Sunday, December 16, 2012

Rio Grande

This is an odd movie.  Filled with father vs. son, husband vs. wife, Anglo vs. Apache, US vs. Mexico, officer vs. enlisted conflicts, Rio Grande can’t seem to make up its mind as to what sort of film it aspires to be.  Starring John Wayne—who sports a mustache--and Maureen O’Hara as husband and wife Kirby and Kathleen Yorke and directed by John Ford on location around Moab, Utah, I found it more interesting to identify familiar landmarks spotted throughout this 1950 movie than the plot was itself.

The Yorkes have a son, Jeff, played by Claude Jarman Jr., who flunked out of West Point and then enlisted in the Cavalry and got sent to, surprise, his father’s command in the Southwest.  Mom doesn’t approve and follows him West.  She reminds me of Mrs. Fielding in Six Strangers at Apache Springs—she is haughty and wants to return to the civilized East with her son.  Dad, who hasn’t seen his son in fifteen years, doesn’t immediately acquiesce and the rest of Rio Grande plays out as various battles among various groups of people. 

Chill Wills (Bixby in The Biggest Game in the West) is a doctor attached to the cavalry unit; his role is small but he is immediately recognizable.  Musical interludes sung by the Sons of Pioneers, masquerading as soldiers in the cavalry unit, are incorporated effectively into Rio Grande, which is 105 minutes long.  Links to their work are included below.

A twenty-minute bonus feature, The Making of Rio Grande, in color unlike the actual film, is well worth-watching.  Hosted by Leonard Maltin, it provides useful background information about how John Ford got Rio Grande made and includes interviews with some of the actors involved with the movie.

Sons of Pioneers website:

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Train Robbers

A group of train robbers, a lady in need of desperate help, two boxes of dynamite, and mysterious people chasing a small band of treasure hunters…  Sounds like a cross between Return to Devil’s Hole and The Man Who Murdered Himself, right?  Unfortunately, both of those episodes were far better than The Train Robbers, a 1972 movie directed by Burt Kennedy and starring John Wayne and Ann-Margret.

Ann-Margret plays a woman, Mrs. Lane, whose husband helped rob a train but was subsequently killed; not, however, before he told her where the money was buried.  She hires Mr. Lane, played by John Wayne, a drifter who drifts because he’s good at it, to find the gold, which is somewhere in the Mexican desert.  He hires four other men, whose characters never really become distinct from each other except for the youngest man, played by Bobby Vinton. 

The Train Robbers then proceeds to fill up 132 minutes of time as they undertake the journey to retrieve the gold.  Naturally, other people are also after the treasure.  Much time—far too much time—is spent on long camera shots of the good guys riding their horses, accompanied by slow, peaceful music interspersed with shots of the bad guys, numbering twenty in one group as well as another man following on his own, accompanied by fast-paced and loud music.

There are a number of shoot-outs, including a climactic scene when the hardy adventurers return to the isolated, one-train track Texas town from which they embarked upon their trip.  The best part of The Train Robbers was the ending, which had a twist but not the one I was expecting.

Two bonus features are included on the DVD.  One is called “Working with a Western Legend” and it includes interviews with a few of the actors and stunt men who worked with Wayne along with scenes from The Train Robbers.  The second is called “The Wayne Train” and lasts about five minutes; it provides details about the train that was used in the movie and is an interesting behind-the-scenes look at the film.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Telegraph Trail

Stringing telegraph wire from the East to the West Coast was a difficult and sometimes dangerous endeavor and, regardless of whether the events in The Telegraph Trail actually occurred, this 1933 black-and-white movie provides a pleasant diversion for 54 minutes.  Starring John Wayne as John Trent, an Army scout, and Frank McHugh as Tippy, a soldier, this is an action-packed movie with plenty of humor and a romance thrown in for good measure.

After a brief prelude showing scenes of how new technology opened up the West, first by covered wagons in 1830, then with stagecoaches in 1840, followed by the Pony Express in 1850, and finally the telegraph in 1860, the audience sees a group of soldiers attacked by Indians who want to destroy the new communication system.  However, one man is able to send a message to the nearby Army fort before dying in the arms of Alice (Marceline Day), a young lady who happens to ride by in a stagecoach with her uncle at just the right moment. 

At the fort, John Trent volunteers to finish the job of stringing the final section of telegraph wire and Tippy, his trusty sidekick joins him.  The remainder of The Telegraph Trail details the machinations of a white man on the side of the Indians, for reasons that become clear early on, and alternate them with serious and humorous scenes of John, Tippy, Alice, and other townsfolk attempting to finish the telegraph.

There are only the most tenuous of connections between The Telegraph Trail and ASJ.  At one point Tippy asks, “Did I ever tell you about that little redhead I met in Wichita?” which called to mind what Heyes said in How to Rob a Bank in One Hard Lesson when Harry Wagoner captured the boys.  The place where the telegraph wire is being laid is called Red Bluff rather than Red Rock.  Tippy reminded me of Kyle but he talks non-stop like Heyes.

There is a musical interlude but unlike Journey from San Juan and The Legacy of Charlie O’Rourke, the singers/musicians are men; they play “Oh Susannah” as well as “Mandy Lee,” a traditional song written in 1899.  So just like Wheat’s comment about Black Jack Ketchum in The Day They Hanged Kid Curry and Heyes’ comment about the Brown Palace hotel in Denver in The Posse That Wouldn’t Quit, using this song in The Telegraph Trail is anachronistic.

This is clearly an old movie: Many scenes are grainy; the chase scenes look as if the action has been speeded up; and the dialog between High Wolf, the Indian leader, and the white man who is his accomplice, is stereotypically awkward.  The climactic battle lasts far too long, in my opinion, and the ending of the movie is very abrupt and predictable.  Despite all that, however, for a film that is almost 80 years old, The Telegraph Trail is enjoyable and worth watching.

