The Westerns of George Sherman
Longtime director/producer of some good Westerns
George Sherman (left) is credited with having worked on 84 feature Westerns, as well as 71 Western TV episodes (compared with, say, only three war films and two comedies), so he is clearly an important figure in our noble genre. Reader Walter suggested an entry on him in our The Westerns of… series, and I am more than happy to oblige, being a bit of a fan (of George, I mean, not Walter – though of Walter too, bien évidemment).
Ironically, even sadly, Sherman is best known as director of big latter-day John Wayne pictures, The Comancheros and Big Jake, yet by that time those credits were little more than a courtesy, Sherman being pretty well out of it and with Duke himself on Jake and Michael Curtiz on Comancheros doing the donkey work of directing. To get an idea of Sherman’s talent as a helmsman of oaters you have to go back to the 1950s, and before.
George Sherman (it appears to have been his full name) was born in New York City in 1908. According to The New York Times obituary, at age 14 he sailed aboard the SS Mongolia to Los Angeles, California, where he found work in the mail room at Warner Brothers studios via a film editor friend. He worked on props on Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in 1928.
In the 1930s he graduated to assistant director under the ‘king of comedy’ Mack Sennett, actor, director, producer and studio head. George went to First Division Productions where he worked on a couple of Hoot Gibson oaters, then to Monogram and Republic, where he assisted on Gene Autry pictures.
In 1937 he was promoted to directing himself for the first time, helming a Three Mesquiteers flick, Wild Horse Rodeo, with Robert Livingston, Ray ‘Crash’ Corrigan and Max Terhune.
From 1940, Sherman was also credited as associate producer on many of his films, as a kind of reward from studio boss Herb Yates, who greatly appreciated Sherman’s ability to turn in material on time and on budget (Yates did the same to fellow workhorse Joe Kane).
Sherman would direct scores of second-feature Westerns for Republic, including many in the Three Mesquiteers series. On these pictures Sherman even managed to imbue the frankly run-of-the-mill one-hour movies with a touch of style. Variety, commenting on his handling of the series, waxed lyrical, singling out Sherman’s ability to impart "poetry in motion" to his "unified timing of cowboys mounting, riding, wheeling, galloping and dismounting of steeds" (July 2, 1939). Watching the movies now it’s not that easy to see that, perhaps, but Sherman was evidently respected at the time.
It was on this series that he first worked with John Wayne (who was Stoney Brooke on eight, in 1938 and ‘39). Wayne liked and respected Sherman for the professional he was, and it was because of this that in later life Duke gave him the job (the salary and credit, anyway) on two of his big commercial Westerns, when Sherman was not well and a bit down on his luck. It was typically generous of Wayne, who was a thoughtful man, considerate to old friends.
Sherman also helmed a good number of Gene Autry/Smiley Burnette singing-Western pictures, such as Rovin’ Tumbleweeds, Colorado Sunset, South of the Border, In Old Monterey and Mexicali Rose (all 1939), as well as a long series starring Don ‘Red’ Barry through into the early 40s. They were certainly formulaic, but also professionally made.
After Sherman’s contract with Republic Pictures ended, he directed features for Columbia from 1945 to 1948. Most of the Columbia pictures were on the forgettable side and the majority were in other genres. There were relatively few Westerns, but he made Renegades (1948) with Evelyn Keyes and Willard Parker, and Relentless the same year, with a (probably miscast) Robert Young, though this one was actually quite a hit in a modest way, and was a 93-minute movie with a bit of a budget, not a one-hour programmer.
He also directed a Sam Katzman production, yet another Hollywood retelling of The Last of the Mohicans, starring rather unstellar Michael O’Shea (Mr. Virginia Mayo) as ‘Hawk-Eye/Natty Bumpo’, under the title Last of the Redmen.
The Universal years
But then George moved to Universal, and there he was able to upgrade, first to Yvonne De Carlo Westerns such as Black Bart and River Lady (both 1948) with Dan Duryea, and Calamity Jane and Sam Bass (1949), with Howard Duff. Looked at now, these movies are pretty corny, to be brutally frank, but they were quite popular. River Lady, for example, grossed a million dollars on release, which was a healthy return on its modest budget.
