"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Bill Tilghman in fact and fiction


Billy Tilghman takes the stage

Distinguished Bill in later years

William Matthew Tilghman (1854 – 1924) was one of the great lawmen of the old West. His name may not trip off the tongue in the way that an Earp or a Hickok does, and he certainly has not enjoyed the levels of Hollywood exposure that those men did, but nevertheless, to students of the West he was an important figure.

Silent-movie Bill

He’s only appeared twice on the big screen, that I know of. The first time he was played by himself, in The Passing of the Oklahoma Outlaws, subtitled Picturization of Early Days in Oklahoma, a 1915 silent movie directed by himself, filmed by Benny Kent, a pioneer movie photographer and Tilghman's neighbor in Lincoln County, Oklahoma, and released by Tilghman’s own Eagle Film Company.
 
Outlaws and lawmen, 1915 style
 
Bill intended to produce a movie that gave a realistic portrayal of outlaws and lawmen, though the motion picture, while showing many actual events, contains several fictional people and scenes. Tilghman filmed on location at many of the old outlaw hideouts in Lincoln and Payne counties and in the old Creek and Osage reserves. He recruited local people, as well as cowboys from the 101 Ranch, to act in the film. He enlisted Deputy US Marshals Bud Ledbetter and Chris Madsen to take part. Arkansas Tom Jones (Roy Daugherty), the only survivor of the Doolin–Dalton Gang, also played himself.
 
Arkansas Tom plays himself
 
Tilghman toured with the movie, introducing it personally to enthusiastic crowds, and he picture was a huge hit in the nickelodeons, though not everywhere: the Chicago Board of Censors refused to issue a permit allowing the showing of the film because it featured the exploits of a band of train robbers and outlaws.
 
Bill also plays himself
 
The Passing of the Oklahoma Outlaws originally ran for about 96 minutes. Today, only thirteen minutes of the film survive. It’s available among the features on a 2011 3-DVD boxed set with 132-page book at $59.98 from The National Film Preservation Foundation. There’s a two-minute extract on YouTube, with surprisingly good picture quality, here.

Steiger is Bill

The second feature appearance was when Rod Steiger played him in Cattle Annie and Little Britches (1981) and Steiger is reasonably restrained for once. Steiger’s Tilghman is hunting down outlaw Bill Doolin (Burt Lancaster) and his gang. Steiger does manage to convey a steely determination to bring the renegades to justice.
 
Rod is an aging Bill - though in fact at the time he was in his thirties
 
At one point in the movie, Tilghman says, “Bill and me, we’re old.” Steiger was 55 and Lancaster 67 so he had a point (Lancaster was ill with hepatitis and suffered a mild heart attack during filming) although in reality in 1893 both Tilghman and Doolin were in their thirties. Never mind. It adds to the slight ‘end of the West’ tinge to the film: the Wild West is disappearing. The day of the outlaw and gunman is over.

TV Bills

Tilghman appeared more often on the small screen. In 1956 Don Kennedy played him in an episode of The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp entitled Dodge City Gets a New Marshal, which you can watch here. It’s complete hooey historically: Wyatt arrives from having cleaned up Wichita in 1876 to take over as Marshal of Dodge and promptly shoots half a dozen men on Front Street. Charlie Bassett (Bob Fortier) is the county sheriff and Bill Tilghman the “chief deputy”.
 
Don as Bill
 
Actually, Tilghman probably did sign on as Ford County Sheriff Charles Bassett’s deputy in September 1874, when he was twenty. There is no historical record of this but his second wife, who wrote his biography, said so.
 
That's Charlie, seated, left, next to Wyatt
 
His farming family had come to Kansas from Iowa when Bill was three and the young man had been a buffalo hunter before taking up the lawman’s trade. Tilghman later became a partner in the Crystal Palace Saloon in Dodge. His first documented service as a lawman began on January 1, 1878, when he became a deputy under County Sheriff Bat Masterson.
 
