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Tag Archives: Barbara Britton

I Shot Jesse James (Feb. 26, 1949)

I Shot Jesse James
I Shot Jesse James (1949)
Directed by Samuel Fuller
Lippert Pictures / Screen Guild Productions

If a story doesn’t give you a hard-on in the first couple of scenes, throw it in the goddamn garbage. —Samuel Fuller

Maverick filmmaker Samuel Fuller was shopping scripts around Hollywood when he met producer Robert L. Lippert. Lippert admired Fuller’s 1944 pulp novel The Dark Page and gave Fuller his first crack at directing.

The result was I Shot Jesse James, a low-budget but brilliant revisionist western starring John Ireland as Robert Ford, the member of the James gang who killed Jesse James and collected the bounty.

Fuller had a flair for the dramatic, and when shooting began on I Shot Jesse James, he discharged a round from his Colt .45 into the air instead of yelling “Action.”

Fuller made three films for Lippert, I Shot Jesse James, The Baron of Arizona (1950), and The Steel Helmet (1951). The budgets were tiny and the shooting schedules tight, but Lippert gave Fuller the freedom to make exactly the kind of movies he wanted.

Fuller wrote the script for I Shot Jesse James, and based it on an article by Homer Croy in American Weekly magazine. It’s a sympathetic portrayal of a roundly reviled historical figure (even if you have no sympathy for Jesse James, it’s hard not to instinctively dislike a man who shot his unarmed friend in the back for reward money).

John Ireland

John Ireland plays Robert Ford as a lovesick man who’s tired of life on the run and just wants to marry his girl, the beautiful actress Cynthy Waters (Barbara Britton). He’s tempted by Missouri Governor Thomas Theodore Crittenden’s offer of amnesty for any member of the gang who turns in Jesse James (Reed Hadley), dead or alive.

Fuller depicts the relationship between Jesse and Bob Ford as deeply homoerotic, although the stolid Hadley doesn’t seem aware of anything strange about sitting in a bathtub and asking his friend to scrub his back for him. It’s the tortured Ireland who appears to long for Jesse, and perhaps by killing him he’s killing a part of himself that he despises.

Nothing good comes from it, of course. When Ford tells Cynthy that his killing of Jesse James was legal, she responds in horror, “It was murder.”

He walks through the rest of the picture with a haunted, desperate look on his face. He appears in a stage show in which he reenacts the killing of Jesse James, he dodges bullets from glory-hungry gunmen, and he desperately tries to repair his relationship with Cynthy.

This film explores a lot of the same territory as Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), which starred Casey Affleck as Robert Ford and Brad Pitt as Jesse James. The most poignant parts of both films show Ford facing his own terrible legacy, such as when he appears in the onstage reenactment or confronts a troubadour who sings hymns to his cowardice.

I Shot Jesse James has stock music and its minuscule budget is pretty obvious, but it’s a great portrait of a complicated historical figure. Samuel Fuller would go on to have a long and iconoclastic career, and while I Shot Jesse James is never numbered among his greatest works, it’s his opening salvo as a director, and it’s a powerful one.

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Albuquerque (Feb. 20, 1948)

Like Randolph Scott’s last western, Gunfighters (1947), director Ray Enright’s Albuquerque was filmed in Cinecolor, which was a two-color film process that was less expensive than Technicolor.

Unlike Gunfighters, it’s punchy and fast-moving, which could have something to do with the source material. Gunfighters was based on a novel by the long-winded Zane Grey, while Albuquerque is based on the 1939 novel Dead Freight for Piute, which was written by the terse, hard-boiled western author Luke Short.

Albuquerque isn’t quite on the level of André de Toth’s Ramrod (1947), which was the best adaptation of a Luke Short book I’ve seen to date, but it’s a well-made B western.

