Ranown Westerns --- Part Two
Was John Wayne wise to have handed off such winning westerns as these Ranowns? He could have kept them at Batjac and starred in the group to come as Scott did, but imagine the pall an eight hundred-pound gorilla like Wayne would have cast. As Ride Lonesome made brisk headway through eighteen days of no-frills shooting, his The Horse Soldiers bogged down on distant location with a script half-baked and stars (Wayne and Bill Holden) collecting three-quarters of a million just for showing up. The blessing of Ranown was to be spared all this, as no one booked their westerns with expectation beyond that of covering the house nut and maybe a little extra folding money. One Randy Scott was good as another for any man’s program. An exhibitor friend who, in 1941, started with assistant projecting (at age 10!) gave me a refresher course in cowboy showmanship, the ads here being visual aids and proof that westerns sold best in bunches. He paired an ancient Scott, 1933’s To The Last Man, with sleek new 1954 model Riding Shotgun, to show how far the star (and motion pictures) had progressed in those intervening years. Also above, Ride Lonesome worked fine on a triple-header for two days at a Scotland Neck, NC hardtop (and note free admission if you rode your own horse to the theatre). Well, would there have been a better way to see these? While such as The Horse Soldiers was being sold on onerous percentage terms, Ranowns were in and out of such venues and pleasing at all stops. Even now, they play better than the biggies that rolled over them gross-wise. Some of us got together with a friend who was managing for UA theatres and ran The Man From Laramie with Ride Lonesome in 35mm. All in attendance preferred the Scott. It was lean filet against prime rib with (by comparison) too much back-story fat. The Man From Laramie seemed overwritten beside ultra-terse Burt Kennedy exchanges delivered in far less a running time (73 minutes vs. 104), with self-possessed Scott a calming alternative to neurosis-on-his-sleeve James Stewart. It takes but one pass through the Ranowns to recognize writer Burt Kennedy as essential cog in the wheel and undoubted most valuable member of the creative team. Decision At Sundown and Buchanan Rides Alone are notably weaker for his not having written them. We know and admire Kennedy’s bumps for their being repeated with minimal variation in all four of those he did. Still, I never tire of watching … and listening. How many westerns find their audience wanting to get past indian attacks so they can hear more dialogue? Budd Boetticher recalled pretty much shooting the scripts Kennedy handed him. We can thank providence for that.
Burt Kennedy was also credited for an interim western at Warners, Yellowstone Kelly, but it’s clear other cooks diluted his broth. For all the westerns he’d write and direct for another forty years, both theatrical and in television, Kennedy would not again scale the heights of Seven Men From Now, The Tall T, Ride Lonesome, and Comanche Station. He’d promote up to directing, but that proved more a lateral move, for good as these are for what they are (The War Wagon, Support Your Local Sheriff, others), you come away wishing he’d written them instead and that Boetticher weren’t in Mexico obsessing over bullfighters. Kennedy wrote and directed 1973’s The Train Robbers, back with John Wayne, but that venerable star, older now and less given to patience than anyone left in his crews, was not about to hand Kennedy free creative rein. Other writers who’d earned with westerns in better days were reduced now to dismantling the genre for television spoofs done badly and on the cheap. Kennedy directed scripts by William (The Gunfighter) Bowers, yet this combination of talent beget nothing more than a pair of leaden Wild, Wild West revivals in 1979-80. It was hard reconciling such with work they’d done not so many years before. Seeing westerns die became sad ritual for us watching. Imagine what it was for those who’d launched careers breathing fresh life into them. The sixties was scorched desert for cowboys and audiences that took them seriously. The Ranown team was just as well advised to split, for commercial interest in economy westerns was now altogether restricted to those you’d make for television. Randolph Scott retired holsters after Ride The High Country at MGM in 1961, and Harry Joe Brown was done within a few more years and one last curtain call (A Time For Killing in 1967). Budd Boetticher subsisted on TV westerns before heading to Mexico and his own heart of darkness in bullrings there. For all our admiration of maverick directors, we like them best when they deliver goods, whatever the obstacles and all the more when those are overcome. Boetticher seems to me to have blown the sixties in worshipful documenting of a matador who died suddenly and left the director with a filmed profile no one cared to see. Wild man Budd further defied reason by dumping (shown here) wife Debra Paget, prima facie evidence of that Mexican sun having driven him balmy. Breakdowns and time served behind bars further suggested he’d gone round the bend. By the time Boetticher came home seeking work, there was only 1969’s A Time For Dying, so bottom-of-the-barrel as to help no one, and now hopelessly tied up in rights dispute.
