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Happy Father’s Day.

It took me about two seconds to settle on who to feature for Father’s Day. So, here’s Chuck Connors and Johnny Crawford — as Lucas McCain and his son Mark — in The Rifleman.

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Ben “Son” Johnson, Jr.
(June 13, 1918 – April 8, 1996)

The great rodeo champion and Oscar-winning character actor Ben Johnson was born 100 years ago today.

I don’t have to tell you how great Ben was or point out how many terrific movies he’s in. All that’s kind of a given around here. So why not do yourself a favor and watch one of his movies tonight? Maybe Rebel In Town (1956), which the photo here is from.

I’ve been meaning to resurrect this series for ages, and I finally got around to it. Our Character Actor Of The Day is Leo Gordon.

Leo Gordon stands tall as one of the screen’s greatest heavies. At six foot two, with a deep voice and icy stare, he’s one of the few guys around who could really come up against someone like John Wayne (Hondo, McLintock!) or Clint Walker (Cheyenne, Night Of The Grizzly) and not look silly.

Don Siegel, who directed Gordon in Riot In Cell Block 11 (1954, above), called Gordon “the scariest man I have ever met.”

Leo Vincent Gordon, Jr. was born December 2, 1922, in Brooklyn, New York. His family lived in poverty and he left school in the eighth grade to work in construction and demolition. Next came the Civilian Conservation Corps. After that, in 1941, Leo enlisted in the Army and served two years.

After the war, Gordon was arrested for armed robbery in southern California. During the ordeal, he pulled a gun and was shot in the stomach. Leo served five years in San Quentin, where he furthered his education by reading nearly every book in the prison library. (The mugshot was for a fight later, not the robbery arrest.)

Gordon attended the American Academy Of Dramatic Arts on the G.I. Bill — and married one of his classmates, Lynn Cartwright in 1950. They’d work together a number of times (such as Black Patch and some episodes of Adam 12 — often written by Leo) and their marriage would last until his death in 2000.

Gordon was soon cast in the London and Canadian companies of Mister Roberts. After a few years of stage work, Hollywood came calling. Lots and lots of crime pictures and Westerns.

His first Western was City Of Bad Men (1953). Then there’s Gun Fury (1953), Hondo (1954), Ten Wanted Men (1955), Tennessee’s Partner (1955), Yellow Mountain (1954, up top), The Tall Stranger (1957), Quantrill’s Raiders (1958, he’s Quantrill), McLintock! (1963), Night Of The Grizzly (1966), Hostile Guns (1967, below, one of those A.C. Lyles things) and My Name Is Nobody (1973, produced by Sergio Leone). There are lots, lots more.

Gordon turned up in crime pictures like Baby Face Nelson (1957, as John Dillinger), The Big Operator (1959) and The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967). You’ll also find him in Tobruk (1967) and The Haunted Palace (1963). He was versatile and he stayed plenty busy.

On TV, Leo Gordon had recurring role on Maverick (below) as Big Mike McComb, and James Garner would later recruit him for several episodes of The Rockford Files. He’s terrific on The Andy Griffith Show as a guy who’s released from prison — and comes looking for Sheriff Taylor. On Cheyenne, he and Clint Walker are great in some real knock down drag out fights.

All in all, he’d go on to appear in more than 170 movies and TV shows from the early 1950s to the mid-1990s. His last feature was Maverick (1994), and his tiny part is the only reason to sit through that thing.

Gordon was a screenwriter, too. He wrote for shows such as Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Maverick, Cheyenne and Adam 12 (right). And he penned features like Black Patch (1957), Hot Car Girl (1958), Escort West (1959), The Wasp Woman (1959), Attack Of The Giant Leeches (1959), Bounty Killer (1965) and Tobruk. There were several novels, too, including the historical Western Powderkeg.

