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Sunday, May 04, 2008

TCM's Midnight Cowboy Reunion

TCM ran an extraordinary thing this weekend. The Bounty Killer was a western I’d waited a long time to see. It was produced on a ten-day schedule in 1964 by Alex Gordon, a great fan and historian who championed otherwise cast-off cowboys during those sad years between the burial of "B’s" and a last hurrah Italian filmmakers sounded for outdoor actioners. Television had overexposed westerns to a point where it was hard giving them away. Without big stars, few stood a chance in theatres. Alex swam against the tide by making two with casts of long-ago headliners folks hadn’t seen on a paying basis since most were kids. He was early to a nostalgia party that would take off in a large way by the late sixties. Gordon grew up with these frontier colossi and now was going to realize a lifelong dream of producing his own western featuring as many as could report for a day’s work. The Bounty Killer got done in Techniscope and color for a mere $194,000. TCM played a frightfully cropped print, but I didn’t care. It was like watching syndication again. Besides, so few of us are left to value little pictures like this. Patrons Alex took down memory lane are themselves slipping away. I used to see a lot of the old cowboys at various western fan gatherings. How I wish now I’d been more attentive to them. We’d stand around hotel lobbies and chat with Rex Allen, Rod Cameron, Ray Corrigan, many more. Villains and sidekicks were in abundance as well. Rand Brooks and Victor Jory were as affable as you’d hope all celebrities might be. I’m haunted yet by questions I neglected to ask. Alex Gordon himself was a prince among men and incredibly knowledgeable about film. We used to meet him at Du-par’s every time we went to LA. He liked those fantastic pies they served as much as I did. Sometimes conversations turned on work Alex was doing for Gene Autry or those Fox Film Corporation films he’d saved back in the late sixties as head of a nascent restoration effort. There were low-budget sci-fi pics he’d written and/or produced, including Voodoo Woman and Bride Of The Monster (Alex accompanied Bela Lugosi to the House Of Wax premiere). Another of those fascinating people I wish had written a book …

Alex used old-timers on his films so he could sit around and visit with them between hurried takes. Stalwart vet Spencer Gordon Bennet directed a jillion oaters and serials going back to silents, so at seventy, he was Alex’s ideal to helm The Bounty Killer. It’s actually a pretty good western. Stuck-up critics may tell you it’s not. A pox on them, for how could anything with Dick Arlen, Buster Crabbe, Fuzzy Knight, Johnny Mack Brown, Bob Steele, Grady Sutton, Eddie Quillan, and Broncho Billy Anderson be less than wonderful? Yes, I said Broncho Billy Anderson, he of The Great Train Robbery in 1903 and later Chaplin’s employer at Essanay. The man was eighty-five when Alex lured him out of the Motion Picture Country Home for this final gig. He has one line and barely gets it said, but Broncho’s the whole history of movies wrapped up in one amazing cameo. Could anyone today bring anything like equal stature to such a fleeting on-screen appearance? Johnny Mack Brown has that portly look of a cowboy who’s hung up spurs and now (hopefully) limits exertions to cashing dividend checks. You wonder as to financial circumstances of all these westerners. Were they here for fun or money? There couldn’t have been much of the latter. I’ve read of Brown having greeted for a Vegas casino around this time, so maybe a (very) little paying work came welcome. Old Tom Kennedy waits table in The Bounty Killer. By 1964, he’d forgotten being in more pictures than I’ve ever seen, and was the ugly mug filmmakers always hired for ugly mug parts. Buster Crabbe still looked great at fifty-seven playing a villain. If there’d been a river to swim, even with crocs in pursuit, he’d have yet been the man for it. Alex Gordon said they only got two days shooting outdoors. Otherwise, men and horses stood or sat rigid to avoid bumping into painted backdrops as artificial as ones Broncho Billy appeared before back in the teens. Alex used production personnel he’d known at AIP. His wife pinch-hit as pseudonymous writer, along with Leo Gordon, an also actor (mainly heavies --- he once tried to kick John Wayne’s dog in Hondo) who looked mean as a snake even when I saw him at Courts shows years later and spoke so gruff to fans as to discourage my approaching him.

