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The Wild Party (1956)
"Are you, uh... lookin' for excitement?"
A New York Times review of this film when it came out described it as 'stuffed with more sociological dressing than a Christmas goose". Made to cash in on America's fascination with films like 1953's "The Wild One" and 1955's "Blackboard Jungle", the picture devolves into a sleazy romp with Anthony Quinn as a washed up former football star reduced to conning unsuspecting victims in an attempt to make a buck and keep even bigger hoods off his back.
There's a scene in the film that really got my attention in it's way of depicting how low one's lot in life can descend. A bum gathers empty wine bottles from garbage cans in a back alley and casually sips the remaining contents of those he comes across before adding them to his collection. The kicker is that he's in a hurry to finish before the 'real' derelicts come calling.
Big Tom Kupfen's (Quinn) next big score involves the virtual kidnapping of a couple who if they had any street smarts at all, would have steered way clear of Tom and his questionable accomplices. In particular, knife wielding Gage Freeposter (Jay Robinson), who looked the part of a crazed lunatic who could do serious bodily harm, nevertheless came across as an incompetent boob who could scarcely manage to get out of his own way when the going got tough. He proved the point when he tried to cross his buddy Tom, and got summarily dumped out of Tom's window into an alley.
There are elements of film-noir here if you consider Kathryn Grant's Honey character as the put upon femme-fatale, as her relationship with Big Tom suffers the old heave-ho whenever the more 'sophisticated' Erica London (Carol Ohmart) is on screen. She and Arthur Mitchell (Arthur Franz) are the victims of Big Tom's extortion scheme, but if you're waiting for a grand finish in the way of a Wild West showdown, you might be disappointed when Honey shifts her car into gear and puts the squeeze on her big bad beau. It's one of the more surreal endings you're apt to see in any film, and one that might have added the extra flavor to the Times' sociological dressing.
"I'm dyin' compadre. Adios" - last words of Kit Carson
I never thought about it until seeing this episode, but of all the famous and infamous characters of the Old West, the one I know the least about is probably Christopher 'Kit' Carson. This episode of 'Legends and Lies' reveals the truly complex character of Carson, a man who combined heroic and brutal elements in his nature, and who lived a life of adventure that might have made dime novels of the era pale in comparison.
Most of Carson's life pre-dated the Civil War. Born in 1809, the same year as Abraham Lincoln, a great deal of his time was spent living in the wilderness months at a time, surviving on wild game he hunted and living off the land in a very literal sense. Perhaps the defining moment of his life occurred in 1842 when he met the famous explorer John C. Fremont, who offered him a job as a guide after learning of Carson's background. For many years the men were inseparable, guided by President James K. Polk's vision of a 'Manifest Destiny' for a nation rapidly expanding westward.
An ardent supporter of the country, Carson's allegiance to the United States positioned him against slavery during the Civil War, but at the same time, his obligation to duty at times seemed to compromise his sense of right and wrong. An ardent friend of Indian tribes like the Utes and Arapahos, Carson found himself in a quandary when faced with the task of removing Navajo Indians from their lands in the American Southwest to a reservation. Reluctantly taking his orders from a superior officer, Carson undertook a scorched earth campaign rather than fight the Navajo's directly, leaving him in his later years to regret the blood on his hands for forcing the tribe to relocate against their will.
Not only is this episode an eye opening experience for viewers, but an unusual lesson about an era in history that's generally overlooked, positioned as it is between the country's founding during the Revolutionary War Years and the Civil War. Most of the Wild West's legends came to prominence during the 1870's and 1880's, so perhaps that's why we don't think of Kit Carson along the same lines as men like wild Bill Hickok, Jesse James and Billy the Kid, but that doesn't make him any less fascinating once you learn of his life and exploits.
The Walking Hills (1949)
"You messed up a pretty good hand, Kid".
Shifting desert sand dunes lend their character to the title of the picture, otherwise "The Walking Hills" might not make much sense. The picture draws heavily from the Bogart classic "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre", but instead of three intrepid prospectors hooking up with a fourth, here we have nine members of an expedition joined by a female traveler (Emma Raines) with a score to settle, or at least find closure if that be her fate.
