Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

Wild Heritage (Universal, 1958)

 

Disappointing

 

I was talking the other day about Will Rogers Jr, and how much I enjoyed his light-hearted 1954 movie The Boy from Oklahoma, Michael Curtiz’s last Western at Warners. Rogers only did one other big-screen oater after that, Universal’s Wild Heritage in 1958, but in fact he was hardly in it, despite his top billing. The picture was poorly written, directed and acted, and is altogether a big disappointment.

 

 

It was in Eastmancolor and CinemaScope, shot by Philip H Lathrop, later of Lonely Are the Brave fame, in quite attractive Thousand Oaks locations. So the picture wasn’t a bad looker.

 

Much of the problem must come down to director Charles Haas, who, according to his IMDb bio, “made his feature directorial debut in 1956, and turned out a string of low-budget westerns, gangster and juvenile-delinquent pictures – several with third-string Marilyn Monroe-wannabe Mamie Van Doren.” Haas was mostly a TV guy but he helmed three feature Westerns: Star in the Dust and Showdown at Abilene (both 1956) and this one. None of them was very good and Wild Heritage suffers from uneven pacing, an episodic and disjointed story and poor casting.

 

Shoulda stuck to TV

 

The picture was produced by John E Horton, for years chief of motion pictures for the Army Department who “was the liaison between producers and the Pentagon on hundreds of movies” (IMDb again). This was his only picture as producer, and it showed.

 

It was written by Paul King (his only feature Western, and it showed) and Joseph Stone (his only feature Western, and it showed), from a story by Steve Frazee (his Many Rivers to Cross was also pretty bad). There’s a vague 50s teen-rebel theme.

 

Second-billed after the serial absentee Rogers was probably the one of the few ‘proper’ actors in the cast, Maureen O’Sullivan, playing the Breslin family mother who takes over as boss when her husband Paul Birch (sadly written out early in the first reel) is killed in a saloon brawl. Ms O’Sullivan was one of MGM’s most popular ingénues throughout the 1930s in a number of non-Tarzan vehicles but of course it was the six Tarzan pictures that really made her name. She also did well in literary adaptations such as Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina. She only did three Westerns but was memorable in The Tall T with Randolph Scott. She basically holds Wild Heritage together.

 

Maureen was the best

 

Her children, the Breslin brats, are the principal characters. You can’t blame youth/child actors too much for being unconvincing but these ones were pretty unconvincing, I’m afraid. The eldest boy, Dirk, 17, was played by folk singer Rod McKuen as a young man, actually 25 and still stiff as an actor. His younger brother is played by child actor Gary Gray, 22 by the time, and not a natural either. Sister Missouri (whom the boys tease by calling Misery) was Gigi Perreau, of whom IMDb says, “this French-American moppet star of the late ’40s and early ’50s was able to parlay her precocious popularity into a modest young adult career”, but she didn’t really, at least in this picture. And there’s the youngest (and smartest) boy, Talbot, played by deadpan child-actor George Winslow, 12, who is mildly amusing, up to a point. Because so much of the action is centered on these youngsters, their woodenness is quite a handicap to the picture.

 

The Breslin boys fight Jesse Bascomb but…

 

…later stand side by side

 

There’s a rival family, the Bascombs, who, because this is one of those films which can described by the dread adjective heart-warming (it’s sub-Disney) will become the best of friends/neighbors. Judi Meredith plays the tomboy daughter Callie and young Troy Donahue is her brother Jesse.

 

Then there are two bad guys, who rustle the Breslin stock and murdered their pa, Arn and Jud (John Beradino and Phil Harvey) one-dimensional thugs of no discernible merit.

 

And lastly Rogers, as the local judge (though it’s a lawless territory) who periodically visits the Breslins and, we are given to understand, is interested in the widowed mother, but spends most of the picture offstage. The Boy from Oklahoma showed that he had a winning Western personality so he was completely wasted here.

 

Little more than a cameo

 

So it’s not terribly good.

 

There’s a last-reel showdown in the street outside the saloon in which the little boy saves the day in a Disneyfied way, followed by a cheesy happy ending.

 

Obligatory gunfight

 

But really, this is a bit of a clunker, and can be safely ignored.

 

 

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