Archive for March, 2010

Here’s a shot of Gary Cooper on location in Mexico for Vera Cruz (1954). Isn’t that Burt Lancaster lighting a smoke in the background?

Ernest Borgnine (from Ernie): “I got to know Gary Cooper pretty well on that picture. He was the kind of guy who, when we were on location, instead of eating the food that was brought to him, would give it to these little Mexican kids. Then he’d go down and buy the food from the Mexicans and eat that food. He was giving them money on the side as well.”

Jack Elam (to Burt Kennedy in Hollywood Trail Boss): “Gary Cooper…was a tremendous gentleman, and I got to know him quite well. He’d buy me a drink and say, ‘Jack, don’t let this sonofabitch get to you.’”

Below, another behind the scenes shot.

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The Warner Archive is celebrating its first anniversary. (Has it really been that long since I watched Wichita?)

As part of this celebration, they’ve got a deal going on all their single-disc titles — five for $55, plus free shipping. It only lasts through March 31st, so act now.

Some of the 50s Westerns available include:

Barricade (1950)

The Tall Target (1951)

Carson City (1952)

Rancho Notorious (1952)

Moonlighter (1953, not in 3-D)

Wichita (1955, widescreen)

Canyon River (1956, widescreen)

The Fastest Gun Alive (1956, widescreen)

The First Texan (1956, widescreen)

Gun Glory (1957, widescreen)

The Oklahoman (1957, widescreen)

The Badlanders (1958, widescreen — that’s Alan Ladd working on it, above)

Man From God’s Country (1958, widescreen)

The Sheepman (1958, widescreen)

King Of The Wild Stallions (1959, widescreen)

Westbound (1959)

Another chance to fill a few holes in your collection — and to show the folks at Warner Bros. that we’d buy more of these things if the pricing was more in line with what we’re used to paying.

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One of the hardest things about writing 50 Westerns From The 50s, the book, has been actually settling on the 50 Westerns. There are so many to choose from, and putting together a well-rounded sampling has been very, very hard. I’m still trying to sort it all out.

From the very beginning, I wanted to include a Roy Rogers movie — why wouldn’t I? — and that has presented a problem. His films of the 50s, a terrific string of action-filled pictures directed by William Witney, are poorly represented on DVD. (His earlier pictures fare a little better on video.) Republic did a good job with their transfer of Bells Of Coronado (1950) — it’s uncut and the Trucolor looks good. Aside from that, you’re left with a lot of heavily-edited titles from Goodtimes or junky-looking stuff from those public domain companies. I’ve bought a bunch of them, and aside from lucking into a decent-looking, unedited Trigger, Jr. (1950) for a dollar, I’ve been ripped off.

With this book, I feel kinda funny recommending a film that no one can find a watchable copy of. After all, my goal is to make you want to watch these things!

Timeless Media Group has a new six-disc, 20-movie set out: Roy Rogers: King Of The Cowboys. It includes some really great ones, including personal favorites Trail Of Robin Hood (1950) and Spoilers Of The Plains (1951). I was so stoked when I heard this thing was coming. But I’d heard some grumbling about the label’s previous Rogers releases, so I decided to wait for a verdict before whipping out my debit card.

Tonight I noticed a comment on the set from Roy H. Wagner, ASC. A cinematographer should know a good transfer from a bad one, so I’m gonna take his advice — and spend my $50 or so on something else.

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I’m getting tired of writing these posts.

Fess Parker — Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett and later TV’s Daniel Boone — has passed away at 85. Before those iconic roles, he appeared in The Bounty Hunter (1954, starring Randolph Scott) and the giant-ant masterpiece Them! (also ’54). It was in the later picture that Walt first saw him.

Parker was considered for the part in The Searchers (1956) that went to Jeffrey Hunter, but Disney was hesitant to loan him out in the middle of the Crockett craze. Fess told Michael Barrier that story (and others) in an excellent interview.

The title card above is for the feature Davy Crockett, King Of The Wild Frontier (1955), edited from the first three Crockett episodes of Disneyland.

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Yesterday’s post on Masterson Of Kansas (1954) — don’t forget, Thursday night/Friday morning on TCM — and a comment from John Knight prompted me to post some of George Montgomery’s art.

