The Preston Westerns
Robert Preston Meservey (1918 – 1987), actor and musician, is probably best remembered today for his role as The Music Man, first on Broadway and then on the screen, but to some of us that is by the by: it is for his Westerns that we think of him fondly. He appeared in thirteen feature oaters between 1939 and 1972, as well as episodes of The Chisholms and a final TV movie.
Preston managed to project a persona full of vim and vitality, even (or especially) when he was the bad guy. He often played the slightly dubious (or downright crooked) pal of the hero, a larger-than-life figure who laughed and charmed his way into our hearts. He could sometimes steal the show.
Writing about one of Preston’s Westerns, Blood on the Moon (see below), Alan K Rode suggested that “Hollywood never figured out how to tap his charismatic ability”. Preston himself ruefully said, “I played the lead in all the B-pictures and the villain in all the epics. After a while, it was clear to me I had sort of reached what I was going to be in movies.”
Cecil B DeMille
Young Preston Meservey, or Pres, as he was always known, landed a long-term contract at Paramount in 1938 (it was the studio that decided to call him Robert Preston) and his first Western appearance was in that studio’s Union Pacific in 1939, directed by Cecil B DeMille. DeMille rated him highly – though Preston did not return the sentiment: DeMille became one of the few people Preston actively and publicly disliked, saying, “He was no director … He didn’t know what to do with it, except just roll and print … Also, he was not a nice person, politically or in any other way”. Nevertheless, DeMille used him in a bigger part in his next Western, North West Mounted Police, the following year.
DeMille made bad Westerns. There’s a good generalization for you. Still, as DeMille once told Joel McCrea, “The critics don’t like my pictures but the public do” and he was right about that. Far and away DeMille’s best Western, though, and one that is still fun to watch today, is the 1939 Union Pacific. It was a manifest-destiny railroad epic, a sort of talkie The Iron Horse. Preston had a small part in it but was unusually noticeable. His Dick Allen was, naturally, a charming rogue. He and hero Joel McCrea are rivals for the heart of Barbara Stanwyck. The only trouble is, you know perfectly well at the outset that Preston’s character is going to perish, delivering wry but friendly last words to the hero, and the hero will waltz off with the gal, and that duly happens. One good thing: Preston has a derringer (proof of roguery). The picture was a monster hit and it did Preston no harm at all.
In North West Mounted Police the year after, Preston had a bigger part as Ronnie Logan, a dashing wooer of the the dames, but it was same roguish role in a way. He was already getting used to it. In fact that one too was to have starred Joel McCrea but Gary Cooper did a swap, so that McCrea could do Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, and Preston got to appear with Coop instead.
The Lady from Cheyenne
In 1941, Preston got the male lead and second billing in Frank Lloyd’s picture The Lady from Cheyenne, released by Universal, barely a Western, in fact not really a Western at all, a comedy starring Loretta Young about how a liberated teacher brought women’s suffrage to Wyoming in 1869. Preston is Steve Lewis, who falls for Annie Morgan (Young) hook, line and sinker. Preston said of Young that “She worked with a full-length mirror behind the camera. I didn’t know which Loretta to play to – the one in the mirror or the one that was with me.” Bosley Crowther in the New York Times, called the film “slight fare,” which it is, really, but it was well directed by Lloyd and well acted, and was an entertaining outing. Once again, Foster, now leading, or as male lead anyway, was in the limelight.
Seven years were to pass, however, before another Preston Western, and this was a proper oater, and not only that, a superb one. Myself, I think it was also Preston’s best Western performance, the highlight of his career in a Stetson.
Blood on the Moon
RKO’s Blood on the Moon in 1948 (click the link for more on that picture) was one of the best noir Westerns of the time, a period when such pictures were à la mode. This one was directed by non-Western specialist Robert Wise but he did a fine job, and his cinematographer, Nick Musuraca, was a master of noir. Furthermore, it was a treatment of a Luke Short novel, and Short was a master too. It starred Robert Mitchum, who could, if he wasn’t very interested, sleepwalk through parts, but when he was firing on all cylinders, as he was here, he was electrifying. Mitchum and Preston got on excellently together (and made life less than enjoyable for the female members of the cast). The highlight of the picture was the Mitchum/Preston fight, which they staged themselves, with hardly any use of stuntmen, grunting and sweating it out in an ungainly barroom brawl (both Mitchum and Preston knew something about barroom brawls). The pair gave outstanding performances, and the film is actually close to a masterpiece.
