Greenbriar Weekend Marquee
Tim McCoy wore black and a stern countenance in program westerns from silents through the Second World War. He looks great in stills (as here) and had all it took to convey frontier authority. I got in a mood to watch him this week and took out Sinister Cinema’s DVD of Bulldog Courage, one of Tim’s so-called poverty row entries from the mid-thirties. Sometimes it’s therapeutic to look at horses run and listen to their hoofbeats clomp past primitive microphones. McCoy sat his mount like a ramrod wrapped in outsized bandanas. Ten-gallon hats he wore were tree tall with brims out to there. Trigger Tim’s dialogue was sparse and got to main points quick. No wasted words. He’d throw miscreants into disarray by detailing what it was like to hang or suffocate in mineshaft cave-ins. Bulldog Courage lacks the polish of Tim’s previous series for Columbia, but it’s really just him we’ve come to see, so what difference? Produced by an outfit called Puritan, they paid McCoy four thousand per week or per film, a distinction of little consequence as it took a single week to shoot each one. Western stars liked assurance of a season’s work per annum. Eight or so features at sixty or so minutes apiece, acorns gathered to see them through remaining months traveling with the circus or Wild West Shows. Sometimes cowboys got too ambitious and tried mounting their own tent shows. Tim fell in that trap and lost $300,000 depression dollars. Age was at issue by the late thirties and competition fierce among range riders chasing the same gigs. McCoy thought he had a series locked with Monogram, but Tex Ritter and his gee-tar put paid to that. Tim, Buck, Hoot and others of a proud generation wouldn’t stoop to sing on camera, so theirs was a slow ride toward the sunset. Buck Jones died in a nightclub fire, Hoot Gibson promoted chinchilla farms and greeted for a Las Vegas casino, while Tim McCoy went back to Wild West tours as most sought after handshake for boys now men who’d idolized him in their youth. He died in 1978 not long out of harness. Integrity McCoy represented in the saddle is so far gone out of movies as to make his westerner seem like something off the genuine frontier. Magic spells had worn off his old films long before my own childhood allowed for introductions. I relied on books by Jon Tuska and Bill Everson to convey what this man and others like him meant to a vast kid audience generations before my own. Some of these grew up to collect 16mm. Many are headed for their own last round up. Sinister Cinema consulted one-of-a-kind prints out of front row kid estates to make wonderful transfers of westerns we’d never again see otherwise. Bulldog Courage is merely one of several hundred available from them. The quality is outstanding for such PD artifacts. Who but dedicated collectors would likely have preserved Ajax, Victory, and Puritan "B’s"?
Korea was a different selling proposition from the previous war Samuel Goldwyn covered so profitably with The Best Years Of Our Lives, just as 1951 was a new day for Hollywood and its crumbling formulas. I Want You tries to wrest happy endings out of a conflict none of its characters fully understand, and in doing so, aligns itself with bitter pills currently being served in features and documentaries dealing with our ongoing battle in Iraq. If you can catch I Want You next time it’s on TCM, by all means do, for this is one stark contrast to Best Years and settled notions as to what we were fighting for and why. Doubts as to these may have accounted for the mere 2.1 million in worldwide rentals collected by I Want You as opposed to over fourteen million Best Years accumulated. Home-front disillusionment is front and center as young men dread the draft while fathers torment over means of helping them dodge same. This picture could never have been contemplated ten years earlier. Volunteering in 1951 is less a clear-cut right choice than a precipitous if not reckless gesture made by veterans confusing this muddled war with the clearly defined one they’d so recently fought. For all those crises of conscience Dana Andrews experienced during the forties, none were so complicated as what he faces in I Want You, wherein his character’s letter to the local draft board can mean life or death to boys who live next door, and lifelong friendships hinge upon his willingness or reluctance to write them. Gung-ho and willing sacrifices are less forthcoming in I Want You. Characters unapologetically look out for Number One and those who don’t aren’t necessarily rewarded for selflessness. Andrews’ character laments that holidays are over for our country. This isn’t all-out war and it’s not exactly peace, but as WWII vet Jim Backus points out, we’ll settle if that’s all we’ve got. Farley Granger and Martin Milner never address what’s being fought for (or against) in Korea; they’re just scared over the prospect of going there. The small town draft board is presented as an assemblage of old men settling personal scores and ridding the community of troublesome youth, justifying selections with dark prophesy of what might lay ahead should we lose the Cold War. Patriarch Robert Keith is compromised by obsession over non-combatant status during the First World War, and since no one addresses Korea as a campaign we can win, his uncomplicated patriotism seem quaint if not a little daft, much like Dean Jagger’s in My Son John. Nobody gets to be right in I Want You. It plays tentative even when trying not to. Dramatic devices that worked just a few years before clash with realities not so reassuring and audiences less willing to take comfort in happy fades. The wedding that concludes I Want You falls way short of the hopeful ceremony Goldwyn staged in The Best Years Of Our Lives. Indeed, with Korea, the continuing draft, and a long Cold War ahead of them, all the characters here seem poised to experience the worst years of their lives.