Forty Guns

Talkie of the Week: Forty Guns

USA 1957, 77 minutes, black & white, 20th Century Fox. Director: Samuel Fuller, Written by Samuel Fuller. Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Barry Sullivan, Gene Barry, Dean Jagger, John Ericson, Robert Dix, Eve Brent

Plot summary: Jessica Drummond rules her ranch, her brother and her forty hired guns in Arizona, intimidating the townspeople of nearby Tombstone. When Marshall Griff Bonnell and his two younger brothers come to arrest one of her men, they set off an avalanche that claims casualties on both sides.

Review: Forty Guns is a Western shot in best cinemascope quality. Written and directed by Samuel Fuller, the film features a hardboiled Barbara Stanwyck whose matriarch character is much more than our first encounter with her may suggest. Dramatically introduced on horseback, Jessica Drummond is a myth who surrounds herself with forty men to run her ranch, her Forty Guns. The myth is supported in a song, High Ridin’ Woman, which adds to the vigor of Ms. Drummond, foreshadowing her destiny.

Barbara Stanwyck is supported by Barry Sullivan as Marshall Griff  Bonnell, a former gunslinger whose courage and genuine approach to arrest felons deeply impresses her. Together, they carry a plot that’s far from jolly and move along a story that’s gripping and violent at times. Neither Jessica Drummond, nor Griff Bonnell are easy characters to understand and like, but the writing and the excellent performances add to their rough charm.

They are surrounded by a convincing cast of supporting characters and actors, Gene Barry, Dean Jagger and Eve Brent to only name a few. The landscape and setting adds to the sparse beauty of the film, accompanied by a neat score and convincing special effects.

All in all, Forty Guns is a film for a Western audience who appreciates the talents of Barbara Stanwyck and a stylish way of presenting a classic tale. It is a film that’s poignant and entertaining, a decent western that may surprise you in the end.

Available on DVD.

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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”

West of the Pecos

Talkie of the Week: West of the Pecos

USA 1945, 66 minutes, black & white, RKO Radio Pictures. Director: Edward Killy, Written by: Norman Houston, Based on a story by Zane Grey. Cast: Robert Mitchum, Barbara Hale, Richard Martin, Thurston Hall, Rita Corday, Russell Hopton, Bill Williams

Plot summary: On their way to their ranch in the West, Colonel Lambeth, his daughter Rill and her French maid find themselves lost in the desert, requiring the help of two local cowboys, Pecos and Chito.

Review: Based on one of Zane Grey’s tales, West of the Pecos is a nice little B Western adaptation featuring Robert Mitchum and RKO starlet Barbara Hale. Designed as a genre film with a comedic, as well as romantic subplot, West of the Pecos is a fun little movie that leaves you chuckling and in a good mood.

Robert Mitchum plays Pecos Smith, a cowboy who has an entire bandwagon of adversaries to fight while he takes on the job to guide Colonel Lambeth and his daughter Rill to their final destination. Still shaky after  having been attacked by villains during their trip out West, Rill has decided to disguise herself as a boy for the rest of their journey. She manages to keep her secret from their guardians until Pecos finally discovers that the odd, goofy teenage boy who’s come to impress him is actually a young lady who’s engaged to be married.

Although the plot may sound silly and predictable, the film is highly entertaining. Barbara Hale does a beautiful job disguising her pretty self in boyish jeans and a cowboy hat. It is hilarious to watch her Rill slowly falling in love with a handsome Pecos, against her better judgment one might add (all the while, in real life, Ms Hale was falling for her future husband and brief co-star Bill Williams). She has a great match in Robert Mitchum and the rest of the cast who support her subtle and intuitive talents for this innocent kind of comedy.

All in all, West of the Pecos is not meant to be all too suspenseful, nor gritty. It’s a good hour of pure fun and games with a darling cast of characters and actors who know how to make the best of their story. My pick for a night of good laughs when all I’m looking for is some relaxation.

Available on DVD and on Hulu.

The 90s

The 1990s

In the 1990s the motto was anything goes: grunge style or casual, leggings, neon colors, bike shorts and a comeback of hippie clothes. Mothers often dressed like their daughters, over-sized Ts and sweatpants made good exercise outfits or worked as simple slouching-at-home attire. Musically, Nirvana released their debut album “Nevermind”, Celine Dion and Mariah Carey made it big, Lauryn Hill entered the scene, as well as a very young LeAnn Rimes, and En Vogue or BoyzIIMen were popular doing contemporary R&B. Cell phones and the internet slowly entered American lives, changing them forever, and DVDs also began to replace VHS releases by the end of a decade that lived on the excitement and fear of a new millennium to come.

