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Tag Archives: Westerns

The Gunfighter (June 23, 1950)

The Gunfighter
The Gunfighter (1950)
Directed by Henry King
20th Century-Fox

The 1950s was the decade during which the western genre finally grew up. The Saturday-afternoon kiddie westerns didn’t go away, but the ’50s was when Hollywood started regularly turning out serious, adult dramas that happened to take place in the Old West.

Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73 (1950) is regularly cited as the first “adult western.” In my recent review of that movie, I talked about why I disagree with that assessment. There were plenty of westerns aimed at adults before Winchester ’73, most notably the films of John Ford, Raoul Walsh, and André De Toth.

Winchester ’73 is a good movie, and is a notable example of the “adult western.” But since it wasn’t really the first (I mean, John Ford made Stagecoach in 1939, for crying out loud), if we’re going to anoint a single film as the one that ushered in a new era of realism and adult drama for the western at the dawn of the ’50s, I would like to propose Henry King’s The Gunfighter.

Gregory Peck

The Gunfighter stars Gregory Peck as an aging gunslinger named Jimmy Ringo. He has lived to the ripe old age of 35 by being a fast draw, but he’s tired.

In the opening scene of the film, we see that he avoids trouble as much as he can, but trouble finds him everywhere he goes, and he takes no pleasure in shooting young hotheads who want to test their skills against the fastest gun in the West. Ringo is a lonely man who drifts from town to town, never staying in one place for long. All he wants is to escape his reputation and settle down somewhere.

Like another great “adult” western that would come out a couple of years later — High Noon — much of The Gunfighter takes place more or less in real time. With three men on his trail who mean to kill him, Ringo rides into the little town of Cayenne, New Mexico, where his old friend Mark Strett is now a U.S. Marshal. (Strett is played by Millard Mitchell, who also had a major supporting role in Winchester ’73.)

The hands on the clock tick forward as Ringo waits in a saloon run by another of his old acquaintances, Mac (Karl Malden). Word quickly spreads through town, and a crowd gathers outside the saloon, hoping to catch a glimpse of the legendary Jimmy Ringo.

At the same time we count down the hours with the tired and worn-out Ringo, we see the making of his replacement, a reedy punk with a wisp of a mustache named Hunt Bromley (Skip Homeier).

Ringo desperately wants to see his old love Peggy (Helen Westcott), and the young son they had together. Over the course of the film, we learn that Marshal Mark Strett was also a lawless gunslinger for a time, just like Ringo, but he settled down and found respectability before it was too late. Ringo desperately hopes it is not too late for him, either.

Peck and Westcott

This was the second film in a row that director Henry King made with star Gregory Peck. The first was Twelve O’Clock High (1949), and the two would go on to make a bunch more films together throughout the ’50s.

Like Twelve O’Clock High, The Gunfighter is a character study of an impossibly tough and highly skilled man who is slowly humanized over the course of the film.

The Gunfighter contains most of the important tropes of the western, like the myth of the fast draw and the tension between community and lawlessness. The town of Cayenne is populated with fully realized characters and feels like a real community. It’s also grungier and more lived-in than the freshly painted communities in Winchester ’73, with gnarled trees and rivulets of water running down Main Street. And unlike the fresh-faced actors who populated Hollywood westerns, Peck’s bushy, drooping mustache is actually period-appropriate. (Incidentally, Darryl F. Zanuck hated Peck’s mustache in The Gunfighter, and blamed it for the the film’s mediocre performance at the box office.)

The Gunfighter is a classically structured tragedy set in the Old West. It’s a great film about public perception versus quiet, private reality, as well as the collision of our individual desires with inescapable fate.

I looked for a trailer on YouTube, and couldn’t find a trailer from 1950, but I found this fan edit, which is done in a modern style. I think it’s pretty well-done and effective:

Winchester ’73 (June 7, 1950)

Winchester 73
Winchester ’73 (1950)
Directed by Anthony Mann
Universal Pictures

Among film geeks, Anthony Mann is revered for two things — his hard-boiled film noirs of the 1940s and his “psychological westerns” of the 1950s.

Mann’s western phase kicked off in 1950 with three films, Winchester ’73 with James Stewart, The Furies with Barbara Stanwyck, and Devil’s Doorway with Robert Taylor.

Winchester ’73 was significant because it was Mann’s first film with Jimmy Stewart, the most likeable beanpole everyman in Hollywood, and it helped Stewart craft a new image for himself.

