The second in Jeff Arnold’s West’s smash-hit series (not really) on the producers of Western movies, after Harry Sherman (click the link for that) is another Harry. This Harry is probably best known for that series of late-1950s Westerns directed by Budd Boetticher and starring Harry’s business partner Randolph Scott, superb pictures like Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station, but like Harry Sherman, Harry Joe Brown went way back, to the silent days. And unlike Sherman, Brown also directed, wrote and contributed in various ways to the Western genre.
He was born in Pittsburgh in 1890 (so was six years younger than Sherman) and he got his showbiz start in the theater, acting and directing. But he moved to California in the early 1920s to try his luck in the burgeoning motion picture industry.
His very first pictures were Westerns. In 1924, still only in his early thirties, Harry produced a series of silent oaters starring Fred Thomson. Largely forgotten today (except by JAW readers, who enjoyed our recent post on Fred – click here) Thomson was, in his time, Hollywood royalty, married to top director/screenwriter Frances Marion and close colleague and friend of megastar Mary Pickford. His Westerns were for Film Booking Offices of America (FBO), which had been acquired by Joseph P Kennedy. FBO’s core market was America’s small towns, to which it supplied romantic melodramas, action pictures, and comedic shorts, but a staple of its output was Westerns, and Fred Thomson was its biggest star.
Harry’s Thomson Westerns were written by Frances and directed by Albert S Rogell, whose feature output from 1923 on was mainly low-budget pictures, but he specialized in tight little Westerns.
They were The Mask of Lopez, North of Nevada, Galloping Gallagher, The Silent Stranger, The Dangerous Coward, The Fighting Sap and Thundering Hoofs. There also seems to have been another, a comedy, Ridin’ the Wind, this time directed by Del Andrews, in early 1925. Tragically, all now have been lost except Thundering Hoofs, and that, though it was once released on VHS, is no longer available. We do know that Fred, who was a real athlete and did his own stunts, was quite badly hurt in it, leaping onto a stagecoach horse, and Yakima Canutt had to complete the stunt. Production was halted on the film for some time, until Fred was healed and ready to start again.
Joe Kennedy made a deal with Jesse Lasky over at Paramount by which Thomson would make Westerns there (Lasky and Adolph Zukor producing, not Harry), and so the later Fred oaters were quite major affairs, with decent budgets, especially Jesse James in 1927 and Kit Carson in 1928. But Fred died young, after a banal accident, and his pictures were pulled from theaters all over the country. It was considered poor taste to profit from a deceased actor. In his book Jesse James and the Movies, Johnny Boggs tells us that in 1951 Harry Joe was approached by a major TV network interested in buying Thomson Westerns for broadcast. “When Brown admitted he had burned the negatives, the network official ‘nearly swooned’”.
In August 1925 in New York, Independent Pictures released The Fighting Smile, starring Bill Cody, and directed by Jay Marchant, which Harry seems not to have produced but which he wrote, and was also the cameraman.
But he now went back to producing, with quite a long series of Ken Maynard oaters for First National. This was a company which started distributing motion pictures but in the early 1920s moved into production too. It signed contracts with Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin, said to be the first million-dollar deals in the history of film. Al Rogell directed some of these Westerns also, but Harry himself often took the helm. There would be 25 of these pictures, that we know about anyway, between 1925 and ’30, and Harry directed 14 of them.
Maynard was famous for his daredevil stunts, and footage of some of these movies was reused well into the talkie era, after Warners had bought up First National. Dick Foran, for example, sometimes had to be costumed like Ken so that the footage matched.
In the non-Western arena, Harry had big hits in 1926 with The Winner and Broadway Billy, with Billy Sullivan, which he both directed and produced.
But after the Ken Maynard pictures, Harry tragically had a Western pause, producing talkie romances and comedies for RKO-Pathé all through the 1930s. He only returned to the sagebrush with three pictures for the studio, starring good old Tom Keene, Beyond the Rockies, Ghost Valley and The Saddle Buster, all directed by Fred Allen. We’d have to wait till the 1940s for another Harry Joe Brown Western.
In 1941 Harry started his long collaboration with Randolph Scott. With Darryl Zanuck he produced the Fritz Lang-directed Western Union for Fox. In The New York Times, reviewer Bosley Crowther described the picture as “one of the finest color films ever seen” and praised the “breath-taking shots of vast stretches of prairie across which the construction gang is seen drawing its tiny wire”. Crowther also singled out the “superior quality” of the acting performances. “Randolph Scott, who is getting to look and act more and more like William S Hart, herein shapes one of the truest and most appreciable characters of his career as the party’s scout.” The picture did very well, critically and commercially, and Harry Joe Brown was in the big time now.
In 1943 it was back with Randy, this time at Columbia, with what was, in fact, the studio’s first ever color picture, The Desperadoes. It’s a highly entertaining Western romp with an excellent cast (as well as Scott, Claire Trevor, Glenn Ford, Edgar Buchanan et al) and well directed by Charles Vidor (more significantly for the future, with Budd Boetticher as assistant director). And it was another hit.
