Monday, June 29, 2020

Harlem Rides the Range

Harlem Rides the Range
YouTube viewing

I really wanted to write about a black cowboy movie but thought I’d have to settle for one from the 70s or 80s. Then I came across this discovery: Herb Jeffries (AKA Herbert Jeffrey) was a singing cowboy from the 30s who starred in westerns with all-black casts.

He was very light-skinned (his mom was white) but identified as black. He started out as a singer in Detroit and moved to Chicago. In 1931 he joined Earl Hines’ band for a few years and then moved to LA in 1934. In time he became part of Duke Ellington’s band and lowered his vocal range to sound more like Bing Crosby.

While touring in the South with Hines, Jeffries experienced racism for the first time; the band could only play in tobacco warehouses and black-only theaters. When he saw black kids watching westerns, he decided they should have a black cowboy hero of their own.

He hooked up with producer Jed Buell, raised some money and wrote songs for the film. Jeffries had learned about horse riding on his grandfather’s farm, so he cast himself in the lead and used makeup to darken his skin.

Harlem on the Prairie was shot in five days in 1937 and though the critical reaction was mixed, it got a write-up in Time. “The Bronze Buckaroo” went on to make three more westerns, including the one I watched, Harlem Rides the Range, from 1939. I’m sorry to say it’s not very good; the acting is amateurish, the editing uninspired and there are only two songs in the hour-long movie.

That said, Jeffries was a good singer and the fact that his movies got made at all is an accomplishment in itself worth noting. He appeared in other non-western movies and television later in life, including an episode of The Virginian. A documentary short, A Colored Life, was made about him in 2008.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Gene Autry vs. Roy Rogers

Singing cowboys (and cowgirls) have been around almost as long as sound in motion pictures. I can’t say I have much experience with them. I remember some of the country records my father listened to by self-styled cowboys—Marty Robbins, Freddy Fender, Tex Ritter—but as a kid, I never associated singing cowboys with the movies. I suppose my father must have watched singing cowboy movies growing up and then later, as an adult, but I don’t recall seeing any on TV.

If you had asked me back then, I would’ve said Gene Autry was the owner of the California Angels and Roy Rogers was the fast food restaurant. Even when I discovered who they were beyond those roles, I can’t say I cared much; westerns were what my parents watched. Now, many years later, as I re-examine westerns, it occurs to me that my education would be incomplete without a foray into the sub-genre of the western musical, and the two guys who dominated the field like oil rigs on the plains of Texas.

Here’s a top ten list of singing cowboys and cowgirls featuring some names you may not know. Here’s a history of the sub-genre, with a heavy focus on Autry and Rogers. With this post, I’m mostly interested in seeing their movies (and a bit of their TV shows) and seeing which one of them I like better. I realize I’m working from a small test sample, given the breadth of their careers, but I’m guessing their movies followed a formula and rarely strayed from that formula. My small sample will probably be enough.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

The Maverick Queen

The Maverick Queen
YouTube viewing

This is pure speculation on my part, but I’m guessing Pearl Grey realized from an early age he needed to change his name and become famous for something, so no one would ever have to call him “Pearl” again. Good thing he went with his middle name instead and became the Western writer Zane Grey.

Before Larry McMurtry, before Louis L’amour, there was Zane Grey. His novels and stories redefined the Wild West for a generation of readers, and needless to say, they were translated into numerous films and TV episodes. There is a Zane Grey Museum, in Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania, the town where he lived after his marriage for a time.

Grey played baseball; he was a pitcher and then an outfielder at the University of Pennsylvania and had a cup of coffee with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1903. For a time, he followed his father in the field of dentistry, but what he really wanted to do was write.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Decision at Sundown

Decision at Sundown
YouTube viewing

Would you follow a man on a mission of revenge?

In the old west, disputes were settled from the barrel of a gun, and wrongs done a man were never forgotten. Sure, it may take years, time that could be better spent thinking about it and realizing it’s probably not worth nursing a vendetta for quite so long and moving on with life instead—settling in a town with a peculiar yet ironically fitting name somewhere, getting a steady job punching cows, marrying an ordinary-looking girl but keeping the town whore’s address in your little black book, having a couple of kids and developing a drinking habit that’ll ensure you die before the age of forty, which was just about the average life expectancy of most people in the old west anyway—but you don’t care! Because a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, or at least what the screenplay tells him to do. Would you devote your life to seeing justice done, even if you may not have all the facts or may not be sure it even is justice?