Mann and Stewart went on to make seven more films together, but it is their five westerns that are best-regarded today. After Winchester ’73 came Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1954), and The Man From Laramie (1955).

I first saw Winchester ’73 about 15 years ago, after being completely blown away by Mann’s noirs T-Men (1947) and Raw Deal (1948), and wasn’t as excited by Winchester ’73.

Stewart and Mitchell

Winchester ’73 is regularly lauded as the first “adult western,” and the beginning of a richer and more complicated era for the genre.

I don’t totally buy this. While the majority of westerns in the 1930s and ’40s may have been aimed at kids (it’s almost impossible for an adult to watch a Buster Crabbe western without clawing their eyes out), there were westerns aimed at adult viewers going all the way back to the birth of cinema. To say that Winchester ’73 is the first “adult western” is to ignore the westerns directed by John Ford, Raoul Walsh, André De Toth, and plenty of others.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the 1950s was the best decade for westerns in the history of Hollywood, and Winchester ’73 is a really good western with complex characters and excellent performances. It just doesn’t totally work for me. It has an episodic structure that follows the “priceless … one in a thousand” Winchester ’73 rifle as it passes from owner to owner, and most of the episodes don’t do much for me until Dan Duryea shows up toward the end. (Although I do always get a perverse thrill from seeing Rock Hudson playing a shirtless Native American.)

I find the last third of Winchester ’73 incredibly thrilling and fun to watch. Duryea plays runty, nasty villains like no one else, and its during his episode of the film that Stewart finally shakes off his nice guy image and does stuff on screen that he’d never done before.

Duryea and Stewart

While it’s not my favorite western of all time, I still would recommend Winchester ’73 to any fans of westerns, as well as any film fans who want to explore the western genre. It’s a well-made movie, an important western, and William H. Daniels’s cinematography is gorgeous.

Also, the DVD of this film released in 2003 is a must-have for classic film fans. The special features listed on the DVD case only refer to an “Interview with James Stewart,” which is the most insane piece of underselling I’ve ever seen on a DVD.

That interview is actually an entire commentary track for the film. It’s guided by an interviewer who asks questions, but it’s still Jimmy Stewart talking about the movie as it goes, occasionally commenting on what’s happening onscreen, but mostly just sharing recollections of old Hollywood and old talent, as well as waxing philosophical about the old studio system. It’s incredibly enjoyable to listen to for anyone who’s a classic film fan. It was originally recorded in 1989 for a LaserDisc release of the film. Toward the end of the commentary with the interviewer, Jimmy Stewart marvels at how far technology has come and says, “laser, huh?”

It’s incredibly rare to have this kind of commentary track from a star as old as Stewart, and it’s something to be treasured.

Winchester73DVD

Wagon Master (April 19, 1950)

Wagon Master

Wagon Master (1950)
Directed by John Ford
Argosy Pictures / RKO Radio Pictures

I have mixed feelings about John Ford.

I absolutely love some of his films, and consider them masterpieces, but he also made a lot of films that I’m not crazy about even though every other classic film fan seems to revere them, like She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949).

After watching Wagon Master, which was the western that Ford directed after She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, I’m beginning to think that my expectations might play some role. (In between these two westerns, Ford directed the comedy When Willie Comes Marching Home, which I haven’t seen.)

High expectations and the reverence of others can sometimes make a film tough to enjoy. I thought that She Wore a Yellow Ribbon was stunningly photographed, and I liked some of the performances, but overall I found it poorly paced, historically inaccurate, and unbearably sentimental. I also really didn’t like John Wayne’s performance. I love it when the Duke plays variations on himself, but whenever he plays a “character” I find it hard to watch. His role as Nathan Brittles in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon isn’t as bad as when he played Genghis Khan in The Conqueror (1956), but I still found his “old man” schtick disingenuous and poorly acted.

Johnson and Bond

Wagon Master, on the other hand, is a film almost no one ever talks about. When I sat down to watch it, I had no expectations, nor anyone else’s reverence to contend with.

I really enjoyed it. I thought it was a poetic and leisurely paced western that I’d love to see again some day. Unlike Ford’s last two westerns, which were both shot in Technicolor, Wagon Master is shot in black and white. (At least until the 1960s, I think I prefer my westerns in black and white.)

In Wagon Master, Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr., who both had supporting roles in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, play a pair of horse traders named Travis and Sandy.

