Archive for the Westerns Category

Stars of Vaudeville #1026: Max Terhune

Posted in AMERICANA, Crackers, Hollywood (History), Movies, Vaudeville etc., Ventriloquism & Puppetry, Westerns with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 12, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Max Terhune (1891-1973). Originally from Indiana, Terhune was a ventriloquist, whistler, animal imitator, juggler and magician in the last days of vaudeville (early 1930s), occasionally performing with the Hoosier Hot Shots. But the most astounding thing he was, was a movie actor. Friendships with guys like Kermit Maynard (Ken’s younger brother) and Gene Autry got Terhune picture work, notably in the Republic and Monagram western serials  The Three Mesquiteers and The Range Busters. 

These films were where I first became aware of Terhune, and not just aware, but entranced, dumbfounded, slack-jawed. For in these movies, he is never to be seen without his ventriloquial dummy “Elmer”. The reality in which this situation takes place is MOST ambiguous, to say the least. Is Terhune’s cowboy character also an amateur ventriloquist? A professional one? Is it just completely meta, and he is just an actor, not a cowboy? Or is it the opposite, as it often seems? In other words is Elmer a sentient entity with his own action and volition, an actual character? I’ve seen episodes where Elmer gets kidnapped and cries for help with no ventriloquist around! (Warning: do not watch if that is your idea of nightmarish horror). The other characters talk directly to Elmer, laugh at his jokes, and never acknowledge that Terhune is the ventriloquist making him talk (except for the occasional films where Terhune plays a literal ventriloquist).

Terhune continued to be featured in B movie westerns through 1949, usually with the character name “Lullaby” or “Alibi”. Through the first half of the ’50s he got some work in TV westerns and bit parts in films (his last was Giant, 1954). After this, he continued to perform ventriloquism and magic live for a number of year in Hollywood area venues like the Magic Castle and the Corriganville Movie Ranch. 

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Films of Fields #36: My Little Chickadee

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Mae West, Movies, W.C. Fields, Westerns with tags , , , , , , on December 19, 2016 by travsd

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We’ll be blogging about comedian W.C. Fields all through November and December as part of our tribute to the comedian called Fields Fest.  For a full list upcoming live Fields Fest events go here. 

My Little Chickadee (1940) is the one and only co-starring vehicle of W.C. Fields and Mae West.

While now thought of as a comedy classic starring two Hollywood legends, the reality at the time of its production and release was a cole slaw of complications. In 1939, Universal was looking for a follow-up to the successful Jimmy Stewart/ Marlene Dietrich comedy western team-up Destry Rides Again. Fields and West were in very different positions at the time. Fields was under contract at Universal, experiencing a kind of Indian summer of his career, in the midst of what has come to be regarded as his creative peak as a comedy star. West, on the other hand, hadn’t made a movie in nearly three years. Like Fields, she had parted ways with Paramount acrimoniously. Unlike, Fields, she really had nowhere to go. Her screen character been based in part on sexual desirability and she was now in her late forties. And she was refusing to re-invent herself. (Indeed, she would refuse to do so until her dying day, which is why the world can now enjoy the tin-foil gilded freak show known as Sextette, made nearly 40 years after My Little Chickadee).

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The screenplay is credited to both Fields and West, and there were contributions from various studio scribes. Fields definitely wrote several early treatments. The idea of a marriage of convenience seems to have been his. Certainly all of his characteristically flowery lines and his bits of physical business are his. And Mae’s plot seems to be mostly her handiwork. Mae’s comedies, just like most westerns of the time, have one foot planted squarely in the old “Mellers”, so she takes to this genre well. Criminality is a theme throughout her work. It’s a simple matter to transplant the lawlessness of the Bowery to the frontier. Most of the co-stars’ scenes are separate; the two comedians didn’t get along very well. West always hated the film, and Fields downplayed his own involvement in the screenplay.

