Tuesday, January 7, 2014

From the Warner Archive: The Last Tycoon (1976)


Author F. Scott Fitzgerald was working on a novel entitled The Last Tycoon (also referred to by some as The Love of the Last Tycoon) when he died at the age of 44.  The unfinished work was published in 1941; it’s a roman a clef inspired by Fitzgerald’s friend, motion picture studio producer Irving Thalberg, in which a movie mogul named Monroe Stahr deals with a changing Hollywood while entering into an ill-fated romance with a mysterious woman named Kathleen Moore.  Here’s your spoiler warning: Stahr’s preoccupation with Kathleen (who bears a strong resemblance to his late movie star wife) escalates his downfall at the fictional International World Films studio; the distraction allows a cabal led by Stahr’s boss and some of the “money men” to facilitate his ouster and Monroe is forced to abandon the studio in an admittedly ambiguous ending.  (Stahr got off lucky—the real-life Thalberg died at the age of 37.)

The production history of The Last Tycoon is in some ways more interesting that the actual film, which I was able to watch recently on DVD thanks to the Warner Archive, which has resurrected the movie from its discontinued status (it had previously been released as a no-frills disc in 2003 by Paramount Home Video).  Peter Bogdanovich was approached to direct the film but took a pass and so the project wound up in the hands of Mike Nichols (who tried to cast Dustin Hoffman in the part of Monroe Stahr).  When Nichols abandoned the project, producer Sam Spiegel asked his old friend Elia Kazan (the two men had worked together on the Academy Award-winning On the Waterfront) to come out of retirement and direct.  Spiegel had wanted Jack Nicholson for Stahr, but Kazan lobbied for Robert De Niro and won the day on that decision (though Nicholson does appear in the film as Brimmer, a New York labor organizer determined to unionize the writers at Stahr’s studio).  Spiegel had also wanted Susan Sarandon to play Kathleen (a choice I personally think would have worked out better) but Ingrid Boulting, the daughter of writer-director John Boulting, snared the leading lady prize.

One decision in which Spiegel did prevail was in the film’s screenplay; it was written by playwright Harold Pinter, and according to Kazan’s autobiography, Sam considered the script inviolable and wouldn’t let the director monkey with it to add some needed dramatic tension.  Pinter has his fans and non-fans; I’ve never really been able to get into his work (it demands patience, and for me it’s a bunch of talk-talk-talk) and I think that’s one of the reasons why I didn’t warm up to Tycoon like I hoped.  I’m also not a devotee of Fitzgerald; I found Tycoon a little too Gatsby-ish for my tastes, with Stahr essentially playing the man who’s re-invented himself (despite his wealth and personal polish, Stahr’s origins are that of a poor boy from New York’s East Side) and finding his unattainable love in the Daisy Buchanan-ish Kathleen.

Still, the background of the film and much of its trappings piqued my interest, and while I wasn’t completely satisfied with The Last Tycoon there were components in the production that would allow me to recommend it to the curious.  Though some might consider the choices Kazan made in the actors and actresses “stunt casting,” I liked how he builds a bridge between “Old” and “New” Hollywood.  Granted, both De Niro and Nicholson aren’t technically newcomers (each actor already had an Oscar on their mantles by the time Tycoon was released) but they’re certainly the most recognizable personages in the film to modern-day moviegoers, and you’ll also spot Theresa Russell in her film debut (as the woman who’s secretly in love with Stahr) as well as Peter Strauss and Anjelica Huston in small roles.  It’s great seeing classic film icons like Robert Mitchum (as the L.B. Mayer-like studio boss gunning for Monroe), Ray Milland (Mitchum’s lawyer accomplice), Dana Andrews (as a director given the sack by Stahr) and Tony Curtis—who, with Jeanne Moreau (in a role Romy Schneider nixed), play the “stars” of the film that Monroe and his yes-men watch intently in dailies (I like how these scenes were filmed in black-and-white to put across the Golden Age effect).

I got the most pleasure seeing TDOY fave John Carradine in a small but rewarding part as a guide giving visitors a studio tour, and another character great who’s tops here on the blog, Jeff Corey, plays Stahr’s physician.  There are also fine performances from Donald Pleasence (as an alcoholic scriptwriter) and Tige Andrews (as one of Mitchum’s mob), and I recognized Bonnie Bartlett right off as one of Mitchum’s secretaries (this was her feature film debut as well) and John Cassavetes stand-by Seymour Cassel as the seal trainer in an odd vignette that finds Monroe and Kathleen at a beachfront café.

While it’s interesting to see Oscar winners De Niro and Nicholson work in their only film together (as of this writing, that is) they share just three scenes, and Jack wins all three of them on points.  I just thought De Niro a little miscast in this thing; Al Pacino had been offered the lead and turned it down, but I think he might have been more convincing in the part (though I need to stress that I’m referring to the Pacino of old—the new one would have yelled at everyone throughout the picture while gobbling up scenery).  To be honest, I think what really hurts De Niro is the fact that he has zero chemistry with leading lady Boulting; their love affair is indisputably the weakest part of Tycoon.

