Saturday, September 19, 2015

ROCK ISLAND TRAIL (1950) and CALIFORNIA PASSAGE (1950): Tuck Becomes a Hero

This post is The Horn Section's contribution to the Republic Pictures Blogathon hosted by two great bloggers: The Hannibal 8 and our longtime friend Toby Roan at Fifty Westerns From the 1950's. Follow Mr. Roan on twitter and keep up with all the great posts on classics from arguably the Western's greatest decade, the 1950's.

ROCK ISLAND TRAIL (1950 Republic) Starring Forrest Tucker, Adele Mara, Bruce Cabot, Chill Wills, Adrian Booth, Grant Withers, Jeff Corey. Written by James Edward Grant.  Directed by Joseph Kane.

ROCK ISLAND TRAIL (based on Frank Nebins' novel Yankee Dare) was announced as one of Republic Studio's upcoming A-listers for the following year in August 1949.  Quite a cast had already been assembled at the time of that initial press release: Adele Mara, Bruce Cabot, Chill Wills and Grant Withers were among the actors announced, and each played a substantial role in the resulting feature.

Adele Mara
Six-foot-five Rod Cameron was considered the initial favorite to play Reed Loomis, but when filming of James Edward Grant's script actually began in Oklahoma, the hero was played by another tall young Republic actor who had made a significant impression in two of the studio's biggest 1949 successes.

After mostly playing bullies and villains his first two years with the studio, Forrest Tucker had the sympathetic supporting role of Marshall Bucky McLean in the Wild Bill Elliott starrer HELLFIRE, then made an even bigger splash butting heads with John Wayne in the Marine tribute SANDS OF IWO JIMA.  With Elliott's expiring contract creating a void near the top of Republic's stable, the thirty-one year old actor nicknamed "Tuck" graduated to top billing by headlining Joseph Kane's Trucolor adventure.

Forrest Tucker
Reed Loomis (Tucker) is President of the Rock Island Trail Railroad Company.  He draws the ire of steamboat operator Kirby Morrow (Cabot), first by winning the stage line's lucrative mail contract, then by wooing away Morrow's intended, Constance Strong (Mara).  Morrow tries to stop Loomis by hook or crook, sensing that the handsome railroader will be taking a lot of business away from his boats.  First Kirby tries bribing Loomis' subordinates, but Loomis' loyal sidekick Hogger McCoy (Wills) thwarts the effort.  After Reed is able to convince Strong's wealthy father (Winters) to invest in his railroad, Morrow turns to direct sabotage.  Meanwhile, exotic French-educated Keokuk Princess Aleeta (Adrian Booth) tries to woo Mr. Loomis away from the banker's daughter.

Wills and Tucker

The role of Loomis was a real breakthrough for Forrest Tucker.  He mostly played snarling, tight lipped villains throughout the 1940's, but ROCK ISLAND TRAIL gave the husky actor a chance to play not only an extrovert, but an unreserved hero.  Tucker's Reed Loomis is persuasive enough to sway investors, quick-witted and skilled at any weapon of choice (more on than in a bit).  Loomis' magnetism attracts both the banker's daughter and the Indian princess, with sufficient charm to keep the latter's loyal friendship even after he sidesteps her pass in favor of the former.  Tucker is forceful and convincing throughout, clearly relishing the opportunity to play a protagonist in an "A" feature (he did receive a few leads in poverty row productions such as Monogram's EMERGENCY LANDING (1941) before achieving more substantial stardom at Republic).  Tuck's image would eventually change dramatically with similarly brash roles as Professor Harold Hill in THE MUSIC MAN and, of course, Sergeant O'Rourke on F TROOP.  But ROCK ISLAND TRAIL was the first real display of his affability on the big screen.

Oh, and that comment about his aptitude with weapons: Loomis puts on an impressive display with his fists (several times) and his firearm, but when Morrow challenges him, he chooses an unconventional weapon: mops dipped in boiling soup.  The resulting duel provides the one truly unconventional moment in this kitchen-sink actioneer, with Loomis proving his point by the end of the conflict: "Dueling is stupid!"

