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Ninjas and Train Rangers team up in imaginative sentai mash-up, 10 September 2017

The casts of the 2014 sentai season, "Ressha Sentai Toqger," and the 2015 season, "Shuriken Sentai Ninninger," join together in this 65-minute movie, SHURIKEN SENTAI NINNINGER VS. TOQGER THE MOVIE: NINJAS IN WONDERLAND (2016), featuring a host of villains from each show as well as some new ones. I watched this in Japanese with no subtitles and I couldn't find an adequate synopsis on the web, so I can't really describe significant plot points, but there are plenty of imaginative action scenes and some unusual settings that made the whole thing worthwhile. There's also a lot of train action, derived from the train theme of Ressha Sentai Toqger (which I think of as Train Rangers), which appeals to me greatly. The film opens with a series of dream sequences courtesy of the sleeping Takaharu (Red Ninninger), who's in a 19th century-style wood-paneled railroad car with the other Ninningers (Ninja Rangers). The first dream has Kinji Takigawa, the gold Ninninger, performing with a rock band before a crowd of screaming fans. The second involves the Ninninger team dressed as "spies" in a shootout at night with Men in Black, rescued by a mysterious figure in a Sherlock Holmes outfit. The third involves a wedding between one of the ninja girls and one of the Toqger boys, interrupted by monsters leading to a ranger fight inside the church. Eventually, they learn that they're all riding the Yokai Ressha (Demon Train) and soon the Red Toqger Ranger rides up in his Rainbow Line special to try to rescue them. There's a big fight in the Demon Train as four of the Rangers (two from one team, two from the other) take on the monster minions from each series, who have joined forces.

The two Red Rangers are separated from the others and Red Ninja winds up in a picturesque samurai village, nestled in the hills, where they're confronted by a new enemy, the laughing, top hat-adorned Dark Doctor Mavro, a remnant of the Shadow Line, the antagonistic force in Ressha Sentai Toqger. The place is an elaborate evil theme park referred to in one sign as Yami Ninja Land, "yami" meaning dark. Mavro conjures up three famous ninjas of the past, Hattori Hanzo, Sarutobi Sasuke, and Fuma Kotaro, who combine to fight the Red Ninja, who puts up a valiant fight but is soon defeated. On the verge of certain death, he's rescued by the Red Toqger Ranger and quickly spirited away. Long story short, the other members of the Ninninger and Toqger teams agree to work together to rescue the two Red Rangers from Yami Ninja Land. The Toqger members are even given temporary ninja powers and ninja outfits. They all converge on Ninja Land and use ninja tactics to infiltrate the place and eventually join the Red Rangers in a massive battle at a quarry.

Meanwhile, on Harumi Island in Tokyo Bay, two of the villains from the different series show up with the Hitokarage, the Ninninger monster soldiers, to terrorize citizens until they are stopped by a new sentai team, Doubutsu Sentai Zyuohger, the stars of the 2016 sentai season, making a cameo appearance. It's a massive fight scene filmed on location at a sprawling waterfront plaza adjoining the Harumi Passenger Ship Terminal. Its modernist architecture provides a dramatic backdrop and its wide, open plaza lends itself well to large sentai battle scenes. It's a frequent location for fight scenes in these shows.

Back at Ninja Land, the Rangers' battle with the Yami Aka Ninja results in an uncertain fate for Takaharu, but after some intervention from the afterlife, all twelve Rangers are reunited for a final battle with Mavro and his army of villains at an abandoned mine in the hills. When Mavro pilots his own train monster, the Ninningers and Toqgers combine their zords for a spectacular zord battle under a darkened sky at the mine. It's one of the most impressive such scenes I've yet seen in a sentai movie.

I liked the abundance of historical, ninja and train motifs in the film, as well as the use of actual locations for much of the action, enhanced by various CGI effects, of course. And I was intrigued by the samurai village backlot set, which doesn't appear to be in any studio complex. It's certainly not part of the Toei Kyoto Studio Park, which has a somewhat smaller village on its grounds. I wonder where it is in Japan.

