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

Monday, September 18, 2017

City Slickers (Columbia, 1991)

Dances with Cows



After some 1960s-ish cartoon titles and a (rather overdone) comedy version of the bull-running in Pamplona (an event in which I always cheer for the bulls which catch the stupid men) we are presented with an urban comedy in which New Yorkers say witty things. Have we strayed into a Woody Allen picture?

City Slickers is only a Western by a great stretch of the meaning of the word. Yet it does have Western themes and we’ll give it a go.

Three guys (Billy Crystal, Daniel Stern, Bruno Kirby) have a midlife crisis and decide to take a two-week vacation driving cattle from New Mexico to Colorado. So we have the age-old plot of the Easterner tenderfoot out West, which has been going ever since silent movies began. The midlife crisis is, I must say, brilliantly defined by the movie’s producer and star, Mr. Crystal, in a scene in which he tells schoolchildren (who appear to have Mrs. Thatcher as their class teacher) how their lives will pan out. It is bleak and funny in equal measure.
The city-slicker trio arrives
As the trio arrive out West, the color gets brighter and we see lovely New Mexico locations shot by Dean Semler (Dances with Wolves, Lonesome Dove, Appaloosa, Young Guns) and the music surges into stirring, sub-Bernstein Magnificent Seven-style orchestral richness (it’s actually by Marc Shaiman and Thomas Richard Sharp). And after a build-up, there, in an entrance to die for, is Jack Palance as the trail boss Curly, feared by all (Did you see how leathery he was? He was like a saddle bag with eyes.) Palance strikes a match by scraping it down his cheek. Phew, we think, it’s a Western after all.
Palance allowed to overact but gets away with it
Crystal, his writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel and/or the director Ron Underwood (no Western form) had clearly seen and were probably admirers of Red River. There are various references, one even explicit (“the Yahoo moment”). Of course, they have about ten cows so this picture doesn’t have quite the epic sweep of Howard Hawks’s, even if Palance does go for a Wayne-Dunson vibe. There’s also a Deliverance parody aspect.

There is (there had to be) a stampede, or, as one of the city slickers shouts, “The cows are going away!” It is set off by Crystal using his battery-operated grinder on his tropical roast coffee beans. Unfortunately catching the runaways is hard because Crystal has what he calls a roping disability – despite much practice he has never mastered the lariat. But gradually, as we guessed might happen, the Easterner learns, and after delivering a calf he earns the highest possible accolade: Curly says, “Good job, cowboy.”
"The cows are going away!"
There has to be a river crossing too, naturally, and Crystal finally and heroically manages his rope. Left without a boss (for such a dominant part, Palance’s appearance is very short lived) the greenhorns man up, rather like the boys left without John Wayne in The Cowboys, and bring the herd in, as Curly would have wanted. In a symbolic moment Crystal abandons his baseball cap for a Stetson.

There are some very funny lines and the whole show is certainly entertaining. It works. You get the impression that city slickers the cast and crew may have been but they evidently loved the Western, as, indeed, who among us does not? For did we not, we would be cast into outer darkness. And wouldn’t be reading this blog.


Friday, September 15, 2017

Run for Cover (Paramount, 1955)

Cagney with a Colt, not a machine gun

Nicholas Ray (1911 - 79), pictured left, directed this VistaVision Technicolor offering from Paramount, and the picture enjoyed some great Colorado locations in the shape of Silverton and the Royal Gorge. It was written by Winston Miller, of My Darling Clementine fame, and the art direction was by the great Henry Bumstead. Furthermore, there was a strong cast of character actors backing up the principals: Jack Lambert, Ray Teal, Ernest Borgnine, Denver Pyle, Trevor Bardette and Irving Bacon. There was clearly therefore talent on the set, in front of and behind the camera, and there was budget for it too.

So we are in for a really good Western, right?

Nope. Not really. It suffered from two major weaknesses: firstly, the lead actors, and secondly, the picture had very little to say – there was no message particularly and the whole plot seemed vin ordinaire – just another B-Western.

