OLD MOVIES, NEW EYES – Garry Armstrong

Those of you who are regulars on “Serendipity” know I love old movies and watch them frequently. I grew up with “Old Hollywood” having seen my first movie at a theater in 1946.  I was four. “The Best Years Of Our Lives” has its place in my sense memory because my Dad had just returned home from Europe and World War 2 as an Army Sergeant.

Armstrong family portrait

We have a large picture of Sgt. William Armstrong, His Wife, Esther, and their firstborn tot, Garry.  It’s the way we were. That 1946 night at New York City’s movie mecca.  Radio City Music Hall is covered in a silver-gold haze in my memory.

From that first movie night, I would go to see films now regarded as classics on a regular basis. We’d go to the movies three times a week. It could be the local second-run house like the Carlton or a first-run theater. For the first-run houses, we had to take a bus to Jamaica Avenue in Queens.

Those were the days when film studios still owned theaters.  The theaters only showed studio made films. Valencia with its star-filled ceiling ran MGM and Paramount movies. Across the street, the RKO Alden ran RKO and Warner Brothers films. Down the avenue, there was a Fox house which ran nothing but 20th Century Fox movies.

The Valencia Theater in Jamaica, Queens

Marilyn and I have shared memories of seeing films like “Shane” in 1954 at the Valencia. Diminutive Alan Ladd seemed larger than life as gunfighter Shane, righting wrongs on the screen beneath the celestial ceiling. It was an experience within an experience. You couldn’t duplicate it with the new medium television.

I came to know all the stars, directors, character and bit actors with as much knowledge as I did with my favorite baseball players helped by info on bubble gum cards.

As a grade-schooler, I knew the likes of supporting or character actors like Thomas Mitchell, Edward Brophy, Jerome Cowan, Eugene Palette, Zazu Pitts, Franklin Pangborn, Barton MacLane, Charles Lane, and James Gleason as well as the major stars like Bogie, Tracy, Gable, Grant, Hepburn, and Cooper.

My Mom, a huge Gary Cooper fan, named me after “Coop.” A clerical error on my birth certificate turned Gary into Garry. That spelling gaffe would reoccur decades later in my career as a TV News Reporter.

I loved the fantasy life of the black and white movies of the ’30s. The stories about the rich, carefree, trouble-free White millionaires who lived in ritzy mansions or mega large Park Avenue apartments with sparkling floors, gleaming walls, and tables kept in pristine condition by domestics who were usually minorities.

Blacks, Asians, Jews or Italians always portrayed in a blatant stereotyped fashion. As a kid, we laughed at the bug-eyed Black actors who were comedy foils in Charlie Chan movies. Chan, although the “hero,” was also portrayed in stereotyped fashion by White actors.  My middle brother and I giggled at the antics of Chan and his aides. They seemed like the clowns we saw at the circus.

Laugh riots! The stars – White actors and actresses — laughed or smiled broadly at the buffoonish behavior of the minority characters. They provided comic relief from heavy moments in the films.

My love of these old movies and their cliche characters didn’t diminish over the years as I became a self-proclaimed movie maven and impressed people with my knowledge of obscure actors, forgotten films and terrific lines of dialogue.

A friend once called me at three o’clock in the morning, woke me up to ask about the names of a certain movie and its stars. I grumbled and then laughed as I fed him the info while still half asleep but always razor-sharp with trivia.

My movie knowledge helped in numerous encounters with stars from old Hollywood when I became a Boston TV news guy.  I could skip jump from local reporter to film expert talking with stars about their personal, often lesser-known movies. I could insert stuff with people like Gregory Peck who told me he didn’t do comedies because they were not his forte.

I reminded Peck of his film, “Designing Woman” with Lauren Bacall which was a remake of the Tracy-Hepburn classic, “Woman of the Year.” Peck shot me a “you sonofagun, you got me” laugh and all was fine.

In retirement, I like to watch as many old movies as possible – no longer saddled with my murderous TV news schedule. I usually go to bed, wearing headphones, and watch an old movie as my sleepy time tonic. Marilyn usually is listening to a book or watching her own favorite film or show on her computer.

A strange thing has happened to me.

Marilyn has had lengthy conversations with me about the blatant racism in those beloved scatterbrained 1930’s movies. She also has discussed her discomfort with my beloved westerns. Cowboys versus Indians, a staple of my life from youth to senior citizen. Marilyn cites the blatantly unfair portrayal of the Native American in most westerns. Truthfully, my bluster rose in defense of the oaters.

