Western Round-Up and New Announcements (Continued)
Fans have been waiting for Fox's The Gunfighter it seems like forever and now it's finally here, packaged with Rawhide and Garden of Evil each in individual thin cases in Fox Western Classics.
The films are only available in the box set. The Gunfighter, released in 1950, is a one of the western genre's acknowledged classics. Gregory Peck stars as the veteran Johnny Ringo, a gunfighter seeking to put his past behind him somehow, but dogged by the constant desire of younger men to test themselves against him. Ringo is a real flesh and blood character with human emotions far beyond those usually espoused by gunmen in standard B westerns or even more aspiring minor A ones. In Peck's hands he becomes a tragic figure who draws our sympathy even though we know he's a killer. The film is beautifully photographed by Arthur Miller and although much of the story is shot on the western back lot, effective use is made of Lone Pine exteriors early in the story. A western experience not to be missed and worthy of countless repeated viewings. Rawhide was made a year later (shot entirely at Lone Pine) and found Tyrone Power playing an apprentice stationmaster at a depot of the overland mail system. When the experienced stationmaster (Edgar Buchanan) is killed and the depot taken over by a gang of outlaws, Power faces a tense battle of wits to regain control. Complicating matters is the presence of Susan Hayward playing a young woman trapped in the middle of the situation along with her infant daughter. Power is good as the somewhat helpless apprentice, but the best work comes from the outlaw gang including Hugh Marlowe as the somewhat refined boss, Jack Elam as a sleazy, lecherous sadist of a second in command, and Dean Jagger as a rather simple-minded follower. The film is directed with a sure hand for suspense and pace by Henry Hathaway. Garden of Evil was also directed by Hathaway three years later and though not as well paced as Rawhide, benefited from the use of colour and CinemaScope. Gary Cooper stars as Hooker, one of three steamship passengers (Richard Widmark and Cameron Mitchell are the others) stranded in southern Mexico who are subsequently hired by Susan Hayward to help her rescue her husband (Hugh Marlowe) trapped in a mining cave-in. The film is a well-paced adventure with adequate action and one that balances the rescue party's internal jealousies and greed with the need to act united against bandits and Indians intent on hindering its efforts. Cooper's man of few words role is a quintessential one for him. Bolstering one's enjoyment is some excellent use of the wide screen to capture the southern Mexico exteriors and a fine score by Bernard Hermann. While The Gunfighter is clearly the class of this set, both of the other films are worthy western entries and offer a nice contrast to each other. Fox has given each of the films a respectful treatment on DVD. The Gunfighter and Rawhide, both filmed in black and white with the standard 1.37:1 aspect ratio, fare well with nicely detailed crisp images and modest amounts of grain in evidence. Both films look quite clean and black levels are deep, perhaps marginally more so on The Gunfighter. Garden of Evil has been given a 2.55:1 anamorphic transfer and demonstrates once again that Fox sure knows what it's doing with its transfers of such films. The image is wonderfully crisp and colourful with excellent image detail. Fox provides a warning before the film that it has used the best surviving elements, implying that we should be prepared for some imperfections, but it sure didn't look that way to me. Both The Gunfighter and Rawhide provide mono tracks with Garden of Evil offering a Dolby 4.0 surround one. Each sounds clean and clear. The 4.0 one demonstrates some minor directional effects across the front, but surround action seemed non-existent to me. Each disc provides two new featurettes (a making-of one and another featuring one of the cast or crew), the original theatrical trailer, and various publicity galleries. Garden of Evil adds a very fine audio commentary by film and music historians John Morgan, Nick Redman, Steven Smith, and William Stromberg, as well as an isolated score track. Highly recommended.
