Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
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Selection from Cites & Insights 8, Number 10: October 2008

Offtopic Perspective

50 Movie Western Classics, Part 2

Disc 7

China 9, Liberty 37, 1978, color. Monte Hellman and Tony Brandt (dirs.), Warren Oates, Fabio Testi, Jenny Agutter, Sam Peckinpah. Original title Amore, piombo e furore. 1:38 [1:32].

It’s a Spanish-Italian Western: Good production values, good background music, a fair amount of moral ambiguity, some odd accents from some of the actors, and in this case an unhurried plot marked by two or three big gun battles. The sleeve description almost gets it right. A condemned gunfighter Clayton Drumm (Testi), about to be hanged in China (a tiny little Western town, 46 miles from Liberty), is reprieved so that he can shoot down Matthew Sebanek (Oates), a rancher, on behalf of the railroad that wants Matthew’s land. Only Clayton doesn’t do it, meets Matthew’s whole clan (three brothers)—and when he leaves, Matthew’s wife Catherine (Agutter) (who knifes Matthew in self-defense and mistakenly thinks she killed him) catches up with him. This is all slow moving: lots of talk and essentially no action.

Then the sleeve goes awry: “an enraged Matthew joins forces with the equally peeved railroad company to hunt the pair down.” Not exactly. Matthew and brothers try to gun down Clayton (and fail), and Matthew takes back his wife—but later, the railroad stooges are trying to get rid of both Clayton and Matthew, resulting in a 2.5-way gun battle that’s interesting and a little above the usual gunplay. Not to provide spoilers, but Clayton and Matthew (and Matthew’s wife) all wind up alive, with a fair number of corpses around. In the middle, there are nice little side-plots, including Sam Peckinpah as a dime novelist trying to buy Clayton Drumm’s story—or, rather, lies—to sell to the folks back east, and a non-animal circus (acrobats, little people) whose head wants to hire Drumm as a sharpshooter/showman.

If you can get past Clayton’s accent (explained by dialogue about him coming over from Europe as a child) and the curious acting of the bride, it’s a decent flick if you like a slow, sometimes languid, fairly naturalistic style—which I do. $1.50.

Gone with the West, 1975, color. Bernard Girard (dir.), James Caan, Stefanie Powers, Aldo Ray, Barbara Werle, Robert Walker Jr., Sammy Davis Jr.. 1:32 [1:30].

Great cast. Good filming, decent print, good color, OK sound. Interesting acting. Stefanie Powers as an odd woman of unclear heritage is, well, odd, manic, amusing. Sammie Davis Jr. as Kid Dandy, a fast-draw artist, possibly a Marshal, mostly a pool player, is as subtle and convincing an actor as in Rat Pack outings. Aldo Ray is loud and stupid. James Caan is relatively subdued—but no scenery went unchewed in the making of this flick. Remarkable last ten minutes or so. Lots of barroom brawls—indeed, a barroom that seems to be nothing but hysterical brawls and breaking furniture, a nonstop riot spilling out to the streets of a really bad town full of really bad people. Repeated over-the-top operatic singing at barroom funerals, or maybe it’s the same footage used several times—there are a lot of deaths in this flick. Long catfight. Long “wrestling” match.

Also some of the worst writing and editing I’ve ever seen in a professional production. For the first three-quarters of the movie, I couldn’t make any sense of the plot. I think it comes down to this: James Caan saw his homestead burned out and wife and children killed by the town bad man (Aldo Ray), who also molested Powers’ (Native American? riigght!) character. Caan comes back and, with her help (when he’s not kicking her in the backside or otherwise showing unspoken affection) does everyone in, little by little. Since the townspeople are caricatures of the worst of the old west, I guess that’s OK.

I’m supposed to get from the very start that this is a spoof, a sendup of westerns. That becomes clear when James Caan and Powers are walking back into the mountains and Powers—who up to now has spoken mostly some tongue Caan doesn’t know—says in clear English “You killed everybody except the cameraman”—and Caan turns around and shoots the cameraman. It’s just not a coherent spoof. It is, to put it bluntly, a mess. An amusing mess, but a mess. Balancing the good, the incredibly bad (one insightful reviewer says it was edited by a Mixmaster) and the empty, I’ll give it $0.75, at least when viewed sober.

The Outlaw, 1943, b&w. Howard Hughes (dir.), Jack Buetel, Jane Russell, Walter Huston. 1:56.

Sometimes, they really are classics! I’d never seen Howard Hughes’ story of Billy the Kid, Doc Holliday, Pat Garrett and Rio McDonald before, and I’m glad I finally did. I expected a spectacular, with lots of action—and got a well-played story of four people’s trails and how they cross, mostly a low-key psychological drama. Fine acting, solid production and direction, fine screenwriting. I can’t imagine why this movie was considered defiant of the Hayes Code, censored and banned in some countries—unless there’s even more somewhere than the 116 minutes on this DVD. (There may be—IMDB mentions a 20-minute scene between Billy and Rio—but what’s on the disc is the 116-minute version, not the 95-minute cut version.)