Audio recordings of “Mandy Lee,” archived by the Library of Congress: (from 1902) and (from 1924)

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Vera Cruz

If the word “frenemy” had been around in the late 1860s, it would have certainly described the relationship between Joe Erin (Burt Lancaster), an outlaw, and Ben Trane (Gary Cooper), an ex-Confederate Army colonel.  When they first meet each other in Mexico at the beginning of the movie, Erin and Trane engage in some horse trading but, unlike the scene in Wrong Train to Brimstone, the outcome in Vera Cruz is rather different and it nicely sets the tone for the rest of the film.  Erin has a gang of men working for him, one of whom, Tex, is played by Jack Elam (Boot Coby in Bad Night in Big Butte).

In Vera Cruz, Cooper and Lancaster play two Americans who take sides during Benito Juarez's uprising against Emperor Maximilian—and note the use of the plural "sides."  Caesar Romero (Senor Armendariz in The McCreedy Bust, The McCreedy Bust: Going, Going, Gone, and The McCreedy Feud) plays a noble in the service of Emperor Maximilian and it was very interesting to see him portray a Frenchman. 

He is all dolled up in military finery; his wife, a countess, wants to return to Paris so, naturally, he hires a group of misfit Americans who have demonstrated their prowess with rifles to accompany her and her large retinue to the coast, where she will embark on a ship at the port of Vera Cruz.  Of course, all sorts of twists and turns and treachery occur before they reach their goal.

Filmed completely in Mexico, including, amazingly, a scene at Teotihuacan, this 1954 movie is jam-packed with action, which I occasionally found difficult to follow as it did not always make sense to me.  The DVD I watched was grainy but that did not detract significantly from my enjoyment of the movie. 

The central plot of Vera Cruz can be likened to the main plot of The Girl in Boxcar #3, although the outcome is not exactly the same.  Be sure to watch the melodramatic theatrical trailer after watching the film as it is quite amusing.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

A Study in Colors

It is commonly believed that the TV show Alias Smith and Jones was created as a direct result of the success of the blockbuster movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  Both productions featured two winsome young men as anti-heroes, one blond and the other dark-haired.  They were partners; one man was a gunhand, the other the brains of the outfit.

But what if ASJ was not derived from that popular 1969 movie but from much earlier source material?  What if ASJ’s ancestry was Sherlock Holmes and John Watson instead?  Having become enamored of the recent BBC Sherlock TV series, I began to read Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories and noticed several similarities between Homes and Watson and Heyes and Curry.

Aside from the obvious fact that their surnames begin in "H," both Sherlock Holmes and Hannibal Heyes are keen observers of the human condition and are master manipulators.  Heyes as a high-stakes poker player and leader of the Devil’s Hole Gang and Holmes as the world’s only consulting detective who has no qualms about using people to achieve his often opaque ends.  Holmes solves crimes no one else—certainly not the police—can solve (A Study in Pink and The Sign of Four).  Heyes, a self-proclaimed genius, commits robberies that no one else ever attempted, as witness his success at opening the Pierce & Hamilton ’78 safe (How to Rob a Bank in One Hard Lesson).  Heyes also makes the cognitive connection, after reading Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, that fingerprints can determine who killed Mr. Henderson (Something to Get Hung About). 

In that respect, he very much resembles Sherlock Holmes, who also sees things dull, ordinary people miss.  Neither has much respect for the law although both do have one friend in law enforcement: Detective Inspector Lestrade for Holmes and Sheriff Lom Trevors for Heyes.  Also, both men are fastidious in their eating habits; food does not seem to be very important to either of them.  In terms of clothing, Sherlock Holmes, as played by Benedict Cumberbatch, wears a blue scarf and Hannibal Heyes, as played by Pete Duel, wears a blue bandana.  In one respect, though, the men are complete opposites: Sherlock Holmes can go days without speaking (A Study in Scarlet/Pink) but Hannibal Heyes often seems never to shut up (The Bounty Hunter).

Kid Curry and John Watson have a lot in common, too.  Both are thoroughly familiar with guns and are superb shots (Curry in Exit from Wickenburg and Smiler with a Gun, Watson in A Study in Pink and The Hounds of Baskerville).  Watson watches out for Holmes and has his back; Curry does the same for Heyes.  Neither man is stupid but each sometimes has a hard time keeping up with the intellectual leaps of their partner. 

Both Curry and Watson are willing to call their partners out when they disapprove of something they've done: Curry questions Heyes’ logic, a trait Heyes is proud of (The Reformation of Harry Briscoe) and Watson tells Holmes he’s an idiot (A Study in Pink) and a dick (The Reichenbach Fall).  Both Curry and Watson like the ladies.  Curry is always helping the damsels in distress, often to Heyes’ displeasure, and Watson has a series of girlfriends, much to Holmes’ annoyance.  Also, Curry wears a sheepskin coat with wool lapels and Watson wears a parka with fur trim around the hood.  One difference between Curry and Holmes, however, is that Curry is younger than Heyes whereas Watson is older than Holmes.

Hannibal Heyes and Jedediah “Kid” Curry have so many similarities with Sherlock Holmes and John Watson—as the characters are portrayed in both the original stories and the 2010 BBC TV reboot—that it seems more than just a coincidence.  Alias Smith and Jones is certainly in excellent company if it were indeed based on such an iconic literary duo as Sherlock Holmes and John Watson.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Aces and Eights

I can see why Tim McCoy was a big star in his day.  Despite the poor audio and picture quality, his charisma shines through Aces and Eights.  He plays Gentleman Tim Madigan, a professional gambler.  His lucky poker hand is the same as the one that allegedly was being played by Wild Bill Hickock, which is how the movie opens, although it is clear that part of the scene was cut.  But McCoy’s luck runs out in Nevada when he catches a card sharp cheating and the man later ends up dead.