Though often the heavy, Leo Gordon had a way of not just making his presence known, but turning in a real performance. (He’s really terrific in The Intruder.) There’s an odd sympathetic angle to a lot of his villains. He was one of the best.

Tumbleweed (1953).

Directed by Nathan Juran
Screenplay by John Meredyth Lucas
From a novel by Kenneth Perkins
Director Of Photography: Russell Metty
Film Editor: Virgil W. Vogel

Cast: Audie Murphy (Jim Harvey), Lori Nelson (Laura Saunders), Chill Wills (Sheriff Murchoree), Roy Roberts (Nick Buckley), Russell Johnson (Lam Blanden), K.T. Stevens (Louella Buckley), Madge Meredith (Sarah Blanden), Lee Van Cleef (Marv), I. Stanford Jolley (Ted), Ross Elliott (Seth Blandon), Ralph Moody (Aguila), Eugene Iglesias (Tigre), Phil Chambers (Trapper Ross), Lyle Talbot (Weber), King Donovan (Wrangler), Harry Harvey (Prospector)

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Tumbleweed (1953) is one of my favorite Audie Murphy movies.

Once they got him figured out, Universal-International did a great job of developing pictures that played to Audie Murphy’s strengths. As his confidence grew, the movies just got better and better, leading to really good performances in things like Night Passage (1957) and No Name On The Bullet (1959).

In this one, Audie’s a trail guide leading a small wagon train through Indian territory. When the Indians attack and almost everyone is killed (Lori Nelson and K.T. Stevens survive), Murphy’s branded a deserter and jailed. He’s sprung by Tigre (Eugene Iglesias), an Indian he befriends right after the credits, and pursued into the desert by a posse lead by Chill Wills.

Along the way, he’s given a scraggly horse by a sympathetic rancher (Roy Roberts). This is Tumbleweed, and Murphy’s relationship with the horse — Tumbleweed saves Murphy again and again — is one of the best things about the movie. In a way, you could say the horse saves the movie, too, since his place in the story helps it deviate from convention in some really terrific ways. And, as we all know, that really sets these movies apart, when they zig instead of zag like all the rest.

Nathan Juran, the director of Tumbleweed, started out as an art director. He made the transition to director with The Black Castle (1952).

Nathan Juran: “I was just a technician who could transfer the script from the page to the stage and could get it shot on schedule and on budget. I never became caught up in the ‘romance’ of the movies.”

Russell Metty shot the film at Vasquez Rocks, Red Rock Canyon and Death Valley, and it looks great. Metty also shot Touch Of Evil (1958), Spartacus (1960) and Madigan (1968). He doesn’t get his due, if you ask me.

The cast is made up of some great character actors, many from U-I’s own roster. The lovely Lori Nelson had a good run at U-I — two Ma and Pa Kettle pictures, Bend Of The River (1952), a Francis movie, Revenge Of The Creature (1955) and more — before working at AIP on stuff like Day The World Ended and Hot Rod Girl (both 1956). She’d work extensively on TV, with a guest spot in Audie Murphy’s series Whispering Smith.

Lee Van Cleef is appropriately nasty as Marv. Roy Roberts is good as the rancher who comes to Murphy’s aide. And Russell Johnson has a terrific fight with Murphy in the last reel, running all over Vasquez Rocks. My only complaint would be Chill Wills, who I’ve never cared for. Of course, the strongest member of the supporting cast is Tumbleweed himself. He’s really something.

You can really see Audie Murphy coming into his own in Tumbleweed. It’s a good 50s Western from Universal. And that’s about as good as it gets.

Source: Nathan Juran interview from Starlog

James Wong Howe.

Google decided to honor the great cinematographer James Wong Howe today. It’s not his birthday — The Thin Man was released on this day back in 1934.

Another way to pay tribute is simply to look at some of his incredible work. Here’s a frame from Raoul Walsh’s Pursued (1947), one of Howe’s few Westerns.

