Monday, April 12, 2021

Support Your Local Gunfighter

James Garner stars in Support Your Local Gunfighter and it’s easy to see why he was a star.  His combination of good looks, witty dialog, and charisma carries what would otherwise be a second-rate film.

My introduction to James Garner came with The Rockford Files, which began a few years after this 1971 movie.  Jim Rockford and Latigo Smith, the character Garner plays in Support Your Local Gunfighter, share many personality traits.  In fact, even though Maverick isn’t one of my favorite TV shows, there is a clear line from Brett Maverick to Latigo Smith to Jim Rockford.  It even looks like Latigo Smith’s clothes were the same as Brett Maverick’s, at least as far as shirts and ties go.

There’s a lot going on in Support Your Local Gunfighter and at times, it can be confusing to keep track of who is who and who is doing what to whom.  After an establishing shot, the action starts on a train car, where Smith, as the audience will eventually learn is his name, seems to be on his way to Denver to get married.  However, he also seems to be somewhat unwilling and bribes people to let him get off at the next stop, which happens to be a town called Purgatory.

The reason for the town’s name becomes obvious, especially when Patience Barton, who is anything but, makes her presence loudly known.  Played by Suzanne Pleshette, Patience is a far cry from Emily Hartley in The Bob Newhart Show, the character she played beginning the year after making Support Your Local Gunfighter.

The problem with Patience and Taylor Barton, her father played by Harry Morgan, and Jug, Smith’s sidekick played by Jack Elam, and most of the supporting characters, is that they are all played for laughs.  They talk loudly and act broadly.  Watching Support Your Local Gunfighter through a 21st century lens, which I admit is not really fair, the movie makes fun of Patience in all her scenes, implicitly and sometimes explicitly contrasting her behavior with a stereotypical view of how a young woman should act.  Sometimes it was amusing but it was also grating.

Much of the plot revolves around Latigo Smith being mistaken for a famous gunfighter and using the misunderstanding to his financial advantage.  All the disparate plot lines eventually converge and of course there is a happy ending for the good guys.  Burt Kennedy directed but Support Your Local Gunfighter is not best his movie.  But it is only 1 hour and 33 minutes long so if you’re a fan of James Garner, Suzanne Pleshette, Harry Morgan, or Jack Elam, you’ll enjoy this lightweight movie.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Mystery Road and Goldstone

Does a Western have to be filmed in the western part of the United States to be considered a Western?  The Australian movies Mystery Road and Goldstone emphatically prove the answer is no.


Both movies star Aaron Pedersen, an Indigenous actor who has appeared in a number of popular Australian TV shows.  In the 2013 film Mystery Road, Pedersen plays Jay Swan, a detective who arrives in a small town in the outback to solve the mystery of who murdered an Aboriginal girl.  In Goldstone, released in 2016, some years have passed but again Jay Swan finds himself in another speck-of-a-nowhere town in the outback searching for a missing Chinese girl.  The pacing is very slow at the start, especially in Goldstone, but both films climax with a burst of action followed by a denouement which resolves some questions but leaves others unanswered, as all good movies should so viewers can form their own conclusions. 

In both Mystery Road, which runs 221 minutes, and Goldstone, which is 210 minutes long, several Western clich├ęs are present.  However, because of the superb acting, the wonderful and sometimes unusual cinematography, and the unfamiliar setting – to Americans, at least – they do not feel like tired tropes.  

Jay Swan is the outsider who appears suddenly from nowhere – the audience never learns where he is from.  His home life is messy – he’s left his wife, who is very angry at him, and he’s estranged from his daughter.  He works alone – and almost seems to go out of his way to discourage colleagues from getting too friendly with him.  He swaggers when he walks – and does it beautifully, but in doing so he conveys an attitude of righteousness.  He wears iconic cowboy clothing – an Australian version of a cowboy hat, a gun in a holster on his hip, and cowboy boots, which the camera lovingly focuses on many times, especially in Mystery Road but also in Goldstone.  Jay Swan is the loner who stands up to corruption and speaks truth to power – and gets hurt, physically and psychologically, as a result.  

As well, supporting characters embody classic Western traits: the mayor and others on the take, the fresh-faced younger guy who has trouble distinguishing right from wrong, the older woman with almost a heart of gold who is loyal to the wrong person.  The towns that are the settings of both films are dusty with few inhabitants, located in what seem to be the middle of nowhere; they are self-enclosed environments where the law is not really present.  In both Mystery Road and Goldstone, there are shoot-outs; I won’t spoil anything but both of them conform to Western showdowns.  

The victims in Mystery Road and Goldstone are “little people” who have no power.  Through many twists and unexpected turns, Jay Swan saves them.  The bad guys get their well-deserved comeuppance.  The world is made not perfect but better because of Jay Swan.

