FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins
If this column doesn’t appeal to you, don’t blame me. Steve Lewis thought some readers might be interested in my latest book, even though it has nothing to do with our genre. So I’ll start off this month recycling the book’s introduction, which I believe conveys what it’s about, and reveals an aspect of your columnist that may surprise many who think of me as just a mystery wonk.
If you leave out the accident of my birth, the origin of They Called the Shots dates back to 1952. The Korean war was raging overseas, HUAC and Senator Joe McCarthy were raging on the home front, the blacklist was on full tilt, and I was nine years young, living in Roselle Park, New Jersey.
One night my parents, taking me along, went out to an appliance store to buy their first television set. It was, if memory serves, an Admiral with a 12 -inch screen. The price was around $225 or $250. For the next several years that set drew me to it like a magnet.
In the early Fifties the major movie studios considered TV the enemy, offering for nothing the same product that theaters charged admission for. They wouldn’t allow their old films to be shown on the small screen, and in their current pictures they often wouldn’t allow a set amid the furniture of a living-room scene.
Growing up in the New York City area, I had access to seven channels: the CBS, NBC and ABC flagship stations (Channels 2,4 and 7 respectively), the short-lived DuMont network, plus three local independents. With the majors boycotting the medium and the number of made-for-TV series rather small, TV programmers starved for material on film had to fall back on the smaller fry among movie-making companies, mainly Republic, Monogram and PRC.
During the Thirties and Forties those companies had put out an endless stream of B pictures, primarily but not exclusively Westerns, and Republic had also offered dozens of cliffhanger serials. This was the product, interspersed with Hopalong Cassidy movies (out of which William Boyd, the only actor to play Hoppy, made megamillions by buying the rights to those flicks and licensing them to stations across the country) and early made-for-TV series like The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid, that kept me glued in front of the set for hours every evening. I became a certified telefreak.
On that tiny screen I watched movies featuring the exploits of various Western stars of previous decades over and over. Some were trio pictures with groups like The Three Mesquiteers and The Range Busters and The Rough Riders. Most starred a single hero: Gene Autry, Eddie Dean, Buck Jones, Ken Maynard, Kermit Maynard (Ken s less successful but perhaps more talented brother), Tim McCoy, Jack Randall, Tex Ritter, Roy Rogers and of course the young John Wayne.
I got to the point where I could identify at sight dozens of the actors in B Westerns who usually fell to the heroes bullets or fists — Roy Barcroft, Tristram Coffin, Kenne Duncan, I. Stanford Jolley, Charles King, John Merton, Marshall Reed, Hal Taliaferro, Harry Woods, just to name a few at random. Eventually I caught on that the person usually named in a picture s final credit must be important, but what a director did and how he did it I hadn’t the foggiest.
As I grew older I lost interest in shoot-em-ups and cliffhangers, considering them beneath the notice of a young intellectual such as I fancied myself to be.
Years slid by. I completed college and law school, passed the bar, and eventually uprooted myself from the east coast to St. Louis where I was invited to become a law professor. And then, slowly but surely, a strange thing happened. I became interested in those old movies again. I had the pleasure of meeting in their golden years some of the actors whose younger incarnations I had watched for hours on end, magnetized by that 12 -inch screen.
Most important of all, I began to meet and become friends with some of the men whose names were familiar to me from the final credits of those pictures. The ones who called the shots. The directors. I got to watch their films again, sometimes sitting beside them. I got to listen to their stories. Eventually I began to write about them.
This book is the culmination of that process. It s taken me thousands of hours of viewing time and hundreds of hours of writing time but in my twilight years I still consider the time well spent. I hope I ve communicated what I’ve gotten from all those films, and from the people who made them, in the following pages.
But perhaps I can spell out here what I’ve looked for, and often found, in pictures of this sort. Reduced to two words, what the first-rate films contain and what the first-rate directors infuse into their films is visual imagination or, in two more words, visual excitement. This quality is the alpha and omega of the kind of movies discussed here.
Each chapter is self-contained and can be read separately. But many also throw light on other chapters, and to help readers navigate among them, the first time in any chapter the name of a director is mentioned who is the subject of an earlier or later chapter, that name is highlighted.
For example, in the chapter on William Witney you can see highlighted names like John English or Alan James or Ray Taylor from Bill s point of view, and later you can turn to the chapters on those men and see Bill from their perspective.
The directors I knew best tend to get the longest and most quote-filled chapters but, because they contributed so much to this book, I want to single them out for mention: in the order of their births, Spencer Gordon Bennet (1893-1987), Joseph H. Lewis (1907-2000), Thomas Carr (1907-1997), and my closest Hollywood friend, Bill Witney (1915-2002). A few others covered here, like Oliver Drake (1903-1991) and R.G. Springsteen (1904-1989), I knew but not all that well. Others, who died too soon, I never had the pleasure of meeting.