For the record, "Shuriken Sentai Ninninger" forms the basis for the current Power Rangers season in the U.S., "Power Rangers Ninja Steel." Sadly, "Ressha Sentai Toqger" was never used as the basis for a Power Rangers season. For the record, Toqger is pronounced Toe-KYU-jer.

Action-packed all-star Kamen Rider mash-up, 4 September 2017

HEISEI RIDER VS. SHOWA RIDER: KAMEN RIDER TAISEN FEAT. SUPER SENTAI (2014) was evidently not well-liked in Japan, as reported in the "Reception" section of Wikipedia's page for this film, nor by longtime stateside fans of Kamen Rider, judging by the one previously published IMDb review for this title. I happened to enjoy it a great deal, but I can understand why Kamen Rider devotees would balk at it. Just think how American Batman fans would react if there had been a movie around 2005 where all previous and then-present incarnations of Batman showed up on screen together in costume, a lineup that would include Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney, and Christian Bale, and out popped the original TV Batman, Adam West, also in costume, but as a bad guy leading a fight against the later Batmans. It wouldn't have bothered me, but I don't think it would have gone over well with die-hard Batman fanboys. However, my exposure to Kamen Rider over the decades has been limited to sample episodes from a handful of different seasons, occasionally in subtitled form, but more often in Japanese with no subs. So I don't have much emotional investment in this franchise. My interest in a film like this is purely in witnessing the visual spectacle of dozens of Kamen Riders and various monster antagonists slugging it out in effects-filled martial arts battles staged almost entirely on actual locations in and around Tokyo. And this film more than delivers on that promise.

The copy I have of this does not have subtitles, so I used a synopsis from Wikipedia to help me keep a score card as to who's who among the many and varied Kamen Riders. It left out a lot of major details, so I'm not sure I could adequately sum up the plot if asked to. For instance, if there are good reasons why the older Showa Riders (Hirohito era) would turn against the younger Heisei Riders (Akihito era), they're not really evident from the synopsis. Or the actual reasons could just be as lame as they sound. Japanese fans insisted that the older Showa Riders acted completely out of character and I can understand that, although I'm wondering if it was simply the choice of the filmmakers to present a generational divide between the era when older and tougher looking actors were cast in the Kamen Rider roles, e.g. Hiroshi Fujioka, the original Kamen Rider from 1971, who has a role here, and the more recent 21st century versions where the Kamen Rider actors all look and sound like refugees from J-pop boy bands. Of course, once they're in costume, it's all stunt men of about the same age and build taking a whack at each other.

If, like me, you're an aficionado of Tokyo locations, there is much to savor here. A lot of the locations seemed fresh to me and I speak as someone who's seen dozens of sentai episodes, which generally use a lot of the same locations as Kamen Rider episodes. On my trip to Japan last year, I even visited some of the commonly-used locations. In this film, there was one sprawling office plaza early in the film that hosted a major battle and I wish I knew where it was. Midway through the film, when the boy, Shu, remembers where he lives and takes one of the young Kamen Riders with him to see it, it's in a sparkling clean, seemingly brand-new suburban development, complete with a beautiful bridge and park in the middle of the place. Sure enough, the bad guys show up and a major fight breaks out in this picture-perfect setting. The climactic battle involving warring factions of Kamen Riders and the monsters from the Badan Empire takes place in a wide modern plaza somewhere in Odaiba with the modernist Chuo-Ohashi bridge in the background. The action even shifts to the bridge at one point. The high point is when the underground base of the Badan Empire emerges to the surface, smashing through various landmarks of the site. It's all quite spectacular and offers much excitement and imagination. To make things even better, the Super Sentai participants include the Ressha Sentai Toqger team and the Red Ranger from Zyuden Sentai Kyoryuger, along with his red T-Rex Zord. Their Zord combination is really clever and I only wish there had been more shots of it in action. I'm sorry that Kamen Rider purists are put off by this film, but the rest of us can just wallow in the colorfully costumed heroes and villains on display and their furious exchanges of blows and sword thrusts, plus the occasional effects-created combat tactics. Some of the Riders even have hand devices that can turn into motorcycles. (Paging Capsule Corporation!)

