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TopBilled’s Essentials


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Essential: THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)

Jlewis’ review:

The history of this movie’s spectacular success is a long and interesting one, but I won’t go into all of its production details here apart from those discussed the most in print already…

  • Filmed mostly between October 1938 and March 1939 (with a few retakes afterward) at a then whopping cost of 2.8 million, it was still less than GONE WITH THE WIND, which also shared Victor Fleming as one of the two key directors involved. The great King Vidor handled the Kansas set scenes while Fleming was occupied.
  • W.C. Fields and Shirley Temple were both initially considered for starring roles. The latter got her own OZ facsimile production soon after, THE BLUE BIRD, when Judy Garland succeeded as this movie’s Dorothy.
  • Ray Bolger was always destined to play the Scarecrow, but Jack Haley replaced Buddy Ebsen as Tin Man over a face paint issue. The story gets more sinister as you study it in the history books.
  • The horse of a different color was actually multiple horses with Jell-O powder involved. Since it was yummy to horses, retakes were required more than necessary.
  • Margaret Hamilton got burned when the elevator effect with the witch’s disappearance in smoke misfired, as did her stunt double replacement, Debby Danko.
  • Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg’s song “Over the Rainbow” (recorded with Judy Garland on October 7, 1938 in the recording studio four months before that famous scene was shot and not changed at all on the soundtrack) almost got deleted to shorten the film’s length, but both Victor Fleming and associate producer Arthur Freed fought to keep it in. A follow-up rendition of that song was initially used in the witch’s castle too, but that version did get the cut after a test screening in June 1939 and replaced with a re-shoot without it. This and other late scenes were handled under the direction of Mervyn LeRoy, who received producer credit on screen instead.

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We can go on and on here, but of particular interest is the animated fantasy influence…namely one animated fantasy in particular. MGM only acquired the rights to the books from previous owner Samuel Goldwyn after the immediate success Walt Disney and RKO had with SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS in late 1937 and early ’38.

Paramount responded to the Disney impact with an animated feature of its own, the Fleischers’ GULLIVER’S TRAVELS, but MGM, 20th Century Fox (with THE BLUE BIRD) and United Artists (backing the British started THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD) decided to go the live-action route here in matching SNOW WHITE in the fantasy genre.

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Many aspects of OZ are quite cartoon-like with Disneyesque musical numbers to match, including the flying monkeys aiding the witch who, in turn, shares quite a bit in common with the earlier cartoon queen of Disney in her revenge against a teenage heroine. (She also became a popular “drag” persona for cross-dressing performers decades later.) We also have such special effects gimmicks like animatronic owls turning into vultures in the “spooky” forest, a precursor to such animatronics used at Disneyland. The great A. Arnold Gillespie handled the cyclone segments and this has been well documented in print for the curious.

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Dorothy comments “Jiminy Crickets!” at one point on screen, this being a popular Disney character within six months as PINOCCHIO hit theaters by February 1940.

It had its wide-release on August 25, 1939, following a couple previews in several small town theaters. Green Bay, Wisconsin, not Kansas, became the first on August 10th before any Hollywood showings. Due to its high price tag, it did not break even during its initial run. A more substantial profit arrived in subsequent years, particularly after its successful 10th anniversary reissue in 1949.

A second “life” for THE WIZARD OF OZ began on November 3, 1956 when CBS broadcast it as part of the FORD STAR JUBILEE with Bert Lahr, the original Cowardly Lion, and Dorothy’s, I mean Judy Garland’s, 10 year old daughter Liza Minnelli as hosts. A ratings smash (53% of TV audiences tuned in), the movie got repeated in 1959 and was shown every year after that but one (1963) for the next four decades. THE SOUND OF MUSIC would become an annual TV tradition much later, beginning with ABC in 1976.

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From what I gather, it was always available in “living color” for those lucky to afford a color TV set to watch it on. The number of color TV sets in the U.S. rose from roughly 100 thousand in 1956 to over 13 million in 1968, the year NBC took over from CBS in the annual broadcasts. Prior to all three networks providing an “all color” prime-time line-up in middle of that decade, this movie was part of a very select group (also including BONANZA, WALT DISNEY’S WONDERFUL WORLD OF COLOR and the Hanna-Barbara cartoon shows) that made up the bulk of the Baby Boom generation’s very first color family room entertainment experiences.

Some kids of that time eventually grew up…and are now in their 60s-70s…thinking that THE WIZARD OF OZ was the first color movie ever made since it was among the first that they saw. Of course, everybody with one half of a movie brain knows that color movies were around decades before it, but you must understand how big of an impact that scene of Dorothy opening her door to Oz and telling Toto that “we must be over the rainbow” has had on an entire generation.

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Its fascinating LGBT connections began pretty far back (per Wikipedia), possibly even before the movie to the original books. Supposedly the phrase “friend of Dorothy” suggested that you may be bisexual or homosexual by nature, based on how it was referenced in L. Frank Baum’s sequel book The Road to Oz in 1909. That one had a number of quazi-”gay” references including the key lines of “You have some queer friends” which Dorothy responds with “The queerness doesn’t matter, so long as they’re friends.”

Consequently, Judy Garland…the movie’s Dorothy…was always supportive of the closeted male audience that increased in size at her sixties concert shows. Thus, her death may have had some indirect influence (debated in some circles) on the Stonewall riots that occurred a few days after her funeral. Nine years later, the rainbow flag was used prominently at pride marches, again in reference to the movie but also advancing the all-color theme to all personalities and orientations accepted as one humanity.

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The Technicolor land of Oz is all about inclusion, not exclusion. (“Why don’t you come along with us? We’re on our way to see the Wizard now.”) As the Cowardly Lion sings, “Yeh, it’s sad, believe me, Missy, when you’re born to be a sissy” but you must still accept who you are. Dorothy to Glinda (Billie Burke): “I’ve never heard of a beautiful witch before.” Glinda: “Only bad witches are ugly.” Dorothy to the wizard (Frank Morgan): “You’re a very bad man.” The wizard: “Oh, no, my dear. I’m, I’m a very good man. I’m just a very bad wizard.”

Note too all of the Munchkins present and prominent. So many “undersized” performers were wowed by the very presence of others just like them during the making of this film. Most came from communities where they were always viewed as outcasts.

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In fact, there are only two characters on screen who are as “normal” as many (more then, than now) Americans expected as “normal.” We can probably assume that Auntie Em (played by Clara Blandick) and Uncle Henry (Charley Grapewin) are both heterosexual (being married to each other) and certainly not handicapped by any physical specifications like the Munchkins. No mention of any children, however, so they are caretakers of niece Dorothy instead. They are also the only two who remain in the black and white (actually sepia-toned) parts of the movie. Everybody else is a single adult whose private life can be anybody’s guess but you can bet that they are all quite, um, colorful with a variety of costumes to match.

Obviously Margaret Hamilton’s “Miss” Almira Gulch, who “owns one half of the county” but no men in her life, and her Technicolor Oz counterpart as the Wicked Witch of the West are both missing something important in their lives…and you can only guess what it may be.

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Amusingly some fans have speculated that she and Glinda are actually rival lesbians using their feminine wits in very masculine ways against each other. Unsatisfied, she must take it all out on innocent Cairn terriers and teenage girls, being facially green with envy over her sister’s ruby slippers (on account of lost love for her sister?) that Glinda puts on Dorothy.

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By the way, Hamilton herself was always a sweetheart in real life. Note the memorable moment she appeared with Fred Rogers in 1975: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oglo3iUYFPY

The final speech by Dorothy at the end always brings down the house due to Judy’s emotional sincerity.

  • “Oh, but anyway, Toto, we’re home! Home! And this is my room — and you’re all here! And I’m not going to leave here ever, ever again, because I love you all! And — Oh, Auntie Em — there’s no place like home!”

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Danny Peary had a lot to say about these lines in his Cult Movies book of 1981, also referencing earlier comments by fellow critic Janet Juhnke that “home” is not always the best place to return to.

  • The Dorothy we see in the opening scenes is an unhappy little girl who is lonely because there seem to be no children about, who has no parents and lives with a very unsupportive, elderly Uncle and Aunt in a very barren, gray farm. Her only real companion is Toto and when she returns to Kansas she will find that Miss Gulch has not forgotten that she intends to get rid of the dog. (The screenwriters overlook this fact.) Once the Wicked Witch is dead, Oz, unlike in the book, is a wonderful place. Dorothy has friends by the dozen and playmates in the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the no-longer-Cowardly Lion who, let’s face it, are a much livelier bunch (for an eleven-year-old girl) than farm-workers Hunk, Zeke and Hickory. Let Dorothy stay in Oz!

Then again, that may be the whole point why so many parents get their kids to watch this. It is an essential getting-over-childhood and now-we-must-grow-up movie experience. Dorothy has her fantasy adventures and must now return to the realities of “real life,” including the status of Toto with Miss Gulch. Each time we watch this movie, we are wishing we were all young and innocent again just like Dorothy, accepting of everything and everybody with a wide-eyed imagination and a total lack of judgment.

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One little postscript to add…

This is a movie with wonderful special effects, but the effects are obviously not as impressive as anything made today. I have no desire to see the 3D enhancement version of the movie, made much the same way as the 3D TITANIC. Or any greatly enhanced by digital work versions that cater to a more jaded modern audience that wants something not “old.”

One thing I always worry about is the string holding Bert Lahr’s tail disappearing, due to some digital worker’s computer mouse. I love the string! When he sings “King of the Forest,” I am constantly looking for that string that swishes his tail back and forth. It reminds me of how hard it was for the MGM production crew to pull off the impossible…and they succeed very well indeed even if we notice the little “evidences” here and there today that enthralled audiences decades back would not have noticed.

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Essential: THE HARVEY GIRLS (1946)

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There’s an interesting article about this film on the TCM database. Supposedly MGM was developing the property for Lana Tuner, and it would have been a dramatic vehicle. Turner had already worked with leading man John Hodiak, and they would have been reunited on screen (they appeared together in the following year’s romantic drama HOMECOMING with Clark Gable and Hodiak’s wife Anne Baxter).

Since MGM’s musical department saw great potential in adding songs and making it their version of Oklahoma!, which was then an enormous hit on Broadway– they pulled Lana off the project, and persuaded Judy Garland to take the lead. TCM’s article says Judy didn’t want to do it at first, probably because it wasn’t directed by Vincente Minnelli, whom she was married to at the time. But as we all know, Judy did appear in THE HARVEY GIRLS, and it was one of her biggest hits at Metro.

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Music was provided by Johnny Mercer, and his winning tune “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” earned him his very first Oscar. It’s probably one of the studio’s most beloved songs from its library of musicals made during the 40s and 50s. If you haven’t seen the movie, watch it for this number alone. Even people who don’t really care for the movie love this song and the way it’s performed on screen.