There would be five more Westerns in the 1940s, four of them with Scott. Gunfighters in 1947, scripted by Alan Le May from a Zane Grey yarn, was a fairly standard Columbia oater of the time but well done, directed by George Waggner and with some nice Sedona and Vasquez Rocks location shooting by Fred Jackman Jr. It was the first film of the then-named Producers-Actors Corporation, which would become Ranown.
In ’48 Harry produced Tom Reed’s adaptation of a Saturday Evening Post story by Eli Colter, The Untamed Breed, directed by Charles Lamont and starring Sonny Tufts, Gabby Hayes and Edgar Buchanan again.
But the same year, Harry was in action again, with another Producers-Actors Corporation picture, an absolutely superb Western noir, led by Scott at his very best. It was an adaption by Kenneth Gamet of a Luke Short story, probably director Ray Enright’s finest work, Coroner Creek. These late-40s Columbia oaters were really top class. This picture was the equal of Harry Sherman’s production Ramrod, of a similar time, see our last post, which Martin Scorsese considers a masterpiece, and he may not be wrong.
That was followed by the Gordon Douglas-helmed The Doolins of Oklahoma, with Randy as a very improbable Bill Doolin (the whole Kenneth Gamet script was rather daft, to be honest, if fun). And the same year, an early John Sturges Western, The Walking Hills, came out. I say Western: more of a contemporary Western (there are cars) but it was a taut little gripper, very well written (Le May again), directed and acted, Scott backed by a cast that was becoming a Scott-Brown stock company, including Edgar Buchanan and John Ireland. It was terrifically good.
So the 1940s were a golden decade for Harry Joe Brown Westerns.
The 1950s would be the high point, though, and would culminate in those fine Westerns with Scott directed by Boetticher.
The decade began, however, with another Randolph Scott oater directed by Gordon Douglas, one I particularly like, actually, The Nevadan. It co-starred Dorothy Malone, so that’s part of why I like it, but I also thought the rest of the cast excellent: Forrest Tucker, George Macready, Frank Faylen, Charles Kemper, Jeff Corey, Jock Mahoney. The movie is also noticeably well paced.
Later the same year Harry Joe made Stage to Tucson (these were all Columbia pictures) with Rod Cameron, and, fourth-billed, Sally Eilers, the former Mrs Brown (they divorced in 1943). This picture is, you will be utterly thrilled to learn, the subject of an upcoming review on Jeff Arnold’s West. So come back soon.
There were two oaters in 1951, Santa Fe and Man in the Saddle, both with Randy. The first was directed by Irving Pichel but the second was one of two Westerns on which André De Toth worked with Scott and Brown – the other would be The Stranger Wore a Gun in 1953. Scott and De Toth made six Westerns together, but they weren’t all Harry Joe efforts. Carson City, Riding Shotgun, Thunder over the Plains and The Bounty Hunter were made with different producers over at Warners. De Toth was in fact quite scathing about Randy and Harry Joe. In Blood from the Abacus: The André De Toth & Randolph Scott Westerns on mubi.com, Thomas Quist says of Man in the Saddle and The Stranger Wore a Gun, “Both films are haphazardly scripted and offer only downriver versions of themes given a full force in other films. De Toth conveyed frustration over Brown and Scott’s lack of care for the projects (“I cared so much for something they cared so little about”), for their dedication to reading the Wall Street Journal more than the script.” Myself, I think De Toth must come in for some of the blame for the less than sparkling ones. It’s true that Randy and Harry were money men, but they were also supreme professionals, and Randy was a damn fine actor, in any movie.
In any case, in 1952 writer Roy Huggins got a chance to direct a Scott-Brown production and it was excellent, Hangman’s Knot. It’s a tense, claustrophobic and gripping Western that develops character interestingly and has unexpected plot twists. Most of it is a siege story, as the (semi-) good guys are holed up in a stage way-station while the badmen do everything they can think of to kill them and grab the gold they believe to be inside – maybe. Siege stories can be static, but well-handled, as this one is, they can be thrilling. Many Randy aficionados rank Hangman’s Knot right up there with the Boetticher pictures. The fact that it was shot by Charles Lawton Jr up at Lone Pine heightens the similarities.
As well as Stranger, in ’53 Harry made an interesting Western and an unusual one in that Broderick Crawford was in it and he was good. Poor old Brod wasn’t, always. He was much better suited to gangster/cop yarns. But The Last Posse, helmed by Alfred L Werker (who back in the day had co-directed on those Fred Thomson silents) was really well done. On one level, maybe, a black a white B (and it didn’t make a great splash), The Last Posse was actually a tense, well-acted, well-written and well-directed Western.