Madigan rides with a sidekick who, early in Aces and Eights, draws his gun when his partner is accused of cheating; naturally the scene in the beginning of Exit from Wickenburg where Curry does the same thing sprang to mind.  Madigan, like Heyes, has a wry sense of humor: “Well, when there’s five aces on the table and you’re dealing…”

After the encounter with the card sharp, the remainder of this 1936 black-and-white movie deals with how Madigan clears his name.  He gets involved with a Mexican family and Don Hernandez, the patriarch, wears a costume that reminds me of Senor Armendariz.  The plot of Aces and Eights is actually rather good and it is a shame there is so much background static that the dialog is difficult to make out.

At only 62 minutes long, Aces and Eights would work very well as an episode of a TV series.  Oh wait!  It did become a TV series decades later: Maverick, a Roy Huggins show produced by Universal.  Could this movie have been an ancestor of Alias Smith and Jones???

A bonus for me was hearing the phrase “All bets are off!” uttered by a sheriff watching a poker game.  Aces and Eights was the first time I had ever heard the phrase in what I assume was its original context and that was a lot of fun.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Yuma: The Quartermaster Depot

The Quartermaster Depot in Yuma, which also doubles as the Yuma Visitors Center, is a lovely state historic park located near the California border on the Colorado River (see photo at right).  A large map in the Visitors Center explains that “Settlement  of the Southwest hinged upon the Army’s ability to protect American lives and property during the frequent Indian conflicts. 

But, the effectiveness of the soldiers was only as great as the Army’s ability to keep outposts supplied.  The Quartermaster Depot at Yuma was established in 1864 as the primary supply terminal for posts in Arizona, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, and Texas."

Of course, this being the nineteenth century, horses were an important part of Army life and there was a large corral on the grounds for them (see photo at right).  Mules were also stabled here.  In 1906, the Bureau of Reclamation, part of the United States Department of the Interior, took over this building and added an addition to it. 

Nowadays, what one sees when visiting here is a history of the Bureau’s efforts to siphon water from the Colorado River to the surrounding land in Arizona and California.  The purpose was to provide water for irrigation and, in fact, the Yuma region produces 90% of the United States’ yearly lettuce crop.  A canal several yards from the corral building is visible through a fence and apparently is part of the Colorado River Siphon.

The house where the commanding officer of the Yuma Quartermaster Depot and his family lived was built by George Alonzo Johnson in 1959.  It is thought to be the oldest home still extant that was built of adobe in Arizona by an Anglo.  Each room in the house exhibits the furniture and accoutrements of the time period when Army officers resided there.  There is a glass barrier prevents visitors from touching the contents in any of the rooms, though, which accounts for the glare and shadows in the photos accompanying this blog entry. 

And, had there been cross-ventilation, the temperature inside the building would undoubtedly have been somewhat cooler but as it was, it was extremely hot and uncomfortable.  I hope for the sake of the people who actually lived there, especially since they wore much heavier clothes than we do nowadays, that they found it more tolerable.  The master bedroom room (see partial view in photo above, top) was adjacent to the children’s bedroom and they occupied one side of the house; on the other, connected by a hallway, lay the dining room and parlor (see partial view in second photo above; i.e. fourth from top of screen).  The kitchen and servant’s quarters were in a separate building only a few feet away.  The “servant” was usually a soldier from the post and a sign explained performing this duty earned him additional pay and his own room to sleep in.   

In 1872, the Army constructed a building that the Quartermaster could use as his office (see photo at right).  It was the last building that the Army built on the grounds.  It currently has displays about Army uniforms and their insignia, and about its use from 1875 to 1891 by the Signal Corps as a telegraph office and weather station (see photo at right of the desk where the telegraph equipment was) until the Army left in 1883.  When the Weather Service was formed as an independent agency in 1891, separate from the Army, civilians maintained the weather station on the grounds through 1949.

Six months’ worth of supplies was always kept at the Yuma Quartermaster Depot.  They were stored in a large building (see photo below) which is now a transportation museum.  Inside the huge, barn-like structure are numerous vehicles ranging from an 1846 wagon used by the Mormon Battalion  to dump wagons from the late nineteenth century used in the construction of the Yuma Territorial Prison and for harvesting grain to an Army escort wagon, to early twentieth-century combustion-engine harvesters and cars modified as wagons for business purposes.  A small room off the central room showcases the importance of steamboat travel in the area, for both business and pleasure, and contains maps, a hand cart for transporting goods, and a model of the Cocopah steamboat.

Making a circuit of the lovely, well-manicured grounds of the Yuma Quartermaster Depot and exploring all the buildings should take about two hours.  There are picnic tables set up by the canal and in a cooler season would be a very nice place to relax.  The Visitors Center has plenty of free brochures about the area as well as a gift shop; it is air-conditioned, which provided pleasant relief from the stuffy interiors of the other buildings on the premises.

If Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry did take that ride down the Colorado River, as Heyes suggested at the end of Six Strangers in Apache Springs, maybe they transferred to a steamboat and made it all the way to Yuma.  If they did, they might have ended up at the Quartermaster Depot looking for work at the conclusion of their journey.

Website for the Quartermaster Depot State Historic Park:

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Yuma Territorial Prison

Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry were fortunate they didn’t face the prospect of serving twenty years in the Yuma Territorial Prison.  Known as the “Hell Hole” by the inmates, the prison opened in 1876 and closed in 1909 when overcrowding became too severe, so it was in operation at almost the same time as the Wyoming Territorial Prison in Laramie, which I described in a blog entry in July 2011. 

Built by convicts on a hill just outside the city of Yuma, the prison was surrounded on two sides by the Colorado River, which made escapes difficult though not impossible.  Today, the Yuma Territorial Prison is an Arizona State Park (see photo above) and is open year round; though tours are not offered in the summer, the park rangers, called customer service representatives, are very knowledgeable and happy to answer questions from visitors.

Perhaps the most famous prisoners held at the Yuma Territorial Prison were “Buckskin” Frank Leslie and Pearl Hart; both have displays in the museum.  Leslie was a gunman infamous in Tombstone and was sentenced to twenty-five years for murdering a prostitute there.  He arrived at the prison in 1890 but was pardoned—a common occurrence back then—six or eight years later (records differ as to when exactly he was released).  Hart was an erstwhile stagecoach robber who initially was found not guilty at her trial but the judge convened another jury that convicted her and she was sentenced to five years.  In its thirty-three year history, the Yuma Territorial Prison housed 3,069 inmates, of which 29 were women.

