Sunday, June 29, 2014

Noteworthy Reads: COMPANY OF HEROES - My Life as an Actor in the John Ford Stock Company by Harry Carey, Jr.

I've wanted to read this book for a long time, ever since first hearing about it. Originally published in 1994, it went out of print some years back and in the interim had been available only at an exorbitant price. Now, thanks to the wisdom of Harry Carey Jr.'s children following his death (I don't mean to say I'm thankful about that part), it has been re-issued in both print and eBook formats.

If you've heard any of Carey's commentary or listened to any of his interviews over the years, you already know what a great storyteller he was. He was 91 when he passed in December of 2012, so he had plenty of time to accumulate those stories about Hollywood and movie-making (particularly Westerns) from the middle/late 1940s on through to the time of his death. At any rate, his verbal storytelling skills transfer well to the printed page. I find no evidence of a ghost writer being involved with COMPANY OF HEROES, so I believe it was done by Carey pretty much on his own. It reads like it, actually, with its stream-of-consciousness flow, done somewhat in sequence to the John Ford movies he was in, but with plenty of hopping around when Harry thinks of a side story attached to this or that personality he has mentioned.

Think of the span of time covered (from 1947, his first appearance in a TV series [actually two episodes of The Legend of William Tell – who remembers that one? I do, and can even sing the over-credits theme song] to his last role in 1997's Last Stand at Saber River) and the tremendous outpouring of films during that period. Besides the Ford films that are the core of this book, Carey worked with stars like Marilyn Monroe, Errol Flynn, Jane Russell, Tyrone Power, Randolph Scott, James Cagney, Henry Fonda, Audie Murphy, Richard Boone, James Arness, Tony Curtis, Richard Widmark, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, etc. … not to mention Lassie, Annette Funicello, Cher, Michael J. Fox, and Burt Reynolds … under top notch directors (again, apart from Ford) like Howard Hawks, Sam Peckinpah, and Peter Bagdonovich.
What's more, Carey Jr. was the son of Harry Carey Sr., one of the most popular stars (mainly in Westerns) from the silent film era - and blending nicely into the sound era, primarily in character roles. So, in spite of the Western persona largely associated with Harry, he was really a child of Hollywood.
But his affection for Westerns, horses, wranglers, and movie stunt men (with whom he had far closer and more lasting friendships that he ever did with other actors – except for Ben Johnson [Harry's closest friend throughout his life], who became well known as an actor [even winning an Academy Award] but originally from a ranching and rodeoing background) nevertheless comes across as very sincere.

The book is basically a history made up of behind-the-scenes and on-set anecdotes—often amusing, sometimes sad, always straightforward and honest in accordance to how Carey saw things. He doesn't try to analyze anybody, except for his own feelings and reactions. He simply lays out his stories and leaves it to the reader to decide how they feel about what he has related and whoever was involved.

Among the main players, John Ford comes across as a bully and a prick (to those he likes, no less), given to drunken melancholy, and exhibiting petty resentments and cold-shoulder treatment for those he felt had crossed him in some way (including Harry Carey Sr., with whom Ford made many extremely popular silent films, but then would have nothing to do with until just before his [Carey Sr.'s] death). Yet, for all that, Carey Jr. still claims to have loved "Uncle Jack", as he was instructed to always call him, and was willing --- like so many others --- to forgive his personal flaws and abuses due to Ford's iconic body of work. (I, personally, have come to believe that – with the exception of a handful of true masterpieces – Ford's "body of work" is highly overrated and certainly unworthy of balancing out his treatment of those about him … but that is a very controversial outlook and one to be taken up at another time.)
John Wayne comes across as a likable, helpful mentor to Carey Jr. and others in the Ford stock company … but not if it meant bucking "the Coach". The story of Wayne's complete subservience to Ford --- allegedly due to Ford giving him his "big break" in Stagecoach --- has been told many times, and Carey Jr. present nothing new or contrary in this book. As a huge John Wayne fan, I have always disliked and never understood this side of him. I'm all for loyalty and appreciation, but enough is enough and taking it almost to the point of boot-licking is too much, and I'm afraid the impression Duke left with everybody over the years was damn near that.
Ward Bond is the stock company member I probably learned more new things about than anybody. He was a big, gregarious, hard-working, hard-drinking, hard right wing conservative who'd been Wayne's best friend since their college days. Above all, `he was the Coach's (in Ford's own words) "favorite asshole". No matter who else Ford was down on and bullying, if Bond was around he was guaranteed to catch his own share of flack. So much so that, whenever Bond showed up, Wayne would grin his big grin and tell everybody else: "We can all relax now, fellas --- Bond is here to take the heat off." To which Bond would reply (making sure Ford overheard): "Aw, shit. My day just got ruined --- Wayne's here and he's got my starring part." When Bond died, Ford turned to Andy Devine at the funeral service and said: "I guess you know that now you're gonna be my favorite asshole."

