Archive for the Native American Interest Category

Burt Lancaster: The Westerns

Posted in AMERICANA, Hollywood (History), Movies, Native American Interest, Westerns with tags , on November 2, 2016 by travsd

Today is the birthday of the great Hollywood star Burt Lancaster. The toothy tall one made many films in many genres, but for the sake of focus (and because I already have the notes written up) today we take a look at his westerns (warning: we always include spoilers):

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Vengeance Valley (1951) 

A bit of a soap opera. Robert Walker plays a shifty, no-account heir to Ray Collins’ ranch…Lancaster is his decent, honest, forthright and discreet foster brother. Walker, a married man, has knocked up his mistress and weasels out of it 50 ways, with Lancaster always picking up the slack…i.e., doing nice things for the woman, and enduring accusations from her brothers. Walker schemes to sell off all their cattle (half owned by the father) in a drive so he can escape the mess his life is in without taking any responsibility. He sets up Lancaster to get shot by the the girl’s brothers. Showdown. Lancaster kills Walker and winds up with his wife — which, any way you look at it, has to be counted as a happy ending.

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Apache (1954) 

Blue eyed New York acrobat Lancaster (“I wawk in the ways of the great spirit”) plays “Massai, Last of the Apache Warriors”, in this early stab by liberal Hollywood to balance the scales. God save us! At this early stage the perpetrators apparently still felt that though it’s important to TREAT natives as human, it’s unimportant to DEPICT them as human. Lancaster’s performance is patronizing in the extreme.  Apparently no one told him the title of the film was “Apache”, not “Planet of the Apes”.  He plays the Apache warrior as though he were choreographed by Jerome Robbins, a savage not only noble but nimble. And of course he and his love interest and the other major characters are played by whites with brown shoe polish on their faces. They all seem to have blue eyes—as though terrified that audiences would think, even mistakenly, that the producers had dared to put Native Americans in speaking parts.

It isn’t much of a plot although it’s a template I’ve seen plenty of. Its 1886. Geronimo has surrendered, the last rebellious Apaches are being shipped off to a reservation in Florida. Massai escapes from the contingent somewhere around St. Louis. Making his way to Indian Territory (Oklahoma) he meets a Cherokee who teaches him that it is possible for an Indian to grow corn and still hold his head up high. He returns to his people to relay this revelation—they immediately trap him and turn him over to the authorities. He escapes again of course and remains a fugitive throughout the picture. He does violence at first until he hooks up with his true love and they start to grow corn together. (the rival for her hand is played by Charles Bronson, which is too perfect). The end of the picture is one of those open-ended irresolute finishes I associate with the early 70s. The soldiers and bounty hunters who have been pursuing him throughout the whole picture, upon finding him and his wife (who’s just given birth) on their little farm—decide to let him go, as he’s obviously no threat anymore. Directed by Robert Aldrich. 

 

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Vera Cruz (1954)

Directed by Robert Aldrich, Vera Cruz was co-produced by Lancaster who co-stars with Gary Cooper. It’s strange to see them in the same film, but no stranger than seeing Johnny Depp alongside Robert Mitchum in Dead Man!

I’d be very surprised if this film wasn’t highly influential on the spaghetti western directors. Set in Mexico right after the American Civil War, at a time when Mexico is ruled by the French puppet dictator Emperor Maximilian (George Macready). Cooper and Lancaster are fortune hunters. Cooper is decent but the loss of the South (and his wealth) in the Civil War has made him bitter — he needs money for his starving Louisiana plantation. Lancaster is completely unprincipled and has been since childhood. He grows to like Cooper more and more (he’s the only man who fights and shoots as well as he does), but that doesn’t mean he’ll treat him straight. Their gang includes Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson and Jack Elam.

The men are hired to take a beautiful Countess (Denise Darcel) to the port city of Vera Cruz so she can sail to Paris. But something’s not right. Scores of troops plus these American mercenaries just to protect one Countess? The coach turns out to have $3 million in gold stashed beneath the floor, intended to bribe Napoleonic officials to keep Maximillian on the throne. The film becomes a multi-directional contest a) to get the gold to Santa Cruz, and b) to see who’ll get it. In the end, Cooper and Lancaster fight a duel and….

