Forget the Black Lagoon
Julie Adams once said, “No matter what you do, you can act your heart out, but people will always say, ‘Oh, Julie Adams – Creature from the Black Lagoon’.” And that was her most famous role, certainly. But for us, dear e-readers, for us Western fans, creatures and lagoons are nowhere. We care not a jot for them. For us, Julie Adams was a key actor in our beloved genre. That’s where she started, featuring in B-Westerns for Robert Lippert; that’s where she found fame, with Jimmy Stewart on that Bend of the River; and that’s where we met her again and again, alongside the likes of Rock Hudson, Tyrone Power and Glenn Ford.
Altogether she did 18 big-screen oaters (depending on your definition of oater) and 16 episodes of Western TV shows.
She was certainly beautiful but she to me she was somehow a kind of brunette Virginia Mayo (about whom we were discoursing the other day; click the link for that), in that she was best in feisty roles, for example wielding a rifle in Wings of the Hawk, just as Virginia had done in Along the Great Divide. She could do posh lady too, mind.
Betty May Adams was a Southerner, a secretary elected Miss Little Rock, who, we are told, had made her acting debut in a third grade play of Hansel and Gretel, probably not playing Hansel. At 19 she went to live with her aunt and uncle in California and studied speech therapy, sadly to eliminate her Southern drawl – it was considered rather a handicap then. Her first screen role was as an uncredited starlet in Paramount’s crime comedy Red, Hot and Blue in 1949, but as with creatures and lagoons, that interests us not at all. Much more significantly, the same year she landed the leading lady part in a Don ‘Red’ Barry picture for Robert L Lippert which we have recently reviewed – click the link for that – The Dalton Gang. It was a pretty low-grade oater, to be frank, but she was the leading lady, and it was a start.
That was immediately followed by female lead parts (billed as Betty Adams) in a series of ultra-low-budget one-hour Westerns which Lippert and producer Ron Ormond now put together starring Jimmy Ellison and Russ Hayden, directed by Tommy Carr. Not wishing to afford studio facilities, they were shooting up at Ray Corrigan’s ranch. The pictures were Hostile Country, Marshal of Heldorado, Crooked River, Colorado Ranger, West of the Brazos and Fast on the Draw.
In a conversation with C Courtney Joyner, recounted in The Westerners: Interviews with Actors, Directors, Writer and Producers, Julie was amusing about these Lippert oaters. She said that for her it was a childhood dream come true, to be in a Western. She had always played cowgirls in her youth, and now she was doing it again.
She wasn’t under contract to Lippert. Don Barry just proposed her for the roles. They made the six movies in five weeks, and Julie said that to save time (and therefore money), they shot all the movies’ ranch scenes together, then all the riding scenes and then the stagecoach scenes, and so on. It got to the point where she couldn’t remember which movie she was in now. She said, “Am I the banker’s daughter? Am I the farm girl? Am I the rancher’s daughter?”
Well, it was an apprenticeship. She was taking riding lessons in Griffith Park. On the set, with the call of “Action!” she gave her horse a good kick and “we came flying down – flying! – and went past the camera and fortunately there was a mountain there so we just stopped. They said that was fine, but next time you don’t have to come quite so fast.”
She said she was delighted to be in these Lippert pictures. “I got my first car when I did those quickie Westerns.”
She now clicked at a screen test at Universal, and she was third-billed as ‘the other girl’ in the regrettably non-Western Bright Victory, with Arthur Kennedy, released in the summer of 1951. The studio billed her as Julia Adams. Perhaps the ‘Betty May’ sounded a bit down-home. She signed to a seven-year contract (and as a publicity stunt by the studio had her legs insured to the tune of $125,000 by Lloyds of London). She was re-teamed with Kennedy (this time he was the villain), and James Stewart (who became a lifelong friend) when Anthony Mann followed up his hit Western with Stewart Winchester ’73 with a bigger-budget picture, in color, Bend of the River. And this time Julie was cast as the leading lady.
You’ll find a review of this film, and indeed most of Julie’s Westerns, in the index. Here, just to say that after his first two Westerns, Devil’s Doorway and The Furies, which featured strong women, Mann’s others tended to be very male affairs in which women were really just appendages. Mann famously said that “without a woman the Western wouldn’t work” but that didn’t mean they had to be strong central characters, and in most of his oaters, they weren’t. In Bend, Julie was a surprisingly glamorous farm girl, there to be the object of romantic interest of Stewart and Hudson. Still, she is a least a ‘woman with a past’, and had some grit.
