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Tag Archives: Norman Houston

Under the Tonto Rim (Aug. 1, 1947)

Tim Holt’s second postwar western, Under the Tonto Rim, is a lot like his first postwar western, Thunder Mountain (1947). Both are RKO films produced by Herman Schlom and directed by Lew Landers, with screenplays by Norman Houston that are based on Zane Grey novels.

And even though Tim Holt plays a different character in Under the Tonto Rim than he did in Thunder Mountain, Richard Martin is back as his Irish-Mexican sidekick, Chito Jose Gonzalez Bustamonte Rafferty, the same character he played in Thunder Mountain. Chito is tall and handsome, and has a way with the ladies, but he’s also a barrel of laughs, and has a way with malapropisms like “He swallowed it hook, line, and stinker.”

In Under the Tonto Rim, Tim Holt plays Brad Canfield, the new owner of the Rim Rock Stage Line. In the first reel of the film, one of his stagecoaches is held up by masked bandits who carry off the Wells Fargo box, kidnap Lucy Dennison (Nan Leslie) — a beautiful blonde with a mysterious past — and kill his friend Andy (Jay Norris), a young stage driver who was about to be married.

No one ever said running a stage line in a B western was easy.

Chito and Brad ride into Wicksburg and describe their attackers to Captain McLean of the Arizona Rangers. All the raiders wore black masks, except for the leader, who wore a gray, spotted bandanna

“A gray, spotted bandanna!” exclaims Capt. McLean (Jason Robards). “Sounds like the Tonto Rim Gang!”

Capt. McLean tells Brad and Chito that the Tonto Rim Gang’s hideout is somewhere under the Tonto Rim.

Before you jump to the conclusion that the Tonto Rim Gang are a bunch of clowns, naming themselves after their hideout isn’t quite like a group of criminals on the lam calling themselves “The 285 West Sycamore Street Safe House Gang,” since there are more than a hundred canyons under the Tonto Rim, and the gang could be in any one of them.

Brad and Chito decide to take matters into their own hands. Brad arranges to get himself thrown in jail in Tonto, where one of the captured raiders, Patton (Tony Barrett), is locked up and scheduled to hang. Brad thinks that if he can pass himself off as a criminal with $10,000 buried somewhere, he can escape with Patton, and Patton will lead him to the Tonto Rim Gang. But as they ride into Tonto, Chito expresses his doubts about the plan in his own inimitable way.

Chito: “You know what the word ‘Tonto’ means in Spanish?”
Brad: “No.”
Chito: “It means ‘fool.’ And I bet you that’s what we are.”
Brad: “Ah, keep your shirt on.”
Chito: “I always keep that on. Except on Saturday nights, when I take it back.”
Brad: “Well, this is only Thursday, and I don’t want to attract too much attention yet.”

When they arrive in Tonto, Chito passes himself off as “Ranger Rafferty” to Deputy Joe (Lex Barker), then bends the ear of the sheriff (Harry Harvey) with tales of Brad Canfield the outlaw, and tells him he needs to be taken alive.

Brad’s plan works out, and he and Patton escape together. But Brad’s quickly back in hot water when he finds that Lucy Dennison is part of the gang.

Or is she? And what part will the sultry Juanita (Carol Forman) play?

Under the Tonto Rim is good fun. Before this year, I’d only ever seen Tim Holt as a supporting player in A pictures like My Darling Clementine (1946) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). He never made a huge impression on me, and after watching a couple of his starring roles in B westerns, I think I know why. He’s a soft-spoken, unassuming guy with average looks. But he projects a lot of steel when he’s the focus of the film, and gives the impression that he won’t stop fighting until the fight is through.

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Code of the West (Feb. 20, 1947)

Code of the West, a programmer from RKO Radio Pictures, has the same pedigree as Sunset Pass (1946). Both films are based on novels by Zane Grey, the screenplays for both films were written by Norman Houston, both are directed by William Berke, both star James Warren and John Laurenz, and both feature Robert Clarke, Harry Woods, Steve Brodie, and Harry Harvey in supporting roles.

In Sunset Pass, the tall, lean, blond-haired, scowling Warren played a cowboy named “Rocky.” Here, he plays a cowboy named “Bob Wade.” John Laurenz plays the same character, Chito Rafferty, a comical, musically inclined Irish-Mexican. (Incidentally, “Chito Rafferty” was a sidekick character made famous by Richard Martin, who played the character in 33 different westerns from 1943 to 1952. Laurenz was the only other actor to play the character, and he only did so in Sunset Pass and Code of the West.)

