Friday, August 30, 2013

Guest Review: Captain Blood (1935)

By Philip Schweier

A year or two back I got me a Kindle, and being the cheapskate that I am, I immediately loaded it up with as many public domain books as I could find. Among them was Raphael Sabatini’s swashbuckling adventure novel, Captain Blood. Midway through reading it recently, I decided to revisit the film version. Directed by Michael Curtiz in 1935, it is the first of nine pairings of then-unknowns Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland.

Flynn plays Dr. Peter Blood, a physician in 1685 who is called out in the middle of the night to tend the wounds of a political rebel.  Consequently, he himself is convicted of treason against King James and exiled into slavery in the West Indies. There, he is purchased on the whim of Arabella Bishop (de Havilland), the niece of a wealthy plantation owner (Lionel Atwill). As a prank, she arranges for the defiant doctor to treat the governor’s gout, which draws the resentment of the town’s official physicians (Hobart Cavanaugh and Donald Meek).

The doctors conspire to finance Blood’s escape, ridding themselves of this usurper to their profession. Blood intends to take with him a company of his fellow prisoners, but on the eve of their departure a Spanish galleon attacks Port Royal, Blood leads his men to capture the vessel and escape to the high seas. Privateers though they may be, Blood instills in his crew a unity of purpose, and a vow for the fair and ethical disposal of all their booty, including captives, especially women.

Nevertheless, Blood’s name becomes fear throughout the Caribbean, leading to a partnership with the French pirate Levasseur (Basil Rathbone), who chafes under Blood’s ideals. This builds to a head when Levasseur captures Arabella, who is sailing home after a brief visit to England. With her is Lord Willoughby (Henry Stephenson), who has been tasked by the king to bring an end to the pirate raids in the West Indies.

In a duel to the death with Levasseur, Blood wins the lovely Arabella and rids himself of the cruel French captain with the stroke of a single cutlass. While aboard Blood’s ship, she rebukes the charming buccaneer, who in turn decides to exchange her freedom for his own. Of course any one can see that these two kids are crazy in love, and nothing good will come of all this posturing.

Blood intends to sale to Port Royal even though it will mean not only his death, but that of his crew. Arabella’s uncle is now the governor, and he’s sure to put the lot of them in a noose at the first opportunity.

Arriving at Port Royal, Blood discovers the town under attack by a pair of French ships. Willoughby explains that France and England are at war, and he has been authorized to offer Blood and his crew a place in the British Navy. Naturally, they collectively refuse to serve King James, only to be told by Willoughby that James has been deposed and William III now sits on the throne.

With a fresh wind blowing, Blood orders his vessel into the harbor where, under the guise of the French flag, he is able to take both ships by surprise and save the town from destruction in a dramatic battle sequence. Though filmed mainly with miniatures, process photography and stock footage, it is surprisingly effective.

But what of Blood’s fate? Governor Bishop had abandoned the protection of his station in a misguided and fruitless pursuit of Blood. Willoughby reveals to Bishop that if he’s lucky, the new governor might not hang him for abandoning his post. Of course it’s up to Arabella to plead for clemency, but seeing as how her true love is now the governor, she just might be able to save her uncle from the gallows.

Of course, similar events would be played out a few years later, when Flynn plays yet another dashing rogue who charms a privileged beauty in his quest for justice and loyalty to the King of England, skewering Basil Rathbone in the process. Yes, kids, I’m talking about The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), also directed by Michael Curtiz.

If it seems that Rathbone made a career out of playing villainous swordsmen, there’s a reason. At the time, he had a reputation as the finest swordsman in Hollywood. His skill was legendary, and it has been claimed he was so good that he could make a novice opponent (usually the film’s hero) appear far better.

Comparing the novel to the film, the movie is of course condensed, and the book perhaps rather wordy by today’s standards. The book harkens back to an earlier time, when adventure novels were epic stories in the vein of The Three Musketeers or Scaramouche. I don’t hold it against the film that it hits mostly the high points of the novel. It’s merely the product of its time – but it’s a mighty good product. Its only fault is that it parallels too closely its younger sibling, the more widely known Adventures of Robin Hood.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The State of the Blog (pre-birthday edition)

This morning at the Radio Spirits blog, I was asked to do a shout-out to character great Willard Waterman, who was born on this date ninety-nine years ago.  Willard is best remembered as the actor who replaced Hal Peary as The Great Gildersleeve in the fall of 1950; Peary had asked his sponsor, Kraft Foods, for an ownership stake in the program…and thought that if he signed a deal with the CBS Radio Network (just another soldier in Bill Paley’s Talent Raid platoon) the show would follow him.  Bzzzzt!  Wrong answer.  Kraft kept Gildersleeve on NBC (hiring soundalike Willard) and Peary went on to do Honest Harold (aka The Hal Peary Show)…a short-lived sitcom that some old-time radio fans believe better than its reputation.  (For the record…I’m not one of them.)

Waterman’s transition to the Gildersleeve role was virtually seamless; he sounded precisely like Peary’s character—the only differences was that Willard refused to do the “dirty laugh” (he-he-he-he-he), believing it to be Hal’s trademark (and it pretty much was) and he also cut back on Gildy’s singing (Waterman was a fine singer…he just couldn’t duplicate Peary-as-Gildy as well).  While Willard was able to get away with the deception on radio, he had a few problems when it came to TV: he was much taller than Harold Peary (Waterman was 6’4”) and people had their own idea of what Gildersleeve looked like after seeing Hal play him in a number of movies in the 1940s.