Randolph Scott portrays the nominal leader of the rag-tag desert bunch; funny how in retrospect his character's name (Jim Carey) conjures up a rather different image if you choose to dwell on it. Other members of the gold hunting party include William Bishop, Arthur Kennedy, John Ireland and the always reliable Edgar Buchanan. Considering that Scott's character is the one supposed to have the most common sense and leadership ability, I was consistently distracted by the idea that he would bring a favored mare about to foal into a scorching desert where the threat of a sand storm was ever imminent.
A rather stunning casting decision for the film involved the presence of blues guitarist and singer Josh White. He's on hand it seems, primarily to lend his voice to a handful of bluesy numbers that emotionally affect his fellow travelers to varying degrees, though his presence has no additional impact on the story line. Among White's career accomplishments was his being the first black singer to give a White House command performance in 1941 for then President Roosevelt.
For a rather short film clocking in at around seventy eight minutes, the story manages it's fair share of character development among the principles while a trio of players (Bishop, Jerome Courtland and Arthur Kennedy) each harbor an innate fear of their questionable past being discovered. The ride off into the sunset so to speak, by Ella Raines' Christy and Bishop's Davey Wilson character may leave one somewhat baffled considering what went before, but no more so than the shifting sand dunes that render their verdict for the remaining wanderers.
Sora no daikaijû Radon (1956)
"If they're not killed, they'll take over the Earth!"
Right behind the 1956 monster epic "Gojira" (Godzilla) came this tale of huge flying monsters called "Rodan". The back story explains that Rodans were a carnivorous prehistoric species and members of the snake family. Over twenty million years old, they have the destructive power of a typhoon, but even though the Rodan in the movie managed to topple over a bridge with the force of it's wind shear, it had no similar effect on the Japanese Air Force planes sent to intercept it. As Spock would say - "Fascinating".
Well look, there was a time and a place for these kinds of flicks back in the Fifties when movie monsters took center stage and kids of all ages would marvel at their exploits. Watching today, the dated effects and miniature toy props lend a comically surreal aura to this tale of reawakened monsters from the depths of their underground home. The first of these to make their appearance, the wide-eyed gigantic caterpillars, have a certain pre-Star Trek sensibility to them. I was reminded of that Horta episode where the rock creature was defending it's eggs against the intruding humans.
Part of this story is told in flash back style with narrator Shigeru (Kenji Sahara) explaining how the caterpillar monsters were originally discovered. Later on he relates how he came across a gigantic egg in an underground coal mine, precisely at the moment one of the Rodans was hatching. I thought it rather creative that when examined by scientists, the egg shell proved to be a good half foot thick. Obviously, there was some thought put into this at just the right spots.
I guess it would be pretty easy to come down hard on this picture for it's cheesy special effects and goofy looking monsters, but you have to keep in mind this was put together almost sixty years ago with no technology to speak of. The film makers managed to tie the monster angle in with the world's fascination with UFO's at one point by describing the yet unseen creature as traveling at supersonic speed with immense destructive power. If you've got a little over an hour to kill, this trip back in time might be worth your while to check out the origins of the Japanese monster genre (along with Godzilla), leaving me with only one question - how does Rodan manage to leave a vapor trail?
George Washington Slept Here (1942)
"Looks like a motel for buzzards!"
Notwithstanding the status of the main players, I was left aghast at the first sight of the house Ann Sheridan's character tried to pass off to screen husband Jack Benny as a place in which to build their future dreams on. Holy smokes! The place was literally falling apart and posed a serious death trap to anyone entering it. Sort of like a motel for buzzards the way Bill Fuller (Benny) described it. Did anyone else think there was some slight overkill here?
My rating of the film probably puts me in the category of viewers who 'hated' the movie, and though I didn't actually hate it, I thought a lot of the premise was wasted with Jack Benny's playing against type as an aggravated husband who gets shanghaied into a house in the country on the whim of his wife. Speaking of which, if it was possible for one half of a married couple to mortgage a house without their spouse knowing about it at one time, then obviously those days are long gone.