You wouldn’t say that George Sherman had now hit the big time, but the Universal years were definitely the high point of his Western career. By the early 50s he had built quite a rep and was accorded budget to make, if not A-pictures, then not either B-movies or second-features. For example, Comanche Territory (1950), though preposterous from a plot point of view, was a 76-minute Technicolor picture shot around Sedona, AZ and starring Maureen O’Hara and Macdonald Carey. The 1951 Western Tomahawk, at 82 minutes and also in Technicolor, with nice South Dakota locations, was quite a glossy picture, with Van Heflin as Jim Bridger, and Yvonne De Carlo again as the female lead. It also featured in the cast the likes of Alex Nicol, a young Rock Hudson and Susan Cabot.
That was followed up in ’52 by The Battle at Apache Pass, with Universal still milking its Jeff Chandler-as-Cochise franchise, written by Gerald Drayson Adams and featuring Susan Cabot again, this time co-starring with John Lund and with some great Western character actors backing them up, such as Jack Elam, James Best, Jay Silverheels, Hugh O’Brian and many more.
In 1953, a real vintage year for Westerns, Sherman even got to direct Joel McCrea, definitely in the A-league of Western stars, in The Lone Hand, a slightly juvenile but nicely produced little oater with lovely locations at Silverton and the area round Durango, Colorado, shot in color by Maury Gertsman. It’s a nice picture, with, once again, a strong supporting cast.
The same year War Arrow had Major Jeff Chandler in Indian Territory in hopes of recruiting peaceful, relocated Seminoles to help the army fight rampaging Kiowas, not helped by martinet Colonel John McIntire. Maureen O’Hara was back too. These were all businesslike Westerns, competently made and well produced, even if War Arrow itself is a bit ho-hum.
In ’54 Sherman was back with McCrea, and De Carlo, in Border River, a bit of a Mexican pot-boiler/romance, if truth be told, but still quite fun, and again well made. McCrea and De Carlo had been paired two years before in The San Francisco Story, which Robert Parrish directed for Warners, and it had been a modest hit, so perhaps the idea was to trade on that a little and put them together again. McCrea certainly lifted the picture.
The same year Sherman made one of his best Westerns – and one of the best of Rory Calhoun’s – the excellent Dawn at Socorro, a taut, tense, tough oater which had a lot going for it. As in most Universal offerings of the period you get high productions values, with good photography of attractive Western locations (in this case Apple Valley, California, shot by DP Carl Guthrie). You get a well-crafted script, this time by novelist/screenwriter George Zuckerman, famous for The Tarnished Angels (Faulkner’s favorite adaptation of any of his novels). And you get really good Western actors, not top Hollywood stars necessarily but more-than-competent folk who do a fine job. And of course you get maybe not top-drawer directors, but certainly ones who really knew their business. The final Main Street showdown is as classic a Western mise-en-scène as you will ever see.
Three Westerns followed in 1955, Chief Crazy Horse, released in April and Count Three and Pray and The Treasure of Pancho Villa, which both came out in October.
The first starred Victor Mature as an unlikely Oglala war chief. It was in the tradition of post-Broken Arrow vaguely pro-Indian Westerns. They usually featured a brave, resourceful Army officer or scout who despite the bull-headed approach of political commissioner/by-the-book senior Army officer/evil rogue out for his own ends, managed to bring peace to the Indians by doing a deal with a statesmanlike Indian chief. That was the plot. This one, though, was a bit different. It’s a biopic of Crazy Horse told from the Indian point of view. And some of it, even down to some of the details, is in fact historically true – that was definitely unusual. It's shot on location in South Dakota by Harold Lipstein so the look of it is good. If you can suspend your credibility a bit and blur your eyes somewhat when looking at Victor Mature and Suzan Ball as Crazy Horse and Black Shawl, you will find Chief Crazy Horse perfectly watchable. It was the last Western of George’s Universal contract and he now embarked as a freelance.
