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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Well I was really enthused to throw this disc into the DVD player to
see what memorable highlights from the world of TV Westerns would be
selected to represent the genre. To say I was left disappointed, even
dismayed, is not too much of an understatement. Much was made of the
fact that 1959 alone had thirty different Western shows on the air, but
considering what might have been offered here, I think I could have
done better myself.
Granted, trying to cram this history into a one hour program is an impossible task to begin with. However consider the series that were selected to represent the genre - Bonanza and Gunsmoke were the definite must-haves in the lineup, and with it's emphasis on a strong father-son relationship, The Rifleman passed muster pretty well also. But then you had The Big Valley, High Chapparal and Davey Crockett, a mere five episode series that aired as segments of the Walt Disney hour. The program also touched on The Wild, Wild West, admittedly a favorite of late Sixties fans, but often too involved with sci-fi elements and gadgetry that didn't truly capture the spirit of the shows I used to watch and enjoy as a kid. Where was Rawhide, Wagon Train, Wanted:Dead or Alive, or Lawman? For Pete's sake, where was The Lone Ranger, debuting in 1949 and running an amazing total of 221 shows over it's eight year span?
Then there was the choice of celebrity commentators offering their insights into the programs they appeared in. Johnny Crawford (The Rifleman) and Linda Evans (The Big Valley) were the only actors who had ongoing roles in the series they represented. After that, you had such stalwarts of the TV Western genre as Martin Landau, Ernest Borgnine, Angie Dickinson and Veronica Cartwright. See what I mean? One guest I enjoyed seeing was Robert Culp, but not once was it mentioned that he starred in one of my favorite shows as a kid - Trackdown. I'm surprised he didn't just blurt it out to say, hey, I had a great show too!
The experience makes me leery of sampling the other offerings in the Pioneers series - ones dealing with Sitcoms, Sci-Fi, Late Night and Variety programs. As the previous reviewer for this title suggests, maybe the whole enterprise was just a little late in coming, as we're now a half century beyond TV's Golden Age, and virtually all of it's players are long gone. Still, this should have been a whole lot better, and I can't see fit to grade it any higher than my standard rating of 6, putting it at the level of your average B Western.
I was entertained (up to a point) by the vintage clips and interesting
interviews in this latest segment of the "Pioneers of TV" series, a
gloss on the Golden Era of Westerns on the tube. But it barely
scratched the surface.
Director Steven Boettcher is clearly hampered by the sad fact that so many of the great creators and performers have died. Basically, such a documentary should have been done sooner, or he should have done more archival research in digging up vintage interviews with more key people.
Instead there is too much utterly pointless generic "new footage" with various extras enacting standard Western "scenes": gunfights, bar brawls, guys falling off roofs, etc. Who needs it? Similarly, the interviewees are all nice to see but mostly irrelevant personages who had the decency to remain alive long enough for Boettcher to corral, people (I happen to like) like Stefhanie Powers. I'd like to hear her interviewed about living with William Holden, making GIRL FROM U.N.C.L.E. and HART TO HART or presumably fascinating tales about many years living in Africa as a noted environmentalist. Heck, I'd even settle for her behind-the-scenes recollections of filming the classic EXPERIMENT IN TERROR with the recently deceased Blake Edwards. But tapping her expertise on the TV Western -pointless.
So it goes with exactly the same defect to interviewing Angie Dickinson on this topic -another legendary actress with so many other important areas in her background, but not this one.
I will concede important figures did get interviewed, notably Fess Parker (since deceased), Robert Conrad, Johnny Crawford, Dennis Weaver (since deceased), James Garner and Robert Culp (since deceased). But overall this felt like a pointless exercise.
To cite just one glaring boner, Garner is talking about the fine costars he had on MAVERICK. Of course Roger Moore is not mentioned, as his participation was ephemeral, but the documentary at this point didn't even name-drop let alone cover Jack Kelly, an example of no-nothingism I hate to see -shoddy research and just plain crappy filmmaking in my opinion.
Similarly, Ernest Borgnine (still alive and kicking thank God) mentions how a single TV Western guest shot of his was fondly remembered and often mentioned to him by fans for a long time after. Do we get to see a clip from this now (40-plus years later) obscure episode? Of course not.
Beginning with THE CISCO KID, I was a fanatical fan of TV Westerns, not just the famous ones mentioned here. I never missed an episode of personal favorites, like Peter Breck in BLACK SADDLE, Stuart Whitman in CIMARRON STRIP, Jock Mahoney & X Brands in YANCY DERRINGER, Eric Fleming & Clint Eastwood in RAWHIDE and Will Hutchins as SUGARFOOT, to name just a few.
I was plenty surprised to see RAWHIDE, HAVE GUN-WILL TRAVEL, WANTED- DEAD OR ALIVE and WAGON TRAIN completely omitted here. I'm guessing in the former case that Boettcher was unable to wrangle an interview with Clint, but these holes are ridiculous. Similarly, a lengthy segment on Sam Peckinpah was welcome, but completely screwed up: it didn't mention at all his brilliant THE WESTERNER starring Brian Keith, even in passing. I once got to see the entire WESTERNER on the big screen in 16MM at Lincoln Center and it held up spectacularly after 40 years.
So I have to give Boettcher a flunking grade. Instead of enlightening the viewer, his shoddy effort is merely misleading with its copious errors of omission, improper emphasis and just downright lazy approach. His striving for "significance", e.g., Roosevelt Grier regarding breakthroughs in race relations typified by DANIEL BOONE, or the hooray for America tone of the so-called emergence of latinos and latinas on THE HIGH CHAPPARAL are laughably ridiculous. Why not interview a Hispanic or Black activist, or God forbid, a Native American activist like Russell Means on the real and ongoing shortcomings of TV employment for minorities (beyond the obvious stereotyping)? Or maybe the stereotypical depictions of Asian Americans in any Western episode dealing with, say, the Transcontinental Railroad.
In a documentary about "Westerns", you would think that the narrator
would at least learn how to pronounce the name of the western states
that are prominently featured in this genre. Maybe he should actually
watch Bonanza in which NEVADA is pronounced correctly and not
mispronounced as the regionally uneducated narrator has done.
This PBS documentary does a decent job of covering the genre but omits entirely some important examples of television westerns. The actors who were interviewed for this documentary are certainly not the most important or prominent in this genre. I would hope that east coast centric PBS/WNET would make better decisions on choosing a narrator who actually knows more about the western USA.
reference: xradio . us / western-states-for-dummies
P.S. the PBS "about series" link for Westerns is broken
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