The lean, weather-beaten Randolph Scott plays Cole Armin, a man coming to Albuquerque to do a job. On the way there, he and his fellow stagecoach passengers are robbed by a group of masked bandits. Celia Wallace (Catherine Craig) loses $10,000 to them, and a young girl named Myrtle (Karolyn Grimes, best known for playing little Zuzu in It’s a Wonderful Life), is put in a perilous position when the stage goes out of control with spooked horses and no driver.

It quickly becomes clear that more pernicious forces are at work in Albuquerque than just a few stagecoach robbers preying on wayfarers. John Armin (George Cleveland), Cole’s uncle and the man he’s come to Albuquerque to work for, turns out to have a stranglehold on the territory, and he expects Cole to help him carry out all manner of dirty business.

So the honest Cole Armin goes into business with Celia and her brother Ted Wallace (Russell Hayden), forming Wallace & Armin Freighting. Their freighting company moves ore from the Half-High Mine down a steep, twisting, treacherous trail. (Even higher up the mountain is Angel’s Roost Mine, but it’s so high up that no one’s sure if it’s even possible to get the ore down from there.)

Naturally, none of this makes John Armin very happy, and he dispatches forces both foul and fair — a hulking henchman named Steve Murkill (Lon Chaney Jr.), who appears to have been hired not only for his great strength and mercilessness, but also his ability to get hit in the face without losing the cigarette clenched between his teeth; and a beautiful young woman named Letty Tyler (Barbara Britton), who ingratiates herself to our heroes with her feminine charms and a revolver that secretly contains blanks.

Albuquerque is a B western through and through (look no further than the presence of the rootin’, tootin’ Gabby Hayes as “Juke”), but its production values are solid and it’s pretty entertaining, especially for fans of Randolph Scott, who for my money is the most archetypal western star of all time.

Gunfighters (July 1, 1947)

Another day, another western based on a Zane Grey novel.

Unlike the last movie I watched that was based on a book by Zane Grey — Thunder Mountain, which was a fun little 60-minute black and white western from RKO Radio Pictures — George Waggner’s Gunfighters gets the prestige treatment from Columbia Pictures. It’s a feature-length film (almost 90 minutes long), and it’s shot in Cinecolor.

Cinecolor was a two-color film process that was cheaper than Technicolor, and could sometimes look washed-out or unnaturally reddish, but Gunfighters looks great. For what it is, the production values are high, and legendary cowboy star Randolph Scott is always fun to watch.

In Gunfighters, which is based on Zane Grey’s posthumously published novel Twin Sombreros, Scott plays a seasoned gunman with the unlikely name of Brazos Kane.

Brazos is the veteran of so many shootouts that as soon as the opening credits are done rolling, his best friend steps out of a cantina, calls him out, and Brazos is forced to kill him. As his friend lies dying, he offers no explanation for starting the duel. In the world of Gunfighters, gunmen are like mountain climbers — ask mountain climbers why they want to climb a mountain, and they’ll respond, “Because it’s there.” Likewise, Brazos’s friend just had to know who was the faster draw.

But Brazos doesn’t want to be a part of this topsy-turvy fast-draw world anymore. As he says in one of the film’s bits of sporadic voice-over, “When your best friend tries to beat you to the draw, it’s time to put up your guns.”

But it’s the same everywhere he goes — the Texas Panhandle, Wichita, Dodge — so Brazos heads for the Inskip Ranch, where he plans to ride the range with his old friend Bob Tyrell.

And that’s just what they do. After Brazos arrives at the Inskip Ranch, he and his old buddy Bob herd cattle, bust broncos, sleep under the stars, start their days with strong coffee and hot biscuits, pass a jug of whiskey around the campfire at night, tell tall tales, and live happily for all the days of their life, making Gunfighters unique among ’40s westerns, since it contains almost no gunplay or violence.

Ha ha! Just kidding. As soon as Brazos shows up at the Inskip Ranch, he finds Tyrell’s corpse facedown in a creek.

And even worse, he’s immediately blamed for the murder, and finds himself on the wrong end of a lynch mob.