I enjoyed this book. It was worth the wait.
Because I've read fairly extensively about John Wayne, I can't say there was a lot that was new to me. But Carey's style and sense of humor (often self-deprecating) are entertaining and the genuine emotion he convey as he relates the fading away of his old pards, one by one, is sincere and touching.
I don't read a lot of non-fiction, but this is one from that category that I highly recommend.

Saturday, June 28, 2014


You may remember that I first posted about North Platte's Alamo Bar back in February of 2012. For those who don't remember, the original article follows this update.
Said update is, for me, a sad one.
I must report that The Alamo has fallen again. This rugged old establishment that has endured in North Platte since 1873 (in one form or other, in one location or other, always maintaining the scarred but proud old serving bar where Buffalo Bill himself did some of his drinking back in the day) has come to an end.
I was shocked when I happened to be in North Platte a week or so ago and decided to swing by for a cold one and ... the Alamo was closed for business and being dismantled before my very eyes! The wonderful old mural on the outside south wall depicting Bill hunting buffalo had been painted over and was now just a blank wall, painted a sort of baby puke pink in color! And out front of the main entrance sat a huge construction dumpster into which workmen were tossing slabs of torn-down wallboard and other items they were carrying out from the gutted interior.  I tried to tell myself that maybe they were just remodeling ... but I already knew that wasn't the case.

Nevertheless, I pulled over to the curb and caught the eye of one of the workers. He was a young fellow in his mid twenties and when I questioned him about what was going on, he confirmed my worst fears. The Alamo was out of business, not slated for a new location this time, just on its way to being gone forever. And adding insult to injury? A beauty parlor is going in its place! (Maybe the puke pink color of that outer wall is going to be their special tint for hair dying.)

The only saving grace is that the young worker told me that the grand old bar had been purchased - by somebody in the Denver area, he thought - and was already hauled safely away. I haven't had a chance to pursue that lead, but I will. Maybe it went to a private collector. If not, if it gets put into use again in some new bar that appreciates its history, I'd drive a considerable distance just to track it down and have another drink on it.
We'll have to see.
But even at that, it won't be the same. Buffalo Bill's bar belongs in North Platte, damn it.
Still, I did my drinking there in the past. They can paint over the building, convert it, and move away the bar ... But they can't take my memories or my imagination.

From February, 2012
There is an inextricable link between Buffalo Bill Cody and North Platte—what we here in Ogallala (52 miles west) consider the nearest "big town" for a broader range of shopping, etc. The town of North Platte fully embraces its Cody history, as evidenced by everything from the brickwork "gates" containing images of Cody as you enter the city limits off I-80, to the colorful "Fort Cody" museum and gift shop, to Cody Park (with a glassed-in, lifesize statue of Cody at its entrance) to Scout's Rest, which Buffalo Bill built and where he resided during the late 1880s. 

Scout's Rest is now a State Historical Site. Cody initially left it to his sister with the instructions that in the event any "old scout" should travel through in need of a hot meal and a place to rest his head for a night or two, she should accommodate him. Hence the name.

North Platte is also the place where, in 1882, at the behest of the town fathers, Cody staged a rootin'-tootin', ropin' and ridin' exhibition to celebrate the Fourth of July. He called it his "Old Glory Blowout" and it served as the blueprint for what would soon expand and become his world-famous Buffalo Bill's Wild West.

