The Westerns of Randolph Scott
Randy rides lonesome
We’ll come back soon to the great series of Westerns Randolph Scott and Budd Boetticher made in the second half of the 1950s (next up, Buchanan Rides Alone) but today I wanted to wax lyrical on Randy’s Western career as a whole.
In 1947 Randolph Scott made a decision: he would henceforth only do Westerns. Christmas Eve, a comedy/drama of that year with Randy as a dipsomaniac rodeo star, would be his last non-Western picture. He had tried his hand at other genres: he had a light touch in comedy and held his own in war films. But he always seemed an interloper, somehow. He had started in Westerns, in 1932, and by ’47 had already done (depending on your definition of a Western) 24 of them. They were what he was known for.
Scott was one of the greatest screen cowboys of them all, rivaling John Wayne as the greatest star of the saddle and altogether doing (again, depending on what you call a Western) nearly seventy oaters, ending in 1962 with a truly magnificent film.
It is not for nothing that in Blazing Saddles, whenever his name is mentioned, the cowboys doff their hats and bow their heads.
The early days
Randolph Scott started in Westerns in a way in 1929 when, as a good Virginian (he was born in Orange, Virginia, on January 23, 1898, though his family lived in South Carolina) he coached Gary Cooper with his accent for Paramount’s talkie The Virginian – still, in my opinion the greatest ever version of that story. At least, it is said he coached Coop. It’s probably true, though he does not appear in the credits. He himself said he also appeared as an extra in the picture, though I’ve looked hard but never seen him.
He had some non-Western work before that: he had gone West in 1927 after a posh private education and Army service on the Western Front in World War I. In a later newspaper interview Scott said that he and a friend had been playing golf and met Howard Hughes on the course. “As a lark” they took jobs as extras. Over the next two years Scott worked as an extra on several movies, and, bitten by the acting bug, spent 1929 and ’30 on the stage in various theaters in LA. In 1931 Paramount put Scott on contract at $400 a week and the following year cast him as the lead in Heritage of the Desert (later re-released as When the West Was Young), a Zane Grey tale to which the studio had bought the rights.
It’s pretty inept, much of it, with too much supposed comic relief and a bear attack that was so poorly staged that the audience laughed.
There were to be ten of these Zane Grey Westerns between 1932 and ‘35, one-hour program fillers really and not terribly good but certainly not junk. The best of them were probably The Thundering Herd and To the Last Man, the worst Rocky Mountain Mystery aka The Fighting Westerner. In fact most of these movies are quite hard to find now, not being available on DVD or YouTube. They were talkie remakes of silent Westerns of a decade before and to save money Paramount used footage from the old ones in the talkie versions. For this reason Scott had to dress and be made up to resemble the stars of the previous pictures (often Jack Holt, so Randy had to sport a thin mustache), in order that the studio could get away with it. Still, the Zane Grey stories (though much modified) provided some pedigree and seven of the pictures were directed by a young Henry Hathaway. So they are watchable.
Scott was still finding his feet as a movie actor and no one would pretend he was Oscar-ready. In fact he never won an Oscar – or anything much else really. A posthumous Golden Boot award and a star on the walk of fame, and that’s about it. I don’t think Scott would have expected more: he never considered himself an “actor” in the true sense. But the Zane Greys were a start – and a solid foundation for later Western work.
Randy makes it big
Scott’s first big break, however, came in 1936 when he starred as Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans, an Edward Small production released by United Artists (Scott was on a loan-out from Paramount). He was excellent in it and it was probably the best thing he did in the 1930s. It’s a very pale imitation of the book and takes many liberties but the novel is so long and turgid that the changes are a welcome relief. Director George B Seitz did a great job with the action scenes and Scott appears confident and winning. Scenarist Phillip Dunne was angry: “Eddie Small, the producer, succeeded in turning our authentic 18th Century piece into a third-rate Western.” I’m with Eddie, though.
It was a big box-office hit and it gave Scott his first unqualified A-picture success. The New York Times said, “Randolph Scott, we must admit, is our Hawkeye to the life.”