"Search of the Ninja" was taken from this series, 29 August 2017

"Ninpu Kamui Gaiden" is an animated ninja series that ran on Japanese TV in 1969 and was based on a manga by Sanpei Shirato. It tells the story of Kamui, a young ninja in the Edo period who leaves his clan and is pursued relentlessly by ninjas sent to kill him. The animation in the series is closely modeled on the style and design of Shirato's manga and even uses different frame sizes and split screens to make it look like a manga-in-motion. It's quite beautiful and creative and makes one wonder what other anime experiments from that era are waiting to be discovered by American fans. I first learned of this series when I purchased a used 30-minute VHS tape entitled "Search of the Ninja" that had been distributed by Kidds Klassics, a now-defunct outfit that specialized in video collections of old public domain Hollywood cartoons. The single episode presented on the tape was followed by trailers for two other Kidds Klassics Japanese releases, "Magic of the Ninja," offering a single episode from a live-action ninja series called "Kaiketsu Lion Maru," and "Kiko Boy Ninja," taken from a 1968 anime series called "Sasuke."

The 22-minute episode offered on the tape I purchased was dubbed in English and doesn't feature a single credit. There are sequences evidently meant to have opening and closing credits, but they're presented entirely absent of text. I did some research and learned that what I had was an episode of "Ninpu Kamui Gaiden," although I couldn't tell which one. It's certainly not the first one since it plunges right into the action as the evil ninja master Mashira pursues Kamui with murderous ferocity. When we first meet Kamui, he is resting with his pet falcon and, upon spotting a nearby pack of wolves, decides to dab himself with an ointment with an odor designed to attract the wolves who descend upon him and give chase, providing Kamui his needed morning exercise. Mashira and his band of ninja assassins soon show up and distract Kamui from the wolves, causing him to use various ninja tactics to sneak past them through the flowing grass stalks and use the wolves as bait for the ninjas. Later, Kamui and Mashira have a series of one-on-one battles in a thick forest with lots of leaping on and off tree limbs, the use of assorted ninja tricks, and the furious lobbing of metal throwing stars (shuriken). Much of the imagery in this sequence looks forward to similar action in the 1993 anime classic, NINJA SCROLL. There is a significant supporting character in Ryuta, a young boy living in a forest hut with his sister, who wants to join Kamui and learn the ways of the ninja. We see Ryuta catching fish from a nearby river but is then bullied by village boys. Ryuta fights back valiantly, but they all gang up on him and beat him, while also leaving his catch battered and inedible. He goes back to the hut and laments the absence of Kamui, who was watching from afar, curious to see how Ryuta responds to such challenges.

Throughout the episode, the creative graphic design makes dramatic use of light, shadow, and a narrow color palette, along with background art in the style of Japanese charcoal paintings. The character design is simple, but effective. The imagery sometimes freezes and turns black-and-white, a device that may have been imposed by the American distributor to edit out gore and mute the scenes of bloodshed. If I could only compare it with the Japanese original to confirm that.

A lot happens in the 22-minute episode and it certainly piqued my interest in wanting to see the entire series, preferably in Japanese. I would even watch it in Japanese without subtitles, since it tells its story in such a visual manner. How I can do that, I don't know. As far as I know, Kidds Klassics only released the one tape. (The English dubbing on this tape is awful.)

