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This unassuming, fairly routine series deserves credit in the TV
history books for two reasons: it was the first to win an Emmy award
for best syndicated series, and it was the very first show to come from
the fabled studios of Republic Pictures, known for its low-budget but
high-powered shoot-em-ups in the 30's and 40's.
Republic was one of the first Hollywood studios to make a leap into the small screen, which was still in its infancy. But the studios' tenure as producer of TV pulp fiction would be brief. After this show, they would later dabble with the other format that they were known for, the adventure serial, with "Commando Cody", as well as other series, but like this one, they didn't last longer than 39 episodes. Also, Republic was in its last stages as a studio; it would finish out its tenure in Hollywood as rental stages for several Revue Studio series such as "Soldiers of Fortune", the original "Dragnet", and "Kit Carson", before finally shutting its doors in 1959.
Anyway, "Stories of the Century" wasn't that bad of an oater, its calling card was tales based on authentic figures in Western history, mainly outlaws like Black Bart, Johnny Ringo, John Wesley Hardin, The Dalton Bros. and the like. The late Jim Davis, best known for his role as the Ewing patriarch in "Dallas", put in an amiable job in the lead role as Matt Clark, a fictional railroad detective who has to contend with said outlaws, played by veteran and soon-to-be veteran character actors.
Two amazing facts here: The incidents would take place in different time lines, some in the 1880's, some at the turn of the century, but Clark never ages. And also, Matt has the good luck to saddle himself with two lovely female detectives as sidekicks, Frankie Adams, played by Mary Castle, and her replacement, Margaret "Jonesy" Jones, by Kristine Miller. The Lone Ranger could only wish for lady companionship. You can only spend such time with Tonto for so long.
"Stories Of The Century" is a Studio City TV production from Republic Pictures Corp. 39 episodes were made during 1954, all 39 of which are in public domain and on DVD.
"Stories of the Century" was a half hour series and appeared in first
run syndication during the '54-'55 television season. It was also the
first western TV series to win an Emmy award. Starring veteran western
actor Jim Davis as railroad detective Matt Clark, the series set Clark
and his fellow railroad detective partners (Mary Castle as Frankie
Adams for the first half of the season and Kristine Miller as "Jonesy"
during the second half)against historic western outlaws of various
periods ranging from the mid-1860's to the early 1900's. The series was
very satisfying, easy to watch, and fairly realistic due mainly to the
easygoing charm of Jim Davis in the lead role. He seemed like an actual
western character. One other note. When Matt Clark would arrive in town
after a long ride he actually looked like he had been on a long horse
ride as he would be covered in dust.
A very good early adult western.
'Big' Jim Davis, as Matt Clark, Railroad Detective, traveled west each week to aid in the capture of one of history's notable badmen(or women). At times, Clark's appearance at the scene seems somewhat contrived, as in just "happening" to be in town when Ford shoots Jesse James. The stories do have some limited educational value, as each one sticks to the basic facts, although production values for the series were decidedly low budget. One thing I could never figure out...one week Clark would chase Quantrill in 1863, the next Tom Horn in 1903...30 years apart...yet he never aged!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This rather poorly named western series won an Emmy for best syndicated
program and is certainly an interesting series. It was produced by
Republic, the studio which did action better than anyone, and they put
their best into it. Each episode was built around a real historical
figure of the old west. A railroad detective named Matt Clark, similar
to the later Elliot Ness with the gangsters of the 1920's and 30's,
managed to become involved with almost every notorious western outlaw
between the middle of the 1800's and WWI. The series' best asset was
Jim Davis. Tall, rugged, ruggedly good looking, in prime shape, with an
authentic western accent, and great riding skills which made him
utterly convincing in the action scenes, Davis was every inch the
western hero. He was teamed with two lovely and active co-stars, Mary
Castle as "Frankie" during the first season, and Kristine Miller as
"Jonesy" during the second. Each worked well with Davis.
What separated this show from its contemporaries and much of what came later was the professionalism invested in the action scenes. Ace action directer William Witney directed 30 episodes. Franklin Adreon the rest. Both filmed the action with polish. Republic's vast store of stock footage from serials and B's was utilized to give scope. The level of individual episodes rose or fell with the quality of the guest stars brought in to the play the outlaws. Among the really good ones were Marie Windsor as Belle Starr, Lee Van Cleef as Jesse James, Fess Parker as Grat Dalton, Jean Parker as Cattle Kate, and Joe Sawyer and Slim Pickins as Butch Cassady and "The Smilin' Kid". The cream of the western up and comers, Pickins, Parker, Denver Pyle, James Best, and Richard Jaeckel, honed their craft. B veterans with decades of experience under their belts, Harry Woods, Glenn Strange, Kenneth MacDonald, Earle Hodgkins, Steve Darrell, and Chief Yowlachie, provided the old leather feel of vintage westerns.
