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The Doolins of Oklahoma

Movies inspired by real life historical people and events can sometimes come in for a bit of stick. It’s common enough to read reviews and see complaints that things didn’t happen as portrayed on the screen. Personally, I have no objection to people pointing out the inaccuracies in such cases, indeed I’ve done so myself on occasion, but I never feel a movie should be judged or criticized too heavily on that score. Ultimately, history is fact and film is art; if the former is a priority, then I feel a well researched history book should be sought out. While I do think film can stimulate an interest in history, and encourage people to dig into the real facts, it fulfills an altogether different function. A movie needs to be evaluated on its own merits, as an artistic endeavor, and granted the license which comes with that. All this is by way of introducing The Doolins of Oklahoma (1949), which uses a set of authentic historical characters, and some events from their lives, to tell a classic western tale. Sure it departs from what is known to have happened but, for me anyway, this doesn’t detract from the quality of the film in the least.

Our story concerns what was known as The Wild Bunch (no, nothing to do with the Peckinpah movie) who raided banks and trains mainly in Kansas and Oklahoma. It all starts with the botched bank robbery in Coffeyville that saw the Dalton gang wiped out, or almost. Bill Doolin (Randolph Scott) was a member of the gang whose horse came up lame, meaning he had to hang back. Having avoided the massacre of his fellow outlaws, Doolin nevertheless gets involved in a shooting that necessitates going on the run. Putting together his own crew, he proceeds to carry on where the ill-fated Daltons left off. However, as the prologue has already stated, this is the last decade of the 19th century and the frontier is closing fast, civilization and the law are spreading and men like Doolin are being squeezed out. Essentially, Doolin and his confederates are men living on borrowed time and they know it – most of the film involves pursuit, and relentless pursuit at that. The posse led by US Marshal Sam Hughes (George Macready) never lets up once they get a handle on Doolin. However, a western of this period has to be about more than mere hold-ups and shootouts, although there are plenty of those on view. Doolin is one of those classic gunmen yearning to leave his violent and lawless past behind him. For a brief period it even looks like he might have managed it too; an attempt to shake off the marshals leads him to a church in the middle of a service and that in turn introduces him to Elaine Burton (Virginia Huston), whom he weds. Doolin adopts a new identity and settles down, but it’s not to be. His old friends turn up and somewhat cruelly expose him to the in-laws, leaving him with little choice but to strap on his guns again and return to banditry. It’s that old familiar theme of the bad man trying to outrun his past and redeem himself. There are no happy Hollywood endings in this movie but, in a sense, he does achieve his goal. Perhaps it’s appropriate for an outlaw like Bill Doolin that he finally gains his desired redemption in an oblique, left-handed fashion.

Gordon Douglas is a director who I think it’s fair to say has a few fans among regular readers of this blog. I’m quite fond of his work myself and the more I see of it, the more I like it. As was usual with the studio professionals of the era, Douglas made movies in each of the major genres and did notable work in all of them. There’s a tendency to downgrade the efforts of many of these directors by dismissively labeling them journeymen. I find that as one looks deeper into the filmography of a man such as Douglas it becomes apparent how well crafted his films were. There are a number of highly accomplished pictures to be found, containing memorable scenes and moments of great sensitivity. The Doolins of Oklahoma features a number of what I’d term “instances of realization”, points at which the characters become aware of the full import of their actions. Lesser filmmakers can either downplay or over-egg such key moments, thus robbing them of their impact on the viewer. Two scenes spring to mind in this film, where Douglas hits just the right note and leaves us in no doubt regarding their significance: there’s the aftermath of the Coffeyville massacre where Doolin guns down the traitor who betrayed his friends and so seals his own fate in the eyes of the law, and later there’s his reluctant acceptance of the need to leave his new bride despite everything inside him wanting to do just the opposite. Those scenes are not overplayed in any way, nor are they brushed aside. The characters on the screen know how important they are, we know how important they are, and we know it because the director wanted it that way.

