Yesterday we put together our Hollywood project for a great Western – click here for that. It’s going to be written by Niven Busch from a novel by Luke Short, it’s to be directed by André De Toth and photographed by James Wong Howe. Harry Joe Brown is going to be my assistant producer and Elmer Bernstein will probably write the music, though I am still toying with a Ry Cooder folksy score. Yak Canutt will do the stunts, obviously, and I’ve got Henry Bumstead for the art direction. I reckon we’re pretty much there. Get your nominations in; the Oscars are nigh.
Clearly, the big decision upfront is the lead. Gary Cooper is of course top of mind. For me, he was the greatest of them all.
Duke’s a self-evident choice. And then hats off (as in Blazing Saddles) to Randolph Scott. But I also greatly admire other leads in Westerns, the likes of Henry Fonda, James Stewart and Gregory Peck, truly fine actors. Joel McCrea became, like Randy, a Western specialist, and he was always superb. Slightly lower down the gregory-pecking order but still fine in Westerns, we might consider Audie Murphy, Glenn Ford, Rory Calhoun, William Holden, others. If we want a lead with a slightly tough-guy/baddy tinge we might offer it to Robert Ryan or Bob Mitchum. I probably won’t go for Kirk Douglas or Burt Lancaster, though they were both excellent in some Westerns, because of their occasional tendency to ham it up a bit and/or hog the limelight. I wouldn’t want that. And Alan Ladd was never convincing, not even in Shane.
I think I’ll offer it first to Randy.
Opposite him, I have a plethora of female leads I like. And you know, there’s nothing like a plethora. There has to be a pair of principal dames, though, or at least a leading lady and “the other woman”, because as is traditional in Westerns the hero will dally between them, opting in the last reel for the finer of the two. These characters could be a slightly prim-and-proper one contrasted with a racier saloon gal, or, as I prefer, a strong, independent, not to say feisty person (Luke Short was very good at those), a tough lady-rancher maybe, and a moderately louche alternative, a vaguely shady lady, but with a heart of gold, naturally.
Well, now, who would you go for? For me, it certainly won’t be Dietrich, I can tell you that. Couldn’t stand her, and I never got how anyone thought her beautiful. Pretty well ditto Stanwyck. And don’t even mention Maureen O’Hara. I always thought Virginia Mayo good. Not all the Westerns she was in were, but then which actor did appear only in good Westerns? I’ve always been captivated by the beauty of Rita Hayworth and Ingrid Bergman but they didn’t do enough Westerns to be eligible – in the case of Bergman, none (you can’t call Saratoga Trunk a Western). Faye Dunaway was probably the most beautiful woman on the planet but she only did three. No, I’m going for someone more comfortable in our noble genre.
For the saloon woman with real presence you can’t do better than Katy Jurado in High Noon, and I so admire her in other pictures that she’s my choice for the non-angelic one.
But actually, even for the ‘good’ one I don’t want angelic. We’ve got to get away from that clichéd saintly/whorish dichotomy. I want noble saloon gals and flawed schoolma’ams. I’m offering the lead to one of my all-time faves, Dorothy Malone, because she was stunningly beautiful on the one hand (that probably shouldn’t count in these feminist days but it does) and on the other hand she was so good at the gutsy part. Who could forget her bringing her derringer to bear in a saloon fight in Jack Slade? I mean, come on. That’s my kinda gal. Dorothy did seventeen big-screen Westerns and we think of her especially as the ‘good’ (though not as it turns out) woman in Colorado Territory, with Joel hovering between her and Virginia, with Fred in At Gunpoint, pondering between Rock and Kirk in The Last Sunset, with Joel again in South of St Louis, with Randy in the excellent The Nevadan and Tall Man Riding, and many more. Yes, Dorothy, definitely. I haven’t quite decided if she’ll be blonde. She wasn’t always, you know.
