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Archive for the ‘Warner Bros.’ Category

Colin over at Riding The High Country has put up a nice post on Arthur Penn’s The Left Handed Gun (1958), a film I find more interesting than good. Make that very interesting.

This is one of a few 50s Westerns that sticks a juvenile delinquency story on horseback — Nicholas Ray’s The True Story Of Jesse James (1957) is another. It’s an approach that seems to work.

And though Newman’s Method is a bit too, uh, Method-y at times (as Colin points out), portraying Billy and his gang as a bunch of illiterate imbeciles who come to believe the news stories about them takes the picture in a fascinating new direction. James Best, with that strange giggly laugh that’d serve him well on The Dukes Of Hazzard, makes quite an impression.

(The subject line is from an interview with Arthur Penn.)

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Those who know a thing or two about the Ranown Cycle know the strange history of Westbound (1959). Randolph Scott owed Warner Bros. a film, so he drafted Budd Boetticher to direct it. The script was finished — Budd couldn’t change anything, just shoot it. It’s the red-headed stepchild of their collaboration.

Knowing what these guys were capable of — 7 Men From Now (1956) and The Tall T (1957), for instance — it’s easy to be disappointed by Westbound. In the middle of some of the finest Westerns ever made, it plays like a plain old Randy movie.

Reading Laura’s post on it, I realized I’ve been a real snob about this picture. As Laura put it, “I liked that it was a little more lighthearted than some of their films. Westbound may not be a Western classic, but it’s a fast-moving, enjoyable piece of entertainment made by people who knew how to make good movies.”

Laura, you’re right. Especially that last part: “made by people who knew how to make good movies.” Thanks for pointing out that, on its own terms, Westbound succeeds. And thanks for making me realize I’ve been looking at this one the wrong way.

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Just got word that Paul Picerni has passed away.

He’s the second from the left in the above still, playing Lee Hobson on The Untouchables (1960-63). Horror fans know him from House Of Wax (1953), done while under contract at Warner Bros. Also at Warners, he appeared in Fort Worth (1951), Riding Shotgun (1954) and The Bounty Hunter (1954) — all with Randolph Scott.

I was fortunate enough to speak with Mr. Picerni at a Western show years ago, where he told wonderful stories of working with Scott, Andre de Toth, John Wayne, Audie Murphy, Vincent Price and William Elliott — stories he’d probably told a million times to movie geeks like me. He was a very, very nice man.

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Cheyenne was a landmark TV Western. It was the first hour-long dramatic series. It was one of the first TV shows produced by a major Hollywood studio (Warner Bros.). And it made Clint Walker a star.

With a hit show, the exacting schedule that came with it, no features on the horizon, and an exclusive contract that paid him just $150 a week, after two seasons, Walker was unhappy.

Clint Walker: “… I found out they [Warner Bros.] turned down some pretty nice features that I could’ve done… I heard that when people inquired, they were told, ‘When Clint Walker does features, he’ll do ‘em for Warner Bros.’ So that’s where we had the difference of opinion.” *

So, he walked off Cheyenne, which certainly got the studio’s attention. Soon, he had a new contract — and Fifteen Bullets From Fort Dobbs was in production.

Written by Burt Kennedy and George W. George, Fort Dobbs (1958) comes pretty close to the tone Kennedy set for the Scott/Boetticher “Ranown Cycle.” Like those films, dialogue is kept to a minimum. In fact, you’re almost 15 minutes into the picture before the first dialogue scene of any real length.

Walker plays Gar Davis, one step ahead of a posse, who escorts Virginia Mayo and her son (Richard Eyer) through Comanche territory to Fort Dobbs. Along the way, they encounter the Comanches and Brian Keith, an old acquaintance of Davis’ looking to sell a load of Henry repeating rifles. These rifles provide a major plot point — the working title (Fifteen Bullets From Fort Dobbs) might refer to the fact that 15 cartridges could be loaded into the Henry at a time.

Fort Dobbs is a tough, gritty Western that wears its smallish budget well. The country around Kanab, Utah, offers up plenty of production values. There are very few interiors. And William Clothier’s black and white cinematography gives it a stark, noir-ish look that suits the tone of the picture.

Clint Walker is fine in a part that makes the most of his incredible physical presence. Virginia Mayo is quite good as the widow, Mrs. Gray, though her Southern accent comes and goes. But Brian Keith almost steals the picture as the likable, despicable Clett.