After Goldstone was released, a TV show was produced with Aaron Pedersen playing Jay Swan; currently, there are two seasons available.  The TV series are set in between the time of the movies and fill in a little of the backstory of Jay Swan.  Each series deals with one overall mystery.  They, and the movies too, also address contemporary issues such as relationships between Indigenous people and whites, the power of the government, land control and use, and family dynamics. Although situated in an Australian context, they will resonate with audiences world-wide.

For a different take on the Western genre, Mystery Road, Goldstone, and the TV series are well worth watching.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Nevada (1944 Remake)

If you want to see Robert Mitchum’s first major role in the movies, watch Nevada, where the opening credit says “Introducing Bob Mitchum.”  After viewing this black-and-white, just over an hour 1944 film, it’s easy to understand why he became a star.

Nevada opens with three men sitting on horses, Lacy (Bob Mitchum), Dusty (Guinn “Big Boy” Williams), and Chito (Richard Martin) listening to Chito sing and strum a guitar.  Dusty criticizes his singing and says, “You foreigners butcher it.”  To which Chito replies, “All kinds of people make up this country.”  He then says his mother was Mexican, his father Irish and his full name is Chito Jose Gonzalez Bustamante Rafferty.  "Pretty good American, no?”  For a movie made in 1944, in the middle of World War II, I thought his comments were really interesting and showed an awareness of the positive effect of ethnic diversity which I wouldn’t have expected from a film of that time period.


The three men watch a wagon train roll by; Lacy rides over and discovers it’s heading to Sun Mountain in Nevada where someone named Comstock (Emmett Lynn) has staked out a big bonanza.  Dusty dissuades Lacy from heading there because he says Comstock has never found anything of worth. The scene shifts to Gold Hill, as named on a title card, and an old geezer who turns out to be Comstock, nicknamed Pancake.  He and another man go into an office and write up a claim that the other has bought.  It was sometimes confusing following all the scene changes in Nevada as all the plot threads were explicated.

In another scene shift, the audience sees an out-of-control stagecoach being driven, sort of, by a woman with several other women passengers screaming in fright.  We’re back with the three cowpokes and Lacy gallops off to save the women.  The driver turns out to be Julie Dexter (Anne Jeffreys), the woman referred to by the man taking Pancake’s claim in the office in the previous scene.  Of course Lacy saves the women and Julie renames him “Nevada.”  He gets a faraway look in his eyes.

From there, the plot involves Lacy in a saloon gambling with his trusty sidekicks Dusty and Chito (Three Musketeers, anyone?) and winning $7,000 to the dismay of the dealer who promptly tries to steal the money back.  Splitting up from his friends, Lacy witnesses a wagon being bushwhacked.  Meanwhile – there are many meanwhiles in this movie! – Julie brings a letter to the land claims man, whose name is Cash Burridge -- Nevada is not especially subtle -- and they discover that Comstock hasn’t discovered gold but silver.  Burridge, however, want to keep it quiet for the time being and even though she disagrees, Julie goes along because she loves Cash.

With lots of short scenes interweaving the stories of Lacy, Julie, Dusty and Chito, Cash and his subordinate Powell, and the children of the murdered man, Hattie and Marvie, Nevada is never short of excitement even if some of the strands of the story are predictable.  There is lots of action and even a couple surprises.  The acting is good and Pancake’s comic antics provide levity throughout.  I did think the ending was abrupt, though; it seemed like the film was trying to end on a poetic note but it fell flat for me.


An off-hand comment reveals that the setting of Nevada is before it was a territory or a state, which means the movie’s events occurred before 1861.  Since the plot concerns the Comstock Lode, which was discovered in 1859, that makes sense.  However, a few phrases that stuck out are anachronisms (according to the online dictionaries I consulted):
* do what one little dogie told another another – git along: dogie was first used 1885 – 1890
* dry gulched: first use 1865 - 1870
* get down to cases: first use 1892
* jughead: first use 1925
Another phrase whose origin I couldn’t pin down was slick-fingered sidewinder. But regardless of whether Dusty’s exclamation that “We’re just a couple of low characters in high heels” is anachronistic or not, it’s a great comment that describes the light-hearted tone of Nevada perfectly. 


Nevada shows Robert Mitchum off very well.   In fact, after one of the many fights, there’s a glimpse of Mitchum with his shirt ripped open to his waist.  However, the view immediately cuts to a scene showing him fully dressed again and that is more in keeping with the tone of this movie.

This Nevada is a remake of a 1927 movie of the same name.  Both are based on a book by Zane Grey.  There are three bonus features on the DVD and one of them has Luke Grey, his son, presenting a pair of home movies about Zane Grey's fishing exploits.  Since it's about 50 minutes long, fishing isn't one of my interests, and the language used in the intro was very dated, I didn't watch it.  Another bonus feature, entitled "Fisherman's Pluck," runs about 8 minutes but I skipped that as well.  The third bonus feature was a 28-minute biography of Zane Grey produced in 1985, which I did watch and found informative.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

What is the Tucson Gem Show?

One of the benefits of living in Tucson is being able to attend the Gem Show every year.  The Tucson Gem, Mineral & Fossil Showcase, as it’s officially known, began in 1955 as an exhibition sponsored by a gem club at a local grade school.  There were competitions for different types of collections and the show lasted two days.