Bruce Cabot (R)

Kane provides a surfeit of action as expected.  In addition to that mop duel, ROCK ISLAND TRAIL gives us train/stage race, an exploding bridge, several fist fights, the inevitable attack from a hostile tribe (instigated by Cabot, of course)....there's even a courtroom trial with Abraham Lincoln (Jeff Corey) representing Loomis' railroad (and winning the case, of course).

Corey, he of the deep, smooth voice (his career would hit an unfortunate roadblock with HUAC a year later) is a fine choice to play the future President.  The offbeat casting of Booth doesn't quite come off without a hitch, though I can't think of anyone else under contract who could have played the role of a French-Indian princess more effectively.  (And yes, that certainly includes Mrs. Yates, Vera Ralston.) Booth's multicultured Aleeta refreshingly takes the high road romantically and has several intriguing character traits, such as enjoying a good cigar. 

Adrian Booth (L)
Surprisingly, the film's major weakness is a mediocre script by the usually reliable James Edward Grant (SANDS OF IWO JIMA).  Dialogue is frequently stilted, and it's simply impossible to believe that Morrow got to the engagement stage with Constance given that neither she nor her father seem to have the slightest warmth for him, even in the beginning.  Another drawback is distractingly obvious use of rear screen projection in a few key scenes, cheapening an otherwise impressive-looking Trucolor production.

These problems notwithstanding, ROCK ISLAND TRAIL is consistently fun, a quintessential example of old school action and a good showcase for its leads with beautiful Mara matching Tucker's work.  Republic had high hopes for the film, providing an ambitious all-out promotion that included its stars (joined by Roy Rogers) traveling by train to the premiere in Rock Island, Illinois on April 27, 1950.  Despite the heavy publicity, ROCK ISLAND TRAIL was something of a box office disappointment, though the chemistry between its stars was undeniable, and Mara was cast as Tucker's leading lady in his next stab at top billing for Republic, CALIFORNIA PASSAGE.

CALIFORNIA PASSAGE (1950 Republic) Starring Forrest Tucker, Adele Mara, Jim Davis, Estelita Rodriguez, Peter Miles, Paul Fix, Iron Eyes Cody, Bob Williams, Charles Kemper, Lee Tung Foo.  Written by James Edward Grant.  Directed by Joseph Kane.

Mike Prescott (Tucker) and Linc Corey (Jim Davis) are uneasy partners in the Golden Bear, a Maricosa saloon circa 1850.  Unbeknownst to Prescott, Corey is involved in another partnership: he's been masterminding stagecoach robberies in cahoots with Bob Martin (Bill Williams).  After Prescott wins the saloon's profits via their business agreement (cutting cards, with winner taking all) for the 17th week in a row, resentment overcomes Martin.  Despite Corey's warning, hotheaded Bob is spoiling for a fight, and Prescott kills him in self-defense in the ensuing skirmish.  A short time later Bob's sister Beth (Mara) arrives from the East with youngest brother Tommy (Peter Miles) in tow.  Mike and Linc are both attracted to the new girl in town, deepening the antagonism between the shaky business partners.  After Prescott gains the upper hand for Beth's affections, Corey frames Mike for the stagecoach robberies, eliminating him from both that contest and the business partnership by forcing him on the lam.  Then Beth Martin uncovers evidence of Corey's guilt.

In contrast to the publicity blitz that accompanied the Trucolor ROCK ISLAND TRAIL, black and white CALIFORNIA PASSAGE was issued quietly in December 1950.  Still, it's the better film for my money.  The key is that screenwriter Grant is in much better form, providing dialogue that is much snappier and funnier, with Tucker and Davis puncturing one another with sharp one-liners frequently enough to require a scorecard.

Grant also throws us more curveballs this time around (that memorable mop duel notwithstanding).  Self-described "irregular, not incompetent" Sheriff Willy Clair (a terrific Kemper) shocks Beth with his passive reaction to a lynch mob.  But he's no coward, nor corrupt--he simply realizes he must pick his fights wisely while "civilizing" Maricosa, one resolved conflict at a time.  After an Indian attack is repelled in the opening scene, hero Prescott is the one who takes a scalp (from uncredited Iron Eyes Cody)!  His explanation to young Tommy?  "He'd have taken yours!"