It kind of does Waterman a disservice to think of him only as “the replacement Gildy,” however—he worked other radio shows, including The Halls of Ivy…where he played Professor Merriweather, the ally of Dr. William Todhunter “Toddy” Hall (Ronald Colman).  Waterman came to Los Angeles in the mid-40s because a sitcom on which he was appearing, Those Websters, moved there from Chicago and Willard went along for the ride.  Those Websters was a continuation of That Brewster Boy, an Aldrich Family-like sitcom that had a brief run in the early 1940s (in fact, I read somewhere where the family was renamed “Webster” because it was an anagram of “Brewster”).  Waterman also did a few movies and a lot of TV; he was Mr. Quigley, the grocer on Dennis the Menace, and you might recognize him as Claude Upson if you’ve ever seen Auntie Mame (1958).  Back in my video store clerk days in the 1980s, the trailer for The Apartment (1960) would play often and you could hear Waterman’s Mr. Vanderhoff wail “I already ordered the cake!”

So with the steamers and noisemakers handed out…now I have to drop the bad news ordnance.  Things have been pretty busy around Rancho Yesteryear of late, what with my new responsibilities and all…so it looks like we’re going to have to go another week without Riders of Death Valley (1941) and Doris Day(s).  I’ve also got things outside of these two chores competing for my time—one of them involves working on a way to make a little money because while we’re exactly destitute here in the House of Yesteryear we may have to turn to that if we don’t develop a new revenue stream or two.  There is a Coming Distractions post due later in the day (around 6pm), and Mr. Schweier has another movie review for us tomorrow around 8am.  In the meantime, play nice and I’ll get back with you when I can.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Guest Review: Casino Royale (1967)

By Philip Schweier

After watching last year’s documentary Everything or Nothing: the Untold Story of 007, I decided I should revisit the original Bond films, including “Casino Royale” as it was presented on CBS in 1954. This episode of the television series Climax! featured an American Jimmy Bond played by Barry Nelson.

As bad as that was, it was only slightly more palatable than the 1967 James Bond spoof of the same name. According to some sources, it was originally intended to be filmed by the Bond producers Albert “Cubby” Brocolli and Harry Saltzman, but the recent partnership with Kevin McClorry on Thunderball (1965) had left a bad taste in their mouths, so Charles K. Feldman, who held the rights to Casino Royale, proceeded without them.

Rather than produce an entirely independent spy film as McClorry would later do with Never Say Never Again (1983), Feldman chose to play the story for laughs. Sure, let’s cast Peter Sellers and Woody Allen, and the laughs will just happen. Of course, in Hollywood that never works.

Starring as Bond is David Niven, brought out of retirement by the assassination of his former boss M (John Huston). Bond immediately takes over the old department, and realizing that James Bond 007 has a target on his chest, he immediately sets out to confuse the enemy – SMERSH – by designating all his agents as James Bond 007 just to confuse the enemy – including his nephew Jimmy (Allen).

With the help of Vesper Lynd (former Bond girl Ursula Andress), a trap is laid for SMERSH operative le Chiffre (Orson Welles) by causing him to lose at baccarat, drawing the enmity of his superiors. Subbing for Bond is baccarat authority Evelyn Tremble (Sellers).

Meanwhile, the real Bond sends his daughter Mata (Joanna Pettet) to infiltrate a SMERSH hive located in West Berlin. It’s trippy in a deChirico sort of way, and merely provides a diversion from the original story while introducing a kidnappable sidekick for later in the film.

The film is dull, despite the hand of six different directors and 10 different writers (most of them, such as Allen, Sellers, Ben Hecht, Jospeh Heller and Billy Wilder) would be uncredited. To call it a comedy is being generous, as there are painfully few laughs to be had. In all, it adds up to 131 minutes of painful watching best left for desperate rainy afternoons, or those days when one is suffering from a cold and misery is such that anything else can hardly do any further harm.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The mighty Thor

Over at the Radio Spirits blog this a.m., I was asked by the fine staff of the leading publisher and marketer of old-time radio programs to whip up a surprise party for actor-announcer Larry Thor, born on this date in 1916.  Larry’s best known for his five-year-stint as New York detective Danny Clover on Broadway’s My Beat; if you’ve not heard his familiar voice on that, you probably know him as the announcer on Suspense from August 1951 to October 1956.  He worked a great many shows (On Stage, Crime Classics) as both actor and announcer, and he also appears in more than a few films and TV episodes as well.

Here’s the story: I asked one of the editors at Radio Spirits if she could supply me with some pictures of Larry to go with the essay…and she was able to come up with a really good one.  But when I hunted around on the Internets to look for others—the only one I came across was the one the editor bestowed upon me.  Not to worry, I said to myself—a quick glance at his IMDb stats showed me that I had one or two movies in which he had roles in the dusty Thrilling Days of Yesteryear archives…and I could even fall back on some TV work (which, fortunately, I didn’t have to do).

One of Larry’s most prominent film roles is that of the Army doctor in the 1957 sci-fi cult classic The Amazing Colossal Man—but a search of the archives yielded no positive results of that cheesy favorite.  I did, however, manage to locate my copy of The Fast and the Furious (1955)—another cult fave where man-on-the-run John Ireland takes Dorothy Malone hostage at a diner and the two of them elude the police with a really fast set of wheels as he convinces her of his innocence.  Larry plays one of the detectives investigating Ireland, and fortunately for me he turns up pretty early in the film because I revisited this one the last time it was on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ and was reminded just how boring it is.

