TV Westerns

by Michael Shonk

   Most TV junkies claim Fall premiere week as their favorite time of the year, but mine has always been the May upfronts. Upfronts are parties the networks throw for major advertisers, ad agencies and the media in attempt to get them drunk enough to believe next Fall’s TV series will be the best ever and hope they forget the lies the networks told about the quality of last season’s shows.

   In the past, May was the most dramatic month for the TV fanatic. TV viewers embraced hope of the new, relief when their favorites survived, and the devastation when they didn’t. But it is just not the same anymore.

   The broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, and CW) have joined cable networks in the effort to supply original programming all year round. New television series never stop coming. The Big Four and-a-Half networks just announced their fall lineup with huge fan fare ignoring that September is no longer the best month of TV.

   Pushing the limits of space here, let’s check out the highlights of what is coming this week, this Summer, this Fall, and in 2017.

   Just because the main season is over, it doesn’t mean the broadcast networks abandon original programming. WAYWARD PINES is back on FOX. CW has the final season of BEAUTY & THE BEAST. CBS has the return of ZOO and two new series starting in June that sound better than any of CBS new fall shows. AMERICAN GOTHIC tells the story of a family that has discovered one of them is a serial killer. From the creators of THE GOOD WIFE, BRAINDEAD is a comedy thriller about a young woman who discovers aliens are eating the brains of politicians and government workers. NBC has the Olympics this summer but also airs AQUARIUS.

      NBC medical drama NIGHT SHIFT returns for its third season:

   Cable networks offer original scripted programs in May and June including AMC’s new crime drama set in a restaurant, FEED THE BEAST, and the last season of HELL ON WHEELS, HBO’s GAME OF THRONES, TNT’s LAST SHIP, MAJOR CRIMES, MURDER IN THE FIRST, and RIZZOLI & ISLES (final season), TBS’s ANGIE TRIBECA, Cinemax’s OUTCAST, Netflix’s ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, ADULT SWIM’s DECKER: UNCLASSIFIED, and SYFY’s 12 MONKEYS.

   The heck with Marvel and DC, give me an IDW comic book like the fun horror/western WYNONNA EARP.

   Cable original scripted programs continue through the summer with returning series such as SYFY’s KILLJOYS and DARK MATTER, FX’s TYRANT and THE STRAIN, STARZ’s POWER, USA’s SUITS and last year’s hit MR. ROBOT.

   New series include Netflix’s STRANGER THINGS set in the 1980s, a supernatural series centered on a missing boy, SYFY’s post-apocalyptic drama AFTERMATH, and TNT’s GOOD BEHAVIOR based on the Letty Dobesh books by Blake Crouch.

      Based on Stephen Hunter’s book POINT OF IMPACT, USA network new series SHOOTER premieres in July.

   This fall live television, especially sports such as the NFL and World Series, will distract the viewing public. Cable lead by one of the most watched TV series in all television, AMC’s WALKING DEAD will hold its own. TNT reboots TALES FROM THE CRYPT, this time from M. Night Shyamalan.

         Netflix starts another series featuring a Marvel comic character – LUKE CAGE.

   Midseason 2017 promises to offer some entertaining new series on cable networks. USA’s FALLING WATER is a supernatural thriller about three strangers who find they can share dreams. SYFY’s horror anthology CHANNEL ZERO,

      Syfy’s THE EXPANSE, the best TV series I watched in 2015-16, will return for its second season in January 2017.

   Top network CBS will add three new dramas this Fall. BULL starring NCIS Michael Weatherly as Dr Phil back when he was a consultant specializing in manipulating… uh, I mean analyzing juries. Medicine meets technology in the new drama PURE GENUIS.

      The pilot of MACGYVER had many behind the scenes problems. Let’s hope Macgyver can find the right knick knack to save the show.