Trucolor ROCK ISLAND TRAIL presented its hero and villain in straightforward black and white--black and white CALIFORNIA PASSAGE filters its foes through subtler (and changing) shades.   Reed Loomis was gregarious and affable but PASSAGE's Mike Prescott bluntly states: "I don't like people."  As mentioned above, Prescott's barbs are mostly aimed at not-so-beloved partner Linc, but also find their way towards Beth (one of those immigrants who has no idea what she's in for) and wary Sheriff Clair, who is treated to a "short beer" after Mike offers him one "on the house" (Kemper's reaction is priceless).

Likewise, Cabot's Kirby Morrow was unlikable from the get-go, but it's hard not to have some sympathy for Jim Davis' Linc--at first, anyway.  We learn that he's 0 for his last 17 in the "winner take all" method of determining profit sharing--and the most recent loss came after his partner was away for several months.  But Linc proves as unworthy of any sympathy as he is of Mike's reluctant loyalty by the final reel.  Our first impressions of Prescott, Corey and Clair are proven erroneous by film's end, as is Prescott's initial take on those immigrants from back East.  The same fog that exposed the vulnerability faced by Beth and Tommy in the opening scene plays a prominent role in their survival on the mountain later, suggesting they just might be more adaptable than Prescott thinks.

Estelita Rodriguez
CALIFORNIA PASSAGE boasts a typically outstanding Republic supporting cast.  In addition to Kemper, the film also offers an opportunity to enjoy a meatier-than-usual part for starlet Estelita Rodriguez, playing Williams' girlfriend and the saloon's singer,  (She gets two songs,  "Goin' Round in Circles" and "Second Hand Romance"). Rodriguez, only 22 at the time, would lead a sadly troubled adult life. Married four times, she passed away at age 37 from influenza in 1966.  Lee Tung Foo plays his familiar stereotypical Chinese cook, this time insisting repeatedly to Davis that everything is 'kosher'.

Rodriguez, Kemper and Davis (L to R)

The film isn't perfect--Beth's realization about her brother is a bit rushed, and the otherwise sharp Sheriff's suspicion of Prescott in the robberies seems pretty questionable.  (What would Mike's motivation be?  He's been winning the weekly take!)  Still, CALIFORNIA PASSAGE is suspenseful and entertaining.

While neither project catapulted him to A-list stardom, ROCK ISLAND TRAIL and CALIFORNIA PASSAGE established Forrest Tucker as a viable choice for heroic roles, and his ability to seamlessly alternate between friend and foe would make him one of the decade's busiest stars.  Tuck became one of Republic's top male leads (THE WILD BLUE YONDER, JUBILEE TRAIL opposite Joan Leslie) while sprinkling in vehicles with other studios, such as Fox (THE QUIET GUN), UA (COUNTERPLOT) and Hammer (BREAK IN THE CIRCLE) among others.  He continued to play villains effectively as well, most notably in SAN ANTONE (1953, for Republic) and RAGE AT DAWN (1955).  Forrest Tucker's Republic swan song, 1958's GIRL IN THE WOODS, arrived just a year before the studio's demise after a quarter century and nearly 1,000 features.

CALIFORNIA PASSAGE is currently streaming at Epix HD.

Monday, September 14, 2015

F TROOP Fridays: "Scourge of the West" (1965)

F TROOP Fridays: Number 11

F TROOP: "Scourge of the West" (1965 ABC-TV/Warner Brothers) Season One, Episode One: Original Air Date September 14, 1965.  Starring Forrest Tucker as Sergeant Morgan O'Rourke, Larry Storch as Corporal Randolph Agarn, Ken Berry as Captain Wilton Parmenter, Melody Patterson as Wrangler Jane, Frank deKova as Chief Wild Eagle, Edward Everett Horton as Roaring Chicken, James Hampton as Bugler Dobbs, Joe Brooks as Private Vanderbilt, Henry Brandon as the Shug Chief, Jay Sheffield as Lt. Hawkes, Louie Elias as Private Franklin and William Conrad as The Narrator.  Directed by Charles Rondeau.  Written by Ed James, Seaman Jacobs and Jim Barnett.

Happy 50th Birthday to F TROOP and to its debut episode, Scourge of the West!  Yeah, it's Monday, but hey, that's the day that the Fiftieth Anniversary of this pilot falls on.  Sorry to encroach on your day, MAVERICK.  Won't happen again, pinky swear.

