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Montana Incident (1952)
The Meanest, Grabbyist Woman in Shoe Leather
This movie has long been thought lost. Recently WB Archives released a pristine print on their DVD-R series. Lost films which turn up years later are often disappointments. This little B oater is a welcome exception.
Whip Wilson was one of the last of the series B stars, and, frankly, one of the more forgettable. He was wooden, and seems limited to one facial expression. He was also unathletic, pudgy, with a prominent overhanging belly. He is awkward in his fight scenes, has trouble running, and doesn't seem all that comfortable on a horse. His bull-whip affectation was an obvious copy of the more charismatic Lash LaRue. His lone acting asset was a strong voice and the ability to deliver a simple line here or there with conviction.
Despite Whip's limitations, his six movies on the WB Monogram Cowboy Collection, volume 2, are a good bunch, thanks to solid writing and supporting casts. MONTANA INCIDENT is the best of them.
Whip has a co-hero in this one, former Hoppy sidekick Rand Brooks. Brooks was not an imposing western hero type himself, but he was likable and a good actor. He props up Whip in several dialogue scenes, and handles the romantic subplot with Noel Neill easily, as one would expect from an actor who once had on-screen romantic entanglements with Vivien Leigh and Marilyn Monroe.
The unusual plot has Wilson and Brooks railroad surveyors mapping a spur line which would tie an isolated town to big city markets. Most of the citizens are ecstatic at the news a railroad will be built. In a plot twist with echoes of King Lear, the town and valley are owned and controlled by one very rich rancher. The old rancher has retired to his ranch and allows his older daughter to run his many businesses. This older daughter is described by another female character as "the meanest, grabbyist woman in shoe leather," and more than lives up to her billing. In cahoots with a crooked banker, she is bleeding the poor folks of the valley dry, siphoning off her father's money into her own account, and she will stop at nothing, including mass murder, to keep the gravy coming in for another couple of years. Her honest younger sister warns the old man about her, but he obtusely trusts his first born.
The writing shows good research. It is revealed that most of the land in the valley is owned by the government and the rancher only leases it. The railroad is coming through as a government policy and nothing or no one can stop it in the long run. The "meanest, grabbyist woman in shoe leather" can only delay it, first by bribing Wilson and Brooks to recommend the spur be built a hundred miles away, and when that fails, by plotting an ambush to slaughter the surveyors and their entire crew.
The supporting cast is excellent for a low-budget effort. The characters are well-drawn, some beyond the usual all-good or all-bad stereotypes. Hugh Prosser as the old rancher seems at times a nice fellow, if totally under the thumb of his oldest daughter, but at other times he seems willing to go along with killings, as long as they are done fairly, face to face, in the old west manner. It is not altogether clear until the end if banker Bruce Edwards is in it for the money or has genuine feelings for the older sister.
Best of all are the two sisters. Noel Neill is charming as the good Frances, frustrated by her father's obtuseness. Peggy Stewart plays the ruthless Clara to the hilt, relishing such lines as "there will be no one left alive to talk" when warned by Edwards that the government will investigate. And both women look great in their tight riding pants.
All in all, if you are a B western fan, check this one out.
The Gentleman from Texas (1946)
Johnny Mack CLeans Up the Town
Roy and Gene and Tex could sing. Buck and Ken seemed the real thing. Tim had the look of an eagle. Wild Bill and little Bob Steele were dynamic actors. William Boyd as Hoppy was Dad in a Stetson. But the best of all the B cowboy heroes might well have been Johnny Mack Brown. Handsome enough to have wooed and won Garbo and Crawford as a silent film matinée idol, he was a forceful and yet sensitive actor who projected an engaging personality. Best of all, this former All-American football star at Alabama was a superb horseman and all-around athlete. No one was better in the action scenes.
Brown's career stuttered with the coming of sound, his warm Southern accent for some reason viewed as a drawback, until eventually he found his niche in the mid-thirties in B westerns. He would remain one of the most popular cowboy stars until well into the fifties.
