John Wayne in Forsaken TV

DATELINE: Wild West Satire with Wayne

 Not Laurel & Hardy!

Back in the 1950s when John Wayne was the number one box office attraction, it was a treat if he made a guest appearance on TV. The series is called Forsaken Westernsand features a plethora of deplorable episodes with Michael Landon, Leonard Nimoy, and many others before they made it big.

One of those syndicated series that collects odd-ball appearances of noted TV stars when they were unknown in lost pilot episodes, has also brought us a true peculiar and weird little dollop:  John Wayne in a satiric, overextended TV skit called The Northwest Killer,in which Duke Wayne is falsely accused of murder and hunted down by a relentless RCMP Mountie.

Now this is supposed to be comedy, a throwaway extended bit for a variety show in 1959. The host of the show is none other than the irrepressible Jimmy Durante.

Yes, Durante, the Schnoze, plays a variation of Sgt.Preston of the Yukon, in his Mountie outifit, red jacket lost in black and white. Durante marches around and pivots to Wayne’s amusement as he plays unlucky Pierre, trapped in bad TV comedy

This is probably 15 minutes of most excruciating and unfunny bits, done like a multi-scene Western ever put on TV. There are several fistfights between Durante and Duke—and hilariously (we supposed) Durante bests the box-office champ. Wayne turns to the camera and promises the kids, “I win the next fight.”

Of course, being funny was secondary here: the treat was to see Jimmy Durante and John Wayne in a western satire. It has all the promise and none of the quality you’d hope. Pratfalls are outrageous, and Wayne likely enjoyed doing some comedy as a change of pace. Also on the bill is a guest appearance of Gary Cooper with Jack Benny, equally unfunny, in which Benny in high-heeled boots is the same height at Coop. He nearly falls over several times and is rescued, unscripted, by the laconic Gary Cooper.

It was a surprise to find such stuff after 50 years, and the ghosts of Wayne and Cooper likely wish they had lost these horrors permanently.

 

 

The Lost Career of Richard Cromwell

 DATELINE: Baby Face Curse

Cromwell holding clock 

Cromwell Holding Clock in Tom Brown of Culver!

Baby-faced Richard Cromwell was a shoo-in to play the panty-waist Baby-Face Morgan for a poverty-row movie production. He was always professional on the set.

Cromwell’s character is the unlikely son of Machine Gun Morgan, notorious crime boss in the syndicate. With all the FBI overwhelmed with World War II Nazis and saboteurs at home, the mob needs a front man and fall guy. Cromwell’s looks bring disparaging remarks and innuendo as he is propped up as a fake mob boss.

In case you hadn’t caught on, this was meant to be a comedy, featuring dumb blonde secretaries and mugs who are morons.

Cromwell’s career was already in the toilet, owing to the closed shop from the studios. After the pinnacle years of the 1930s when Cromwell appeared with Gary Cooper, Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, and other stars, he was in rapid descent.

He married Angela Lansbury when he was 35 and looked like a teenager at the altar. Their marriage lasted only a few months and later rumors came forth that he was gay.

Cromwell remained on the periphery of Hollywood, having many friends in the industry. When he tried to make a comeback at age 50 in 1960, he became ill and did not survive, replaced in the movie.

In Baby Face Morgan, he is referred to as a kid when he was 33. A few years later, the same fate of looking young befell Audie Murphy for his entire career.

Cromwell’s movie is only passable to watch with flat yokel humor. It’s one of the forgotten tragedies.

 

 

 

Vera Cruz: Classic Western Fun

DATELINE: Clash of the Titans

 Coop & Burt

When you cast Burt Lancaster as the villainous rogue cowboy against stalwart Gary Cooper, you have a humdinger. So, it was in 1954 when these two titans clashed in a Technicolor epic called Vera Cruz.

Cooper was fresh off his High Noon Oscar, and Lancaster liked to do an adventure movie between his high-brow efforts (like From Here to Eternity).

It was a rousing Western in which double crosses and triple crosses were the norm. With friendly enemy banter between the two principals, you have a quest to steal a couple of million gold dollars in Mexico in 1869. It is sheer delight every step of the way.

Burt’s gang includes Charles Bronson, Ernest Borgnine, and Jack Elam, which may be one of the foremost gangs of the 1950s. On top of that you had Cesar Romero as the aide-de-camp of the Emperor (George Macready, no less), who is also a rogue like a laughing cavalier.

The film starts with a series of set-up challenges between the stars, and their bonding and chemistry is delightful. Burt flashes all the teeth repeatedly as his tricks, cheats, and banters with Cooper.

The director is no slouch: Robert Aldrich of Baby Jane and Dirty Dozen, managing to orchestrate this rousing shoot’em up and horse chase movie.

Produced by Lancaster, the villain is so charming in his black hat and black leather vest that we may find ourselves rooting for the two actors to do a sequel. Nowadays, it would be standard. How could you waste such talent without a follow-up?

If there was a problem on the set, it was a production decision on whether to kill Burt Lancaster in the movie.

Alas, back then, franchise sequels were not really done.

 

 

 

 

Lives of a Bengal Lancer: So Incorrect Politically It’s a Thrill

 DATELINE:  Closeted Lancers

cromwell-with-cooper-tone

Those old Colonial epics of the 1930s are well-remembered (from Gunga Din, Beau Geste, Mutiny on the Bounty, and Charge of the Light Brigade) with stars like Cary Grant, Errol Flynn, and Clark Gable.

One of the least celebrated and seldom mentioned is the 1935 Henry Hawks film called Lives of a Bengal Lancer.

It uses a similar formula as the others, but has a few wrinkles to put it over the top.

