Custer

TV classics: aka The Legend of Custer

USA 1967, one season, 17 episodes, approximately 50 minutes each, ABC, color. Cast: Wayne Maunder, Slim Pickens, Michael Dante, Robert F. Simon, Peter Palmer.

Plot summary: After the Civil War, Lieutenant Colonel Custer takes command of the 7th Cavalry, a group of misfits, criminals and ex-Confederates at Fort Riley, Kansas.

220px-Wayne_Maunder_Custer_1967Review: In the late 1960s, one of America’s most popular genres slowly began saying farewell to television in its traditional form. Often considered too rough, Westerns were replaced by modernized versions that used the Old West as a mere setting for whodunits or family-friendly stories. Starring Wayne Maunder in the title role, Custer was one of the last original Westerns, a show suggested by Larry Cohen and produced by 20th Century Fox. Although blessed with popular guest stars of the time such as Agnes Moorehead, William Windom or Barbara Hale, the show failed to become a success. Based on George Armstrong Custer’s life, the program was violent and often historically incorrect. Protested by Native Americans and opposed by The Virginian and Lost in Space on NBC and CBS, the show never really stood a chance. Canceled the same year it was launched, Custer became TV history after only seventeen hour-long episodes. Still remembered and cherished by die-hard Western fans today, the show can be revisited on DVD or on Youtube. For anyone who enjoys the style of the 1960s, Custer may be a real gem that deserves re-evaluation. The same goes for anyone who’s fond of TV classics in general, including those the majority of us has long forgotten – unfortunately or not. It’s your decision.

Watch Custer: Death Hunt here, guest starring Barbara Hale and Patricia Harty.

7th Cavalry

Talkie of the Week: 7th Cavalry

USA 1956, 75 minutes, technicolor, Columbia Pictures. Director: Joseph H. Lewis, Written by Peter Packer, Based on the story “A Horse for Mrs. Custer” by Glendon Swarthout. Cast: Randolph Scott, Barbara Hale, Jay C. Flippen, Frank Faylen, Jeanette Nolan, Leo Gordon, Denver Pyle, Harry Carey Jr., Michael Pate, Donald Curtis, Frank Wilcox, Pat Hogan, Russell Hicks, Peter Ortiz.

Plot summary: After Custer’s defeat at Little Big Horn, Captain Benson returns to Indian territory to bring back the bodies and atone for his absence from the doomed battle.

7th Cavalry posterReview: When Tom Benson returns to Fort Lincoln, he learns about General Custer’s defeat at Little Big Horn. The Captain himself was absent from the crucial battle in Indian territory. With Custer’s permission, he accompanied his young bride Martha Kellogg on her journey to their new home. Accused of cowardice and misguided loyalty to his mentor Custer now fallen from grace, Captain Benson volunteers to retrieve the bodies of his fellow men. With a group of unlikely heroes, he returns to what the victorious Sioux consider sacred ground to execute the President’s orders to give the fallen soldiers a decent burial.

7th Cavalry, like many Westerns, is a story based on historical facts but not faithfully so. Adapted from a story by Glendon Swarthout, the film depicts the aftermath of the Battle of Little Big Horn without focusing on General Custer. Although an absentee main character, Custer only serves as a background figure to introduce the film’s actual hero, Captain Tom Benson. Played by Randolph Scott, Benson is the outcast survivor of a battle he didn’t attend but cannot escape. As a soldier, he doesn’t only have to cope with the the loss of his company but also with the downfall of his fallen superior, a man whom he has admired for his decency and expertise. Confronted with mistrust and criticism by a military Board of Inquiry led by the father of his wife-to-be, Benson masters the art of walking the fine line of duty and allegiance, convincingly stressed in Scott’s performance. Supported by a gracefully devoted Barbara Hale as Martha Kellogg, the actor led a decent ensemble in a film that captivates with words rather than action. Calm and slow paced, 7th Cavalry is not a John Wayne Western, nor a movie for an impatient crowd. It is a movie with a charm of its own, made for an audience who doesn’t mind following a wide array of dialog until the hero finally takes off to follow his destiny.

Beautifully cast and shot in Mexico, the film offers a look back at a time when films were not yet dominated by special effects and CGI. Although lengthy and verbose for some, 7th Cavalry has its definite perks for anyone who’s fond of a quieter performance style and demure storyline. Blessed with the talents of Western veteran Randolph Scott, as well as Barbara Hale’s often underestimated naturalness and warmth, the film deserves to be preserved for an audience who appreciates uncelebrated classics and their place in film history.