Whereas the Fox Western Classics release above gave us three westerns new to DVD, Universal's James Stewart: The Western Collection includes six westerns that have all previously been available as individual releases. Most western fans are likely to have all these titles already, but for those who don't, this new collection is the economical way to go both in terms of price ($30 retail for 6 films) and shelf space (all the new releases are slimcases). The set includes the classic 1939 version of Destry Rides Again in which Stewart stars with Marlene Dietrich; three of Stewart's entertaining 1950s collaborations with director Anthony Mann (Winchester '73, Bend of the River, The Far Country); Night Passage (1957) which was originally set to be directed by Mann also; and The Rare Breed (1966) which co-stars Maureen O'Hara. These films are well known and have been extensively reviewed in the past, so they need few words from me here. Suffice it to say that Destry Rides Again, Winchester '73, and Bend of the River are the class of this set. The Far Country, Night Passage, and The Rare Breed are progressively less compelling than the first three, but still each offer satisfying western entertainment from various points of view. The Far Country, for example, has an outstanding collection of character actors in the cast (Walter Brennan, John McIntyre, Jay C. Flippen, and Henry Morgan to list but a few), and fine location work in the Jasper National Park area of Canada. Night Passage offers an opportunity to see Audie Murphy in action outside his more standard run of Universal westerns. One might suspect that Universal has merely recycled the transfers from the original DVD releases of these titles, but after a direct comparison of the old and new DVD release for each film, it's clear that is not the case in every instance. The new versions of Bend of the River, Night Passage, and The Rare Breed appear to be identical to the old ones, but noticeable improvements are evident on the other three titles. Destry Rides Again and Winchester '73 now look somewhat sharper with observably deeper blacks. The Far Country now has a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer that is noticeably sharper and brighter than the previous release's open matte full frame effort. All the titles have mono tracks that provide clear dialogue and reasonably authoritative gunshot sounds. Supplements are unchanged from the original releases - theatrical trailers for all but Destry Rides Again, with the addition of a James Stewart commentary on Winchester '73. Highly recommended.
One of the few latter-day stars who have maintained an ongoing connection with western films is Tom Selleck. He along with the contemporaneous Sam Elliott really look the part of the traditional western hero and both star in The Shadow Riders, a 1982 made-for TV feature film, now available on DVD from Sony. Based on a story by Louis L'Amour, the film finds Selleck and Elliott playing brothers (Mac and Dal Traven respectively) who fought on opposite sides during the Civil War, but have now returned to their ranch in Texas. There they find that a band of Confederate rebels who have refused to surrender has ravaged the local town and also kidnapped the brothers' young sisters as well as Dal's sweetheart (Katharine Ross). The brothers set off for Mexico in pursuit accompanied by their Uncle Buck (Ben Johnson). As directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, the film's style is reminiscent of John Wayne's final westerns like Chisum, The Undefeated, and Cahill: U.S. Marshal - a reasonable amount of action, some good cinematography, a fine supporting cast, but too much of a contrived western feel that even most of the later, budget-constrained B westerns of the late 1940s and early 1950s managed to avoid. The contrived plot too obviously tries to shoehorn in many of the western genre's plot devices and the film's TV origins are also evident with the many obvious breaks intended for the insertion of commercials. Still, Selleck and Elliott are likable enough heroes that they tend to elevate the overall experience above some of its lesser component parts. Sony presents the film full frame as originally telecast. Colours have good fidelity and sharpness is quite good on the whole. There are no edge effects and some modest grain is evident. The mono sound is clear. There are no supplements other than some western trailers/DVD previews. A rental for western fans at best. Those looking for somewhat more-rewarding western work featuring Selleck and Elliott together should try The Sacketts (1979, on DVD from WB).
