Saturday, April 19, 2014

Riders of Death Valley – Chapter 15: The Harvest of Hate



OUR STORY SO FAR:  Jim Benton, in order to get his high grade ore to the Panamint smelter, resorts to a clever ruse to get Wolf’s pack and Kirby’s henchmen out of town.

Kirby discovers Benton’s trick and sends Trigger posthaste after Wolf with orders to attack Benton’s expedition at Funeral Pass.

During the terrific onslaught, Jim climbs a cliff from which to fire down on the attackers.  Wolf spots him, starts after him and…

This is the final chapter in our Serial Saturdays presentation of Riders of Death Valley (1941)…and I’m not going to lie to you.  I will not miss it in the slightest.  I will not miss the silly recaps (“Terrific onslaught?”  Bitch, please…) nor the endless choruses of Milton Rosen and Everett Carter’s Ride Along that open each installment.  (And don’t even get me started on Fingal’s Cave.)  As for this week’s title, “The Harvest of Hate,” your guess is as good as mine as to what the hell it means.  (I first thought it was Edward R. Murrow’s legendary CBS documentary, but that’s The Harvest of Shame.)


Anyhoo, as you might have already guessed…Jim Benton (Dick Foran) and Wolf Reade (Charles Bickford) do not die a hero’s/villain’s death tumbling off that cliff in Chapter 14…there’s a body of water underneath, and Jim soon makes his soggy way to dry ground with a fierce sidestroke.  But henchman Trigger (Jack Rockwell), despite not actually having fired a shot (they lead you to believe he did, but they are liars), makes his way back to where second-in-command Butch (Lon Chaney, Jr.) and the rest of the “pack” are stationed as they continue to waste ammo shooting at Jim’s Riders.

TRIGGER: Wolf got Benton…
BUTCH (with undisguised glee): Good!
TRIGGER: It ain’t good…Benton got the Wolf!

“You mean…they got each other?”  And an inconsolable Butch starts to weep.

BUTCH: Hey, waitaminnit…whaddya talkin’ about?
TRIGGER: They were fightin’ on the cliff!  Benton fell off and dragged the Wolf with him!  Musta killed the both of ‘em…
BUTCH: Well, we gotta see about that

Oh, yeah…Butch is going to make one heck of a replacement.  He calls over to Dirk (Roy Barcroft), and I can’t say this forcefully enough—it is an indignity that The Baddest Villain in All of Serialdom is having to play a low-level flunky in this…but I guess you have to start somewhere.

DIRK: Yeah?
BUTCH: We’re pullin’ out…Trigger and me’ll meet you at Daggett’s…
DIRK: Why?  What’s the matter with Wolf?
BUTCH: Well…Trigger says he’s dead…I’m gonna find out…you guys hightail it to the hideout, we’ll meet ya there…

So with Butch making the decision of another “tactical retreat,” a bewildered Pancho (Leo Carrillo) and Borax Bill (Guinn “Big Boy” Williams) begin another of their riveting philosophical discussions.

PANCHO: I guess the fight is over for sure…they all run away…
BORAX: Why don’tcha stick your head up and find out?
PANCHO: Why don’t you take your own head up?  My hat’s a good hat!
BORAX: One more hole and mine’d fall apart—what’s the difference?

The two men continue to argue about who will “stick their head up” until they find themselves standing and…


…both of their hats “have went,” as Pancho so colorfully puts it.  Meanwhile, Jim emerges from the river, his clothes a tad damp.  The scene then shifts back to where Mary (Jean Brooks) and Tombstone (Buck Jones) have taken cover under the wagon, along with Ghost Smokey (Noah Beery, Jr.)…

MARY: Tombstone…where’s Jim?
TOMBSTONE: He just went up on the hill to pull the Wolf’s fangs…and from the looks of things, he’s doin’ all right!
MARY: Well, I’m worried about him…
TOMBSTONE: You’re worried?  Jim told me just before he left here if I ever get back to here alive…
MARY (interrupting): Now, look Tombstone…this is no time for quibbling!
SMOKEY (to Tombstone): Hey, what’s quibbling?

Sweet baby carrots, Smokey’s alive!  But this chapter play miracle doesn’t upset Tombstone in the slightest, since he responds with a comical “Quibbling?  I don’t know…”  (Well, I suppose after the attempt by the Serial Gods to smote him with a lightning bolt nothing fazes this guy now.)

Butch and Trigger ride down to the river, and Trigger guesstimates at the spot where he saw Wolf tumble.  A quick scene shift finds the moist Jim rejoining the wagons.

MARY: Well, Jim—where in the world have you been?
TOMBSTONE: Looks like you sneaked off to take a bath with your clothes on…
BORAX: You get the Wolf?
JIM: You don’t have to worry about him…but his gang may come back…we better get out of here…
BORAX: Can’t move that last wagon…the axle’s busted…
JIM: All right, leave it here…we’ll send out a new one from town…

In a serial where a man previously thought dead for several chapters has returned from the dead, the audience should therefore not be surprised that rumors of the Wolf’s demise have been greatly exaggerated as well.  (It’s just like TV’s Resurrection!)  A slightly damp Reade staggers out of the creek to the amazement of his boyfriend Butch.

