TV Westerns

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          

“The Gladiators.” An episode of Have Gun – Will Travel, 19 March 1960. (Season 3, Episode 27.) Richard Boone. Guest Stars: Paul Cavanaugh, Dolores Donlon and James Coburn as Bill Sledge. Teleplay: Robert C. Dennis. Series created by Herb Maddow and Sam Rolfe. Directed by Alvin Ganzer.

   Have Gun – Will Travel was seldom just an ordinary western, and on occasion barely a western at all, as in this episode which opens in San Francisco at our hero Paladin’s (Richard Boone) rooms in the Carleton Hotel where he is receiving an attractive young lady, Miss Alison Windrom (Dolores Donlon) of New Orleans, with seduction on his mind, as evidenced by the champagne that accompanies her to the room and his lounging jacket.

   Alas for our tarnished knight, Miss Windrom is concerned for poor Daddy back home (veteran actor Paul Cavanaugh), who has accepted a challenge to a duel:

      “He’s a very proud man, Mr. Paladin, he’d rather die than yield.”

      “Is that a family trait?”

   It is the nineteen-fifties, and we know the seduction is not going to succeed, but the teleplay and Boone’s delivery of the lines makes no bones about what Paladin has in mind. It isn’t surprising audiences were ready for the much more successful James Bond a few years later. All this unfulfilled seduction and innuendo had to end at some point in a bedroom somewhere.

   Of course once he is hired, Paladin is all business. In that he, and most of the gunslingers in Westerns, very much resemble the work ethic of the private eye of pulp fiction, all business, no matter how attractive the distractions. In many ways Paladin is a private eye as much as a hired gun, though he is seldom cast in the role of detective.

   Over the course of the series we learn little of him other than he is an ex-soldier, fast with a gun, would rather talk than fight when possible, has exquisite tastes acquired if not born to, is possessed of a mordant and quick wit, and is cynical but still a romantic despite his jaundiced eye.

   He would like to be wrong about people and is gratified when he finds one of the few who defy is dark assessment of humanity. He is a man out of his time and place who probably would only really fit in San Francisco of that era or as an Elizabethan privateer. He is very much Chandler’s errant knight ‘good enough for any world,’ but his mean streets are most often dusty trails ending in a showdown.

   Miss Windrom is convinced the other party in the duel, the younger Mr. Beckley (George Neise) will step out if Paladin shows up as a proxy for her father. So Paladin gets dragged into it, protesting all the way, and steps into the looking glass with the Southern aristocrats who would rather die than yield, even if it means over the bodies of innocents.

   Or not so innocents, when Beckley hires his own proxy in the person of gunfighter Bill Sledge (James Coburn) from Texas, a man with a reputation with a gun equal to Paladin. The two men know of each other, and they meet on neutral ground with mutual respect for the other’s skill and professionalism. That paean to professionalism is also a throwback to the classic private eye of Hammett who is redeemed more by that trait than his humanity, the Code of the West is ironically largely the Puritan work ethic.

   Paladin considers the duel nonsense, and so does the dark but charming Sledge. Neither particularly wants to kill anyone, certainly not for two arrogant fools battling over some obscure point of honor, and it seems for a moment like the meeting on the field of honor and blood can be avoided if Paladin and Sledge refuse to fight, but Sledge can’t help but wonder which of them would win, and …

      Sledge: I never done much of this kind of fighting in Texas. Hear tell there’s rules.

      Paladin: You pay much attention to rules?

      Sledge: Never done yet.

   This episode is a tight little psychological game, as Paladin finds himself Alice surrounded by White Rabbits and Mad Hatters obsessed by ‘honor’ and inured to death. He finds the price of honor in this case too high, but no one else does, and as the tight little half hour goes on he inevitably will find himself on that field of honor and blood at dawn.

·       Paladin: “How much blood will you settle for?”

   The episode may surprise some who have a certain view of series drama from the Fifties. It is bitter, cynical, downbeat, dark, and unforgiving. That the conclusion is predetermined and unavoidable from the first makes it all the worse. It has the sharp taste of bitters without the gin, a nasty dose of quinine made palatable by watching two outstanding actors, both gifted at playing villain and complex hero, both with charm and cool to spare (had this episode also included those two other masters of small screen cool, Steve McQueen and Robert Culp, it could have frozen and shattered television tubes) in acutely observed and written roles clearly enjoying themselves.

   Coburn displays the vicious charm that worked equally well as dark hero or psychotic villain and would soon lead him to stardom, and Boone, who has the same qualities on screen, seems to enjoy his scenes with him, recognizing an equal. That, and the sharp observation of a world where honor encompasses wagering on death and wasting lives over obscure points make this episode a standout as Paladin learns the savagery of the “savage land” of the series theme song is nothing compared to that of the civilized world.