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A few years ago I purchased a book called ‘The Best Old Movies for Families.’ It’s written by east coast journalist Ty Burr. I found a copy at my local Barnes & Nobel bookstore when I was teaching a 5/6 combo class. I was doing an after school club and wanted to expose the kids to classic film. I chose things like THE WINDOW (1949) to go over lying versus the truth; THE MIRACLE WORKER (1962) to discuss perseverance; and I thought something with music would inspire the kids to sing and maybe take up an instrument.

Burr’s book mentions THE HARVEY GIRLS twice. In one section, he discusses how his preteen aged daughters loved the film and kept rewatching it. I think there’s certainly a wholesomeness in Judy’s performances that strikes a chord with female viewers (and gay male viewers). Sort of what we see when she’s singing “Over the Rainbow” in Oz. 

Out of curiosity, I looked up Pauline Kael’s review of the film. She had some interesting things to say. She called THE HARVEY GIRLS a lavish high-spirited period musical, which it is. She talks about the contrast between Garland and Angela Lansbury.

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Per Kael, one is a force of respectability (Garland). The other one is the complete opposite (Lansbury). Of course, both chicks reach a mutual understanding before the story ends. Kael thinks the concept for the film is a bit strange but that it works. She refers to the sequence where Judy performs the Oscar-winning tune as “triumphant.”

I should mention that Ty Burr says his daughters also loved JOHNNY GUITAR (1954). And if you think about it, the battle between Joan Crawford & Mercedes McCambridge in that campy Republic western is just a higher voltage version of the rivalry between Garland & Lansbury in this film.

THE HARVEY GIRLS currently has a 7.1 rating on the IMDb; I give it a solid 8.

Join us for Jlewis’ review tomorrow…

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Jlewis wrote:

I was going to re-watch and comment on THE CLOCK, Judy Garland’s rare non-musical effort she made for her soon-to-marry husband Vincente Minnelli in 1944, but sadly my DVD no longer plays for some reason. Fortunately her next feature, THE HARVEY GIRLS with George Sidney directing and occupying her first five months of 1945 (leading up to her wedding), plays well on my DVD.

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It is a good connecting title to THE WIZARD OF OZ too, thanks to Ray Bolger dancing with her in one key scene. Bolger played the Scarecrow in OZ and, here, seems to be MGM’s substitute for Fred Astaire when they couldn’t get Astaire in a given moment. (Granted, Astaire himself made quite a few classics for Metro, including THE ZIEGFELD FOLLIES right about this time.) His role as Chris Maule is, however, a mostly minor one, just needed to add some comic spirit and showcase his wonderful tap dance work.

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The story of John Harvey’s “girls” is a fascinating one in U.S. history, going back to 1876, that certainly related well to the contemporary movie goers of 1945-46 (this film having a preview in Boston just before VJ Day but not opening nationwide until the following March to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Harvey franchise). Thanks to the war, many women could work outside the home in great numbers for the first time to “man” the factories, drive trucks and other vehicles, in addition to taking on many other “manly” duties.

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As waitresses decades earlier, the Harvey “girls” could make their own income at a time when opportunities were even more restricted for the gender. In addition, the Harvey empire that followed the railroad lines of the late 19the and early 20th centuries was essentially the precursor to McDonald’s, Howard Johnson’s and every other chain we take for granted today. He also influenced the airline stewardesses and Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Bunnies of the mid-to-late 20th century by encouraging these independent women to remain young, pretty and well-groomed with perfect outfits to match.

Women seldom felt stifled by whatever restrictions that were involved because this job gave them a strong sense of liberty and, likewise, many daughters also worked for Harvey just like their mothers. Often you did this to prove that you could succeed on your own, even if you eventually had to settle-down to the usual wifely duties in the future.

… and, yes, we get that as a possible outcome for several characters on screen too. Cyd Charisse’s Deborah enjoys her job but also falls in love with saloon pianist Terry (Kenny Baker of Jack Benny radio fame) so you know she won’t remain a waitress for long. I guess the delightfully “butch” Alma (with Virginia O’Brien hamming it up) must show some interest in a man as well here since the Harvey profession won’t last forever.

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Judy our star, in turn, plays Susan who is engaged in a “blind” marriage in Sand Rock, Arizona with Chill Wills’ H.H. Hartsey but, instead, mutually agrees with him not to marry and joins the Harvey ladies who accompanied her on the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe (cue the HUGE production number built around Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer’s released-before-the-movie hit song).

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Meanwhile saloon keeper Ned Trent, played by John Hodiak (who did some wonderful radio work and was memorable in LIFEBOAT) appears as an enemy to the “wholesome” invaders into town, but ultimately falls for Susan in a situation that vaguely resembles that of Clark Gable’s equally “seedy” Mister Norton and equally “wholesome” Jeanette MacDonald’s Mary in SAN FRANCISCO (1936). Preston Foster’s Judge Sam is among several edging Ned’s cynical, dark side while Morris Ankrum’s Reverend Glaggett is basically the counterpart to Spencer Tracy’s Father Mullin here even if his role is very small.

This is a great “chick” film for “chicks only” because the men are far less important to the story than the women are, playing all kinds of masculine roles. Susan may be clumsy holding two guns, but she and all of the women (and I particularly like the head matron Miss Bliss, played by Selena Royle) are surprisingly self sufficient. Also let’s not forget Marjorie Main (another veteran in Judy films i.e. MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS). There is a classic scene when she stops Chill Wills’ Hartsey from dancing with a seductive saloon dancer by making him “handicapped” in the knee. I think she has the hots for Hartsey but will certainly maintain her top position over him.

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Angela Lansbury has a fun role as queen “Em” of the saloon dancers who feels her career is in jeopardy with all of the female invaders into town. She eventually does the noble deed of giving up Ned to Susan since there is no point fighting for him any longer. Susan melts her frost a bit when she confesses she may have had some ill-conceived judgments on the “bad” dress code that the saloon dancers (and potential ladies of the evening) contrasting with the prim and proper dress code of her Harvey co-workers.

Again, we are repeating Judy Garland’s theme of acceptance that is emphasized in THE WIZARD OF OZ: she loves everybody regardless of what their reputation may be. Em then takes on a maternal protectiveness for Susan and forbids her to join her own set of ladies just to please Ned, since Ned (like Clark Gable’s starring role) is ultimately more drawn to the “virginal” rather than the “experienced.” Ahem…I guess I am reading too much here?

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The Technicolor cinematography by George J. Folsey and others is absolutely gorgeous, but it always was in many Arthur Freed productions throughout the forties. As is often the case, color cameras reveal much more than monochromatic ones do, so the back projection of Monumental Valley as Judy sings the opening number, “In the Valley (Where the Evening Sun Goes Down)” on her train is painfully obvious. Yet it is nice to see more location photography than usual for this period, outside of Culver City in a nice western town set-up (albeit the Iverson Movie Ranch).

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One flaw with so many musicals of the forties is the over-abundance of musical numbers and many of these running long enough to potentially become theatrical two-reelers by themselves. Younger viewers less familiar with old movies may lack the patience to sit through many of these, unlike the WW2 generation that demanded an awful lot for their ticket price regardless of how much screen time was involved. Many of these are great, including the cut (but preserved for THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT III) “March of the Doagies”, but it all depends on your tastes.

Virginia O’Brien’s rendition of “The Wild, Wild West” is perfect for those jaded by the prospect of adventure and finding it rather lacking once you get to the locale you expected it. “It’s a Great Big World” will more likely put some viewers to sleep. Too bad Angela Lansbury’s numbers like “Oh, You Kid” were dubbed by Virginia Rees since MGM was less confident in her back then…and they should have been considering how successful she would become as a musical performer later.

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Overall, this is a fun movie since it at least gives the you the chance to see Judy sport a gun.

THE HARVEY GIRLS may currently be viewed on Amazon.

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Essential: THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955)

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TopBilled wrote:

A lot has been said about this being Charles Laughton’s first and only effort as a film director. It’s also been said, depending on whose version you believe, that Robert Mitchum directed scenes and “replaced” Laughton during a few days on set. But while I believe Laughton’s stamp is on nearly every frame, visually and performance-wise, I feel the story’s authorship belongs to James Agee.

During the 1940s Agee made a name for himself as an outspoken film critic. The best critics probably become filmmakers (see Francois Truffaut), having decided they know what goes into making a decent motion picture. Agee would not only write the script for HUNTER, he also wrote a novel based on his father’s death. 

Agee is primarily responsible for the main vision of this film because despite using other source material, he shaped the ideas that were put on to the page…ideas that found their way on to the screen.

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Laughton, Mitchum, the other actors and the cinematographer were of course interpreting Agee’s ideas. The central idea is that children who are without a legitimate father are vulnerable and need protecting. This connects with Agee’s novel, since that also deals with children (and a mother) cast adrift by unforeseen circumstances.

In some ways HUNTER plays like a gothic children’s fairytale. The exaggerated archetypes are likely Laughton’s key contribution. The audience wants the children to reach a point of safety, and the children eventually do. However, I cannot help but feel the ending is a bit too syrupy for the edification of viewers.

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There are some rather brutal sequences earlier in the movie, especially the part where Willa the mother (Shelley Winters) is killed and then ends up at the bottom of a lake.

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There are also chilling scenes of the kids hiding in the basement from their dangerous stepfather (Mitchum), and scenes with them on the run. It’s them against the world.

Suddenly they meet a kindly woman (Lillian Gish) whose angel-like qualities mean salvation. The kids will now be protected and nobody will harm them again. It’s a little too good to be true, and those last few scenes seem like they belong to another movie. Was this due to the production code, due to the producers’ wish to make the product more commercially viable?

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The story might have been stronger if the kids hadn’t survived. If it had been a teaching point about what happens when latchkey children are not properly looked after. There are youngsters in our society who do not have happy endings.

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Jlewis wrote:

This is a peculiar product of fifties cinema, one that I have enjoyed over the years in multiple viewings. It is also a very challenging film to discuss to those who have yet to see it since it does not fit easily into any specific genre. Aspects resemble a crime drama with murder graphically shown…or, rather, not the act itself but the victim shown dead underwater.

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The middle portion involving children escaping their stepfather is very Disneyesque with night time animals like tortoises, gray foxes and the like observing in a fairy-tale like setting similar to SNOW WHITE. With Lilian Gish involved, there is also plenty of old fashion silent melodrama but with audible dialogue on the soundtrack. Likewise, it even incorporates a few familiar, but not used in decades, silent film visuals like D.W. Griffith’s trademark circling iris fade-in.

There is a strange, avant-garde visual design to certain sections, reminding me of such landmark short films of decades earlier like Slavko Vorkapich and Robert Florey’s THE LIFE AND DEATH OF 9413: A HOLLYWOOD EXTRA and the Warner Bros.-Vitaphone produced YAMEKRAW with Murray Roth directing.

