I always thought that Dorothy Malone was what my aged pop would have called a corker (he was fond of old-time slang and might also have called her the cat’s pajamas). My mom liked her too, on Peyton Place in the 60s, but I always thought she was, er, corkier, or more like feline nightwear, before she became blonde (I believe she went platinum in order to play Doris Day’s sister in 1954). Anyway.
She did quite a few oaters, luckily: 17 features and a couple of episodes of Western TV shows.
Although she came from a ‘proper’ background (the daughter of an accountant, she attended Catholic school and Southern Methodist University in Texas, and planned to become a nurse), she was spotted by a talent scout in a play at SMU and got a contract at RKO, as Dorothy Maloney, her birth name. Later she said, “The only thing I did at RKO of any note was lose my Texas accent.”
But then she got taken on at Warner Brothers, who called her Dorothy Malone, and she had a small but praised role as bespectacled bookstore clerk in The Big Sleep with Humphrey Bogart. That got her the female lead in the almost (but not quite) Western Two Guys from Texas (1948), a musical comedy, with Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson. This picture, in her words, established her onscreen persona as “the all-American girl watching the all-American boy do all sorts of things.” I haven’t seen it, fortunately.
Her first real Western was a 17-minute short, Frontier Days, which re-used footage from Warners’ Dodge City.
In 1949 she was ‘the other woman’ in two bigger oaters, both starring Joel McCrea: South of St. Louis, released in March, and Colorado Territory, which came out in June.
South of St. Louis (titles with livelinks can be clicked on for our reviews of those pictures) was a goody. If I didn’t see the opening credits I would believe that this great little Western was directed by someone classy like Jacques Tourneur. Yet it’s good old Ray Enright, workaday helmster of many a routine oater. It’s the visual inventiveness, the little quirky insertions, the surprisingly classy photography, as well as the pace and zip of the movie that make it definitely one of Enright’s very best. Dorothy is the ‘good’ Deb Miller who becomes a noble nurse (so she finally achieved her childhood ambition) but can’t wait for Joel to settle down, and her rival is the racier saloon singer Rouge de Lisle (Alexis Smith) who is all tough and cynical on the outside but really falls for Joel big time. Dorothy plays a decent but rather prim woman, while Smith overacts as the tarty dame. It’s good stuff, and the rest of the cast is excellent too.
The excellent Colorado Territory was Raoul Walsh’s remake in the key of Western of his classic 1941 crime noir High Sierra, with Bogart. Fiery half-breed Colorado (Virginia Mayo) falls for tired outlaw McQueen (McCrea in the Bogie part), but he dreams of going straight and marrying the more demure Julie Ann (la Malone) and settling down. Actually, though, Julie Ann loves a rich man back East, and McQueen overhears her tell her father they should turn McQueen in for the reward money – such perfidy – so he now realizes he actually loves Colorado. It all ends tragically, of course, with bullet-ridden bodies. It’s actually a great Western, and Dorothy was really good in it. She later said (I found this on a French website and have translated it back into English, so I can’t guarantee the exact original words): “I loved Westerns. Being covered with dust, riding horseback, planting potatoes and cotton, to make matters worse, my double and I were often the only women on the set!”
Colorado Territory was her last picture at Warners. She went back to Dallas and got a job in insurance. But it didn’t last; the lure of acting was too strong. At Columbia, she got the female lead, opposite Randolph Scott, no less, in The Nevadan. This is another one I really like. Early-50s Westerns (and this one was released on January 11, 1950 and so had the honor of ushering in the greatest decade the Western ever saw) which starred Scott and were produced by his partnership with Harry Joe Brown were often excellent, tight little grippers which were nicely photographed, had good writing and pacey plots. The Nevadan is a classic example of this. Just watch how much of the back story is established in the few scenes under the opening titles. When the movie starts we are already well down the trail. After that, it’s all action and plot development and we are carried along at the gallop. Full marks, Gordon Douglas – a director capable of rather uninspired bread-and-butter films (as he said himself) but also, in my view, now and then making an excellent little oater, and this is one. Dorothy is an independent young woman who goes her own way. She cares for injured horses. Aahh, how nice. But it isn’t a slushy romantic film at all. She’s feisty and strong. A very good performance, it was.
There were two Westerns the following year, 1951, when Dorothy was now freelancing: Saddle Legion, released by RKO in April, and The Bushwhackers, a Realart picture, in December.
