Classic TV Westerns: “Death Valley Days”

21 Apr

“Death Valley Days” was TV’s first and longest-running western anthology series. Every episode was based on a true story from western history and tried to stay as close to the facts as possible, although some compression was required for some of the more complicated narratives. Famous figures were often the subjects of these episodes, but more often the stories focused on ordinary people settling the west and some of the common problems and conflicts they would face. Only a handful of episodes took place in Death Valley, but the series took its name from that location because it was the source of the product manufactured by the company which sponsored the series, Pacific Coast Borax Company, which used the show to advertise its cleaning product, 20 Mule Team Borax. The show wasn’t the property of a single network (CBS, NBC or ABC), but was instead syndicated to stations across the country which aired it when and how often they deemed suitable. The series had begun as a radio program that ran from 1930 to 1945, before being revived as a TV series in 1952 and running until 1970. It started out in black-and-white, but shot some episodes in color in its 12th season in 1963 and went full color in its 13th season in 1964.

The Encore Western Channel began running episodes of the series in a daily weekday afternoon time slot on January 2, 2015, starting with the color episodes and eventually going back to the beginning and running the black-and-white seasons as well. I’ve watched several dozen episodes since the series began and greatly enjoy these little slices of American history. Among the famous historical figures portrayed in episodes I’ve seen are Lewis & Clark, Kit Carson, John C. Fremont, William Randolph Hearst, Ambrose Bierce, Horace Greeley, Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, Billy the Kid, Doc Holliday, Sam Bass, Judge Roy Bean, Lillie Langtry, Lola Montez, Lotta Crabtree, the Dalton Brothers, Hugh Glass, L. Frank Baum and Isadora Duncan!

“The Girl Who Walked the West” dramatized the exploits of Meriwether Lewis (Dick Simmons) & William Clark (Don Matheson), as well as their Indian guide, Sacagawea (Angela Dorian).

“Samaritans, Mountain Style” featured John C. Fremont (Dick Simmons) on one of his early expeditions to forge an accessible trail to California.

“Spring Rendezvous” told the tale of frontiersman Kit Carson (James MacArthur) and his romance with the daughter (Brioni Farrell) of a tribal chief.

“Doc Holliday’s Gold Bars” offered up an amusing tale of notorious gambler-gunslinger Doc Holliday (Warren Stevens) trying to pull off an extraordinary con, only to find the tables turned on him.

“Three Minutes to Eternity” showed us the ill-fated raid on Coffeyville Kansas by the Dalton bothers, Bob (Forrest Tucker), Grat (Jim Davis) and Emmett (Tom Skerritt).

Other episodes dealing with historical figures are covered in greater depth below.

Some episodes offered stories centered around Native American, Black, Asian, and Mexican characters. I deal with three of those in greater detail below.

The original host was veteran character actor Stanley Andrews, who was billed as “The Old Ranger” during his tenure, lasting from 1952 to 1964, followed by a succession of much bigger names in the host chair, including Robert Taylor, Dale Robertson, John Payne and, in his final acting/hosting work before running for Governor of California, Ronald Reagan.

Taylor and Reagan sometimes starred in episodes they hosted, which gave the series two of the biggest Hollywood names they’d get. There were plenty of familiar faces in the show and you’ll see some in the pictures I’ve posted, including Forrest Tucker, Jim Davis, Robert Blake and June Lockhart. Some, of course, like Clint Eastwood, Tom Skerritt, Yaphet Kotto and George Takei, became famous later on. More often, however, the actors weren’t as well known.

“Shanghai Kelly’s Birthday Party”:

“The Lawless Have Laws”:

“The Last Letter”:

I’ve reviewed eleven episodes so far for IMDB. Here are notes on some of my favorite episodes, accompanied by screen shots and, where applicable, excerpts from my IMDB reviews.

“The Kid from Hell’s Kitchen” (1966) starred Robert Blake as Billy the Kid and recounts the explosive incident that catapulted him into outlaw status.