As for Ann Sheridan, she's been my favorite actress of the era for a long time, but her role here was played with just a bit too much sugar coated ambivalence over a decidedly poor decision to buy a house from hell. Personally, I prefer Sheridan cracking wise against someone like Cagney the way she did in "Angels With Dirty faces". I didn't doubt that the ramshackle building would gradually turn into a House and Garden fashion statement, but that early going was something of a stretch to start out with.
You know, you have to hand it to old Uncle Stanley (Charles Coburn) here for an idea that seems pretty novel that might bear exploring as I reach retirement age. I wonder how long one could get by traveling around on limited means by staying with friends and relatives for a month at a time. It beats a mortgage payment and property taxes, and could go a long way stretching out the old social security check. Something to think about.
As a product of a simpler time, "George Washington Slept Here" is a family friendly flick that old timers like myself like to run across when the opportunity presents itself. Fans of Jack Benny and/or Ann Sheridan should have a good time with this one.
"Satisfied? We can have more dead men today."
There's a ten part Western documentary series from Non Fiction Films made in 1998 that offers an opening episode on the career of Wild Bill Hickok that closely parallels this 'Legends and Lies' entry. At first I thought the casting of Brian Merrick as the legendary lawman here a bit awkward, but a repeat viewing eliminated my concern. The episode presents Hickok as a righteous man who tried to avoid trouble, but he disliked bullies and always rose to the occasion when provoked to action.
Featured in this episode are the major events in Hickok's life that garnered his reputation as a fearless and deadly gunman, beginning with the McCanles incident at Nebraska's Rock Creek Pony Express Station in 1861. The station manager, Horace Wellman and his family were being threatened by David McCanles over an unpaid installment on the station. Though the episode portrays Wellman firing first at McCanles from behind a curtain, the actual events of that day will probably never be known. But for Hickok, who killed McCanles and two of his partners that day, the legend of 'Wild Bill' began after his arrest and acquittal on grounds of self defense.
On July 21st, 1865, Springfield, Missouri became the site of what's generally considered the very first draw and shoot showdown on which countless TV and movie recreations are based. Hickok faced off against a gambler named Davis Tutt who on the previous day had grabbed Hickok's pocket watch as collateral in a poker game. Warned by Hickok not to wear the watch in public, Tutt ignored the warning and was called out by Hickok to answer for his indiscretion. Facing each other in a sideways dueling stance, Tutt's shot missed while Hickok's proved deadly, striking his opponent in the heart. Though it wasn't presented in the episode, it's reported that when Tutt was shot, he called out "Boys, I'm killed".
Trouble seemed to follow Hickok throughout the Old West. In Hays City, Kansas, Hickok shot a former Union soldier, again in self defense but witnessed only by fellow soldiers who might have given false testimony. It was in Abilene, Kansas that Hickok's career suffered a disastrous turn. Facing off against a gambler name Philip Coe, Hickok shot him when Coe drew against the lawman, but in the heat of battle, Hickok also turned and fired upon another man who he thought was coming to Coe's aid. It turned out to be Hickok's own deputy Mike Williams who now lay dead in the street.
Devastated by his mistake, Hickok became a wanderer with a guilty conscience, giving up the badge of a lawman and resorting to gambling and alcohol. Former acquaintance Buffalo Bill Cody offered him a spot in his traveling Wild West Show, but Hickok hated it. Heading off to the Dakota Territory, Bill wound up in Deadwood, where on August 2, 1876, he was treacherously killed from behind by former buffalo hunter Jack McCall. Another legend was born that day when the card hand Hickok was holding when he died turned out to be a pair of aces and a pair of eights, the infamous 'dead man's hand' as it came to be known through the decades.
Overall, this was a well researched and well presented episode, with interesting commentary from a variety of historians and quotes from Hickok himself as attributed by newspaper articles and personal letters he wrote. To further explore the legend of Wild Bill Hickok, I would point to the first four episodes of the gritty HBO series 'Deadwood' which features Keith Carradine as Wild Bill in the lead up to his death at the hands of McCall.
"Well boys, it's been fun".