I snagged these images online. The top one is in Fort Benton, Montana, I believe. The bottom piece is in Cathedral City, California. (My apologies to the photographers.)

In addition to his sculpture, Montgomery designed homes, made custom furniture (for friends like Gregory Peck and Roy Rogers) and assembled a sizable art collection. And boxed. And of course, made some really cool cowboy movies. Quite a guy.

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I’m not gonna hold my breath waiting for Columbia to release Masterson Of Kansas (1954) on DVD. Luckily, we can watch it on Turner Classic Movies on the 18th. It’s part of their Legend Of Wyatt Earp event — also presenting My Darling Clementine (1946), Gunfight At The O.K. Corral (1957) and Hour Of The Gun (1967). Good day to call in sick and sit on the couch.

Masterson Of Kansas was one of several 50s Westerns (often starring George Montgomery) William Castle directed at Columbia — before he made the shift to gimmick-y horror pictures like House On Haunted Hill (1958) and The Tingler (1959).

These Columbia/Castle Westerns were certainly cheap. After all, they were produced by Sam Katzman — who gave us the Jungle Jim pictures, Elvis in Harum Scarum (1965) and lots of other junk — but I’ve always had a fondness for them. And Masterson, which also features Wyatt Earp (Bruce Cowling) and Doc Holliday (James Griffith), is one of the better ones.

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Despite its faults, and there are plenty of them, I really like Rancho Notorious.

It’s part of Fritz Lang’s later Hollywood output — a string of cheaper, independent films often dismissed by admirers of his earlier work. With its reliance on simplistic camerawork, a silly plot somewhat borrowed from Lang’s Mabuse films, soundstages rather than the great outdoors, and the fact that Marlene Dietrich’s makeup seems to have been applied with a trowel (she was past 50), Rancho Notorious is an easy mark for someone looking to slam a great director.

Compared to other Westerns of the 50s, Rancho Notorious seems quite dated. Watching it today, it seems older than Lang’s Western Union from 1941. And it’s hard to get a handle on exactly what the director, who also developed the story, was aiming for.

Lang said, “What I wanted to show in Rancho Notorious was a young woman who owned a ranch, a sort of retreat for outlaws, opposed to a celebrated killer who had become too old to draw quickly. Enter into the game a young man who is quick on the draw. The eternal theme of the Western.”

It’s one of the few pictures Lang developed from the very beginning. The screenplay is by Daniel Taradash, from a story credited to Silvia Richards (but supposedly cooked up by Lang). Of his experience writing the film, Taradash said, “I learned more about screenwriting from Fritz Lang than from anyone. We would sit at his house over his dreadful coffee (the worst I’ve ever tasted) and we’d go over the stuff I was writing. I was showing him pages — that was mandatory. And he was literally working in every angle, over-the-shoulder shots, stuff like that. I learned how to choreograph a script. I said, ‘Why are you doing it this way?’ He said, ‘I’ll tell you, Dan. I love this story and what you’re doing. But I am close to falling out with these guys’ — our producers — ‘and it would not surprise me if at some point I am off the picture. I want a script that even an idiot can shoot.’”

Rancho Notorious tells the tale of rancher Vern Haskall (Arthur Kennedy) whose fiancé (Gloria Henry) is raped and murdered in a holdup. Consumed with revenge, Vern sets out to find her killer. The trail leads him to Frenchy Fairmont (Mel Ferrer) and Chuck-A-Luck, a retreat for outlaws run by Altar Keane (Dietrich).  Vern falls in with the gang — and with Dietrich — before finding his girl’s killer. By then, he’s a changed man — a bank robber, not a rancher. It’s a cynical tale, full of cheats, hypocrites, bandits and murderers — not to mention a good man driven half crazy by hate. It’s the kind of pessimism that marks many of Lang’s films from the 50s. (Ever see The Big Heat?)

Rancho Notorious was produced during Howard Hughes’ reign at RKO.  And like a lot of people who made movies at the studio during this period, Fritz Lang didn’t exactly relish the experience. “We had a very limited budget and decided to make everything in the studio. I made it on the General Service lot; Howard Hughes financed it. Now, to make a Western in the studio is very difficult. We didn’t make everything in the studio — the scenes in the street we shot on Republic’s Western Street. But we didn’t have enough money for the set of the mountaintop overlooking the ranch and desert where Marlene comes to speak with Kennedy.”