In 1954 Harry got Werker back for a 77-minute color Western at Columbia starring Dana Andrews, Three Hours to Kill. It’s a revenge/whodunnit drama which I quite like, not least because a derringer plays a key role. Normally Andrews played Mr Nice Guy but in this one he was a tough hombre bent on revenge for having been unjustly accused of homicide and very nearly lynched. He wants justice: punishment for the lynch mob and death for the real killer. Gripping stuff, huh.
There were two more Randy Westerns in ’55, Ten Wanted Men, released in February, and A Lawless Street, in December, both for Columbia. The first was helmed by H Bruce Humberstone (it was his best Western but he only did three) and the second by Joseph Lewis (more of a gangster-noir director really). The first benefited from some excellent bad guys, Richard Boone, Lee Van Cleef and Leo Gordon (not bad, eh?), and there was quite a good supporting cast in the other too, notably Michael Pate, not as an Indian, for once, but as a deadly gunslinger.
But 1955 was also interesting because it was the year Harry Joe made an attempt to break into TV. He made a pilot, Theatre of the West. Rather as with Zane Grey Theatre, I reckon they thought the European spelling of theater was more chic. Randy was the host who introduced the show, Officer’s Choice, from a story by Ernest Haycox. A sheriff (Scott Brady) who is an all-round goody, has a dark secret. He used to be an outlaw. When a Texas Ranger (Paul Kelly) comes to town searching for the renegade, the lawman has to decide whether to give up the life he has made for himself and run, or own up to his past. Sadly, though, the pilot was not taken up by anyone, and the series remained still-born.
In 1956 Brown reunited the A Lawless Street team for 7th Cavalry, IMHO a better Western. It was a peripheral Custer story with Randy playing an army officer who took time off to get married to Barbara Hale just at the right/wrong moment, missing the unfortunate incident at Little Bighorn. He then has to salvage his rep by recovering the remains of the fallen men of the 7th, notable George. It had a good cast, was written by Glen Swarthout, of The Shootist fame, and had nice Mexican locations.
That year too Harry abandoned Randy briefly, teaming up with Audie Murphy (they were both credited as producers) on Columbia’s The Guns of Fort Petticoat, directed by the great George Marshall, a sort of sub-Westward the Women with the ladies doing the gun work. It did suffer from poor writing (Walter Doniger and C William Harrison) but was quite fun.
But the rest of the 50s were devoted to the now famous Randolph Scott/Budd Boetticher Westerns. Scott and Brown made two in 1957, The Tall T and Decision at Sundown, one in ’58, Buchanan Rides Alone, one in ’59, Ride Lonesome, and the last one in 1960, Comanche Station.
The Tall T was written by Burt Kennedy from an Elmore Leonard story and featured as antagonist Richard Boone again. Decision at Sundown, not quite as good, was written by Charles Lang and Vernon L Fluharty and had a slightly weaker John Carroll as the bad guy. Kennedy contributed to the script of Buchanan Rides Alone, but not too much, and this one is slightly different in tone, with Scott’s hero Buchanan being more of a happy-go-lucky type rather than a stern revenge-driven fellow. Ride Lonesome (my favorite) had a Kennedy screenplay and featured a pre-Bonanza Pernell Roberts and a young James Coburn, both very good. Boetticher got co-producing credit with Scott and Brown. And Comanche Station had Claude Akins and Skip Homeier as the antagonists and was a Kennedy script.
The Tall T, Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station were shot by Charles Lawton Jr in those marvelous Lone Pine locations, using widescreen to heighten the ‘lone-ness’ of the hero.
All the pictures were superb. Boetticher summed up the Western formula as: A man has a job to do, or a couple of men. They try to do it against tremendous odds. They do it. That’s pretty succinct. Martin Scorsese remarked of Boetticher, “His style was as simple as his impassive heroes – deceptively simple.”
Of course, if you love a movie or a series of movies, you give credit where credit’s due, but these ones truly were a team effort and it is difficult to say if the best of them are down to the acting, direction, production, writing or cinematography. The answer, of course, is all of them. Film historian Jon Tuska said, “Harry Joe Brown was the moving force behind those pictures”. It was Brown who brought Scott and Boetticher together, and it was Brown who organized the wonderful Lone Pine locations that Boetticher and Lawton used so marvelously well.
Boetticher stood up for Brown when on Harry Cohn’s death in 1958 the new studio execs tried to fire Brown. “Can you believe it? He made a hundred pictures for that crappy organization! They figured Randy, Burt and I could do it by ourselves … So we just said, ‘If you fire Harry Joe, we’ll go to Warner Bros.’ And they backed down.”
But that was almost that for Harry Joe Brown. He was 70, after all. He did a couple of non-Westerns in the 60s, a TV show and a pirate movie, and in 1967, as an adieu, he produced A Time for Killing, not my favorite Glenn Ford Western, I must admit, one of those stories where Northern and Southern soldiers are fighting it out, unaware that peace has been declared. It was his last movie.