Back at Paramount, Scott was cast in the big production High, Wide and Handsome with Irene Dunne and Dorothy Lamour. It’s a semi-Western at best and a musical, to boot, but in fact Scott is very good in it and throws himself into the role, so that the film ends up being much better than you feared. Luckily Randy doesn’t sing. It was a critical (though not a commercial) success but Paramount had waited too long to give Scott a big A-picture lead and he was not about to renew his expiring contract. The studio had wasted him. He could easily have worked on their The Plainsman (he would have been a far better Buffalo Bill than bland James Ellison, and the Coop/Scott partnership would have been memorable) or Wells Fargo (he was ideal casting for the Johnny Mack Brown part of Joel McCrea’s rival who joins the Confederate army and is shot down trying to ambush McCrea’s gold shipment in Colorado) or even The Texas Rangers, where he could have been Polka-Dot instead of Lloyd Nolan or even led instead of Fred MacMurray.
But it was not to be.
The end of Paramount
The last film Scott did for the studio was The Texans, filmed in 1937 but released in the summer of ’38, after Scott’s departure. It’s a big black & white actioner, a remake of Paramount’s silent North of 36 of 1924, with a picaresque plot of ex-Rebels trying to resuscitate Confederate fortunes after Appomattox. The Texans didn’t have a top director: James P Hogan was a Paramount go-to for lower-budget movies; he had directed their popular Bulldog Drummond pictures. But he did a reasonable job on The Texans, which, though verging on the second-rate, does at least rattle along nicely and makes some (very modest) attempt at character development. At least Scott got to star in an A-Western.
But it was farewell, Paramount. Now Randolph Scott was a free man.
Three Westerns for Fox
He started putting together lucrative freelance deals, and, ever a shrewd money man, he did well at it. Over the next decade or so he would work with every major studio (except Paramount) and this independence gave him the chance to take many non-Western parts. He got to know some good directors, though they tended to be slightly lesser types; he never worked with the likes of John Ford or Howard Hawks. Still, he was gaining wide experience and improving as an actor all the time.
It is sometimes said of Scott that he only managed to be cast as the lead in B-pictures and was condemned to support the stars in A-ones. This isn’t entirely correct (and anyway the definition of what is a B-movie is very problematic) but there is a whiff of truth to it. Jesse James, for Fox in 1939, is a good example (and we will soon meet others). That was definitely an A-picture, big and big-budget, in color, with Tyrone Power in the lead, and a class director (Henry King), it brought the adult Western back to theaters. The genre had languished for much of the 30s as a juvenile form or as a one-hour second feature. But pictures like Paramount’s The Plainsman in ‘36 and Wells Fargo in ’37 began to revive the public’s taste for a big-budget A-Western and 1939 would be a bumper year in which almost every big studio (not MGM) came out with a star-vehicle oater. There was Universal’s Destry Rides Again with James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich, Cecil B DeMille’s Union Pacific at Paramount with Joel McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck, Warners’ Dodge City with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, and of course the re-launch of John Wayne’s career with John Ford’s Stagecoach. These films would bring new life to the Western. But it was Fox that started the year off in January with Power as Jesse and Henry Fonda as Frank James. And the movie grossed more that year than any other except Gone with the Wind, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Wizard of Oz. The Western was back.
Though Scott doesn’t even show up till twenty minutes in and has very little to do for the last half-hour either, though he plays an invented character and never draws a gun or rides a horse, he nevertheless provides a strong and memorable lawman, and he does it with his classic underplaying, leaving the histrionics to others (especially Henry Hull chewing the scenery). It was shot on location in Missouri and reporter Jesse Hodges wrote, “Although Randolph Scott is not the star of the picture, as far as the Ozark people are concerned he is mighty popular.” Being a Southerner probably helped…
Two more Fox Westerns followed, or at least one-and-a-half. Susannah of the Mounties, a Shirley Temple vehicle released in June ‘39, barely qualifies, and Randy looks frankly silly in a RCMP cap, resembling a bellboy. It’s for Shirley fans only. But the following month it was a very different story: Scott would play for the first time on screen Wyatt Earp. Well, that’s not strictly true; Bert Lindley played a cameo Wyatt in the 1923 William S Hart silent Western (now lost) Wild Bill Hickok. And there had been several very Earpish figures with thinly disguised names in other Westerns too. But Scott was the first to lead actually as Wyatt Earp in a movie, Frontier Marshal, released in July ’39.
A-movie? B-movie? Somewhere between the two, I’d say. Black & white, directed by Allan Dwan, less ballyhooed than Jesse James (or even Susannah), it still came in at 71 minutes, had a decent budget and, in fact, was enormously popular, especially in the Midwest. And Scott is superb as Earp. It’s an historically ludicrous account with wild distortions (despite the presence on the set as consultants of both Earp biographer Stuart N Lake and Earp widow Josephine) but as a Western it really does hold its own. Not certainly in the league of My Darling Clementine and Gunfight at the OK Corral, it’s still a must-see version of the Earp legend. The New York Times said of it, “Frontier Marshal is a cracking good Western, and in the movies there’s nothing much better than that.” Ah, New York Times, in your case, Auctoritas et veritas facit legem.
