Saturday, December 24, 2011

My baby loves the western movies

I’m not sure what motivated me during the Thanksgiving holiday into breaking into a Timeless Media Group collection that I bought more than two years ago (The Classic TV Western Collection, released in May 2009), but I watched everything on this box set in its entirety…and came away with a mixed opinion on its contents and presentation.  I’m a sucker for any kind of “Definitive” collection (Mill Creek Entertainment has released a passel of them in the past—this one here touts 600 episodes from various TV oaters) and usually don’t mind the somewhat-less-than-stellar quality (much of the material originated from what my colleague Phil Schweier calls “Public Domain,” and he’s [Mr. Domain] not generally revered for taking good care of his prints) provided I haven’t paid too much.  If you check out some of the reviews for this set at, you’ll detect a lot of unhappy campers…and if they paid the SRP tariff of $39.98, they probably have a legitimate gripe.  (I think I paid less than 20 bucks when it was released—another Amazon commenter mentions he found it for $15 at a Sam’s Club.)  So I will warn you right now—some of these reruns are in very crappy condition.  But some of them also won’t be turning up on any cable channels any time soon, so if you’re curious to check it out you might want to shop around for the best price.

The first two discs of the set are labeled “The NBC Westerns” (Parts 1 and 2), and feature representative episodes from some of the series that were shown on the network during the heyday of the boob tube oaters, including legendary shows such as Bonanza and Wagon Train.  Timeless Media Group inked a deal with NBC/Universal to release a lot of these programs to DVD; they’ve done a nice job with Seasons 1-4 of Train (plus Season 7, the one in color) and Seasons 1-5 of The Virginian (plus the ninth season, aka The Men from Shiloh) but haven’t been as diligent as with some of the others due to the fact that NBC/Universal displays little interest in going the full restoration mile (while Timeless has the go-ahead to release the material on DVD, they often have to track down the prints themselves, usually from collectors).  A breakdown of the episodes:

The NBC Westerns, Disc 1

Laramie – “The Runaway” (01/23/62) While the resurfacing on DVD of this long-forgotten western—a staple on NBC’s schedule from 1959-63—has always been welcome news to classic TV fans, the surviving prints of the show’s episodes are often a hit-or-miss affair…with many of the color episodes fuzzy or washed out depending on the source material.  (The black-and-white shows, from the first two seasons, have a much higher batting average in terms of quality…proof that monochrome is not always a bad thing.)  This outing features Stacia fave James Best as—I know, he’s really flexing his thespic muscles here—a snot-nosed punk who’s attempting to steer the titular character (Jack Chaplain) into a life of cattle rustling until Spring Byington’s Daisy Cooper intervenes and convinces stars John Smith and Robert Fuller to hire him as a ranch hand.

Laredo – “Quarter Past Eleven” (03/24/66) Lee Van Cleef’s presence in this episode is sort of an in-joke because “Eleven” is a comic homage to High Noon…and of course, Van Cleef played one of the bad guys in that western film classic.  Laredo is one of my all-time favorite television guilty pleasures (not to mention my esteemed blogging colleague Scott C. at World O’Crap), a sort of sagebrush combination of The Three Musketeers (with a nod to the B-western movie series The Three Mesquiteers) and Gunga Din that may not necessarily be great television but is a painless way to kill an hour…and personally, I’ll watch Neville Brand in just about anything.  (I liked Peter Brown better on Lawman, though.)

Wagon Train – “The Jeremy Dow Story” (12/28/60) Leslie Nielsen plays a drunk (with a secret past) who gets a shot at redemption.  Meh.  Not terrible, but nothing you need to rush home for, either.  I saw enough Wagon Train episodes on Encore Westerns to really satisfy my curiosity about the series, which is why I’m dreading its eventual arrival on Me-TV (because its presentation will be stymied with commercials like that the one with Henry Winkler trying to peddle reverse mortgages).

Riverboat – “The Fight Back” (10/18/59) – Here’s the nifty thing about this series: if anyone ever asks you who was captain of the Enterprise, you can answer “Grey Holden” and technically you’re right.  (“Holden” is played by Darren McGavin; “Enterprise” the titular vessel.)  I can see why this show had a relatively short run (this episode didn’t really hold my interest, though McGavin is always welcome at Rancho Yesteryear as are OTR vets Ken Lynch and Karl Swenson…with assistance from another Stacia fave, Henry Daniell) but it’s got its share of fans (Timeless released a collection of twelve shows in 2007 that had a few of them cheesed off at the quality) and it was an early TV showcase for Burt Reynolds (who left the series midway in its first season because he reportedly did not get along with McGavin).