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The Kentuckian (1955)

Directed and produced by and starring Burt Lancaster. Definitely charming and pretty to look at (I mean the movie, not Lancaster, though I hear he is) but it’s a little dull. Lancaster is a Daniel Boone type frontiersman in the 1820s. He and his son are striking out for Texas, but quickly spend their traveling money rescuing a pretty indentured servant girl. [THIS IS THE FILM’S COOLEST FEATURE. I DON’T THINK I’VE SEEN THIS MAJOR FACT OF EARLY AMERICAN LIFE REPRESENTED IN ANY OTHER MOVIE!]. With no stake, the three are forced to lay over in a nearby town where Lancaster’s brother and persnickety sister in law (Una Merkel) live. These two and the local schoolteacher contrive to civilize Burt and the boy and get him to settle down there and be a merchant. Lancaster falls in love with the teacher. The indentured servant girl goes to work for Walter Matthau, a mean and cowardly, bullwhip-cracking saloonkeeper. John Carradine is great as a snake oil salesman. The climax concerns a shootout with a couple of rogues who are from a family that’s feuding with Lancaster’s. Lancaster dispatches them and realizes his real nature is to go after adventure in Texas with the boy and the girl (and the dog. Did I mention the dog?)

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Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) 

Also directed by John Sturgis. The umpteenth remake of the west’s most famous gunfight, yet still somehow not definitive. The film-makers are still hellbent on mythologizing a story that by now had been picked mighty clean. Seems like a lot of talent wasted in the service of something “less than”. One is accustomed to seeing Lancaster (who plays Wyatt Earp), in far more substantial roles. Kirk Douglas (Doc Holliday), frequently did schlock, but was generally wasted doing so. The movie’s most distinctive feature is a terrible ballad, sung by Frankie Laine, with new verses that come in after every scene and tell the story (seems inspiration for similar technique in Cat Ballou)

This version is somewhat more historically accurate than previous ones and very much concentrated on the relationship between the two men, minutely observing their incremental warming up to each other to the point where they become good friends. Starts in Griffin, Texas. Doc is a bastard. Mistreats his woman. She is a girl with a past, but she does love him and take care of him. Doc hates himself and what he has become, and takes it out on her, treats her like dirt. Three bad men (led by Lee Van Cleef) ride into town looking to kill Doc. Earp comes in around the same time, seeking info on some men Doc has seen. In order to get the info, he lets Doc know one of the bad men has a derringer in their boot. Armed with this information, Doc preemptively kills Van Cleef in a fight. Later, Doc, shows up back in Dodge City, where Earp is marshall. So does a beautiful lady gambler. Earp tries to throw her out — ladies aren’t allowed to gamble (it causes fights) but he ends up letting her stay. Then he gets Doc to help him on a job. While they are out of town, Doc’s girl (whom he has dumped) takes up with one of the Clanton gang, which he discovers when he returns. The guy tries to provoke him into a fight, but he wont bite. Then Clanton goes on a rampage. About two dozen of his gang come into town, shooting the whole place up, including Earp’s deputy, played by Earl Holliman. Earp and Doc, just the two of them, disarm the whole bunch (including the youngest Clanton, played by Dennis Hopper). The gang vows revenge. Earp is now about to quit being a marshall. He and the gambler lady have fallen in love and they plan to “go start a ranch”. Then he gets a telegram from his brotherVirgil (whom we have not heretofore met or even heard about, outside of whatever personal knowledge we have of the legend we bring as audience members) saying he is having trouble with the Clantons in Tombstone (where he is Marshall). Rge girl breaks up with Wyatt, but he has to go anyway: “family”. His brothers include Martin Milner of Adam-12 and Deforest Kelly of Star Trek. The Clantons kill the youngest one, thinking he is Wyatt. Now the stage is set for the big gun fight shootout denouement.