Buffalo Bill Tilghman, left
 
Anyway, in the Wyatt Earp episode Charlie and Bill are surrounded by thirty gunmen at the depot. Jim ‘Dog’ Kelley (pre-Rawhide Paul Brinegar), a saloon owner and not yet mayor, reluctantly helps out and Wyatt heroically saves them. Earp, Bassett and Tilghman, “the greatest lawmen who ever lived,” as Dog Kelley calls them, then go out and arrest the ringleader of the gunmen, shooting a few more gunhands while they are at it. Boot Hill gets several new residents. Oh well, at least Bill Tilghman was featured.

In February 1960, Brad Johnson played Bill Tilghman in an episode of the syndicated TV series Death Valley Days enitled The Wedding Dress (Season 8, Episode 18). I can’t find this on YouTube among the many episodes available but it may exist. Send me a link if you find it!

Not quite clean-as-a-whistle Bill

Bill Tilghman may not have been the spotlessly clean peace officer he is usually shown as on screen, however. Within a month of his appointment as Bat Masterson’s deputy, he was charged with being an accessory to an attempted train robbery, though the charges were later dropped for lack of evidence. Tilghman was again suspected of a crime only two months later, in April, 1878, when he was arrested by Bat on a charge of horse theft. Once again the charges were dismissed. In March 1879, Masterson had to sell his deputy's Dodge City house, at auction, to satisfy a judgment.

Bill is marshal of Dodge City

In 1883 Tilghman became deputy to the new Ford County sheriff, Patrick F. Sughrue. He sold his share of the Oasis saloon in Dodge to his brother Frank. But Bill gained his first important lawman's position on April 10, 1884, when he was appointed city marshal of Dodge City. In May 1884 the citizens of Dodge presented Tilghman with a solid gold badge. Tilghman's widow, in her biography of her husband, wrote that Tilghman and Assistant Marshal Ben Daniels ran Mysterious Dave Mather out of Dodge during late July 1885, though this is dismissed by Mather’s biographer Jack DeMattos. In March 1886 Tilghman resigned as city marshal of Dodge to tend to his ranch, but the great blizzard of that year wiped out his livestock.

It was as a peace officer rather than rancher that Tilghman would continue. In 1888 he shot and killed a man named Ed Prather. Prather, a newspaper reported, “threw his hand upon his revolver; but Mr. Tilghman was too quick for him and held a revolver in his face. Mr. T. ordered him three times to take his hand off his gun, and would have disarmed him if he had been near enough; but Prather sought a better position, but Tilghman pulled the trigger and Prather was a dead man. A coroner's jury ... after a thorough examination of the circumstances, returned a verdict of justifiable killing.”

County seat wars

In the late 80s and early 90s conflict raged over whether Ingalls or Cimarron should be the county seat and in January 1889 there was a pitched battle between partisans of the two towns in which one man was killed and five were wounded. Bill Tilghman was one of the wounded: he sprained an ankle.

Oklahoma

It was at this time that the Tilghmans moved to Oklahoma. One of the 15000 population of the new boom town of Guthrie was Bill Tilghman, who built a commercial structure on his Oklahoma Avenue lot. Another land rush was held on September 22, 1891, and Bill Tilghman established a ranch. But the profession of lawman was never far away: Oklahoma was suffering the depredations of outlaws and in May 1892 Tilghman was appointed a deputy U.S. marshal.
 
Bill in his prime
 
When the new town of Perry, Oklahoma was created after the Cherokee Strip land rush of 1893, Tilghman was appointed city marshal there. It was at this time that he and his fellow lawmen were tracking down members of the Doolin gang. On September 6, 1895, Tilghman and two other deputy marshals tracked down William F "Little Bill" Raidler. After being ordered to surrender, Raidler opened fire and was brought down by a blast from Tilghman's shotgun. The outlaw survived his wounds and was sentenced to ten years.