Thor is also in Zero Hour! (1957)—another favorite here at Rancho Yesteryear, mainly because it’s the inspiration for the 1980 mega-hit cult comedy Airplane!  Larry is one of the guys in the situation room and is featured prominently in the section of the movie where Sterling Hayden has to talk Dana Andrews down from the flight in which the passengers and pilots come down with food poisoning (we lose Larry when Hayden heads up to the control tower).  Zero is a fun little thrill ride of a movie…but if you’re like me and you’ve seen Airplane! way too many times, you’ll probably find yourself filling in the gags during the “straight” presentation.

The 1970 animated feature The Phantom Tollbooth—directed by Chuck Jones & Abe Levitow from Norman Justus’ classic kids book—prominently showcases Thor’s speaking tones…but then again, that movie is crammed with great voice artists and OTR veterans: Mel Blanc, Daws Butler, Candy Candido, June Foray, Hans Conried, Shepard Menken and Les Tremayne.  Over at the always reliable IMDb, Larry is credited with playing “Kakofonous A. Dischord”…and I’m sorry, IMDb people—but the actor in that role sounds nothing like Thor.  (I’m convinced it’s Cliff Norton playing that part.)  I’m pretty sure Larry voiced Tock the Watchdog in that movie (a part credited to Shep Menken at the IMDb—Shep definitely plays the Spelling Bee, because he’s using his Richard Haydn/Clyde Crashcup voice on that).  To be honest—I’m not a Tollbooth devotee; it’s one of those movies that I’ll watch every now and then mostly for the vocal talent.  After the movie, I watched the other movie I had on the disc—1001 Arabian Nights (1959), another animated feature that I enjoy more for the voices (Butler, Conried, Jim Backus, Alan Reed, Herschel Bernardi) than the finished product.

Finally, Larry has a quick bit as a police sergeant in a Columbia potboiler from 1958: The True Story of Lynn Stuart.  The title says “true” because it is apparently the “ripped from the headlines” story of Santa Ana housewife Phyllis Carter (Betsy Palmer, before she went on a killing spree in Friday the 13th) who convinces the authorities to let her go undercover and infiltrate a gang of drug pushers who, it is alleged, are responsible for the death of her nephew in a car crash.  As “Lynn Stuart,” Betsy is a hard-boiled parolee who attracts the eye of narcotics dealer Willie Down (Jack Lord) and having gained his confidence reports on his activities to Lt. Jim Hagan (Barry Atwater).  But “Lynn” finds herself up to her neck in trouble when she is spirited away from her carhop job by Willie to assist in a big-time drug deal…and she is helpless in reaching her contacts on the force.

I kind of facetiously joked about The True Story of Lynn Stuart’s truthiness but it is based on fact; they take a few liberties with the story (“Lynn” had no nephew who died, her undercover activities occurred over a period of six years while in the movie it seems like weeks, etc.) but it’s pretty much grounded in solidity—future California Governor Edmund G. “Pat” Brown (state district attorney at the time) narrates the prologue to let us know it’s “just the facts, ma’am” and I don’t think he would lie.  I rather enjoyed this one; Palmer, Lord and Atwater are the only actors credited in this but you’ll spot character veteran John Anderson as the head of the dope ring, Richard “Mr. Oleson” Bull as a customs official, comedian Snub Pollard (as the old guy who has to clean up the gas station washroom) and Russell Thorson—plus, Gavin McLeod makes his feature film debut as a member of Anderson’s gang.  Lord and Palmer are really ta-riffic, as Gavin would say—try and catch this one the next time it turns up on TCM.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Guest Review: The Legend of The Legend of the Lone Ranger

By Philip Schweier

Recently I stumbled across The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981) on YouTube. Unlike many films on that site, it’s not broken up into multiple segments. It’s presented in its entirety, which one might think to be a copyright infringement, but methinks it’s the only way the film’s owners could get anyone to watch this turkey.

The story behind this film is a multi-layered one of poor choices by the producers. Their first move was alienate their core audience by securing a court order to prevent Clayton Moore from making personal appearances as the Lone Ranger.

Moore had starred on the Lone Ranger TV series in the 1950s, and since then had been making personal appearances in full costume, stumping for the ideals for which the Lone Ranger stood: honesty, justice and good citizenship. Many of his appearances included schools and children’s hospitals

One might believe that having an independent individual make personal appearances on behalf of your property would be a publicity bonanza, but the producers felt otherwise. They wanted to distance themselves from previous interpretations, and in their eyes, Moore’s efforts would only harm their film. It was believed that Moore’s association would undermine the new film, and that some might think the film would star the 65-year-old actor.

This move proved to be a public relations disaster. Longtime fans, many well into adulthood with children of their own, were outraged. While the film’s producers couldn’t prevent Moore from making personal appearances, the actor was required to avoid any mention or affiliation with the Lone Ranger. He still appeared in cowboy regalia, sporting a very modern pair of sunglasses in place of the trademark black mask. He counter-sued the Wrather Corporation and was able to resume his appearances in costume, which he continued to do until shortly before his death in 1999.

In retrospect, one might question which is worse: to be kicked to the curb by the producers of this cinematic stink bomb, or to be endorsed? Irate fans of the Lone Ranger rallied in support of Moore, encouraging the filmmakers to ally themselves with their hero, hoping he might be given some acknowledgement for his pivotal place in the character’s history.