Get a glimpse of 7th Cavalry here.

The Far Horizons

Talkie of the Week: The Far Horizons

USA 1955, 108 minutes, color, Paramount Pictures. Director: Rudolph Maté, Written by Winston Miller, Based on the novel Sacajawea of the Shoshones by Della Gould Emmons. Cast: Fred MacMurray, Charlton Heston, Donna Reed, Barbara Hale, William Demarest, Alan Reed, Eduardo Noriega, Larry Pennell, Julia Montoya, Ralph Moody, Herbert Heyes, Lester Matthews, Helen Wallace, Walter Reed.

Plot summary: After purchasing the Louisiana Territory in the early 1800s, President Jefferson sends Meriwether Lewis and William Clark out West to explore the new territory and claim the adjacent land leading to the Pacific Ocean for the United States.

The_Far_Horizons_1955Review: There are a lot of things one could say about Paramount Pictures’ The Far Horizons, historically correct is not one of them. As one of the few features (if not the only) ever made about the Lewis and Clark expedition (1803-06), the film is a piece of fiction rather than a serious rendition of actual events. Dominated by a dramatic love story, the film borrowed an exciting setting to weave a colorful story around an adventure that in itself bears enough material for two feature-length adaptations. Based on Sacajawea of the Shoshones though, a novel by Della Gould Emmons, The Far Horizons falls sadly short of paying tribute to a now famous team of brave explorers.

Sacajawea, although praised as a key figure of the successful expedition, is but a mere shadow of the actual historic figure. Donna Reed – refurbished with a wig, her skin a deep made-up brown – did a decent job transforming herself into a native teenager who, as fiction would have it, falls in love with Charlton Heston’s philandering Lieutenant Clark. But the spark is strangely missing. Reduced to an unfortunate loser in love, Fred MacMurray did his best to flesh out his version of Meriwether Lewis, a man who (in real life) presumably committed suicide a few short years after completing his expedition but was on friendly terms with his fellow explorers. Barbara Hale played Julia Hancock, a young woman who choses Clark over Lewis in the beginning of the movie and has to deal with her fiancé’s change of heart when he returns to Washington in the end. Although none of the heartache ever happened, Barbara Hale’s scenes with the main characters are heartbreaking and one of the reasons to give this picture an honest chance. It’s also a plus to see this film released in widescreen format on DVD. Produced in Technicolor and VistaVision, the nature shots are beautiful and even breathtaking at times, the quality genuinely mid-1950s.

In general, The Far Horizons is not the kind of film you may turn to more than once (unless you are a fan of one of the above mentioned actors). Rated by Time Magazine as one of top ten historically most misleading films in 2011, the plot definitely leaves a lot to be desired. It is still a film, however, that – despite its many controversies – also has acting highlights towards the end and even offers discreet comments about society, including the status of the female sex.

Watch the original trailer here.

The Lone Hand

Talkie of the Week: The Lone Hand

USA 1953, 80 minutes, color, Universal International Pictures. Director: George Sherman, Written by Joseph Hoffman and Irving Ravetch. Cast: Joel McCrea, Barbara Hale, Alex Nicol, Charles Drake, Jimmy Hunt, James Arness, Ray Roberts, Frank Ferguson, Wesley Morgan.

Plot summary: In order to secure the survival of his family, Zachary Hallock gets involved with the wrong side of the law and thus puts the trust of his son and newlywed wife to the ultimate test.

The Lone Hand 1953Review: As a widowed father who is trying to start a new life with his son (Jimmy Hunt), Zachary Hallock (Joel McCrea) works hard on a little farm he only recently purchased and soon occupies with his new wife. In order to overcome the sudden loss of his harvest, he gets involved with a local gang of outlaws who are notorious for their robberies. His son, raised to be inquisitive and righteous, gets suspicious of his father’s new source of income and soon starts asking questions like his stepmother Sarah Jane (Barbara Hale). Unable to tell them the truth behind his actions, Zachary loses his son’s respect and his wife’s trust. It takes an unexpected turn of events to win them both back and make them understand the situation.

