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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 outlaw(s).
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 Two.)
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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