Walter Huston is particularly fine as Doc Holliday, but Jack Buetel (Billy the Kid) also does a first-rate job, and the other major characters aren’t half-bad. The music works, making extensive use of Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony (first movement) and “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie,” although it’s sometimes a bit much.

After writing most of this review, I made the mistake of reading IMDB reader reviews. I suppose if you’re looking for a shoot-’em-up or hot sex, this would seem pretty awful: the major shooting scenes aren’t won by the fastest draws and, at least in this cut, there’s very little explicit sex. I’ll stick with my original feeling: This is a fine movie, well acted and well filmed. It just isn’t a traditional western.

This is definitely one I’ll watch again—atypical as a western but first-rate as a movie. Generally a very good to excellent print as well, although the sound is slightly edgy once in a while. That slight flaw is all that keeps this from getting the highest possible rating. As is, it gets $2.25.

Arizona Stagecoach, 1942, b&w. S. Roy Luby (dir.), Ray Corrigan, John King, Max Terhune, Elmer, Nell O’Day. 0:58 [0:52].

On one hand, the print’s choppy—you lose lots of syllables and whole words, maybe more than that. On the other, it doesn’t much matter: This one’s so ludicrous a pristine print wouldn’t help much. Where do we begin? How about with a mock lynching—but it’s a white guy, so it’s OK Turns out it’s just the devil-may-care Range Busters forcing one of their own to make good on a bet—to sing a song while upside down, in this case hanging from a tree. We’ve got three characters, all using their own names—Ray “Crash” Corrigan, John “Dusty” King and Max “Alibi” Terhune—oh, and Elmer, a ventriloquist’s dummy who acts as a lookout while the boys are chatting (!) and is later the only occupant of a house, chatting away as they enter.

It’s Another Range Busters movie, one in a series (of 20!)—the opening and closing credits leave no doubt about that—and it’s bizarre. Some elements are standard: The good guys always wear white (except when they’re pretending to be bad guys). The bad guys always wear black, which makes it easy to spot the apparent good guys who are actually bad guys—and naturally one of the prominent citizens is bad-guy-in-chief. Wells Fargo wagons to and from an Arizona town are consistently getting held up: consistently, much as though the bad guys knew whenever there was going to be a payload on the stage. So, of course, Wells Fargo doesn’t hire security to ride along with the stage, or maybe investigate the local Wells Fargo agent—no, they hire the Three Stooges—er, Range Busters—to look into it.

We have an “old west” where people are only too happy to string other people up on the spot—but where these Range Busters (always in spotless dude attire) laugh and joke around as they drink their presumably nonalcoholic drinks in the tamest saloon I’ve ever seen in a western. The chief bad guy, when he’s listening at an open window and realizes the stagecoach driver’s spilling the beans (of course the holdups are inside jobs—that may be a spoiler, but this one’s pretty rotten already), doesn’t shoot the driver through the open window. Nope, he rides off to join the other crooks in a hopeless shootout with the good guys, then manages to ride off on his own after his group is mostly shot down. Just awful, even as they ride off, turn around and say “See you next time.” I’m being charitable at $0.50.

Disc 8

Blue Steel, 1934, b&w. Robert N. Bradbury (dir.), John Wayne, Eleanor Hunt, George ‘Gabby’ Hayes, Edward Peil Sr., Yakima Canutt. 0:54.

As one-hour Westerns go, this is better than most. Sure, some elements of the plot are standard. The leader of the bad guys is the most prominent person in town: Check. The cute young woman winds up with the hero—even though, in this case, he hasn’t talked to her except to rescue her once: Check. Despite the quick draw and sure aim of the hero, most fights are fistfights—and they’re incredibly phony: Check.

But the plot makes more sense than most. A beleaguered town, Yucca City, is in trouble because shipments of supplies (and money) keep getting stolen, and the ranchers are about to give up and move out. At one key plot point, the Big Man offers to buy their homesteads for $100 each—and, of course, there’s a sinister reason. Naturally, John Wayne saves the day, with the help of a crusty old—not sidekick this time, but sheriff. Wayne is young, handsome and effective. The long final chase sequence is effectively done; the long, largely silent opening sequence (a hotel in a really noisy rainstorm) is surprisingly effective. Most of the acting is good. The sleeve description almost gets the plot right, but messes up one point big time: It has Wayne as “Sheriff Jake” hot on the trail of the man who appeared to rob a payroll. Actually, Wayne is the man who appeared to do the robbing (he’s a Marshal). The Sheriff is the crusty old coot (Gabby Hayes), “Old-timer” as Wayne consistently calls him. I’ll give it $1.00.

Santa Fe Trail, 1940, b&w. Michael Curtiz (dir.), Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Raymond Massey, Ronald Reagan, Alan Hale, William Lundigan, Van Heflin. 1:50.

Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, a young (29) and devilishly handsome Ronald Reagan. Costars like Van Heflin (in a key role). Historic names including George Custer (Reagan), J.E.B. Stuart (Flynn), John Brown (Massey) and many more. This is a big movie—big stars, big historical names, good production values, a major motion picture.

