Thursday, February 27, 2014

Another Look: FRONTIER MARSHAL (starring Randolph Scott, 1939)

After stirring things up a little bit some days back with my less-than-enthusiastic remarks about the classic Western film, MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946), I subsequently had a chance to view FRONTIER MARSHAL (1939), another earlier film based on Stuart N. Lake's highly fictionalized biography of Wyatt Earp.

In a way, I guess that makes Lake the main culprit behind the drastic swerves from historic accuracy taken by both films. Lake even gets co-writing credit on this one.
And, just to make the cheese more binding, as an old pal of mine used to say, there was a third Earp film --- done in 1934, making it actually the first of the three that will be under discussion here  --- also based on Lake's book. This one had the same FRONTIER MARSHAL title and starred George O'Brien. Thanks to behind-the-scenes manipulations and threatened lawsuits by Wyatt's widow, Josephine (for reasons I'm not clear on), this telling of the Earp legend was restrained from using the name "Wyatt Earp" for its protagonist but rather called him "Michael Wyatt". I haven't seen this one yet but if it follows the apparent trend of getting fewer and fewer facts straight the earlier these cinematic ventures were undertaken, then the 1934 version must have played real loose with the truth.
In other words, working backward, if MY DARLING CLEMENTINE mangled the facts about Wyatt, Doc Holliday, Tombstone, the OK Corrall, etc. … then the 1946 version of FRONTIER MARSHAL took those same mangled facts, threw them on the ground, stomped 'em into the dirt, then put the spurs to 'em.

So if a still earlier version was even more careless … well, one can only cringe at the thought.
Just as a reminder, though: My main beef with MY DARLING CLEMENTINE in my earlier post was not so much with the mangled facts or even to suggest that it was totally without merit --- what continues to bug me about it is why it is so highly lauded, often over Western films that in my humble opinion are far superior.

As for FRONTIER MARSHAL, the title of this post, it too has its merit --- strictly as a good action oater, never mind the whole Wyatt Earp thing. Randolph Scott plays Wyatt, and he's always enjoyable to watch; and Ceasar Romero does a surprisingly effective job as Doc Holliday (for some reason called "Halliday" in this film). The tension between the two comes across well and the various action set pieces and shootouts are a good mix of bravado and at times a genuine sense of danger. The villains that provide conflict for Wyatt and Doc in this case are not Ike Clanton and his rustler gang but rather a saloon owner called Ben Carter (in an uncharacteristically low-key performance by John Carradine) and his hired thugs. The closest thing to reality as far as the outlaw gang in this telling is to have one of the bad guys called Curly Bill (Brocius, one can assume?); plus Wyatt's brothers are totally absent. A secondary plot involving the two women in Doc's life --- Jerrie, his current flame, a saloon entertainer; and Sarah, his former nurse and lover who has followed him to Tombstone to try and salvage their former relationship --- is very well done and results in some deeply emotional scenes.

When the infamous shootout at the OK Corral occurs, Doc has been killed from ambush and Wyatt goes it alone to cut down Curly Bill and the remaining members of Carter's gang.
All and all, like I said, a decent enough film --- strictly as an action oater.

Additional notes: 1.)  Actor Ward Bond (a member of John Ford's famous stock company and real-life buddy of John Wayne) appeared in all three of the movies discussed here. In 1934 as a character named Ben Murchison; 1939 as the nameless Tombstone town marshal from whom Scott (as Earp) takes over when Bond proves too cowardly to confront a drunken Indian shooting up one of the saloons; and, finally, in 1946 as Morgan Earp. 2.) It occurred to me while watching FRONTIER MARSHAL how dead nuts perfect John Carradine, with his painfully thin appearance yet powerful screen presence, would have been for the role of Doc Holliday;  3.) Note the terrific tag line from the playbill poster for FRONTIER MARSHAL > "I'm Wyatt Earp – I'm the law in Tombstone and from now on it's up to you whether the city or the cemetery grows the fastest!"

Boy howdy --- You tell 'em, Randy!