They’re approached by a group of Mormons who are led by a recent convert to the faith, Elder Wiggs (Ward Bond), whose constant struggle to not use profanity is a running joke in the film. The group of Mormons are heading west through desolate stretches and need experienced range riders like Travis and Sandy to guide them. The Mormons plan to found a settlement and begin growing crops so a much larger group of their brethren will be able to join them in their promised land a year later.

The range is full of dangers, including human ones, who come in the form of the murderous Clegg gang. They’re led by Uncle Shiloh Clegg (Charles Kemper). If you pay close attention you’ll spot future Gunsmoke star James Arness as another member of the gang, Floyd Clegg.

Kemper and Arness

The Clegg gang is menacing, but there are also friendly strangers who join the wagon train along their journey — a drunken snake-oil salesman named Dr. A. Locksley Hall (Alan Mowbray) and his two female companions, Fleuretty Phyffe (Ruth Clifford) and Denver (Joanne Dru).

Perhaps if I were to proclaim Wagon Master a masterpiece, it would collapse under the weight of my approbation. But I thoroughly enjoyed it, and thought it was a beautifully made film that unfolds at a perfect pace.

I especially enjoyed seeing Ben Johnson come into his own as an actor. The Oklahoma-born Johnson was a ranch hand and rodeo rider in real life, and he’s convincing and charismatic in this role. I liked his supporting role in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, but he carries the film here, and emerges as a great western star. He has no false bravado or unrealistic heroics, and even decides against pulling his gun at several times when the audience might expect him to.

The Baron of Arizona (March 1, 1950)

The Baron of Arizona
The Baron of Arizona (1950)
Directed by Samuel Fuller
Lippert Pictures

Samuel Fuller didn’t suffer from sophomore slump when he directed his second picture, The Baron of Arizona. It’s every bit as good as his first film, I Shot Jesse James (1949), and boasts a great lead performance by Vincent Price and gorgeous black & white cinematography by James Wong Howe.

James Wong Howe is arguably the greatest cinematographer of black & white films of all time, and Fuller was lucky to get him at a low rate. The Baron of Arizona had a small budget and was shot in just 15 days, but it looks like an “A” picture. The cinematography is a big part of this, and Price’s pitch-perfect performance as a louche swindler is another.

Price plays James Addison Reavis, a real historical figure who attempted to defraud the U.S. government by forging land grants in order to take possession of more than 18,000 square miles of the central Arizona Territory and the western New Mexico Territory in the late 19th century.

Vincent Price is best known today as a horror icon, so many people forget that he wasn’t always associated with the horror genre. I always enjoy watching his early performances (and listening to him play “The Saint” on the radio), and the character he plays in The Baron of Arizona is perfectly suited to his talents.

Price was an actor who always seemed to be chuckling at a joke that none of the other actors in the film were privy to, and that quality works perfectly for the character he plays in The Baron of Arizona.

With just two films as a director under his belt, Samuel Fuller was already establishing himself as a filmmaker who could make entertaining, fast-moving, low-budget pictures that had hidden depths. Just like I Shot Jesse James, The Baron of Arizona uses the tropes of the western to turn an American myth on its head.

The Baron of Arizona takes the classic American idea of the “self-made man” and draws it out to its most audacious and unethical conclusion.

Vincent Price

The Golden Stallion (Nov. 15, 1949)

The Golden Stallion
The Golden Stallion (1949)
Directed by William Witney
Republic Pictures

Of the more than 70 oaters that starred Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, and Trigger (the smartest horse in the movies), The Golden Stallion is the best known by today’s film geeks.

The reason for this is an article published in the September 15, 2000, issue of the NY Times called “Whoa, Trigger! Auteur Alert!”, in which Quentin Tarantino waxed rhapsodic about the films of William Witney.

I remember reading the article when it was first published and being immensely pleased. The writer of the piece accurately called Witney “a now all-but-forgotten journeyman director,” but I’ve been a fan of his serials since I was in high school. I watched a lot of serials when I was younger, and it was hard not to notice that the cream of the crop all bore his name as director. Along with his frequent co-director, John English, Witney made one memorable Republic serial after another, like Drums of Fu Manchu (1940), Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), Jungle Girl (1941), Spy Smasher (1942), The Crimson Ghost (1946), and others too numerous to list here.

In the postwar era the market for serials started to dry up, and Witney turned to making westerns for Republic Pictures, including many with Roy Rogers. Tarantino loves what Witney did with Rogers’s films during this period.