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The Hallelujah Trail (1965) 

Yet another one directed by John Sturgis. Comedy western about a shipment of whiskey, bound for the tradionally snowed-in Denver before winter comes. Treated with a mock seriousness, narrated by John Dehner, as is very common in the epic comedies of this era, it works itself up into epochal exertions but to little purpose. It’s just not funny.   Burt Lancaster and Jim Hutton are cavalry officers in the approved Fordian manner. Added to the chaos are a bunch of temperance activist suffragettes led by Lee Remick, a bunch of irish miners and a bunch of Indians after “firewater” led by Martin Landau as “Chief Walks Stooped Over”. Also in the cast are Brian Keith, Donald Pleasance as some sort of “seer” (who only “sees” when he drinks whiskey), John Anderson, Dub Taylor et al. The movie looks beautiful, it’s just irritating, boring and not funny.

 

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The Professionals (1966) 

Well constructed, beautifully shot, tightly edited late classic western — that somehow still seems to be somewhat dull. I think it has to do with the entire cast of fairly bland, two dimensional, dispassionate male actors. Like the title says, they have a job to do, they do the job and that’s the end of the picture.

It is the late nineteen-teens. Texas cattle baron Ralph Bellamy hires four of “the best” to retrieve his wife who has been kidnapped by a captain of Pancho Villa’s and brought to some of the most rugged country in Mexico. The gang consists of Lee Marvin (an expert in weapons and tactics), Lancaster (a demolition expert), Robert Ryan (a horseman), and Woody Strode (for some reason I’d rather not think about, an expert tracker and masterful archer). Jack Palance plays the Mexican captain. The men go down through the desert, steal the woman from a small army in the middle of their compound and then learn that she is in love with the Mexican and with the revolution and doesn’t want to go back. This was always the case. She had never been kidnapped — Bellamy just wants to kill her and her lover. If anyone, Bellamy was the kidnapper. In the end, the heroes free the girl and the Mexican from Bellamy’s men.

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The Scalphunters (1968) 

A fairly negligible entertainment, apparently contrived to address changing race relations at the time, and directed by Sydney Pollock of all people. It seems set in Oklahoma or Texas in the 1850s or before. Lancaster is a trapper whose furs get swiped by a band of Kiowas. In exchange, he is given a slave which he does not want. The slave is a highly educated house slave from Louisiana played by Ossie Davis. Lancaster isn’t that nice to the slave: plans to sell him. He plans to take the furs from Indians as they get drunk that night, but just as he is about to, a gang led by Telly Savalas, out for Indian scalps, attacks and takes the furs with him. Needless to say, Savalas is very badly cast, and the character is also misconceieved: stupid, noisy, hotheaded, impulsive and generally urban. As a villain he is about as effective as Yosemite Sam. One doesn’t believe he has done any of the things he is supposed to have done: killed marshals, robbed banks, etc. The gang carries their own whores (Shelley Winters among them) along with them as they go. Lancaster wants his furs back. Pursues the whole gang. The slave gets captured by them and makes himself useful to the whore. He gets to liking the life and hopes to string with them to Mexico. One by one, Lancaster picks off the gang, shoots some, knifes some, causes an avalanche, fills a water hole with loco weed for their horses to drink. Finally, Savalas claims to give up and the gang leaves. Lancaster comes down to get his furs. Savalas emerges from a shallow grave and attacks him, ties him up. The slave kills Savalas, then lords it over Lancaster. The two fight. The Kiowas come back and take their furs back. The two men pursue them again.