My heroes have always been cowboys.

“Buchanan Rides Alone FilmPoster” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

My personal favorite interview was with the Duke, John Wayne. I can quote, chapter, verse, scene-by-scene dialogue in movies like “The Magnificent Seven.” One of my all-time favorite films is “The Searchers”,  probably John Ford’s best western in a career defined by westerns and the rugged, southwestern landscape.

John Wayne’s dark, brooding and racist Ethan Edwards is, in my mind, the Duke’s finest acting work. The movie focuses on racism and hatred of the Red Man, portrayed as villains by White Men. Supposedly the good guys trying to take the Native American’s land.

Ford – who made his directorial life on this theme – was, perhaps too late in his illustrious career, trying to balance the scale with the White and Red men. I’ve always loved the film for its depth, its hauntingly honest depiction of the Wayne character. A man you wouldn’t invite in for dinner.

Ford’s dark movie is still lighter than the original novel in which Ethan Edwards really has no redeeming character values.

Tombstone

I’ve come to understand Marilyn’s strong feelings about not watching this classic western. But I still watch it whenever I can because it’s a beautifully made film with excellent acting, great script and dialogue and a memorable closing scene — no happy ending for the Wayne character. It’s all bittersweet. The stuff of life.

I now also view some of my other favorite westerns with new eyes. The White hero, in nice, fancy clothing with a beautiful horse is not necessarily the good guy. The Indian Chief with a muddy face and perpetual snarl is not automatically the savage. Clothes don’t make the man.

Likewise, I look back at some of those wonderful, frothy 30’s comedies and say “No, thanks” when the bubbly blonde announces “I’m free, WHITE and 21”.  I’ve heard and seen this countless times before but now with new eyes and ears.

That’s a wrap. PRINT IT!

THE LAST OF THE SILVER SCREEN COWBOYS – Garry Armstrong

A Nostalgic Spoof of Those Great Old Westerns

We watched “Rustler’s Rhapsody” again last night, this time with Rich Paschall who had never seen it before.

We love this movie. It’s an affectionate spoof of the B-Westerns of the 1940s starring Tom Berenger, Patrick Wayne, G.W. Baily (“Major Crimes” on which Berenger has a recurring guest role), Andy Griffith, and Fernando Rey.

The women include Sela Ward, a solid dramatic actress perhaps best remembered as Dr. Richard Kimble’s slain wife in the movie version of “The Fugitive.” There’s also Marilu Henner who riffs on all the “Miss Kitty/Miss Lily” saloon ladies of our favorite TV westerns.

Andy Griffith and Fernando Rey both play power-mad cattle barons. Fernando usually plays an international drug czar and you probably remember him in “The French Connection”. He is slimy sinister personified. Rey and Griffith make a very odd couple. Check out the scene where they argue about who gets to do the countdown for killing the hero. They are hilarious, but Andy Griffith steals the show.

We love the movie so much we owned three identical copies of it on DVD, one of which now belongs to Rich. It wasn’t going to be available for long, so we bought extras. Just in case.


rustler's rhapsody dvd cover

Tom Berenger is The Hero who shoots the bad guys in the hand. Pat Wayne is the other good guy, but he used to be a lawyer, so be warned. Casting Pat Wayne was an inspiration. “Rustler’s Rhapsody” could easily be an homage to his Dad’s ‘poverty row’ westerns of the 1930s. Pat even nails Duke’s acting range of that period.

My heroes have always been cowboys, even the stalwarts of those budget-challenged B movies. I had the good fortune to spend time with two legends of the genre. Buster Crabbe and Jack “Jock” Mahoney.

Crabbe, most famous for his “Flash Gordon” days, contends he had more fun playing the lead in the oaters where the line between good and bad is always clear and you get to wear nice costumes. He considers his westerns as “small classics” not B movies. (Crabbe continued his career into the late ’60s when producer A.C. Lyles revived the B cowboy movie with over the hill actors including Johnny Mack Brown, Rod Cameron, Bob Steele, Hoot Gibson and Richard Arlen among others).

Jack “Jock” Mahoney, known to many as TV’s “Range Rider,” is a former stuntman who graduated to supporting roles as nimble villains and finally established a following at Universal-International, playing literate good guys in lean, well-written westerns. Mahoney clearly is proud of his work in the B movies. I remember the smile on his face as he recalled the fun of being recognized as a cowboy hero.

