I just finished reading the definitive biography of legendary film director, John Ford. It’s a wonderful read by Scott Eyman who specializes in biographies of Hollywood legends. “Pappy” Ford, of course, was the master of western films — from the memorable silent oaters of Harry Carey to the resilient westerns of John Wayne. Ford’s “The Searchers”, in my opinion, is the best western film ever made.
I’ve loved westerns, from my youth to my present senior citizen years. They’ve always been my escape from reality.
As a youngster in the late 40’s and early 50’s, I frequented the neighborhood movie theater. Frequented may be an understatement. For a dime’s admission, I could spend an afternoon watching B-movie westerns with the likes of Audie Murphy, Rory Calhoun, John Payne, Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott among others. John Wayne’s westerns were usually “A” films, bigger budgets and more prominent cast members. I didn’t care about “A” or “B” as long as there was plenty of fighting and shooting with a minimum of mushy stuff. Good and evil was always clear in those films; nothing to muddle the brain of a young saddle pal.
I admired the outfits worn by the heroes. Roy Rogers was always resplendent in color coordinated outfits, brandishing his matching two gun rig and mounted on the beautiful golden palomino “Trigger”.
Hopalong Cassidy was a father figure dressed in black on his white stallion, “Topper.” William Boyd’s hair was prematurely white but that didn’t age him. He just seemed more mature than his sidekicks or the villains he fought. Boyd had a deep voice and wonderful laugh. He seemed tolerant of the clueless townspeople and even gave the bad guys due respect until they pushed their luck too far. I don’t remember any mushy stuff in the Hoppy movies. I think he had eyes for Topper.
There were the eclectic cowboy heroes like Lash LaRue, Whip Wilson, (Little) Bob Steele, Johnny Mack Brown, and Tex Ritter. These sagebrush heroes rode the dusty trails in grainy, frame jumping black and white films viewed on an obscure New Jersey TV station that tried our patience as we juggled the antennas on the little B&W television sets of an earlier era. We complained but never tuned out our heroes. They needed our support to banish those bad guys who were always unkempt with ill-fitting outfits and surly attitudes.
I fancied myself jumping through the TV screen, mounting my own trusty horse and galloping onward to join the good guys. I already knew what the villains were trying to do.
I was oblivious to the fact that all the western folks were white. Good guys, bad guys and women. I didn’t know anything about black cowboy heroes. The films of Herb Jeffries, a prominent black cowboy star, were unknown to me. They didn’t play in our neighborhood. When Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte teamed up for “Buck and the Preacher” in the early 70’s, it was the first time we saw Black actors in primary and supporting roles. Poitier looked just fine as the wagon master hero and showed more gravitas as a gambler-bronc buster-gunslinger in “Duel At Diablo”, sharing the action with co-star, James Garner.
Westerns were just one of Sidney Poitier’s groundbreaking achievements in Hollywood. I imagine he was a wonderful image for young people of color, chomping on popcorn and watching a big screen hero who seemed familiar.
I had many cowboy heroes as I grew up. John Wayne was always top dog. His screen persona was unique. The walk, the talk, the look, and his trademark big fist to the mouth of a snarky bad guy. I would learn later that Wayne’s screen traits evolved from mentors of an earlier era in the movies.
No matter. He was still “The Duke.” I, like many other young people, tried to emulate Wayne’s swagger-walk. I probably looked like all the other kids. Another funny Duke Wayne wannabee. Marilyn and I share a similar experience from our youth – watching “Shane” on the same big screen of our regional Radio City Hall magical movie theater.
Marilyn and I shared the experience of both seeing “Shane” at the Valencia Theater in Jamaica, Queens. It was an amazing theater. Aside from being bigger than an entire set of multiplex movie houses in one, it was decorated in a style that could be called “Hollywood Moorish Medieval Modern.” It was huge and could seat more than 3,000 people.
The Valencia Theater had a huge ceiling with more stars than MGM. It was truly a viewing experience that was so much more exciting than watching TV at home. I was enthralled, watching Alan Ladd’s “Shane” bring peace to the valley. It’s still one of my favorites and ranks as one of Hollywood’s best westerns, courtesy of director George Stevens.
It was also Alan Ladd’s finest moment. Shane’s slow ride out of town — with all the villains and their guns silenced — and the little boy imploring him to stay — is really the stuff of movie greatness. Clint Eastwood, in later years, would pay homage to “Shane” with his “Pale Rider” hero. There was more overt violence in “Pale Rider” than “Shane” but that was a sign of the times and changing movie values. Eastwood is our present cowboy hero but he is clearly at an age when it’s almost time for him to ride the high country.
One of the highlights of my professional life was meeting and interviewing John Wayne. It was 1974. Wayne was in Boston to attend a Harvard University award ceremony. Boston and Cambridge were not exactly John Ford country for the Duke.
The country was torn apart by Vietnam. Protestors lined the route from Boston to Cambridge and Harvard. Duke Wayne stood tall in a “half track” military vehicle, in a steady snowfall. He was periodically pelted with snowballs and jeers from the crowd, protesting Wayne’s Hawkish pro-Vietnam views.
Somehow, with the help of friends, Wayne left his moving vehicle and met me in an empty theater where we shot the interview with my favorite cowboy star. I had the thrill of crossing the stage, shaking hands with Duke Wayne and going right into the interview which left me smiling in its aftermath.
I spent the rest of the day and evening telling everyone over and over, “Do you know who shook my hand? Do you? JOHN WAYNE shook my hand”. I probably had gone around the bend when it was suggested that my work was done for the day and I should go home.
Hey, do you know who shook my hand?
In retirement, I have two perks. Baseball. Red Sox baseball. Oh, the ecstasy and agony! But there’s no agony when I settle in for an old western at day’s end.
I’m riding the range again with Duke, Roy, Gene and those 7 men with guns. McQueen, Brynner, Vaughn, Coburn, Dexter, Bronson, and Buchholz. We deal in lead, friend.
Yes, my heroes have always been cowboys. And they still are, it seems.