Randy plays second fiddle
Two big Westerns came next in which Scott again played second fiddle. It didn’t mean he wasn’t superb in them: he was. Virginia City (1940) for Warners and Western Union (1941) back at Fox had him playing to Errol Flynn as lead in the first and Robert Young in the second. Actually, he stole the show in both. In the first, Scott was supremely well cast as a decent and resourceful Confederate officer trying to best Union man Flynn’s scheme to bring the wealth of the West to the Northern cause.
Western Union was back to Zane Grey (and Scott was Grey’s personal choice) though for Fox this time and directed by Fritz Lang, no less. Scott played a classic good-badman, outlaw on the run Vance Shaw, and so far outclassed the ‘star’, a rather weak Robert Young, as effectively to make Randy the lead. The picture is one of Scott’s best ever roles. Scott biographer Robert Nott wrote, “It may not be his best overall film, but along with the role of Gil Westrum in Ride the High Country, I think it’s among his finest acting work.” Scott had learned to say little and express a wide range of emotions with his eyes, in an almost Gary Cooperish way. The picture was a box-office smash and the critics were glowing about Scott. “Randolph Scott, who is getting to look and act more and more like William S Hart, herein shapes one of the truest and most appreciable characters of his career.” (The New York Times).
Between these two pictures, in Universal’s When the Daltons Rode Randy clearly had fun as Tod Jackson, cutting out Bob Dalton (in the ample shape of Broderick Crawford) by falling for his girl, much as he had fallen for Jesse James’s wife the year before. It was becoming a habit. The picture, which very obviously tries to emulate Fox’s Jesse James, is once again an absurdity, historically speaking, but it is a whole lot of rambunctious fun, it has first-class direction by George Marshall, and at least Scott got top billing (Crawford and Brian Donlevy in Dalton parts hadn’t enough star-power to oust him).
The early 40s: mostly war films
Belle Starr followed, at the end of ’41. Fox was trying to reply to MGM’s Gone with the Wind, though frankly Belle Starr is a pale imitation, and occasionally tedious. Scott was once again a Confederate officer. He has a few moments of Southern charm but overall it’s one of his more lackluster performances. The rather clunky script and direction didn’t help, mind.
In 1942 Randolph Scott was being diverted into war films and made only one Western, when he starred with John Wayne and Marlene Dietrich in that year’s version of The Spoilers (which we were discussing the other day, so click the link for that). Scott was cast as the villain, and he made the most of it. In fact it’s probably the most ruthless character he ever played, though smiles and Southern charm abound. The famous Wayne/Scott fistfight was done partly with doubles but the actors themselves performed a great deal of it, grunting and sweating. It is said that the two were genuine rivals for second billing behind Dietrich and genuinely swung at each other. Of course Wayne eventually wins the fight (he’s the hero) but every time I see it I kinda root for Randy. They were to have a return match later in the year in the non-Western Pittsburgh.
In 1943 Scott did Columbia’s The Desperadoes, its first Technicolor picture, with Wayne’s famous co-star Claire Trevor (they were together in Stagecoach, Allegheny Uprising and Dark Command) and as ingénu the up-and-coming Glenn Ford. Though top-billed, Scott seemed content to play the easy-going sheriff and let Ford and comic-reliefs Edgar Buchanan and Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams have most of the limelight. This was a trait of Randolph Scott: he was supremely generous on set and never hogged the camera. He was always content to let other actors shine.
More war films followed and Westerns were few and far between. There was only one in 1944, RKO’s Belle of the Yukon, and none at all in ’45. And the 1944 one was another semi-Western (no gun is ever fired, for example). It was also dire. Rare are the bum movies that Randolph Scott appeared in, but Belle was one. It’s a real dud. Co-star Gypsy Rose Lee was very weak indeed. William Seiter’s direction, ditto. The plot is ridiculously complex. Scott was clearly just going through the motions. Randolph Scott fans will probably want to watch it, once, but otherwise it’s best avoided. In fact, in my view it's the only Randolph Scott Western (if Western it be) which comes near to the definition unwatchable.
The late 40s: back in the saddle
In the post-war period of the late 1940s Randolph Scott went back to the Western in a big way. He made eleven oaters between 1946 and ’49. He also started taking control, setting up two partnerships, one with independent producer Nat Holt and the other with Harry Joe Brown. It was the Brown ones that would really shine but Holt’s pictures were solid. He often used Edwin L Marin to direct, a safe pair of hands.