Ostensibly, it’s about the Santa Fe Trail, bloody Kansas and building the railroad through to Santa Fe. Really, it’s about John Brown and the prelude to the Civil War—where West Point graduates who would later fight each other fought together to bring down Brown’s uprising. As a historical film, it’s a mess—pro-Southern/slavery, riddled with wild inaccuracies, etc., etc. You may find it unwatchable for that reason.

It’s dramatic, generally well acted and well filmed, including the long battle sequence near the end at Harper’s Ferry. The print’s OK—but the sound is sometimes distorted, bringing this down to $1.25.

McLintock!, 1963, color. Andrew V. McLaglen (dir.), John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Patrick Wayne, Stefanie Powers, Jack Kruschen, Chill Wills, Yvonne De Carlo, Jerry Van Dyke, Edgar Buchanan, Bruce Cabot, Strother Martin. 2:07.

The older John Wayne at his most entertaining in a big, well-made movie that’s mostly a hoot. If you don’t already know the movie (I didn’t), I’m not sure how to describe it. G.W. McLintock is a cattle baron (and miner) in the Mesa Verde of turn-of-the-century Arizona, a territory hoping to become a state. He owns most of the nearby town (named McLintock), treats his employees fairly, drinks a lot, plays chess and has a good time. He’s friends with the local tribes (despite an old battle wound) and mostly dislikes the territorial government people he considers incompetent—and, to be sure, homesteaders he thinks are being sold a bill of goods, asked to make a living on 160 acres of 6,000-foot-high land not fit for farming.

That’s the setup. His estranged wife (O’Hara) shows up, asking for a divorce but mostly wanting to take her daughter (Powers)—just coming back from college Back East—away with her. McLintock’s having none of that. Lots of action ensues, including a rodeo, various romances and much, much more. Big fight scenes, more slapstick than anything else—I don’t believe there’s a single injury or death in the movie. A combination of comedy, light drama and a little romance, the movie has fine performances by Wayne, O’Hara, Powers, Van Dyke (as an up-to-the-minute college boy with a Letter—in Glee Club), and most everyone involved, all of whom seemed to be having a ball.

I can’t figure out how this wound up on a set with mostly public-domain movies, unless the studio figured DVD buyers would want the wide-screen version so they could give the pan-and-scan away. The print’s OK—if there’s damage, it never gets in the way of the movie. The colors are a little faded, but that may be the way it was shot. Great fun, and at the end of more than two hours I wanted more. I’m sure it would be better in widescreen and with richer colors—but even so, I can’t give this one less than $2.25.

Sagebrush Trail, 1933, b&w. Armand Schaefer (dir.), John Wayne, Nancy Shubert, Lane Chandler, Yakima Canutt. 0:54.

The plot’s a little different, although as usual shootings only happen from a distance—up close, it’s all badly-staged fistfights. A young John Wayne is a convicted killer who’s escaped and is on the run (hopping a freight train bound west from Baltimore). He’s innocent, of course. He winds up with a gang of outlaws, hoping to find the real killer, which he does…but decides the real killer’s not such a bad Joe. Meanwhile, he’s trying to be part of the gang while foiling their big robberies, in one case by pre-robbing the stagecoach. All turns out fairly well in the end.

The print’s not great. The acting’s not great, but no worse than the run of these things. Some excellent stunt work. John Wayne underwater breathing through a reed. What the heck: $1.00.

Disc 9

In Old Caliente, 1939, b&w. Joseph Kane (dir.), Roy Rogers, Trigger, Lynne Roberts/Mary Hart, Gabby Hayes, Jack La Rue, Katherine DeMille, Frank Puglia. 0:57/0:54.

This time, Roy Rogers is the prime cowboy at a huge Alta California ranchero—and the foreman, Sujarto, is betraying the owner, Don Jose, to a band of outlaws stealing the gold received for shipments of cattle to California miners. Meanwhile, settlers are arriving—a group of wagons with Gabby Hayes in full Gabbitude. Sujarto tries to blame Roy Rogers for gringos holding up his people; Roy Rogers tracks Sujarto to a meet with the rest of the bandits—but Sujarto still manages to place the blame on Rogers and Hayes, who are taken off to be hung in the morning.

It all works out—well, not for Don Jose, but for the rest of them. The plot is pretty solid for a one-hour B western, including a remarkably clever way to trap the outlaws. Rogers contributes several songs, some with a group backing, one with Hayes. There’s also a fine dance number at a fandango. The print is in very good shape except for a little dirt near the end; the soundtrack’s so-so. Those flaws reduce this to $1.

Rough Riders Round-Up, 1939, b&w. Joseph Kane (dir.), Lynne Roberts/Mary Hart, Raymond Hatton, Eddie Acuff, William Pawley. 0:58/0:54.

Roy and friends arrive after serving in Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders to join the border guard, firmly instructed not to cross over into Mexico without permission. Roy and old codger friend wind up on probation because the third Rough Rider gets shot in a barroom brawl. Add in Arizona Jack and his band of thieves, hiding out in Mexico and raiding across the border—and robberies of an American-owned gold mine in Mexico.