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Or going even further back, the even more famous feature DAS KABINETT DES DOKTOR CALIGARI (THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI) with an emphasis on triangles and diagonal lines to symbolize the disturbance of a key character’s state of mind.

Examples include the farm house shown in stark silhouette, where the children sleep, and the angular windows shining light indoors in the Harper home and other buildings. The 1940s-50s film noir look is brought to an apex of sorts as we see Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) sitting by the window with her gun silhouetted much like the farm house in the earlier scene.

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Hilyard Brown was credited for art direction but not much else in his long filmography resembles this except, perhaps, ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, a more comic approach to Gothic horror. In the final reel, we get a very minimalist town scene, very stage-like, that contrasts sharply from the more standard aerial shots of a rural community in the opening scenes. It is as if this film and story-line all metamorphosed from “reality” into a dream. Echoes of THE WIZARD OF OZ, which we reviewed earlier?

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The famous actor-turned-director Charles Laughton and producer Paul Gregory had previously worked on several curious stage productions (DON JUAN IN HELL being one famous example) that involved overtly stylized sets. Quite often, these psychologically add to the performers playing characters in torment. Also adding to its artsy feel was screenwriter James Agee, the legendary film critic and novelist who took some liberties with David Grubb’s original novel even though Laughton later re-worked the script again to match more closely to Grubb.

Going by my homework, Grubb based his central character Harry Powell on a real life Harry Powers who was hung in 1932 in Moundsville, West Virginia for killing multiple widows after tempting them to marriage with some “lonely hearts” column in the newspapers. The setting of the movie, by the way, is the Depression Era early thirties as well and we are hinted that the country folk are not at all sophisticated and worldly in their ways, all gullible to impostures.

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Religion, instead of romance, is the con-artist angle here…so, no, I would not recommend you watching this with any politically motivated “white evangelist” friends you have since they may take offense to this movie’s perspective. We are given a warning by Rachel Cooper in an early scene about “false prophets,” wolves in sheep clothing and so forth.

Soon we are introduced to “preacher” Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum in one of his greatest performances), who talks to God above about the holy text: “Not that you mind the killings. Your book is full of killings. But there are things you do hate, Lord. Perfume-smelling things. Lacy things. Things with curly hair. There are too many of them. You can’t kill a world.” In other words, he is OK with violence but not OK with sex, especially coming from women like the widow Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) who desperately want it.

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In contrast, Rachel is presented as the more liberal-minded preacher of the “good book,” having a more positive approach to the temptations of the flesh. She is not judgmental of teenager Ruby (Gloria Castillo), among the youngsters under her care, meeting strange men like Harry. “You were looking for love, Ruby, in the only foolish way you knew how. We all need love, Ruby.”

Money is another central theme, being the “root of all evil.” Harry is one greedy soul eager to make use of the information he gained from the soon-to-be-executed Ben Harper in prison. I often wonder why Harry is so obsessed with following these kids when his life would be so much easier without them. Is the money hidden in that silly doll that much of turn-on for him, being that he is so anti-sex? Maybe he is merely incapable of balancing his right and left hands tattooed accordingly with “love” and “hate.” As I have often been told, the opposite of hate is not love but indifference. Passion is passion.

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In contrast, Rachel seems to have just enough to get by in her rural farmhouse and still handle far more more children than Harry is capable of supervising. We are given a few tidbits in the dialogue to explain her maternal instincts on display: the loss of her only son traumatized her greatly and is referenced indirectly in the story telling session involving baby Moses.

She displays great admiration for children who endure like the Harper children she adopts; unlike her son, who might have fallen prey like the small rabbit to an owl that she observes. Needless to say, there is more to this story that has me curious but the film kinda glosses over it all since its main purpose is not to explore character pasts rather than contrast characters with each other as polar opposites.

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Speaking of children who abide and endure, most commentaries on this classic unfortunately bypass Billy Chapin’s excellent performance as John Harper, focusing more on Mitchum, Gish and the other adults. I find him brilliant here, especially for one who was only 11 at the time of filming.

He is, after all, the one whom we the viewers follow the story through, from his perspective. He is upset and helpless (“please…no”) when the police take custody of his father, Ben Harper, and, despite not considering Harry as a fatherly substitute much of the time, his reaction to Harry’s own submission to a lynch mob is much the same i.e. experiencing the loss of two father figures in a space of six or so months.

A brother of two other professional child performers, Lauren and Michael, his career on both big and small screens only lasted a few more years and health issues, partly due to alcoholism and drug addiction, troubled his later years. Endurance and abidance is far easier when you are a child than as an adult.

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John the character resembles his father Ben (Peter Graves) in that he must always defend himself from constant danger at all times. Little sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) resembles her mother Willa more and is a bit more gullible to danger since, let’s face it, this variation of Mitchum on screen (unlike his equally sexually handicapped character Charles Shaughnessy in RYAN’S DAUGHTER) is loaded with sheer sensual magnetism.

Of course, the reality behind the cameras does not always match what we see on screen: the children run away from their evil step-father, but Mitchum the actor got along very well with them and coached their performances more than Laughton did.

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I have to bring up the supporting character Icey Spoon (an interesting name), as played by a nutty Evelyn Varden, contrasting with her why-is-he-even-there? henpecked husband Walt (Don Beddoe). Although talkative and opinionated, she seems to be the one Willa takes most seriously as her adviser and sounding board; Willa basically allows Icy to manipulate her into dating and later marrying the highly questionable Harry. After Willa disappears, Icy is still quite understanding and supportive of Harry as a stepfather who must carry on a single parent.

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However, after she learns the truth as all of the townspeople do (since, we assume, James Gleason’s Birdie reports on the corpse found under his house-boat), she undergoes this spectacular physical transformation on screen from mild mannered shop owner to wicked witch hag leading the mob to tar and feather Harry. Personally I feel that her character is the one who is least developed here despite a delightful performance by the actress. We do not see any scenes of her in-between these dramatic transformations to explain the “why” of it all.

As highly entertaining as THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER is, it is still a rather quirky film that may not be everybody’s cup of tea. In some ways, it reminds me of CITIZEN KANE. Both films try hard, maybe too hard, to make every shot look as pretty as a framed photograph on a museum wall. Not that United Artists was particularly impressed. The executive suits accused Laughton and company for getting too “arthouse” and there was little effort in promotion.

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Although a few critics ranked it among their ten bests for the year, it was a bit of a bomb at the box-office. Disappointed by the reaction, Laughton returned to acting in front of the cameras and no longer worked behind them, which I find rather sad since this is a unique masterpiece despite its quirkiness.

It did enjoy a cult reputation on TV as part of the Late Night Show and, surprisingly, got remade as a TV movie in 1991 with Richard Chamberlain (huh?!) as Harry Powell. Since that one is view-able online and updates the setting to the nineties with some notable changes to the story, it might be fun comparing and contrasting like the two PSYCHO adaptations.

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Essential: HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS (1972)

TopBilled wrote:

Originally I had been thinking we should do a month of television movies produced by Aaron Spelling. He turned out some very good ones with his partner Leonard Goldberg, in the late 60s and early 70s. Quite often they were suspense thrillers or romantic tearjerkers, cast with well-known actors.

These performers included former studio era stars that were now finding employment with Spelling’s company since their movie careers were on the skids; or else they were rising younger talents who had made a name for themselves on television series but had yet to hit the big time in movies. 

In HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS we have ex-star Walter Brennan as an ailing family man who summons his grown daughters home for Christmas.

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The story is set along the east coast, but we never see any snow. In fact, it rains constantly. Except for festive yuletide decorations inside the family mansion (a spacious Culver City set that Spelling/Goldberg used), it hardly seems like December. They might have said it was set in southern California, or at least done some snowy remotes back east for the outdoor shots. 

But I won’t fault it too much for that, because it is a gripping story. The drama was scripted by Joseph Stefano, whose claim to fame is the screenplay for PSYCHO. So if anyone’s going to deliver the goods, it will be him. Back to the story. Brennan’s character is dying and he thinks his younger wife (Julie Harris) is trying to off him for the money. His four daughters are now all present at Christmastime.

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They are played by Eleanor Parker (who must be the oldest, the one who never left home); Jessica Walter (the second born and most outwardly troubled); Jill Haworth (the third born, a glamorous but quiet type); and Sally Field (the young, innocent one).

We know that stepmother Julie Harris is not going to be the killer, when Brennan dies just before the first main commercial break.

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She’s too obvious and clearly a red herring. But Harris does keep us on our toes, especially when one of the daughters soon dies and Harris looks even guiltier. Soon another daughter dies, and we are just left with Harris, Parker and Field alone in the large rambling home that now seems like a mausoleum. 

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Sally Field’s character won’t be the culprit, unless she had been cast to play a schizophrenic (Sybil would come a few years later). She is just too darn wholesome. Though we do wonder if Field’s character will get bumped off next. It starts to look that way when she is increasingly put in danger. There is a tense sequence when she’s followed outdoors in a thunderstorm by someone in a yellow raincoat.

Spoiler ahead…I had guessed who the guilty party was, because I figured there was a reason Eleanor Parker had been playing her role so cool and detached. She had to be the one who was most disturbed and sure enough, she becomes totally unhinged at the end.

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I won’t spoil why she wants dear old dad and her sisters dead. I will let you watch it on YouTube to find out. However, I do think Parker gives a masterful performance. I’ve always admired her versatility and ability to play such a wide range of characters on screen. 

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Jlewis wrote:

The title suggests something that you would expect with the Hallmark Channel, but it is quite different. Despite being produced and shown on ABC, it is a surprisingly gruesome thriller about sisterly love venturing into dark corners. Sally Field gets star billing in this post-FLYING NUN and pre-SYBIL period, with “special guest stars” Julie Harris and Eleanor Parker.

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Walter Brennan as the big daddy Benjamin Morgan of the Gothic mansion estate would pass away just two years after this was filmed and is shown mostly confined to the bed here. Modern viewers will instantly recognize the name Aaron Spelling as co-producer with Leonard Goldberg, even if he too is a relic of TV past.

We do get the usual old time Hollywood cliché, a shot of thunder and lightning culled from the all familiar stock footage library, presented when Eleanor Parker’s Alex Morna tells her sisters…Sally’s Christina as the youngest and most naive, Jessica Walter as drinking and pill popping Frederica and Jill Hayworth as the too-occupied-on-her-own-affairs Joanna…that their father fears his current wife (Harris as Elizabeth Hall Morgan) may be poisoning him.

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After the sisters arrive to reunite with daddy and he asks them to actually kill her, we get still more thunder on the soundtrack. Then more thunder later on…again and again. This is a storm that never lets up until all of the carnage on screen is over with. Oh…we also learn that the biological mother of the daughters possibly committed suicide and this prompted Frederica to drink.