The capture of Bill Doolin

Tilghman's career as a peace officer came to a famous climax in January 1896, when he captured Bill Doolin. Tilghman had followed Doolin to Eureka Springs, Arkansas. He recognized Doolin sitting in the lobby of a bath house. Doolin failed to recognize Tilghman, though, and Tilghman was able to overpower the gang leader without a shot being fired. It was a mighty coup. The day after, 2,000 people crowded into the Guthrie railroad station to see Tilghman bring Doolin in. But it didn’t pan out well for Tilghman: on July 5 Doolin escaped from jail, and Tilghman never got the reward. Doolin was finally tracked down by Tilghman’s friend Heck Thomas and his posse and was shot to death on August 24, 1896.

Doolin is nabbed
 
The popular Bill Tilghman won an easy victory in the elections to the post of sheriff of Lincoln County, Oklahoma in 1900. He was re-elected two years later. In 1900 his first wife, Flora, died and three years later Tilghman remarried, to Zoe Agnes Stratton, twenty six years his junior. They had three sons, Tench, Richard and Woodrow.

Politics

Politics beckoned. In New York, Tilghman’s old friend Bat Masterson introduced him to President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt wasn’t going to give Bill the plum job he wanted, US marshal of Oklahoma – that would go to a Republican and Bill was a Democrat – but Roosevelt remained fond of Tilghman, and these political connections enabled Tilghman to win election as an Oklahoma state senator in 1910. Following his term in the senate, Tilghman became chief of police in Oklahoma City on May 8, 1911. He served two years and helped rid Oklahoma City of much of its criminal element. By now he was a senior figure in law enforcement and state affairs.
 
Elder statesman Bill
 
The flickers

It was now that Tilghman turned to the movie business. And it is here that the biggest and best screen depiction of Bill Tilghman starts. On August 22, 1999 TNT broadcast the made-for-television film You Know My Name, which starred Sam Elliott as Bill.

Sam Elliott is Bill

The TV movie concentrates on the last year of Tilghman’s life, so now we will too.

While he is on the set of his motion picture, Tilghman (Elliott, actually a slim 55 to Tilghman’s portly 70 but putting on the age) is approached by a citizen of Cromwell, east of Oklahoma City and about fifty miles to the south east of Tilghman’s home of Chandler. The town is lawless and in the grip of crooks and thugs. Will he help? At first he declines but you can tell he would like one last go at marshaling, and he gets a six-month contract. In reality, this was a good ten years after the making of the movie, but never mind. He goes off to Cromwell alone, promising his wife and sons that he’ll be back soon. Naturally he rides. No perishing autymobile for him.
 
Sam as Bill
 
I must say Turner spared no expense (well, maybe a bit) in creating the set for the oil town of Cromwell. It’s a filthy place full of corruption. As Tilghman rides in he regards the lowlife with that Sam Elliott Western silent disdain. Of course it doesn’t take him long to start cleaning up the town.

The main town crook should have been Robert Middleton, who would have been ideal, but sadly he passed away in 1977 and was unavailable, so they got a Bob Middleton lookalike (perhaps they held a competition) and Walter Olkewicz, the Twin Peaks guy, as Killian does an excellent job of impersonating him. Killian is a saloon owner, naturally, as bad guys have to be. He is properly blaggardly as leader of the anti-law ‘n’ order brigade. Law ‘n’ order will reduce his trade in bootleg liquor (it’s Prohibition time), drugs, gambling and prostitution. I don’t know if there was a real Killian.
 
Walter is Killian
 
But the real villain, the seriously repellent one, did exist, though. I’m not sure that in reality Wiley Lynn was quite such a psychopath teetering on the edge of homicidal madness that Arliss Howard portrays him as, but Lynn was certainly a pretty loathsome character. Though a federal agent charged with eliminating illegal booze, he was in fact on the take in a major way. The movie Lynn is addicted to cocaine and pretty well barking mad. He murders various people, including the county sheriff, with glee and shoves their bodies in oil tanks. He was certainly Tilghman’s main obstacle in bringing some semblance of peace and order to Cromwell.
 