I think all the cowboy actors I’ve met (Including John Wayne) would heartily approve of “Rustler’s Rhapsody”. It’s an affectionate tribute to their work.

This is the song they play at the end of the movie when the credits are rolling. I love the song and the memories it brings because I’m of the generation that went to the movies and watched those B movies as part of the afternoon doubleheader at the Carlton or Laurelton, the second or third-run movies houses where you could see two movies and a cartoon for a dime. Eleven cents if you were considered an adult. Which turned out to be any child older than 10, but they still made you sit in the kid’s section — which I firmly believed (and still believe) was unconstitutional.

Warner Brothers, 1982. “Last Of The Silver Screen Cowboys” by Rex Allen Jr. and Rex Allen Sr. Be sure to listen for Roy Rogers in the final commentary and chorus!

MANY GUNFIGHTS AT THE O.K. CORRAL – Marilyn Armstrong

The first movie I remember seeing with my mom was “Gunfight at OK Corral.”

It was a busy day at the Utopia Theater which was a small movie house. There were hardly any seats left by the time we got there, having walked from home. I had a non-driving mom who believed in healthy outdoor exercise.

Wyatt Earp at about age 33.
Wyatt Earp at 33. (Photo: Wikipedia)

We found a seat in the second row. Burt and Kirk had heads 20 feet high. It left an indelible mark on my mind. I became an O.K. Corral aficionado, catching each new version of the story as it was cranked out by Hollywood. When videotaped movies became available, I caught up with all earlier versions, too.

I stayed with “Gunfight” as my favorite for a long time. Maybe I’m just fond of Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. Garry generally favors “My Darling Clementine” but he is a John Ford fan.

In 1993, along came “Tombstone.” One viewing and it was my favorite version of the gunfight story. A few more viewings and it morphed into my favorite western. There are a lot of contenders for second place.

I don’t love it for its historical accuracy, though It is nominally more accurate than other movie versions. It omits more than it includes, but if you are looking for accuracy, you should consider reading a book. There are quite a few written and some are excellent. The Earps were a wild and crazy family. Doc Holliday was even wilder and crazier.

They were a lot wilder and crazier than depicted in any movie made about them. They are always shown as lawmen, but in those strangely shady days, there was an exceedingly thin line between law enforcers and lawbreakers. The Earps fell on both sides of it, depending on which account you’re reading.

English: John Henry "Doc" Holliday, ...
John Henry “Doc” Holliday (Photo: Wikipedia)

They were all lethal and no more honest then they needed to be.

There were also other Earp brothers who are left out of the story, maybe because they weren’t in the peacekeeping business. Dad was a real piece of work and deserves a movie of his own. Although I tend to be prickly about historical details, I do not watch westerns for historical accuracy. There are just some genres that don’t work if you are searching for accuracy and westerns are a big one.

I watch westerns because I love horses, deserts, the great blue sky of the west, and dusty old towns with wooden sidewalks. Really, I will watch anything about horses. You could just run films of horses in a field and I’d watch that too.

Tombstone

Next, I love westerns because when I was growing up watching Johnny Mack Brown movies on the old channel 13 (before it became PBS) in New York, I always knew the guys in black hats were villains and the ones in white hats were heroes. It appealed to my 8-year old need for moral simplicity.

In westerns, revenge and righteous violence are good, clean fun. Not merely acceptable, but desirable. In the Old West, when you find a bad guy, get out the six-shooter, shotgun, or both — and mow’em down. Justice is quick and permanent. Without guilt. You can be a wimp in real life, but watching “Tombstone,” as Kurt, Val and the gang cut a swathe of blood and death across the southwest — I cheer them on.

“Tombstone” is deliciously violent. The gunfight at O.K. corral is merely the beginning. There’s a deeply satisfying amount of killing to follow. I revel in it. When Kurt Russell declares that he’s coming for them and Hell will follow … I am there. Yes, kill the bastards. It’s so cathartic!

Garry and I made a personal pilgrimage to Tombstone.

Tombstone shopping

I have argued with people who keep saying the movie was filmed on a sound stage. Unless everyone in Tombstone was the victim of a mass hallucination  — note that mass hallucinations are not nearly as common as Hollywood suggests — during which time a movie company rebuilt the town to look like historical Tombstone, then the movie was  filmed in “Tombstone.

