A fun 50s B-Western
The Phantom Stagecoach was another of those Wallace MacDonald-produced second feature oaters made for Columbia in the late 1950s, the twilight of the B-Western. It was a 69-minute black & white job of modest budget and few pretensions, directed by experienced old hand Ray Nazarro, who worked nine times for MacDonald. It was quite fun, though, and, like many of these pictures, benefited from a strong cast of old Western hands as character actors.
The titular conveyance is a black armored job that the bad guys use to assault other, legitimate, stagecoaches, and if you think Hold on, I’ve seen that plot device somewhere before, haven’t I?, let me tell you are right. In 1950 Columbia had put out Stage to Tucson, a Ralph Murphy-directed Harry Joe Brown picture written by Robin Creighton Williams with Rod Cameron, and that too had featured such a nefarious vehicle. Well, recycling is good.
Phantom‘s screenplay was by David Lang, who wrote for pretty well every Western TV show you care to name at one time or another and also scripted a dozen or so feature oaters, including our recent review Fury at Gunsight Pass.
As for the cast, Phantom had good old John Doucette as the chief henchman of the villain, Frank Ferguson as the stageline owner, Ray Teal as the sheriff and Percy Helton as a henpecked husband (the splendidly-named Maudie Prickett is the henpecker) who are passengers on the stage. That’s a pretty darn good line-up.
Topping the bill, though, was William Bishop, as an undercover Wells, Fargo ‘tec investigating the hold-ups. Bishop was a theater actor who landed an MGM contract and after the war he spent some time at Columbia, for example being Leach Conover in Coroner Creek then heading the cast in the Phil Karlson-directed gold-digging yarn Adventures in Silverado (soon to be reviewed on JAW) and leading too in Black Eagle, all in 1948. He’d done quite a few Westerns since then, often as the bad guy, though this was the first one he led in since ’48. He wasn’t bad.
His leading lady in Phantom was Kathleen Crowley as the feisty Fran Maroon, who can ride ‘n’ shoot better than most of the men. Ms Crowley won a contract at Fox in the early 50s and did seven feature Westerns – you may remember her in The Silver Whip with Dale Robertson, for example, or The Quiet Gun with Forrest Tucker. Later she’d be Audie’s leading lady in Showdown.
And third-billed was Richard Webb as Tom, Fran’s suitor and would-be husband (so Bishop’s rival). She ain’t so sure, and given that it soon turns out that Tom is in cahoots with the chief bad guy, no wonder. Mr Webb, Jim in Out of the Past and Captain Midnight on TV, appeared in thirteen big-screen Westerns between 1940 and 1978, probably his biggest part being as the lieutenant in Distant Drums in 1951, with Gary Cooper.
Said chief villain is Martin Maroon, Fran’s uncle and guardian, the freight line owner and competitor of Frank Ferguson, who stoops to skullduggery, including rigging up armored stagecoaches. Maroon is played by Hugh Sanders. He pretends to be an upright townsman and friend of Frank’s but is really a snake in the grass. It is he who is masterminding all the robberies – in the first one, dastardly Doucette shoots dead Eddy Waller the stage driver. Such depravity.
A lot was done cheaply up at Iverson Ranch and on the Columbia Western town lot but there are quite a few nice Lone Pine locations too, shot by old-stager Henry Freulich, one shot especially sticking in the memory as riders descend a scarp slope.
There’s a lot of action and galloping hither and yon.
When you consider that folk got to see these pictures just as a bonus before the main feature, included in the ticket price along with the newsreel and trailers, I reckon they got their money’s worth. This one’s a lot of fun. Sure, great art it ain’t, but heck, you could do a lot worse, despite the rather silly plot.