Nice little oater
In our look at the Westerns of 1953, we have so far (click the links for reviews) looked at offerings from MGM (The Naked Spur and Escape from Fort Bravo), Paramount (Shane), Warners (Hondo), Universal (The Lawless Breed, Wings of the Hawk and The Man from the Alamo), Columbia (Gun Fury) and United Artists (Seminole). But what of Fox? Surely a big studio so closely identified with the Western wasn’t going to miss the boat (or stage)?
Perhaps surprisingly, though, the Fox oaters of the year were slightly underwhelming: two Dale Robertson pictures, The Silver Whip (released February ’53) and City of Bad Men (October), both upcoming reviews, and Powder River, in June.
Powder River had a half-decent budget ($985,000) – though of course nothing on the scale of the studio’s How to Marry a Millionaire (budget $1.9m) or The Robe ($9m) – and was directed by Louis King, Henry’s brother. It was shot in Technicolor in lovely Montana locations (Glacier National Park) by highly talented Edward Cronjager. So it was shaping up to be a ‘big’, or biggish, picture.
But it never really became that, for a number of reasons. One, it headlined Rory Calhoun. Now I’m a bit of a Smoke fan, and I think he did some very good Westerns, but he wasn’t perhaps in the very top rank of stars of the saddle.
And co-star Corinne Calvet was probably better in and better known for her other ’53 picture, Flight to Tangier; as far as Westerns went, she only did four, two of them with Rory, and in The Far Country, as woolly-hatted ingénue, I thought she was pretty bad. She was probably too busy with her sensational private life to do more good Westerns.
Even director King, though he helmed a lot of Westerns, forty in fact, from 1921 to 1956, didn’t really do much special in the genre – the 1946 remake of Smoky with Fred MacMurray and the 1950 remake of Destry, titled Frenchie, with Joel McCrea and Shelley Winters, being about the best. Actually, Calvet’s character in Powder River is called Frenchie, uncoincidentally I am sure, and this time she was actually French (unlike previous Frenchies).
Furthermore, Powder River was itself a remake – or sort of – of John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, Fox’s big Western of 1946. Written by Daniel Mainwaring (under the nom de plume Geoffrey Homes) and Sam Hellman, it took as its starting point Stuart N Lake’s Frontier Marshal. Yes, it was basically a Wyatt Earp tale, though Wyatt doesn’t appear. Chino Bullock (Rory) stands in as a town-taming marshal dealing with Clantonesque baddies, there’s a dying doc (Cameron Mitchell) as the marshal’s pal and a pure Eastern woman vs. racy saloon gal as the love interest.
Mainwaring, ex-PI, journalist and writer of hard-boiled crime dramas, wrote quite a few low-to-mid budget Westerns and TV shows. Probably the biggest was his 1952 adaptation of Ernest Haycox’s Bugles in the Afternoon (though the film was a pale imitation of a quality book). Hellman had worked on My Darling Clementine and the 1939 Frontier Marshal upon which Clementine was partially based, so was pretty expert on the theme. He’d also co-written The Return of Frank James for Fritz Lang in 1940, so was a class act.
I actually like Powder River quite a lot. Calhoun is very good and there’s a strong supporting cast including John Dehner as crooked saloon owner, Cameron Mitchell as doc/gunman, Robert J Wilke as henchman, Frank Ferguson, who had also been good in Frenchie, as sidekick (though regrettably shot to death in the first reel), James Griffith as hotel clerk and a brief appearance from Hank Worden. There’s pacey direction and plenty of action.
1875. An ex-lawman, Chino Bull (Rory), wants to hang up his guns and be “like other people” so in the mountains he joins his partner Johnny (Ferguson) prospectin’ for gold. But then he is threatened by two hoodlums (Carl Betz and Robert J Wilke) and while he is away in the nearby town of Powder River Johnny is killed and their gold stolen. So Chino has to strap them irons back on. He takes the marshal job he first turned down (just like Fonda in Clementine) because that’s the best way to get justice/revenge for poor old Johnny.
