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Sunday, November 16, 2008

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 William 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 Randolph 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 would 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 these 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 began careers breathing fresh life into them. The sixties was scorched desert for cowboys and audiences that took westerns seriously. The Ranown team was 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 had 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 tied up in rights dispute.

With regard 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-1949 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, release prints from 1956 and 16mm having 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 put end to such abuse, Columbia having prepared HD masters for the group. 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.


Anonymous "r.j." said...

While this is still fresh in my rapidly-corroding mind, I best send it off now. A dear friend, who has since passed-away, named Bob Colman (maybe some of your readers knew him, or had dealings with him -- he operated a movie poster shop on La Cienega Blvd. in West Hollywood for many-years. His widow Jan, also a good friend, has since taken-over the business), used to tell me about a theatre on Hollywood Blvd., that apparently he went to as a kid, called "The Hitching Post". It ran nothing but westerns (which certainly wouldn't have been my meat,at any age -- I was more into Noel Coward and Tallulah Bankhead -- "Martini, anyone?"). I don't know if it's my memory playing tricks, or if Bob actually said this, but I seem to recall his telling me there was an actual "hitching post" outside the theatre. This was all a bit before my time. (Thank God something was!)
All best, always,

4:56 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

R.J., I used to know Bob Colman, and would visit his store every time we went to LA. He was a fount of information about old Hollywood and had endless, and great, stories to tell about celebrities he'd encountered over the years. For instance, he told us of how he once borrowed one of the original George Reeves Superman costumes to wear to a party, and ended up spilling wine all over it! What a guy ...

9:10 AM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

You've exposed one of the gaps in my movie experience in writing about these Ranown westerns, and thanks: Ride Lonesome, The Tall T, Seven Men from Now and Comanche Station have all been added to my Netflix queue; looking forward to them.

Meanwhile, your mention of Burt Kennedy and The Train Robbers reminds me of seeing it with a friend in '73, after which the friend made what I thought was a very perceptive comment. John Wayne, you'll recall, makes a belated entrance in Train Robbers, the first 20 minutes or so being taken up with Ann-Margret and her efforts to find a man to help her clear her dead husband's name.

My friend's comment was that as soon as the Duke appeared on screen, the movie underwent a sudden shift: it changed from being a Western to being a John Wayne Movie -- still good, he hastened to add, but something entirely different.

2:27 PM  
Blogger The Great Bolo said...

There was a drive-in theatre in my town called THE HITCHING POST. It opened in 1948 and ran, under different management and names, until the 1970s.

8:43 AM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

I did have the fortune of seeing Seven Men from Now in 35mm at the Museum of Modern Art. It was part of their salute to Warner Brothers back in 1973. Lee Marvin saying, "Pow!" always stayed with me, kind of like a proto-pop art moment.

12:41 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

I managed to see SEVEN MEN FROM NOW at UCLA a few years ago and Budd Boetticher and Burt Kennedy were in attendance. Budd was a character-and-a-half. Very humorous and outspoken.

9:15 PM  
Blogger onlyanirishboy said...

To me, a "B" western was something starring Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Charles Starrett (appropriately born in Athol, MA), Bill Elliot, Lash LaRue, Tex Ritter, and other actors who were never stars in the big leagues. The B-Western pretty much died around 1952. The 50's Westerns starring Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea, and other former longtime stars of "A" movie" who were now doing Westerns exclusively (a group that for a while included the unlikely Fred MacMurray) were obviously a notch down from Westerns with 30's stars who had retained broader box-office appeal (Stewart, Cooper, Gable, Tracy, Cagney, Taylor) but they weren't considered even then to be "B" westerns.
BTW, appreciating the context of Westerns in the 50's is also important in understanding why TV series like Gunsmoke were called "adult westerns" -- a term that later took on a totally different connotation.
I'd be interested in seeing a comparison of the grosses for Scott's and McCrea's films in the years before "Ride the High Country." The casting suggests that McCrea was bigger at the box office.
In the Northeast in the 60's and 70's, the best -- and often only -- places to catch an A-minus/B-plus Western in its right ratio were big city theatres that often doubled as flophouses -- e.g., the Stuart and Publix in Boston, the Liberty and other 42nd Street theatres in NYC, Variety Photoplays in NYC, The News, the Family/aka Apollo, the Palace, the Center (all-night theatres on Market Street in Philadelphia.)
Another BTW -- there was a John Wayne film in the 60's where he was billed on the one-sheets as "Big John Wayne." Does anyone recall which film that was, and if that billing occurred on any other of the Duke's films.

