Westerns Worthy and Lost Till Now
I always figured it was myth that Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott switched parts at the last minute for Sam Peckinpah’s Ride The High Country. How could anyone for a moment foresee McCrea in any role other than exemplifying moral leadership and unshakably right resolve? He had not the baggage Scott carried for Budd Boetticher and at no time would his westerners ride out vengeance seeking or set upon questionable trails … and there’s the rub insofar as McCrea finding wide acceptance among modernists seeking dark aspects of past cowboys. Another problem was Joel’s not having lucked into a run of now classic westerns like the Scott/Boetticher/Kennedy group that clinched Randy’s legacy for our generation (and hopefully future ones). Both stars otherwise followed paths near identical after the war insofar as shared resolution to do outdoor actioners and little else. Westerns paid and were risk free, the nearest to a sure thing in movies during the fifties. McCrea and Scott were the Coke and Pepsi of an industry that counted on them to bring home bacon and sure enough they never failed at just that. Independent producers preferred wading into an uncertain industry on horseback. Many of these rang Joel and Randy’s doorbells and cinched deals far safer than ones made for artier product. McCrea was approachable and not given to Hollywood airs. Luncheons out often ended with scripts rolled up and pushed into his coat pocket. Everyone wanted a flyer on his kind of boxoffice insurance. Stranger On Horseback was one that began as a gleam in an independent’s eye and thanks to Joel, saw completion and release through United Artists. It’s recently out on DVD from VCI. There is cult interest thanks to Jacques Tourneur having directed. His is a name worth noting for seldom if ever having directed a bad picture. Was it a practiced eye for performance and composition or did Tourneur (below on a set) take weak scripts home and transform them? Cat People, Out Of The Past, Stars In My Crown (an earlier great one with McCrea), and Curse Of The Demon were all his. I’ve got to think he was either the luckiest man in town or had a brilliant way with story telling. Having Tourneur on board your next Joel McCrea western put it immediately in a category beyond routine oaters the star was otherwise grinding at Universal-International, most of these under the rush-it-up baton of former Republic "B" maestro George Sherman, a well-intentioned workhorse not likely to be confused with Ford, Hawks … or Tourneur.
The challenge was to break free of the program western class. Discriminate viewers dredged for gold at drive-ins and grind theatres where cowboys drove filmic herds by dozens if not hundreds through a given year. Where was time or inclination to watch them all? You might safely ignore the Rod Camerons and Forrest Tuckers, but hope sprang eternal of another High Noon coming out of nowhere to seize mass approval and wide open profits. Gary Cooper was after all just Joel McCrea for a little more money and here was High Noon doing a smash $3.7 million in domestic rentals, more dollars than any western outside Red River and Shane had realized since the war. It was possible to grab the folks with a unique turn on frontier mythmaking, thus potential sleeper status conferred upon seemingly every feature trafficking in horseflesh. Even Republic promised High Noon grosses on Vera Ralston investments, but was it realistic to expect she and John Carroll to deliver such numbers? By the early fifties, westerns were all over television. Free ones … even if they weren’t much good to adults other than ones still loving Ken (Maynard) and old Hooter. You couldn’t run theatrical cowboys on cruise control with expectation of bookings (and rentals) beyond second-billed and flat. Trying harder enabled The Gunfighter, Winchester ’73, and higher-tier work from Andre DeToth, Samuel Fuller, and other directors who applied themselves to westerns worth paying to see. Joel McCrea in Stranger On Horseback was of that higher rung, its beckoning toward High Noon not hyperbole embarrassing in hindsight. A Great Western may have been putting it a little strong as in this trade ad, but Stranger On Horseback is an entirely worthy one, and at 66 minutes, deserving of applause for being less than half the length of bloated modern attempts to make westerns half so good. It tells a story old as hieroglyphs, admittedly dulled by less inspired retellings, but McCrea as lawman/judge seeking punk killer offspring (Kevin McCarthy) of town boss John McIntire sharpens the blade with terse dialogue and straight-ahead narrative. You believe in McCrea with a horse and gun, and that puts him in a top acting class for my time. Stranger On Horseback did a respectable $708,000 in domestic rentals and $427,000 in foreign. This wasn’t High Noon money, but for the little undoubtedly spent, why be piggish? Stranger's another of those family owned properties sitting dormant fifty years before being rescued for DVD (the producer was a Robert Goldstein). For all that time, you could about as easily have tracked down London After Midnight (Stranger was in no syndicated TV package I found). The camera negative is apparently lost (it’s no older than me after all, and I’m still here). VCI had to borrow a surviving 35mm print from the British Film Institute for the transfer. I’m imagining a Goldstein heir with no idea he’s got Stranger On Horseback possibly sitting among discarded rakes and lawn mowers in an untended LA garage.