This was the third of Nicholas Ray’s four oaters (I don’t count Circus World as a Western). Ray is often thought of as a genius and certainly The Lusty Men (1952) and Johnny Guitar (1954) were interesting and unusual movies. His last, Fox’s mainstream The True Story of Jesse James (1957) was so altered by the studio as to make it hardly Ray’s work at all. This one, though, seems, well, just rather ordinary. You would certainly not have known it was a Nicholas Ray picture if you hadn’t read his name on the credits. It’s competently directed – though at 93 minutes probably a bit long – but nothing more.

We all like James Cagney (right) in a tux holding a machine gun in a Chicago speakeasy. And after all, he won an Oscar and was nominated for two more. But on a horse? He was a rotten rider, for one thing. His whole demeanor – and diction – just didn’t suit the Western. He did three (we can’t count his narration of Arizona Bushwhackers). Most famously he was The Oklahoma Kid in the amateurish Warners picture which had the equally unconvincing Humphrey Bogart as the baddy in black. The year after Run for Cover he would do the Robert Wise-directed Tribute to a Bad Man for MGM. And that was all she wrote. Despite the similarities between the gangster movie and the Western, the stars didn't usually succeed at both.

In the first reel he meets up with a twenty-year-old played by John Derek (left), who was in fact 29. Derek, who would be both Mr. Ursula Andress and Mr. Bo Derek for a time, produced movies as well as acting in them (he won a RAZZIE Award for Worst Achievements in Film for his direction of Tarzan the Ape Man) and was a photographer (he snapped three quarters of his wives for Playboy), and was also an editor, writer and cinematographer. So pretty well a jack of all Hollywood trades. As a Western lead or second lead, though, he was pretty weak. Watch him in The Outcast, say, or Ambush at Tomahawk Gap and you'll see what I mean. He didn’t do that many big-screen oaters. Mostly he did Frontier Circus on TV.

The idea in Run for Cover is that Matt Dow (Cagney) is an old hand, good with a gun and a man who knows the West, while Davey Bishop (Derek) is a green kid who hovers on the brink of being a no-good. He doesn’t hover long, though. He is pretty well a skunk, despite Cagney’s avuncular care.

There’s an implausible plot in which an express man throws a bag of money out at their feet as the train passes because he thinks they are robbers and doesn’t want to get hurt (again). Davey toys with keeping it but Matt is firm: they will take it into town and hand it in. But in Madison (clearly Silverton, but they call it Madison) the train man has cooked up a story to explain his actions and so Sheriff Ray Teal leads a posse which includes townsmen Jack Lambert and Denver Pyle, to capture the ferocious outlaws. If there is a message to the movie it is that people are too quick to jump to conclusions and judge others without evidence. While undoubtedly true, it must be said that a good percentage of Westerns rely on this notion, and indeed the posse opens fire without warning on the two men, grievously wounding one, and Jack Lambert immediately wants to string the other up from a nearby oak tree. Standard practice for Westerns, of course.
Technicolor VistaVision, but still a bit 'B'
Matt talks his way out of it, showing up Sheriff Teal, who looks ashamed and loses the next election, opening up a job for Matt to take – at a thousand a year plus fines. He makes Davey his deputy, to make a man outa him. Mistake.

Davey has recovered from his wounds because he is nursed by Matt and Helga, a Swedish farmer’s daughter (Viveca Lindfors – at least they cast a Swede). You might expect Helga to get sweet on the boy but nay, it is Matt she falls for (despite the more than two decades gap in their ages). The best bit about this part of the plot is Helga’s dad, Mr. Swenson, very well played by Jean Hersholt in his last picture (he died the following year), actually a Dane but hell, Danish, Swedish, they’re all Scandinavian, ain’t they? He had been in silent Westerns, including Hell's Hinges, back in the day. I just loved his bulky, stoic, even flinty farmer, a persona which hides a very shrewd man. I wonder if Hersholt had seen Edgar Buchanan's Fred Lewis in Shane...

