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Directed by Lambert Hillyer
Starring William S. Hart, Jane Novak, Robert McKim

Olive Films has announced the January release of the 1919 William S. Hart picture Wagon Tracks. Mastered from an original 35mm nitrate print preserved by the Library of Congress, it should be quite a thing.

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I grew up watching 8mm Blackhawk prints of Hart’s movies, and I love them all. Can’t wait to see this one again.

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Mill Creek Entertainment has announced another set of films — the 7 Western Showdown Collection. Many of us may have these on separate discs, but it’s got some excellent 40s and 50s Westerns (along with the 1971 rodeo picture J.W. Coop).

The Black Dakotas (1954)
Directed by Ray Nazarro
Starring Gary Merrill, Wanda Hendrix, John Bromfield, Noah Beery, Jr.

This is the highlight for me, a Ray Nazarro Technicolor picture I’ve never seen. It was put out a few years ago as part of Sony’s MOD program, and I believe it was widescreen.

The set also includes:

Texas (1941)
Directed by George Marshall
Starring William Holden, Glenn Ford

Blazing Across The Pecos  (1948)
Directed by Ray Nazarro
Starring Charles Starrett, Smiley Burnette, Charles Wilson

They Came To Cordura (1959)
Directed by Robert Rossen
Starring Gary Cooper, Rita Hayworth, Van Heflin, Tab Hunter

The Man From Colorado (1948)
Directed by Henry Levin
Starring William Holden, Glenn Ford, Ellen Drew, Edgar Buchanan

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Gun Fury (1953)
Directed by Raoul Walsh
Starring Rock Hudson, Donna Reed, Philip Carey, Lee Marvin, Leo Gordon

The old DVD of Gun Fury was full-frame (and 2-D) instead of its intended 1.85. Not sure if Columbia will provide Mill Creek with new material or not, but a widescreen version would be reason alone to pick up this set.

Veterans Day.

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I love this shot of Audie Murphy in Six Black Horses (1962). Veterans Day seems like a good time to share it.

Thanks to all who serve, or have served, in our Armed Forces. May we never forget your sacrifice.

Taking A Break.

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50 Westerns From The 50s is going on a bit of a sabbatical. While we’re away, here’s the intermission card from a rare 3-D print of The Bounty Hunter (1954).

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Directed by Ray Enright
Written by Zachary Gold and James R. Webb
Director Of Photography: Karl Freund, ASC
Film Editor: Clarence Kolster
Music by Max Steiner
Wardrobe by Milo Anderson

Cast: Joel McCrea (Kip Davis), Alexis Smith (Rouge de Lisle), Zachary Scott (Charlie Burns), Dorothy Malone (Deborah Miller), Douglas Kennedy (Lee Price), Alan Hale (Jake Evarts), Victor Jory (Luke Cottrell), Bob Steele (Slim Hansen), Art Smith (Bronco), Monte Blue (Captain Jeffery), Nacho Galindo (Manuel), Paul Maxey (Papa Brugnon)

joel-mccrea-blogathon-badgeThis look at South Of St. Louis (1949) is an entry in the Joel McCrea Blogathon, a three-day celebration to commemorate what would’ve been his 111th birthday.

It’s the Civil War. Kip Davis (Joel McCrea), Charlie Burns (Zachary Scott) and Lee Price (Douglas Kennedy) are partners in Three Bell Ranch (the three ranchers have little bells on their spurs). When their spread is plundered and burned by the Union guerrilla raider Luke Cottrell (Victor Jory), the partners head to Brownsville, Texas, to look for Cottrell and start raising a stake to rebuild their ranch.

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Lee decides to join the Confederate Army. Kip and Charlie are soon up to their ears in trouble, smuggling guns up from Mexico for the Confederates. It’s dangerous work, but there’s the promise of the money they need to rebuild the Three Bell.

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Kip becomes so focused on revenge and rebuilding his ranch, he loses his fiancee (Dorothy Malone) to Lee. But he soon catches the eye of Rouge (Alexis Smith), the saloon singer who’s in on the smuggling operation. All the while, Charlie is becoming more and more transfixed by the money — and less and less interested in ranching.

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It all comes down to a final shootout, with friend pitted against friend — and the jingling of those three bells reminding the men of what they once meant to each other. It’d be hard to find a movie with a more satisfying last reel. All in all, it’s a moving story of the power of friendship, the pitfalls of revenge and the glory of redemption — with plenty of gunplay.

Produced by United States Pictures, and released by Warner Bros., South Of St. Louis is a remake of Warner’s own gangster picture The Roaring Twenties (1939), which starred Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney.