Aside from Douglas, there were other influential figures at work behind the camera. Yakima Canutt is noted for his stunt and second unit work on a range of pictures during the classic era – John Ford’s Stagecoach being one of the best known – and his hand is in evidence here. The action scenes have the kind of drive, authenticity and heart-stopping quality often associated with the man. In particular, the climactic stampede bears all the hallmarks of Canutt. And then there’s the cinematography of Charles Lawton, a man capable of capturing beautiful images in both black and white and color. The Doolins of Oklahoma makes excellent use of those Lone Pine locations which are a familiar sight to western fans, and the interior scenes are also expressively and atmospherically lit by this experienced and talented cameraman.

Randolph Scott’s decision to focus almost exclusively on westerns in the post-WWII years was not only a smart career move on his part, but also benefited the genre enormously. Most leading men of the time were capable of playing western characters, and indeed a significant number of them did so. Having said that, Scott was what I’d call the perfect fit for the genre – his slow Southern delivery and lean, leathery looks simply belonged in the west. More important than that though was the personality of the man, which shone through in all his roles, embodying three key ingredients: dignity, decency and resignation. These characteristics meant he was in a position to play the kind of complex figures who made the post-war western such an interesting and rewarding viewing experience. Scott’s heroes were nearly always three-dimensional because the man playing them invested them with that quality. And his anti-heroes, as is the case in The Doolins of Oklahoma, were all the more credible as a result of the subtle little quirks he brought to them. Two scenes in this movie stood out for me as marvelous examples of Scott at his best. The first occurs when Doolin returns to the home he once reluctantly abandoned, in the hopes of laying up there for a time. On arrival, he’s immediately struck by how well-kept the place is, and then the truth hits home – his wife had never left despite his absence. There’s something remarkably poignant about the way this flash of understanding affects him, and the way his innate integrity colors his reaction. The second comes right at the end, as Doolin and Elaine are reunited in the little church where they first met. This is a moment of destiny, a make-or-break point for the character. Scott’s playing is faultless; as he stands in the dark with the woman he loves in his arms, the regret and sadness wash over his features with the knowledge that there’s only one honorable course of action open to him.

Stoicism is a word often used in relation to Scott, and it could be applied here too. However, it’s the term I’d more readily employ to describe Virginia Huston’s portrayal of Doolin’s wife. Hers was a brief film career, but she was presented with a fine opportunity to shine in this movie. It’s a pivotal role in a sense, not flashy or showy, but one on which much of the script’s logic hangs. It called for a woman whose faith in and loyalty to her husband is sufficiently strong to force a character like Doolin to reassess himself. I think Huston nailed those aspects and thus rendered the relationship with Scott wholly believable. The supporting cast is particularly strong and features parts for George Macready, John Ireland, Jock Mahoney (who apparently also doubled for Scott in the fight scenes), Louise Allbritton, Noah Beery Jr, Frank Fenton and Charles Kemper among others.

The Doolins of Oklahoma was a film I’d never seen until it came out via a TCM/Sony collection of Randolph Scott westerns – a set which now looks like it may be out of print actually. The movie looks very well with no significant damage on show, and good contrast levels leave the black and white photography appearing nice and crisp. The extra features offered consist of a series of galleries highlighting the posters, lobby cards, still and publicity photographs. Anyone who is a fan of Randolph Scott, or just westerns in general, will surely take something positive away from this film. I was highly impressed both by Scott’s lead performance and by the smooth direction of Gordon Douglas. The film shows the progression taking place in the star’s work that would lead inevitably to those towering roles in the late 50s and the beginning of the 60s. It also provides evidence of the growing maturity of the genre itself on the eve of its golden decade. Recommended.

This piece is offered as part of the Randolph Scott Blogathon hosted by Toby of the ever entertaining and informative 50 Westerns from the 50s. I strongly urge all readers should head over there and check out the other contributions to this celebration of Scott’s work by following the link above. Alternatively, you can click on the badge below and that will lead you to the same destination.