Filming of Bend in July 1951 was immediately followed by shooting The Treasure of Lost Canyon, a William Powell/Charles Drake picture shot around Feather River, California which retells the Robert Louis Stevenson short story The Treasure of Franchard, set in 1870 California. This is not available on DVD or YouTube, unfortunately. Derek Winnert says of it, “It is a humble film … modestly made and sparing on thrills. But it makes a pleasant enough adventure for youngsters.” I haven’t seen it, and can’t comment on it, but Adams was very complimentary of Powell. She said he was “utterly charming and funny”. But she said, “I didn’t really have much to do in that picture … I don’t remember much about Mr Tetzlaff [Ted Tetzlaff was the director] except it was all very pleasant and fun, and we did our job and it seemed to go well.” The picture was released in March ’52, shortly after Bend.
Julie then went to work for Budd Boetticher on Horizons West, released in the fall of ‘52. “I was playing a very different kind of part,” Julie recalled, “very sexy, and kind of conniving, I recall.” The picture starred Robert Ryan, one of the great Western actors, especially as bad guy, and he dominates this film and frankly overshadows Rock Hudson, back from Bend of the River, who was yet to lead in a Western (that came soon, with Julie, and with Raoul Walsh at the helm). Brian Garfield said of Horizons West, “Ryan’s power and excellence are offset by the ineptitude of the young Rock Hudson.” That’s maybe a bit harsh but is basically right. Julie is the woman of slimy crook Raymond Burr, but she is taken over by Ryan, adding more cause for conflict.
Julie would be back with Budd, but next she was John Wesley Hardin’s love interest in Universal’s The Lawless Breed. Hudson was good in this one, considering, but it is an absurd whitewash of the Texas killer, and Julie’s part is far from central. Walsh, like Mann and Boetticher, was another who liked women but thought Westerns were a man’s business.
Early on, there’s a girl, an orphan adopted by the Wes Hardin’s father with whom the young man has, naturally, fallen in love. Her name is the rather prosaic Jane Brown, played by Mary Castle, soon to be Frankie in Stories of the Century. She is rather a goody, urging Wes to forsake his drinkin’ and gamblin’ and settle down, which Wes says he wants to do but isn’t that convincing (or convinced). He says he’s going away, to make money for a horse ranch which he and Jane can make their home, and off he goes. “I’ll be waitin’,” Jane tells him. Now the scene shifts to a low gambling den where a painted lady, Rosie (second-billed Julie, fabulously beautiful) clearly fancies Wes but his heart is pledged to Jane. So she sighs and puts up with it, at first. But it’s Rosie who alliteratively whisks Wes away in a wagon when he is wounded, and she becomes his new partner. They wander the West, gambling. They finally get an idyllic ranch, in Alabama, and Wes marries Rosie. They have a baby, young John, but she writes home with the news and the Rangers intercept the letter. Finally Wes is captured, at a railroad station, and stands trial. He is sentenced to 25 years in the pen. All complete hooey, of course, but a good part for Julie.
She said, “We had a lot of fun making that picture. And Raoul Walsh was a very funny man. He was funny and interesting, and very male, and it was very lively on the set with Raoul Walsh, let’s put it that way!”
1953 was a big Western year for Julie Adams. She made four Westerns. The first was The Mississippi Gambler with Tyrone Power. “It was a lovely movie to work on and I loved working with him. He was a wonderful kind of old movie star in the sense of a gallantry to him … And of course he was so handsome. I mean, his smile, was like somebody turned the Klieg lights on!”
The picture was directed this time by Rudolph Maté, and he was meticulous, insisting on rehearsals. “He was very careful. He wanted all the shots planned [because] he was a cameraman, too.”
Only a Western by a stretch of the definition, The Mississippi Gambler is a romantic costume-drama which is quite enjoyable in an old-fashioned way. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times probably got it right when he said, “Notwithstanding its costumes, duels, courtly manners, gaming and brawls, The Mississippi Gambler is standard stuff. It is romantic adventure of a century ago and it is gone with the wind. And a good thing too.” Julie plays ‘the other woman’ (to Piper Laurie).
Straight after, it was back to Budd to make The Man from the Alamo, with Glenn Ford. Julie said, “It was very interesting to work with Glenn Ford. He was a complicated guy, very interesting.” She added, about the picture, interestingly, I think:
“I always loved working on Westerns. I felt very at home in them. I think there’s a part of me that, maybe in another life, I was a pioneer, because I do tune in to the covered wagons, and adventure, and moving West, and all that. So I think that’s probably why I was cast many times in them.”