Tales of Wells Fargo – “Jesse James” (07/01/57) I mentioned one time in a previous blog post that this show was one of my Mom’s favorites when she was a young’un (and that my father likes to tease her by referring to its star, Dale Robertson, as “Dale Roberts”); this was a pretty good outing (with first-rate video quality) and the titular outlaw is played by…wait for it…Hugh Beaumont!  Former Bowery Boy Bobby Jordan (billed as Robert) is also in this one, playing Jesse’s future assassin, Bob Ford.  (I’ve got the first & second season set on my Amazon wish list but I’m going to wait for a price drop.)

The NBC Westerns, Disc 2

The Deputy – “The Return of Simon Fry” (02/13/60) I did a blog post about this show about the time Timeless released a compilation set; they have since made the entire run of the show available on a collection I sheepishly admit I own but have yet to open...if the video quality of those shows are as good as this one episode (which is in the public domain, so go figure) I think the company has a winner.  I like this series, but I’ll admit I’m more partial to the first season shows when character great Wallace Ford (as the town marshal) and Betty Lou Keim (as Fran McCord, sister of star Allen Case’s Clay [the deputy]) were regulars—they vanished in season 2 and were replaced by actor Read Morgan as cavalry sergeant Hapgood Tasker.  Henry Fonda appeared in this series as Chief Marshal Simon Fry, and in this installment he fakes his death to flush out an assassin.

Restless Gun – “Cheyenne Express” (12/02/57) This is one series that I’d really like to see Timeless take a stab at releasing the complete run because on the basis on this one episode it looks like a sure winner.  It’s a TV adaptation of the James Stewart radio oater The Six Shooter, and this episode finds the show’s main character, Vint Bonner (John Payne), reluctantly protecting a man (Royal Dano) who shot a notorious outlaw in the back.  This show is available in a 3-DVD set containing 24 episodes (including the Schlitz Playhouse of Stars pilot) and while the video quality isn’t pristine it’s certainly more than watchable (and enjoyable).

The Tall Man – “Bad Company” (09/24/60) Timeless has released the complete run of this series to DVD—a collection that I’m curious to own because even though it’s not too hard to dope out why it lasted just two seasons (the series takes a lot of liberties with the story of its titular character, sheriff Pat Garrett, and his apparently best bud, outlaw Billy the Kid) it’s not too bad judging from this one episode (the third in the series).  I’ve always liked Clu “I think this falls into the ‘or what’ category” Gulager, and it’s interesting to see Barry Sullivan not play a delectable bastard.

Cimarron City – “Blind is the Killer” (02/21/59) The best thing about this short-lived show (it lasted just one season, creamed in its time slot by Gunsmoke and Have Gun – Will Travel) is Audrey Totter…and she has very little to do outside of looking concerned that mayor George Montgomery might lose his sight after tangling with snot-nosed punk Robert Fuller.  Fuller’s future Laramie co-star, John Smith, also appeared on this one (as the town lawman)…not to mention Dan Blocker, who played blacksmith “Tiny” Budinger before saddling up on Bonanza.  Which brings me to…

Bonanza – “The Gunmen” (01/23/60) As you may be aware, there are about twenty-some episodes of Bonanza that are in the public domain…and this is one of them; the video quality is fine but the familiar theme music has been replaced by a generic (and risible) western composition because the original tune is still under copyright.  (I know of at least one collection that features the P.D. shows with the original theme—I’m not sure how they got away with it but the fact that I haven’t been able to find the set anywhere since that initial purchase suggests that they didn’t.)  I’m on record as not being a vocal champion of the program but this one was fun to watch; Cartwrights Hoss (Blocker) and Little Joe (Michael Landon) are mistaken for a pair of outlaws (who look exactly like our heroes) and much hilarity ensues.  Some good character actors in this one, too—Henry Hull, King Donovan, Douglas Spencer and the always welcome Ellen Corby.

Disc 3, “Western Heroes of the Small Screen,” contains nice-looking episodes (again, considering their P.D. status the prints are first-rate) of The Lone Ranger and The Roy Rogers Show…not to mention the short-lived 1960 series Tate, which probably should have been grouped under the “NBC Westerns” banner.  Rounding out the disc are individual episodes of Buffalo Bill, Jr., The Adventures of Kit Carson, The Cisco Kid and Annie Oakley; nothing distinguishing at all about these shows (and the prints are sub-standard to boot) save for the fact that Oakley exposes the villain in her story (“Sharp Shooting Annie”) by shooting off his obviously false nose (I swear I’m not making that up).  There’s also a half-hour Red Ryder pilot from 1951, “Whiplash”…which does not feature Allan “Rocky” Lane as Fred Harman’s comic strip creation as indicated in the set’s liner notes but Jim Bannon, who played Red in four B-western features for Eagle-Lion in the late 1940s.  I enjoyed watching this one (despite its all-too-familiar story) because of the presence of character greats Lyle Talbot, Kenneth MacDonald, Monte Blue and Dick Curtis…and one of my favorite bad guys, Robert J. Wilke, is the hombre who picks a fight with our hero in a saloon.

