Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

The Westerns of Virginia Mayo




Raoul Walsh called her his favorite actress. “She didn’t pose, you know. She was a natural.”


Anyone who watches Mayo as James Cagney’s promiscuous wife in White Heat will agree about her acting talent, and Western-lovers will think immediately of her Colorado Carson in Colorado Territory, Walsh’s remake of his 1941 noir High Sierra. It was a superb performance, in one of the great classics of the genre – from that first shot of her washing her hair when she looks up at Joel McCrea in close-up.


She’d been spotted by a talent scout on Broadway and signed by Samuel Goldwyn, who gave her a big build-up and some great roles. She did really well as an unsympathetic gold-digger under William Wyler in Goldwyn’s The Best Years of Our Lives in 1946 (which was the highest-grossing film since Gone With the Wind) and for Norman McLeod in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty the following year. She was regarded as a classic voluptuous Hollywood beauty and it was said that she “looked like a pin-up painting come to life.” Apparently, the Sultan of Morocco declared her beauty to be “tangible proof of the existence of God.”



However, in 1948 she fell out with director Howard Hawks on A Song is Born (rumor had it because she rejected his advances), Hawks spread the word that she was ‘difficult’, and Goldwyn let her go. She went to Warners, where Walsh didn’t find her difficult at all.


She said of Walsh, in an interview with C Courtney Joyner in The Westerners: Interviews with Actors, Directors, Writers and Producers, “He was a wonderful man and he was a great director.” She added, “He trusted me; he never said much to me either.” And, “Raoul was so good in his direction. You always just got it right on the first time. He got it all his first time.”



[By the way, we’ve reviewed all Virginia Mayo’s Westerns on this blog and you can find the titles in the index if you want to read more about any particular one.]


Virginia’s second Western was also with Walsh, Along the Great Divide in 1951. It wasn’t actually Walsh’s greatest work, though it has its moments, and Kirk Douglas, who was new to the genre, wasn’t the easiest colleague – Douglas himself said in a later book, “I was not a nice person to work with in those days.” Virginia agreed: “He was hard to work with. We had a little spat about something. He got mad and I got mad. It’s just a little spat but he was always fussing and he wasn’t pleasant.”



But in both these Westerns Virginia was not just some saloon gal or docile wagon trainer. She was a tough cookie riding along with the men and ready to use a firearm if needs be. She said, “I wanted to do everything kind of gutsy and tough. Anything that was physical, I enjoyed it. I wasn’t an ingénue.” When you watch her shooting it out with nasty Morris Ankrum in Colorado Territory or with a rifle in Along the Great Divide, you agree!



Her next Warners Western was in 1952, this time directed by Gordon Douglas. Once again, The Iron Mistress was no great work of art – though it was popular. It’s a carriages-and-crinoline yarn set in New Orleans, with Alan Ladd an unconvincing Jim Bowie. Douglas was a director who’d do what was handed him and he was the first to admit that not all the pictures were great. He was capable of a quality Western, as he would later show – Fort Dobbs with Mayo in 1958 was a minor picture but pretty darn good – but neither of his other oaters with Mayo – The Iron Mistress or the 1957 The Big Land – was in the ‘really good Western’ category – partly, I’m afraid, because of Ladd. Virginia blamed the writing of The Iron Mistress more than the director: “I liked Buzz [Douglas] a lot. On this picture I think the author couldn’t write enough though for my character. He didn’t know how to write.” (She was referring to James R Webb, whom she said she tried to get fired from the project). Still, she’s tough enough for you to wonder if the titular iron mistress is Bowie’s knife or his lady.



Virginia was loaned out in 1953 to make another Western, this time an RKO picture, Devil’s Canyon, produced by Edmund Grainger, directed by Alfred L Werker and co-starring Dale Robertson (though Virginia got top billing). It was a prison movie, designed to be in 3D. She played a glam stage robber (very vaguely modeled on Pearl Hart) who, in an improbable plot twist, is sent to Yuma (an all-male prison) which just happens to be where her lover Stephen McNally is incarcerated, as well as her would-be lover Dale. She was a bit wasted, though, with stodgy direction and plodding writing. The New York Times said it was “A formula prison picture … one of those things that come and go.” Bosley Crowther added, “The yarn is as flat as the desert on which the prison is set. And that is a fact, for all the 3-D in which the picture is made. Once more it is evident that a mechanical technique is no salvation for a meagre [sic] film.” Virginia said, “It was a little [film] … that was an assignment, you know.”