With regards rights, these were what kept Seven Men From Now buried for almost fifty years. John Wayne’s deal with Warners called for all Batjac negatives to revert back upon expiration of a specified period, after which they’d belong to that independent company. Though Wayne continued producing features under the Batjac banner, he had less interest in reissuing old properties or making them available for rental and television. A 1960 lawsuit against Warner Bros. had perhaps soured the actor/producer on releasing his backlog to syndication. WB had lumped all of the Batjac features, including Hondo, The High and The Mighty, and Seven Men From Now, into a post-1948 package for sale to TV. That announcement came in July 1960 while Warners still controlled distribution of these films. Batjac immediately sought injunctive relief from the courts to keep its library off local television, but the ruling went against them. As soon as Warners’ distribution rights in the films ended, Batjac withdrew them from US markets and most remained unseen for many years. Seven Men From Now was among those languishing, primarily due to the fact it did not star John Wayne and consequently drew less attention for having gone missing. Certainly there were no television runs after the early sixties. I remember seeing videotapes for sale at western cons, chained from 16mm prints long turned red and near unwatchable, but how else was one to see Seven Men From Now? I’d heard of Batjac’s negative left in standing water at some storage locker in LA. Such rumors were as often true where estates ended up with fragile elements and neither resources nor expertise to preserve them. Commercial prospects of DVD and satellite broadcasting loosened many of these just short of extinction. Digital options for rescuing faded elements became the salvation of Seven Men From Now. What’s there on DVD from Paramount (its having made distribution deals with Wayne’s estate) is as good as this picture is ever going to look, as vintage release prints from 1956 and 16mm since are hopelessly faded or gone to red.
Columbia’s negatives were compromised as well. Eastman fading and day-for-night scenes impenetrably dark are hazards in the preservation game and not all such damage can be fixed, whatever the technologies lately introduced (Ride Lonesome suffers most noticeably in sections where there’s virtually no color contrast left). Columbia kept ownership of five Ranowns and all were in more or less constant circulation from their original release. Decision At Sundown, Buchanan Rides Alone, and Ride Lonesome were playing local television as of September 1962. The Tall T and Comanche Station followed in May of 1964. None had network runs, going directly into syndication and staying there. Columbia in those days was particularly inept at scanning anamorphic features for flat presentation on TV. You’d see Randolph Scott deliver dialogue on one side of the frame and only hear his companion speaking from the other. Compositions so carefully arranged by Boetticher were utterly destroyed in pan-and-scanned Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station, for years available no other way. Universities and film societies pushed for 16mm rental prints in scope, and by the late seventies, Ride Lonesome was added to Kit Parker’s non-theatrical catalogue. Encore Westerns still plays them cropped on TV, however. Forthcoming high definition will presumably bring an end to such, as Columbia has prepared HD masters for that eventuality. Widescreen televisions in more homes will best serve the growing reputations of Ranown westerns, a process already begun with TCM’s broadcasts of Comanche Station in proper ratio. Columbia’s DVD release of the five is a first opportunity for most of us to see them in the widescreen intended. The Tall T, Decision At Sundown, and Buchanan Rides Alone were originally released in 1.85 format, and though they looked adequate in standard TV ratio, this wider view lends size and stature to counter low-budget appearance these films otherwise have.