In Japan, "Ninpu Kamui Gaiden" was preceded by a similarly themed ninja series, the aforementioned "Sasuke" (1968-69), that was also based on a manga by Sanpei Shirato. It was about a boy learning the ninja arts from his father while trying to avoid killers led by the notorious Hattori Hanzo, working for the Tokugawa Shogunate and seeking to eliminate the boy's clan. The plot synopsis provided on this page for "Ninpu Kamui Gaiden" actually describes "Sasuke" and the picture of the boy with the red scarf with white polka dots in the photo gallery is from "Sasuke." There is no entry for "Sasuke" on IMDb. I've seen three episodes of that series on VHS—in Japanese with no subtitles—and it's an absolute work of art, with some of the most expressive use of color I've ever seen in anime. Its animation and design are even better than that of "Ninpu Kamui Gaiden." I would love to see more.

For the record, Sanpei Shirato revived the character of Kamui in a 1990 manga series called "The Legend of Kamui" that was published in English by Viz Communications in 1998. As far as I know, no other Shirato series has been published in English.

Chinese Immigrant comes to the cavalry's rescue, 23 July 2017

"Sam Kee and Uncle Sam" is one of a handful of "Death Valley Days" episodes to deal with Asian characters out west and the earliest of the ones I've seen. Benson Fong plays Sam Kee, a Chinese immigrant traveling alone out west trying to make his way to San Francisco to either return to China or open a restaurant, depending on whom he's telling his story to. He winds up at Fort Huachuca in Arizona after aiding an army lieutenant by employing firecrackers and a pot of boiling water to fend off a small band of attacking Apaches. The Apaches have been raiding the pay wagons so the men at the fort have not been paid in weeks. Sam offers to help in the kitchen to pay for his room and board and winds up being a "first-class" cook and waiter whose efforts please the soldiers who have been pining for a decent meal. The commanding officer fears that there's a spy in the fort working for the Apaches and Sam is the one who figures out who it is. Eventually the men threaten to desert, just as the Apaches prepare an attack on the fort. Sam finds a unique way to stave off disaster. There is much talk of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the commanding officer's duty under the Act to eventually eject Sam from the fort, something the Colonel is increasingly reluctant to do.

I enjoy seeing stories of Asian life in TV westerns, especially when they get an actor of the right ethnic background to play the part as is the case here, with Chinese-American Benson Fong playing a man who could well have been his own ancestor. However, Fong has been directed to play the role in a somewhat stereotyped fashion. While the character is quick-witted and resourceful, he's also quite subservient and speaks his lines in the way Hollywood often required of its Chinese characters, with a thick accent and replacing the "r" with an "l" in pronouncing words, so we hear Sam frequently say "So solly" instead of "So sorry." One can argue that a Chinese immigrant of Sam's status would not have been speaking standard English by this point in his tenure, but I still find the "So solly" grating. In the later episodes of "Death Valley Days" with Asian characters that I've watched, "The Book," starring George Takei, and "The Dragon of Gold Hill," starring Soon-Tek Oh, the characters were not portrayed in a stereotyped fashion. Granted, neither of them was ethnically right for their roles although both are at least Asian. (Japanese-American Takei played a Chinese immigrant, while Korean-born Soon-Tek Oh played a Japanese immigrant.) I've reviewed both for IMDb.

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Magical trains in flight in delightful sentai movie, 19 July 2017

