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Cowboy (Columbia, 1958)


Lemmon becomes Ford


Most so-called cowboy movies aren’t that. But occasionally you do get one which actually deals with cattle drovers, and Delmer Daves’s follow-up to 3:10 to Yuma was one such.



Based (loosely) on Frank Harris's My Reminiscences as a Cowboy, Glenn Ford's fourteenth Western, and Daves's eighth - depending on your definition of Western -, his last for Columbia, benefits from an excellent performance by Ford as a leathery, domineering cattle baron, playing opposite Jack Lemmon as Harris, the bumptious Chicago hotel clerk who inveigles his way onto Ford’s cattle drive as a partner and has to learn the business the hard way.



There’s a nice little early exchange:


Frank Harris, hotel clerk (Jack Lemmon): I'd like to live in the open. You know what I mean? Tom Reese, hard-bitten trail boss (Glenn Ford): Oh, yeah, I know what you mean. You mean lying out there under the stars listening to the boys singing around the campfire. And your faithful old horse standing there grazing at the grass by your side. You do much riding? Harris: Yes, sir! Reese: Yeah, I thought so. Well, you're an idiot! You're a dreaming idiot, and that's the worst kind. You know what the trail is really like? Dust storms all day, cloudbursts all night. A man has got to be a fool to want that kind of life.

It doesn't put Harris off. They go down to Mexico to buy cattle and then drive the herd to the railhead, presumably in Kansas. I say it was based loosely on Frank Harris's reminiscences but then Frank Harris's book was only based loosely on his reminiscences to start with. Daves said that he estimated that at least 50% of what Harris 'experienced' was exaggeration and distortion. So the director and screenplay writers had carte blanche to monkey about with the story.


Loosely based

The picture was produced by Julian Blaustein, who also did Broken Arrow with Daves.


Daves didn’t write or co-write the screenplay this time, leaving that to Edmund H North and Dalton Trumbo. North wrote or co-wrote such Westerns as Only the Valiant, the 1952 version of The Outcasts of Poker Flat (also produced by Blaustein), the 1954 Destry remake and The Far Horizons. Probably his best were Colorado Territory and The Proud Ones. Dalton Trumbo, apart from having the best name in the world (Dalton Trumbo) didn’t get a screen credit on Cowboy because he was blacklisted as part of the anti-red witch-hunt going on. But he was so good he even got Academy Awards under a pseudonym or for a front writer. From a Western perspective he worked on the interesting little Terror in a Texas Town, the big Kirk Douglas/Rock Hudson picture The Last Sunset, and, again with Douglas, on the absolutely superb Lonely Are the Brave.


Writers Trumbo and North. Maybe Dalton's favored writing venue accounts for the bathtub scenes in Cowboy.


The actual cattle drive doesn't begin until an hour of the movie has passed but after the obvious stuff about a tenderfoot in the West (sore backside and so forth) there is an interesting development of character as Lemmon in fact becomes Ford: at first Ford is too hard and lacks human feeling while Lemmon is compassionate. Gradually the positions change and Lemmon learns only too well. He becomes a heartless son of a bitch (excuse my French) and Ford is the one with the human decency.


Harris has, of course, his beautiful women to woo (though he loses the rich señorita whose father disapproves of him).


There’s some nice New Mexico scenery and, as always with Daves, some very good photography - the highly talented Charles Lawton Jr again. This one is in a rich-hued Technicolor that is still brilliant today. The night scenes are especially well done. Bertrand Tavernier wrote, “Cinematographer Charles Lawton Jr told me that of all the directors he worked with, Daves was, along with Welles, and de Toth during certain sequences, the one with whom he most closely collaborated with on the visual style of his films, on their photographic texture.”


George Duning's score is based on traditional Western and Mexican folk tunes.


The supporting actors are fairly average this time and Brian Donlevy is out of place (he often was in Westerns, I fear) as a retired gunfighting marshal trying to get away from killing. His fate, incidentally, is interesting: he hangs himself, and Daves always had a morbid fascination with death by hanging - witness his movie with Gary Cooper the following year, as well as grisly lynching or near-lynching scenes elsewhere.

Donlevy probably miscast

Anna Kashfi (Mrs Marlon Brando) as the señorita doesn’t really come across as a real person, more of a Mexican doll, but maybe that was Harris at work.


Lobby card. In fact one of the weakest parts of the movie.

Nice to see Vaughan Taylor as the Chicago hotel manager though. He's usually a pusillanimous townsman in Westerns but he's kinda got promoted here. The excellent James Westerfield has a small role as a rich cattleman gambler.