But the piece of North Platte-Cody memorabilia that has always fascinated me the most is the little tavern tucked in a corner off the beaten path down near the Union Pacific railroad tracks. It's called the Alamo Bar and boasts of being in business since 1873. Moreover, it boasts that its still-in-use serving bar also dates back that far and, in its prime, was frequently bellied up to by none other than Bufallo Bill himself.
My days of drinking with any regularity are mostly past, but I'm known to still bend an elbow on occasion. And resting said elbow on the very same bar where Buffalo Bill rested his … well, who could resist?

I don't get over to the Alamo Bar all that often but, whenever I do, the experience, for me, is always the same. Even though the place has changed hands since I started going there (now aiming to be a sports bar) the bar itself is still as it was. Polished-over thousands of times, still a pale brown in color, still scarred and nicked and initial-carved and cigarette-scorched … in short, simply glorious. And when I hitch up a stool and sit down, the chatter and juke box music that otherwise fills the place seems to fade away, perhaps only for a moment or two, and its just me and Ol' Bill … excuse me, sir—Colonel Cody … and maybe one of the North brothers who have dropped by today, maybe even that rascal Print Olive prowling in out of the wild country …

Then the reverie is over and it's back to Now and I know it was all just another piece of a daydream (like us crazy writers are wont to have more often than regular folks). But, brief though it was, it was a grand little fantasy … And I'll be returning to have me another round the first chance I get.

Persevere — WD

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Noteworthy Reads: WAITING FOR A COMET by Richard Prosch

Generally speaking, I don't read a lot of YA titles. But one of my "automatic" reads is anything carrying the Richard Prosch byline. So when Prosch writes a YA novella, there I am flipping the pages (or, to be totally accurate, tabbing the forward arrow button on my Kindle reader) and congratulating myself for expanding my reading zone a bit.
Simply put, WAITING FOR A COMET is a delight. Part Mark Twain, part Rooster Cogburn, a dose of H.G. Wells, and all Prosch. The time is 1910, the setting this time around (instead of Prosch's favorite setting of Nebraska) is the small town of Willowby, Wyoming.
Rambunctious, 12-year-old Jo Harper, daughter of the town's newspaper editor/publisher is left to her own devices during most summer days while her father puts in long hours to get the paper out on time. Jo, often accompanied by her pal Frog, has no trouble finding adventures and mischief to fill her time. But this summer, all of that is being made easier for her. First off, there is the pending arrival of Halley's Comet, destined – according to doomsayers – to come streaking across the sky leaving a vapor trail of cyanide that will kill multitudes of earthlings. But ahead of that, arriving in Willowby unheralded yet still bigger than life and demanding almost as much attention as the comet, is Abigail Drake, a former sharpshooter with Buffalo Bill's Wild West and more recently a pistol-packing, legendary, town-taming marshal.
Abby and Jo hit it off right away and, before the summer is through, the adventure they rustle up together rival even the arrival of the comet.
This is a crackerjack of a yarn, richly detailed, filled with colorful characters, quirky humor, and all told in Prosch's distinct, subtly stylistic style. I, for one, would not mind at all seeing some further adventures of Abby and Jo.
Highly recommended.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Another Look: THE BIG SKY (1952 film, directed by Howard Hawks)

Howard Hawks, without a doubt, is my favorite film director.
I liken him to a top-notch old pulp writer from the Golden Era. He could work in any genre and make it his own, producing work that was high quality and highly entertaining. He never seemed to strive for lofty significance, just to do a good job at telling good stories; and, in the process, he just happened to turn out work of considerable significance.
Consider the range of films he made and only a sample of titles in various genres: Screwball comedies (Bringing Up Baby; Ball of Fire) – Crime Dramas (Scarface; To Have And Have Not; The Big Sleep) – War Films (Ceiling Zero; Sergeant York) – Musicals (A Song is Born; Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) – Horror (The Thing From Another World; and, yeah, I don't care if the credits do say it was directed by Christian Nyby, we all know damn well it was Hawks).

Curiously, considering that one of the trademarks Hawks became famous for (in addition to rapid, overlapping dialogue) was tough-guy, male-bonding, "a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do"-type of storylines, he only made a handful of Westerns. Six total, if you include 1934's Viva Villa!, for which it was generally known that Hawks did uncredited work both in writing and directing. His four best known Westerns are the ones he did with John Wayne --- Red River; Rio Bravo; El Dorado; and Rio Lobo. The first three are widely considered among the best of the genre (personally, Red River is my all-time favorite film, period) --- the less said about Rio Lobo, the better. (It was the last film of Hawks' career, so one has to wonder if perhaps he wasn't in the best of health, or maybe just played out.)

