OK if you’re desperate for a Western
Waco had Howard Keel and Jane Russell topping the billing. Keel, then in his late forties, had been the brawny baritone of MGM who had them swooning in the aisles. He’d been Frank Butler to Betty Grable’s Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun in 1950 and three years later he was Wild Bill Hickok to Doris Day’s Jane Canary in Calamity Jane. He had tried a slightly more serious Western part in Ride, Vaquero! the same year but it was back to form in the dire (but popular) Seven Brides for Seven Brothers the following year. These musicals can only be defined as Westerns by a stretch. He would be Levi Walking Bear in John Wayne’s The War Wagon the year after Waco but in all honesty one would hardly define him as a leading Western actor. He would become well kown on Dallas. Still, he was good enough for Lyles.
As for Ms Russell, well, she was ‘only’ forty-five at the time but, without wishing to be ungallant (though I fear that an occasional lack of gallantry is one of your Jeff’s rare faults) she looks rather bizarre in this picture, with a small cosmetically altered head on a, ahem, rather substantial body. I am sure she was a very nice person and all but she was, I fear, another who was slightly unsuited to the Western – though she was doubtless a good actress in other kinds of movie. She had famously started in our noble genre with the (then) sensational The Outlaw in 1943, a perfectly dreadful picture, had redeemed herself in 1948 as Calamity Jane (another one) in the highly entertaining The Paleface with Bob Hope in 1948, and returned in the 1952 sequel (which I think was even better) Son of Paleface in 1952. The same year she was Montana Belle, then she appeared with Clark Gable in the interminable, plodding and turgid The Tall Men. Waco was her seventh and last big-screen oater.
By 1966, though, I’m not sure that the Keel-Russell billing was going to have them waiting in lines round the block to see a Western.
The rest of the cast had a certain Western cachet, I guess, but they too were hardly John Wayne. Brian Donlevy got third billing but it was a real cheat because he only had a couple of scenes and total screen time was about one minute. I like Donlevy in other genres (e.g. as Quatermass), and he had a fascinating life, but he was another who never quite convinced in Westerns.
Now, who else can I be rude about? Oh yes, Wendell Corey.
Lower down the cast list we have John Agar in a small part. He had started at the top in Westerns but worked his way down. He married Shirley Temple and was cast by John Ford as one of her suitors in the great Fort Apache in 1948, and also got a part in its sequel She Wore a Yellow Ribbon the year after. Ford, who could be a nasty bully, made Agar’s life hell on the set but John Wayne stood up for him (as he often did; he was a decent man) and later in life gave the out-of-work actor parts in his 60s commercial movies: in fact Agar’s last three were Duke pictures. Waco, and Johnny Reno, were the last he did before those Wayne vehicles.
Robert Lowery is the mayor. He had been in John Ford’s Drums along the Mohawk in 1939 and would later be entertaining as the political hack governor to whom John Wayne waspishly gave the name Humphrey, in the otherwise largely unfunny McLintock. Lowery was in a great number of low-budget and TV Westerns and did actually lead in Universal’s 1944 serial Mystery of the Riverboat and then some Western features. He is consigned to a bit part here, though.
Further still down the billing we have Gene Evans as the drunk deputy, DeForest Kelley as saloon owner Smith’s henchman and Willard Parker in a bit part as heavy. I always like to see Gene, credited by IMDb with no fewer than 157 Western appearances. Kelley, best known of course as Bones in Star Trek, did quite a few feature Westerns and wasn’t at all bad in them. Parker did a lot of Westerns too; he was Cole Younger in Young Jesse James and was star of Tales of the Texas Rangers on TV. Waco was his very last outing in the saddle, or indeed before the cameras at all.
Silent star Richard Arlen, then 67, was wheeled out for a cameo. He plays the sheriff shot down by DeForest in the first reel. In his first talkie Arlen had been Steve in the greatest of all movie versions of The Virginian, the 1929 Gary Cooper one.
And Fuzzy Knight is there too, in a 30-second micropart as the telegraph operator.
Well, that’s enough rambling on about the actors. Although in a way, that was the point of these pictures.
The plot is a bit tired, I fear. Emporia, WY is a wide-open town which drunken cowpokes spend their time hurrahing (rather weakly on the part of the extras). The civic elders send for feared gunfighter Waco (Keel), pardoned from the pen by the governor so that he can come and clean up the town. Crooked saloon owner Joe Gore (Smith) and his henchman Rile (Kelley) don’t care for this idea at all – in fact they were the ones who shot the previous sheriff (Arlen) in the back. They set up two Jenner brothers (Parker and Regis Parton) to gun Waco down on arrival – you see there used to be three brothers but thanks to Waco there are now only two. Their mother, Ma Jenner (Anne Seymour) also wants revenge and she’s pretty handy with a rifle. Of course, Waco easily disposes of these. In fact he makes the two brothers strip (off camera, of course, no nudity here) and burns their clothes on Main Street.
You see Waco also wants to come to Emporia to renew acquaintance with his old flame Jill (Russell) but she has wed the local clergyman (Corey) so that’s awkward. Still, he seems to get over it quite quickly.
Everyone appears to have a guilty secret. The pastor rode with Quantrill. Waco wasn’t studying law in prison, as he let it be known, but to become a priest. Naturally he doesn’t want this known. Why not? It’s all rather silly. He has one good line: he says to the town elders, “I’m not as bad as people think I am.” Fair enough. Then he adds, “Maybe worse.”
After that it’s just a straight Earpish-tough-lawman-cleans-up-Dodge type picture with a predictable outcome.
There are too many characters and some of it is confusing. Who are all these people?
It starts with an unmistakable Lorne Greene ballad which makes Waco sound very like Ringo. It’s reprised at the end, of course.
It was all shot on the Paramount Western town lot, but in color, and it looks rather low budget. There are about thirty seconds of location shooting of ropin’ ‘n’ brandin’, probably lifted from another movie.
Maybe if this picture had been made a decade earlier, with, say, Anthony Mann or Delmer Daves at the helm and with, I don’t know, Glenn Ford or Henry Fonda as Waco, and maybe someone really good like Ida Lupino or Nancy Gates in the Russell part – and Bettger as saloon boss, obviously – then it might have been really quite good. As it is, well…