“Life in the West” is the title of disc #4, and kicks off with an episode of The High Chaparral (“Shadow of the Wind”) that is in the public domain (one of two, I believe)…but the print of this outing is a blurry mess, and in black-and-white to boot.  (That aside, it’s still a worthwhile watch, and after seeing it made me sad that this show is not only available on DVD you rarely see it on any kind of cable outlet.)  There’s also the P.D. episode of the Warner Bros. owned Sugarfoot, “The Return of the Canary Kid” (02/03/59), and one of the three The Rifleman installments also in the public domain, “Day of the Hunter” (01/05/60)…which features TDOY fave John Anderson as a mountain man.  What’s interesting about this disc is that the episode chosen to represent The Texan, a 1958-60 series that has been released on DVD by Timeless, is “A Quart of Law” (01/12/59)—which I singled out in the review I wrote about the collection.  The other shows are 26 Men, Range Rider and Frontier Doctor; again, nothing particularly noteworthy about these except that I enjoyed Frontier Doctor because of Rex Allen…who would be in the top three of my favorite film narrators of all time (he voice-overed more Disney docs than most of us have had hot dinners).

Another unsold TV pilot from 1955, “The Texas Ranger,” starts off Disc Five (“The Legendary Lawmen”); this one features Dennis Morgan as the title character and I kind of had to suppress a snicker when he looks at the camera in the beginning and says: “With your permission, I’d like to portray Ranger Harris…”  (“We’ve talked it over, Den…and have decided we can’t allow you to do this.”)  This pilot isn’t anything special…and to be honest, it would have been better if Jack Carson had turned up…but there’s reliable support from John Doucette, Strother Martin (who always seems to be running the cantinas in these western towns) and Paul Burke, before he started investigating those eight million stories in the Naked City.  Another rarity presents itself in the form of an episode of Yancy Derringer, a Christmas-themed episode (“Old Dixie”) from the 1958-59 series that starred Jock Mahoney as kind of a dandified gambler who’s living in the Tara mansion from Gone With the Wind.  (The episode’s content is so-so but it features good performances from Louise Fletcher, Kevin Hagen, Frances Bergen and John Qualen).  Other shows on this disc include Bat Masterson, Judge Roy Bean, Cowboy G-Men (which is worth watching only because Jackie “Uncle Fester” Coogan plays the sidekick), Shotgun Slade and an entertaining episode of Death Valley Days (“Deadline at Austin”) that features future Fugitive David Janssen as a medicine show huckster who helps a small hamlet put one over on crooked bidnessmen (and politicians…they kind of go together) trying to stop a railroad from going through.

There’s also a bonus disc with this collection entitled “The Lost Westerns”—and it’s pretty much multiple trips to Pilot City with a bunch of failed series attempts like Tumbleweed (I can see why this one didn’t make it; its star, Gary Gray, can’t act his way out of a paper bag) and The Adventures of Rick O’Shay…which I was hoping would be an adaptation of the Stan Lynde comic strip (into everyone’s life a little rain must fall, I suppose).  But there are some interesting offerings on this disc, and because of this we come to the screen capture portion of our post:

Diamond Jim – A 1965 pilot (the episode is called “Skullduggery in Samantha”) that features former Tales of Wells Fargo star Dale Robertson as the legendary “Diamond” Jim Brady, here channeling his inner Robert Preston from Blood On the Moon:

It’s not a bad little show—the presence of TDOY fave Walter Burke (as Jim’s retired cop sidekick) and Robert Cornthwaite (Karl Swenson’s also in this one, as is Robert Emhardt) certainly helps in a story that’s remarkably similar to the plot of that Janssen Death Valley Days episode I mentioned earlier.  There’s also a brief bit from this cowpoke before he went riding around with Jed “Kid” Curry:

He’s billed as “Peter R. Duel” in this one.  This series was filmed at M-G-M (which probably explains the better-than-usual production values) and ABC had a piece of it, so why it never made the schedule is anybody’s guess.