Not only did they fail to do so, they instead favored actor John Hart, who had briefly replaced Moore during the run of the original show, with a cameo. So for producers of the 1981 film to acknowledge this “usurper” to the mask only aggravated fans further. But it was merely one of many poor choices in casting for the film.

Starring as the Lone Ranger was an unknown actor named Klinton Spilsbury. This would prove to be his only significant role to date, and he quickly faded into the obscurity from whence he came. Pre-release appearances were kept to a minimum, usually those in which speaking could be avoided, such as the Rose Bowl Parade, in which he and co-star Michael Horse appeared in costume, mounted on their respective movie horses. Later, it was revealed that Spilsbury’s dialogue was dubbed by actor James Keach.

Another questionable casting choice was Christopher Lloyd as the film’s villain, Butch Cavendish. Lloyd was fresh from his role as the drug-addled but lovable Jim Ignatowski on the ABC sit-com Taxi.

The film presented the origin of the Lone Ranger, in a long drawn-out sequence lasting 2/3 of the film. By rescuing President Ulysses S. Grant (Jason Robards) from the evil clutches of Cavendish, the Lone Ranger is awarded carte blanche to operate throughout the West on the side of justice.

One noteworthy moment of the film was a sequence in which stuntman Terry Leonard duplicated a stunt originally performed by master stuntman Yakima Canutt in Stagecoach (1939). It required Leonard to jump from his horse to the team pulling a stagecoach, only to seemingly fall between the horses and drop to the ground as the stage passes over him. Leonard had performed a very similar stunt in Raiders of the Lost Ark, which was released just a few weeks later. Nevertheless, the fact that action fans would see almost identical stunts in two separate movies left many moviegoers feeling one was merely imitating the other. Granted, it could be argued they were both “borrowing” from Stagecoach, but Raiders of the Lost Ark certainly kept the stunt fresh, whereas Legend of the Lone Ranger merely copied it.

Inevitably, the movie opened to horrible reviews, unresponsive audiences and a lackluster box office performance. It disappeared quickly, becoming another statistic in red ink on the financial ledgers of The Wrather Corporation. With a budget of $18 million, the film’s gross was $12.6 million, according to the Internet Movie Data Base.

Christopher Lloyd’s career suffered little, achieving success in the Back to the Future films and many other character roles. Jason Robards was already a successful actor and he weathered the storm as well. Michael Horse went on to appear in the critically-acclaimed Twin Peaks.

But Klinton Spilsbury? He’s faded from sight altogether, leaving many a trivia master to ponder, “Who was that masked man?” According to the, he has never appeared in another film. Mr. Spilsbury, if you’re out there, let’s hear from you. No recriminations. You’re as much a victim of bad production choices as we audience members were.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Sorry, podnuh…we’re gonna have to postpone this til’ next week…

There’s been, I say, there’s been a flurry of activity goin’ on here in the House of Yesteryear this past week—I’m not at liberty to get into the details, but take my word for it: after I tend to my other responsibilities I just can’t find the time to sit down and find out what happened to our old friend Jim Benton and the shifting sands in Riders of Death Valley (1941)…so it’s going to have to wait until next Saturday.  The management extends its regrets.

There won’t be time for an installment of Doris Day(s), either…but in searching the documents on the new computer I did find a few capsulations contributed a while back by the blog’s resident guest reviewer, Phil Schweier—so I’m going to put these up starting tomorrow and throughout the week.  In the meantime, here’s a picture of my nephew conquering a giant spider web:

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Yabba dabba doo—happy birthday!

Over at the Radio Spirits blog this morning, I was pleased to write-up a little birthday shout-out to one of old-time radio’s most unsung performers.  I don’t meant to suggest that people are unaware of who he was—actor Alan Reed (born on this date in 1907) will always enjoy his small screen immortality as the voice of caveman Fred Flintstone on TV’s first prime-time animated sitcom, The Flintstones.  But it wasn’t until I became fully immersed in “the hobby” that I realized the amazing versatility of the man.

It’s been guesstimated that Reed was accomplished with something like twenty-two different dialects, and he certainly made good use of them, no better example than his hilarious role as Pasquale, owner of Pasquale’s Spaghetti Palace, on the sitcom Life with Luigi.  If you’re not familiar with the show’s premise, an Italian immigrant named Luigi Basco (played by “the celebrated J. Carrol Naish”) arrives in America and doggedly pursues the American Dream by starting his own business (an antique shop) and attending night school to further perfect his English.  Reed’s Pasquale was Luigi’s patron; he funded his friend’s trip to the U.S., and rented out the space Luigi used for his shop.  But Pasquale—who was essentially an Italian version of Amos ‘n’ Andy’s Kingfish—was also a relentless schemer whose ultimate goal for Luigi was to marry him off to his zaftig daughter Rosa (the wonderful Jody Gilbert).

Life with Luigi doesn’t really hold up well today because of its heavy Italian stereotypes.  But if you can get past that, I defy you not to laugh at Reed—he’s falling-down hysterical as Pasquale, who always gets his comeuppance by episode’s end.  One of my favorite bits in the show would have Luigi repeating something his friend said—only phrasing it in the form of an insult…which would prompt Pasquale to observe: “You know, Luigi…when you-a say it, it doesn’t sound-a the same.”