Along with the tight script, effective performances and striking camerawork (by William H. Clothier), credit is due to director Gordon Douglas. An exceptional action director who’s unjustly overlooked, Gordon gave us Dick Tracy Vs. Cueball (1946); The Doolins Of Oklahoma (1949), a really terrific Randolph Scott picture; Them! (1954), the first and best of the giant bug movies, to name just a few. He also directed two more Clint Walker pictures for Warner Bros., Yellowstone Kelly (1959) and Gold Of The Seven Saints (1961). All three Walker/Douglas films are now available from Warner Archive.

Max Steiner’s music is effective and gives the picture a big feel. I noticed a cue or two lifted from The Searchers (1956) and suspect further cues were borrowed from other Warner Bros. Westerns.

Fort Dobbs is a high-water mark for Warner Archive. The transfer is stunning at times, really doing Clothier’s photography justice. The occasional stock shot, with its grain and shift in contrast, is the only complaint — and it would’ve been a complaint back in 1958. The audio is very clean with plenty of range, so those all-too-familiar Warner Bros. sound effects (some I recognize from Bugs Bunny cartoons) are crisp and clear.

The packaging, making good use of the original poster art, is a big improvement over Warner Archive’s early releases. (They seem to be going back and reworking the artwork throughout their catalog, and I wish packaging upgrades were available.) A trailer is included, and while that’s not exactly a treasure trove of supplemental material, it goes beyond the program’s usual bare bones presentation. To me, the best bonus feature is a gorgeous transfer, which this DVD-R certainly delivers. And speaking of DVD-R’s, my copy played flawlessly.

Fort Dobbs was a picture I was eager to see again. It didn’t disappoint. Neither did the DVD. You can get it from Warner Archive here. Recommended.

* From a recent phone conversation.

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Drip-Along Daffy (1951)

It’s a Western. It was made in the 50s. It counts.

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Many of the obituaries (picked up from the LA Times, I believe) of Patricia Neal — who passed away August 8 at 84 — noted that she was placed on suspension by Warner Brothers for refusing to appear in a “western with Randolph Scott.”

That “western with Randolph Scott” was Sugarfoot (1951). I’m not sure what Neal’s complaint was about being in a Scott picture, but her part went to Adele Jergens.

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In the early 50s, big cowboy stars like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry were making the transition from theaters to TV. Roy’s final theatrical picture was Son Of Paleface (1952) until his return in Mackintosh And T.J. in 1975. Gene’s last was Last Of The Pony Riders (1953).

By the late 50s, the tide had turned. Instead of television pilfering movie stars, TV actors were cropping up in theatrical films. Some, like Davy Crockett, King Of The Wild Frontier (1955) and The Lone Ranger (1956), were features based on, or edited from, a hit show. And things like Yellowstone Kelly (1959, directed by Gordon Douglas) simply loaded the cast with popular actors and actresses from the small screen and made sure we knew where they came from. It was a ploy that seemed to work. Yellowstone Kelly was a hit. (By the way, it seems this story was intended for John Wayne at one point.)

Warner Archive is giving away two copies of Yellowstone Kelly to readers of this blog! Write in using the form below, naming two other 50s Westerns directed by Gordon Douglas. The first two (correct) responses will receive the remastered widescreen DVD-R. This contest is limited to the United States. Act fast — you people know your movies, so rattling off a couple Douglas pictures shouldn’t take any time at all.

UPDATE: Both DVDs have been claimed. Congratulations to Heather and Jimmy. And a big thanks to all who wrote in.

UPDATE #2: The New York Post has a brief interview with Clint Walker about Yellowstone Kelly.

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Rocky Mountain (1950)

Errol Flynn Westerns are a strange breed. Maybe the first thing you notice is the artificial-ness — Flynn’s displaced accent (hell, his displaced everything), the supersaturated Technicolor of some of them, Humphrey Bogart’s Mexican bandito in Virginia City (1940) and the earnest adventurousness of them all. They’re a bit on the surreal side, almost The Cowboy Of Oz.

They can also seem a little like watching the same movie over and over. The plots — or plot, since they all seem so similar — play like leftovers from Monogram or Mascot with more money thrown at them. And then there are the casts, the same character actors yanked from the Warner Bros. roster of contract players, seemingly at random. (Don’t take any of this as a complaint.)

The Flynn Westerns work pretty much like this: if you like, say, Montana, chances are you’ll like the others. (I do.) Then you get to Rocky Mountain, Flynn’s eighth and last Western. Suddenly, things are very different.

That difference isn’t just what you see on the screen. Hardly. Both the Hollywood and Errol Flynn of 1950 were quite different from just a few shorts years before. For one thing, the studio system was breaking down, and cost-savings were the order of the day. Out went Technicolor, large casts and lavish sets. Next, Flynn wasn’t the dashing young actor of old. His years of hard living were catching up with him. He’d be dead in less than a decade.