Naturally, a couple of songs, including one under dire circumstances. Nothing terribly wrong here, but nothing terribly right either. Even as short Bs go, this is a little disappointing. Maybe we need Dale Evans. $0.75.

Hell Town, 1937, b&w (originally Born to the West). Charles Barton (dir.), John Wayne, Marsha Hunt, John Mack Brown, John Patterson, Monte Blue, Syd Saylor. 0:59 [0:55].

The first five or ten minutes get off to a truly rotten start. The print’s dark enough that you can’t quite figure out what’s going on, there’s a song that seems out of place—and there’s some kind of riding gun battle involving a herd of cattle, but it’s hard to tell who’s on what side. Enter a young John Wayne and old-coot friend (Syd Saylor)—who seem totally amoral, ready to join whichever side of the battle appears to be winning. Did I mention that the sound’s distorted? At this point, I was about to give up—but didn’t. (IMDB may help on the confusion: Apparently, when the flick was reissued as Hell Town, the production company “added random stock footage of cattle drives, chases and stampedes to bring the running time to over an hour.” Some of it certainly looks random!)

It gets better, sort of. Wayne’s a cowboy on his way to Montana, who has a wholly undeserved belief that he’s the best poker player west of the Mississippi—and is broke as a result. The sidekick tries to sell lightning rods, apparently as a straightforward low-buck con. The battle was apparently an attempt to rustle most of a herd of cattle (from a ranch owned by Wayne’s character’s cousin) on its way to market—and of course one of the higher-ups in the cattle company is involved. Also of course, there’s potential romance. Somehow, Wayne turns semi-heroic (although still a compulsive gambler and really bad at it). All ends well, I guess. Given the confused plot (not helped by four missing minutes), poor print and distorted sound, I’m being generous at $0.75.

The Kansan, 1943, b&w. George Archainbaud (dir.), Richard Dix, Jane Wyatt, Albert Dekker, Eugene Pallette, Victor Jory, Willie Best. 1:19.

John Bonniwell, on his way to Oregon, encounters the James Gang as they’re planning to rob the bank in Broken Lance. He drives them away but gets shot in the process. As he’s recuperating, he finds he’s been elected marshal—mostly because of Steve Barat, the banker and town boss, who’s counting on him to keep the town in line as Barat milks it for all its worth. Things don’t work out that way, as Bonniwell proves to be a man of integrity and honor, not just the law. It doesn’t help that Barat’s brother Jeff, a gambling man, has a lot more honor than anyone expects. Oh, and the hotelkeeper (Jane Wyatt) is involved in all this—starting with Jeff and ending with John.

It’s a strong movie, with a solid plot, some fine acting and some remarkable action scenes. A barroom brawl is about as extensive and wild as I’ve seen, even though I do believe the same chair crashed through the same huge mirror twice during the sequence. There are two negatives, one related to the print and one, I suspect, a sign of the times. The print’s damaged in spots with missing chunks, some dirt and occasional soundtrack problems. And much of the humor in the film has to do with “Bones,” a black valet at the hotel, who’s portrayed stereotypically. Even with those drawbacks, it’s worth $1.25.

Disc 10

White Comanche, 1968, color (original title Comanche blanco). José Briz Méndez (dir.), Joseph Cotton, William Shatner (dual role), Rosanna Yanni. 1:33.

Twin brothers, half-Comanche, half-white, shunned by both—but one of them has convinced a bunch of Comanche he’s their savior, takes too much peyote, and goes around slaughtering white devils. His twin (Johnny Moon), trying to live as a white, keeps getting in trouble (e.g., nearly hanged) because you can only distinguish him from White Comanche (Notah) by the color of their eyes. Not that Johnny’s not pretty good at killing people also (he’s a crack shot, and this isn’t one of those westerns where everything’s settled with fistfights) but he always seems to have a reason.

Johnny tells Notah this must be settled and to come to Rio Honda within four days. During that period, there’s a range war in Rio Honda between two factions, with Johnny helping the sheriff maintain some semblance of order. Eventually, of course, the showdown happens. In the meantime, there’s much thoughtful standing around and an odd love subplot (involving a woman who first thinks Johnny is the evil half-Comanche who raped her, but eventually sees the eye-color difference and falls for him).

Good color, acceptable production values, a good job by Joseph Cotton as the sheriff—but the real selling point here is William Shatner as an arrogant sexist tinhorn ruler who doesn’t happen to be on a starship (and is always half-dressed, and has the body for it). And, for good measure, his twin brother. It’s not exactly a spaghetti western (made in Spain, not Italy). It’s a curiosity, but a watchable curiosity thanks to Shatner. $1.25.

Mohawk, 1956, color. Kurt Neumann (dir.), Scott Brady, Rita Gam, Neville Brand, Lori Nelson, Allison Hayes, John Hoyt, Rhys Williams. 1:20 [1:18].

