Warners Keeps On Battle Crying
When did Warner’s TV tail begin wagging their theatrical dogs? I’d submit not long after James Garner hit as Maverick. His launch as a feature star was Darby’s Rangers, also the last feature directed by William A. Wellman (Lafayette Escadrille was released later, but completed before, Darby’s Rangers). Bill’s being wild is better remembered than most films he made, thanks to anecdote-laden profiles done since he was active. Wellman made an unholy bargain with Jack Warner to guide routine shows in exchange for dream project Lafayette Escadrille, the latter recut and ruined by WB so as to neutralize a downer ending Wellman preferred. The routine assignment said to have barely engaged him was Darby’s Rangers. Warners has released that on an Archive DVD, at last in widescreen and looking very nice. Based on real-life wartime exploits, Darby's is less hard-hitting combat than opportunity for WB to audition television players on a larger canvas. A few of said youngsters click. Most evaporate. It was actually a smart idea to spin low-paid tube faces into longer forms. Jim Garner in a modestly budgeted feature drew teens that missed him over Maverick’s summer hiatus, and what 77 Sunset Strip fan could resist "Kookie" Byrnes on local theatre screens? Darby’s Rangers wasn’t cheap (negative cost: $1.6 million) and did return a half-million profit. We forget for a half-century’s distance how adroitly such pictures were sold and considerable interest home viewers had in seeing them. Warners salted ABC with spots for full-length butterflies emerged from series cocoons, and there were plenty once Darby's paid out. Viewers cared more then about Fort Dobbs, Up Periscope, and Yellowstone Kelly than do now, yet no product from the era better represents successful fusion of free and paying audiences. WB was first to draw patrons to ticket windows with personalities off television. We look at bonafide classic Rio Bravo today for reasons very different from those that separated 1959 customers from their coin. They cared barely a whit for Howard Hawks’ possessory credit, but Walter (Grandpa McCoy) Brennan, John (Lawman) Russell, Ward (Major Adams), and Ricky Nelson were something else again. For all our latter-day Rio Bravo analysis, we can never know what excitement a cast like that generated for first-runners, and how much television contributed to their enjoyment of Rio Bravo, Darby’s Rangers, and others that supped from video reservoirs.
Darby’s Rangers began as something more ambitious. Charlton Heston had agreed to star for a percentage of the gross. He wrote at the time of excitement over that deal, which for him amounted to membership in a very exclusive club. Jack Warner not unexpectedly reneged on the sharing and Heston withdrew, his lawsuit to follow. James Garner was then bumped to the lead. It’s likely the project was downgraded for lowered expectation now that untried-in-features talent was aboard. Most of Darby's was shot indoors, possibly reflecting Wellman’s age (well-worn early 60’s) and fatigue, plus Warner economizing. The director’s body was an arthritic roadmap of injuries sustained in daring youth as a WWI pilot, that service having propelled his since career as ruggedest of helmsmen. Edd Byrnes wrote in "Kookie" No More (engaging memoir) of Wellman rants and his discharging firearms on the set to discourage producer visits. Interesting how this sort of old Hollywood craziness was still tolerated on efficiency driven 1958 stages. Maybe Bill got a pass because studio veterans felt a little sorry for him, seeing aspects of their own uncertain futures in a noted director burning out. Wellman’s indifference to Darby’s Rangers seems odd for previous excellence handling similar The Story Of G.I. Joe and Battleground. Artificiality of his combatants firing on studio floors dressed as outdoor terrain had peculiar appeal, for Wellman gets effects he wants from such controlled environments (low-hanging fog almost like a horror set) that for me at least, convey more atmosphere than if Darby's had gone all-location.
I suspect Warners dictated Battle Cry as guiding template for Darby's Rangers with less emphasis on war than sex, befitting crowd excitement over Here to Eternity bed-hopping by then standard issue in WWII subjects. Raoul Walsh’s 1955 brawler had seen five and a half million profit, reason enough to sell Darby’s Rangers along Battle Cry lines (note ad similarities here). WB wasn’t alone for shifting prominence from battlefield to boudoir. Robert Mitchum would spend less time fighter piloting than seducing officer’s wives in 1958's The Hunters for 20th Fox, while same year The Young Lions dealt far more with love action off front lines than combat thereon. Code restrictions being somewhat relaxed, Warners put uniforms on carnal Darby’s youth as lure for randy audience teens, with starlet discoveries sporting exotic names marquees barely got right. For these warriors, dodging Germans would be incidental to sampling French/Italian pastries that never said No. Wellman surely found all this insultingly childish, especially as he’d known real war and realized Darby's was prurient fantasy, but 50’s soldiering minus sex was nowheres-ville from a marketing standpoint. Vibrant youth idols weren’t to be wasted going stag into battle. Judging by sparse enemy presence in Darby’s Rangers, 1958 kids might have overlooked just who we were fighting, as there’s nary a close glimpse of adversaries in the field, let alone ones planning counter-offensive. Darby’s Rangers ended up being a war movie for audiences that didn’t much want to be bothered about whys and wherefores of war.