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Dorothy Malone and Ray Enright

Director Ray Enright began his career as an assistant editor and gag man for Mack Sennett. After serving in the First World War, he made his way to Warner Bros. — where he was eventually made a director. Naturally, given his tutelage at the Sennett studio, Enright had a real flair for both comedy and action, and his films always scoot along at a steady pace. The fight scene between John Wayne and Randolph Scott in his The Spoilers (1942) remains one of the Movies’ best — the legend goes that some of the blood you see is real. Enright worked with Hollywood’s greatest Western stars: Wayne, Scott (Trail Street, Coroner Creek, etc.), Audie Murphy (1950’s Kansas Raiders), Sterling Hayden (Flaming Feather in 1952) and, of course, this one time with McCrea.

Enright was given a splendid cast to work with on this one, and he got solid performances from them all. McCrea’s grace and naturalism are in full force here, helping guide us through some odd choices his character makes along the way. Alexis Smith is fine in a role that would’ve been perfect for Claire Trevor. One of McCrea and Smith’s later scenes together — he’s drowning his sorrow in tequila down in Matamoros, Mexico, and she’s tired of watching him “eating [his] heart out with hate” — is very well done, setting up the ending just perfectly.

Zachary Scott is terrific — we can really watch Charlie lose his soul to money. Douglas Kennedy and Dorothy Malone don’t have all that much to do, though they do it well. Alan Hale does what he always does as the saloon keeper, be the delightful Alan Hale, and Bob Steele is at his best as a bad guy. I love it when Steele gets a good amount of screen time. Victor Jory sneers his way through the picture as the evil Luke Cottrell. He turns in one of my favorites of his many wonderful performances.

Karl Freund and Joel McCrea

Thanks to the gorgeous Blu-Ray available from Olive Films, we can see that one of the picture’s greatest assets is the stunning Technicolor work of Karl Freund. Freund (his nickname was “Papa”) came to the U.S. from Germany in 1929, and was soon behind the camera at Universal on stuff like Dracula (1931). He directed The Mummy (1932), one of the most visually stunning of the Universal monster movies. He won an Academy Award for his cinematography for The Good Earth (1937), and eventually helped develop (with Desi Arnaz) the three-camera system for lighting and shooting I Love Lucy in front of a live audience. This technique is still in use today.

Freund has every frame of South Of St. Louis looking like something you’d hang over your mantel. With her red hair, rouge and Milo Anderson costumes, Alexis Smith looks like she’d glow in the dark. And with its Technicolor red, the Confederate flag never looked so majestic. (Be sure to note the curtains in Alan Hale’s Brownsville Drovers’ Rest Saloon. The red practically leaps out of your TV.)

South Of St. Louis had its premiere in Brownsville, Texas (in two theaters), with McCrea and Smith making the rounds to promote the picture. When it opened in New York at the Strand Theatre, Desi Arnaz and his orchestra performed. The picture was a big hit, and Jack Warner soon had McCrea in Colorado Territory (1949), a remake of the Bogart picture High Sierra (1941) — both films directed by the mighty Raoul Walsh. Then for McCrea, it was Stars In My Crown (1950) at MGM and a near-perfect string of medium-budget Westerns for Universal-International. He was really on a roll.

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Directed by Roy Rowland
Produced by Richard Goldstone
Story and Screenplay by Irving Ravetch
Cinematography: Charles Schoenbaum
Art Direction: Preston Ames and Cedric Gibbons
Set Decoration: Edwin B. Willis
Music: Andre Previn
Sound: Standish J. Lambert and Douglas Shearer (supervisor)
Film Editor: Robert J. Kern

Cast: Joel McCrea (Will Owen), Arlene Dahl (Jen Gort), Barry Sullivan (Jesse Wallace), Claude Jarman, Jr. (Roy Gort), James Whitmore (Clint Priest), Ramon Novarro (Don Antonio Chaves), Jeff Corey (Keeley), Ted De Corsia (Bye), Martin Garralaga (Father Damasco)

joel-mccrea-blogathon-badgeIn Westerns, the Civil War sometimes plays in the background and sometimes in the foreground—Westerns may play during the War or in its aftermath, as characters deal with loss and tragedy and journey west to start over. In either frame, that defining national event is a good basis for rich internal drama as well as external action. In a sprawling, vital country that has remained riddled with real if often suppressed conflict, the open conflict of that War provides a good dramatic inflection to many Westerns, and its interplay with stories in Southwest settings gives an individual coloration to narratives like that of The Outriders, which covers a lot of ground from Union prison camp to redemption and renewal in the open spaces of the West, even though the story is fairly intimate and specific and involves a relative few characters. The War is on when the film begins and over when it ends, and as relationships and conflicts are resolved, a note of reconciliation plays beneath the surface, giving to what has been a taut story and challenging vision of America of that time a positive and deeply moral tone at the fadeout.