Every director covered here is dead, and most of them died before the beginning of this century. In a sense this book is an assortment of flowers on their graves. In another sense it brings them back, I hope, to life.
While we’re on the subject of shoot-em-ups, a reader of my last month’s column asked if any of John Creasey’s contributions to that branch of literature got published in the USofA. The answer is Yes. War on the Lazy-K, as by William K. Reilly — one of three bylines under which Creasey turned out (if I’ve counted right) 29 smokeroos for low-on-the-totem-pole English houses like Wright & Brown and Stanley Paul — first appeared in London in 1941, amid the carnage of World War II, and came out over here five years later under the imprint of Phoenix Press.
Yes, the same Phoenix Press that at the same time was presenting to an indifferent world the novels of that incomparable wackadoodle Harry Stephen Keeler. I am the proud owner of a copy of the Reilly opus, picked up for 50 cents at a YMCA book fair in St. Louis twenty or more years ago. Another copy wound up in the hands of Bill Pronzini, who devotes a couple of pages to it in his tribute to badly written Westerns, Six-Gun in Cheek (1997).
When I was in Wales back in pre-euro days I pungled up 50 pence apiece for each of several Creasey cactus epics published only in England, but that’s another story. Let’s stick to the one that made it across the pond.
This one actually has a plot of sorts, but what I find most amazing is that a writer who had never yet visited the U.S. and knew next to nothing about the old West could hammer out so many books of this type in a few days apiece. The narrative passages of Lazy-K are readable enough, although pockmarked with exclamation points and lacking the urgency of the Inspector West and Dr. Palfrey novels Creasey wrote during the same war years.
But Gad, the dialogue! Just about every one of the horde of characters in this book speaks in dialect—the same wacky dialect for the whole passel of ‘em! “Why’n hell can’t yuh old-timers stop arguin’ among yourselves?” “C’n yuh use a drink?” “Yuh ain’t got a touch of whiskey with yuh, by any chance?” “Yuh’ve heerd me.” The only characters who are spared this form of discourse are the Mexicans. “Thees ees a surprise, Kennedy. I was told that you wair dead.”
“He wanted to be kept hidden until after Deegby was gone. But undair cover he negotiated with the other outfits.” There’s also one character who’s a Kiowa — or, as Creasey spells it, Kiawa — but him no speakum much. Can you imagine having to remember to misspell so often while pumping out ten or fifteen thousand words a day? What a delight to encounter the occasional rare moment when Creasey blinks and actually spells you y-o-u!
At least one other among Creasey’s posse of pistol-smokers was published over here, but not in book form. Hidden Range (1946), published in England as by Tex Riley, takes up virtually the entire February 1950 issue of Real Western Stories, one of the Columbia chain of ultra-low-budget pulps edited by Robert A. W. Lowndes. I tripped over a copy of this one in a secondhand bookstore somewhere in Ohio and snagged it for another 50 cents.
A quick look at the invaluable FictionMags Index website revealed a curious fact I hadn’t been aware of before. A year after Lowndes used Hidden Range in Real Western Stories, he used the exact same novel, this time retitled Forgotten Range, in the February 1951 issue of Western Action, another Columbia pulp. He must have been desperate for material that month!
But could the Index be wrong here? According to other Creasey bibliographies in print and online, Forgotten Range is a different book, published in England as by Tex Riley in 1947. It strikes me as more credible that this is the title Lowndes ran early in 1951. In any event, he had earlier run another Creasey shoot-em-up, this time under the William K. Reilly byline, Brand Him for Boothill! (Western Action, July 1949), but what title and pen name this one sported in England remains a mystery.
A word which brings us back to what this column is supposed to be about.
Hundreds of Creasey’s crime novels were published in the U.S. from the early 1950s until well after his death in 1973, but only nine appeared here before he became a top name in the genre. Eight of these, chronicling the earliest exploits of Raffles-like John Mannering, a.k.a. The Baron, appeared under Creasey’s Anthony Morton byline between 1937 and 1940, although for some obscure reason the character’s nom de thief on this side of the pond was Blue Mask.
The ninth, and the only book to bear Creasey’s own name on its spine until he became established over here years later, was Legion of the Lost (1944), one of the early espionage adventures of Dr. Palfrey and his colleagues, offered by a publishing house called Stephen Daye, Inc., which seems to have vanished into the mists a few seconds after it was born.
At a time when I had little or no idea who Creasey was, I found a nice copy of this rarity in an old used bookstore in Elizabeth, N.J. that was a favorite hangout of mine in my formative years. What did the book set me back? One quarter. A wise investment, yes?