Most movie and TV show treatments of Doc Holliday portray him as a partner or sidekick to the legendary frontier lawman Wyatt Earp, so it was refreshing to catch this episode with the emphasis on John Henry Holliday from his early years as a dental student to his gradual transformation into a vicious and unprincipled outlaw, gambler and gunman. That transformation appeared to occur following Holliday's diagnosis of tuberculosis, commonly called consumption during the 1800's due to it's nature of consuming a host body from the inside out. His mother died from it, and because there was no cure, Holliday ditched his medical degree to head West and die on his own terms.
Because Holliday's reputation is so closely linked with that of the Earp Brothers, the episode does maintain a focus on Doc's relationship with Wyatt Earp, how they first met and how Doc's career paralleled Earp's as both headed Westward and crossed each other's path at various times. In Dodge City, Kansas, Doc got Wyatt out of a tough spot, outmanned and outgunned in a situation that could have been his final gunfight. That event cemented their relationship and created what might be the most unlikely friendship in the history of the Old West.
As a follower of the Earp saga, I wasn't surprised by the approach of this episode the way many modern day viewers might be. Portrayed as a legendary lawman in a multitude of movie, television and historical novel treatments, the real Wyatt Earp was an opportunistic individual who operated on either side of the law as it suited him. Though the term wasn't used here, Wyatt, Morgan, and Virgil Earp, by the time they arrived in Tombstone, Arizona in 1879, operated pretty much along the lines of a protection racket. Their main opposition was a 'Cowboy' faction headed by a family of rustlers and outlaws known as the Clantons, who along with the McLaury's faced off against the Earps and Doc Holliday at what's become known as the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
Perhaps because the emphasis of this episode is on Doc Holliday, a conclusion is drawn that it might have been Doc who fired the first shot at the Corral showdown. Roughly thirty shots were exchanged in thirty seconds, leaving Frank and Tom McLaury and Billy Clanton dead. Ike Clanton and young Billy Claiborne fled the scene before gunfire broke out, as the 'good guy' side all suffered wounds except for Wyatt. A couple months following the gunfight, Virgil was shot in an ambush but survived, while Morgan was killed in a separate incident. These events gave rise to the Earp Vendetta Ride as it's known in history, as Doc Holliday joined up with Wyatt to exact revenge on four more cowboys for the attack on the Earp brothers.
As time passed, Wyatt Earp married and headed to California, while Doc Holliday eventually succumbed to his illness in a Colorado sanitarium. One is left to surmise that if he had his own way, Doc might have preferred to go out in a blaze of glory rather than be taken out by tuberculosis, but sometimes Fate has different plans. As presented in this 'Legends and Lies' episode, the story of Doc Holliday is probably one of the more colorful chapters in the history of the Old West.
"Confederacy will never die. Neither will the James Brothers!"
Debuting on April 12, 2015, "The Legends and Lies" series gets off to a formidable start with this entry about legendary outlaw Jesse James. Produced by Fox Cable News veteran Bill O'Reilly, the series intends to take a look at many of the myths surrounding infamous characters of the Old West and bring to modern day viewers an unvarnished look at the true story behind the legends. It's the exact opposite approach applied to that iconic line from the movie "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" - "When legend becomes fact, print the legend".
In no uncertain terms, Jesse Woodson James is portrayed here as the ruthless, vicious outlaw he was in real life. Oddly enough, the inspiration for his love of the Confederacy and hatred of the North during the Civil War can be traced to his upbringing by his mother Zerelda. The term used in this episode was 'violent conditioning' to describe the way Zerelda James inspired her sons Jesse and Frank to fight for slavery and the Southern cause.
Upon reaching his teenage years, Jesse and his older brother Frank rode with the Confederate Missouri Bushwhackers led by the notorious Bloody Bill Anderson. Anderson proved to be a father figure for Jesse, and when he died in battle against Union forces, Jesse vowed revenge for the fallen Confederate renegade.
Hooking up with the Younger Brothers following the end of the Civil War, the James Brothers took up a life of crime robbing banks and trains. Initially the gang targeted Union interests of businessmen, bankers and politicians and became somewhat popular in the South with their brand of social banditry. However following a raid on their former homestead by the Pinkertons in which their stepbrother was killed and mother severely wounded, the gang became even more vicious and public perception began to turn against them.