Arliss is the loathsome Lynn
 
Part of Tilghman’s strategy to tame the town is to show his movie, and we get the delight of James Gammon as Real Arkansas Tom who reluctantly steps onto the stage to back Bill up. The crowd cheer every move the goodies make, in the way that people used to at the flickers. This scene is well handled by the cast and by director/writer John Kent Harrison, who had done another TV 1910s Western with Elliott a couple of years before, The Ranger, the Cook and a Hole on the Sky.

We also get flashbacks as Bill relives his capture of Bill Doolin. In the movie he appears dressed as a clergyman and has a shotgun in a violin case. “You know my name,” he warns Doolin.

Bill is helped by a young assistant, Hugh Sawyer (Jonathan Young), which was in fact the case, and by rather rough methods he manages to get a spy in the enemy camp, Alibi Joe (James Parks), though it does not end well for Alibi when he is discovered. The oil tank has plenty of room for one more.
 

Bill in the Cromwell time
 
Bill goes back for bucolic weekends with his family. They are all a bit too good to be true. In fact the middle son, Richard, is written out altogether. In 1929 Richard was shot in the liver while attempting to hold up a dice game and died of his wounds, so maybe he was airbrushed out of the picture. But then Woodrow was also a career criminal, who spent much of his life behind bars, and he features, as a little boy.

Riding back to Cromwell from such an idyllic weekend, Bill is set upon by gangsters in an automobile who spray sub-machine gun bullets at him but of course a cowpoke on his horse is far superior to a mere car, and the vehicle careers over a cliff, leaving Bull unscathed.

You do get the impression that it has all been sensationalized a bit. Still, it is a movie.

The death of Bill Tilghman

Well, a drunken Lynn turns up in town, discharging his pistol wildly. Bill grabs his gun hand and succeeds in wrestling the firearm away from him but the skunk pulls a second pistol from a pocket and shoots Bill in the gut several times. Bill falls, mortally wounded. He died on November 1st, 1924. That was more or less what did happen.

Amazingly, Lynn was acquitted at a trial. Eye-witnesses conveniently disappeared and Deputy Hugh Sawyer, either incompetent or bought off, testified that he could not see clearly what happened, though in fact he was standing right next to Tilghman. Lynn continued his criminal ways until finally killed in a gunfight with Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation agent Crockett Long (who also died) at Madill, OK in 1932.

Bill Tilghman lay in state in the Oklahoma capitol building and was buried in Chandler.

I would recommend any of the screen Tilghmans, except perhaps the Wyatt Earp episode, and even that has its interest, I suppose. Or you could read Zoe’s bio: Zoe A Tilghman, Marshal of the Last Frontier: Life and Services of William Matthew (Bill) Tilghman. Glendale, CA, The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1964. Bat Masterson wrote about him in Famous Gun Fighters of the Western Frontier: 'Billy' Tilghman, Human Life Magazine, Vol. 5, No. 4. July 1907. Or try Guardian of the Law: The Life and Times of William Matthew Tilghman (1854-1924) by Glenn Shirley, Austin, TX, Eakin Press, 1988.

Well, so long, e-pards.

 

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Belle Starr (Fox, 1941)


A poor person's Gone with the Wind




 
 
I am still pursuing my sacred mission to see and comment on every Randolph Scott Western, and to further this undoubtedly noble aim I watched Belle Starr. I may have seen it before on TV but I don’t remember it. It could be that rare bird, a new Western. And what will I do when I have actually got the holy grail, and have seen every Randy oater? Why, watch them all again, of course. For there is little a Westernista loves more than Randolph Scott riding across the screen. Was he the greatest of all the celluloid cowboys? It is not for nothing that all the characters remove their hats and bow their heads every time his name is mentioned in Blazing Saddles.

Two years after MGM’s huge and famous Gone with the Wind, Fox wanted a Technicolor Southern-belle romance with dashing hero and a mansion with colored servants (as they were called then). And who better to be a belle than Belle?