Wichita’s negative did survive. We’ve evidence of that via Warner Archive’s just arrived DVD. You might figure it lost too for near-never runs on television and video invisibility these past fifty years. Wichita is yet another Cinemascope artifact looking now toward cult and critical rediscovery. If WB gives us Stars In My Crown, we’ll be equipped with a McCrea/Tourneur trilogy to maybe give Scott/Boetticher a run for their money. Wichita was released within months of Stranger On Horseback. Walter Mirisch tells the story of how he got the deal together in his recent memoir, I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History (excellent and highly recommended). Allied Artists had recently shaken off its Monogram moniker and busily, if not obsessively, engaged at shedding "B" status to break into first-runs where their output could pull something other than drag. Steve Broidy was chairman. He barnstormed exchanges/exhib conventions in March 1955 putting showmen on notice of AA’s determination to supply pics for their houses. Small producers had long been frozen out of better theatres in deference to studio giants and their bully-boy distribution networks. Managers gave majors priority to avoid friction with salesmen liable to withdraw popular attractions should a theatre extend playing time to an Allied Artists release. Broidy declared he was tired of AA being a service station to which exhibitors come as a last resort when major company product is unavailable. Allied stalwarts Bomba and The Bowery Boys would morph into multi-million William Wyler, Billy Wilder, and John Huston projects, those directors having signed with AA for star-laden potential hits. Broidy promised twenty-five million to be spent on thirty-seven features over the next sixteen months, penetrating a so-called "Magic Circle" of playing time dominated by the majors. For an interim period waiting on these really major pictures, there would be first-time Cinemascope and Technicolor product coming out of AA, shows done yet on a budget but way more ambitious than cheapies formerly associated with the company. Castigated majors actually helped with a few. Paramount loaned John Derek for An Annapolis Story, while MGM supplied backlot facilities for same. The Warriors with a declining Errol Flynn was half-financed by Fox and used castle sets Metro constructed for Ivanhoe. Wichita enjoyed the sweep of scope and Prints By Technicolor at a bargain negative cost of $400,000 according to Mirisch --- and trade reviews were supportive. An ambitious effort, it shows that AA can compete successfully with the majors and, no doubt, when the returns are inked in the ledger, that little book will tell the same story, said The Independent Film Journal, reflecting hopes of all exhibitors that Allied could indeed crack that Magic Circle.
Wichita was another that took cues from High Noon. A major selling link was Tex Ritter’s theme song, a hopeful successor to Hit Parade smash Do Not Forsake Me … that accompanied Gary Cooper up lonesome streets in 1951’s hit. I checked several Ritter CD’s and couldn’t locate the Wichita number among these Best Of compilations, so hearing it over DVD credits was my first exposure. Guess even Tex couldn’t bat them out of the park every time, for this tune sounds strictly from hunger. Wichita did enjoy recognition benefit of real-life figures it depicted. McCrea was Wyatt Earp and most everybody knew Earp from history books and past westerns. Bat Masterson was there along fringes to pique interest among 1955 audiences for whom these were brand action names the equal of actors portraying them. The Wichita setting assured a splashy premiere for its namesake still thriving. That town’s opening was settled on the location when Dr. L.A. Darnell, Wichita's mayor, visited the stars and producer Walter Mirisch, shown here, to get it in writing. His endorsement was apropos for this frontier-era counterpart very much caught up in local politics and how self-interests among city fathers interfere with Earp’s law enforcing. Such old west reimagining was again a legacy of High Noon and its emphasis on venal (read modern) ways of local governing. Earp/McCrea’s opponents are less outlaws running loose than renegade city fathers engaged in quiet banditry and posing the greater threat to civic order. High Noon had taken raps for political content, but surely its (many) imitators, determined to go their model one better, suggested even more our ongoing miasma in a democracy needing overhaul. Joel McCrea’s reassuring Establishment presence, and his inevitable triumph at the finish (he won’t toss his badge into the dirt), kept Wichita out of harm’s way critically, its success leading to Allied Artists' and the Mirisch's commitment for several more westerns with the star, none of equal quality due largely to absence of essential Jacques Tourneur.