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We first get an indication of where this is going when there is the surprise pitch fork attack of Joanna as she decides to leave in the Mercedes. Now…that is something you would not expect on the alphabet network at this time of year, as this was competing against more traditional seasonal delights like A CHRISTMAS WITH THE BING CROSBYS, Hanna-Barbera’s animated A CHRISTMAS STORY and Rankin-Bass’ A CHRISTMAS TREE.

Shortly after the murder, we see more of Dr. Ted, played by John Fink, trying to woo Christina. He briefly appears at the start talking to Alex, mentioning how the family gets gossiped on occasion by the local town folk, and is shown later wearing a rain coat much like the stranger attacking Joanna as she leaves…and one that Elizabeth wears as well. Later we see the boots worn by the killer prominent in the kitchen, suggesting it was an “inside” job.

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Although Walter Brennan eventually gets a death scene to match two others on screen…and I will let you readers guess who drowns in the bathtub, he doesn’t get a lot of screen time since this is focused more on actress star power.

One trademark of Spelling productions is the ease which the ladies have in changing their hairstyles from one scene to the next when there is no stylist present on screen. Although Eleanor Parker spends more time out in the storm than Julie Harris, her hair never seems to get wet.

All joking aside, all of the performances are quite good (with John Llewellyn Moxey credited as their director); but I guess I should give special note to Jessica Walters’s dramatics here as the “unhinged” sister even if we have seen many others behave just like her in prime-time. My only complaint about the always adorable Sally Field is that she screams almost as much here as Fay Wray in KING KONG.

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This Agatha Christie knock-off gives us plenty of red herrings to fool us and, like many who-done-its, we the viewers need to focus on the character whom we least expect to be the real villain. Those of us exposed to this kind of entertainment through the years have gotten wise to it all. Therefore, I wasn’t terribly surprised by the outcome. As much as I loved the cast and their performances, I still feel far more could have been done with the material. Crimes of passion are generally not as smooth and polished in their execution as these are. For example, I would expect characters guilty of something to at least be breathing a little harder than usual or looking slightly more distressed.

Then again, this is not a big budget theatrical release but a movie-of-the-week marketed by star power…and the stars I enjoyed a lot here; so much so that I easily overlooked the various loopholes in the story and only started thinking more about them hours after my viewing.

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It is also a very plush production, making great use of the 20th Century Fox backlot (limited that it was by 1972) and even features a beautiful music score by George Tipton that makes it all feel loftier than it really is. I could go on with my little nit-picks here and there, but that may spoil all ye readers here. Everybody should enjoy it for what it is: a classic representative of high quality late-light programming from the early seventies, post BRIAN’S SONG when TV movies really were a prestigious affair.

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Coming Up in January:

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We will look at classic episodes of the western series Rawhide.

January 2nd: 'The Captain's Wife' with Eric Fleming, Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Lowery & John Howard.

January 9th: 'A Woman's Place' with Eric Fleming, Clint Eastwood, Gail Kobe & Mala Powers.

January 16th: 'The Boss's Daughters' with Eric Fleming, Dorothy Green, Candy Moore & Barbara Beaird.

January 23rd: 'Grandma's Money' with Clint Eastwood & Josephine Hutchinson.

January 30th: 'Incident of the Married Widow' with Eric Fleming, Clint Eastwood, Patricia Barry & Dabbs Greer.

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Tomorrow Jlewis and I will begin looking at five classic episodes of the western series Rawhide. The program uses certain terminology. For example…though many of the characters do say “cattle,” the trail boss Gil Favor (Eric Fleming) often says “beeves” as in the plural of beef. Gil Favor comes from the east coast, Pennsylvania to be specific. Most of the other men are drifters from the south, and they don’t all speak like Mr. Favor does. 

In addition to how the livestock are called, we hear the characters refer to commonly used trails and frequently visited towns on the series. For the most part the writers do a good job with the show’s geographic continuity, since these men are supposed to be traveling from point A to Point Z with many important stops in between. They don’t always reach the end of the trail in the last episode of the season. Though there is one time they do.

Season 4 begins with a change in how Favor is conducting his business. In the early seasons, he is working for cattle barons, taking their animals across the expansive landscape to market (market is usually in Abilene, Texas). But starting in season 4, Favor owns the herd and the men are working for him directly. There is more at stake this way.

Most of the episodes we will look at come from season 4 since I feel it’s the most structured season. We get to watch Gil and his men experience setbacks which shows how risky his new enterprise is as the sole owner of the herd. Plus it all comes to a nice conclusion at the end of the season when they reach Abilene and sell the beeves.

Season 4 also has some episodes that include strong female guest characters. These women complement the show’s main plot strands, as certain things are repeated often on the series– such as hard conditions (weather and illness); stampedes; rustlings; lynchings, relations with Indians/Natives, etc. Typically, the guest stars are brought in to give the men some unique challenges on the trail.

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Sometimes Gil Favor or his ramrod Rowdy Yates (pre-stardom Clint Eastwood) leave the drovers behind and go off to a nearby town where they must deal with a unique crisis.

I want to mention how stock footage is successfully blended with in-studio photography and on-location filming featuring the show’s stars. Yes, the rear projection shots in the studio are rather obvious. But the editors do a good job of cutting from the shots of the actors to shots filmed in New Mexico of real drovers pushing cattle along a trail. One of the show’s editors humorously said in an interview that they had thousands of hours of outdoor footage at their disposal, but not all of it could be used on network television because invariably some of the animals would hump the other animals.

He also told an interesting story of how Clint Eastwood and some of the actors came to the editing suite one day and complained that their speeches were interrupted by cutaways to other actors; and he had to explain to Eastwood and his pals that some of their line deliveries contained long pauses that had to be eliminated by cutting to a shot of something else. If the speeches were not pared down, the episodes would have run over time. Eastwood never interrupts his famous long pauses in the movies he makes, but then he doesn’t have to worry about fitting in any commercials!

In addition to the more mechanical aspects of the show, we will focus on the plots and characters of Rawhide, as well as the ideas that the writers are presenting as a form of social commentary.

Speaking of the characters, there are the two main characters (Gil and Rowdy). Rowdy is definitely more a supporting type in the first season, but that starts to change in the second season. Because they were filming so many episodes each year (up to 30 or more), there had to be stories that basically starred Fleming in the bulk of the scenes, and stories that starred Eastwood in the bulk of the scenes; so they could be filmed at the same time by separate units with different directors and guest stars. However, there are still plenty of episodes where they both appear together.

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Fleming always received top billing from seasons 1 thru season 7. He did not return for the abbreviated eighth and final season, due to a salary dispute. So Eastwood graduated to solo lead at the end, though by 1965, he was already making spaghetti westerns in Europe and finding greater fame on the big screen.

Eric Fleming is superb as Gil Favor. His personal life is quite interesting, and I suggest reading up on him. He was a method actor and you can tell he’s happy to be working with a big name guest star who is also a method actor. Fleming’s face was destroyed in an accident during the 1940s, and he underwent extensive plastic surgery. As a result of the reconstructive surgery, he has a very intriguing look that sets him apart from other actors of the era. Despite the fact that Eastwood was becoming more and more popular in the mid-60s, Fleming was not one to resent Eastwood’s increasing success. He liked his costar a great deal and they were close on and off camera. Fleming died tragically in 1966, on location in South America while making a movie for MGM.

Fleming and Eastwood are helped immensely by the supporting cast. The most memorable supporting characters include the cantankerous cook Wishbone (Paul Brinegar who was not in the pilot and was brought in as a last-minute replacement); Wish’s dimwitted assistant Mushy (James Murdock); and the scouts Pete (Sheb Wooley) and Clay (Charles H. Gray). There are also a few notable background characters that sometimes play more of a supporting role. These include my favorite Jim Quince (stuntman turned actor Steve Raines); Hey Soos (Robert Cabal) and Narbo (John Hart who played the Lone Ranger for a short time).

Then of course there are the guest characters as well as the many extras that are used on the range, as well as in the various towns. 

We hope you enjoy the reviews that will be posted this month.

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Essential: Rawhide – ‘The Captain’s Wife’ (1962)

TopBilled:

We are starting the Rawhide reviews with an episode that features special guest star Barbara Stanwyck. What I want to convey to our readers is a sense of community that exists on Rawhide. The men function as a family unit. During their time on the trail, the men behave like brothers. They are sometimes at odds with each other, but then pull together when facing outside threats. They have their own code. There is humor mixed in with the drama. 

In one of the episodes we will be reviewing, Gil Favor’s sister-in-law brings his young daughters from the east, to visit him and the men on the trail. The aunt has been raising Gil’s daughters since Gil’s wife died while Gil is away working as a trail boss. It’s an episode full of contrasts. We get an idea of how Gil Favor fosters a sense of family with the men he employs, as well as his own two girls. The conflict in that particular story comes in the form of an outside man who dates the aunt and proposes marriage. He also offers to adopt the girls and to give them a full-time father figure. But could he really take Gil’s place..?

In “The Captain’s Wife’ we have a completely different sort of conflict. To say the wife of an army captain is clever, scheming and highly manipulative would be an understatement. Stanwyck specialized in these types of evil woman roles in noir like DOUBLE INDEMNITY and THE FILE ON THELMA JORDON as well as in westerns like THE MOONLIGHTER and THE MAVERICK QUEEN, which we already reviewed. 

***

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Jlewis:

Entering this show totally blind and uneducated, since I am more familiar with Gumsmoke (a.k.a. its success on CBS both on radio and TV kept the network interested in material like Rawhide) and Bonanza (a.k.a. NBC aired that one to help the affiliated RCA sell more color television sets and, because of color, far more episodes wound up in syndication later), I was struck by two novelties in the opening credits…

#1. Clint Eastwood was flaunting his bare chest much like Patrick Duffy did later in the openings of Dallas to rope in the female audience (and possibly the closeted gay male viewer as well). Not that I should judge him in any way for that, but such an opening image does sell him strictly on visual appeal and nothing else, considering how fruitful he would become creatively in the Hollywood of the future.

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#2. I had totally forgotten that the singer of that ridiculous one-hit wonder “The Purple People Eater” was actually an actor, but I guess Sheb Wooley had been around for quite awhile in front of cameras as well as behind the musical microphone.

By the way, neither of these two getting top billing even appear in this episode! This is essentially Eric Fleming’s show but he too must stand back so that our beloved Babs, whom I will mention in a few paragraphs, can take center stage.

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It is very easy to nitpick anything made decades ago. Lots and lots of guns on display in all of these ol’ western shows. Probably a different situation later in that same decade after all of the assassinations and Vietnam coverage dominating the news.

