Best as charming rogue
Comments by readers Jean-Marie and RR have made me rethink and reassess the Western career of Arthur Kennedy. So today a little Arthurology.
Kennedy did 16 feature Westerns and a 1959 episode of Zane Grey Theatre. They weren’t all wonderful (there were two spaghettis among them, for example) but then which actor did exclusively great films? No one. Not even Coop.
Myself, I would single out the two pictures he did for Anthony Mann and his lead in The Naked Dawn as strong performances in good films.
He was born, in 1914, in Massachusetts, so wasn’t a son of the West. That was true of plenty of good Western actors. He studied drama and became a stage actor, a very good one by all accounts, known, as the New York Times obituary put it, for “his ability to create an exceptional honesty and naturalness on stage.” He won a Tony for best supporting actor for his role in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, for example, and there were other awards.
Bad Men of Missouri
His first film role was with James Cagney, who sort of sponsored him, in 1940, in a drama as Cagney’s brother, and the following year he appeared in his first two Westerns. He was the younger Younger, Jim, in Warner Brothers’ Bad Men of Missouri, directed by good old Ray Enright, released in July ’41, and at the end of the year, also for Warners, he was in the big picture They Died With Their Boots On, with Errol Flynn as Custer. By the way, you can click on titles with livelinks to read our reviews of those movies.
The first is a picture still to be reviewed by Jeff Arnold’s West and unfortunately apparently not available on DVD or YouTube, nor has it come up on TV (if you have seen this movie, or know where I can get a copy, do please leave a comment). But Erick Maurel gives this synopsis:
1865, the American Civil War was over. The Confederate currency having lost all its value, the inhabitants of the former Southern States could no longer pay their taxes to the American government. Unscrupulous businessmen jumped at the chance, settling the farmers’ debts knowing full well that they would be unable to repay them. This is exactly what happens, and the poor farmers are forced to sell their land to the businessmen and move on to new horizons. Returning from the Civil War, Cole (Dennis Morgan), Jim (Arthur Kennedy) and Bob Younger (Wayne Morris) are unpleasantly surprised when they arrive in their Missouri hometown to find all their friends gone as a result of the various spoliations. Only the father of the three brothers still refuses to leave his farm, but he is shot dead as he is being evicted. Following the example of Jesse James (Alan Baxter), the Youngers then set about robbing trains, stagecoaches and banks, with the loot being redistributed to the farmers, who could then pay their taxes and stay on their land, much to the despair of William Merrick (Victor Jory), the local extortionist, and his henchman, the ruthless killer Greg Bilson (Howard da Silva). There’s a price on the Youngers’ heads, and they’ll never stop running and hiding…
So that’s a pretty standard plot. The Youngers and the Jameses, good boys really, were forced reluctantly into banditry by crooked Reconstruction carpetbaggers. Yeah, right.
Maurel adds, “The three main actors, though likeable, lack charisma. Arthur Kennedy is not yet the great actor he will become, and Dennis Morgan and Wayne Morris lack the stature of their characters.” Brian Garfield said of the picture, “Unrelated to history, dated and chock-full of familiar set-pieces, still it’s a fair entertainment.”
Well, I hope to see this film at some point and review it for you. At least Arthur Kennedy had started in our noble genre.
They Died With Their Boots On
In They Died With Their Boots On, a splendid, boisterous Raoul Walsh Custer biopic which has little or nothing to do with history, Kennedy, third billed after Flynn and De Havilland, is (for most of the picture) a hissable villain. He is former fellow West Point cadet Ned Sharp who now runs the trading post at Fort Lincoln that keeps the cavalrymen drunk and unfit for duty, but worse, far worse, in fact about the worst crime you can commit in a Western, he sells guns to the Indians (you wonder if Grant Withers’s part in Fort Apache wasn’t modeled on this one). Custer shuts the bar down and Sharp schemes with crooked Washington DC insiders to get the general removed from his post command. He’s a real bad ‘un. However, he finally redeems himself, dying bravely at Little Bighorn.
It was a big role, and memorable, and Arthur Kennedy was now well set in Westerns, especially if a (maybe sympathetic) villain was needed. Which it always was.
Six years passed before Kennedy again donned Stetson and six-gun. He was once more a famous outlaw, the Sundance Kid this time, in another Raoul Walsh oater, Cheyenne. He was quite a ruthless and sinister Sundance (and unshaven, so clearly a bad guy) and was definitely one of the better things about this movie. In fact it was sometimes marketed as The Wyoming Kid and Sundance was almost the central character. Dennis Morgan (not a brother anymore) is hired to track him down but falls for the outlaw’s wife, Jane Wyman. As I said in my review, Cheyenne wasn’t the greatest Western of the decade, far from it indeed, but it is a rattling good – and probably underrated – oater in its light-hearted way, and Kennedy definitely adds to it with his villainy.