One good bit: when he takes the lawman’s job Matt slips a rolled banknote into one of the cartridge chambers of his Colt. He says old lawmen do this so they always have money for a funeral on them. A nice touch.
Posed? Nous?
Well, everything settles down and sheriff and deputy have little to do. Matt whittles, in the best Destry tradition. In fact he whittles a toy for a small town boy, clearly thereby establishing his goody credentials. But one day there is a bank robbery. One robber is wounded and Matt leaves Deputy Davey in charge while he chases the other, Ernest Borgnine. Of course he brings Ernest in but when he gets back to town he finds that weak Deputy Dave has failed to stop the townsmen from lynching the other bandit. And Matt sure hates lynch mobs. In fact he arrests them all in the saloon, and they get a severe punishment from the local judge: a ten dollar fine each, for disturbing the peace.

There’s a pretty grim church service at Easter with children singing badly, a clumsy proposal by Cagney is accepted by the Swede (actually, she kinda pre-empts it) an action climax follows in which the bad guys are – oh, hell, you know how it turns out, even before you’ve watched it.

Now, I’m not saying all this is bad, exactly. It’s not bad. It’s just not all that good.

Probably just as well


Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Trooper Hook (UA, 1957)

Sergeant McCrea

A major revelation coming up, so brace yourself. All my life I have disliked Barbara Stanwyck in Westerns. She was a most unlikely Annie Oakley, barely acceptable as a chirpy colleen in Union Pacific (with Joel McCrea) and really bad in the 1947 tawdry pot-boiler California. True, she was impressive in Anthony Mann's The Furies, but The Moonlighter? Cattle Queen of Montana? The Violent Men? Oh, please. The Maverick Queen was even worse and as for Forty Guns, well, words fail me to describe its awfulness. No, she was entirely unsuited to the genre – yet she would insist on doing Westerns. I only watched Trooper Hook because it was a Joel McCrea Western, and, well, you gotta.

However, and it’s a really big however (this is where you need to brace yourself), in Trooper Hook Barbara Stanwyck is seriously good.

Yes, I knew you’d be amazed.
Stanwyck unusually good
It was produced by one Sol Baer Fielding, his only Western (he only produced five films altogether). It is a low-budget 81-minute black & white picture released in the year of major commercial color Westerns such as Paramount's Gunfight at the OK Corral and Fox's The True Story of Jesse James, and it was in many ways completely overshadowed. Most of the potential viewers probably stayed at home to watch Gunsmoke on TV. But ’57 was also the year of Columbia's really fine black & white 3:10 to Yuma, and Trooper Hook can justly be compared with that Delmer Daves picture.

