show, and alongside Bonnie and Clyde (also released that year), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (released soon after), etc, it seems rather Stone Age.
10:00pm: The Magnificent Seven (1960)
When I was a kid I (along with everyone else) enjoyed this movie and thought of it as a classic. I’ve grown older I’ve become less impressed with it, for reasons outlined below, and I’ve come to think of it as a dilettante’s western. When you are young you are more apt to like things just because everybody else likes them; later mass approval becomes more like a taint. For one thing of the seven “stars” of this picture, I only truly like two or three of them, at best. But there are points of the movie that I find interesting.
One is that is a liberal, Kennedy era western. We find characters actually use anachronistic words and concepts like “prejudice” and “bigotry” — words that would have been on no one’s lips in the Old West. When we first meet the heroes Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen, they are defending (with guns) an Indian’s right to be buried in Boot Hill. This lets a delegation of Mexican peasants know that these are men who might be helpful to them for a certain job. Their village is constantly being raided by a gang of 40 bandits, led by Eli Wallach, in a role that paves the way for his portrayals in Leone films.
Wallach’s portrayal of Mexicans is offensive even to me, just a hair less outrageous than Speedy Gonzalez’s sleepy friends, pretty much single-handedly undermining the film’s liberal messages. Indeed, the actual Mexicans in the cast, the villagers, are all interchangeable nonentities. But, this brings out the other liberal, Kennedy-era message: Americans with guns helping third world freedom fighters get rid of bullies. Just like the CIA and special forces in a dozen countries (particularly Vietnam). Thinking about this made me realize something: Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy was virtually identical to Kennedy’s, and with the same stated motives, equally “noble” in both cases., however botched and bloody the results. Somehow in 1960 it was considered “enlightened and progressive”. By 1980 it was “conservative and reckless”. What happened in between of course was the lesson of Vietnam — which is still unlearned.
The film is of course based on Kurasawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954). The two films really don’t deserve to be spoken of in the same breath, though. The Magnificent Seven is a popular film with audiences, but it’s really just flashy junk. The storytelling is pretty bad. It has too many characters; we don’t care about any of them. The plot is that the Mexican villagers don’t have much money but want to hire protection. For various reasons, seven very different gunfighters take the job. Brynner does it because he is moved by the villagers’ plight. McQueen seems to string along for the same reason. Brad Dexter as “Harry”, a likable but greedy urban character, does it because he thinks there is a secret financial angle. Charles Bronson as “O’Reilly” does it because work for gunfighters has gotten scarce and this is all there is (other reasons will emerge — he’s actually half Mexican). James Coburn, the “fastest with a gun or a knife” does it for the challenge. Robert Vaughan, a slick killer, does it because he’s on the run from the law. Horst Buccholz (yes, that good old Mexican Horst Buccholz) is an impulsive young man who wants to prove himself with the big guys — and also is a peasant from a similar Mexican village.
The seven guys teach the villagers to fight, CIA style. After an initial skirmish they pick off about a quarter of the bad guys, who retreat. There is a bit of a waiting game. The kid falls in love with a girl. Bronson bonds with a bunch of children. The others indulge in a tiny bit of doubt, introspection and philosophizing about the life of the gunfighter, but not enough to be profound. Then the kid goes into the bad guy’s camp to spy and learns that the bandits are starving and will definitely be back. The villagers back out of the fight. The bad guys sneak in, strip the 7 of their guns and escort them from the village. Then they make the mistake of giving the 7 their guns back, thinking that the 7 are like them, simple bad guys for hire. They don’t calculate on the possibility of goodness, doing something for others for nothing. The 7 take their guns and ride back and fight it out with the bad guys. 4 of them die in unintentionally humorous scenes: Harry has a death speech: “What was it? Gold? (dies)” Charles Bronson tries one last knife throw. Bronson is surrounded by children. Vaughan (who has nightmares about his death) is taken unawares. The bad guys are completely routed, Wallach is killed. The kid survives and stays in the village with the girl. The other two guys ride off — Brynner to return in the same costume again ten years later in Westworld.