I think classic movie fans might enjoy The Last Tycoon; I think it evokes that filmmaking era almost as well as The Day of the Locust (1975), which was released by Paramount about that same time (though I’ll admit I prefer Locust because it’s a harsher condemnation of Hollywood).  (True story: I tried to entice Mom into watching Day of the Locust when it turned up on Flix on Demand sometime back; a half-hour into the movie she asks me where the giant insects are.)  The film served as director Kazan’s swan song (admittedly, it’s a better vehicle than his two previous releases, The Arrangement and The Visitors) and Tycoon’s sole Oscar nomination would be for Best Art Direction-Set Direction (which it lost to All the President’s Men), and it was well-deserved—it has that “classic” feel.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Doris Day(s) #14: “Love a Duck” (01/07/69, prod. no #8508)


Once again, Thrilling Days of Yesteryear returns with our popular Monday morning feature, Doris Day(s) – the segment that asks the question: why couldn’t more of you Nielsens people have watched N.Y.P.D. and spared us all this agony to come?


Okay, maybe I’m just a little cranky from cabin fever—which, oddly enough, fits right into today’s narrative.  As the opening credits roll, we find the Widow Martin in her sons’ room, asking her cheese-loving youngest boy, Toby (Tod Starke), where Billy (Philip Brown) is.  (Oh, sure—she’s concerned about them now…but in a couple more seasons, she won’t even remember they once roamed the Earth…)

DORIS: Where is he?
TOBY: Hi mom!  See what I made?  (He holds up a toy airplane)
DORIS: Where is Billy?
TOBY: Billy who?

“I like cheese!”

DORIS: Your brother…
TOBY: Oh…did you look in the bathroom?

Doris takes a quick look in the kids’ loo, but there is no Billy.  In the meantime, Toby is up and playing with his airplane…prompting Doris to scold him and order him back to bed.  It would appear that young William and Tobias—along with their grandfather, Laird Buckley Webb (Denver Pyle)—have a touch of the influenza and have been assigned by Dr. Mom a regimen of complete bed rest.

DORIS: Now where is Billy?
TOBY: My brother?

“I really like cheese!”

DORIS: Toby, will you stop stalling!  Billy has a fever and he should be in bed!  I wish you and your grandfather wouldn’t get sick at the same time…

Doris’ search for Billy is turning up bupkis, so she decides to apply the screws to Toby…who folds like a bad poker hand:


“But if I were you, I would look in the barn,” he tells her, giving it up like a kid who’s not accustomed to having a bully sit on his chest for long periods of time.  So Doris marches downstairs towards the barn, where she has to deal with her oldest boy, farmhand Leroy B. Semple Simpson (James Hampton).

DORIS: Is Billy in there?
LEROY: Uh…Billy who?
DORIS: My son…
LEROY: Oh!  That Billy!
DORIS: Yeah…that Billy…
LEROY: In where?
DORIS: In there!
LEROY: Oh…you mean Billy?

Oh, I’ll bet the hours just fly by on that ranch.  Doris pushes her idiot handyman aside and enters the barn, calling out his name.  Her quest for the Golden Son comes to an end when she finds him crouched behind a bale of hay, feeding a duck.

DORIS: Billy Martin…will you get back into that house!
BILLY: Trying to get Sherman to eat…


Doris melts at the sight of the poor widdle duck…but what I find so humorous about this is that the dog that she stole from the Nashes on Please Don’t Eat the Daisies is in the same shot, offering a wry commentary on Doris’ alleged animal activism.

DORIS: What’s the matter with his wing?
BILLY: I don’t know…he was like this when I found him…
DORIS: When did you find him?
BILLY: Yesterday…
DORIS: Yesterday?!!  Billy, why didn’t you tell me?
BILLY: ‘Cause you said not to bring home any more wild animals…
DORIS: I said not to trap any more wild animals…because they should be free…but this is different…

“Right, Nelson?”  Doris has the perfect solution (of course—that’s why she’s Doris Day): they’ll take Sherman the Duck up to Grandpa, who’ll diagnose what ails him, and so she tells Billy he needs to head to bed as well (she also calls Nelson, who tries to eat the bird as she’s taking it out of the barn). 


A scene shift finds Juanita the housekeeper (Naomi Stevens) and Buck sharing his bed…so I want to apologize for putting the above image in your head.  Buck examines the duck and discovers a bit of buckshot in the bird.

“Buckshot?  From a gun?” asks Juanita.  (No, from a slingshot, you silly domestic-type person.)

BUCK: Feels like there’s more in there, too…
JUANITA: You mean someone deliberately shot him?
BUCK: Out of season…
JUANITA: Aww…this ranch is sanctuary for wildlife…in all seasons, no?
BUCK: Not to poachers it’s not…

In the kids’ bedroom, Doris is instructing her brood not to set foot out of their beds or they will be standing tall before The Man.

TOBY: Can we see Sherman, Mom?
DORIS: When Grandpa gets him patched up…
BILLY: You think he’ll be all right?
DORIS: Oh, sure…Grandpa’s fixin’ him, honey…

“With olive oil and salt and pepper!  Nah, I’m just jinkin’ ya, sport…”

TOBY: What’s the matter with him?
DORIS: I don’t know…
BUCK (entering the bedroom): He was shot!


Dun-dun-DUN!  Buck explains to Doris and the kids that Yakky Doodle is riddled with buckshot, and that raises the hackles on the back of Dodo’s neck.  “I’d like to get my hands on the guy that did that,” she threatens.

