From the July 2005 issue of Chronicles.
Whatever happened to Randolph Scott
ridin’ the range alone?
Whatever happened to Gene and Tex
And Roy and Rex, the Durango Kid?
Whatever happened to Randolph Scott
His horse plain, as can be?
Whatever happened to Randolph Scott
Has happened to the best of me.
So sang the Statler Brothers in their 1974 country hit. For those of us who grew up on a diet of Westerns at the local theater, the song had particular resonance. The cowboys were our heroes. There were dozens to choose from. My favorite among the B Western stars was William Boyd, who made 66 films as Hopalong Cassidy beginning in 1935 and ending in 1948. The movies continued to be shown regularly through the late 40’s and well into the 50’s. Although never ranked the number one cowboy actor in annual polls, he notched the number two spot seven times and was in the top five for 15 years. Riding across the screen on Topper, his white stallion, he had not only the fastest gun in the Old West but the greatest smile and laugh. The white-haired actor was something of a fatherly figure to us kids, dispensing sage advice to the young ranch hands on the Bar 20 and, indirectly, to us. Hoppy would occasionally shoot a gun out of an enemy’s hand or wound a scoundrel, but, most of the time, he shot to kill. Despite his warm smile and genial nature, Hoppy could turn fierce. He was deadly, and everyone knew it. He also was usually attired all in black. I don’t know where the nonsense got started that, in B Westerns, the good guys wore white hats and the bad guys black, because many heroes, including Hopalong Cassidy, had a black hat covering their head.
I can remember getting my Hopalong Cassidy outfit for Christmas. I still have a photo of me standing in front of our house in full Hoppy attire with my cap pistols drawn. God, Guns, and Hoppy! Several of my friends have old photos of themselves in similar dress and poses. We were stoked. We went to the Saturday matinee armed and ready. When cowboys blazed away on the silver screen, we would draw our cap guns and let ’em rip. We pretended the bad guys falling from their horses were victims of our deadly fire. We could not have had more fun.
In 1995, the town of Lone Pine, in California’s Owens Valley, hosted a Hopalong Cassidy festival to commemorate the 100th anniversary of William Boyd’s birth. It would be a three-day vacation for my wife and me. I got tickets and made reservations well in advance. Well I did, because a couple hundred people arrived to pack the small town in the shadow of the Sierra Nevada and the Alabama Hills, the location of dozens of Hoppys. Horseback rides, tours of shooting sites, Hoppy impersonators, barbecues, Western bands, and Hopalong Cassidy films filled the days and nights.
My favorite moment came on the second night, when a projector and screen were set up in a remote location in the Alabama Hills to show a Hoppy to a hundred hearty souls gathered there. The temperature, which had been moderate during the day, dropped dramatically with nightfall. A brilliantly clear sky allowed a million stars and the moon to shine brightly. Snowfields in the towering Sierra Nevada were illuminated. Gradually, everyone fell silent, as if collectively contemplating the awesome beauty of nature. I was reminded of Robert W. Service:
Were you ever out in the Great Alone, when the moon was awful clear,
And the icy mountains hemmed you in with a silence you most could hear . . .
The silence was broken when the old projector began humming and clattering and Hopalong Cassidy Enters, the first in the series of 66 Hoppys, flashed on the screen. For ten minutes, Hopalong Cassidy does not appear in the movie. Then, suddenly, he is seen astride Topper, racing down a steep slope. At that moment, a huge cheer erupted from us Hoppy fans seated among the boulders of the Alabama Hills. Some fans leapt to their feet clapping and stomping. Others were overcome by emotion. In a few seconds, we were all transported back to our early childhood—and we loved it.
Several years ago, a clever fellow wrote a book about learning everything that is really important in kindergarten. Maybe so, but most of us who had gathered in the Alabama Hills began learning those things before kindergarten, watching Hopalong Cassidy.
When it came to big-budget Westerns, I did not have a favorite actor, but I did have a favorite director—John Ford. There were other directors who made great Westerns, but no one who did so as consistently as John Ford. He had a feel for characters and the ability to tell their story like no one else. When Orson Welles was asked which directors had inspired him, he replied: “The old masters. By which I mean John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.” Of my baker’s-dozen list of the greatest Westerns ever made, five were directed by John Ford. I list the 13 in chronological order, not daring to attempt to rank them by better and best. However, with a six-shooter to my head, I would put Stagecoach in the number one slot and The Searchers in number two, both products of John Ford’s genius.
If the B Westerns started the education of us kids—portraying especially the behavior expected of men—then the big-budget Westerns continued the process with tales of our ancestors, the lessons we should learn in life, the moral dilemmas we face, and the complexity of our own natures. With courageous but flawed characters, epic stories, strong musical scores, and grand vistas, the Western was a powerful genre of film—so much so that, when John Ford testified before the Directors Guild, although most of the movies he directed were not Westerns, he said, “I’m John Ford. I make Westerns.”
