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Archive for October, 2009

michaelpate

MGM had its musicals. RKO had a knack for film noir. The best gangster pictures came from Warner Bros. The really good series Westerns and serials were Republic’s. And from 1931 (with Dracula) through the Fifties, Universal absolutely owned the Horror Film (though toward the end, their output starting leaning more and more toward science fiction).

Universal (then Universal-International) was also putting out a steady stream of Westerns in the Fifties, ranging from medium-budget films — starring Joel McCrea, Audie Murphy, Rock Hudson, Jeff Chandler and others — to A pictures like Winchester 73 (1950), which now seems like a virtual blueprint for the Fifties Westerns that followed.

In 1959, U-I combined the two genres they excelled at to create the clever Curse Of The Undead. (Today, we’d probably call it a mash-up.)

The conventions of Westerns and horror pictures would have been well known around the Universal lot — hell, they invented most of the Horror ones. Here, writers Edward Dien (who also directed) and his wife Mildred bent the rules a bit. You’ve got the usual range war plot, with a typical gun for hire — only this time he’s Drake Robey (Michael Pate), a member of the undead. The idea that a vampire can’t take daylight is reworked to let our cowboy vampire ride the range. You can tell the Diens had fun turning clichés upside down.

A key scene in Curse Of The Undead, one that really illustrates the liberties taken with the genres’ conventions (without giving too much away), comes toward the end of the film. One of the ranchers, Buffer (Bruce Gordon), challenges the vampire, Robey, to a gunfight in the saloon. Both men draw and Buffer is hit — certain that he drew first and hit his opponent. He dies. Later, we see the hole in Robey’s vest — Buffer had indeed been quicker on the draw. (This idea of an undead gunfighter, who wins even if he’s outdrawn, could easily have been the basis of an entire film.)

Curse Of The Undead is a cheap little movie. Aside from a few quick shots done on a western street, it plays out on a few sparsely-propped sets. And it runs a short 79 minutes. All in keeping with other Universal Horror films of the late Fifties: The Mole People, Monster On Campus, The Leech Woman, etc.

Look it up about anywhere, and Curse Of The Undead is listed as the first “vampire western.” It’s genuinely eerie in spots, with a score that makes good use of the theremin. Michael Pate is excellent, and he’s joined by a capable cast: Eric Fleming (from TV’s Rawhide), Kathleen Crowley and John Hoyt. And it’s a helluva lot better than Billy The Kid Vs. Dracula (1966).

Note: Believe it or not, I came across that still of Michael Pate on an online obituary!

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Yesterday, I mentioned that Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious (1952) was available through Warner Archive. Today I came across an interview with the picture’s cinematographer, Hal Mohr, in Leonard Maltin’s The Art Of The Cinematographer:

Hal Mohr: “I think Fritz Lang is a hell of a good director… but I don’t like people who abuse people… He got very abusive to some of my camera crew. So one day I finally had to have it out with him; it was a very unhappy occasion. But I finished the picture. Howard Welsch was the producer, and I wanted to get off the picture, I wanted to quit. Howard prevailed upon me to stay — and Lang wanted to fire me, he wanted me to get off the picture. So we never talked to each other for a long time, we just went ahead and did the work.”

Lang told Peter Bogdanovich (from Fritz Lang In America): “I wanted to write a picture about an aging (but still very desirable) dance hall girl and an old gun hand, who is not so good on the draw any more. So I constructed this story. Now, Marlene resented going gracefully into a little, tiny bit older category; she became younger and younger until finally it was hopeless. She also ganged up with one actor against another actor; it was not a very pleasant thing.”

Sound like a happy set?

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Warner Archive has done Western fans a big favor lately, beefing up their Randolph Scott inventory, bringing out the terrific Colorado Territory (1949, with Joel McCrea and Virginia Mayo) and making Westerns a sizable portion of their latest releases.

New ones include Marlene Dietrich in Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious (1952), a handful of Glenn Ford pictures including Burt Kennedy’s The Rounders (a personal favorite) and The Badlanders with Alan Ladd and Ernest Borgnine. The Warner Archive titles I’ve seen so far have been swell, maybe lacking in extras, but always looking good and letting me cross some key titles off my want list. Sometimes, a really strong transfer is Special Edition enough.

Another recent DVD release that seems to be flying under the radar is The San Francisco Story (1952), starring Joel McCrea and Yvonne De Carlo. Good movie — sadly, the DVD‘s only passable. But if you’re like me, anything with McCrea…

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Carson City (1952) would probably be remembered just as a pretty decent Randolph Scott Western, directed by the always-interesting Andre de Toth, if not for the fact that it was the first picture released in WarnerColor.

In a way, Kodak’s Eastmancolor tripack negative film was just what Hollywood was looking for in the early Fifties — a cheaper, more convenient way to shoot color. And color was one thing TV didn’t have.

Compared to Technicolor, which exposed three strips at once and required really high light levels, Eastmancolor cut the negative cost by two-thirds. And the Technicolor camera weighed something like 500 pounds, while Eastmancolor ran through a normal, lighter black-and-white camera. Suddenly, the number of films shot in color went up dramatically.

Looking at it today, it seems Eastman Kodak was very willing to license their new technology to whoever had a checkbook, because soon studios were bragging about Super Cinecolor, Metrocolor, Columbia Color, Pathe Color and Deluxe. Some didn’t bother with a fancy name and just called it what it was: Eastmancolor. But the studios didn’t have all that much to brag about. They would find that the new process had more grain than Technicolor. The color was far less vibrant, and sometimes downright harsh-looking. Then there was the fading — which would leave the picture looking an awful brownish-pink. (The 16mm collector’s market is filled with such nasty-looking artifacts. In fact, there’s a faded, anamorphic print of The Comancheros — which had Color By Deluxe — on eBay right now.)