On TV, The X-Files stirred up conspiracy theories and fed on the Y2K spirit of doom. Science Fiction became more popular and darker in their plots, often featuring women in positions of power and command, while sitcoms presented entertaining shrewds with their best girlfriends e.g. on Cybill, High Society or Sex & the City. Ally McBeal introduced another popular female lead of the decade, Home Improvement was a rather old-fashioned example of a family comedy show and The Nanny successfully imitated I Love Lucy while managing to create a genuine heroine from Queens.  Judging Amy and The West Wing tackled more sophisticated themes, embracing an audience that wished to go beyond mere entertainment while Chicago Hope and ER fought for the spot of best medical drama. Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman revived the Western genre in a nontraditional way, Sabrina bewitched teenagers and families alike and Picket Fences added to the decade’s need for odd-ball characters with eerie pasts and endearing flaws. Nick-at-Nite had successful reruns of many popular classic shows, including “Lucy Tuesdays” and “Bewitched Be-Wednesdays”, reminding audiences of the before while an increasing need for the beyond was explored on many Star Trek spin-offs and emerging mystery shows like Buffy or Charmed.

In movie theaters, Disney had its golden age in the 1990s, producing smash hit features every year. Awarded with Academy Awards for their genius musical scores for many consecutive years, the studio did not only create classics such as The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast, but also used its creative overflow on numerous spin-off TV shows. Sneakers, Fried Green Tomatoes at Whistle Stop Cafe, Pretty Woman or Sister Act were some of the last old-school Hollywood classics Tinseltown knew to breathe life into and Dances With Wolves did bring back the myths and struggles of the Wild West from a unique perspective. All in all, the 1990s often seem to have been a decade of indecisiveness or freedom of choice, depending on your point of view. It was the long goodbye of the 20th century, its history and rules tossed together in one big salad bowl, looking for a new ingredient to spice up the new millennium.

Big Valley

TV classics: Big Valley

USA 1965-69, 4 seasons,  112 episodes, approximately 45-50 minutes each, ABC, color. Created by: A.I. Bezzerides and Louis F. Edelman. Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Richard Long, Lee Majors, Linda Evans, Peter Breck

Plot summary: In the heart of California, widowed matriarch Victoria Barkley, her adult sons and stubborn daughter Audra live a wealthy and influential life in the Big Valley.

Review: The Big Valley is a Western show. If you don’t like the genre, you may possibly not enjoy this program. If you find yourself biased however, do try to give this series a chance. It has a stellar cast, led by Hollywood legend Barbara Stanwyck. In true Golden Hollywood star tradition, her portrayal of Victoria Barkley is eye candy and ranges from up-lifting to draining, depending on the plot of the episodes she was allowed to shine in. Lee Majors is another worthy reason to pick this show who earned his stripes starring on this program before he became TV’s Six Million Dollar Man and Fall Guy in the 1970s and 80s. These two screen favorites are successfully surrounded by Linda Evans’ early talents (before she butt heads with Joan Collins on Dynasty), Richard Long and Peter Breck.

The Big Valley is one of those gems whose cast sparks off each other on screen. It is a real joy to watch their characters hunt down evil-doers, catch cattle or fist fight to make a point. Victoria Barkley as the family matriarch is a real lady who dotes on her sons and always has a wise remark. Her only daughter Audra has her poise and a lot of temper, and to her mother’s disdain, a rather free spirit. The Barkley sons, including the late Thomas Barkley illegitimate son Heath (Lee Majors), are all alike in their dedication to the family ranch, while their characters couldn’t be any more different. Nick, the hothead, Jared, the politician and Heath, the handyman. Together they form an invincible team, in spite of their arguments and dissimilarities in approaching trouble. Another treat is definitely California and the scenery that was chosen for the show, always breathtaking and beautiful.

Unfortunately, after four short seasons and in spite of its popularity, the show was canceled in 1969 due to pressure from the network to replace it with modern programs. Westerns were regarded as an outdated genre, one of which is dearly missed these days and successful in reruns or on DVD.

Available on DVD.

The Adventures of Kit Carson

TV classics: The Adventures of Kit Carson

USA 1951-55, 4 seasons,  103 episodes, approximately 25 minutes each, Syndication, black & white. Produced by: Richard Irving, Originally sponsored by Coca-Cola. Cast: Bill Williams, Don Diamond

Plot summary: Kit Carson brings order and justice to the Wild West with a little help from his friend El Toro.

