Clay Allison on TV
Republic’s first television production, Stories of the Century, which ran for two seasons, 1954/55, was a popular show and even became the first Western to win an Emmy Award in the category of Western or Adventure Series – beating out The Roy Rogers Show, no less. I might do an overview of the show one day, comparing the fictional ‘fact’ that it presented with the historical reality. It purported to be based on “official newspaper files”, whatever they might be, but while there was a superficial gloss of historicity, and the outlaws concerned did indeed exist, it was mostly a classic fictional Western in which, in despite of history, the hero, railroad detective Matt Clark (Jim Davis) chased down every known Western outlaw from Joaquin Murrieta, active in California in the early 1850s, to Burt Alvord (last seen alive in 1910), all while remaining in his mid-forties, a trick I’d rather like to emulate.
We’ve been looking at the portrayal of the Western character Clay Allison (click for our essay on him) in motion pictures, and we’ve reviewed three big-screen efforts in which he appeared, Cassidy of Bar 20, Cowboys from Texas and Fighting Bill Carson. In those, Allison was little more than the chief villain of a B-Western who happened to be named Clay Allison because that signaled ‘bad guy’ but there was little attempt to show the historical figure. The Stories of the Century version, Season 1 Episode 26, given its historical pretensions, might have been expected to have presented a more accurate Allison, but it was only marginally more factual than the feature film versions.
We are first shown Clay Allison fighting for the Confederacy, which he did. We are told that he then became a feared killer and “no judge or jury dared try him for his crimes”. The story is set in Cimarron (Texas) in 1876, though this is regrettably spelt CIMMARRON on the sign. Clay Allison (Jack Kelly, well pre-Maverick) and his brother John (Paul Farber) hold up an express office and steal an army payroll, murdering the clerk on the dead-man-tell-no-tales principle and brutally clubbing to the floor detective Frankie Adams (Mary Castle). Frankie manages to get a look at John Allison’s face, and she fishes a derringer out of her purse and wounds him with it but is then shot by Clay, and her life hangs in the balance while the bandits make their escape.
The local doc (Fred Sherman) is on the pusillanimous side and even though he needs to operate on Frankie to save her life, he accompanies Clay out to their ranch to tend to Clay’s less badly wounded brother. Jim is obliged to operate on Frankie himself (he was certainly a jack of all trades; later in this episode he will serve as prosecuting attorney). Jim gives it out that because of the doc’s absence, Frankie didn’t make it, and thereby both shames the doctor into testifying and also convinces Clay and John to come into town to face trial – they can do this safely because there are now, they think, no witnesses.
In a coup de théâtre at the trial Prosecutor Jim produces Frankie, who IDs Allison, J, who is thus sentenced to death, by firing squad (not quite sure why). In another coup de t, Clay Allison gallops in, shoots down all the members of the firing squad and the commanding officer and rescues his bro. The fraternal duo then flees for the Mexican border. Jim leads a posse in pursuit.
It all climaxes in a highly improbable stagecoach race in a border town on July 4th, 1879 in which Jim, at the reins of one six-up, careers after Clay, driving another, in a prototype for the Bullitt car chase. Inevitably, Clay’s stage crashes. Jim kills John but doesn’t have to shoot Clay because the villain dies of a broken back in the fall (so there was some attempt to refer to the facts there; Allison did die in a wagon accident, though it was on July 1, 1887).
The, ahem, imaginative script was by Gerald Geraghty. The show was directed by Republic regular William Witney and gallops along pretty well, as these episodes usually did, but the respect for history is perfunctory at best and you certainly shouldn’t watch this one if you are after the truth about Clay Allison. Not that lack of historical accuracy has ever stopped us watching a Western, of course. It’s only when they claim to be factual that I object.
Clay would be back in an episode of The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp in 1956, but more of that next time.