I have always thought Joel McCrea one of the best ever Western actors. He was so steady, somehow. Quiet, taciturn, a splendid rider, he always came across as the decent cowpoke doing what a man’s gotta do. Trooper Hook (actually, he’s Sergeant Hook) is no exception. McCrea made this one just after being Sam Houston in The First Texan. He made four Westerns in 1957, quite a record: The Oklahoman was released in May, Trooper Hook in July, Gunsight Ridge in September and The Tall Stranger in November. True, these were mostly B-Westerns, and McCrea had earlier starred in major A-pictures such as Paramount’s Wells Fargo and the Cecil B DeMille-directed Union Pacific. He was Buffalo Bill for William A Wellman at Fox. But being late 50s ‘smaller’ pictures didn’t detract from the quality. In fact Trooper Hook reminds me quite a lot of an absolutely superb black & white oater McCrea made in 1948, Four Faces West. Both pictures have small casts and budgets but are thoughtful, intelligent and yes, rather charming films.
Stern and steely soldier McCrea
Trooper Hook is notionally a cavalry/Apache story, with Rodolfo Acosta, always good, curiously billed as Rudolfo Acosta, as the (fictional) fearsome Chiricahua war chief Nanchez. In the first reel he smilingly orders the execution of some cornered troopers, thus earning his ‘fearsome’ credentials. But another troop, commanded by Sergeant Hook, captures him. Hook’s men find that a white woman is among the captives, and this is Nanchez’s wife (Stanwyck), with his young son (Terry Lawrence). The woman is silent (that must have been hard for Ms. Stanwyck) but to be fair she plays the white woman ‘hardened’ to Apache life with restraint and skill. And she also manages very well the gradual re-integration into ‘civilized' society of a formerly respectable married woman. Honestly, it’s really well handled.
Acosta excellent
Sgt. Hook is charged with taking the woman and child by stage down to Tucson where her white husband is waiting. Some good news: the crusty old stage driver, a Buffalo Bill lookalike, is Royal Dano, in a splendid performance. And the husband waiting in Tucson is John Dehner, who was never less than excellent in Westerns.
A very posed shot but Dehner reliably good - though his part is too short
TV writers David Victor and Herbert Little Jr, with Martin Berkeley, who had worked on The Nebraskan and would do Red Sundown, wrote the screenplay from a story by Jack Schaefer, no less, and it must be said it’s well done. There are some great lines. Also contributing to the script was the director, Charles Marquis Warren. Warren was a novelist and magazine-story writer who worked for MGM in the 30s. Many of his stories had been made into movies, Streets of Laredo, Only the Valiant, Little Big Horn, Hellgate and Springfield Rifle, to name but a few. He directed a bit too, and wasn’t bad. He certainly understood the Western.
Charles Marquis Warren
On the journey they pick up various other passengers, including a sympathetic and decent young cowhand, Jeff, very well played by third-billed Earl Holliman, born in 1928 and still going strong, as far as I know. He was the ‘good’ son in Broken Lance and Charlie Bassett in Gunfight at the OK Corral, and later he was one of the Elder boys (John Wayne’s young brother) in The Sons of Katie Elder.
Holliman winning as sympathetic cowpoke
The picture has a worthy anti-discrimination/bigotry agenda and reminds us a little (but only a little) of Devil’s Doorway in that regard. I liked Sheb Wooley as leader of the bullies who abuse the "squaw" and her child - of course Hook knocks him to the floor with a mighty punch.

Well, Nanchez escapes from custody (there's a great shot of his broken manacles as he stands on a ridge gazing at the stage; we don't see his head but we immediately understand it is Nanchez, free) and of course he follows the stagecoach to recover his son (he doesn’t seem to care about his wife). But Sgt. Hook has his orders, to take wife and son to Tucson, and remember, a man’s gotta do…

Gradually, as we knew would happen, on the journey Hook and Mrs. Sutcliff (that was her white name; we never learn her Chiricahua one) warm to each other, and Hook bonds with the little boy. Yup, they are becoming a family unit alright. They had probably seen Hondo and The Tin Star. Luckily, husband Dehner is unwilling to accept the ‘redskin’ child and he perishes in an overly convenient ending in which he kills Nanchez and Nanchez kills him right back, enabling the new family threesome to go off to California, probably, to start a new life.

The DP was Ellsworth Fredericks, the Invasion of the Body Snatchers cinematographer who had worked on They Died with Their Boots On and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, as well as the André De Toth/Randolph Scott Western Carson City, so he knew a thing or two. The bleak and arid Mojave Desert locations the stage crosses to get to Tucson are appropriately hostile for the tale, and beautifully shot in a luminous monochrome (the fort scenes are shot at Kanab, Utah, obviously). It’s released in MGM’s Limited Edition Collection and is a good-looker.

Of course there are plenty of sound-stage studio shots, notably of the three-sided stagecoach which enables us all to get a good view of the occupants without crowding the cameraman in there too. The actors must have felt a bit silly delivering their lines while some prop boy rocked the stationary coach on its springs but they were pros. McCrea especially manages to be completely convincing as the stern soldier grimly carrying out his duty. At one point he interestingly says, "Duty means a lot of things...usually means looking things square in the face and forgettin' the rules and regulations."
That's stage driver Royal Dano's back we see
The relationship between Hook and Nanchez is very subtly done. Hook finds Nanchez a cruel killer but at the same time he understands him. Nanchez says to him, "My people have long called you 'Face of Stone.' They were wrong. Your name should be 'Heart of Stone,'" to which Hook replies, "I do what must be done." This makes Nanchez smile wryly and he says, "You are more Indian than you know," to which Hook grimly responds, "I taught myself to think like my enemy."