“The Kid from Hell’s Kitchen,” a 1966 episode of “Death Valley Days,” tells the story of 18-year-old William Bonney and how he met and gradually earned the trust of his mentor and father figure, the English rancher John Tunstall (John Alderson), in Lincoln County, New Mexico in 1877-78. Bonney tries to steal from Tunstall on two occasions, but each time the kindly Tunstall gives him a chance, recognizing that all Bonney needs is respect and decent treatment. Bonney rewards him by becoming a top hand at his ranch. At the time, Tunstall and his colleagues, Alexander McSween (James Seay) and John Chisum (Roy Engel), are in a business dispute with rival merchant Lawrence Murphy (Lane Bradford) over government cattle contracts, which soon escalates into a lethal confrontation, the result of which so incenses Bonney that he takes matters into his own hands and responds with violence, thus beginning his career as an outlaw, soon to be known as Billy the Kid.

The show offers a rather simplified sum-up of the conflict between the two factions and leaves out a lot of other important figures from what would be known as the Lincoln County War, which left 30 men dead and had to be resolved by intervention from the territorial governor. Still, it’s a well-acted, concisely told version of the central relationship in Billy’s life, that between him and Tunstall. What I especially liked here was the abundance of screen time given to the other key figures in the conflict, McSween, Chisum, and Murphy, all played by strong character actors.

The complete review is found here.

“A Calamity Called Jane” (1966) charts Calamity Jane’s short-lived working relationship with Wild Bill Hickok. Jane is played by Fay Spain, who really tones down her usual glamor here, and Hickok is played by Rhodes Reason.

For far too long in Hollywood’s history, Calamity Jane was given the glamorous treatment in westerns depicting her character, most notably in THE PLAINSMAN (1936), in which Jean Arthur played her, THE PALEFACE (1948), with Jane Russell, CALAMITY JANE AND SAM BASS (1949), with Yvonne De Carlo, and CALAMITY JANE (1953), in which a singing Doris Day played the title role. So I was pleasantly surprised to watch the “Death Valley Days” episode, “A Calamity Called Jane” (1966), in which Jane is portrayed as a homely, salty-talking, hard-drinking, two-fisted cuss in dirty buckskins, unkempt hair and no makeup. Fay Spain runs with the part and brings a rather sad and touching figure to life in a short tale that compresses her entire relationship with Wild Bill Hickok (Rhodes Reason) to the course of a few short days, from the time they meet to his untimely demise at the hand of an irate gambler. During that period, she is asked to join Hickok’s Wild West Show to do trick shooting and riding, but has to contend with Hickok’s disdain of her personal habits and troublesome behavior. Despite his criticism, she comes to realize she’s in love with him and makes the impulsive decision to try and adopt a more ladylike image, after a visit to a dress shop, with disastrous results. Her feelings are deeply hurt and she retires to a barn after retrieving her battered buckskin pants and jacket and nurses her bitterness with a bottle of whiskey, talking to herself and lamenting being made to look foolish. It’s a moving scene and we get a sense of the vulnerable human being beneath her crusty exterior.

The complete review is found here.

“The Paper Dynasty” (1964) offers a glimpse of the early San Francisco-based newspaper career of William Randolph Hearst, played by James Hampton (later the bugler on “F Troop”). Journalist and short story writer Ambrose Bierce (James Lanphier) and actress Sarah Bernhardt (Michele Montau) also make appearances, as does Hearst’s father, George Hearst (Barry Kelley).

“The Paper Dynasty” is an episode of the long-running series, “Death Valley Days,” and offers a historical snapshot of young aspiring newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst (James Hampton) and his attempt to turn the money-losing San Francisco Examiner around in 1887. His father, Senator George Hearst (Barry Kelley), the paper’s owner, gives young “Willie” a year to make it pay for itself. Hearst hires the renowned writer Ambrose Bierce (James Lanphier) as a reporter to do investigative pieces and a young former actress, henceforth known as “Annie Laurie” (Lory Patrick), as a “sob sister” to capture human interest stories. The paper goes after big targets, including some of the powerful citizens in the wealthy Nob Hill district and the railroad companies, backers of Hearst’s father. One of the interview subjects of a lighter series is none other than the great actress Sarah Bernhardt (played in one brief scene by Michele Montau). When the year is up and the paper is still losing money, things look bad for its future.

It’s a low-budget endeavor with most scenes taking place indoors and most of the action played out in Hearst’s office at the Examiner, but the acting is good and the portrayal of Hearst as a crusader for a free and uncompromised press is something of a novelty given the way Hearst is usually depicted.

Hearst and Bernhardt:

Hearst and his father:

The complete review is found here.