All of which is a sort of long-winded way to arrive at The Big Sky.
This is one of Hawks' least-discussed and least-heralded films. That's a shame because it is a very entertaining, very well done movie. (It received two Academy Award nominations – one for Arthur Hunnicutt, in the Best Supporting Actor category; one for Russell Harlan in the Best Black & White Cinematography category – neither a win.)
One has to consider this a Western Movie, although it is set in 1832 in the Missouri River wilderness as opposed to the more traditional post-Civil War period. "Frontier Movies", generally speaking, have never seemed to attract as wide an audience.

The story follows a fur trading company --- "free traders" as opposed to larger, company-financed, work-for-hire outfits such as the Missouri Company, who they are up against in this case, willing to stop at little to cause their failure and drive them from the territory. They are on their way upriver to trade with the Blackfoot Indians. "Frenchy", the leader of the free trading keelboat crew, has an ace in the hole in the form of Teal Eye, a Blackfoot princess whom he is returning to her people and expects grateful treatment in return.
Jim Deakins (played by Kirk Douglas) and Boone Caudill (Dewey Martin) join them, along with Boone's uncle Zeb (Hunnicutt), as hunters to provide fresh meat for the traders/keelboaters.
In addition to the danger and hardships of the river and other natural elements, harassment from the Missouri Company, attack from the Crow Indians (enemies to whites as well as to the Blackfoot tribe), the free company must also contend with jealousy and conflict between Jim and Boone, who each develop feelings for Teal Eye.

All of this is wonderfully filmed against the backdrop of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and is definitely a case where the viewer wishes Technicolor had been used. Nevertheless, the scenery is spectacular and only adds to the strengths of the film.

Speaking of scenery, holding her own against Nature's kind as wall as against  acting prowess of Douglas, Hunnicutt, and the rest, Elizabeth Threatt is intoxicatingly sultry and quite memorable in her role as the Indian princess. Nevertheless, she was barely seen or heard from afterward. Almost as curious is the very limited success of co-star Dewey Martin, who held his own equally as well in this outing, but whose career never really took off afterward. He worked sporadically on and off for several years, both in films and on TV, but never really played anything with the stature of this role. (Hell, he even won the girl away from Douglas.)

I should note that The Big Sky movie is based on the highly regarded novel of the same name, by A.B. Guthrie. It is the first in a trilogy of books (The Way West [Pulitzer Prize winner] and Fair Land, Fair Land being the other two) detailing America's westward expansion and the settlement of Montana. The connecting character in the three books is Dick Summers, a friend to Boone Caudill, who appears in the Big Sky novel but not the movie. (Trivia note: Kirk Douglas also appeared in the movie version of The Way West,
in the role of former senator and wagon master William Tadlock.)

Bottom line: If you're in the mood for an action-packed, slightly "different" Western served up nicely by the hands of many solid professionals, lead by Hawks, check out The Big Sky. It's a fine way to spend 140 minutes.

Saturday, June 7, 2014


Yesterday's 70th anniversary of WWII's D-Day invasion caused me to reflect (albeit not for the first time) on the question posed in the above title.
The "greatest generation" is what we continue to call (and rightfully so) the men and women who faced and endured WWII and the years immediately preceding and then following. Years that made the United States the richest, most successful, most generous, most powerful, and most admired country in the world.
I pose that those conditions --- at least the perception of them --- aren't necessarily the case any more; either in our own eyes or in the eyes of others.
I won't get too much into the politics of it, although they certainly play a part.
I just want to do a brief, simple, common man comparison between the people, the folks, who made up that generation and what we seem (to me) to have today. At 66 years of age, I am part of the first wave of "baby boomers" conceived right after the big war. So, since I was born while my parents were in their late teens, in a manner of speaking (like plenty of other kids who came along in the late Forties), I sort of "grew up" with my parents and therefore feel a close kinship to their generation. Certainly more so than today's so-called "Millennials", and at least two or three generations prior to them.

