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Archive for the ‘James H. Griffith’ Category

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Gail Davis is just wonderful as Annie Oakley, a part she was probably born to play. This upcoming set from VCI (due October 21) gives you all 81 Annie Oakley episodes, restored, with all sorts of extras: a documentary, the pilot, commercials, photo galleries and more.

Some terrific character actors rode through this series: Slim Pickins, Helene Marshall, James Best, John Doucette, James H. Griffith, Lee Van Cleef, Alan Hale Jr., Dickie Jones, Fess Parker, Clayton Moore, Denver Pile, LQ Jones, Glenn Strange and more. (Even Shelly Fabares!) And in the director’s chair from week to week, you might find the likes of George Archainbaud, Ray Nazarro, Earl Bellamy or John English. Produced by Gene Autry’s Flying A Productions, many of these folks were veterans of Gene’s movies and series. Then there’s Lone Pine locations and those beautiful double-action Colts.

We’re gonna get a lotta mileage out of this thing at my house. My daughter Presley really loves this show.

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Written and Directed by Delmer Daves
Director Of Photography: J. Peverell Marley, ASC
Film Editor: Clarence Kolster
Music by Victor Young

CAST: Alan Ladd (Johnny Mckay), Audrey Dalton (Nancy Meek), Marisa Pavan (Toby), Robert Keith (Bill Satterwhite), Charles Bronson (Captain Jack)

Not long after Shane (1953), Alan Ladd left Paramount, the studio that made him a star, and launched his independent company, Jaguar. Their first film was Drum Beat (1954). Based on the 1873 Modoc War, Ladd plays an Indian fighter recruited by President Grant to find a way to peace with the Modoc. Turns out the tribe wants peace, but a chief named Captain Jack (Charles Bronson) and his band of renegades are lousing things up. Repeated attempts for a peaceful resolution are unsuccessful, and we get a very exciting last couple of reels.

Though I’m not a big Alan Ladd fan, I really liked this one. It wears its “sympathetic treatment of the Indians” thing well, but never forgets that it’s action that puts people in the seats. Boy, a lot of people get shot in this thing.

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My job is to protect the wagon train. When somebody shoots at my people, I shoot back.”
— Alan Ladd

Ladd and Daves (and, of course, DP J. Peverell Marley) shot Drum Beat in Warnercolor and the then-new CinemaScope. As was the custom with ‘Scope at the time, they avoided close-ups, went for long takes whenever possible, and gave us lots of gorgeous vistas of Sonora, Arizona, and the Coconino National Forest. Daves always showed off the landscape in his Westerns, making each setting an essential element of the film, and this is one of Drum Beat’s great strengths. If there’s a film that makes better use of the Sonora area, I don’t know what it is.

The cast is a 50s Western fan’s dream: James H. Griffith (as a Civil War veteran who lost a leg at Shilo), Frank Ferguson, Elisha Cook, Jr., Willis Bouchey, Perry Lopez, Anthony Caruso, Denver Pyle and Strother Martin (who I heard was in it, but somehow missed). Of course, Charles Bronson makes quite an impression as Captain Jack in his first film under his new name (it had been Buchinsky, which was considered too Russian-sounding in the HUAC years).

With Drum Beat, Warner Archive gives us a pretty good-looking DVD. The Warnercolor is, well, Warnercolor — but here it looks as good as I’ve ever seen it look. The image is a tad soft at times (varying from shot to shot), some of which we can blame on the early CinemaScope. The audio is excellent; I love the stereo sound of these early Scope pictures, with an actor’s voice following them as they move around within the wide frame. This is a really good film, and a real treat in widescreen and stereo (I’d love to see a Blu-ray turn up someday). Highly recommended.

Alan Ladd and Delmer Daves reunited for The Badlanders (1958), also available from Warner Archive. I haven’t seen it in ages, and I’m really eager to revisit it.

Along with Drum Beat, two more Ladd Westerns came riding into town, thanks to Warner Archive.

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The Big Land (1957)
Directed by Gordon Douglas
CAST: Alan Ladd, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O’Brien, Anthony Caruso, Julie Bishop and John Qualen

Ladd’s a cattle man who works to build a town around a railroad hub, which will benefit the local ranchers. Of course, there’s someone who doesn’t want all this to happen.

As a drunk, Edmond O’Brien steals every scene he’s in. He’s terrific. This is WarnerColor again, and it’s not as well-behaved as it is in Drum Beat. Good movie, though, especially if you’re a fan of O’Brien or Virginia Mayo. Gordon Douglas is as dependable as ever.