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Lawman (1971) 

Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Lee J. Cobb, Robert Duvall, Ralph Waite, and the guy who played McCloud’s  NYPD supervisor. This thought provoking film has Lancaster as the the titular constable. He is inflexible, cruel…admirable in some ways in his devotion to getting the job done, but you can’t help wondering if his way isn’t a bigger curse than anarchy. In a sort of prologue, Cobb and his bunch shoot up a small town, accidentally killing an old man. Some time later, Lancaster, the lawman of that small town shows up in their town…where they turn out to be some of the leading citizens. The whole town freezes him out, including the storekeepers and so forth. Some of Cobb’s men are hotheaded and want to kill Lancaster outright. Cobb turns out to be not such a bad guy. He founded this town, he is comfortable. He doesn’t want bloodshed. He wants to make everything “right”, but with money, which is the definition of corruption. Yet this way may have been better than what transpires. The original killing had been the accidental result of some admittedly out-of-hand rough play. Now Lancaster – an admitted professional killer — has a series of shoot-outs where he murders in cold blood some of the otherwise law-abiding and productive citizens of the town. In the end, the whole gang is in jail, wounded or dead. He’s done his job.

 

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Valdez is Coming (1971)

Based on a Leonard novel. Burt Lancaster in the sort of film we associate with Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson. We’re in some border town. Lancaster is Bob Valdez, a Mexican-American former Apache fighter who is now a local constable. Some semi-crooked landowner and his lackeys are shooting at a black man for a murder he allegedly committed. Through a snafu, Valdez has to kill the black man, who turns out to have been innocent. When Lancaster tries to collect $100 for the widow (a pregnant Apache), the villain and his minion humiliate and torture him (they even force him to walk around with a crucifix tied to his back, directly after they have shot up a church.)  Valdez, a ridiculously mild man in the beginning, who prefers talking to violence has now been pushed too far. He sends the titular warning (“Tell them, ‘valdez is coming’.”), comes in for the guy, kills one of his lackeys and kidnaps his woman, then rides into the desert, forcing several successive patrols of henchmen to come after him. He kills them all. In the end they do trap him, but the men are too in awe to shoot him. It ends with a stand off between Valdez and the villain. Lancaster is second to no one in machismo, but the brown face paint he wears is ridiculous, as his accent. About ten of the characters seem to be non Mexicans in brown make up. All the men (of all colors) are wearing eye-liner. In short, this is a movie with a lot of men wearing a lot of make-up!

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Ulzana’s Raid (1972) 

Critically acclaimed (but now sadly obscure) revisionist western by Robert Aldrich depicting a savage fight between settlers and Apaches.

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Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bulls History Lesson (1976)

Lancaster played dime novelist Ned Buntline in Robert Altman’s satiral film. Not a western per se but a movie with western themes. Much more about the film is here in my Paul Newman western post. 

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Cattle Annie and Little Britches (1981) 

Fictionized story based on real historical characters. Diane Lane and Amanda Plummer are the titular naughty who are inspired by Ned Buntline’s dime novels to do some crimes. When they encounter the real life Bill Doolin (Lancaster) they goad him and his gang (Scott Glenn, John Savage and others) to be bad again. In the end they are foiled by lawman Bill Tighman (Rod Steiger). 

James Cruze: Of Wagons and Waterfronts

Posted in Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Native American Interest, Silent Film, Westerns with tags , , , , , , on March 27, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the legendary James Cruze (Jens Vera Cruz Bosen, 1884-1942). Cruze’s early life sounds like excellent preparation for his most famous film as director, The Covered Wagon (1923). Born on an Indian reservation near Vernal, Utah, he was part Ute Indian, and raised in the Mormon faith.  (While his stage name sounds Spanish, he was mostly of Danish extraction. The “Vera Cruz” part of his given name was in honor the Siege of Veracruz, an action in the Mexcican-American War).  Cruze ran away from home as a teenager because he disliked farm work. He is said to have performed in medicine shows, and later worked as a fisherman to earn his tuition for drama school.

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Cruze made his fame first as an actor, becoming one of the top stars of the Thanhouser Film Company between 1911 and  1916, in films ranging from classics like David Copperfield (1911) to cliffhangers like the serials The Million Dollar Mystery (1914) and Zudora (1914).  While at Thanhouser, he married another of the studio’s stars Margueritte Snow.

