TV Westerns

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

“Joaquin Murietta.” An episode of Stories of the Century.   Syndicated / Republic Pictures, 16 April 1954 (Season 1, Episode 13). Jim Davis, Mary Castle, with Rick Jason as Joaquin Murietta. Screenplay: Milton Raison. Director: William Witney.

   In this Stories of the Century episode, Matt Clark, Railroad Detective (Jim Davis) and his female partner, Frankie Adams (Mary Castle) take on legendary/quasi-fictional bandit Joaquin Murietta. Directed by William Witney, this episode plays like an extended serial or a very short B-Western. Unlike many other television Westerns from this era, the hero not only has a female partner, but a strong willed and independent one more than willing to speak her mind.

   The plot is adequate, but some details don’t make a whole lot of logical sense. The characters, such as they are, aren’t all that developed, although it should be noted that Murietta is portrayed as both as a ladies man and as a cruel bandit. Still, there’s action, gun-fighting, allusions to gold treasure a plenty. Most importantly, there’s a Whitneyesque drawn out, bare-knuckles fistfight at the very end. How could there not be?

   You can watch the entire episode on the YouTube videobelow:

Reviewed by MIKE TOONEY:

LARAMIE. NBC-TV, 4 seasons (1959-63), 124 episodes. Regular cast: Seasons 1 through 4: John Smith (Slim Sherman) and Robert Fuller (Jess Harper); Seasons 1 and 2 only: Hoagy Carmichael (Jonesy) and Robert Crawford, Jr. (Andy Sherman); Seasons 3 and 4 only: Spring Byington (Daisy Cooper) and Dennis Holmes (Mike Williams).

   Laramie is a relatively undistinguished but nevertheless very enjoyable series. Most of the plots are predictable, nothing any regular Western movie and TV fan hasn’t already seen a hundred times before.

   Despite that, one of the things that makes Laramie so watchable is the characterizations supplied by the two leads, straight arrow Slim (Smith) and edgy Jess (Fuller, a man with a checkered past) as they improbably try to run a ranch and a stagecoach station while gallivanting all over the West tracking down bad guys and gals (which could well explain why they’re always strapped for cash to keep the ranch going).

   As for the stories, most of them are standard fare (somebody killed somebody’s brother, etc.), with only a few really pushing the envelope of credibility. It must have been in the leads’ contracts that they would either get badly beaten or shot at least once every episode. Jess in particular usually takes a bullet through the left shoulder but hardly slows down — a real wildcat, that Harper, even with a hole the size of the Channel Tunnel in his torso. And on top of that, no one suffers any infections from their wounds — these guys are TOUGH.

   Best of all, Laramie features some of the all-time great Western villain actors: Lyle Bettger, Rod Cameron, Jan Merlin, Gregory Walcott, James Anderson, Harry Lauter, Roy Barcroft, Dennis Patrick, L. Q. Jones, and Robert J. Wilke being just a few. Even the future Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelley) each takes a turn as a bad guy.

   And then there’s Charles Drake, not your usual idea of a villain. In a Laramie episode titled “The Accusers” (episode 72) he plays a smooth murderer who, like Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt, almost gets away with it; if only the finale hadn’t been so badly done.

   It must be an axiom in Hollywood: If you can’t come up with something original, steal. Two outright “lifts” from classic non-Western sources for Laramie plots would have to be:

    ~ “Strange Company” (episode 63) — While some of the locals are desperately trying to rebuild a stage line road, somebody in the crew is systematically killing the workers and Slim doesn’t have a clue as to who or why. If Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (or whatever title you might know it by) comes to mind, you’re not alone.

    ~ “The Lost Dutchman” (episode 49) — Slim gets into a scrape when he’s accused of murder and Jess, turning detective, gets involved in the search for a black bird … no, not really, it’s actually a spur which is believed to have an authentic map (aren’t they all?) to the Lost Dutchman’s mine stuffed in the shank. In this variant of Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, Robert Emhardt assumes the Kasper Gutman part, Karen Steele takes the Brigid O’Shaughnessy role, and Robert Fuller comes across as a creditable Sam Spade.

   So, is Laramie worth your time? It’s a Western, isn’t it? “People love Westerns worldwide. There’s something fantasy-like about an individual fighting the elements. Or even bad guys and the elements. It’s a simpler time.” — Clint Eastwood

“ACCORDING TO HOYLE.” An episode of Maverick, 6 Oct 1957 (Season One, Episode 3). Based on the story “A Lady Comes to Texas,” by Horace McCoy. James Garner. Guest Cast: Diane Brewster, Leo Gordon, Jay Novello, Ted de Corsia, Esther Dale, Tol Avery. Producer: Roy Huggins. Director: Budd Boetticher.