I have pictures of Tombstone. We bought tee shirts. It was our favorite part of a long summer’s vacation in Arizona. Although there may have been some re-shooting on a set, the bulk of the film was shot in Tombstone. It was and remains the only thing of note to happen there in the past 100 years.

August was not the best time to visit, but our host worked. It was hard to find a good time to visit. The mercury climbed to 124 and never dropped below 120 while the sun shined. It was a heat wave, but heat waves seem to be pretty common there.

I think that’s why they invented awnings over the wooden sidewalks. It certainly isn’t to keep the rain off.

It was painfully hot. Maybe that how come everyone was shooting everyone else. Who wouldn’t want to shoot people living in that heat without air conditioning? It makes one cranky.

I don’t watch movies for a dose of reality. I have plenty of reality. I watch westerns for escape and entertainment. Westerns let me immerse myself in a kind of violence I normally abhor but somehow when they are shooting their 145th bullet from a six-gun, I forgive them.

THE OLD WEST AND THE WAGONS AS THEY ROLLED – Marilyn Armstrong

FOWC with Fandango — Wagon

It was the first thing that came into my head when I saw the word “wagon.” That’s right. Westerns! Wagon trains and buckboard wagons with teams of horses.

Wagon Train brought us Ward Bond, Robert Horton, and others. Randolph Scott was offered the role originally but turned it down. It worked out to be a good deal for Ward Bond and it got Robert Horton acting as well as singing.

My favorite individual theme was “Rawhide” as sung by The Blues Brothers with all the whips at the bar in the south. Remember? I tend to get Wagon Train and Rawhide confused. They were entirely different shows, but they “felt” very similar. Maybe it was the costumes.

I think the happiest day of our two trips to Arizona was the day we spent in Tombstone.

Here’s a little special something for all of us who watched and loved those Western shows. It’s funny that I can’t remember any of the plots or stories, but I can sing ALL of the songs!

I was a Western movie addict as was Garry. I loved the men, but really, I loved the horses and those old dusty towns. Mostly, though, the horses. I think if you just showed me an hour of horses, I’d have been a very happy camper. Wasn’t it amazing how the streets were not full of mud and horseshit? And after they drove the cattle through … who cleaned up that mess?

And finally, I found this little treasure on YouTube. I’m sure there’s more and some of these aren’t in very good condition … but if those were the days when Westerns were the name of the game … roll ’em out, head ’em in …

And all because of wagons. Yee haw!

DUMBEST BAD GUY IN THE WEST – Marilyn Armstrong

Open Range (2003) stars Robert Duvall, Kevin Costner, Annette Bening, Abraham Benrubi and a lot of other people, but notably Michael Gambon (Professor Albus Dumbledore from Harry Potter) as the stupidest villain in the old west.

Mind you, Open Range isn’t a bad western, as these things go. It’s pretty standard, with a rather better cast than most westerns. All the good clichés are included and the movie builds up to a massive shootout between Duvall and Costner against Gambon and his thugs.

Open Range Poster

Here’s the plot. It contains spoilers, but I feel safe in saying the movie has no surprises, so really, there’s nothing to spoil.

Old West, 1882. “Boss” Spearman (Duvall) is an open range cattleman, who, with hired hands, Charley (Costner), and Mose (Benrubi) (et al), is driving a herd cross-country. Charley, a former soldier who fought in the Civil War, feels guilty over his past as a killer. 

Boss sends Mose to the nearby town of Harmonville for supplies, a town controlled by a ruthless land baron, Denton Baxter. Mose is beaten and jailed by the marshal (owned body and soul by Baxter). The only friendly resident owns the livery stable.

Boss and Charley worry when Mose doesn’t return. The get him out of jail but are warned to not free-graze on Baxter’s land. Mose’s injuries are severe, so Boss and Charley take him to Doc Barlow where they meet Sue Barlow, the doctor’s sister.

Killing and skullduggery follow. Charley and Boss vow to avenge the various murders and injustice. Charley declares his feeling for Sue and she gives him a locket for luck. 

Boss and Charley are pitted against Baxter and his men. A gun battle erupts in the street, with Boss and Charley heavily outnumbered … until the townspeople begin to fight.

It’s a shootout of Biblical proportions. Epic. Costner is the troubled hero, which is just as well because he directed and co-produced the movie. Gambon, a murderous Irish immigrant with a killer brogue, is a brutal tyrant with no compunctions about slaughtering anyone. Everyone. He owns the sheriff, he owns the town. He has a lot of cows, but it’s not enough. It will never be enough.

