WHY B-WESTERNS?

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In most B-Westerns you can expect to find formulaic and sometimes quite preposterous plots, stilted dialogue given a stilted delivery by mediocre actors, crude comic relief that only a child might possibly find funny, cheesy interior sets and romantic subplots involving cardboard female characters.  You will often find musical interludes featuring anachronistic Western swing numbers.

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You can also expect to find superior cinematography in the outdoor scenes, picturesque landscapes, superb horsemanship by any player who gets up on a horse, and beautifully choreographed equestrian action scenes.  You will often find examples of expertly driven horses pulling wagons, buggies or stagecoaches, which can be thrilling.

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The scenes involving horses are like the arias in an opera — they’re almost always beautiful or stirring, and as in opera they can utterly redeem a bad libretto.

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If you don’t have an eye or a taste for watching men and women on horses move through beautiful landscapes, most B-Westerns won’t have much to offer you, just as most operas won’t have much to offer you if you don’t have an ear or a taste for beautiful melodies.

WAGON TRAIN (1940)

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At RKO, Tim Holt played second lead in a few B-Westerns in the 1930s before the studio decided to make him the star of his own series.  They launched it with Wagon Train, a superior showcase a cut above the standard B-Western.

Holt plays a scout leading a wagon train loaded with desperately needed supplies for settlers in a remote town, navigating perilous country, threatened by Comanches on the warpath and a gang of road agents working for a rival express company.

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Production values are high, the script is taut, and Holt is at his most appealing, ably supported by a fine cast, including Martha O’Driscoll (with Holt above) as the leading lady.  Trained as a dancer, she had a middling career in Hollywood for about ten years, until she gave it up to raise a family and pursue other interests.

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She attained a certain cult celebrity for her appearance in House Of Dracula (above), but she was a very good actress, too, with a striking screen presence.  She anchors the romantic subplot in Wagon Train with her vexing, self-assured performance in a role that has more substance than usual for a female lead in a Western.

The film is really a modest A-Western and became the first of 46 Westerns Holt would star in for RKO.  They would become increasingly formulaic — enjoyably so for the most part — but a film like Wagon Train makes one wish Holt had starred in more Westerns of similar ambition and quality.

SALOON

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Most Western saloons were not much more elegant than this — a fancy carved bar, a generous selection of spirits, a wood frame and canvas (or plain board) walls.  Hollywood usually got it backwards — with fancily constructed and decorated rooms and only one kind of unbranded whiskey on offer.

Click on the image to enlarge.

SILVER CITY

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Between 1950 and 1952, actor Edmund O’Brien and director Byron Haskin teamed up for three Westerns.  Two of them, Silver City and Denver & Rio Grand are now available on Blu-ray in decent if not spectacular transfers from Olive Films.

O’Brien was a reliable character actor but sits a horse uneasily as the star of a Western.  He has a modern, urban sort of persona and lacks the physical grace of a typical Western hero.  Haskin was a special effects man who got into directing, most notably The War Of the Worlds in 1954.  He seems an unlikely fit for Westerns as well.

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The two films are, nevertheless, good solid contributions to the genre.  Haskin has a decent feel for landscape, and in Silver City there’s a really fine action scene filmed on a moving train hauling giant logs.  It’s one of the best train sequences in any Western, done live with excellent stunt work and no recourse to process shots.

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In the same film, Yvonne De Carlo is a vexing presence as the female lead — she helps the film’s running time pass most agreeably..

Both films are probably for fans of the genre only, but as such they don’t disappoint.

THE TALL MEN

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Clark Gable didn’t make many Westerns and never made a great one, except for, arguably, the modern Western The Misfits.  He never had to grind out a living in B-Westerns, either.  It’s a shame, because he looks terrific on a horse and has the physical self-possession of a classic Western hero.

It’s odd, too, because his breakthrough as an actor came as the result of a Western, The Painted Desert, his first talkie, from 1931.  He played second lead to star William Boyd but got so much fan mail that the studio which had him under contract, MGM, decided he was star material himself.

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The Tall Men, from 1955, directed by Raoul Walsh with his customary craft, is pretty close to being a great Western, however.  Gable was doubled a lot in his riding scenes on location during the production, having already suffered his second heart attack by 1955, and much of the first half of the film is studio bound, but this is no great loss, since the heart of it is a lively love triangle between Gable, Robert Ryan and Jane Russell, heavy on dry and amusing banter between the principals.

Russell gives one of her best performances in the film as the ambitious, down-to-earth Nella Turner.  It’s a pleasure to watch Gable’s easy, insistently masculine style of sparring with her — there was never an actor who conveyed a cocksure but amiable virility quite the way Gable did.  He’s got a lot of woman to work with here in Russell, and he seems to enjoy the challenge thoroughly.

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The second half of the film opens up suddenly, and somewhat surprisingly, to an epic scope, as the love triangle hits the trail on a cattle drive from Texas to Montana.  It becomes a different kind of film — grand, poetic, rooted in the landscape.  It has passages with horses and cattle and wagons and river crossings that recall passages in Walsh’s visually astonishing The Big Trail, from 1930.

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The cattle drive mounts to an action climax that doesn’t really deliver the goods visually or dramatically, but up to that moment it’s riveting.  And somehow Gable’s presence knits all the ill-fitting parts of the picture together.

The Tall Men may occupy a place in the second rung of the Western canon, but as plain old-fashioned Western entertainment goes it more than earns its spurs.