Much more interesting here are the racial, gender and cultural undertones…

Words like “red skins” (spoken barely five minutes in) would not pass the social correctness test of today. Although we get one minor dark-toned character named Sandy, played by Bill Walker, who is treated as an equal of sorts by the town folk, TV was still relatively “lily white” at this time, after such earlier shows like Nat King Cole’s failed due to “Madison Avenue being afraid of the dark” (as Cole put it).

We are still a few years ahead of I Spy with Bill Cosby getting co-star billing, so I guess later episodes of this show gradually increased the time allowed for actors like Walker to match the changing times. I am not familiar with the actor Robert Cabal sporting a Spanglish accent but I wonder what a quarter of American viewers watching this today would think of his rather submissive role as “Hey Soos” (name spelled accordingly to satisfy a neurotic Madison Ave backing network TV). Don’t get me wrong…he is a noble character whom we root for.

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The juvenile lead (Eugene Mazzola) plays a more active role but maybe that is because his English is more fluent despite his Latino background. This all reminds me…WEST SIDE STORY would be the hot contender in that spring’s Oscars and note that we got no full Spanish on the soundtrack with subtitles, suggesting that too many “average” Americans at the time would have considered it a “foreign film” and not flock to it in droves as they did.

The real enemy in our story is not the “red skins” but the Caucasian outlaws. This brings us to our starring female who, we are told, went huntin’ in the wild, wild country full of ’em with just one companion and is reprimanded accordingly. We’ve discussed Barbara Stanwyck’s successful fifties-sixties roles in westerns, both for big and small screens…mostly the small screen by this time. She swoops right in as an I-can-easily-fend-for-myself veteran of the Old West. She is regulated as a wife, but is defiantly “proud” of it, pushing hubbie Captain Holloway (Robert Lowery) to better himself as a more aggressive hero.

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Ooooh…her Nora is wonderfully conniving here, taking charge of every male character on screen. Even seducing another man with the prospect that her husband may get killed and she will need a replacement in the bedroom! (No, we don’t hear the words spoken, but the hints are all there.)

With women’s lib also being a few years into the future, she is nonetheless presented as slightly villain-ish here (even if she redeems herself in the end) simply because she won’t allow men to take charge as was normally expected in the 19th century and still was expected in 1961 when this episode was filmed. A few times she puts others in danger for the sake of her own pride. “What kind of woman are you, Nora?”, she is asked. “The kind of woman who does things! I don’t talk about them. I do them!”

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As you can see, I enjoyed this episode for all the wrong reasons. It is a wonderful relic of the way we were…back then, of course. I also love Babs and her aggressive acting here. There is a memorable scene when she talks to her husband a second time and the set décor includes two pictures hanging crooked on the walls despite the Comancheros not causing any other havoc in that particular room they are in. Does this suggest that she is slightly “crooked” or lopsided in mind? Great psychological visual appeal here.

In a later scene, we oddly see the back of her shirt stained with blood, suggesting that her life’s time table is limited but she is able to give one last memorable speech: “I detest this world that makes women’s lives dependent on you men, with your weaknesses, your codes on honor. I’ll get mine (revenge?) That’s my code of honor and I will get it any way I can!”

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I am happy that she dies instead of allowing the men to take charge that one last time because that is the only way a woman “unafraid of death” should exit this world. Even if she still tells Favor in the end that she always wanted a “strong man, one who would command me.”

Well… I guess this was progressive in some ways and backward in others. No doubt it would be written differently today.

***

TopBilled:

Interesting write-up, Jlewis. It’s always fun for me to see what observations you make on these. I agree that attitudes about women and their place, are definitely a sign of the times (early 1960s). However, there is an episode written by Eric Fleming, which is very progressive. It is ironically titled “A Woman’s Place.” We will get to that one next week.

Okay, here is what I posted on the IMDb about ‘The Captain’s Wife’ episode:

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A lot happens in this episode. It is certainly a showcase for Barbara Stanwyck who gets to play an ambitious cold-hearted woman. Nora Holloway is cut from the same cloth as Phyllis Dietrichson in DOUBLE INDEMNITY and the title character in THE FILE ON THELMA JORDON. Only this time her husband is a military captain, and a lover she has on the side is also employed at the fort.

Personally I thought the subplot with the lover was a bit too much and unnecessary. They could have shown her manipulating a man who might have fancied her; then in the end, believing she could maybe have a life with him when her marriage fell apart. We didn’t need the soap opera drama of her pushing her husband into battle with the natives, and then making love to one of her husband’s colleagues. There was already plenty of other stuff going on in the episode without needing to include that.

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I do like how Gil Favor and his men need to venture to the fort and how they become embroiled in all of this. Hey Soos has a bit more to do in this story than he usually does in other episodes. Rowdy is not part of the action (and one reviewer on the IMDb complained bitterly about Clint Eastwood’s absence). The focus is on Mr. Favor having to deal with the captain’s treacherous wife.

I have to admit I was surprised when one of the other wives at the fort gets killed (off screen). Mainly because she was sort of a minor character, and because I thought writer John Dunkel was setting up the young Latin boy to be a casualty, since the captain’s wife had such fondness for him. It probably would have been more dramatic if her actions had indirectly led to the kid’s death.

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I thought Robert Lowery, who played the captain, made the most of his screen time. And the scene near the end where he realizes how badly his wife had abused his trust, was very well-played. One couldn’t help but feel sorry for him!

As for Stanwyck’s character, we’re supposed to dislike her, perhaps even despise her…but I do think her death at the end, which satisfies a sort of moral code about punishing wrong-doers, ultimately makes her sympathetic. The fort won’t be the same without her.

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Essential: Rawhide – ‘A Woman's Place’ (1962)

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TopBilled:

This is one of my favorite episodes of Rawhide. It was written by the show's star Eric Fleming. It’s a shame he didn’t script more episodes of the series. Not only does he nail Gil Favor and Rowdy Yates, he nails the supporting characters. He gives them all important scenes and meaningful lines of dialogue.

I think if an actor has the ability to write well, then he should be encouraged to do so. Actors usually know what other actors need in order to flesh out their characters and situations. They also know what doesn’t work. Sometimes writers that lack acting experience fail to give the actors what they need. Fleming gives them all what they need– there’s conflict, lots of it, and humor too.

The main conflict found in this episode is a conflict that had been explored on other western television series. Jane Wyman was a woman doctor at odds with narrow-minded travelers on Wagon Train. Vera Miles faced opposition as Dr. Sam Tavish on a special episode of Gunsmoke when Milburn Stone’s Doc was out of town and folks in Dodge City needed medical attention.

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Here on Rawhide there’s a lady physician, feeling mighty unwelcome, and she is played by Gail Kobe. Kobe specialized in presenting strong female characters, both as an actress and later as an executive producer in charge of Guiding Light.

What makes this story work for me is the inspired subplot. Mala Powers portrays a townswoman who seeks out medical advice from Kobe’s character. Powers is dying and plans to go away to do it with dignity.

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Before Powers goes, Kobe steadfastly treats her even though another doctor that carries out barbaric practices is creating problems. He attempts to get the townsfolk, including Powers’ husband the mayor, to run the woman doctor off. But this gal’s practice won’t be thwarted. The women in the community need her, they need a doctor who understands their unique problems. 

Into the story comes Gil Favor, Rowdy Yates and some of their men. They arrive fresh off the trail with an injured drover, who needs treatment.

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Of course Gil– progressive that he is– sides with the lady doc and works with Rowdy and the others to make sure the townsfolk see sense. It’s a compelling piece of western television drama, with fresh perspective laid on top of the genre’s most familiar tropes.

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Jlewis:

Gail Kobe is our star actress here. She also appeared on three episodes of The Twilight Zone (but not tonight’s show, “The Little People,” that aired on the Tiffany Network at 10PM this March 30, 1962, after Route 66 and Father of the Bride and with RAWHIDE airing earlier at 7:30). Later in the seventies and eighties, she became a successful behind-the-scenes producer of many popular soap dramas. This was an occupation once dominated by men and, not surprisingly, she plays the very animated Doctor Louise Armadon struggling in another male dominated profession.

At first, Gil Favor (Eric Fleming) and Rowdy (Clint Eastwood) are not certain about her since they are (obviously) accustomed to men as doctors but Gil…always Gil since he is the the 20th century progressive man operating in the late 19th century much like Michael Landon’s Charles in Little House on the Prairie…is most supportive of her. At least he does not behave like patient Harv (Herbert Patterson), suffering from a major wagon-turned chest injury.

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Harv shouts “no woman is going to examine me!” (Spoiler alert: all works okay in the end and Harv gains new respect for the “weaker sex” in what all they can do.)

Although she is a standout in her performance, I do feel that Gail plays her role a bit too strongly here. At least in the beginning. Later she tones down her character to become a little less one-note, so that we viewers can root for her more. 

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After all, she is a 19th century fighter who is up against far more than the women of the early sixties were (“They [men] taught me that, in a man’s world, you connive and you cheat and you look out for yourself!”), but sometimes she behaves too much like Barbara Stanwyck in the previous one we discussed…and with the gun often positioned accordingly. Gets repetitive after a while, but at least this set-up allows Gil to talk “reason” with her, reminding her that she is her own worst enemy. Also Wishbone (Paul Brineger) takes a liking to her too, so not all men are out to stop her.

There is, of course, one who does. Jacques Aubuchon plays her arrogant and pompous competitor in town, who is more “new age” in his treatment (using leeches and astrology charts).

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The mayor in town (Eduard Franz) has a wife (Mala Powers) who is trying to keep her leprosy hidden after Louise diagnoses her and she would rather pretend she must leave him on “infidelity” issues rather than tell him the truth. This results in a pointless accident involving a gun and, later, her body having to be dug up as “evidence.”

What I consider most interesting here, even if it is not addressed concretely on screen, is that Gail’s profession is in jeopardy due to a woman’s actions (or, rather, inaction by not telling the truth) than any specific man…and Jacques’ “Professor” Daniel Pearson pretty much bungles his efforts in attack.

Like THE CAPTAIN’S WIFE, we get plenty of crooked pictures on the walls surrounding the alpha-female star. Wonder what the art/set department was thinking here?

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Not a particularly memorable episode for Clint fans. He does little but comment on everything like a Greek Chorus. This was Gail’s show, just like the previous one we discussed was Barbara’s, and even Eric Fleming must stand aside at times.

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As always, there is so much to learn about these old shows and their casts and you provided great material here. Interesting situation with Eric Fleming and Clint Eastwood. I do wonder... just wonder since I think about such things... because Eric died so suddenly in 1966, if he did see just how successful his co star was becoming. My  guess is that they were pretty much on equal footing at that particular moment in time, career wise. Hard to tell. Those spaghetti westerns were more cult like in their following than they were international blockbusters. In fact, I think the third one did not make American screens for almost two years after the European release and its music score played a bigger role in drawing attention (hitting the Billboard charts) than the star. Nonetheless Clint was mighty busy in the late sixties with a string of films shot back to back... and they were very successful by, say, 1968-71 pre Dirty Harry.  Well... maybe not Paint Your Wagon even though he can sing just as well as Richard Chamberlain in my opinion.