BILLY: I think we know…
BUCK: Who?
DORIS: Who?
BILLY: Leroy saw him…
TOBY: Down by the lake…

“Thirty-five years old…thrice divorced…eating a steady diet of government cheese…and living in a van down by the river…er, lake…”

DORIS: Well, who is it?
BILLY: Mr. Lovey…
DORIS: Tyrone Lovey
BUCK: That figures…

Lovey…that vichyssoise  We’ll get a more formal introduction to this week’s supervillain in a sec, but for right now Buck is ready to have a come-to-Jeebus meeting with Mr. L.  Doris, however, has other ideas: “It sounds like you better get right back to bed.”  A couple of gunshots ring out, and Buck deduces that they came from the direction of the lake.  Doris takes charge of the situation, going over to the open bedroom window and summoning Leroy to get the Dodomobile (the Jeep).


LEROY (pulling up to the house): Where we goin’, Miss Martin?
DORIS: To the lake, Leroy…we’ve got business with that Tyrone Lovey!
LEROY: Right!

Insert “Theme from Batman” here.  Arriving at the lake, Leroy informs Doris: “It was right along here someplace I seen him…over there by them bushes I saw Mr. Lovey…”  The two of them disembark from the vehicle and in walking over closer to the lake they come across this:


“Be careful—there’s an old well here,” cautions Leroy.  (Sitcom foreshadowing.)

DORIS (finding something on the ground): Leroy…shotgun shells!  (She takes a sniff) It’s just been fired!

And that’s our introduction to this animal, complete with a sad trombone interlude:


Show of hands—how many of you think Doris would adopt an egg-sucking hound like this in real life?  Yeah, that’s what I thought.  We don’t learn the pooch’s name until later (he answers to “Snake”) but he’s the loyal canine friend of Mr. Tyrone Lovey, who’s spotted by Doris and Leroy hauling ass through the bushes.  “Leroy,” instructs Doris, “you stay here in case he doubles back—okay?”  Climbing into the jeep, Dor fires ‘er up and gives chase…


Casa del Lovey.  (I think this place might have belonged to a relative of mine in West Virginia.)  Pulling up beside Lovey’s truck to the accompaniment of banjo music on the soundtrack, Doris notices that his radiator is about to boil over…which would indicate to the layman that ol’ Tyrone’s taken ‘er out for a spin very recently.  She marches over to the front door of his humble domicile, and after a couple of knocks, Lovey emerges from his home:


“Strother Martin!”  as they would say on radio.  Yes, Martin is the guest this week—one of the truly great character actors; a man capable of both menace (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Cool Hand Luke) and comic villainy (McLintock!, True Grit).  I know I’m exaggerating here, but for a while I was convinced that any time a TV western episode featured an out-of-the-way cantina, odds were that Strother was running it (Gunsmoke, The Guns of Will Sonnett).  This might have originated from Martin’s regular role on Hotel de Paree, a short-lived TV western from 1959 to 1960 that starred Earl Holliman and featured TDOY radio goddess Jeanette Nolan.

LOVEY: Well, if this don’t beat all!  Doris Martin!
DORIS: Yes, that’s right…
LOVEY: You know, it wasn’t more than an hour ago…I was sittin’ here, and I was thinkin’ how it’s been ages since I seen that pretty little gal…
DORIS: An hour ago, Mr. Lovey?
LOVEY: Well…give or take a couple of minutes…

On cue, Lovey’s truck radiator gives out with a whistle not unlike a teakettle…but he’s got that covered.  He hasn’t been out travelin’, gracious me no—he fires up ol’ Betsy daily to get hot water to make his tea!  “I always have a little tea about this time,” he explains, “It gives it a flavor that you wouldn’t believe!”


LOVEY: Are you sure that you won’t join me?
DORIS: I didn’t come here for tea, Mr. Lovey…are you trying to tell me that you didn’t drive this truck back here from our place?
LOVEY: Oh…shoot, ma’am…I wouldn’t take this old thing out on the road…it ain’t safe…look at them tires… (He kicks the tires) The only thing that I use this for is to start it up every day to boil my tea…why, are you sure that you won’t join me?

Doris is going to take a pass on the offer of tea, and with that Lovey goes about his business…but she’s not willing to let him off the hook that easy; she knows he’s been poaching, he’s just too crafty to come clean.

DORIS: Somebody’s been shooting ducks at our ranch…
LOVEY (feigning shock): No!
DORIS (imitating him): Yes!
LOVEY: Well, hearing that just made me lose my appetite for tea… (He tosses the kettle into a metal can)
DORIS: Mr. Lovey…that somebody was you!
LOVEY: Missy…you can’t believe old Tyrone Lovey would shoot one of our little feathered friends…
DORIS: Leroy B. Simpson saw you yesterday!  A little while ago, I saw your dog there!
LOVEY: Snake?
DORIS: Snake!


“Are you sure it wasn’t some other animal who looks like Snake?” Lovey asks her.  “There is no other animal that looks like Snake!” Doris retorts.  Well, she’s got him there…and the fact that Snake has a few duck feathers in his mouth does not speak well for Tyrone’s innocence.  (“Have you been at my pillow again?”)

Doris warns him that the next time he fires a gun on Rancho Webb, she’ll have him arrested for trespassing.  As she drives off, Martin’s Lovey has a beauty of a line: “I never would have bought this dog if I’d knowed that he was a pillow eater!”  And with that, it’s time for Ralston-Purina to pay a few bills.