Abilene Town (United Artists) and Badman’s Territory (RKO) appeared in 1946. The first was an adaptation of the Ernest Haycox story Trail Town and was a great little movie. It’s the good old ranchers vs. homesteaders plot as ruthless cattle barons and their allies in town are bested by decent homesteaders, the future of the US of A, aided by a bold town marshal (Scott, of course). The Harold Shumate script and Marin’s direction (it may be Marin’s best work) are fast-paced and tight. Edgar Buchanan is again brilliant. Badman’s Territory is weaker than Abilene Town but still huge fun. It has a totally preposterous plot and rather too much plot at that. In 1944 and ’45 Universal had had hits by grouping as many horror characters as you could think of in movies like House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, and RKO must have thought they would have a go at that with outlaws. They would put the James gang, the Daltons, Sam Bass and Belle Starr all in the same movie. Surprisingly, it was a box-office success. The public liked it. Mind, Hollywood is still pulling that trick, with cartoon superheroes jostling cheek by, er, jowl in blockbusters of unending direness.
1947 gave us Trail Street (RKO) and Gunfighters (Columbia). Trail Street is a Bat Masterson tale. Bat was of course a great favorite of Hollywood (Randy’s was in fact only the third screen Bat but there would be many more, on the big screen and small) and he was usually portrayed, as here, as a steely lawman with a slightly laid-back approach, and a bit of a dandy. It wasn’t that far from the truth. However, Randy as Bat doesn’t appear till a good quarter of an hour into the movie and you do get the feeling that Trail Street was something of a trail for RKO’s young star Robert Ryan. Randy was a modest and generous man, though, as we have said, who was perfectly willing to stand back a little and give a good dose of the limelight to other actors. The New York Times dubbed it “just another pistol drama”. Gunfighters, the first Scott-Brown collaboration, based on Zane Grey's Twin Sombreros, had Bruce Cabot (Magua in Randy’s Last of the Mohicans) as the bad guy and Randy played a cynical gunman, Brazos Kane, who wants to hang up his guns but once his pal is killed in a range war he straps them on again. I think it's a good, solid 1940s oater with several merits but in the last resort it’s predictable and clichéd. Robert Nott calls it “a passably watchable oater.” Scott remembered it as the only Scott-Brown film not to make money. He would.
Scott did three Westerns in 1948 – one of the greatest ever years for the genre. Albuquerque (Pine Thomas Productions, released by Paramount and the nearest Scott got to working for that studio since the end of his contract in 1937) was a filming of Dead Freight for Piute, a great Luke Short novel. Like all Short, this 1939 tale is gritty, hard and without a wasted word. Sadly, however, the filming of it, as Albuquerque, wasn’t of the same quality. Both writing (Gene Lewis and Clarence Upson Young) and direction (Ray Enright) leave quite a lot to be desired. The main weaknesses are the implausibility of it and the phony staging. Having said that, it’s a whole lot of fun. Gabby Hayes, in a part not in the book, does his ornery ole timer act. Randy wears a great shirt. He gets to do some comic shtick, not entirely successfully. Russell Simpson, my hero, is the splendidly named Abner Huggins. The bad guys are really bad. The main henchman is Lon Chaney, who doesn’t take the cigarette butt out of his mouth even when fighting, and whose face is several times shown in ultra-close up, like an embryonic spaghetti western. There’s a last-reel shoot ‘em up in Main Street, though it's a bit perfunctory.
That was followed by another Luke Short story, this time absolutely superb: Coroner Creek. We have a brave and resourceful hero, a loner: Chris Danning, school of hard knocks, hard of heart and bent on revenge - Scott in a classic performance, one of his finest, stern of countenance, ideal for the part. Tall, rangy, grim-faced, he is the personification of Luke Short’s single-minded, almost deranged avenger. He is verging on the autistic in his lack of empathy and inability to relate to other people, but he softens at the end and becomes more human. Edgar Buchanan and Russell Simpson are there again. Wallace Ford and Forrest Tucker, too. Beautiful Marguerite Chapman. It’s an outstanding cast. There were Sedona, AZ locations photographed in Cinecolor – a process giving pleasant washed-out pastel shades and highlighting the reds and oranges (ideal for Sedona) - by Fred Jackman Jr. Many of the characters wear brown. Randy does too, but with a flame-orange kerchief at his neck. Brilliant. Robert Nott says, "In terms of packing an emotional wallop, [Coroner Creek] may be just as good as the movies Scott made with Budd Boetticher and Burt Kennedy a decade later." I must say, I have to agree with that.