When a convict first arrived, he or she entered the prison through the sally port, (see two photos at right and below: the top shows the original adobe structure and small white-painted guard post next to it; the photo below shows the view through the sally port looking out towards the Colorado River).   The convict was photographed and vital statistics were noted; using a mirror with a cut-out section on the bottom, the photographer was able to simultaneously take a photo that captured a full and profile view of the person.  This mirror is on display in the museum and visitors can don a black-and-white striped shirt, made of heavy cotton by Levi Strauss’ company, and try it out for themselves.

A display reveals that most of the prisoners were between 21 – 30 years old, although the youngest was 14 and the oldest 88.  Not surprisingly, at least half were single, although the marital status of one-quarter was unknown.  The vast majority used some form of tobacco, which was allowed in the prison, but the inmates had to supply it themselves. 

Most of the prisoners were either Anglo or Mexican; much smaller numbers were Native American or African-American.  Over 1,300  prisoners identified themselves as Catholic and slightly more than 500 as Protestant; only three prisoners were Jewish and just one was Buddhist; however, the religion of approximately sixty percent of the remaining inmates was unknown.  Interestingly, at least half of the prisoners were literate, although the literacy level of an additional one-quarter of the convicts was not known.
Prisoners were housed six to a cell, with ten cells in a row facing ten other cells across a narrow passageway that was barred at both ends with a metal gate (see four photos at right and below).  This is what remains of the cellblock today and what visitors see.  Behind each of those rows of cells were additional cells.  Original strap-iron doors have been preserved (unlike the doors at the Wyoming Territorial Prison). 

Each cell was furnished with bunk beds—originally made of wood but when the bedbug problem became too great, iron bunks were used instead—a chamber pot, and an iron ring bolted to the floor that was used for punishment by chaining an inmate to it.  Prisoners had their heads shaved weekly (though not the women, as far as I can tell from photographs of them) and bathed at least once a week.  Prisoners were required to work and, in fact, were able to learn a trade while incarcerated at the Yuma Territorial Prison. Female inmates were housed in a separate section of the prison.

The law-abiding citizens of Yuma referred to the prison as the “Country Club on the Colorado” because it had amenities they themselves did not.  For example, starting in 1885 there was electricity, and the surplus was sold to the town; there was also running water that was pumped into a reservoir on the prison grounds from the Colorado River; forced ventilation; and a hospital which not only provided medical but also dental care.  The hospital was constructed over one of the cell blocks and a doctor was on call. 

For twenty-five cents, townspeople could visit the prison; this fee went towards the purchase of books for the prison library, which was the largest in Arizona with 1500 – 2000 volumes (accounts differ).  In its time, the prison was considered a model penitentiary.  I was not able to find out if the Auburn System was in effect here, though.

Several buildings from the era of the Yuma Territorial Prison no longer exist.  They include the hospital, the dining hall for prisoners, the superintendent’s house, the building where the guards lived, and the women’s cells.  However, when the prison began to become overcrowded, a new cell block was built and visitors can still see that.

Another part of the prison that can be visited is the Dark Cell.  Unlike the one at the Wyoming Territorial Prison, which was located in the same building with the other cells, the Dark Cell at the Yuma Territorial Prison was located in a separate section.  It can be seen behind the iron gate in the sixth photo from the top of this blog entry.  The Dark Cell was reached through a short, dark passageway (see photo above). 

I visited the prison the day after a very heavy monsoon thunderstorm and the entrance was flooded so it was not possible for me to actually go inside and see the place.  But I was told that it was an iron cage and the only light was from a small vent in the roof.  Prisoners wore only their undergarments while there and were fed a meal of bread and water once a day.  There was no bedding, not even a chamber pot.  If wearing a ball and chain or being confined to solitary—separate a row of five cells--was not a severe enough punishment, inmates were sent to the Dark Cell.  There was a punishment even worse than the Dark Cell—the Incorrigible Ward, which consisted of five small cells behind the main cell block (see the foundation of the Incorrigible Ward at the center right of the photo below).

There were many escape attempts but only a few were successful.  Convicts who died while serving time were buried in the prison cemetery, located partway down the hill.  There are no markers, only heaps of stones now, to indicate the graves but a plaque explains that 104 prisoners are buried there and it lists their names.

A museum, built where the dining hall used to be, contains very interesting exhibits about the history of the prison and the prisoners who spent time there; it definitely should not be missed.  The building at the entrance to the park also serves as the gift shop and contains a few books about the prison as well as many others about Arizona; there are also lots of other prison-oriented souvenirs available for purchase.

While I enjoyed my time immensely at the Yuma Territorial Prison, I am sure that Kid Curry and Hannibal Heyes would have had a completely different perspective had they ever been incarcerated there.

Official website for the Yuma Territorial Prison:

A short history of the Yuma Territorial Prison:

Friday, July 20, 2012

Yuma: The Sanguinetti House Museum

First-time visitors to Yuma should begin their exploration of the city with a visit to the Sanguinetti House Museum, formerly known as the Century House (see photo at right).  A small building located on the outskirts of the downtown, this museum showcases Yuma’s history from its time as a Native American settlement through the present.

E.F. Sanguinetti was a businessman in Yuma in the latter half of the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth century.  If Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry ever passed through Yuma, they very likely would have bought supplies at one of his many mercantile stores. 

The house was bequeathed to the city of Yuma by his children; two rooms have been restored with period furniture, including a Brattleboro organ in one and wood chairs with rattan seats in the other, and show how the Sanguinetti family lived.  There is a kitchen in another room with an icebox, a small cast-iron stove, and a sink with a pump for running water.  Unfortunately, photos were not allowed to be taken inside the museum.  (See two photos of the exterior above and one below.)
Other rooms presented exhibits about Yuma’s history.  A large map on the wall near the entrance situates Yuma in the Southwest and clearly shows why its geographic location made it so important in the nineteenth century.  There is information about the Quechan (Yuma) people’s traditional way of life and then a lot of information about the Spanish, who first explored the area in the sixteenth century but who didn’t settle there until the eighteenth. 