And I’m going to need an older woman, a maternal figure, but one with steel. I did consider Jane Darwell and I greatly admire Hope Emerson from Westward the Women and The Guns of Fort Petticoat, but in fact I’m going for Judith Anderson, because she was a fine actress, had that really strong face and was absolutely brilliant in the noirish Pursued and The Furies.
Now, onto the best bit, the bad guys.
I categorize Western villains into various types: smoothie saloon owner (preferably with a derringer), ruthless rancher, crooked banker, shyster lawyer, crazed preacher, dodgy judge, corrupt lawman, and of course the inevitable henchmen and gunmen. And like you, probably, I have my preferred actors for each role.
As I said the other day, for me the best city slicker in a fancy vest who has treed the town and who has his headquarters in a saloon is Lyle Bettger. It was his blond looks, his wry smile (aka sneer) and his two-faced brilliance that mark him out. There are other candidates, of course, equally blond David Brian, for example, especially if you needed the bad guy to engage in fisticuffs (that wasn’t Lyle’s thing) or again another blond, cackling Dan Duryea, or again, in a slightly earlier time, Victory Jory, master of the sleeve derringer and the cunning plan. You’ll think of others. But I’m having Lyle.
He’ll need thuggish henchmen, naturally, to do his dirty work. Chief among them will be Leo Gordon, my all-time best Western heavy. You won’t get many actors able to put him down, certainly not with the fists.
And at his shoulder will be our old friends burly Robert J Wilke, slant-eyed Lee Van Cleef and squinty splay-footed Jack Elam. Countless are the Westerns which go to strengthen their henching CV, though mine will be their finest hour. I might have a few more assorted lesser heavies such as Jack Lambert, Neville Brand, George Keymas, Ted de Corsia and, especially, Glenn Strange.
If we need a pistol-twirling quick-on-the-draw punk-kid gunman, and we do, it has to be Skip Homeier. Ever since he shot Gregory Peck in the back in The Gunfighter, he monopolized the part of punk. He was once cast as a goody lead. Big mistake.
For all-round bad guy, in whatever dimension, we won’t go far wrong with Bruce Dern.
We’ll need a ruthless rancher, one of those who fought the Indians back in the day and carved out the empire of a huge ranch, a cattle baron who will be damned if he will let sodbusters onto ‘his’ range and string wire there. He’ll have gunmen in his employ too, of course, so any left over from the paragraph above can get work with him. I very much liked John Dehner in the role in Tension at Table Rock. Dehner was so good whatever part you gave him. Our old pal Ray Teal did ruthless rancher well too. John McIntire was a classic one in Stranger on Horseback. He was another versatile thespian. But I’m earmarking Dehner, Teal and McIntire for other roles, so we’ll pass on them for the moment. Emile Meyer would be good, you know, after his Ryker in Shane. But was he ruthless enough? There’s almost something sympathetic about Ryker. I’ll need to ponder more on this bit of casting. It needs someone with metaphorical and even maybe physical weight.
As for the character beloved of Westerns, the crazed preacher, John Dehner again was good (as always) in the role in A Day of Fury, urging on the mob, and of course Russell Simpson pretty well cornered the market in reverends (though rarely crazed ones) for years and years – Mormon elder, Episcopalian minister, whatever cleric was required, Russell was available. But his clergymen were rather too good, usually. No, there’s only one real unhinged divine for us, and that’s RG Armstrong. Ride the High Country, Major Dundee, he rarely did anything else for Peckinpah. On an episode of Jefferson Drum and one of Bronco, if you needed a deranged ecclesiastic, RG was your man.
