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Sunday, November 09, 2008

The Renowned Ranowns --- Part One

For DVD collectors these past years, it’s been seven westerns from now and a long wait for Seven Men From Now, The Tall T, Decision At Sundown, Buchanan Rides Alone, Westbound, Ride Lonesome, and Comanche Station (Westbound being still absent, but less of a priority). Those luckiest are ones that first came across these at drive-ins or humble theatres. Others of us discovered them where best they could be scrounged (and seemingly never in adequate prints). I hesitate in referring to the seven as Scott-Boettichers, or the auteurist’s preferred Boetticher-Scotts, as that diminishes contributions made by Ranown’s remaining essential corners, producer Harry Joe Brown, and perhaps most important, writer Burt Kennedy. Archives and museums are no fittin’ place to watch westerns so free of pretension. I suspect Kennedy’s terse dialogue was best heard through car speakers. Martin Scorsese recalled going to The Tall T in 1957 and knew then it was something special. No one of us coming to the film since will share that unique thrill of mining such treasure at the bottom of a double or triple bill as 50’s patrons did. Some may even be disappointed after the build-up these repackaged (and restored as best possible) shows are getting. Call them under the radar or termite art, the Ranowns represent a loyal opposition to puffed-up westerns of the time intent on societal betterment via frontier archetypes making the same mistakes we are. High Noon clunked viewer  heads with that fry pan and Rio Bravo answered back. Others put men of the west in analysis and gave them nightmares besides. Randolph Scott rode serenely past that and righted wrongs as he found them, being not simple-minded in the doing, even if some of his westerns had been. Hailing Budd Boetticher and Burt Kennedy along the trail he rode with longtime producing partner Harry Joe Brown was inspiration itself. It's good critics never noticed these little oaters getting made and quietly released. Had success gone to anyone’s head, the cake might well have fallen (but what would this team have made of DVD box art emblazoned with The Films Of Budd Boetticher and nary a mention of Randy Scott on its front?). Accepted wisdom is largely true. The Ranowns were small punkins, though not "B’s" in the way Johnny Mack Brown or Rocky Lane did "B’s". They admittedly brought up drag on most programs. Proof of that is here, and I’ve found plenty more vintage ads reflecting same (but reality was Columbia valuing The Warrior and The Slave Girl above Comanche Station, as reflected in this double feature placement and in trade ads pushing hard the former but not at all the latter). US posters were unpresupposing if not flat ugly (but check out Euro stunners here and in Part Two --- they seem to have divined greatness in these shows long before we would). Pressbooks aspired not beyond a merely functional (more coloring contests?) recital of ad mats available. Shame then upon distributors and showmen who spat in the eye of noble effort these four made toward westerns a cut above the rest. Posterity conferred applause too late for Boetticher and Kennedy to get meaningful work out of it, but both lived long enough to at least see Seven Men From Now repaired and revived. Scott was not as fortunate, though exiting (in 1987) with a hundred million in the bank must surely have been a comfort.

Scott was the constant current running beneath "A" westerns flourishing after the war. He’d gone over completely to cowboy parts, profited handsomely on many he produced, and passed shooting breaks conferring with stockbrokers. There were ongoing deals with Warners and Columbia, permitting Randy to knock off four and sometimes five a year while bigger names like Wayne, Stewart, and Cooper limited western output and spent themselves as heavily hammering out percentage memos and negative ownership. Scott was on and off jobs within three or so weeks and traveled no further than Lone Pine to finish yearly quotas. He was unstoppable in small towns and all his shows met payroll. His Southern accent was apple butter to kinsmen here in North Carolina where Scott grew up, and no frontiersman came more credibly of times and places his westerns depicted. You figured any Scott character for recent service with the Confederacy, and though his cowboys were square shooters, they never came across as square. Randy had a handshake partner in Harry Joe Brown, the sort of hustle-up producer who could get a western made this afternoon in your backyard if the money was there, which it usually was for a star with Scott’s track record. Brown dated back to Fred Thomson and Ken Maynard silents. He had scouted every rock within two hundred miles of Hollywood, and knew from good westerns besides, having teamed with Scott on several (Coroner Creek, Hangman’s Knot, A Lawless Street) well before Boetticher and Kennedy came into the parlay. Brown and Scott made theirs as routinely and efficiently as you or I might cut grass. Expertise they developed, and boxoffice reward for doing so, softened ground for newer (and younger) partners to develop westerns minus interference from studios that would never have given Boetticher and Kennedy such carte blanche otherwise (as BB learned from having taken supervisory orders at Universal). As it was, the Ranowns came not a moment too soon, for this was twilight not only for Scott and Brown, but for their kind of outdoor actioners as well.