BUTCH: Wolf!  Trigger told me you were a goner!
WOLF: Not yet…

“You have to get up pretty early in the morning to send Wolf Reade to Hell!”

BUTCH: What happened to Benton?
WOLF (still choking on water): He got away… (Pause) I don’t hear any shootin’
BUTCH: Aw…there were too many of ‘em…we had to quit…

Oooh, you big fibber.  Butch tells Wolf that he instructed the gang to meet them back at the hideout, so let’s see how things are going with Jim and his Merry Men:

TOMBSTONE: Gettin’ back to the Wolf…you can’t make me believe he cashed in his chips without me seein’ it…
JIM: Oh…you won’t take my word for it, huh?
TOMBSTONE: Nope…I got a hunch…

Well, throw a shawl over it and no one will notice.  (Rimshot!)

JIM: Well, I’ll give you ten to one your hunch is wrong
TOMBSTONE: I’ll just take forty bucks of that!
JIM: It’s a bet!

And so the troupe heads back to Panamint.  The scene shifts to the Wolf’s hideout, and we find his Lupineness comically lying on his back in some sort of bunk, staring off into space.  Here is where our serial is going to take an unfortunate turn.

BUTCH: Trigger just told me something I think you oughta hear…
WOLF: Well, tell it…
BUTCH: I think you’re gettin’ a double-cross…
WOLF: Why?
BUTCH: It’s about Kirby… (Wolf sits up suddenly and faces Butch) Trigger heard Kirby tell Davis that they’re cuttin’ you out…looks like your fifty-fifty deal is off…
WOLF: That right, Trigger?
TRIGGER: Every word of it…
WOLF: Good work, Butch…I won’t forget this…

“So that’s the way Kirby wants it, is it?” Wolf asks rhetorically.  “That’s the way he’ll get it,” he answers himself…also rhetorically.  Except…well, here’s the problem: I don’t recall where in this serial that chief administrative villains Joseph Kirby (James Blaine) and Rance Davis (Monte Blue) called a meeting to discuss screwing over Wolf and the Wolfettes in the manner described by Trigger.  Now I’ll admit—my memory is not what it once was (granted, I was kind of away from the serial for a while…plus I’m too lazy to go back and see if I did write about this and just forgot) but I’m going to have to go with my gut on this one: writers Sherman L. Lowe, George H. Plympton, Basil Dickey and Jack O'Donnell got to the last chapter and said amongst themselves “Hell, let’s wrap this up and start working on the next one.  It’s kids, ferchrissake—storyboards and meticulous plot planning are for fops and popinjays!”

Wolf calls in the rest of the gang: Dirk, Rusty (Ethan Laidlaw) and Pete Gump (Dick Alexander).

WOLF: Just wanna tell you I’m callin’ in a new game…from now on, I’m playin’ a lone hand…
PETE: Whaddya mean, Wolf?
WOLF: I’m declarin’ Kirby and Davis out
RUSTY: Whaddya aimin’ to do?
WOLF: I’ll tell ya in a minute…now anybody who don’t wanna follow my lead, he’s welcome to cut out right now…

One of these days, there’ll be a movie where the entire gang walks right out the door.  I’m that optimistic.

DIRK: Well, I’d like to know what stakes we’re playin’ for…
WOLF: All right—the stakes are high and the payoff for you men will be plenty!
BUTCH: That’s good enough for me!

Oh, Butch…you are a kiss-up among kiss-ups.

WOLF: All right…now here’s the play…we’ll let Benton get that ore into Panamint…
BUTCH (banging his fist on the table): Yeah, but we gotta hurry!
WOLF: I’m doing the talkin’…

You should think about changing your name, Butch.

WOLF: When he gets to the smelter, we take it over…smelter and all!
BUTCH: Yeah…but how about that money that Davis has got in the bank?
WOLF: We’re takin’ over the bank, too!  And anything else in town that’s worth takin’ over!

I don’t know about you…but if he can make the stages run on time, he’s got my vote.  Butch is dispatched to Salt Creek, where he’s to get as many men as “Slate” can round up.  Dirk will go to Bad Water Wells, and the rest will meet at Pyramid Rock, with Rusty in charge of looking over the horses.  So with the “no-honor-among-thieves” conclusion set in motion, we shift scenes to the Panamint Smelter, where Jim, Mary and Tombstone come a-ridin’ into view…followed by Pancho, Borax Bill, Tex (Glenn Strange), Smokey, Annette, Darlene, Karen and Cubby.  Jim lets Tombstone know that he and Mary will be out in a minute—they’re going inside to square things with Mr. Wilson (Alonzo Price).

WILSON: Well…is the stuff in yet?
JIM: You betcha…three loads of high-grade right outside the door and the fourth will be in as soon as we get an axle…
WILSON: The assayer’s report will be ready in about an hour…

“Along with your dry cleaning, Mr. Benton.  We now have Martinizing!”  Jim tells Wilson to send the report over to the bank…and now it’s time for more prime comedy from Pancho and Borax Bill.


