George Sherman, Director of Westerns

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When director George Sherman passed away at the age of 82 in 1991, he was noted only for the quantity of his output. The obituaries in both the Los Angeles and New York Times pointed out the “175″ credits he had accrued as a director for screens both large and small (IMDb lists 126), although nothing as to their quality aside from their “low-budget” origins. I recently enjoyed some of Sherman’s Three Mesquiteers Westerns that he made for Republic (which I wrote about here), but a recent column by Dave Kehr has made me ravenous for more. Reviewing Dawn at Soccoro (1954, released as part of a TCM Vault Collection), Kehr describes him as “experimental”, and the film as,  “a western that might have been imagined by Kafka.” Fortuitously, more of Sherman’s work has been reaching home video. Last month Universal released a budget-priced “Classic Westerns” set of 10 films that include two Shermans: Comanche Territory (1950) and Tomahawk (1951), while Olive Films finished off their stash of John Wayne Mesquiteers films with Wyoming Outlaw (1939).

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Identity Thief: Cheyenne (1947)

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I am a man of few principles, but when a Raoul Walsh film comes out on home video I am duty-bound to write about it. The Warner Archive has been a blessing for Walsh enthusiasts, and their latest gift is a handsomely restored DVD of his Western Cheyenne (1947). It is somewhat of a neglected film in his career, having been released in the same year as the highly regarded  The Man I Love and Pursued. Then its TV syndication title was changed to The Wyoming Kid, to stop people from confusing it with the long running series Cheyenne, and it’s road to oblivion was almost complete. It’s appropriate the film had its own case of mistaken identity, since that’s what the whole plot hinges on – a twisting thicket of shifting identities, doublings and double entendres. Walsh had vocal problems with the screenplay, which veers from bawdy sex farce to a violent adventure, and only seems fully engaged with the brutally efficient open air action sequences shot in Arizona. This friction gives the film an appropriately schizophrenic feel, from frothy banter to frothingly mad violence.

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The Legend Was Never Fact

westopenerRecently, I showed Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery to my film history class. Porter was known to base his flickers and one-reelers on the newspaper headlines of the day. As I explained that Porter likely got the idea for the film from the exploits of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the oft-quoted line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance drifted through my mind: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” But, during the heyday of the Wild West, fact was completely lost in the interweaving of history and myth.

The Great Train Robbery was released in 1903. By that time, the Wild Bunch had disbanded and Butch and Sundance were lost in the wilds of Argentina. But, the gang’s 1899 robbery of a Union Pacific train was already legendary. Newspapers carried wood engravings based on photos of the railroad cars destroyed by dynamite, while papers circulated the first-person accounts of mail clerk Robert Lawson, who was inside one of the cars. In 1900, members of the gang robbed another Union Pacific train in Wyoming, blasting the safes with dynamite. At the end of 1901, gang member Kid Curry was arrested, though he escaped in 1903—all of which played out in the pages of the newspapers. The dynamite, hapless mail clerk, and train uncoupling depicted in The Great Train Robbery were inspired by the Wild Bunch’s exploits, which in turn were perpetuated through the film.

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DYNAMITED TRAIN CAR IN ‘GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY’

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The Young Adventures of John Wayne

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Marion Morrison had to work hard to become John Wayne. His earth-straddling lope and taffy-stretched line readings were not invented by John Ford or Howard Hawks, only finely exploited by them. The flood of Republic Pictures movies released on Blu-Ray by Olive Films illustrates this fact, filling in the blanks of the evolution of one of the screen’s most indelible personalities. Following the box-office failure of the Raoul Walsh masterpiece The Big Trail (1930), Wayne would have to wait nearly a decade before his delayed acceptance as part of Hollywood’s firmament in John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939). The period in between shows him sliding into obscurity, from Columbia and Warners down to the resourceful Poverty Row studios Mascot, Monogram and the slightly more reputable Republic. Olive has so far transferred sparkling editions of seven of the Republics, most of which finds him stepping in to play Stony Brooke, the leader of the long-running Western trio The Three Mesquiteers (he already played in a modern dress Three Musketeers for a 1933 Mascot serial – endless remakes are nothing new). Stony Brooke is lithe and quick where the classic John Wayne figures are slow-moving monuments, visible in Olive’s gorgeous 4K scan of The Quiet Man, out today on Blu-Ray, but his Mesquiteers voice exudes the chummy warmth and presence of Wayne-ness, not yet weighed down with history.

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On the Death of Harry Carey, Jr.

careyjrcardDuring the last phase of his career, Harry Carey, Jr., appeared in small but significant parts in some of the few westerns produced in Hollywood during the 1980s. In Walter Hill’s The Long Riders, he played a stagecoach passenger named George Arthur, who is robbed by members of the James-Younger Gang. When George reveals that he had fought for the South during the Civil War, Bob Younger shakes his hand. The unreconstructed rebel bonds with the outlaws as he helps them rob a cowardly passenger who lies about fighting for the Stars and Bars. As the gang rides away with guns blazing, George walks toward the camera, murmuring in amazement, “I’ll be god damned and go to hell”—a proper testimonial after an encounter with legends. The stage hold-up is one of my favorite scenes in the film because it is Harry Carey, Jr., who delivers this line. As a member of John Ford’s stock company, Carey had walked among a few western legends himself, albeit cinematic ones.