Count Three, for Columbia, has Van Heflin as a preacher and Ray Burr as the slimy badman. It’s not a Western to set the prairies on fire but decent enough. The Treasure of Pancho Villa was an RKO picture which starred Rory Calhoun again, this time in a gringo-in-Mexico yarn, with good old Gilbert Roland as the roguish revolutionary. Shelley Winters is the love interest. The writing on The Treasure of Pancho Villa was, on paper, surprisingly classy. A story by Mexico-born J Robert Bren and Gladys Atwater, a husband-and-wife team who had collaborated on various Westerns, was worked up into a screenplay (his last) by novelist Niven Busch, no less, writer of Duel in the Sun for King Vidor, The Westerner for William Wyler and The Furies for Anthony Mann, who had also worked on The Man from the Alamo, Distant Drums, and, my favorite, the Raoul Walsh-directed 1947 noir Pursued.
It was while on the set of this picture that the most common photo of George Sherman was taken. He was far from a tall man, barely reaching 5 foot/1.5m, and here we see Roland and Winters towering over him.
There were two oaters in ’56, Comanche, released by United Artists in March, and Reprisal!, which Columbia put out in November.
Comanche starred Dana Andrews. It’s a nice picture visually, filmed in Durango (muchas gracias in the credits to the Mexican government, you know how they do) and there are loads of sweeping vistas and a huge cast of extras. I don’t know where they got so many Comanches. Either they were paid very little each or Sherman got a blooming big budget. It was shot by Jorge Stahl Jr., who had done the photographically outstanding Garden of Evil, also shot in Mexico, with Gary Cooper and Richard Widmark. The music is awful but some of the writing is good. It was writer Carl Krueger’s only Western and he didn’t do a bad job at all.
Reprisal! (studios often added an exclamation point to make a dull movie sound more exciting) was a Guy Madison Western, which benefits from the talented and beautiful Felicia Farr as the female lead. Madison was the ‘safe’ and anodyne Wild Bill Hickok from the TV show which ran pretty well all through the 1950s but he moonlighted now and then between seasons in bigger-screen Westerns, from Massacre River in 1949 (with his friend Calhoun) right through to bad spaghettis in the late 60s. Reprisal! is decently anti-racist but the pace is too slow, the writing on the plodding side and Madison pretty wooden. There are at least some nice Old Tucson locations and pretty photography here and there by Western maestro Henry Freulich.
Madison was back the following year in the rather better The Hard Man, again for Columbia. It was taut, well-written, acted and photographed, and noticeably well directed. Valerie French is good as Fern, a femme fatale. Her husband (whom she schemes to kill in order to inherit), is very well played by Lorne Greene. He is no decent Ponderosa patriarch here, but a really unpleasant crooked rich man ready to resort to murder to get his way. Sherman has some good touches, for example first building up Fern’s reputation (mention of her name silences conversation), delaying her entrance and then showing her hidden in shadow. It’s well done. I also liked the many references to time: at one point Guy kills time by shooting a High Noonish clock.
In 1958 it was back to Universal for The Last of the Fast Guns, a classic title, which had Jock Mahoney at the top of his game, once again south of the border. The picture was shot in Mexico, in Morelos and Guerrero, and very attractive the locations are too, attractively photographed by Alex Phillips, a Canadian cinematographer married to a Mexican and living in Mexico. The reviews at the time were not at all bad. Variety wrote that "Mahoney makes a sympathetic and interesting character of his role" and The Hollywood Reporter said it was "a grade A western that goes a long way toward establishing Jock Mahoney as a full-fledged star." Gilbert Roland was back. He himself modestly said, “I don't have any delusions about myself as an actor. I'm grateful for being able to find enough work all these years.” He was, though, a character actor of some talent, as John Ford understood when he used him in Cheyenne Autumn, and as Anthony Mann had in The Furies. And interestingly, his costume is all white, in stark contrast to Mahoney’s somber duds. Is Sherman playing with the goody/baddy cliché, the white hats and the black hats? The screenplay was written by David P Harmon, who had penned Reprisal! for Sherman. Some of the screenplay is a bit wordy and Harmon seems to have aimed for an existential angst not quite suited to a B-ish Western. Still, most of it rattles along.