While I won’t be able to tell you the plot of either of these films at this time next month, I thought Code of the West was the better picture, largely due to the presence of a young Raymond Burr, who is a smoother and more malevolent villain than Harry Woods was in Sunset Pass.

In Code of the West, Burr plays a land baron (what else?) named Boyd Carter. Carter and his henchmen know that the railroad is coming through town, but they’re keeping the information to themselves as they buy up all the land they can get their hands on. When a young banker named Harry Stockton (Robert Clarke) lends Bob and Chito money to stake a claim of their own, Carter’s men go into action.

If you were drawn to this film by the poster above, be forewarned that Carter’s arson-murder gang that blasts the frontier is mostly a collection of stock footage. But if you squint your eyes, suspend your disbelief, and take another sip of bourbon, you’ll be fine.

Sunset Pass (July 8, 1946)

Judging by the only Zane Grey novel I’ve read, Riders of the Purple Sage, which was published in 1912, Grey was the most influential and important writer to ever mythologize the American west.

He was also a hack, and his florid prose made me wish for the more psychologically realistic and straightforward portrayals of the west I grew up reading in westerns by Louis L’Amour. Part of this is due to the era in which he was writing. By the ’40s and ’50s, passages like the following would have seemed ridiculous:

Her head was bowing to the inevitable. She was grasping the truth, when suddenly there came, in inward constriction, a hardening of gentle forces within her breast. Like a steel bar it was stiffening all that had been soft and weak in her. She felt a birth in her of something new and unintelligible.

The word “overwrought” doesn’t begin to describe the world Grey creates. His hero, Lassiter, wears an outfit that would make Richard Boone as Paladin in the TV series Have Gun — Will Travel (1957-1963) look positively conservative. Not only is Lassiter dressed all in black leather, but his black sombrero boasts a band of silver dollars, and his long-barreled revolvers are sexualized to a ridiculous degree. And, of course, the action is fast, furious, implausible, and frequently accentuated by exclamation marks. I’d be tempted to call the novel Riders of the Purple Prose if it didn’t contain such raw power in its descriptions of landscapes.

Low swells of prairie-like ground sloped up to the west. Dark, lonely cedar-trees, few and far between, stood out strikingly, and at long distances ruins of red rocks. Farther on, up the gradual slope, rose a broken wall, a huge monument, looming dark purple and stretching its solitary, mystic way, a wavering line that faded in the north. Here to the westward was the light and color and beauty. Northward the slope descended to a dim line of canyons from which rose an up-Hinging of the earth, not mountainous, but a vast heave of purple uplands, with ribbed and fan-shaped walls, castle-crowned cliffs, and gray escarpments. Over it all crept the lengthening, waning afternoon shadows.

Grey had the soul of a Romantic. In his world, emotion trumps reason and the physical world mirrors the longings and passions of the people who exist in it. For better or for worse, it is this vision of the old west that captured the imagination of the reading public in the early 20th century, and informs the western genre to this very day.

I don’t really know why I’m going on and on about Riders of the Purple Sage, except that William Berke’s film Sunset Pass, which I’m reviewing today, is based on the 1931 novel of the same name by Zane Grey, and watching it made me think back to the only novel by Grey that I’ve read. (There’s an earlier filmed version of Sunset Pass that was directed by Henry Hathaway and starred Randolph Scott. It was released in 1933. I haven’t seen it.)

Sunset Pass, which was released by RKO Radio Pictures, hasn’t gone down in history as one of the great westerns, and it certainly can’t hold a candle to John Ford’s early westerns, but it’s a sight better than the stuff P.R.C. and Monogram were churning out week after week in the ’40s. The print I watched was clean and crisp. The black and white cinematography looked great. Neither Berke’s direction nor Norman Houston’s screenplay, however, capture Grey’s febrile world or antiquated dialogue. This is a by-the-numbers oater with plenty of shootouts, fistfights, chases on horseback, romance, and a few songs.

The film begins with an exciting but nonsensical scene. A cowboy named Rocky (James Warren) and his Mexican sidekick Chito (John Laurenz) tie up their horses in a stand of trees and watch a passenger train chugging toward them. They leave their horses and run alongside the train, which appears to be moving at top speed, and hop aboard. They take their seats, flirt with the ladies, and are in place to attempt to foil a train robbery. I say “attempt,” because a young woman named Jane Preston (Nan Leslie) knocks Rocky’s rifle barrel to the side when he attempts to shoot one of the robbers, allowing him to make his getaway. The men are all masked, but it’s clear that she recognizes him, and intervenes to save his life.

It turns out that Rocky and Chito are undercover agents employed by the railroad to stop robberies. If this is the case, what was the purpose of them not only leaving their horses in a remote area but also boarding the train in the middle of its journey? If anyone can explain it to me, please do. Were they hungover and missed the train? That’s the only explanation I can think of.