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On 1/9/2021 at 3:16 PM, Jlewis said:

As always, there is so much to learn about these old shows and their casts and you provided great material here. Interesting situation with Eric Fleming and Clint Eastwood. I do wonder... just wonder since I think about such things... because Eric died so suddenly in 1966, if he did see just how successful his co star was becoming. My  guess is that they were pretty much on equal footing at that particular moment in time, career wise. Hard to tell. Those spaghetti westerns were more cult like in their following than they were international blockbusters. In fact, I think the third one did not make American screens for almost two years after the European release and its music score played a bigger role in drawing attention (hitting the Billboard charts) than the star. Nonetheless Clint was mighty busy in the late sixties with a string of films shot back to back... and they were very successful by, say, 1968-71 pre Dirty Harry.  Well... maybe not Paint Your Wagon even though he can sing just as well as Richard Chamberlain in my opinion.

I think Eric Fleming probably would have done another TV series in the 70s or 80s. I see his career going the way Michael Landon's did, or David Janssen's did...someone who started in films in the mid-50s, but became a household name in a hit television series in the 60s. In Janssen's case, he was not really able to transition back into films but still had a successful career in TV movies and miniseries. That's what Fleming probably would have done. Also if Fleming had continued to write scripts for television, he might have a longer career that way.

Clint of course was  doing supporting work on television in the 60s, gradually became a lead on TV, but then transitioned to films and the rest is history.

In one of the interviews I saw on the Television Academy website, it was said that the producers were trying to pit Fleming and Eastwood against each other in the fifth or sixth season (probably to keep their salaries under control, by saying "hey we can always write you out because the other guy is just as popular")...but Fleming admired Eastwood a great deal and refused to think badly of him. 

One of Fleming's best performances is his last performance on a two-part Bonanza which he did the season after he left Rawhide. He plays a Mormon settler with two wives. It's interesting to see him play such a different character and to see him in color since all of the Rawhide episodes were in black-and-white.

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Essential: Rawhide – ‘The Boss's Daughters’ (1962)

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This is an interesting episode of Rawhide and I chose it for one main reason. Not because of the writing or the performances, though those aspects are not bad. But because it’s a good example of what’s known in filmic writing circles as the “long story.” The long story is everything from the backstory up through the present scenario, and into the future. When we have a continuing weekly television program, audiences needs to know where their favorite characters came from and where they will probably end up, beyond the plot of the current episode. 

In this case, we learn more about Gil Favor’s ongoing life as a trail boss AND as a father or two young girls. Gil’s backstory is quite interesting, and when the writers tap into that, we get a richer characterization. His wife died and he turned over the raising of his girls to the wife’s sister, their aunt.

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Aunt Eleanor (Dorothy Green) has been rearing Gillian (Candy Moore) and Maggie (Barbara Beaird) back in Philadelphia. A season earlier the audience first glimpsed Gil’s sister-in-law and kids when he visited them back east. This time they arrive out west to be with dad on the trail. The premise comes with built-in drama because the daughters are being brought up by Eleanor to fit into high society. A dusty cattle drive is probably the last thing she wants them to experience. But Gil is determined to spend time with the girls.

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What complicates things is that Aunt Eleanor meets a handsome man who proposes marriage. He offers to adopt the girls and give them a full-time father. This puts him directly at odds with Gil, since it may undermine, possibly even eliminate, Gil’s relationship with Gillian and Maggie. 

To some extent I think the writers were experimenting with the idea of freeing Gil from his parental responsibility but don’t quite go there. So ultimately the aunt does not marry her new suitor and things go back to how they had been before, with her returning to the east with Gillian and Maggie to continue raising them for Gil.

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The girls are mentioned in later episodes but never seen again, which I think is a shame. They could have been brought back when they were older, like when one of them was of marrying age. We might have seen Gil become a father-in-law and potentially a grandfather. I think that Gil would likely have married Eleanor, and she would not have remained a spinster. At least that’s how I would have written the long story.

I should point out that Candy Moore was known for playing Lucille Ball’s daughter on The Lucy Show around this time. Also, she had two recurring roles on The Donna Reed Show. So she was very familiar to television audiences. At the end of the seventh season, Gil Favor leaves the series (due to Eric Fleming’s exit) and it is not stated why he has left the herd for Rowdy to take over. But I like to think that he retired and became a full-time family man again in Philadelphia.

***

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Jlewis:

The daughters in question, Gillian and Maggie Favor (Candy Moore and Barbara Beaird), arrive with their aunt Eleanore (Dorothy Green) by stagecoach. They come into town to witness a town brawl started by daddy Gil (Eric Fleming) who makes one misbehaving resident display a little more respect for saloon gals.

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Taking charge as “chaperone” Vance Caldwell (Paul Richards) says: “It is not much like Philadelphia, I’m afraid. Out here, we settle our differences swiftly and directly.” “And crudely,” Eleanor adds. She often disapproves of her brother-in-law and the way he presents himself in front of his daughters.

Vance, whose ranch is a barrier to the cattle roamers, is a thorn on Gil’s side in this show as he woos his sister-in-law a bit. There isn’t much conflict in this show since everybody is nice and cordial.

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Vance addresses Gil’s fathering issues and wants to become the girls’ new father. The daughters overhear many of the adult conversations and decide to take matters into their own hands. This increases the role of Wishbone (Paul Briniger) in this episode.

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A few little odds and ends that amuse me…

Apparently the wardrobe department forgot what century this storyline is set in. When riding a horse, Candy Moore sports the same ribbon in her hair, “rustic” blouse and jeans as, say, Ann-Margret or Patty Duke would sport during this time period. Again, so much of the charm of those old shows is how they reflected their concurrent times (in this case, the Kennedy Camelot years) instead of the times they were supposed to depict.

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Although her clothes were chosen more thoughtfully, actress Dorothy Green as Eleanor still reminds me a little too much of Janet Leigh, but behaving more like she does in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE or BYE, BYE BIRDIE than in any western. All females in this episode are blonde bombshells and, even in monochrome, you can easily see that one daughter is blue-eyed and the other resembles dark pupil-ed Pop more.

Oh… silly trivia bit. Barbara Beaird did some Disney stuff, including a voice bit in 101 DALMATIANS. Left the profession as she finished high school.

Many TV westerns combined outdoors scenery with too-too obvious indoor sets with recreated shrubbery and painted backdrops. Looks antiquated today but audiences of the day overlooked such details that the post-“cgi era” viewer would be far more persnickety over. Since this show is in black and white, it is less noticeable than in the all-color Bonanza.

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No Clint this show but…hey! We get Sheb Wooley as Pete Nolan in this one. The Purple People Eater is first seen getting “acquainted” with the saloon ladies. Then brushes himself off to be “presentable” to greeting Eleanor. Pretty much disappears from the screen afterwards.

I am not seeing these shows in the same order that they were aired and will be posted in reviews. This is the fourth one I sat through and, to be honest, I found it to be less interesting than the others. Nothing is particularly wrong with it, but it differs little from so much other standard prime-time “let’s get over our differences on account of the kids” material.

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3 hours ago, Jlewis said:

Good that you clarified that Eleanor was Gil's sister-in-law instead of his sister. I wasn't sure when watching it. Just knew she was "aunt" to the girls.

Yeah, her name is Eleanor Bradley (not Eleanor Favor). If I recall correctly, there is a throwaway line of dialogue where it is said she's the sister of Gil's late wife. 

Gil's backstory is radically different from the other men on the trail. The other men on the trail are unmarried, have no children, etc. Most of the drovers are former soldiers of the Confederate, not from the north like Gil is...

As I said it's a shame the daughters did not appear in more episodes later on. I think one of the daughters could have been more of a tomboy, wanting to be like Gil, much to Eleanor's chagrin. There is a lot the writers might have done to continue developing the Favor family unit.

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Another  good  episode  from  season  four  of  Rawhide  is  called  Reunion.  It  stars  Walter Pidgeon  and  Darryl  Hickman, they are  military  officers( father, son)  who been  estranged  from  each  other. Pete  Nolan  (  Sheb  Wooley) is  hired  by  the  Army  to be  an  scout. Walter Pidgeon  is  a general  sent  to make  peace with  the  Pawnee, but does  a bad  job  in  making  peace. Gil  Favor ,  Pete  Nolan  and  Lt  Perry  (Darryl  Hickman)  do their best , to make peace with  the Pawnee. For those  wishing  to see  this episode, I will not  reveal  the  complete plot.  I  liked  this  episode  and  found it  to  be   very  entertaining. 

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On 1/19/2021 at 4:51 PM, cinemaman said:

Another  good  episode  from  season  four  of  Rawhide  is  called  Reunion.  It  stars  Walter Pidgeon  and  Darryl  Hickman, they are  military  officers( father, son)  who been  estranged  from  each  other. Pete  Nolan  (  Sheb  Wooley) is  hired  by  the  Army  to be  an  scout. Walter Pidgeon  is  a general  sent  to make  peace with  the  Pawnee, but does  a bad  job  in  making  peace. Gil  Favor ,  Pete  Nolan  and  Lt  Perry  (Darryl  Hickman)  do their best , to make peace with  the Pawnee. For those  wishing  to see  this episode, I will not  reveal  the  complete plot.  I  liked  this  episode  and  found it  to  be   very  entertaining. 

Yes, the Walter Pidgeon episode is another good one. Interiors for Rawhide were filmed at MGM's old studio in Culver City and of course Pidgeon was a contract player at the Lion from 1936 to 1956. So when he did Rawhide he was back on his old stomping grounds.

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Essential: Rawhide – ‘Grandma's Money’ (1962)

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TopBilled:

Last week’s episode was notable for being part of Gil Favor’s long story. This week’s episode does not feature the trail boss at all. It’s one of the stories that follow ramrod Rowdy Yates (Clint Eastwood) away from the drovers’ camp. Since the producers were turning out over 30 episodes per season, it saved time to have a second crew in an alternate location filming another script simultaneously.

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This production model resulted in Eastwood getting more screen time. Eventually, as we previously mentioned, he did graduate to series lead in the series’ final season. 

What’s fun about ‘Grandma’s Money’ is that it provides the venerable actor with a chance to play a bit more western comedy. He is paired opposite special guest star Josephine Hutchinson. However, Hutchinson’s grandma is not very grandmotherly. She appears sweet and innocent on the surface, but underneath she’s a very accomplished con artist. She entangles Rowdy in some of her schemes, which typically includes bilking people out of their money. Of course, Rowdy ultimately gets wise. 

