Western movies


Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


UNDER CALIFORNIA STARS. Republic Pictures, 1948. Roy Rogers, Trigger, Jane Frazee, Andy Devine, George H. Lloyd, Wade Crosby, Michael Chapin. Director: William Witney.

   Don’t let the cowboy songs and the lighthearted Andy Devine comic antics deceive you. This William Witney-directed Roy Rogers movie isn’t entirely as innocent as you might think.

   In Under California Stars, Trigger is kidnapped and is nearly shot to death by a bunch of ornery horse traders. A criminal double-crosses his masters and, as payback for his deception, gets some lead in his chest. And Rogers aptly demonstrates that he can throw a mean punch or two, get scrappy in a fight, and roll in the dirt with the best of the brawlers, thanks in so small part to Witney’s excellent choreographing.

   But it’s not all mayhem in and around the Double R ranch. There are some fun characters too. Cookie Bullfincher (Devine) and his lovely cousin, Caroline (Jane Frazee) add a light touch to the story, as does Ted Carver (Michael Chapin), who portrays a young boy caught between his mean stepfather and his affection for Trigger.

   All told, this Roy Rogers movie is a better than average singing cowboy 1940s Western. Filmed in Trucolor, it’s definitely a step up from the lower grade black and white Western films from the same era. And you know what, the catchy title song, “Under California Stars,” isn’t all that bad, either.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


CARSON CITY. Warner Brothers, 1952. Randolph Scott, Lucille Norman, Raymond Massey, Richard Webb, James Millican, Larry Keating, George Cleveland, Don Beddoe. Director: André De Toth.

   Carson City is a good, albeit not great, Western starring Randolph Scott. Directed by Andre de Toth, whose The Stranger Wore a Gun I reviewed here, the film benefits from a solid, if standard, plot and the presence of a sinister-looking Raymond Massey as the main villain.

   Unfortunately, there just isn’t all that much in the way of outstanding cinematography or in-depth character development. That, and the fact that at times it feels as if Scott is merely going through the motions, makes Carson City less entertaining than it might have been.

   That said, the plot is easy enough to follow. Scott portrays Jeff Kincaid, an adventurer and an engineer who is tasked with building a railroad between Carson City and Virginia City, both in Nevada.

   Unfortunately, the good townsfolk of Carson City are divided on the wisdom of constructing a rail line through their small city. Local newspaper owner, Zeke Mitchell (Don Beddoe) is strongly opposed. His daughter, Susan (Lucille Norman) seems more ambivalent. Susan also figures in some family drama: Kincaid’s half-brother, Alan (Richard Webb), has romantic feelings for her, feelings that aren’t reciprocated.

   But as it turns out the real drama in this movie isn’t so much about the railroad. It’s about bandits, particularly a group called the Champagne Bandits, so named for their propensity to serve their victims bubbly. Leading these gourmand outlaws is no other than the character portrayed by Raymond Massey, Jack Davis. It’s really Massey, more than Scott, who makes this film worth watching. Massey, who like Scott served during the First World War (some historical trivia), is quite good in this film. One only wishes that the final showdown between Scott and Massey’s characters wasn’t so brief.

   While Carson City isn’t nearly among the best Western movies from the 1950s, it’s not the worst either. It’s just somewhere in the vast middle or maybe just slightly better than average.

MYSTERY RANCH. Fox Films, 1932. George O’Brien, Cecilia Parker, Charles Middleton, Charles Stevens, Forrester Harvey, Noble Johnson, Roy Stewart, Betty Francisco. Based on the novel The Killer, by Stewart Edward White. Director: David Howard.

   The best line in this antique and in many ways very Gothic western comes very near the end, as the villain in the piece comes to realize that the jig is up, standing at the edge of a cliff: “Young man, if you want to serve that on me, you’ll have to do it in Hell!” And off he jumps, tumbling hundreds of feet down to his death, and a well-deserved one at that.

   It’s the end of a very satisfying, and for a western made in 1932, quite sophisticated film, a watching experience best enjoyed in the company of other western fans, as was the case for me last weekend in Walker Martin’s living room the evening before Rich Harvey’s pulp and paperback show the nest day.

   IMDb describes the plot thusly, and I can’t improve upon it in terms of either brevity or accuracy: “An undercover ranger investigates a deranged rancher who acts as a law unto himself, finding a girl held as a prisoner until she agrees to marry the madman.”

   George O’Brien is the hero, stalwart and strong. Cecilia Parker plays the girl held against her will by deceased father’s business partner, Henry Steele, played by a gaunt but still powerful-looking Charles Middleton, who first claims that Jane Emory is his niece, but then reveals his true plans: to marry her, carried away both by lust and to take full control of the former partnership.

   On her own, Jane would be no match for the mad, piano-playing Henry Steele, who vows to eliminate any living person near his ranch who will not bow down to him. It is up to Texas Ranger Bob Sanborn (George O’Brien) to save the day.

   Besides the ending, which I apologize for revealing, just in case you decide obtain this movie on DVD and watch it for yourself, there was one other scene that I found extremely striking. Toward the end of the movie, Bob and Jane are trying to make their escape, and they find themselves trapped atop an old Apache stronghold in the hills. Bob is firing a rifle down upon their pursuers, while Jane, a mere slip of a girl, is cowering against his back. It’s straight from pulp western cover. If only it had been in color!