Alan Reed worked alongside many of radio’s top comedians.  He was a member of Fred Allen’s stock company for over a decade, playing the hammy poet Falstaff Openshaw, and he originated the role of Daddy Higgins, the stern parent to Fanny Brice’s Baby Snooks (Hanley Stafford inherited the role because Reed was reluctant to move west when Brice took the show there…but he later wound up playing the part of Daddy’s boss Mr. Weemish).  He worked with Goodman and Jane Ace, Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen, Mel Blanc (yes, even before The Flintstones—Alan was a regular on Mel’s 1946-47 sitcom), Eddie Cantor, Jack Carson, Jimmy Durante, Stan Freberg, Phil Harris and Alice Faye, Rudy Vallee and Alan Young—to name just a few of the many.  Alan was also a regular on classic radio sitcoms like Duffy’s Tavern (as Clancy the cop), The Life of Riley (as Riley’s boss, Mr. Stevenson) and My Friend Irma (as Irma’s boss, Mr. Clyde).  He did quite a bit of dramatic acting as well—he inherited the role of Lt. Walt Levinson from Arthur Q. Bryan on Dick Powell’s Richard Diamond, Private Detective for starters.

Also celebrating the same birthday as Mr. Reed—in fact, she was born in the exact same year—is “The First Lady of Radio” herself, Lurene Tuttle.  Her radio resume is equally lengthy, and she’s fondly remembered as gal Friday Effie Perrine on The Adventures of Sam Spade…not to mention roles on The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet (as Harriet’s ma), The Great Gildersleeve (the first Marjorie) and The Red Skelton Show (most of the female characters, notably Junior’s “Mummy”).  She, too, was much in demand in dramatic roles on Dr. Christian, Let George Do It, Night Beat, Suspense, The Whistler and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar (and believe me, that’s just the tip of the iceberg).  Lurene also made memorable appearances in film (Psycho) and TV (Julia)—but it’s radio for which she’s best remembered here at this ‘umble scrap of the blogosphere.  We’re pleased as Hawaiian Punch to give them a shout-out today!

Monday, August 19, 2013

Vacation Day(s)

Gosh all fishhooks…I hate to be the bearer of bad news—but as you may have already suspected, I wasn’t able to get an edition of Doris Day(s) ready for the blog today.

I’ve got a number of outside projects and concerns competing for my attentions at the present time—plus I had made a commitment to Jill and Michael’s Summer Under the Stars blogathon that I didn’t want to flake out on (I always dread having to do that).  For those of you wondering why I was able to get the latest chapter of Riders of Death Valley finished and not Dodo, it’s like this—the Riders chapters average around twenty minutes, and two-thirds of those involve ridin’ and a-shootin’.  If Doris had done that more often on her sitcom, they’d be a lot easier to write up.  (And there’s always the chance that Leroy B. Semple Simpson would have drawn his rations as a result of stray's a win-win for everybody.)

So dry those tears, cartooners, and take heart in the news that I’m pretty sure Doris will be back with us next week.  Don’t forget to check out the content at the new ClassicFlix; I’ve got a pair of reviews up—Criminal Lawyer (1950) and Escape from San Quentin (1957)—and there’s first-rate material from TDOY friends like my BBFF Stacia, Laura, Brandie and many, many others.

Summer Under the Stars Blogathon: Randolph Scott and Ride the High Country (1962)

This essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to the 2013 Summer Under the Stars Blogathon, currently underway this month and sponsored by Jill at Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence and Michael at ScribeHard on Film.  For a day-to-day rundown on the celebrities featured on TCM all this August and a list of participating blogs, click here for a starting point.  (This piece also gives away the ending of the film—there’s your spoiler, cartooners—so if you’ve not seen the movie come back when you have.)

During his thirty-plus year career as a motion picture actor, George Randolph Scott became chiefly associated with westerns—even though he displayed enough versatility to appear in comedies, crime dramas, war movies, sci-fi/fantasy films and musicals (admittedly, he was usually assigned the non-singing parts in those).  Out of nearly 100 Scott films, 60 of them were oaters—his status as a Western icon was played for laughs in Blazing Saddles (1974—“You’d do it for Randolph Scott…”) and paid tribute in a Statler Brothers tune that lamented the demise of the B-western, Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott?

It was only fitting, then, that Randolph Scott’s cinematic swan song would be an exemplary model of the movie genre with which he was most identified.  Randy hadn’t really gone into the project believing it would be his last film, but after seeing the final result onscreen he knew he had done outstanding work and he felt it would be an ideal time to retire while still on top.  It was an example of art imitating life; a theme of that last Western centers on how great men often step aside to make room for encroaching civilization.  It’s considered by numerous Western fans to be one of the finest ever made: the 1962 classic Ride the High Country.

At the turn of the century, ex-lawman Steven Judd (Joel McCrea) rides into the town of Hornitos for a job interview—the town’s bank is seeking a man who’ll guard a gold shipment needing to be transported through dangerous territory from a mining town known as Coarse Gold.  Upon his arrival, Judd fortuitously runs into an old friend in Gil Westrum (Scott); both men were once peacekeepers and worked side-by-side as partners.  Westrum now shills for a sideshow, masquerading as a sharpshooter known as “The Oregon Kid.”

Maybe it's because I've watched too many movies...but if I entered a bank and found these two guys in charge, I'd be thinking "credit union."

Judd tells Westrum that the letter he’s answering states he’ll be in charge of a shipment running close to $250,000.  A meeting with the father (Percy Helton) and son (Byron Foulger) who run the bank reveals that it’s a little closer to $20,000 (not quite a mother lode—more like a sister lode).  But Steve is hired for the job, and he’s been permitted to employ a couple of men to help him with the transport; Gil expresses an interest in the position, and suggests that Judd also take on Gil’s current partner, a young sidekick named Heck Longtree (Ron Starr).