I really like this movie. Don’t be put off by Stanwyck in the cast list; I think you’ll like it too. It’s no big A-picture but it’s a very classy little B with considerable merit. Four revolvers, e-pards!


Sunday, September 10, 2017

Fort Vengeance (AA, 1953)

The evil Sitting Bull

While 1953 was giving us mighty examples of our great genre, the likes of Paramount's Shane, Warner Bros' Hondo or MGM's The Naked Spur, the humble B-Western trotted on undisturbed. One such was an Allied Artists picture produced by Walter Wanger (left), no less, though Fort Vengeance is no Stagecoach.

Actually, to the purists, Fort Vengeance isn’t a Western at all because it’s another tale of how the Mountie got his man (in this case his brother). Soldiers in red tunics don’t cut it for the true Westernista, though Tyrone Power had tried it in Pony Soldier, Alan Ladd in Saskatchewan, even Gary Cooper in North West Mounted Police, not to mention Bob Steele in Northwest Trail. Of course these ‘Canadas’ were usually shot in California or Arizona, and Fort Vengeance is no exception, giving us the well-known forests, mountains and adobe buildings Saskatchewan is so famous for.
Fort Vengeance was directed by the old pro Lesley Selander (right), a reliable Western helmsman, and so it's pacey and rattles along.

Hollywood loved ‘Fort’ films. On this blog alone we have reviewed Fort Apache, Fort Bowie, Fort Defiance, Fort Dobbs, Fort Invincible, Fort Laramie, Fort Massacre, Fort Ti, Fort Worth and Fort Yuma, and I may have forgotten some. These forts were usually what I call toy ones, wooden stockades, often filmed at Kanab, Utah (till it burned down). Fort Vengeance has the most perfunctory ‘fort’ set you ever saw, with about three logs either side of a gate. Well, budget was tight.

It stars James Craig (left) as Dick Ross. Now James Craig was not one of the brightest stars in the Hollywood firmament. He was an MGM contract player in the 40s, a sort of poor man’s Clark Gable. Considering that as far as Westerns go Gable was a poor man’s everyone else, that’s not much of an accolade. Craig did lead in a dozen or so Westerns, all Bs. He had some form as a Mountie, having starred in Northwest Rangers in 1942 (Hollywood producers loved Rangers almost as much as they loved Forts).

His ne’er-do-well brother, the no-account Carey Ross, is played by Keith Larsen (below), Brave Eagle on TV. We know he will be crooked in the plot and die badly, and he duly does.
It’s set in 1876. We know this because a line of the dialogue tells us that Custer has been killed at Little Bighorn “a few weeks ago.” In this version of ‘history’ Sitting Bull (Michael Granger, in his second Western of six) raced for the Canadian border with his braves right after the battle, where he immediately started stirring up trouble, trying to persuade the peaceable Blackfoot under sage Chief Morris Ankrum that the redcoats are just as perfidious as the bluecoats and the warpath is the only answer.
Statesmanlike Chief Ankrum
This Bull is an out-and-out bad guy. He lies, and he orders his braves to attack Canadian wagon trains (I didn’t know they had those) and kill Canadian farmers’ wives so that the NWMP will intervene and Chief Ankrum will be obliged to take up the tomahawk with his red brothers. As you know, it didn’t quite happen like that.
Sitting Bull the bad guy
Rita Moreno has a rather perfunctory part as the daughter of a trader (Emory Parnell) and she dances for the Mounties at the trading post. She doesn’t get to say much but she does flash her legs about. I don’t quite know why an ‘Irish’ trader (well, I think Parnell’s accent was supposed to be Irish) should have a Puerto Rican daughter but hell, why not? This was only Rita’s second Western and she didn’t do many, though another, The Yellow Tomahawk, was also a Lesley Selander picture.
Rita with her dad
The Mountie colonel (they call them Inspectors up there) is fightfully, frightfully English, played by Reginal Denny, from Surrey, who would be the dastardly Sir Harry in Cat Ballou.
 Inspector Reginald

