Monday, October 6, 2014

‘MEN FROM SHILOH’ REVIEW, PLUS ‘GENE AUTRY CHRISTMAS BOOK’, LONE PINE FEST!



THE MEN FROM SHILOH – A Home Video Review



The good folks at Shout Factory/Timeless Media Group have released a ‘special edition’ of THE MEN FROM SHILOH, the 9th and final season of THE VIRGINIAN series.  The nine disk set includes all twenty-four episodes, as well as a disk of interviews.

The TV series THE VIRGINIAN was ground-breaking in many ways when it arrived on NBC in 1962.  It was the first Western series with a literary pedigree, being based, however loosely, on the Owen Wister book which many consider to be the birth of the serious Western novel.  It was the first TV series of any genre to star an actor with the stature of Lee J. Cobb, who’d created Willy Loman on Broadway in Arthur Miller’s DEATH OF A SALESMAN, and was twice Oscar nominated for his work in ON THE WATERFRONT and THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV.  And while it was preceded by brilliant anthology series like PLAYHOUSE 90, which did live full-length plays on television, THE VIRGINIAN was the first series to do a feature-length, color film, single camera, largely outdoor action movie every week!  They did thirty of them that first year, and by the end of their 9th and final season, they had produced 249 movies.  

The title character was played by James Drury, from the first to the final episode, and to a great degree the series rose and fell on his portrayal of the mysterious man who never revealed his name, or much else about himself outside of the state of his birth.  I’ve heard Drury comment that he was the original ‘man with no name,’ and it’s true; his and Eastwood’s subsequent, quietly confident, sardonic, mysterious characters have much in common.  The Virginian was the foreman of Judge Henry Garth’s (Lee J. Cobb) Shiloh Ranch, outside of Medicine Bow, Wyoming.  Doug McClure, like Drury, was there from the first episode to the last, playing the top hand after the Virginian and his best friend, Trampas – an ironic choice of name, considering that, in the novel, Trampas was the Virginian’s most despised enemy.

Many of the successful Western series up to that date had focused either on families, like BONANZA and THE RIFLEMAN, or groups of working men, like RAWHIDE.  THE VIRGINIAN wisely did both; there were plenty of men in the bunkhouse, and in the big house, Judge Garth, a widower (this is 1960s television after all), always had nieces and nephews to help raise and/or tame.  Among the ‘youngins’ who graced the series were Roberta Shore from 1962 to 1965, Diane Roter from 1965 to 1966, Sara Lane from 1966 to 1970, and Don Quine from 1966 to 1968.  There always needed to be a patriarch, and when Lee J. Cobb left after 120 episodes in 1966, he’d be replaced first by Charles Bickford, and then by WAGON TRAIN’s John McIntire.  Among the many fine actors who appeared as regulars for a few seasons as lawmen or drovers were Clu Gulager as Sheriff Emmet Ryker, Gary Clarke, Randy Boone, L.Q. Jones, and Tim Matheson. 

I had the pleasure of attending the 50th Anniversary Celebration of THE VIRGINIAN series, and its move to the INSP Network, at the Gene Autry Center.  These links will bring you to my four-part coverage of the event, and several interviews:   PART ONE; PART TWO; PART THREE; PART FOUR.

Eight years was a terrific run, but by 1970, a lot of the world had changed.  The once-dominant Western genre was no longer TV’s favorite, at least in part as the result of an anti-violence policy at the networks that restricted how much action an episode was allowed.  WAGON TRAIN and RAWHIDE were gone for five years, THE BIG VALLEY had just ended, and HIGH CHAPARRAL would only last one more season.   GUNSMOKE, which had begun in 1955 and would run until 1975 (plus TV movies), had saved itself from extinction by refocusing its plot-lines around guest stars rather than regulars, and BONANZA had added semi-brothers David Canary and Mitch Vogel to perk things up.


(Here's the VIRGINIAN theme from season three by Percy Faith)

Plus, the freshness and youthful energy of the spaghetti westerns tended to make Western TV appear a bit staid and tired.  That’s when the powers-that-be at NBC decided to try and re-think THE VIRGINIAN (now they’d say re-brand or reinvent), and turned it into THE MEN FROM SHILOH.  Unlike any of the other Western series of the time, SHILOH took its revamping cues from Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah.  Gone was the sweeping heroic theme by Percy Faith, replaced by a new, beautiful theme by Leone’s signature composer, Ennio Morricone which was, by turns, wistful and relentless.  Gone was the familiar title sequence with each star riding on horseback towards camera. Instead there was a mix of sunrise footage, historical photos and high-contrast graphics that could have come straight out of the previous year’s THE WILD BUNCH. 