Third in ’48 came Return of the Bad Men (RKO again). This was an attempt (a successful one) at a re-run of Badman’s Territory. Actually, Return of the Bad Men is quite unusual as a sequel in that it was better than the original. Once again they assemble the baddest gang of badmen you could ever wish for. Bill Doolin (Robert Armstrong) is the boss and in the ranks there are three Dalton brothers (Walter Reed, Michael Harvey and Lex Barker), three Younger brothers (Robert Bray, Tom Keene, Steve Brodie), Billy the Kid (Dean White) and The Sundance Kid (Robert Ryan, splendid), among others. Wow. And against all those, one lawman, Marshal Vance (Scott). The action whips along and there are trains and stages and all manner of rootin’, tootin’ and of course shootin’. Best is the posse's attack on the ghost town with mucho blazing away in the dark. It’s a whoop-de-woo Western of huge charm.
1948 ended on a high.
Four oaters followed in 1949. The Walking Hills (Columbia) was a contemporary Western noir written by Alan LeMay and directed by John Sturges, with John Ireland, Edgar Buchanan again, Arthur Kennedy, and Ella Raines as the female lead. That’s a pretty good pedigree. And by now Scott had developed into a superb (and much underrated) actor, capable of great subtlety, transmitting a persona of stoicism, compassion and authority. He was ideally suited to intelligent Westerns like this one. Columbia wanted to tap into Warners’ Treasure of the Sierra Madre success of the year before, so it’s a modern gold-hunting tale with a lady (Raines) in the mix. But Scott is an ex-rodeo star more concerned with his mare in foal than either girl or gold. He is quiet and restrained but steely when it's called for. Two moments in particular show his strength: when the PI (Ireland) shoots a young man, member of the group (Jerome Courtland), Randy says, "If that boy dies, you better hold on to your gun" in a way that seethes with menace, and when he slaps an hysterical Kennedy and knocks him to the floor, Ireland asks, "What did you do that for?" and Randy quietly rolls a cigarette and answers, "I ran out of words." Although in fact Scott has less screen time than some of the other actors, he dominates the picture completely.
Canadian Pacific (Fox) is certainly not one of Randolph Scott’s better Westerns. In fact it is one of his weakest. Robert Nott is particularly down on it and goes so far as to call it “abysmal”. Nott says, “It may not be Scott’s overall worst film, but I rate it as his overall worst Western.” He adds, “Randolph Scott or no Randolph Scott, it stinks.” Myself, I think that’s going a bit far. It does have action, color, and Victor Jory as villain, after all. But I do admit, it’s pretty weak generally. Funny how American Westerns set in Canada often were.
In Fighting Man of the Plains (Fox) Scott played Jim Dancer, a renegade turned sheriff, a classic Western good badman – the sort of role at which he excelled. The movie featured a young Dale Robertson in a cameo as Jesse James. The picture was digitally remastered in 2012 and looks nice now, shot in Cinecolor by Fred Jackman Jr. And it has quite stirring Paul Sawtell music. Paul Fix was a co-writer and plays a small part. Randy triumphs, beats the bad guys and gets the girl. Victor Jory has a derringer. So all’s well with the world. It’s a goodie, despite the silly title.
Lastly in ’49, The Doolins of Oklahoma (Columbia), competently directed by Gordon Douglas (click for our essay on him) and with stunts by Yakima Canutt, had Randy as a noble Bill Doolin, forced unwillingly to rob. He’s a good man turned bad thanks to crooked politicians. You know. The support cast is strong, with John Ireland, again, as Bitter Creek and Noah Beery Jr. as Little Bill. Randy dies on screen, a rare event. It’s a professional, tight Western with much in its favor.
The mighty 1950s
Twenty-seven Randolph Scott oaters were released in the great decade of the 1950s, the high water mark of the Western, among them some of the finest work Scott ever did and some of the greatest examples of the genre.
I won’t discuss each one in detail, or this post will become unconscionably long (or even longer). Here, I will just pick out a few really great ones and remark on any trends or underlying themes.
I love The Nevadan, a gripper from Columbia produced with Brown, brilliantly directed by Gordon Douglas. It had the honor of being the first Western to come out in 1950, thus ushering in the golden age of the Western movie. Colt .45, on the other hand, which followed it, is fast-moving but pretty silly and the picture is one of Scott’s weaker efforts. It was also rather stupidly set in a period before the Colt .45 was invented. Doh.