There’s nothing wrong with cross-genre flicks, but this one seems a bit loopier than most. It’s definitely a Western, with something about “A legend of the Iroquois” coming just before or after the main title. It’s got the ingredients: A fort with settlers moving in, surrounded by reasonably-friendly natives (Iroquois, with a Mohawk chief heading a confederation of tribes) with some unfriendly factions (Tuscarora)—and a good-for-nothing white who wants to stir up warfare between the settlers and the natives because his family wants the whole valley for itself.

But it’s also a romantic comedy of sorts. The lead character (not the title character) is an artist who’s come from Boston to paint landscapes to send back, who gets a surprise visit from his fiancée/girlfriend—but he also seems to have a local girlfriend, and it doesn’t take long before he’s romancing an Iroquois, daughter of the chief. Oh, and there’s an astonishing song, “Love played the strings of my banjo,” and maybe the song title tells you enough. The plot is a mess.

The print’s pretty good (although some of the scenic vistas have suspiciously painted-backdrop looks) but the sound is sometimes distorted. The supposed Iroquois include Rita Gam, Neville Brand, Mae Clarke, Tommy Cook and Ted de Corsia. As far as I can tell, there were no actual Native American actors employed in this particular epic. All told, I’m being generous at $1.

Sheriff of Tombstone, 1941, b&w. Joseph Kane (dir.), Roy Rogers, Gabby Hayes, Elyse Knox, Addison Richards, Sally Payne, Harry Woods, Jay Novello. 0:54.

If you look ahead at my dollar rating, be aware that $1.25 is normally the most I’d give to one of these one-hour wonders, flicks filmed as the B side of a double feature—and that the print isn’t wonderful. That said, this movie has lots’o’plot without getting chaotic—I found it engrossing and unusually well-written and well-directed for its genre. Roy Rogers, as Brett Starr, a would-be peace officer, runs lowlife gunslinger Shotgun Cassidy out of Dodge City (and takes his sawed-off shotgun), then goes along with friends who are moving to Tombstone. Gets there, finds general lawlessness, acts to deal with a situation—and, because of the gun, is assumed to be Cassidy. Who, as it happens, is supposed to become the sheriff so he can support the mayor’s evil attempt to take away a little old lady’s silver mine. (She’s 77: That’s old, at least in the Old West.)

See, her mine is the head of an extensive silver vein that runs under many other claims—but given the law at the time, that gives her control over all of them. If the mayor can buy her claim at a forced auction, that gives him control and he can twirl his mustache and do his evil deeds. Anyway, Rogers goes along with the mistaken identity, figures out what’s happening (the miner’s attempts to ship bullion always result in Wells Fargo holdups by some strange coincidence, so she owes a huge tax debt to the territory), goes to unmask the villains—and the real gunslinger shows up.

That’s just some of the plot. There’s a great little twist involving the Wells Fargo agent John Anderson and Joe Martinez, an apparently Hispanic mine owner who’s part of the bad-guy group. You know how it’s going to come out. It’s a one-hour oater with one of the great singing cowboys as a star. (Yes, he sings—three numbers—and there are a couple of big musical numbers that don’t involve him but do involve a saloon singer and a quartet of bartenders.) As always, Roy Rogers is a handsome devil and a pretty good actor—and Gabby Hayes, this time as a judge/lawyer, is always an interesting (and in this case capable, not blundering) sidekick. One of the best one-hour western flicks I’ve seen, all in all. I’ll give it the full $1.25, even with the flawed print.

Judge Priest, 1934, b&w. John Ford (dir.), Will Rogers, Tom Brown, Anita Louise, Henry B. Walthall, David Landau, Berton Churchill, Hattie McDaniel, Stepin Fetchit. 1:20 [1:15].

This one’s difficult to review. I nearly gave up on the movie in the first ten minutes, thanks to an appallingly stereotypic performance by Stepin Fetchit. And, despite Will Rogers’ presence, I’m not all that fond of pictures that so lovingly depict the post-Civil War South from the perspective applied here (all misty-eyed Gray courage and sentimentality).

But I persisted. The story’s simple enough: Judge Priest (Will Rogers), the folksy widowed 25-year judge in an 1890 Kentucky town (this is a western how?), upholds the spirit (if not always the letter) of the law while humiliating “the Senator,” a blowhard lawyer who’s running against him. Meanwhile, Priest’s nephew has just graduated from law school and wants to resume romancing Priest’s next door neighbor, a lovely young orphan—but she’s also being romanced by the jackass town barber and Priest’s sister wants her son to marry Proper Folk. A stranger in town who keeps to himself punches out the barber after he makes an appalling comment about the young woman. Later, when the barber and two friends lay in wait to beat up on the stranger (with pool cues, in a bar/pool hall), he comes out on top. Naturally, the barber claims he was attacked without provocation… Well, the case goes on (with Priest stepping down from the bench because he stood up for the stranger earlier). Eventually, we learn that the stranger is a hero in whatever euphemistic version of the Civil War they’re using (War of Northern Aggression, I think) and is also the young woman’s father, and all’s right with the world.

If you can stomach the stereotypes and “the wrong side won the war” attitude, you might find Will Rogers’ portrayal interesting. The print’s generally OK. But in the end, I can’t assign any value to this one. $0.