Back at the ranch, Leroy has been doing some thinking.  (Be afraid…be very afraid.)

LEROY: I know how we can nab that ol’ Tyrone Lovey…
DORIS: You do? How?
LEROY: All we gotta do is get him to confess…
DORIS: Leroy, I know that

“I’m warning you, Dobbs!”

DORIS: …but he’s not going to confess to poaching
LEROY: Not to you maybe…but…if we could get someone into his confidence…somebody just a little smarter than he is…
DORIS: Who?
LEROY: Me!

Yeah, I think we’re going to have to throw in the towel and bring this fight to a halt.  Leroy explains to Doris that he could be “like an undercover agent”—sort of a Maxwell Not-So-Smart, if I were to push it.

DORIS: And do what?
LEROY: Well, in that line of work, ma’am…we don’t like to divulge our plans…

“Well,” she tells Leroy, “whatever they are they’re not going to work—‘cause Tyrone Lovey is just too smart.”  And the following scene demonstrates that in a battle of wits between Tyrone and Leroy, our beloved farmhand is clearly outmatched.  Leroy tells Tyrone that he’s left the employ of the Webb family because they “was just too mean”—prompting Tyrone to respond with a line that I laughed at due to Strother’s delivery: “Tell me…what are your plans now that you won’t be workin’ for them cruel people no more?”


I’m just going to focus on the highlights here because Leroy, but Strother plays this one very sly; the entire time he’s jawing with Leroy he gnaws on what is clearly a duck leg and helps himself to a slash of corn squeezin’s every now and then.

LEROY: Excuse me, Mr. Lovey, but…ain’t that a duck leg you’re eatin’ on?
LOVEY: Mm-hmm…it is…but this bird…died a natural death…
LEROY: You didn’t shoot him?
LOVEY: Perish the thought, boy…of course not…
LEROY: Would you wanna tell me how that bird met its end?
LOVEY: Well, that is a sad story, Leroy…brace yourself…you see…there I was…walkin’ along Otter Creek…admirin’ the beauties of nature…when I heard this quack…and there he was…big, fat…juicy…Mr. Mallard…

Transcribing this really doesn’t do it justice, because all the while Martin is giving this spiel that duck leg he’s sucking and caressing really sends it home.

LEROY: In the lake?
LOVEY: Up in a tree…
LEROY: Well…what was a mallard doin’ up in a tree?
LOVEY (motioning for him to come closer): Leroy…I think he’s drunk
LEROY: Drunk?
LOVEY: Mm-hmm…he was staggerin’ around on this here branch and he was quackin’ his fool head off…
LEROY (musing): Drunken duck…
LOVEY: Yes, sir!  Well…I thought if I could get him down, I could maybe pour some hot coffee into him and…you know…sober him up…and…oh, Leroy…
LEROY: Well, what happened?
LOVEY: Before I could get to him…he fell off the branch and broke his neck…
LEROY (welling up): Mr. Lovey…that’s the saddest story I’ve ever heard…
LOVEY: You got to learn to accept these tragedies…Lord giveth…Lord snatcheth away…

Tyrone makes special note of the lateness of the hour, and remarks that there are cows “probably bellering to be milked.”  Leroy, who really sucks at this Double-Naught Spy business, excuses himself (Buck will skin him alive if he doesn’t get his chores done) and leaves Lovey to continue rocking in his chair, nibbling at his dinner and having another slash from the jug.


Back at the Webb Estates, the boys are trying to encourage Sherman the Duck to eat, and the camera pans over to Buck, who’s in bed and pouring himself a teaspoon of medicine from a bottle.  He swallows it and braces himself for the nasty taste…but to his surprise, it’s not bad and he pours himself another spoonful.  (Nice bit of pantomime here from Pyle.)

TOBY: Grandpa, look—he’s eating!
BUCK: Good!  If I get any hungrier, I’ll fight him for that food…
BILLY: Grandpa…do you think Mr. Lovey will keep shooting our ducks?
BUCK: Well, I hope not…we’re gonna find some way to stop him…

Doris’ voice can be heard in the hallway calling the kids to bed, and though the boys are nervous about Sherman, Buck assures him that he and Nelson will look after the duck (though the way that dog jumped on Doris out in the barn in an earlier scene I’d be a little worried).  The scene then shifts to Doris putting her young’uns to bed…

BILLY: Sherman’s getting better, ain’t he, Mom?
DORIS: Isn’t he…
TOBY: Isn’t he what?
DORIS: Isn’t he getting better…
BILLY: That’s what I asked…

“Third base!”

TOBY: Mom…
DORIS: What?
TOBY: Billy says that you said we can’t keep the duck because it’s too wild
DORIS: That’s not what I said at all!  I said that all wild creatures should be free…whether they fly in the air or burrow in the ground…or whatever they do, they should be free…and you know that they can’t find freedom in many places…but…on Grandpa’s ranch, they have it…and that’s the way we want to keep it…okay?

Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ less to lose, kids.  Well, Juanita comes in with a last call for fruit juice (if we had some champagne, it could be mimosa time) and the kids start to bitch about not having anything to eat (feed a cold, starve a fever)—which does not bode well for that duck down the hall.  Then Buck comes into the bedroom, having done some skulling in the sanctity of his boudoir.