The Gentleman From Texas might well be the best of the 130 or so westerns which Johnny Mack filmed during his career. Produced by Monogram bigwig Scott Dunlap, the little studio obviously put their best into it. Old-time William S Hart director Lambert Hillyer handled the action scenes with panache. Brown was in his early forties, but as with John Wayne and Robert Mitchum, maturity sat well on him. His weight problems were still in the future.
The plot is an old sagebrush standby with Brown an ex-lawman brought in by Wells Fargo to put the lid on a wide open town, and who is swiftly appointed town marshal. Raymond Hatton is the publisher of the local newspaper who takes on the job of Brown's deputy. Reno Blair is Hatton's daughter and the courageous editor who rallies the good folks of the town to back Brown.
The bad guys are a formidable bunch, led by the urbane Tristram Coffin, the slickest of the "boss" heavies of the forties. Marshall Reed, Terry Frost, and Pierce Lyden lead the pack of henchmen and hired guns doing Coffin's bidding. There are plenty of hard riding chases, shootout after shootout, and two bone-jarring to the finish fistfights, before Brown can scrub the town clean and restore law and order.
While the basic plot is familiar, there is one twist which separates this film from the usual B western offering. Coffin has not one but two saloon girl mistresses, played by the talented Claudia Drake and blonde Three Stooges comic foil Christine McIntyre, who are willing to become involved in murder plots, leading to several unusual complications.
Everything from the acting to the action is well done. Even the musical interludes, often a drawback, are top notch and entertaining.
All in all, a must for Johnny Mack or B western fans, and a good one for others who might want to dip into this once most popular genre.
Warners' Takeoff on GUNSMOKE Holds Up Well
I am in the process of watching all 156 episodes of LAWMAN, the Warner Bros western which ran from 1958 to 1962. I remember it from its original run, but haven't seen an episode in nigh to fifty years. I was a trifle worried it wouldn't be as good as I remembered. Back in the day critics slammed this show as being a ripoff of GUNSMOKE with the same granite-butt marshal and his saloon owner love interest, only set in Laramie rather than Dodge.
The bad news? The critics had a point. Marshal Dan Troop is pretty much a clone of Marshal Matt Dillon. Miss Lily is pretty much a clone of Miss Kitty. The good news? John Russell is fabulous as the granite-butt law officer, even better in my judgment than James Arness. The gorgeous Peggy Castle is even sexier at the Birdcage than Amanda Blake was at the Long Branch. These two certainly gave the show a solid foundation.
The third cast regular is the young and handsome deputy Peter Brown. Here LAWMAN departed significantly from GUNSMOKE, in which the eccentric Chester and Festus were often comic relief characters. Brown was a top-of-the-line young Warners heartthrob. His relationship with Russell's veteran marshal had a father to son quality. He was nothing like the old B western comic sidekicks who seemed the inspiration on GUNSMOKE.
The production values on the show were good, better on the whole than the early GUNSMOKE's in which the indoor for outdoor sets and painted backdrops were often obvious. Not here. The guest casts were an interesting combination of young talent like Robert Fuller, Richard Long, James Drury, and Louise Fletcher with established fifties western regulars like Lee Van Cleef, Coleen Gray, Strother Martin, Jack Elam, and Slim Pickins, and a smattering of real old-timers such as Glenn Strange and Lane Chandler.
All in all, this show lacked the penetrating writing which made GUNSMOKE unique, but fine performances by the three regulars, good guest casts and production values, and solid, if perhaps rarely out of the ordinary scripts, make this series one well worth rewatching.
