Friday, April 23, 2010

Celebrating Mark Twain

April 21, 2010 was the 100th anniversary of the death of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, whose alias was Mark Twain. In honor of the occasion, since he, or rather, one of his books, played a major role in Something to Get Hung About and the title of one of his short stories was the basis of another episode, The Men That Corrupted Hadleyburg, I thought an entry dedicated to Twain would be appropriate.

Years ago, when I was in Elmira, New York, I visited the cemetery in which Mark Twain was buried. Of course I had read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huck Finn in school, so it was really cool to see his gravesite. I find it pretty amazing that Twain is still so popular today: His reflections about Americans and the way they live are just as true now as when he wrote them, and his humor is just as biting and accurate, too, one hundred years later.

That eighth graders in the school district where I worked still read Tom Sawyer in their English class, and that his stories and life have been the catalyst for so many other creative works, even a two-part Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, is a testament to the power of his writing.

So let's raise a toast to a true American icon (dare I say idol?) and discover once again why Hannibal Heyes and millions of others enjoy the works of Mark Twain.

Official website of Mark Twain:

Description and images of Twain's house in Hartford, CT:

The Desperadoes

The Desperadoes has great fanfiction potential! Here's why: In 1863, a man arrives in Red Valley, Utah, at the behest of two of the town's upstanding citizens, to rob the bank. Unfortunately, he was delayed, the instigators didn't wait and hired other men to do the job but in the course of blowing the safe, three people were killed.

The outlaw who was supposed to rob the bank calls himself Bill Smith but his real name is Cheyenne Rogers; this character is played by Glenn Ford. He meets a young woman named Allison, played by Evelyn Keyes, and falls in love. Cheyenne wants to go straight but he keeps getting recognized and so he has to keep running. He's friends with the town's sheriff, Steve, played by Randolph Scott; at some point in the past, they were partners in Wyoming. Cheyenne now has a sidekick, played by Guinn (Big Boy) Williams, who's named Nitro for what is an obvious reason.

Sound familiar? Here are some more similarities: There's a big fight in a saloon, reminiscent of Six Strangers in Apache Springs, for while the main room is being destroyed, the men playing poker in an alcove of the saloon remain relatively unscathed; there's a real exciting chase scene in the middle of The Desperadoes where a posse is chasing Cheyenne and Nitro after a bank robbery; there's a jailbreak; nitro is used, though it's handled considerably less carefully than Heyes did in How to Rob a Bank in One Hard Lesson; and mention is made of serving twenty years for bank robbery. Plus, one character says, "It'll be no trouble at all," harking back to what Kid says in The Fifth Victim; and Cheyenne is referred to as "a good bad man."

It's hard to believe that The Desperadoes was made in 1943 and was Columbia's first in Technicolor. The colors are vivid and the movie is not dated at all. The cast is large, with many extras as well as lots of animals--it doesn't look like any expense was spared even though the film was made during wartime. At only 83 minutes (and no bonus features), the story is compelling, the acting is excellent, and it's almost eerie watching a film that parallels ASJ in so many ways.

It would be great to see a movie sequel or read some fanfiction that continues the stories of the main characters in The Desperadoes. I highly recommend this film!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Springfield Rifle

During the Civil War, Union soldiers based at Fort Hedley, Colorado (apparently a fictional Army base), keep trying to herd horses East to help the war effort there. But every time the soldiers make an attempt to get the horses safely on their way, they are intercepted by Southern rebels.

Enter Major Lex Kearney, who in his attempt gets caught in an ambush and rather than allow his troops to be massacred by the enemy, which outnumbers him four to one, he orders a retreat. As a result, he is charged with cowardice, court-martialed, and cashiered from the Army. Kearney then throws in with the Southern raiders who are herding the horses south. The rest of Springfield Rifle deals with what Kearney does after leaving the Army and how he manages to live with the disgrace.