   When Maverick gets beaten, badly, in a poker game, by a woman, no less, he has has to wonder how, especially when she’s such a bad player. When he gets beaten again, but only by a strict following of the rules as laid down by Edmond Hoyle, he has to wonder why. Why him?

   There are a lot of twists and turns that follow, in this the third episode, and the first that really begins to define the character of Bret Maverick. Each of the first three episodes were directed by Budd Boetticher, and this was to be his last. What is striking is how great an emphasis was placed on Maverick’s honesty. He might take delight in taking money at the poker table, it is understood, but only according to the rules, and all the more so if the losers deserved it.

   I don’t know the rules of poker all that well. Whenever I’ve played, I know the basics, and otherwise let the other players tell me the rules as we go along. I lose a lot of hands that way. In any case, I had to look it up on the Internet to see if the rule quoted in this case was legit, and alas, it is not quite so. Here’s a webpage that will tell you all you want to know about that.

   But even if a bit flawed, the story itself is a lot of fun to watch, and I have a feeling this is the episode that helped the series catch on. The lady gambler who bests Maverick twice but not the third time, Samantha Crawford (Diane Brewster) has a devious mind behind that pretty face, and watching her at work is a pleasure.

   The character proved to be so popular that she was brought back as a friendly but worthy adversary for Maverick to deal with in several future episodes.

   There is one question I have that I haven’t found the answer to yet on the Internet. There is a scene toward the end of this episode in which one hell of a fight breaks out in a saloon, practically smashing it bits. The scene was taken, I’m sure, from some other old movie I’ve watched recently, and it will come to me, eventually.

   [Later: It may be Dodge City (1939), which I thought either Jon or I had reviewed for this blog, but apparently not. I’m going to have to watch the movie again, but the fact that the film was also a Warner Brothers production is a strong factor in its favor.]

   One other thing. I have not tracked down any other reference to the story by Horace McCoy this movie is supposed to have been based on. I suspect, without anything more than a guess to to support my hypothesis, that the story in question may be the one also by McCoy that Texas Lady (1955) was based on. That one starred Claudette Colbert in the role that Diane Brewster plays in this Maverick episode. From the synopsis found on Wikipedia, the openings are almost exactly the same.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

“The Apprentice Sheriff.” An episode of The Rifleman, 9 December 1958 (Season 1, Episode 11). Cast: Chuck Connors, Johnny Crawford. Guest Cast: Robert Vaughn, Edward Binns, Russell Collins. Written by Barney Slater. Director: Arthur Hiller.

   The ABC western television series, The Rifleman, may have starred Chuck Connors, but in “The Apprentice Sheriff,” a compelling first season episode, it’s a young Robert Vaughn who steals the show.

   Vaughn portrays Dan Willard, a green lawman who has temporarily assumed the job of marshal while Micah Torrence, the “real marshal,” is away. Willard’s got a lot to prove. Because of his poor vision, he had been kicked out of West Point. So to say that he’s got a chip on his shoulder is an understatement.

   We first see Willard (Vaughn) as a reflection in a mirror, with him watching himself handle his guns, the tools of his new trade. It’s the type of scene typically seen more in films noir than in Westerns. It has an immediate unsettling effect upon the viewer, who realizes that he is being told that Willard’s character is going to be the focal point of the episode.

   Willard’s determination to prove his toughness is put to the test when he decides that he’s going to enforce order in town. His immediate targets: a bunch of rowdy cowhands who have just gotten paid. Willard ups the ante with the would-be outlaws when he both puts up a notice requiring they register their firearms and then personally shoots and kills one of the cowhands.

   Lucas McCain (Connors) acts as the voice of reason, trying to convince Willard that wearing a badge doesn’t mean giving up one’s judgment. McCain realizes that Willard is less interested in law and order than in proving his manhood.

   The plot is nothing new, but Vaughn is on the top of his game here, giving a much better performance than in Roger Corman’s Teenage Caveman, which I reviewed here. In this episode, he’s not quite the actor that he would be in his halcyon The Man From U.N.C.L.E. years, but he definitely demonstrates why he had a long future in television in front of him. It’s worth a look.

   The full episode can be watched on Hulu here.


