Western movies


TRIGGER FINGERS. Monogram Pictures, 1946. Johnny Mack Brown, Sam Hurricane Benton, Raymond Hatton, Jennifer Holt, Riley Hill, Steve Clark, Eddie Parker. Director: Lambert Hillyer.

   By the time the 1940s came around and almost every movie that Johnny Mack Brown made was a western, and a B-western at that, he was not exactly fat, or perhaps even overweight, but he was, shall we say, chunky, and not exactly what a small kid’s idea of what a western star should look like.

   The small kid being me. My cowboy heroes were Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Lash LaRue and the Durango Kid. After that came a bunch of other fellows: Rex Allen, Monte Hale, Johnny Mack Brown and a few more. I won’t mention any that I omitted, so not to embarrass anyone, but I will point out another reason I might not have mentioned one of your favorites, such as the fact that Hopalong Cassidy’s movies never seemed to play in my small Michigan town.

   In any case, Trigger Fingers is the first movie starring Johnny Mack Brown that I’ve seen in maybe 65 years, and even though there wasn’t much a plot, nor even a lot of action, I enjoyed it.

   Turns out that someone wants some land owned by Raymond Hatton’s character, and when his son is framed for killing a fellow card player, that someone and his gang think they have a means of forcing a sale through a little judicious blackmail.

   Little do they know that Hatton has a good friend in Sam “Hurricane” Benton, who’s calm demeanor and soft Alabaman drawl belies a quick wit and even quicker trigger finger. I don’t know if that’s where the title of the movie comes from, but it works for me.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


MASTERSON OF KANSAS. Columbia Pictures, 1954. George Montgomery, Nancy Gates, James Griffith, Jean Wille, Benny Rubin, William Henry, David Bruce, Bruce Cowling. Story and screenplay: Douglas Heyes. Director: William Castle.

   Masterson of Kansas is, in many ways, a much better movie than it deserves to be. Let me explain. This Sam Katzman-produced film has little in the way of beautiful Western scenery, not all that much in the way of character development, and, with the exception of the final ten minutes or so, very little creative or unique cinematography or direction. Even so, I found myself thoroughly enjoying this highly fictionalized Bat Masterson lawman story.

   Directed by William Castle, who is now best known for his schlocky and gimmicky horror films, Masterson of Kansas is economical both with plot and time. It’s a short, fun-filled little film that benefits strongly from its casting of George Montgomery as Bat Masterson and veteran character actor James Griffith as Doc Holliday.

   Although Montgomery is definitely a presence in this film, it’s Griffith who steals the show as Holliday, depicted in this movie as a sickly, vengeful gambler who hates – I mean hates! – Masterson with a passion. Griffith simply shines as the irritable Holliday, a man torn between loving cards and loathing Masterson.

   The plot revolves around Masterson’s attempt to clear the name of a man falsely accused and convicted of murder. He does this primarily to help keep the peace between Kansas settlers and the local Indian tribes, one of which is lead by Yellow Hawk (Jay Silverheels). Bat may not be completely altruistic. Along the way, he seems to develop an interest the convicted man’s lovely daughter (Nancy Gates). Their supposed romance is more of a cliché than anything else.

   Truth be told, the storyline isn’t all that much. But there is enough action to keep the viewer engaged. The sequence in which Masterson, Holliday, and Wyatt Earp (Bruce Cowling) walk down the street together as comrades in arms is beautifully filmed, as is the scene of the hangman’s noose waiting for the falsely accused man.

   Masterson of Kansas is no brooding psychological weapon, nor is it an epic tale. But that doesn’t stop it from being fun. As escapist entertainment, this movie has a lot to recommend it.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


THE VIRGINIAN. Paramount, 1946. Joel McCrea, Brian Donlevy, Sonny Tufts, Barbara Britton, Fay Bainter, Tom Tully. Based on the novel by Owen Wister. Director: Stuart Gilmore.

   The Virginian has many of the elements one would expect to find in a solid Western that, all things considered, stands the test of time. This postwar film adaptation of Owen Wister’s 1904 iconic tale of the Old West has romance, a dastardly villain, cattle rustling, a genteel New England woman adapting to life on the frontier, and a friendship strained by one man’s poor decisions.