Gil’s motivation for saddling up with his old compadre is made clear from the get-go: he hopes to convince Steve to run off with the gold in a three-way split fashion, and during their trip to Coarse Gold he regales with him tales of their many years devoted to defending the law without suitable recompense and of old acquaintances now forgotten.  The three men have need to stop along the way and they spend the night at a farm run by Joshua Knudson (R.G. Armstrong), a self-righteous widower who works his land with his young daughter Elsa (Mariette Hartley).  Elsa is of marrying age, but Joshua is convinced that there’s not a man alive worthy of his daughter’s hand; he even becomes outraged when he finds Elsa and Heck (who’s taken a shine to her) innocently talking outside the barn after nightfall.

James Drury was a few months away from major stardom when The Virginian premiered on NBC-TV in the fall of 1962.  Robert Culp had originally been approached by Sam Peckinpah to play the part of Billy Hammond, but the actor turned him down because he was looking for leading man roles.  Culp later admitted: "I've made a huge mistake."

Elsa soon joins Gil, Steve and Heck on the trail—she’s left her father because he physically abuses her.  She’s not interested in Heck, however—she’s promised to marry young Billy Hammond (James Drury), a loutish miner working a claim in Coarse Gold.  Arriving at their destination, Heck escorts Elsa to the Hammond camp…where he not only becomes acquainted with Billy but his “peckerwood” brothers: Elder (John Anderson), Henry (Warren Oates), Sylvus (L.Q. Jones) and Jimmy (John Davis Chandler).

As Gil, Steve and Heck collect the gold that will be transported back to Hornitos, Elsa and Billy are married in a Fellini-esque ceremony against the backdrop of Coarse Gold’s resident whorehouse.  There, a dazed Elsa learns that Billy intends to share her with the other members of the Hammond clan.  Steve and Heck come to her rescue and protect her for the night…but in the morning, the other miners form a “miners’ court” to decide whether she will be allowed to leave with them or stay with the Hammonds.  Gil is able to get to the drunken magistrate (Edgar Buchanan) and convince him to tell all those assembled the marriage wasn’t legitimate.

On the return trip home, Gil is still trying to convince Steve to steal the gold—he finally discerns that he’s not able to pierce Judd’s integrity and sense of duty, so that night he starts to make off with the shipment…but is stopped by Steve, who informs his friend that he’s taking both him and Heck back to answer to the sheriff.  The next day, as they continue their journey, the four of them encounter the Hammond clan—who have learned of Gil’s encounter with the judge.  Extracting a promise from Heck that he’ll surrender his gun once they’ve dealt with the brothers, Steve throws him a weapon before a shoot-out results, with young Jimmy killed and Sylvus mortally wounded.

That night on the trail, Steve agrees to cut Gil’s bonds but the next morning discovers that Gil has run off.  In truth, Westrum doubles back to collect the now-dead Sylvus’ gun and horse, as Steve, Heck and Elsa continue on to the Knudson’s farm.  Upon their arrival, they learn too late that Elsa’s father has been murdered by the remaining Hammonds (who are now lying in wait) but manage to find cover despite both Heck and Steve being shot and wounded.  Gil arrives, and the two men decide to go out and face the brothers in the open—“halfway, just like always.”  The ensuing gunfight eliminates the Hammond menace but leaves Steve mortally wounded.  Gil promises him he’ll make certain the gold gets to Hornitos, and Steve expires soon after.

The story of how Ride the High Country came to be starts with producer Richard Lyons, who had been hired away from 20th Century-Fox (where he worked in the studio’s B-picture unit) by producer Sol Siegel on the strength of a picture entitled The Sad Horse (1959).  Siegel brought Lyons with him to MGM for the purposes of producing a small-scale Western that would hopefully recoup the soaking the studio had taken from the financial losses of big-budget extravaganzas as Mutiny on the Bounty (1962).

Lyons asked his friend William S. Roberts (who wrote The Magnificent Seven) if he could suggest a good script for this assignment.  Roberts suggested that Guns in the Afternoon, written by his friend N.B. Stone, Jr., might make a good prospect; though the name of the film would be changed to the now-familiar Ride the High Country, Guns in the Afternoon would be the movie’s title when it was released in Europe.  Stone, an eccentric who was both alcoholic and agoraphobic, turned in a 145-page script that Lyons later described as “just awful.”  Roberts agreed to help Lyons out by re-writing most of Country without credit; changes to the final product were also instituted (and uncredited) by the film’s eventual director, Sam Peckinpah.

Filmmaker Peckinpah started out in the business as a stagehand and moved up through the ranks as a dialogue director for Don Siegel (he even had a small role as a meter reader in Invasion of the Body Snatchers) before finding his niche as a television writer-director.  Sam’s lasting contribution to TV was the part he played in putting The Rifleman in motion; he penned the pilot, “The Sharpshooter,” for Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theater.  In addition to directorial assignments on series like Broken Arrow and Klondike, Peckinpah created a short-lived series in 1960 entitled The Westerner that attracted much critical praise and attention.  Despite apocryphal stories that Country had originally been slated for filmmakers like Budd Boetticher, John Ford and screenwriter-turned-helmer Burt Kennedy to tackle, producer Lyons has always maintained that Peckinpah was his only choice; both he and Sam had the same agent at William Morris, and after watching several episodes of The Westerner Lyons definitely wanted Sam to direct.  (One of the conditions in Sam’s acceptance of the assignment was that he be allowed to make revisions in Stone’s script; he retooled the Judd character to make him more like his father, David Peckinpah, and changed the ending of the film—in the original script, it’s Gil that dies in the climactic gunfight, not Steve.)