“After their first few movies together,” Tarantino said, “Witney had gotten Roy out of his fringe-and-sparkle attire and was dressing him in normal attire, blue jeans and stuff. They stopped being these crazy musicals. He turned them into rough, tough violent adventures.”

Golden Stallion lobby card

Tarantino is absolutely right. Witney was an old hand at directing knock-down drag-out fistfights in serials, and he brought this experience to his features with Roy Rogers.

The best fight I’ve seen in a Roy Rogers film that Witney directed is probably the one in Bells of San Angelo (1947), but all of their collaborations had plenty of action, and The Golden Stallion is no exception. What I found most impressive about The Golden Stallion were not any of the fight scenes, but rather the scenes of Trigger galloping at the head of a herd of wild horses. These sequence appear to have been filmed from a jeep, and they’re full of speed and drama.

So is The Golden Stallion — as Tarantino claims — the best film that Witney and Rogers made together?

That’s hard for me to say, because their films were of such a consistent level of quality (for better and for worse). Like all of their other films, The Golden Stallion had a low budget, a tight shooting schedule, and hokey humor. But it has a better-than-average plot (about a gang smuggling uncut diamonds over the border hidden in horseshoes nailed to the hooves of wild horses), a great scene where Roy has to make an enormous sacrifice to save Trigger’s life, and some really beautiful filmmaking.

If you like B westerns — especially if you like B westerns with singing cowboys — you really can’t go wrong with any of the Roy Rogers films that Witney directed. But if you’re unsure about B westerns and you want to see just one, check out The Golden Stallion. Just make sure you watch the full version, which is 67 minutes long. There’s a truncated version that’s less than an hour long currently on YouTube, but the full color version is available to stream if you’re an Amazon Prime member.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (Oct. 22, 1949)

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
Directed by John Ford
Argosy Pictures / RKO Radio Pictures

As a cinephile, I feel like any criticism of the almighty John Ford must be made in hushed tones.

So in that spirit, let me begin by praising the aspects of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon that I found praiseworthy.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is one of the most beautifully shot westerns I’ve ever seen. Winton C. Hoch won the Academy Award for best color cinematography for this film, and he deserved it. Hoch had previously shot 3 Godfathers (1948) for Ford, and would go on to lens three more films for Ford, The Quiet Man (1952), Mister Roberts (1955), and The Searchers (1956).

Technicolor is a process that often looked oversaturated and occasionally even gaudy, but She Wore a Yellow Ribbon looks simultaneously lifelike and hyperreal. It stands as a towering achievement of what a talented cinematographer could do when shooting in Technicolor.

I also really enjoyed Ben Johnson’s performance as Sgt. Tyree, a former Confederate captain now serving in the U.S. Cavalry as a scout. Johnson was as comfortable in the saddle as he was on his own two legs, and he would go on to a long career in Hollywood, specifically in westerns. I enjoyed his role in Mighty Joe Young (1949), but it didn’t hint at his future greatness in the same way that his performance in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon does. I also enjoyed Richard Hageman’s score, and I found this film enjoyable moment to moment.

John Wayne

But overall, I really didn’t like it. I like plenty of John Ford’s movies just fine, but for more than 20 years I have been mystified by the universal reverence film fans have for his work.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is emblematic of what I don’t like about Ford’s films. His westerns were grand operations in mythmaking, but with an excess of sentimentality. They were historically inaccurate and geographically incoherent, and without a great actor like Henry Fonda in the lead, his films feel like they’re adrift at sea.

I like John Wayne. I really do. But he was better at being an iconic presence than he was at turning in a good performance. The only “performances” of his I’ve found compelling were ones that contained a streak of nastiness, like his roles in Red River (1948) and The Searchers (1956). In She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Wayne is mostly himself, but he has a few opportunities to emote, and those scenes were dead on arrival for me. There’s nothing interesting about his character, unlike Henry Fonda’s deeply flawed character in Fort Apache (1948).

This is a film with remarkably low dramatic stakes. Almost nothing happens in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. This would be fine if it were simply a realistic look at the role the U.S. Cavalry played in the settling of the American West, but it’s not in any way realistic or historically accurate. It takes place in 1876, shortly after the massacre of General Custer and the 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The film’s narrator informs us that multiple Indian nations are joining forces to fight the U.S. government en masse, and that just one more defeat like the one Custer suffered and it will be a century before the Pony Express will be able to safely cross the west again. Historically, this is utter hogwash, and not just because the Pony Express ceased operations in 1861.