Once again we have a triumvirate of stars in a bromance that seems rather heavy on the ties that bind men. This one sends Gary Cooper and Franchot Tone to the Raj. How do all these Americans show up in British India? Well, they’re self-described Canadians. That settles that.

What intrigues is the performance of Richard Cromwell, so long forgotten except as Angela Lansbury’s real life, gay husband.  He was so obviously gay that it defies logic that anyone could not have known, but Angela didn’t. Here he plays the boyish son of the regiment commander, under the care of mother hen Gary Cooper. He is obviously gay here too in the movie.

What? The plot reeks of homoerotic love story—and the minor women are thrown in for complication, but certainly nothing serious. Here, the men bond with the men, or boys as it may.

It’s a rousing adventure out in the Khyber Pass with Muslim enemies that today might be handled with more care. Then, again, animals were likely hurt in the making of the picture, too. It was another time and era.

It is not a lost gay classic, but probably has more along those lines than usually admitted. It is about as politically incorrect as you might find—and a guilty pleasure too.

 

Predictions of Billy Mitchell at His Court Martial

DATELINE: Court of Public Opinioncoop-as-mitch

If you have a fondness for court room drama, you may have overlooked an Otto Preminger film, starring Gary Cooper. It’s out there if you look: The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell.

It was not well-received back in 1955, though it was fascinating even then to look back on Col. Billy Mitchell, an aviation pioneer in the U.S. Army who was court-martialed for decrying the incompetence and negligence of the 1920s military authorities.

Cooper always brought a built-in sympathy to his biographical roles—and Col. Mitchell was, above all else, a patriot—even when his peers, a who’s who of military heroes, came together to demote and to suspend him. History vindicated him and the short-sightedness of the Army.

An all-star cast, by later standards, filled out the ranks: before they were really big, Darren McGavin, Peter Graves, and Jack Lord, played Col. Mitchell’s friends. And, the cast even featured a Douglas MacArthur lookalike as one of the judges. Well, MacArthur was among the real life judges.

Charles Bickford is his usual tough-guy general—and usually comic Fred Clark is the prosecutor who is relieved of duty to bring in the big gun: Rod Steiger, to shred Col. Mitchell in the climactic testimony scene. James Daly and Ralph Bellamy are his defenders.

It’s all rather pedestrian in its film style, but Billy did predict an Air Force Academy, jets that could fly 1000 miles an hour, and the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese in 1923.  We don’t hear the name Billy Mitchell on Donald Trump’s list of military heroes—but he should be. The film is color, but feels like it’s black and white.

Mitchell went after government and tried to change it abruptly with a turn toward the future. He failed, but hindsight recognition is better than none at all.

We thoroughly enjoyed this historical episode, brought to life by a generation of top-drawer professionals.

High Noon for Tom Brady in 24 Hours

 DATELINE:  Forsaken Judgment

Featured imageGary Cooper as Tom Brady

When Roger Goodell vacates Tom Brady’s four-game suspension, he will also be vacating his own job. You cannot be paid $44 million per year to make colossal errors of judgment—and then reverse course, telling your bosses that you are supremely fair.

A fair man would not have put an untenable punishment on a player who is the epitome of championship caliber.

Oh, on Tuesday the worm may turn. The bite-back from a worm proving as fatal as a cobra may seem silly, but the entire Deflategate affair has been down in the dumps of overblown hysteria.

When child abusers and wife beaters have their punishments vacated or ameliorated, then how do you not alter the damage done to a player accused of having general knowledge that his footballs were deflated?

Tampering is not proven. There is no smoking gun—only a report saying they don’t need a smoking gun.

If Goodell paid Ted Wells millions, by the hour, to draw this conclusion, his bosses—the mercurial owners of the NFL—may decide what is good for the goose is even better applied to the gander.

The train with Frank Miller on it is ready to pull into the station. Tom Brady is like Sheriff Kane, alone with his honor. He must face the deranged situation at High Noon.

Do not forsake me, oh my darling, indeed.

Tom has his loyal wife and his true believers. Frank Miller was a reprehensible fiend who intimidated a town. He sounds a bit like Roger Goodell.

Brady will have, like Sheriff Kane, a chance to throw his badge into the dirt and ride off. The NFL won’t survive that gesture, and we don’t expect owners, courts, and public opinion, to let that happen.

Sun Sets on Man of the West

 coop

As a change of pace, we felt it was time for a classic Western that we had never seen. So, we looked up Gary Cooper and found his 1958 Man of the West.

It had all the earmarks of a superior Western of its era: directed by Anthony Mann, screenplay by Reginald Rose, and a cast worthy of 1950s trivia—Lee J. Cobb, Julie London, Arthur O’Connell, Jack Lord, Robert Wilke, and John Dehner, etc.

Our shock began with how old Gary Cooper seemed. He was probably sick with cancer at the time and had only a few years left. Yet, he chose a role totally unsuitable. It was the part for a man twenty years younger. Worse yet, he was to convince us that he was a sociopathic killer who had reformed.

It was an interesting concept until his uncle showed up: Lee J. Cobb was sorely miscast. Acting with mostly bombast, Cobb is grayed up and down as the elder. Of course, he was a dozen years younger than Cooper. With a different casting, this might have been interesting.

Alas, it piles on the incredible suggestions. Julie London is a saloon singer who once was a schoolmarm. Well, that is an original idea, but we liked it better when Mae West taught the leering adolescent boys in My Little Chickadee.

Oh, all the other big production Western values are present—from scenery to the conflict over law and order versus uncivilized sadism.

This was not High Noon, and it was not even up to the late Westerns of Randolph Scott (like The Tall T)—any of those storylines would have suited Coop. Surely there was an Elmore Leonard novella that would have made a brilliant swan song for the great star.

Ah, what might have been.