It’s all in a quite nice Cinecolor, in Corrigan Ranch, Simi Valley locations. Selander was good at action so there’s a fair bit of gallopin’ and shootin’. There’s a villainous French-Canadian, Luboc (Peter Camlin), who takes Carey in on his scam, which causes all the trouble. There’s a last-reel brotherly showdown, enabling Chief Ankrum to announce sonorously that “There will be peace!” Phew. The End.

I enjoyed it though.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Muletown Gold Strike (an episode of Zane Grey Theatre) & Blazing Arrows (an episode of Custer)

Rory on TV

Rory Calhoun is best known to us Westernistas for his big-screen oaters, and very good many of them were too. But he also figured prominently on the small screen (and they were small in those days, weren’t they), most notably of course as Bill Longley in The Texan, which ran for two series, 1958 – 60, on CBS. Of course he was a very fictional Bill Longley and he didn’t murder anyone, just roamed the West helping out poor widows and children and being kind to animals, you know how they did.

But Rory also guested on other Western TV shows. He was in episodes of Wagon Train, Death Valley Days, The Virginian, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Rawhide, Lancer, Alias Smith & Jones and Hec Ramsey. Today we’ll watch two other TV shows he did, a Zane Grey Theatre in 1956 and, later, a 1967 episode of Custer.

Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theatre was, as you probably know, a Western series which ran on CBS from 1956 to 1961. It had many distinguished guest stars in different episodes and in season 1, episode 12, first aired in December 1956, featured our friend Rory.


After the usual slightly flippant intro by Dick Powell, we see Mason Ward (Calhoun), a no longer practicing lawyer from Kentucky but now in Wyoming, apparently bitter from the Civil War, being given a job as schoolteacher by the mayor (Parly Baer). One of his new pupils is obsessed with finding gold. Though everyone scoffs at the boy’s dream, he does in fact find nuggets but he is apparently exploited by his new teacher, who takes and keeps the gold in return for a few small items the naïve boy (Bobby Clark) wants to give as presents to kind neighbors.

The local townsfolk (including local lawman Denver Pyle) find out. They won’t listen to Ward’s proffered explanation and they all jump to conclusions about the teacher’s guilt, and go gold-crazy. There is, though, an explanation, which is revealed in the last couple of minutes of the half-hour show.

It was written by Aaron Spelling and it is a pretty straightforward moral tale about how wealth can corrupt but innocence prevail.
It was not a usual Western role for Calhoun, who has no gun and wears a suit. But he acquits himself well, suggesting an unhappy past and doubts about any brighter future.

It’s an inconsequential affair but well handled. You can watch it on YouTube if you want, here.

More than a decade later he had aged (he was 45) but he was one of those lucky men who ages well and in the 1967 episode of Custer, titled Blazing Arrows, he looks incredibly like George Clooney. So we have that in common.

Custer wasn’t my favorite show, I must admit, and this one was missing Slim Pickens so that didn’t help. Wayne Maunder didn’t quite cut it as Custer for me. Still, this was quite a good one because it featured Rory as the leader of Fredonia – no, not the 1820s breakaway republic but a fictional valley that set itself up as independent right after the Civil War. The men wear Reb uniforms and drill all the time and several of them don’t quite seem to have understood that the war’s over, especially the half-crazed Sergeant Carhew (Adam Williams) who wants to shoot anything in a blue uniform or a feathered bonnet.