In the "closing months of the War Between the States" the sonorious tones of William Conrad (CANNON himself!) are heard filling us in on the latest crisis to affect "a certain Union general" as he sits in his quarters near Appomattox, Virginia:

"Where's my laundry???"

Private Wilton Parmenter (Berry), Quartermaster Corps, the last and least of a proud Philadelphia family of career soldiers, is dispatched to fetch it.  While he may not look like much of a soldier....

Conrad informs us that he's been up to the "awesome responsibility" of "coming through with the underwear" numerous times.  This time, though, fate takes a hand, and Private Parmenter runs smack into an excess of pollen filling the air.  It triggers the usual involuntary response from the Private as he rides past a group of officers: they hear the sneeze loud and clear.

"You heard him, men!  CHARGE!!!!"  Well, loud, anyway.  The resulting offensive catches the Confederates completely by surprise, and within a matter of days, decisive victory is assured for the Union forces.  Wilton Parmenter has finally found his niche among the Majors, Colonels and Generals that make up his next of kin, and the newly nicknamed "Scourge of Appomattox" finds himself promoted to Captain, given a medal of honor.......

.....and a Purple Heart, which incidentally, not only made Captain Parmenter the first soldier to ever receive one, but the only recipient before 1917.  "The only soldier in history to get a medal for getting a medal."

While the hero is still recovering from his fresh wound, his superiors debate a proper assignment.  Midwestern Fort Courage is suggested.  "Sir, they've gone through three commanding officers in the past 18 months!  Two desertions and a nervous breakdown!"  Sounds daunting, but hey, how much more so can it be than coming through with Grant's starchless underwear?  Parmenter just might be the stabilizing influence the outpost needs, and he is given his new assignment: command of F Troop.

Wilton arrives at Fort Courage to much ceremony, and his very first cannon salute, to be set off by Bugler Dobbs (Hampton).  That is, if he can keep the fuse from burning out.  With the Private failing this simple exercise, the Corporal goes over to give the cannon a little nudge--well, more, accurately, he kicks the hell out of it.

And it does fire:

Needless to say, this won't be the last time that a detail will be assigned to rebuild the lookout tower.

After this inauspicious introduction, Bugler Dobbs (Hampton) displays his bugling talents the following morning, and they're on par with his cannon operation.  The new Captain is in his quarters when the two non-Coms we saw earlier, Sergeant O'Rourke (Tucker) and Corporal Agarn (Storch) report for duty, informing the new Captain that F Troop is ready for his initial inspection.

But Parmenter isn't.  He requires the Sarge's assistance with his gun belt, and the newly minted "Scourge of the West" wants to hang up the picture of his proud family---and to look up reveille in his Army Manual.  After Agarn is sent outside to call the troop to attention, and a couple more pratfalls (understatement of the episode from Wilton: "I fall down a lot.") it's time for Wilton to take command with some inspiring words.

"Men, you're in the Army now!"

After that rousing nugget of leadership, Captain Parmenter astutely notices that reveille takes place at 10 A.M. and asks the Sergeant why, for it was at 7 A.M. when he was in Quartermasters back East.  O'Rourke continues to be helpful while the inexperienced commander adapts.  "The Captain is forgetting--there's a three hour time difference."

That explanation out of the way, Parmenter's inspection reveals a number of imperfections: Dobbs is missing a button ("keep looking, it's bound to be around someplace"), Duddleson (Ivan Bell) has gravy stains, and Swenson requires Agarn's very first attention getter.

Brace yourself!

Shouldn't he get two for flinching, Corporal?  Interesting notes: Duffy is nowhere to be found, Vanderbilt is unnamed (and not demonstrably blind yet) and while he and Duddleson will both return as part of the regular cast, neither has a speaking part in Scourge of the West.

Wrangler Jane (Patterson) rides through announcing mail call, which brings the inspection to an abrupt end.  Janey had that kind of effect on a lot of us teenage boys who were watching.

Miss Jane Angelica Thrift takes an immediate shine to the new Captain, betting a bucket of buzzards that they'll "be seeing something of each other."  That'll have to wait, though, as the Captain's very first letter informs him of an immediate inspection by Second Lieutenant Hawks of the I.G.'s office.  "I just got here yesterday!"  Assuring their CO one last time, the NCO's appoint the Bugler to be Parmenter's orderly while they set out to make everything "as slick as a greasy whistle" for the visit from the brass.

