Need an Indian maiden?
You may remember in the 1960s (I do anyway) Milly Scott, the storekeeper who exercised her charms on Lucas McCain, aka The Rifleman. Milly bought the store from Hattie Denton, you recall.
Well, Milly was played by Joan Taylor, and Joan had been in Westerns since 1949. In fact she started and ended in them because a 1962 episode of The Rifleman was her last gig; she retired to look after her children.
She was actually named Rose Marie, not Joan, and her dad, from Sicily, Joseph Emma, was a movie theater manager in Illinois, where Rose was born, and former prop man on silent movies. Her mom was a dancer, from Austria. So I guess Rose Marie had showbiz in the blood. In fact the girl started at dance school, in Chicago. When she was eighteen, the allure of Hollywood grew too strong and she enrolled in the famous Pasadena Playhouse, where Victor Jory was so impressed that he helped get her a part, sixth-billed in Fox’s Fighting Man of the Plains, a Randolph Scott Western.
In this, Jory, we would naturally assume, is the bad guy (he owns the saloon after all) but we are confused because he turns out to be a goody, and the bad guy is actually Barry Kelley. Joan falls for Randy, rather implausibly (plausibility not being this film’s strong suit) not recognizing him as the man who cruelly slew her daddy in Lawrence a year or two back, during Quantrill’s raid on the town. There’s another dame, as was traditional, played by Jane Nigh, and Randy dithers between the two. Anyway, it was a good start for Joan.
Fighting Man was produced by Nat Holt (a future subject in our series The Producers) and he was an influential fellow, so this would help Joan. In fact she later said that after the screen test she heard nothing, then was hospitalized with appendicitis. She assumed she hadn’t got the part but “I was thrilled and stunned when a huge bouquet of flowers arrived in the hospital with a card from Nat.” Holt went in for the publicity gimmick of insuring Joan’s legs for $100,000. However, in the event it was not Holt but producers Howard Koch and Aubrey Schenck, with their company Bel-Air, who would favor Joan most.
First, Paramount beckoned enticingly. She was promoted to fourth billing in her next oater, The Savage with Charlton Heston in 1952. This was a bit of a clunker, truth be told, and Joan was rather unconvincing as the Indian maiden Luta, Susan Morrow’s chief competition for Heston’s affection. In any case the love interest was all a bit perfunctory in the movie. So I’m not sure this film greatly advanced Joan’s career.
Still, it was a Paramount picture, of no small budget, and Joan was chosen by the studio as a member of its so-called Golden Circle, a “group consisting of a dozen unusually talented young actors for whom Paramount held high hopes.”
But it was with Koch and Schenck that the following year Joan finally got to be leading lady, in a Western which starred Robert Stack, War Paint. Stack leads a patrol of ten men on a grueling The Lost Patrol-type journey to deliver a treaty in time to sage Indian chief Gray Cloud but little does he know (at first) that his guide, Taslik (Keith Larsen, Brave Eagle on TV) is the chief’s firebrand son who will do everything to thwart the mission and cause war. Taslik is aided by his Amazonish sis, Wanima (Joan), a maid who is very handy with a Winchester, as the opening dramatic scene shows us. It wasn’t a bad movie, actually, and there’s a message, of sorts, namely that peace might well fail but we have to try, and the alternative is endless people dying on both sides. Even the homicidal Wanima comes round to that view.
Then in ’54 Joan got a role in MGM’s remake of the musical/romance ‘Western’ (in inverted commas) Rose Marie. Given her birth name she might have hoped for the title role but that went to Ann Blyth, leading with Howard Keel. Joan’s part was much more modest. She was an Indian, of course. The picture lost money ($284,000 according to studio records) and it didn’t do a great deal for Joan’s onward-and-upward march to fame. Still.
Much better was another Koch/Schenck oater in 1955, like War Paint directed by good old Lesley Selander, Fort Yuma, which starred Matt Dillon’s brother, Peter Graves. Joan was, yet again, an Indian, but this time it was a stronger part, as she falls for a white man and is feisty and independent about it, despite the disapproval of her brother. No great shakes, Fort Yuma was nevertheless not at all bad and Joan Taylor stood out in a smaller part.