Winner of the Worst Studio Still of the Year competition


The most interesting thing was how her skirt length varied from market to market


So, after a great start in Colorado Territory, Virginia’s next three oaters were a bit ho-hum. But in 1956, she was back, this time for Fox, and in a crackerjack Western. Surprisingly, I think, because it was such a good story, she later could hardly recall The Proud Ones at all. “I’ve never seen it. I don’t know what it’s about.” She greatly admired Robert Ryan, though. “When you played a scene with Ryan you really played it, you know? His focus was amazing. I just wish I could remember the picture!” It was a big production, in CinemaScope and Color De Luxe, photographed by Lucien Ballard, no less, and the best Western (by far) of director Robert Webb. It was rather a macho picture, though, with women in the background, and Virginia’s part wasn’t too great, which is maybe why she had forgotten it. She’s a restaurant owner who is, let it be said, rather a nag. Marshal Ryan is clearly in thrall to her but she doesn’t understand that a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do and keeps on trying to persuade her beloved to make a run for it. Not gonna happen. He’s a proud one.




The same year as The Proud Ones la Mayo appeared (top-billed again) in an interesting movie, Great Day in the Morning, directed by the ultra-talented Jacques Tourneur – his last Western. Virginia takes a bath in this one, and has a frosty relationship with saloon gal Ruth Roman, partly because of their mutual admiration for Robert Stack. It’s a handsome looking picture, nicely shot in Technicolor and SuperScope by William Snyder, but it didn’t get rave reviews or wow the box-office. Brian Garfield said it was “talky, overwrought and soporific”. Just as Virginia conveniently forgot The Proud Ones, so Tourneur couldn’t recall the picture at all. He later said, I’ve completely forgotten that one. It wasn’t a great success. The story was too fragmented, too rambling.”  But I like it, and Virginia is excellent.



In 1957 Mayo reunited with Joel McCrea for a Western, The Tall Stranger, produced by Walter Mirisch at Allied Artists. An absolutely classic, straight-down-the-line 1950s Western, The Tall Stranger featured McCrea at his best (he was never less than excellent) and some top-notch character actors in other parts, notably Leo Gordon, Ray Teal and Michael Pate. Mayo is a blonde ex-saloon gal trying to make a new life with a young son. It’s a Louis L’Amour story. There’s rootin’, tootin’ ‘n’ shootin’. What’s not to like?



Well, quite a lot, apparently. The conversation between Virginia and C Courtney Joyner which I mentioned above goes like this:


Joyner: Now, The Tall Stranger…

Mayo: Oh, that’s terrible – and you were going to say that! (laughs)

Joyner: Well, …

Mayo: I loved Joel but I didn’t want to be in that film. I thought the script was terrible… I’m not sure now why I did it, maybe because of Joel, but I should have turned it down. No, it wasn’t a good picture. I looked at it (recently) and went, ‘Oh my, that’s terrible!’ And I’m ashamed of it, really.”


The script Virginia complained of was by Christopher Knopf, one of only three feature Westerns he worked on (he was a TV guy really). The director was Thomas Carr, who also worked a lot in television, though he did contribute to 45 big-screen oaters, first as an actor, directing Sunset Carson B-Westerns from the mid-1940s on.


Well, I like The Tall Stranger anyway. Virginia took a bath in that one too.


Then came The Big Land, as mentioned above. Edmond O’Brien was good in that one at any rate. Virginia said of O’Brien, “He was always telling me things that would help my performance. And he was just the best actor of one of many that I worked with.” Not quite sure about the one of in that sentence but anyway we get the idea.




Budd Boetticher was making some superlative Westerns with Randolph Scott at this time and Virginia was lucky enough to be cast in one of them. Unfortunately, Warners’ Westbound was probably the least of them. It wasn’t produced by Harry Joe Brown or written by Burt Kennedy like the Columbia ones – The Tall T, Ride Lonesome or Comanche Station – and it didn’t have the quality of those pictures. But it was still pretty good, and it only suffers by comparison. It wasn’t too good for Virginia, though. Despite her second billing after Scott, and above the title, she had a very limited time on the screen – probably not more than ten or twelve minutes total – and she wasn’t happy about that. Most of the limelight fell on Karen Steele as ‘the other woman’. Ms Steele was at the time Mr Boetticher’s paramour and the director gave her many loving close-ups. Mayo was not on top form.



