Monday, March 13, 2017

Hurry on down to Hardie’s

My fellow classic movie mavens are well aware that in the month of February (and first three days of March—except leap year), The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ runs their “31 Days of Oscar” tribute.  This event and “Summer Under the Stars” usually allows me to catch up with whatever I have squirreled away on our DISH DVR, and I was very much looking forward to watching the content (and slapping my favorites onto disc).

But…in the immortal words of Robert Frost: “The best laid schemes o' mice an' men/Gang aft a-gley.” (Who says this blog isn’t highbrow?  Besides 98% of the blogosphere, I mean.)

The good people at DISH decided to have a “freeview” weekend of HBO, Cinemax, and Showtime the weekend of February 17-20.  The following weekend, we were treated to free Starz.  The weekend after that, Encore.  And we just finished up a freeview of Epix this past weekend.  For a recovering movie nut like your humble narrator, this is an embarrassment of riches—particularly because when there isn’t anything on the schedule worth grabbing, there’s always On Demand offerings I can download.  I have been spending every free waking moment luxuriating in movies, movies…and more movies.

Laramie stars John Smith and Robert Fuller
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that I went hog wild during the Encore freeview…because their On Demand features episodes of the classic TV westerns they offer on their schedule—this is how I was able to build my substantial Wanted: Dead or Alive collection back in December of 2015.   Encore Westerns on Demand has episodes of Death Valley Days, Laramie, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Tales of Wells Fargo (a recent acquisition), and Wagon Train—which presented me with a dilemma: which show do I download?

I eliminated Death Valley Days and Wagon Train right off the bat; I like both shows—but they’re not something I have to have.  I leaned heavily toward Laramie, particularly due to the piss-poor quality of the Timeless Media Group DVDs…but I’ve got a 30-day window with these downloads, and I didn’t think I could get all EW had in that amount of time (particularly since they’re 50-minute shows).  There’s DVR space to consider, too—I like to have enough of a “buffer” in case Mom (who learned how to work the DVR during her convalescence) wants to grab any Rambo movies or something with Jean-Claude God Damme.  (I don’t know why she insists on recording stuff with commercials…particularly since she hasn’t learned to fast-forward yet.)  So, it came down to either Wyatt Earp or Wells Fargo…and since all six seasons of Earp have been released to disc, I went with Fargo (its DVD release history is a little spotty).

Tales of Wells Fargo originally premiered as a December 14, 1956 episode of CBS’ Schlitz Playhouse of Stars, “A Tale of Wells Fargo”—with a teleplay by Frank Gruber from a Zane Grey story.  The producer of this episode, Nat Holt, had also produced the 1949 film that gave future Wells Fargo star Dale Robertson his first onscreen credit, Fighting Man of the Plains (Fargo creator Frank Gruber also wrote this screenplay…in addition to the novel on which it was based).  Holt had quite a time talking Robertson into doing “Tale” as a regular series—Dale initially didn’t think much of the script, and only agreed to commit to the pilot as a favor to his friend.  He never dreamed that the show would leap to #3 in the Nielsens in its second season (Tales of Wells Fargo officially premiered over NBC on March 18, 1957).  (Wells Fargo remained in the Top 10 in its third season, and continued to be a solid ratings performer until its final season in 1961-62.  More on this in a bit.)

I thought that by downloading all the Wells Fargo Encore Westerns had to offer, I could play a few for mi madre—a longtime fan of the show.  I know I mentioned this on the blog in the past (my previous experience with Wells Fargo was a single episode, “Jesse James,” which was on Timeless’ The Classic TV Western Collection) but my father used to tease my mother unmercifully about this series, derisively referring to the star as “Dale Roberts” and saying…well, I won’t repeat exactly what he said (it’s a little insensitive) but he hinted that Mr. Robertson was a few horses shy of a remuda.  I’ve watched 13 out of the 14 episodes in the first season (“The Silver Bullets” did not download properly, much to my dismay) and a couple from Season Two…and I don’t know why Dad kids Mom so.  Granted, I do not possess the sophisticated television tastes as my old man (and by “sophisticated television tastes” I mean shows about UFOs and cops placing people under arrest) but I’m finding Tales of Wells Fargo to be a pretty entertaining series.  It’s not a great show (there are superior western half-hours, like Gunsmoke and Have Gun – Will Travel) but it’s far and away better than The Cisco Kid or any other juvie oater you’d care to name.  Robertson didn’t consider Wells Fargo an “adult western” or a “kids western”—but a “family western,” assuming your family conducted private investigations for the Wells Fargo company for a living.  (That’s the premise in a nutshell: as Jim Hardie, Robertson chased down bad hombres who robbed the company’s stagecoaches or freight wagon in the 1860s/1870s/1880s, and brought the miscreants to justice.  This was quite a few years before the Wells Fargo company started committing fraud on a major scale.)