RESSHA SENTAI TOQGER THE MOVIE: GALAXY LINE S.O.S. (2014) is a 30-minute movie spin-off of the 2014 super sentai season, "Ressha Sentai Toqger," about a group of young fighters in superhero costumes who travel in trains on the mystical Rainbow Line taking on intergalactic villains from the Shadow Line. (For some reason, this season was never adapted for the U.S. Power Rangers franchise, even though the seasons before and after it were.) The movie is a fast-paced, entertaining mélange of action, color, special effects, Tokyo locations and attractive young performers. The plot has to do with Lady (Haruka Fukuhara), the female conductor of the Galaxy Line, making a once-every-25-years stop on Earth and getting stranded, requiring help from the Toqger team, despite efforts by Shadow Line villains Count Nile and Hound Shadow to stop them. The centerpiece of the short film is a lovely sequence that begins with Lady walking with the Toqgers, out of costume, through a Tokyo park and lamenting the lack of imagination in the populace, noting how everyone is looking down at their phones and not looking up to the sky. However, the team's Red Ranger, aka Right (Jun Shison), comes up with a plan to use the nearby Tokyo Skytree as part of a ramp to propel the Galaxy Line and points to all the children in the park willing to help with the power of their imagination, a requirement for the train to be able to leave Earth. He uses the Rainbow Line train to push the Galaxy Line's "Lion Train" up the tracks stretching above the skyline and the Tokyo Skytree, a broadcasting and observation tower located across the Sumida River opposite metropolitan Tokyo and, reportedly, the second tallest structure in the world. As the children rush to the edge of the park to watch, their imaginations are harnessed to complete the mission. It's all very beautiful and touching.

In return for their help, Lady gives the Toqgers a set of Galaxy Line weapons to help in their continuing battles, on Tokyo locations, with Count Nile, Hound Shadow and their army of black-clad minions. The weapons include a few surprises and, in the spectacular zord battle finale, even involves the two trains from the Galaxy and Rainbow lines. The whole thing plays like a more polished, bigger-budgeted episode of the TV series. I enjoyed it a great deal and I don't see how sentai fans can go wrong with this. (If you need further convincing, check out the images I've submitted to IMDb's Photo Gallery for this film.) This film originally played on a double bill in Japanese theaters with that season's Kamen Rider movie spin-off, KAMEN RIDER GAIM. I am submitting this review on the third anniversary of the premiere of that double bill. For the record, Toqger is pronounced "Toe-KYU-jer."

Shaw Bros. swordplay adventure with a heavy dose of romance, 7 July 2017

THE THUNDERING SWORD (1967) starts out as a fairly standard Shaw Bros. adventure about rival clans in Old China and the quest for a mystical sword, with lots of deadly encounters with one faction or another, but in its second half it plays out more like a romantic melodrama as the two leads try to chart the course of true love despite several obstacles, not least of which is the hero's being accused of a mass murder that the heroine actually committed. Hero Yu (Chang Yi) represents the "proper" clan as he sets out at the film's beginning with his partner, played by Lo Lieh, to find the Thundering Sword, but are separated, leaving Lo Lieh alone when, due to a misunderstanding, he is poisoned by a traveling swordswoman, So Jiau Jiau (Cheng Pei Pei), who then, realizing her mistake, applies the antidote and hires a security firm to transport the wounded man back to his clan. Jiau Jiau, a leader of the "evil" Caterpillar Clan, meets Hero Yu and falls in love with him. Long story short, Lo Lieh is left for dead and Jiau Jiau, dressed as a man, attacks the security firm's headquarters as they prepare a trap for Hero Yu and massacres all the employees. Hero Yu comes on the scene afterwards and is blamed for it, causing all kinds of troubles among the rival clans. As Yu and Jiau Jiau grow closer, will she come clean on her role in the poisoning of Lo Lieh and the massacre of the Yue men? Complicating matters is the presence in Yu's clan of a female member, played by Shu Pei Pei, who also loves Yu.

Hero Yu is stalwart and pure-hearted, but also rather naive and inexperienced. It probably helps that Chang Yi plays him in such a stolid manner, whether deliberate or not. Jiau Jiau is the more aggressive one and actually steers them into marriage plans, despite the fact that both of their clans are sure to be opposed. It's rare for a love story to take such precedence in a film like this. While Jiau Jiau is forceful with opponents, she's quite gentle and affectionate with Hero Yu and deferential towards her father, the clan chief, and other elders. When she encounters Lo Lieh again, as he recuperates, she apologizes for what she did to him and pleads for forgiveness in quite a powerful and dramatic scene. Later, at the big "trial" scene, as the rival clans wait for sentence to be passed, with poor Yu tied up, Jiau Jiau enters the fray and confronts the accusers. There's no big action set-piece at the end, but instead a set of deeply emotional exchanges.