With their new Captain seen to his quarters by Dobbs, O'Rourke and Agarn are finally able to give us their unfiltered views.  If they were apprehensive about having a member of the esteemed Parmenter family as commander--and it sounded like they were, initially--those fears have been safely put to rest.  "I tell ya, Sarge, he's the pigeon that we always dreamed of!"

The Sergeant is in no mood for celebrating, though, and neither is his aide-de-camp.  They've been bad, bad boys: F Troop draws rations and pay allotments for 30 men, yet only 17 are actually stationed at Fort Courage.  Also, they reported knocking off two tribes in two weeks.

"If that Lieutenant finds out just how peaceful it is around here, there'll be no more Fort Courage!"  Nagging Question # 1: Wouldn't an uneventful stay for the I.G. be easily explainable by the fact that two tribes were supposedly wiped out recently?  Who would be left to attack, and if anyone was, wouldn't they be wary of doing so?

Never mind.  Suffice to say that the pending visit from the Inspector General is not desired, and when we reach their NCO Club (Privates Keep Out- Officers too), we find out a few more reasons why.  This is one impressive array of loot.  Two hundred genuine Hekawi war bonnets, two barrels of perfumed war paint, arrows, bows, quivers, shields, tomahawks....but one problem, only half a case of whiskey for their saloon.  Business partner Chief Wild Eagle (deKova) of the "bloodthirsty" Hekawis reported to Agarn that the still is busted.

Crafty O'Rourke--he was the man responsible for getting rid of two Captains and a Major, we learn--reasons that they ought to be able to handle one nosy Second Lieutenant.  They head up to the Hekawi camp to kill two birds with one stone: discuss the still, and secure an opponent to stage a phony offensive that the troopers (yes, even F Troopers) can easily fend off for the benefit of the I.G.

The Chief has a bone to pick before they get down to business, though.  He wants to address the "nasty rumor" that the natives aren't supposed to drink alcohol, a "nasty rumor" spread by his "blue-nose redskin" sister in law, Sparkling Water.  After Wild Eagle laughs at his own joke for the first (but again, not the last) time, O'Rourke gets to the point, suggesting that the cannon will be fired as a signal to commence the raid.

"Attack you?  You honorary Hekawi!"  Wild Eagle isn't too keen on the idea, until he realizes that a shutdown of O'Rourke Enterprises would mean the Hekawi go back to hunting, fishing--and weaving their own blankets.  "We fight!"  But first, the War Dance has to take place.  Too bad the "bloodthirsty Hekawi" have been so peaceful for so long that no one remembers how to do a War Dance.  Not even ancient medicine man Roaring Chicken (Horton).  "Very much like Rain Dance, only drier."  Well, it has been 42 years since he saw one.

42 years ago last August, to be exact.  So, August 1822?

Corporal Agarn seems to have more knowledge than anyone, so he leads the dance.  Kinda nimble on his feet, actually:

Next, we'll learn the Mashed Potato!

Unfortunately, they've got company: warriors from the Shug tribe--and O'Rourke doesn't have a treaty with them.  The Shug leader doesn't want to attack the Hekawi, even with two palefaces in uniform there.  Instead, they'll follow them back to the Fort--which the Shugs plan to ambush for real in the morning.

Well, you got your attack now, Sarge!

Top billed Forrest Tucker was the extroverted leader of the cast offscreen as well, and he wisely told everyone to "think Bilko" while the pilot was in production.  For his part, Tucker brings a bit of that insincere flattery to the O'Rourke role, but tones down the blatantly bogus air around it ever so slightly.  Also, the 6'5" Tucker is much more physically imposing than the owlish Silvers, so he is much less animated when threatening to transfer everyone to "a fighting outfit" later--he correctly surmises that his rank and physical stature provides all the menace needed.  Even at this early stage, it's easy to see why Sergeant Morgan O'Rourke became the veteran actor's signature role.

Lieutenant Hawkes (Sheffield) arrives, and immediately notices the discrepancy between the rations and pay allotments (thirty men) and those assembled--seventeen, including Private Franklin (Elias) who has sentry duty, which apparently hasn't been assigned to Vanderbilt yet.  That must have been a Parmenter idea.  Oh, and by the way, since firing the cannon is the agreed-upon attack signal, I don't think I'd want to be in Franklin's boots.....