A good description of the attacks by the Native Americans on the Spanish missions is provided, complete with translations of primary source document excerpts.  The museum also has exhibits on the riverboat and railroad history of Yuma, with many photos and artifacts displayed.  Another section of the museum displays the history of the US military presence in Yuma, which continues to this day at the Yuma Proving Grounds.

The beautiful garden at the back of the house contains an aviary, complete with peacocks (see photo at right).  During seasons other than summer, the Garden CafĂ© is open for business.  Next door to the museum is a gift shop, well-stocked with books about Yuma and its history.  Be warned, however—credit cards are not accepted.

One hour at the Sanguinetti House Museum should be sufficient to thoroughly see what it has to offer.  It’s well worth it!

Official website for the Sanguinetti House Museum:

Yuma, Arizona

Yuma has the reputation of being incredibly hot in the summer but on the three days I visited in mid-July 2012, the temperature was 100, 102, and 105 degrees Fahrenheit and even though the humidity was definitely more noticeable, due to the city’s location on the banks of the Colorado River, than in Tucson where I spent most of my time in Arizona during its centennial year (see photo above), the weather was not unbearable.  In fact, I experienced a big thunderstorm one evening that caused flash flood warnings to appear on TV and as cell phone alerts.  So don’t let the weather forecast deter you from visiting what turned out to be a very nice small city.

Situated near the confluence of the Colorado and Gila Rivers, the region was originally inhabited by Native Americans tribes known as the Quechan, or Yuma, from which the present city takes its name.  A primarily agricultural society, they also traded with other tribes to the north and south.  Nowadays, the federally-recognized Quechan have a reservation on the California side of the Colorado River.  The Cocopah is another Native American tribe whose members also live in the Lower Colorado Valley and Mexico.

In 1540, Hernando de Alarcon was the first Spaniard to reach the site of present-day Yuma.  Other Spanish explorers followed and in 1780 a Spanish mission, called La Purisima Concepcion, was founded near Yuma but the native Quechan Indians were poorly treated and in 1781, attacked and killed the European men living at the mission.  Nothing remains of it today but St. Thomas Mission, which was built in 1922, is located on the hill where the original Spanish mission was located (see photos above; on top is a close-up of the mission and below is the mission with the Colorado River in the foreground).

In the 19th century, the strategic and economic importance of the lower Colorado River was recognized.  Products were transported overland from California and when they arrived in Yuma, were shipped up the Colorado River to points north or continued their journey overland to points further east in the United States.  The settlement at Yuma grew as people traveled the Butterfield Overland Mail route and as Forty-Niners on their way to the California gold fields passed through Yuma.  Nowadays, goods are more likely to be transported by train and I saw numerous freight trains, such as the one in the photo above, during my brief stay in Yuma.

Some shops and restaurants on Main Street—which actually was the main street of Yuma in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century--were closed for the summer or because of the recession.  However, there was still plenty to do: The Yuma Art Gallery exhibits the works of local artists, the historic Yuma Theatre hosts performances, and Yuma’s Main Squeeze (see photos at right) is a local winery that offers daily wine tastings. 

The main attractions for people interested in Western history are the Sanguinetti House Museum, the Yuma Territorial Prison, and the Quartermaster’s Depot and each of these will be described in separate blog entries.  While Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry would certainly have appreciated the pleasures Yuma had to offer, they would have definitely wanted to avoid a stay in the prison!

General information about Yuma:

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Professionals

To appreciate The Professionals, one should watch the three bonus features before viewing the film.  Interviews with some of the cast and crew, along with a biographer and director, provide a perspective to this 1966 movie that one otherwise might not have.  The appreciation of Burt Lancaster by his daughter and a biographer is especially informative.

Starring Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Woody Strode, Jack Palance, and Claudia Cardinale, with rousing and often overbearing music by Maurice Jarre, this movie is certainly a star-studded production.  However, instead of being a fast-paced, exciting adventure film, The Professionals was slow-moving and lethargic to me, especially as it runs 117 minutes. 

There were moments of witty banter: “Well, I’ll be damned.”  “Most of us are.”  And: Go to hell.”  “Yes, ma’am; I’m on my way.”  But mostly, there are long stretches of silence as the actors ride through desolate scenery that is liberally studded with red rock formations made for ambushes and rock climbing, punctuated by bursts of action.

Superficially resembling The Strange Case of Conrad Meyer Zulick for the first half of the film, by the end of The Professionals, the plot is more closely related to The Day the Amnesty Came Through.  Vaughn Taylor (the first Desk Clerk in Return to Devil’s Hole and Willis in The Day They Hanged Kid Curry) has a small role as a banker at the beginning of the movie.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

High Lonesome

If there were such a genre as Supernatural Western, then High Lonesome, filmed in color and released in 1950, might have qualified if only the acting hadn't been so overwrought.  With John Barrymore as Cooncat (really?!) and Lois Butler and Kristine Miller as sisters, and all overacting in a plot that was often incomprehen- sible, this movie ended up just being silly instead of spooky.

Ostensibly, the young man eventually named Cooncat is cornered on an isolated ranch one night and is suspected of murder.  But is he turned over to the law?  No!  Instead, after being dragged behind a horse to make him see sense, he is kept on as a ranch hand, where Lois Butler falls in love with him. 

Mix in an old family feud; a soon-to-be-married Kristine Miller; the ranch patriarch who insists on finding out the “truth” about Cooncat; Chill Wills (Bixby in The Biggest Game in the West) as the folksy cook who serves to explicate the plot--such as it is; and two ghostly apparitions, one of whom is played by Jack Elam (Boot Coby in Bad Night in Big Butte) who are more real to Cooncat than anyone else, and well, it’s no surprise that some viewers of High Lonesome might be confused. 