Now, we know that all bankers were crooked in oaters. There wore suits and, worse, were often Easterners. They delighted in foreclosing on honest ranchers who need more time to repay their loans. Many and various are crooked bankers in Westerns and you will doubtless think of lots right away. I was tempted to go for Porter Hall because of the highly enjoyable The Desperadoes, in which, you will recall, skunk banker Clanton (Hall) – and we know that the name Clanton is alone enough to mark him out as a baddy – is in cahoots with rascally Uncle Willie McLeod (Edgar Buchanan, splendid as ever) who appears a harmless, cheery sort of chap but is actually in a conspiracy with slimy banker Clanton. Their scheme is to pay some bank robbers led by Bernard Nedell (who is very good) to raid the bank, but they remove the cash first. They then pay out the poor account holders at 50¢ on the dollar, gaining their gratitude, and pocket the rest. Darned clever.
In the end, though, I felt that we ought to opt for the crooked banker of the Western genre, and I am of course referring to Berton Churchill’s pompous Gatewood in Stagecoach. He was absconded from the town of Tonto with his bank’s money. He sits next to prostitute Dallas on the stage but it is quite clear who is the more disreputable of the two, and it isn’t Claire.
If the Western as a whole may be said to have a coherent political ideology at all (a rather dubious proposition, I grant you) then it would be Populism. The resentment of Westerners to what many of them saw as the unjust and exploitative control of largely Eastern big business, railroads and banks was widespread in Western states and territories. That is why so many Western movies have as their villains rich ranchers, railroad bosses – and bankers.
Railroad barons were another class of bad guy, as ruthless as they were exploitative of the honest Westerner, and often they too had gunmen to do their dirty work – notably railroad baron Morton’s hired killer Frank (Henry Fonda) in Once Upon a Time in the West. Widmark was pretty tough in How the West Was Won. Sometimes real-life railroad bosses were portrayed on the screen, like Doc Durant and Collis P Huntington in Hell on Wheels. But I think I’ll have a fictional one. I might have Edmond O’Brien from Denver and Rio Grande, though he was a bit of a goody, so maybe Sterling Hayden, from Kansas Pacific. He was properly ruthless.
Now another class of professional not usually known for probity was the judge. One of the best ever wicked legal arbiters was Judge Gannon in The Far Country, based on the real-life Soapy Smith, con-man and gangster, who ruled the roost in Skagway in the late 1890s. Smith opened up a saloon, which became known as “the real city hall”, had the local law on his payroll and pretty well had the town treed. But he was shot to death in a gunfight on Juneau Wharf July 8, 1898. John McIntire’s Gannon in Anthony Mann’s The Far Country would be enough alone to get him cast as my crooked judge.
But of course, even he could not compete with the bent judge, the unjust justice, the judicial jackal, and that’s Edgar Buchanan. Edgar was well known for portraying the most rapscallion of jurists, Judge Roy Bean, on TV but he had a great line in corrupt magistrates on the big screen too. He was outstanding as the sad, broken-down, drunk Judge Tolliver in Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country, again with McCrea and Randolph Scott, and he was scoundrelly Circuit Court Judge Thaddeus Jackson Breen in The Comancheros with John Wayne. He was rather touching as Judge Neal Hefner in Cimarron and excellently comic/rascally again as Judge Bogardus in Arizona in 1940. He was a downright crooked one in Rage at Dawn.
In his courtroom, slimy lawyers would certainly appear, for the smarmy prosecutor or defense counsel was another regular in Westerns. Of the many, I’m going for pre-Perry Mason Raymond Burr. He was excellent as the duplicitous attorney, as several Westerns proved. Yup, Ray’s the man for the job.
Sheriffs and marshals could be on the take and/or in the pocket of the unscrupulous town boss, like Sheriff Brady in many Billy the Kid yarns, or they could be upright good guys. Ray Teal could do both very well. He was the corrupt sheriff to Edgar Buchanan’s corrupt judge in Rage at Dawn. Perfect casting. Back in the day, Earl Dwire did either well, too.
However, not all the professionals were villainous. Doctors were usually good guys. There were many good Docs but I said I had reserved John McIntire and I want him as benign physician, mainly because of his wonderful portrayal in The Tin Star but also for his medico (friendly with the Revd James Westerfield) in The Gunfight at Dodge City.
