The B-Western at its best
The longhorn is a descendant of the cattle brought to the Americas by Spanish conquistadores in the days of Christopher Columbus. Over the next two centuries, the Spaniards used the cattle in Mexico and gradually moved them north to accompany their expanding settlements, reaching the area that became known as Texas near the end of the 17th century. Eventually, some longhorns escaped or were turned loose on the open range, where they remained mostly feral for the next two centuries. Over several generations, these beasts developed hardy characteristics that have given longhorns their reputation as real tough livestock.
However, longhorns, though hardy, tended to be on the skinny side, while such cattle as Herefords were prized for their meatiness. Could not the two breeds be crossed? Maybe that way you could produce a hardy cow that could survive on the open range but which, when driven to market, would fetch a high price for its meat. A few movies (only a few that I know of) focused on that very idea. The Rare Breed (1966) was pretty well a dud as a Western, due to bad writing and direction and the odd bit of very dodgy acting, but it was quite interesting as a subject, as English Maureen O’Hara and her daughter Juliet Mills enlist the aid of cowboy James Stewart to get their hornless bull to mate with their Texas longhorn cows, but have to overcome lowdown criminals and cruel nature.
Better (by quite a long way) however – as a Western, I mean – was a low-budget Monogram programmer of 1951, shot in seven days and “filmed in glorious Sepia Tone,” as the poster says, The Longhorn.
There was another picture on the theme, the George Montgomery oater Canyon River in 1956, also rather good in fact, but that was just a bigger-budget CinemaScope/Color De Luxe remake of The Longhorn.
The Longhorn starred Bill Elliott. It was actually the first one of six he did at Monogram. I enjoy a Wild Bill oater every now and then. I like the cool way he wears his guns, though to be more adult for a moment, these films were generally well made, in their modest way. The average Monogram picture of the day cost $90,000 (whereas the clunker The Rare Breed cost $2.5m) yet Monogram still managed to bring zip and fun and even a bit of class to those oaters.
This one was directed by Lewis D Collins. Collins had been helming low-budget fare since the 1920s and he churned out dozens of Westerns, including some of those 30s John Wayne efforts. He directed what some consider to be the last ever series B-Western, Two Guns and a Badge (1954). Collins and Elliott worked six times together. The pacing of The Longhorn is exemplary, the 70-minute picture rattling along and never sagging.
And the screenplay was written by Daniel B Ullman, 40 feature Westerns, notably many with Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott, and 165 episodes of different Western TV shows to his credit, so hats off to Dan.
Wild Bill is Jim Kirk, no, not that one, a Wyoming cattleman (though it’s shot on the Iverson Ranch, naturally) but not an unsympathetic over-mighty cattle-baron, obviously, more of a decent hardworking rancher, you know the type.
The on-screen intro text tells us:
Of all the Americans who have earned the right to be called ‘self- made man,’ the cattle rancher of the Great Plains is perhaps one of the most deserving of the title. After defending his precious herds for generations against marauding Indians, rustlers and the weather, the Plains cattleman, in the middle of the nineteenth century, found himself confronted by a new enemy, economics. The famed Texas longhorn, hardiest breed of cattle ever known gradually became almost worthless at the beef market. This situation drove hundreds of ranchers out of business; others hung on, powerless and desperate, hoping for a change. A few did something about it. This is the story of a man who did.
Jim’s best pal and loyal supporter is ranch-hand Andy (our old pal Myron Healey, second-billed, 81 feature Westerns and 205 episodes of Western TV shows to his enormous credit), who backs him up at every point.
Until, that is, we see Andy scheming in the saloon with some very unsavory types and we understand he is playing a double game, the rat. The rustlers he is in cahoots with are led by John Hart, the Lone Ranger for 52 episodes and Hawkeye (with loyal sidekick Lon Chaney as Chingachgook) in one of my favorite series as a boy, Hawkeye and the Last of the Mohicans. He’s wearing a suit and owns the saloon, so is obviously a bad ‘un.