Review: Still new on the entertainment market in the early 1950s, TV brought Western storylines and characters directly into America’s living rooms as a successful substitute for its silver screen rivals, leaving the movie industry observing the development with anticipatory anxiety.

The Adventures of Kit Carson was one of the first TV Western shows on television, and one of the most successful ones at the time. Addressed to a young audience, the show did not only direct its sponsor’s commercial messages to a minor target group, it also created a picture book hero for children to look up to: a fictionalized Kit Carson who sought right from wrong in the Wild West, always with the assistance of his Mexican friend El Toro.

The title character was played by charismatic movie actor Bill Williams, whose sportive background added to his all-American attitude and boyish charm. Don Diamond was a great sidekick to Bill Williams’ impressive horseman qualities and disarming righteousness, both always supported by a beautiful cast of guest actors, a fantastic set and many outdoor scenes. Shooting often lasted all day as the team followed the sun to use as much light as possible to give the show the same appeal on the small screen as Westerns then had in movie theaters. And the hard work paid off. The show was very popular with children and lasted four seasons before it was successfully kept alive in reruns for many years.

Today, The Adventures of Kit Carson is a darling example for the early days of television when the business was still learning to walk and borrowed much of its esthetics from commercial Hollywood. It’s a real treat to re-watch on a rainy Sunday afternoon, with your (grand-)children or alone. The show has an air of nostalgia about it and leaves you feeling like a kid in your parents’ backyard playing cowboy and Indians, waiting for your mother to call you in for a glass of homemade lemonade and apple pie. And like you in your heart, the show never gets old.

Selected episodes available on DVD. Sample episode of The Adventures of Kit Carson

Buckskin

Talkie of the Week: Buckskin

USA 1968, 97 minutes, color, Paramount Pictures. Director: Michael D. Moore, Producer: A. C. Lyles, Written by: Jimmie Haskell. Cast: Barry Sullivan, Joan Caulfield, Wendell Corey, Lon Chaney Jr., John Russell, Barbara Hale, Bill Williams, Barton MacLane, Richard Arlen, Leo Gordon, Jean-Michel Michenaud, George Chandler, Aki Aleong, Michael Larrain, Craig Littler, James X. Mitchell, Emile Meyer, Robert Riordan, Leroy Johnson, Manuela Thiess

Plot summary: Marshall Chaddock tries to bring order to a remote Western town which has been controlled by local crook Rep Marlowe. He seeks the support of the homesteaders who are ready to sell out and take flight until Chaddock proves to be willing to risk his life to fight for justice.

Review: Buckskin is a film made in true Western tradition featuring a full cast of well-known Western names and faces. Barry Sullivan leads the excellent group of actors as Montana Territorial Marshall Chaddock who comes to Glory Hole as an outsider with his halfbreed son Akii (Jean-Michel Michenaud). Their introduction to local homesteaders (wedded acting team Barbara Hale and Bill Williams, as well as their on-screen son Michael Larrain) is awkward and almost painful to watch, but not because the performances would lack depth or appeal. It’s the characters’ hardship that’s rather apparent from the get-go. The homesteaders have long given up on expecting help from anybody, let alone outsiders coming in with a promise to turn things for the better. It takes some drastic measures to convince them to support a man who finally lives up to what he says…

Buckskin is a typical tale of the lone Western hero, beautifully told with a touch of the late 1960s and thus a slight political undertone. Barry Sullivan gives a convincing performance of his character’s stubborn effort to win allies in an area that once belonged to his son’s forefathers and is now controlled by a greedy crook. When he ultimately succeeds, the fight for justice does not come without sacrifice for those who have struggled with unfortunate circumstances all their lives. Supporting cast members Barbara Hale and Bill Williams give strong performances as homesteaders Sarah and Frank Cody whose lives are affected by both, Chaddock and Marlowe, in unfortunate and unpleasant ways. Joan Caulfield gives an equally convincing portrayal of school teacher gone barmaid Nora Johnson. Her fate contrasts Sarah Cody’s, but strangely resembles it in a way. Both of their lives have been severely influenced by the men surrounding them, which adds a mild sense of women’s rights to the story.

All in all, Buckskin is a worthy pick for everybody who enjoys to watch a mature cast of fabulous actors in a Western scenery with a moral in the end to pass on to your kids. A great flick for a rainy Sunday afternoon, tissues included if you are as hooked on powerful yet subtle emotional scenes as I am.

Available on VHS.