If I had to choose the movie-making era that beckons to me most, I’d probably have to say late 40’s through early 50’s. A period which – make of it what you will – happens to coincide with my birth and early childhood. Watching a picture I like from that period, I just tend to feel most at home, most beguiled, most comfortably swaddled. I like to think I’m connected to the present – the cinematic present at least. Favorite movies for me this year include “Mommy” and “Two Days, One Night” (both films that certainly could never have been made in the 40’s or 50’s). So I’m not always mired in the decade after WW2 - but I often am. Movies have evolved and (as far as the best of them go) matured in the years since. But that doesn’t lessen the appeal of the vintage crop, which sings its own siren song - and certainly not just for me. Somebody’s watching TCM.
My mom started taking me to movies when I was a babe in arms. And - according to her - I was transfixed from the word go. Never made a peep. Just stared and took it all in. I started going to Saturday matinees with the neighbor kids by the time I was five (small safe 50’s town). Onscreen, the momentum of old Hollywood pushed forward into the early 50’s films. The genres, performers, rules and rituals were pretty much sustained. I don’t remember serials being part of my own experience. But certainly westerns were. Two or three new ones seemed to arrive every week. And were enthusiastically watched and absorbed into my DNA. I can’t say western movies were my favorites back then –comedies, horror and sci-fi, Disney films, swashbucklers and musicals all exerted equal allure. But if westerns had been removed from the equation, the hole they left would’ve been immense. They were such a large and integral part of early 50’s movie watching – especially at Saturday matinees – that, looking back, they almost seem to define the era.
It wasn’t till decades later, having burrowed my way through the pasts of several other genres, that I re-focused on vintage westerns and found them completely addictive. Now, I’ve never been an outdoor person. I think I was on a horse once as a child – but maybe I just dreamed it. Still, there’s nothing like an early 50’s saddle saga to bring out the armchair cowboy in anyone. For starters, there are vast expanses of glorious scenery to revel in. And with the right equipment and the right talent in control of it, timberland, mountains, plains and valleys can register as heaven on earth. And -stark or lush –it’s a heaven that fully accommodates the smell of piney woods, the prickle of cactus and the photogenic swirl of trail dust. A place where you feel you can fill your lungs and really breathe. At least, till a particularly well-executed chase on horseback takes your breath away. There’s really nothing quite so bracing as a good 50’s western. Done right, the classic conflicts and high-energy action are endlessly exciting . There’s a comforting beauty and symmetry to the genre conventions and a joy in seeing the ways – from movie to movie - those conventions are particularized, played with or sometimes departed from. It’s all blissfully therapeutic and the accumulated experience of seeing many westerns sets up an almost primal need to see more of them. Which is not to say, every western’s a winner. But you always know there’s a good chance the next one will be.
In the early 50’s, the old Hollywood was much beleaguered, with TV rearing up as enemy number one. But the studios – and the system - were still running – and not yet on empty. They continued to maintain permanent staffs of craftsmen who knew a million different ways to dress up a western set. There was still a busy army of wranglers and stuntmen , their skills honed on a non-stop schedule of sagebrush dramas. Cinematographers had become marvelously adept at capturing western landscapes. Films like “The Furies” and “Wagon Master” (both from 1950) showed a staggering mastery of black & white photography. And aside from full-on Technicolor, westerns were also well-served by alternative tint processes. You could revel in the Turkish delight & gumdrop gaudiness of Trucolor, Republic Studio’s pet process and thus the favored preserve of Roy Rogers. And the cinnamon and pine-needle shades of Cinecolor, used by several other studios as a less expensive alternative to Technicolor, fit western settings like a glove; the DVD print of Randolph Scott’s “Albuquerque”(1948) shows it off superbly. Not to mention Sepiatone – with its Dorothy in Kansas allure. Strangely under-appreciated now, considering the unique visual hush it lent to so many small and mid-scale westerns. Check out ”Thunder in the Pines” (1948) not exactly a western but certainly an outdoor adventure and a feast for lovers of Sepiatone, beautifully preserved on DVD.
The 50’s was the decade when great western directors like John Ford, Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher made some of their key works. Gifted craftsmen like Jacques Tourneur and Joseph H. Lewis had dabbled in the genre in the 40’s and continued to do so – sometimes to great effect -in the 50’s. And long-time B western specialists like William Witney and Lewis R. Foster just seemed to get better than ever.
And – of course – there was the star power. 30’s and 40’s icons like Cooper, Gable, Stewart and Taylor turned more and more to westerns as the years advanced – and all enjoyed great genre success in the 50’s. Glenn Ford had made some 40’s westerns - but the decade after is when he emerged as the definitive peaceable guy who could be pushed only so far; he even made an impressive defection to the wrong side of the law in one of the era’s best, “3:10 to Yuma”(1957). Alan Ladd (though often promoted as a tough guy) had a natural sensitivity that made him easy to root for. Add to that a distinctive voice, a tersely poetic way with dialogue plus immense physical grace. And it’s easy to see what a natural fit he was for western stardom. And –of course – with “Shane” he found a vehicle completely worthy of his gifts. Even non-Americans like Errol Flynn and Stewart Granger, whose cultured accents suggested more Jane Austen than Zane Grey, carried off western roles beautifully through sheer star-quality and panache.
