Monday, June 29, 2015
‘HELL ON WHEELS’ FIRST PEEK, PLUS ‘THE LAST SHOOTIST’, ‘AUTRY VOL. 10’ REVIEWED!
‘HELL ON WHEELS’ FINAL SEASON STARTS JULY 18
When I said here that HELL ON WHEELS, the best original Western series in decades, would begin its fifth and final season on July 18th, I heard from star Anson Mount. “Just to clarify, it’s not our final season, it’s our final order. We’re airing seven of them this year, and seven of them next year, so there will be a ‘quote-unquote’ sixth season.”
The first big difference will be that Cullen Bohanan (Mount) will be switching his allegiance from the Southern Pacific Railroad to their rivals in the race to Promontory Point, the Central Pacific. I’ll have my review of the opening episode as we get closer to the 18th, and you can read my interview with Anson Mount in the September issue of TRUE WEST MAGAZINE. In the meantime, here’s our first peek at the new season:
THE LAST SHOOTIST by Miles Swarthout – a Book Review
Glendon Swarthout is one of the most respected and enduring of Western novelists, and THE SHOOTIST may well be his finest work in the genre – the Western Writers of America voted it #4 in its list of Ten Best Western Novels of all-time. So I can imagine the trepidation his son, Miles Swarthout, felt in doing a sequel. But he has more right than anyone else, and not just because his father wrote the original. In a unique-in-Hollywood package deal, before offering the original novel for publication, Glendon offered his son the chance to adapt it to a screenplay, and they were sold together. So Miles was intimately involved in the story of aging gunslinger J.B. Books from the very beginning.
Many people know the story of THE SHOOTIST from the novel, but immeasurably more know it from the film, in which John Wayne gave his final performance, and one of his finest, due in no small part to father and son Swarthouts’ wonderful story and script, and Don Siegel’s equally fine direction. SPOILER ALERT! Of course, if you’ve read the novel or seen the movie, the quandary facing a sequel is clear: Books dies in the end. The obvious approach would be to do a prequel, usually a disappointing, bastardized form of storytelling, where the reader, instead of being surprised, already knows the ending, and has to unexciting chore of judging how convincingly the teller gets there. Instead, in THE LAST SHOOTIST, Miles has continued not the story of J.B. Books, but that of Gillom Rogers (Ron Howard in the film), the obnoxious son of Books’ landlady, Bond Rogers (Lauren Bacall).
Miles Swarthout with Courtney Joyner
And Miles has done an absolutely enthralling job! If you haven’t read the first book, and you should, you don’t really know Gillom. Ron Howard’s version was something of a punk, but on paper, Gillom Rogers is the poster-boy for callow youth. As the story begins, continuing directly from the end of the first novel, Gillom, who has already stolen from the dying gunman, gives Books, at his request, the coup de gras as he lies bleeding, and keeps Books’ fabled pair of Remingtons as a prize.
The possession of these pistols triggers a series of sometimes frantic adventures that send him running out of town, running for his life. At first his wanderings seem random, but they are driving him to a dramatic conclusion, which will see Gillom become, if not quite a mature or wholly admirable man, at least someone on that road. The way there is full interesting characters, both real and fictional.
There is friendship, romance, and plenty of brutal bloodletting, much of which would not be necessary if Gillom used his head more often, which is, amazingly, much of the tale’s charm. While the story is certainly not heartless, there is an often humorous sense of, “Well, what did he think was going to happen when he put himself in this position?” You want to see what Gillom does next in the same way that you want to see where a runaway stagecoach will go.
Hemingway described imitating another author’s style as, “…trying to beat dead men at their own game,” and Miles, while clearly influenced by his father’s work, does not slavishly copy Glendon, and has a very readable style all his own. He also enjoys sharing the sort of detail that makes period stories come to life. When you finish THE LAST SHOOTIST, in addition to being entertained, you will be prepared to start a new life, at the turn of the 20th century, as either a horse-breaker, or a whore in a mid-range brothel. You can buy a signed copy of THE LAST SHOOTIST, as well as a DVD of the film THE SHOOTIST, from our friends at OutWest HERE.
GENE AUTRY COLLECTION # 10 – a Video Review
This newest collection of Public Cowboy #1’s movies features four early films, and much of the added pleasure is seeing both Gene’s and the film series’ growth from picture to picture. The set features one movie per year from 1935 through 1938, and with Gene making eight pictures a year, the progress from picture to picture is striking. All films feature sidekick Smiley Burnette and Champion.