But Sherman was finding it harder to get feature-Western directing gigs. Studios were wary of producing oaters and the theatrical Western was now on the endangered species list. Westerns were migrating to TV. In common with many a Western director, George started scouting around for small-screen work.
In 1959 he directed two episodes of Rawhide, Incident of the Dog Days, aired in April, and Incident of a Burst of Evil in June. They’re rather good, actually, and available on YouTube if you want to have a look.
His health was deteriorating, though, and Western work was hard to come by. In 1960 he directed and co-produced another theatrical release, the ‘family’ film, For the Love of Mike, released by Fox, about a young Indian boy (Danny Bravo) who trains a horse for an important race, hoping to win enough money to build a shrine for his village. It’s OK if you like that kind of thing. DD Beauchamp the Great wrote it, so that’s good.
But more importantly, the same year Universal gave George a ‘proper’ Western, Hell Bent for Leather, an Audie Murphy picture produced by Gordon Kay, who was Allan Lane’s producer all through the late 1940s and early 50s but he graduated to bigger fare, such as Quantez and Day of the Badman with Fred MacMurray, before specializing in Audie Westerns from Hell Bent onwards. The writer was Christopher Knopf from a novel, Outlaw Marshal (whose title does rather give the game away) by Ray Hogan (1908 – 98), a prolific writer of Westerns who was the son of a lawman and grew up in New Mexico. The fabulous Felicia Farr co-starred again, so that’s a plus. Robert Middleton, always excellent, is the bulky badman. There are lovely Lone Pine locations, and an excellent last-reel shoot out in the rocks reminiscent of Winchester ’73 (the similarity enhanced by Stephen McNally being in both).
In 1961 Sherman was a producer on John Wayne’s The Comancheros, and credited as director, though how many scenes he actually directed is not entirely clear.
But it was now hard to find work. He made a vaguely Western South African adventure with Stuart Whitman in 1961, The Fiercest Heart, and a TV war-movie in ’62, a failed pilot, moving on to six episodes of ABC’s police procedural Naked City, but there were no more Westerns for a good while. Then in 1964 he was producer of NBC’s Daniel Boone, produced by Fox Television and written again by DD Beauchamp, which starred Disney’s former Davy Crockett, Fess Parker. From season 2 (1965) it was shot in “living color” and it was filmed in California and Kanab, Utah, so was no cheapie. It ran for six seasons, and was a lifeline for Sherman, who also directed twelve episodes in 1965 and ’66.
In 1965 Sherman directed the biopic Murieta (original title Joaquín Murrieta) which can probably be classed as a Western. It starred Jeffrey Hunter, quite a big Western name, and was shot in Spain in the summer of ’64. Distributed by Warner Bros, it basically got nowhere.
In 1966, Arcola, one of the Daniel Boone production companies, put together a remake of Smoky, based again on Will James’s 1926 novel Smoky the Cowhorse, with Boone star Fess Parker as lead, and it got a theatrical release through Fox, but according to studio records, the picture needed to earn $2,100,000 in rentals to break even and made $1,675,000.
The odd bit of non-Western work followed, and Big Jake in 1971, but that was basically it. Sherman retired from filmmaking in 1978.
In 1988 he was awarded the Golden Boot Award for his significant contributions to the Western film genre.
He died of heart and kidney failure in LA in 1991, aged 81. He was survived by his wife and four daughters.
Sherman said, “I make films for many reasons. One, it's the only thing I know. It's my occupation, my life, my career.” He was certainly no famous creative ‘artist’ in the vein of John Ford, nor was he a big-star Hollywood director/producer in the style of Howard Hawks, but he was a solid, reliable churner-out of oaters (and some pictures in other genres) which were professionally made and still today well worth a watch. His Universal Westerns of the 1950s alone make him a distinguished member of the noble fraternity (and sorority) of Westernistas.