One of my favorites

Richard Jaeckel (Charlie Prince the year before) has a short part as a trailhand who causes Strother Martin to be fatally bitten by a rattler during horseplay but Strother doesn't even get credited, which seems a bit harsh when you've been bitten to death by a snake. His character isn't named in the picture, either, and this underlines the callousness of the cowboys (they are an unpleasant bunch really). Trail boss Ford's eulogy is less than glowing - in fact it's heartless. "In the long run I don't think it would have made any difference," he says. Similarly, in Mexico, when Harris is trying to whip up support for a rescue mission of another cowboy, Charlie (he has got into deep water in a cantina by wooing a Mexican maid) the drovers can't really be bothered to go save Charlie. As well as selfish and callous, at other moments they are shown as boorish, racist and sexist. This was perhaps Daves's quest for the 'realist' Western.

This is no Red River and there have been plenty of better cattle drive movies, even ‘small’ ones like Vengeance Valley. It’s light and it’s fun. But it’s a Delmer Daves picture again (the third Western he had done with Glenn Ford, after Jubal and 3:10 to Yuma) so it has realism and quality, if not to the same degree as the other two.


The trail hands

It's a lightweight, essentially. It could be that there was simply not enough story to stand up to a 90-minute movie. Much of the film seems to be a series of loosely-linked sketches. I would say that Daves did not have an overtly recognizable style in the way that John Ford or Sam Peckinpah did, or Anthony Mann, with whom Daves can probably be most closely compared. After the first three recognizably coherent 'Indian' Westerns (Broken Arrow, Drum Beat and White Feather), each movie is different, perhaps because he was always experimenting and trying out new ideas. You might not know, unless you had been told, that this movie was directed by the same guy as 3:10, although Daves certainly does have themes and ideas common to all his flicks.

What makes Cowboy a little different is the perspective given by seeing the West through the eyes of a 'civilized' Easterner (New Englander Lemmon was good casting), who is at first appalled ("I thought I was gonna ride with some men. You're just a bunch of animals") but then out-Glenns Glenn.


He learns all too well

I am told that in the scene in a mansion-house on the main stair there is a painting on the main stair which appears to portray John Wayne, but I didn’t spot it. It's interesting that although Daves was very good at the low-key erotic (you couldn't really be anything other than low-key in those days) and several of his films have glamorous love-interest in them (Felicia Farr, often), most are essentially stories of male bonding. Jeffords and Cochise in Broken Arrow, Johnny McKay and Captain Jack in Drum Beat, Josh Tanner and Little Dog in White Feather, and so on. This one too. The two men even end up bathing together. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying they are gay films. Any homoeroticism there might be is ultra-sublimated and all the men concerned show interest in the lovely leading ladies they are assigned (except maybe Alan Ladd, who runs a mile when he is proposed to).


We end up where we started (Daves liked symmetrical films), in a plush Chicago hotel, but this time Lemmon is in the tub next to Ford swigging whiskey and shootin' holes in the wall with a six-gun.


The New York Times review called it “a routine herd-trailing saddle saga, got out in color that makes the scenery look good but makes the cowboys—especially Mr. Lemmon—look like fugitives from the Hasty Pudding Club.” The article added, “Performances are average. Mr. Ford is his usual sardonic self, while Brian Donlevy, Dick York and Richard Jaeckel affect the cow-puncher roll. Mr. Lemmon is extremely ineffectual; he bounces and ‘double-takes’ in farcical style. Anna Kashfi is very pretty but merely scenic as the Mexican girl. Do you remember Red River? Well, Cowboy doesn't even come close.”


So that wasn’t terribly positive.


Pupil and teacher

But Al Clark and William A Lyon were Oscar-nominated for the editing and Daves was nominated for a Directors Guild of America award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures.


Both Daves and Ford were proud of the result, thinking it one of the best Westerns each had done. Ford said, “Jubal, 3:10 to Yuma, and Cowboy are probably the best Westerns I made. It could be the good stories but you've got to give Del a lot of credit.”


Cowboy did OK at the box-office, though couldn’t compete with the Gregory Peck Westerns that year, The Bravados and The Big Country.


Later critics have been kinder than The New York Times of the day. Herb Fagen in The Encyclopedia of the Western said, “This is a fine film with good performances.”


This was a Delmer Daves Western. It's good; I wouldn't want you to think otherwise. But it's not perhaps his best.



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