Bob Thomas told a priceless Jack Warner anecdote in his biography of the studio head that neatly sums up declining fortunes of medium-budget westerns by the mid-fifties. Warner had gathered his line producers and lower execs to map out the year’s program. We’ll make the usual number of Randolph Scott westerns at seven hundred and fifty thousand apiece. We can always count on rentals of a million and a quarter, he said. Could I make a suggestion?, asked a young man in the room. Why not spend a million dollars on the Scott westerns? With improved quality, maybe they could bring back two million, he said hopefully. Kid, you’re fired, replied Warner. I’ll tell you why you were fired. Those westerns are a dying market. The public is getting all the shit-kickers they need on our TV shows. Now if you had said, "Why don’t we make the Randy Scott westerns for half a million?", I would have made you my assistant. This, unfortunately, was the backdrop against which Seven Men From Now was produced, for by then Scott grosses were declining. Warner’s most recent with him, Tall Man Riding (1955), barely cracked a million in domestic rentals, while across-town Columbia saw just $777,000 from 1956’s 7th Cavalry. WB did try economizing to the extent of shooting in-house Shootout At Medicine Bend in black-and-white the following year, an act punishable in this instance with domestic rentals lowest of any so far --- $655,000. Budgets and profits both fell as tele-cowboys rose, with WB enthusiastically competing with itself. Cheyenne was breaking big on ABC by 1956-57, having gone to new episodes every other week after an initial season among revolving wheels on the failed Warner Brothers Presents, and Maverick was in preparation for a 1957 premiere. "B" westerns had been wiped off industry production charts for several years as cowboys migrated to television, and many of Randolph Scott’s oldies were turning up there as Seven Men From Now opened in August 1956. This was the new team’s first project (minus Harry Joe Brown, who’d be back when they moved to Columbia), Burt Kennedy having brought his original script to John Wayne’s Batjac company (its product distributed by Warners), with Scott and Boetticher added at Wayne’s instigation. The star was himself reluctant to do another western so soon after The Searchers (a decision he’d regret after seeing how well Seven Men turned out), and besides, a modest negative cost ($719,000) could not have been maintained with Wayne in the lead. Boetticher recalled JW’s fury when a preview of Seven Men found it playing to an audience who’d come to see Serenade with Mario Lanza. Trade reviews were favorable, but counted little among showmen who regarded most westerns as interchangeable at best. It was immaterial which Randolph Scott "shit-kicker" was which, as long as prints were available and bookings cheap. Seven Men From Now did gross better than Scott’s recent ones at Columbia, but with final tallies of $989,000, it represented the first of his Warner released westerns to fall below a million in domestic rentals.