The poor quality of the DVD can’t help make up for being filmed on location near Marfa, Texas—there were many times when dirt was evident on the print and when the sound was almost inaudible.  Fortunately, the movie was only 80 minutes long.  It’s pretty hard to believe that Alan LeMay, credited as the writer and director of High Lonesome, was also the writer of The Searchers and The Unforgiven (the Audrey Hepburn version).

The best part of High Lonesome was actually one of the bonus features.  In addition to text-only bios of the major stars and director, there was a full-length half-hour episode of Stories of the Century, which was a mid-1950s TV show about a railroad detective and his female partner hunting down outlaws of the Old West.  The episode on this DVD was from Season 1, #20, called The Wild Bunch of Wyoming, which makes for a nice tie-in to ASJ.  Although not exactly historically true, the episode itself was fun to watch.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Forty Guns

Forty Guns, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Barry Sullivan, is a disjointed, melodramatic mess of a movie.  Revealed by signage on buildings as set in the county seat of Cochise County, that is, Tombstone, Arizona, this 1957 film has so many subplots it’s hard to keep straight what is going on and why.  Mostly, it’s about one man, Griff Bonnell, a Federal marshal who, with his two brothers, rides into town and gets mixed up with Jessica Drummond and the men who ride for her, including her nasty younger brother, Brockie.

The only tie-in to ASJ is actually an interesting one: Griff doesn’t want Chico, his youngest brother, following in his footsteps.  Apparently, although Griff is a peace officer, he also has a reputation as a gunman and is known as “the truest gun in the West.”  Chico doesn’t understand why Griff wants to keep him out of harm’s way by sending him back to the family farm. 

About halfway through Forty Guns, Griff compares himself to a Roman gladiator and tells his brother, “There’s a new era coming…  My kind of making a living is on the way out…  I’m a freak.”  Of course this hints, by about fifteen years, at the scene in Exit from Wickenburg when Kid Curry tells Tommy essentially the same thing.

But that’s as deep as Forty Guns ever gets.  All the gunfights, love stories, natural disasters, double crosses, and familial problems can’t make up for the shallowness of the relationship between the two main characters and as a result, it’s hard to care about what happens to them or any of the other characters.  At 79 minutes, this black-and-white film seemed much longer.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Sundowners

The Sundowners, an eighty-minute long color film from 1950, seems to include all the requisite elements of a typical mid-twentieth century Western: The lone rancher doing his best to hold out against more established ranchers, with only a younger brother and one neighbor to support his efforts; an ineffectual sheriff in the pay of or under the thumb of the most powerful rancher in the area; a female neighbor who doesn't seem too fond of her wimpy husband but is overly fond of the unattached lone rancher; a dead foreman, cattle rustling, more dead bodies, a secret, and of course a climactic gun battle. 

And into this mix comes a man with a name like that of an outlaw: Kid Wichita, who, for some reason unexplained until near the end of the movie, takes an interest in both the welfare of the lone rancher and the lonely wife.  The rancher welcomes Wichita's assistance and that of his two equally disreputable friends but gradually seems less sure that accepting his help is the right thing to do.  On the other hand, the rancher's younger brother, who at first wanted to kill Wichita--this gunslinger goes by Wichita, not Kid--eventually ends up practically hero-worshipping him.

The leads are Robert Sterling as the rancher, Tom Cloud, and Robert Preston as Kid Wichita, the outlaw.  Chill Wills (Bixby in The Biggest Game in the West) is the rancher's friend, and Jack Elam (Boot Coby in Bad Night in Big Butte) is the unloved husband.  Elam was unrecognizable but in the twenty-odd years between The Sundowners and his role in ASJ, Wills hadn't changed much.

Overwrought and melodramatic at times, The Sundowners was filmed in Texas and the location shots raise this movie slightly above average as a result.  A bonus feature consists of filmographies of the major actors and the director.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Law and Order

Having watched several Westerns starring one film icon, John Wayne, I figured it was time to vary my viewing habits so I decided to watch Law and Order, starring Ronald Reagan.  This 80-minute long color film also stars Dorothy Malone. 

The make-up was done by Bud Westmore, who also did the make-up for the ASJ Pilot.  Jack Kelly (Dr. Chauncey Beauregard in Night of the Red Dog) has a small role and Boyd “Red” Morgan (Augie Helms in The Fifth Victim) has an uncredited role but I only knew they were in this movie by looking at the credits.

Reagan is Frame Johnson, the law in Tombstone, Arizona.  But he gives up his job as marshal after bringing in one last outlaw and, along with his two brothers and the local undertaker, ride off with a hearse to Cottonwood, where they plan to be ranchers.  Naturally, their plan does not proceed as smoothly as they would like and the rest of Law and Order shows why. 

Chiefly because Cottonwood is run by a businessman whom Frame ran out of Dodge City years ago and the local sheriff is in his pocket.  The few honest people in Cottonwood, led by a judge, implore Frame to take on the marshal’s job for that town but his ladylove Jeannie, who runs a saloon back in Tombstone, like Mary in Exit from Wickenburg except that Jeannie inherited the establishment from her father instead of her husband, abhors the idea of Frame being a lawman because she is afraid he’ll be killed so he keeps refusing. 

But Law and Order is a Western from 1953 so ultimately Frame can’t help but take on the job to clean up the corrupt town, especially after tragedy strikes.  The relationship between Frame and his brothers, who were hard to distinguish from each other, and the undertaker, who provided the comic undertone, is what really drives Law and Order.  In that respect, it reminded me of Tombstone, with Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer.  There is also an element of Romeo and Juliet to the movie. 

Even though this is a Universal Studios production and was clearly filmed there as well as on location, the sets did not look at all like those in ASJ twenty or so years later.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Ride Back

If The Bounty Hunter and the original 3:10 to Yuma crossed each other, the intersection would be The Ride Back.  Starring William Conrad as Hamish, a sheriff on the trail of an outlaw, played sympathetically by Anthony Quinn, this 1957 black-and-white film is a satisfying eighty minutes up until just before the very end.

