Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated Westerns - Laura G ""

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Underrated Westerns - Laura G

I just recently had the pleasure of meeting Laura in person and talking movies with her and I can attest to the fact that she is a perfectly  lovely person and a remarkably passionate film fan like myself. If you weren't already aware, she runs the wonderful blog Laura's Miscellaneous Musings, which is a must for any classic film fans! She can be found on Twitter here:
ANGEL AND THE BADMAN (James Edward Grant, 1947)
ANGEL AND THE BADMAN is my favorite John Wayne film not directed by John Ford, and truth to tell, it's probably my favorite John Wayne film of all.  I revisit it frequently and never tire of this lovingly filmed tale about Quirt Evans (Wayne), a wounded gunslinger who is reformed by the kindess of a Quaker family, especially Penny (Gail Russell).  Angelic Penny falls for Quirt at first sight and is disarmingly honest with him about her feelings...and anyway, what man could resist such a sweet-natured and beautiful girl, who also has a sense of humor?  Those who like to unthinkingly say Wayne wasn't much of an actor obviously haven't been paying close attention to his work, whether in SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (1949), THE SEARCHERS (1956), or this lesser-known but very special film, in which at least half his performance is conveyed without dialogue.  Simply watch Wayne's face and especially his eyes, whether he's baffled by his Quaker hosts, struggling with his feelings for Penny, or holding off a trio of bad guys with nothing but his steely gaze and an unloaded gun.  The marvelous supporting cast includes Irene Rich as Penny's sweet mother, Tom Powers as a doctor who respects but doesn't quite understand the Quakers, and Harry Carey Sr. as the marshal on Quirt's trail, who has a habit of showing up at unexpected moments.

Available on DVD from Olive Films.

FOUR FACES WEST (Alfred E. Green, 1948)
An unsung gem of a Western about love, redemption, and the kindness of strangers, it's also known to some as the Western without any gunplay or fistfights.  Joel McCrea stars as Ross McEwen, a good man who's done a bad thing, and his real-life wife Frances Dee is the spunky nurse who falls for him.  They have a sweet chemistry, particularly in the scene where he brings her a ring and, when she starts to put it on her right hand, he gently shows her it's meant as an engagement ring.  There are terrific supporting performances by Charles Bickford, as a compassionate Sheriff Pat Garrett, and Joseph Calleia as a mysterious stranger who could be friend or foe to Ross.  And how many movies have William Conrad riding in a posse?!  This unpredictable, well-written film only improves and provides more to think about on successive viewings.

Available on DVD from Artisan's Republic Pictures line.

SADDLE TRAMP (Hugo Fregonese, 1950)
This good-natured Joel McCrea Western was a childhood favorite, one of the key films which led me to fall in love with the movies.  McCrea, in the title role, is Chuck Conner, a wanderer who becomes the initially reluctant yet responsible guardian to four little boys after their widowed father (John Ridgely) dies suddenly. Chuck stashes the kids at a campsite in the woods while he earns money to support them by going to work for a cranky, child-hating rancher (John McIntire); when Chuck sneaks food out of the kitchen for the kids, the rancher's sweet, whimsical Irish wife (McIntire's real-life wife, Jeanette Nolan) attributes the strange disappearances to "the little people."  If she only knew how big the little people eating her cooking really were!  Before long Chuck is also looking out for a teenage girl (Wanda Hendrix) on the run from her lecherous uncle (Ed Begley Sr.), and he also develops an antagonistic relationship with the ranch foreman (John Russell), who isn't as loyal to his boss as he first seems.  This simple story is handled by director Hugo Fregonese and his cast with poignance, humor, and charm, while at the same time managing not to be cloying despite the presence of so many children.  The evocatively scored final shots, as the former wanderer watches birds fly away, never fail to bring a tear to my eye.

Not yet available on DVD, this turns up from time to time on the Encore Westerns Channel.

WESTWARD THE WOMEN (William Wellman, 1951)
This is truly one of the greatest unsung Westerns, which has started to become better known thanks to Turner Classic Movies, a Warner Archive DVD release, and the enthusiasm of the classic film blogging community.  Robert Taylor, in one of his best performances, leads a wagon train of women seeking new lives to a California valley filled with unmarried men.  140 women sign on for the trek, despite being warned that as many as one in three of them may not make it to California.  One might not expect a cast dominated by women to be such a tough, gritty film, but this is one rugged movie, largely filmed on location outside Kanab, Utah.  Taylor instantly meting out trail justice to a rapist still has the capacity to shock viewers today.  John McIntire plays the rancher who sponsors the wagon train, with Henry Nakamura as the trail cook and Denise Darcel, Julie Bishop, Lenore Lonergan, Beverly Dennis, and Hope Emerson all making strong impressions among the women.  Based on a story by Frank Capra.  Don't miss this one.

Available on DVD from the Warner Archive, including a commentary by Scott Eyman and a featurette on the location shoot.

A MAN ALONE (Ray Milland, 1955)
Ray Milland made an impressive directorial debut in this engrossing film, in which he also stars as a gunslinger on the run.  Wes Steele is unjustly accused of a stagecoach massacre by the actual perpetrator, the town banker (Raymond Burr).  Wes finds refuge in the quarantined home of the very sick sheriff (Ward Bond).  The first third of this film comes close to being a silent movie, having almost no dialogue, and what's there is spoken by the supporting cast; Milland nonetheless has a very expressive performance, particularly in the moments when he discovers a murdered mother and child.  The middle section of the film is a two-person character study, as Wes helps and falls for the sheriff's lonely daughter, Nadine (Mary Murphy); they have some wonderful interplay as Nadine tries to figure out if the chivalrous gunman is a murderer or her knight in shining armor.  The action-packed finale includes a traditional Western "good versus evil" gun battle.

Like SADDLE TRAMP, this film isn't out on DVD but has been shown on the Encore Westerns Channel.  At one point it was scheduled for an Olive Films release but it apparently is no longer on the planned release schedule.


Chris said...

Excellent choices, Laura. I might disagree a little that "Westward..." is underrated but I have seen and really enjoyed your other picks. Nice to know you are a fan of McCrea.

Laura said...

Thank you, Chris! WESTWARD was the only one I debated whether to include, as I think it has definitely become more appreciated in recent years. But I can't pass up the opportunity to spread the word on one of my favorite movies.

I love Joel McCrea, as evidenced by picking two of his films, and am very fortunate to have been able to visit his ranch and meet Joel's grandson Wyatt. Wyatt's a lovely person and I suspect the apple didn't fall far from the proverbial tree in that regard.

Thanks for taking the time to comment and again to Brian for the invitation!

Best wishes,