My parents' generation were the children of the Great Depression. Most of them were well versed in hardship and sacrifice and tough times. More of the same --- this time in a war effort to foil the advances of truly evil forces --- only rallied them to show the stuff they were made of, what they had been forged into from frontier times onward. Yeah, you've heard it before … when the going got tough, the tough got tougher.
On the battle front and home front alike – men, women, and even children buckled down and did everything they could, whatever it took, to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and support our country and our troops to win the war that had exploded on our very doorstep one infamous morning in December.
And after we and our allies had prevailed, the United States was ready to bust loose with renewed vigor and determination to make our country even more exceptional (it wasn't considered a distasteful term back then) than ever.
And that's what we became. That's what the Greatest Generation made us.

The Greatest Generation seemed to expect and accept that life came with some share of hard times and challenges. And the way to overcome them was through effort, hard work, and focus on achieving individual goals.
Today (and I'll expand this to include those beyond just the current generation) too many people seem bent on achieving their goals simply by whining and bellyaching and blaming others for their shortcomings, and looking to somebody else (often the all-to-willing government) to "level the playing field" and provide them an easier path.
Now I'm not naïve enough to believe or say that hard work was ever a guarantee to success. I'd have to look no further than my own father --- who, in words spoken to me shortly before he died, noted that he "worked hard at hard work" without any significant financial success (though the measure of a man and father can be taken in other equally important ways, but that's a discussion point for another time). But, nevertheless, hard work and focus is a way --- and the best way, in my humble opinion --- to achieve success. If for no other reason than my belief that one (whether he or she realizes it or not) always appreciate something you've earnedover something simply handed out.

The Greatest Generation worked hard and they rightfully figured that earned them the right to play hard. And they were given the freedoms to do so.
They smoked cigarettes; drank alcoholic beverages; ate red meat by the ton, along with eggs and cheese and pasta – and saved the damn grass for the cows and other animals; drove all over hell in cars without seat belts; rode bicycles and motorcycles without helmets; spanked their kids (just like they themselves and generations preceding had been spanked); went to church and believed primarily in the Judeo-Christian values that the founding fathers based the structure of our country on; got bloody noses and skinned knuckles (at all different ages) fighting over silly things like honor and truth; believed in heroes (without a mad rush to find fault and discredit anyone who got tagged with such a term); didn't instantly slap a lawsuit on a neighbor if his dog got loose and scratched one of their kids, or if an errant baseball came crashing through a window; sent their kids to school with baloney sandwiches, an apple, and a Twinkie; sat down at the supper table together as a family unit; prayed at home, school, and public events; stood for the playing of the Star Spangled Banner; gave their kids chores to do as a means to teach them how to earn money as opposed to receiving an automatic "allowance" for doing little or nothing; let kids work outside the home when they were deemed responsible enough by parents and employers (without a pile of state and local permits and regulations) --- and I'm not talking "sweat shop" labor here, I mean things like delivering newspapers or groceries, mowing lawns, painting houses, shoveling snow, or farm kids driving tractors/bailing hay/slopping hogs/feeding chickens/etc.; stood up to bullies on an individual basis, not by giving them the glory and attention of having whole campaigns mounted against them and their pathetic practices; learned about winning and losing in competitive events, not finding satisfaction in merely "participating" … and on and on.
And, I'll repeat, a big part to all of this was the "freedoms" to do these things, suffer associated mistakes, learn lessons, and make choices for themselves.

Contrast that to today where there are rules and restrictions on damn near everything we do, say … and (as we apparently are on the brink of) even think.
No wonder so many find the only (or easiest) recourse is to whine and blame and point fingers. Who stands and fights any more? 

An excellent example of what I'm trying to convey is the recent widely-publicized example of the old British soldier now in a nursing home who was refused permission to leave and attend D-Day ceremonies at Normandy. I don't know how much of an argument he put up. But I strongly suspect he didn't waste a lot of time pissing and moaning and throwing a hissy fit – he simply made the determination he was going to attend and took steps to make it happen. Nursing home personnel found him missing shortly before the anniversary ceremony in Normandy and, after a panicked search, they discovered that, sure enough, the old gentleman was in attendance at the ceremony, mingling happily with his old comrades from the battle.
Now that's the spirit of the Greatest Generation.
The flip side, unfortunately, is that the reason the nursing home (I'm speculating here) likely refused permission for the old warrior to make the trip in the first place was safety concerns for his health/well-being and for their liability in allowing him to go.
Good ol' lawsuits, remember? And the knee-jerk reaction to try and avoid them at all costs (including the price of common sense and the guts to stand and fight for same).

