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Pioneering TV western with unusual premise and strong cast
"Stories of the Century" (1954-55) was a 39-episode TV series produced
by Republic Pictures that focused on the manhunts for famous western
outlaws. The same hero, a railroad detective named Matt Clark, appeared
every week, with one female partner in the first season and a new one
in the second. His trademark narration opened with the same line in
each episode, "The official newspaper files of the early west record
many stories of famous and notorious characters of that period,"
following which he'd have choice words about the episode's highlighted
The amusing conceit of this series is that the hero is either present
or close by at the apprehension or killing of nearly every famous (or
not-so-famous) western outlaw from the 1850s (Tom Bell) to the early
20th century (Tom Horn), from Missouri (Jesse James) to California
(Black Bart). Yet Mr. Clark looks the same in every episode and the
setting is the same old western town set that Republic Pictures used in
hundreds of B-westerns, even when the action shifts to a big city (e.g.
Kansas City or San Francisco). The series was cheaply shot but
benefited from the inclusion of all manner of stunts and action scenes
culled from Republic's extensive library of westerns. For instance, a
chase involving wagons carting tanks of oil in the Black Jack Ketchum
episode comes from the John Wayne western, WAR OF THE WILDCATS (1943).
Captain Quantrill's murderous raid on Lawrence, Kansas in 1863 comes
from Raoul Walsh's well-budgeted DARK COMMAND (1940). The actors in the
series often had to wear costumes that matched the ones worn by the
characters in the stock footage.
Some episodes relied on lots of stock footage, like "Ben Thompson" with
its climactic fire in the wheat fields, while others consisted of
nearly all new footage, like "The Dalton Gang," in which the raid on
Coffeyville, Kansas and subsequent shootout were all newly staged for
the episode. The action is quite impressive, directed as it is by
Republic's top house director William Witney. (Witney did all of Season
One and part of Season Two. Franklin Adreon directed the rest of Season
The series was best when the villains were formidable and the guest
stars were top-ranked. Lee Van Cleef (FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE) turns up
as Jesse James in the very first episode. Billy the Kid is played by
Richard Jaeckel, who would appear as a supporting character in two
later films about Billy, CHISUM and PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID.
Marie Windsor, who'd already played female outlaws in Republic westerns
(HELLFIRE, DAKOTA LIL), plays Belle Starr. Ex-con Leo Gordon (RIOT IN
CELL BLOCK 11) plays Bill Doolin. A pre-Davy Crockett Fess Parker plays
one of the Dalton Brothers. Former Tarzan Bruce Bennett plays Captain
Quantrill. Henry Brandon (Chief Scar in THE SEARCHERS) plays cattle
rustler Nate Champion. Other good episodes showcase The Younger
Brothers, Johnny Ringo, Jack Slade, Tom Horn, and Cattle Kate.
Western regular Jim Davis played Matt Clark as a brusque, hard-line
lawman, quick with both fists and guns. He gave no quarter and made no
secret of wanting to see the outlaws hanged. In most Republic westerns
I've seen, the villains were usually landowners, cattle barons,
bankers, or businessmen with ulterior motives, never ordinary
criminals. Not here. For once, the bad guys are psychotic killers,
unrepentant thieves, and malcontents. In only a handful of episodes do
we feel any sympathy for the lawbreakers, chief among them Doc
Holliday, of course, who famously sided with Wyatt Earp in the Gunfight
at the O.K. Corral and, yep, Matt was there. Others include the
Cherokee Kid, a victim of racial prejudice, and Little Britches, a
spunky but troubled young girl who falls in with older men who take
advantage of her.
Matt Clark's female assistants were Frances "Frankie" Adams (Mary
Castle) and Margaret "Jonesy" Jones (Kristine Miller), who represented
stark contrasts in style. Frankie was no-nonsense and unassuming. She
went undercover quite frequently, sometimes as bargirls and saloon
entertainers, and blended in very well. She was unfazed by the toughest
hombres and fought female outlaws hand-to-hand more than once. This was
the first time I've ever seen Ms. Castle and she's quite a revelation.
Miller, on the other hand, was a fashion plate who looked stunning in
whatever outfits the story dictated. She carried herself like a lady
and spoke with precise diction. She was never terribly convincing when
operating undercover. She played her character as an ardent feminist
who lamented having to do paperwork. She also reached out to female
victims of the outlaws as in the episode where she comforts and nurses
a Mexican woman who'd been abducted and raped by the Apache Kid. Matt
often engaged in flirtatious banter with both women, although more
often with Jonesy, who seemed to welcome it more.
There were excellent supporting players in some episodes and they
provided some of the series' most powerful scenes. Black actress Louise
Beavers (IMITATION OF LIFE, 1934) plays Aunt Nellie, the woman who'd
raised the Younger Brothers, and she breaks our hearts when she makes
the difficult decision to turn against them. Lisa Fusaro plays the
Indian mother of the Cherokee Kid and has an angry outburst in court at
his sentencing that takes the series to a whole new emotional level.
There was also a consistent effort made to cast ethnically appropriate
actors in the Indian and Mexican roles that popped up.
I watched 38 of the 39 episodes for this review. Some were better than
others, as cited above, while some were fairly dull, thanks to minor
guest actors (Don Haggerty as Sam Bass) and uninteresting no-name
outlaws (L.H. Musgrove, anyone?). Still, it's quite an unusual western
series, with an intriguing cross-section of western history and a
steadier supply of action and violence than we got in the more
standardized TV westerns of the later 1950s.
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