Luke Short, the writer
The writer of novels, short stories and screenplays Luke Short (1908 – 1975) specialized in Westerns, and very good his tales were too. I first read Short at the recommendation of the late Brian Garfield, who was himself an excellent Western novelist, and who was a great admirer of Short.
Short was born Frederick Dilley Glidden in Kewanee, Illinois in 1908. He studied journalism at the University of Missouri and worked as a reporter for a series of Midwest daily newspapers. But he didn’t seem to be able to progress and struggled to make ends meet. The Depression found him trapping for furs in Canada and he later moved to New Mexico to be an archeologist's assistant. He married Florence Elder in 1934 and, during the next few years they had three children.
He started submitting Western stories to pulp magazines while living in Santa Fe. Taking on an agent, Marguerite Harper, helped his writing career greatly. It may have been Ms Harper who suggested the pen name Luke Short. We don’t know if this was in direct reference to the Luke Short, the dandy and gambler-gunfighter, but if not it was a happy coincidence. His work began to sell well, first in the pulps and then, from 1938, in the slicks. By the end of the 1930s he had turned out fourteen novels and numerous short stories.
The 1940s were the best years of Short’s career. He signed contracts with paperback publishers, generating a lifetime total of over 26 million copies in sales. A number of his books were made into Western movies, starting with his 1943 novel Ramrod, which in 1947 became a Harry Sherman production released by United Artists, directed by André De Toth and starring Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake. It’s a fine book and an equally good movie. One file in the Luke Short papers in the University of Oregon concerns the alleged plagiarism of this book by a certain Gladwell Richardson in 1951. Richardson, who published under the nom de plume John Winslowe, called the story Short Trigger Man.
Short’s taut novel Gunman’s Chance, published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1941, became his next Western movie in 1948, RKO’s superb Blood on the Moon (the novel was later reissued under this new title), directed by Robert Wise and starring Robert Mitchum. Short himself worked on the adaptation, alongside Harold Shumate. Both Ramrod and Blood on the Moon were ‘psychological’ Westerns with more than a hint of noir, as was rather the fashion in the late 1940s.
The year of Blood on the Moon, 1948, was a golden one for Luke Short. Frank Fenton and Winston Miller (so class acts) adapted Short’s 1946 Station West into another RKO picture, of the same name, starring Dick Powell and Jane Greer. Perhaps because of Powell, and the black & white, it had more than a touch of crime noir about it.
That was followed by two Randolph Scott Westerns, Coroner Creek and Albuquerque. The first, a Harry Joe Brown production, we have recently reviewed (click here for that). The second, a Pine-Thomas production, was based on Short’s 1939 tale Dead Freight for Piute. Columbia’s Coroner Creek was an absolutely superb Western (in a wonderful vintage year for the genre) but Paramount’s Albuquerque wasn’t so masterful. Both writing (Gene Lewis and Clarence Upson Young) and direction (Ray Enright) left quite a lot to be desired. Never mind. It was a magnificent year for Luke Short.
As the great decade for the Western of the 1950s dawned, two more Short stories (as it were) became movies, the cavalry Western Ambush (1950) and the cattle-drive/family feud tale Vengeance Valley (1951), both of which we have recently reviewed, so click on the names for those. The first, directed by Sam Wood, starred Robert Taylor, who was very good, and the second, with Richard Thorpe at the helm, was the debut Western of Burt Lancaster.
In 1951 Short’s story was adapted by Frank Gruber into Silver City, a color Nat Holt production released by Paramount, directed by Byron Haskin and starring Edmond O’Brien and Yvonne De Carlo (with an excellent Edgar Buchanan), a silver-mining yarn.
That was followed in 1952 by Republic’s Ride the Man Down, directed by studio regular Joe Kane, with Brian Donlevy and Rod Cameron heading the cast. It was a range war story based on Short’s 1942 novel. There was one more, The Hangman (see below),and that was the last feature Western made from a Luke Short tale.
There were, though, eleven episodes of CBS’s Zane Grey Theatre, a show which Short created with Charles A Wallace, between 1956 and ‘60. Originally based on Zane Grey stories, other material was added as the show progressed. The cast of the different episodes was led by Dick Powell, obviously, but also Barry Sullivan, Lloyd Bridges, Cameron Mitchell, Barbara Stanwyck and Brian Donlevy. One, Wayfarers (1960) was directed by David Niven.
Short continued to write novels, eleven in the 1960s and six in the 70s. He had increasing trouble with his eyesight but battled on until his death in 1975. His last novel, Trouble Country, was published posthumously. He was buried in Aspen, Colorado, his home at the time of his death.
Don’t get me wrong, Short’s writing is not great literature. Some of them, the earlier ones anyway, contain some ‘meanwhile, back at the ranch’ writing and the characters in conversation had an annoying way of using each other’s names in every utterance.
- What do you think, Cordelia?
- I don’t know, Reeves.
- But, Cordelia, do you think he will react?
- Maybe, Reeves. Maybe.
And so on.
Still, even if Luke was never in any danger of winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, the fact remains that all his stories are short with well-constructed plots containing action and believable characters. I find his tales intensely readable. He often (like Ernest Haycox) created an imaginary geography, an invented yet somehow classic West. He didn’t go for huge nation-building themes, preferring ‘small’ stories with few characters.
The stories often had a well-researched background, such as freighting, mining, cattle or whatever.
Even when reading one that wasn’t filmed I find myself ‘casting’ it, thinking of this or that Western lead or character actor who would have been ideal in the part.
If you want to try some of the short stories, there are two collections, Luke Short's Best of the West, (1983) which includes 12 short stories: Pull Your Freight! (which became The Hangman on the screen in 1959, directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Robert Taylor again), Gunslick Gold, Lead Won’t Lie, The Warning, Bounty Hunter, The Doctor Keeps a Promise, High Grade, Florida Manets West, Court Day, Payoff at Rain Peak, Rough Shod, and Top Hand, and The Marshal of Vengeance (1986) which includes The Marshal of Vengeance, The Ghost Deputy of Doubletree, Death Cold-Decks a Tinhorn, War Fires Light the Stage Trails, Hideout, and Exile.
As for the novels, many are still in print and most are available as used paperbacks. My favorites? Difficult, but I’ll go for High Vermilion, Debt of Honor, The Some-Day Country, Saddle by Starlight, Raw Land, Fiddle Foot and Hard Money.
Tomorrow: the other Luke Short!