His work on Hud (1963) and Seconds (1966) was particularly jaw-dropping. With black and white, few came close to what he could do.

RIP, Clint Walker.

Norman Eugene “Clint” Walker
May 30, 1927 – May 21, 2018

Just heard that Clint Walker has passed away at 90. Of course, he was Cheyenne Bodie in the terrific TV series Cheyenne. I’m a huge fan of his first starring feature, Fort Dobbs (1958, above).

In the early days of this blog, with Fort Dobbs making its way to DVD from Warner Archive, I was given the chance to interview Mr. Walker for my DVD review. He’d obviously been talking about Cheyenne all day and seemed happy to be talking about his first feature for a change. He was such a nice man. It was an honor to speak with him.

The Nebraskan (1953).

Directed by Fred F. Sears
Screenplay by David Lang and Martin Berkeley
Story by David Lang
Director Of Photography: Henry Freulich
Film Editors: Al Clark and James Sweeney

Cast: Philip Carey (Wade Harper), Roberta Haynes (Paris), Wallace Ford (McBride), Richard Webb (Ace Eliot), Lee Van Cleef (Reno), Maurice Jara (Wingfoot), Regis Toomey (Col. Markham), Jay Silverheels (Spotted Bear), Pat Hogan (Yellow Knife), Frank Fenton, Dennis Weaver

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Figured it was time for another Fred F. Sears movie. A few years ago, I assigned myself the task of doing a post on each of Sears’ Westerns (I’m not counting the Durango Kids he directed). When those are done, the plan is to focus on his non-Western movies on my other blog.

Columbia was cranking out 3-D movies like crazy in the height of the ’53-54 stereoscopic craze. One of the bigger ones was Raoul Walsh’s Gun Fury (1953) starring Rock Hudson, Donna Reed and a terrific supporting cast.

Phil Carey and Roberta Haynes were part of that cast, and as soon as they finished the Walsh picture, they were put to work on The Nebraskan (1953).

Carey’s a cavalry scout who gets caught up in a standoff with the Sioux when he won’t turn over Wingfoot (Maurice Jara), who’s been accused of murdering chief Thundercloud. With them are a gambler Ace (Richard Webb) and saloon girl Paris (Roberta Haynes) — Carey used to have a thing going with Paris — and the murderous Reno (Lee Van Cleef), who’s escaped from the brig.

They take refuge in Wallace Ford’s way station, fighting off wave after wave of Indians — along with Reno’s repeated attempts to get loose and Ace turning out to be a sniveling coward.

The small-group-under-siege-in-a-small-space part hints at Hangman’s Knot (1952), and the Indian attacks remind me of Apache Drums (1951). This approach keeps the limited budget from being too much of a hindrance.

Wallace Ford is terrific, as always, as the grumpy ex-cavalryman. Lee Van Cleef is a real bad dude in this one. The scene where he strangles the guard at the brig is pretty tough stuff. Phil Carey’s OK and Roberta Haynes gets to look pretty and load guns. Speaking of that, it was good to see the loading of weapons treated somewhat realistically.

I came across a news article on the film that said Maurice Jara also owned a restaurant in Pamona, Casa Ramirez.

What I liked about The Nebraskan is pretty much the same thing I’ve said about all the other Fred Sears pictures — the high level of craftsmanship and efficiency he brings to these things. You can tell the cast and crew were professionals, committed to making the best they could of the material, budget and schedule. That goes a long, long way with these things.

The Nebraskan was shot in Technicolor and 3-D by Henry Freulich — some of it at the Corrigan Ranch. It was intended to be cropped to 1.85. The picture got a DVD-R release from Columbia’s Choice Collection. It looked great but was presented full-frame. It’d make a swell candidate for one of those Mill Creek sets.

TheNebraskan isn’t as good as the two pictures I compared it to, Hangman’s Knot and Apache Drums. But that doesn’t stop me from recommending it, or any of Fred F. Sears’ work.