Of course, the Western was changing, too.

You can feel these harsh realities, this change, in almost every frame of Rocky Mountain, a grim, gritty little picture that stands as a clear, early example of what we now think of as a Fifties Western. They may have trimmed the budget, but they sure  didn’t scrimp when it came to fatalism. It absolutely oozes from this film.

It’s March of 1865. The Civil War is nearing its end, and the Confederacy needs a miracle. The weary Lafe Barstow (Flynn) has brought his men all the way to California in an effort to link up with insurrectionists, assemble a band of guerillas, and hopefully turn the tide of the war. However, this far West, they end up facing an enemy even more formidable than the Yankees: the Shoshones.

Flynn and his men come to the aid of a stagecoach being chased by a Shoshone raiding party, a gallant act that will eventually seal their fate. The lone passenger turns out to be Johanna Carter (Patrice Wymore), fiancé of a Union lieutenant. Protecting the woman compromises their mission, and puts them in conflict with both the Shoshones and the Union soldiers looking for the missing stage.

The bulk of the film works as a tense character study, as the Confederate guerillas and Wymore wait for the showdown they know is coming, against whichever enemy finds them first. The climactic scene, as the men give each other those resigned looks, their final goodbyes, is reminiscent of what would follow in The Wild Bunch (1969). They know they’re not riding away from this one. As they turn to face their foe (I’m not gonna spoil things by saying who), Flynn has a great line: “They’ve seen our backs. Let’s show ‘em our faces!”

The action takes place on the mountain of the title. There’s not a single interior in the entire film. Filmed outside Gallup, New Mexico, the terrain gives the picture production values far beyond its slim budget. (When God’s your set decorator, who needs a budget?)

The vistas are striking, largely thanks to director of photography Ted McCord. A real veteran, who started out with Silent Westerns, McCord excelled at outdoor shooting, with a career that spanned everything from Ken Maynard riding into the sunset to Julie Andrews coming over the hill in The Sound Of Music (1965), certainly one of the most-revered exterior shots in filmdom.

William Keighley spent the bulk of his Hollywood career as a contract director at Warner Bros. His list of 30s credits includes some of the studios best films: “G” Men (1935), Bullets Or Ballots (1936) and The Prince And The Pauper (1937). He was replaced by Michael Curtiz halfway through Flynn’s The Adventures Of Robin Hood (1938) — with that one, there’s still some debate about how much of Keighley’s work we’re looking at.

More good movies preceded World War II — Brother Rat (1938), for instance. When the war ended, Keighley found himself at RKO. An excellent film noir, The Street With No Name (1948), came from that period. Then he was back at Warner Bros. for Rocky Mountain. A couple more pictures followed, including The Master Of Ballantrae (1953), which would also turn out to be Flynn’s final swashbuckler and Keighley’s last picture before retiring to Paris. His assured work on Rocky Mountain keeps things moving and tension mounting.

While it was Flynn’s last Western, Rocky Mountain provided a couple guys with their firsts — Slim Pickens and Sheb Wooley. According to Wooley (in a Western Clippings interview), “We were down in New Mexico on location, and Flynn said, ‘I know you’re new at this, and I’ve been around about 15 years, so if you want to ask me anything or run lines or whatever, we’ll work on it at night if you want.’ But I never could catch the time when we were both sober enough to work on it.”

Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, a frequent Flynn costar, was also on hand. But what really generated buzz around Rocky Mountain was leading lady Patrice Wymore. She was 21, working on her second picture and engaged to Broadway producer Sammy Lambert. Flynn was 40 and engaged to a Rumanian princess, Irene Ghika. Both of those romances went by the wayside, and Flynn and Wymore were married shortly before the picture opened, which had to have made things easy for Rocky Mountain’s publicity people. And though they were separated, Patrice was Mrs. Errol Flynn when he died in 1959.

Rocky Mountain is a good picture. It’s got a tough performance from Flynn — very different from his other Westerns, and turning his hardened looks into a benefit. It’s well written by Winston Miller (My Darling Clementine), from a story by Alan LeMay (The Searchers). It’s as much character piece as it is a cowboy picture, giving its cast plenty to work with.

And it stands in marked contrast to something like San Antonio (1945), hinting at just where the Western was heading over the next 10 years.

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Rocky Mountain is one of four Flynn Westerns (he made eight) lavishly presented in the Errol Flynn Westerns Collection. The other three are Virginia City (1940), San Antonio (1945) and Montana (1950). Raoul Walsh’s Silver River (1948, their last picture together) is the only Flynn cowboy movie not on DVD. You can watch it here, however — and I recommend that you do.

