Tomorrow on TCM: Dawn to Dusk Westerns #7
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 comedies:
6:00am: Go West (1925)
Though it’s one of Buster Keaton ‘s more personal films, aspects of Go West feel more like Chaplin or Lloyd. In this western comedy, Buster plays a drifter named “Friendless” who takes a job on a ranch, where he must prove himself amongst a bunch of mean and manly guys. His main attachment is to a cow named “Brown Eyes”. Yet certain aspects of the film are strongly Keatonesque. He takes the period detail very seriously. Unlike many comedy westerns, for example, Laurel and Hardy’s Way Out West (1938) or the Marx Brothers’ Go West (1940), Keaton makes a real effort to make the location look and feel accurate, which gives the film an entirely different sort of feeling. And the climax, a cattle stampede in the middle of downtown Los Angeles is quite typical of the man who had given us a hundred running policemen in Cops (1922) and dozens of brides in Seven Chances (1925).
7:15am: Way Out West (1937)
Laurel and Hardy ‘s charming genre spoof has Stan and Ollie delivering the deed to a mine to a young girl (Rosina Lawrence), only to be swindled out of it by an unscrupulous saloon keeper played by Jimmy Finlayson, and his cohort the dance hall girl Lola (Sharon Lynn).
The movie contains one of my favorite moments of cinema, and (as an abject lesson) it has nothing to do whatever with the plot. The boys are passing by the front of the saloon, hear some music (sung by the Avalan Boys), and just start dancing. Sometimes this little scene makes me laugh; sometimes the beauty of it just shakes me. The moment evolves so organically and naturally, as if it were the most logical thing in the world. Then they go about it with a kind of dignity and majesty, with steps both simple and beautiful, yet ridiculously elaborate for something that is theoretically improvised (in the context of the story). And it is important enough to them that they do every last step, even as the world is going about its business on the street around them. That is how we must do all our dances — as though they were the most important thing in the world, and with a proud little smile.
8:30am: Bowery Buckaroos (1947)
A Bowery Boys comedy. The fact that Sach (Huntz Hall) is reading a western comic at the top of the film should be the tip-off that all that follows will be a dream — but me, I can be a little slow on the up-take. While the guys are sitting around the soda shop Louie (Bernard Gorcey) sings a western song called “Louie the Lout” and the suddenly a sheriff rides in on a horse and says that Louie is wanted for a murder committed 20 years ago. The guys decide to head west to clear his name. It’s a good thing this was made by Monogram Pictures – they’re all set up to turn this into a Monogram western! The plot all has to with a gold map etc. They draw the map (which is on Louie’s back) onto Sach’s back. This is the last of the Bowery Boys films to feature Bobby Jordan who got tired of having only a half a dozen lines per movie.
9:45am: Two Guys from Texas (1948)
One of many sequels to Two Guys from Milwaukee starring Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson, very much in the vein of Hope and Crosby pictures. In this one, the boys’ car breaks down in the desert, causing them to work at a local dude ranch. When their car is stolen as a getaway vehicle for a robbery, they must clear their names. The picture also features Dorothy Malone, Forest Tucker and Fred Clark.
11:15am: Callaway Went Thataway (1951)
Capra-esque comedy by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, in which an ordinary Joe (Howard Keel) is forced to impersonate a popular Hopalong Cassidy style star of tv westerns (also Keel). Fred MacMurray and Dorothy Maguire play a pair of ad executives who have engineered the fraud and have to wrangle their plain-spoken honest substitute. An interesting glimpse into mid 20th century American culture, but not the world’s most hilarious satire.
12:45pm: Mail Order Bride (1963)
A rare starring vehicle for Buddy Ebsen, written and directed by Burt Kennedy.. A very common Burt Kennedy scenario – a more seasoned outdoorsman (Ebsen) meets up with young Keir Dullea near a stream, in what looks to be Colorado or thereabouts. They argue when Ebsen calls the young man “Sonny” and advises him to cross stream at a certain place. He does and falls in a drop off (Kennedy re-uses this business a lot. It would later reappear in 1969’s Young Billy Young ). Western perennial Paul Fix plays the sheriff and we have a bunch more from the Burt Kennedy stock company: Warren Oates, Denver Pyle, Marie Windsor, Kathleen Freeman, Doodles Weaver. Dullea turns out to be the son of a friend of his, recently deceased, whom he must now make a man out of. Thus we get a card game, followed by a corny saloon brawl accompanied by that intolerable “wacky” music (in this case, adapted from “Old Dan Tucker”). Ebsen brings the unconscious boy home. It turns out that Ebsen has inherited the boy’s pa’s place, with the understanding that he’ll turn it over to the boy once he’s ready. The boy’s a card playing hellion – the father wanted him straightened out. A very young Warren Oates is his friend. He decides to get the boy a bride in order to domesticate him (it had worked with his father). Kathleen Freeman plays a salvation army lady—one of the bridal candidates btw, but instantly ruled out. Various other candidates get struck from the list. Finally he gets smitten by a girl who’s a cleaning lady at whorehouse. Denver Pyle plays the preacher. From here it becomes a domestic comedy, with an emphasis on domestication.