Disc 11

Grand Duel, 1972, color (Il grande duello). Giancarlo Santi, dir., Lee Van Cleef, Horst Frank, Peter O’Brien/Alberto Dentice, Marc Mazza, Dominique Darel. 1:38 [1:28].

It’s a spaghetti western—and maybe that’s all I need to say. Good production values and color: Check. Odd, sometimes interesting background music: Check. Lots of long showdowns but even more shootings and other action scenes: Check. Moral ambiguity throughout—no white hats and black hats here (in this case, the black hat is worn by the presumed hero): Check. Plot, if you can follow it, mostly to tie together showdowns, shootings and action scenes: Double check. Little enough residual value that nobody would have bothered to renew this 1972 flick’s copyright: Check.

It boils down to how you feel about Lee Van Cleef and the other “stars”—and how you feel about spaghetti westerns in general. Some remarkable combinations of acrobatics and shooting as the second (“Peter O’Brien”) evades capture or death while flying through the air. The print’s pretty good (except for the missing ten minutes). For me—well, it could have been a lot worse, it could have been a lot better, leading to a middling $1.

It Can Be Done…Amigo, 1972, color (Si può fare... amigo). Maurizio Lucidi (dir.), Bud Spencer, Jack Palance. 1:40 [1:38].

I’m not quite sure what to make of this one. Before the title, we get Bud Spencer’s and Jack Palance’s names, arranged in a circle, rotating. Spencer’s character, Coburn, is a huge beefy type who seems gentle enough and somehow keeps getting into trouble—well, he is a sometimes horse thief. He typically deals with trouble by staring, slowly putting on a pair of glasses, and then pounding his opponents into the ground—almost literally. They punch him a few times with no effect, then he either hits two opponents’ heads together or hits them over the head and they go down. He’s involved with a kid whose uncle is taking him to a western town—but the uncle gets bushwhacked and, when Coburn finds him dying, gives Coburn an envelope to pass along to the kid. The envelope turns out to contain $50 (a lot of money) and the deed to a run-down house just outside town. Meanwhile, there’s Palance’s character, Sonny Bronston, a fast-shooting eccentric who runs a group of female entertainers (in, apparently, more than one tradition of that word) and who’s after Coburn. Why? Seems Coburn sullied the virtue of Bronston’s sister (a case of mistaken identity)—and now Coburn needs to marry her so she can be an honorable widow (since he’ll get shot as soon as he gets married.

The town’s priest is also the sheriff and judge and generally doesn’t want Coburn around—and has designs on the kid’s house and land, for unclear reasons. There’s a strange guy who eats dirt—and who starts paying people $2 a bucket (one bucket per person) for dirt that he tastes. Which pastime leads him to the kid’s place. There’s lots more plot, and it mostly winds up with a remarkable six-minute free-for-all: No bullets fired (lots of guns fired, but all blanks), lots of fists, and mostly Coburn putting people out of action.

It felt as though I was joining a conversation partway through. The odd title refers to one of Coburn’s sayings. The plot line between Coburn and Bronston seems to go back quite a ways. It’s a spaghetti western, to be sure—but it’s also a comedy and pretty decent. It’s also a decent print (missing just a minute or two), a fair amount of fun, and with a lot fewer killings and shootings than some—only one, as I remember. I’ll give it $1.25.

Abilene Town, 1946, b&w. Edwin L. Marin (dir.), Randolph Scott, Ann Dvorak, Edgar Buchanan, Rhonda Fleming, Lloyd Bridges. 1:29.

Oh, the farmers and the cowmen can be friends… Oops, wrong state, and the songs in this one are dance-hall numbers. Still, it’s cowboys on one hand (in this case, the bunch riding herds into Abilene from Texas in 1870) and farmers on the other—in this case, homesteaders wanting to settle down. One side of the main drag in Abilene is full of saloons, dance halls and gambling dens; they’re hot for all the money the drunken cowboys spend when they finish a run. The other side is shopkeepers and what there is of an actual town—and they’re terrified of the cowboys. In the middle—why, there’s the Marshal, who wants the town to survive, and an amiable and wholly corrupt Sheriff (Edgar Buchanan), who just wants to avoid having to do anything and seems mostly there for an odd sort of comic relief.

Somehow, it seems a little simplistic. The cowboys are wholly sociopathic, as ready to shoot anyone as to say Hi, given to burning out homesteaders. The homesteaders, of course, are all peaceful types who just want to make a living—although it’s noteworthy that the first barbed wire they string is directly across the cattle trail. (Ah, but Lloyd Bridges makes a fine young leader for the homesteaders.) The Marshal’s enlightened: The day of the big showdown, after he enforces “lights out” in all the saloons and stands by as the frustrated cowboys break down the doors and basically trash the places while getting drunk for free, he’s only too happy to see his sort-of-lady’s own dance hall destroyed…so he can get her out of those evil dance clothes and into an apron where she belongs.

Were the range wars this black and white? Fortunately, I wasn’t there. The print’s pretty good, and Randolph Scott cuts a handsome if inscrutable figure. I’ll give it a charitable $1.00.