In this film, Mae plays a Chicago saloon singer named Flower Belle who comes westward on the lam, all on account of her romantic involvement with a masked bandit. On the train she meets con man Cuthbert J. Twillie (Fields) whom she mistakes (thanks to his bag of counterfeit bills) for a moneybags. She “marries” him and they settle into Greasewood City. If Fields hopes to consummate the marriage (and he does) he is sorely disappointed. A goat shares his bed, while Flower Belle sees the Masked Bandit on the sly. (It’s okay. It turns out Fields and West aren’t married, after all. They guy who married them, played by the ubiquitous Donald Meek , merely LOOKS like a minister). Fields get busted when he is caught sneaking into Flower Belle’s room disguised as the Masked Bandit in order to get some action from his wife, even if he has to trick her. He is about to be hanged when Mae saves the day.

Mae’s double entendres are pretty toothless in the film; the censors had begun taking the bite out of her character years before. Latter day fans have cherished this film since at least the 1960s — from a distance. But in 1940, the comedians’ playful self-parody looked to a lot of critics like more of the same, just a rehash, and exhaustion. This didn’t stop the film from being popular with audiences though. Still, it couldn’t help poor Mae. Her next film was the exceedingly weak The Heat’s On three years later, and that was the end of her original Hollywood career.

How the TV Movie “Centennial” Brought Me and My Wife Together

Posted in AMERICANA, Forgotten Shows of My Nonage, Television, Westerns with tags , , , , , on December 3, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of James Michener (1907-1997).

I am astounded to discover today that I hadn’t blogged about Centennial before. I feel like I must have posted something about it somewhere…but cannot find anything. So I guess I didn’t.

At any rate, when my wife and I were first dating, almost as a kind of test, or dare, or trial by fire, we binge watched this 26 1/2 hour long mini-series, which was based on Michener’s eponymous 1974 novel. It originally aired on NBC from October 1978 through February 1979. We had both watched the show with our families as kids, and long about 2011 had a kind of morbid curiosity about taking a second look. And it really was a kind of early pissing contest between us: “Do you have what it takes? I can sit through this if you can.” And we both could. I’m not saying that watching Centennial was what made us know we were right for each other. Let us say, rather, doing a LOT of things LIKE watching Centennial together CONSTANTLY was what made us know we were right for each other. We’re both that sick. And we both need a partner as compulsively sick as we are. If we start watching some thing that turns out to be 1,000 hours long and is cast completely with department store mannequins and sea lions — only a weak sister would turn back and not go all the way to the top of the mountain. And so after Centennial we were both like: “You know what? You’re all right. That was a lot of bad shit just now and you matched me — hour after hour, enduring  sore eyeballs and affronts to taste and dignity that would lay lesser mortals to waste.”

Like How the West Was One (1962), Centennial is a kind of super-western. Its broadcast (a year after the similarly epic Roots, and six months after Holocaust), was a major event, THE major television event of the season. Like all such projects, it is wildly uneven. Michener and his original writing are occasionally great (as well as occasionally embarrassing and occasionally incoherent) in the middlebrow tradition of Edna Ferber. But the direction is insipid in the network television tradition and the big name cast ranges from decent stage and film actors…to preposterous television ones…to still more ludicrous personalities like former football player Alex Karras.

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The story cleaves to the template established by Roots…following several generations of characters over a couple of centuries, like a relay race, from the 1700s to the present day. Robert Conrad and Richard Chamberlain are a couple of trappers with cartoonish, vaudeville accents (French and Scots, respectively). Barbara Carerra is the squaw they split between them. Sally Kellerman as Conrad’s other wife (a German fraulein)  and Raymond Burr his financial backer and father in law.

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Then Gregory Harrison enters as a Pennsylvania Dutch pioneer who ends up founding the fictional town of Centennial, Colorado. His young wife Stephanie Zimbalist dies right away. Coming west with them are Timothy Dalton (who later will become a major cattle rancher), scout Donald Pleasance (who’s practically wild himself) and army officer Chad Everett who is looking to build a fort. Everett becomes a major advocate for peace with the Indians, struggling with a bellicose general (Pernell Roberts) and an insane local militiaman (Richard Crenna) who massacres a bunch of women and children, as well as two of the Indian leaders (Stephen McHattie and Karion Salem) who happen to be the half-breed sons of Robert Conrad. The question of extermination becomes moot as the Indians are gradually done away with anyway.