Capt. Rory is noble and valiant, of course. When Carhew kills a young Crow brave, Rory prepares for an attack by Brave Dog (Rodd Redwing) and his massed warriors. Naturally, despite Fredonian antipathy, Custer rides in to help, and the veterans fight side by side, rather like Rock and Duke in The Undefeated or Charlton and Richard in Major Dundee.

There’s also a nasty railroad man (railroad men had to be nasty and grasping) whom no one likes. He’s played by Stacy Harris. He wants to run his tracks right through Fredonia and damn the consequences.

It’s quite actionful, I suppose. Rory looks distinguished. It all ends in too pat a way as the Indians are defeated, Capt. Rory suddenly sees the error of his ways, brings Fredonia back into the USA and glibly assures everyone that they will all be prosperous now.
You can watch this one on YouTube too, if you want, here.

We might look at Rory’s episodes of Wagon Train another day but for, that’s all, e-folks!


Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Pony Express (Paramount, 1925)

Better than expected

When reviewing The Covered Wagon last year, I wrote of its director James Cruze (left) that “He was no DW Griffith or John Ford. Though one of the highest-paid directors of Hollywood at the time, Cruze made films which were (with exceptions) rather plodding and unimaginative. This is especially true of his big American history pictures such as Old Ironsides and Sutter’s Gold. Cruze seldom moved his camera and cared little for editing. As William K Everson points out in his book A Pictorial History of the Western Film (The Citadel Press, New York, 1969), the US Cavalry’s ride to the rescue is staid and uninspiring. Even the usually foolproof runaway horse sequence is done in one single long shot. And the ‘riders’ on barrels jigging up and down in front of back-projection were embarrassingly bad, even for the time.”

I’m glad now, though, that I put that “with exceptions” proviso in because I have just watched for the first time Cruze’s follow-up Western to The Covered Wagon, namely The Pony Express, also for Paramount. And actually, I think it’s rather good!
It is certainly ten times better than the very tawdry 1953 picture Pony Express (also Paramount) with Charlton Heston hopeless as Buffalo Bill. That Heston version was, however, vaguely a remake, in the sense that it repeated the (rather silly) California secession plot.

Of course the 1920s and 30s were the heyday of big Manifest Destiny pictures which described the spanning of the continent and the building of a nation.

Another reason I like the 1925 one is that it makes much of the notorious Jack Slade. I was yakking on about Joseph A Slade the other day when reviewing the 1953 Allied Artists picture Jack Slade; I was saying how few celluloid Slades there had been. Well, this one, played by a splendidly villainous George Bancroft, is probably the best we have had.

Bancroft excellent as Jack Slade
We open in Sacramento, 1860, with the meeting of a secret society (un)known as The Knights of the Gold Circle. Their bigwig is Senator Glen (Al Hart, already in his eighteenth silent Western). They plan to take California out of the Union, invade Sonora, Mexico and set up a separate republic. To do this they want at all costs to prevent news of Lincoln’s nomination and election getting through to the west coast. So Glen goes to Julesburg, on the proposed new Pony Express route, to recruit Overland superintendent Jack Slade to their nefarious schemes. All very preposterous, I know.
Ricardo Cortez
While these skullduggers are plotting in Sacramento, though, handsome and smiling top-hatted gambler Frisco Jack arrives. He will be the hero of our tale. He is played by Ricardo Cortez, brother of cinematographer Stanley Cortez. Actually, Ricardo was born Jacob Krantz, of Jewish immigrant parents, but in the climate of the times the studio thought a less Jewish and rather more dashing name would go down better, so they chose ‘Ricardo Cortez’. Paramount was grooming him as the next Valentino. He would be Sam Spade in the first Maltese Falcon. He only led twice in Westerns but I think he was very good as the fast-gun gambler determined to foil the dastardly Senator Glen’s cunning plan.
Beery as sidekick
He is greeted by his long-lost pal Rhode Island Red, played by Wallace Beery hamming it up as usual – but of course he could get away with it as a sidekick in a silent movie. He tips Frisco Jack off that the senator is going to have him murdered – he will soon be “decorating a lamp post”. But in a classic move in the saloon, Frisco Jack shoots out the lights (something I’ve wanted to do all my life) and gets away. He follows the senator to Julesburg – no longer in flash clothes – and is just in time to rescue the stagecoach from a hold-up, casually shooting down the bandits and instantly winning the heart of an admiring Molly (top-billed Betty Compson, formerly Roscoe Fatty Arbuckle's leading lady, a famous Paramount contract player, and, coincidentally, I am sure, within a month of the movie’s release to become Mrs. James Cruze). The senator does not recognize his Sacramento opponent and recruits the brave fellow to be a Pony Express rider.
Betty soon to be Mrs. Cruze
This is when we meet Jack Slade, big, burly, dark of mien and clearly a baddy. His hat is splendid. Bancroft carried the part off very well. He’d had reasonably big roles in a couple of Tom Mix Westerns in 1924 and another in ’25. He never topped the bill in an oater but he would of course find Western fame in 1939 up on the box alongside stage driver Andy Devine in John Ford’s Stagecoach. In The Pony Express, not only does he plan to interfere with the US Mail, itself a heinous crime, but he also gets his Indian allies to murder some Oregon Trail settlers and rob them. His half-caste henchman, Charlie Bent (Frank Lackteen) is deputed to whip up the redskins into a frenzy for this purpose. However, he blunders: he doesn’t spot a little girl in a wagon, who survives, and in the last reel the child IDs him. Slade is pitiless: “String ‘im up!” he commands.

