Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

20th Century Fox: the Westerns

 

Tom Mix and John Ford

 

In 1953 Fox released 37 films, three of which, c 8%, were Westerns, The Silver Whip, Powder River and City of Bad Men. The first and last were Dale Robertson vehicles while the middle one was a kind of pale remake of My Darling Clementine with Rory Calhoun. None was a major A-picture – we’re not talking John Ford here – though all made a bit of money.

 

 

In 1955, of the total 28 films, two were Westerns, 7%, namely White Feather and The Tall Men.  Both were big-budget pictures, in color and CinemaScope, the first with Robert Wagner and Jeffrey Hunter, and the second with Clark Gable and Jane Russell. Both did well at the box-office.

 

 

Fox had a very good history in the Western genre.

 

William Fox

 

The studio had made silent Westerns back in the day with John Ford, who moved from Universal, and many directed by Lambert Hillyer or Jack Conway (one helmed by Ford) starring Tom Mix, who came to Fox from Selig. The studio certainly favored the form.

 

 

 

Fox made Ford’s The Iron Horse in 1924 as a riposte to Paramount’s The Covered Wagon and it was a big hit (and a better film). Like Metro, though, Fox got stung when in 1929 it invested heavily in a Western – the wagon train epic The Big Trail, directed by Raoul Walsh and starring a young John Wayne – but the picture was released in the teeth of economic depression and nearly sank the studio. William Fox lost control of the company and it merged in the mid-30s with Twentieth Century, with Darryl Zanuck in charge of production.

 

Zanuck head of production

 

There were no major A-picture Westerns for most of the decade, as Fox confined itself to a few low-budget Saturday matinée pictures helmed by Howard Bretherton. But the studio pioneered the revival at the end of the 30s by being the first to put out an A-picture oater in January 1939, in Technicolor to boot, with its top star Tyrone Power as Jesse James, directed by Henry King. With the Fritz Lang-directed sequel the year after, The Return of Frank James with Henry Fonda, the studio put the Western back on the map. The same year as Jesse James (’39) Fox’s Frontier Marshal, with Randolph Scott as Wyatt Earp, was a more modest picture that nevertheless did really good business and Ford made Drums Along the Mohawk, with Fonda again. In 1941 we got the Fritz Lang-directed Western Union with Robert Young and Randolph Scott. The adult Western was mainstream again.

 

The big-budget adult Western is back

 

The Ox-Bow Incident in 1943 was not a commercial hit but it was a fine film. William A Wellman’s Buffalo Bill in 1944 with Joel McCrea was rather the reverse, not a marvelous picture really but it was big-budget and quite successful. It was at Fox that straight after the war Ford made his great My Darling Clementine and in 1948 Wellman had better success with the fine Yellow Sky with Gregory Peck. Peck returned to launch the golden era of the 1950s with the superb The Gunfighter, directed by Henry King and written by André De Toth, and Delmer Daves’s Broken Arrow, with James Stewart was superb too. The same year the Robert Wise-directed Two Flags West was fine despite starring Joseph Cotten (who was actually good in a Western for once).

 

Then Rawhide (with Power again) in 1951, and Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata! with Marlon Brando in ’52 were also quality Westerns. In 1954 Henry Hathaway and Gary Cooper made Garden of Evil and Edward Dmytryk directed Spencer Tracy in Broken Lance. The same year Otto Preminger’s only Western, River of No Return, with Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe, was iffy as an oater but did good business. I liked The Proud Ones with Robert Ryan in 1956, while the same year Love Me Tender with Elvis packed ’em in.

 

 

In 1957 Fox came out with a big remake of its Jesse James, casting Wagner and Hunter together again in The True Story of Jesse James, which wasn’t, but still it sold well. Also that year the studio re-paired Barbara Stanwyck and Barry Sullivan in Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns, which has (bizarrely, considering its trashiness) become something of a classic.

 

1958 was a very good year, with Charles Marquis Warren directing Joel McCrea in Cattle Empire, Don Murray in Henry Hathaway’s excellent From Hell to Texas and, best of all, Peck again in the superb Henry King-directed The Bravados. I also liked Gordon Douglas’s The Fiend Who Walked the West and Raoul Walsh’s humorous The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw.

 

1959 gave us Fonda, Quinn and Widmark in Warlock and Fred MacMurray’s last Western, The Oregon Trail, sadly also Fred’s worst, but still.

 

In 1960 Hathaway and Wayne were back with the fun North to Alaska, as Duke tried to make some money to defray The Alamo costs, and Elvis was back too in the absolutely excellent Don Siegel Western Flaming Star.

 

In the 60s Wayne would do big commercial pictures at Fox like The Comancheros and The Undefeated but as we know the Western genre was in decline and the quantity and quality of Western movies fell off. There was still the occasional good one, such as the Martin Ritt-directed Hombre, from an Elmore Leonard story, with Paul Newman at his best, in 1967, and though I myself do not care much for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) with Newman and Robert Redford, it was a monster hit at the box-office.

 

The 70s and after was a sad time for Western-lovers, though the commercial Young Guns and its sequel in the 80s revived the form a little bit. We can give a mention finally to the worthy The Revenant with Leonardo di Caprio in 2015.

 

There’s no doubt about it: Fox must be accounted one of the great contributors to the Western genre. Merci, mes braves.

 

4 Responses

  1. Darryl Zanuck was one of the few ( perhaps only) native-born Americans (Omaha, Nebraska) to run a major studio in the glory days of the studio system. Perhaps this is why Fox made went all in on the Western – which is, after all, the great American myth.

    1. Yes, maybe. Harry Cohn was born in NYC, and Columbia did a lot of Westerns. Still, many of the European ‘arrivals’ were also fascinated by gangster and Western ‘hard-boiled’ genres, Carl Laemmle of Universal, for example, the Warner brothers too, and of course directors also, the likes of André De Toth, Fritz Lang, etc.

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