Blood was released by RKO in November ‘48; in December Paramount put out Whispering Smith, Alan Ladd’s first Western in the lead, with Preston second-billed behind him. Once again Pres was the boisterous charming-rogue friend/enemy, and he stole the show beside Ladd, pale in comparison. Ladd was by nature quiet and restrained, and in that sense he suited the role (the French title was Smith le Taciturne). He is very good in the relationship scenes and doubtless many of the female audience at his pictures swooned in their theater seats, but it was Preston who dominated. Ladd is non-loquacious railroad detective Smith who, having dispatched two train-robber brothers, suspects his best friend Murray Sinclair (Preston) of harboring the third. Sure enough, Sinclair turns out to be leader of a gang of train wreckers who pillage the wrecks for loot. Whispering has, earlier, fallen for a soft-focus redhead (Brenda Marshall) who has since become Sinclair’s wife so the stage is set for conflict, alright, however much Whispering tries to avoid it.
In 1949 it was back to RKO to do Tulsa, a semi-Western, an oil boom yarn set in 1920s Oklahoma and starring Susan Hayward. That’s actually our next review, so come back soon! Preston plays an oilman who is (what else?) full of vim ‘n’ vigor, and who allies with la Hayward to bring in a gusher. They have a romance, then it goes sour when she gets all greedy and grasping, then there’s a sudden (and unconvincing) last-reel conversion and she becomes a conservationist Greta Thunberg would have admired and the happy couple are destined for wedded bliss. The whole thing was distinctly ho-hum.
But soon it was back to the proper West and a couple of oaters for Eagle-Lion. In 1950 Preston worked with Alan Le May and George Templeton, who were producing a Western to be released by Eagle-Lion Films, an enterprise which united British movie magnate J Arthur Rank with Pathé in the US, which had bought Poverty Row outfit PRC. The picture, The Sundowners, would be written by Le May, from his story Thunder in the Dust (the movie’s title in some markets) which had been serialized by Collier’s, it would be directed by Templeton, and Preston got the lead in it. A 78-minute oater trying to be an A-picture, this Technicolor Western, no relation to the Robert Mitchum/Fred Zinnemann adventure of the same title of 1960, has its good points, the script among them. It was also photographed by Winton Hoch, Oscar winner the previous year for She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Preston is the Wichita Kid, as full of beans as ever and he is terrific fun in the picture.
The following year Preston did a Benedict Bogeaus production, also for Eagle-Lion, a Mickey Rooney vehicle, My Outlaw Brother, based on the novel South of the Rio Grande by Max Brand. This was not Mickey’s finest hour. The picture was also known as My Brother, the Outlaw, a name I prefer because the alternate title harked back to Rooney’s only previous Western, nearly two decades before, which was his part as the boy monarch (he was 12) in My Pal, the King, one of the great Tom Mix’s finest pictures. My Outlaw Brother (let’s call it that) was the only Western Bogeaus, who produced with Rooney, made without the enormously experienced Allan Dwan as director. Instead, it was directed by Elliott Nugent, whom the IMDb bio describes as “An American minor leading man of early Depression-era talkies who played earnest, boyish leads”, adding that he “would earn more distinction as a writer, producer and director.” As director he specialized in Harold Lloyd, Bob Hope and Danny Kaye comedies; in fact his autobiography was entitled Events Leading Up to the Comedy. But this was his only Western – and it shows. Really, Rooney and Bogeaus should have got someone a bit more experienced in the genre. Nugent also plays the Ranger captain. Rooney plays a New York dude come out West to find his brother, and he plays up the Eastern tenderfoot jokes to the full, rather overdoing it actually. He is befriended by Texas Ranger Robert Preston, who is (you guessed) roguish, vivacious and amusing, and together they go down Mexico way where investigator Preston is tasked with arresting the evil bandido El Tigre who has been robbing banks north of the Rio Grande. It wasn’t the world’s greatest Western, I’m afraid.
