Writer and producer Robert Buckner was born in Virginia and would die in Mexico but in between he wandered far and wide. To a University of Virginia degree he added qualifications from Edinburgh University and the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris. In his youth he was an English teacher, a courier, a tour guide, a writer for the London Daily Mail and London correspondent for the New York World. Back in the US, Buckner wrote plays on and off-Broadway, and many short stories and magazine articles, one of which, for Atlantic Monthly, led to a nice contract with Warner Brothers, in 1937. Not all writers or producers of Western movies had such a background.
In no time Buckner became one of the most sought-after screenwriters for Warners’ typical fast-talking, tough action pictures, starring James Cagney, for example. In 1942 he was Oscar-nominated for the screenplay of the Michael Curtiz-directed Yankee Doodle Dandy, (and would later win a Golden Globe and a Writers Guild of America award). His early-40s success at Warners got him promoted to producer.
As far as oaters go, he would contribute to fourteen (depending on your definition of Western). He started by co-writing the Curtiz-directed Gold is Where You Find It in his first year at Warner Bros, a semi-Western, I suppose you’d say, with Olivia de Havilland, George Brent and Claude Rains.
But more importantly he was sole writer on Warners’ big color Western Dodge City in 1939, helmed by Curtiz again, with de Havilland and Errol Flynn. It was a smash hit. Buckner would work six more times with Flynn, three of the pictures being Westerns, and he worked a total of eight times with Curtiz, again three of the pictures being oaters.
The same year as Dodge City Buckner was one of the writers on another Western, back with Cagney this time, with Humphrey Bogart too, The Oklahoma Kid, directed by Lloyd Bacon. Not perhaps the most stunningly good Western ever made (and Bogart was certainly not cut out for the genre, Sierra Madre aside), it was still big enough, with its stars, and successful enough to earn Buckner plaudits.
1940 gave us the Curtiz/Flynn pictures Virginia City and Santa Fe Trail, both produced by Robert Fellows and Hal B Wallis, with Buckner sharing the writing credits with Howard Koch and Norman Reilly Raine on the first, while the second he wrote alone. By the way, you’ll find our reviews of most of these pictures in the index.
In 1944 Buckner was one of many writers responsible for a Warners 19-minute short (which I’ve never seen), Roaring Guns (not the Tim McCoy one).
San Antonio in 1945 was another Flynn oater, this time with no Curtiz (he and Flynn no longer got on) but David Butler, Robert Florey and Raoul Walsh sharing the directorial duties. It was written by Alan Le May, of The Searchers fame, with WR Burnett, the Little Caesar and Scarface guy who contributed to some good Westerns too, such as The Westerner and Yellow Sky, but it was Buckner’s first Western as producer. There was some nice Bert Glennon Technicolor photography of Calabasas locations.
Flynn was a changed man after his trial for rape in 1943. He had been acquitted but was definitely chastened. Thomas McNulty, in his biography Errol Flynn: The Life and Career, says, “The egomaniac who had caused delays during the filming of Santa Fe Trail had been replaced by a courteous professional. Flynn let his carefree personality carry him through the drudgery and long hours of filmmaking. His co-stars, the extras, and the always cynical Warner Bros. crew now looked forward to working with him.” That was new. He was also growing to like the genre he at first distrusted. He knew his Westerns were popular (all four had been big hits) and was glad to be back in the saddle after what could have been a career-ending moment. His worsening alcoholism, however, was a handicap.
The picture might well be described as rip-roaring. It has action and pzazz. The Bella Union saloon is really impressive, as is the gunfight that happens in it in the final reel. Acrobatic stuntmen fall from balconies to crush tables and a piano rolls down the stairs. The sets were Warners-lavish and Calabasas Ranch exteriors very nice. Jack Warner splashed out: this one was budgeted at $2.23m, twice the amount of the previous oaters.
The film did reasonably well, but took some time to make back its big budget. It was the Flynn/Warners formula as before but maybe that was the problem – perhaps its familiarity worked against it. Audiences had seen it all before. Still, it’s an enjoyable picture.
Cheyenne in 1947 was the mixture as before, with Raoul Walsh directing, screenplay by Alan Le May and Thames Williamson, and many ‘stock company’ actors in the cast. This time, however, there was no Flynn (he was off sailing the world on his yacht) and the lead was taken by Dennis Morgan, with Jane Wyman co-starring. This movie will be our next review so I won’t say more here, just that it has been rather neglected in the Walsh oeuvre but is actually a lot of fun.
Buckner left Warners in 1948 but returned in 1953 to co-write (with John Twist) a Randolph Scott oater, The Man Behind the Gun, directed by Felix Feist. It was one of the most entertaining Scott Westerns and there is a crackle of humor throughout the movie. Randy seemed to be enjoying himself hugely. There are even bawdy jokes that must have sneaked somehow under the censors’ radar. And it’s in bright Technicolor and packed with action. It’s a California secession yarn, all historical hooey, of course, but Twist and Buckner put together an action-packed plot with explosions, horse chases, skullduggery aplenty and gunfights galore.
In 1956 Buckner worked with Maurice Geraghty on Fox’s Elvis Presley Western Love Me Tender. Buckner and Geraghty are both credited as writers and producers. It was a Reno brothers story, with Richard Egan, Debra Paget and Elvis as Reno siblings, directed by the not always terribly inspired Robert D Webb. The picture did incredibly well at the box-office, largely thanks to the Elvis star power (teeny-boppers in the audience never forgave heavy Neville Brand for shooting him though).
The next Western was also at Fox, in 1958. Buckner both wrote and produced From Hell to Texas, a Western which has been underestimated, I think, despite its big-name director, Henry Hathaway. It is a ‘small’ film in the sense that it had a modest cast and a confined plot about few people. It starred Don Murray, in a very strong performance. Buckner wrote it with Wendell Mayes, who would do The Hanging Tree the following year, from a Charles O Locke book. It’s visually fine, with Wilfred Cline cinematography of Lone Pine locations. All in all, it was an excellent Western.
Buckner did not produce Return of the Gunfighter in 1966 – it was a King brothers production – but he co-wrote the screenplay from his own story. His co-writer on the script was the excellent Burt Kennedy, so with that provenance the dialogue runs pretty well, as you may imagine. It was Robert Taylor’s last Western, fittingly back at MGM. He plays an aging gunfighter, free after five years in Yuma, tired of fighting and even tired of life. Taylor was looking his age (or more than) but he still had it. In some ways the picture harked back to some of his earlier Westerns, as he played a man in black, a man ‘with a past’, a rather somber figure hinting at inner hurt. The late 60s ‘end-of-the-West’ tone of the movie suited his older self and an aging dinosaur gunfighter was a suitable role for him.
And as far as big-screen Westerns went for Buckner, that was, as they say, that. He did write a March 1970 episode of Bonanza, titled The Gold Mine, a Little Joe story about a young Mexican boy who has suffered from years of abuse by two sadistic slave owners who now want the lad’s gold claim.
Looked at in the round, Robert Buckner’s contribution to our noble genre was significant, if for nothing else than those Curtiz/Flynn oaters in his Warner days. And as I said at the top of the page, he was an interesting fellow.