BUCK: Now…if Tyrone Lovey believes what you said about calling the sheriff…he’s gonna get as many ducks as he can as fast as he can—right?
DORIS: Probably, yes…
BUCK: So why don’t I go down to the lake while it’s still dark to wait for him to show up?
DORIS: You can’t do that—you’ll get pneumonia!  (To Juanita) Listen to that…
BUCK: What are we gonna do about Tyrone?

Buck might not be able to leave the confines of his quarters…but that doesn’t mean Doris can’t leave the house, and since it’s her damn sitcom she’s going to be the heroine this week.  There’s a brief scene where Doris arises at the butt-crack of dawn…


…nice ensemble, Dor…and she finds Juanita in the kitchen, preparing a thermos of coffee.  Pouring Doris a cup, Juanita declares “As soon as you finish, I’m going back to bed”—which means there won’t be any of these “breakfast preparation” shenanigans like in last week’s episode.  Doris demonstrates for Juanita a duck call that she purchased from some homophobic bigot with a reality TV show, and in the next scene, she’s back at her spot at the lake, lying in wait for her nemesis.  Lovey, with Snake in tow, arrives shortly thereafter and having bought the same Duck Commander, the two of them trade calls back-and-forth until…


…gosh!  Who could have foreseen that happening?

DORIS: Are you all right?
LOVEY: it’s the end, Missy…there’s no feelin’ in my body…I’m done for…
DORIS: Well, that’s terrible, Mr. Lovey…look…just don’t go away…I’ll call the sheriff!
LOVEY: No…no…wait…there’s no sense alarmin’ folks until we’re sure…hey…hey…the feelin’ is beginnin’ to come back…hey!  Why, this is a miracle!

Well, this scene pretty much plays out the way you think it does—Tyrone tries to explain feebly why Doris has caught him on the property, and she’s not buying the bullsh*t.  She’s also not going to let him up until it puts the lotion on its skin—or else it gets the hose again.  (If Stacia thinks she’s got a monopoly on Silence of the Lambs jokes, she’s got another think coming.)


LOVEY: You know, it’s…always a pleasure talkin’ to ya, but…couldn’t we do it up on top?  It’s kind of wet down here and…that numb feelin’ is startin’ to come back…
DORIS: Well…I’m not lifting a finger to help you until we get this thing settled…
LOVEY: Well, just tell me what you want me to do and I’ll do it!
DORIS: I want your word…that you’ll never shoot anything again on our land…
LOVEY: Heck, Missy…if that’s all you want…you can start by gettin’ me up out of here…I promise you—you’ll never catch me again!


Actually, this sequence with Doris looking down at Tyrone in the well would work a little better if we didn’t see her shadow on the patently obvious backdrop.  “You drive a hard bargain, Missy,” Tyrone finally acquiesces and he gives Doris his word that the poaching will cease and desist.  She’s able to pull him out of the well with a rope that just happens to be handily by (either the writer, Jerry Devine, got lazy or they’ve had this problem in that area before…in which case they should have boarded that damn thing up before a kid falls into it and a family makes out like bandits with a lawsuit).


LOVEY (climbing out of the well): I’m all wet!
DORIS: You’re doing good, Mr. Lovey!  (She helps him to the surface)
LOVEY (sneezing): Well, doggone…on top of everything else, I’m catchin’ cold!
DORIS: Ohhhh…
LOVEY (sneezing again): I gotta fix me a pot of hot soup…
DORIS: Mr. Lovey…if one of our chickens winds up in your pot…
LOVEY: Oh no, Missy…after all you put me through, I’m a dedicated vegetarian… (He shakes hands with Doris)

“That is…unless you’ve got some rule against shooting carrots,” he adds as he heads back towards his truck.  Doris gives out with another one of her adorable laughs.


For all intents and purposes, that should have been the end to this episode…but it’s not; and since the coda is particularly lame (Buck and Leroy are working on the tractor when Buck spots a flock of ducks overhead; the kids are then encouraged to let Sherman loose to fly with his feathered brethren and sistren) I’ll just finish on my own by saying that Strother Martin’s Tyrone Lovey will make a return appearance to The Doris Day Show in a later episode, “The Clock.”  (I don’t mean to disparage Martin, who classes up anything he’s in—but he’s fighting a losing battle here, particularly since he has very little with which to work.)

“The Clock” will appear after our next episode—one of the stronger ones of the show’s first season entitled “Let Them Out of the Nest.”  It’s particularly relevant because of three of the episode’s guest stars, two of them appeared in Mayberry R.F.D. episodes…and one of them was a former resident of television’s favorite small town back in The Andy Griffith Show days.  Join me next time, won’t you?

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Riders of Death Valley – Chapter 13: The Bridge of Disaster



OUR STORY SO FAR:  Jim Benton and his Death Valley Riders start for the smelter at Panamint with a wagon train loaded with ore from their mine.

Short-handed, Benton sends Mary to a neighboring claim to hire additional miners.  Returning she sees the prisoners, Butch and Trigger, racing to rally Wolf’s forces.

Mary overtakes the wagons and warns Jim, who starts the caravan racing for a narrow cut as Wolf and his bandits charge down upon them.  Mary, riding well out in front of the running battle…

…falls off her damn horse and has to be pulled out of the way by manly Jim Benton (Dick Foran).  Honestly, Mary (Jean Brooks) can be a problem at times.