PANCHO: Now that the Wolf is finished…everything is chili con carne, eh?  Now we’re going to celebration…
BORAX: How ya gonna celebrate?
PANCHO: Well…I’m gonna buy myself a nice new sombrero…some new clothes…then I will be a very pretty fellow…you know, it’s too bad you can’t be a pretty fellow, too, you know?
BORAX: Well, if I wanted to doll myself up in all them fancy duds, I’d make you look like a plug peso…
PANCHO: Hmm…who you toling me…all the clothes in the world they can’t make you a pretty fellow…with those face…
BORAX: Well, the only way I can celebrate is to get drunk…
PANCHO: That’s right…you don’t have to have a pretty face to get drunk…
BORAX: Mm-hmm…huh?  Ah, you chili picker

How Universal missed the opportunity to make a series of buddy films with these two wacky characters is a mystery for the ages.  As Borax and Pancho stroll out of the bank, a man named Richards (Jerome Harte) passes them on the way to the office of Judge Knox (James Guilfoyle).  They exchange pleasantries, and Richards hands His Dishonor the assayer’s report…

KNOX: Are you bringing good news?
RICHARDS: So good I’d like to have a hunk of that ore myself, Judge!

“So everybody reach!”  No, I’m just kidding—Richards is an honest man.  Knox, on the other hand, remarks “I don’t blame you” because he’s looked at the report…and now realizes he’s got two new rich residents to suck up to come election time.

KNOX: Jim…your note to Kirby is as good as paid…
JIM: Well…are you sure you have enough cash?
KNOX: More than enough!  It’s coming in from Berdoo…enough to pay Kirby and finance the operation of the mine…

“Not to mention a Senatorial campaign for yours…er…well, for anyone with aspirations to hold higher office…heh heh heh…”  Jim goes with Richards back to the smelter, and Mary agrees to wait for him in the judge’s office.  Meanwhile, at The Zero Tolerance Saloon, our old pal Rance Davis makes his usual stroll through the establishment and into Boss Kirby’s chambers.  Trigger happens to be seated at one of the tables, and when Davis enters Kirby’s sanctum sanctorum, he listens in at the door.  This is kind of what I meant earlier when I stated I didn’t recall any similar shenanigans previously…but strict adherence to the rules of the plot is just liberal media bias.


KIRBY: Do you think the bank has enough money to advance Benton on that ore to pay off my note?
DAVIS: Not if I draw out what I’ve got in there…
KIRBY: I’ll do the same…we can keep it right here in my safe…
DAVIS: Which will give us a chance to close in on Benton…

Trigger exits the bar, clearly because he’s got to convey this information to Wolf.  The scene shifts back to the bank, where we find courtly Judge Knox accompanying Mary to his office.  (Hey, he’s serious about that Senate race.)  He’s stopped by Kirby, and Mary tells Knox she’ll wait for him in his office because the mere sight of Kirby gives her an oopsy-tummy.

KNOX: If you want to see me about Benton’s note…don’t worry, Kirby—you’ll get your money in plenty of time…
KIRBY: Well, it isn’t only the money, Judge…I’m drawing out all my cash…
KNOX: I’ll take care of that…and all the money any of your close friends have in the bank…

I doubt Kirby has that many close friends.  Knox explains to Kirby that the transactions will get underway “just as soon as the stage gets in from Berdoo.”  What a dinkerplatz.

We find Wolf and the pack on the outskirts of Panamint when tattletale Trigger rides up.  “Benton and most of his men rode out of town,” he explains.

TRIGGER: Kirby and Davis are takin’ all their money out of the bank and puttin’ it in Kirby’s safe…
DIRK: I got six men from Bad Water Wells—they’ll meet us in town…
WOLF: Good…now we’re moving in…Rusty—you’ll take over the bank…
RUSTY: Right!
WOLF: Butch and I will have a little talk with Kirby…then we’ll all take over the smelter…come on…

Let’s went!  The familiar Panamint montage follows, with our last look at the pipe-smoking guy and the Panamint Federal Savings and Trust sign (Lafe Hogan’s name is still on the bank—how sweet).  Inside the judge’s office, Knox asks Mary how it feels to have all the monies…and instead of something altruistic like promising to reform Panamint and making life better for all its citizens she burbles: “It feels like a lot of new hats…and a lot of new silk dresses…”  Congrats, Mary!  You are now a shallow member-in-good-standing of the one percent.  Wolf and his gang ride into town, and Wolf sends Rusty in the direction of the bank to start his takeover of Panamint.  One of the bank’s cashiers lets the judge know “The Wolf is alive!”  (“It’s the Wolf!  It’s the Wolf!”)

JUDGE: What are you saying?
CASHIER: The Wolf—he’s outside!!!
JUDGE: Mary!  Jim’s got to overtake that stagecoach before it reaches town!


Mary then does an unintentionally funny bit of business where she looks from side to side, then tells Knox “Don’t worry!”  And she’s out the back window faster than you can say Chumbawamba Chuckawalla Charlie.  Rusty then enters the office, all smiles.  “Howdy, Judge,” he greets the magistrate.  “I’ve come to tell ya this ain’t your bank no more.”

Mary has hauled horse’s ass to the smelter.  “Tombstone,” she says, slightly out of breath.  “The Wolf and his gang are at the bank, robbing it!”