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The action of the movie is set in motion by the escape of three Confederate prisoners, Will Owen (Joel McCrea), Jesse Wallace (Barry Sullivan), and Clint Priest (James Whitmore). Almost recaptured, they are saved by Keeley (Jeff Corey, in a an effectively understated portrait of evil), a Quantrill associate who leads his own band of murderous raiders. Because of Will’s experience in and knowledge of the Southwest, the three men are enlisted to escort a wagon train carrying Union gold from Santa Fe to St. Louis—the train is led by Don Antonio Chaves (Ramon Novarro) and includes a Union widow, Jen Gort (Arlene Dahl), her late husband’s troubled younger brother Roy (Claude Jarman, Jr.), and an ill priest (Martin Garralaga). The three men are not alike (it’s evident from the beginning that Will is inherently decent and moral, while Jesse is self-serving and willfully violent and Clint will kind of wait to be shown what’s right) and Keeley’s intended ambush on the train weighs on Will even as it’s understood the gold is supposed to go to the South, as Will understands those on the train will all be killed. One feels Will struggling over this throughout, and crucially at the halfway point (a memorable nocturnal scene begins here) it’s revealed that he and Jen have quietly fallen in love. The next day, they encounter what seems like an impassable rising river, and Will believes this saves them from going on, but Jesse resourcefully devises a plan to cross the rushing river on rafts bound by ropes on either side (but a wagon is lost and Roy loses his life). Finally, though, news comes that the War is over, and it’s only then that Will learns Keeley had conspired with Jesse to steal the gold for themselves and not to turn it over to the South. Firmly on the side of Don Antonio and the others now, Will fights against his old comrade Jesse as well as Keeley and the others. He has finally come to where he has wanted to be, a hard-won ending for a hero who has been uncertain and conflicted like so many strong protagonists in Westerns of these years.

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The Outriders, made by high-toned MGM, is a handsome Technicolor production, beautifully photographed by Charles Schoenbaum with extensive Utah exteriors, and is strongly cast for all roles, boasts costumes by the brilliant Walter Plunkett and a wonderful score by a young Andre Previn (he was only 20, folks!). But its considerable virtues reside even more deeply because, those production values aside, it’s one more 1950 Western that knew where the genre was going—to a number of interrelated aspects that would carry it into a decade of incomparable artistic grace. These aspects are principally the spiritual evolution of the hero (often matched, as here, to the moral fall of the villain) who comes to a better place of commanding his life without giving it over to destruction of others, and along with this, very often, finds an idealized and yet fully believable romance with a strong heroine of equal substance; the joining of that personal story to a vibrant narrative marked by physical events and external conflict; and the expressiveness of landscape and setting which commands attention to all these things.

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What draws me so much to this personally is that I love graceful shifts of tone and the way more quiet, nuanced moments can find a place in narratives of robust action. So, like many who have seen it, I find what we may call the campfire dance a sequence of special beauty that especially lifts this mostly unheralded gem. Done on a soundstage (very beautifully too), it begins with Will breaking out the liquor to calm tensions among the men, but the dance that begins with men as partners comes to a point where they are all too aware of the one woman presently out of view. On her own, and sure of herself, Jen breaks her ladylike reclusiveness to come out and dances with all the men, one by one, wearing out her shoes in the process and only prompting Will to intervene after Jesse in his turn becomes too aggressive with her (and in an inspired aesthetic touch, the green bandana with which Jesse pulls her to him then becomes the green shoes she gives to Will to put on her feet). Will and Jen begin to dance among the others (accompanied by a lovely, gentle waltz theme Previn uses only at this one point), then away in an overhead shot, and then they are alone in a brief dialogue which begins with his soft, tender, and wonderful line “You never showed yourself like this before.”