The Walking Hills
In 1949 Kennedy did a contemporary Western directed by John Sturges and starring Randolph Scott, The Walking Hills. It’s a gold-lust yarn, with a group of dubious characters (Kennedy is one) seeking a legendary wagon train of the precious metal buried in the sand (it was shot in Death Valley). Produced by Harry Joe Brown (with Scott), written by Alan Le May (as Cheyenne had been), directed by Sturges and starring, with Scott and Kennedy, John Ireland, William Bishop, Edgar Buchanan and Ella Raines as the female lead, the movie shaped up to be good from the get-go. The moment when Randy slaps a hysterical Kennedy and knocks him to the floor, then Ireland asks, “What did you do that for?” and Randy quietly rolls a cigarette and answers, “I ran out of words”, is really powerful.
In 1951 Kennedy did a Western for Hal Wallis at Paramount, Red Mountain, a tail-end of the Civil War Quantrill story. Alan Ladd plays a Confederate captain gone out West, seeking to put the bitter conflict behind him. (Bosley Crowther in the New York Times review said that, “In accord with his usual manner, Mr Ladd plays the whole thing with great ease, moving about and killing people with the grace of a gentleman at a tea.”) In the opening scene Ladd enters an assay office and kills the clerk. The plot will later reveal why. It’s one of those Westerns with a lynch mob, a gang of townsmen (led by Whit Bissell) who jump immediately to conclusions and grab a rope before you can say “fair trial”. They blame another ex-Confederate, Lane Waldron (Kennedy) because he was seen at the assay office earlier in the day and is a Reb, so obviously guilty. Lane is about to be strung up to the nearest tree. Now Ladd comes to Lane’s rescue, shooting and severing the hanging rope and saving his life.
After that it’s all about gold, guerrillas and gals. You see, Lane has a lady-love, Christine, known as Chris, played by the rather sultry Lizabeth Scott. And although Chris is a dyed-in-the-wool Unionist who can’t stand Johnny Rebs, still she starts to fall for the handsome Confederate captain despite herself (you know how they do). And poor Lane realizes he is losing her. He’ll be conveniently killed off in the last reel (dying heroically, though) to free Chris and Ladd up to wed. So this time Arthur wasn’t really the hissable villain. Anyway, it was a good part. Kennedy was third-billed after the male and female leads.
The following year, 1952, Kennedy did three Westerns (if you count the rodeo picture The Lusty Men as a Western). First, shot the year before but released in January ‘52, was the first picture Kennedy did for Anthony Mann, Universal’s Bend of the River.
Bend of the River
Two years on from the splendid Winchester ’73, Mann was up in Oregon shooting in Technicolor, still with James Stewart, though. Stewart was a classic ‘man with a past’ figure, a former border raider guiding a wagon train of settlers. The picture opens with a scene reminiscent of Red Mountain, a grimacing face and a noose. Stewart saves Kennedy (they go back) from a lynch mob.
– Still following that star?
– Better than having a man with a star following you.
It’s a good start.
Kennedy is entertaining as the – at first charming – villain Emerson Cole. His rascally laugh is infectious but he proves eventually that he is a rotten apple. He combines both the black evil and the cheerfully roguish natures of the two villains McNally and Duryea from Winchester ’73, and he is, essentially, Stewart’s other self. This equality, or pairing, is emphasized continually by Mann framing shots of them together and the editing. They are two sides of the same coin. Kennedy saves Stewart’s life in a fight with Indians, but that deed will be repaid differently at the end.
This notion of good guy with faults vs. mirror-image bad guy with saving graces was one that Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott would exploit so well together at the end of the decade. Bend was a splendid film and one of Kennedy’s best Western performances. He and Mann would be back.
Kennedy followed that with a promotion, now second-billed after Marlene Dietrich in Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious at RKO. It’s basically a revenge Western, like so many. A wicked outlaw rapes and kills a young girl (Gloria Henry) who is the fiancée of ranch hand Vern Haskell (Kennedy). Haskell devotes years of his life to hunting down this malefactor. Arthur was 37 when Rancho was filmed (March/June 1951) and not altogether convincing as the young boy in love but he was fine for the rest of the film as the years are supposed to have passed.
He pals up with gunfighter Frenchy Fairmont (Mel Ferrer), “the fastest draw in the West”, who fills the older-and-wiser mentor role. Ferrer was actually three years younger than Kennedy, but never mind; they gave him gray hair. At Marlene’s ranch, which houses bad guys on the run in return for 10% of their loot (a rather improbable premise) Vern continues his investigations while Marlene falls for him (“Go away and come back ten years ago,” she tells him) and finally he tracks down the varmint and there’s a last-reel showdown.