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People, especially critics, are funny about movie clichés and formulas. While we all complain when a film seems predictable, formulaic or clichéd, the most popular films often adhere to a pretty strict formula. Hollywood musicals. The Bond films. Slasher flicks. Romantic comedies. The thousands of series Westerns. The list goes on and on.

So if the clichés and formulas themselves aren’t the problem, maybe it’s laziness we have issues with. Bring a fresh approach to the same old thing, however slight, and we’ll lap it up. But crank out that same old thing, the same old way, and you run the risk of being nailed to the wall.

Carson City (1952), the second of six Randolph Scott Westerns directed by Andre De Toth, helps illustrate this. It’s certainly got its share of clichés. A saloon brawl. A shootout or two. A mineshaft accident. A stagecoach holdup. A train robbery. It’s all there, along with a pretty typical lost-love subplot. But thanks to Scott’s presence and De Toth’s always-tight direction, you’re pretty satisfied when “The End” pops up.

There are attempts to break away from convention, however. Sloan Nibley, who’d written a slew of the later Roy Rogers pictures, helped cook up an urbane bad guy, the Champagne Bandit. (In fact, Carson City started out with that title.) But the finished film — from a screenplay by Nibley, Eric Jonsson and Winston Miller — doesn’t do enough with him, so an interesting idea ends up little more than a gimmick. De Toth later wrote, “I didn’t like the script, I needed the money, the pastures started to look much greener on the other side of the fence I was straddling.”

The Champagne Bandit (Raymond Massey)and his gang are robbing stagecoaches to get the gold dust being hauled out of Carson City to nearby Virginia City. Thinking that a railroad line would result in fewer holdups, a banker hires engineer Jeff Kinkaid (Scott) to lay the track and get the gold flowing again. This proves unpopular with the townspeople — and the Champagne Bandit.

In Andre De Toth’s capable hands, all this predictability flies by before you have enough time to notice how familiar it all is. His stuff is lean, fast and cynical — and his Scott pictures hint at the films Scott would later make with Budd Boetticher.

There seems to be renewed interest in De Toth these days, which isn’t surprising. He’s certainly worth seeking out. I’d recommend Pitfall, Man In The Saddle (another Scott), Crime Wave, Day Of The Outlaw and Play Dirty.

In the middle of this rediscovery, Warner Archive has released Carson City as part of its on-demand DVD-R program. While it’s a bare-bones release — the film and that’s it — it’s a nice one. Carson City was the first film in WarnerColor (more on that), and the transfer is crisp and sharp. The interior scenes look good, lush even, while the contrast in the exteriors is a little harsh — giving you a good idea of how WarnerColor looked on film. It’s presented full-frame, which is correct for 1952. There’s a little dust from time to time, which I kind of like. Having grown up with films around the house, usually 16mm, I have a soft spot for a little wear and tear.

It’s hard for me to be objective with a Randolph Scott movie. Carson City’s a good one. The DVD’s fine. And you can get it here.

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aadrag14

In 1956, Warner Bros. gave us John Ford’s The Searchers, which towers over other Westerns to this day. They also treated us to The Lone Ranger, a feature version of the popular TV show starring Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels. Smaller in scope, for sure. But to a lot of kids in 1956, this was a lot bigger deal than John Wayne looking for his niece.

Shot in WarnerColor (Eastmancolor), The Lone Ranger certainly upped the production values, but director Stuart Heisler managed to retain the feel of the weekly TV show — quite unlike TV adaptations such as, say, Munster Go Home (1966). Warners put together a decent cast that included Perry Lopez, Lyle Bettger, Michael Ansara and a teenage Beverly Washburn. And they even headed off to Kanab, Utah, to shoot it.

Beverly Washburn, from Ladies Of The Western by Michael Fitzgerald and Boyd Magers:

“If you’ve ever seen any of the Lone Ranger shows, you know his outfit was very tight. In the scene where we’re with the Indians, Clayton Moore jumps onto his horse. When he did, those pants split wide open! This isn’t the worst of it. Because the pants were so tight, it made it necessary for Clayton not to wear any underwear, because underwear lines would show. So, when those pants split — at the back, his whole butt stuck out! No one in the crew, cast or anyone, told him, and the director let the camera keep rolling — for a gag. It was hilarious.”

So, if someone ever offers to show you some old Clayton Moore Lone Ranger outtakes, you might want to give it some serious thought before saying OK.

(That subject line came from the film’s one-sheet. The photo was snatched from Greenbriar Picture Shows.)

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