6:55 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Very interesting stuff about those "flophouses" up North. As to the "Big John Wayne" tag, I think that was "Donovan's Reef", as posters I have all use that designation. Offhand, I don't know of any other Wayne vehicles that did.

7:17 PM  
Blogger onlyanirishboy said...

Seeing a particular Western, or any other film in the theatres I mentioned, was mostly a matter of serendipity, as none of them advertised or, with one exception, were included in the newspaper listings. (The Publix on Washington St. in Boston was at least included in the listings in the Boston Record-American, but not in the Globe or anywhere else.) And most played double or triple bills, so sometimes you'd seen a surprisingly interesting film while waiting for the one for which you had bought a ticket to come on. (The show times of the films at these places were not always posted, and when they were they were not always accurate.)

Before 42nd street turned to all-sex, Westerns were a staple at the west-of-Broadway theatres. (I think I meant the Victory instead of the Liberty as the 42nd street theatre that specialized in Westerns; it had a big still from The Searchers across the lobby.)

The audiences often added to the enjoyment; they screamed "Kill him! kill him!" when Slim Pickens groveled for mercy from Brando in "One Eyed Jacks," and always roared with delight when Holden snarled "bitch!" and blew away the woman who had shot him in the back in "The Wild Bunch." And this white Columbia student began to wonder if he'd make it out of the New Amsterdam alive when "Uncle Abram's" advising Lou Gossett's character how to deal with white people in "Skin Game" generated angry shouts of "You hear that, whitey?"

Of course, the audiences could also distract from the moviegoing experience, by snoring, loudly arguing -- both with other patrons and with what was happening on screen -- and reeking of alcohol and/or unfamiliarity with soap and detergent. (More than once, I witnessed someone actually piss from the balcony onto the orchestra section. And you were wise not to patronize the refreshment counter, visit the men's room, or look closely at what was going on around you.

Still, it was great to see movies, even in beat-up, faded prints, as they were meant to be seen -- projected over an audience onto a screen. And where else could you see Lesley Selander's "Town Tamer" sandwiched between Tod Browning's "Freaks" and Joseph Losey's "Eva" (billed as "Eva, The Devil Woman", all after midnight?

The weirdest aspect of these theatres is that they were, in my experience, the only ones where you'd have to regularly sit through a filmed appeal, by Streisand or some other superrich star, for the Will Rogers sanitorium in upstate New York, followed by an usher going up the aisles trying, without noticeable success, to collect donations for this charitable institution.

5:24 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

onlyanirishboy, I do envy your having had access to so many sub-run houses during those final days of grind bookings and oldies playing tandem with newer releases. I guess the only way you'd have of knowing what was playing was to go downtown and look up at the marquees. What an adventure Saturdays would have been at that time. The thought of 40's-50's westerns like "Fort Apache" and "The Naked Spur" still playing heavily on those screens as late as, what, 1969 or '70? --- is an intoxicating one. Our grinds in Winston-Salem were still using "Stagecoach" routinely during the mid-60's. Do you remember any other vintage titles that turned up in those theatres when you were going? I'm always interested in 35mm prints of older films that remained in circulation for years after.

11:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi, new to the site, thanks.

10:17 PM  

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