   Two new CBS series wait for their turn and midseason. DOUBT a lawyer show starring Katherine Heigl, and TRAINING DAY, based on the film. But more important are two series that CBS hopes to premiere in 2017 on CBS ALL ACCESS, its streaming service. First original new series will be the sequel to THE GOOD WIFE. The second is perhaps TV most famous franchise in history. It began on NBC, cancelled and resurfaces as a successful film series. It was used to establish Paramount in the syndicated market. It began UPN (now CW) and tried to save the network before the merger with WB. As Paramount continues to pump out theatrical films, CBS will use STAR TREK to jumpstart its streaming service.

         Without a title or any idea what it is about, the new STAR TREK series is the most anticiated television series of next season.


   SUPERGIRL reminded CBS what its TV audience likes, so the new shows look like the old shows and SUPERGIRL flew off to CBS little sister CW. The comic book superhero will feel comfortable with the rest of DC comic superheroes, ARROW, LEGENDS OF TOMORROW, and CW’s top show FLASH. CW continues to specialize in comic books, horror and the weird.

      New this fall to the mini-me of broadcast networks is FREQUENCY based on the film.

   Returning during midseason will be THE 100, iZOMBIE, THE ORIGINALS, SUPERNATURAL, and THE VAMPIRE DIARIES.

   Midseason, CW will add FOX reject RIVERDALE, based on the characters from Archie comics focused on a murder mystery. But this is not Scooby Doo or your old Archie (even the comic books are not your old Archie), this Archie deals with “adult issues” such as him sleeping with his teacher.

   While CBS remains the top network, NBC is close behind. Its two biggest hits are SUNDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL and THE VOICE, each hogging up much of NBC’s fall schedule. This fall NBC adds five games of Thursday night football (CBS shows the first five, NBC has the last five). Without any major holes in its fall schedule, NBC saved its most promising new series for midseason, adding only three to the fall lineup.

      NBC’s only new drama this fall is TIMELESS, the most promising series of the many this season featuring time travel.

   Some of the series returning this fall are BLACKLIST, BLINDSPOT, CHICAGO FIRE, CHICAGO MED, CHICAGO PD, GRIMM, LAW AND ORDER SVU. SHADES OF BLUE will have to wait for SUNDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL to end.

   Other new shows waiting for their turn include comedies POWERLESS (insurance office comedy set in the world of superheroes), TRAIL & ERROR (court comedy). New dramas are BLACKLIST – REDEMPTION (spinoff), EMERALD CITY (based on Baum’s Land of Oz books), MIDNIGHT, TEXAS (based on a series of books by Charlaine Harris (TRUE BLOOD)), TAKEN (prequel to film series) and what would any NBC list be without another Dick Wolf CHICAGO series, in this case CHICAGO JUSTICE.

   There is hope at FOX. This year they have the Super Bowl guaranteeing better numbers at the end of the season. Ratings are changing, and FOX is pushing the hardest to find a way to count those of us who no longer watch TV live or on a TV set.

   TV is about to enter an era of MONEYBALL. For those not familiar with baseball or the movie or the book, sabermetrics uses an endless amount of numbers to measure performance. Networks like FOX are all ready there, someday the media will catch up.

   Speaking of baseball, FOX will have the World Series this fall as well as new series PITCH (story of first woman to play in Major League Baseball). Other new series of interest coming this fall are THE EXORIST (based on William Blatty’s novel), and LETHAL WEAPON (based on the film).

      My pick for first fall show cancelled is FOX’s SON OF ZORN, an animated barbarian tries to cope in live action modern world.

   Shows returning in fall include BROOKLYN NINE-NINE, insane GOTHAM, LUCIFER, ROSEWOOD, SCREAM QUEENS, and QUINTCO. Series returning in midseason include SLEEPY HOLLOW and the final season of BONES.

   Among the new series waiting for 2017 are APB (rich man buys a police precinct), MAKING HISTORY (time travel comedy), SHOTS FIRED (racially charged shooting involving a cop), and PRISON BREAK (sequel to 2005 TV series).

      FOX is hoping 24 – LEGACY will be as successful as the original 24.