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Then we move to a big cattle drive headed up by Dennis Weaver. This episode has all the usual cowboy story elements—rustlers, ill weather, other privations. Many of the characters bond and will figure into the story later. The next episode features the inevitable battle between the cattlemen and the sheepmen. Michener seems determined to put every typical western theme (or cliché) into the tale, so next we have a story involving the law man (Brian Keith).  Anthony Zwerbe comes to town with his family as an itinerant actor and con man. They accidentally kill a passing rube and steal his $5000. We get a very nice story with a cat and mouse game between the sheriff and the son of the con artists (which eventually goes nowhere).

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Then another nugget from the old western melodramas—an embezzling story involving rancher Timothy Dalton, and his subsequent suicide. Lynn Redgrave plays his resourceful wife.

Later, there’s a Depression story—did the Dust Bowl reach Colorado? Well, no matter. This story seems atypical for the region, but it has the usual clichés—a farmwife goes mad in the dust storm and kills her family. The dust storm is spectacular!

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The mini-series wraps up with the stuff that begins Michener’s book (I also read the book)…Andy Griffith is a professor sent to research the history of Centennial; Robert Vaughn is a descendant of the con artists who finds a skeleton proving the murder that took place years ago; David Jansen is the heir of the big cattle ranch who runs against Vaughn in a state election for some weird position of resource conservator. Vaughn represents business and capitalism and “progress”; Jansen, to modern eyes, merely seems like a reactionary…a sort of right wing environmentalist and preservationist, who wants no change (and seems to be the hero). Endless, ENDLESS recaps of what came before mar the entire series and especially the last episode. Much fast forwarding is in order. Also Merle Haggard plays a famous country singer who lives in the town for some reason and keeps singing an original country song about Colorado.

Who’d I miss? Michael Ansara as (of course) a Native American. Cliff De Young is a cowboy. Mark Harmon is an idealistic young army officer. And Alex Karras is a lummox who grows potatoes. I think that’s most of them. Nah, I still missed a few.

Two things particularly amused us when we were watching the series. One is the framing device at the top of every episode that talks about all these fictional characters as though they are real, historical people. With very little effort you could probably gaslight some poor soul into thinking it’s a true story — it comes that close to being hoax-worthy. The other thing — whenever old frontier men dance in the story, it’s a sure sign that they’re a goner. They’ll kick their heels and flap their arms to the fiddle music, then clutch their hearts, gasp, and keel over: “Ack!”. It happens like three times in the series. So we got where we were like, “No! Don’t do it! Don’t dance, old man!”

Joel McCrea: The Westerns

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies, Westerns with tags , , , , on November 5, 2016 by travsd

Today is the birthday of the great Hollywood star Joel McCrea (1905-1990). Today McCrea is a beloved movie star in all genres, and I’ll wager that most of my show biz friends know him almost entirely from non-western films, things like the original version of The Most Dangerous Game (1932), Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940), and the three Preston Sturges films Sullivan’s Travels (1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942), and The Great Moment (1944).

But in his day, McCrea was best known for his westerns. They represented the main trunk of his career. And they were in his blood. Though he was from Pasadena and his father was a utilities executive, his grandfather had been a stagecoach driver who’d fought Apaches. McCrea started out in silent films as a teenager as a stunt double and a horse wrangler for the likes of Tom Mix and William S. Hart. He got to meet the real Wyatt Earp (whom he would later play) when the lawman was in Hollywood acting as an adviser in 1928. He co-starred in the film Lightnin’ with Will Rogers in 1930. Fellow horse lover Rogers became a friend and mentor to him, promoting his career, helping him to buy a ranch in 1933, and advising him to invest in real estate, a move that would make McCrea a millionaire.