“The Frontiersman” – A “back-door” pilot—back-door because while the show stars Gene Evans as a schoolteacher, Otis Stockert, who goes from town to town tryin’ to give kids a little book-larnin’ it also briefly features Joel McCrea as town marshal Mike Dunbar…and a glance at the episode list for McCrea’s 1959-1960 series Wichita Town identifies this as an episode from that show, originally telecast on March 2, 1960.  This particular print doesn’t have any titles indicating it as Town, though; the fact that it also features Evans in a short epilogue at the end talking about the character and the direction the proposed series will go would seem to indicate that they were putting this out to see if they could get a sponsor to nibble.  I’m always up for something featuring McCrea, but his part is pretty miniscule since the show focuses on Evans’ character.

McCrea’s son Jody was also a cast member on Wichita Town (as deputy Ben Masters) even though most classic movie fans know him as “Bonehead” or “Deadhead” or “(Fill in the blank)-head” from the Frankie & Annette Beach Party movies.  But in another busted pilot on this disc, he plays “Moccasin Treads Softly”…though you may call him…Johnny Moccasin!

Believe me, good people…it’s as hooty as its sounds.  McCrea is billed as “Jode McCrea,” and among the tribal elders:

I believe he’s part of the Hekawi tribe

…known to shed a tear if someone tosses a bag of trash out of a moving car…

…and finally John Miljan, whom I believe had to appear as an Indian in every Western—TV and movie—because of a California law at the time.  (I could be wrong about this.)

If you’re curious as to why Mr. Moccasin looks less like a Native American and more like he’s about to hit his board for some tasty waves it’s because the backstory is he’s a Caucasian gent who was rescued by Indians after his family was killed in a wagon accident.  He ends up being captured by a settlement populated by the likes of TDOY fave John Larch and Claude Akins (if you’re quick you’ll also spot OTR veteran Billy Idelson in a bit part)…and of course, as Brent McKee has previously mentioned, appearing in a serious role means that Raymond Bailey loses the rug…

Frontier - A proposed series that I wish had been picked up because the show was created by veteran radio scribes Morton Fine and David Friedkin; the pilot, “The Assassin,” tells the story of gun-for-hire Thorpe Henderson (Chuck Connors)…who is framed for the murder of a man he didn’t kill because the populace of a Western town (led by the reliably nasty John Hoyt) have decided that Thorpe is an anachronism in a society swept up in the throes of civilization and they need to eliminate him.  Frontier, produced by TV legend Worthington Miner, has the same sort of feel as Fine and Friedkin’s radio crime anthology Crime Classics (both of these programs were based on historical accounts)…with a standout cast that includes Malcolm Atterbury and Barry Atwater.  I also like how they don’t sugar-coat the romantic relationship between Connors’ Anderson and the local school marm (played by Isa Childers)—in fact, it’s a plot point later in the drama when she refuses to alibi for his whereabouts (he was in flagrante delicto with her at the time of the killing) for fear of being ostracized from the community.

There are two other pilots on this disc—the first one is called “Night Rider” and the production values on this one are so low-budget it reminds me of one of those instructional films they show after the movies on TCM Underground.  It’s of interest because it features country music legend Johnny Cash in an acting role as a gunslinger who sits down with some cattle drovers (that include another country great, Merle Travis, and Johnny “The Ballad of Paladin” Western) over a campfire for a philosophical discussion…then switches to a saloon where he guns down snot-nosed punk Dick Jones…then back to the campfire where he tells the drovers of his situation by singing his hit Don’t Take Your Guns to Town.  Since Town was a hit for the Man in Black in 1959 I’m guessing that’s when this show was made (it appears to be a segment for a proposed anthology series) but apparently after securing the big-name talent they had to really skimp on the sets for fear of busting the budget.

“Story of a Star,” the last pilot on the DVD, is also of interest to country music fans…

First off, this character known as “Felipe,” who draws his rations early on, is played by none other than “Mr. Teardrop” himself, Marty Robbins…

…and it was bugging me as to where I knew this laconic lawman until it suddenly dawned on me that it was country crooner Carl Smith, whose hits included Let Old Mother Nature Have Her Way and It’s a Lovely, Lovely World.  (His character is listed at the IMDb as “Sheriff Carl Smith,” though I recognized him before I saw that.)  “Star” also features old favorites like Harry Lauter, Douglas Fowley, Louis Jean Heydt, Lee Van Cleef and the incomparable Lawrence Dobkin…if the IMDb is to be believed (and why not, considering its reputation for accuracy, he said sarcastically) this is an edited-down version of a B-western entitled The Badge of Marshal Brennan (1957), which stars a pre-Dallas Jim Davis as an outlaw who acquires Brennan’s badge after the Marshal kicks it and decides to use his guns to fight a truly despicable father-and-son team (played by Heydt and Van Cleef) who are attempting to paper over the fact that their cattle are diseased.  So they whittled Brennan down to about half-hour length and included an introduction and closing from Victor McLaglen…providing loads of laughs as he valiantly tries to mask his dependence on cue cards.