   ABC did not have a good year. Its president of programming was sacrificed to the Nielsen Ratings Gods in prayers for better numbers in the demo.There was not enough time to change the fall offerings, but it is expected ABC will copy CBS and NBC with less soap operas and more procedurals.

   ABC’s new fall dramas of interest to us begins with DESIGNATED SURVIVOR starring Kiefer Sutherland as Tom Kirkman, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development ends up President after a terrorist attack takes out most of the leaders of the American government. CONVICTION with Hayley Atwell (AGENT CARTER) as a spoiled former first daughter who is forced under threat of jail to lead a small group investigating cases where the convicted might be innocent.

      NOTORIOUS is about the seduction between law and the media.

   Returning this fall are HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER, MARVEL’S AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D., and ONCE UPON A TIME. While these returning series have to wait until midseason their turn – AMERICAN CRIME, THE CATCH, SCANDAL and SECRETS & LIES.

      Among the new ABC shows waiting for midseason is TIME AFTER TIME, based on the movie and stars Freddie Stroma as H.G. Wells.

   Over one hundred TV series in the 2015-16 season were cancelled or ended. RIP.

THE DAKOTAS “A Man Called Ragan.” ABC-TV, Pilot Episode, 23 April 1962. Larry Ward, Chad Everett, Jack Elam, Mike Green. Guest Cast: Arch Johnson, Jeanne Cooper, Lee Van Cleef. Based on a novel by Harry Whittington. Director: Richard C. Sarafian.

   Although The Dakotas is sometimes said to be a spinoff of ABC’s western series Cheyenne, starring Clint Walker, that doesn’t really seem to be the case. Although (as I understand it) this pilot episode ran in Cheyenne’s time slot, so did another ABC western, Bronco, in a “wheel” format, nor did Clint Walker appear in this first Dakotas episode.

   The confusion seems to have been compounded when The Dakotas again took over the same time slot as Cheyenne when the latter was cancelled halfway through the 1962 season. The first episode of The Dakotas’ first season was aired on January 7, 1963. (I was not watching. I was out celebrating my birthday.)

   The leading character of both the pilot is Frank Ragan, an ex-marshal in the Dakotas territory played by little known Frank Ward, although he was on dozens of TV shows over his career as an actor. With a patch over one eye, when he rides into the small town of Stark City, he has already had enough of his former job and has resigned. One last thing he must do, however, is to learn what happened to a good friend who lived there before his death, his homestead burned to the ground.

   We the viewer are way ahead of him as soon as Ben Stark (Arch Johnson) the area’s most powerful rancher — and the man who owns the town — and his men make an appearance. A showdown is inevitable, and Frank Ragan is just the man for the job.

   But the showdown must come at the end of this episode, and along the way the men who will become Ragan’s deputies in the rest of the series must be introduced:

   Jack Elam plays J. D. Smith, a gunman for hire who changes sides when he sees how the cards are being played; Chad Everett is Ben Stark’s adopted son Del, who is beginning to learn that his father has serious feet of clay; while Mike Green is the town’s sheriff, Vance Porter, a cowardly man totally under Ben Stark’s thumb.

   It isn’t a gang of men totally dedicated to law and order, in other words, but the series lasted for nineteen episodes before being cancelled with the reputation of being the most violent TV series on the air. I’d go along with that. When Ragan and his men ride out of town at the show’s conclusion, the only person left behind in the town is saloon owner Marti Stevens (Jeanne Cooper). Everyone else is dead. (It was a very small town, but it has been made even smaller.)

   Critically, I think the dialogue was a little too stagey, as if this were a tryout for Playhouse 90, say, and of the regular cast, the only one worth watching is Jack Elam. He steals every scene he’s in.

