Weekend Marquee --- The Gunfighter
It wasn’t just television, the suburbs, and divested theatres that pulled Hollywood down after the war. People were sick of atrophied formulas, especially westerns. Jack Warner referred to ones his studio did as shit-kickers. Fresh coatings in noir paint weren’t long before chipping. Psychological complications slowed action further. What was left of the larger audience still wanted westerns to move. Writers panned for that elusive dust of something new to introduce into frontier vocabularies. Andre De Toth was one such prospector looking to transfuse a tired genre. He’d directed the fine and offbeat Ramrod in 1948, and was now teamed with scribe William Bowers to develop The Gunfighter, a spec story recognized right off as worthy of fast tracking toward production. How it came to sell and for how much depends on whose late-in-life interview you’re reading. Many fathers come to claim classics once born and labeled. De Toth would say that he, in collaboration with Bowers, wrote The Gunfighter for Gary Cooper. Bowers recalled (in The Screenwriter Looks At The Screenwriter, published 1972) doing the script with John Wayne in mind, neglecting to mention De Toth’s involvement (and then producer Nunnally Johnson was said to have largely rewritten both men's work). That interview having taken place when Wayne’s politics were way out of fashion, Bowers portrays him as the bull-in-a-china-shop would-be bargain purchaser of The Gunfighter, then entitled The Big Gun. Wayne had offered $10,000 for the story. Bowers held out and claimed to have eventually got $70,000 from 20th Fox (records from their legal department indicate the purchase price was $30,000). Interviewer William Froug said Wayne never got over the loss and would twenty years later drunkenly refer to Bowers as a sonofabitch. The actor’s frustration was understandable. How many really good western scripts crossed Wayne’s desk in a given year, or decade, for that matter? Parting company with The Gunfighter to do The Fighting Kentuckian would be high frustration for any actor, let alone one as aggressive and ambitious as Wayne.
Gregory Peck was that skinny schmuck in Wayne’s estimation, but to paying fans mostly in bobby-sox, he was dreamy personified and object of careful studio handling. The alleged shock and boxoffice consequence of a mustache he wore in The Gunfighter was myth built upon casual remarks Darryl Zanuck and other Fox executives made after viewing an already completed picture. If anything, Zanuck recognized a western possibly too good for its target audience. It’s a Remington, he told director Henry King (shown here with Peck and again with actress Helen Westcott), but coming from a practiced hand at playing to masses, this was not necessarily a complement. If anything, the mustache was symptomatic of a greater problem. It is unquestionably a minor classic, (said Zanuck) but I really believe that it violates so many true western traditions that it goes over the heads of the type of people who patronize westerns, and there are not enough of the others to give us the top business we anticipated. Killing off Peck at the finish might have been avoided for the good of all. Patrons said so (by the hundreds) when ushers inquired during the NYC Roxy run, and yes, the mustache did bother women and young girls. He’d been grizzled for much of Fox’s previous Yellow Sky (not half the picture that "The Gunfighter" is, said DFZ), but on that occasion, Peck’s character took more initiative and got the girl besides, despite an outlaw past not unlike Jimmie Ringo’s. Fox tried merchandising The Gunfighter as something extraordinary among westerns. The trailer depicts actress Gene Tierney exiting a private run to read cue carded raves (a bold and startling departure from the conventional), while ads embraced downbeat content and a morose lead character who’d lived by his guns … too long! The Gunfighter was among Hollywood’s first to chart an end for a frontier so far the site of optimistic empire building. It would soon enough morph into a cemetery waiting to claim freebooters who’d outlived their usefulness. The Gunfighter is cited by many as the non-political superior of High Noon, but it’s also an admonishment to those Jimmie Ringos home from the war to put aside arms and embrace their social and civic responsibilities.
You could see Ringo coming at the end of Peck’s last western, Yellow Sky. His bank robbing gang leader is revealed to have been a church-going scion of good family waiting for the right woman to settle him down. Indeed, Anne Baxter’s prairie hellcat (raised by apaches!) escorts his return to selfsame bank for purposes of giving back gains ill gotten during the first reel. By the fade, he’s done all but join the Jaycees and apply for a position at the teller’s window. Men were men on the prewar frontier. Errol Flynn and sidekicks broke trails and heads in things like Dodge City because there was a West to be won and heroes needed to travel light. Jimmie Ringo’s mistake was less the men he’d killed than the wife and child he’d left behind. We’d won the big fight, and now it was time for post-warriors to get busy mowing the grass (lone wolf James Stewart would learn to play community ball as well in 1955’s The Far Country). The town Ringo comes back to was more like the one I grew up in than depictions I’ve seen of western burgs. It’s a woman’s world and men-folk are good and tamed. No wonder Jimmie has to die! A bright-eyed small rancher sharing one drink with the former badman limits his intake for fear of reprisals from the wife back home, a situation apron-clad barkeep Karl Malden applauds. Ringo returns to a happily gelded community so emasculated as to allow fuzz-faced teenaged bully Skip Homeier to cow its male population. Little boys in the street are spanked home by mommies lest they follow Ringo’s sorry example, and even one-time toughest man in the West Millard Mitchell (as Jimmy’s ex-partner in crime) mediates on behalf of the Ladies Auxiliary. Ringo’s bad end is a conclusion foregone by societal edicts reflective more of 1950 than 1880. Good as he is, Peck may have been too much the gray flannel man for this commission. John Wayne would have made a more convincing bad-ass trying to come in from the cold, offering a better sense of just what Ringo had given up and was trying now to regain. Peck starts out and remains so reasonable as to make me wonder just how desperate an hombre he could ever have been. Might his Ringo have been as happy pushing that lawn mower all along?
The Gunfighter was a hit, especially in the context of Fox’s bombs away 1950 season. Its pressbook offered ad mats reading Movies Are Better Than Ever!, an industry co-op measure of desperation brought on by televisions Dad was hauling into those suburban family rooms. Fox was having enough trouble breaking even with once thought to be sure-fire product. Betty Grable musicals were nearly played out and the company’s biggest profit getter was Clifton Webb. The breakdown of Fox postwar/pre-Cinemascope money westerns finds Broken Arrow at the top with gains of $1.4 million. Yellow Sky is at number two with $1.2 million in the black. Rawhide took $704,000 in profits. The Gunfighter earned $1.8 million in domestic rentals against a negative cost of $1.2. There were foreign rentals of $805,000 and eventual profits of $464,000, making The Gunfighter one of the better earners in a year otherwise awash in red ink (over a dozen 1950 Fox releases lost money --- The Black Rose, Night and The City, and Under My Skin were each down in excess of a million). Fox had an aggressive reissue program. Bookers in the field were expected to bring home contracts for so-called Encore Triumphs. The company published each man’s sales figure per quarter, and competition was high for bonuses realized from not only first-runs, but oldies and short subjects. The Gunfighter was dating again in 1953 with fresh paper and new prints. There was $288,000 in additional domestic rentals and $83,000 more foreign. Profits this time came to $271,000. This combined with earlier gains put The Gunfighter into a solidly positive column on Fox ledgers.