So there you have it…a mixture of the familiar and unfamiliar in the form of some classic (and far-from-classic) television westerns.  If you can track it down at Sam’s Club for that $15 price tag I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I think you’ll be a happy camper…otherwise, I’d recommend this collection for diehard western fans only.


The Lady Eve said...

I thought I knew the title of every small-screen western series ever made, but "Johnny Moccasin" starring Jode McCrea rings not one bell. That is probably a good thing.

I'm impressed with your knowledge of 1950s California law, by the way.

Scott said...

“With your permission, I’d like to portray Ranger Harris…” (“We’ve talked it over, Den…and have decided we can’t allow you to do this.”)

Best laugh of the week.

However, I must pick a bone. Laredo is pure pleasure, and there ain't nothin' guilty about it! (Although yeah, Peter Brown was better in Lawmen, because he had to underplay opposite John Russell for fear of looking hysterical by comparison, but I suspect he knew he was in constant danger of being blown off the screen by the always magnetic Neville Brand, and occasionally pushed the Boyish Charm a bit too hard).

Gary Gray was the moppet star of the MST3K classic The Painted Hills, and not only couldn't he act his way out of a paper bag, but if you looked into a paper bag and found Gary Gray inside, you'd immediately pull around and go back to the drive-through window, no matter how many cars were in line, in order to demand a refund.

I had no idea John Miljan made a career as a faux Indian. I will always remember him as the perpetually drunken Dad in another classic Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode, I Accuse My Parents.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

not only couldn't he act his way out of a paper bag, but if you looked into a paper bag and found Gary Gray inside, you'd immediately pull around and go back to the drive-through window, no matter how many cars were in line, in order to demand a refund

I beg to differ...that is the best laugh of the week.

Mike Doran said...

Hi Ivan ...

Frontier, produced by Worthington Miner, was picked up as a series, by NBC in 1955. It ran on Sunday nights at 7:30 (6:30 Central) from September '55 to September '56.
Accordding to Brooks and Marsh, Frontier was a Western anthology, so Chuck Connors wouldn't be in all the shows, but there you are.

Oh, by the by, are you aware that The Rebel reruns on MEtv are missing "The Ballad Of Johnny Yuma"?
Johnny Cash's vocal is MIA, replaced by "Generic Western Theme #36B", - even though the song and Cash still get credit at the close. Ol' debbil music rights, I guess.
I haven't been this distresed since I learned that Iron Eyes Cody was really Italian (but since I saw this in IMDb, I still don't know for sure).

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Frontier, produced by Worthington Miner, was picked up as a series, by NBC in 1955. It ran on Sunday nights at 7:30 (6:30 Central) from September '55 to September '56.

Thanks for the info on this, Mike...I knew it was an anthology but was unaware that it actually made it to air. The Connors episode was so good it seemed a shame that it never got picked up so I'm glad to hear the additional backstory.

I've been watching The Rebel reruns and suspected that was the case with the theme song (particularly after seeing, as you point out, the Johnny Cash mention in the credits). I've long suspected that they did some tinkering with those shows because there have been some major continuity gaffes that I attributed to edits.

I learned that Iron Eyes Cody wasn't a legitimate redskin at :-)

Yvette said...

I've watched westerns, TV and movies, forever, it seems. I have a great book, A PICTORIAL HiSTORY OF THE WESTERN FILM by William K. Everson which has pix and bits and pieces about most of the western films I saw as a young'un.

The TV Shows you're talking about today, Ivan, ring such a bell for me. Jeez, I remember so many of them. My favorite, of course, was HAVE GUN WILL TRAVEL. But I remember watching WAGON TRAIN and GUNSMOKE and THE VIRGINIAN and whatnot. CHEYENNE was my special teenage favorite. I mean, Clint Walker. Need I say more?

Ivan, you definitely need to write a book. You are one of the finest writers in blog-land. (I fancy that I know good writing when I fall across it.) More importantly, you ALWAYS make me laugh out loud.

I love a man who makes me laugh. I know, I know, you're already taken.

I must remain a fan from afar. :)

Mike Doran said...

Well, at least you can get
My company employs a service called Websense which blocks "inappropriate" sites, so my tender young 61-year-old psyche won't be damaged.
Websense calls "tasteless".
But they let through every political commentary site.
Figure that out if you can...