   Directed by Stuart Gilmore, who is perhaps better known by cineastes for his editing work, The Virginian stars Joel McCrea in one of his earlier Western features. He portrays a man simply known as “The Virginian,” a Wyoming cowhand originally from the Old Dominion who is making a new life for himself out West. He’s playful and stoic, laconic and willing to speak his mind. The Virginian isn’t a man of formal education, yet he has a solid grasp on the way of the world. And he knows the difference between right and wrong.

   The plot isn’t particularly complex. But it doesn’t need to be. It’s 1885, and a Bennington, Vermont, schoolteacher by the name of Molly Wood (Barbara Britton) is restless. She simply doesn’t want to get married and stay put in that small New England town. So she decides to take a train to Wyoming, where she plans to work as a teacher.

   Soon upon arriving out West, Molly encounters two cowhands, the overly enthusiastic Steve Andrews (Sonny Tufts) and The Virginian (McCrea). In a plot device not unusual for Westerns, the story’s primary male and female protagonists, Molly Wood and The Virginian, don’t exactly start their relationship off on the best foot. But it’s the palpable tension between the characters that allows the story to move forward.

   The Virginian is also a story about friendship in a society where law and order have yet to be firmly established. The Virginian and Steve Andrews have seemingly known each other for a long time. They have worked and gone drinking together. When Steve falls in with a cattle rustler named Trampas (a well cast Brian Donlevy), the two men’s friendship comes under great strain. The Virginian may be a bit of a prankster, but he won’t abide cattle rustling.

   The Virginian repeatedly warns Steve against allying himself with the devious Trampas, but his protests are repeatedly ignored. It’s a fatal mistake for Steve, whose hanging at the hands of The Virginian, although it occurs off screen, is nevertheless poignant. There’s a beautifully sad bird song that accompanies the hanging. It’s a truly haunting moment.

   Although The Virginian doesn’t have much in the way of particularly unique cinematography, it does make very good use of color to convey meaning. Early on in the film, Molly sports a bonnet with lavender feathers on top. These blend seamlessly with the couches and curtains of a saloon front room, demonstrating that she fits in more with the domestic, more sedate part of the saloon, than with the rowdy bar area.

   There’s also a scene in which the conflict between The Virginian and Steve is foreshadowed. Both men are standing at the bar, drinks in hand. They are discussing Steve’s plan to get to New York City and to leave the cowhand life behind him. The Virginian bets his friend that he’ll never make it to the Eastern metropolis. In the background during this whole scene, although visible only briefly at the beginning, is a decanter of an unknown bright red liquid. It’s noticeably out of place, even at a bar. The symbolism is clear. There will be blood between these two friends.

   Trampas is also a study in color. He has a dark heart and he wears it on his sleeve. Literally. He’s one color from head to toe, including a black hat and a black gun belt. The contrast between The Virginian and Trampas is best seen in the famous scene in which The Virginian presses his gun into Trampas’s gut and says, “When you call me that, smile.” In every way, The Virginian is of a lighter hue than the villainous cattle thief.

   In conclusion, The Virginian, even if not worthy of critical acclaim, remains worth a look. In some ways, it’s a somewhat mature Western for its time. There are no goofy sidekicks or saloon girls. It’s as much a study of human nature as it is a frontier tale. Best of all, McCrea demonstrates that he is a natural in the saddle. No wonder why his career flourished as he went on to make so many fine Westerns.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


THE BARON OF ARIZONA. Lippert Pictures, 1950. Vincent Price, Ellen Drew, Vladimir Sokoloff, Beulah Bondi, Reed Hadley, Robert Barrat, Tina Rome, Margia Dean, Jonathan Hale. Written and directed by Samuel Fuller.

   Vincent Price, as an actor, had unforgettable charm, an unmistakable voice, and an uncanny ability to convey meaning through an over-exaggerated posture, a wry knowing smile, or, better still, the raising of an eyebrow. Indeed, there are some movies that it is difficult to imagine working at all were it not for Price’s singular presence.

   The Abominable Dr. Phibes, which I reviewed here, is one such film. Samuel Fuller’s The Baron of Arizona, based on the true story of a notorious Old West con artist, is another. In this early Fuller-directed project, Price portrays James Reavis, the self-styled Baron of Arizona, a man who devised an elaborate scheme to defraud the United States government into transferring title of the Arizona Territory to him and his wife. The best scene, bar none, in The Baron of Arizona involves a conniving Reavis gleefully sitting at his desk in front of a gigantic Arizona map ensconced on the wall behind him.