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Over ten minutes are given to that sequence—not counting a coda between Will and Jesse which further builds the antagonism of their relationship—and at least that much more time is given to the elaborate river crossing, an impressively staged and filmed sequence with little evidence of fakery. This whole stretch of the movie would be enough to make it stand out—and that’s true even though these events of a dance and a river crossing have a ritual quality in Westerns and are very familiar (what is arguably the greatest Western of this same year, Wagon Master, directed by John Ford, has both) but it’s a welcome familiarity because there is such an eternal resonance of life in both these things. Even apart from that though, the trajectory is a satisfying one from beginning to end. The subtly realized romance is mostly visualized rather than verbally articulated, and that’s characteristic of the genre, while by contrast, Will and Jesse—though their conflict does become physical—mostly do confront each other in words, and to powerful effect; it’s not only that broken male relationships work so well in Westerns, but it’s always interesting to see a character who seems poised and smooth (Jesse) reveal the depths of venality, cruelty, and unwanted sexual aggressiveness that are the darker side of masculinity.

The character of Will is the relatively quiet center that draws one to follow this drama. Again and again, Joel McCrea is filmed looking on and watching (other characters do this too but it has the most weight when it is him); his presence is grave and thoughtful, and McCrea expresses a full range of emotions but without ever being showy about it. If there is a gold standard for a certain kind of movie acting, favoring believability and an effective simplicity over theatrics, McCrea exemplifies it. Confidence and attractiveness never become machismo or narcissism for him—and he knows how to be nuanced while being completely unmannered.

As often observed, Joel McCrea and his friend Randolph Scott both made a choice to concentrate on Westerns in 1946, just when the genre began to fully flower, and were there through its peak in the 1950s, then finally starred together in the magisterial epiphany of Ride the High Country (1962) which effectively ended their careers on a sublime note (though McCrea came back for a few vagrant credits later). That is as it was but it might be added their careers have different arcs that one can observe if one breaks the years 1946-1960 into three periods, Scott forging a relationship with director Budd Boetticher in the later years 1956-1960 that took him to the heights of the Ranown cycle, while McCrea by contrast has more of his best films in the first period 1946-1950, when he made fewer films than Scott and was more selective (in the middle period of 1951-1955 they are perhaps equal, and that was a period McCrea finished with two 1955 Westerns reuniting him with Jacques Tourneur, arguably his ideal director). In those 1946-1950 years McCrea was blessed with a number of superior scripts and with gifted directors including not just Tourneur (the very special Stars in My Crown which followed the present film in the same year), but also Raoul Walsh, Andre de Toth and Hugo Fregonese.

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Roy Rowland, Arlene Dahl and Joel McCrea

In The Outriders, Roy Rowland—directing his only movie with McCrea—holds his own with those artists. A contract director for MGM throughout this period (though loaned out at times), he moved easily among genres—there are musicals and melodramas, including some late film noir, along with Americana, other Westerns, and engagingly, a frontier comedy Many Rivers to Cross (1955) which bridges several genres. No one has ever claimed some consistent theme or any stylistic obsessions with him that I am aware of, and yet he did so well with so many of these movies. One quality I like him for is that he is patient with the material, and doesn’t rush if there is something worth lingering on. Prosaic though his approach may seem to be much of the time, this patience affords him the opportunity to find the magic of a sequence, like the campfire dance, if it’s there to be found, even to imbue it with some real poetry, while also giving a sustained vividness to the equally elaborate river crossing. In addition to working well with McCrea, he also did well with the other actors here. The very beautiful Arlene Dahl has perhaps never been better, fleshing out her character beyond the script, while Barry Sullivan makes a compelling, individualized villain. Given a number of fine films, Rowland may deserve more attention; in any event, in my experience he gives The Outriders what is arguably the best direction of his career.

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Blake Lucas is a writer and film critic living in Los Angeles.

Directed by Jacques Tourneur
Screenplay by Herb Meadow and Don Martin
From a novel by Louis L’Amour
Cinematographer: Ray Rennahan
Film Editor: William B. Murphy
Music by Paul Dunlap

Cast: Joel McCrea (Judge Rick Thorne), Miroslava (Amy Lee Bannerman), Kevin McCarthy (Tom Bannerman), John Carradine (Col. Buck Streeter), John McIntire (Josiah Bannerman), Nancy Gates (Caroline Webb)

joel-mccrea-blogathon-badgeI missed Stranger On Horseback (1955) on its first run in the UK. as the support feature to the very popular Marty.

My interest was aroused by a February 1963 edition of Motion which had a comment on the film by the esteemed Raymond Durgnat. Mr Durgnat was the doyen of a new breed of young English cineaste film writers. Durgnat’s impression of the film was as follows: “In Stranger On Horseback (a disturbing little Jacques Tourneur Western), Joel McCrea comes across Miroslava (ex Archimboldo) who is clad throughout in black leather, boots, gloves, and of course whip. SHE comes across HIM bathing naked in a pool and though the scene is censored, it looks as if it builds up to the scene in Duel In The Sun where Gregory Peck waits for Jennifer Jones to emerge from among the reeds where she is cowering and shivering. The film also has a moment of Hawksian moral sadism; the weak willed sheriff (Emile Meyer) finally accepts the necessity for violence and blasts away at the crooks with a shotgun. “How d’you like it?” asks McCrea. “Loathesome,” replies Meyer grinning broadly.”