I love that expression on both their faces, by the way.  “Don’t look now—but I think we’re about to be trampled!”  Well, of course they narrowly miss being stomped on by the runaway caravan because we’re just not that lucky; Jim carries Mary (who is apparently incapable of walking at this point) over to Tombstone (Buck Jones) and his horse, and they continue to flee because Wolf (Charles Bickford) and his gang are still in hot pursuit.  The good thing about all this is that Tex (Glenn Strange) is given something to do—he (or more accurately his stuntman) leaps onto the runaway wagon and stops it.  In fact, all of the wagons come to a halt as this time as Jim and Company decide to fight it out with the Wolf Pack.

“Hold your fire!” barks Wolf to his men.  “We haven’t got a chance out here in the open…take cover in them rocks!”  Much gunfire is exchanged for the next minute or two as the two factions demonstrate they still can’t hit a damn thing.  “Might as well save your ammunition, boys,” he warns his men as the scene then shifts to the Riders’ caravan, where Jim, Pancho (Leo Carrillo) and Borax Bill (Guinn “Big Boy” Williams) size up the situation.

BORAX: Well, looks like we got ‘em stopped, Jim…
JIM: You mean they got us stopped, Borax…

Yes indeedy, they do!


WOLF: Benton’s playin’ right into our hands
BUTCH: Whaddya mean?
WOLF: Kirby’s got a note of his…we can hold Benton here for a couple of days, he can’t get that ore into Panamint in time to cash…
BUTCH: Well…we can keep him holed up here as long as you aim to!
WOLF: See that you do that…I’m leavin’ you in charge…
BUTCH: Where are you goin’?
WOLF: Panamint…I wanna wise Kirby up to the situation so that they’ll be no slip up on that end…scatter the men, Butch…cover the gorge from every angle…don’t let any of them get out of there…

Oh, you just know Butch (Lon Chaney, Jr.) is loving this assignment.  “You heard Wolf—I’m in charge!”  Wolf gallops off, and it’s back to the good guys’ camp…

MARY: Jim, we’ve got to do something—we’ve got to get this ore into Panamint!
JIM: I know that, Mary…

“Get off my back, would ya?”  Pancho spots Wolf riding off and calls out: “Look—the Wolf!” which kind of made me giggle, because I couldn’t help but think of the It’s the Wolf! segment on The Cattanooga Cats cartoon series (Wolf featured a lamb—“Lambsy”—voiced by Daws Butler, with a wolf by Paul Lynde and a guard dog named “Bristle Hound” voiced by Allan Melvin; it was basically Yakky Doodle redux).


PANCHO: I think he’s gonna get some help, no?
JIM: No, Pancho…he’s got enough men over there to keep us bottled up for a year
TOMBSTONE: There’s plenty of men at the Johnson claim…let’s go get ‘em!
JIM: All right, Tomb… (To Borax and the others) You hold the fort…

Yeah, Fort Desperation…  “I’ll hold it till they make it too hard around here and then I’m gonna do some retreatin’!” vows Borax, which gets Pancho all started up with the broken English to the point where Bill dismisses him as a “frijole chomper.”  (He’s not a very tolerant man toward Latinos, I’ve noticed.)  There’s a quick shot of Jim getting up on his horse and riding off…and the smart money says he galloped off in the direction of another serial.  (I would have.)  In fact, this is the topic of conversation among Borax, Pancho, Mary and Tex as nightfall approaches.

MARY: Shouldn’t Jim and Tombstone be back by this time?
PANCHO: Maybe too far for the Johnsons to come and help us…
BORAX: The Johnsons wouldn’t turn Jim down…
TEX: Well, we know that…but they’ve had a lot of time to get back…

Face it, people: Tombstone and Jim have left you there to die, and are probably in some Mexican dive somewhere, tossing back a few and having a hearty laugh at your expense.  No, I’m only kidding—Pancho spots our heroes riding up, accompanied by a small Johnson army.  “Hitch up those teams, boys,” beams Jim.  “We’re pullin’ out at daylight.”


And the next morning finds Butch and his buddies fighting to stay awake (Butch, hombre…did you try sleeping in shifts?)…when he spots the caravan slowly pulling out and back on the road to Panamint.  Henchmen Dirk (Roy Barcroft) and Pete Gump (Richard Alexander) observe as well:

BUTCH: Hey, Pete…that Benton outfit’s movin’
PETE: Yeah…he’s makin’ it easy pickin’s…
BUTCH: Yeah…we’ll head down that draw…catch ‘em out in the open—they won’t have a chance!

Butch and his two cohorts are joined by the two other goons, Trigger (Jack Rockwell) and Rusty (Ethan Laidlaw), and the five of them saddle up and ride off to where they’ll lie in wait for our heroes.


Okay, here’s the weirdest thing about this chapter: this guy here is clearly Noah Beery, Jr…who started out as a minor character in this serial named “Smokey” until he mysteriously vanished in Chapter 9.  There’s no explanation for his sudden return in this installment…and as a matter of fact, he’s not acknowledged by any of the other characters.  My theory is: Smokey is dead, and only we can see him.  (How’s that for a Sixth Sense reference?)


