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Thursday, November 08, 2007

Greenbriar Weekend Marquee

Tim McCoy wore black and a stern countenance in program westerns from silents through the Second World War. He looks great in stills (as here) and had all it took to convey frontier authority. I got in a mood to watch him this week and took out Sinister Cinema’s DVD of Bulldog Courage, one of Tim’s so-called poverty row entries from the mid-thirties. Sometimes it’s therapeutic to look at horses run and listen to their hoofbeats clomp past primitive microphones. McCoy sat his mount like a ramrod wrapped in outsized bandanas. Ten-gallon hats he wore were tree tall with brims out to there. Trigger Tim’s dialogue was sparse and got to main points quick. No wasted words. He’d throw miscreants into disarray by detailing what it was like to hang or suffocate in mineshaft cave-ins. Bulldog Courage lacks the polish of Tim’s previous series for Columbia, but it’s really just him we’ve come to see, so what difference? Produced by an outfit called Puritan, they paid McCoy four thousand per week or per film, a distinction of little matter as it took a single week to shoot each one. Western stars liked assurance of a season’s work per annum. Eight or so features at sixty or so minutes were acorns gathered to see them through months traveling with the circus or Wild West Shows. Sometimes cowboys got too ambitious and tried mounting their own tent shows. Tim fell in that trap and lost $300,000 depression dollars. Age was at issue by the late thirties and competition fierce among range riders chasing the same gigs. McCoy thought he had a series locked with Monogram, but Tex Ritter and his gee-tar put paid to that. Tim, Buck, Hoot and others of a proud generation wouldn’t stoop to sing on camera, so theirs was a slow ride toward the sunset. Buck Jones died in a nightclub fire, Hoot Gibson promoted chinchilla farms and greeted for a Las Vegas casino, while Tim McCoy went back to Wild West tours as most sought after handshake for boys now men who had idolized him in their youth. He died in 1978 not long out of harness. Integrity McCoy represented in the saddle is so far gone out of movies as to make his westerner seem like something off the genuine frontier. Magic spells left his old films long before my own childhood allowed for introductions. I relied on books by Jon Tuska and William K. Everson to convey what this man and others like him meant to a vast audience generations before my own. Some of these grew up to collect 16mm. Many are headed for their own last round up. Sinister Cinema consulted one-of-a-kind prints out of front row kid estates to make wonderful transfers of westerns we’d never again see otherwise. Bulldog Courage is merely one of several hundred available from them. The quality is outstanding for such PD artifacts. Who but dedicated collectors would likely have preserved Ajax, Victory, and Puritan "B’s"?

Korea was a different selling proposition from the previous war Samuel Goldwyn covered so profitably with The Best Years Of Our Lives, just as 1951 was a new day for Hollywood and its crumbling formulas. I Want You tries to wrest happy endings out of a conflict none of its characters fully understand, and in doing so, aligns itself with bitter pills currently being served in features and documentaries dealing with our ongoing battle in Iraq. If you can catch I Want You next time it’s on TCM, by all means do, for this is one stark contrast to Best Years and settled notions as to what we were fighting for and why. Doubts as to these may have accounted for the mere $2.1 million in worldwide rentals collected by I Want You as opposed to over fourteen million Best Years accumulated. Home-front disillusionment is front and center as young men dread the draft while fathers torment over means of helping them dodge same. This picture could never have been contemplated ten years earlier. Volunteering in 1951 is less a clear-cut right choice than a reckless gesture made by veterans confusing this muddled war with the clearly defined one they had so recently fought. For crises of conscience Dana Andrews experienced during the forties, none were so complicated as what he faces in I Want You, wherein his character’s letter to the local draft board can mean life or death to boys who live next door, and lifelong friendships hinge upon his willingness or reluctance to write them. Gung-ho and willing sacrifices are less forthcoming in I Want You. Characters look out for Number One. Andrews’ character laments that holidays are over for our country. This isn’t all-out war, nor is it peace, but as WWII vet Jim Backus points out, we will settle if that is all we’ve got. Farley Granger and Martin Milner never address what is being fought for (or against) in Korea; they just quake over prospect of going there. The small town draft board is presented as an assemblage of old men settling personal scores and ridding the community of troublesome youth, justifying selections with dark prophesy of what might lay ahead should we lose the Cold War. Patriarch Robert Keith is compromised by obsession over non-combatant status during the First World War, and since no one addresses Korea as a campaign we can win, his uncomplicated patriotism seem quaint if not a little daft, much like Dean Jagger’s in My Son John. Nobody gets to be right in I Want You. It plays tentative even when trying not to. Dramatic devices that worked just a few years before clash with realities not so reassuring, and audiences less willing to take comfort in happy fades. The wedding that concludes I Want You falls way short of the hopeful ceremony Goldwyn staged in The Best Years Of Our Lives. Indeed, with Korea, the continuing draft, and a long Cold War ahead of them, all the characters here seem poised to experience the worst years of their lives.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Colonel Tim McCoy was probably the most formitable hero in B-Westerns. He had done it all, from being a REAL cowboy back in the early 1900s, to a member of Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders. One look from his stern countenance would put off a villan's approach. Columbia has a wonderful transfer of one of his early 30's entries: Texas Cyclone. You can find it at many of the online DVD outlets. In middle age he returned to military service in WWII earning more decorations! I saw one of his last TV interviews in Detroit with Bill Kennedy back in the his 80s, he was still in great shape with lots of stories to tell.