Tex Rides with the Boy Scouts, 1937, b&w, Ray Taylor (dir.), Tex Ritter, Marjorie Reynolds, Horace Murphy, ‘Snub’ Pollard, Charles King, Forrest Taylor, Beverly Hill Billies, White Flash. 1:06 [1:02]

Part propaganda film for the Boy Scouts—it begins with a three-minute newsreel-style encomium for the organization—part B western with a twist or two. It starts with Tex Ritter riding along with not one but two sidekicks—Stubby (Murphy) and the oddly white-faced Peewee (Pollard)—and, naturally, singing to the sounds of a hidden orchestra. They stop at a shack with a mining company “Private Property-No Trespassers” sign, which is of course their cue to get off and stand around until someone shoots the hat off Stubby’s head as a gentle warning. So they mosey along to a Boy Scout encampment, which they naturally join.

That’s just the beginning. The gimmick here is clever in a stupid way: Stage a train robbery, stealing a million dollars in gold bullion, and hide it at a phony gold mine—after all, you can always cash it in as being from the mine once people forget about the robbery. (After all, lots of gold ore is 100% pure and has U.S. Mint stamps, right?)

One subplot involves a stereotypical Chinese laundryman, accent and “no tickee, no washee,” who as a sideline buys gold nuggets at very low prices—which is how the gang covers incidental expenses. Another involves the cute older sister of one Boy Scout. She’s also the downtown employee of the mining company, but is wholly innocent—and naturally gets involved with Tex. There’s even a barn dance. Ritter’s acting this time around is passable.

The bad guys here are pretty bad: The leader shoots down a Boy Scout who might have heard something. So maybe it’s OK that Tex’s posse guns down most of the gang as they’re fleeing for the border—except for the leader, who Tex beats up in a fistfight. (Heroes never shoot anybody in these flicks.) This might get $0.75 for second-rate silliness—but the print’s choppy in the wrong places, damaged in general and the soundtrack’s not very good, lowering it to $0.50.

Disc 12

My Pal Trigger, 1946, b&w. Frank McDonald (dir.), Roy Rogers, Trigger, Gabby Hayes, Dale Evans, Jack Holt, Sons of the Pioneers. 1:19.

This odd item purports to tell the story of how Roy Rogers got Trigger, with some voice-over narration and pretty clearly aimed at kids. Gabby Hayes is a rancher and owner of Golden Sovereign, a great golden palomino, and becomes Rogers’ enemy. Why? Rogers wants to breed his horse (not Trigger) with Golden Sovereign. Hayes will have nothing to do with it (he only wants to breed Golden Sovereign with his own horses)—but the horses have other ideas, getting together on their own. Through a plot involving a nefarious neighboring rancher and casino owner, a wild stallion and remarkably bad shooting, Golden Sovereign winds up dead, Roy Rogers winds up blamed for shooting him—and Rogers’ horse winds up pregnant with Trigger.

Here’s where things get a little strange, or maybe I just don’t know recent history. First, our hero Roy Rogers, the whitest of all white hats—and playing Roy Rogers—jumps bail, flees the state, breaks into a barn (and fights the owners to stay there, since his horse is foaling) and hides out for more than a year. Second, the movie appears to be set in contemporary times—lots of cars and, oddly, apparently-legal casinos in Colorado (but this was 1946, way before casino gambling was legalized)—and somehow it would never occur to anyone to remove the bullet from Golden Sovereign to determine whether it’s a rifle bullet or pistol bullet, which would also have proved Rogers’ innocence. Naturally, it all works out in the end. Apparently, this was Roy Rogers’ personal favorite of his many movies—and probably the most personal of his movies. It does have fairly subtle acting—and the bad guy isn’t pure evil, which is unusual.

Good stuff, despite the oddities. We get Dale Evans (as Gabby’s daughter), who suits the movie well. We get the Sons of the Pioneers, although not singing with Rogers. It’s a good print most of the time. This is the full-length version, not the 54-minute chop job. It’s sort of an odd Western, but I’ll give it $1.50.

Cowboy and the Senorita, 1944, b&w. Joseph Kane (dir.), Roy Rogers, Trigger, Mary Lee, Dale Evans, John Hubbard, Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams, Fuzzy Knight, Hal Taliaferro, Jack Kirk, Sons of the Pioneers. 1:18 [0:51]

Roy and companion hear about a kidnapping as they come into a town mostly owned by one affable gent, Craig Allen, and naturally offer to help—but one of the posse spots Roy’s companion, “Teddy” Bear (Guinn Williams) playing a slot machine (more legal casinos—my history must be faulty) with a slug that turns out to be from the kidnapee’s bracelet (which he picked up along the trail into town). So, they assume Roy and friend are the kidnappers, and Roy and friend flee.

They find the “kidnapped” girl—Chip—in the hills. She’s fled for reasons that never seem quite clear. That little mess resolved, her older sister—played by Dale Evans—is about to sell their apparently-worthless gold mine to the Allen, who’s also her fiancée. (He’s supposedly buying it as a favor to the older sister, to pay for the kid’s education, and plans to mine for manganese) But Chip’s sure her father buried a box in the mine, and it’s important to her.