Alex’s generation for the most part deplored spaghetti and revisionist westerns. Dirty ponchos and shots between the eyes weren’t cricket even among the roughest riders of 30’s-40’s youth, and so many felt lost, if not abandoned, by theatres cleared of square shooters and their serial brethren. The Bounty Killer took a woeful $138,005 in domestic rentals on just 2,940 bookings, suggesting that sentiment for old faces had its commercial limits. Paramount would go retro around the same time and host low-budget parties for many of Gordon’s rejuvenated cowpokes. Studio lifer A.C. Lyles produced a baker’s dozen on tight schedules for bottoms of bills. I saw Waco pulling drag for Rasputin, The Mad Monk one Saturday at the Liberty and thought, Shouldn’t this be on television? The Lyles westerns plodded on even as Italos invaded and receipts showed a stark relief between old (fashioned) and new. United Artists realized a sturdy $4.342 million domestic rental with For A Few Dollars More, while Paramount made do on $119,000 for Hostile Guns, $117,000 for Arizona Bushwackers, with a final one, Buckskin, limping across at $107,000. The Lyles output seemed made for those who longed for westerns the way they used to be. I had little use for them other than isolated moments when a Lon Chaney might amble onto one of the phony exteriors. As counterculture sensibilities transformed the frontier, old guard patrons grieved for role models denied my generation. Graying members of latter-day Buck Jones and Roy Rogers clubs invited youngsters to share the love, but how do you win converts to black-and-white oaters made generations before they were born? The more reactionary among one-time junior rangers said we’d be fast to hell in a handbasket for our disavowal of heroes who’d always been cowboys, and who’s to say they were wrong, considering all the great stuff they got to see growing up? Country artists wrote songs for old pards who understood. Roy and Rex lent mellifluous voice to laments for times gone forever. I feel for that greatest generation (of movie going), even if much of it seemed odd if not pathetic then. Back in the mid-seventies, I’d play mascot to 35mm collector Moon Mullins and local trail blazing seniors when they hunkered down on Buster Crabbe/Zane Grey actioners (on nitrate!), and here I am thirty plus years later being all nostalgic for their nostalgia. We southerners were number one with a bullet when it came to western conventions. A lot of the old guys wore cowboy suits and could watch twelve chapters of Zorro Rides Again on a straight backed metal chair with nary a saddle sore to mark their way. Dealers at these shows couldn’t care less about anything except westerns. One let me have an original 16mm Mark Of The Vampire for $130, for which I’d have gladly kissed him and his horse had he brought one. We were riding an elevator in a Charlotte hotel during one con when a Hoppy suited brigand suddenly pulled what looked to be a real six-shooter on us. Damn, now I won’t have any money to pick up that print of "Red River" was my first thought as death seemingly stared me in the face (even though it turned he was just funnin’ with us). Such a moment might have alerted me to priorities badly in need of realignment, but such was my collecting mania that I barely skipped a jot laying hands on the film once satisfied my life had been spared.

I was going to school in Hickory when Roy Rogers showed up at the old Terrace Theatre to promote his comeback western, Mackintosh and T.J. The place was a madhouse full of kids towed in by fathers (and grandfathers) who wanted their young squirts to see what a real cowboy hero looked like. Roy talked about old times and how there was too much sex and violence in pictures today (cue lusty cheers, and there were plenty). His new one was going to turn this country around and restore better values for our youth, even as hard "R" one-sheets in the Terrace lobby suggested otherwise. The cowboy gospel died hardest in the South. Theatres had but recently stopped using "B" westerns and serials for Saturday shows. With films no longer available out of Charlotte exchanges, some houses actually installed 16mm projection and borrowed collector’s prints for suspended-in-time matinees right through the seventies. Cowboy clubs met in the backs of small town diners to run Genes and Roys after biscuit and gravy breakfasts, with horse-tradin’ in dupes to follow out of auto trunks in the parking lot. Video sent most of the film to Boot Hill, leaving us with fifth-generation VHS Hoot Gibsons in plain white boxes which may (or likely wouldn’t) play once you got them home. Cowboy cons are going still even as online venues celebrate "B" westerns. One of them is The Old Corral, a one-stop for great reading and reference on the subject, while Boyd Magers’ Western Clippings site is a fine adjunct to his wonderful newsletter of the same name (I’ve been a subscriber for years). The top gun of books on the subject (from which I pinched two of the above stills) is Don Miller’s Hollywood Corral: A Comprehensive B-Western Roundup, which includes chapters by leading modern historians along with the definitive Don Miller text originally published in 1976. This is an expensive book (but worth every dime), out of print at present, but available used and new from various sellers. It is simply one of the best books on film, western or otherwise, ever published.
Photos (Top to Bottom):
The Bounty Killer Lobby Card
Veteran western stars gather for The Bounty Killer --- left to right: Buster Crabbe, Richard Arlen, Broncho Billy Anderson (seated), Fuzzy Knight, Dan Duryea
Johnny Mack Brown in his Universal prime
Latter-day Johnny poses with producer Alex Gordon during shooting of The Bounty Killer
Buster Crabbe and Al "Fuzzy" St. John
Bob Steele and leading lady
Roy Rogers plays the innocent with Republic chorines
Mackintosh and T.J (1975).