Shot in Colorado in 1953, The Lone Hand would be the first out of two movies starring Joel McCrea and Barbara Hale. As a reliably gifted Western star, McCrea governed the movie from the start, supported by Jimmy Hunt’s touching performance and Barbara Hale’s always hearty and wholesome presence. Together, they turned this little film into a memorable experience for anyone who is fond of family Westerns with a dash of suspense. Unavailable on DVD so far, the film is a gem that can be seen in occasional reruns on TV and deserves to be passed on from one generation to the next.

Watch a teaser here.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Talkie of the Week: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

USA 1962, 123 minutes, black & white, Paramount Pictures. Director: John Ford, Written by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck, Based on the short story by Dorothy M. Johnson. Cast: James Stewart, John Wayne, Vera Miles, Lee Marvin, Edmond O’Brien, Woody Strode, Andy Devine, John Carradine, Lee Van Cleef.

Plot summary: Rance Stoddard and his wife return to their roots to bury a friend and tell the real story behind a legend that started his political career out West.

Review: John Ford. James Stewart. John Wayne. Three legends of their own merit. Three men whose names stand for quality in entertainment. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, they worked together for the first time and created a masterpiece that is every bit as gripping now as it was fifty years ago when the film was released by Paramount Pictures. Build up like a mystery within a character-driven plot, the film focuses on the lives of Ransom Stoddard (Stewart), Hallie (Vera Miles) and Tom Doniphon (Wayne) in a small town called Shinbone. Starting with the arrival of an elderly Senator Stoddard and his wife who return to town to bury their friend, the story soon sheds light on the past to begin where it ultimately ends – with the truth behind Stoddard’s political success and the question who actually shot Liberty Valance. Filmed in black and white, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance benefits from an atmosphere that is unbearable at times; dark and depressing, the lack of color adds to a reality of hopelessness and violence, a situation only Stoddard seems to wish to change. New in the West and with a law degree in his hands, he is eager to make a difference in a place he has chosen to be his home, a place he wants to improve through justice and education. Confronted with arbitrary laws and fear, Rance soon has to learn that it takes resilience, allies and courage to reduce his ideas to practice, and that outlaws only understand the argument of a gun.

Available on DVD. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance trailer

Fury

TV classics: Fury

USA 1955-60, five seasons, 116 episodes, approximately 30 minutes each, NBC, black & white. Cast: Peter Graves, Bobby Diamond, Jimmy Baird, William Fawcett, Roger Mobley, Ann Robinson.

Plot summary: “The story of a horse and the boy who loved him.”

Review: As an orphan, Joey Clark never had an easy life. When Jim Newton witnesses a fight the boy wins over a bigger rival, both of their lives change forever. Jim lost his wife and son to an accident and has lived alone since. Brining Joey home to his Broken Wheel ranch, he doesn’t only show him a life of hard work, freedom and adventure, but also introduces him to a wild Mustang called Fury. Independent in spirit and dangerous to experienced horsemen, the horse calms down in Joey’s presence and becomes the kind of friend Joey never had.

As one of those children’s favorites that re-ran for years after the show’s conclusion, Fury is dearly remembered by anyone who grew up with classic, quality shows. Value-laden, innocent and exciting, each episode focused on Joey’s friendship with the dark horse and the lessons the boy learned from his substitute father, farm hands and weekly adventures. Intelligent, heroic and gentle with his human friend, the Mustang was the main attraction of a show that allowed each child to be a cowboy for a while, inviting them to ride along with Joey every week. Available now on DVD as an incomplete collection, the show still has the potential to fire the imagination of members of all generations.

Don’t you already hear Joey calling out Fury’s name? Aren’t you already looking for your Fury lunch box in the basement and feel like dusting it off for your (grand)kids?! I don’t know about you, but with a gem like this on my shelves, I cannot wait to feel like a kid again – if only for a moment – and then pass it on to the next generation.

Last of the Comanches

Talkie of the Week: aka The Sabre and the Arrow

USA 1953, 85 minutes, color, Columbia Pictures. Director: André de Toth, Written by Kenneth Gamet. Cast: Broderick Crawford, Barbara Hale, Johnny Stewart, Lloyd Bridges, Mickey Shaughnessy, George Mathews, Hugh Sanders, Ric Roman, Chubby Johnson, Martin Milner, Milton Parsons, Jack Woody, John War Eagle

Plot summary: Stuck in the desert without water and food, six soldiers and a handful of civilians are fighting for survival against Black Cloud and his Comanches.