What Ford did best was capture the character of the people and the spirit of the times. This is exactly what most Westerns made since Ford’s death in 1973 have not done. Moreover, Ford used music to help tell the story and arouse emotions, often selecting period pieces with melodies that tap in to the American soul. Before the credits are over in Stagecoach, the music has foreshadowed the themes in the movie and drawn the viewer into another time and place. By the time—only a minute into the movie—the cavalry officer takes the message from the telegrapher and reads it out loud, exclaiming, “Geronimo!” I am no longer watching a movie but lost in a time tunnel, watching real events unfold. The characters appear just as real. Occasionally, they were the real guys. Take a look at the three cowboys walking on the wooden sidewalk into the camera as the stagecoach arrives in town. They are painfully lean with skin that is taut and leathery. They walk with a gait that reveals old injuries from fractious horses and ornery steers. They are no actors.
Stagecoach could be called the first of the “disaster” movies. A group of people, thrown together by circumstances beyond their control, face the prospect of death. Crowded into a stagecoach and under severe duress, the people are forced to reveal their true natures. The ensemble cast could not have been better. Thomas Mitchell is the alcoholic doctor and Union veteran of the Civil War. John Carradine, the polished, chivalrous, and touchy Confederate veteran, is Mitchell’s antagonist and advocate of the Lost Cause. Louise Platt is the proper and pregnant wife of a cavalry officer. Claire Trevor is her opposite, the weathered survivor of the demimonde. George Bancroft is the U.S. marshal suspicious of motives and devoted to the law. Andy Devine is the friendly and boisterous driver, occasionally breaking the tension with his colorful language and stories. Donald Meek is the diminutive and meek drummer. Berton Churchill is the banker concealing his dishonesty with his hail and well-met behavior. John Wayne is the wayward and wild young cowpoke with a pure heart.
Berton Churchill and Donald Meek show us how not to behave. The others, despite their flaws, past problems, and indiscretions, show us how to behave. They all rise to the occasion. The men are strong, brave, tough, and determined—so, too, are the women. The men are fierce when provoked and deadly. Thomas Mitchell sobers up enough to deliver Mrs. Mallory’s baby. Similarly, Andy Devine, for all his country-bumpkin characteristics, drives like Jehu until suffering a wound. John Carradine dies like an officer and gentleman, exposing himself to Apache bullets and arrows while dropping one warrior after another. Louise Platt learns that form is not as important as substance. Clair Trevor reveals a heart of gold. George Bancroft tempers his sense of justice with mercy. John Wayne becomes, well, John Wayne.
John Ford made John Wayne. Without Ford, Wayne could become a caricature of himself—consciously larger than life. Under Ford’s direction, Wayne could be surprisingly subtle and nuanced in his portrayal of heroic figures. Ford understood that the 6'4" and ruggedly handsome former Southern Cal football player filled up the screen. There was no need to exaggerate his actions to focus the viewer’s attention—quite the opposite. Understatement was powerful. The only criticism I have of Ford is when he forgot this. For some reason, he occasionally injected buffoonish humor into his movies. A break in the tension is one thing, but the comic numbers in the cavalry trilogy of Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and Rio Grande are often so slapstick that I’m suddenly reminded that I am watching a movie. At the same time, Wayne is at his best, and the movies themselves are three of Ford’s five best Westerns.
One of my tests for a great movie is simple: Do I want to watch it again? I do not know how many times I have seen Stagecoach, but I could watch it again tonight—and tomorrow night. I can also watch individual scenes over and over again. How many movies can one say that of today? Stagecoach did not come from a script concocted by some callow youth in Hollywood but from Ernest Haycox’s short story, “Stage to Lordsburg.” Haycox, one of America’s finest writers of Western fiction, based his tales on actual historical events. His “Stage to Lordsburg” was influenced not only by the Apache Wars in the Southwest, though, but by Bret Harte’s “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” and Guy de Maupassant’s “Boule de Suif.” Stagecoach is a case study in good literature being turned into a great movie.
Although up against unusually stiff competition in the single-greatest year in American filmmaking, 1939, Stagecoach was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. It scored two victories, Best Score and Best Supporting Actor (for Thomas Mitchell’s portrayal of Doc Boone). It also made John Wayne, who had starred in dozens of B Westerns, a household name. As the Ringo Kid, he dominated every scene he was in, from his sudden appearance on the side of the Lordsburg road, twirling and cocking his Winchester rifle, to his shootout with the Plummer boys.
Wayne’s character is in the great tradition of Western heroes. There is a lot of James Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumppo in him. The Ringo Kid is a product of the frontier, the natural man with a pure heart, uncorrupted by civilization. He has an intuitive sense of right and wrong, of justice, and of love that is not distorted by artificial norms imposed by society. He is guileless, has courage in abundance, and, despite his youth, has a world of experience in the things that count—riding, shooting, and fighting Indians. He exemplifies the Code of the West: A man’s word is his bond; great deference is paid to women; a man is expected to stand and fight; death is preferable to dishonor.