Saddle Legion (odd title considering the subject matter) was a brisk Lesley Selander-directed one-hour Tim Holt programmer (yet to be reviewed). The synopsis tells us that the Texas cowhands Dave Saunders (Holt) and Chito Rafferty (Richard Martin, of course) sign on with a cattle rancher but soon suspect skullduggery. Bad guy Regan (Robert Livingston) is posing as a state cattle inspector and he condemns the rancher’s herd as having hoof-and-mouth disease. Of course Regan’s gang (which includes the superb baddy Robert J Wilke) plans to drive the cattle, after pretending to slaughter them, over the Rio Grande into Mexico and sell them there. But Dave and Chito, with assistance from a feisty female veterinarian, Dr Ann Rollins, put an end to the lowdown scheme. No prizes for guessing which role Dorothy played.
As for The Bushwhackers, it was a noirish 70-minute black & white oater of surprising quality. On taking over at Universal, William Goetz had ceased production of B-pictures, and Realart was founded by Jack Broder and Joseph Harris to take over the studio’s backlog, often releasing pictures in double bills, under new, racier titles. They did well, too. The Bushwhackers tells of a Confederate soldier, Jefferson Waring (John Ireland, excellent) who, at the end of the Civil War, swears never to raise a gun against a man again. In Independence, Missouri he witnesses the murder and burning out of homesteaders by paid thugs but, gunless, does nothing. He finds work with the cowed editor of the local newspaper, whose feisty daughter, Cathy (Dorothy, very good again) wants to expose the ruthless rich rancher responsible (Lon Chaney). It was well written, by Tom Gries, well directed, by Rod Amateau, and very well acted.
The first was, to be frank, something of a plodder. It didn’t help that it starred Ronald Reagan, never the most fluid or natural of actors, I fear, and furthermore the direction was pedestrian and the screenplay, credited to Inez Cocke, often downright labored. Frame Johnson (Ron) plans to give up town-taming and settle down in Cottonwood with his sweetheart, saloon owner Jeannie (Malone). Of course the new town is treed by a crook (Preston Foster) so town-taming is back on the menu. At one point Ms Malone says to Frame, “You’re big and you’re ugly and you’re stupid.” Come along now, Dorothy, that’s no way to address your future President. It was a bit ho-hum, though, I’m afraid.
However, the second ’53 Western was, I think, her very best. Jack Slade, also released as Slade, was on one level a modest-budget black & white job which starred the rather unstellar Mark Stevens. But it was directed by talented Harold D Schuster, written by also handy actor/producer/writer Warren Douglas, very well acted (it was Steven’s best performance, for one thing), and it was dark, brooding, grim, violent, almost a tragedy. Slade becomes superintendent of the stage line when Jules Beni (Barton MacLane) is fired and at the same time meets Virginia Maria Dale (Dorothy) and they hit it off right away (as indeed who would not?) He warns her that he is no good but she won’t listen and they are married.
It’s all downhill from there on, what with the demon drink and all. Here, though, is where it starts to get a bit more interesting. There is an attempt to find out what makes a killer tick. Dorothy says, “He kills, he drinks, he hates himself.” But why? Childhood trauma, a violent nature, wartime experience? Or all of them? Well, the inevitable showdown, which takes place in the ratty old saloon (one of those in which the bar is just a plank over some barrels), is splendid. The main reason is that Virginia Maria participates – with a derringer! You know how I like derringer Westerns. And Dorothy Malone, come to that. So this one has everything for me.
In 1954 Dorothy was leading lady in a George Montgomery oater produced by Edward Small, directed by good old Ray Nazarro, and released by United Artists, The Lone Gun (a really Western title), and it was one of George’s best ever. It had a superb cast of bad guys which included no-good brothers Neville Brand, Douglas Kennedy and Robert J Wilke (that’s villainy aristocracy). In Texas, drifter Montgomery becomes marshal of a town but he must face the murderous brothers alone when the scared town refuses to back him up. Classic stuff. Dorothy is a local rancher whose brother (Skip Homeier) is in debt to the bad guys. Of course she will romance the marshal and it will doubtless end in wedded bliss, but they don’t even smooch in the picture and I think Dorothy was a bit wasted in this one. I don’t mean she was wasted, obviously, perish the thought. I mean they didn’t make full use of her talents. It’s a fun movie, though. I especially liked Frank Faylen as the gambler (with a derringer!)
1955 was a top Western year for our heroine, for she was leading lady in three.
