Farewell, Lesley Selander, and thanks
The great thing about these pictures was not their production values (budgets were limited) or originality (far from it) but the casts. The leads were such figures as Dana Andrews, John Ireland, George Montgomery, Dale Robertson and Rory Calhoun, who were more than competent – in fact talented – Western actors. Unfortunately, though, Lyles used Howard Keel for three of them, and Keel was not in the same class.
Having said that, to be fair, Keel was not at all bad in Arizona Bushwhackers as the tough sheriff who is also secretly a Confederate agent (it’s 1865). It was probably his best Western performance (not that that is saying all that much).
His co-star is once again Yvonne De Carlo; once again she does a reasonable job. She plays Jill, a (rather unconvincing) Confederate spy posing as a respectable milliner in the town, who is supposed to make contact with the new sheriff and tell him where a big supply of arms and ammunition, desperately needed by the Confederacy, is hidden. She explains her lack of Southern-belle accent by saying she was born in the North but brought up in South Carolina. She was indeed born in the North (Vancouver, Canada to be precise).
The saucier dame, the saloon moll Molly, is supposed to be a Southerner from N’Orleans, with an accent, though this inflexion is from the deep south of Iowa, because it’s blonde Marilyn Maxwell, the less talented perhaps of the two Marilyn sex symbols of the 50s. She only did a couple of Western features and a few TV shows.
So once again it’s not really the leads that distinguish this Western. It’s the supporting cast of character actors. We have John Ireland as the one-armed Reb-hating deputy, good old Barton MacLane as the sheriff on the take, Scott Brady as the crooked saloon owner who gives out the bribes, James Craig as badman Ike Clanton and Brian Donlevy as the frock-coated mayor. It’s an excellent line-up and very much in tune with Lyles’s formula of using well-known Western stars from the 40s and 50s.
Another reason I like this movie is because it was directed by Lesley Selander, the low-budget Western fan’s hero, who specialized in bringing low-budget oaters to life with pace and action. Actually, it was Selander’s last Western – indeed, his last film. He ended his eminent career in the genre by directing 45 episodes of Laramie, a paella with Audie Murphy and a handful of Lyles features. It was an illustrious CV which had started with his work as second unit director on a silent Buck Jones flick in 1925 and included, by the end, close to 200 Westerns. Respect.
The screenplay was by Steve Fisher, Lyles’s go-to writer for these pictures, a fellow who bashed out large numbers of TV shows on his typewriter but also did some big-screen Westerns – not bad ones, either: the likes of The Quick Gun with Audie, The Restless Breed, also with Scott Brady, and others.
Arizona Bushwhackers is narrated by James Cagney (uncredited but unmistakable) and we have a debutant Roy Rogers Jr in a small (and actually rather pointless and irrelevant) part, and Regis Parton (billed as Reg) as henchman Curly and also stunt-doubling Keel.
The opening scenes are of booming cannons and we are told that the Civil War is raging and the military prisons of both sides are bulging, so Abe Lincoln allows Reb POWs to enlist in the Union army to serve out West, fighting Indians or even occasionally bringing law ‘n’ order to wide-open frontier towns. Thus stocky Lee Travis (Keel), former riverboat gambler and gunslinger, is wearing Union blue when he rides to Colton, Arizona, a town treed by crooked saloon owner Tom Rile (Brady) who has the corrupt sheriff (MacLane) in his pocket. Travis is to kick out the lawman, pin on the star himself and make the community a bit more law-abidin’.
The snag is that Rile doesn’t care for this notion at all, so he sends out a few henchmen (Craig as Ike Clanton, Parton as Curly and Eric Cody as Jones) to bushwhack (hence the title) the new peace officer, and then the town will be able return to the old corrupt ways.
Good idea, you may think. However, the resourceful Travis is a match for the thugs. He changes clothes with Clanton so that the other two malefactors confuse the two and shoot down the wrong guy, viz. their accomplice Ike. Yes, I know Ike Clanton wasn’t killed in 1865 but survived even the gunfight at the OK Corral and was shot dead by detective Jonas V Brighton in September 1887 near Springerville. But we don’t watch Westerns for historical accuracy, now do we?
So Sheriff Travis takes charge in Colton and ex-Sheriff Grover (MacLane) is obliged to quit town. He was ready to, actually, being disgusted at himself for taking bribes from Rile.
Travis thinks that Southerner Molly must be his contact but when she doesn’t respond to the password he realizes he’s wrong. It’s demure milliner Jill who’s the one. Once they get that awkwardness ironed out, the new sheriff and the storekeeper decide to pretend to be lovers so they can associate with each other. As was bound to happen, though, the pretense soon becomes reality. Though the sheriff was rather taken with Miss Molly, by golly…
This is where Roy Jr appears, pointlessly, so announce pompously that he hates Rebs and doesn’t drink. Then he departs. It was his first and last part in a Western.
Deputy Dan Shelby (Ireland) holds a candle for the hat-maker so now he has a double reason to hate the new sheriff: he’s a stinkin’ Reb and he’s wooing Deputy Dan’s flame. So he keeps a close eye on the lawman and it isn’t long before he rumbles that the couple are in cahoots in a dastardly Confederate plot.
The new sheriff, a consummate gambler, now wins the saloon from Rile at dice and the discomfited erstwhile owner is obliged to skedaddle.
Now, it appears that before losing his livelihood to the sheriff, slimy saloon owner Rile had discovered those hidden guns in an abandoned warehouse on the edge of town and, shock horror, has been selling them to some renegade Apaches. As you know, cannibalism and matricide were minor misdemeanors in Westerns by comaprison with selling guns to the Indians.
So it’s all building up to an exciting climax. There’s a curious bit where Sheriff Travis is wounded and has an arm in a sling and gets into a fight with his one-armed deputy so we get an unusual saloon brawl with two brachially challenged men hammering each other unidextrously.
Well, ex-Sheriff Grover now rides back in and tells Mayor Donlevy (who only had a short scene in the first reel and now has an equally short one in the last) that the war is now over, Lee having surrendered, and by the way, angry Rile and the Indians are coming, with their repeater rifles, so beware. Thus we have a last-reel shoot-out as ex-sheriff, new sheriff, former Yankees and former Rebels all join forces to fight the Apaches and the crook. It’s great stuff.
A few chosen characters are hit and expire but Deputy Dan gets the milliner back in his arms, Travis gifts the saloon to Molly and then he rides off into the sunset. The End.
And it’s in Technicolor. Hell, what more do you want?