“BIRTH OF A LEGEND.” First episode of the first and only season of the TV series Legion, United Paramount Network (UPN), two hrs., 18 April 1995. Richard Dean Anderson (Ernest Pratt), John de Lancie (Janos Bartok), Mark Adair-Rios (Huitzilopochtli Ramos), Jarrad Paul (Skeeter). Guest cast: Bob Balaban, Stephanie Beacham, Katherine Moffat, Jon Pennell. Creators: Michael Piller & Bill Dial. Director: Charles Correll.

   Teaming up Richard Dean Anderson, who had just finished a long gig as MacGyver, with John de Lancie, not nearly as well known except to Star Trek fans as the omnipotent and very charismatic alien being Q, was a felicitous idea that should have worked. But success or not in the annals of network TV is a chancy thing, especially when it comes to small fledgling networks, and as fate would have it, the series lasted only twelve episodes before fading away forever.

   The basic concept is hardly a new one. Sometime in the 1860s, Anderson plays a dime novelist named Ernest Pratt who gets mistaken by the townspeople of Sheridan, Colorado, for the fictional and very popular hero of his long series of books, Nicholas Legend. Far from being a hero himself, Pratt spends his days gambling and drinking in the saloons of San Francisco, but he has only himself to blame for the mixup: his stories are written in the first person and images of his face are prominently featured on all the covers.

   Learning from a good-looking female attorney (Katherine Moffat) that a warrant has been issued for his arrest in Colorado, it takes some effort, but he is finally convinced to take a trip there in order to clear his name. Causing the local townsfolk to believe that he was their savior by means of one of his many inventions is eccentric scientist Janos Bartok (de Lancie), but the deed has also severely disrupted the plans of wealthy landowner Vera Slaughter (Stephanie Beacham), who caused the charges against Legend to be drawn up.

   I doubt that I am the first to call this show a combination of Wild Wild West and Maverick, but I think the connection fits. The show is played for laughs as much as anything else, but since we’re in on the gag from scene one, I don’t believe that that was one of the primary causes of the series’ early demise. I do think, though, that Anderson may have portrayed his role a little too broadly. (He isn’t that funny.)

   This is the only episode I’ve watched so far from the set of DVDs just recently released, so I can’t tell you what kind of adventures that Legend and Bartok will have from here. This may also be one of those concepts that just has no place to go. This is a series that depended on both charisma and wacky 19th century inventions. There may not have been enough wacky inventions to go around.


THE WILD WILD WEST. “Night of the Inferno.” CBS, 17 September 1965. (Season 1, Episode 1.) Robert Conrad (James T. West), Ross Martin (Artemus Gordon). Guest Cast: Suzanne Pleshette, Victor Buono, Nehemiah Persoff, James Gregory (as President Ulysses S. Grant). Written by Gilbert Ralston and Michael Garrison (creator). Director: Richard C. Sarafian.

   Directed by Richard C. Sarafian, “Night of the Inferno” was the pilot episode for The Wild Wild West, the genre bending spy-Western series that aired on CBS from 1965-1969. The series starred Robert Conrad and Ross Martin as Secret Service agents tasked with foiling plots against the U.S. government after the Civil War. Conrad portrayed the series’ hero, Jim West, while Martin portrayed his memorably named partner/sidekick, Artemus Gordon.

   In “Night of the Inferno,” the audience meets Jim West and Artemus for the first time. The two Secret Service agents set out from Washington to the New Mexico Territory in order to hunt down a warlord by the name of Juan Manolo. Along the way, West encounters a seductive woman from his past and also has to face off against a Mexican general, Gen. Andreas Cassinello (portrayed by the prolific character actor, Nehemiah Persoff, who appeared in numerous television series during his long career and was the voice actor for the animated character Papa Mousekewitz in the An American Tail film franchise).

   Altogether, this pilot episode works quite well in both introducing the two main characters as well as the gadgetry that Jim West would make extensive use of while fighting to save the Union from various super villains and their devious plots. An interesting tidbit: when the series was in the works, the title was going to be The Wild West. Perhaps it sounded just a little too basic, hence the additional of the second “Wild” when the episodes began to air.


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.

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