Now herewith, some of his western films; I’ll add more later, there are still a few I haven’t seen (warning: we always include spoilers):

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Barbary Coast (1935)

Barbary Coast is essentially a gangster picture, transplanted to 19th century San Francisco. Barbary Coast is set in the thick of the gold rush, so that though San Francisco is a city, it is really a just-born boom town, just as wild as any other fly-by-night western burg, but larger. Miriam Hopkins arrives via ship (the only way out there before the transcontinental railway) to find that her mail-order husband has been killed. She becomes the consort of the casino-owning gangster who runs the town (Edward G. Robinson). This works out okay for a while until she actually falls in love with the noble, poetry-spouting prospector Joel McCrea. A classic Camille-like dilemma transpires — rich suitor vs. poor suitor. She eventually chooses McCrea just as his shot-up body is about to leave on the next packet boat, and Robinson is about to be hung by vigilantes. Also in the picture: Walter Brennan, as a one-eyed, thievin’ prospector, and a very young mustache-less Brian Donlevy. Great movie!

 

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Wells Fargo (1937)

An epic of the great freight and passenger hauling firm (which later diversified into financial serices and banking). McCrea plays their star stagecoach driver, and we follow him throughout his career as he and the company move farther and farther west, from upstate New York, to St. Louis, to California, and then the Civil War. The latter causes a rift between him and his Southern-supporting wife (McCrea’s real life wife Frances Dee). Others in the film include old time western star Johnny Mack Brown, Bob Burns,  Lloyd Nolan, Mary Nash, Clarence Kolb, Bob Cummings, and B movie star Peggy Stewart. 

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 Union Pacific (1938)

An epic topic worthy of producer/director Cecil B. DeMille’s usual epic treatment. The usual historical story mixed with a love triangle, this one featuring McCrea as a railroad cop, his frequent co-star Barbara Stanwyck as a train engineer’s feisty tom-boy daughter (with the worst Irish accent I’ve ever heard, in what may be the worst performance of her career); and Robert Preston as an old army buddy of McCrea’s, who’s now in league with the bad guys…he partners with Brian Donlevy to ply the workers with booze, whores and gambling so they wont get to Utah first and win the competition against the rival Central Pacific. Lots of Indian fights. No less than two spectacular train wrecks. After the first train wreck the only people left alive are….McCrea, Preston and Stanwyck!

Then there is a really demented scene where railroad cop McCrea is the good guy — busting the head of a labor agitator! It’s very weird to find yourself on McCrea’s side, kind of insidious in a way. At the end of the scene after McCrea foils their strike, the workers actually return to their shovels and sing “I’ve been working on the railroad”!  In the end Donlevy accidentally shoots Preston, leaving McCrea free to get Stanwyck.

The Golden Spike is driven by a robber baron who tried to thwart this event. I found the epilogue—a shot of a modern train speeding down the track, quite moving. A celebration of human endeavor; we don’t seem to do that anymore.

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Buffalo Bill (1944)

McCrea plays one of America’s greatest showmen Buffalo Bill Cody in a film that trades on his name but misses the point of his existence. The picture ignores Cody’s life in show biz (where he made a real, tangible mark) until the film’s last ten minutes, and spends the balance of the picture on fictitious western exploits, depicting him as brokering peace between soldiers and Indians who never existed. But those last ten minutes (in glorious Technicolor) are worth it, for me anyway. The sight of McCrea in full Buffalo Bill drag saying goodbye to his audience makes me wish we’d seen him say hello to his audience! Thomas Mitchell floats in and out of the picture as the man who made Cody’s legend in dime novels, Ned Buntline. 

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The Virginian (1946)

A solid Technicolor remake of the perennial western classic with McCrea in the title role gamely stepping into the Gary Cooper part and doing a might good job. This might be best structured version I’ve seen. The various elemnts are really clear: There is the romance with the schoolteacher, who plays hard to get through all the culture clash until she finally comes around. The early beats are about him courting her, and some foreshadowing beats with Trampas (a well cast Brian Donlevy). Then there is the growing tension of the rustling. They catch a bunch of thee culprits and the Virginina has to hang his cheerful friend Steve. Then he is shot and recuperates. And then the final shootout with Trampas.

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Ramrod (1947)

Andre de Toth directed, with his wife Veronica Lake as (essentially) a noir dame transplanted to the old west, manipulating all the men around her into doing her bidding so she can acquire wealth, power, money, land, and (it is strongly implied) sex. McCrea plays her titular ramrod, and if that title ain’t a tip-off, I don’t know what is. Charles Ruggles plays her father, Donald Crisp a sheriff, Lloyd Bridges a bad dude, and Preston Foster McCrea’s principal rival for Lake, whom he ultimately dumps because she’s rotten to the core.