Anyway, the other thirteen men are "Indian scouts out on patrol" according to O'Rourke and Agarn.  Hawkes strangely accepts this explanation.  Then again, the Lieutenant mainly seems interested in inspecting Wrangler Jane instead of the Fort.

Pretty pervy look there, Lieutenant!  She doesn't return the interest, but verbalizing that to him will have to wait, since a flaming arrow comes flying past them, landing on the front door of the Captain's quarters.

While the ineptitude of the bugler and the cannon crew predated the Captain's arrival, Franklin's sentry duty is notably more accurate than Vanderbilt's would be in later installments.  The lookout correctly identifies the source as Indians instead of turkeys.  "The ferocious Hekawis are about to a-tack!"

Nagging Question # 2: thirteen scouts supposedly employed, and not a single one could tell you about a pending attack?  Gonna be awfully hard to keep those guys on the payroll, Sarge!

O'Rourke and Agarn are dismayed at the error by their business partners ("Nobody fired the cannon!") but nevertheless put the plan in motion, dutifully firing over the heads of the bloodthirsty "attackers".

However, Wrangler Jane is primed for action, darting to the parapets to join the seventeen F Troopers. Miss Thrift immediately shows us she's an ace with the pistol, knocking three Shugs off their horses and alarming O'Rourke, who wonders what he'll tell the Chief about the casualties.  In addition to performing such heroics while Annie Oakley was just barely out of diapers, Janey is also the first to recognize the invaders as the Shugs.  O'Rourke and Agarn were just a little late in not recognizing their business partners, despite a good clue:

"We're for real!  IT'S THE SHUGS!"  Meanwhile, the Captain is battling a couple of Shugs who scaled the wall near his quarters, and the Scourge of the West (accidentally) lives up to the reputation that has preceded him.  One is impaled while the Captain is trying to control his swinging saber, and while he attempts to get his weapon unstuck from the first, Parmenter accidentally stabs the second warrior as he finally frees the sword.  It may not look pretty, but hey, whatever works, works, right?

Once the Captain finally stumbles up on the parapet, he continues this impressive debut with a most unconventional weapon--a ladder.  A flaming arrow lands in the lookout tower, but miraculously does not cause this notoriously wobbly structure to fall.  However, it is still burning, and Parmenter grabs the ladder in an attempt to reach it.  And as has been the case with virtually every object he's encountered, he struggles to control it, ending up tumbling over the edge with it..... the precise moment that three Shug warriors attempt to scale the front wall.  When Sergeant O'Rourke warns Parmenter by name, we quickly learn that the Parmenter name carries a lot of weight with the Shug Chief.

"Scourge of the West!  RUN!"  And retreat the Shugs do, with the three clocked by the ladder bringing up the rear.

In the coda, Sergeant O'Rourke has added some new loot, "trophies of the Shug War".  Well, at least these souvenirs are genuine.  Meanwhile, the Captain gets the statistics, indicating it was a rout:  24 Shug casualties, none for F Troop.  Janey alone was responsible for 17 of the casualties, and we saw the Captain notch two inside the Fort, leaving five for his underlings.  Which was oh, roughly five more than we would see from the Troopers during the remaining sixty-four episodes.

It's 5 PM, so it's time for retreat, which apparently isn't affected by that time difference that O'Rourke brought up earlier.  Only one problem: you fire the cannon during retreat, and there's that little matter of the Hekawis still awaiting that signal to begin their offensive.  Unfortunately, O'Rourke and Agarn are unable to stop this little military tradition.

The second attack of the day commences, and in a further setback for business, O'Rourke Enterprises suffers some heavy inventory losses from that same cannonball.  Well, hey, on this one day, at least the lookout tower durably remains standing in front of the brass.


The Hekawis would prove to be incredibly prescient over the course of the show's run, anticipating the rise of rock and roll and the need for a gentleman's club nearly a century before either became mainstream.  We learn here it started centuries before, since they invented the peace pipe.


The fake Hekawi attack probably applies, and for sure, shooting over the heads of the Shugs intentionally fits the bill as well, so two.