Sculptures created from rock formations on display & for sale
The following year the show was held at the Pima County Fairgrounds to accommodate more exhibitors and larger crowds.  Again, the show ran for two days.  Over the next several years, the show grew in size and crowds and in 1972, it shifted location to the Tucson Convention Center.

Booklets advertising various shows
In 2020, there is an exhibition in the Convention Center and also 49 other exhibitions in venues spread throughout Tucson.  The entire Gem Show lasts not two days but two weeks.  It typically begins at the end of January and runs through the middle of February; however, each venue sets its own schedule and many shows run for just one week.  Since moving to Tucson five years ago, I’ve attended the Gem Show annually with my mother, my aunt, and a friend.  It’s an outing we look forward to every year.

Lapis lazuli from Afghanistan
The Gem Show, as it’s commonly called, has transformed itself from purely an exhibition of mineral and gem collections into a marketplace selling gems, minerals, fossils, handicrafts, rare coins and maps, beads, tools for creating jewelry, and jewelry from around the world.  Each show includes numerous vendors.  Many shows are in huge white tents that are visible all around the city.  Most have free entry but the show at the Convention Center has an admission fee.

Jewelry & supplies purchased at the Gem Show
Some venues such as the African Art Village, specialize in products from a particular region.  Having been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Sierra Leone, I was eager to see what that was like so a few years ago, we went there.  There were vendors from many sub-Saharan countries but none from Sierra Leone.  All sorts of wood, basket, textile and other products were available, including shea butter which I used to make soap.  Other venues, such as the Holidome, are open only to wholesale buyers and while free, require registration.  Fortunately, my aunt has a business license because she makes and sells jewelry so I can get into those venues as well.

Trilobites & other fossils are exhibited
Spending an entire day at one of the shows is exhausting!  We wander up and down the corridors looking at all the vendors’ exhibits, frequently stopping to examine things that catch our eye.  We get lunch from one of the food trucks outside.  I inevitably end up buying jewelry I didn’t know I needed but decide I can’t do without.  I also buy materials for making earrings – which I’ve been doing for over 30 years – and necklaces, which I recently started making.  Then, we go on another day to a different location for more fun.

All kinds of rocks and minerals are available
The Gem Show brings vendors and visitors from all over the world to Tucson each winter.  Around 65,000 people attend so it gives a huge boost to the local economy.  There is also a smaller Gem Show in September.  Many of the same vendors participate in that show, too.  Every year I have a great time and I am glad I live in a city which hosts such a great event.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

From Swords to Plowshares: The Vista Sunwheel in Catalina, Arizona

Yesterday was the Winter Solstice, or Yule, in the Northern Hemisphere.  I went to the sunwheel at Vista de la Montana United Methodist Church in Catalina, Arizona, to watch the sun set.  It’s a tranquil area behind the church with a few benches on the perimeter.  I was there at the Spring Equinox as well.

When I was there in the spring, Jim, the person who constructed the sunwheel, explained its purpose to me.  (There’s also brochure about it that’s available in a box attached to a signpost.)  He explained that this sunwheel is modeled after Native American medicine wheels.  They were, Jim said, astronomic tools used to highlight the passage of the seasons.  They are sacred structures and are found in many Native cultures, according to Jim.

Find out what a sunwheel is & why there is one in Catalina, Arizona | PicturingTheWest
Sunwheel at sunset
As with others, the sunwheel in Catalina consists of an outer stone circle with a diameter of 61 feet.  Emanating inwards are lines of stones, which meet at a center cairn, measuring 11 feet in diameter.  Depending on the time of year, when the sun rises or sets, the rays line up with one of the lines in the circle of stones.  I have to confess that I didn’t quite understand how it all works.

Nevertheless, it’s a very impressive site.  What makes it even more remarkable is that it is built on top of a missile silo.  The center cairn was the opening through which a Titan II missile would have been launched if the United States had been under nuclear attack. 

Southern Arizona was home to 18 Titan II missiles during the Cold War.  These intercontinental ballistic missiles, housed in underground silos around Tucson, were part of a network of 54 nuclear-armed warheads that were in operation from 1962 – 1987.  Site #18 was the missile in Catalina; it's the one just above the text that says "Mt. Lemmon."

Find out where a Titan II missile silo is now a sunwheel | PicturingTheWest
Location of Titan II missiles in Tucson; click here for an interactive map
Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson operated the silos, which came online here in 1963.  Little Rock Air Force Base in Arkansas and McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas also hosted 18 missiles each.  The ICBMs in Tucson went offline in 1982.  Below is a map of where all 18 missiles in the Tucson area were stored.  At one of them, in Sahuarita, you can visit the Titan Missile Museum, which is a National Historic Landmark and education center.  I haven’t visited yet but will get there eventually.

Fortunately, none of the Titan II missiles were ever launched and now the site in Catalina has been transformed into a place of peace.