 
 

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Man in the Saddle

The collaboration of actors and directors is a favorite area for analysis by film critics – Ford and Wayne, Mann and Stewart, Huston and Bogart readily spring to mind. That attention tends to get focused on these cinematic partnerships is I think understandable; they offer a reasonably self-contained block of work which can be examined easily. Mention Randolph Scott to western fans and the name that will probably come to their lips is that of Budd Boetticher, again understandable enough given the reputation their series of films together has deservedly earned. However, Scott also made a group of westerns with another director, Andre de Toth, just before he hit his late career peak with Boetticher. Man in the Saddle (1951) was the first, and arguably the best, of a half-dozen movies featuring de Toth and Scott.

The overall framing device is the classic western staple of the range war, the conflict over land and the need for expansion. But that’s actually the least interesting aspect of a story that involves a number of overlapping and obsessive relationships. Owen Merritt (Randolph Scott) is a man under pressure on two fronts; having already lost his woman, Laurie (Joan Leslie), to his powerful neighbor Will Isham (Alexander Knox), he’s now in danger of seeing his ranch go the same way. Isham is one of those typical western expansionists, a man never satisfied with owning half of anything and ruthless enough to use whatever means are necessary to get what he wants. Standing in the path of this irresistible force is the immovable object of Merritt. The only possible outcome of such a paradox is conflict, even though Merritt does his level best to avoid it for as long as possible. What makes this apparently simple tale fascinating though is the way these characters, and those around them, interact. Merritt clearly retains strong feelings for the ambitious and mercenary Laurie, yet he buries them deep, while Isham is fighting an internal duel with his own jealousy and self-doubt. Matters are further complicated by the presence of another neighbor, Nan (Ellen Drew). She quietly pines for Merritt and in turn is herself desired by Clagg (John Russell), a taciturn loner of brooding temperament. When Isham’s hired gunmen up the ante by stampeding Merritt’s herd and killing one of his men all the passions and obsessions of the principals are unleashed. Merritt is forced into taking a stand against his enemies, even those he was hitherto unaware of.

If one views the westerns of de Toth and Scott in relation to the work both director and actor did independently and with others, then it’s possible to undervalue them. But I think such comparisons, even if they’re inevitable, are unfair. Movies really ought to be evaluated on their own terms – do they achieve what they set out to do? Placing them within a wider context does of course serve some purpose but it ultimately does the films a disservice too. What all that’s leading up to is my belief that Man in the Saddle succeeds in telling its tale. Firstly, de Toth’s direction and Charles Lawton’s cinematography combine well and the tension builds nicely. Visually, it’s an interesting movie with a number of scenes taking place at dawn or dusk (perhaps using the half-light to underline the murky, shifting nature of the relationships) and the location work in Lone Pine and Thousand Oaks particularly enhances the latter half. The climax too is notable for the use of a dust storm as an accompaniment to the action and is suggestive of the elemental, swirling emotions of those involved. The only downside of the film, for me at least, was the slightly clumsy way the comedic parts were integrated. Generally, I have no objection to the introduction of a little comedy to lighten the load, but I’m not sure it’s handled all that successfully in this case.

By the end of his career Randolph Scott had almost elevated the depiction of the stoic acceptance of loss and regret to an art form in itself. One of the more rewarding things about watching those films leading up this is the ability to observe how that persona gradually evolved over the years. As Merritt, Scott touches on this idea of losing the woman he loved. That loss isn’t as fully defined or as final as would be the case in the later movies with Boetticher, but it’s there all the same. Alexander Knox isn’t an actor normally associated with westerns, making only three throughout his career, yet he’s fine as Scott’s rival. He’s very convincing as an emotionally repressed man and this is even more effective when he actually lets loose all his pent-up rage. In truth, all the main players acquit themselves very well: Joan Leslie as the hard-edged pragmatist, Ellen Drew as the calm Girl Friday, and John Russell as the outsider twisted by his unrequited passion. My only complaint is that Richard Rober is underused as the smiling gunman.