The same year Joan got to lead again, though in a picture far down the food chain from MGM, or even Koch/Schenck. Produced by Roger Corman and Samuel Z Arkoff and directed, on an ultra-low budget, by Corman, ARC’s Apache Woman starred Lloyd Bridges (though not in the title role). Actually, it’s a bit of a cheat because Joan is Anne Le Beau, a ‘half-breed’, not a full Apache woman at all. She and her Milton-reading brother Armand (Lance Fuller) are living together in an intermediate world in which they are scorned by the Apaches as white but held in contempt by the whites as Indian. In fact the opening words are Anne shouting at a tormentor “Don’t call me squaw!” Actually, in as far as such a modest picture allowed, the Lou Rusoff script does have something interesting to say about the plight of mixed-race people in late nineteenth century America. The basic idea is that Anne will resist but will finally turn towards the white side, encouraged by an amorous Lloyd Bridges, and be integrated into society, while Armand will go full-on Apache and fight. “This was the first time I tried to deal with the subject of racial prejudice within the framework of a commercial movie,” recalled Corman.
By the way, Lloyd surprises Anne as she bathes in a desert pool (how many times have we seen that?) and he seems reluctant to leave so that she may exit the water, but is finally constrained at least to turn his back.
We were talking about Michael Pate the other day, and how whenever casting directors wanted an Indian (because in those days they nearly always cast whites in such parts) they’d call up Michael. Well, it was getting a bit like that with Joan.
Next, in 1957, came yet another Koch/Schenck effort, War Drums, this time starring ex-Tarzan Lex Barker, as Mangas Coloradas. I’m sorry to say it, but in this one she was frankly ridiculous. She plays a half-Mexican, half-Comanche woman serving as a slave for some white trash lowlifes before being taken by Mangas Coloradas for a wife. However, instead of building wikiups and tanning hides she becomes a warrior in an Apache bikini. You gotta laugh.
According to glamourgirlsoftheesilverscreen.com, Joan fell out with director Reginald LeBorg on this picture. Not very surprising, given her part. It was her last big-screen Western.
Perhaps in despair, she turned to TV. In 1958 she got a part, fourth-billed, in Wagon Train’s adaptation of the Dorothy M Johnson story A Man Called Horse. However, yet again she had to be an Indian, a Crow this time, Bright Star.
Then she did two episodes of Yancy Derringer with Jock Mahoney, both as (white woman) Lavinia Lake. She also got a non-Indian part with Dick Powell in a Zane Grey Theatre episode, The Scaffold.
The following year, 1959, she appeared in Gunsmoke, Colt .45, Shotgun Slade, The Texan and US Marshal. And in none of these was she an Indian. Finally!
Mind, she was back to form when she donned Indian make-up for Incident Before Black Pass, a 1961 episode of Rawhide.
According to an (undated) article in The Titusville Herald, “Joan was cast as Milly [on The Rifleman] after a three-month search by the producer, who interviewed nearly a hundred actresses from all over the nation.” The producer of the show, a Four Star Television production aired on ABC, was Arnold Laven. She did eighteen episodes, so became a regular.
Of course, Joan did do the occasional non-Western – though more than half her total roles were in our noble genre. She met Leonard Freeman at the Pasadena Playhouse and they married in 1953. In the 60s Freeman would be the creator of the immensely successful Hawaii Five-0 and when he died, in 1974, Joan would take over management of the business, under the name Rose Freeman. But most famously, as an actress she starred with Hugh Marlowe in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers in 1956 and with William Hopper in 20 Million Miles to Earth (also known as The Beast from Space) in 1957. So she didn’t do only Westerns.
But she did enough saddle-and-sixgun dramas to warrant an entry in the ever-growing Jeff Arnold’s West The Westerns of… series. I’m sure you remember her and have your favorite.
Next up in our series The Westerns of… will be that great Western tough guy Neville Brand. So come back soon!