Poor boy, you’re bound to die
In 1958 the Kingston Trio’s Grammy-winning version of the song Tom Dooley reached No. 1 in the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, selling over 6m copies and being played on radios all over the US (and indeed the world). I remember it well (I was ten at the time). Though the Trio claimed the song as their own, it was in fact a traditional ballad, based on a verse by an Appalachian poet named Thomas Land and taken up and promoted by one Frank Proffitt. In 1929, GB Grayson and Henry Whitter made the first known recorded version of the song, on Victor. It appeared in Alan and John Lomax’s Folk Song USA: Best Loved American Folk Songs in 1947.
The song seems to have been based on historical fact, though the legend has had many accretions since the 1866 origins. That was the year that Laura Foster was murdered, stabbed by a large knife, and her lover, the Confederate veteran Thomas Dula (whose surname in the local dialect was pronounced dooley) was hanged for the crime in May 1868. It was a cause célèbre at the time, discussed and read about nationwide, and the fact that former Confederate war hero and North Carolina governor Zebulon Vance acted pro bono for Dula added to the notoriety of the affair.
In early 1959, producer/writer Stanley Shpetner convinced the Columbia execs to make a theatrical movie about the affair, really, one imagines, to cash in on the huge popularity of the song, to which Columbia got the rights, and indeed the air is sung by the Kingston Trio five times during the movie, in addition to under the introductory and end-credits, and the Ronald Stein background music is also orchestral variations on the theme. They certainly made the most of it. Filming started – and ended – in March ’59; it was shot in less than a week.
I say theatrical, and it was, though it has all the look of a Western TV show. That’s unsurprising because it was made in black & white on a minimal budget on Columbia’s Western town lot, used in countless small-screen oaters, with a few fairly perfunctory Iverson Ranch location shots. And it was directed by Ted Post, only his second feature (he was a prolific TV director who worked on very many series), his first being-screen effort being The Peacemaker (1956) which we reviewed the other day – click the link for that.
The picture was to star Michael Landon, whose career we also looked at quite recently (click the link for that – and by the way, those posts on the Bonanza actors have been the most read on this blog for the last couple of months). The Legend of Tom Dooley was released in July ’59, just two months before the first Bonanza show was aired on NBC, and many people would have seen Landon in big- and small-screen Westerns at more or less the same time. So he wasn’t widely known as Little Joe yet. It was only Landon’s second lead, after he had been Tony Rivers, the Teenage Werewolf, in 1957. He does a good job as Dooley, despite his very 1950s hairstyle.
The rest of the cast was not exactly stellar. Second-billed Jo Morrow played Laura. She only did this Western and a Universal picture of 1964.
The actor with most lines after Landon was Richard Rust, as Country Boy, one of Dooley’s two sidekicks. I remember Rust most as Dobie in Comanche Station a few years later and as a sergeant in Alvarez Kelly later still. He had a memorable face and was a good actor, I thought.
Ralph Moody, a regular on Gunsmoke, often an Indian in feature Westerns, was the old doc, who plays quite a big part in the story, and versatile Howard Wright (he was a songwriter, author, singer, a feature-film, TV and radio actor, writer, producer and director) was the sheriff – this was one of twelve big-screen oaters he did. I did enjoy Cheerio Meredith as the liverywoman Meg.
The villain of the peace is Charlie Grayson. The song contains the verse
This time tomorrow
Reckon where I’ll be
Hadn’t been for Grayson
I’d-a been in Tennessee
and a man named Grayson has sometimes been characterized as a romantic rival of Dula’s, or a vengeful sheriff who captured him and presided over his hanging. Col. James Grayson was actually a Tennessee politician who had hired Dula on his farm when the young man fled North Carolina under suspicion and was using a false name. Grayson did help North Carolinians capture Dula and was involved in returning him to the state but otherwise probably played no role in the case.
However, the film goes for the romantic rival theory and Grayson pays court to Laura while Tom is away at the war. Grayson can’t take it when Tom returns and Laura spurns him to fall back into Tom’s arms, and he gets himself appointed a deputy so he can legally hunt Dooley down. Grayson is played by Jack Hogan, this and Man from Del Rio being his only feature Westerns, though he did a good number of TV ones. In Tom Dooley he makes himself suitably detestable.
Naturally, the film story doesn’t go anywhere near the historical truth (inasmuch as we can ascertain that). The real Dula was evidently always a ladies’ man, and he was ‘involved’ with three Foster cousins, Anne, Laura and Pauline, and some stories said he was guilty of infecting them with syphilis. Anne’s mother found Anne and Tom in bed together when Anne was 14 years old and Tom was just 12, so he started young. It was said that Laura got pregnant and she and Tom agreed to elope and Anne murdered Laura because she was jealous that Dula was marrying her. Dula suspected this but he still loved Anne enough to take the blame himself – before his death he wrote a short memoir exonerating Anne. But all this involves much speculation and we simply don’t know the truth of it.
In any case, philandering, pre-marital pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases and such were hardly material for mainstream 1950s Westerns and the movie’s Tom Dooley had to be pretty well spotless. Anne and Pauline do not appear, only Laura. Tom and his two, er, confederates (Rust and Dee Pollock) rob a Northern stage in the first reel, not knowing that the war is now over, and they are obliged to kill the two Union soldiers guarding it, in self-defense, naturally. It is for this that Dooley is pursued by the law, not for any woman-killing, and indeed he doesn’t murder Laura. The blonde perishes accidentally when she gets between Dooley and Grayson in a fight and Grayson has a knife. So it’s all pretty sanitized.
In the final scene Dooley is led away and there’s a fadeout so we must only assume that he ended on the gallows and rely on our knowledge of the song, for clearly the audience cannot be shocked by the sight of Michael Landon being hanged.
There’s quite an interesting article here (external link) by John Edward Fletcher on the historical background to the case if you want to know more.
Dennis Schwartz called the picture “predictable but pleasing” and that’s about right, I think. It’s actually quite watchable, within its TV-look limitations. There’s a sprinkling of action here and there, to dilute the talkiness a bit, though Post or his editors, or someone, resorted the old-fashioned speeded-up film in order to enliven the inevitable Dooley/Grayson fistfight. Of course, the suspense is somewhat diminished by being perfectly well aware that Tom isn’t going to get away with it (poor boy, he’s bound to die) but we get over that. We’re carried along anyway. Shpetner kept it simple and didn’t go for a complex psychological Western or anything but if you like a straightforward Western yarn, you’ll probably quite enjoy this one.
Jeff, this takes me back, thanks to your good write-up of THE LEGEND OF TOM DOOLEY(1959). I first recall viewing this movie on television by way of Memphis, Tennessee’s WMCT Channel 5 MOVIE 5 in 1964. I went around whistling the theme song for days on end. My Mother was having my older brother take piano lessons(which was a waste of time) at the time and his songbook had the song in it. Also, lo and behold, one day before you posted your write-up, I bought a hardback copy of Bill Brooks’ Historical Novel TOM DOOLEY: AMERICAN TRAGEDY(2016). Is that a coincidence or what?
I think THE LEGEND OF TOM DOOLEY is an okay movie that is well worth watching.
Yes, that was a coincidence. I might try that novel.
I agree with your assessment of the film.