Don't get me wrong, I'm neither naïve nor stupid enough to pretend that everything under the Greatest Generation was totally hunky-dory and we didn't have problems that needed addressing. As examples, Racial Inequality and Women's Rights issues (especially after how strongly the women on the home front performed during the war) were matters of concern; and practices were in place or beginning that would soon become Environmental problems.
But they would not go unnoticed or unaddressed for very long.

Furthermore, many of the problems (in my view) we face today as far as such drastic contrasts in attitudes and practices between then and now are really the direct result – stemming from the best of intentions – of the Greatest Generation members themselves.
I heard my parents say at least a hundred times, "I want my kids to have it better than I did." Wonderful sentiment, right? That made me want the same for my kids. Along with every other parent --- and on and on and so forth. Until "better" somehow became "easier" and "easier" became "effortless and entitled" … up to where the government (again with the best of intentions, at least in the beginning) was moved to march in eagerly and relentlessly in order to "help" us.
So that's where we're at today. And, in my humble opinion, it ain't a particularly good place to be.

A popular, oft-repeated quote is: "If we don't learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it." That's generally meant in a precautionary way and I don't necessarily dispute it.
But I would add: Sometimes the lessons we learn from history should be repeated and maintained.

Don't know where all of this is coming from or why I felt the need to share. But it seemed important to get it off my chest.
Just sayin' …

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Noteworthy Reads: SHOCKWAVE by Andrew Vachss

This second entry in Andrew Vachss's new Aftershock series is another mystery/thriller written in the spare, distinct style that has become the author's trademark. But while the writing may be lean and spare, the complexity of the mesmerizing plot is anything but.

Once again we are drawn into the fascinating world of Dell, a former mercenary, and his wife Dolly, a former battlefield nurse. They have strived to make this world --- a new one for them, located in quiet coastal Oregon --- a peaceful, idyllic spot far away from the wars and conflicts they have, each in their own way, known in the past.
But that goal is disrupted one morning when a body --- skull shaven, torso covered with neo-Nazi tattoos, murdered in a precisely brutal manner --- washes ashore on a nearby beach. Although this poses no direct threat to Dell or Dolly, its proximity is nevertheless disturbing. Amplifying this is Dell's relentless devotion to loving and protecting Dolly; and Dolly's nurturing instincts toward the vulnerable about her. When an aging, homeless man from the area is arrested for the murder because he turns up with a watch traceable to the victim, Dolly becomes involved via Mack, the devoted lone worker for a local mental-health outreach program. He quickly points out a logical list of reasons why the unfortunate in custody, Homer, couldn't possibly have committed the murder --- but the cops and, more to the point, the weasel of a local DA are advertising the case as having been solved and won't be easily convinced otherwise.
Unwilling to stand by and see an innocent man railroaded while far more dangerous animals – the true killers - are still somewhere on the loose, Dolly turns to Dell, knowing the special skills only he can call on is what it's going to take to track down and deliver the real killers. Enlisting the gradually escalating aid and involvement of Mack, along with his other skills and contacts, Dell goes on the hunt with grim intensity. For Dolly, there is nothing he won't do, no stopping point until he succeeds.
The trail that leads Dell and Mack to who and what they are after, takes them through the layers of the homeless who live just beyond the perimeter of what the average person sees or knows, in and out of the poisonous pits inhabited by hate groups, riding the rails on the lookout for circuit riders or FTRA (Free Train Riders of America), and eventually into the corrupt depths of federal agencies where deadly secrets and even more deadly alliances have been formed and covered up for decades.

As usual with a Vachss book, there are multiple layers to be enjoyed. One can read it as a straight mystery/thriller – for which it is totally satisfying. Then there are also many intriguing historical facts and the spot-on societal commentary. And, infused through it all, there is the razor-sharp writing, a host of memorable characters, and the narrative power that forces you to keep turning pages.
Highly recommended.