Janey refers to an "injun" attack, and of course Wild Eagle uses "redskin" once as well, but this time the visiting officer isn't a war Hawke (what a name for the visiting brass!).for once.  And really, how un-PC can that "redskin" be if her nose is blue?


Hits the ground running with a superb pilot, establishing the situation very quickly, with a few of the usual awkward “introductory” speeches. They aren't too much of a distraction from the numerous belly laughs.  Scourge of the West doesn't quite have all the pieces in place yet, but Tucker, Storch, Berry, Patterson and deKova are all immediately comfortable in their respective roles, and the script is full of hilarious one-liners.  (***1/2 out of four)

F TROOP currently airs on Me-TV for a full hour each Saturday morning at 5 AM ET/4 AM CT and on Sunday mornings at 7 AM ET/6 AM CT.

Friday, September 04, 2015

Television Review: HONDO: "Hondo and the Superstition Massacre" (1967)

 "Your lives are meaningless compared to Hondo!" 

HONDO: "Hondo and the Superstition Massacre"  (1967 ABC-TV/MGM/Batjac Productions) Episode 4; Original Air Date: September 29, 1967.  Starring Ralph Taeger as Hondo Lane, Noah Beery Jr. as Buffalo Baker, Kathie Browne as Angie Dow, Gary Clarke as Captain Richards, Michael Pate as Chief Vittoro, Buddy Foster as Johnny Dow, William Bryant as Colonel Crook.  Guest Stars: Robert Reed as Frank Davis, Nancy Malone as Mary Davis, Willard Sage as Sergeant Able, Mike Lane as Moon Dog, Claude Hall as Unwashed.  Teleplay by Andrew J. Fenady.  Directed by Lee H. Katzin.

Series Overview for HONDO: TV'S Unlikeliest Cult Hit at this link

En route to meet Colonel Crook, Hondo and Buffalo are attached by four renegade Pimas, with Buffalo suffering a gunshot wound to his right calf.  If Pimas are trespassing on Apache land isn't enough of a worry, Crook fears that rumors are fueling a potential gold rush on the Superstitions--which by treaty is Apache land.

With Chief Vittoro agreeing to a geological survey and Buffalo sidelined on crutches, Hondo is the only scout available to guide the party through the mountainous terrain.  However, when the surveyor arrives, Lane is none too pleased to learn that he'll be working with former cavalry Captain Frank Davis--the man responsible for the death of Lane's pregnant wife Destarte at the Raid at Willow Creek.

That look---when you realize Hondo is about to kick your ass

Hondo and the Superstition Massacre puts Fenady's prior shows further in the rearview mirror.  Johnny Yuma and Jason McCord were both still searching when THE REBEL and BRANDED ended: Hondo Lane catches up with the man he's sought for eight years in only the fourth episode (third produced) of HONDO.  But there's a surprise within the surprise as well.  The long-awaited confrontation doesn't provide the segment's climax--instead, Lane and Davis meet before the opening credits, with Emberato living up to his Apache name in the process.  Buffalo is the only person who knows just how to intervene.

And NOW lemme at those suits that put us opposite GOMER PYLE and STAR TREK!

Ralph Taeger was never considered a thespian of great range.  The taciturn star had expressive eyes but could sound strident when vocalizing excitement (e.g. his initial scene in THE CARPETBAGGERS).  But if this limited Taeger as an actor, it also made him a perfect choice to play Fenady's embittered and emotionally repressed Hondo Lane, since his outbursts are purely physical.  Keeping the audience on Hondo's side isn't an easy task after we see him attack Frank (and nearly beat him to death).  Still, Taeger manages to pull it off, with the completely unpoised quality of his performance only enhanced by his vocal restrictions.  Four episodes in, he's made the role originated by John Wayne his own.

Well, that cheered him up!
One can't help but be somewhat sympathetic once we learn the cruel outcome of Hondo's eight year pursuit of revenge.  General Sheridan gave us a shorthand version in Hondo and the Eagle Claw: "a northerner who joined the South" in the war between the states and "hurt the U.S. Army plenty during the War and himself plenty in the years since".  But in Hondo and the Superstition Massacre, we find out that Lane joined the Confederates specifically to hunt down a man who wasn't even in the Civil War at all.