Gunfighters has plenty to recommend it. It looks good and contains some of the most impressive chases on horseback I’ve seen in a western. But for every exciting five-minute stretch there’s a boring one, and the final showdown between Brazos and the bad guys seems to take forever to get to.

I enjoyed the performances of both Dorothy Hart and Barbara Britton, who play sisters Jane and Bess Banner. Most of the humor in the film comes from the fact that the two sisters look enough alike to be mistaken for twins, and there’s plenty of cases of mistaken identity, if that’s your thing.

Forrest Tucker, who is probably best remembered for playing Sergeant O’Rourke on the TV show F Troop, makes a great sneering bad guy, but the other major villain, Bruce Cabot (of King Kong fame), never makes much of an impression.

I didn’t love Gunfighters, but I didn’t hate it, either. And you can’t beat scenes like the one in which Brazos tells a crooked sheriff’s deputy played by Grant Withers, “Never mind my shots. Count my guns.”

They Made Me a Killer (May 3, 1946)

Incompetent director William C. Thomas’s They Made Me a Killer is based on a screenplay by competent writer Daniel Mainwaring, who was working under the name “Geoffrey Homes.” Mainwaring was a prolific screenwriter whose most famous contribution to film noir is his script for Out of the Past (1947), which was based on his novel Build My Gallows High (both were written under his Homes pseudonym).

The script for They Made Me a Killer isn’t the problem. In the hands of a talented director and a better cast of actors, it could have been a crisp little thriller. There’s a decent amount of complexity in its familiar tale of an innocent man on the run, and the dialogue is snappy. Unfortunately it’s all handled so poorly that the protagonist’s flexible ethics end up seeming more like sloppy storytelling than anything else, and all the clever lines are delivered in too ham-handed a fashion to make much of an impact.

Produced by William H. Pine, They Made Me a Killer was released by Pine-Thomas Productions, the B unit of Paramount Pictures. It’s normal for low-budget productions to cut corners, but this picture has some of the most egregious examples of cost-cutting I’ve ever seen. Thomas employs rear projection frequently, and not just for scenes shot in cars, which is when the technique was most commonly used. There are numerous shots in They Made Me a Killer of people standing on a street corner in which everything behind them is clearly rear projected. In one scene, two actors stand in front of a rear-projected house, then one of them turns to walk toward it. The scene immediately cuts to a shot of her ringing the doorbell, standing in front of a door that doesn’t look as though it matches the house we saw in the establishing shot. There are certainly less noticeable and more artful ways to keep a picture under budget.

When They Made Me a Killer begins, Tom Durling (Robert Lowery) is leaving Chicago. His brother was killed there, and he has no desire to stay. He’s leaving his job as an auto mechanic, and heading for San Francisco. Once in California, he stops at an intersection. San Francisco is 248 miles away, and Santa Marta, “The Pearl of the Valley,” is just five miles away. He heads for Santa Marta, hoping to sell his souped-up jalopy, which he has modified to achieve speeds of up to 120 miles per hour.

He’s approached by a potential buyer named Betty Ford (Lola Lane), who tells Durling that she wants her boyfriend to buy the car for her for her birthday. Agreeing to meet her boyfriend the next day to close the deal, he ends up parked outside the Santa Marta Trust and Savings Bank the next morning with Betty exhorting him not to move, even to drive around the block to avoid a parking ticket, while Jack Conley (Edmund MacDonald) and Frank Conley (James Bush) are inside, making a very large withdrawal.

When he had initially shown her what his blocky hot rod could do, Durling had told Betty, “All I wanna do in this town is leave it.” He’ll get his wish, but he’ll get it the hard way.

He’s not the only one. Caught in the crossfire is a hapless little punk named Steve Reynolds (Byron Barr), a bank clerk at the Santa Marta Trust and Savings Bank who’s hanging around the getaway car because he has the hots for Betty.