The peace and tranquility of a typical Western town is shattered by a sudden gunfight and a man on a horse galloping furiously away.  The Ride Back then cuts to William Conrad, considerably thinner here than in his later TV appearances, who arrives at what appears to be the border between the United States and Mexico.  A halting conversation between Conrad, whom the audience learns is a lawman, and the official in charge, occurs in English and Spanish, which is not subtitled for the audience.  I appreciated the lack of translation into English as it created a more realistic feeling and connection to what Conrad’s character was going through.

Eventually, he encounters Robert Kallen, the man accused of murder whom Hamish intends to bring back to the U.S. to face trial—a fair trial, he keeps insisting as The Ride Back progresses.  But there are obstacles in the way before he achieves his objective: Kallen is unwilling to go without a struggle, reminding me of Heyes’ and Curry’s repeated attempts in The Bounty Hunter to escape captivity.  There’s even a scene where the outlaw grabs hold of a weapon and aims it at his captor and discovers…  Well, watch the movie and find out! 

The first problem is Kallen’s Mexican lover, played by Lita Milan, who refuses to stop trying to free him.  She is definitely not a simpering, insipid female of the sort often seen in Westerns!  Another obstacle that plays an important part in The Ride Back is the possibility of an attack by Apaches. 

The way the Indians are portrayed in this movie reminded me of Six Strangers in Apache Springs: They are nameless, mostly faceless, silent, and basically stereotypes.  In the second half of the film, a mute little girl is found and becomes attached to the two male leads.  This allows Hamish and Kallen to discuss various issues on the pretext of helping the child, even though she slows down their journey. 

At one point towards the end, Hamish makes a very moving speech explaining why he's so intent on bringing in the outlaw.  Kallen’s behavior reminded me a lot of the way Glenn Ford behaved in 3:10 to Yuma, especially in the hotel room when the characters were waiting for the train to arrive.  Both William Conrad and Anthony Quinn are excellent in their roles in The Ride Back and it is very interesting to listen to Quinn speaking Spanish.  The audio at times is difficult to hear, however, even with the volume as high as it could go. 

Unfortunately, the ending of The Ride Back is abrupt and completely predictable but aside from the last minute or so, this is a very enjoyable movie of two men on opposite sides of the law who face off against each other and slowly, grudgingly, come to respect each other.

Monday, March 19, 2012


Opening with scenes of such wicked and sinful behavior as beatings and shootings, the first several minutes of Hellfire are shown through vivid red flames that surround the action on screen and highlight the B-movie nature of the film.  Shot in something called Trucolor in 1949, the colors have now faded and the movie would benefit from being remastered as the plot, while melodramatic in places, rises above its origins and holds the viewer’s interest for all its ninety minutes.

Hellfire stars Marie Windsor (Helen Archer in High, Lonesome Country) as Doll Brown, an outlaw on a quest, whom we only meet about thirteen minutes into the movie.  It first focuses on a cardsharp, whom we come to find out is named Zebediah Smith, played by William Elliott.  Zeb is also on a mission and when he encounters Doll, they end up riding together as he tries to help her. 

A young-looking Forrest Tucker (Deputy Harker Wilkins in the Pilot) plays Bucky McLean, a marshal who is friends with Zeb and is on the trail of Doll.  Paul Fix (Tom Hansen in The Day They Hanged Kid Curry, Clarence Bowles in Night of the Red Dog, and Bronc in Only Three to a Bed) has a small role as one of a trio of mean brothers out to get Doll.

Additional connections to ASJ abound: There is an interesting discussion about faith, reminding me of Heyes’ line in The Man Who Broke the Bank at Red Gap where he tells Kid, “You gotta put a little more faith in your fellow man.”  Doll’s cynical response: “Faith—you can have it!”  Doll Brown sings in a saloon; however, she is rather more successful at getting the patrons to give her money than Michelle Monet was in Journey from San Juan, and her songs, “Shoofly” and “Bringing in the Sheaves” were a lot more enjoyable.  Zeb preaches to uncaring cowboys and at first is just as unsuccessful as Sister Grace was in Six Strangers at Apache Springs in getting them to contribute to the Lord but at the end of Hellfire, despite his lack of fire-and-brimstone-sounding sermons, he manages to persuade a few people to donate to his cause.

Filmed partially in Sedona, Arizona, I recognized one location shot right away.  Although the angle is slightly different, it's very interesting to see that not much has changed in what the scenery looks like between 1949, when this movie was filmed, and 2011, when I was there.  The top photo at the right is a screenshot from Hellfire and underneath is the photo I took sixty-one years later.

The ending of Hellfire is surprisingly suspenseful and even sad.  The acting is good and the plot, while overwrought at times, contains excellent banter between the major characters.  All in all, this is a movie well worth watching.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Westerner

Gary Cooper in The Westerner is the epitome of the movie Western hero: a loner, taciturn yet able to persuade others to follow him, slow to draw his gun but deadly when he does, a reluctant love interest who gets the girl in the end.  Walter Brennan (Silky in The Day They Hanged Kid Curry and Don't Get Mad, Get Even, Gantry in Twenty-One Days to Tenstrike), on the other hand, is the epitome of the Western bad guy: surrounded by lackeys, takes the law into his own hands, greedy and ultimately overreaching, a bachelor with lots of cronies but no woman to soften all the rough edges. 

In an Oscar-winning role, Brennan was almost unrecognizable in this movie.  Chill Wills (Bixby in The Biggest Game in the West) plays one of the cronies and Forrest Tucker (Harker Wilkins in the Pilot) plays a homesteader; they also were virtually unrecognizable.  Interestingly, Jo Swerling, the father of Jo Swerling, Jr. who was the associate executive producer/producer of ASJ, co-wrote the screenplay for this film.

