A fun actioner
The other day we were reviewing Powder River, a Fox Western of 1953 starring Rory Calhoun. Well Rory was in two oaters that stellar year for the genre. The other one was a pairing with Dale Robertson, in another Fox saddle-and-sagebrush drama, The Silver Whip, released in February.
The Silver Whip wasn’t on a par with some of the outstanding Westerns of ’53, pictures like Shane, The Naked Spur or Hondo, (click the links for our reviews); in fact it was a bit of a pot-boiler. But it was quite fun.
The movie, which was originally to be called Stage to Silver City, is a pacey actioner that was typical of Fox’s early-50s mid-budget Western output. There’s some classy Lloyd Ahern cinematography of excellent locations (what looked like Lone Pine but I’m not sure) though the black & white comes as a slight surprise for a Fox Western of this time. The Lionel Newman music is stirring and lively(often based on folk tunes).
Especially well done is the foot chase in the rocks when bad guy Slater (John Kellogg, in a sadly nondescript part which should have been built up more) is hunted down by second-billed Sheriff Calhoun, who wants to bring him in for trial, and a more murderous top-billed Dale who prefers the first adjective (or could it be an adverb?) in the ‘Dead or Alive’ wanted posters. Full marks for this sequence to Ahern and director Harmon Jones.
Jones was a successful editor for Fox but less impressive as director. From the late 50s on he did mostly TV work but the few Western features he directed in the mid-50s were pretty good, actually. He made two with Robertson which were released in ’53 (this one and City of Bad Men – next review) and another with Dale in ’56, for Universal, A Day of Fury. They weren’t bad at all.
The whip in question is a stage driver’s one that is presented to young Robert Wagner by his role-model Dale Robertson. For this is a stagecoach drama. The kid, Jess Harker (third-billed Wagner, 23, in his first Western) drives a two-mule mud-wagon but pines to pilot a flash six-up Concord and is finally given the chance by tough stage line boss James Millican (only 43 but made up to be old ‘n’ gray).
Wagner was very young and skinny, and not really cut out for the genre. He only appeared in four Westerns, though the others were big ones – he was even chosen as Jesse James in Fox’s 1957 remake, The True Story of Jesse James, which, of course, wasn’t.
As for Calhoun, he was a solid and dependable Western lead – though quite often, as here, he took second-lead parts. He always looked a bit ‘slick’ but he had a slight bad-boy image which helped. He’d been in San Quentin for auto theft (this was revealed in 1956) but that did his rep no harm at all with the public. In The Silver Whip, though, he is a very right-and-proper lawman, playing it by the book. It’s Dale, rather surprisingly, who leads the lynch mob.
By the year of this movie Robertson (below) was well established in cowboy roles. He’d been Jesse James too (a cameo, really) in his first Western, Fighting Man of the Plains, in 1949, and long before Tales of Wells Fargo he had begun to lead in oaters like The Outcasts of Poker Flat (1952). As a boy I was such a huge fan of Wells Fargo that for me Dale can do no wrong, and so The Silver Whip is worth watching just for him. Toby, in his website 50 Westerns from the 50s, says, “The film belongs to Dale Robertson, whose change from Calhoun’s best friend and Wagner’s mentor to a bitter, obsessed rival gives The Silver Whip a lot of its strength in the last few reels.”
Among the minor roles you can spot John Doucette as a pro-lynch townsman, Burt Mustin the Great as Uncle Ben, the elderly (he was always elderly – I think he was born that way) stage driver, and even a young Chuck Connors (though blink and you’ll miss him).
There are two dames, natch, a prim-and-proper one (Fox contract player Kathleen Crowley in her debut) and a racier saloon gal (sultry Lola Albright), as was traditional. The racy one is named Waco, and she is another example of a woman with a place name being slightly less than respectable – think Dallas in Stagecoach, Denver in Wagonmaster, Colorado in Colorado Territory, and so on. Both Waco and Uncle Ben are gunned down in the stage hold-up, so no wonder Dale was after them.
Anyway, perfectly satisfactory acting.
The story was based on First Blood, Jack Schaefer’s follow-up novel to Shane, so had five-star credentials. The screenplay was by Jesse Lasky Jr, son of the mogul, who wrote a lot of pictures (including The Ten Commandments) and who as far as Westerns go had worked for Cecil B DeMille on North West Mounted Police and Union Pacific.
What with the stagecoach theme, there was something ever so slightly Tales of Wells Fargo-ish about this one (the TV show would debut in March ’57) though of course in The Silver Whip Dale was distinctly not Jim Hardie.
It didn’t do well at the box-office, not making the $1m mark in gross and earning even less than Fox’s commercial disappointment of that year Powder River. Maybe that was partly because it was released only three days after Metro’s The Naked Spur. Still, I’ve definitely seen worse and you might enjoy it.