The picture was reviewed negatively and didn’t do well at the box-office but it was a big role for Kennedy.
The Lusty Men
And he stayed at RKO for the third Western (or almost) of the year, The Lusty Men. Directed by Nicholas Ray, this was a fine film. Whether rodeo films are Westerns is an open question and perhaps this one isn’t. It doesn’t deal with essential Western themes such as man against nature or Indians on the nineteenth century frontier. But it is a later page in the history of the Western in the sense that it deals with the sadness of the passing of the old Western ways and the beat-up Westerner with nowhere to go.
Ray captures the atmosphere, with the inter-cutting of documentary footage – Livermore, Pendleton, Spokane, Tucson. We can almost taste the dust and feel the jolts as bodies crash to the dirt. There’s some luminous black & white photography by Lee Garmes.
Robert Mitchum in the lead was superb but, as Dennis Schwartz said, “Arthur Kennedy [gives] an understated brilliant performance as a decent man who becomes too obsessed with money and glory.” He plays a ranch owner who dreams of rodeo fame who takes on Mitchum as his manager/trainer and against the wishes of his wife (that fine actress Susan Hayward) sells the ranch and follows the rodeo circuit. But it goes to his head, he becomes arrogant and his wife drifts towards Mitchum. Ray resisted studio pressure for a happy ending and the picture is downbeat. It really was an excellent film. Brian Garfield wrote, “This is one of the few Westerns I can think of that transcends its script.”
The Man from Laramie
There were two Westerns in 1955. First released in July was The Man from Laramie, which some regard as the finest of the Anthony Man/James Stewart Westerns, and they may not be wrong.
Stewart as the titular man is looking for those responsible for the death of his soldier brother – they are selling rifles to the Indians (again). He gets involved in the violet politics of a dispute between cattle barons. Rich rancher Donald Crisp has a pretty repulsive ne’er-do-well son, Dave (Alex Nicol) and an apparently more worthy and deserving foreman, the orphan Vic (Kennedy, second-billed after Stewart). It’s a tense, psychological Western with Kennedy playing his part to the hilt. He turns out to be not quite so worthy and deserving.
The Naked Dawn
The Naked Dawn, premièred at the Venice Film Festival in September 1955 and released in the US in October, is in many ways Kennedy’s most interesting picture in the genre. This was partly because for the first and only time he took the lead. In terms of sheer acting ability, I think it was Kennedy’s finest Western role.
It was made by Joseph Shaftel Productions and released by Universal, and helmed by Edgar G Ulmer (1904 – 1972). Ulmer is considered now a cult director. Peter Bogdanovich thinks that his films “had a clearly identifiable signature” and that The Naked Dawn was a classic. Moravian-born Ulmer worked for most of his professional life at PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation, known in the trade as Poverty Row Corp) making ultra-low budget war and sci-fi films for which he might be paid $300.
The Naked Dawn was one of only two Westerns he directed and on this showing it is very sad he did not do more, because despite the technical and budgetary restrictions (it was shot in six days), The Naked Dawn is a tight psychodrama with a stunningly good Kennedy as a charismatic and sympathetic Mexican outlaw. He is an aging, worldly-wise vagabond, full of charm and cheer yet destined, we know (he tells us) to end up on a rope or worse. Anger, gentleness and joie de vivre all come out at unexpected moments. His accent and appearance are also surprisingly effective. There is great subtlety in the interplay of the characters leading to an almost inevitably tragic end. There is a small cast and the players are pretty well unknown apart from Kennedy. Almost for the first time in the genre (for me) Kennedy really showed his acting talent in this ‘minor’ picture.
The Rawhide Years
Though it was a much ‘bigger’ picture, in terms of budget, marketing and so on, Universal’s The Rawhide Years was really lesser fare, a pretty standard oater of the mid-50s. It starred Tony Curtis, whom they were trying out in a Stetson, and was directed by the slightly stodgy Rudolph Maté. Curtis is a cheating gambler forced to go on the run. He works his way West, cowboying, hence the title (though that title is a bit odd though because the rawhide years take up very little of the movie).
He teams up with charming rogue Rick Harper (Kennedy) and they get into more scrapes. There’s a bit where they have to jump into the river from a cliff to evade pursuit and one can’t swim; probably the makers of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had seen that scene. The rest of the movie tells how, with Arthur’s aid, Tony proves his innocence and gets the girl, in traditional fashion.
The whole thing is a bit ho-hum to be honest, though reasonable fun, and Kennedy is probably the best thing in it.