TOMBSTONE: The Wolf?
MARY: Yes!  And you’ve got to stop that Berdoo stage before it gets to town, Tomb!  There’s $100,000 on it!

Well, raise my rent!  Tombstone mounts his trusty steed Silver…and no, I’m not going to make the joke you think I’m going to make.  Back at Kirby’s saloon…

KIRBY (frightened): Look, Wolf…what you get here and at the bank is just chicken feed…I can let you in on something worthwhile!
WOLF (growling): Open that safe…
KIRBY: What’re you doing this for, Wolf?  I thought we were partners!
WOLF: I thought we were…come on…
(Kirby turns his chair toward the safe but he’s stopped by Davis)
DAVIS: Don’t you do it, Kirby!  He’s bluffing!
WOLF: I am, huh?
DAVIS: Yes, you are!

Davis reaches for his gun but is outdrawn by Wolf, who fells Davis with one shot.  (“Your mother was bluffing!”)  Kirby, seeing that his pal Davis is now a few ounces heavier thanks to the bullet he’s carrying, continues to open the safe and pull out the money contained within.  “Everything, out on the desk!” barks Wolf.

WOLF: What was it you were going to let me in on?
KIRBY: Put down the gun, Wolf…
WOLF: Sure… (He holsters his gun) Let’s have it…
KIRBY: The stage…from Berdoo…it’s bringing $100,000 to the bank…Graham the messenger’s in charge…
WOLF: How do you know that?
KIRBY: Judge Knox told me!
WOLF: That’s fine…

As Wolf reaches over to grab the large amount of cash Kirby has placed on the desk, Mr. K makes the serious tactical error of reaching into his desk for a gun…and he meets the same fate as the will-not-be-missed-in-the-slightest Davis.

Tombstone meets up with Jim and the rest of the Riders, and clues them in that not only is Mr. Wolfenstein Reade II alive and well, he’s planning to hit that Berdoo stage and make himself a tidy profit.  Jim orders Smokey to take the remaining ore wagon into town…again, not at all questioning his faith as to how Smokey rose like Lazarus.

Okay, let’s see if I can’t cut to the quick on this one…because I’m running out of jokes.  Jim and the Riders catch up to the Berdoo stagecoach…the driver of which naturally thinks it’s a holdup.  (It happens all the time in westerns.)  Jim explains to Graham (Jim Farley) what the dealio is, that the Wolf is ready to relieve him of that $100,000…and Graham responds (I swear I am not making this up): “The Wolf?  Why, I heard he was dead!”  Bad news does travel like wildfire, I guess.  “If I were you, I’d grab that dough and file out of the stage and stay right here,” advises Jim, and Graham complies with his suggestion.

We then return to Panamint.  Dirk rides up to Wolf on his horse and informs him that the stage is on its way to town.  Wolf tells him: “Get ahold of Butch and tell him to plant the men like I told him.”  Even though Dirk arranged to bring in recruits from Bad Water Wells, by the time the Big Showdown gets underway in this finale it would appear that Wolf still only has just five guys to back him up.


Oh, I thought this was humorous: some random guy walking the Panamint streets comes into Wolf’s view and he practically bites the guy’s head off.  “Get off the street!” he sneers.  (You know, Wolfie—there are some decaffeinated brands that are just as tasty as the real stuff.)

When the stage pulls up, Butch points his six-guns at the driver as Wolf opens the door, welcoming Graham into what will eventually be renamed Wolf City.  Naturally, Graham is not on the stage…and at this point in the action, Jim and the Riders have arrived to put an end to Wolf’s tyranny once and for all.  A shootout commences.  Butch is hit, and dies like a whimpering dog in the dirt.

Wolf saddles up and makes a beeline for the hills with Jim in pursuit.  At the same time, the members of Wolf’s pack—Pete, Rusty, Trigger—all die cowards’ deaths…only Dirk appears to get away unscathed.  (Go, Team Barcroft!)  There is then footage of a spirited chase, with Jim closing in on The Wolf.  He tackles the Wolf from his horse, and there is a few minutes of scuffling.  Wolf is about to shoot Jim when Tombstone dispatches him with his rifle.  So long, Wolf Reade…requiescat in pace.  (You know…they could really use a sheriff in that town.)


PANCHO: Well!  That finishes Mr. Wolf!  I knew I would get that coyote someday!
BORAX: Whaddya mean, you got him?
PANCHO: I suppose you think you did the whole thing, huh?
BORAX: I did as much as you did, and I didn’t do nothin’…
PANCHO: Why you always want to tell lies for?
BORAX: Well, I could have got him a long time ago…

Now he tells us.

BORAX: …but I thought I’d let you shoot him, Pancho…
PANCHO: That’s big!  ‘Cause I only want to do the right thing…you know…with me, it’s always fifty-sixty…
BORAX: Yeah?  Tombstone crossed us both and got him himself…
PANCHO: You know?  You ain’t such a bad fellow after all…I’ve seen worse…
BORAX: Yeah?  Where?
PANCHO: I don’t know…anyhow, let’s bury the hammer, huh?