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


DRUM BEAT. Warner Brothers, 1954. Alan Ladd, Audrey Dalton, Marisa Pavan, Robert Keith, Rodolfo Acosta, Charles Bronson, Warner Anderson, Elisha Cook Jr. Screenwriter-Director: Delmer Daves.

   If you’re not a Charles Bronson fan, you’re probably not going to care for Drum Beat all that much. If you are a Bronson fan, however, you’re in for a real treat in this extraordinarily scenic CinemaScope Western. Most of the movie is filmed outdoors and there are some great naturalistic settings.

   Directed by Delmer Daves, the film’s top billed star is Alan Ladd, who portrays Johnny MacKay, an “Indian fighter.” His mission: bring peace between white settlers and Indians in southern Oregon, not far from the California border. His opponent is Captain Jack (Bronson), a renegade Modoc warrior whose arrogance, intransigence, and ruthlessness is on full display.

   But make no mistake about it: Bronson steals the show in this one. He is a wild man, nearly as untamable as the natural settings in which he lives and breathes. But if anyone can break Captain Jack’s reign of terror it is going to be MacKay. So we know from the get go we’re in for an eventual showdown between the two men. And what a showdown it is! The two rivals eventually go at it in hand-to-hand combat as they cascade down a river. It’s but one extremely well filmed action scene in a movie replete with harrowing, often quite shockingly violent, action sequences.

   Skilled character actor Robert Keith, who was simply brilliant as a criminal in The Lineup, which I reviewed here, portrays a settler seeking vengeance against the Modocs, while Irish-born actress Audrey Dalton portrays Nancy Meek, Johnny MacKay’s love interest. Their romance just doesn’t feel all that real, but is in many ways, a necessary ingredient in the overall plot.

   Drum Beat isn’t without its flaws. The film does at times feel just a bit too predictable. At times, it also seems to borrow too heavily from John Ford’s classic, Fort Apache (1948). There’s even a scene in which MacKay tells a Calvary officer that, even though they aren’t visible, the Indians are certainly hiding in the rocks. John Wayne’s character famously said almost exactly the same thing to Henry Fonda’s character in that earlier film. There’s also the matter of the double cross, although in Drum Beat, it’s the Indians, not the Whites, who are the duplicitous ones.

   All that being said, Drum Beat is a certainly an above average Western. The film’s best moment is when MacKay and Captain Jack meet in a Modoc dwelling early on in the film. It’s an exceptionally well-filmed scene and is an example of great staging. It certainly places the emphasis on these two characters. The struggle, tension, and grudging admiration between these two fighters make this somewhat lesser known Western worth a look.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


OAKLEY HALL – Warlock. Viking, hardcover 1958. Bantam, paperback, 1959. University of Nebraska Press, softcover, 1980. New York Review of Books Classics, softcover, 2005

WARLOCK. Fox, 1959. Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, Anthony Quinn, Dorothy Malone, Dolores Michaels, Wallace Ford, Tom Drake, Richard Arlen, Whit Bissel, Donald “Red” Barry and DeForest Kelley. Screenplay by Robert Alan Arthur. Directed by Edward Dmytryk.

   I’ve been pleased to read a few truly great Westerns this year, and this was one of them, a Pulitzer nominee that can stand right up there with The Big Sky, The Last Hunt and The Stars in Their Courses as a great novel and a great Western.

   Author Oakley Hall takes the basic elements from the Earp-in-Tombstone saga (events that have already become an American Iliad) and uses them to create his own Epic Ballad, much as John Ford did in My Darling Clementine.

   But where Ford turned heroes into legends, Hall transmutes the legends into role-players, fictionalizing them to give himself the poetic license he needs. Thus Wyatt Earp becomes Clay Blaisdell, Doc Holiday is Tom Morgan, Ike Clanton turns into Abe McQuown—and Tombstone becomes Warlock.

   What emerges is a complex, fast-moving and vivid drama-cum-folk-tale punctuated by shoot-outs, hold-ups, bar fights and lynch mobs, in which characters sometimes stand impressively against the tide and sometimes get swept along or even drowned by it. Hall has a nifty trick of showing how the players we admire most can be capable of cowardice and treachery, yet somehow never lose our esteem. And in all the complexity of character he never lets go of the narrative reins, keeping the tale moving nicely at all times. Hall can write actions scenes with the best of them, but it’s his feel for people and place that make the tale so memorable.

   I saw the film shortly after reading the book, and I guess I’ll have to wait a couple years and see it again so I can judge Warlock the movie on its own terms. As it was, the story seemed too simple and too hurried, and the characters unconvincing or simply unappealing. Richard Widmark isn’t bad as the outclassed Deputy trying to do his duty, but I never got a feel for the character, and I’m not sure he did either. Henry Fonda, once a memorable Wyatt Earp, looks a bit podgy as Blaisdell, and Anthony Quinn plays Morgan/Holliday as a prissy mother hen — one critic called it “the most open depiction of homosexual love in the classic western.”

   The supporting players come off a bit better, including DeForest Kelley in the Curly Bill part, and Frank Gorshin (!) as Widmark’s hot-head kid brother, but again the film simplifies them into non-existence. Or at least it did to me, seeing it when I did. The film has its fans, and perhaps I’ll like it better a few years hence. Meanwhile, let me say again that the book is one that Western fans should treat themselves to.

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.

Next Page »