10:14 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

There's no way I'd have guessed what "I Want You" was about from that poster -- a trend that continues today.

1:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had read (in a Capra bio) that BEST YEARS had an 11 million boxoffice, which put it right behind GONE WITH THE WIND for a while as all time moneymakers. But you quote 14 mil - - is that number for money total to when I WANT YOU came out, or total career accumulation (over decades) for BEST YEARS? (I'm curious)

10:13 PM  
Blogger Joe Thompson said...

Thank you for writing about Colonel Tim McCoy. His autobiography ("Tim McCoy Remembers the West"), written with his son, is a good book. McCoy talks about how disrespectfully people treated the local Native Americans. He took the time to learn how to talk to them and became an advocate for them.

Joe Thompson ;0)

10:56 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

The transfer of TEXAS CYCLONE is really good, but it is far from wonderful...

Unfortunately, the prints lacks the original opening and closing Columbia logos.

Still, the great thing about it is that it does not look like a B picture, thanks to a cast that it is still impressive today.

1:14 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Evan, I do have that "Texas Cyclone" DVD from Sony, as well as the other Tim McCoy they released earlier in a John Wayne set, "Two-Fisted Law". Only wish they'd someday release more, as there are many fine Columbia McCoy westerns, and some good modern dress action films with him as well.

Erik, the eleven million figure for "Best Years" represented general release. The fourteen million includes additional monies "Best Years" earned in pre-release roadshow engagements.

Joe, that Tim McCoy book is well worth having. I wonder if his son, the co-author, is still alive ...

Radiotelefonia, I suspect some of Columbia's westerns only exist now with "Gail" TV release titles, which were substituted for original ones when the films first went to syndication in the early fifties. Columbia, like other majors, wanted to conceal the fact that they were releasing movies to television.

Thanks everyone, for your comments. I'm glad to see there's interest in Tim McCoy. "B" western stars fascinate me, and I'd like to do more on that subject in future postings. Again, I'd strongly recommend Sinister Cinema for high quality DVD's of some of the best series westerns. This company is tops in my book ...

10:13 AM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

For B westerns, I can suggest a VHS edition of a rather obscure Ken Maynard film titled "The Cattle Thief" (1937).

The edition, by Epoca Cine (a company that could never exist outside Argentina) is distinctive because it comes from an archival print with original Columbia titles... in Spanish! (The film is in English with optical Spanish subtitles).

The other film is a Bob Steele film (also in English with optical Spanish subtitles) but I guess that the print used had the credits in English this time.

Epoca has published a number of films with original credits in Spanish (as they were originally exhibited in Argentina).

11:44 PM  

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