Carey died last week at the age of 91, and most obituaries identified him with Ford, John Wayne, Ward Bond, Ben Johnson, and the other actors associated with Ford’s troupe. Carey was proud of his close association with Ford and his westerns even when he didn’t fully agree with the great director’s attitude toward his actors. In his autobiography Company of Heroes: My Life As an Actor in the John Ford Stock Company, he declared, “. . . I’ve only had one teacher. That man was John Ford. He was my nemesis and my hero. There were times when I was not an admirer—but when the day’s work was done—I loved him.”

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HARRY CAREY, JR., c. 1948

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Ralph Nelson’s DUEL AT DIABLO (1966)

As soon as the credits start to roll in Ralph Nelson’s DUEL AT DIABLO (1966) you know you’re in for something very different. A knife suddenly appears to cut through the screen and immediately starts slashing apart the United Artists logo. This stunning gesture told audiences at the time that they were about to watch a very violent film but also a film that was going to defy expectations. DUEL AT DIABLO does that but it’s also one of the most entertaining American westerns produced in the ‘60s and a great example of why I appreciate that groundbreaking decade so much. Prejudices were being set aside and old Hollywood was forced to change with the times. DUEL AT DIABLO was made during the height of this transition and although it might not be considered a major film that contributed to the birth of “New Hollywood” it’s an important milestone in the western genre thanks to the pioneering performance of its star, Sidney Poitier.

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Whips, Guns, and Horses: The Westerns of Barbara Stanwyck

From Baby Face to The Lady Eve to Double Indemnity, Barbara Stanwyck thrived during the 1930s and 1940s as the hardscrabble, working class dame who was accustomed to staying one step ahead of men. Her throaty voice and no-nonsense delivery suited her tough-talking screen persona. During the 1950s, Stanwyck appeared in a number of westerns that exploited the aggression and independence associated with her star image. The unofficial series included Cattle Queen of Montana, The Violent Men, The Maverick Queen, Trooper Hook, and Forty Guns. Oddly, this period in Stanwyck’s career is either brushed off as a time when the aging star was trying to re-establish her position in Hollywood, or simply presented as a decline in her career. After Forty Guns was released in 1957, she did not make another film until the colorfully flamboyant Walk on the Wild Side, released in 1962. Biographies then note the resurrection of her stardom on the small screen, first as the host of The Barbara Stanwyck Show, which won her an Emmy, and then in The Big Valley. Later, she costarred in the mini-series The Thorn Birds and lent her considerable star presence to Dynasty and its spinoff, The Colbys.

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The Great Silence

It’s not often that I wire over a thousand dollars to European banks for the privilege of screening an obscure western. And, yes, more than one bank was involved because the exhibition rights were held in Germany (Beta Cinema GmbH), while the actual owner of the 35mm print resides in Switzerland (Kinemathek Le Bon Film). My interest in Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence (aka: Il Grande Silenzio, Le Grand Silence, The Big Silence, 1969) was sparked by my interview with Alex Cox on March 13th of last year, in which he referred to it as “maybe the best western of all time.” That was the kind of glowing recommendation that made me want to screen it at the film series I program to share with my general audience, but my initial attempts at finding someone in this country that had a print fell short of any decent leads. [...MORE]

Go Hang Your Dreams: The Hanging Tree (1959)

The Hanging Tree (1959) is a Western marked by illnesses and maladies, a portrait of a violent man at war with his own impulses. It deploys Gary Cooper as a crumbling totem, the actor’s aching hip tipping his performance from his famous underplaying into a kind of pained decrepitude. It is one of Cooper’s most emotionally wrenching turns, as he is seemingly aware that he was reaching the end of his career, which would end with his death in 1961. Then there is the sickness that felled director Delmer Daves over halfway through the shoot, necessitating that Karl Malden take over behind the camera, using Daves’ storyboards as guides. These sicknesses are made legible in the film, from the name of Cooper’s character, Doc Frail, to the sun exposure that fells Elisabeth (Maria Schell), the Swedish immigrant who Frail nurses back to health, and who tests the boundaries of the doctor’s seemingly impenetrable emotional defenses. Long unavailable in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the Warner Archive has released a handsome anamorphic edition of the film on DVD, transferred from an inter-negative. There is some light print damage, but nothing to detract from the grandeur of Daves’ compositions, shot on location in the Oak Creek Wildlife Area outside of Yakima, Washington.

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Snapshots of the Fall

The art house film calendar that I program goes to press in two days and, although I’m still waiting for some confirmations, I’m sharing the rough-draft with TCM readers, along with some brief thoughts regarding the choices made.

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