Hugh Beaumont as Jesse James
One of the aspects of the program that I’ve observed is its rather compassionate portrayals of its outlaw element: in the aforementioned “Jesse James” (07/01/57), future Leave it to Beaver dad Hugh Beaumont portrays Jesse as a very sympathetic sort, and in “Sam Bass” (06/10/57), rifleman Chuck Connors makes the titular bandit a jovial, happy-go-lucky fella (the real Bass was apparently also a “no worries” kind of guy).  (Connors also appears in the premiere episode of Tales of Wells Fargo, “The Thin Rope”—adding some interesting shadings to the villain.)  The nature of Hardie’s work dictated he make contact with many Old West legends, including Belle Starr (a nice turn by Jeanne Cooper), John Wesley Hardin (Lyle Bettger), Billy the Kid (Robert Vaughn), and Butch Cassidy (Charles Bronson).

Jack Elam
Of the episodes I’ve viewed so far, I was very impressed with “The Hijackers” (06/17/57); Hardie puts a premature end to his vacation by tracking down the son (Harry Holt, Jr.) of a wealthy man and his fiancée (Jacqueline Holt) and finds their trail leads to a ghost town, where they’re being held captive by Jack Elam and his gang.  There’s a beautifully done (and wordless) sequence in which Robertson and Elam play hide-and-seek in the abandoned burg, and when the closing credits rolled I was not at all surprised to see serials ace John English attached as director.  (The author of this one is N.B. Stone, Jr., later responsible for Ride the High Country.)  The following episode, “Stage to Nowhere” (06/24/57), is also first-rate; Hardie is escorting an outlaw (Walter Coy) to the hoosegow when their stagecoach is chased down by the man’s gang—also on board are a timid newspaper reporter (the ubiquitous Lyle Talbot) plus a woman (OTR’s Barbara Eiler) and her son (Bobby Clark), who have an important connection to Jim’s prisoner.

Michael Landon
You’ll spot a good many familiar future TV faces and veteran character thesps in these episodes of Tales of Wells Fargo: Michael Landon is not only in “Sam Bass” but “Shotgun Messenger” (05/07/57)—which I’d wager was the first time he worked with his future Little House on the Prairie co-star Kevin Hagen (as one of the bad guys, of course).  Some time back on Facebook, I made a joking reference to actor John Carroll being “the poor man’s Clark Gable” …and my social media compadre Christopher Snowden (the proprietor of Television Diary) responded that he always considered Dale Robertson to be quite Gable-ish.  When I concurred that I can definitely hear a Gable-ness in Robertson’s speech patterns, Chris observed: “[H]e's also there in scenes where Robertson's character is charming the ladies—chin down, and eyes uplifted as a big ingratiating smile spreads wide.  And all of these mannerisms are still in place twenty-odd years later, when he appears for short stretches on Dallas and Dynasty.”

The moustache helps a lot.  (From a 1965 TV pilot, Diamond Jim.)
William Demarest with star Robertson
In the fifth season of Tales of Wells Fargo, Earle Lyon replaced Nat Holt as the series’ producer; Lyon related in an interview: “I took over the last two years.  Dale Robertson called me one day and said he felt Nat was getting too old and couldn’t remember things.  Dale was pretty upset with the way things were going with the series.” NBC decided to side with the show’s star, and Holt’s inaugural season as producer went so swimmingly the network made the decision to not only expand Wells Fargo to an hour in Season Six but produce it in Living Peacock Color.  A cast of regulars was also added as Jim Hardie acquired a horse ranch near San Francisco (star Robertson was quite the horseman in real life) including future My Three Sons co-star William Demarest (as the stock crotchety ranch foreman, Jeb Gaine) and future Folgers’ pitchwoman Virginia Christine (as Hardie’s neighbor, The Widder [Ovie] Swenson).

Tales of Wells Fargo had stiff competition in its final season—it was scheduled Saturday nights opposite Perry Mason, and though it came in a respectable second, ratings-wise, the decision was made (the show was getting a bit expensive for the cost-conscious MCA/Revue to produce) to send it to the Old Syndication Retirement Home.  Star Robertson would later headline Iron Horse, another boob tube oater that barely hung on for two seasons, and J.J. Starbuck (1987-88), a Stephen J. Cannell creation that also resurrected Ben Vereen’s character of E.L. “Tenspeed” Turner (which he had played on the short-lived 1980 series Tenspeed and Brown Shoe, also created by Cannell).

Tales of Wells Fargo’s first and second seasons are available on DVD (Tales of Wells Fargo: The Complete First and Second Seasons); in addition, there’s a collection containing “selected” episodes from Seasons 1-5, and Tales of Wells Fargo: The Best of the Final Season in Color.  In looking at what I downloaded from Encore Westerns, neither seasons five or six seem to be in their package—perhaps they will air these in the future.  Wells Fargo plays much, much better than I had hoped…and later, I will make a small sacrifice to the satellite gods for allowing me to grab these episodes for the dusty Thrilling Days of Yesteryear archives.

1 comment:

rnigma said...

Wells Fargo used to have both an armored car service and a security guard service - both of which were sold years ago. (I very briefly worked as a WF guard in the late 90s, a night watchman at a feed plant)
I wonder if Wells Fargo ever sponsored the show, on its original run or in reruns?
One of Dale Robertson's odder TV appearances was on an episode of "The Six Million Dollar Man." Steve Austin met some nuns on one of his missions, and they told him what big fans they were of Dale, and could he introduce them to Dale? Our bionic hero gladly obliges by episode's end.