Man in the Saddle is readily available on DVD and has been for many years. The US disc from Sony/Columbia presents the film nicely in its correct Academy ratio. This older transfer comes from a good print and boasts strong, vibrant color with plenty of detail. The disc doesn’t have much in the way of extra features, just a standard preview reel for other Sony/Columbia movies available. However, the movie is the main thing and the presentation here should give no cause for complaint. The westerns that Randolph Scott made with de Toth have been overshadowed to a large extent by the later Ranown cycle, yet they’re enjoyable in their own right. Aside from allowing viewers to fill in some gaps in tracing the development of the Scott persona, these movies are good examples of the professionalism to be found in the Hollywood western of the 50s. Man in the Saddle may not be the best thing Scott or Andre de Toth ever did but it’s still a pretty good film and is worthy of the talents of all involved.

 
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Posted by on January 20, 2014 in 1950s, Andre de Toth, Randolph Scott, Westerns

 

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7th Cavalry

On June 25 1876 Lt Col George Armstrong Custer led his famed 7th Cavalry into the valley of the Little Bighorn, and into the pages of history. Exactly how subsequent events unfolded have remained the subject of debate and conjecture to this day. What is certain is the result of that fateful engagement between Custer’s 7th and the enormous force of Indian warriors, largely Sioux and Cheyenne, ranged against them. Custer and his entire command were massacred, wiped out to a man. Over the years, that event has come to symbolize different things to different people: heroism, folly, retribution, or flawed judgement. A number of films have offered various interpretations of what transpired in the heat of battle, and a few have also turned their attention to the aftermath. 7th Cavalry (1956) is one of those movies that looks at what followed and, for a time at least, toys with the notion of saying something definitive about the actions of Custer. Ultimately though, it backs away from this – it’s essentially a film of two parts, with the potentially interesting beginning gradually giving way to a more familiar and standard outdoor adventure that’s nowhere near as satisfying as it could or should have been.

The story is told from the perspective of Captain Benson (Randolph Scott), apparently one of Custer’s favourites, who is first seen returning to Fort Lincoln in the company of his bride-to-be, Martha Kellogg (Barbara Hale), shortly after the ill-fated Little Bighorn expedition. At this stage Benson is unaware of what has befallen his regiment, but the uneasy silence hanging over the fort as he approaches it alerts him to the fact that something is badly wrong. These opening scenes are eerily atmospheric, as we follow Benson through the deserted fort, and share in his confusion and sense of foreboding. And then the full, horrific truth is revealed – the overwrought widow (Jeanette Nolan) of one of the slain soldiers confronts Benson and tells him of the massacre and the ugly fate of those who fell, practically accusing him of cowardice and deception in the process. What follows is the return of the surviving units, the establishment of a board of inquiry and the airing of various recriminations. The inquest into this military disaster is to be conducted by the father of Benson’s betrothed, a stiff and uncompromising army man of the old school (Russell Hicks) who has always regarded his potential son-in-law with suspicion at best. This section is where the film is at its strongest, holding out the possibility that a range of themes, ranging from the classic one of redemption through notions of honour and class prejudice, will be  delved into. Yet few of these, barring the former, are ever fully explored as the movie progresses. The second half sees the tone, emphasis and setting shift completely as the investigation winds up rapidly and Benson sets out on a suicidal mission to recover the remains of Custer and the other officers of his command. Here we retreat towards more standard fare as Benson picks a troop of “volunteers” made up of drunks and shirkers (Jay C Flippen, Denver Pyle, Leo Gordon, Frank Faylen et al) who also avoided the initial battle to undertake the perilous mission. Despite being weaker, this portion of the movie is not without its own points of interest, not least the introduction of the idea of spirituality. Sadly though, here’s another potentially fascinating avenue that’s left undeveloped and actually treated in a hokey fashion in order to facilitate a convenient climax.