Cheng Pei Pei is excellent here and the role represents a rare opportunity for her to show her versatility as an actress. Because of the formal nature of the many encounters she has and the roles she has to play before her father and the clan elders, she has to adjust her voice and speak in different tones in different scenes. When she opens up and tells the truth to Hero Yu and Lo Lieh, in separate scenes, it's the real Jiau Jiau and we see just how sincere she is and remorseful over the acts she committed. I was very moved by her performance.

In addition to those already mentioned, the cast is filled with Shaw Bros. regulars, including Tien Feng, Ku Feng, Chen Hung Lieh, Wu Ma, Cliff Lok and, in the role of Cheng Pei Pei's maid, Ching Li, who would play Cheng's character in Chor Yuen's remake of this film nine years later, THE WEB OF DEATH (1976), which I've also reviewed on IMDb.

There are several songs on the soundtrack, including one beautiful love song performed for Hero Yu by Jiau Jiau, although the singing voice is provided by an uncredited singer. The rest of the soundtrack includes music cues from other sources, including Ravel's "Pavane for a Dead Princess" and Miklos Rozsa's theme music from THE V.I.P.S (1963), both lovely tunes to be sure, but not quite in fitting with the tone of this film.

Director Hsu Cheng-Hung also directed the "Red Lotus" trilogy starring Jimmy Wang Yu: TEMPLE OF THE RED LOTUS, TWIN SWORDS, THE SWORD AND THE LUTE, all of which I've also reviewed on IMDb.

The big fight scene in which Jiau Jiau takes on the Yue security film is quite exciting and well-staged, but there's nothing comparable in the rest of the film. For those who prefer Cheng Pei Pei in full fighting mode throughout, there are plenty of Shaw Bros. films with her that deliver lots of action, including BROTHERS FIVE, LADY HERMIT and THE SHADOW WHIP. For those who want to see the full range of her skills as an actress, THE THUNDERING SWORD is a good place to start.

Awkward propaganda film couches liberal sentiments in patriotic wrapping, 28 June 2017

I'm not quite sure who IT'S A BIG COUNTRY was aimed at. And given the fact that it was a box office flop, I'm guessing that the general audience didn't think it was aimed at them. It purports to show the diversity of America by offering seven segments promoting different aspects of life in postwar America, but it still traffics in stereotypes and Hollywood conventions. For instance, there are two segments involving immigrant fathers with children assimilating in ways they don't like. One immigrant father from Hungary hates Greeks and is appalled when his cherished oldest daughter falls in love with one. The other immigrant father, from Italy, refuses to let his son wear glasses because they're not manly even though the boy's teacher insists he needs them to be able to read the blackboard. In each case the immigrant, in a film supposedly pro-diversity, behaves in a most backward fashion. At least the Hungarian is played by an actual Hungarian immigrant actor, S.Z. Sakall, so there is some authenticity there. However, the Italian immigrant is played by Fredric March, of English, German and Scottish heritage, and the performance seems highly exaggerated. Surely, they could have gotten an Italian actor or even J. Carrol Naish, who did that kind of role effectively plenty of times in his career. It's the final sequence in the film and left me with a distinctly uneasy feeling. In the Hungarian sequence, Janet Leigh plays the oldest daughter and Gene Kelly plays the Greek she falls in love with. I guess this is what is meant by "ethnically blind" casting.

The first sequence goes so far as to dissect the notion that America is a "great country" when a traveling salesman (James Whitmore) on a train ride buttonholes a college professor (William Powell) to tell him that America is a great country and the professor then responds with "Which America?," and starts pointing out how different America is depending on where you are in its vast domain. So it looks like there will be some critique of blind patriotism, a direction then completely ignored in the rest of the film.