And this gay badinage continues right through the lame wrap-up, where we find Jim, Mary and the rest at the Lost Aztec pulling out all that rich ore when Pancho and Borax ride up, sporting new duds that they obtained from Cowboy’s Wearhouse.  The two men are slyly backed up to the mine shaft elevator, and sent to the bottom on Tombstone and Jim’s signal.  (Oh, if only this could have happened in Chapter 1.)


Well, since a good cast is worth repeating…


Next week on Serial Saturdays: Government Agents vs. Phantom Legion—be sure to join us!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The James Stewart Blogathon – Mr. Smith Goes to Grandview in Magic Town (1947)


This essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to The James Stewart Blogathon, currently underway from April 14-17 and hosted by The Classic Film and TV Café.  For a complete schedule of the movies and topics discussed in the blogathon, click here.


Actor James Stewart emerged from World War II as a full Colonel after originally enlisting as a private—one of the very few Americans to achieve that honor during the war.  Upon being demobbed, Stewart took a bit of time off from motion picture making; he was a little uneasy as to whether he’d be able to restart his acting career (it had been nearly five years since his last picture), but after briefly reconsidering a change of profession to working in the aviation industry (he had distinguished himself as a combat pilot during the war) Jimmy decided the actor’s life was for him.  He no doubt believed he made the right choice when his first postwar film, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), snagged him a third Best Actor Oscar nomination (not to mention nods for Best Picture and Best Director for Frank Capra).

It’s a Wonderful Life is now considered by many film buffs both a true movie classic (it was put on the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 1990) and a Yuletide viewing tradition…but at the time of its release, it had only moderate success at the box office.  Audiences, it would seem, were a little frosty towards the cheery optimism of the picture—preferring the pessimistic reality of a movie like The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) instead.  It took the failure of a similar film released after IAWL to convey this to the actor, who then “grew up” with more mature movies like Call Northside 777 (1948) and Rope (1948) before hitting upon a winning streak in the 1950s with the westerns of Anthony Mann (Winchester ’73, Bend of the River) and additional Alfred Hitchcock thrillers (Rear Window, Vertigo).  The movie that echoes much of IAWL is 1947’s Magic Town—humorously referred to by some as “the greatest Frank Capra film not directed by Frank Capra.”

Former GI Lawrence “Rip” Smith (Stewart) has but one goal in life: he wants to be rich.  His chosen profession is polling, taking the public’s pulse on the issues of the day…and Rip is convinced that if he could just stumble on to the perfect mathematical formula—one that doesn’t involve the intensive time-and-effort of statistical sampling and the like—his fortunes would be assured, since he’s financially strapped and lagging far behind his survey competitors.  He’s even been forced to close his business and excuse his staff of employees…and may wind up working for the number-one polling concern, headed by a man named Stringer (Selmer Jackson).

But from out of the blue, Providence arrives in the form of a letter from a Professor Hoopendecker (Kent Smith), who was one of Rip’s service pals during the war.  Hoopendecker has taken a survey whose results match Stringer’s painstakingly-taken results on the nosey; further examination reveals that Hoopendecker’s town, Grandview, harbors the precise demographics that would making polling a dream.  Rip and his co-workers, Ike (Ned Sparks) and Mr. Twiddle (Donald Meek), catch the next train to Grandview and their suspicions are confirmed: they will be able to ascertain the opinion of the average man, at one-tenth the cost.  The townsfolk are naturally going to get wise after a while, what with Rip and Company asking so many questions…so Rip invents a cover story that the three men are opening up an insurance firm.

Dickey, one of the paper's employees, used to be in the sausage business.  (Yes, that's "Weenie King" Robert Dudley from The Palm Beach Story.)

One Grandview citizen is already convinced that Rip is not entirely on the up-and-up: Mary Peterman (Jane Wyman), who runs the local newspaper with her mother (Ann Shoemaker) and has been trying for years to get Grandview’s council to approve a new civic center, a pet project of her late father.  When Rip overhears Mary’s pitch to the council—and fearing that any “change” could scotch his polling plans—he makes an impassionate speech against the civic center, and the council members vote the proposal down.  An incensed Mary publishes a nasty editorial about Rip, who by this time has become quite taken with her and even volunteers to coach the high school basketball team her brother plays on in an effort to get into her good graces.

On the eve of completing their polling assignment—which was completed in two weeks simply by getting the population of Grandview involved—Rip is paid tribute by Ma Peterman at a high school dance celebrating the school’s victory over a hated basketball rival.  Rip is noticeably touched by the affection shown to him by the inhabitants of Grandview, and is wracked with a little guilt over “using” them even though he rationalizes he’s done them no actual harm.  But when Mary overhears Rip’s phone conversation to Ike discussing more assignments—not to mention finding evidence of the “insurance” office’s true intent—she publishes a story revealing Rip’s deception to Grandview…something that will have great repercussions for the town and its people than either she or Rip could have imagined.