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Four Faces West (1948)

McCrea is a nice guy who, out of desparation, robs a bank in the nicest way possible — no violence, and he lets his one hostage (the bank manager) go, along with an IOU that he promises to pay the money back. Still and all, that doesn’t wash with the authorities. He is pursued by the famous Pat Garrett (Charles Bickford), a sheriff (William Conrad) and others. Along the way he is befriended by Frances Dee and others and winds up aiding a sick family, a good deed that will be taken into account when he is finally captured.

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Colorado Territory (1949)

Raoul Walsh directed McCrea in this western about a train robber who just can’t keep out of trouble. He breaks out of jail and heads out to Colorado, hoping to go straight, but his old boss wants him to do “one last job”. You KNOW how those “one last jobs” always work out. As a consolation prize he gets Virginia Mayo (va va voom!) but only until he meets his bloody end. Nice guys finish last!

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Stars in my crown (1950)

An unusual western. More like To Kill a Mockingbird. McCrea is a preacher, who shows up to a town and begins preaching in the saloon – at gunpoint. He then marries girl and raises her orphaned nephew (Dean Stockwell). There is a typhoid outbreak which shakes his faith. The climax concerns a lynch mob (led by rich man Ed Begley) out to kill an old black man named “Uncle Famous” over his land but McCrea faces them down and defeats them with words.

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Wichita (1955)

All star western Technicolor western with a theme song by Tex Ritter. McCrea as Wyatt Earp, Peter Graves as his brother Morgan. Edgar Buchanan, Lloyd Bridges, Vera Miles, Wallace Ford, Jack Elam. Mae Clarke! And Sam Peckinpah in a bit part a bank teller. Riding solo with a grouch bag of $ from sale of buffalo pelts, McCrea comes upon trail drive bound for Wichita. He has a run in with bad boy Bridges who tries to steal his money. McCrea kicks his ass. Then he shows up at Wichita, a notoriously wild town. The movie about some of the town leaders trying to convince Earp to take job as a lawman. He keeps refusing, but also keeps doing heroic lawman type things until he finally takes the job. Then he proceeds to clean up the town.

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The First Texan (1956)

The story of the founding of Texas. McCrea plays Sam Houston. Houston’s the former governor of Tennessee; he rides in and meets up with Jim Bowie (Wallace Ford). He gets Bowie out of trouble in a Mexican court but he won’t join the Free Texas movement. But the pressure is irresistible. The girl he wants to marry insists he join the movement and Andrew Jackson insists he lead it. He is late to the Alamo but later defeats Santa Ana and becomes president.

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The Oklahoman (1957)

A rather nothing little film.  McCrea plays a doctor who is on his way to California in a covered wagon with his wife and another couple. En route, McCrea’s wife dies in childbirth.  McCrea decides to stay in the nearest small town to raise his daughter. Several years later, he is a well established citizen, the town doctor. His tendency to defend the local Indians gets him into trouble however. A young native girl he brings in to be his daughter’s nanny gets the whole town to talking. And he defends the nanny’s father from some unscrupulous brothers who want to grab his land. It turns out they—rather anachronistically—are after the oil. (I believe Rockefeller and company were just getting the oil industry started…in Pennsylvania and Ohio at the time). It comes to a head when the Indian is forced to kill one of the brothers in a fight on the property. McCrea insists on a fair trial, and then comes and announces the business about the oil. He bests the bad guy in a shoot out, then marries a local lady rancher.

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Gunsight Ridge (1957)

McCrea as an undercover stage line investigator investigating stage hold-ups. Slim Pickens as a stage driver. He arrives in town on the stage and is robbed along the way. Dan Blocker as a bartender! McCrea becomes deputy to the sheriff, an older man. The stage robber all the while is a guy who lives in rooming house with him. (For comic relief McCrea pretends to be Irish to get on the good side of the Irish landlady). When the older sheriff gets killed, McCrea has to catch the bad guy and bring him to justice. As added incentive he is in love with the sheriff’s daughter, who had been on the stage with him during the robbery, and does seem to like him very much. He of course wins her over in the end as well.