   The plan, at least as depicted in this film, involves him forging land grant documents dating back to the mid 18th century and King Ferdinand VI of Spain. His scheme hinges upon his marrying a peasant girl, Sofia (Ellen Drew), whom he successfully convinces is the direct descendent of Spanish nobility and the legitimate titleholder to the Arizona Territory. Reavis shrewdly cultivates the young Sofia into seeing herself not as a dirt-poor peasant girl who grew up in a shack, but rather as the graceful and sophisticated Baroness of Arizona.

   Along for the wild ride in this unconventional movie is Sofia’s adoptive father Pepito, portrayed with tenderness by veteran character actor, Vladimir Sokoloff. Pepito is smarter than he looks and ends up playing a pivotal role, albeit not in the way you might think, in the unraveling of Reavis’s scheme.

   Reed Hadley, well known to Western fans for his distinctive voice, plays an unusual, slightly jarring, role in the film. He portrays Griff, an Arizona politician celebrating the entry of his State into the Union. His character is film’s narrator for the first thirty minutes or so of the film, recounting the story of Reavis from the perspective of 1912.

   It’s a narrative technique that really doesn’t work and is by far the weakest aspect in this otherwise well-crafted quixotic Western.

WESTERN UNION. 20th Century Fox, 1941. Robert Young, Randolph Scott, Dean Jagger, Virginia Gilmore, John Carradine, Slim Summerville, Chill Wills, Barton MacLane. Based on the novel by Zane Grey. Director: Fritz Lang.

   I don’t know if you spotted it right off, without my pointing it out to you, but if you did and it took you aback, just a little, I don’t blame you. But yes, indeed, Robert Young got top billing in this colorful tale of a crew of Western Union workers constructing a telegraph line from East to West across the United States, mile by mile.

   The movie is based on the novel by Zane Grey from 1939. The story is told in first person by Wayne Cameron, a tenderfoot fellow from Boston who has made his way west to make his way in the world. In the movie his name is Richard Blake, and naturally enough, he’s the fellow that Robert Young plays.

   But neither the top billing (in the movie) or the primary protagonist (in the book) make a bit of difference. This is Randolph Scott’s film all the way, from beginning to a somewhat quizzical end. Scott plays a cowpoke named Vance Shaw in both book and movie, but in the film he’s an outlaw, making his first appearance sitting in the saddle against a clear blue sky before making his escape from a posse on his trail by riding through and scattering a large buffalo head, filmed in beautiful closeup Technicolor.

   From here the book and film diverge considerably, although the head construction engineer for the crew working for Western Union and the new telegraph line is named Creighton in both (Dean Jagger in the movie) and both Scott and Young sign up. In the movie a rivalry between the two is fanned by their mutual interest in Creighton’s sister (Virginia Gilmore), complicated by the fact that Shaw’s brother (Barton MacLane) is still on the outlaw trail and determined to prevent the telegraph line from going through.

   Personally I think the movie would have been a lot better without the comedy antics of Chill Wills and (especially) Slim Summerville, but otherwise there’s action aplenty, and some very good acting on the part of Randolph Scott, torn between his loyalty to his brother and getting the telegraph line through. This wasn’t his first western role, but the many closeups he has this film show him well on his way to becoming the hard-bitten icon of the West he was soon to be.

   I’d also have preferred a different ending. Not that there’s anything wrong with the one we have, but this one jarred me a little, and it may you as well.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


CHEYENNE. Warner Brothers, 1947. Dennis Morgan, Jane Wyman, Janis Paige, Bruce Bennett, Alan Hale, Arthur Kennedy, John Ridgely, Barton MacLane, Tom Tyler, Bob Steele. Screenwriters: Alan LeMay & Thames Williamson, based on the story “The Wyoming Kid” by Paul I. Wellman. Director: Raoul Walsh.

   Cheyenne is a movie with an identity crisis. It’s a Western, but also a mystery. It’s a comedy, but it feels like a would-be musical, especially given the fact that the score by Max Steiner occasionally overwhelms the dialogue and the plot. There are some gritty fight sequences, but also ridiculously light, borderline risqué, romantic moments.