Ture enough, the box is important, there’s a false wall in the mine, and…well, everything just barely turns out OK, including lots of stunt mine-wagon riding. A fairly typical B Western, but with a good party sequence added including fancy dancing and singing. I saw a much shorter version than the original, apparently the 51 minute edited version. I’d imagine the other 27 minutes would help! Apparently the first time Dale Evans and Roy Rogers appeared together in a movie. Good print overall. I’ll give it $1.00.

Bells of San Angelo, 1947, color. William Witney (dir.), Roy Rogers, Trigger, Dale Evans, Andy Devine, John McGuire, Sons of the Pioneers. 1:18 [1:15].

This time, Roy Rogers is a border investigator on the (Texas?)-Mexico border and friends with the people in San Angelo (on the Mexican side). Something funny’s going on—specifically, locals from San Angelo are turning up dead, shot for stealing silver from the U.S.-side silver mine.

In a parallel plot, Western writer Lee Madison’s coming to town and Roy’s disgusted, saying his novels are trash. When the bus arrives, there’s no man named Lee Madison on it—and when the woman on the bus overhears Roy’s comments, she comes up with a different name to play along. Shortly thereafter, the stage from the bus station to the lodge is held up by a lone masked gunman who’s really out to give Hamilton a scare—and who apologizes to the woman (who notices a Texas Ranger’s ring on the gunman’s finger).

The twist here is interesting. The silver mine is worthless—but it connects to a long-abandoned Mexican silver mine. That mine’s also played out, but silver’s a lot cheaper in Mexico than in the U.S. So they’re “mining” smuggled silver. As the plot progresses, lots of people get shot, Lee (and by now Rogers knows it’s her) gets nabbed by the bad guys, and in a final confrontation, the fact that he finally read her book Murder on the Border saves the day. (Hamilton is played by Dale Evans—who else?) Andy Devine plays a funny sheriff who turns out to be landed gentry.

Good plot, well played, good music. Some surprisingly realistic fight scenes, leaving the actors bruised. This is the full version, albeit missing a few minutes. Unfortunately, much of the time the focus is soft, suggesting digitizing problems. That and some choppiness in the print prevent this from getting more than $1.25.

Under California Stars, 1948, color. William Witney (dir.), Roy Rogers, Trigger, Jane Frazee, Andy Define, George Lloyd, Wade Crosby, Michael Chapin, Bob Nolan and the Sons of the Pioneers. 1:10 [1:12].

First we get a typical Western fight scene—then the director yells “Cut.” The movie’s over, and time for Roy to go back to the RR Ranch—where, this time, Andy Devine is Cookie, the cook and general factotum. (The Sons of the Pioneers are ranch hands/cowboys, and Cookie’s hired a bunch of relatives as well—including a young woman, a cousin who’s the new horse trainer.)

Where do we go from there? Scoundrels are trying to round up wild horses on Roy’s range, to sell them to the government for meat and skins. Roy’s boys run them off,and we find that the bad guys are working for the town’s old horse trader, Pop Jordan—and the lead bad guy has a cute stepson with a thieving dog and a limp. Somehow, the stepson winds up at Rogers’ ranch and gets a job of sorts—and the horse trader figures that horsenapping Trigger for a healthy ransom is a faster way to make a buck than rounding up or rustling horses.

Well, in the process of Triggernapping, one of the bad guys shoots another—and the sheriff says Roy can’t pay the ransom, since murder’s involved. So they try to set a trap for the outlaws. It doesn’t go perfectly, but in a fairly complicated final 10 minutes (involving double-crossing among thieves, naturally), it works out. Oh, and Cookie—who has an awful voice—proves himself to be a good songwriter (the title number). So we end with Roy and Cookie—and the kid, who will get the operation he needs to walk properly—on their way back to Hollywood. Naturally, there are several full songs during the process.

It’s not great acting, but the plot’s pretty good, the scenery’s fine, the print’s usually good, the sound’s good (although occasionally a little hollow) and it’s good “metaWestern” fun. I enjoyed it. (The reported run time on IMDB is two minutes less than the actual DVD run time, which makes no sense.) A little on the short side for a full feature, so I’ll give it $1.25.

Happy Trails…

What better way to end a set of Western “classics” than with four Roy Rogers movies? I suppose the answer depends on your feelings about the singing cowboys. I don’t know whether Rogers was the best actor of the bunch (I suspect not), but he looked good and had a great voice—a voice he kept for a long time (I love the Rogers/Randy Travis duet of “Happy Trails,” recorded when Rogers was 79.)

How does the second half stack up? There’s a true classic in good shape, The Outlaw, and a romp that’s so good I also gave it $2.25, McLintock! There are some other movies here worth viewing.

It all adds up to $26.50 for the second half, $50.50 for the whole set—or, if you limit it to movies worth at least a buck, $23.25 for the second half and $38.25 for the whole set. Clearly, the second half outdid the first. On the whole, I wasn’t disappointed.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 8, Number 10, Whole Issue 107, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, Director and Managing Editor of the PALINET Leadership Network.

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