The Cariboo Trail (Fox, 1951) was another Canadian effort like Canadian Pacific and, like Canadian Pacific, not very good, though it had Marin at the helm and Victor Jory as the bad guy again so wasn’t too bad. Randy as a surveyor with a six-gun builds a railroad. He was to return in a similar role to build a railroad the following year in Carson City, a much more enjoyable outing. The rather routine Santa Fe (Columbia, 1951) was yet another railroad picture. Scott had of course trained as an engineer; perhaps it was that which attracted him to railroad-building Westerns.
Carson City was directed by André De Toth, and De Toth and Scott would work together no fewer than six times: Man in the Saddle (Columbia, 1951), Carson City (Warner Bros, 1952), Thunder over the Plains (Warner Bros, 1953), The Stranger Wore a Gun (Columbia, 1953), Riding Shotgun (Warner Bros, 1954) and The Bounty Hunter (Warner Bros, 1954). De Toth immigrated to the US in 1942 and was fêted as a top-drawer film maker of an intellectual kind but he reveled in hard-boiled American crime pictures, and he loved Westerns. He gave them all a hard edge and made them really quite violent for the day. De Toth himself was rather slighting about Randolph Scott. He said of Harry Joe Brown and Scott that “Neither of them knew much about stories. They didn’t fight about story points. They cared about money, all right, but unfortunately they didn’t care enough about films.” Perhaps this lack of electricity between director, producer and star led to a certain lackluster quality in some of the films. Carson City, probably the best Warners Western Scott did (and a bit of a hand-me-down because it had been slated for Curtiz and Flynn), was the best of them, The Stranger Wore a Gun probably the least.
Fort Worth (Warner Bros) is a lower-budget 1951 Randolph Scott Western which is rather good. It has a very complex plot but a lot of zip. It was directed by Edwin L Marin, again. Sadly, Fort Worth was Marin’s last Western and he handed in his jodhpurs and megaphone permanently the same year. It’s the old one about the gunfighter hanging up his irons because he believes the pen is mightier than the Colt. He sets up an independent newspaper in Fort Worth. Of course, as in all such films, he is finally obliged to buckle on his six-guns again so that kind of undermines the principle; but that’s Westerns for you.
Hangman’s Knot (Columbia, 1952) was one of the very best Randolph Scott Westerns – and that’s saying a lot. Producer and writer Roy Huggins created the screenplay expressly for Scott and approached Harry Joe Brown with a view to selling the project to Warners, but Brown (rightly) thought Columbia would be a better bet. Brown and Scott offered Huggins less for the script but Huggins got to direct, something he had always wanted to do. It was in fact his only movie as director. “I directed the film to prove I could do it,” he wrote. “Directors are a strange group. They like to make the world feel that directing is a very difficult thing to do, and it isn’t at all.” It’s a tense, claustrophobic and gripping Western that develops character interestingly and has unexpected plot twists. And Lee Marvin is excellent.
The Man Behind the Gun is one of the most entertaining Randolph Scott Westerns. No one would pretend that it is a great example of the genre, and of course 1953 was the year of mighty pictures like Paramount’s Shane, MGM’s The Naked Spur and Warners’ own Hondo. But there is a crackle of humor throughout the movie and Randy seemed to be enjoying himself hugely. There are even bawdy jokes that must have sneaked somehow under the censors’ radar. And it’s in bright Technicolor and packed with action. It’s a whole lot of fun.
The early 50s were a good time for Randolph Scott. The De Toth ones were OK-to-good, while Fort Worth, The Hangman’s Knot and The Man Behind the Gun were top-class Westerns.
In 1955 Scott made four indifferent Westerns and there was even the suspicion that he was losing the magic.
Ten Wanted Men (Columbia, 1955) was not a great picture. H Bruce Humberstone directed quite a lot of low-grade movies such as Charlie Chan tales in the 1930s. He only did three Westerns, all B ones, and Ten Wanted Men was his first and probably his best. The movie does benefit from the great Richard Boone as bad guy and the likes of Lee Van Cleef, Denver Pyle and Leo Gordon are henchmen. It was filmed at Old Tucson so at least we get some Arizona scenery, shot by Wilfred Cline in nice color (the currently available print is very good).