   Have Gun – Will Travel was always a well-written series, and thanks to Boone, always well-acted, but this one is a standout, a cynical little gem about the cost of violence and cultures that embrace it.

   It is also rare in that Paladin, the man who holds himself above the rest, is as compelled by his own code of honor as the men he condemns to see it out to the end, and in the final scene he is as disgusted with himself as them. This episode comes close to tragedy since no one in it escapes their hubris or pride whether they live or die.

   In the end, Paladin is a victim of his own honor as much as they are and bloodied by it as surely. His slight rebuff of all that has gone before in the final scene, when he throws a glass of champagne to the ground with a bitter comment and stalks off as the screen fades to black, isn’t satisfying for the character or for the viewer, and perhaps all the darker because we as voyeurs wanted to know which man would prevail as well.

   For a half-hour episode of series television from that time period “The Gladiators” bears a great deal of existential despair, especially for a Western. Even for a series as quirky and adult as Have Gun – Will Travel, this episode is savage and dark.

GALLOWAY HOUSE. Pilot: “The Night Rider.” 1962. Johnny Cash (as Johnny Laredo), Dick Jones, Johnny Western, Merle Travis, Gordon Terry, Eddie Dean, Karen Downes. Story and screenplay: Helen Diller. Director: Michael Hinn.

   Two gimmicks are going on at once here. The first gimmick is the title of the proposed series. Galloway House was supposed to be an old-fashioned playhouse theater, complete with drawn red curtains and a emcee in full colorful regalia (straw boater hat, bow tie, suspenders), with one problem as far as I was concerned. The opening introduction was clipped from the version I saw, and the closing curtain and farewell remarks came as a surprise at the end.

   The second gimmick, as I understand it, and I had to hunt for a while online to discover this, was that each episode of the proposed series was to tell the story in songs and words, of a well-known country song. I don’t believe that country singer Johnny Cash was to be the star of each episode, but I haven’t found any online discussion about it, one way or the other.

   In this pilot (and only) episode the song was “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town,” one of Johnny Cash’s many hit songs. About half the show consists of the characters singing various country standards: around a campfire, at a saloon, and at a funeral. The primary story, of course, is that of a foolish young boy who wants to prove himself a man by taking his guns to town.

   Johnny Cash as the lonesome gunfighter doesn’t have to work hard to act troubled, regretful and sullen, but as effective as he is, truthfully he’s not much of an actor. Some of the other members of the cast were well-known western singers and stars. I’d like to add a special note of recognition to Karen Downes who played the saloon chorus girl, who sings “Skip to the Lou” in suitably sultry fashion. It was her only credit in either TV or the movies.

HUDSON’S BAY. CTV, Canada, 1959-60. “Pilot episode.” Barry Nelson (Jonathan Banner), George Tobias (Pierre Falcone). Guest Cast: Toby Tarnow, Ben Lennick, Jean Caval, Jim Barron, Sean Franck. Director: Alvin Rakoff.

   Quite a few episodes of this series exist and are available either on YouTube or circulating in the collectors’ market. Barry Nelson plays an agent of the famed Hudson’s Bay Company, his bailiwick being essentially all of Canada, and more, or so the opening narration tells us: Labrador to California, Minnesota to Alaska. That’s quite a chunk or territory for two men to cover, but Jonathan Banner and his French-Canadian sidekick Pierre Falcone seem to have done it, for a period of one season, or 39 episodes.

   There was no onscreen title for the episode I watched, and there seems to be some uncertainty about it. The more reliable authority, as far as I have been able to determine, is Classic TV Archives, which does refer to it as the pilot and quite possibly episode one of the series itself. The official title, according to CTVA, is “Battle of Mississippi,” a/k/a “Indian Girl Witness” or “The Celebration.”

   IMDb, on the other hand, has the story listed under the title “Revelry at Red Deer,” which both they and CTVA have listed as Episode #8. The synopsis as given on IMDb matches the story I watched, for whatever worth that may be.

   In this episode, a fight breaks out over a Indian girl at a party held at the end of a hunting and trapping season, and when one of the men who was attracted to her is found murdered, the one who thought he had a prior claim to her is accused.

   Toby Tarnow, a Canadian actress, plays Little Dove (or Little Doe or Little Dory, sources vary) but has little or no dialogue. One telling scene occurs when Banner tries to locate her as a witness by going to the chief of tribe, and the chief says she has no tribe.

   Another longer scene consists of members of two trading companies shooting it out, with lots of dramatic deaths and falls from higher regions of the trading post. This makes sure that the story fills out to its full 25 minutes of so.

   If this series had been filmed in color, I think it might be worth further watching, but in black-and-white and with only a very ordinary episode under my belt, I think I’ll pass. (The first seven minutes are included in the clip below.)

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.

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