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Trooper Hook (1957) 

McCrea as  cavalry man who rescues Barbara Stanwyck from Indians. McCrea a sergeant in charge of a patrol. It opens on a battle with a band of Apaches. They find Stanwyck among the prisoners. She had been a captive and was made the squaw of the chief; she has had a small boy by the Indian. McCrea is ordered to return her and boy to her white husband (John Dehner). There is lots of prejudice and animosity towards the boy from everybody along the way. (This is an early movie for such a liberal message. It was independently produced). The stagecoach picks up folks along the way. Earl Holliman as a young trouble-loving cowpoke. Edward Andrews as a rich man. And an old Spanish woman and granddaughter. The stage breaks a wheel. The Apaches escape. Holliman rides to warn the stage and held defend it. They parlay with the Indians and mange to escape (McCrea threatens to kill the kid). When they get to their destination the husband doesn’t want the boy. Then he conveniently dies (killed by Indians) and McCrea gets the woman. O, Hollywood!

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Fort Massacre (1958)

As the title accurately indicates, a very violent film. McCrea plays a cavalry sergeant who must take command of what’s left of the troops after a defeat by Apaches out in the middle of the desert. His dozen or so men ambush 50 or so Apaches and make out OK. It may be necessary, but then McCrea might be insane (his wife and kids were killed by Apaches). They must make their way back to their fort, braving privations and the many risks McCrea makes them take as he drives them home. Also has Forest Tucker and Denver Pyle. Eventually the men stage a coup against McCrea’s authority.

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The Gunfight at Dodge City (1959)

Bat Masterson (McCrea) kills a man in a justified gunfight and goes to hide out at Dodge, where his brother Ed is sheriff. Bat, a gambler, has a reputation as a killer. He goes in with a widow on a saloon (her husband had been killed by crooked marshal and a rival saloonkeeper for refusing to pay graft). Ed is murdered too. Bat takes over his job. As is often the case, he has two love interests: a good girl who is the daughter of a preacher, and the bad girl he runs the saloon with. At one point, he disarms the whole town single-handedly. McCrea perfect for the role: toughness plus decency. He gives up the saloon to marry the minister’s  daughter. He loses his badge for freeing a feeble minded prisoner. Then he gets it back. At the climax, the titular gun battle with the villain, which is over in two seconds. Essentially an old school western; it breaks no new ground.

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Ride the High Country (1962)

Ride the High Country is a passing of the torch between generations. It represents the end of the careers of two Hollywood stars much associated with the western,  McCrea and Randolph Scott, and the beginning of the career of a director who would soon be synonymous with a new style of western, Sam Peckinpah. It’s often inaccurately said that this was the last film for either Scott or McCrea. In reality, while this was Scott’s last film, McCrea went on to do a handful of low budget westerns through 1976, although Ride the High Country was definitely his last last MAJOR picture. As for Peckinpah, his The Wild Bunch (1969) virtually redefined the genre, and he also went on to make the westerns Major Dundee (1965), The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), and Pat Garret and Billy the Kid (1973), and the modern-setting westerns Junior Bonner (1972), and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974).

Ride the High Country is also pivotal in being a sort of bend in the road in western aesthetics. Peckinpah had made one previous film and done lots of television work at this stage. He still has one foot back in the aesthetics of classic Hollywood. While violent, Ride the Country is nowhere near the level of slow motion gore ballet of The Wild Bunch.

This is one of the first films to take on the subject of the “late west”, an acknowledgement of the genre’s aging stars and the fact that the country itself was now changing, getting very far indeed from anything like a frontier nation. Instead it was the age of Kennedy’s “New Frontier” and even space exploration: “the Final Frontier”.

So we have the aging former lawman Joel McCrea ride into town, looking much the worse for wear. The time seems to be the early 1900s. The town is full of dudes, automobiles, a modern police department. Nonetheless there is still lawlessness to be found; it’s just a little further away, up in the mountains. (The Sierra Nevadas, in California). McCrea is hired to transport gold from a mining settlement at the top of the mountain. As a helper, he hires his old deputy Randolph Scott, who is now a two bit carny, a sort of fifth rate Buffalo Bill. He also hires a young man (Ron Starr) who works in the carnival with Scott.