Lyons has also always insisted that the only two actors seriously considered for the roles of Steve Judd and Gil Westrum were Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott (a show business story has suggested that Gary Cooper and John Wayne had been tabbed, with Coop’s death in 1961 putting the kibosh on that).  Like Scott, McCrea was considered a Western movie icon—yet Joel displayed the same amount of onscreen versatility as his co-star, appearing in such films as Foreign Correspondent (1940) and several vehicles directed by Preston Sturges.  McCrea had originally been assigned the part of Westrum when Country began shooting, but felt the role clashed with his screen image and suggested to Randy that the two of them switch off.  Scott liked the idea of playing someone other than the “straight, honest guy” for a change and happily agreed (I guess he forgot that he played a real rotter once before, in the 1942 film The Spoilers).  Best of all, Scott got top billing in Country…as a result of a coin toss.

Looking at the film today, it’s hard to imagine that anyone else could have been considered for the roles of Judd and Westrum.  Scott was always more of a screen presence than actor, but as Gil he really gives an amazing performance.  As a man whose innate decency has been eaten away over the years with nothing material to show for it, Gil Westrum is a soul in search of redemption…and is convinced he’ll get it by obtaining riches through underhanded means.  Even though he’s planning to stab his best friend in the back the audience knows that Gil remains at his core a good man since he insists on defending Steve at every turn.  When Heck gets his first look at Judd through the window of a Chinese restaurant and remarks “He don’t look that much to me,” Gil rebukes his partner sharply: “Don’t ever play him short!”  When an altercation erupts between Heck and Steve and Judd knocks the greenhorn on his ass, Gil demonstrates clearly where his loyalties lie.  “Good fight,” he tells his friend.  “I enjoyed it.”  (Then he also sends Heck to the ground with a punch for good measure.)

Steve Judd has also devoted his life to peacekeeping with little to show for it, but he isn’t quite as cynical as his good friend Westrum.  His honor is something that cannot be bought or sold, and as Judd, Joel McCrea demonstrates why it’s a shame he never received his proper due as a movie actor—this may be his best film performance.  (Joel had originally planned for this to be his valedictory movie in the same manner as his co-star…but was later lured out of retirement to make four additional Westerns—the final one being Mustang Country in 1976.)  Some of my favorite McCrea scenes in this movie involve his negotiations with the father-and-son bankers to guard the gold; he shakes the hand of Abner Samson (Foulger) and is immediately embarrassed at his shabby, frayed cuff exposed during his handshake.  McCrea’s Judd then asks the Samsons if there’s a place where he can look over the contract in private—they allow him the use of the washroom…and the reason why he craves privacy is so he can put on his reading glasses free of embarrassment.

When Gil’s intentions to steal the gold are revealed to Steve, he has difficulty believing it even though he’s suspected all along from the anecdotes that Gil has regaled in during the trip.  “I knew in my bones what you were aiming for,” Judd says as he confronts Westrum, “but I wouldn’t believe it.  I kept telling myself that you were a good man…you were my friend.”  The themes of loyalty and friendship remain the most dominant in Country; it’s not so much the crime of stealing the gold that angers Judd—he admits to Gil in one conversation that he once had a checkered past until a sheriff obligingly “kick[ed] the bitter hell right out of me”—it’s the betrayal from a man he considered his paisan.  It’s worth noting that while Steve trusts Heck to the point where he turns the young man loose temporarily so that he can help Judd deal with the Hammonds, Gil is not afforded that courtesy.  Still later in the film, Steve reassures Elsa that he’ll testify on Heck’s behalf for his role in the Hammond affair but when Elsa asks if he’ll do the same for Gil it’s no dice.  “Because he was my friend,” Steve replies with obvious distaste.

Edgar Buchanan of Petticoat Junction fame at his scene-stealing best; he plays the closest thing to law and order in Coarse Gold, or as Abner Samson puts it: "The only law up there is too drunk to hit the ground with his hat."
Gil Westrum finally comes to a crossroads where he decides that maintaining his honor is far more important than the immediate acquisition of wealth.  The foreshadowing of the final “blaze of glory” scene occurs when he pleads with Steve to cut his bonds just before he beds down for the night.  “Why?” his partner asks him.  “Because I don’t sleep so good anymore,” is Gil’s stoic reply.  Their friendship is solidified with the outcome of their skirmish with the Hammonds, one of the finest “death scenes” in the history of the movies:

STEVE: How’d we figure…?  A thousand dollars a shot?
GIL: Yeah…
STEVE (shaking his head): Those boys sure made me a lot of money… (Gasping) They put ‘em all in one spot… (He looks over to see Heck and Elsa approaching) I don’t want them to see this…I’ll go it alone…
GIL (waving Heck and Elsa off): Don’t worry about anything…I’ll take care of it…just like you would have…
STEVE: Hell, I know that…I always did…you just forgot it for a while, that’s all…so long…partner
GIL (slowly getting to his feet): I’ll see ya later…

I’m a regular ol’ peacenik hippie.  I don’t own a gun—I’ve never owned a gun—and my own commitment to “gun control” is making sure I’m nowhere in the vicinity of where guns happen to be.  And yet, I’ve never been shy about admitting that if I had to shuffle off this mortal coil…I’d do it like McCrea’s character in Country in a heartbeat.