It was precisely that indifference that enabled Scott/Brown/Boetticher/Kennedy to function so well. Why stick corporate noses into an operation so cut-rate and time efficient? (Ranowns generally took eighteen days to complete) Shooting at Lone Pine became policy. By the last two (Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station), it was one hundred percent location. Scott never threw his star weight around, so there was no nonsense along the lines of a leading man wanting to stop action for accordion solos, as was the case for director Anthony Mann when feeling-oats James Stewart imposed his will on Night Passage and ended up scuttling their partnership. Lone Pine might well have become known as Budd Boetticher’s Monument Valley had not so many westerns filmed there going back to Roscoe Arbuckle and 1920’s The Round-Up. The Tall T went the typical way of second-tier Columbia product into second feature berths and drive-ins (the distributor being so confidant of limited prospects as to not even make billboard sized twenty-four sheets available). Small town theatres that clicked with Randolph Scott (mostly in the Southeast) might play it as a single, but two or three days would have been their maximum commitment. One Greenbriar reader left word of having seen The Tall T at an ozone triple with Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad and Don Siegel’s The Line-Up, a 1957 show I’d call getting your money’s worth, but no worthy showcase for a western we now call classic. Maybe Columbia’s trade ad meant it when they said The Tall T was The Best Randolph Scott Adventure In Years. Certainly they weren’t disposed otherwise to treat it as anything special. Again, what was the point? Merit didn’t matter. For all its superior quality, The Tall T with $767,000 in domestic rentals earned less than Scott’s last two for Columbia, 7th Cavalry with its aforementioned $777,000 and A Lawless Street, which collected $926,00. Television was the truest enemy of westerns, good or bad. It was only costs kept very low that allowed this series to continue at all, plus the fact that color still had pulling power for folks not able to get it on home screens. The five left for the Scott/Brown/Boetticher/Kennedy team showed if nothing else just how vital each member was to overall success of the films (creative, if not economic). Proof of that came soon enough with Decision At Sundown and Buchanan Rides Again, to be covered, along with the rest, in Part Two.


Blogger Vanwall said...

Great rundown on the best collaboration in the westerns. I will never forget my shock as a kid when watching the "The Tall T" on TV - westerns were simply throw-aways to local progrmmers who needed to fill up space - and I realized they had killed the boy and his father, and how sadistic Henry Silva's character was. It was the first time I realized what a real adult situation could be like - I suddenly knew O'Sullivan was some kind of prize on a level I couldn't quite define yet, but it added to the total of disturbing things my kid's brain was adding together. It may have been a 'B' western, but it was much more elemental than a lot of 'A' productions, westerns or not.

Of course, seeing it on TV also underlined the fall of the western as a money maker in theaters - it was transferred to making money for the advertisers on TV.

3:36 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Totally irrelevant but-- the first place I ever heard the name "Harry Joe Brown" was when my dad joined the Masquers club in its declining days. (No, he wasn't in showbiz, but they were hoping to shore up their dwindling finances by attracting businessmen who'd like to hobnob with B-list stars. He should have just attended Cinecon!) Anyway, he was given a cassette tape of a Masquers roast for Brown in the 50s, with Jack Benny, George Jessel, George Burns, and Art Linkletter all working blue to some degree-- and believe me, there were few more startling moments in the mid-70s than hearing Art Linkletter say the darnedest things.

Alas, there was essentially nothing in the routines that actually had to do with Brown or his accomplishments.

8:26 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

One of the most frustrating things about these films (and others) is to get a DVD version of THE TALL T, for instance, "enhanced for widescreen televisions".

This means to crop the to and bottom of the frame of the image to create a seudo widescreen image.

I hate when they do such thing.

12:37 AM  
Blogger Ron said...

Randolph Scott, Randolph Scott...He's that guy in Roberta and Follow the Fleet, right? He went on to do other things? Good for him! :)

10:16 PM  
Blogger Booksteve said...

As a budding film buff in the seventies, I could somehow tell that Randolph Scott occupied a unique place in Hollywood. Certainly not a B-western cowboy and yet his pictures, as riveting as some were, seemed less than A-level. Can't really think of anyone else like that.

6:57 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Michael, I really liked your story about Harry Joe Brown being roasted at the Masquers Club. He would have been well-known and respected around town if for no other reason than the fact he gave work to a lot of actors in the many pictures he produced for over fifty years. I imagine a lot of careers began with him (for instance, a young Harrison Ford was in Brown's final western in 1969).

10:08 AM  

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