The Capraesque (or “Capra-corn,” if you prefer) qualities in the DNA of Magic Town can be chalked up to the participation of former Capra collaborator Robert Riskin, who wrote and co-produced the film directed by William “Wild Bill” Wellman.  Riskin wrote or co-wrote most of the major Capra classics—It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, etc.—until he had a falling-out with the director, whom Riskin believed had an annoying tendency to hog a lot of the credit.  (Crazy, I know. The apocryphal story goes that R.R. handed Mr. C a blank sheet of paper one day and shouted “Put the famous ‘Capra touch’ on that!”)  There’s an engaging whimsicality to Magic Town that is echoed in Riskin’s previous work with Capra, even if the movie can’t quite sustain itself to the end; the ending on this one (which I’m trying to keep under wraps in order not to spoil it for those who haven’t seen the film) drifts into the unbelievable.

Two of the finest cinematic "second bananas" make Magic Town their swan song: Donald Meek (L) and Ned Sparks (R).

Because there are so many Capra tropes in Magic Town—the idyllic small community where life is preferable to the big city; the engaging Everyman hero; the endearing eccentrics that make up its populace, etc.—it could be effortlessly argued that much of Frank’s success was Robert Riskin’s success as well.  Director William Wellman mimics the Capra style quite well (compare Town to Wellman’s Nothing Sacred, in which small-town life isn’t portrayed as quite so attractive), even copying the darker portions of IAWL in a Town scene where Stewart and Wyman’s characters regret that their actions have, in Jane’s words, “killed a town.”  The flavor of the 1930s Capra films is also captured with some first-rate casting choices of veterans who previously appeared in the director’s films: Stewart (of course), Ned Sparks, Donald Meek, Regis Toomey, Ann Doran…and many of the unbilled supporting players (like George Barbier—who plays Grandview’s mayor here but was also the high school principal in IAWL).  (Leading lady Wyman would go on to work with Capra in his 1951 comedy Here Comes the Groom.)

Character great Regis Toomey (R) and TDOY fave Ann Doran (L) are billed sixth and seventh in the opening credits of Magic Town...yet only appear in the final five minutes of the movie.  I suspect much of their initial footage wound up on the cutting room floor; my BBFF Stacia, on the other hand, chalks it up to the amazing negotiating prowess of The Toomster's agent.

Howard Freeman, the actor who so memorably played Captain Burkholtz in the classic Car 54, Where are You? episode “The Beast Who Walked the Bronx” is in Magic Town as the villainous Nickelby, and movie veteran Wallace Ford generates many giggles as Lou Dicketts, a real estate salesman/council member who has difficulty completing coherent thoughts without throwing in a “whaddya-call-it.”  There are scads of character greats in the movie—George Chandler, Frank Fenton, Dick Elliott, Bess Flowers, Paul Maxey, Snub Pollard, OTR fave Vic Perrin and Emmett Vogan (plus Tom Kennedy and Dick Wessel can be spotted as movers)—but it’s Julia Dean who steals the proceedings as the wife of a U.S. Senator (played by George Irving) whose muffins have acquired a reputation as being particularly inedible.  “Oh, yes,” Stewart’s Rip replies when offered one, “I’ve heard about those muffins.”

“Take one anyway,” Dean snappishly retorts.  A few minutes later, after Stewart has set in motion the events that bring Town to a close Dean cries out: “Good heavens—I’m so excited I nearly ate one of my own muffins!”

A number of people have criticized Stewart’s “aw shucks” performance in Magic Town.  I didn’t have any real problems with it; I like to think of Jimmy’s turn in the film as a sort of “valedictory fare-thee-well” to the type of boy-next-door roles that originally made him an audience favorite on the silver screen.  It’s just impossible to dislike Rip Smith, even when he’s made to look a little foolish chasing after basketballs (he’s even hit on the head with one) and performing other awkward bits of physical humor; even his subterfuge in setting down roots in Grandview while hiding his real intentions is earnest and sincere in the hands of Stewart.  I also thought his romance with Wyman’s character was sweet; a review I read of the film complained that they had no chemistry and that Janie was “an ice cube.”  The reviewer compared it to the Stewart-Donna Reed relationship in IAWL, forgetting that in that movie it’s Reed who’s carrying a torch for Jimmy (who displays much disinterest a lot of the time) and here it’s Stewart who’s taken a shine to someone cool to his advances, necessitating a little work to win her over.

Still, I can see why the box office reception to Magic Town was so tepid at the time of its release; its evocation of 1930s small-town life doesn’t quite mesh with a period in which life in these United States was becoming more modern and urbanized (though that’s sort of the main theme of the film—the nostalgia for those little burgs in which we grew up, even if it’s not always like we remembered).  I remained convinced that it’s a worthwhile feature with which to sit down; it’s been off the radar for a number of years (I originally caught it on AMC back when the channel’s initials stood for something) but resurfaced in April 2013 as a DVD and Blu-ray release from Olive Films.  And it features James Stewart in his All-American icon glory…playing the role with which audiences were most familiar and one that he did so well.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Diamonds & Gold Blogathon: Harry Davenport in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)





The following essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to The Diamonds & Gold Blogathon, currently tag-teamed at Wide Screen World and Caftan Woman from April 12-13.  Rich’s blog features the gentlemen…while Our Lady of Great Caftan spotlights the distaff side.  There will be spoilers in the film discussed in this post, so if you haven’t seen the movie you might want to wait until you do before proceeding further.



