Along The Sagebrush Trail

Westerns! I LOVE westerns!!

When Marilyn recently readjusted our cable package in a good faith budgetary effort, we lost the Westerns Channel. I was mortified. Less than 24 hours later, I found something called the “Inspiration Channel” which carries a lot of religious programs. It also carries “The Big Valley”, “The High Chaparral” and coming up this weekend, “The Virginian”.

Talk about divine intervention. Westerns, oh my!

Growing up, I did notice that all of the characters in westerns were white. None of them looked like me. It didn’t faze me. I still dreamed of riding along side Duke Wayne,  Randy Scott, Joel McCrea, Jimmy Stewart and all the guys. Notice how chummy I was. That’s but one of the virtues of westerns.

These guys were my friends. Anyone can be a saddle pal. Then and now, I love westerns.

After a professional lifetime of seeing law and order, good guys and bad guys — up close and very real — my heroes are still cowboys of the silver screen.

I’ve had the good fortune to meet folks like Duke Wayne, James Coburn and Charlton Heston. The thrill of meeting those guys was and is — wonderful. My interview session with John Wayne still makes me sound and feel like an awed kid. Damn straight, Pilgrim. 

Hanging out with lesser-known guys from the corrals like Richard Jaeckel and Buster Crabbe was wonderful in other ways. I met Crabbe in the sunset of his years, long after the “Flash Gordon” hysteria was past. He smiled easily and took pleasure in spinning tales about his “B” westerns with “Fuzzy” St. John and the A.C. Lyles; westerns of the 1960’s that reunited old heroes like Johnny Mack Brown and Bob Steele.

Richard Jaeckel — who had a long career in movies starting out as “the kid” in films like “The Gunfighter” sat for a long chat when he was promoting “Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid”. We adjourned from the TV session to a nearby saloon where I got him talking about working with guys like Jack Elam, Myron Healy, Slim Pickens, Lee Van Cleef and other faces you know from so many westerns.

I’ve gotten lost in jabbering about westerns again  — more anecdote than movies.

Print the Legend!!

Fanaticism and ignorance is forever busy, and needs feeding: A Reminder from “Inherit the Wind”

Stanley Kramer receives an Award at the 1960 B...

Stanley Kramer receives an Award at the 1960 Berlin Film Festival for Inherit the Wind (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Given the way our world is going, consider this a reminder of the way things have been and the way we hope they will never be again. Much of the  dialogue in the movie was lifted straight from the actual Scopes Trial transcript. That it is as relevant today as it was 50 years ago is — to me — frightening. We should all be frightened that we are in fact repeating history, apparently having learned nothing from the past.  It’s an evil omen and makes my skin crawl.

From “Inherit the Wind,” one of the best movies ever made .. a reminder …

Cover of "Inherit the Wind"

Fanaticism and ignorance is forever busy, and needs feeding … and we are feeding it well.

From “Inherit the Wind” 1960, Directed by Stanley Kramer, based on actual transcripts of the 1925 Scopes’ “Monkey Trial” in Tennessee, where the teaching of evolution had been banned. As far as I can tell, we are going back there again.

Is this where we want to go? Are these the people we want to emulate? Is this what we fought and died for in the carnage of all the wars we’ve fought for the last century?

Print the Legend! Garry Armstrong’s Desert Island Collection

This is a post I would have liked to ponder over a bit longer, but The Wife is very sweetly asking me to jot down my list of favorites right now. She’s out-of-order! You’re all out-of-order!

That said, here we go:

The Searchers

I love westerns. This may be the best ever made and it’s Duke Wayne’s finest performance. My director idol, John Ford, said of his masterpiece, “It’ll do”.

Casablanca

Everyone’s go-to movie easily could be number one. I remember chatting with Julius Epstein, one of the co-screenwriters, who told me how crazy it was on the set with revised scripts rushed in every day as they set up shots.

Epstein said Bogie was never fazed and usually nailed his lines on the first take. Director Michael Curtiz, on the other hand, was very “upset”, according to Epstein.

The Best Years of our Lives

Wonderful film but, admittedly, a sentimental choice here. The very FIRST film I ever saw at a movie theatre.