The real Belle Starr (1848 – 89), shown right, born Myra Maybelle Shirley and usually known as May, was not a rich Southern belle and she was certainly no beauty. Her father was a Missouri hog farmer and her mother distantly related to the Hatfields of feuding fame. In the 1860s her father sold the farm and moved the family to Carthage, where he bought an inn, livery stable and blacksmith shop. Still, she did have some pretensions to ladyship. She received an education and learned piano, graduating from Missouri's Carthage Female Academy.

She knew the James boys and the Youngers in Missouri and renewed her acquaintance with them when the family moved to Texas after a Union attack on Carthage in 1864. Her brother, Bud, was a guerrilla, killed in late ’64.

In 1866 May Shirley married the disreputable Jim Reed, after having had a crush on him as a teenager. Two years later, she gave birth to her first child, Rosie Lee (nicknamed Pearl). You won’t find any of this in the movie. But she was a crack shot, and while participating in her husband’s criminal career she used to ride sidesaddle dressed in a black velvet riding habit and a plumed hat, carrying two pistols, with cartridge belts across her hips, and Hollywood went for that part.
 
Husband No. 1, Jim Reed
 
The Reeds fell in with the Starr clan, a Cherokee Indian family notorious for whiskey, cattle, and horse stealing in the Indian Territory, as well as May's old friends the James and Younger gangs.  It seems to have been love between May, now known as Belle, and Sam Starr (there were also rumors of a liaison with Cole Younger) and they were married in 1880. Sam was hardly the gallant and gentlemanly Confederate officer impersonated by Randolph Scott, but never mind.
 
Sam Starr with Belle
 
In 1883, Belle and Sam were arrested by the great Bass Reeves, charged with horse theft and tried before the (in)famous Judge Isaac Parker in Fort Smith, Arkansas; she was found guilty and served nine months at the Detroit House of Corrections in Detroit, Michigan. She proved to be a model prisoner, winning the respect of the prison matron, while Sam was incorrigible and assigned to hard labor.
 
In 1886 Sam Starr was involved in a gunfight with Officer Frank West. Both men were killed, and Belle's life as an outlaw queen abruptly ended.
 
 In the last years of her life Belle was the subject of rumor and gossip. She is said to have been romantically involved with the Cherokee outlaw Blue Duck, doing everything she could to get him released on appeal from life imprisonment for murder – unsuccessfully.
 
Belle with Blue Duck
 
On February 3, 1889, two days before her 41st birthday, Belle was killed. She died from shotgun wounds to the back and face. The crime was never solved, although there are many theories as to who did it.

Such are the facts of the life of Belle Starr. In popular legend, though, she was to live on. Her story was immediately picked up by the dime novel, and National Police Gazette publisher Richard K Fox made her name famous with his sensational Bella Starr, the Bandit Queen, or the Female Jesse James, published in the year of her murder. She appeared early in movies: Betty Compson played her in a 1928 silent and ten years later Natalie Moorhead was Belle in Heart of Arizona. Belle would go on to appear a lot in Westerns, Isabel Jewell playing her twice, in Badman’s Territory (1946) and Belle Starr’s Daughter (1948), Jane Russell taking over in Montana Belle, and then various TV shows featuring her too.
 
Louise Beavers does her usual Mammy act
 
In 1941, though, Fox chose Gene Tierney to be Belle (it was to have been Barbara Stanwyck but Tierney was Darryl Zanuck’s choice). Ms. Tierney had a well-to-do Eastern family and a posh education, and had won a contract from Zanuck in 1940. She had been the female lead to Henry Fonda’s Frank James in Fox’s Fritz Lang-directed The Return of Frank James later that year, though she would not be a Western specialist. In fact after The Return and Belle Starr she would only do The Secret of Convict Lake with Glenn Ford in 1951 and finally the semi-Western Way of a Gaucho with Rory Calhoun in 1952. She was really too upper-class and Eastern for the genre. In Belle Starr she goes for the Scarlett O’Hara vibe (and too-obvious accent) and copes well (or her stunt double does) with the sidesaddle gallopin’. Like Scarlett, though, she does come across as essentially tiresome, and while Tierney is satisfactory as the grande dame on the plantation, she is much less so when roughing it with pistol packin’ bandits in the hills.
 