American Releasing Corporation (ARC) released independently-produced low-budget films usually packaged as second features. Their first movie was the 1955 The Fast and the Furious, with Dorothy alongside John Ireland, and Five Guns West later the same year was the second. Five Guns was made for the astonishingly low budget of $60,000. Even in the mid-50s sixty grand didn’t go very far. The eponymous armed men must have got hardly anything each, never mind Dorothy. The two pictures were produced, and Five Guns directed, by ARC leading light Roger Corman, and Corman later said that Dorothy, “had left her agent and, having no work, accepted a part for next to nothing.” Five Guns starred John Lund (ho-hum as far as Westerns went) but it was Dorothy who shone. She was blonde now. I think Corman and his writer R Wright Campbell must have seen both Yellow Sky in 1948 and Rawhide in 1951. Dorothy plays a feisty girl with rifle (and a cranky old uncle) in a remote stage station and there were definite echoes of Anne Baxter’s performance in her Yellow Sky part, and the idea of the stage station being occupied by bad guys while waiting for the stagecoach to arrive is more than a little Rawhide-ish. Sadly, though, Five Guns is not a patch on either of those excellent Westerns. Still, considering its budget and scope, Five Guns West is rather better than it should have been, and you could watch it.
Tall Man Riding, back at Warner Brothers, reunited Dorothy with Randolph Scott from The Nevadan and director Lesley Selander from Saddle Legion. It wasn’t bad – it’s a Randy Western after all – but probably not one of his best. It’s a combined revenge-pursuit and homesteader v. rancher plot. Larry Madden (Randy) comes back to his Montana town after being horsewhipped by landowner Tucker Ordway (Ray Barrat) for presuming to fancy his daughter Corinna (Dorothy). There’s a silly ending when Malone, who has despised Scott throughout the film, suddenly changes her mind in the last ten seconds and goes off in his arms. Lucky Randy, though. I don’t know why but Dorothy didn’t seem to spark in this one. Perhaps she didn’t like being back at Warners, who knows. The part wasn’t well written (Joseph Hoffmann, Norman A Fox) anyhow.
At Gunpoint at the end of the year was an Alfred L Werker-directed picture back at Allied Artists, starring Fred MacMurray, who didn’t really like Westerns but was nevertheless good in them, I think, especially if the role required a decent but tough hombre called to duty, as this one did. It is an absolutely classic treatment of that theme so central to the genre, that a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. And Fred was ideally cast as the ordinary storekeeper who may be scared but knows what’s right and so he grits his teeth and does it. It was written by ultra-experienced Daniel B Ullman, who bashed out screenplays for Westerns for years and years, and very competently too. It had an excellent cast. Dorothy is Fred’s wife Martha and Lassie boy Tommy Rettig is their son. It’s a good ‘un.
So by mid-decade Dorothy Malone had built up a very respectable Western CV, and she had become a leading leading-lady in our noble genre.
The team putting Tension at Table Rock together was strong. The picture was directed by Charles Marquis Warren, written by Winston Miller from a Frank Gruber novel, shot in Technicolor by the great Joe Biroc and had music by Dimitri Tiomkin. In addition, the cast, headlining Richard Egan with Dorothy, was top-notch. Egan plays tough gunman Wes Tancred, tired of having to defend himself against every wannabe punk who challenges him, who adopts an alias and gets a job at a remote stage way station. But of course, as we know will happen, violence and danger will not leave him alone. The way station is attacked by robbers who hold up the occupants and wait to waylay the stage (so yet again a Rawhide style plot). Dorothy is the sheriff’s wife but the sheriff (Cameron Mitchell) has lost his nerve and she finds it hard to stand by her cowardly husband. She is drawn to the handsome and courageous Wes, and he, of course, is tempted, but it is a romance that can never be. This Western is another goodie.
Pillars of the Sky, released in some markets as The Tomahawk and the Cross, is quite a pro-Indian picture of the post-Broken Arrow time. Instead of the usual Sioux, Comanche or Apache ‘savages’, here we have the story of the Nez Percé, Cœurs d’Alène, Walla-Wallas, Umatillas, Yakama and Palouses – we are in Oregon, 1868. And these Indians are Christian. Calla Gaxton (Dorothy) is kidnapped by them but hero Sergeant Bell (Jeff Chandler) rescues her. She causes ructions, rather, because she fancies Bell but is married to Captain Tom Gaxton (Keith Andes). For once, her character isn’t terribly sympathetic and we risk finding her annoying, but in the last reel she finally starts to realize what a mess she’s made of people’s lives and shapes up. The picture was directed by George Marshall and again had a good cast – Ward Bond was especially strong – but I wouldn’t put it down as one of Dorothy’s best.