ZORRO. ABC/Walt Disney Productions, 1957-1959 (30min), 1960-61 (four 60min episodes). Guy Williams (Don Diego de la Vega), Gene Sheldon (Bernardo), Henry Calvin (Sgt. Demetrio Lopez Garcia), Don Diamond (Corp. Reyes), George J. Lewis (Don Alejandro de la Vega).

   A short while back someone opined to me that Guy Williams was probably the best Zorro and I carped a bit, since I really prefer Tyrone Power’s film version of Don Diego. Since then, however, I’ve gotten hooked on old Zorro reruns on the Disney Channel, and I have to say I gave the show short shrift.

   I loved this program as a kid, and now it’s even better than I remember. I note from the credits that Fred Cavens — who did on all the best MGM swordflght movies, like Scaramouche and Prisoner of Zenda — worked as fencing master on the series, and it shows in Williams’ (or his stuntman’s) stylish swordplay and well-choreographed bits of business. The sets are lavish for a TV show, with plenty of extras and horses, the acting passable (Henry Calvin does some delightful mime) and the stories…

   I never realized as a kid that most episodes of this program were designed like a Serial, with Zorro each week thwarting some element of the Evil Villain’s Master Plan until the two finally work up to a showdown. This may seem like a small thing, but when you’re doing a half-hour action story, it saves time not having to establish characters and situations each week. The directors even include Bill Witney, who did the best of the Republic serials, and Norman Foster from the Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto movie series.

   Some intelligent writing also came to the fore as Sergeant Garcia quickly evolved from a pure buffoon to a slightly better developed character, and even got a comic foil of his own in the weary Corporal Reyes, played with languid gusto by someone named Don Diamond. Which reminds me:

   Another thing I never realized until I began watching this is that Donald is a common Spanish name. Yeah, really. Seems like half the characters are called Don Something or Don Other.

   Hey, was Don Ameche Spanish?

WICHITA TOWN. NBC/Four Star Productions. 26 x 30m episodes, 30 Sept 1959 to 6 April 1960. Stars: Joel McCrea (Marshal Mike Dunbar), Jody McCrea (Deputy Ben Matheson). Townspeople: Robert Foulk, Frank Ferguson, Bob Anderson, George N. Neise.

   This series has not been officially released on DVD. It is only available through what is generously called the grey market. I recently obtained several episodes in this fashion. The picture quality was only fair but watchable. Below are my notes on each episode as I watched them, not chronologically but in the order they appeared on the discs.

Episode 1. “The Night the Cowboys Roared.” 30 September 1959. Guest Cast: James Coburn, Tony Montenaro. Trail boss Mike Dunbar has just brought his herd of cattle up from Texas into Wichita, but the job having been completed, disclaims responsibility for the subsequent shoot-em-up ruckus caused by his former crew of cowhands. Until, that is, the small Mexican boy who has befriended him is accidentally shot and killed by a ricocheting bullet. Then he steps in and helps the deputy marshal Ben Matheson send the cowboys on their way. Deciding that he needs roots, Mike Dunbar decides to stay on when offered the job of marshal. He is clearly taking on the role of Wyatt Earp, without the name, and it is obvious who his new deputy is intended to be. James Coburn is his usual smart-aleck self as the loud-mouth leader of the cowhands, but the big friendly smile of 12-year-old Anthony C. Montenaro makes an even bigger impression, his first ever role in movies or on TV.

Episode 21. “The Frontiersman.” 2 March 1960. Guest Cast: Gene Evans, Mary Sinclair. This appears to have been produced separately as a pilot for a proposed series starring Evans, as a spinoff from Wichita Town. The version I watched is the pilot itself, with its own title and closing pitch to prospective sponsors. It was not picked up, however, and was broadcast as an episode of Wichita Town. The concept is a good one. The rough-hewn Evans plays Otis Stockett, whose goal is the fight the lawlessness of the frontier with education, with books and learning. When that fails, however, he’s handy with a fist, as he demonstrates in this pilot, then, as he admits in his closing argument, with a gun, but only if absolutely necessary. Joel McCrea appears only briefly.

Episode 11. “Death Watch.” 16 December 1959. Guest Cast: John Dehner, Phillip Pine, Tina Carver, Jean Howell. Ben is trapped in a cyclone cellar with a gambler, a dance hall girl, a dying man, and a killer — a man who thought he could earn a woman’s love by shooting and robbing the man who is dying. As a rarity, the gambler (John Dehner) is not a card shark, but a man who is sadder and wiser about the way the world works. While three people die during the course of this episode, it is talkier than a lot of other westerns, with Dehner taking top honors in that regard, a fine performance. Marshal Dunbar steps back and lets young Ben learn a lesson on his own.