Tierney as Belle
 
Randolph Scott was very famous by ’41. From his 1936 The Last of the Mohicans onward, he had become a leading figure of the Western. Jesse James in 1939 (another whitewash in color) was a major big-budget Fox picture, and as the first screen Wyatt Earp in Frontier Marshal later in the year Scott had been enormously popular. He was fine in Western Union early in 1941, another big Fritz Lang film, and he had been a gallant Confederate officer in Virginia City with Errol Flynn, so he was the ideal casting for the lead as Sam Starr. The Fox writers couldn’t have him as a Cherokee renegade, though. He had to be a Southern gentleman. Wealthy Virginian Scott was far too grand to be a common criminal.
 
Perfect as the gallant Confederate officer
 
The picture was produced by Zanuck himself. He was really pushing Tierney at that time. It was directed by Irving Cummings. Cummings had started in movies as an actor back in 1909 (he’d been in the 1912 The Life of Buffalo Bill) and was a popular leading man in silent-movies, including Westerns, in the 20s. By the 30s he was Fox’s go-to director for the big musicals and comedies they specialized in then, but he had quite a good Western track (or trail) record too. He had directed Warner Baxter’s Oscar-winning performance in In Old Arizona in 1928, and he directed some scenes of Jesse James, filling in for a temporarily bed-ridden Henry King.
 
Cummings
 
The writers were top-drawer – or would become so. The story was by Niven Busch, who had co-written the screenplay for the Gary Cooper/Walter Brennan Judge Roy Bean picture The Westerner the year before and who would, after the war, write the famous Duel in the Sun (more popularly known as Lust in the Dust) and then fine noir Westerns such as Pursued and The Furies later in the 40s. The screenplay from Busch’s story was written up by Lamar Trotti, Fox regular since the mid-30s, who often wrote from a (rather romanticized) Southern perspective. He would write pictures for John Ford and William A Wellman, including the excellent Gregory Peck noir Western Yellow Sky. He was a considerable talent. However, the screenplay of Belle Starr is not excellent: we never really understand why Sam is still fighting a lost war, nor why he lets himself be captured so easily and so often. And there is a very paternalistic (and to us now patronizing) treatment of African-Americans. Naturally, Reconstruction is all bad, as usual in Hollywood Westerns, and Trotti gives us uppity darkies strutting insolently while the guerrilla brigands are noble and decent. The attitude to Black Americans the film adopts is pretty offensive to us nowadays and has probably helped to keep the movie off the TV schedules.
 
Niven Busch (left) and Lamar Trotti
 
Music was by David Buttolph, Cyril Mockridge and Alfred Newman, some of it recycled from Young Mr. Lincoln two years before, and rather grand. Two DPs were credited, Ernest Palmer and Ray Rennahan, and the color photography of California locations is often classy, though there are too many unconvincing studio 'exteriors' and Fox made much use of those fake horses with back projection (they copied MGM in that too).
 
Some good photography here and there
 
As for the rest of the cast, Dana Andrews was billed third, as the Union major rival to Randy for the hand of the fair Belle. He had started with a smallish role in The Westerner and a bigger one, as Fremont, in Kit Carson in 1940. He wasn’t quite yet a big Western star, though soon he would be fine as one of the lynched men in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) and he would lead in the classy Jacques Tourneur picture Canyon Passage (1946). He’s good in his rather limited part of the rather rigid Army officer who burns down Belle’s stately home when she shelters a wounded Sam Starr.
 
Dana is a Union major
 
Chill Wills is Blue Duck, but he is just a Starr follower really and certainly does not make love to Belle, perish the thought. Blink-and-you-miss-them appearances are from Charles Middleton as a carpetbagger, Franklyn Farnum as a barfly, Kermit Maynard as a Union soldier and Mae Marsh as a preacher’s wife.
 