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Noteable Reads: STILLMAN'S WAR by Peter Brandvold

Saddling up once again with Sheriff Ben Stillman is like reuniting with an old friend after not seeing one another for a long spell. It's immediately comfortable and exhilarating and you quickly realize how much you've missed your pal.
That's how it was the minute I started reading STILLMAN'S WAR.
ONCE A MARSHAL was the first novel I read with the Brandvold byline attached to it and from there I always kept an eye peeled for more by that author, especially if it had "Once" included in the title (like the first several Stillmans did) because that meant it also would feature another appearance by Stillman.
From there, I quickly grew fond of Brandvold's writing, period, featuring other series characters like Lou Prophet, etc., as well as those who began appearing under Peter's pseudonyms such as Frank Leslie … The Brandvold writing style was always the real star, of course, but the Stillman character remained a particular favorite of mine because he was the gateway to all the rest.
And now he's back. Hard to believe it's been a decade since HELL ON WHEELS, but that's the case. The good news about the bad news, however, is that STILLMAN'S WAR is worth the wait.
Ben is still Ben --- loyal and protective of his friends, gentle and loving to his pregnant wife, yet tough as nails on the job and the last hombre you want to have on your trail if you pose a threat to him or, especially, anyone he cares about. The story is fast-paced and action-packed, told with all the grit and violence and attention to quirky detail that are trademarks of the Brandvold writing style. Underlying the surly confrontations and outbursts of gunfire, there are several motivational twists and surprising character entanglements that give this tale more depth than you often find in a Western actioner. The Hollister family at the core of most of the events that unfold --- from the embittered, drunken, half-senile patriarch, Watt; to his Bible-obsessed wife; to the rebellious daughter who feels so trapped and smothered that she revolts wildly; to eldest son Nash who is torn by his desire to please his father, his own wild streak, and his sense of wanting to do right; to the gentle youngest son who wants to see Nash's wife treated properly and longs to be the one to do it --- are at once sinister and dangerous and tragic. The body count by the conclusion is considerable, yet among the deserving villains there are also those who can only be tallied as unfortunate victims.
Brandvold is clearly as fond of Stillman and his world as his readers are. So let's not wait another decade to put ol' Ben back in action again, Mean Pete!
Strongly recommended.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Another Look: MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (directed by John Ford, 1946)

I never write trash reviews. Never. If I sit through a movie or read a book (partially read a book, I should say, inasmuch as I'm not likely to finish one I find lousy enough to be tempted to trash) I keep it to myself. In the end, any review is only one person's opinion. The same is true either way, be it positive or negative. But a positive review is attempting to encourage others to try something they might not otherwise be tempted to check out or even be aware of; a negative one is strictly a matter of discouragement and (often) ridicule. I see a big difference.

Now, having said all that, you probably already see a "BUT" coming, don't you?
Well, sort of …
This look at MY DARLING CLEMENTINE is more a matter of tossing out a general question, along with a few comments, as to Why this film is so widely considered to be one of the greatest Westerns of all time. I've seen it a couple of times in the past, seen bits and pieces of it several more times over the years, and sat through it once again, beginning to end, just two or three days ago.
Yes, it's directed by the legendary John Ford, it features an all-star cast headed by Henry Fonda and Victure Mature (the guy who would be playing Samson for C.B. DeMille in another three years and who was widely considered the premier Hollywood "hunk" of that era – making him the healthiest fucking tuberculosis-riddled Doc Holliday ever), and has all of the famous Ford touches, including being beautifully filmed in Monument Valley. In other words, all of the ingredients were there. Or should have been.
Yet, for me, the whole thing falls flat and barely rates being a decent B-grade "shoot-'em-up", let alone anything approaching a classic. And this is just from the standpoint of storyline logic and acting.
Additionally, there is the horrible mangling of the actual history of the gunfight at the OK Corral, the event which the plot is centered around. To be fair, it is oft-told that Ford got many of his "facts" from Wyatt Earp himself, on silent film sets circa the 1920s --- a point when Earp and his wife were working diligently to "clean up" Earp's image (facts be damned) for the history books and biographies beginning to emerge.