In THE SINGING VAGABOND (1935), one of his few period Westerns, Gene leads a singing group of riders, the Singing Plainsmen, who rescue a wagon-train of showgirls, and Gene gets framed for horse-theft for his trouble. Lovely Ann Rutherford, a runaway heiress, is his leading lady. It’s a lot of fun, but the musical numbers are often operatic, and feel like they should be in a Dick Foran Western rather than an Autry. Gene wears way too much make-up, and he hasn’t started playing himself – he’s ‘Tex’ Autry in this one. Keep your eyes open for future Republic star Ray ‘Crash’ Corrigan in one of his earliest roles.
In OH, SUSANNA! (1936), fives movies later, it’s modern day (for 1936), and Gene plays radio star Gene Autry, who is once again framed, this time for murder. The make-up is gone, the songs are more appropriate to Gene, and better incorporated. But Gene does something you rarely see in later films – he kisses the girl, Frances Grant, at the end! Directed by one of Republic’s finest, Joe Kane, the action is first rate. It also features, as Aunt Peggy, one of the great stars of the silent screen, Clara Kimball Young.
In ROOTIN TOOTIN’ RHYTHM (1937), no one plans to frame rancher Gene Autry until he and Smiley knowingly steal and don clothes of known criminals! The stress is on humor as well as action in this one, and the story is by Johnston McCulley, who created the character Zorro! Mexicali Rose is one of the stand-out songs. An amusing braggart character is Buffalo Brady, played by Hal Taliaferro (pronounced ‘Toliver’), who had been a star as Wally Wales, but had a much longer career after, as a supporting player. Armida is Gene’s girl, and for the first of many times in a film, he sings in Spanish. When they move in for a clinch at the end, the fans had already spoken their disapproval, so Gene and Armida actually step out of frame for a moment, then come back, and only Ernst Lubitsch fans will know they kissed!
Finally with WESTERN JAMBOREE (1938), all of the elements you expect from an Autry movie are present, including Smiley Burnette’s classic wardrobe of checkered shirt and crushed black hat. Also present was Ring-Eye, Smiley’s white horse, who had a black circle around one eye, presumably in tribute to Petey, the ring-eyed pit bull from the Our Gang comedies. And what a plot! Half is a lift from LADY FOR A DAY, the Capra-filmed Damon Runyon story, here about an old saddle tramp whose friends, including Gene, help him pass himself off as the owner of a dude ranch to impress his daughter and his would-be in-laws. The other half of the plot is about helium rustlers! The cast includes famous comic dancer Joe Frisco, Ken Maynard’s brother Kermit, and soon-to-be Western singing star Eddie Dean.
The special features for the GENE AUTRY COLLECTION sets always match up each movie with stills and posters, interesting production facts, excerpts from the Melody Ranch Radio Show, and intros from MELODY RANCH THEATER. MELODY RANCH THEATER was a 1987 TV series on The Nashville Network, where Gene and sidekick and movie historian Pat Buttram would introduce Gene’s movies. Always entertaining, the four intros here are a remarkable collection not only for Gene’s fans, but for fans of Westerns in particular, and Hollywood in general. The first features an interview with Gene’s leading lady not only in SMILING VAGABOND but in three other movies, Ann Rutherford. They discuss not only her work with Gene, but her career at MGM, as Polly Benedict in the HARDY FAMILY films. The second interview features Gene’s wife, Jackie Autry, and a discussion of the plans for the then not-yet-built Gene Autry Museum. The third chat is with Alex Cohen, who started out as the teenage president of Gene Autry’s fan club in Britain, and later became Gene’s tour advance man and assistant for decades. Finally, the boys talk to George Sherman, who directed Gene seven times, and John Wayne nine times -- from PALS OF THE SADDLE (1938) to BIG JAKE (1971). Pat quizzes them, and hearing what George and Gene have to say about Republic Pictures, budgets, salaries, block booking, and colorization is, alone, worth the price of the collection.
The folks at Gene Autry Entertainment tell me that by the end of 2015, every Gene Autry movie, TV show and his serial, THE PHANTOM EMPIRE, will be available on home video. And they’re all available from our friends at The Autry Museum Store HERE.
THAT’S A WRAP!
Next week I’ll have news about and exciting new radio talk-show about Western writers, a potential new AMC Western series from the producer of JUSTIFIED, and my review of the new Scottish/Kiwi Western coming to home video, SLOW WEST! Have a great week!
All Original Contents Copyright June 2015 by Henry C. Parke -- All Rights Reserved