(Here's the MEN FROM SHILOH theme by Ennio Morricone)

Then there were the stars – a new patriarch in one-time big-time MGM leading man Stewart Granger; Lee Majors, fresh from THE BIG VALLEY, as Roy Tate, sporting a big, mean-looking mustache; Doug McClure, back as Trampas, sporting an even bigger mustache; and James Drury as the Virginian, sometimes sporting a gun the length of his leg!  McClure’s and Drury’s wardrobe, unchanged since 1962, were completely different.  Granger played a retired British colonel who had bought Shiloh Ranch, and was maintaining its personnel – but there would be no more nieces and nephews to clutter up the place: this was now a series strictly about men.



The bosses at NBC scored quite a coup in signing Granger.  Not only was he a talented and popular actor, although no longer a leading man, his presence would make the show more valuable in Europe.  Though the films were largely unseen in the United States, Stewart Granger had starred in two of the immensely popular German Westerns which gave birth to the spaghetti westerns.  Based on Karl May’s WINNETOU novels, Granger played the beloved character of Old Surehand.  With Granger, the series had a built-in European fan-base.

As had been the pattern of the series for some time, most episodes focused on one of the younger men, sometimes with and sometimes without Granger.  The first, THE WEST VS. COLONEL MACKENZIE, is noticeably influenced by the spaghetti western.  In the aftermath of the lynching of an accused rustler, the colonel is out to catch the culprits, and the town’s class division between the ranchers and the rabble, bordering on the divine right of kings, is distinctly European rather than American, and the filmmakers have fun with the fact that it’s an upper-class Brit who is trying to see justice done.  The second episode, THE BEST MAN, centers on Trampas, and his efforts to help a friend marry the senorita of his dreams.  As would become clear, in show after show the producers were willing to spend money for an exceptional guest cast; this one included James Farentino as the friend, and Desi Arnaz and HIGH NOON’S Katy Jurado as the bride’s parents. 

In GUN QUEST, a very well-written (by Robert Van Scoyk) and produced (by GUNSMOKE creator Norman MacDonnell) noir episode featuring the Virginian trying to prove himself innocent of murder, the cast is again staggering: CITIZEN KANE stars Joseph Cotten and Agnes Moorehead are reunited (although, as in KANE, they have no scenes together), joined by Brandon DeWilde, Anne Francis, John Smith –late of LARAMIE, former Western leading-man Rod Cameron, and Neville Brand, whose LAREDO series was a spin-off of THE VIRGINIAN.  And when Monte Markham, as the man the Virginian has been misidentified as, shows up, he is wearing -- I kid you not -- the Virginian’s red shirt and black leather vest from the first eight seasons! 


Former VIRGINIAN regular L.Q. Jones and James
Drury in the SHILOH episode TOWN KILLER


LADY AT THE BAR, this time with Trampas accused of murder, stars Oscar winner (for MRS. MINIVER) Greer Garson as his lawyer, E.G. Marshall as the judge, twice Oscar-nominated James Whitmore as the judge’s marshal, along with Kenneth Tobey, RIFLEMAN’s Paul Fix, Ian Wolfe, and Oscar-nominated (for THE BIG SKY) Arthur Hunnicut as the assayer. 

Not that the producers never cut corners.  THE MYSTERIOUS MR. TATE, which introduced Lee Majors’ character, had a good cast, with Majors and Granger joined by Robert Webber, Dane Clark, and young and blossoming Annette O’Toole, but it takes place almost entirely on-board an interior train set.  Similarly, in WITH LOVE, BULLETS AND VALENTINES, Trampas ‘wins’ a riverboat in a poker game, and Universal must have pulled stock footage from every film they ever had with a paddle-wheel – some of the mix of different film-stocks in jarring.     

Among the many other fine actors that turn up in the series are Susan Strasberg, John Ireland, Jane Wyatt, Lew Ayres, Elizabeth Ashley, and many others. 


Lee Majors' character makes an
inauspicious entrance in
THE MYSTERIOUS MR. TATE


As with any series, some shows are better than others, but all of the MEN FROM SHILOH episodes I’ve seen are worth watching, and some are extremely good.  The changes were an attempt to invigorate the series, and not a matter of ‘jumping the shark,’ by any means.  Of course, that raises the question of why it was the last season of THE VIRGINIAN.  At least a partial explanation is suggested by James Drury in the interview disk: many fans of THE VIRGINIAN didn’t even realize that MEN FROM SHILOH was THE VIRGINIAN, so they didn’t watch it. 

Another theory also came from James Drury at the 50th Anniversary Celebration.  When moderator Boyd Magers of Western Clippings  put the question to Drury, this was his reply:

They gave the show a new look, and everybody kind of signed on to it.  I got myself a new horse and a longer gun.  (big laughs from the audience) From a 5 ½ inch barrel to a 7 ½ inch barrel.  Longer sideburns. Much bigger hat.  A sense of accomplishment or…a sense of entitlement – let’s put it that way.  I smoked cigars on the show.  And I just mowed down anybody with my firearms.  But the thing is, we all thought it was a good idea at the time; it was a terrible idea.  And the worst of the terrible ideas was putting Stewart Granger in the same position that Lee Cobb had occupied, that John McIntire had occupied, Charles Bickford had occupied; that John Dehner had occupied.  These were truly great western actors.  Stewart Granger came in and decided that he was going to be the big star of the show:  fired my crew, fired my Academy Award-winning cameraman, got all new people.  He pissed off everyone in the entire organization.  And he sunk the show.  So thank you, Stewart, wherever you are.”