Best of the Badmen
Released the same month, back at RKO this time, was the enormously enjoyable, if rather silly Best of the Badmen. In the 1940s Universal had done well by cramming as many monsters into a movie as possible. Films such as House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula crammed the Wolf Man, Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and heaven knows who-all else into the same picture and RKO came to think that maybe they could try that wheeze with outlaws in Westerns. In 1946 they had Randolph Scott lead a cast in a yarn that featured Frank and Jesse James, the Dalton brothers, Sam Bass and Belle Starr all in the same story in the hit Badman’s Territory. In 1948 Randy was back, and this time he was dealing with even more badmen: the Sundance Kid, the Youngers, the Daltons, Billy the Kid, Bill Doolin et al. Return of the Bad Men too did well. So, never ones to let a good gimmick drop, RKO was back yet again in 1951, with Best of the Badmen.
This time Robert Ryan, who had been excellent as a sinister Sundance in Return, was promoted to lead, while Randy took the week off. Pres was to be the bad guy. It’s a James-Younger gang picture with Ringo thrown in. At the end of the Civil War, tough but decent Major Jeff Clanton (Ryan) decides to turn his Reb prisoners over to Matthew Fowler (Preston), boss of the notorious Fowler Detective Agency – obviously a reference to the Pinkertons. Evil Fowler wants to execute them without the formality of a trial and claim the reward. When a Fowler crony tries to kill the prisoners, Major Jeff obviously guns him down (as one does) but is arrested on a charge of murder and sentenced to death in a kangaroo court. Luckily for Jeff, though, Mrs Fowler, Lily, is a blonde Claire Trevor and a sympathizer. She enables him to escape, which doesn’t please Fowler one bit. Jeff flees and so the Union man is driven into the Reb camp, becoming an outlaw. It’s all the fault of those carpetbagger Pinkertons, I mean Fowlers. The picture did well, earning a healthy return on its budget.
The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky
In 1952 there was curious film, in a way. It was a kind of double-header, Face to Face, with two half-movies in one, first a non-Western with James Mason, The Secret Sharer, then in the second half The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky, which Preston headlined. Preston’s bit was based on an 1898 Stephen Crane short story in McClure’s Magazine. It tells of Texas marshal Jack Potter returning to his town of Yellow Sky (not Gregory Peck’s) with a new bride and coming up against the drunken gunfighter Scratchy Wilson, who has treed the town in Potter’s absence. There are faint echoes of High Noon (the same year) as the treed town depends on the single-handed marshal, but there is no final shoot-out. In fact Pres kept his usual charming-roguery in check a bit this time, almost playing it straight. It’ not a great Western, directed by Bretaigne Windust, his only oater, but it’s worth seeing for Preston (and Olive Carey as a tough barkeep).
The Last Frontier
In 1955 Pres got a big part (though not the lead) in an Anthony Mann Western, no less, The Last Frontier, at Columbia. For a moment it looked as though Anthony Mann’s Westerns without James Stewart (they had had a parting of the ways) would take a nose-dive. The Last Frontier was the director’s first one after The Man from Laramie and, quite honestly, it wasn’t a patch on Laramie or the earlier ones. With no Stewart, the lead role went to Victor Mature. It is said that producer William Fadiman and Mann wanted Brando for the role, and Mann wasn’t too happy about getting Mature. He was particularly critical of Mature’s poor horsemanship. Oh well. It’s a Civil War story, in the sense that it is set during the war, but out West in a wild outpost on the Wyoming/Montana border. The plot has the traditional cavalry Western element of a stupid by-the-book Army colonel and a level-headed more understanding captain (Guy Madison) who finally prevails. This was a tried-and-tested plotline, and John Ford had done it better. Strangely perhaps, Mann and writer Philip Yordan were scathing about cavalry Westerns as a genre – until they made one. And they (mis)cast Preston as the strict colonel, though he does a good job with this (albeit over-drawn) role of martinet officer trying to live down a past – because of losses of men under his command, he is known as the Butcher of Shiloh. The film had a Columbia-imposed happy ending which jars, and Mann hated it.