On the way they stop at the farm of a religious man (R.G. Armstrong) and his daughter (Mariette Hartley). The daughter wants very much to get away and sort of half romances the young man but also mentions a previous beau who is up at the mining camp who had asked her to marry him. The girl follows the guys, and they end up having to take her to the mining camp. The camp is rough enough to be intrinsically terrifying. Here the Peckinpah we will come to know and love comes out. The girl’s fiancé (James Drury) has four brothers (John Anderson, L.Q. Jones, Warren Oates, John Davis Chandler). They are like the guys from Deliverance–absolute animals. Somehow, we know from the very first to expect the worst from them. (Perhaps because one of the brothers, Warren Oates, has a pet raven.)

The only women in the camp are hookers with a cynicism straight out of Weimar. The only person with a heart seems to be the judge (Edgar Buchanan) who marries them and gives a terrific sermon (though later the man proves morally worthless). A terrifying scene at the wedding party. Her husband passes out and the brothers are all set to gang bang the girl.

The heroes rescue her, but she is legally married. They steal the judge’s license, and take the girl and the gold back down the mountain. But they are pursued by the evil brothers. To further complicate matters, Scott and his henchman try to steal the gold (it has been their aim all along) but McCrea catches them. (A major theme of the film is that McCrea remains law-abiding and decent, despite the fact that he has always been poorly rewarded for his efforts). It’s a rare film in which Randolph Scott — or gets a chance to really show his acting chops. He went out on a very strong note.

McCrea keeps Scott and Starr prisoner at first, but is forced to release them to help him fight the five monstrous peckerwoods who are chasing them. It ends with a shootout back at the girl’s farm, where McCrea is fatally wounded. But true to Peckinpah form all five brothers are also gloriously dispatched. And McCrea himself dies in a pose most religious, allowing his Christ-like nature to sink in for the thicker audience members.

A gorgeous film, wonderful in every respect.

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Cry Blood, Apache (1970)

An atrocious low budget western, created by and for Joel McCrea’s son Jody, with whom he had co-starred in the short-lived 1959 tv series Wichita Town.  The story is all a memory of McCrea’s — Jody plays him as a younger man in the flashback. The character is with a small gang of men, who are communing with some Apaches when they learn the Indians have some gold. The gang (except McCrea) kill the Apaches (including women and children) but keep one woman alive to show them where the gold is. They head out into the desert, pursued by an Indian who wants vengeance and who kills them one by one. I find this kind of thing exceedingly boring. Why does everyone think this is a movie? Atrociously written, atrociously acted. McCrea also made another movie with Jody that year called Sioux Nation that apparently went unreleased,

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Mustang Country (1976)

McCrea’s last movie, a rated G story about a former rodeo star who befriends and mentors a runaway boy.

 

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). 

Fess Parker: American Icon

Posted in AMERICANA, Crackers, Hollywood (History), ME, Movies, My Family History, Television, Westerns with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 16, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Fess Parker (1924-2010 — how did I not notice that he died so recently?)

I would have been thrilled as a child to have known that I am distantly related to this film and tv actor through my grandmother Flora Parker. He is best known for playing frontiersmen such as Davy Crockett (1955-56), Daniel Boone (1964-1970) and the dad in Old Yeller (1957). Though these were all before my time, they were still shown frequently on tv when I was a kid, and I was encouraged to embrace them (and did). Our family has strong historical connections to Crockett (whom I’ll be blogging about some more tomorrow) and Boone, and like the hero of Old Yeller I am named “Travis”.

Given his rustic and rough-hewn persona, one is surprised to learn that at the time Parker began finding employment as a movie extra in 1951 he was working on a master’s degree in theatre history. His undergrad major at the University of Texas had been in history, a background that would stand him in good stead when he began to be cast in westerns and frontier stories. His Texas accent and imposing height (6′ 6″) were even bigger assets.