Chill is Blue Duck
 
The movie gives us a sanitized Belle – and Sam. There is no sign of first husband Reed and Belle’s brother is not a guerrilla killed in the war but Ed (Shepperd Strudwick), gentleman heir to the estate, teller of ‘amusing’ stories about “an old darkie” he knew, friend of the Union major and all-round good egg who tries, in vain, to convince Belle to give up outlawin’, and is then shot dead by the Cole brothers, a couple of ne’er-do-wells who have joined up with Sam Starr’s band (Joe Sawyer and Joe Downing). Belle is resisting the Union still, not engaging in criminal activity. Trotti’s first draft had her robbing banks (and that scene appeared on some posters) but it was all cut out. Despite the subtitle The Bandit Queen, Belle is a Confederate heroine who refuses to give up, not a female outlaw boss.
 
She's a Confederate partisan, not a bandit
 
Belle does not survive Sam and is not shot in the back in mysterious circs but instead dies to the strains of sentimental violin music.

It’s a whole lot of hooey, in fact, but then we don’t watch Hollywood biopics for documentary accuracy, do we?

At least we get a strong and resourceful woman in the lead (though second-billed, it’s Tierney as Belle who is the star of the picture). Female outlaw chiefs were quite a Hollywood thing, of course, and Joan Crawford, Jane Russell and Barbara Stanwyck, among others, would soon be following in Gene’s hoofprints.

But all in all, it’s not one of the greater Westerns, I fear. Watchable, yes, but not in the top class. The reviews at the time were pretty damning, accusing it of being “botched” and the acting “wooden”. It just staggered up to a three-revolver rating for Randy.

Belle in Fort Smith, 1886
 
 
 
 

Monday, November 13, 2017

O Matador aka The Killer (Netflix, 2017)


Brazilian gorefest




 
 
O Matador, also known as The Killer, not to be confused with John Woo’s 1989 picture, is a new Brazilian Western available on Netflix.
 
 
It goes for a South American vibe with much dependence on story telling. A young father in the 1940s tells a tale to two gunmen he meets about a professional killer in Pernambuco State in 1910. Readers of Gabriel García Márquez or Jorge Borges might enjoy it. Also those who like gore.
 
Everyone is vile
 
It’s one of those movies that is difficult to ‘like’ because absolutely everyone in it is extremely unpleasant. There is a whole series of hired killers who brutally dispatch their victims. Most of these assassins are destroyed in their turn and we do not mourn them.

There’s a corrupt rancher who wants the whole valley – one of the most tried-and-tested Western plots. He is a Frenchman, Monsieur Blanchard (Etienne Chicot). As no one around understands French, M Blanchard has a deaf-mute interpreter. Yes, I know.  Madame Blanchard is a former brothel keeper only interested in pleasure and they have a degenerate and revolting son, Pierre – not sure who the actors were.
 
Father and adopted son/apprentice
 
There are mystical pebbles which everyone seeks and which act as currency, a metaphor, I guess.

The picture was directed and written by Marcelo Galvão (below), his only Western. It’s visually fine, with beautiful photography by Fabricio Tadeu of, I suppose, Brazilian locations. It won the Best Cinematography (Melhor Fotografia) award at the Gramado Film Festival this year, which doubtless you attended.
 
 
The opening titles have a definite comic-book or graphic-novel tinge to them and this idea is carried through the whole movie.

I watched it, and certainly was not bored.

 Nice photography




 

Saturday, November 11, 2017

The Return of the Durango Kid (Columbia, 1945)


Durango sets up the series




 
 
Charles Starrett (left) took over from Tim McCoy as Columbia’s chief B-Western star in 1935, and made a whole series of oaters for the rest of the decade (some of which we’ll look at another day). But in 1940 he made The Durango Kid, which was to be the first in a very long series, lasting for seven or eight pictures a year right up until The Kid from Broken Gun in 1952, which we reviewed recently. In a way, though, The Return of the Durango Kid, which followed The Durango Kid after a five-year wartime pause, was the movie that launched the series. It established the norms, as it were, and had little in plot terms to do with the first one. In it the good guy occasionally dons a Zorroesque black costume and mysteriously appears in town to Right Wrongs.