Jim and his funky bunch continue to ride along until Tombstone spots “Wolf and his gang”—though technically it’s just “and his gang” because Wolf should be back in Panamint.  Tomb suggests they just give the bandits the wagons (say what?) and Jim tells Mary to ride on up ahead in order to stay out of the battle because female.  So another chase scene ensues, and apparently the same continuity person who allowed Noah Beery, Jr. to sneak back into this serial forgot that with Wolf Reade in Panamint there should only be five riders chasing our heroes…but there are six.


Don’t even bother shooting, Smokey.  Dead men have no ammunition.

Just as it looks hopeless for our heroes, we hear a voice cry out: “All right, you Johnsons—uncover!”  How we were able to hear this above shooting, yelling and running horses will go unexplained…as will the reason why the miners at the camp have surrendered their identity and are content to be known as “Johnsons.”  (I was going to make a joke about there being “Too much Johnson” but…oh…it appears I already did.)


Anyway, the “Johnsons” were hiding in one of the wagons and they commence to shootin’ at Butch and the rest…I’m guessing, what, the wagons were bulletproof when Butch and Company gave chase, thus allowing them to rise up from their hiding places hale and hearty and ready to shoot?  Oh, what does it matter: characters coming back from the dead, five riders becoming six…clearly someone phoned this in from The Nineteenth Hole (the watering hole at the writers’ favorite golf course)—as evidenced by how the caravan winds up chasing Butch and his weasels without once turning around in their direction.

TOMBSTONE: Come on!  Let’s take ‘em, Jim!
JIM: Aw, it’s no use—they won’t bother us again!  Besides, we got a long way to go to Panamint…come on!


Ah, Panamint.  How we’ve missed you so.  Say hello to the pipe smoking guy, cartooners!


With the death of lackey Dan Gordon (William Hall) in Chapter 10, the filmmakers can no longer use the stock footage of second-in-command Rance Davis (Monte Blue) asking him as to the whereabouts of head bad guy Joseph Kirby (James Blaine).  So they switch to a different tack and have Rance ask some random saloon waiter, who clues him in that he’s in his office.  What I don’t understand is…Davis never seems to know whether Kirby is in his office or not.  I would think the guy who’s second on the totem pole would be more in the loop on these things.


KIRBY: Just in time for a little celebration, Davis…
DAVIS: Yeah?
KIRBY: Wolf tells me in twenty-four hours we’ll own the Aztec…
DAVIS: That sounds good…if Wolf hasn’t slipped up someplace…
WOLF: One of these days you’re gonna open that big mouth of yours too wide…and you’ll wake up with a lily in your hand

“Oh…yeah?  Well…your mother’s a lily!”

DAVIS: Well, I know Benton better than you do, Wolf…what do you think about it, Kirby?

“When you say ‘know’—is that in the Biblical sense?”

KIRBY: I’m inclined to think The Wolf knows what he’s talking about…
(Butch enters the office)
BUTCH: Wolf!
WOLF: Whaddya doin’ here?
BUTCH: Benton and his men managed to work their way out of the gorge!

“On the other hand, Davis…I always did think Wolf was a bloviating blowhard…”

WOLF: Whaddya mean?  We had ‘em trapped!
BUTCH: Yeah, I know that…they started to pull out and we jumped ‘em…they had the Johnson men with ‘em, and…outnumbered us…
KIRBY: How about the ore?
BUTCH (disappointed): It’s on its way into Panamint now…


Poor Butch.  He’ll never take the herd again.

DAVIS: Fine mess you’ve made out of things!
WOLF: Waitaminnit…since when have you been tying into my men?
BUTCH (moving toward Davis): Let him go, Wolf…
WOLF: Shut up, you…

As my old Best Western Central boss, the wily and parsimonious Robert Anderson, used to say: “There’s plenty of blame to go around.”

WOLF (to Davis): You expect five men to hold off the Johnson Gang?  Keep your trap shut!

What’s this “Johnson Gang” horsesh*t?  If they’re that formidable, Kirby should have hired them in the first place and this serial would have been over by now.  Still, as the scene fades, one can detect a look of pride in Butch’s eyes.  (“He stuck up for me!  He really, really likes me!”)

The scene shifts to an area just outside of Panamint, where the caravan has come to a halt.  Jim has put Tex in charge while he and Tombstone makes plans to have the ore in the wagon smelted.  If you look to the left of Pancho, there’s Smokey…still unseen by the others, merely a ghostly apparition.  (Sad.)


MARY: Where are you going, Jim?
JIM: Tomb and I are gonna ride along ahead and make arrangements with the smelter…
TOMBSTONE: We’ll have everything ready by the time you get there…including soup!
MARY: But why can’t I go?

“Someone’s got to make coffee and sandwiches…gee whiz!”  Tomb and Jim tell their crew hasty banana and the action heads back to Kirby’s back room:

WOLF: Well, Benton hasn’t cashed that gold yet…
DAVIS: I’ll organize enough men to take it away from him before they can get in…

“You couldn’t organize a two-wagon funeral if I spotted you the hearse, douchebag…”

KIRBY: That’s what we’ve got to do!
WOLF: No…we’ll let ‘em bring it in… (To Davis) You’ve still got that warrant we fixed up?
KIRBY: Yeah…Benton threw it in his face when he tried to serve it!
DAVIS: Well, that was because Benton knew I had no authority to serve it outside Panamint!  Right here in town, that’s different!
BUTCH: Awww…let’s jump at this feller and wipe him out!
WOLF: No…there’s no sense in doing something like that in town when we can do it legal

More like illegal.