It was 1946. My Dad had just returned from the war. He was dressed in his uniform. He seemed ten feet tall and very heroic. The theme of the movie, GI’s trying to cope with post-war life, is timeless. Little did I know that it would be an issue in my family.

The Magnificent Seven

Another great western. I saw it numerous times when it opened in 1960. I know all the lines.

Cover of "The Magnificent Seven (Special ...

Cover of The Magnificent Seven (Special Edition)

The cast of then relatively unknown actors was terrific. Steve McQueen was my movie hero — next to Duke Wayne. I even tried to dress like McQueen. Didn’t quite work out. Years later, I had a sit down chat with James Coburn who related how wild things were during the shooting of “Seven”. He told me how McQueen used to drive the nominal star, Yul Brynner, crazy with upstaging bits of business. Charles Bronson was described as “one very quiet and strange dude”. Coburn admitted everyone was sneaking in “bits” trying to outdo each other.

The Great Escape

Think “The Magnificent Seven” as a World War two prison escape war movie instead of a western. James Coburn said he marvelled at how director John Sturges kept control of the “boys”, including several of the “Magnificent Seven” cast members.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t single out Elmer Bernstein’s distinctive musical score in both films. Those scores or “themes” would achieve their own celebrity over the years.

All About Eve

I’ve always loved this one!! The cast, acting, dialogue, and script are superb. It’s about the theatre world. But anyone who’s had a professional life in the public eye can relate to the characters and the plot. Bette Davis was at the top of her game (role was originally slated for Claudette Colbert who had to pass).

Cover of "All About Eve (Two-Disc Special...

Cover via Amazon

The wonderful supporting cast included Anne Baxter, Celeste Holm, Gary Merrill, Gregory Ratoff, Hugh Marlowe, Thelma Ritter, a young Marilyn Monroe and the estimable George Sanders in his career-defining role. I shared Bloody Mary’s with Gary Merrill when he was in Boston (that’s another story) and had me laughing about life on the set of “All About Eve”. He and Ms. Davis fell in love while making “Eve”. However, the  theatrics within the theatrics were something to behold, Merrill recalled. Everyone was trying to upstage everyone else but nobody upstaged Bette Davis. Gary Merrill grinned as he refilled my drink. And, George Sanders, Merrill said, was George Sanders on and off camera.

Yankee Doodle Dandy

Cover of "Yankee Doodle Dandy (Two-Disc S...

Cover via Amazon

Oh, how I adore this movie and WHY didn’t they make it in color?? Had the great fortune to meet James “Call me Jimmy” Cagney in the early 70’s on Martha’s Vineyard. I was awestruck. He was very kind. Seems he had caught my work as a TV news reporter and just wanted to say he liked what he saw. Over coffee, we talked about the joys of doing what we loved and the frustration of dealing with “suits” or executives. I mostly just listened. He talked about the making of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and how, clearly, that was his personal favorite “job” in his long career. He was glad to do the music biopic and show off his dancing chops which he’d always had but were rarely used in previous films. He credited his unusual dance movements to mannerisms of his old street pals in New York’s “hell’s Kitchen” where he grew up.

My favorite scene in “Yankee Doodle Dandy” is near the end where Cagney/Cohan, dances down the stairs at the White House.

My wife Marilyn and I usually replay this scene three, four, five times whenever we watch the film.

Shane

Another classic western. Alan Ladd’s shining hour and another gem in director George Steven’s illustrious career. The photography and editing are wonderful. Victor Young’s music is evocative. Perhaps my favorite sequence is the burial of “Reb”. The dialogue is muted and the plaintive harmonica music,  “Dixie” and then “Taps” is contrasted with Reb’s dog softly wailing over the grave and two youngsters nearby — oblivious to the tragedy — playing with a horse. The continuous scene then pans down to a long shot of the nearby town ending with an ominous dirge. Powerful, poetic stuff!!