You’d do it—for Randolph Scott!

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Television: Wagon Train

Gene Roddenberry first pitched Star Trek to NBC in April 1964. The ex-policeman turned television writer-producer had made in-roads into the new medium with scripts for anthology series and briefly had a short-lived military series called The Lieutenant, but longed for the ability to address social issues without contending with conservative network censors.

He knew science fiction was a tough sell though, so when he entered the office of producer Herb Solow, he nervously handed him a piece of paper with his treatment on it and likened his proposed series to something more familiar: a western. Specifically, a western that had been going strong since 1957, on two networks, called Wagon Train.

Spun off from a 1950 John Ford movie, Wagon Master, it lasted eight seasons and 284 episodes on first NBC, then ABC. The original stars, Ward Bond (from the original movie) and Robert Horton, were together for the first four seasons. The show centered around a wagon train, obviously, of 19th-century settlers moving to Oregon, led by Bond. Horton served as advance scout for the train. There were also recurring characters who worked with Bond and protected the settlers. The executive producers were Howard Christie and Richard Lewis.

I never gave much thought to the Trek connection (however loose it is), but I watched it wondering how much WT was like Trek, if at all. My conclusion: not that much, but maybe it’s not that obvious based on only three random episodes?

Monday, June 15, 2020


YouTube viewing

He was never as big a star as the other two guys. The show made him a star within its context; he did little work outside of it—but because the show was and is so beloved, so cherished, the brand of stardom bestowed upon him probably felt almost as big as the other two.

DeForest Kelley would’ve turned 100 this past January. We still remember him because of the passion, courage and humor he brought to one of the greatest shows in television history. His role was the conscience of the show, its emotional heart that served as the counterbalance to its intellectual side, and he did it memorably and well.

Long before he went where no man had gone before, though, he had a successful career in a far different context: the western.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Hell’s Hinges

Hell’s Hinges
YouTube viewing

Jeanine Basinger described William S. Hart the following way in her book Silent Stars:
His eyes contain no warmth, no little twinkle to signal to the audience that he actually has a heart of gold; in fact, his eyes are mean—small and hard. He gives off no sign of emotion or attitude, no hint of what he may do next. He just stands there, like a rock in Monument Valley, and it’s up to us to figure him out. He doesn’t even seem to be an actor. Rather, his presence seems to say, “This is what a western hero looks like”—his behavior, his look, his truth. Whatever action Hart takes will explain what the American West was all about.
While watching him in the film Hell’s Hinges, my initial impression was he reminded me of Gary Cooper: tall, laconic, taciturn. Unlike Cooper, Hart did seem to have a hardness to his on-screen presence, a quiet intensity that burned even in his vulnerable moments.

Before John Wayne, before Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea and Roy Rogers, there were two big-name western stars: Tom Mix and William S. Hart, and they dominated the silent era. Perhaps I’ll talk about Mix another day. Today it’s all about Hart.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Loews JC to get $40M renovation!

...Under the new plan, Friends of the Loew’s will be involved in the renovation plans, and oversee community programming, while the commercial operator will be charged with finding national and international acts to perform at the 3,000-seat theater.
UPDATE 6.15: I had thought Friends of the Loews would have made a statement by now, but they haven’t yet, so I’ll chime in with my thoughts. First, all due credit for this victory, in a battle that had gone on at least since 2014, goes to Colin Egan and everyone at FoL for keeping this special place viable and functional for decades. They are the real heroes here.

FoL has said in the past the future of the Loews was as a non-profit venue that caters to the headliners as well as the local acts, so when I see statements regarding “national and international acts,” I got a bit concerned, so I hope they will publicly renew their commitment to this path soon, a plan which is in the city’s best interests as well as the theater’s. To his credit, mayor Steven Fulop specifically mentioned the diverse communities within JC in Thursday‘a press conference, so I remain hopeful for the moment. Also, I believe old movies will continue to have a place at the Loews, at an affordable price, that everyone can enjoy.

Fulop and JC would be wise to continue to emphasize the Loews’ convenient location across the street from the PATH train, only minutes from midtown Manhattan. While not the same thing, I believe lessons can and must be learned from the fustercluck that resulted from transportation from the Super Bowl at the Meadowlands a few years ago, and support mass transit during major events, such as a concert at the Loews.

Plus, I hope the Loews’ renewal will mean downtown JC’s renewal. I’ve walked around the area surrounding the theater; it’s not terrible, but it could be better—and “better” does not necessarily mean homogenized and made to look like everyplace else while stripping it of its cultural identity. There can and should be a balance.