Derisively referenced by Sheridan as being "one of those West Point types" in the opener, Captain Frank Davis had been out of the USMA barely a month when he ordered the Willow Creek attack.  In over his head on his very first command, Davis realized too late that his regiment was obliterating "a village of sick old men and helpless women, Mister" (as Lane reminds him).  This realization was enough to make Davis resign from the Army immediately, and the former Captain has been suffering from PTSD ever since--just like Hondo.  While Hondo has been self destructive in the years since, Davis has suffered constant nightmares and suicidal thoughts.

And yet, it isn't sympathy for Davis' torment that keeps Lane from taking vengeance.  Ultimately it is his realization that he could best honor his late wife's memory by not allowing Mrs. Davis to suffer the same fate. Just as the ever-patient Mrs. Davis is the best half of her husband, Destarte was Hondo's.  "I always said you were more civilized than I'd ever be."

Davis and the Mrs. are both dismayed to find Hondo Lane waiting for them when they reach Fort Lowell, so why would Davis take this surveying assignment so close to the scene of his crime?  Wouldn't there be a much better than average chance that either Lane or Vittoro (or both) is still there?  Whether a subconscious death wish took him back to Arizona or not, Davis needs closure badly enough that even death seems preferable to the haunting.  It's clear, for example, that guilt over his past actions keeps him from pressing charges against the scout after their initial "meeting".  Some HONDO guest stars chewed the scenery opposite Taeger's tendency to underplay, but Reed resists that urge.  The future BRADY BUNCH star is completely convincing as an ill-fitting soldier who has been haunted by the one uncivilized decision of his life ever since his lone month of service.

It's likely that Hondo and the Superstition Massacre (third in the production schedule) was pushed back to allow the hero a more heroic portrayal in Hondo and the Singing Wire first.  After all, you already have a rough hero who will take some getting used to--you don't want the audience subjected to the disturbing impression Lane leaves in this teaser too early.  Fenady's script is gutsy and assured, in many ways completing a trilogy with the series' first two segments, and Katzin (Hondo and the War Cry) impressively stages all of the action sequences, most notably that one-sided Lane-Davis fistfight.

Interesting trivia:  If BRANDED had been renewed for the 1966-67 season, Fenady planned to change its format.  Jason McCord would have settled in one place (like Hondo Lane in this series) and would have become a surveyor (just like Frank Davis did after leaving the army).  All three of the producer's characters also reached the rank of Captain.


Nothing could top the one he opened on Davis in the teaser.  Davis has reason to fear for his life, and several troopers, including Captain Richards, end up as unconscious collateral damage.  Impressively vicious for prime time in 1967.  Hondo next kayos an annoying drunk with one right cross in the cantina--while seated!  (More on that drunk below) but by his own admission "wasn't doing so good" in his duel with Mad Dog.  To be fair, it was under Pima rules and Hondo was likely groggy from his second concussion in about three days.

Yes, he's every bit as charming as he looks....


Character actor Claude Hall has a twenty second (and about fifty word) cameo as Unwashed, that chatterbox drunk mentioned in the previous paragraph.  He had a minor career in the mid-Sixties and must have been an acquaintance of Fenady's, since he had small guest parts in all three of the producer's series.  Hall disappeared from Hollywood altogether shortly after Hondo and the Superstition Massacre, and was apparently much worse than merely annoying off-screen.


Buffalo saves Hondo from a murder charge early and a Pima ritual late.  Not bad for a guy who got a hollowed out leg in the opening minute. 

Uh, you might want to feed him, Hondo...


Sam is chided for being a bit slow to sniff out the Pimas in the teaser, but he more than redeems himself later by fetching help from Fort Lowell that arrives in a nick of time.  While Hondo still won't let Mrs. Davis feed Sam table scraps, the canine does manage to steal two of Mrs. Dow's homemade apple pies before his human can get to them.

Well, you did tell him to get his own food, Hondo.  You didn't specify where......


A gutsy script is solidly directed and acted, with no shortage of action and surprising emotional resonance.  Hondo and the Superstition Massacre is the best of four installments to date and one of the series' finest hours.  (***1/2 out of four)

HONDO: THE COMPLETE SERIES is currently streaming at Warner Archive Instant
And starting September 19th, HONDO will air Saturdays on getTV.