The final scene of Shane — slightly slumped in saddle — riding away to the mountains with the young boy calling after him is the stuff of movie legend.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Another John Ford-John Wayne classic. This is Ford near the end of his career. It’s his homage to the ending of the west as he’s depicted it for most of his professional life, dating back to silent films. Shot in black and white on a small budget, Ford is more concerned about characters than action.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Duke Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, teamed for the first time, are the perfect choices, albeit a little long in the teeth, to play the contrasting leads. Wayne is the rough tough cowman. Stewart is the sensitive lawyer who wants to see justice meted out by the court rather than Wayne’s six-shooter. Lee Marvin’s “Liberty Valance” borders on parody but that’s okay.

Great supporting cast including Edmond O’Brien, Vera Miles, Andy Devine, Lee van Cleef, Strother Martin and Woody Strode (why did they have to call him “Boy” in one scene). The “print the legend” theme is so ironic and haunting. Ford is trying to break his habit of printing the legend but the public doesn’t want the facts.

The haunting theme at the end of “Liberty Valance” is the same mournful theme Ford used 25 years earlier in “Young Mr. Lincoln“.

The Quiet Man

Ford and Wayne again — this time in Ireland. Ford’s tribute to his birth place. Wonderful photography!! The green hills and pastures of Ireland never looked lovelier. Just watch out for the sheep dung. The music is memorable. “Wild Colonial Boy” pub sequence is pure John Ford. The Wayne-McLagen epic fight is in Hollywood’s hall of Fame.

Marilyn and I visited Cong and the remnants of “The Quiet Man’s” cabin during our honeymoon in Ireland in 1990. That’s when we found out that — guess who — has Irish roots.

Will Penny

Another western and a relatively unheralded film. It’s Charlton Heston‘s realistic take on the life of an aging cow puncher. Had the genuine pleasure to “hang out” with “Chuck” on several occasions and he was a very nice, down to earth guy (just ask Marilyn). This was the pre-NRA Heston. Anyway, during one of our sit-downs, he talked about making “Will Penny” as a personal project.

He had done several traditional westerns and wanted to do one that was authentic and free of Hollywood glamour and happy endings. “Will Penny” is perhaps Heston’s best acting work. It is understated with Heston showing a range of emotion not usually apparent in his more typical epic screen characters.

S.O.B.

Terrific Blake Edwards film that angered Hollywood insiders — with good reason. Again, if you’ve had a professional career in the public eye, you will absolutely love this movie. You know these people. You’ve worked with and for these people. William Holden’s talk to his depression-ridden pal was all too real and could easily have been Holden’s own eulogy.

Most of the ensemble star cast, plus Edwards, stopped in Boston to promote the movie. The behind the scenes arm-twisting coming out of Hollywood was trying to kill the film. On that memorable Saturday morning, I was with only one or two other reporters (who also left after 5 minutes or so to chase more meaningful stories), listening to William Holden (a few sheets to the wind), Robert Preston, Craig (Peter Gunn) Stevens, Loretta Swit, Blake Edwards and others chat about making “S.O.B.”. It sounded more like a “Bitch session” than a movie promotion. In fact, it sounded very familiar to me.

There are so many other films on my list. “To Kill A Mockingbird”. Atticus, I believe, was rated the most popular movie hero in a recent poll. Then and now, “Mockingbird” resonates on so many levels. The movie does Harper Lee’s wonderful book full justice. That, alone, is a miracle.

There are so many favorite films and stars I could mention with personal “war stories” or anecdotes. And there are musicals, romance.  And comedies. “So many movies, so little time” takes on new meaning. All great movies. Just not the only great movies.

I need to sign off because I’m burning daylight. Maybe another time if there is interest. There’s still the John Wayne story to tell, Pilgrims.

Fanaticism and ignorance is forever busy, and needs feeding …

Harry Morgan as the judge, Spencer Tracy as Dr...

Cover of "Inherit the Wind"

Cover of Inherit the Wind

Fanaticism and ignorance is forever busy, and needs feeding … and we are feeding it well.

From “Inherit the Wind” 1960, Directed by Stanley Kramer, based on actual transcripts of the 1925 Scopes’ “Monkey Trial” in Tennessee, where the teaching of evolution had been banned. As far as I can tell, we are going back there again.

Is this where we want to go with our country? Is this what we fought and died for? God help us.