In 1959 Kennedy did that Zane Grey Theatre episode, Make It Look Good, directed by Anton Leader, but it isn’t on YouTube, that I can see, and I don’t know if it was good, bad or indifferent. One reviewer said, “Kennedy plays a bank teller in a town where Union sentiment was strong during the late War between the states. Unfortunately he was a person with southern sympathies and is treated pretty badly by a lot of the folks in his town. One day a couple of brothers who were also Confederates rob the bank and Kennedy takes a bullet. But what the town doesn’t know is that these two brothers, Ed Nelson and Richard Rust, rode with Kennedy and were in Elmira Prison with him. Kennedy was an inside man.” But the reviewer added, “Definitely not one of the better Zane Greys.”
In 1964 Kennedy appeared in his first feature Western for nearly a decade when he was Doc Holliday to James Stewart’s Wyatt Earp in John Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn.
The picture was John Ford’s swansong, his last Western, made when he was past his prime, had lost his touch and had even lost interest, and the burlesque episode with Stewart and Kennedy, almost an intermission really, was regrettable. It is completely irrelevant to the action, out of tone with the rest of the picture and irritatingly unfunny.
Ford could rarely resist low comedy (it was his principal flaw) and this is one of the worst examples. A singularly uncomic Stewart as Earp (in, however, a splendid hat) and a bourgeois-looking and rather dull Kennedy as Holliday in a derby have a routine that should certainly have been cut in its entirety had any editor worth his salt (this one was Otho Lovering) been able to stand up to Lord Ford. Oh well.
In 1965 Kennedy followed the example of several other Hollywood folk by being inveigled into getting on a plane (with headliner Jeffrey Hunter and director George Sherman) to go to Spain to make a Eurowestern of great direness. Murieta! purported (falsely) to be the story of Joaquin Murrieta, though it was sold in some markets as Revenge of Sartana. Kennedy is a marshal hunting the bandit down. It is set in the 1870s with all the standard hats and guns that spaghetti cooks usually used. It was released (dubbed) in the US by Warners in September ’65 but of course got nowhere. I watched it on YouTube but it was hard work, I can tell you.
Kennedy would do another spaghetti in 1967 (we might as well get it out of the way now), Un minuto per pregare, un istante per morire, literally ‘A minute to pray, an instant to die’, also titled in English-speaking markets as McCord and The Prodigal Gun, but junk whatever you call it. It was released by CRC in the States. It starred Alex Cord, Kennedy and, amazingly, Robert Ryan, and it was helmed by Franco Giraldi, assistant director on For a Few Dollars More. Roger Ebert actually reviewed it, an honor it probably did not deserve. He said, “This is such a bad, artless, stupid movie that it is unworthy of an attack. It deserves, perhaps, the kind of microscopic examination one might give a bug or a worm: It is boring as a movie but interesting as an example of what some people will pay their good money to see.”
Well, we can’t blame Arthur too much. You gotta eat. And if a Western actor of the caliber of Robert Ryan can do a film like this, why not Kennedy?
But between these two heavy dollops of pasta Kennedy had a part in Nevada Smith. A full-on Paramount Western directed by the great Henry Hathaway and starring Steve McQueen, co-starring Brian Keith, shot by the talented Lucien Ballard and with music by Alfred Newman, this ought to have been a good film. It was a real disappointment. The Cleveland Press said, “Nevada Smith is hack work, with a plot that is not so much unbelievably bad but simply unbelievable.” Kennedy was one of the bad guys, with Martin Landau and Karl Malden, the latter overacting hysterically, as was his wont – almost as over the top as he had been in Cheyenne Autumn.
I’m afraid Kennedy’s later Westerns were not exactly great art.
Day of the Evil Gun
In 1968 he did his last one, and it was probably bad enough to justify his adieu to the genre. Day of the Evil Gun was helmed by Jerry Thorpe (who had been an assistant director on William Wellman’s Westward the Women so should have done better) and was made as a TV movie, though MGM decided to release it theatrically.
It starred the fine Western actor Glenn Ford with Kennedy (overacting – he must have been studying Malden), but the great Ford couldn’t save it. Written by Charles Marquis Warren, it was basically a cheap rip-off of The Searchers and Two Rode Together. A good guy and bad guy team up to find some women who have been taken by Apaches, though it’s not easy to tell which is good and which bad. There are scenes when they ‘ride’ fake horses. Kennedy’s teeth are equally and equally obviously false. Perhaps it’s the teeth that lead him to call them aparches. There’s a dreary shoot-out. I rather agree with Brian Garfield, who said, “This flick is genuinely tedious.”
And, as far as Westerns went, that was that. The Wikipedia page on him says, “With the death of his wife in 1975, failing eyesight, alcoholism, and thyroid cancer, Kennedy was reported as having lost interest in filmmaking.” He died in 1990.
But despite the decline in Western quality in his last half-dozen films, Arthur Kennedy did enough to be remembered as a strong Western actor, and did especially well as the ‘charming rogue’ figure.
Is that fair enough, Jean-Marie?