2:15pm: 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.
4:00pm: The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972)
This is a very interesting artifact, very much of a piece with the other new westerns of its time. Like Jeremiah Johnson and Little Big Man and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (the latter of which had also starred Paul Newman) it plays with the idea of the tall tale and the opposite idea that this story just might be true. Texas Hanging Judge Roy Bean was a real historical figure, but he was also the stuff of legend. (Like those aforementioned movies, Roy Bean gives its legendary story a tragic dimension. There is this idea of a flaw in the American character leading to unhappiness. For the most part Bean plays like a silly comedy, but there’s more to it. Also like other movies of the time, such as The King of Marvin Gardens or The Last Detail, it feels plotless and randomly episodic — experimental. Usually such films were rooted in verite though, whereas this one is outlandish.
We also see that, in the wake of Butch Cassidy, Paul Newman got the mistaken idea that he had a flair for comedy. That film also showcases Newman as another western legend, also wearing a derby hat. In this one, they blatantly copy the Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head sequence, with a montage scene cut to a terrible song called Honeysuckle, Molasses and Honey sung by Andy Williams. Fast forward over this! Newman plays Judge Bean, “the Only Law West of the Pecos”. A wanted bank robber, he walks out of the desert into a godforsaken frontier saloon one day, and is attacked by all the dirty people within. They cold cock him, drag him from a horse and leave him for dead. A girl gives him a gun and he returns to kill everyone in the bar. (The first tall tale of the film: he single handedly kills about 20 people). He finds a law book on the table, and sets himself up to be a judge. His main character trait is an obsession with the actress Lily Langtry. He names the bar “The Jersey Lily” in her honor, and calls the town that will grow there Langtry.
Bean’s idea of justice is cruel and capricious. He shoots and hangs bad guys. He makes a bunch of low-lifes his marshals, and a bunch of prostitutes their wives. This is the core of his new town. John Huston himself plays Grizzly Adams, who gives Bean a big, beer drinking grizzly bear, who becomes his best friend. Stacy Keach plays a hilarious character called Bad Bob, a flamboyant albino who comes to town to cause trouble, and whom Bean literally shoots a hole through. Roddy McDowell plays a back east lawyer who ends up taking over the whole town. With some more shaping, this could have been a better movie. When we start to get interested it’s too late in the picture. The real meat of it should be Bean’s relationship with the Mexican girl who becomes his wife (Jacquelyn Bisset). He is an eccentric, too weird and ornery to show love. But then the girl dies in his arms from childbirth just as he has gotten back from a misguided quest to see Lily Langtry perform. Obsessed with someone he doesn’t even know, he has lost the only woman he’ll ever love who’s right in front of him. The last act happens 20 years later — 1919. The town is now an oil boom town run by McDowell. His daughter (Victoria Principal) is the ward of Bean’s bartender Ned Beatty. But McDowell is forcing them out. Bean returns and blows up the whole town, returning it to desert. In the end, his bar becomes a museum, and Langtry (Ava Gardner) finally comes to visit. An interesting, if flawed film, and a worthy double feature with William Wyler’s 1940 The Westerner.
6:15pm: Hearts of the West (1975)
Jeff Bridges, Andy Griffith, Donald Pleasance, Blithe Danner, Alan Arkin. This is a movie ABOUT westerns and an excellent deconstruction of the genre. Bridges is a young farm boy named Louis Tater who dreams of being a western writer. He takes a correspondence course then goes to visit the college. It turns out to be a swindle. He flees after a run-in with one of the con men and winds up in the desert, where he accidentally stumbles across a western film shoot. It is an early talkie serial; this is set in the Depression era. He gets hired as an extra. He gets ahead by agreeing to do a tricky stunt (jumping off a roof onto a horse). Arkin, the director/producer fires the difficult star and hires Bridges to replace him. Then he gets fired when talked into asking for too much money. He uses the money he accidentally stole from the from correspondence school to leverage a meeting with a publisher of western books (Pleasance). Then Bridges’ hero, a western writer (Griffith) takes credit for his novel. He is disillusioned. And all this time the correspondence school swindlers have been tracking him to get their money back. In the end end they attack Bridges, and Griffith rescues him and his girl (Danner).
Now we head into prime time, including several liberal “problem westerns”.