I could go on --- like mentioning the complete and utter dumbness of the title, which has not one whit to do with the film (except for an ill-fitted and meaningless female character by that name) and also totally avoids linking in any way to the famous folk song about a miner's daughter … But this isn't a trash piece, remember?

Having said what I've said, I will close with the sincere question that is truly my main point for writing this piece … What the hell am I missing? Why do so many people I admire (from Roger Ebert to Sam Peckinpah, as just two examples) consider this such a wonderful classic in contrast to the reaction of  little-ol'-me?
I'd really like some feedback … Convince me where I'm wrong … Or (and maybe this is my snarky true intent) let me know if there's anybody out there who agrees with my take.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Another Look: SERGEANT RUTLEDGE (1960 movie)

This widely unheralded, underrated film deserves to be ranked much higher than it generally is on any list of fine Westerns. Hell, a start would be to see it included at all on such lists. The fact that it was directed by the legendary John Ford, filmed in Monument Valley, and included in its cast a number of actors from Ford's famous "stock company" make it all the more curious why it gets so overlooked. What's more, for it's time it was quite a courageous movie to make --- featuring a black man in the title role, and dealing with issues of race and rape and recognizing the presence of black cavalrymen ("buffalo soldiers" they were called) on the Western frontier.
Despite its story being told against the backdrop of a frontier fort in Arizona (manned by the aforementioned 9th Cavalry "buffalo soldiers"), SERGEANT RUTLEDGE is not part of Ford's famous "cavalry trilogy" (FORT APACHE, RIO GRANDE, and SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON). Highly regarded as those films are --- a bit more so than they deserve, if you ask me --- in my humble opinion RUTLEDGE is superior to any of them.

Woody Strode plays the title character, First Sergeant Braxton Rutledge, who is accused of the rape and murder of a young white woman, daughter of the fort's commanding officer, as well as killing the major himself. The story is told mostly in a series of flashbacks cutting away from the sergeant's military trial. Circumstantial evidence (i.e., the fact he was seen fleeing the scene of the crime and then subsequently deserted the fort), has Rutledge all but convicted even before the trial starts.
His only hope lies in the hands of Lt. Cantrell (played by Jeffrey Hunter), the officer who tracked Rutledge down and then assumed the role of his defense lawyer for the trial. At first, even Cantrell has some doubts about his client's innocence. But then, after Rutledge has been captured and is being returned to stand trial, he escapes once more only to turn around and warn Cantrell and the rest of the patrol of an awaiting Apache ambush, effectively saving their lives even though it puts him back in chains after the Indian attack is successfully repelled.
Gradually, the case against Rutledge is chipped away and his acquittal is ultimately gained when the fort's sutler breaks down on the stand and admits to the rape and double murder.

As we expect from a John Ford film, the staging and cinematography is wonderfully done, with the rich colors and textures of Monument Valley beautifully presented. And the acting of the players is above average at every level.

Unfortunately, some other things we've come to expect from Ford are there, too --- the almost religious devotion to strong drink; the awkward comedy moments, specifically in this case the annoying, high-pitched silliness of Billie Barnes, who incredibly receives third billing! (still, thankfully, there are some bits that do work); and the bold, booming outbursts of song often at odd moments.  And although the strength and nobility of the Sergeant Rutledge character --- even in the face of the prejudice against his skin color --- carries much of the movie's power, it also is somewhat diminished by Ford's tendency to be a bit overly sentimental and heavy-handed at times. Nevertheless, the Ford touch works far more often than not and the end result, as I said at the start, is a fine piece of work.

Final note on Woody Strode: Aside from his impressive overall body of work in films and the particularly strong acting job in SERGEANT RUTLEDGE (he also did noteworthy work in SPARTACUS this same year, 1960), Strode was quite an interesting man who in many ways (largely without being given proper credit) was on the cutting edge of breaking racial barriers. He served in the army during WWII; became a world-class decathlete; was an all-star football player at UCLA (along with Jackie Robinson, who would go on to break the color barrier in major league baseball); played pro ball for the Los Angeles Rams; and worked the pro wrestling circuit for a number of years in the era of Gorgeous George. He also practiced martial arts most of his adult life.
The son of a Creek-Blackfoot-black father and black-Cherokee mother, his first wife (until her death in 1980) was Princess Luukialuana Kalaeloa, a descendant of Liliuokalani, the last queen of Hawaii.
If any of this sounds interesting, I urge you to explore and learn more about this fascinating man.

