Hoss off the Ponderosa
In the fall of 1968, NBC’s TV show Bonanza was already beginning its tenth season, and although Adam Cartwright had disappeared from the Ponderosa, Pa, Little Joe and Hoss were still there alright, as they had been since the start in 1959, and though the show’s ratings weren’t quite what they had been, the actors were very well known and enormously popular. One’s elder sister had sighed over handsome Adam and lamented his passing, and one’s younger sister continued to sigh over the cute Little Joe; even mother thought Lorne Greene rather dishy. But no female member of the household regarded poor Hoss with any such longing. He was the shambling, kind-hearted ox type in a very large Stetson (actually an oversize hat made for Bob Hope for laughs that fitted his great head well). See our profile of Dan Blocker by clicking here.
Still, all the Cartwright actors did their best to diversify and break out of typecasting if they possibly could. Like the others, Blocker tried his hand at different roles, including in non-Westerns with his pal Frank Sinatra (and he turned down the Slim Pickens part in Dr Strangelove). In 1968 Dan did a TV movie, a comedy Western made by Universal Television and aired on NBC, titled Something for a Lonely Man.
On more than one occasion, such as in Man and Boy, an episode of The Restless Gun, and in the 1957 George Montgomery feature Black Patch, Dan appeared in TV Westerns as a blacksmith and he is a smith again in this one (I suppose his burly physique suited the job). He is John Killibrew, who is now unpopular with the townsfolk because ten years ago he had persuaded them to settle there, saying the railroad was coming, but it never did. Now he has a new project, and they won’t listen.
The plot centers around a steam engine that falls from a train into a pool about twenty miles from town and Killibrew reckons this engine, if recovered and brought home, could modernize the community and make it prosperous. He secures ownership by going to San Francisco (a rather unconvincing-looking San Francisco on the Universal lot, it must be said) and purchasing said engine for $1 from the insurance company run by Henry Jones (Alex Potter in 3:10 to Yuma), who is glad to be rid of it.
Only one person backs him up, the pretty Mary Duren (Susan Clark, who did quite a few Westerns, and you may remember her in Coogan’s Bluff, Tell Them Willie Boy is Here, Valdez is Coming, Showdown and The Apple Dumpling Gang). Unlike my sisters, Mary actually does sigh over Hoss, I mean John, but he is too dumb to realize it (in fact Blocker was a clever man who went to California in the first place to study for his doctorate and got sidelined into acting, but he always seemed to take dumb-ox roles). Mary is teaching him to read, using as a primer Emerson on Self-Reliance, 1841, which seems a bit advanced for a beginner.
Unfortunately, Mary has three hillbilly (and equally illiterate) brothers led by Warren Oates, slightly referencing his part in Ride the High Country, I’d say, flanked by Paul Petersen and Don Stroud, and these bros don’t approve – mainly because they don’t want to lose their only cook.
There are other famous Western actors in small roles – little more than cameos, really – such as the excellent John Dehner as a classic saloon owner/unscrupulous town boss (who covets the steam engine) and the great Edgar Buchanan as the livery stable owner. Edgar’s only on screen for a couple of minutes but he still steals the show. Dub Taylor gives it plenty (as usual) as the cowardly sheriff. Iron Eyes Cody is the Indian chief who first repossesses the engine.
There’s rather tiresome ‘comic’ music (Jack Marshall) to tell us when it’s funny, you know with a muted trumpet going wah-wah to simulate a laugh, that kind of thing. The picture was shot by old-stager DP Benjamin H Kline, who worked on pretty well every TV Western known to man except Bonanza, with the very occasional California location shot but mostly in the studio (it looks very like a Bonanza episode, actually).
The picture was directed, capably enough, I guess, though the journey getting the engine back was too long, by Don Taylor, who would helm The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday later on (not a great recommendation) and worked on many Western TV shows, though again not on the Ponderosa.
The movie was written by John Fante (his only Western) and the much more expert Frank Fenton (Station West, Escape from Fort Bravo, Garden of Evil, etc).
It’s all harmless enough and quite amusing if you like that kind of thing.
Buy Jeff’s new Western novel!