Set in Texas shortly after the Civil War ends, The Westerner is the classic story of farmers versus cattle ranchers.  Gary Cooper, as Cole Harden, rides into town but, unlike Shane, is under arrest and likely to be sentenced to hang by Judge Roy Bean, played by Walter Brennan.  However, noting that the walls of the saloon-cum-courtroom are plastered with pictures of Lily Langtry, Harden uses his silver tongue—much like Heyes would--to talk himself out of the death sentence.  From there, an unlikely friendship develops between him and the judge.

And then there are the sodbusters, as Bean refers to them, reminding me of Joe Briggs in The McCreedy Bust: Going, Going, Gone.  In fact, the judge and his friends torment the farmers just as Briggs and his friends do in that ASJ episode.  Harden, attracted to the strong farm girl who stands up to the judge, tries to work a compromise between the two opposing sides.  The end of The Westerner reveals who the winner is. 

Ultimately, The Westerner is about the meaning of friendship and love and what a man will do for it.  There are no bonus features but this 102-minute long black-and-white film from 1940 is briskly paced and contains enough flashes of humor among the action scenes to raise it substantially above the average movie Western.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Hell To Pay

The plot sounded intriguing: Two brothers, one a Northern soldier and the other a gambler with a noticeable Southern accent, try to win favor with the same young lady shortly after the end of the Civil War; something happens and they find themselves opposing each other. 

But not even the presence of James Drury (Lom in the Pilot) and Lee Majors (Joe Briggs in The McCreedy Bust: Going, Going, Gone) could overcome the deficits of Hell to Pay, which resembled a TV movie of the week more than a feature film.  Actually, I never even saw Lee Majors in this 2005 movie as I stopped watching after about twenty minutes--I just couldn’t take the extremely poor acting any longer.

A seven-minute bonus feature promoted SASS, the Single Action Shooting Society, and was mildly interesting.  Another bonus feature called "Blast from the Past" profiled Buck Taylor, Peter Brown, William Smith, Stella Stevens, and Andrew Prine about their careers; unfortunately, it also interspersed scenes from Hell to Pay among the interviews with the actors.

Even at only 89 minutes, that was one hour more than I wanted to spend on Hell to Pay!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Texas (the movie)

Texas, a 1941 black and white Columbia Pictures production, stars 23-year-old William Holden and 25-year-old Glenn Ford as two appealing friends who experience a series of escapades before settling into roles on different sides of the law.  Claire Trevor stars as the love interest of both men.  Edgar Buchanan plays a dentist, and the manner in which he practices his profession makes me very glad I live in the 21st century!

The plot of Texas involves how to move cattle from there to Kansas without them being intercepted by rustlers; a crawler at the beginning of the movie sets the scene as Abilene in 1866, which is where Danny and Todd, the characters played by Holden and Ford, respectively, first appear.  Similarities to ASJ abound:  After the opening credits, there’s a scene in which a man says, “A little previous, ain’t ya?”, echoing almost word for word the same question asked by the station agent (Robert B. Williams) in Return to Devil’s Hole.

When Danny and Todd can’t afford to pay a court fine, a respectable citizen of Abilene offers to pay it for them, just as Amy Martin (Shirley Knight in The Ten Days that Shook Kid Curry) does in Ashford. There is a boxing match between Danny and a professional boxer, which bears little resemblance to the fight between Kid and Jim Stokely (Monte Markham in Something to Get Hung About).

Then, reversing the sequence of events in The Ten Days that Shook Kid Curry, when Danny and Todd are subsequently being chased by a posse, they decide to separate and meet up later, just as Heyes and Curry do.  At one point in the second half of the movie, the dentist sings Buffalo Gals and the boys sing along, reminding me of Michelle Monet (Claudine Longet in Journey from San Juan) except that in Texas, the singing by Edgar Buchanan was actually fun to watch and hear.

The relationship between the two main characters reminded me of the bond between Heyes and Curry but the chemistry that was evident between Pete Duel and Ben Murphy was not so noticeable in this film and the banter was not as sharp.  Nevertheless, Texas was a very enjoyable ninety-three minute film.

Pete Seeger sings Buffalo Gals:

Monday, January 2, 2012

Outlaw Tales of Wyoming

What better way to celebrate the New Year than to review a book about Wyoming outlaws?  Alas, even though Charles Morgan (played by Peter Breck in The Great Shell Game), who was a member of a gang of horse thieves and not a con man as posited in the ASJ episode, and Frank Canton (played by Ed Nelson in What Happened at the XST?), who went to Texas on behalf of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association to hire gunmen for their war against small ranchers and wasn't the sheriff of Buffalo as the ASJ episode characterized him, are included in Outlaw Tales of Wyoming, Hannibal Heyes and Jedediah "Kid" Curry are not.  It really wouldn't have been too difficult to mention those two notorious outlaws, now would it???

Written by R. Michael Wilson and subtitled True Stories of the Cowboy State's Most Infamous Crooks, Culprits, and Cutthroats, this short, 125 page book contains fourteen chapters, twelve of which are about individual outlaws or outlaw gangs.  Two other chapters describe the Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA) and the Johnson County War, which played roles in the plots of Bushwhack!, What Happened at the XST? and Witness to a Lynching.  Photos and drawings of all the outlaws chronicled in Outlaw Tales of Wyoming are included, as is an extensive bibliography.

Each chapter begins with a short introduction that explains the location and time period where the crimes occurred.  It then proceeds to describe the upbringing of the outlaws and how, and sometimes why, the men--none of the criminals in Outlaw Tales of Wyoming are women--committed their crimes.  All the chapters end with an accounting of the fate of the outlaws.  Suffice it to say, none except the leaders of the WSGA escaped justice.

Outlaw Tales of Wyoming (ISBN 978-0-7627-4506-7) is a fascinating look at the period of Wyoming history in the second half of the 19th century.  Most of the men presented in this book were pretty bad men, some were very bad.  So I guess it's just as well that those two pretty good bad men, Heyes and Curry, are not included in this collection of outlaws after all.