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A shake-up at Thanhouser in 1916 resulted in Cruze being let go. He continued acting with various studios for a couple of years, and by the end of the decade he was a director at Famous Players-Lasky, soon to become Paramount. He went on to become one of the most successful directors of the silent era. In the late teens he directed several Wallace Reid pictures; then most of Roscoe Arbuckle’s features in 1920 and 1921; One Glorious Day (1922) with Will Rogers; then his breakthrough western epic The Covered Wagon (1923), one of the most successful Hollywood movies of the silent era. He divorced Snow that year; in 1925 he married actress and frequent collaborator Betty Compson. There came the first screen versions of the Kaufman and Connelly comedies Merton of the Movies (1924) and Beggar on Horseback (1925). He made more historical epics, like The Pony Express (1925) and Old Ironsides (1926). In 1926 he shot a comedy with Raymond Griffith called The Waiter from the Ritz which was never released. In 1927, there was the racy The City Gone Wild with Louise Brooks.

Like many of the people he worked with (Brooks, Reid, Arbuckle), Cruze was known for being a Hollywood hell-raiser, partying wildly and raising the roof through the heights and depths of the Roaring Twenties and Prohibition. Unlike most of the characters about whom that can be said, Cruze suffered no catastrophic downfall. He divorced Compson in 1930, but he continued to direct films nearly ’til the end of his life.

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The work of the sound era was solid, if less exalted. There was the delightfully strange The Great Gabbo (1929) a deranged ventriloquism romance starring Erich Von Stroheim and Compson (read my account of it here). He contributed to the multi-partite comedy If I Had a Million (1932). He directed many pre-code gems like She Knew What She Wanted (1930) with Compson and Lee Tracy, and Washington Merry-Go-Round (1932), also with Tracy. Probably his best known sound picture is the gritty crime thriller I Cover the Waterfront (1933). One of his last pictures (1938) was an early attempt to bring Herbert Asbury’s Gangs of New York to the screen in a script co-written by Sam Fuller for low-budget Republic Pictures.

For more on early film history 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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Some Westerns of Jay Silverheels

Posted in AMERICANA, Hollywood (History), Movies, Native American Interest, Television, Westerns with tags , , , , , , , , on May 26, 2015 by travsd

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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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On Pete La Farge and His Illustrious Family

Posted in American Folk/ Country/ Western, AMERICANA, BOOKS & AUTHORS, Music, Native American Interest, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 30, 2015 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the late Oliver Albee “Pete” La Farge (1931-1965). With protest roiling all around it seems timely to contemplate folksinger/ songwriter La Farge’s life and works. But before I get there, I feel compelled to take a roundabout route. There’s no way for someone like me to talk about him without mentioning his lineage, for he was a member of what you might call America’s cultural aristocracy, with deep roots not only in my home state, but in my home town.

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La Farge was the great-great-great grandson of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry (1785-1818), one of America’s first notable military figures, hero of the War of 1812, and also America’s quasi-war with the French, and the naval battles with Barbary pirates. He is famous for the slogan on his battle flag: “Don’t Give Up the Ship” and for uttering the immortal phrase “We have met the enemy and they are ours…” (later parodied in the comic strip Pogo as “We have met the enemy and they are us.”) Perry was born and raised in my hometown South Kingstown, Rhode Island, so I’ve known his name since I was a school child. (It turns out that I am distantly related to him as well, through our common ancestors the Wilbores).

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“Girl in Grass Dress (Seated Samoan Girl)”, John La Farge, 1890

In 1860, Perry’s granddaughter Margaret Mason Perry married John La Farge (1835-1910), an influential painter, illustrator, and stained-glass artist. Of French parentage, the wealthy La Farge was born in New York and studied painting with William Morris Hunt in Newport, Rhode Island. He traveled widely in Asia with Henry Adams (whom I recently learned I’m related to) and brought back influences of Japan and the South Seas which he expressed through his famous work, which you can read about here. 

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Of John La Farge’s eight children (all born at Newport), several were distinguished. Christopher Grant La Farge (1862-1938), the oldest, became a noted Beaux-Arts architect, whose best known work includes the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and several buildings at the Bronx Zoo. There’s a good article about la Farge’s firm here. His younger brother Oliver Hazard Perry La Farge (the first) was also a notable architect, writer and real estate developer. John’s youngest son John La Farge Jr., a Jesuit priest, became a famous and influential crusader against racism and anti-semitism.