Over on his site on 50s westerns yesterday, Toby made a very good point when he mentioned Night Passage. If you follow that link you will see exactly what he was saying, and the essence of it is that the way we approach a film, or the weight of expectation that we bring along, can unfairly colour our assessment of it. It’s an idea that I’ve had buzzing around in my own head for a while too, and Toby’s reference to it made me wonder if it didn’t have some application to the movie in question here. What I mean is this: how far does one’s preconceptions based on cast, crew and subject matter impact on the evaluation of a movie? In this case, we have a mid-50s western starring Randolph Scott, directed by Joseph H Lewis, and dealing with one of the most controversial figures in western lore. I think all of these factors are bound to raise expectations in the minds of viewers, expectations on which the finished product doesn’t really deliver. Is that position fair though? On consideration, I think it is, or partially so at least. Lewis has a reputation for making tight and economical little B pictures that frequently transcend their modest production values and offer visual and thematic riches. I don’t think his direction is especially weak in 7th Cavalry, but the script, and its execution, tries to pack too much into a pretty brisk running time. There’s simply too much going on and too little time to expand upon any of it. Ultimately, we’re left with a first half that flatters to deceive, and a visually attractive follow-up (beautifully shot by Ray Rennahan) which leaves us short-changed. The specter of Custer hovers over proceedings throughout, and indeed helps effect a resolution which is far too pat for my liking. I do wonder if the film had had a director and star of lesser standing whether my overall reaction would have been different – I don’t know, but it is something to ponder.

And back again to expectations. Randolph Scott made 7th Cavalry just as his collaboration with Budd Boetticher was about to see his iconic status within the western genre fixed permanently. It’s difficult to put that thought to one side while watching the movie but, in all fairness, Scott acquits himself well enough despite the shortcomings elsewhere in the production. Anyone familiar with this site will be well aware of my admiration for Scott, and the roles he took on in the latter stages of his career are easily my favorites. No one ever played pride on screen quite so effectively as Scott, and that aspect forms the cornerstone of his portrayal of Benson. His quiet dignity and innate self-confidence are to the fore as he plays a man whose motives and character are called into question by almost everyone – it’s not quite the conflicted loner that he and Boetticher would so successfully explore but it’s not a million miles away either. As the principal female lead, Barbara Hale is fine, yet the role is limited in scope and offers her few opportunities. The supporting cast in the film is particularly strong – Jay C Flippen, Frank Faylen, Leo Gordon, Denver Pyle and Jeanette Nolan all have their chances to shine and deliver telling little performances, with Faylen and Flippen getting the more interesting and rounded roles. I also want to take this opportunity to mention the small (yet pivotal in terms of the plot) part played by the recently deceased Harry Carey Jr. Over the years, his presence contributed a lot to so many films, especially westerns, and his passing sees yet another link to the golden age of cinema severed. In 7th Cavalry, as in so many movies, Carey displayed an honesty and simplicity that always helped ground a picture and added a certain warmth.

7th Cavalry is one of those films that has been hard to get hold of in an acceptable edition on DVD. There are a number of options available, but most are problematic in one way or another. There’s a French release by Sidonis that reportedly sports a fine transfer but forces subtitles on the original soundtrack, there’s a UK disc that I understand is of appalling quality, and there are no fewer than three editions in Spain. Of those Spanish releases, two are either full frame or non-anamorphic letterbox transfers. The one to go for is this edition by Regia Films, which sees the movie paired up on separate discs with another Lewis title Terror in a Texas Town. The disc has a good anamorphic widescreen transfer, with subtitles which can be deselected via the setup menu. The print used is in pretty good condition, without any noticeable damage, although the colours can appear slightly muted on occasion. In the final analysis, I’d have to say 7th Cavalry is a middling western; there is the promise of something different that’s never fulfilled, and that’s what I find most disappointing.

 
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Posted by on January 5, 2013 in 1950s, Joseph H Lewis, Randolph Scott, Westerns

 

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