Another recognizable Western type who was nearly always a goodie was the old-timer, often in a comic-relief sidekick role. Of course all great works (and my Western’s going to be a great work) have to have their Dr Watson, Sancho Panza, Donald Duck, Leporello, Robin, Booboo, Barney Rubble or Shrek’s donkey. They were the heroes’ foils. There were so many good old-timers (often played by young actors) it’s going to be hard to choose. Walter Brennan maybe, for his parts in Red River and Rio Bravo? Al ‘Fuzzy’ St John, or another Fuzzy, Fuzzy Knight? Smiley Burnette? But I reckon in the last resort it has to be Gabby Hayes, don’t you? He was the comic old-timer in excelsis.
Gamblers were pretty well always dubious types. Not Maverick, of course, though even he toyed with the scurrilous. Proof of gamblers’ nefariousness was the frequency with which they used derringers. Doc Holliday is probably the most famous of the Western gamblers but you can think of plenty more. Widmark did dangerous gambler darned well, in Yellow Sky and The Law and Jake Wade. He’d be good. I also have a soft spot for the aptly-named Slick in Silverado so I might cast Jeff Goldblum and I love top-hatted Harry Carey in the 1932 Law and Order but I think on balance I prefer good old Frank Faylen, especially for his part in the nice little 1954 Western, The Lone Gun. He’s a good badman. His derringer actually plays an important part in the plot.
Andy Devine will drive the stage (one of the few actors who could genuinely handle a six-up stagecoach). Slim Pickens is a must, as is Noah Beery Jr; they’ll probably be cowboys. They’ll certainly show off their riding skills. For tough ranch foreman, ditto on the riding skills, I’m having Ben Johnson. We might have a couple of Mexican vaqueros on the ranch too, Rodolfo Acosta, maybe, or Gilbert Roland. Alfonso Bedoya if we want a toothy grin. A Mexican lawyer or saloon man will need the excellent Joseph Calleia. Actually, Noah Beery did a convincing Mexican (The Light of Western Stars, The Treasure of Pancho Villa). But we’ll have to be careful not to have stereotype Mexicans. The difficulty will be writing big enough parts for all these great actors. We mustn’t make our Western too long. We might have to make it a Deadwood-style TV show, lasting about ten seasons.
We’ll need a few townspeople, storekeepers and the like. Probably they’ll be pusillanimous and won’t step up when the going gets tough. I always liked Vaughn Taylor in that part but we might also recruit the likes of slightly smarmy Denver Pyle, good old Monte Blue, cadaverous James Griffith, portly Charles Middleton, maybe solid Harry Lauter.
As for Indians, in the olden days it would have been the likes of Morris Ankrum, J Carrol Naish, Iron Eyes Cody or Henry Brandon. Jay Silverheels was more authentic, if Tonto-typecast.
More recently actors of American Indian heritage have been used, such as Wes Studi, Graham Greene, Chief Dan George, Will Sampson, Eric Schweig and others. I’m going down that route.
It isn’t a cavalry Western so we won’t be casting troopers and officers, thought we might have one token fort commandant or something, an alcoholic one maybe, and cast possibly Basil Ruysdael or John Litel.
Actors we will not be casting, in any role at all, include Karl Malden, Rod Steiger, Joseph Cotten and Marlon Brando, who were uniformly dreadful in Westerns.
I’ll have to be especially nice to Bosley Crowther on the New York Times and butter up the Variety reviewers. Take Louella, Hedda and Dorothy out to dinner (separately). Extra-nice Christmas presents, I think.
Well, there we have it. I bet you’d watch this one. Mind, you’ve probably got your own choices for the different parts. I’m sure Gumpy does. That’s OK. I’ll come and see your Western too.
Oh, and by the way, if you rebut (and I know you do rebutting) that most of the above actors are now dead, so how can they be in the movie, let me come back to you by saying, so what? This is a film cast in my imagination, and in the glory days of the most noble of genres. Mere details like actors being deceased are neither here nor there.