With the money stolen, Rocky and Chito are in hot water with the railroad company. Rocky rides off to track down the stolen loot while Chito grabs his guitar and makes love to showgirl Helen “Lolita” Baxter (played by Jane Greer, who exhibits none of the malevolence she would exude a little more than a year later in her most famous role as the femme fatale who ensnares Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past).

Eventually Rocky catches up with the robbers, but he’s shot and badly wounded. Luckily, he’s spirited away by a young man named Ash (Robert Clarke), who turns out to be Jane’s brother.

Clarke gives the best performance of the film as Ash Preston, and when his character faces ethical dilemmas, the movie really comes alive.

James Warren is a decent hero, but his performance is more one-note than Clarke’s. Tall, lean, and blond, with a perpetual scowl, Warren is sort of a Sterling Hayden Lite.

The villain of Sunset Pass, Cinnabar (Harry Woods), is good, too, but his name sounds like a candy bar or a coffee bar chain, and the other characters in the film refer to him a lot by name, which I found unintentionally funny.

Sunset Pass is standard western fare, but it was an enjoyable enough way to while away an hour and 5 minutes.

West of the Pecos (Aug. 10, 1945)

WestOfThePecos
West of the Pecos (1945)
Directed by Edward Killy
RKO Radio Pictures

After recently seeing early performances by Robert Mitchum in two top-notch World War II films, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944) and Story of G.I. Joe (1945), I was a little disappointed by his starring role in West of the Pecos. Mitchum is one of my favorite actors, and he’s always interesting to watch, but this movie is hard to take very seriously.

After small roles in a variety of films (including some Hopalong Cassidy westerns), and a larger role in William Castle’s B noir When Strangers Marry, Mitchum was signed to a contract by RKO, who needed a B western star in the Tim Holt mold. I haven’t seen the first western Mitchum made for RKO, Nevada (1944), which is based on a Zane Grey novel, but if it’s anything like West of the Pecos, I don’t think I’m missing too much. Like Nevada, West of the Pecos is also based on a Grey novel, and is typical “romance of the West” malarkey. In terms of plot and character development, it has more in common with 19th-century stage drama than anything else.

In West of the Pecos, Barbara Hale plays a young Chicagoan named Rill Lambeth, whose father, Col. Lambeth (Thurston Hall), is ordered out west for his health. The two of them travel by stagecoach to Texas with their French maid, Suzanne (Rita Corday). In the course of their travels, they cross paths with Pecos Smith (Mitchum), an outlaw who’s seeking revenge against the corrupt vigilantes who killed his best friend. There are plenty of western tropes in West of the Pecos, like shootouts and unconvincing portrayals of Mexican bandits (Richard Martin plays their leader), but at its heart it’s a light-hearted romance and cross-dressing farce. Soon after her arrival in Texas, Hale decides to dress as a boy to dissuade all the nasty cowboys she meets from sassing her. To say she makes an unconvincing fellow would be an understatement. Her long, flowing hair is simply piled up and pinned under a ten-gallon hat, and all she does to hide her pretty face is rub a little dirt on it.

Part of the problem is Mitchum. Even here, in one of his first roles, he’s simply too world-weary and knowing. Consequently, it’s hard to tell most of the time if his character is supposed to be convinced by Hale’s drag, or if he’s just playing along for his own amusement, like when he rubs her face and says, “You’re just a kid! I bet you haven’t even started shaving. How old are you, anyhow?” Hale petulantly responds, “Old enough.”

Their relationship is based on kidding around, but it’s so flirtatious that I was actually surprised at the end when Mitchum’s character acted shocked when he found out Hale was really a young woman. He plays all their scenes together as if he has every idea what’s going on. Take, for instance, the scene by the campfire in which Mitchum tries to convince Hale to get in his bedroll with him on account of the nighttime chill. He rolls over on his side, faces her, and throws the blanket aside.

“C’mon, kid, get in,” he says.

“But … I want to sleep alone,” she responds.

“Ah, no you don’t. C’mon. Get in and cuddle.”

“Cuddle?!?”

“Sure. Keep each other warm. And I hope you haven’t got cold feet.”

“Cold feet?” she says, too quietly for him to hear. “I got ’em right now.”

It’s interesting to see Mitchum in this type of role. Not too long after appearing in this film, he would receive the only Oscar nomination of his career, for his role in the much better film The Story of G.I. Joe. After that, his days of starring in movies like this were pretty much over. Not every picture he made was great (some of them were even pretty bad), but by 1946 he was on his way to becoming an A-list actor, and eventually a Hollywood legend.