Review: Shot in color as a diverting yet exhausting Western, Last of the Comanches tells the tale of six surviving soldiers from wiped out Dry Buttes who are struggling to escape Black Cloud. Together with a small group of civilians, they are trying to survive in the desert, desperately looking for water until they meet an Indian boy who has escaped Comanche captivity. With his help, they find the last resources his own people used to rely on in the dry season, giving them strength to make a last stand against an overpowering number of Comanche warriors.

Starring Broderick Crawford as Sergeant Matt Trainor, the film is dominated by a group of weathered, hardened men who are fighting for their lives. Barbara Hale supports the cast as Julia Lanning, a young woman whose quiet resilience leaves a lasting impression on the commanding officer without resulting in a romance. The film focuses on the hopelessness of the situation, the fears and frustrations of a group of strangers who are forced to work together in order to preserve a glimpse of hope about their own survival. The images are hot, dry and dusty, leaving the audience thirsty and hungry along with the protagonists. It is the unobtrusive performance of Barbara Hale and her undeniable talent to be the perfect supporting actress that doesn’t turn this film into a draining experience. She is subtle about her character’s fears and growth, and manages to create a believable bond between Julia Lanning and the Sergeant without including too much tenderness.

All in all, the film was blessed with a convincing cast and a quiet, adventurous script that still works its magic on an audience who is fond of classic Westerns. Once available on VHS, the film has not yet been released on DVD but can be seen in occasional reruns on TV. It is one of those gems that grows on you the more often you see it, so be on the lookout and enjoy this rather atypical Western of the 1950s.

Last of the Comanches sample scene

True Grit

Talkie of the Week: True Grit

USA 1969, 128 minutes, color, Paramount Pictures. Director: Henry Hathaway, Written by Marguerite Roberts, Based on “True Grit” by Charles Portis. Cast: John Wayne, Glen Campbell, Kim Darby, Robert Duvall, Jeff Corey, Dennis Hopper, Strother Martin, John Fiedler, Jeremy Slate, Alfred Ryder, Ron Soble, James Westerfield, John Doucette, Donald Woods, Edith Atwater, Carlos Rivas, Isabel Boniface, H. W. Gim, John Pickard, Elizabeth Harrower, Ken Renard, Jay Ripley and Kenneth Becker

Plot summary: 14-year-old Mattie Ross hires Marshall Rooster Cogburn to hunt down her father’s murderer and bring him to justice with a little help of Texas Ranger La Boeuf.

Review: True Grit was my first John Wayne Western, a fact I admit with some shame because he was such a heavy weight in Hollywood and a talented star in his fifty years on the silver screen, I should have started exploring his work much earlier than I did. But there are so many beautiful classics out there, so many favorites whose work I haven’t completely gotten my hands on just yet, John Wayne somehow fell behind as a priority. Once I did see him in True Grit, however, I felt inveigled to put him up high on my list. After all, his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn spoke to me much more than the only recently celebrated interpretation by Jeff Bridges.

Remake or original, that may be the question here to ask. Although, in 1975, John Wayne himself already reclaimed the part that had brought him his well-deserved Academy Award. In Rooster Cogburn, he starred with Katherine Hepburn, chasing after the murderer of her father, a plot that may sound slightly familiar to everyone who has seen True Grit in 1969 or 2010.  So was it so bad for the Coen Brothers to re-imagine this John Wayne classic? Well, it probably depends on how fond you are of contemporary interpretations. I didn’t like True Grit much when I saw the adaptation from 2010, but liked it better with John Wayne, Glen Campbell and Kim Darby. That said, I should add that the story itself is not my favorite, not so much for its general content, but for the character of Mattie Ross. But the original film in general is a real gem, telling the story of an interesting journey with an interesting end. So for anyone who enjoys a Western without any Indians, do pick this one as your after-dinner treat. You may be surprised how fast two hours can evaporate by watching a decent movie.

Available on DVD and BluRay. True Grit trailer available here.

The Oklahoman

Talkie of the Week: The Oklahoman

USA 1957, 80 minutes, color, Warner Bros.. Director: Francis D. Lyon, Written by Daniel B. Ullman. Cast: Joel McCrea, Barbara Hale, Brad Dexter, Gloria Talbott, Michael Pate, Verna Felton, Douglas Dick, Anthony Caruso, Esther Dale, Adam Williams, Ray Teal, Peter J. Votrian, John Pickard, Mimi Gibson

Plot summary: Dr. John Brighton is on his way to California with his wife and friends when a stroke of fate urges him to stay were it him hardest, in a small town in the Oklahoma Territory that needs a doctor as much as he needs a new home.