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There is no real “justice” at the end, since Grandma evades capture and we are to assume she’s moved on to the next con somewhere else. Probably the door was left open for a follow-up episode where Rowdy would cross paths with her again. Fortunately for Rowdy (but unfortunately for viewers) that didn’t happen.

***

Jlewis:

Not sure how many of these episodes are available online, but you can read full episode synopsis, spoilers included, with so many other memorable shows of CBS here: https://www.paleycenter.org/collection-2/.

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In a previous review of ‘The Captain’s Wife,’ I commented that the episode “was progressive in some ways and backward in others” because it was, after all, representative of network TV in early 1962. No better and no worse than, say, a contemporary episode of The Twilight Zone that, as wonderful as it is to watch even today, does occasionally reveal its age. My one nit-pick was Barbara Stanwyck’s Nora being anxious to be treated as a man in charge but giving in just before her death by telling Favor that she always wanted a “strong man, one who would command me.”

Nothing wrong at all with that statement, but I suggested that a modern writer would have adjusted it to fit the changing times since women are far less dependent on men these days. ‘A Woman’s Place’ pushed much farther in the direction that ‘The Captain’s Wife’ attempted. Despite my nit-picking, there is no denying that shows like Rawhide were still progressive in all of their social commentary, often far more than the viewers watching them.

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‘Grandma’s Money,’ directed by Sobey Martin, is also blessed with a strong and defiant female character, played by the great Josephine Hutchinson, a veteran who started in the teens as a silent juvenile lead, enjoyed her prime in the golden thirties with some classics like SON OF FRANKENSTEIN and rounded out her career with guest spots on TV like this one and a later Little House on the Prairie episode.

Remember that this was before The Golden Girls redefined what all an “elderly lady” could do in prime-time. Although the actress is much younger than the role she is playing, she still impresses in her very first scene by shooting a mean gun from her carriage stuck in the mud. In response, Clint Eastwood as Rowdy Yates declares: “Hey lady, cut it out! Just trying to help you out.”

Modern viewers will mostly focus on early vintage Clint as Rowdy here, who states earlier with another typical Eastwood line: “Look, when Mister Favor isn’t here, I’m boss of this outfit and, me being boss of this outfit, I’m gonna pick the man who goes…and I’m pickin’ me.” His arrogance here is important to our story plot because, as we all know, those who think they know best are the last to know about a lot of things.

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He is later falsely accused of bank robbery and temporarily goes to jail this episode, without realizing he’s been “had”! We root for him though when he admits that he is a “sucker” in the end.

Back to sweet Abigail Briggs, who isn’t what she seems to be. Age is something humans judge others by, often unfairly. Also sometimes those judged accordingly use those very same judgments to their advantage. Gayla Graves plays the wife of Col. Agee (Frank Wilcox) who is “old enough to be her father” and the couple receive some commentary on that before they even appear on screen, but we learn that they should be judged as fairly as “Grandma” is…for better and for worse.

I especially like how “Grandma” fusses that she is vulnerable to bandits who try to rob her, but little does Rowdy and the others initially know just how good she is at both defending herself and taking advantage of others…

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Should I spoil anything further here?

Two supporting characters are worth mentioning in an episode in which the regulars apart from Eastwood (Eric Fleming, Paul Brinegar, etc.) are pushed to the background. Jonathan Hole has a fun supporting role as Otis Eames, the easily swindled poker player; he was a famous radio voice who made the successful transition to supporting on screen roles, mostly on TV with Dragnet in the fifties, and seemed to be literally everywhere on the small screen throughout the sixties, including three other episodes of Rawhide, plus The Real McCoys, The Addams Family, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Bewitched, Petticoat Junction, etc.

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Also, Ann Daniels plays Jane, Clint’s woman-of-interest for this episode and resembles a calmer, less feisty Shirley Jones; my only complaint is that she isn’t dressed by the wardrobe department as Victorian Age like other ladies on the show but looks more contemporary early sixties.

One little detail I found striking…and you all know that only lil’ ol’ me would notice: the forest location this show used (with its impressive low hanging trees) had not changed since THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD. Okay. Maybe it wasn’t shot in the same locale but the locale on screen sure looked the same to me.

At first I thought that, despite all that she does, our star lady does the right thing in the end with Rowdy since TV network shows, just like that MGM landmark short series predating the TV era, prove that Crime Does Not Pay. Yet this episode actually lets her get away with a lot this episode that would not be acceptable with so many other characters. She reminds me a little of Helen Hayes in her later naughty self-defiant roles in AIRPORT and HERBIE RIDES AGAIN who does not exactly reform in her ways. 

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Essential: Rawhide – ‘Incident of the Married Widow’ (1963)

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I’ve written this before, but I feel the best episodes are found in the middle of the show’s run, primarily season 4 and season 5. We are wrapping up our month-long discussion of Rawhide by focusing on a fifth season offering that plays like a western rom-com. It’s quite enjoyable to watch.

As always, we have a notable guest star. This time it’s Patricia Barry in the form of saloon owner Abigail Fletcher. Barry started in motion pictures in the mid-1940s but by the 50s had transitioned to television where she most undoubtedly made her mark. She guest-starred in countless primetime series for nearly 50 years and also was a mainstay on daytime soap operas. Soap fans fondly recall her role as homespun Addie Horton on Days of Our Lives; her feisty portrayal of a southern madame named Miss Sally on Guiding Light; and her turn as a blueblood matriarch on Loving. Even people who don’t know this actress by name probably remember the face and of course that lovely voice of hers.

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On Rawhide she is cast as a sympathetic but scheming woman who has become a successful business owner in a rough and tumble western town. Some of the drovers have time off and head into this town to unwind. While there, they visit Abigail’s saloon and see a portrait of their boss Gil Favor on the wall behind the bar. It’s a flattering image of handsome Gil in his old military uniform, and apparently Abigail has been passing him off as her late husband! Of course the men return to camp and tell Mr. Favor about this.

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The next part of the story is slightly far-fetched but a lot of fun. Gil goes into town and sees the portrait and talks with Abigail. Apparently they did know each other years ago but never married. Gil agrees to keep up the charade so Abigail doesn’t have to lose face, but she will have to sell the saloon and vamoose. Gil then presents himself to the townsfolk as Abigail’s husband come back from the war, very much alive. The drovers go along with this, though they are somewhat confused. They wonder if Gil really did marry Abigail years ago and had abandoned her. 

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The story works for me because it’s an interesting contradiction for Gil, given his true backstory. We know that he was actually married to a society woman back in Philadelphia and has two daughters. It also works because of the fine chemistry between series lead Eric Fleming and Ms. Barry. Another bonus is an excellent dance party held inside the saloon to celebrate Gil and Abigail’s “marriage.” Plus we get some highly charged dialogue in a farcical bedroom scene that plays like a version of The Taming of the Shrew. It’s a clever episode with a proper denouement and I highly recommend it.

***

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Jlewis:

This episode is cleverly tied with the preceding ones we’ve covered, thanks to a strong female character and a role that offers commentary on both 19th century and 20th century gender battles. Intriguingly, it dates a full year after the others and, even more intriguingly, the same year as two polarizing books covering the state of American womanhood in 1963: Betty Frieden’s The Feminine Mystique was unveiled just three weeks before INCIDENT OF THE MARRIED WIDOW was aired and, eight months later in the week of the JFK assassination in Dallas, Helen Andelin’s Fascinating Womanhood came out as the counter point.

Now…I will not comment on any books here, since it will get us into a whole different topic, but note that something-something was already starting to brew in the cultural background that would explode during the following decade. Although our TV writers were merely producing entertainment for the Tiffany Network, they were always aware of changes in the air.

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Patricia Barry is Abigail Fletcher, a successful owner of Silver Slipper Saloon (but pronounced “salawn”). Again, we have a woman taking on a profession dominated by men. She also had to do a bit of fibbing to get to where she is, even using our star character Gil Favor (Eric Fleming) to her advantage.

Rowdy (Clint Eastwood) has his masculine pride in jeopardy when he flirts with her. “For such a little girl, that is a mighty big package,” he comments as she exits the general store. Her reply: “For such a big boy, that is a mighty tired try.”

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Rowdy isn’t the only man using that line (a.k.a. James Murdoch’s Mushy) and she gleefully looks back at Rowdy with a “see what I mean” remark that explains it all. However Rowdy loves a woman who takes charge: “There goes a dream with feet.” Paul Brinegar’s Wishbone is less awed. “Jezebel had feet too.”

Yup. It is obvious which book Abigail would be reading if she was around in 1963. I am assuming the time period of this episode is the 1880s, so she would be living in her following incarnation if not a centenarian by then.

Dabbs Greer is one of those TV familiars modern viewers will recognize here as store owner Jeb Haddlebird; he also appeared in contemporary Twilight Zone and Gunsmoke episodes and, just over a decade later, became more familiar with the masses as Reverend Robert Alden in Little House on the Prairie. Always sweet with her…and Abigail clearly admires him to a degree, he is still a product of the male dominated ol’ west and suggests that she sell her sa-lawn to him since men are better at managing such things. His girl chum…or is she his wife?… Shela Bromley’s Thelma agrees.

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In two earlier shows, I commented on crooked pictures on the wall that may or may not have subconsciously referenced women struggling against the odds. Here, we have a picture that is not crooked in anyway and is placed strategically on the wall of the sa-lawn. A photo of her late husband sports the name of Gil Favor and also his very likeness. In no time, the real Gil gets confronted by Rowdy and Wishbone about his possible “wife.” When he meets up with Abigail, “it is clearly not a case of mistaken identity.”

This is probably my favorite of the shows for various reasons. It has just enough mystery in the beginning. Although she admits the truth right away with Gil, regarding her shame over her other husband, we are still kept in the dark about why Gil decides to go along with her charade. There is plenty of clever wordplay in the dialogue to keep one engaged throughout, being that the tone is far more more comedic than the other shows. Fun stuff.

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More importantly, it showcases just how much struggle any woman had to undergo just to succeed in life like a man. Even Gil jokingly goes along with the restraints of the times to mock those not in on the joke: “Since when does a husband need a wife to close a deal?” One thing most of us forget, living in 2021, is that many women struggled…even in 1963…just to do the simplest things we take for granted today like applying for a credit card “without a husband’s approval.”

Alas…Gil…not Abigail…makes it clear who still wears the pants. He even spanks her! Nonetheless… he times were a-changing as Bob Dylan would sing later that same year. Oh…and Clint Eastwood sings too! Or was he dubbed? Well… he was not immune to musicals, as we would discover later that decade.

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***

TopBilled:

Bonanza did quite a few comedic episodes, and so did GunsmokeRawhide doesn’t venture into comedy too much, but when it does, I find the results quite good. With his exasperated line deliveries, Fleming’s a natural with this sort of material.