The segment on African-Americans doesn't even mention the race of its participants in the narration (by Louis Calhern) accompanying it, preferring to use the phrase, "other Americans." Instead of a fictional story, it offers a documentary sequence on prominent blacks in the postwar era, including Nobel Prize winner Ralph Bunche, then the ambassador to the United Nations, General Benjamin O. Davis, and the late George Washington Carver. There are segments on sports and the arts that highlight Jackie Robinson and Lena Horne, among others. There are numerous less well-known blacks in government and business who are cited, so it's nice to see a slice of little-known history. Curiously, the military footage is all from World War II and shows a distinctly segregated military even though President Truman had desegregated the military three years before this film. I suspect that producer Dore Schary feared that any fictional story about blacks that they created for the film would get criticized for stereotypes, denounced for avoiding the topic of discrimination, or, if they chose to be bold enough to tell a proper story about blacks in the postwar era, boycotted by southern theater owners. The documentary sequence was clearly a compromise and it could easily be removed by theater owners in the south. There are no non-white characters in any other sequence of the film.

There's a comic monologue by Gary Cooper as a Texan who speaks modestly of the state's size and reputation, wondering, in tongue-in-cheek fashion, why everyone thinks Texas is so "big." It doesn't jibe with the rest of the sequences here and was clearly inserted for comic relief.

The best sequence is arguably the one in which an Irish immigrant widow, played by Ethel Barrymore, insists to a Boston newspaper editor (George Murphy) that the 1950 census did not include her, so, after a false start, the editor starts a campaign to get the Census Bureau to correct its mistake. It's about wanting to be acknowledged and recognized by the larger society, something each wave of immigrants has had to deal with in different ways over the last couple of centuries.

Another sequence focuses on a visiting minister (Van Johnson) who takes the pulpit at a church in Washington D.C. in 1944 at a time when the then-president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, attends that church. The minister tailors his carefully prepared sermon to the president every week, despite the president's absence, putting the regular parishioners to sleep until the church sexton (Lewis Stone) finally calls him on it, urging him to address the entire congregation. I'm not sure what this segment had to do with the aims of the film or what it was trying to tell us, but, interestingly, the sequence cuts from the entrance of the president (off-camera) at the very end to the next sequence where we see a school teacher at work, played by Nancy Davis, who would marry Ronald Reagan the following year and become the First Lady 30 years after this film, adding a surprisingly prophetic touch.

Curiously, the cast includes a mix of liberals and conservatives from Hollywood's ranks. George Murphy, Gary Cooper and Nancy Davis were notable conservatives, while Gene Kelly and Fredric March were outspoken liberals. I wonder what they all thought of the finished film.

A settler addicted to gambling presents a challenge to Jim Hardie, 23 June 2017

"The Dealer" is one of those "Wells Fargo" episodes where the narrative takes place almost entirely indoors and is more of a drama than an action piece. But when the writing is as good as it is here, thanks to veteran Hollywood screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides, there'll be no complaints from this reviewer. Vic Perrin plays a settler with a family who is given some crucial aid by Wells Fargo agent Jim Hardie (Dale Robertson), but when he offers to buy Hardie a drink at the saloon, he gets obsessed with an ongoing poker game and soon puts up his life savings in the hopes of experiencing a winning streak like the one he once enjoyed. When Perrin loses his money, Hardie stakes him to a one-on-one game of high card draw with the cardsharp (Michael de Carlo) who'd won all his money, but not before producing a fresh pack of cards from the bartender. As it looks like Perrin's having another winning streak, it gets quite suspenseful. The resolution was quite a surprise and is based entirely on an issue of character and moral choice, rather than circumstance or contrivance. I was quite moved.

Johnny Crawford, who was already starring with Chuck Connors in "The Rifleman" when this episode aired, appears here as Perrin's son. Perrin was a frequent guest star on episodic TV and made numerous appearances in "Dragnet" in both its 1950s and 1960s incarnations. Scripter Bezzerides is best known for writing such film noir classics as THIEVES' HIGHWAY, ON DANGEROUS GROUND and KISS ME DEADLY.