Mordaunt Hall, in his review of the time in The New York Times, wrote:

Slade is a big man, who wears topboots, a frock coat, a black, wide-brimmed hat and carries long-barrelled pistols. Unlike the ordinary villain, Slade smiles. It is not an ingratiating smile, but one that forebodes ill. Yet when he is on the warpath for a man who wants to pump him full of lead, his optimistic mouth straightens and his eyes blaze with burning hate. He drinks occasionally, and when the word goes round Julesburg that Slade is drunk the inhabitants eagerly seek cover. The people of Julesburg fear him more than anything on earth, and the reason why is easily understood.

We also meet Mr. Russell of the Overland (William H Turner, stalwart of silent Hoot Gibson and Bob Steele Westerns) who is setting up the equine relay service. And what a pleasure, we also meet Buffalo Bill. Not the stupid Charlton Heston one, who is ridiculously supposed to have started up the express with Wild Bill, but a fourteen-year-old boy (Johnny Fox) desperate to be allowed to ride.
Building the Church
There’s a sub-plot about Molly’s dad, Ascension Jones, a preacher, played by Ernest Torrence, Jim Bridger’s old-timer pal in The Covered Wagon. Frisco Jack ‘persuades’ the other gamblers in Julesburg (at gunpoint) to contribute to a church for Mr. Jones. No one (apart from Frisco and Molly) wants to attend, though, until Jack Slade gets drunk and the whole population scuttle into the church for safety.

There’s a climactic Indian attack but bold Frisco Jack rides off and brings back the US Cavalry, in (already in 1925) time-honored fashion. So it all ends well (except for Charlie Bent). Frisco Jack gets news of Lincoln’s election through, Senator Glen is unmasked, California does not secede and Frisco, Molly and the rescued wagon-train girl form a family unit and set off for a new life in California, in the best Western tradition (see Hondo, Yuma, The Tin Star and any number of others). And young Billie Cody takes over from Frisco Jack as rider.

Actually, it even ends well for Jack Slade. He is not unmasked and indeed is promoted by Mr. Russell. As we know, though, it didn’t end well for Jack finally…
How sweet
Various reviews criticized this picture as stodgy and slow. It isn’t. It is leavened with humor, has plenty of action, and the cast is strong. Mordaunt Hall liked it anyway, and rightly concluded his review by saying, “Motion picture producers come in for their share of blame for unworthy films, end it is only just that they should receive full marks when they make such a sterling story as "The Pony Express." Indeed, Mr. Hall.