Anonymous Anonymous said...

John, I also have much love for the to meet Lash LaRue at a Cincinnati convention back in the early 80s....

Now that we have many good quality DVD releases of B-westerns, it is a joy to see those few crisp and clear!


3:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had no idea this type of B western history even existed. Of course I never watched them in the first place.

Another great post.

2:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello, Mr. John-- Likewise, I've never been a devotee of B-westerns as such, but I certainly recognize their plcein movie history (Spooky to realize that this is where LOUISE BROOKS ended her career, isn't it?) However, I as mentioned in passing in an earlier post, my grandfather wrote songs (and even made an occasional appearnce, usually as a saloon-pianst)in virtually all of the Dick Foran westerns at Warners. Turner has run good-many of them, and I've caught-up wih most, and much to my surprise, they're actually pretty-darn good! As befits a major, thy're very slickly-made (much like the Tim Holts for RKO) and the casts often sport familiar stock-company faces, like George E. Stone. But, the one song that emerged from the series that, apparently much to everyone's surprise, became a hit, and a standard on its' own, was, "My Little Buckaroo". My grandfather was always very pleased at how much people remembered this song, apparntly associating it with lullabies their parents would sing to them, and so on. Even Bing Crosby, no less, cut a record of it, and according to a recent-biography, used to tour childrens' hospitals, singing it. Nice. I understand there is a wide-range search going on to locate the elusive "Convention City" -- let's hope they locate a print -- sounds enticing! Hang in there, John. Best, R.J.

8:09 PM  
Blogger Background Bennie said...

Here's my anecdote about meeting Lash LaRue at a Roy Rogers Festival in the '90s. I figured his patience had long since worn thin with comments about his youthful resemblance to Humphrey Bogart, so I coerced my wife to approach him (I was way too intimidated; besides, his bullwhip was well within his reach!) with a "variation" on the theme. "Mr. LaRue," she asked coyly, "do you suppose anyone ever stopped Humphrey Bogart in public and asked him if he was Lash LaRue?"
Lash paused momentarily, and then broke into an eerily Bogartian sneer/smile. He then proceeded to promptly sell me an autographed VHS tape for $25.

3:21 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks for these western reminiscences, pardners. I met Lash too, at several shows --- asked him once about Deanna Durbin, as I'd read he was her protege at Universal (he's got a small part in "Lady On A Train"). Interesting guy, and he did resemble Bogart, even in later years.

7:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll keep my eyes peeled for The Bounty Killer. How does the immortal Dan Duryea come off in it?

1:55 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Chris, you've got to see "The Bounty Killer", as it has possibly Dan Duryea's best performance (no kidding!).

7:04 AM  
Blogger Booksteve said...

From what I understand from mutual friends, AC Lyles is STILL (or at least was within the last few years) holding court in Hollywood! I once won a trivia contest by knowing that ARIZONA BUSHWHACKERS featured narration by James Cagney! The ONLY picture Cagney had anything to do with between ONE TWO THREE at the beginning of the sixties and RAGTIME in the mid-eighties!

5:03 PM  

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