The Vanishing Shadow (1934)
Gizmos, gadgets, and a giant robot
THE VANISHING SHADOW is a 1934 Universal serial which I strongly recommend to anyone interested in vintage science fiction. Its scientist hero, with dubious help from a mad scientist associate, battles an evil business tycoon. The serial has weaknesses. Onslow Stevens makes a strong hero, but heroine Ada Ince, villain Walter Miller, and mad scientist James Durkin give performances which range from so-so to not quite mediocre. The flat acting and some trite writing weakens the unexpectedly dramatic climax. There are also several tedious "who's got the McGuffin and let's get the McGuffin" chapters which slow the pace. The cliffhangers are varied but one near the end in which Stevens, Ince, and Durkin survive without damage a dreadful off the cliff and down the embankment car crash strains credibility past the breaking point.
These flaws, though, are easy to forgive. The serial bristles with science fiction gizmos supplied by the mad scientist. There is a remote control device for opening a gate or garage door from the inside of your car, and a closed-circuit television hookup allowing you to see who is entering your property. There is also a death ray, a Frankenstein lab pulsating with Kenneth Strickfadden electrical gadgets, a whole series of scientific booby traps, and a belt which makes the wearer invisible, with the hitch that his shadow can still be seen. The invisibility gimmick is well handled, the best bit a scene in which a car is driving down the road without a driver. Topping it all off is a giant, tin-can, kick-ass robot which puts in an appearance in chapter eleven. The robot is worth waiting for, marching through streams of bullets, brushing aside cowering henchmen, crashing right through doors and even a stone wall.
An interesting subplot has the heroine the daughter of the villain, who abandoned her mother and her years earlier. While I didn't think this subplot was particularly well-handled, it gave dimension to the characters and a depth to the serial beyond the action and then more action approach of the Republic serials of later years.
All in all, a real treat for science fiction fans.
Don Barry on fire
This series ran out of name outlaws by the second season. This episode was about one Milt Sharp, whom I have never even heard of. Ace director William Witney had left. Franklin Adreon seemed a weak replacement. There was little reason to expect anything of "Milt Sharpe", but thanks to old Republic cowboy star Don Barry, it turned out to be terrific.
Barry's days as a kiddie hero were past and such a role may never have suited him anyway. He was simply not the knight of the sagebrush type. Rather than laid back and charming, he came across as coiled and ready to strike. Barry was, however, one of the best, and certainly the most forceful, of all the actors who reigned as B western stars. He could be very intense.
The role of the small-time outlaw Sharpe tapped into his talent. He was by turns frightening when threatening with a gun, repulsive when coming on to a captive Kristine Miller, pathetic when wounded and dripping blood, and yet somehow oddly likable.
Barry fans will find this one fascinating, and it should entertain others. His ultimate comeuppance is most amusing. A final voice-over by Jim Davis reveals what a small-timer Milt Sharpe actually was.
Marie Windsor in the saddle
One of the best of the series. Marie Windsor is remembered for playing tough urban broads in gritty crime films such as THE NARROW MARGIN or THE KILLING. Her first career break, though, came in a William Elliott western, HELLFIRE, in which she played to the hilt the role of a tough female outlaw in the old west, even outdrawing and gunning down veteran western bad guy Harry Woods. A champion horsewoman in her youth, she could ride like the wind. She was born to play Belle Starr, and one wishes she had done so in a feature.
Belle is the leader of a band of horse thieves in this episode. She easily dominates her drunken husband and shoots up a saloon in an early scene, sending the supposedly tough cowboys scurrying. She also wins a rough fight with Mary Castle as an undercover railroad detective.
Belle has gotten away with her crimes for so long because her horse is too fast to be caught. Except by Matt Clark and his mount. William Witney directed this episode and the final chase in which Jim Davis as Clark rides down Belle is a highlight. Both actors display fine horsemanship.
A coda has Davis explaining to Castle years later how Belle came to a bad end. That is accurate history.
Stories of the Century (1954)
Action western with adult slant
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.