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The plot of Stranger On Horseback is pretty straightforward: a circuit judge (McCrea) wants to get the goods on an unsolved murder committed by the son (Kevin McCarthy) of a local king-pin (John McIntire). Tourneur graces the film with plenty of quirky offbeat touches that range from the humorous to the subversive.

The only available version of the film is on DVD from VCI, obtained from a print sourced from the vault of the British Film Institute. Sadly, this print is in bad shape — the lovely Sedona locations appear washed out. Hopefully, a master neg may surface or perhaps the film will be restored, like the previously considered lost Seven Men From Now (1956). It’s amazing what can be done these days, just consider the wonderful restoration done by Ignite Films on Canadian Pacific (1949) and The Cariboo Trail (1950). We live in hope. Not only is Stranger On Horseback Tourneur… it’s very good Tourneur.

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The film runs a mere 66 minutes, which suggests the film may have been censored — most of McCrea’s Fifties programmers clocked in at around 80 minutes. The film was an initial independent effort from producer Leonard Goldstein who previously had a splendid track record at Universal and Fox. Sadly, Mr. Goldstein passed away at the tender age of 51,  before Stranger On Horseback was released. Goldstein also produced Saddle Tramp (1950), the best of McCrea’s six Universal Fifties Westerns.

McCrea had choice of director on Stranger On Horseback. He chose Tourneur, who previously made the wonderful Stars In My Crown (1950), a film which sadly failed to find an audience. Tourneur also directed McCrea’s next picture Wichita (19XX), the first of four films that he made for Allied Artists. Wichita was far and away the best of the four and scored at the box office.

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The bad guy in Stranger On Horseback is Kevin McCarthy, who impressed McCrea. He told the young actor, “I’m going to tell the studios all  about you.” I have often wondered if this lead to McCarthy’s most iconic role in Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1956). After all, producer Walter Wanger had produced one of McCrea’s biggest hits, Foreign Correspondent (1940). Wanger and McCrea were working out of Allied Artists at the same time. Furthermore; Sam Peckinpah played a bank teller in Wichita and a meter reader in Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, Sam has often cited Don Siegel as his mentor.

Don Siegel had previously tried to develop Bad Day At Black Rock at Allied Artists. He wanted McCrea to play the lead. With all due respects to Spencer Tracy and John Sturges, John at the very fine Greenbriar Picture Shows feels the McCrea/Siegel film would have been superior. I totally agree. And I might hasten to add that I will be first in line when Warners releases the Blu-Ray version of Sturges’ film.

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Had McCrea appeared in Bad Day At Black Rock and not turned down the Van Heflin role in Shane (1953) this surely would have had a huge boost to his star power which faded considerably in the late Fifties.As much as we all love his Westerns I would have loved to have seen him tackle some of the non Westerns roles played by Cooper and Stewart in the Fifties. McCrea’s reason for turning down Shane was two-fold: he did not feel he was at a time in his career to take secondary roles; plus, he did not want to detract from his friend Alan Ladd. McCrea, in typical modesty, stated that he could never had been as good as Heflin was. I totally disagree especially under George Stevens’ direction.

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An amusing snippet: one day, Ladd asked his pal McCrea, “What do you do when the phone doesn’t ring… when nobody wants you?” McCrea jokingly replied, “I slap my wife on the butt, jump on my horse and ride around the ranch.” This flippant attitude was totally alien to the increasingly insecure Ladd.

From the mid to late Fifties, McCrea often worked for directors who were a far cry from the likes of Hawks, Hitchcock, Wyler, Wellman, Sturges and Walsh — whom he worked for in his glory days. It’s a shame that Tourneur or Siegel didn’t direct films like The Oklahoman or Trooper Hook (both 1957), especially with their subtext of alienation and racism. Both directors made wonderful films that shared those themes. Things did improve when Joseph Newman came on board, a vast step up from the likes of Francis D. Lyon and Charles Marquis Warren.

Despite the late Fifties drop off in quality (apart from the Newman efforts, especially 1958’s Fort Massacre), McCrea has left a hugely impressive body of work. It is also encouraging that many major stars, from Katherine Hepburn to Clint Eastwood, feel McCrea was grossly underrated.