Most of the later Durango Kid pictures would be directed by Ray Nazarro or Fred F Sears but The Return and the ten subsequent Durango movies were directed by Derwin Abrahams, who had been assistant director on numerous Hopalong Cassidy Westerns in the late 30s before himself graduating to directing Hopalong (and the odd Bob Steele oater) in the early 40s. He would later be a regular TV director of Hopalong Cassidy and Cisco Kid episodes.

Starrett was no singing cowboy and the obligatory songs were provided by a five-piece outfit called The Jesters (no relation to the 50s doo-wop or 60s garage bands). I must say their songs are a lot of fun. We also get some crooning in the very first scene as Durango’s pal Jim (Tex Harding) sings a song about a pinto and his cowboy pal. It’s a lovely voice, though sadly it was not Tex’s own but dubbed, the real baritone belonging to James "Bud" Nelson, as his son or daughter relates on the IMDb web page for this movie. Never mind, it’s a nice song.
 
Saloon gal Paradise dances to the musical accompaniment of The Jesters
 
Although most of the future conventions are laid down in the film, there are some that are not quite yet established. For example, Durango’s alter ego, the ‘Clark Kent’ version as it were, is Bill Blayden. In later pictures he would be Steve Something – the surname varied but he was always Steve. And he only rides Raider: later on, Steve’s mount would be the paint Bullet while Raider was reserved for Durango. Furthermore, in this one Bill seems quite relaxed about revealing Durango’s true identity. Later on, not even his comic sidekick Smiley Burnette would be aware of Steve’s double life.
 
Durango on Raider
 
There’s no Jock Mahoney to do the stunts yet but Ted Mapes is on hand (and to be a henchman). Mischa Bakaleinikoff trotted out the music, as he would de regularly to accompany Durango’s derring-do. Veteran Hopalong writer J Benton Cheney, who had also scribbled down Starrett Westerns since 1937, tapped out the screenplay.
 
Good stunts
 
Bill has no sidekick yet, only a pal, Jim – Tex Harding, the musical shotgun messenger, as I said. Poor old Tex’s career kinda faded away and he ended up as a meat cutter in a supermarket in Spokane County, Washington State, but he is personable enough as the hero’s friend. He would return playing a character named Tex Harding in the next half-dozen Durango oaters – once even the Reverend Tex Harding. The comic angle, though, is provided by old-timer stage driver Curly (Britt Wood, curiously uncredited for such a big part).

We’re in Silver City, Texas, 1875. It’s a skullduggery Western, obviously – they all were. The chief villain, Lee Kirby, owner of the saloon The Crystal Palace, is played by John Calvert, who parallel to his movie-acting career was also the world's oldest performing magician. On stage from the age of eight, he fulfilled a lifelong ambition when he appeared at the London Palladium on his 100th birthday. Not bad, huh. He didn’t die till 2013, aged 102. He’s very good as the slimy and murderous bad guy, especially because he has a derringer, which he draws no fewer than nine times in the course of the movie. Being besotted by derringers, I was in seventh heaven.
 
Bad guy Kirby thinks a derringer will do against Durango - as if.
 
The love interest is provided by his saloon gal, Paradise (Jean Stevens, who would return in Frontier Outlaw, another Durango outing the following year). She is in cahoots with Kirby and his henchmen-stage robbers but, as was right and proper, had a heart of gold and develops a bit of a soft spot for Bill.

I liked too the widowed stage-line owner, Buckskin (Betty Roadman, also disgracefully uncredited) who has a Jane Darwell vibe to her. She’s a tough cookie who stands up to Kirby and his thugs (with the help of Bill and the Jesters, of course).

At the end, having shot Kirby (“I’m not wearing a gun,” he pleads, but we know he has that sneaky derringer) Bill/Durango leaves town because some outlaws are on the rampage and “there’s more work for Durango”. So he sets up the rest of the series nicely, to the lasting joy of many (chiefly youthful) viewers who would flock to the movie theaters to follow his escapades – until TV came along and Durango would be seen no more. Sic transit gloria mundi.