Naturally (because this is a proper Western) there is a crooked saloon owner in town, Harvey Logan, and, happily for us, it’s the excellent John Dehner. Turns out, he’s the brother of Loney Logan (Betz), one of the bad guys who ‘visited’ Rory and Johnny in their camp. And Harvey has suddenly found the cash to set up his own saloon, the Palace, right across the street from Frenchie’s Bella Union, where he used to deal blackjack. So the plot thickens.
It’s a great town, by the way, on the Fox lot, one of the best Western towns of all.
It is said that Calvet’s character Frenchie is based on the French female gambler Eleanor Dumont of the early 1850s. Dumont was known as Madame Mustache because of hair on her upper lip. She drifted from town to town and marriage to marriage, became a real madam, running a string of girls, and eventually died in Bodie, California in 1879 of a morphine overdose after heavy gambling losses.
Anyway, as marshal, Chino now locks Frenchie up for running a crooked craps game, and her beau, the violent ultra-fast gun Mitch Hardin (Mitchell), is soon gunning for the marshal as a result. But just as they are about to draw against each other in the Bella Union, Hardin is taken with a malaise. It turns out he has a brain tumor and is often debilitated in this way. And soon ex-Doctor Hardin and Marshal Bull are respectful, wary but firm friends.
I like the way Mitch is played by Mitch, and I must say Cameron was one of the better screen Doc Hollidays. I’ve seen some low-slung holsters in my time but I think Cameron’s takes the biscuit. It’s even further down his leg than Matt Clark’s. It’s a knee gun.
Of course, naming the character Hardin was a nod to John Wesley of that Ilk and signifies lethal gunman.
Well, then the Clementine-ish Deborah Allen arrives on the stage. It’s Penny Edwards, former Ziegfield Follies gal who took over from Dale in later Roy Rogers epics. Later she was a regular on Western TV shows. She does a good job as the rather prim lady who has come looking for ‘Doctor’ Hardin to take him home to get treatment for that tumor. Of course Doc doesn’t agree (though he really loves her) and sends her packing on the next stage East. But she doesn’t go: she is attracted by the marshal.
There’s a pleasant, bucolic scene (shot in Glacier National Park, Montana) in which Deborah and Chino ride out in a buggy and pick azalea flowers for the grave of Johnny. It could have been directed by brother Henry.
Now, a mine owner wants to get a gold shipment out but fears robbery, so Marshal Rory uses the old stand-by of a decoy stage, and he and Doc are aboard to foil any hold-up. There’s a good bit where they put the stage on a ferry and are attacked by Loney’s gang, who are after the non-existent gold. The marshal and the doc drive the baddies off and get back to town.
In the best bit of the movie, Rory is offered a derringer to go shoot somebody. He obviously declines the pop-gun as unworthy of him.
Debbie is accidentally shot and naturally Doc has to redeem himself by operating on her and saving her life. It was the Chihuahua figure, not the Clementine one, in My Darling Clementine but hey, they rang the changes here.
The showdown now looms as the Logan gang ride in. There’s dynamite and plenty of shootin’. And there’s a plot twist (which I forbear to reveal) about the murder of Johnny and theft of the gold. There’s a climactic quick-draw showdown in the last moments and then Rory and Debbie live happily ever after.
The Cronjager photography is very good, though there are few location shots; most was done on studio sets. The color’s nice and the print still good. The music is by Lionel Newman and quite pleasant.
It was hardly a smash hit. In fact it was only the 22nd best-selling Western of the year, according to Variety, barely grossing $1m, beaten obviously by the likes of Shane and Hondo but even by such modest fare as the Ronald Reagan Law and Order and Dale Robertson in RKO’s cheapie Devil’s Canyon. The New York Times called Powder River “a mess” and “baffling” but that was nonsense; it’s neither. It’s good stuff, and well worth a watch, a nice little Western as Westerns ought to be. OK, sure, it’s not Shane. But if you like fast-paced Western actioners with strong casts, this one’s for you.