Rage at Dawn was disappointing and a rather damp-squib end to Scott’s relationship with RKO. The direction by Tim Whelan is slapdash and the writing (Horace McCoy, Frank Gruber) iffy. It’s a story of the Reno brothers, the first outlaws to go into train robbing, but of course the screen Renos have nothing whatever to do with the real ones.
Tall Man Riding, for Warners the same year, is alright, but no more than that. It was directed by Lesley Selander, a low-budget Western lifer from his first picture in 1936 who moved to Poverty Row when the market for oaters declined and then to TV. He always managed to get pace into his Westerns, and his action scenes were good, even if budget and good writing was sometimes lacking.
1955 finished with A Lawless Street, for Columbia. It was better than the other three, if not top-drawer. Gangster-noir director Joseph H Lewis helmed the picture and the script was fairly predictable. It’s the one about the town marshal with a rep that every gun hand wants to beat. He has to draw on them day after day (though he rather sneakily gets one with a derringer from under the barber’s sheet; Clint must have seen that before doing High Plains Drifter) and he knows that sooner or later, someone faster than he is will ride into town.
So all in all, the mid-50s looked like a period of decline. Were top-class Randolph Scott Westerns a thing of the past?
Riding off into the sunset
Randolph Scott was no callow youth even when he made his first pictures. Paramount had ‘rejuvenated’ him, claiming he was born in 1903 so that their lead would still (just) be in his twenties but in fact he was born in 1898 and he was already in his mid-thirties when he made those pre-war Zane Grey programmers. By the time of pictures such as Coroner Creek or Return of the Bad Men he was 50. But it didn’t matter. In fact he was one of those lucky people who got more handsome with age, and the cragginess suited Western roles. He always kept himself very fit too. He said in 1980 that he had the same waistline he had when he started in movies. All this to say that the finest work Scott did was at the end of his career, in the late 1950s, when he was pushing sixty or even beyond.
There were two late-50s Scott Westerns that aren’t wonderful: 7th Cavalry (Columbia, 1956) and Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend(Warner Bros, 1957). I myself actually quite like both (but then they are Randolph Scott Westerns) but there’s no denying they aren’t the greatest of Western movies. Robert Nott says of 7th Cavalry that it is too talky and repetitive. The aging Scott was miscast as a junior officer. The story is too improbable. There’s an anti-climax as the final showdown with the Indians never happens, and too much superstitious mumbo-jumbo. Shoot-Out is a disappointing mix of comedy and action, a black & white low-budget picture released under Warners’ First National brand, clumsily directed by Richard L Bare, a TV director.
But don’t worry: otherwise, the late 50s and early 60s were a period of glory.
Because we now come to perhaps the finest period of Randolph Scott’s career as a Western actor, namely the seven pictures he made with Budd Boetticher between 1956 and ‘60: Seven Men from Now (1956) The Tall T (1957), Decision at Sundown (1957), Buchanan Rides Alone (1958), Ride Lonesome (1959), Westbound (1959) and Comanche Station (1960).
They weren’t all uniformly superb but even the ‘ weakest’ was still very good. Westbound: starred Scott and was directed by Boetticher, but there was no input from producer Harry Joe Brown or writer Burt Kennedy and the picture was uninspired. The very best ones, the core of the oeuvre if you like, were those for Columbia that brought together the team of Boetticher, Scott, writer Kennedy, cinematographer Charles Lawton Jr. and producer Harry Joe Brown. They were The Tall T, Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station. These three are, I suppose, ‘B-Westerns’ by some definitions, but they are absolutely superb and real landmarks in the history of the genre.
Boetticher, Kennedy, Lawton, Brown
They were a coherent body of work. They had the same star (though a different bad guy every time, each one a splendid role), the same director with a deep understanding of the genre, and in the case of the three at the heart of the oeuvre, the same pithy writer with a witty sense of irony and the same magnificent photographer (3:10 to Yuma alone would have marked Lawton out as a master), using, and this is key, the same Lone Pine locations. They had similar plots – hero Randy on a revenge mission, basically – and they even shared certain lines of dialogue. They were terse, laconic and spare. None exceeded 80 minutes yet they were great Westerns.
Ride Lonesome and Buchanan Rides Alone are such essential titles because cowboys are generally lonesome and Randolph Scott in particular, and because the horse is key to these oaters, as to all Westerns. Boetticher loved horses. Watch the way in Comanche Station that Scott enters on horseback right to left, with Mt. Whitney in the background, and at the end of the movie symmetrically rides away in the same setting, left to right. Boetticher at his best. In his essay A Time and a Place: Budd Boetticher and the Western, Mike Dibb makes the point that though the term ‘horse opera’ is often used pejoratively, it is in fact apt, for it puts the horse at the center of the genre and emphasizes the pleasantly familiar stylized forms of action, character, speech, violence and, not least, music, which Westerns share with opera.