Hardie confronts a vicious outlaw family, 23 June 2017

"Showdown Trail" is one of those "Wells Fargo" episodes that takes its characters out on location and delivers on its promise of plenty of action. Here, Wells Fargo agent Jim Hardie is taking a prisoner, Ed Dooley, who is cuffed to his wrist, to San Francisco for trial. When the Dooley outlaw clan stops the train, they abduct Hardie, still chained to Ed because he'd sent the handcuff key on to San Francisco, and kill Hardie's partner. Eventually, Hardie gets free and goes on the run from the Dooleys, trying to find a way to get a horse and gun and go back and confront them. The Dooleys, led by ruthless Joe Dooley and including Ed's brother Pat and sister Fay, present a formidable enemy to Hardie. Fay, realizing Hardie doesn't know her, sets out to lure him into a trap, which she manages to do rather effortlessly. As always in this series, Hardie eventually prevails, but it's a very suspenseful ride along the way.

The cast is a colorful one and includes short-lived Bowery Boy Stanley Clements as Ed and the striking brunette Gloria Talbott (a mainstay of westerns and sci-fi films in the 1950s) as the cunning Fay. Reliable heavy Myron Healey plays Pat, while tough old Joe is played by Will Wright, a dependable character actor who usually played smaller parts and rarely one that required as much action as this role. Another standout heavy in the cast is Emile Meyer, who plays an ill-fated neighbor of the Dooleys who refuses to help Hardie when he's in need. The location photography is quite spectacular.

A Yankee pirate gets a chance at redemption in Spanish California, 21 June 2017

"Death Valley Days" deserves note for devoting several episodes to early California history when the area was under Spanish control. "Yankee Pirate" opens in 1820 when a raid by pirates on the California coast meets with resistance when the local landowners band together and drive them off. They capture one of the pirates, an American, who would have been immediately killed but for the intervention of Lupe (Pamela Duncan), daughter of Don Jose Ortega (Edward Colmans). Lupe is startled when the American speaks to her. "You speak our language," she tells him, indicating that even though the actors are speaking English we're to assume that only Spanish is being spoken. We thus learn that the American speaks Spanish. His name, we eventually learn, is Joe Chapman (Ken Clark), from Boston, and he was shanghaied and taken aboard a ship traveling to the Pacific. He fell in with the pirates because it was the only way he could get back to America. He is assigned as a bondservant to the household of Don Antonio Lugo (Gabriel Curtiz), a neighboring landowner, and, through hard work, an extraordinary skill set, and exemplary behavior, he earns the respect and friendship of Don Antonio. When he learns that Don Antonio has asked for the hand of Lupe in marriage, Joe asks to be transferred to work at the mission, which is many miles away. It has become obvious that he loves Lupe also, but feels he cannot speak up as long as he's not a free man. While there are detours on the road to true love, the path is never quite blocked.

It's a fascinating slice of history from a period that is not widely covered in westerns. (See also my review of a later episode of "Death Valley Days" entitled "The Firebrand.") It's nice to see an American who becomes part of the fabric of Spanish society in America and is treated as an important member of the community. We see no other Americans in the film except for some of the multiracial members of the briefly seen pirate crew. (A black crewman is also captured and he's immediately assigned by the Spaniards to slave labor and is never seen or heard from again. It would have been interesting to see an episode devoted to his story.) Ken Clark, who plays Joe, had a marginal career in Hollywood in the 1950s, appearing in TV shows and the occasional film, before heading out, like so many of his contemporaries, to Italy, where he appeared in Hercules movies, westerns, war movies and spy movies throughout the 1960s. He's quite good here and it's too bad he didn't get a starring role in a long-running western series that would have insured some form of stardom here and maybe gotten him the kind of career he deserved.

I saw this episode when it ran on the Encore Western cable channel as part of its regular weekday afternoon schedule of classic TV westerns.

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