I’ve only had this Encore Westerns channel for one day—and already I’ve found a new best friend. Honest to my grandma—the fact that I can record these classic television westerns completely uncut and without commercial breaks is “the greatest idea since the walking man!” to borrow a phrase from
I started my initial viewing yesterday around 4:30pm, and was thrilled to hear Percy Faith’s oh-so-familiar theme music of The Virginian begin, along with an establishing shot of actor Charles Bickford—which is just about as “big-time” Western as you can get. (Hey, I caught a little bit of The Big Country  on TCM the other night. I know what I’m taking about.) Now, I have to come clean a little and admit that the only thing I ever really remembered about the show was the rousing theme music and the establishing shot of Lee J. Cobb, who starred on the series as Judge Henry Garth from 1962-66. Apparently I’ve come in on the fifth season episodes, when Bickford’s John Grainger was running the Shiloh Ranch—he would later turn it over to brother Clay (John McIntire), who kept watch on the horses and ponies (with his wife Holly, played by the real-life Mrs. McIntire, TDOY radio goddess Jeanette Nolan). During the last season of The Virginian (1970 to 1971) the ranch was owned Colonel Alan McKenzie, played by actor Stewart Granger. (That season, the series underwent a name change to The Men from Shiloh—and what I’ve always found curious is why NBC canceled the series in 1971 because the program was still ranked in the Nielsen Top Twenty. If I had to hazard a guess, I suppose it might have been too expensive to produce and the network suits couldn’t justify the cost.)
The episode I watched yesterday didn’t feature Bickford—but it had a very impressive roster of guest stars. Patty Duke (or Anna, or however she addresses herself these days) is the titular “Sue Ann,” a young woman whose wanderlust has led her to leave her father’s farm one night with a dream of going to
Sue Ann explains to her father that she has big dreams—that she doesn’t want to end up like her mother, who never got the opportunity to see the world and nibble at life’s sumptuous banquet. Dad’s cool with that, but her beau (his name is Joe) gets a job at the nearby Shiloh to sort of keep tabs on her—and learns to his dismay and horror that the only employment available to her in town is (gasp!) working in a saloon.
There’s also a subplot involving a ranch hand (played by character great Tim McIntire) who’s accused of swiping some medals from his previous employer—he rather fancies Patty, and starts his mating dance whenever he’s in the saloon. At one point in the story, Joe does something incredibly stupid and robs the ranch of $200—which he proceeds to give to Duke to allow her to continue on her way to Frisco. McIntire thinks, hell, they’re going to accuse me of this anyway because of my previous criminal record…so he tries to shake down Joe for the money…and ends up with a bullet in him for his trouble. Tim doesn’t die, but Sue Ann and Joe eventually wind up back at the farm—and though Joe is probably going to have do a little prison time for the attempted robbery and shooting of McIntire, it’s implied that Sue Ann will wait for him. (To be honest, I don’t know why she has a change of heart for this mook—he’s pretty much a drip.)
Apart from the fact that Binns—truly one of my favorite character actors—doesn’t get to do a whole lot here, this Virginian outing was a lot of fun. I’d forgotten how engaging McClure’s character can be—and in addition Clu Galager as Medicine Bow’s keeper of the peace, Emmett Ryker…whom I’ve always associated with the show along with McClure and Cobb, even though he wasn’t on there as long as I remembered. (I’m a big fan of Galager’s, particularly the Fed he plays in Into the Night  who, when repeatedly asked the question “Is this (such-and-such) or what?” responds: “I think this falls into the ‘or what’ category…” I’ve been using that line for twenty-five years now, and not one person has ever asked me where it came from.) And then, of course, there’s James Drury (an actor whose reputation led many to nickname him “James Dreary”) as the titular foreman…a character that I never did understand why he didn’t have any sort of name. I would imagine it would be a little awkward to refer to him as “The Virginian” all the time. (Maybe his friends called him “Virg” when the cameras weren’t rolling.)
In between the shows, Encore Westerns runs little promos/featurettes and one of them has a considerably older Drury talking about his signature series…and I swear to you, he looks like he could be character actor Philip Baker Hall’s father. (This is not necessarily a bad thing—it’s nice to see Drury so spry, since he turned 76 in April.) I also saw Roberta Shore on this promo, and that was the real shocker…not to imply that she’s decrepit, you understand (Bobbie’s 67)—it’s just that I have this indelible image of her from The Shaggy Dog (1959) and the Annette segments on the old Mickey Mouse Club that seeing what she looks like today was momentarily jarring.
The programs that I’m really enjoying on the Westerns channel are Have Gun – Will Travel and Gunsmoke, two of my all-time favorite TV oaters…and seeing the Gunsmokes in all their black-and-white glory…man, I can’t even begin to describe how pleasurable the experience is. I saw an episode last night entitled “Dry Road to Nowhere” that was really first-rate; James Whitmore guest starred as a fire-and-brimstone preacher whose attempts to pass a temperance ordinance in Dodge rubs a few folks the wrong way…Miss Kitty (Amanda Blake), in particular, since she sees the law as a threat to her bidness. Julie “J.J.” Sommars plays his plain-Jane daughter, John Saxon is deliciously slimy as a no-account who’s anxious to take up with Sommars, and L.Q. Jones plays a cowhand whose rowdy behavior after a cattle drive almost ends up killing a little boy (Stephen McEveety, director Victor’s nephew). I sort of chuckled during a scene in which star James Arness and Whitmore have a conversation…I couldn’t resist a wisecrack about how the two men were going to check out
I caught another Travel and Gunsmoke this morning (they run two separate episodes of each per day), along with a Maverick repeat (“Hostage,” with both James Garner and Jack Kelly) and an episode of Lawman—which the channel has just recently added to its lineup. I have only the fuzziest memories of this show—a half-hour effort that ran on ABC from 1958-62—but seeing this morning’s “Short Straw” brought back a lot of recollections…namely, that Marshal Dan Troop (John Russell) was not an individual you want to mess with. A trio of crooked bidnessmen (one of whom is TDOY villain fave Ted de Corsia) wants Troop out of the way when Dan refuses to rescind the curfew in
This deal the CharredHer people gave me will only last a year—but hopefully I’ll have found a way to parlay it into something permanent because Encore Westerns is going to add Wagon Train to the lineup in 2011 and Rawhide the year after that. (With Rawhide’s future DVD releases apparently in limbo, I’d love to get the opportunity to collect all episodes of the show to satisfy the completist in me.)
If I have a nitpick about Encore’s presentation of these classic shows, it’s that they have an annoying tendency to superimpose promos of what’s coming up next over the closing credits…but at least they don’t “squeeze” them like so many other cable channels. Oh, and as Laura at Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings pointed out to me, Encore Westerns runs pan-and-scan versions of some of their movies. (Something will have to be done about that.)