Hopalong Cassidy: The Feud (1952)
Don't let the Beaver see this one
One of the better Hopalong Cassidy episodes. Two ranchers have engaged in a decades long feud. The son of one is shot from ambush. Suspicion naturally falls on the other, B western stalwart Steve Darrell. The killer is actually foreman Hugh Beaumont, who is having an affair with Darrell's young wife and hopes to gain her and the ranch when Darrell is lynched for the murder. There are bitter scenes between the jealous Darrell and his unfaithful wife, and even a hot and heavy one between Beaumont and the woman. Hoppy eventually exposes Beaumont.
This plot has a surprisingly adult slant far beyond the other "kiddie" shows, Roy, Gene, or The Lone Ranger, of that era.
Hopalong Cassidy: Grubstake (1954)
A terrific little mystery
This episode is a terrific little mystery. Percy Helton is an old prospector who has discovered gold. He has been grubstaked by five backers. Two have been murdered. A third is Red. Who is the murderer? There is a Perry Mason level raft of suspects who take turns looking guilty. Is it slippery saloonkeeper Michael Fox? Or Kelton's nephew and heir, Christopher Dark, the new physician in town, whose medicine seems to be making the old man sicker and sicker? Or is it one of the two remaining partners, volatile rancher Robert Paquin or ominous blacksmith Timothy Carey? Gladys George steals the show as a fluttery landlady engaged in a humorous romance with old codger Kelton. William Boyd is serious and effective in the role of a detective. Edgar Buchanan plays it straight as Red Connors, leaving the comic relief in the capable hands of George. The solution to the mystery is first rate.
Most should enjoy this one.
Hopalong Cassidy (1952)
Hoppy goes out on a high note
Most early fifties TV shows that I have recently viewed have proved to be much less than I remembered--THE LONE RANGER, SUPERMAN, THE CISCO KID, MR AND MRS NORTH, RAMAR OF THE JUNGLE--the list is pretty long. They were for the most part cheaply produced and not very well acted, except for the leads. Therefore I did not come to the HOPALONG CASSIDY series expecting anything more than just another kiddie show. Some episodes may indeed be ordinary, and realism is not aided by Hoppy's all black but still gaudy outfit. But watching several episodes, I have been pleasantly surprised. This show was certainly a couple of notches above most of its contemporaries in quality. Outdoor scenes were filmed outdoors. The acting is often high grade. Boyd as Hoppy was both charismatic and a good actor. Edgar Buchanan, an A list character actor, was capable of providing both comic relief and dramatic support. Other early television pairings, even Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels, or Duncan Renaldo and Leo Carillo, were not this accomplished. Their skill, plus good writing, lifted several episodes.
A few top episodes I have viewed:
1. "Grubstake"--A terrific half-hour mystery. Prospector Percy Helton has struck gold. He was grubstaked by five partners. Two have been murdered. A third is Red. Who is the murderer? There is a slew of suspects in a movie level cast--Christopher Dark, Michael Fox, Robert Paquin, and Timothy Carey(!). Gladys George steals the show as a flighty landlady engaged in a humorous romance with old codger Helton. The solution to the mystery is first rate.
2. "The Feud"--Two ranchers are bitter enemies. The son of one is murdered from ambush. Suspician naturally falls on his old enemy, B stalwart Steve Darrell, but foreman Hugh Beaumont, soon to become Beaver's dad, is the culprit. He is having an affair with Darrell's wife and hopes to get both her and the ranch when Darrell is lynched for the murder. There are some bitter scenes between the jealous Darrell and his unfaithful wife, and even a hot and heavy one between the woman and Beaumont. Perhaps not original, but certainly an adult slant compared to a typical Lone Ranger or Gene or Roy plot.
3. "Lawless Legacy"--An ordinary plot, but given a big lift by Lone Ranger on vacation Clayton Moore as a vicious murderer.
While Boyd certainly plays the knight on a white steed to the hilt, and occasionally shoots guns out of the bad guys' hands, he also shoots to kill more often than not, and is surprisingly callous a couple of times when pumping info from a dying heavy.
All in all, well worth a look.