“A Picture of a Lady” (1965) charts the devotion of Texas Judge Roy Bean (Peter Whitney) to actress Lillie Langtry (Francine York) and their years of correspondence. He goes so far as to rename his town Langtry. When she finally pays a visit to the remote location to satisfy his wish to meet her, she finds she’s a little too late. This story has been dramatized in feature films, including John Huston’s THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JUDGE ROY BEAN (1972), starring Paul Newman as Judge Bean and Ava Gardner as Langtry.

“Hugh Glass Meets the Bear” (1966) tells the story of mountain man Hugh Glass and his near-fatal encounter with a bear while on a trapping mission. The exact same story, told here in 30 minutes, was the basis for the 2015 feature film, THE REVENANT, which was 156 minutes long and was nominated for 12 Oscars, three of which the film won, including Best Actor for Leonardo DiCaprio, who played Glass. Here he’s played by English actor John Alderson, who also played English rancher John Tunstall in the Billy the Kid episode cited above.

This 1966 episode of “Death Valley Days” tells basically the same story that would be told 50 years later in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2015 film, THE REVENANT, starring Leonardo DiCaprio in the role of Hugh Glass. Glass was a renowned fur trapper and explorer, aka “mountain man,” in the early years of the 19th century (he died in 1833) and his story has also been told in the 1971 film, MAN OF THE WILDERNESS, where he was played by Richard Harris. In “Hugh Glass Meets the Bear,” Glass (John Alderson) is recruited by Major Henry (Tris Coffin) to lead a scouting party through Indian territory to find a trail to Fort Henry at the mouth of the Yellowstone. At one point, he scouts ahead to find water and is confronted at a stream by a bear who attacks him and leaves him badly mauled in a scene shot on location with a real bear (although closeups of Glass in the near-fatal embrace feature a stuffed bear). Two of the men, Fitzpatrick (Morgan Woodward) and Glass’s protégé, Jim Bridger (Carl Reindel), are convinced that Glass, seen unconscious with bloody claw marks on his face, is mortally wounded and beyond hope and they leave him behind, going so far as to take his rifle. Glass slowly revives and has to make his way back to the fort, bitter at being left behind without a weapon in such a seemingly callous manner, especially since he’d done so much to mentor Bridger, then 19 years old, who would become a famous mountain man, scout and explorer in his own right. There’s not much more to it than that, with very little time spent on Glass’s journey back, and it’s all told in a tidy 25 minutes. The new film takes 156 minutes to tell pretty much the same tale, in much greater detail, of course, and it casts Tom Hardy as John Fitzgerald, the real-life figure whom Fitzpatrick, in the TV episode, is based on, and Will Poulter as Jim Bridger. I suspect that the real story of Glass’s encounter with the bear and his journey back to Fort Kiowa lies somewhere between the  simplified “Death Valley Days” episode and the R-rated THE REVENANT.

The complete review can be found here.

“A Man Called Abraham” (1967) focuses on a lesser-known figure, a black missionary and former slave who seeks to minister the gospel to the Apaches. Starring Yaphet Kotto as the title character, it’s a touching story of faith and redemption and co-stars Rayford Barnes as a fugitive killer who takes Abraham prisoner.

“A Man Called Abraham,” a 1967 episode of “Death Valley Days,” tells an extraordinary true tale of an escaped slave named Abraham (Yaphet Kotto) who lives in Apache country in Arizona and functions as a missionary, seeking, so far unsuccessfully when this story begins, to spread the word of the Gospel to the Apaches living there. A sudden turn of events finds Abraham a prisoner of a fugitive killer named Cassidy (Rayford Barnes), who forces him to accompany him on a flight through the arid terrain hoping Abraham will be able to find sources of water. A small band of Apaches comes upon them at night led by Victorio (Michael Keep), the Apache leader and friend of Abraham, who offers to kill Cassidy and free him, but Abraham insists upon staying with the killer, believing it is God’s will that he save the man’s soul or die trying. Victorio is stunned by Abraham’s devotion to his “strange god,” but allows the killer to live, although first taking everything from him but his pistol. Thus begins a short but remarkable journey.