   And with a screenplay by Western writer Alan LeMay and direction by Warner Brothers’ go-to guy for action films, Raoul Walsh, you might think you’re in for a psychological Western. But you’d be wrong. Cheyenne is much more typical of a late 1940s Western, one that doesn’t push the envelope very far.

   In that sense, the casting of Dennis Morgan and Jane Wyman, talented actors both, as the leads was a perfectly good decision. Plus what’s not to like about Alan Hale as Fred Durkin, a goofy, cowardly Wyoming lawman?

   Morgan portrays James Wylie, a gentleman gambler and a cheat. After getting himself into a pickle in Laramie, he’s faced with a choice. Either work for the law or be sent back to Nevada to face justice for some past misdeed. Wylie’s a smart man and quite debonair. He chooses to work for the law, an easy choice. His mission: seek out a mysterious bandit named The Poet who is stealing from the Wells Fargo Stage Line.

   Wylie heads from Laramie to Cheyenne, encountering a group of bandits led by a man named Sundance (Arthur Kennedy) along the way. He also makes the acquaintance of a lovely young woman, Ann Kincaid (Wyman) who engages him in a bit of push and pull deception and flirtation.

   Theirs is a Western battle of the sexes, one that would be pulled off with much better effect by John Wayne and Angie Dickinson in Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959). There’s just not that much visible chemistry between these two leads. Morgan just isn’t gritty enough for a Western hero.

   Cheyenne does have some mystery, but not all that much. There’s quite a bit of mistaken identities and assumed identities, lies big and small. It doesn’t take all that long, however, to figure out that Wells Fargo employee, Ed Landers (Bruce Bennett) is up to no good or that saloon girl, Emily Carson (Janis Paige) is going to play an important role in the film.

   Altogether, it’s a pleasant enough affair. Someone should just have turned down the musical fanfare a bit.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


THE STRANGER WORE A GUN. Columbia Pictures, 1953. Randolph Scott, Claire Trevor, Joan Weldon, George Macready, Alfonso Bedoya, Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine. Director: André De Toth.

   Given how top notch the cast is, you’d expect the Harry Joe Brown-produced The Stranger Wore a Gun to be much better than it actually is. Directed by Andre de Toth, the film is an early 3-D Western that has some great moments and memorable scenes, as well as skillful use of color to convey meaning, but overall falls flat. It’s not so much that it’s a terribly made film, as it is a rather humdrum affair with a plot that’s far too weak for such a set of skilled actors.

   The film stars Randolph Scott as Jeff Travis, a former member of Quantrill’s Raiders. Former, because he left the outfit for service in the Confederate Army upon seeing the Raiders recklessly and maliciously raid the city of Lawrence, Kansas, during the Civil War. But the past has a funny way of catching up with a man, and Travis is no exception.

   Upon suggestion from his apparent love interest, Josie Sullivan (Claire Trevor), Travis flees the Deep South for Prescott, Arizona, where he ends up in the service of conniving gold thief, Jules Mourret (George Macready) who has big plans to rob the stagecoach business run by the father-and-daughter team of Jason Conroy (Pierre Watkin) and Shelby Conroy (Joan Weldon).

   From the get go, Travis, has no love for Mourret’s two primary henchman, Dan Kurth (Lee Marvin) and Bull Slager (Ernest Borgnine). The palpable tension between the characters portrayed by Scott and Marvin is actually one of the highlights of the film. Rounding out the cast of villains is Alfonso Bedoya who portrays a Mexican bandit, Degas. His performance, almost certainly designed to be comical, ends up nothing less than cringe-worthy.

   In a not unfamiliar plot twist, Travis (Scott) has second thoughts about joining forces with Mourret (Macready) and ends up siding with the Conroys against his former employer. There’s just not all much to the plot besides that. The potential love interest between Travis and Shelby Conroy (Weldon) is never developed. As far as the supposed love between Travis and Josie, it’s hardly anything of note given that the chemistry between Scott and Trevor barely registers.

   All told, The Stranger Wore a Gun definitely has its moments, such the final showdown between Travis (Scott) and Kurth (Marvin) and a harrowing saloon-on-fire sequence. But the film ends up feeling like a bit of a disappointment, especially when watching it in standard 2-D. If you’re a De Toth fan, it’s probably worth watching just to compare it with his other Westerns. That said, most everyone would likely agree that Scott, Macready, Marvin, and Borgnine have all been in much better Westerns than this one.

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