Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

The Westerns of Lee Sholem


Roll ‘em Sholem


Lee Tabor Sholem (1913 – 2000) was one of the characters of Hollywood. Born in Paris (but before we get too carried away with the glamour of it all, Paris, Illinois), he began in movies in the cutting room in the 1930s.



It is said that he worked 118 hours his first week, 126 the second, and he got to 130 hours the third week before passing out.


He got to know Sol Lesser, the owner of a chain of movie theaters who went into film production, concentrating mainly on low-budget Westerns and Tarzan pictures. Sol joined RKO in 1941 as executive in charge of feature production. Sholem got some assistant director gigs with him in the early 1940s. In fact Sholem’s debut as director, in 1947, was helming a Sol Lesser Tarzan picture at RKO, with Lex Barker (about whom he said, “He was an egomaniac. He had a birthday while we were shooting one of those Tarzan pictures, and the crew got together and purchased a great big mirror for him.”)




His third picture as director was for Robert L Lippert, another distributor who went into movie-making, but, surprisingly for Bob Lippert, it wasn’t a Western. It was Superman and the Mole-Men, the first feature-length film based on DC Comics. I say feature film, though it was really a pilot for the projected TV show with George Reeves. The budget was surprisingly decent – $275,000 – but it’s all very shoddy. The Mole-Men’s weapon was a 1950s vacuum cleaner with extra pieces stuck on it, and the picture came in at barely 58 minutes. However, Lee never worked with Lippert again. Pity. He could have done those early-50s Lippert oaters on autopilot.



The Wiki biog of Lee says, “If only one Hollywood name is synonymous with speed and efficiency, it has to be Lee ‘Roll ‘Em’ Sholem. In a 40-year career, he directed upwards of 1300 shows, both features and TV episodes, without once going over schedule–a feat probably unparalleled in Hollywood history.”


In Interviews with B Science Fiction and Horror Movie Makers, Tom Weaver recounts that Lee said, “By knowing exactly what I was going to do, I could walk on the set in the morning and say to the crew, ‘Eleven shots from now I’m going to make a dolly shot, from here to there’. By knowing and telling them that, it gives them a chance … so that by the time we got to the eleventh shot, everything was ready. This is where you save time.”


Flash directors at major studios expected two or three camera set-ups a day. In B-movies of the Lippert kind, fifty was the norm. Sholem could do seventy.


Sholem’s fourth picture as director was, at last, a Western. It was at Universal, in 1953, making The Redhead from Wyoming with Maureen O’Hara. This picture was in Technicolor, with some Agoura, California locations shot by future Oscar-winner Winton Hoch, so it was certainly a step up from Lippert. Although William Bishop was quite good as the heavy, O’Hara was unconvincing, to say the least, as Cattle Kate and Alex Nicol, as chief goody, was bland. It wasn’t a great Western. Still, there are gunfights, brawls, a stampede, a song, a jailbreak – much of what you would expect from a Western of this kind and period – all climaxing in a mega shoot-out. Sholem did the job.


Maureen in the Johnson County War


Later the same year Sholem got the job of directing another Universal oater, The Stand at Apache River. The studio was trying out Stephen McNally as a Western lead – he’d been James Stewart’s dastardly brother Dutch Henry Brown in Winchester ’73 – but it didn’t really take. Once again, though, it isn’t bad, and it rattles along. You can’t blame the director for any shortcomings, really.



In 1956 Sholem got the job of directing episodes of Desilu’s The Sheriff of Cochise, with John Bromfield. This was a neo-Western police procedural, actually, but it ran for two seasons, and Sholem helmed eleven of them.


Lee’s next Western gig was at Columbia, back on the big screen, directing the romance Sierra Stranger in 1957. It starred Howard Duff, so wasn’t all that good as a Western, but Dick Foran was third-billed and good old Barton MacLane was the heavy, so it wasn’t all bad. One review said, “Sierra Stranger is a no frills B western that Columbia Pictures released to fill some bottom bills in the Fifties. This was the kind of story that you could find in a Gunsmoke or a Have Gun Will Travel episode on television which was why the B western was rapidly going into extinction.” A bit harsh, maybe.


Nice Italian poster of SIERRA STRANGER


But tragically, that was that for Lee Sholem and the feature Western. He would never again cry “Roll em!” on the big-screen prairie. It would be TV work from now on as far as oaters went.


In 1958 he directed a good number: four episodes of Cheyenne, three of Bronco, three of Sugarfoot, one of Colt .45 and one of Lawman. Not bad. And he would continue as a regular director on these shows through 1961.



He also did a couple of Maverick episodes (Bart ones) in the early 60s before becoming a regular on Death Valley Days mid-decade.


So all in all Lee Sholem did enough in our noble genre to be honored with an entry in the Jeff Arnold’s West series The Westerns of… Fame indeed, you will agree.


Lee said, later in life, “It’s a fascinating business. It has its ups and downs, but I’m grateful I’ve been in it.” He did however add, “I sure wouldn’t want to be doing it now.”




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