It’s rare to see such a deeply felt tale of faith in a TV western, especially given the harsh setting and rough-edged characters surrounding Abraham and his little homestead, which he has dubbed Beersheba. Abraham understands the high probability of death in this situation, either at the hands of Cassidy or from lack of food and water, but his belief in God dictates that he accept his fate unquestioningly. Actor Yaphet Kotto conveys Abraham’s devotion to his faith with every fiber of his being, giving one of the most moving performances I’ve yet seen in an episode of this series.

The complete review is found here.

“The Other White Man” (1964) looks at the experiences of a runaway slave, played by James Edwards, who went to live with the Dakota Indians and resents being called by the title phrase. When an Indian agent comes looking to negotiate a treaty, the former slave is fearful of being returned to slavery, not knowing that slavery has been abolished.

“The Other White Man” is a Season 13 episode of “Death Valley Days” and tells an incident-packed story of conflict between Indians and whites in the Dakota Territory around 1875, when a treaty barred whites from entering Dakota land. In the opening, we see a Dakota Indian warrior, Running Wolf, kill a white gold prospector as he’s threatening Tacilia, an Indian woman also known as Healing Woman, who has ordered the prospector off the land since he’s violating the treaty. The Indian chief, Tall Rock, fears retaliation by the army and wants to try to make amends. Meanwhile, at the nearest fort, the commander bars a wagon train from traveling through Indian country, while Dr. Ransome, an Indian agent from Washington, D.C., heads out to visit Tall Rock to attempt to renegotiate the treaty to allow settlers to pass through. Dr. Ransome’s guide is killed by Running Wolf and Ransome is wounded, but nursed back to health in the Dakota camp by Healing Woman.

At this point, fairly late in the narrative, the title character, “the Other White Man,” is called in by Tall Rock to help get Ransome back to the fort and mediate with the whites. This man turns out to be Scipio Gaines, a black man and runaway slave who hates it when the Indians call him “white man,” seeing him as no different from the white men he’s fled. Gaines has been living among the Indians for many years and has had very little news from the outside world. He is fearful of any contact with whites because he believes they will return him to slavery, so he meets Ransome with great apprehension.

The complete review can be found here.

There are two episodes I’ve seen so far that qualify for inclusion in my “Asian Stars in TV Westerns” series of blog entries. Both deal with acts of bigotry aimed at Asian immigrants in 19th century California. A Japanese-American actor plays a Chinese immigrant in one episode and a Korean actor plays a Japanese immigrant in the other.

“The Book” (1965) stars George Takei as a Chinese immigrant who makes friends with a white miner (Tom Skerritt) who defended him from an attack by bigoted bullies.

“The Book” is one of a handful of “Death Valley Days” episodes to focus on the experiences of Asians in the old west. Here we see a Chinese immigrant named Wong Lee (George Takei), newly arrived in the mining town of Calico, California, who is bullied upon his arrival by a henchman working for the town boss but then aided by a white man, Patrick Hogan (Tom Skerritt), looking for work in the town. When Hogan is declared persona non grata for standing up to the henchman, he has no choice but to accept Wong’s offer to stay with him in a little shack outside of town. It’s not clear what Wong’s aims are, but he has brought an array of pots and pans with him, so he might be looking for work as a cook. In fact, in one scene he makes Chinese food for Hogan, prompting the aspiring miner to declare it the best thing he’s ever eaten. Wong has an ancient book of wisdom, entirely in Chinese and held by his family for a thousand years, that he was willing to die for, a stance which led to his confrontation in the opening scene when the henchman was ready to shoot Wong for defending the book. Hogan can’t believe such a book is worth dying for, but Wong eventually shares some numerological tidbits from it that lead to a plan by Hogan to see if the book can predict gambling results at the local saloon. (The book is never identified by name, although I’m guessing it’s the Book of I Ching.) Hogan’s good fortune at the roulette table incurs the wrath of Dawson, the town boss and saloon owner, leading to an unhappy finale.

The complete review can be found here.

“The Dragon of Gold Hill” (1970), from the series’ last season, focuses on a beleaguered community of Japanese settlers during a period of drought in 1869 California. Although the main Japanese character is played by a Korean actor, Soon-Tek Oh, his partner is played by a Japanese-American actress, Momo Yashima.