Of the next generation, several more La Farges were equally famous.

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The best known is Oliver Hazard Perry La Farge (the second), Christopher’s son, a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and anthropologist. His main field of study was Native American culture, which he wrote about in several books, both fiction and non-fiction. Laughing Boy (1929) was the one that won the Pulitzer, and remains his best known work. (This Oliver was Pete’s dad).

Oliver’s older brother Christopher La Farge, was also a distinguished and prolific novelist, poet and playwright, known for writing verse novels about life in Rhode Island. Remarkably, he also worked as an architect at McKim, Mead and White. I am one degree of separation from this La Farge! For when I was in high school, his son the poet W.E.R. La Farge came to my high school class and did a writing work shop. Not for nothin’, but he actually singled out a poem of mine and showed it to the class! (In retrospect, we behaved like, well, teenagers, and didn’t give this special opportunity the respect it deserved. If only I could turn back the clock -!) W.E.R.’s daughter Annik maintains a loving web site in his honor, and has also taken up the family business of writing and love of architecture, penning an excellent book and blog about New York’s High LineLearn all about it here.

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Now we come to Pete. Pete was the son of the Pulitzer prize winning OHP. Born in NYC, but raised largely in New Mexico and Colorado, when he was still a boy he met the legendary Josh White, who inspired him to become a folk singer.  In the late ’50s, he moved to Greenwich Village and became one of the key players in the scene I wrote about here. His western upbringing imbued him a love of both cowboy culture and the culture of Native Americans. It gave him an interesting authenticity that set him apart from many of the folk musicians of his generation, and in reality he was kind of a bridge between that older (30s and 40s) generation of folk and blues players and his contemporaries (Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, etc).

He became most famous for penning a song called “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” — a true story about one of the guys who raised the flag at Iwo Jim in that famous WWII photo. Hayes was a Pima Indian from Arizona. After all the heroism hoopa he went back home, where there was no opportunity and he drank himself to death. Johnny Cash had a hit record with the song in 1964, and Bob Dylan did a version on his 1973 Dylan LP, although the version I know best is Patrick Sky’s, recorded on his eponymous debut album in 1965. I’ve been listening to Sky’s record quite a bit over the past year…it was exposure to that version that led me on the journey to this blogpost.

La Farge also co-wrote a song with Dylan called “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow”. He made several records during the folk boom of the early 1960s, and died by accidental overdose (there are conflicting reports) in 1965.

Just learned there is a Pete La Farge web site (Peterlafarge.com) and a book and a documentary about him are out. Here’s about the doc, which came out in 2010:

Century of Slapstick #62: Fatty and Minnie He-Haw

Posted in Comedy, Fatty Arbuckle, Hollywood (History), Movies, Native American Interest, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , on December 21, 2014 by travsd

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Today marks the 100th anniversary of the release of the Keystone comedy Fatty and Minnie He-Haw. 

The title virtually says it all if you really use your noggin. The formula is essentially “Fatty Arbuckle meets Indian Squaw” (the latter’s name being a play on Longfellow’s Minnehaha). How does it come about? He stows away on a cross country train, is discovered by the conductor, and is then thrown off in the middle of the desert. He is about to die…until he is rescued by Minnie, who was played by an actual Cheyenne from Canada whose real name was Minnie Devereaux, although she generally billed as Minnie Ha Ha, Minnie Prevost or Indian Minnie. Minnie appeared in several other movies over the next decade, most notably Mabel Normand’s 1918 Mickey.

The comic idea underlying the premise of this film is not unlike the appearances of Babe London in comedies. The plot is that Minnie wants Fatty to be her man, the comedy arising from her unsuitability or undesirability as a mate, which is taken for granted. Little is made of the reverse (the undesirability of Arbuckle), which surely must be be equally true.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy please see 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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To find out more about show business past and presentconsult 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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Mayflower

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, CULTURE & POLITICS, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, Native American Interest, Thanksgiving with tags , , , , , on November 28, 2013 by travsd

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Happy Thanksgiving. This seems a fitting day to recommend what I’ll now think of as the definitive account of the first English settlement in 17th century New England.

Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2006 Mayflower is easily the most vividly rendered, thorough and balanced account of that important history that I’ve come across. Not just exhaustively researched from primary sources, but digested, clearly contemplated, and then presented to the reader in such a way that he feels transported to that time and place. It’s a portrait that somehow manages to hit the story of 1620 from every angle, to portray the interior and exterior lives of all the players and how they influenced events. The title of the book is a symbolic play; it’s actually about all that that first Pilgrim voyage in 1620 would portend. Thus, though it starts in 1620 (actually several years before, as he fills in the backstory), Philbrick concludes his narrative in 1675-1676, the time of King Philip’s War, which effectively finished the Indians of Southern New England as a force to be reckoned with. (The latter event was one of the lures of the book for me. A climactic, tragic event of that two year war was The Great Swamp Fight, which was fought on Narragansett territory in my home town). This horrible war ranks as the worst in American history by some measures (e.g.,casualty rate) , and certainly it’s extremely most important in terms of precedent, but gets such short shrift in both the teaching of history and in American popular culture that I doubt that most Americans even know about it (as I doubt if they can name any other important Indian war either apart from Custer’s Last Stand). The ignorance is telling and needs to be redressed.

There are so many things this book does so well it’s hard to know where to begin. Chief is probably the three dimensional portrait of the Native Americans, which I found illuminating to the point of earth-shaking. Philbrick gets down into the capillaries of the politics of the era, the complex diplomatic relationships amongst the numerous tribes, and of those tribes with the Europeans, none of which were monolithic or homogeneous. Tribal leaders like Massassoit, Squanto, Alexander, Philip and dozens of others are treated as they undoubtedly were: as calculating, strategizing, thinking political creatures, neither helpless, naive pawns, nor treacherous savages. Massassoit and Squanto, invariably painted as “the friends of the Pilgrims” in children’s books, might better be described as “allies”. The Indians no less than the Europeans are given credit for brains, agency and motive. They come across as recognizable human beings; I’m not sure that I’ve ever encountered this anywhere before, at least not as well done as this. The book strikes me as quite revolutionary in this way. And likewise, just as Philbrick helps us navigate the different Native tribes, he also helps us understand the differences between the Pilgrims (or separatists) and Puritans, the nonformists who founded Rhode Island, and the people who were there for strictly economic reasons.

Philbrick seems to know just what to include to take us there, which details are important to make the experience real to us, and when to feed us numbers. (At which point are there 100 whites in New England? 50 (since a bunch died off the first winter)? 1,000? 20,000? 60,000?) After a long period (about a decade) of isolation, the early colonies grew really fast, altering the balance of power to an extent that must have been terrifying to the natives. Their backs to the wall, they banded together (some against their will) in an all-out effort to push the English back into the sea. Though they ultimately lost (in what would prove a sort of catastrophic template) this would be the one occasion when it might be said that the Natives really got in their licks; for a while they seem to have almost pulled it off. (According to Philbrick, by some measures, economically the colonies didn’t recover for almost a century after King Philip’s War).

Best of all (the dramatist in me says)…he makes you see it. What they wore, what they owned, what they ate, how they lived, how they traveled, what they felt like. Both sides. And, as you’ll see, there was so much complex interaction between natives and whites, for so many there were no sides at all. They were caught in the middle. And that’s the tragedy of it. Why should there be sides?

On the Brief, Transitory History of Wild West Shows

Posted in Lariat Artists/ Wild West Shows, Native American Interest, Variety Arts (Defined) with tags , , , , on November 20, 2013 by travsd

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Here’s another post in honor of Native American Heritage Month. 

The Wild West Show was a unique and popular branch of popular entertainment, akin to the circus, the sideshow, the rodeo, the Indian medicine show, and the melodramas. It is the immediate precursor of the cinematic genre known as the western. The Wild West Show flourished at the of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th. Its existence can be laid at the feet of the one and only William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody, who invented the form, took it to terrific heights, and was much imitated.