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Guns Of The Timberland (1960)
Directed by Robert D. Webb
CAST: Alan Ladd, Jeanne Crain, Gilbert Roland, Frankie Avalon

This time, Ladd’s a lumberjack who arrives in the Northwest to take out a lot of trees. The townspeople are afraid Ladd’s efforts will cause mudslides and do other environmental harm. Frankie Avalon sings “Gee Whiz Whillikins Golly Gee,” which Bugs Bunny used to sing in the bumpers to The Bugs Bunny Show on Saturday mornings. This tune is just one of the things that put Guns Of The Timberland in that goofy time period that a lot of series Westerns exist in, where Old and New West, cars and buckboards peacefully coexist.

Jeanne Crain is beautiful, Gilbert Roland is as cool as ever, and Lyle Bettger actually gets to be a good guy for once. The Technicolor makes it to DVD looking like a million bucks, while alcohol has Ladd looking just terrible.

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Griffith in Bullwhip

James H. Griffith
(February 13, 1916 – September 17, 1993)

Here’s to one of my favorite character actors on his birthday. James Griffith is seen here with Guy Madison in Bullwhip (1958), which also starred Rhonda Fleming.

I knocked out a profile on Griffith a few years ago. You can find it here. Whether it’s a 50 Western, Dragnet or even an episode of B.J. And The Bear, he’s always worth watching.

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Timeless Media Group has corralled all five seasons of The Gene Autry Show (1950-1955) into a single set for release on December 10.

GeneAutryShow_CompleteCEThis blog is not about TV. Other people know a lot more about it than I do and do a much better job covering it than I ever could. But when you’re familiar with the features, seeing how Gene transitioned from theaters to living rooms is fascinating — and in keeping with what happened to Gene’s career, and the Western itself, over the course of the decade.

When Autry stopped making features — the TV series began in 1950, the movies lasted into 1953 — he brought a lot of actors and crew over to the show. George Archainbaud, for instance, directed Gene’s last feature, Last Of The Pony Riders (1953), and TV shows throughout its run. William Bradford, who shot a number of the later features, did all but a handful of the TV shows. (How’d they pull all this off?) Many of the TV writers had also written for the Autry features at some point, including a single episode by brothers Dorrell and Stewart E. McGowan, who’d scripted one of Gene’s best, South Of The Border (1939). (They also wrote one of my favorite films, 1949’s Hellfire).

The shows really have the feel of an Autry feature. Shorter and cheaper, of course, with a plot that’s even more bare-bones than the movies — and usually limited to a single song. Each episode exists as its own entity, too. From one show to the other, Gene is everything from a rancher to a U.S. Marshall, it’s the Old West one week and the Fabulous Fifties the next, and sometimes Gene doesn’t even know his sidekick Pat Buttram. Gene was a great businessman, and he was smart enough to stick with a sure thing — whether it’s a cameraman or a formula.

Making my way through the series, what really struck me was the incredible stream of actors and actresses that turn up from week to week: Denver Pyle, Alan Hale, Jr. (who’s a sidekick for a while), James H. Griffith, Kermit Maynard, John Doucette, Fuzzy Knight, Lyle Talbot, Robert J. Wilke, Tom Tyler, Jack Ingram, Clayton Moore, Chill Wills, Glenn Strange, James Best, Francis Ford, Lee Van Cleef. Gloria Talbott, Nestor Paiva, Peggy Stewart, “Curly” Joe Besser, Tommy Ivo and a million more. (That has to be the longest sentence I’ve ever written.) Autry’s acting leaves a lot to be desired — though he’d come a long way since The Phantom Empire (1936), but he surrounded himself with some real pros, and they do wonders for these shows.

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You can’t help being knocked for a loop by the color episodes. Two first-season shows were done in color as an experiment and the fifth season is color all the way. The type of color isn’t identified — my guess would be Eastmancolor — and it looks pretty weird, a little blown out in spots. But that’s the fault of the original material, not something we can complain to Timeless Media Group about. It’s terrific to see Gene and Roy and Champion in color. These were transfered from Gene’s personal material and are spotless, with supplements like radio shows, photo galleries and commercials — along with an extra DVD that gives you episodes of other shows from Autry’s Flying ‘A’ Productions. Recommended.Gene Autry - GA rehearsing

Gene Autry at work on his TV show. Photo lifted from Steven Lodge’s blog.