And all of this, of course, is contingent on a solution to our Much Bigger Problem coming as soon as possible. Still, this news gives us a future to which we can look forward.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

The Outlaw

The Outlaw
YouTube viewing

I was going to spend this post about The Outlaw talking about Howard Hughes, about the real Billy the Kid and Doc Holliday and Pat Garrett, but the truth is, this is such a bad movie that I can’t be bothered—and I was disappointed, too, because Walter Huston is in it and I had enjoyed every other film of his I had seen—even Kongo! And this is all before I get to Jane Russell.

No one in it acts like a normal human being. (Well, maybe the middle-aged Mexican woman does. Her I liked.) The major bone of contention between Billy and Doc is over a horse. I swear to god they fight over this horse for most of the movie. They fight over Russell, too—she starts out with Doc but ends up with Billy—but at one point, when offered the choice of Russell or the horse, Doc actually chooses the horse.


Think about that.

Monday, June 8, 2020

Stagecoach (1939)

Stagecoach (1939)
YouTube viewing

My parents were part of a generation that revered westerns. My mother still watches them, mostly TV shows on one of the nostalgia channels. It’s difficult to say whether or not she has a passion for them like I have one for, say, Star Trek.

If you were to ask her, she probably could list a favorite show or a favorite movie, but to articulate further about it—favorite episodes, characters, actors—might be harder, but then, the fan mentality isn’t something that comes easily to her, if at all. I suspect she still watches westerns out of habit. I never get the sense from her of “Oh boy, here’s that Bonanza episode where Hoss gets a rhinoplasty; I can’t wait to see it again.”

For the so-called “greatest generation,” though, as well as the Boomers that followed, westerns were a big part of their cultural identity. That’s something I’ve understood intellectually as a Gen X-er, but to me it’s another genre, like spy thrillers or mysteries. I have my favorite movies and actors, of course, but I’ve never really gotten why it was as huge as it was in its heyday.

Guess what we’re gonna be talking about this month, kids?

Disclaimer: we all get that these movies and TV shows were made during a time when knowledge and appreciation of the Wild West as it really was, relations between Indians and whites, gender roles, etc., was limited and biased. We acknowledge the stereotypes and distortions of history without taking them to heart and will opt to find the good in these stories regardless—and there’s plenty of good to be found.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Sweeney Todd

The third annual Broadway Bound Blogathon is an event spotlighting film adaptations of Broadway shows, hosted by Taking Up Room. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the link at the host site.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Netflix viewing

Stephen Sondheim celebrated his 90th birthday back in March (his day falls four days after mine), and despite the quarantine, an all-star gala was still able to be held in April—online.

The Stephen Sondheim Theater in Manhattan, like the rest of Broadway, is currently shut down (the adaptation of the film Mrs. Doubtfire was playing). The original opened in 1918 under the name Henry Miller’s Theatre and went through different incarnations until the interior was demolished in 2004. It was rebuilt and reopened in 2007 and was re-christened for Sondheim in 2010. Among the productions that have played there include Our Town, Born Yesterday, Witness for the Prosecution, Cabaret, Bye Bye Birdie and Beautiful.

A giant of the American stage, Sondheim has composed songs and/or written lyrics for shows the whole world knows: West Side Story, Gypsy, Into the Woods, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, plus lyrics for songs from the movies Reds and Dick Tracy. He’s got eight Tonys—that’s more than any other composer, kids—plus eight Grammys, an Oscar and a Pulitzer, among many other awards and honors.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Will ‘Tenet’ bring back movie audiences?

“...In some respects opening this movie in July seems like a very smart move because the landscape is so wide open.... [b]ut anyone who says they know what is going to happen is lying.”
Okay, it’s been a few months.

I’ve done my best to maintain my spirits. Not easy, as I’m sure you’re aware. Virginia and I talk every night—needless to say I miss her terribly—she about all the online music groups she’s joined; me about the new novel I’m writing. It’s a rewrite of a SF script that was gonna be a graphic novel years ago. It’s going well. Baseball no longer seems relevant for fiction and I’m not sure I have the will to return to my previous manuscript anyway.

I’ve kept this blog active with talk about old movies, and it’s been helpful for me. My little world tour made me aware of films I never knew about before and others I would like to blog about at a later date. This month I’m gonna tackle westerns. I hope it’s been entertaining for you so far... but now it’s time to talk about the future.