Although John Ford may not have had a rival in directing Westerns, there were actors who gave John Wayne a run for his money. Physically as big as Wayne, better looking and better built, Randolph Scott appeared in more Westerns and was a huge box-office draw. Jimmy Stewart appeared in nearly as many Westerns (of the big-budget variety) as Wayne and was one of the Hollywood’s finest and most-likeable actors. Marlon Brando was brilliant in One Eyed Jacks and in The Appaloosa. In They Died With Their Boots On, Errol Flynn, dashingly handsome before dissipation and alcoholism took their toll, was the Custer that George Armstrong dreamed of being. A young Steve McQueen delivered a great performance in Nevada Smith. Joel McCrea, Audie Murphy, Gregory Peck, Clint Eastwood, Robert Mitchum, and others had their moments, too.
An actor who might have surpassed them all, including John Wayne, if he had made more Westerns was Gary Cooper. The tall, lean, lanky, slow-talking Cooper was the perfect cowboy. After playing bit parts in silent movies, the Montana native was cast as the Virginian in the movie of the same name in 1929. Although he and the movie were hits, Cooper was not subsequently typecast as a cowboy, and he made only a handful of Westerns in his long career. Several of those that he did make, though, are classics. One of them, The Westerner, has Cooper and Walter Brennan engaged in the longest and best exchange of looks and words in Western-movie history. The two play off each other brilliantly. Cooper’s part is especially difficult, because he subtly has to let the audience understand that he is inventing his tale about his character’s relationship with Lily Langtry while appearing convincing to Brennan. Cooper does both, expressing a wide range of emotions through his eyes, which seem made for the camera. And, as one of my female students put it in a seminar on Western films, Cooper was “at the height of his physical attractiveness.”
Cooper’s most endearing role comes in Along Came Jones. Playing the most naive and innocent cowpoke who ever rode down the trail, he captures not only our hearts but that of Loretta Young, the girlfriend of badman Dan Duryea. Even though the movie parodies Westerns, Cooper, as Melody Jones, lives by the Code of the West. He may be a rube and a bumbler, but he ultimately takes a stand in the face of death.
Facing down death is exactly what he did in his greatest Western, High Noon. Against all odds and without support, he is determined to stand up to the Miller gang. That Cooper had aged dramatically since he made The Westerner 12 years earlier made him perfect to play town marshal Will Kane. Kane knows he has lost some of his speed and physical prowess, but, living by the Code of the West, he will not skip town. “I’ll die before I’ll run,” is how Westerners put it.
Much has been made about screenwriter Carl Foreman making High Noon an allegory about the Hollywood blacklist. Foreman’s script, however, was based on John W. Cunningham’s classic Western short story, “The Tin Star,” which appeared in Collier’s in 1947. While Foreman does get in his digs—the judge takes down the scales of justice and the American flag before fleeing town—the movie essentially comes down to a man, Gary Cooper, living by the Code of the West despite being abandoned by the fainthearted. If anything, the movie argues against collectivism. The townsfolk—the people—are craven. Marshal Will Kane is the rugged individualist and hero. Even the outlaws—determined, brave, ruthless, and deadly—come across as better than the townsfolk. Grace Kelly, the young bride and Quaker and perhaps the most exquisitely beautiful woman ever to appear on the silver screen, abandons her pacifism for the man she loves and blasts one of the outlaws into eternity. It couldn’t get better!
Although High Noon was shot in black and white—to enhance its grim tone—and does not have the grand sweeping vistas that Westerns are known for, it has everything else, especially Gary Cooper. His portrayal of the aging marshal is a tour de force and won him the Academy Award for Best Actor. Laconic as usual, Cooper reveals Will Kane’s emotions and intentions through his eyes and expressions. Nothing is exaggerated. The viewer could be watching a newsreel of real action—and the action unfolds in real time, as ticking clocks remind us. The score features the Oscar-winning “Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darlin’,” sung by the incomparable Tex Ritter. The supporting cast is outstanding. Katy Jurado, playing Kane’s erstwhile mistress, knocks me out. With her large, sad eyes and Spanish-accented English, she tells Lloyd Bridges, who plays Kane’s deputy, Harvey Pell, “I’m going to tell you something about you and your friend, Kane. You’re a good-looking boy. You have big, broad shoulders. But he is a man. It takes more than big broad shoulders to make a man, Harvey.” Will Kane was a man. So, too, was Gary Cooper.
Whatever happened to Johnny Mack Brown
And Alan “Rocky” Lane?
Whatever happened to Lash LaRue?
I’d love to see them again.
Whatever happened to Smiley Burnett
Tim Holt and Gene Autry?
Whatever happened to all of these
Has happened to the best of me.