This episode takes the viewer right up to the gang's infamous and disastrous raid on the Northfield, Minnesota Bank in September of 1876 during which the citizens of that town rose to the occasion to beat back the gang, sending them on their way soundly defeated. Deciding to split up, the Youngers were eventually captured and stood trial, while Frank and Jesse made it back home. Unable to shake his outlaw lifestyle, Jesse recruited Charlie and Robert Ford to join him as Frank took leave of the territory. Jesse was eventually killed by Bob Ford, motivated by a ten thousand dollar reward offered by Missouri Governor Thomas Crittendon; the coward Ford never collected his bounty.
In general, I thought the episode did an excellent job of presenting many unknown facts about the life of Jesse James, contrary to the way movies through the decades managed to romanticize the life and legend of the James and Younger Gang. One downside however is the modern look of the sets constructed to depict towns of the Old West, and that brand new looking locomotive gleaming brilliant red and black is a bit of a jolt when it first rolls into view.
Finally, in the interest of full disclosure, one of the actors in this episode is one of my best friends since childhood. John Dever portrays Dr. Reuben Samuel, who married Zerelda James following the death of her first husband, the father of Jesse and Frank James. As I mentioned to John after watching the story, he plays an unconscious guy better than anyone else I've ever seen.
Fireball 500 (1966)
"This old boy has won himself a race."
Well I've endured a couple beach flicks and a ski party with Frankie and Annette, so why not give a racing picture a try? This was actually quite a more serious picture than something like "Beach Blanket Bingo", and I didn't expect to see Frankie Avalon and Fabian go at it the way they did in their fist fight. I wouldn't go so far as claiming it was better than Clay vs Chuvalo the way one of the 'revenooers' did, but it was certainly well staged. Avalon's tussle with Harvey Lembeck's character Charlie Bigg was even wilder.
That's not to say the eye candy wasn't as prevalent as ever. Fabian's Sonny Leander Fox almost always had an entourage of beauties hanging around. Annette Funicello maintained her usual wholesome appearance as Leander's main squeeze, while Julie Parrish went from bad girl to good over the course of the story while winning over Dave Owens (Avalon). But I have to say, I did the same double take that Frankie Avalon did when he heard Fabian call his gal pals the Eager Beavers.
Contributing to the more serious nature of the story was the whole business of 'going chicken' and watching the moonshine cars flip down the hillside. The racing sequences were pretty well done, with a fairly seamless transition from movie action to stock footage and back. Race and stock car fans looking for a bit of nostalgia would probably have some fun with this flick, especially if you grew up during the era with the principals. Another movie with a somewhat harder edge you could try would be 1958's "Thunder Road", written, produced by and starring Robert Mitchum. It's got it's fair share of moonshine too.
Conspiracy Theory (1997)
"A good conspiracy is an unproveable one".
I probably should stop thinking about this film too much or I might talk myself into disliking it. There's a lot of disbelief to suspend in this one, the biggest one occurring when Jerry (Mel Gibson) stopped his car on the bridge with Alice (Julia Roberts) along, hopped across the divider, and found an abandoned car up on a jack that looked like it was ready to go just for him when he got there. If you were a gambler in Vegas, what odds would you take on that one?
Then there was the whole business at the stable when Jerry began remembering or mis-remembering the circumstances of Alice's father's murder. He started out thinking that he did it, that he might have done it, and then in a moment of clarity, knew that he didn't do it. How was Alice supposed to figure out which version was correct? But she did it - remarkable!
I guess what you have to do here is go with the flow of Jerry Fletcher's wild and random musings until the whole back story of Dr.Jonas/Henry Finch (Patrick Stewart) plays out. His diabolical experiments in mind control with Jerry as his prize specimen was a well constructed plot device, as Jerry in turn is followed closely by Lowry's (Cylk Kozart) shadow organization.
I imagine there are conspiracy theorists who approach Jerry Fletcher's level of paranoia, and it must be a tough way to live. The film would have raised a whole lot of eyebrows after the fact if one of Jerry's predictions had been the destruction of the World Trade Center. Released four years before 9/11/01, the movie had a couple of clear shots of the Twin Towers during the first half as Jerry advanced many of his astounding theories.