The disappointment of the first DVD release of 1930's The Big Trail starring a young John Wayne has been addressed by Fox with a new two-disc edition that provides us with the widescreen version that fans have long been hoping for. The film details an epic pioneer trek westward into the Pacific Northwest, led by John Wayne as scout and wagon train leader Breck Coleman. He must deal with the hardships of the trek itself as well as a ruthless wagon master (Tyrone Power Sr.) and a hustler (Ian Keith) who joins the trek at the last minute. Marguerite Chapman provides Wayne's romantic incentive for the trip. The film, directed with considerable flare by Raoul Walsh despite what is a rather lumbering story, has some incredible images of the West in general and terrain problems that the wagons have to overcome in particular. One sequence in which they are manhandled down a cliff and then across to the other side of a river is but a single instance of such problems, but it's indicative of the film's realistic look and feel. In fact, the film is almost documentary-like in this respect. The human side of things is less successful as Wayne struggles with the fairly predictable plot dramatics. Inexperienced as he was at such a major role, the fact that he is able to succeed as well as he does is a testament to the budding charisma that would eventually make him a major star for many years. Among the rest of the main cast members, Tyrone Power Sr. comes off best. Aside from its being Wayne's first major starring vehicle, the film's chief claim to fame is its use of the Fox Grandeur 70mm widescreen process. The location photography in The Big Trail is spectacular and the use of the widescreen demonstrates uncommon skill in composition for what was then a completely new aspect ratio for the director to deal with. A standard Academy ratio version (1.37:1) of the film was also shot at the same time (not to mention three other foreign language versions) and comparison of comparable scenes demonstrates how much more powerful a viewing experience the Grandeur version provides. The vast numbers of extras (20,000), animals, wagons, and props employed are certainly evident in the standard version, but they are seen to much, much greater effect in the Grandeur version. Unfortunately, the excessive costs for theatres to be equipped for projecting the widescreen version and the generally poor economics of the times continent-wide doomed the process to be a footnote in film history. More than two decades would pass before widescreen films would reappear and finally become the industry standard. Disc One of Fox's new DVD presents The Big Trail in a 2.10:1 anamorphic transfer that demonstrates quite a strong image with very good detail. There are occasional flurries of scratches, but they're a minor annoyance to suffer in order to have this widescreen version available to us. The mono sound is a bit more problematic with some muffled dialogue evident or unrealistic effects during storms or complex action sequences. Much of this is an artifact of the sound recording difficulties of the times, especially for outdoor filming. Overall, though, it doesn't detract from one's enjoyment of the film. There are four featurettes focusing on the making of the film, the Grandeur process, John Wayne, and Raoul Walsh which taken collectively are an informative and useful introduction to the film. An audio commentary by Richard Schickel is interesting enough but doesn't have the level of depth that one would like on such a production. Also included is an extensive photo gallery. Disc Two contains the Academy ratio version of the film. Highly recommended. Note that this release is also available as part of the box set John Wayne: The Fox Westerns which also contains the previously-released versions of North to Alaska, The Comancheros, and The Undefeated. If you don't have all or most of those films, the set is an economical way to fill in your western collection.
Fans of The Wild Wild West will be glad to know that the series' Fourth Season has made its way to DVD in a six-disc set from Paramount on behalf of CBS. The fourth was also the series' final season, sometimes credited to a purge of more violent shows at the time, but likely as much due to the fact that the series was showing its age by then. The episodes were almost uniformly formulaic in terms of plot elements - some sort of evil mastermind bent on local if not national domination, a romantic interest for Robert Conrad (as Secret Service agent James West), an opportunity for disguise for Ross Martin (as agent Artemus Gordon), and the requisite action sequences for Conrad. That's not to say that the episodes still weren't entertaining in themselves, for efforts were made to use a variety of guest stars to broaden the appeal. The season's 24 episodes included appearances by the likes of Harvey Korman, Kevin McCarthy, Floyd Patterson, Ted Knight, Mickey Hargitay, Charles McGraw, Pat Paulsen, Michael Dunn (in his last appearance as Dr. Loveless), Jackie Coogan, Alan Hale Jr., Don "Red" Barry, Jim Backus, Jackie DeShannon, Henry Wilcoxon, and Nina Foch. Regular series stars Robert Gordon and Ross Martin also seemingly continued to invest considerable enthusiasm in their performances and production values remained high so that the individual shows retained stand-alone appeal. Just taken as a whole, the series and its overall concept had begun to wear. The DVD presentations are fairly much at the same standard as the second and third seasons - bright and colourful with a fairly sharp image. Certainly some grain is evident at times and there is the occasional scratch or piece of debris, but nothing to detract from one's enjoyment. The mono sound is fully satisfactory in clarity and fidelity. There are no supplements. This is an easy recommend for The Wild Wild West adherents. If you're new to the series, try the first season set initially as it provides some fine supplementary material to heighten one's enjoyment and initiation into the series.