The soundstage desert vistas are painfully obvious. And while they give certain scenes a dreamlike quality, they also show just how cheap the picture really was. The over-lit Technicolor doesn’t help much, calling attention to the painted backdrops and Dietrich’s makeup. On the subject of budgets and makeup, Gloria Henry remembered, “Marlene Dietrich had to have a certain makeup and hairdresser, but RKO had no money, so she did it at home with her people. She’d arrive, fully done, on the set!”

“Now, Marlene resented going gracefully into a little, tiny bit older category,” Lang said. “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.”

Gloria Henry added, “She was trying to get together with Mel Ferrer. She had the hots for him, but he was married to Audrey Hepburn and didn’t reciprocate.”

All this was aggravated by a one-time affair between Lang and Dietrich, who, by the end of shooting, weren’t even on speaking terms. (There are also stories of an affair between Lang and writer Silvia Richards.)

In her autobiography, Marlene Dietrich wrote, “Fritz Lang was the director I detested most…. In order to be able to work with Lang, I had to repress all the hatred and aversion he aroused in me. If Mel Ferrer had not been there, I probably would have walked off the set in the middle of shooting. But Mel was always near and helped to see me through those troublesome days.”

All this drama was not lost on 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.”

With the end of shooting, the troubles didn’t stop. Lang and producer Welsch didn’t get along, and the director expected to be removed from the picture at any minute. “But Fritz finished the picture, and he told me he had turned it in at an hour and 45,” said Dan Taradash.  “A few weeks later I ran into Howard Welsch, one of the producers, and asked how did he like it. ‘Oh, fine,’ he said. ‘I cut 15 minutes out of it.’ Now I knew it had been a tight cut for Fritz, so I said, ‘What did you cut?’ And, so help me God, Welsch said, ‘I cut the mood!’”

Even the title was subject to change. As Lang told Peter Bogdanovich, “Originally, the picture was called Chuck-A-Luck, which is vertical roulette. I called the ranch Chuck-A-Luck and there was a song throughout the film called ‘Chuck-A-Luck’…. Personally, I love that song very much.”

Retitled Rancho Notorious by Howard Hughes, the film hit theaters in May 1952. It was not a hit — in fact, it was out-grossed by RKO’s 1952 re-release of King Kong (1933). Later that year, Lang did the noir-ish Clash By Night for the studio. By that time, RKO was in turmoil and producing very few films.

Dietrich never concealed her disliking for the film and Fritz Lang. She wrote, “Rancho Notorious, the film I made with him, was and remains a very mediocre work.”

Speaking of mediocre, Rancho Notorious has not been well served on home video over the years. From tape to LaserDisc, they were all pretty lousy. The new DVD-R from The Warner Archive makes up for it. Sharp image. Gorgeous color. My only complaint is that the audio levels seemed a bit low — but if you turn up the volume, it’s crisp and clear. And I, for one, feel this picture is worthy of an official Special Edition-type release. No matter what Marlene says.

Sources: Fritz Lang Interviews, Who The Devil Made It?, Fritz Lang In America, Marlene Dietrich: My Life, The Art Of The Cinematographerwww.classicimages.com and other stuff.

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Peter Graves, seen here to Joel McCrea’s left in Wichita (1955), passed away today.

The younger brother of James Arness, Graves served in World War II before heading to Hollywood. To many, he’s known for Mission: Impossible and Airplane!, but he appeared in quite a few 50s Westerns. Wichita is a really good one.

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Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. of Thrilling Days Of Yesteryear has been hospitalized recently. Here’s wishing him a speedy recovery.

That’s John Wayne and Gail Russell (center) in Angel And The Badman (1947).

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VCI has returned to Silver Lode (1954), promising a Restored Edition on May 25. There was nothing wrong with their previous release, so I’m expecting big things from this one.

Starring John Payne, Lizabeth Scott, Dan Duryea and a great supporting cast — and directed by Allan Dwan — this is a very good, mid-Fifties, low-budget Western. Highly recommended.

It’s good to see Dwan’s work getting the attention it deserves. His 50s Westerns are always worth your time (and money).

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