The cinematography in this 1952 movie, of snow-clad forests and mountains, is beautiful. There are lots of fistfights and scenes of men shooting at each other, though Springfield rifles aren't actually used until the end of the film and, consequently, the title is rather misleading.

Gary Cooper plays Major Kearney and Alan Hale, Jr. has a small role as a Confederate rebel. It took a while to identify him because he looked so young. But he is definitely the Alan Hale who was the lawyer in The Girl in Boxcar #3. There are many other characters in Springfield Rifle and since they were dressed similarly--as either Union soldiers or Southern sympathizers--it was hard to tell them apart. At 93 minutes, and with no bonus features, this was a pleasant way to spend an evening.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Virginia City

Errol Flynn! Randolph Scott! Humphrey Bogart! Alan Hale!

What's not to love? Well, this 1940 black and white movie, unfortunately. According to text displayed at the beginning of the movie, the story is based on historical events. Virginia City takes place during the Civil War and sets Randolph Scott's character, Captain Vance Irby, a Confederate soldier, against Errol Flynn's character, a Union soldier-spy named Captain Kerry Bradford. Humphrey Bogart plays a Mexican villain, Miriam Hopkins plays the love interest, and Alan Hale plays a sidekick to Flynn.

Except that, contrary to my assumption, this is not the same Alan Hale who appeared as the lawyer in The Girl in Boxcar #3. Rather, this is Alan Hale, Sr., the father of the ASJ guest star. I had no idea until I read his bio that it was a different person! His son looks exactly the same and sounds the same, too. That, and the fact that I kept trying to identify Paul Fix (the prosecutor in The Day They Hanged Kid Curry, Clarence in Night of the Red Dog, and Bronc in Only Three to a Bed), who had a small role as a sidekick to Bogart, helped make Virginia City somewhat interesting.

The movie starts off in a prisoner-of-war camp in the East where we are introduced to all the characters but then shifts to Virginia City, Nevada, for the remainder of the film. Captain Bradford has been sent there to stop a shipment of silver, dug from mines owned by Southern sympathizers, from being sent East to prop up the Confederacy, which is in its last gasps of existence at this point in time.

There were many scenes that, taken individually, were interesting but the movie as a whole did not captivate me even though the performances of Flynn and of Scott, who looked very young, were very good. Bogart looked weird with a mustache and a bit off-kilter, not at all like the characters in his other movies. Hale, along with another actor, played the comic relief. But perhaps it was because I knew from the start that the attempt to ship the silver to the Confederacy was doomed, since the Union won the war, that I didn't thoroughly enjoy Virginia City.

But I thought Miriam Hopkins was excellent. Her character, Julia Hayne, was demure as a Southern belle but when she was undercover as a dance hall spy, she was confident and self-assured, and it was a pleasure to see a female role in a Western with such depth. Also, her singing was much better than that of Michelle Monet in Journey from San Juan. The saloon in which she performed had a gaming table with one of those cages containing spinning dice, which is seen in Exit from Wickenburg and other episodes.

Another ASJ connection was a scene with a woman holding a rifle on Errol Flynn, who said he never argues with a woman with a gun. Just like Leslie O'Hara in The Root of it All! There was also a very exciting chase scene in the desert in the second half of Virginia City, with great stunt riding--I thought it was a pretty good depiction of what being chased by a posse, under gun fire, would be like.

The make-up for the film was done by Perc Westmore, the brother of Bud Westmore, who did the make-up for the Pilot. The DVD commentary, by film historian Frank Thompson, was illuminating. It was only by listening to him that I learned that the Alan Hale in Virginia City was not the same Alan Hale who appeared in ASJ. I actually paused the movie to go online to read a biography of Hale to confirm that they were different actors when I heard that.

This is not a movie with strong connections to ASJ but it's almost worth watching just to see Errol Flynn, Randolph Scott, and Humphrey Bogart working together. On the other hand, if you like seeing strong female characters in movies, definitely watch Virginia City. Otherwise, there are many other, better Westerns available.