Yes, Clint does sing occasionally on the show. It’s his real voice, not dubbed. Sometimes they have him do part of a tune out on the trail. And there was an episode where he performs in a stage production and has a fairly substantial solo number. I am assuming Eastwood asked the producers/writers to put these bits into the scripts for him, so he could demonstrate his musical talents. 

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Coming Up in February:

letters

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February 6

THE SCARLET LETTER (1926)

February 13

THE LETTER (1940)

February 20

M (1951)

February 27

THE 13TH LETTER (1951)

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Essential: THE SCARLET LETTER (1926)

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TopBilled:

Though it does not air much on TCM (once every three years or so it seems), this is a well-known MGM classic. Of course it is based on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s equally well-known novel, a work hailed as a masterpiece of 19th Century American literature. It is no surprise the book has inspired so many film adaptations.

By the time MGM made this one with Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson in the lead roles, it had already been adapted a half dozen times for the big screen. Under Victor Seastrom’s careful direction, it feels faithful to Hawthorne’s text if not overly poetic. (Seastrom would also helm THE WIND two years later, again with Gish and Hanson as the leads).

When I watch THE SCARLET LETTER, its story captures me, not necessarily its cinematic techniques. I focus on the main character and ponder what it’s like to be Hester Prynne, then AND now.

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We still live in a society that reviles any Hester Prynne in our midst, especially gay Hester Prynnes who do not conform to a specific religious morality.

Not long ago I chided a liberal friend of mind I’ve known since college. I suggested he’s a fake liberal still holding on to a conservative moral view when it comes to his not-very-understanding ideas about LGBT people. As long as he’s not gay or bisexual, he can support those who are, which of course is like saying he will support a charity for cancer but god forbid, he doesn’t have cancer himself. Or in the case of Hawthorne’s narrative, he will be sympathetic (not empathetic) towards those who wear the Scarlet Letter A, but he himself has never been publicly branded in such a way and would never allow himself to be branded that way.

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I read an interesting commentary that said the “A” goes from being defined as Adultery to Able, since Hester is fully able to live her life despite her branding as an adulterer. We should also mention that her daughter Pearl (a symbolic name) is the outward proof of Hester’s adultery, because the child was conceived when Hester’s husband was away.

I do love the irony that the child’s father is a minister, a man of the cloth tasked with upholding the common good and the common decency of the Puritan community. Though watching a minister fall from grace is almost a cliche in our modern society.

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There’s an intriguing triangle that develops when Hester’s husband returns under an assumed named. The minister eventually confesses and sort of takes on Hester’s role. I like what that suggests.

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The original story and this 1926 version culminate with Hester holding the dying minister in her arms. It’s strangely uplifting but not altogether happy.  However, the much-maligned 1995 version with Demi Moore and Gary Oldman depicts Hester leaving with the minister after her husband’s death. She discards the Letter A to go on and live her life anew, now unfettered by any sort of warped morality.

This takes me back to the ‘quarrel’ I had with my liberal friend. I told him I don’t subscribe to much of our society’s morality since I feel it’s often a construct to falsely judge and control. Instead I advocate an individualistic approached informed by one’s own inner principles. We all have our own code of how we need conduct ourselves, our own code of how we need to live life and find the truth in that.

So how about “A’ for absolved…or “A” for alleviated from an overly restrictive form of wrong and right.

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Jlewis:

I had not seen the 1926 version in its entirety, but clips were featured in LILLIAN GISH: THE ACTOR’S LIFE FOR ME (1988) and a few extracts can also be seen on YouTube. Gish said she favored the lead role of Hester Prynne, having a child out of wedlock in Puritan Massachusetts, because it countered the sweet, “don’t touch me” virginal types D.W. Griffith often had her cast as. It was, I think, the fifth…or maybe the sixth?…cinematic adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous novel. The first one came out in 1908 and was much more abridged in its running time.

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Many of us Americans had to read the 1850 original in high school. A key theme that I found interesting, apart from the unflattering portrait that Hawthorne made of 1640s America and its “puritanical” shaming, was how a woman who is out in the open for her “sin” successfully carries on with her life while the secretive father is the tortured one. In other words, the truth will always set you free regardless of the consequences.

I tried to find the Gish version of 1926 online, but it is mislabeled on YouTube over the 1934 Colleen Moore public-domain version.

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Now…that version is an interesting one, since Colleen herself was a major silent star who made very few talkies, unlike Gish. Many of us movie buffs have seen clips of her and her distinctive flapper hair-do; she being one of the most talkative stars in Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s classic HOLLYWOOD series even if only a few titles of hers like ELLA CINDERS and LILAC TIME ever get any attention today.

THE SCARLET LETTER turned out to be her final major film (she made four back-to-back in 1933-34 after a four year break from the screen), as she was quite eager to make a career change with her interests in doll house promotion and real estate. (Despite the tabloid fairy tales, surprisingly few silent screen stars completely “fell” into obscurity. A great many lived long lives as they settled into many non-screen careers and refrained from cigarettes, an addiction of the celebrities of the Depression and WW2 years.)

The studio producing it, Majestic, was certainly not in the same league as the one who made the earlier version eight years previously, MGM. Likewise, the director, Robert Vignola, sure-as-heck wasn’t in the same league as Victor Seastrom and this is not a production to watch if artsy cinematography is your bag.

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Intriguingly it does share with the original a lead star opposite Colleen: the cheating wife’s husband Roger Chillingworth is played once again by Henry B. Walthall. In addition, some of the sets are also recycled from the original as well since, well, Hollywood was always economical during the Depression.

The producer was the legendary tycoon of the “B’s,” Larry Darmour, who was also responsible for many modestly budgeted comedy shorts such as Mickey Rooney’s Mickey McGuire, a clear knock-off of Hal Roach’s “Our Gang” series. The Darmour stamp is evident throughout with the much lighter and slightly slapstick-ish comic tone, a contrast to the other, far more serious, novel adaptations.

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Therefore, we get “comic supporting roles by William Kent as Samson and Alan Hale (who needs no introduction to movie fans since he was literally everywhere on screen in Hollywood’s Golden Age) as Bartholomew to keep viewers from falling asleep. Not that the critics were pleased with this approach at the time, but it does make for some highly entertaining, if off-beat, entertainment.

The Production Code was in all of its glory by now and one senses that the prudes enjoying their brand-new power wanted revenge on the “sins” of the roaring twenties. Enter our prologue: “This is more than the story of a woman– it is a portrait of the Puritan period in American life. Though to us, the customs seem grim and the punishments hard, they were a necessity of the times and helped shape the destiny of a nation.” Or… rather, what certain individuals wanted a nation to have as a destiny.

Our first shot shows a lady in town with her tongue literally “tied” in pain, punishment “for laughing on ye Sabbath” as two hunters taunt her. Nonetheless she and another fellow with his hands clamped down are presented rather comically with some jokes involved. Just like one of Darmour’s 2-reelers.

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Colleen Moore plays into the all famous story set-up, having a child and not revealing who “tempted” her… he being the well respected and dashingly handsome minister Arthur Dimmesdale (Hardie Albright). Thus, the scarlet letter “A” must be worn by her and her daughter gets taunted by other children when she reaches school age.

Hester’s “sin” was committed while husband Roger was out of town and thought to be either a victim of one of the Great Plagues of London (but not the one ended by the Great Fire since we are two decades off) or lost at sea. That is, until he arrives dressed a bit like Robinson Crusoe and is informed about his wife by one of the lady gossips. The plot all boils down to Roger being a relentless “investigator” to the secret and Hester gives him a pretty good damning speech at one point in regards to his behavior.

I will watch literally anything made in the thirties since the crackling soundtracks and monochrome visuals are so soothing to my cranium. No, this is not the definite version of The Book. Not that you should stick to The Movie and ignore The Book anyway. Yet it has a wonderful quirky charm.

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Colleen is not as interesting here as she was in her earlier silent era classics since the period costumes do her no justice, but her performance is still pretty good and, from what I gathered, the reviews of her, if not the movie itself, were favorable at the time. She apparently shared Gish’s interest in Hester because she is a strong woman who stands up for herself in a very judgmental world.

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Eventually I got around to seeing the '26 version and I do consider it a better production in a number of areas. Not to pooh-pooh Colleen Moore, but Gish clearly is more motivated in her role here and this can be credited, in part, to the great Swedish directorial import, Victor Sjöström, now billed as Seastrom, at the helm. Although Hendrik Sartov is credited for cinematography and mighty Metro's Cedric Gibbons dominates the set direction (along with Sidney Ullman), this is essentially Seastrom's film in both look and style. However I should add that the well written title cards, with their rather progressive feminist touch, belong to the legendary Frances Marion, who needs no introduction to those familiar with the female talent behind the cameras in ol' Hollywood.

Another Swedish import, Lars Hanson, covers the respectable minister Arthur Dimmesdale and, while Gish is obviously the bigger draw here, he is actually quite good in conveying his emotions without getting too hammy. The other key star that I had mentioned already is Henry B. Walthall playing the returning husband Roger Chillingworth in both versions. I found his performance surprisingly different here, being far more menacing. Perhaps it is the noir-ish way that Seastrom likes to photograph him.

Interesting contrast between pre-Code and post-Code opening titles. “Here is recorded a stark episode in the lives of a stern, unforgiving people, a story of bigotry uncurbed and its train of sorrow, shame and tragedy...” In other words, there is far less effort to please conservative Bible Belt America here in 1926 than in 1934 (a.k.a. with the Depression, Hollywood had to adopt the Production Code to avoid mass boycotts of any kind). In other words, this earlier more "liberal" version hints that the customs that "seem grim" and the punishments "hard" were NOT "a necessity of the times" and did NOT help "shape the destiny of a nation".

A key opening image involves the symbolic rose bush that Hawthorn made a big deal with in the book. This reminded me of THE THORN BIRDS (made into the popular TV mini-series) with its slightly different story of priestly love but a central theme fable about a bird that gets trapped by the painful thorns of a rose bush and dies after singing the most beautiful song. Hester is a rose in the bush and the bird is the priest tormented by the thorns. We also get a bird, a canary, in this movie that is accused of singing on the Sabbath by the town folk and later flies free from its cage. Perhaps symbolic of Hester considering herself free, at least in conscious, if not by the confines of her restrictive community.

“Why are we taught to be ashamed - - of love?” This film also differs from the '34 version by showing all that happens before the baby is born. Even the sex is hinted at when Hester's undergarments are forgotten after they had been washed and left prominently on a bush.  We then see the nine months of pregnancy pass by with the changing of the seasons. (Seastrom loves to use snow... and sometimes wind as in THE WIND... to emphasize both settings and characters' emotional states.) In fact, we see quite a bit covered in this un-ashamed version that the censors would not permit eight years later, including a shot of Arthur branding his chest with his own “A” by the fireplace.

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