At the end of the year she’d be back with Boetticher yet again, but first she went off to film The Stand at Apache River. Universal were trying out Stephen McNally as a Western lead. He’d been James Stewart’s dastardly brother Dutch Henry Brown in Winchester ’73 but now they wanted to see if he could make it as the hero. He couldn’t really, and the film was OK but little more. It was the first Western of director Lee Sholem (1913 – 2000). Known as Roll ‘em Sholem, he was famous for a 40-year career in which he directed upwards of 1300 shows, both big-screen and small, without once going over schedule or budget – a feat probably unparalleled in Hollywood history. Julie is a glamorous Eastern lady who arrives on the stage just in time to be besieged by Apaches. Julie said it was a tough picture to do “and not what we call a really great script”. In fact that script was by Arthur Ross, and the producer William Alland, the team that would do Black Lagoon. Oops, I’ve mentioned it again.
And her last Western of ’53 (an epic year for the genre) was another Budd Boetticher oater, this time a south-of-the-border yarn, Wings of the Hawk, with Van Heflin.
For me, Wings is chiefly of interest because Julie had a lot of riding to do (she was an action heroine, una revolucionaria), and the horse she was assigned was Pie! Yes, Pie, Jimmy Stewart’s nag. She said, “He was a great picture horse because he never trotted. He went from a walk into a very easy canter so you were never caught bouncing in the saddle or looking uncomfortable in any way, and he was also trained so that when you were riding into a hitching post, you could start to dismount before he really stopped. In other words, you could be coming out of the saddle as he slowed down and then you could just be on your feet and toss the reins over the hitching post and look as though you’d been riding from the day you were born.”
Budd left the set abruptly after a row with the studio (it was his last pic for Universal) and George Sherman was drafted to direct the final scenes but luckily for Julie, all her scenes had been shot before Budd walked out.
Julie was working very hard at this time. In between movies she was sent out on promo tours, even for pictures she wasn’t in. After Wings, it was the unmentionable Black Lagoon, then she did a series of noirs and got married and had a baby. What’s more, her Universal contract ended and she ventured out into the wide world of freelance. She even changed her name again, to Julie. The IMDb bio of her says, “Julia changed her moniker (with studio approval) to the less gentle-sounding Julie.” Personally, I’m not sure that Julie sounds tougher than Julia, but there we are.
She wouldn’t do another Western till 1957. That was another picture I haven’t yet reviewed (so much to do, so little time) Slim Carter, a comedy with Jock Mahoney. I say it was a Western: more of a semi-Western, really. Jock is a not very nice country & western singer discovered by Julie and promoted as the next big cowboy star. Ben Johnson is his double.
But the next ‘real’ Western, in 1959, was a big ‘un: The Gunfight at Dodge City.
This was a Walter Mirisch production in CinemaScope and Color De Luxe, released by United Artists, and directed by safe pair of hands Joseph Newman. Joel McCrea was Bat Masterson cleaning up Dodge (it was historical hooey, of course). John McIntire was brilliant in it as the doc. Second-billed Julie, as the beautiful daughter of the preacher (Rev James Westerfield), was complemented by saloon owner Nancy Gates (with both Julie and Nancy, it was a real treat for me). Of course, Bat hovers between the two, the ‘good’ one and the raunchier one: which shall he choose? It was a superb Western, with Joel and Julie (and Nancy) on top form.
And tragically, that was that for the big-screen Western. At least she went out on a high. Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie in 1971, in which she headed the cast, had some Western tinges. After a film production wraps in Peru, an American wrangler decides to stay behind, witnessing how filmmaking affects the locals. There was no script and Julie had to improvise. She said the whole experience was “interesting”, “a fascinating experience.” But to all intents and purposes, Dodge City was her last feature Western.
However, you gotta eat, and from the late 50s Julie started doing the occasional episode of TV Western shows. In 1958 she was in two episodes of Zane Grey Theatre: S2 E22, Man of Fear, with Dewey Martin as Doc Holliday, and S3 E7, with John Ericson and Brad Dexter, The Tall Shadow, directed by John English. That year too she did the very first Yancy Derringer, S1 E1, with Jocko again, Return to New Orleans, directed by Richard Sale, playing Yancy’s former belle.
In 1959, she did a Frontier Justice and a Maverick, the latter a small part, though, not the female lead. She used the same character name, Julie Brand, in several of these shows. In 1960 she was back on Maverick, this time as leading lady, a beautiful widow who asks Bart to protect her from an unknown killer. He accepts – unaware that he is the intended victim. That year she also did an episode of Tate, The Rifleman and two of Cheyenne. In the early 60s there’d be work on Bonanza, Outlaws, The Big Valley and The Virginian.
Lastly, aged 45, she did a Western TV movie, The Trackers, in 1971, with Ernest Borgnine. It also featured Arthur Hunnicutt, Jim Davis and Leo Gordon – so you can’t knock it too much. In all honesty, though, it wasn’t very good. Interestingly, Julie played a Southerner, so got to re-use her Arkansas twang (she calls her husband Sam Say-yam).
Et voilà, that was that for the Western career of Julie Adams.
She was great, though, wasn’t she?