The weakness of the concept was that there are only so many famous western outlaws. By the second season the famous figures were becoming a mite obscure for all but the most dedicated history buff. Nevertheless, a few of the later shows were a match for any, due to the guest stars. Henry Brandon portrayed rustler Nate Champion, and former Republic star Don Barry was outstanding as small-time outlaw Milt Sharp.
Western fans or history buffs will want to see this.
"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 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.
Stories Of The Century casts Jim Davis and Mary Castle as a pair of
railroad detectives who seem to have aided in the apprehension or
demise of every outlaw in the west. The years of their operations range
all the way from the Civil War to the Theodore Roosevelt era and yet
they aged not a day. This is in the tradition of the B western and it
was the soon to be extinct Republic Pictures who produced this for
television. William Witney, veteran contract director for Republic
seems to have done most of the episodes.
I guess the fact that they ran out of name bandits was the cause of Stories Of The Century met its demise. A studio like Republic that had small scale operations should have been the first ones into television. Probably Herbert J. Yates regretted he didn't move earlier into the small screen.
The episodes I saw of the show had not one hint of any romance between Davis and Castle. They were all business every week and while Castle's considerable beauty and charm caused the fall of many an outlaw, she and Davis never got personal. In fact they were as impersonal as any Dragnet Show that Jack Webb did. Davis and Castle dealt only in facts.
Stories Of The Century with all the disclaimers about the impossibility of Davis and Castle being Zelig like at the scene of every outlaw's fall was not a bad series. It was a beginning of the TV trend to more adult westerns.
This is an interesting series that takes real life people (Jesse James, John Wesley Hardin, etc)...and dramatizes part of their real story with a continuing series character taking part in that story. Railroad Detective "Matt Clark" -- takes a role in tracking down famous outlaws from the Old West in stories that are at least partly based on the true accounts. In that sense, it's almost an anthology series, and as someone else pointed out, this odd structure poses some timeline conflicts with the real events, but it's a fun series with plenty of action to satisfy a western-hungry 1950's audience -- and it still holds up pretty well 55 years later. Clark cuts a powerful figure in his western gear as he goes up against some of history's baddest baddies. And his girl-sidekick Frankie is quite a dish. If you're a western fan, be sure to check it out if you have a chance.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"The official newspaper files of the early West record many stories of
famous and notorious characters of that period".
Those words of railroad Detective Matt Clark opened every episode of this early TV Western series that ran from January 1954 through March 1955. Then a brief description was offered of the outlaw being featured that week with a mention of the time period the story takes place in. I just finished watching thirty six of the thirty nine episodes in the series, part of a three disc DVD collection put out by St. Clair Entertainment.
Considering the era and the fact that television was in it's infancy, the series wasn't that bad. In fact it won a 1955 Emmy as the Best Western or Adventure Series up against a handful of shows I used to watch as a kid - 'Annie Oakley', 'Death Valley Days', 'The Roy Rogers Show' and 'The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok'. I never knew about this show back in the day or I might have tuned in, but except for 'Death Valley Days', I was watching all the others in reruns on Saturday mornings. Those were the days.
If you're a serious history buff this show might not be up to your taste. Stories about your better known outlaws like Jesse James, Billy the Kid, and John Wesley Hardin usually kept some semblance of history in mind but there was usually a fair amount of poetic license taken in presenting the stories as well. A second season offering on a sheriff turned outlaw by the name of Jim Courtright was actually quite reliable, while another on Jack Slade was almost entirely fictional. Usually though, the episodes blended elements of fact with a story line that was intended to appeal to the TV viewer of the era who might have just gotten their very first television set.
I wouldn't have known the players when I was a kid, but watching today I'm able to pick out some favorites, like Lee Van Cleef as Jesse James, Jack Elam as Black Jack Ketchum, Richard Jaeckel as Billy the Kid and Marie Windsor as Belle Starr. Tracking the outlaws each week was none other than the Ewing Family patriarch from the late Seventies hit "Dallas", Jim Davis in the role of Matt Clark, Railroad Detective. He operated with a female assistant, Mary Castle as Frankie Adams in the first season, and Kristine Miller as Margaret 'Jonesy' Jones in the second season.
There were a couple episodes in the first season where a hint of a romance was introduced between Matt and Frankie, but the idea went nowhere. Jonesy would sometimes express her displeasure about getting some menial task while Matt went looking for trouble, but both actresses managed to mix it up with outlaws in a fair share of stories, as well as taking their lumps like Matt did when a bad guy got the upper hand.
Others in their reviews have mentioned how Matt never aged over the course of the stories covered, ranging anywhere from the late 1850's up to the early 1900's. He always remained the same, representing the authority of the law in whatever time frame or area of the country the story in question took place in. If you're reading this and care to look further, I've individually reviewed each of the episodes I've watched, so you can get a snapshot of each with a quick click.
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