8:00pm: Shane (1953)
TCM is using this George Stevens film as the keystone for their 100-film series, and it’s as well they should. It is perhaps the best western of all time, and certainly in the top five. It was my father’s favorite movie. I first saw it as a child. And I have seen it about half a dozen times since then. Like all the best ones, it is a simple parable containing big ideas. The film is set in Wyoming, so gorgeously photographed it as unbelievable as a fairy tale. A handful of small farmers are being terrorized by a large scale rancher and his lackeys. Van Heflin and Jean Arthur are one couple, living on their farm with their small boy, Joey. Alan Ladd is the wandering gunfighter who comes and stays with them and gets involved with their fight. Jack Palance is the gunfighter the rancher has hired to terrorize the sodbusters. It’s full of great character actors. Elisha Cook is a southern farmer, and one of my favorite Edgar Buchanan are also in the cast.
The film is framed by an aesthetic idea, almost Hitchcockian. We experience the whole movie from the perspective of the child, Little Joey. At every crucial juncture he is always there, watching. But he is no mere voyeur. This whole thing is happening for him somehow. Repeatedly the fact that Joey is watching changes the results of the action. Either Shane modifies his behavior or, as in the end, Joey actually warns him about a sneak attack. While the conflict between the two forces is always at the forefront, there is a terrific compelling subplot, the little boy and the wife are pulled to Shane. Van Hefflin is kindly, almost saintly. They never stop loving him too. But he’s not sexy or exciting. The boy comes right out and says it many times. But most compellingly, Stevens arranges it so the wife never does. It’s all shown through looks. Extremely powerful. But Shane is as decent as the farmers around him. He shows it with every gesture. It is a moral parable. And one for all times. Responsibility is thrust upon these men. There are evil, destructive forces at work and there is no one else but YOU to take the matter in hand, if you have enough courage and don’t flinch from a job that may kill you.
Shane says: “ A gun is a tool, Marion. No better and no worse than the man wearing it.” This question is also at the heart of Angel and the Badman and High Noon. It was nagging for some reason in the 1950s. Could it have been the H bomb? I think it could.
10:15pm: The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)
An amazingly progressive film for its day, directed by William Wellman. Feels more like it was made in 1963 than 20 years earlier. It tells the story of a lynching of three innocent men for an alleged cattle rustling and murder in Arizona in the 1880s. Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan are a pair of drifters who go along with the posse so as not to be mistaken for suspects and find themselves sticking with a minority among the group who are reluctant to hang the three men they DO pick up for the crime (includes Dana Andrews and Anthony Quinn). The crowd is blood thirsty and won’t listen to reason and finally they hang the men. Then they learn that the men were innocent. A great movie. a good, instructive one to show kids
11:45pm: 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. Jay Silverheels portrays the great leader Geronimo.
1:30am: Wild Rovers (1971)
I am not a Blake Edwards fan, but I do find some of his films interesting in conception, and so I am eager to finally get to see this one, which flopped at the box office and is seldom shown. William Holden and Ryan O ‘Neal play a couple of cowboys who decide to rob a bank to solve their money woes, with tragic results. The first rate caste also includes Karl Malden, Tom Skerrit, and James Olson, among others. To me, it reads like an effort to replicate the success of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, with what was at the time a very hot cast: Holden had just come off The Wild Bunch, and O’Neal from Love Story and Skerrit from M*A*S*H. It is said that the studio didn’t like the downbeat ending…but what has more downbeat endings than hits like Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch, or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? So it will be interesting to see firsthand where and how it may run aground. Who knows? I may love it, as I often do when it comes to movies others dislike!
4:00am: The Hanging Tree (1959)
Late Gary Cooper film, directed by Delmer Daves. Set on the Gold Trail, in Montata, 1873. Cooper rides up through a town (past the titular hanging tree) and buys a claim along with a cabin from a prospector. When we first meet villain Karl Malden he is shooting at a “sluice robber”. The whole town chases the guy, a young man. Cooper, a doctor, saves him. Cooper makes the boy be his servant, and hangs out his shingle as a doctor. A local crazy “healer” (George C. Scott) hates the competition, and preaches against him. It turns out they know each other. Cooper chases him off with a gun. The town rescues a Swiss girl from a robbed stage coach. She is blinded, sunburnt and dehydrated. The doctor cares for her. Interestingly although he is a sort of benefactor to the young man and the Swiss girl, they are both sort of his prisoners. When Cooper is out, Malden comes sniffing around, asks the lady for money and then seems about to try more (i.e., rape her)–but Cooper stops him. He beats him in a fistfight. The woman gets her eyesight back . She and Cooper have a brief romantic interlude but then Cooper sends the woman and the boy away., The latter two start mining, with the assistance of Malden. Cooper is secretly bankrolling the effort however. For a long it doesn’t pay off. Then a tree knocks over and they find the gold beneath it. There is a riot. The doctor catches Malden raping the girl again, and kills him. The town starts to lynch him. The woman offers the town her whole fortune in order to save him. Terrific movie.