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Directed by William Castle
Produced by Sam Katzman
Story and Screen Play by Bernard Gordon (as John T. Williams)*
Director of Photography: Henry Freulich, ASC
Music under the supervision of Mischa Bakaleinikoff
Film Editor: Aaron Stell, ACE

CAST: Scott Brady (Billy The Kid), Betta St. John (Nita Maxwell), James Griffith (Pat Garrett), Alan Hale Jr. (Bob Ollinger), Paul Cavanagh (John H. Tunstall), William ‘Bill’ Phillips (Charley Bowdre), Benny Rubin (Arnold Dodge).

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capturfiles1The William Castle Blogathon devotes a few days of online pontification to one of my favorite filmmakers.

Castle was a huge part of my movie-geek childhood (one that I’m trying to pass on to my daughter). You’ll find other Castle posts here.

In 1954, Sam Katzman produced a series of Westerns about famous real-life outlaws and lawmen — Jesse James Vs. The Daltons (which was in 3D), The Law Vs. Billy The Kid and Masterson Of Kansas. All three were directed by William Castle, still a few years from finding his niche in gimmick-y horror movies aimed at kids, such as House On Haunted Hill (1958) and The Tingler (1959).

The Law Vs. Billy The Kid was written by Bernard Gordon, who’d written The Lawless Breed (1952), an excellent tale of John Wesley Hardin that Raoul Walsh directed for Universal-International, starring Rock Hudson and Julie Adams. A blacklisted screenwriter, Gordon was selling plastics when he was contacted by Charles Schneer, an assistant producer at Columbia who looking for a Western script. (Schneer would got on to produce Ray Harryheusen’s Dynamation films.)

Bernard Gordon: “I borrowed a synopsis from a friend, Philip Stevenson, another blacklisted writer who had written an unproduced play about Billy The Kid. This story was approved. I went to work writing the script and shared the minimum pay for the original story with Stevenson and another blacklisted writer, Bob Williams, who collaborated with me so I could continue to work selling plastics. My script was accepted… The success of this work started me, with many fits and starts, into a busy career as a blacklisted screenwriter.”

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The picture hits a few of the milestones of Billy The Kid’s life: his friendship with Pat Garrett, job with John Tunstall, involvement in the Lincoln County War, and his shooting by Pat Garrett. Those facts are as close as we get to actual biography. Here, the Kid (Scott Brady) is simply too old; Billy was only 21 when he was killed. There’s a cooked-up romantic subplot with Tunstall’s niece, played by Betta St. John. And as we’d see in Arthur Penn’s The Left-Handed Gun (1958), there’s an attempt to portray the Kid as a troubled young man forced into his life of crime.

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For a guy from Brooklyn, Scott Brady sure made a lot of Westerns, including his own TV series, Shotgun Slade (1959-61).  During the 50s, he worked with some of the genre’s best directors: Allan Dwan (The Restless Breed), Budd Boetticher (Bronco Buster), Joe Kane (The Maverick Queen) and Nicholas Ray (Johnny Guitar). There were also a couple Regalscope Westerns, Blood Arrow and Ambush At Cimarron Pass (both 1958).

As Pat Garrett, James Griffith walks away with the film — just as he’d do as Doc Holliday in Masterson Of Kansas (1954). By underplaying, he gives Garrett plenty of strength. His performance really elevates the film.

In his essential book Step Right Up! I’m Gonna Scare The Pants Off America, Castle didn’t devote much time to his  Katzman Westerns, though he had nothing but praise for Katzman as a showman. By this time, Castle was a solid contract director — and he certainly knew his way around Hollywood locations like Melody Ranch and Walker Ranch. He wrote of this period of his career, “I was now on another treadmill, turning out a full-length feature every month.” He was still four years away from his independent breakthrough with Macabre (1958).

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Castle keeps The Law Vs. Billy The Kid moving at a good clip and gets pretty good performances from his cast. His direction is efficient and assured, even if he was cranking out pictures like sausages. There are no frills, no 3D, no floating skeleton, no Coward’s Corner. It doesn’t need them. The Law Vs. Billy The Kid stands as another a good example of a middle-budget Columbia 50s Western. It was made fast and lean — remember, it was produced by Sam Katzman’s unit. But the pros, craftsmen and artists who made the film work wonders. One of these craftsmen would be Director of Photography Henry Freulich — who spent the bulk of his career at Columbia, shooting everything from Three Stooges shorts to The Durango Kid pictures to the Blondie movies to a slew of William Castle films. (He deserves a plaque here in the Roan house.) Freulich gives Castle’s Technicolor Westerns a bright, crisp look, and I really like the way he used the then-new 1.85 aspect ratio.