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Parker’s progress was rapid. Based on his appearance in several minor roles in westerns and guest appearances on television, Walt Disney himself cast Parker as Davy Crockett in the titular mini-series in 1956, which was so popular it set off a national craze for coonskin caps among American schoolchildren. The kid in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom sports one in homage to that fad.

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Parker and coon-clad fans

Parker and coon-clad fans

 

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Sure! He won’t grow up to be a tower shooter or anything!

It was during his time as a contract player for Disney that he appeared in Old Yeller, but he grew dissatisfied with being typecast and with repeatedly being asked to take small, non-starring roles, so he left Disney in 1958.

One of his notable roles during this period was the title part in a 1962 series based on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. This is wonderfully fortuitous casting. If Parker’s acting chops aren’t up to Jimmy Stewart’s, he is without a doubt the right type to a T. (Interestingly, Davy Crockett had been a Congressman. The concept of playing a simple, honest country man who must confront the cynical sophisticates in Washington was not a new one to Parker).

Parker as Daniel Boone. Notice the difference?

Parker as Daniel Boone. Notice the difference?

Ironically, his next iconic role was to be so similar to his first one that he may just as well have remained working for Disney. In 1964 he was cast as the title character in the series Daniel Boone, attired in nearly the same costume, and put in the same setting, log cabins in the Tennessee/Kentucky frontier. I was in the first grade when the series went off the air in 1970; I still remember the theme song after all that time. It was a very popular show, as its six year run testifies.

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But by 1970, tastes were rapidly changing. In the late Vietnam era, westerns were dying faster than the buffalo. Parker would have to reinvent himself if he wanted to remain in the game. Astoundingly, he turned down a perfect chance to do just that. In 1970 he was the first choice to play the title character in McCloud, the NBC police drama about the culture clash that arises when a New Mexico marshal is loaned to the New York City police department. Along with Columbo and McMillan and Wife it was one of the shows presented in rotation on the NBC Sunday Mystery series, which would prove a blockbuster success, and the role of McCloud would have been perfect for Parker, casting him as a rustic type thrust into the modern world. But Parker passed, and the role went to Dennis Weaver, who had earlier achieved stardom on Gunsmoke. 

In 1974, he made a pilot for The Fess Parker Show, in which he played the harried dad of “three feisty daughters.” It was not picked up. He retired from show business after that. He went on to found the Fess Parker Winery (and Coonskin Cap Store), which was used as a location in the movie Sideways. And he invented that new soft drink: “Fess Up” (kiddin’!)

Stars of Vaudeville #1004: Francis Ford

Posted in Hollywood (History), Irish, Movies, Silent Film, Vaudeville etc., Westerns with tags , , , , , , , , on August 14, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Francis Ford (Francis Joseph Feeney, 1881-1953).

Born in Portland, Maine to parents from Galway, Feeney served briefly in the Spanish-American War before bumming around doing odd jobs in the theatre, including vaudeville (where one of his first gigs was to supply voices for silent movies).

This led to work in the then-new movie business, for such studios as Centaur, Edison, Al Christie and Melies. By 1910, he was starring in westerns made by Thomas Ince’s Bison pictures and had adopted his stage name (borrowed from the automobile manufacturer). Two years later he began directing his own vehicles. In 1913 he had made the move to Universal, which is where his brother John, twelve years his junior, joined him as an apprentice the following year.

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By 1917, John was directing as well, and soon became one of the top directors in Hollywood. Francis would continue directing for another decade, though he never distinguished himself on the level of his brother. The younger Ford, while often belittling and disparaging his brother as a primitive holdover from the cinema’s earliest days, also credited him with teaching him everything he new about film-making. While Francis Ford directed hundreds of films during the silent era, very few survive today.  He continued on as a bit player (often, though not exclusively, in his brother’s films) for another quarter century. His son, Philip Ford, began directing B movies in the mid 1940s, moving over to television a decade later.

Note: Tempting as it may be to conclude otherwise, Francis Ford Coppola is not named after the earlier film pioneer. Composer Carmine Coppola gave his son Francis the middle name Ford after the auto magnate, who had sponsored some of his work.

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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