12:15am: Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I love this movie! A western set in contemporary times, in an isolated place in the desert. Though the film was made in ‘55, it is set right after the war a decade 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 (Walter 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 cop. 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 town 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.
1:45am: The Law and Jake Wade (1958)
Richard Widmark is an outlaw. Sheriff Robert Taylor frees him from jail, in repayment of some former favor. That makes Widmark no never mind, he still captures Taylor, and at gunpoint, makes him show him where he buried the gold from some long-ago heist. They were formerly partners. When Taylor accidentally killed a kid he quit the business. Widmark feels betrayed. Their journey is a long one—not unlike the one in Mann’s The Naked Spur. A girl (Patricia Owens) is along for the ride as well. Deforest Kelly plays the most violent of the gang. When they are holed up in a ghost town, Indians attack, wiping out most of the gang. After they dig up the gold, Widmark and Taylor have a duel, which Widmark loses, of course. It’s a pity. Taylor, as an actor, is already nonexistent. If he’d lost the duel, we might not have noticed.
3:15am: Escape from Fort Bravo (1953)
I’d be tempted to dismiss the film but the climax is so distinctive, effective and memorable it redeems the relative tedium that precedes it. William Holden is a U.S. cavalry officer at a remote Arizona fort. It is 1863, and this fort has to do double duty by periodically doing battle with the Indians and serving as a prison camp for Confederate POWs. Holden is a hard ass, a cynic, and downright cruel and unbending with the prisoners. But we know he has a heart because he tends a flower garden. But we also suspect his strictness with escaping prisoners stems from a desire not to see them killed by Indians or perishing in the desert. Also, he falls in love with a beautiful woman (Eleanor Parker) who comes to the fort, apparently only for the purpose of helping some Cofederates break out, although Holden doesn’t see that.
Parker’s old flame is the Confederate’s ranking officer, John Forsythe. He escapes, along with a crusty old sergeant played by William Demarest, whose New York accent can just barely pass as New Orleans, and lastly a young poet(John Lupton), whom we all figure for a coward. Holden goes to retrieve the woman and the escapes, along with his junior officer, played by Richard Anderson. They get pinned down in the desert in a tiny little trench, with Indians on all sides. In the climactic scene, they are harassed by volleys of arrows, which get closer and closer, until in the end it’s really only Holden and the women left, and Holden himself is wounded and about to get the coup de grace when the cavalry arrives. The deus ex machina doesn’t exactly spoil what came before. Frankly, this was the FIRST time I’d ever seen that famous device actually used!
And now that we are well into tomorrow, the menu moves off John Sturges onto one film by Nicholas Ray:
5:00am: The Lusty Men (1952)
I like a movie that makes no bones about what it offers, don’t you? That title! That poster! Like Bad Day at Black Rock this is a latter day western. Arthur Kennedy plays a ranch hand who dreams of owning his own ranch for himself one day along with his wife, practical minded Susan Hayward. When retired rodeo star Robert Mitchum drops into their orbit, Kennedy spies his chance to realize his goal on the fast track, by becoming a rodeo star himself, with Mitchum as his trainer and manager. Improbably he does so, breaking all sorts of records and making big money. This is all against Hayward’s wishes – she doesn’t like the risks. Predictably Kennedy gets sucked into the rodeo life and begins to want to choose that over the ranch he originally set out to get. He’s also playing around with other women. Mitchum finally sees his chance to reveal that he is in love with Hayward. But she is still in love with Kennedy, who publicly accuses Mitchum (formerly his hero) of being a leech and hanger-on. His pride wounded, Mitchum, who is in bad physical shape, enrolls to participate in the rodeo himself and has an accident, becoming fatally wounded. Kennedy resolves to quit that very instant, and he and Hayward go to start their ranch.