Indeed, there is a smugness and pomposity to Granger’s character that grates on you at times.  My feeling is that after 249 movies, there wasn’t a whole lot left to say.  I thoroughly enjoyed watching the shows, and one of the high points of this collection is the disk of interviews, featuring James Drury, Clu Gulager, L.Q. Jones and Roberta Shore.  They run from 20 minutes for Shore to 45 for Drury.  Each interview covers the subject’s life and career in general, and THE VIRGINIAN in particular, and the insights are often fascinating.  They’re all good, but James Drury’s is the best; in fact, it’s one of the very finest career interviews that I’ve ever watched.      

You can learn more about, or purchase, THE MEN FROM SHILOH, or many other Westerns series and movies, from Shout Factory, HERE



THE GENE AUTRY CHRISTMAS BOOK – Just in time for Christmas!



If you’re not a fan of Gene Autry’s Christmas music, then you either (a) hate Christmas, or (b) don’t realize how many of the best Christmas songs can be traced back to Gene.  Gathered together for the first time are twenty-five Christmas classics that Gene performed and helped popularize, each with sheet-music arranged for piano, vocal and guitar. 

Gene was inspired to write the lyrics to HERE COMES SANTA CLAUS in 1946, when he was Grand Marshal of the Santa Claus Lane Parade in Hollywood, and heard children chanting for their other favorite, just a couple of floats behind.   He had one of his greatest hits with RUDOLPH THE RED NOSED REINDEER, when he sought the song out after everyone had passed on it.  Some of the most amusing songs are not that well remembered – can you sing HARDROCK, COCO AND JOE (the three little dwarfs) without checking the sheet music?  How about SANTA’S COMING IN A WHIRLYBIRD? 

Some of the included songs are available in sheet music for the first time – eight of them, including WHIRLYBIRD and THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS (IN TEXAS, THAT IS) were transcribed from Gene’s recorded performances.  Published by Hal Leonard, with an introduction by Gene Autry Entertainment President Karla Buhlman, and featuring photos, including some of Gene’s own Christmas cards, this book is sure to give the musically inclined something new to play and sing around the piano at that special time of year when we all like to think we can carry a tune.  You can buy it wherever you buy your sheet music, or direct from Gene Autry Entertainment HERE.  

And even if it’s a few months early, it’s never the wrong time to hear Gene sing HERE COMES SANTA CLAUS!




25TH ANNUAL LONE PINE FILM FESTIVAL OCT. 10-12!



Come join the stars and other fans at one of the world’s prime Western movie locations, Lone Pine, this coming weekend.  Since the 1920s, hundreds of Western movies and TV shows have been shot in and around the famed Alabama Hills.  Stars from Tom Mix to William Boyd to Gene Autry to Roy Rogers to John Wayne – the list goes on and on! 



Among the guests who will be attending are Bruce Boxleitner, stuntman and author Dean Smith, stuntman Diamond Farnsworth, Oscar-winning sound designer Ben Burtt, THE RIFLEMAN star Johnny Crawford, Republic Western stars Peggy Stewart and Donna Martell, seven-time John Wayne co-star Ed Faulkner, THE SHOOTIST screenwriter Miles Swarthout, plus Clayton Moore’s daughter Dawn Moore, Roy and Dale’s daughter Cheryl Rogers Barnett, Randolph Scott’s daughter Sandra Tyler, and many more.

To learn about all the events and all of the movies to be screened – from THE MACCAHANS to GUNGA DIN – visit the official website HERE

And if you've never been to Lone Pine, here's an excellent featurette to show you why you shouldn't miss it!






THAT’S A WRAP!

As we near 200,000…

This weekend The Round-up surpassed 190,000 hits!  Thank you to all of you folks who keep visiting the site week after week.  We’re read in well over 90 countries these days, and we added two this week, Luxemburg and Bahrain.  And this week’s new Facebook followers are from L.A.; Running Springs, CA.; New York City; and Moscow.  It’s great to know the appeal of Western stories is still international!  Have a great week!

Much obliged,

Henry

All Original Content Copyright October 2014 by Henry C. Parke – All Rights Reserved




3 comments:

  1. Congratulations on the near 200,000.. Today was another example of why the numbers are so high - great stuff as usual and Christmas really is not that far away.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Much obliged for your generous words, Neil!

      Delete
  2. You cover the West like no one else! Congratulations on nearing 200,000 hits - that's very exciting!

    ReplyDelete