Cody was one of the greatest showmen of all time, second only perhaps to P.T. Barnum. He of course held many jobs before he went into show business: Indian scout, buffalo hunter, Pony Express rider, Union soldier, gold miner, etc etc, etc, but our main concern here is what he did in front of audiences.In 1872, under the management of Ned Buntline (who’d previously enhanced his fame with a series of popular dime novels), Cody starred in a number of melodrama plays reenacting his western adventures, often co-starring the likes of Texas Jack Omohundro and Wild Bill Hickok. In 1883 he founded Buffalo Bill’s Wild West (to reinforce the feeling of realism in his entertainments he omitted the word “show” from its title. Sharpshooters Annie Oakley and Frank Butler (subjects, along with Cody, of the Irving Berlin musical Annie Get Your Gun) were among his famous performers, as was Sioux Chieftain Sitting Bull. 

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Just as Cody kept scores of “cowboys” under his employee to re-enact buffalo hunts, cattle drives, stagecoach robberies and duels, so too did he hire scores, probably hundreds of Plains Indians (mostly Pawnee and Sioux), many of whom like Sitting Bull were essentially playing themselves in re-enactments of famous Indian battles like Custer’s Last Stand. It’s hard to know what to compare this to…the Coliseum of ancient Rome perhaps. Thousands of people watching a vanquished “enemy” play war games. The Natives were fed, clothed, boarded and paid, of course. But they can’t have been oblivious to the fact that it was an affront to their dignity. Arthur Kopit wrote the terrific play Indians about this subject, which Robert Altman made into the 1976 film Buffalo Bill and the Indians. The Wild West’s 1887 trip to London inspired Alan Moore to include Buffalo Bill’s “savages” among the suspects in his Jack the Ripper graphic novel From Hell. Chief Joseph and Geronimo were also among the famous Native American chiefs Cody employed.

In 1893, Cody pitched his show outside the Chicago World’s Fair, having been denied participation in the fair itself. He drew as many customers as the fair did. It was this incarnation of the show that inspired young Chicago native Flo Ziegfeld to go into show business.

The success of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West inspired countless competitors and imitators:

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The greatest of these was Gordon William Lillie, a.k.a Pawnee Bill, whom for some time Buffalo Bill regarded as something of a turncoat. Lillie became Pawnee Bill in 1883 when he was hired by Bufallo Bill’s Wild West to be a Pawnee interpreter. In 1886 he branched off into his own show with his wife May Manning, “The Champion Girl Horseback Shot of the West.” “Pawnee Bill’s Historic Wild West” flourished for over 20 years as Buffalo Bill’s principle competition until the two shows (which were both ailing) merged in 1908. The combined show went bankrupt a few months later.

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The 101 Ranch Wild West Show, run by the Miller Brothers from their Ponca City, Oklahoma ranch, toured the US and Europe from 1907 through 1932. This show produced future western stars Tom Mix and Buck Jones

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Then there were Texas Jack and Colonel Zack Mulhall, both of whom employed a young rope twirler by the name of Will Rogers (himself part Cherokee. “My ancestors didn’t come over on the Mayflower,” he once quipped, “but they met the boat.”)

Other major players in the field included Doc Carver, Captain Jack Crawford, Buckskin Joe Hoyt, the Gabriel Brothers, Mexican Joe, the legendary outlaw Frank James and the Cole Brothers, and for a time even the major circus imprasario Adam Forepaugh dabbled in the field.

Here is some actual footage of the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West street parade down Fifth Avenue New York in 1902 taken by cameramen working for Thomas Edison. Ironically, this very technology would soon wipe out the Wild West show, and replaced it with something a bit more permanent: the Hollywood western.

But his legacies were many. There’s the town of Cody, Wyoming, which believe it or not is one of the places I went on my honeymoon! This is also the site of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, one of my favorite museums in the world.

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For more on the history of the variety arts 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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