She was very complimentary of Randolph Scott, as all his fellow actors were. “Randolph Scott is a lovely person. I loved working with him.” But she didn’t care for the rest of the project. She said, “It wasn’t a good part. This was my last film for Warners and I was having trouble getting to work because I was having my teeth taken out due to an abcessed tooth. I did the film, but the fact is, I wasn’t in the picture at all. Karen Steele was the director’s girlfriend, and it was not my picture.”


Still, in her short part Mayo is good. Did she marry Andrew Duggan only for his money? Does she still really love Randy? We never quite know.


In July 1957, actually before shooting Westbound, Virginia was back with Gordon Douglas, on location in Utah, in another Warners Western, this time led by Clint Walker, one of his and Douglas’s best in my view, despite the modest budget, Fort Dobbs. It would be released well after Westbound, though, in April ’58.


Virginia said of the giant Clint, “I guess he was an excellent person, but working with him was difficult, because of his size. I couldn’t hold him. No, no, I could see him.” She said to Douglas, “Would you try to loosen him up a little? So he was that kind of stiff to me. Stiff.” Maybe Virginia was right there. I guess Clint was a bit wooden. He was a big hit in Cheyenne on TV at this time but was quite new to the big screen.


He could hold her but not vice versa


Virginia didn’t do TV Western shows but she made an exception for Wagon Train and took the title role in The Beauty Jamison Story, S2 E11, aired in December 1958. It was one of the Ward Bond ones, directed by Richard Bartlett and written by Frank L Moss. A lot of episodes are on YouTube but sadly not this one, so I can’t comment on it. Virginia did say that she was photographed for a TV Guide cover with Bette Davis and Ann Blyth (they too did episodes of Wagon Train) and Bette “came in with Ann, who was a lovely person, and she didn’t even say hello to me. Bette Davis was a joke. A snob … I can’t criticize her acting … But she was sure acting mean that day.” No love lost there, then.


In Wagon Train


And that was that for the glory days of the Western, the 1950s. Ms Mayo did return to the sagebrush for two later Westerns, Young Fury in 1964, when she was 44, and Fort Utah in 1967. These were what are sometimes (if rather unkindly) called ‘geezer westerns’, 1950s-style oaters bringing back some of the old stars and appealing to an older market. Both pictures were produced for Paramount by AC Lyles. The first paired Virginia with Rory Calhoun and in the second she was with John Ireland. I actually do quite like these Westerns, doubtless because I belong to that “older market” but also because I like to see the great Western actors again and am a fan of both Calhoun and Ireland – as well as Mayo, natch. But I do have to admit they aren’t great works of art. Young Fury was directed by Christian Nyby, more of a TV guy, but Fort Utah had our old friend Lesley Selander at the helm, so that was good. Virginia said, a tad dismissively, maybe, “These movies were jobs, you know. You’re hired, you do your best, and you get back to your life.” Fair enough, I guess. I’m still happy to watch ‘em.




So Virginia Mayo did thirteen feature Westerns and an episode of Wagon Train. Not all of these were top class – but then which actor did exclusively great pictures? Her first Western remained her best. Enough of them were good, though, occasionally very good, to mark her out as a Western actor of note, and she was one of those players who are able to lift even a mediocre movie and make it worth a watch for her.


So thanks, Ginny.



7 Responses

  1. Jeff, I really enjoyed your good write-up of one of my favorite actresses, Virginia Mayo. I think Mayo was good in Westerns and everything else, for that matter.

    I agree with Robert about Dorothy Malone and how about Marie Windsor, especially in HELLFIRE(filmed 1948, released 1949)?

  2. Thanks for bringing the light on the women in westerns (I fully agree on The Iron Mistress ambivalence…) and yes, we want Dorothy Malone !

  3. Jeff, not related to Ms Mayo, I was looking for your post about Dark Command by Raoul Walsh starring John Wayne and did not find it in your index but just a few lines in your John Wayne’s text, is it possible that you have skipped it !?
    I will see it next November 23rd at the Institut Lumière in Lyon as they are publishing the Burnett novel in French with a conference etc etc

    1. Hi, Jean-Marie
      I checked, and yes, DARK COMMAND ain’t there. I def reviewed it back in the day. But it seems to have got lost in the transfer from blogspot to the new hoster.
      I’ll do another review. Time I watched it again anyway.
      I hope you enjoy your viewing!

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