Review: The Oklahoman is a Western. The picture above may already have told you as much. Or the summary which basically only sums up where it all starts. If you don’t like the genre, you will probably not be eager to watch this film – which would be a pity, a real one – because The Oklahoman is a classic gem.

Starring Joel McCrea as Doc Brighton, the film is beautifully shot, cast and edited. It’s not artsy, nor dark. It’s entertainment. It’s drama. It’s romance, unpretentiously provided by the leading actor himself and the woman who would enter the supporting actresses’ hall of fame on TV, Barbara Hale. Westerns are as much her homeland as his, and they make their audience feel it. Not only do they create a chemistry that sizzles, they also make you want to grab your boots and saddle a horse to ride along with them. They build up that longing for nature and for something that is hard to describe. It is a feeling of nostalgia for something that’s long gone. A different life. A different time. Be it the 1870s of the plot or the 1950s of the production, take your pick. Watching The Oklahoman today, these two stars make you long for both.

Of course there is more to the film than “only” the congeniality of two performers, their believability and charm. There is also Doc’s friend Charlie Smith (Michael Pate) who gets in trouble when he defends his land against a crooked trio of brothers. And his young daughter Maria who combines innocence and trouble for Doc Brighton, convincingly portrayed by Gloria Talbott. And then there are Ann Barnes’ (Barbara Hale) mother and Doc’s own landlady, both hilariously brought to life by Verna Felton and Esther Dale. To cut it short, the entire ensemble is a joy to watch and the story gripping from beginning to end. It would be a shame to give too much of the plot away, to spoil the surprises and explain how the characters interact. So go get yourself a copy and watch The Oklahoman. (Re)Discover it and embrace what you see: a good movie with a decent cast and two shining leads, Joel McCrea and Barbara Hale.

Available on DVD.

Gunsmoke

TV classics: Gunsmoke

USA 1955-75, 20 seasons,  635 episodes, approximately 25 minutes each (1955-61), then 50 minutes, CBS, black & white, then color (1966-75). Created by: Norman MacDonnell, John Meston. Cast: James Arness, Milburn Stone, Amanda Blake, Dennis Weaver, Ken Curtis, Burt Reynolds, Buck Taylor, Glenn Strange, Roger Erwing

Plot summary: Life can be tough in Dodge City, a typical town in American West, but Matt Dillon upholds the law against crooks and gangsters with a little help of his townspeople friends.

Review: Originally a radio show launched in 1952, Gunsmoke became the longest living Western program on television. Lasting a good twenty years, it was canceled by its network CBS in 1975 and replaced by two Mary Tyler Moore spin-offs. Although the show had been on the decline in ratings, the cast and crew were surprised to hear about the cancellation after they  had survived a previous plug-pulling threat in 1967. Despite sagging ratings after switching from a half-hour to a full-hour show in 1961, Gunsmoke had won a faithful fanbase who continued to enjoy and support the program until it finally went off the air in the mid 1970s.

The program, like so many others of its era, was a continued success in reruns. It was also picked up again in a number of television movies in the late 1980s and early 90s, featuring Gunsmoke’s hero Matt Dillon (James Arness) after his retirement. In the first movie, Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge, he was supported by his on-screen love interest Kitty Russell (Amanda Blake) and their former co-stars Buck Taylor and Fran Ryan.

All in all, Gunsmoke was a show that picked up the legend of the American West and the myth of the frontier. In best Western tradition, the show offered an imperfect hero who was given a variety of excellent scripts over the years. Although criticized for not being as realistic and gloomy as the original radio show, the TV adaptation soon picked up a pace and life of its own. James Arness was a great pick for Marshall Matt Dillon who tried to uphold law and order in Dodge City. He was surrounded by a convincing cast of supporting characters, including Amanda Blake as saloon owner Miss Kitty. Although the background information on each character was meager, Gunsmoke also lived off the tension, animosities and amities of its recurring characters.

Thirty-seven years after its demise, the show is still a decent program to watch if not a joy. It’s not as light-hearted as The Adventures of Kit Carson used to be from 1951-55, nor as “soapy” as Big Valley from 1965-69. It continues to be a phenomenon of its own with a very genuine group of characters who lose and win as they live their lives in the prairie of the Wild West.

Available on DVD. Gunsmoke sample episode “Help Me, Kitty”