How the West Was Won
Seven years elapsed before Preston’s next Western. Many people like MGM’s How the West Was Won and it was a huge hit at the time, grossing $46m. Personally, I think it’s complete junk but there we are. Preston was eighth-listed of a galaxy of stars, many of them totally miscast, and there were so many that each, including Preston, only really had a cameo. He was Roger Morgan, in a semi-comic role in the 1851 section known as The Plains, directed by Henry Hathaway, as the wagonmaster who courts Lilith (Debbie Reynolds). Preston doesn’t save the movie, even he couldn’t do that, but he is one of the best things in it.
And a further decade passed before Preston’s final feature Western, and I would say, damn close to Blood on the Moon in terms of quality performance, though not so ‘Western’. Peckinpah’s lovely, sad, elegiac rodeo picture Junior Bonner had Preston, then 53 (it was shot in June 1971) as Ace Bonner, Junior’s roguish (obviously) dad, though he was actually not all that much older than Steve McQueen as Junior. It was a great role but second-billed Preston was absolutely superb in it. McQueen is called Junior because his initials are JR but also because he lives permanently in the shadow of his larger-than-life father. This is a film about many things but one of them is the father-son relationship. Ace’s estranged wife, Junior’s mother, was also movingly played by Ida Lupino, another really great actor. Ace wants to go to Australia but this is not like the throw-away lines of James Garner in Support Your Local Sheriff: here Australia represents the dream of a future in which Ace Bonner can find the past again. A reader of this blog’s review of Junior Bonner, Sawbuck, commented, “Robert Preston found a way to steal every movie he was in but with such subtlety you were happy to realize you had your pocket picked.” I couldn’t agree more.
Robert Preston had never been too keen on television but at the end of the decade, he did The Chisholms, David Dortort’s series about a trek to Oregon in 1844. After the Chisholm family is cheated out of its land in Virginia, the members pack up and head West to the Oregon Territory to start a new life. It takes two years for the Chisholms, led by patriarch Hadley (Preston) and matriarch Minerva (Rosemary Harris), to reach Oregon, with plenty of adventures along the way. The show was a four-part miniseries screened on CBS in 1979, then a nine-episode follow-up series in 1980. Hadley didn’t survive through to the end, though, only getting as far as Wyoming, and Rosemary took over top billing for the final episodes.
Lastly, in 1983, Preston did a TV movie Western, September Gun, again on CBS. The old fellow still had it, in spades. He was 66 but had lost none of his roguish charm. He plays an old gunslinger (we are in the 1890s, we suppose) who knew all the old greats – Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickok are mentioned, as well as Butch Cassidy. The movie is pretty derivative and owes a lot to Rooster Cogburn and Two Mules for Sister Sara, because coarse, cranky Ben Sunday (Preston) teams up with a nun (Patty Duke from Valley of the Dolls) and there is much rubbing each other the wrong way before, inevitably, there is a meeting of minds. At least this nun hasn’t applied half a ton of late 1960s false eyelashes and mascara, as Shirley MacLaine did in the Clint movie. The picture was directed by Don Taylor, a former actor who went on to direct Escape from the Planet of the Apes. He does a decent job, with not a lot to go on, screenplay-wise. There is one good line: Preston, exasperated, says, “I never drew on a nun.” Then adds, “Yet.”
And so it ended, as far as the saddle and sagebrush went anyway (which is what counts). Robert Preston died of lung cancer in 1987.
”Acting is all I’ve ever done, and I’ve nothing else to make comparisons with when anyone asks me whether I’ve ever wanted anything else out of life,” Preston told an interviewer. ”It’s given me enough satisfaction so that I haven’t wanted or had to look for anything else. For a man without hobbies, I stand in a wonderful spot, where what I do is my best hobby and everything else is a poor second.”
Robert Preston’s Westerns which have been reviewed separately on this blog can be found in the index.