“The Dragon of Gold Hill” is one of the few episodes of “Death Valley Days” to deal with the Asian experience in the Old West. (See also “The Book,” starring George Takei, an episode I’ve also reviewed here.) Here we see a Japanese community of farmers in Gold Hill in El Dorado County, California in 1869, led by Sakurai (Soon-Tek Oh) and his female companion, Okei (Momo Yashima), who had begun a farm to grow tea trees and mulberry trees (to feed silkworms) under the tutelage of a German who had worked in Japan, Henry Schnell. When the farm failed because of drought, Schnell returned to Japan to try and raise funds to bring all the Japanese back home but has not been heard from in a long time when the story starts. Okei wants to make friends among the Americans and is delighted when they meet a young white farming couple in the area, Jim and Amy Allen (Mark Jenkins, Frontis Chandler), who are kind to them. Amy makes an effort to visit Okei and a friendship is forged. However, the drought and subsequent crop failure affect every farm in the area and a local troublemaker, Dan Turner (William Smith), begins stirring up hatred of the Japanese and blaming them for every bad thing that has happened, citing God’s wrath at the whites for letting the Japanese settle there. Sheriff Holmes (Don Megowan) tries to squelch Turner’s efforts, but when a fever epidemic starts taking lives among the whites, Turner incites the passions of the disgruntled townsfolk and launches a raid on the Japanese colony.

Action star William Smith plays the bigoted townsman who incites the other farmers to raid the Japanese colony.

Sakurai (Soon-Tek Oh) gets a chance to employ Japanese martial arts against his attackers:

The complete review can be found here.

“The Magic Locket” (1965) is set in San Francisco and features June Lockhart as a celebrated librarian who takes a poor girl (Kathy Garver) under her wing.

One of the great things about the “Death Valley Days” anthology series (1952-1970) is that it didn’t limit itself to traditional western sagas. The series often recounted stories from San Francisco’s history, including one about William Randolph Hearst called “The Paper Dynasty,” which I reviewed here nearly a year ago. The tale told in “The Magic Locket” is also set in 19th century San Francisco (ca. 1890) and deals with a spinster librarian named Ina Coolbrith who takes a poor but precocious street vendor named Dorita under her wing and encourages the girl, who quotes Dickens and Thackeray the way other kids would chant street rhymes, to write a play, which she is then asked to perform for Ina’s friends at a private reading. Reference is made early on to Ina’s helpfulness towards Bret Harte, Mark Twain and Jack London and, in the course of the episode, we meet another noted writer, Joaquin Miller, who is described on Wikipedia as “the Poet of the Sierras” and who is a good friend of Ina. A treasured locket causes a rift between Ina and Dorita and in attempting to heal the rift, a secret is shared that reveals a deep connection between the two. There is a surprise reveal at the end that should thrill both history and dance buffs.

The complete review can be found here.

“Lotta Crabtree” (1954) charts the rise to fame of actress-singer-dancer Lotta Crabtree, who worked the western towns as a child until her growing celebrity led to bookings across the country. In an early scene, she’s taught a dance routine by Lola Montez herself, the legendary European star who toured the U.S. in the early 1850s and was the subject of German filmmaker Max Ophuls’ final film, LOLA MONTES (1955). The episode gives us ample clips of Lotta performing first as a child, played by phenomenal tap dancer and future Mouseketeer Sharon Baird, and then as an adult, portrayed by onetime Universal musical star Gloria Jean. I love the fact that there’s so much actual performance in the show. We get some idea of what audiences back then experienced and why this entertainer was so beloved.

Lotta and Lola:

The complete review can be found here.

Finally, a look at the very first episode of the series, “How Death Valley Got Its Name” (1952). This one told the story of a group of wagons which breaks off from a wagon train en route to the California Gold Rush in order to save time and distance by crossing the unforgiving Death Valley, a foolhardy move that ends badly for most of the party. Filmed on location in Death Valley, it focuses on the actual details of survival and the hard choices and life-or-death decisions that have to be made each step of the way as food and water become scarce and their destination doesn’t seem any closer. It’s quite harrowing. The only name actor in the cast is Phyllis Coates, who was playing Lois Lane on TV’s “Adventures of Superman” at the time. She’s the blonde in two of the pictures below.

The Encore Western Channel runs quite a few other classic western series that I want to cover here. Up next is “Tales of Wells Fargo,” which had a knack for casting future movie stars in legendary outlaw roles.

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