Episode 19. “Brothers of the Knife.” 10 February 1960. Guest Cast: Abraham Sofaer, Anthony Caruso, Robert Carricart, David Whorf. This one felt as though it could be an episode of The Untouchables, as the Mafia tries to make a foothold in Wichita, where a sizable Italian population has made a new home. What the two men sent to enforce a protection racket don’t realize is that once men taste freedom, they will fight for it. Joel McCrea as Marshal Dunbar has little role beyond that of an onlooker. Jody McCrea does not appear in this one. An excellent episode that could only have benefited from having more than the 26 minutes allowed.

Episode 3. “Bullet for a Friend.” 14 October 1959. Guest Cast: Carlos Romero, Robert J. Wilke, James Griffith. On a day when both Marshal Dunbar and his deputy are out of town, two gunslingers come riding in. One is Rico Rodriquez (Carlos Romero), the uncle of Manuel, the young boy who was killed in Episode 1. The other is Johnny Burke (Wilke), who aims to kill a former partner of his, now a successful cattle-buyer in town. Things take an interesting twist when Rodriguez learns that Dunbar was a friend of his nephew, if only for a day, and he decides to do the marshal’s job for him. At the end of program Rodriguez is persuaded to stay on as a second deputy, but this is the first I’ve seen of him. McCrea is present for only the last two minutes, a funny way to be the star of a series, but this was an excellent episode.

Episode 5 “Drifting.” 28 October 1959. Guest Cast: John McIntire, John Larch. When Ben Matheson’s father (John McIntire) comes drifting into town, it is not to a warm welcome. It has been twelve years since he abandoned his son, and Ben finds it difficult to even talk to the bedraggled old man. The problem is that a gunslinger with a fancy saddle has also just come to town, and it is Ben’s father whose trail he is on. Dealing with the situation is what Ben has to do, and it’s his story all the way, and I enjoyed it. Joel McCrea shows up briefly only at the beginning and end.

Summary:   Based on the episodes I’ve been able to see, this was a very enjoyable series. These were largely homespun tales, punctuated by spurts of sudden violence, usually toward the end. The acting was uniformly above average, especially on the part of the guest stars. Joel McCrea was fine, too, but perhaps one reason why this series is as forgotten as it is, is that Joel McCrea almost nearly wasn’t in it.

A TV Western Review by MIKE TOONEY:

“The Trace McCloud Story.” From the Wagon Train series: Season 7, Episode 24 (250th of 284). First broadcast: 2 March 1964. Regular cast: John McIntire (Christopher Hale), Robert Fuller (Cooper Smith, credit only), Frank McGrath (Charlie Wooster), Terry Wilson (Bill Hawks), Denny [Scott] Miller (Duke Shannon), Michael Burns (Barnaby West). Guest cast: Larry Pennell, Audrey Dalton, John Lupton, Paul Newlan, Rachel Ames, Stanley Adams, James McCallion, Nora Marlowe, Harry Harvey. Writer: John McGreevey. Director: Virgil W. Vogel.

   Whenever a long-running TV series runs short of ideas, they sometimes depart from their usual genre (in this case, the Western) to borrow from other genres (in this instance, the mystery/whodunit).

   As Christopher Hale’s wagon train wends its way westward, they sometimes have to stop for replenishment in small towns along the trail. It so happens that in Bedrock, one of their stops, they get to enjoy a traveling magic show — which is abruptly terminated by a murder.

   Wagonmaster Hale learns then that a series of stranglings have occurred in Bedrock, and the local marshal doesn’t have a clue who’s doing them.

   Almost immediately a sizable percentage of the nervous citizens of the town, as well as the itinerant magician, join up with the wagon train. So does the marshal, who thinks the strangler might find the prospect of more potential victims attractive. While Hale welcomes the marshal’s presence, he knows his life just got a lot more complicated.

   The marshal’s suspicions seem to be confirmed when several more murders happen as the train moves on, with the strangler barely escaping detection each time.

   At this point, Chris Hale would be justified in wondering if there’ll be anybody left when they finally reach the end of the trail.

   This episode does a very good job of keeping us guessing by ingeniously shifting suspicion around among the characters; the story benefits by having an hour and half to play in, giving ample time to insert red herrings.

   The solution, admittedly far-fetched, does border on the implausible, but the fun, as in all thrillers, is getting there.

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