The bad guys are superb. They were written as sort of anti-Scotts, with some of the hero’s qualities – and faults. They are often charming and roguish. Randy always seems to have known the characters from the past. Lee Marvin in Seven Men from Now, Richard Boone (my favorite) in The Tall T, Pernell Roberts in Ride Lonesome, and the others, they were villains, yes, but with saving graces. Excellent casting, direction and acting.
Boetticher had little interest in the true history of the West, nor, really, in Western communities. He wanted lone riders righting wrongs. Everyone is a loner, in fact. Scott’s character is just the loneliest. Boetticher said, “The characters are more important to me than the ideas, because it's through the mind and the sayings and the actions of the characters that the ideas are born. I'm not concerned with what people stand for, I'm concerned with what they do about it.”
After Comanche Station, released in February 1960, Randolph Scott retired. He was well into his sixties, he didn’t need the money and he had other things to do (golf, mostly). He’d had a wonderful career, but it was time to stop.
But it wasn’t the end. Not yet.
Going out on a high
Ride the High Country, Randolph Scott’s last Western, is a masterpiece.
There is something elegiac about Sam Peckinpah’s Westerns. He loved the theme of the ‘end of the West’. The most obviously example is The Wild Bunch, about aging gunfighters bewildered in a new, modern era of automobiles and airplanes, in a time that didn’t want them. Or The Ballad of Cable Hogue where once again the car symbolizes the end of it all, as it does, indeed, in the first reel of Ride the High Country. So to entice two older famous Western stars (Joel McCrea, 57 and Randolph Scott, 63) out of retirement, or Western inactivity anyway, to make a film about two men past their prime trying to revive the past and maintain the old Western code of honor was a master stroke.
McCrea was outstanding as Judd: upright, tough and steely with integrity. An equally fine Scott is Gil Westrum, just as tough but roguish, charming and not quite so full of integrity – in fact larcenous. They play against and complement each other. Both performances were Oscarable. It is said they were originally cast the other way round but both felt more comfortable with Scott as Westrum and McCrea as Judd. They were certainly right.
One of the best aspects of Ride the High Country is undoubtedly the interplay of McCrea and Scott, the former stoic, flinty, scriptural, lonely, with all the most stirring speeches, the latter happy-go-lucky, with wavering moral purpose, essentially pathetic; he has the quips and good one-liners. Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott were never better.
Written by NB Stone, a specialist in TV Westerns, with very large contributions from Peckinpah (McCrea thought as much as 80%) and some from Bob Williams, who had a vast experience since the early 40s of almost exclusively low-budget Westerns, the screenplay is tight, professional and workmanlike, with occasional flashes of brilliance. “The only law up there is too drunk to hit the ground with his hat.” Or again, “All I want,” says Judd, quietly, “is to enter my house justified.” It is the credo of the hero and the theme of the film.
Shot in an uncharacteristic 26 days and only $60,000 over budget (which for Peckinpah was really under), the movie is tight, taut and tense.
What a way for Scott to go out. It should really have been Joel McCrea’s farewell too; he did a couple more not very good ones and that was probably a mistake. But two great cowboy heroes of the silver screen found a perfectly splendid film to say goodbye with. MGM's Joe Vogel told Peckinpah he thought it was the worst film he'd ever seen and didn't want to release it. But it was in the can and MGM needed product. They tried to hide it on a double bill with Victor Mature in The Tartars. Good grief. But despite the moronic MGM execs it was a fabulous film. Newsweek said it was "pure gold", Variety thought that Scott and McCrea were "better than they have ever been" and the movie won a number of awards at film festivals. If the film is about integrity and moral courage, it is also essentially about solitude. It is, as I said, a masterpiece.
Randolph Scott left the set and rode off into the sunset – in a golf buggy. His house abutted the 3th and 4th tees of the LA Country Club golf course, a club which he joined, though they always refused actors. He is said to have told them that he was no actor, and had a hundred films to prove it. He spent his old age, or even older age, practicing his game and managing the more than $100 million he had amassed.
Well, there you are. 7000-odd words on Randolph Scott. My hero. He never made an unwatchable Western (except maybe Belle of the Yukon). He made some so-so ones but he made some seriously good ones too, and, like his last picture, the occasional great one. For me, he was a giant of the genre, to rival John Wayne.