In the opening scene Bill, I mean Jim, is on his way back to the ranch having sold his scrawny longhorns for a pittance, when he is attacked by the villains (Hart and his henchmen) who want the cash Bill has got. Little do they know that Bill was savvy enough to get a cashier’s check instead of actual greenbacks, so it wouldn’t have done them any good anyhow. Dolts. Anyway, they fail.
Now Bill outlines his plan to Andy. He’s going to Oregon with that check to buy Herefords. Then he’ll drive them back eastwards into Wyoming (the Oregon Trail works in both directions, he explains) mate them with his longhorns, sell the resulting fat cross-breeds, and become rich. Sounds like a plan, though I would have thought it would have been easier just to get a Hereford bull and have it mate with the longhorn cows, but what do I know about stockbreeding? Naught.
Andy is skeptical but agrees to go along. We know why, the skunk.
On the way, they are attacked by Indians, naturally, as one is, and Jim saves Andy’s life. But Andy is wounded in the fray and so Jim leaves him with feisty rancher Gail Robinson (Phyllis Coates, whom we think of as Lois Lane – in fact The Longhorn was released two days before Phyllis’s debut as Lois on the big screen – but 19 feature oaters in her CV, many of them cattle ones, like Fargo, Cattle Empire, The Maverick, El Paso Stampede, etc) and her cranky old dad Charlie (I Stanford Jolley, another old friend, more usually a thin-mustachioed black hat but rather a goody old-timer here).
Now Jim buys those Herefords but where is he going to get trail-hands to drive them back along the Oregon Trail? No one wants the job. Until, that is, Jim goes into a disreputable saloon, whose denizens are unemployed ex-cons, former outlaws and assorted ne’er-do-wells. Jim reckons they deserve a second chance and convinces them to sign on. One of them is the barman William Fawcett in an eye-patch. Mind, Jim has to beat the no-goods’ leader (Lane Bradford) in a fistfight first, you know, to convince them, and also so the movie can have a saloon brawl in it.
When he picks up the recovered Andy, Gail and her pa want to come along too. Dad will drive the chuck wagon and prepare the grub and Gail will, er, be decorative. So off they set.
Of course that modest budget wasn’t going to run to actual cattle, so, as usually happened in trail drive B-pictures, the scenes of the characters are intercut with, if you’ll excuse the pun, stock footage. Gail and Jim stare off to the right of the camera, point and remark on the size of the herd, loud off-set mooing is heard, and then (not quite matching) footage from older, bigger pictures shows us loads of cows ambling along through some valley. Fair enough. Ernest Miller, another experienced old hand, shot the new scenes with the usual competence.
Still, even if there’s a lot of stock footage, Jim and his crew don’t set up camp each night on a studio sound-stage. It was mostly shot up at Iverson, outdoors. Even ‘the’ big cattle drive Western, Red River, which had 9000 big-budget head a-mooing, still camped each night in the studio. Not Jim.
Jim is pretty tough on his men, as trail bosses are supposed to be. He won’t even kill a precious steer to feed them. They have to survive on potatoes. There will be a great deal of hardship, even worse than spuds, as well as skullduggery, en route. What’s more, rivalry will develop between Jim and Andy for the favors of the fair Gail. And of course the obligatory stampede. You can’t have a cattle-drive Western without a stampede.
The bad guys will be thwarted and Andy will redeem himself by dying bravely (that’s not a spoiler because you can see it coming a mile off). Actually, there was almost an attempt here at complexity of characterization. Myron’s Andy is no one-dimensional villain.
And guess who will get the girl? Though I note there was no hanky-panky of any kind. They don’t even kiss. Mind, Bill was 47 to Phyllis’s 24 (I believe she’s turning 90 this month) so perhaps it wasn’t considered appropriate.
Well, a good time was had by all, I reckon, certainly by all of us viewers anyway. Def recommended.