* In 1997, the Writers Guild of America restored Bernard’s credit for The Law Vs. Billy The Kid.

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William Castle is one of my favorite filmmakers. I grew up on his stuff — from The Whistler pictures to the horror films to, of course, the Sam Katzman Westerns. So I was happy to hear about the upcoming William Castle Blogathon, and even happier to be invited to play along.

I’ve chosen The Law Vs. Billy The Kid (1954), one of those Katzman Westerns Castle directed in the mid-50s. It stars Scott Brady as Billy, Betta St. John and James H. Griffith as Pat Garrett. (I’ve already written about Masterson Of Kansas.)

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Directed by Louis King
Produced by André Hakim
Screenplay by Geoffrey Homes, from a story by Sam Hellman
Based on a book by Stuart Lake (Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal)
Director of Photography: Edward Cronjager
Film Editor: William B. Murphy
Musical director: Lionel Newman

CAST: Rory Calhoun (Chino Bull), Corinne Calvet (Frenchie Dumont), Cameron Mitchell (Mitch Hardin), Penny Edwards (Debbie Allen), Carl Betz (Loney Hogan), John Dehner (Harvey Logan), Raymond Greenleaf (Prudy), Victor Sutherland (Alcalde Lowery), Ethan Laidlaw, Robert J. Wilke, Harry Carter, Frank Ferguson, Harry Hines, Hank Worden, Paul E. Burns.

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If you were to measure the quality of a film by the character actors that turn up in it, Powder River (1953) would rank with the finest movies ever made. John Dehner, Frank Ferguson, James H. Griffith, Robert J. Wilke, Paul E. Burns, Ethan Laidlaw — the list goes on. (I’ve heard Hank Worden’s in it, but I didn’t see him.)

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It’s another variation on the Earp-Holliday story, with no mention of the O.K. Corral. Rory Calhoun is Chino Bull, an Earp-ish lawman who gives up his guns and badge to try a little prospecting — but is forced to put them back on when his partner (Frank Ferguson) is killed. Cameron Mitchell is Mitch Hardin, a take on Doc Holliday (a doctor with a brain tumor this time). Corrine Calvet runs the local saloon and Peggy Edwards (who stepped in at Republic when Dale Evans was on maternity leave, appearing in Trail Of Robin Hood and others) is the woman who comes from the East in search of Mitch. John Dehner is a gambler and Robert J. Wilke is, of course, a bad guy.

While we’ve seen all this play out in other films, some of them better (and featuring some of the same cast), there’s a freshness and watchability to Powder River that delays us from making the inevitable comparisons until long after its 77 minutes are up. (Face it, to compare this film to My Darling Clementine is both unfair and ridiculous.)

Rory Calhoun has a confidence and  easygoing manner that makes him an ideal 50s Western lead, and Powder River fits him like a glove. Cameron Mitchell is a seriously underrated actor, and his take on Holliday is intense, but avoiding the histrionics of other actors. They have a few good scenes together — I especially liked them talking shop in the saloon as Mitchell showed off his flashy gun belt. Good actors, solid script.

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The rest of the cast goes about its business, doing the things that kept them so busy working in so many of these films — and making each one better in the process.

Louis King, the brother of director Henry King (The Gunfighter), began his career as an actor in the Silents, and made the shift to directing long before sound came in. He was a busy contract director throughout the 30s and 40s — Charlie Chan, Bulldog Drummond, etc., and ended his career on TV (Adventures Of Wild Bill Hickock, The Deputy). Powder River was one of his last features, and his assured, unpretentious direction is a large part of its success. Is this a great film? Of course not. Would I watch a thousand just like it? Absolutely.

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The DVD-R from Fox Cinema Archives seems to have been transfered from a Technicolor print, and at certain points, it’s absolutely beautiful. But if you’ve seen a number of dye-transfer prints, you know they can be inconsistent, with registration, contrast and color varying quite a bit. That’s the case here, and while it doesn’t make for the kind of spotless, flawless experience we’re coming to expect — it’s what these films have looked like for decades. It’s sharp and clear and the audio is clean — and I like seeing those reel changeover cues make their appearance.

This is a minor Western that I certainly recommend — and a great introduction to the work of Rory Calhoun.

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