As for SERGEANT RUTLEDGE, if you've never seen it or haven't seen it in a while, I likewise urge you to check it out. You'll be glad you did.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Available Now: THE GIRLS OF BUNKER PINES (Drifter Detective #3) by Garnett Elliott

This third entry in the rightfully popular Drifter Detective series is the longest of the tales so far and also shows us a slightly harder edge to PI Jack Laramie. Both of these are for the better. The added length allows author Elliott to more completely flesh out Laramie's background (including some flashback scenes to his time spent as a WWII POW in a Nazi stalag) interwoven into the nicely complex central storyline. The hardboiled side of Jack that presents itself more this time --- although foreshadowed in earlier stories --- is entirely fitting to what he is faced with on this case. Yet neither does he suddenly go ballistic and turn into some kind of reckless avenger. You don't want to back him into a corner but, at the same time, he goes out of his way to avoid tangling with associates of the Dallas Mob (similar to the situation he previously faced in HELL UP IN HOUSTON when he found himself once again faced with going up against the Cajun vice lord, Lameaux).

Just in case you don't know, Jack Laramie is the grandson of Cash Laramie, the deputy U.S. marshal (sometimes known as the "outlaw marshal") --- the creation of David Cranmer (aka Edward A. Grainger) who helms Beat To A Pulp Publishing and also puts out the Jack Laramie stories.
Cash operates out of Cheyenne, Wyoming, in the 1880s; Jack's drifting takes him throughout central and west Texas in the mid 1950s. But in spite of the time and distances separating them, the bloodline link between Jack and his grandpappy has never been more apparent than it is this time around.

To round off this tasty concoction with just the right seasoning, there are some colorful and well-realized secondary characters also involved. Most memorable is Joe Crewes, Jack's stubborn client (sort of), a Marine recently discharged after serving in the Korean conflict. Mix in some shifty con artists, a pair of Burlesque dancers (who call themselves by the unlikely handles of Rosie Tokyo and Eva Brown), a helpful motel operator with aspirations to complete a mail order course and become a licensed PI himself, and the aforementioned mobsters out of Dallas … you've got all the ingredients you need for some very satisfying reading entertainment. 
Available now in both Kindle and print format.
Strongly recommended. Don't miss it!

Saturday, February 1, 2014


Western Trail Blazer, established by Rebecca J. Vickery, was dedicated to bringing readers high quality literature about the American West. Effective January 2014, ownership and operation of the imprint is now in the hands of Robin and Troy Smith; Troy’s work has been featured by WTB since its inception in 2010.
To commemorate this new phase in the publisher’s history we’ve decided to release this anthology, TWILIGHT OF THE GUN, which includes stories by many regular Western Trail Blazer authors. Some of them you may have heard of, others perhaps you have not—but if you like stories about the West, there is plenty here to enjoy. This volume includes Wayne Dundee’s “This Old Star,” winner of the Peacemaker Award, and two other stories that have been nominated for that prize (by Cheryl Pierson and Troy D. Smith.)
Give them all a look—and when (not if) you find a writer you like, look for their other releases from Western Trail Blazer and elsewhere.

This Old Star by Wayne Dundee 
Blackwell’s Run by Troy D. Smith 
The Keepers of Camelot by Cheryl Pierson 
A Fire in Brimstone by Tom Rizzo 
Sharpshooter by Kit Prate 
Trail’s End by Les Williams 
The Downfall of Ross Dent by Lee Aaron Wilson
West of Dancing Rock by John D. Nesbitt
Morning Shadow by Frank Roderus
The Prodigal by Chuck Tyrell
Tucker’s Homecoming by Kevin Crisp
Angel and the Cowboy by Celia Yeary

Available in both print and Kindle formats at prices you can't afford to miss!