Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

Last of the Wild Horses (Screen Guild, 1948)

 

Bob Lippert has a stab at directing

 

Back in 2022 we looked at the career of Robert L Lippert (click the link for that), a movie theater owner who got into distribution and then production. His pictures were low-cost affairs but would sell, especially to modest rural theaters and drive-ins.

 

Bob Lippert, when THE BARON OF ARIZONA was at his drive-ins

 

Lippert had few if any cultural pretensions. “I’m giving the public and the exhibitors the films they want for purely commercial reasons,” he said. “I don’t worry about what the critics say. I make pictures people want to see.” And he did. One Kansas theater owner enthused, “If you are in a small town with rural patronage, just line up with these Lippert pictures, and you and your patrons will be happy.” And because the Hollywood adage had it, ‘If you want to make money, make a Western’, though Bob Lippert did make sci-fi and horror flicks and so on, the majority of his output were sagebrush sagas.

 

The first Lippert film, in 1945, was Wildfire: The Story of a Horse, a 57-minute Bob Steele Western made for $36,000.

 

Lippert chose Robert Emmett Tansey to direct that picture. Tansey was an experienced hand at ultra-low-budget oaters in all sorts of capacities – director, editor, writer, production manager, and so on. Tansey said he approached every Western the same way: twenty minutes of riding, ten minutes of shooting, ten minutes of fist-fighting, and twenty minutes of plot. If he ran a bit behind schedule, he cut the plot. Other directors Lippert used were William Berke, who churned them out on-time and on-budget – just what Lippert wanted – and Lee Sholem, known as Roll ‘em Sholem (click the link for our essay on him).

 

But in 1948, Lippert tried his own hand at directing, on the tried-and-tested ‘How hard can it be?’ principle, with maybe a bit of why pay someone when you can do it yourself?

 

Bob at the helm – for a couple of days

 

The Western Last of the Wild Horses had an unusually luxurious 84-minute runtime and It was shot “in glowing Sepiatone” (Wildfire had been in Cinecolor). I don’t quite know why this process was used; in my view the brown-and-white makes a film look more old-fashioned and more like a silent movie than plain black & white, but anyway it was puffed as a ‘plus’.

 

 

However, to Lippert’s horror, after only three days he fell hopelessly behind schedule. True to his principles, he fired himself. The film’s editor, Paul Landres, took over and finished it (though without credit, except as ‘associate producer’).

 

Reader Barry Lane says of the picture, “I have it here, and it is pretty good entertainment whether or not Lippert could not finish. At least he started something that has decent wit and style.”

 

That’s right, for in fact the picture isn’t half bad. I might even say surprisingly good.

 

It starred James Ellison. Ellison, who would become a Lippert regular – they would do five pictures together – had started with small parts in Warner Brothers and MGM pictures before landing the plum job of Hopalong Cassidy’s sidekick Johnny Nelson in a whole series of Hoppy pictures in the late 1930s. Curiously in some ways Cecil B DeMille then picked him to be Buffalo Bill in Paramount’s big-budget The Plainsman, with Gary Cooper as Wild Bill Hickok. Actually, there was a time when Ellison was talked of as “the next Gary Cooper” and in fact they’d both grown up on a ranch in Montana, but that was never to be. Ellison was amazingly colorless as Cody, and DeMille thought he’d made a major error. The IMDb bio of Ellison says that DeMille “reportedly hated Ellison’s performance and wanted to ensure that Ellison never had as good a part in quite as good a film ever again.” True, or not, Ellison spent much of the rest of his career in the B-Western, doing oaters especially with his Hopalong replacement and good pal Russell Hayden and later with Johnny Mack Brown. He retired from movies in the mid-50s and became a real estate broker. He was personable and pleasant in his Westerns, if unlikely to set the prairie on fire.

 

 

He plays Duke Barnum (the Wayne-ish plot and style of the picture probably accounts for the name), a happy-go-lucky drifter who is tempted to rob a stagecoach but is distracted when three mean-looking hombres are pursuing a single rider. “Kind of a one-sided caper,” he muses, so he intervenes on behalf of the loner, sending the tough guys packing on foot without their boots.

 

When his horse throws a shoe, Duke is helped by Jane Cooper, a glam gal who happens by (as they do) and taken to her ranch house to meet daddy.

 

The glam Jane happens by

 

Jane is played by Jane Frazee, who did quite a few Westerns, and Douglass Dumbrille is her wheelchair-bound pop Charlie. Dumbrille, “whose distinctive stern features, beady eyes, tidy mustache, prominent hook nose and suave, cultivated presence graced scores of talking films,” as the IMDb bio has it, is probably best remembered by us Westernistas as the sheriff in Son of Paleface and the major in Virginia City.

 

Jane’s pop in a wheelchair

 

Charlie Cooper has a foreman, Riley Morgan, who is clearly a villain from the word go, and this is our old friend Reed Hadley, another Lippert regular (they worked 11 times together). He has a nefarious scheme to nab all the wild horses in a local herd for sale (one supposes) which will destroy the herd at the rate he is doing it. Begged by his daughter, rancher Cooper agrees to hold off on culling for a year but Morgan will have none of that. He’s out for short-term profit and the hell with the consequences.

 

Villainous foreman has a short way with reluctant henchmen

 

The local smaller ranchers disapprove and resist, leading to a range war.

 

That’s basically the (slightly implausible) plot.

 

The obligatory fistfight

 

It turns out that those hombres Duke sent packing are Cooper hands, basically henchmen of Morgan.

 

It also turns out that the lone rider Duke saved was in fact a girl, of the tomboy variety, Terry (second-billed Mary Beth Hughes, much-married former weather girl become B-movie starlet). She and her comic-relief dad, known as Remedy (Olin Howland) because he’s an amateur doctor and dentist who studies by mail, are very grateful to Duke and help him out when Sheriff James Millican (that’s right, another Lippert regular) suspicions him as a stranger who might hold up stages.

 

‘The other girl’ and her dad

 

Amateur dentistry

 

So now we have two gals interested in the handsome stranger. Which shall grab him? One of them, surely?

 

Well, I won’t go more into the plot, except to say there’s plenty of galloping about, which Lippert always insisted on, and much skullduggery. Morgan even murders Charlie Cooper and gets the blame put on Duke, and there’s a trial, of the travesty kind.

 

He never gets to speak in his defense

 

There’s also a lot of dialogue of the “it’s just a flesh wound” kind. The music (Albert Glasser) is also old-fashioned and ultra-dramatic. It is in fact a proper B-Western of the old school. But it’s done with gusto and energy, and I enjoyed it.

 

Good old Stanley Andrews is one of the smaller ranchers and Chuck Roberson is a deputy.

 

The story and screenplay were by actor/director/writer Jack Harvey, who went right back to the early silent days. Producing with Lippert was Carl Hittleman, who worked on some goodish Lippert Bs such as The Baron of Arizona, Little Big Horn and I Shot Jesse James, as well as those shlocky 60s oaters Billy the Kid vs Dracula and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter.

 

1948 was, we know, a truly great year for the Western, what with Red River, Fort Apache, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre et al, not to mention the birth of Jeff Arnold of future Jeff Arnold’s West fame, but of course the more modest oater continued unabated as well, and hallelujah for that.

 

Nice poster

 

 

5 Responses

          1. I guessed but was wondering why you had not corrected it yet. Have a lovely Sunday

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