The latest Paramount/CBS releases of the Rawhide and Gunsmoke TV series are also at hand. It's The Third Season, Volume 1 (15 hour-long episodes on four discs) in the case of the former and The Second Season, Volume 2 (19 half-hour-long episodes on three discs) in the case of the latter. Both of these series provide superior western programming and it's good to see them continuing. Those who have been collecting the earlier sets will know what to expect from the latest installments and the quality of the program content and their transfer to DVD is at the same high standard. Rawhide continues its pattern of familiar stories with at times offbeat twists and well-known guest stars (Julie London, Dane Clark, Peter Lorre, John Agar, Frankie Lane, Chester Morris, Agnes Moorehead, Mercedes McCambridge, Woody Strode, E.G. Marshall, Robert Culp, and Mary Astor). At this early point in its long history, Gunsmoke employed guest stars much less and relied more on the strong interaction between its principal cast members James Arness, Amanda Blake, Dennis Weaver, and Milburn Stone. Familiar character actors did show up frequently among the supporting cast, however. Both DVD sets continue to be ones that you can dip into randomly as the spirit moves you and come away well entertained. The Rawhide package has no supplements, but the Gunsmoke one provides seven original sponsor spots starring the main cast members. Both offer brief written synopses of each episode and give all original air dates. Both sets are recommended. (As an aside to Paramount/CBS, while it is good and deserving to see these continuing, what about another superior western series, Have Gun - Will Travel? It's been stalled after the release of the third season set for over two years now.)
The Cisco Kid has had quite a history in the movies and on television. He was played by both Warner Baxter (3 films) and Cesar Romero (6 films) at Fox during the 1930s and early 1940s before showing up at Monogram in the second half of the 1940s played by first Duncan Renaldo (3 films) and then Gilbert Roland (6 films). United Artists then enlisted Duncan Renaldo for five more features between 1948 and 1950. Renaldo then moved over to TV where 156 half-hour episodes of The Cisco Kid television series were telecast from 1950-1956. VCI has already given us the Gilbert Roland films on DVD and now follows that release up with a Cisco Kid Western Triple Feature of three of the Renaldo films, each about 62 minutes in length. Included are The Cisco Kid Returns (1945), Old New Mexico (1945), and Gay Amigo (1949). Let's dispose of the latter (one of the United Artists titles) first as it's the weakest of the three films. Cisco and Pancho are blamed for a crime they didn't commit and with the US cavalry on their case, they have to find the real culprits fast. If this one sounds pretty cut and dried, that's because it is. There's no effort to introduce any plot aspects beyond the standard conventions and Cisco's character has been shorn of any rough edges, taking on the somewhat syrupy "hey Cisco, hey Pancho" persona so closely identified with the later TV series. Leo Carrillo is around to play Pancho and one can already see the excessively annoying Mexican caricature mannerisms that would spoil (at least for me) most of the later TV episodes. The film does offer some compensation in its use of many familiar western players such as Clayton Moore, Kenneth MacDonald, Fred Kohler Jr., and Bud Osborne. The film's DVD presentation is also the poorest of the three in the set. The image frequently looks soft and at times fuzzy. The mono sound is characterized by noticeable hiss. Old New Mexico and The Cisco Kid Returns are both above-average B westerns with interesting story lines (Cisco impersonating a murdered rancher in order to expose the killer/Cisco and Pancho kidnapping a nurse from a stage in order to save her from a false murder charge) and a Cisco Kid character that skirts the law sufficiently in the course of bringing the tales to a conclusion to differentiate himself from the usual B western hero. Renaldo fits the role well and he's ably abetted by Martin Garralaga as Pancho, playing him as a sidekick but not with the same degree of silliness with which Leo Carrillo later invested the character. Monogram, which produced both of these entries, knew what it was about when it came to B westerns even though it didn't manage to give them quite the same production polish as Republic. It did have a good stable of attractive leading ladies and Gwen Kenyon is a particular attribute in Old New Mexico. On DVD, Old New Mexico looks very good, offering a fairly sharp image with deep blacks and good shadow detail. The Cisco Kid Returns is not quite as good overall, mainly suffering from shadow detail problems and occasional softness. Moderate grain is evident on both the Monogram titles. The mono sound is in decent shape on both. The disc also offers, as supplements, a colour episode of the Cisco Kid TV series (fairly fuzzy looking) and trailers for two other VCI western releases on DVD. Recommended.