He is the consummate villain of the old west, an out-of-control, power-mad cattle baron. You just know there’s going to be a lot of killing.

Skipping over the early individual killings to get to the big battle, it’s now the final quarter of the gun battle. It’s a high body count. I’ve lost count and I swear some of the actors died more than once, but maybe it’s just me.

The first seriously stupid bad guy moment comes when Baxter’s ace hired gun stands in front of Costner — who is loaded for bear and hates the son-of-a-bitch — and taunts him. So Costner shoots him through the head. One shot, dead center of his forehead.

I look at Garry and say “Well, what did he think was going to happen?” The fight was on.

A few minutes later, corpses litter the landscape. Heads are exploding right, left, and center. The townsfolk are unhappy about being under the thumb of Baxter, the power-mad cattle baron, but they’re too wimpy and cowardly to do anything about him.

Until asshole Baxter stands up in front of the whole town (they’ve come out to watch the shootout because they don’t have anything else to do) and tells them that as soon as he gets through killing the good guys, he’s going to start killing them.

“All your children will be orphans” he rants.

Say what?

Guess what happens next? Right you are! The townspeople, realizing they have nothing to lose, pick up their guns and start killing Baxter’s men. What a shock.

Costner marries the pretty sister of the doctor. Duvall offloads the cattle. Costner and Duvall take over the saloon and everyone lives happily ever after.

I assume they bury the corpses.

This one gets my vote for the dumbest bad guy in the west. But maybe you know something I don’t know …


AND NOW, HERE’S OUR MODERN VERSION …

If POTUS is the power-mad cattle baron … and “Baxter” is Miller (the gun-crazy killing machine) while the rest of the “crew” are the usual morons with big guns and few brains — are we the cattle?

You could follow the plot almost exactly, just change cities. Just wait for it, wait for it. Dumpf will make one of those speeches … you know, how “he knows everything and only HE CAN FIX IT” — Alex Baldwin could play the role.

Then Costner could shoot him between the eyes. Great ending. Kevin could be president. Why not? Hasn’t he done it before? Pretty sure he did or maybe I’m thinking of Michael Douglas … hard to remember sometimes. And there’s always Morgan Freeman.

Has anyone asked Kevin? His career hasn’t been doing all that well. This might be a terrific piece, proving comedy is hard but worth it. We could have a good, long hysterical laugh. I know I sure would. I’m laughing already.

AUTRY MUSEUM, PART 3 – BY ELLIN CURLEY

One of my favorite parts of my trip to LA, was our visit to the Autry Museum of the West.

Outside of the Autry Museum

I learned the most from the sections of the museum devoted to the real history of the West, not the TV or movie versions we grew up with. They displayed artifacts and photos from the West that painted a less glamorous and more nitty-gritty portrait of life in the old West.

Booklet on the 1906 San Francisco earthquake
Photo of the actual damage done by the San Francisco earthquake of 1906
Indian saddle with beautiful detail work and colors
Samuel Colt and his line of guns

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show was a big part of our image of the West.

Poster advertising Wild Bill Cody’s Show
The real Annie Oakley, a star of the Wild West Show

Life in the West was rugged and hard. Here are some artifacts of that life.

A cowboy’s spartan kitchen
Ad for a coach
Closeup of the beautiful and colorful artwork on the side of a coach

I found this 1915 phonograph fascinating! It apparently was used in saloons and saved the saloon keepers money on live entertainment!

Coin operated phonograph from 1915
Information about the phonograph

AUTRY MUSEUM, PART 2 – BY ELLIN CURLEY

When I was in LA, I went to the Autry Museum of the West. I was so impressed with it, I took tons of photos and am writing three blogs about it.

Tom outside next to the statue of Gene Autry with his guitar and his horse, Champion

One of my favorite parts of the museum was the section devoted to movie and television cowboys. I forgot how much the cowboy dominated our media consumption for so many years. Like the lawyer or cop or FBI/CIA agent of today.

Here are some wonderful old movie posters, some with costumes and props from the movie.

Prop guns used in the more recent, very modern themed cowboy movie, Brokeback Mountain.

My relationship with onscreen cowboys was mostly through television. I was a huge Dale Evans and Annie Oakley fan.

The TV cowboys of the ’50s and ’60s spawned a whole industry of cowboy merchandise that we kids ate up.

I had either this gun or the Dale Evans gun – and holster of course!
My favorite TV cowboy and cowgirl, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. Wonderful singers too!