Over time, Eastmancolor would become better-looking and more stable — and its current incarnation is what we usually see in multiplexes today.

Andre de Toth and DP John W. Boyle showed they were up to the challenge. Carson City looks pretty good, and it was successful. Eventually, de Toth would direct six Scotts total, with all four of the Warner Bros. ones being in WarnerColor.

By the way, Carson City is available on DVD through Warner Archive.

carson-city-title-still

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Quite an achievement.

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A couple days ago, 50s Westerns Of The 50s was nominated for a Superior Scribbler Award by Livius over at Riding The High Country.

Being that 50s Westerns is still in its first month, and I’m still trying to figure out just how it’s gonna work (especially in relation to the book), I was shocked. Extremely flattered, too, given the fine work of the blogger who nominated me.

The award comes with some rules:

• Each Superior Scribbler must in turn pass The Award on to five most-deserving Bloggy Friends.

• Each Superior Scribbler must link to the author and name of the blog from whom he/she has received The Award.

• Each Superior Scribbler must display The Award on his/her blog, and link to This Post, which explains The Award.

• Each Blogger who wins The Superior Scribbler Award must visit this post and add his/her name to the Mr. Linky List. That way, we’ll be able to keep up-to-date on everyone who receives This Prestigious Honor!

• Each Superior Scribbler must post these rules on his/her blog.
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So, on to my nominations.  First, movie/TV blogs:

Greenbriar Picture Shows is an impeccably researched treasure trove of information and rare images. Fascinating, even when the films covered aren’t my cup of tea.

The Horn Section features a great series called “Why The Hell Isn’t This On DVD Yet?” and a preoccupation with Forrest Tucker.

• Stephen Bowie’s The Classic TV History Blog shows how informative, thorough and smart a blog can be.

(I was happy to see that one of my favorite blogs, Sergio Leone And The InField Fly Rule, was already a recipient.)

And a couple of non-media ones:

• With Please Pass The Pie, there’s a lot to like: the pictures of the food, the thought that I could actually make this stuff, and just the way Abbie writes.

• One day, my wife and I will use Retro Renovation to make our mid-century ranch a real showplace. Until then, we just like it.

Thanks again to Livius. And to anybody that’s passed through so far.

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Son Of Paleface (1952)

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Here’s an article by writer-director Frank Tashlin that appeared in the New York Times (in October of 1952) to plug Son Of Paleface, one of the very best Western comedies — and an all-around excellent Bob Hope picture.

First, a few quotes —

“The script called for Miss Russell to fall in love with Mr. Rogers. A serenade below her balcony was to culminate in an embrace. But at the last moment this was eliminated from the script… by breakfast-food lobbyists who claimed Young America might change their eating habits if ever their hero was seen caressing anything but his horse’s furry nozzle.”

“With Miss Russell I decided on a daring innovation. I photographed her legs.”

And now, the whole thing —

SPAL

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They don’t get much better than this. One of the movies that got me writing this book. Sorry it’s not widescreen (don’t be fooled by the titles).

Van Heflin is superb, as always. Tab Hunter does a really good job. And Phil Karlson demonstrates why he’s so ripe for rediscovery. (You can also watch his 99 River Street on Hulu. It’s not a Western, but it’s sure good.)

more about “Gunman’s Walk (1958)“, posted with vodpod

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By the mid-50s, CinemaScope had done what it set out to do — help bring back some of the audiences lost to television. With TV still black and white and mono, 20th Century-Fox decreed that all their CinemaScope pictures would be color and stereo. The stereo rule didn’t last all that long, but they stuck to the color one.

B producer Robert Lippert approached Fox with the idea of having his Regal Films, Inc. produce a series of second features for the studio — two black and white CinemaScope pictures a month. Lippert wanted to combine the economy of black and white with the draw of CinemaScope. To get around Fox’s no-color, no-‘Scope policy, and to work around Fox’s fear that these low-budget films would damage the prestige of CinemaScope, a new name was cooked up: RegalScope.

RegalScope is black and white CinemaScope, nothing more. Lippert made around 50 RegalScope features between 1956 and 1959 — all of them cheap, most of them Westerns. These Westerns star folks like John Agar, Jim Davis, Beverly Garland and Forrest Tucker. One, Ambush At Cimarron Pass (1958) gave Clint Eastwood an early role.

Of course, eventually Fox would drop its color-‘Scope policy, paving the way for terrific black and white CinemaScope films like Forty Guns (1957), Sink The Bismark! (1960) and The Innocents (1961). And the RegalScope pictures? They’re hard to find, and when you do, it’s usually a pan-and-scan transfer that looks just awful.

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Lesley Selander began in the film lab back in the Silent days, and enjoyed a career that spanned 40 years and almost 200 films (then there’s tons of TV). His work in series Westerns, from the Hopalong Cassidys to those great Tim Holt pictures for RKO, shows just how good those films could be. They look great and really move.

By the mid-50s, the series Western was done, and pros like Selander found themselves looking for something to do. He wound up directing a string of medium-budget Westerns like Tall Man Riding (1955) with Randolph Scott and The Broken Star (1956). His simple style served these films well.

The Broken Star stars Howard Duff, has a script by John C. Higgins (Anthony Mann’s Border Incident, 1949) and was shot by William Marguiles (Revolt In The Big House and The Ghost And Mr. Chicken). It runs a brisk 82 minutes.

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Wayne, John (Rio Bravo)

Sorry about the pun, not sorry about the photo — again from Rio Bravo.

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