The dissipation of the Old West to make room for the New (demonstrated in how Gil and Steve make it possible for Heck and Elsa to get together and start the family neither of the two veteran lawmen ever established) is a theme consistently addressed in the films of Sam Peckinpah (not to mention movies directed by John Ford and Anthony Mann, among many others) but it’s almost as if Peckinpah tackled it more than any other director…only with a good more screen violence, as in the Peckinpah-directed The Wild Bunch (1969) will attest.  Sam’s heroes were often loners and outcasts who struggled to maintain their ideals as well as honor and loyalty in the face of dehumanizing industrialization, and Ride the High Country establishes this theme of “replacing the old with the new” from the very beginning with an interesting sequence showing Steve Judd’s arrival in Hornitos.  Townspeople are lined up on both sides of the street—they’re actually watching an exhibition of a race involving a camel (ridden by Heck) and several horses, but Judd is somehow convinced they’ve come out to see him and he gives the crowd a little awkward wave of hello as his horse moseys down the street.  Finally, a uniformed cop confronts him and yells: “Get out of the way, old man!  Can’t you hear?  Can’t you see you’re in the way?”

Ride the High Country is choc-a-bloc with memorable set pieces and quotable dialogue.  There’s the dinner scene at the Knudson Farm, where farmer Joshua lectures his guests with scripture because he considers their assignment to transport the Coarse Gold shipment sinful because the town is “a sinkhole of depravity.”  (R.G. Armstrong would become a member of Sam Peckinpah’s “stock company”—and yet, when I think of the actor’s accomplishments, this role is the first one that always comes to mind.)  Judd demonstrates that he’s got more than a passing familiarity with the Good Book by quoting right back but it’s Gil that gets the last laugh when he compliments Elsa on her cooking by wryly remarking “Appetite, Chapter 1.” 

The editorial comment on his wife's tombstone speaks volumes about the Joshua Knudson character, a man who uses religion to cover up for the fact that he is cruel, unyielding and uncompromising.  After he slaps Elsa, she says to him: "I promised you next time you hit me you'd be sorry for it," suggesting that the abuse has gone on for some time now.

Actually, Knudsen kind of nails Coarse Gold with that depravity sinkhole thing; there’s also the unforgettable Hammond-Knudsen nuptials, which brings new meaning to the term “bacchanal”—with whorehouse madam Kate (Jenie Jackson) as Elsa’s “bridesmaid” and Kate’s “employees” as her “flower girls.”  Of course, any moment with the Hammond boys remains remarkable—a too-close-for-comfort clan described by McCrea’s character towards the end as “damned dry-gulchin’ Southern trash.” Actors Jones, Chandler and Oates would later become members of Sam’s “stock company”—with Oates taking on the starring role in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974).

In the movie, Heck compliments Elsa on her hair and she explains her father insisted she cut it short.  The truth was that actress Mariette Hartley's do was the result of her playing Joan of Arc in a Chicago production and though for her screen test they fitted her with a wig used by Deborah Kerr in Quo Vadis (1951) Peckinpah hated the results and went with the close-cropped look.
But my personal favorite sequence in Country remains a scene that has stayed with me since the first time I saw the film many years ago (I had previously witnessed the shootout footage in the 1976 compilation America at the Movies and knew I had to sit down with the entire picture); I’m in no way a religious individual—I’ve always been taken by the film’s message that individuals are motivated by doing what’s right as opposed to punishment from some sort of superior being.

GIL: Partner—you know what’s on the back of a poor man when he dies?  The clothes of pride…and they’re not a bit warmer to him dead than they were when he was alive…is that all you want, Steve?
STEVE: All I want is to enter my house justified

Pure poetry.  It remains with me even today.  In a demonstration of just how moronic movie industry executives can be at times, Ride the High Country was literally thrown away in its initial release by MGM on the bottom half of double-bills featuring movies like Boys’ Night Out (1962).  (Its patron, Sol Siegel, was ousted in a studio coup by competing producer Joseph Vogel…who supposedly fell asleep during a rough cut screening of Country and later pronounced it the worst picture he’d ever seen.)  The critics came to the defense of the movie, with a particularly glowing review from Newsweek: “That Hollywood can't tell the gold from the dross has seldom been so plainly demonstrated. Ride the High Country, deemed unworthy of a first-class run, has been gradually leaked—like a secret—to various theatres around the country…Everything about this picture has the ring of truth, from the unglamorized settings to the flavorful dialogue and the natural acting. [It] is pure gold.”  It would go on to win first prize at the Cannes Film Festival, as well as the Grand Prize at the Brussels Film Festival and the Silver Goddess for Best Foreign Film at the Mexican Film Festival.  I’ve never made any bones about the fact that while I admire much of Peckinpah’s work (despite its sometimes over-the-top violence)—particularly The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)—Ride the High Country remains my all-time favorite in his oeuvre.

Though Randolph Scott called it quits as far as the movies went, he fortunately didn’t wind up having to wash car windshields with a squeegee…he had invested well during his time in Hollywood, and reportedly accumulated an estate estimated at $100 million.  His cinematic legacy is equally impressive; his final film will be shown on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ this evening at 9:30pm, and I also heartily recommend Ride Lonesome (1959; 5pm), Comanche Station (1960; 6:30pm) and The Tall T (1957; 8pm).