A real pro
We have been looking at the Westerns of such classy directors as Delmer Daves and Anthony Mann, and other luminaries will follow, the likes of Ford, Hawks, Wellman and Hathaway, for example. But huge contributors to our noble genre were also directors of lower-budget fare, second features and TV shows, the men (they were always men) who professionally and reliably turned out Western after Western, on time and on budget, and very good they often were.
Helmsmen such as RG Springsteen, George Sherman, William Witney, John English, Joseph Kane and many more should not be overlooked. They were the bread-and-butter guys, the workhorses, who were not always blessed with big budgets and top stars, yet managed to produce some classy little Western movies with skill and even, now and then, a bit of panache.
Such a one was Lesley Selander.
Leslie (as he was first) went right back to the silent days. As virtually a kid he started in film as a lab technician. At the age of 25 he was assistant director on two Buck Jones oaters in the mid-1920s, under WS Van Dyke and Lynn Reynolds, and was cinematographer on another. He was assistant director again on two early talkie Westerns in the early 30s, before directing three in his own right in 1936, all Buck Jones efforts for Universal, Ride ‘em Cowboy (one of the many pictures with that title), The Boss Rider of Gun Creek and Empty Saddles. This was an excellent apprenticeship. In the non-Western arena (for sadly such a thing does exist) he worked on major pictures such as A Night at the Opera (1935) and Fritz Lang's Fury (1936).
Five oaters followed in 1937, four of them with Buck, but then director and star seem to have fallen out. Black Aces was directed by Selander but he was fired (apparently stars having more power than directors) and Buck himself is credited as both director and producer on the picture. Selander left Universal and turned to Hopalong Cassidy - Harry Sherman productions released by Paramount and then United Artists. His first Hopalong number with William Boyd was Hopalong Rides Again (what a classic title). He would helm no fewer than 28 Hoppy Westerns through 1944.
Selander went on to direct one-hour second-feature Westerns for Republic starring the likes of Smiley Burnette, Bill Elliott, Allan Lane and Monte Hale, some of the most popular screen cowboys of their day, and a couple with Gene Autry in the late 40s. By the dawn of the great decade of the Western movie, the 1950s, Selander was already one of the most experienced hands in the business, and he would go on to become one of the most prolific. Altogether he worked on 112 features and many TV shows in the genre.
In 1948, the year of Jeff Arnold’s birth but a great Western vintage even without that significant event, Selander directed two fun pictures, Panhandle for Allied Artists and Belle Starr’s Daughter at Fox, with Rod Cameron and George Montgomery respectively in the leads. Both actors were ‘the coming thing’ in Westerns and destined to be reliable and regular heroes of perhaps the second-ish rank, but very popular anyway.
’48 was also the year Selander started working with Tim Holt in a series of eighteen light RKO Westerns that lasted till 1952.
For some reason Selander loved movies about forts. He directed Fort Utah, Fort Courageous, Revolt at Fort Laramie, Fort Yuma, Fort Vengeance and Fort Osage, as well as other Westerns with forts in the plot but not in the title. That’s a lot of forts. Other notable Westerns we might mention were The Yellow Tomahawk with Rory Calhoun, War Paint with Robert Stack, Arrow in the Dust and Shotgun with Sterling Hayden, and Tall Man Riding with Randolph Scott. These were verging on classy oaters.
In 1952, like other directors he began to do TV work and by 1966 he would have directed 68 episodes of different Western shows, especially Fury, Laramie and The Tall Man, and a TV movie pilot for an NBC series that was not taken up. Selander was nominated for the Directors Guild of America award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Television. In his sixties, though, Lesley returned to the big screen when a number of so-called ‘geezer westerns’ appeared – late-1960s movies made along trad 1950s lines, on low budgets and using not quite has-been actors but certainly ones who were a little longer in the tooth and broader in the beam than we may have remembered. Selander made three such pictures for producer Hal Klein (Fort Courageous, War Party and Convict Stage, all released in 1965) and three for AC Lyles (Town Tamer in 1965, Fort Utah in ’67 and Arizona Bushwhackers, his last ever Western, in ’68). These featured the likes of Don ‘Red’ Barry, Harry Lauter, Dana Andrews, John Ireland and Scott Brady, among other vets. Certainly older Western fans enjoyed them.
The thing about Selander Westerns is that they nearly all had pace. They may not have been big-studio A-pictures rewarded at the Oscars but they all rattled along with gusto. He was even capable of subtle relationships between characters, at least as far as the constraints of writing, resources and time permitted. The non-Western Return from the Sea is described by IMDb as “a surprisingly sensitive work for a man who spent his career making tough, macho shoot-'em-ups” but even in some of those fast-action oaters there is often some interesting character development. Lesley Selander contributed greatly to our noble genre. He died in 1979.