Second-tier actors headed west on a regular basis too. Ronald Reagan slipped comfortably into the saddle for several 50’s titles, including dandies like“The Last Outpost”(’51) and “Law and Order”(’53). John Payne, veteran of every conceivable genre in the 40’s, was an even more frequent sight on 50’s movie ranges. Ever adaptable and always welcome. John Derek suffered from Orlando Bloom syndrome, sometimes dismissed because of his pretty-boy exterior in spite of real and quite individual talents. Derek projected man-on-a- mission intensity – with an inner flame that shot out of his eyes; this stood him in good stead through the 50’s as various bandits, pirates and rebels. “The Ten Commandments” and “Exodus” wouldn’t be quite as good as they are without his fire. He didn’t make many westerns; but his simmering presence was always an asset. Among his oaters, I probably like “The Outcast”(’54) best. If not as outwardly impassioned as Derek, Jeffrey Hunter, Robert Wagner and Tab Hunter all acquitted themselves admirably in the saddle at least once and often more. Guy Madison was appealing in a kind of “We both know I’m not much of an actor” way. He was famously handsome – and had some solid early 50’s hits like “The Charge at Feather River” and “The Command” but successfully decamped to TV (as “Wild Bill Hickok) then went even further afield to Europe for – among other things - some unexpected forays into sword and sandal territory. Former Tarzan Lex Barker made several 50’s westerns; but he eventually went to Europe too and that’s where he found his real western stardom. In the Winnetou series, endearing ersatz oaters (German financed Yugoslavian lensed) that took most of the world (minus North America) by storm, in the process midwiving the spaghetti western revolution that changed the face of cowboy movies. I’m neither here nor there on pocket-sized Audie Murphy. But there’s no denying he carved out a lucrative career as Universal’s busiest cowboy in the 50’s. Joining Ma & Pa Kettle, Abbott & Costello and Francis the Talking Mule as the studio’s most profitable early 50’s assets. Ben Johnson, a real-life ranch-hand turned stuntman was embarrassingly stiff in his first lead (the non-western “Mighty Joe Young”). But with a couple of John Fords under his belt, he was communicating authenticity and all-round uprightness, with an uncluttered technique that’s still a marvel. And what movie cowboy ever sat a horse better? He and Harry Carey Jr. make a wonderful team in the miraculous “Wagon Master” a movie that surely gives “Shane” a run for its money as the era’s greatest western. Most people forget that Johnson’s actually in “Shane” too. It’s a small role, but when he’s onscreen, the man's quietly superb. It seems likely he never had any real yen for stardom; after the mid 50’s he just kind of disappeared. Which made it all the sweeter – for fans who remembered him fondly - when he won an Oscar in the 70’s for his work in “The Last Picture Show”. Still authoritative, still 100% genuine.
Johnson, as I said, probably never seriously courted stardom. But there were other might-have- beens who deserved to be western superstars, worked hard at it for awhile, but somehow missed the breaks; Alex Nicol and John Russell would fit here. Tall, blonde Nicol – a kind of American version of a Nordic god - could be cucumber cool as a western hero (“The Redhead from Wyoming” ’53) or devilishly unstable as a heavy (“Dawn at Socorro” ’54). But he always delivered the goods. For some reason, though, film-makers generally relegated him to the sidelines and no matter how much quality work he contributed, more or less kept him there. Eventually, like John Derek, he drifted out of acting and took up directing -a profession both men seemed to find more fulfilling. Dark-haired John Russell was also tall and commanding. To me, he was the best things in Fox’s lavish (but rather tame) 1947 bodice-ripper, “Forever Amber”. His Black Jack Mallard highwayman, was dashing, dangerous and soulful. He was also – unfortunately - killed off early in the picture. Fox should have groomed this guy for stardom – but didn’t; so he moved to Universal, where they kept him busy, sometimes in westerns - but hardly ever in the foreground ,where he most certainly belonged. Eventually he wound up at Republic, where you’d think he’d have finally gotten nothing but leads. No such luck. At least he landed a great supporting part at Columbia in Randolph Scott’s “Man in the Saddle” ‘51. Alexander Knox is the main villain – but it’s the Scott-Russell conflict that really burns up the screen. I remember reading a (decades later) interview with Joan Leslie, who worked with him a few times (in that film among others). All those years after, she was still expressing amazement that Russell ( according to her just as impressive off-screen as on) had never achieved full-fledged stardom. I think she speculated about poor management being a possible reason. He did enjoy some success on television. Starring in two series “Soldiers of Fortune”(which I loved as a kid) and (more prominently) “The Lawman”. And – with his dramatic cheek bones and imposing presence – Russell made a memorable Indian chief in Gordon Douglas' super-entertaining “Yellowstone Kelly”(1959). But I’m with Joan Leslie. This is a man who deserved bigger and better things than Hollywood offered him. Of course it was another John who did dominate the era’s westerns. That would be box-office magnet John Wayne - a law (and an acting style) unto himself. He didn’t only make westerns in the 50’s. But his westerns are what fans around the world couldn’t get enough of. And with “Rio Grande”, “Hondo”, “The Searchers” and “ Rio Bravo”, he straddled the 50’s landscape like a bow-legged colossus.