Betty and the Conley brothers make off with $100,000, but Durling drives them into a ditch. He’s knocked unconscious, the robbers flee, and he’s left to take the rap.

He hangs his hopes for freedom on young Steve Reynolds, who lies in the hospital dying from a bullet wound. Steve’s sister June (Barbara Britton) comes to visit him in the hospital. She and Durling are immediately attracted to each other, and she reluctantly becomes his ally as they race to prove his innocence, and Steve’s.

All of this probably sounds better on paper than it plays out on screen. The acting is bargain basement and the direction is maladroit, turning what could have been an entertaining one-hour programmer into a forgettable snoozer.

Captain Kidd (Nov. 22, 1945)

Released on Thanksgiving day in 1945, director Rowland V. Lee’s Captain Kidd is a pretty good swashbuckler, even though it’s not exactly a history lesson.

The real William Kidd was hanged for piracy in 1701, but there is still debate about the extent of his crimes on the high seas, and whether or not he should even be considered a pirate, as opposed to a privateer; someone employed by a nation to attack foreign shipping during time of war. But no matter how unjust his execution might have been, the name “Captain Kidd” and rumors of his buried treasure have passed into pirate legend along with names like Blackbeard and Calico Jack.

The film’s prologue shows the “ruthless” (according to the narrator) Captain William Kidd (Charles Laughton) and his pirate crew reduce the English galleon The Twelve Apostles to a smoking ruin near Madagascar and sneak off to a cove to bury their booty before high tide. His band of cutthroats includes B-movie stalwarts John Carradine and Gilbert Roland (playing characters named Orange Povey and José Lorenzo, respectively). When there is a dispute over the spoils, Kidd shoots one of his crew and buries him with the treasure. The impromptu eulogy he says over the grave is a masterpiece of irony.

The action moves forward to London, 1699. Kidd is receiving instructions on how to be a gentleman from a man named Shadwell (Reginald Owen), such as “A gentleman never sucks his teeth” and “A gentleman never pays his domestics high wages.” Kidd’s lust for gold is clearly matched by his lust for power. When he is granted an audience with King William III (Henry Daniell), he convinces the king that he is the right man to sail to India and give a treasure-laden ship called the Quedagh Merchant safe passage through the pirate-infested waters of Madagascar. In exchange he wants a castle and the title of a lord.

William III in this movie is pretty easily manipulated, because he also agrees to Kidd’s insane demand that he be given a crew of condemned pirates. Kidd claims the irreedeemable brigands will be loyal as long as they know a royal pardon awaits them at the completion of a successful mission. Along with some of his old mates from Newgate Prison, Kidd frees a wild card; a tall, well-spoken man named Adam Mercy (Randolph Scott), who was the master gunner to another pirate, Captain Avery. Mercy’s motives are mysterious, but it should come as no surprise to the audience when the stalwart and handsome Scott steps into the role of protagonist.

Scott is best known for his many roles in westerns. His physical appearance and his acting style were the Platonic ideal of a western hero, but he makes a decent swashbuckler, too. Scott doesn’t try too hard to hide his American accent in this movie, but he has a patrician bearing that makes up for it, and the scene in which he locks swords with Roland (who went on to play the Cisco Kid in a number of pictures) is exciting and masterfully directed. And the fact that he does it to protect Lady Anne Dunstan (Barbara Britton) from Roland’s unwanted advances should delight people who like to read into a scene’s Freudian undertones. (Scott and Roland are the two most virile men on the ship, and as they sword fight, the camera keeps cutting back to Britton, who gasps at each clash of steel on steel.)

Laughton and Scott were the same age, but they might as well have been from different species. While Scott was heroic and laconic, Laughton was a grotesque, blubbery-lipped character actor, and much of the pleasure in watching this film comes from his fantastic performance. No one else can deliver a line like, “Of all the slummocky blackguards!” and sound genuinely appalled while at the same time disgusting the viewer with his own loathsomeness.