Of course, a western doesn’t need to be historically accurate to be entertaining, but with no interesting characters, no dramatic tension, and extremely little action, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon just didn’t work for me. Perhaps my viewing was a victim of high expectations, since She Wore a Yellow Ribbon seems to be universally loved by classic film fans. It’s the second in Ford’s unofficial “Cavalry Trilogy,” but aside from the gorgeous visuals I thought it was a much weaker movie than the first, Fort Apache. (The third part of the trilogy is Rio Grande, which was released in 1950 and also starred John Wayne.) On the other hand, I brought no particular expectations to Ford’s last film, 3 Godfathers, and I enjoyed that one quite a bit.

Colorado Territory (June 11, 1949)

Colorado Territory
Colorado Territory (1949)
Directed by Raoul Walsh
Warner Bros.

Most plot summaries of Raoul Walsh’s western Colorado Territory mention that it’s a remake of the great Warner Bros. gangster movie High Sierra (1941), but that fact is curiously absent from the opening credits.

The screenplay is credited to John Twist and Edmund H. North, but there’s no mention of W.R. Burnett, who wrote the novel High Sierra, and there’s no mention of the earlier film.

This is strange, since the change of setting from the modern day to the Old West could almost qualify this as a “variation on a theme” rather than a straight remake, but there are so many scenes and characters that are nearly identical to scenes and characters in High Sierra.

I recently wrote a piece on producer Mark Hellinger for the annual “giant” issue of The Dark Pages, which was devoted this year to The Killers (1946). (You can order copies of The Dark Pages and subscribe here: http://www.allthatnoir.com/newsletter.htm).

Hellinger frequently worked with director Raoul Walsh at Warner Bros., so I went back and watched a bunch of their collaborations — The Roaring Twenties (1939), They Drive by Night (1940), and High Sierra (1941). (I still haven’t seen The Horn Blows at Midnight, though. Jack Benny made a running joke of it on his radio show, but it can’t be that bad, can it?)

Walsh was a great director who made unabashedly commercial films with a great sense of scope and memorable characters.

Mayo and McCrea

Colorado Territory isn’t ever listed among Walsh’s greatest achievements, but it’s a damned fine western that I think would be better regarded if it didn’t have such a generic title. If one were to scan through a list of westerns from 1949, Colorado Territory screams “B picture.” With a title like that, it easily could have been an RKO Radio Pictures western starring Tim Holt or a Republic Pictures western starring Roy Rogers (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Joel McCrea plays Wes McQueen, an outlaw who escapes from jail and is on the run for most of the movie. (This is essentially the same as Roy Earle, the role Humphrey Bogart played in High Sierra, except that Earle was released from prison.) He hooks up with a couple of vicious characters who aren’t as smart as they think they are — Reno Blake (John Archer) and Duke Harris (James Mitchell) — and together they plan a daring train heist. (These two criminals were played in High Sierra by Arthur Kennedy and Alan Curtis.)

There’s also a beautiful woman to makes things complicated. Her name is Colorado Carson (Virginia Mayo), and she wears lots of flowing low-cut tops and Southwestern-style jewelry because she’s supposed to be part Pueblo. (This is essentially the character Ida Lupino played in High Sierra, although her fashion sense in that film was a lot more conservative.)

And of course, just like High Sierra, there’s a criminal mastermind behind the scenes of the heist and a sweet, innocent-seeming girl whom our criminal protagonist idolizes for a little while before coming to his senses and realizing that he belongs with a straight-up ride or die chick.

There is, however, no cute little stray dog or “comical Negro” character. (You take the good with the bad.)

In Walsh’s filmography, High Sierra will forever be regarded as the superior film. And in 1949, Walsh also directed his masterpiece White Heat, so Colorado Territory suffers by comparison in that department too. (Virginia Mayo is also in White Heat, and her role in that film is a lot meaner and juicier.)

One of the problems with remakes is that no matter how good they are, it’s nearly impossible to lose yourself in them if you’ve seen the original film, since they constantly evoke it. I like Joel McCrea and thinks he’s a great actor, especially in westerns. But he lacks the nastiness and cynicism Bogart had in High Sierra, which made his more human side stand out in such sharp relief.

On the other hand, when a remake differs from its source material, it can make certain scenes even more shocking and emotionally affecting than they would be on their own, since you’re really not expecting things to go down that way. Colorado Territory has a few bits like that, and it’s exciting and well-made enough to stand on its own.

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