When TDOY faves Caftan Woman and Wide Screen World first jointly announced The Diamonds & Gold Blogathon project a couple of months back I had a little josh at the concept, commenting that the “subject is compelling in its simplicity: select an actor or actress who continued to work in films well into their twilight years…and ignore the fact that a good many of them probably had to, because 1) actors have to act and 2) some of them also have to eat.”  It was, you understand, just me being facetious, which you may have observed from time to time is my wont.

But I didn’t mean to convey the impression that I didn’t take this blogathon seriously—it’s just that while the motivation for a number of actors to continue practicing their craft might in some cases be financial (there are a number of thesps who were able to retire comfortably…but a lot more who weren’t)…performing for many actors and actresses was something in their blood, and audiences were not always easily walked away from.  Harold George Bryant Davenport would most certainly qualify; born in Canton, PA in 1866, Harry continued to appear in films until his death in 1949 (his last three films, including his cinematic swan song Riding High [1950], were released not long after they had shoveled the dirt over him).  In the case of Davenport, acting was his passion: he was born into a theatrical family—his father was the legendary Edward Loomis Davenport, and his mother Fanny Vining, the descendant of the 19th century Irish stage actor Jack Johnson.  (His sister, also named Fanny, experienced a flair for the buskin as well.)  His offspring with wives Alice Davenport and Phyllis Rankin (also an actress) went into the same line of work as their father.  His dedication to the profession was such that Harry, along with Eddie Foy, co-founded Actors Equity—the labor union for actors, originally called The White Rats—to address the mistreatment of their fellow thesps by the theatre owners and impresarios at that time. 

While Davenport’s stage debut came at the age of five in a production of Damon and Pythias, he was sort of a latecomer where “the flickers” were concerned; according to the (always reliable) IMDb, his earliest film credit was 1913’s Kenton’s Heir and he soon began to make a name for himself in a series of silent comedy shorts identified as Mr. and Mrs. Jarr (Harry co-starred with actress Rose Tapley in these one-reelers for Vitagraph in addition to directing a number of them).  He was in his late 40s by the time he got into the motion picture business; his successful transition to talkies at his advanced age allowed him to play judges, bankers and doctors in the course of over one hundred additional features.

Often Harry would be cast as a grandfatherly type—he graced a number of the movies in Republic’s The Higgins Family franchise (which starred James, Lucille and Russell Gleason) as “Grandpa,” and was prominently the focus in 1940’s Grandpa Goes to Town, a wonderful showcase in an admitted B-picture programmer.  Harry’s best-remembered film role might arguably be that of Dr. Meade in Gone with the Wind (1939), but he also made memorable impressions in the likes of The Life of Emile Zola (1937), Wells Fargo (1937), You Can’t Take it With You (1938), The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), Foreign Correspondent (1940), The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941), One Foot in Heaven (1941), Kings Row (1941), Larceny, Inc. (1942), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), The Thin Man Goes Home (1945), The Enchanted Forest (1945—one of his few starring roles), The Farmer's Daughter (1947), The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947) and Little Women (1949).

My favorite Harry Davenport performance is without a doubt his portrayal of Arthur Davies in the 1943 western The Ox-Bow Incident (1943).  Based on Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s 1940 novel, Harry’s Davies is the sole voice of reason in a searing indictment of mob violence as the citizens of an 1885 Nevada town take the law into their own hands by pursuing a group of suspected cattle rustlers/murderers.

Two cowpokes, Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) and Art Croft (Harry Morgan), lope into the sleepy little hamlet of Bridger’s Wells, NV and begin to wet their whistle at a saloon maintained by a man named Darby (Victor Kilian).  The two men are greeted with some suspicion: there’s been a spate of castle rustling in the surrounding area of late, and the hostility Gil and Art receive eventually boils over into a brawl between Gil and blowhard Jeff Farnley (Marc Lawrence).  (Art later apologizes to bartender Darby, explaining that his pal just needed a fight to put him a better mood.)

A man named Green (William “Billy” Benedict!) rides in and excitedly tells the saloon contingent that a rancher named Larry Kinkaid has been killed, shot through the head.  Farnley, Kinkaid’s best bud, immediately starts to assemble a posse to chase after the individual(s) responsible, but from the attitude of several men it appears that the group could quickly morph into a lynch mob.  Even though Gil and Art are determined to stay out of this affair (since the suspicion towards them hasn’t exactly lifted for their comfort), storekeeper Arthur Davies (Davenport) begs Gil to contact judge Daniel Tyler (Matt Briggs) and explain the situation before things get out of hand.  Gil and a man named Joyce (Ted North) go to see Tyler and brief him on the events, much to Tyler’s dismay—the judge is hesitant to act since the sheriff is out of town.  Butch Mapes (Dick Rich), the town deputy, assures Judge Tyler that he can handle the situation—something that leaves both Gil and Tyler uneasy.