On to ’57. That year (the year she won an Oscar for her barnstorming bad girl part in Written on the Wind) she got back with Fred MacMurray to do Universal’s Quantez. The chief weakness of Quantez is that although we get some nice and typical Universal out-of-doors shots at the start and end, the majority of the picture is done on unconvincing studio sound stages. In many ways the small cast and the intense interaction between them, as well as the studio settings, combine to make it a stage play, more suitable to the theater. The CinemaScope was wasted. Fortunately, the writing and acting, especially of Fred, who was never better, is good enough to carry it off. In fact The New York Times review of the time said, “Very little happens, and what does happen, mostly snarling conversation, could hardly be duller. In an era when even the poorest Westerns manage to vibrate with flying hoofs, bullets and arrows, this one remains static, turgid claptrap.” That was too unkind. This Western gets away with it. It is tense and powerful.
Dorothy is Chaney, the woman of Heller (John Larch), leader of the outlaws, with Fred was Larch’s number two. Fred is gallant to Dorothy and cares for the horses so we know he’s a classic good badman. Dorothy is in many ways the central character of the story. All the gang desire her (and she flirts with them all in her attempt to escape). She is frightened, vulnerable, yet gutsy. It’s a great performance.
When Puritan, a wandering minstrel, appears (James Barton) we get la Malone at her sexiest, for he is also a portrait painter and she sits for him in a red décolleté plongeant. But I guess you have to be a man. Anyway, more importantly for the plot, he sings a song of one John Coventry, gunfighter extraordinaire, and it pretty well immediately becomes apparent that Fred’s character ‘Gentry’ is really this Coventry…
There were no big-screen Westerns in 1958. The same French website I mentioned above tells me that she regretted not having won the role of Patricia in The Big Country, because William Wyler was her most admired director. She said (same provision re exact words): “I was stressed out at that time and I’d lost more than thirteen pounds. I thought I looked like a witch. Every time my agent proposed a meeting for a particular role, I didn’t turn up. I only learned later that Wyler was actually looking for a very thin actress. He chose Carroll Baker, who forgot to tell him she was pregnant. He had to shoot her in close-up. I was the victim of my own stupidity and an inferiority complex.” All Dorothy did that year Westernwise was A Respectable Girl, an episode (S1 E9) of Cimarron City back with George Montgomery. I can’t find this, sadly, so don’t know much about it. I don’t even know if she was the respectable girl of the title.
But the following year she was back in a big Western, Fox’s Warlock, based on the Oakley Hall novel, starring Henry Fonda, Anthony Quinn and Richard Widmark, and directed by Edward Dmytryk. The whole thing is about a sublimated homosexual relationship between a town-taming marshal, Fonda, and a Doc Holliday-ish saloon keeper, Quinn, and the latter becomes furiously jealous when his (implicit) lover dallies with Jessie (Dolores Michaels). The affair doesn’t come to anything. It was never likely to. The women in the story are almost peripheral. Lily Dollar (Dorothy) arrives in Warlock on the stage with vengeance in her heart, wanting to have Blaisedell shot down, and she develops something of a relationship with Deputy Gannon (Widmark), but Gannon is, relatively, a minor character and there is little time (even in a movie at 2 hours +) to build this love interest into much. It was a good Western but all curiously unsatisfactory from an actress’s point of view.
1961 was Dorothy Malone’s last year in the Western genre. She did another TV show, this time The Watch, S10 E10 of Death Valley Days.
But her last feature oater was Universal’s The Last Sunset (another very Western title), directed by Robert Aldrich and starring Rock Hudson and Kirk Douglas. She plays an ex-flame of Kirk’s who falls for Rock – once her rancher hubby (overacting Joseph Cotten) is dead, anyway. Lauren Bacall apparently turned down the role, disliking the subject matter and Douglas and Aldrich wanted Ava Gardner but that didn’t happen either.
Young Carol Lynley plays Malone’s 15-year-old daughter and looks a lot like her ‘mother’, in fact. This part of the plot is rather daring, verging on the creepy, because she falls for the dashing gunman in black (Kirk). The film wasn’t risqué enough to have the couple consummate their desire (it was made in 1959 Hollywood after all) but they do kiss, then there are oblique references to suggest more. Of course it turns out that the girl is his daughter (she manages to look also vaguely like him) and this shocks Kirk’s character to the core, as it would, of course. The picture was also known as El Perdido. In some ways this is more of a family tragedy than a Western. The film was slammed by the critics but isn’t that bad. Anyway, it was Dorothy Malone’s farewell to the genre.
Overall, the consensus is that Dorothy Malone too rarely got parts in the top-quality films that her talents deserved, and she was relegated too soon and too much to TV in the 1960s. That may be so but I don’t think it was the case as far as her Westerns went, anyway. She was in some top-notch oaters, alongside some great Western actors. In any case she was an excellent actress and very beautiful, and she sure graced our noble genre, eh, e-pards?