KIRBY: I agree with Butch!  Why not wipe him out while we’ve got the chance?
WOLF (eyes narrowing): We’ll do it my way…


“Or I’ll take my whip and go home.”  Wolf instructs Kirby to round up a couple of mooks and have them “act as deputies that we can trust.”  “We’ll back your play,” he insists unconvincingly.

In the next scene, Jim and Tombstone come riding into town.  As they stop outside Kirby’s saloon, Tomb doesn’t like the layout.


TOMBSTONE: You know, Jim…we’re practically orphans here…you better keep your right hand close to your hip…
JIM: Right, Tomb…

The two men dismount and the scene then fades to this familiar sign:


Of course, “Lafe Hogan” is no longer the CEO of First Panamint Savings and Trust, having drawn his rations in Chapter 9.  Be that as it may, Jim and Tombstone enter the bank…and find Judge Knox (James Guilfoyle) at the teller’s window.  (Apparently His Honor has decided to go directly where the money is as opposed to sitting in his chambers, waiting for it to be delivered in envelopes.)


KNOX: How’s everything up at the big mine?
JIM: Couldn’t be better… (He hands him a chunk of ore) I’m bringin’ in four loads of this ore…
KNOX (scrutinizing it): Is it all like this?
JIM: You betcha!
KNOX: That’s the finest ore I’ve ever seen!
JIM: Say, Judge…would it be possible for you to advance enough money on the strength of this ore to pay Kirby’s note?
KNOX (after a pause): As soon as I get the assayer’s report…I’m pretty sure I can let you have the money…

Well, he was mighty accommodating.  Isn’t this the dinkerplatz who arranged that warrant with which Davis was going to serve Jim?  Oh, well…look what the cat left on the floor after spitting up all night—Joe Kirby!

JIM: Oh…hello, Kirby…
KIRBY: How are you, Benton…
KNOX: When will this ore be up at the smelter?
JIM: We expect it in sometime today…
KNOX: Fine!
JIM: I’ll bring you the report as soon as I get it…

Jim walks back to the bank entrance with a not-entirely-smug look on his face, and Tombstone cracks: “Horseface looked kind of surprised to see us.”

“I shouldn’t be a bit surprised,” drawls Jim as the two of them head out the door.  Back at the saloon, Davis enters the establishment again…and shakes things up by seating himself at a table occupied by Wolf and Butch, who are having a few.


DAVIS: Benton and Tombstone are in town…they’re on their way to the smelter…
BUTCH: Let’s go at ‘em now…while we’ve got the chance…
WOLF: No…we’ll do it the way we figured…
DAVIS: But, Wolf…
WOLF: Shaddup


Sounds more like “we’ll do it the way I figured.”  (Wolf would appear to be a man who likes to call the shots.)  Well, I can skip over most of this next part: Benton and Tombstone arrive at the Panamint Smelting & Ore Refining Company, and Jim chats up a man identified as Wilson (Alonzo Price), who’s ostensibly running the joint.  Jim shows off that big honkin’ ore of his (he’s very proud) and asks him if he could get an assayer’s report—Wilson replies that they’re “a little crowded” but that he’ll see what he can do.

Outside the plant, Wolf, Davis and Wolf’s posse ride up.  “Do your job, Davis,” snarls Reade, and Rance shoots him a look that says “Bitch, please!”


DAVIS: You back me up now!
WOLF: We’ll take care of ya…

Oh, that’s reassuring.  Back in Wilson’s office, Wilson tells Benton he can have the report ready just about the time the wagons arrive with the rest of the ore.  Jim leaves the office, whistling a jaunty tune…and then he and Tomb run into you-know-who.


DAVIS: I’ve been waiting for you, Benton…
JIM: What for, Davis?
TOMBSTONE: For no good…you can bet your bottom dollar on that…
DAVIS: You’re right, Tombstone…there’s nothing good about murder
JIM: Oh!  You’re still trying to stick me with a trumped-up murder charge, huh?
DAVIS: I’m sticking you this time!  Hand over your gun…both of you!
JIM: Wait a minute, Davis…let’s see that warrant…

Jim quickly discerns the warrant is El Fake-o Piece of Paper-o, and remarks to Davis: “You better tell Kirby to think of something else.”  Well, apparently they have—a patently phony fistfight erupts, one that would have Republic stuntmen saying “Bitch, please!”  Jim and Tomb knock their would-be brawlers to the ground with the greatest of ease, then jump on their horses and ride off, heckbent for leather.  Davis ineffectually pulls his gun out of his holster but is too late to shoot.  He fires off a shot, and the noise attracts the attention of Wolf and his gang—“Davis has messed it up,” remarks Wolf, restraining from rolling his eyes.  “Let’s go, boys!”

Yes, there’s about a minute-and-a-half left in this chapter…and that means another chase scene.  The big cliffhanger this week involves Jim and Tombstone racing away from Wolf and his gang as a thunderstorm commences (there’s a scene of the rest of the Death Valley crew transporting the ore, and Pancho remarking “Don’t you know the lightning upstairs don’t care who it hits?”).  As Jim and Tomb gallop across a bridge, a bolt of lightning hits the bridge, as if they had somehow angered Zeus and the rest of Mount Olympus…