Tyler appeals to the growing number of men signing on with the lynching party—he tells them that the sheriff has, in fact, already gone out to the Kinkaid property and he’s certain the sheriff will deal with the matters at hand.  Just when it looks like the crowd has been persuaded (Darby and Davies even propose buying the crowd drinks), a disgraced Confederate Army major named Tetley (Frank Conroy) whips the contingent into a murderous frenzy again and this time there’s no stopping them—yet Davies convinces Gil and Art to accompany him on the hunt, hoping they’ll be of use in quieting the mob.  While on the quest for the rustlers, the party comes into contact with a stagecoach (the driver of which shoots and wounds Art in the arm) that counts among its passengers Rose Mapen (Mary Beth Hughes), a former girlfriend of Gil’s, and her new husband (George Meeker) and sister-in-law (Almira Sessions).

Reaching Ox-Bow Canyon, the lynch mob finds three men: Donald Martin (Dana Andrews), Juan Martinez (Anthony Quinn) and Alva “Dad” Hardwicke (Francis Ford).  Martin is a rancher who’s just moved to nearby Pike’s Hole within the past three days, and he’s purchased fifty head of cattle from Larry Kinkaid…though he neglected to get a bill of sale from Kinkaid at the time.  Davies is the only member of the group who vocally expresses his belief in the trio’s innocence, and he pleads with Tetley and the rest of the mob not to do anything rash; let the sheriff administer justice.   But Tetley, Mapes, Farnley and the other executioners will not be swayed: though Martin is given time to put his thoughts down in letter form for his soon-to-be widow, he and the other two men will be executed at dawn after a vote is taken among those assembled.  Only seven men—Davies, Gil, Art and four others including Tetley’s weakling son Gerald (William Eythe) and a preacher named Sparks (Leigh Whipper)—vote Davies’ way,

All but seven.

A desperate Davies beseeches select members of the mob to read what Martin has written in an attempt to change their minds, which only angers Martin; it is also at that time that Martinez attempts to make a break for it.  Martinez—identified as an outlaw named Francisco Morez—is in possession of Kinkaid’s gun (he claims to have found it), which continues to confound the case against their innocence.  At daybreak, the three men are placed on their horses while Farnley and the lone female member of the mob, Jenny “Ma” Grier (Jane Darwell), prepare to whip the stallions out from under them.  Tetley orders his son to tend to the third horse, but Gerald is too decent (and too afraid) to do so.  Having accomplished their deed, the group starts to ride out of the canyon but are greeted by Sheriff Risley (Willard Robertson)—who informs the crowd that while Larry Kinkaid was shot he is not dead.  Risley asks Davies who was responsible for the lynching…and the storekeeper solemnly replies: “All but seven.”

Back at Darby’s saloon, Gil reads aloud the letter Martin left with Davies to give to his wife (his buddy Art can’t read):

Man just naturally can’t take the law into his own hands and hang people without hurting everybody in the whole world…’cause then he’s just not breaking one law but all laws…law’s a lot more than words you put in a book—or judges or lawyers or sheriffs you hire to carry it out—it’s everything people have ever found out about justice and what’s right and wrong…it’s the very conscience of humanity…there can’t be such a thing as civilization unless people have a conscience…because if people touch God anywhere, where is it except through their conscience?  And what is anybody’s conscience except a little piece of the conscience of all men who ever lived?

The innocent and guilty members of the mob have pooled their resources and have assembled a kitty of $500 for Martin’s widow…which Gil and Art plan to take to her along with her late husband’s last letter.  And thus the curtain falls on one of the greatest movie westerns of all time.

I first saw The Ox-Bow Incident during my carefree days as a CSR at Ballbuster Blockbuster Video, and it’s a film that I revisit quite often.  As I previously stated, it’s the movie that first comes to mind when I think of Harry Davenport—and his Arthur Davies, a man of unshakable decency, is truly one of my favorite movie characters.  It’s a sad commentary that Davies, who insists on observing the procedures and niceties of the judicial system, is dismissed by the bloodthirsty Farnley as a “whining old woman” simply because he’s convinced nothing good can come of a group of people going off half-cocked.  (I also admire how the character of Sparks, an African-American man of deep religious faith, is positively portrayed as the man who is first to stand with Davies when the “vote” is taken as to whether or not Martin and his friends will be lynched.  In one scene, Sparks relates to Gil how he witnessed as a young boy his own brother being lynched; when Gil asks him if his brother was guilty, Sparks replies: “I don’t know…nobody never did know for sure.”)

The Ox-Bow Incident was a pet project for actor Henry Fonda and its director, William Wellman; both men promised Darryl F. Zanuck they’d do projects at 20th Century Fox that they weren’t particularly crazy about in order to get his permission to make the film…and when Incident tanked at the box office, Zanuck never missed an opportunity to remind both Fonda and Wellman of their folly.  Thankfully, the passage of time has proved Hank and Wild Bill right—Incident is on numerous lists of the finest cinematic oaters in film history (it was selected for the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 1998) and was even nominated for Best Picture (it lost to that movie where Ingrid Bergman gets on the plane).  Featuring a first-rate cast of actors, a powerfully written script by Lamar Trotti and direction by William Wellman that is at times more Gothic melodrama than dry and dusty sagebrush saga, The Ox-Bow Incident features a seventy-six year old Harry Davenport in what remains for me his most memorable screen turn…a diamond of a performance in a diamond of a film.