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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.

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Happy 90th Birthday, Lisa Lu

19 Jan

Actress Lisa Lu turns 90 today, January 19, 2017, and, according to IMDB, remains active. I’ve written about her here on four occasions and have seen everything in my collection in which she appears. The last unseen item was the 1962 feature film, RIDER ON A DEAD HORSE, a low-budget western about four characters battling each other over a buried gold stash, in which she plays one of the four. I purchased it from Warner Archive and watched it yesterday before starting this piece. I’ll discuss it further down.

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The Best Films of 1956

18 Dec

The older I get, the more I like watching films from the 1950s, the decade in which I was born, especially the mid-1950s. I like revisiting my favorites from that period and continually discovering new films from that time, be they westerns, dramas, crime movies, historical epics, musicals, sci-fi, horror, etc. It was a unique period for filmmaking, as Hollywood was undergoing a transition from the studio era, its ironclad contracts and ownership of theaters to one of independent production, independent theater chains, a loosening of the Production Code, more location shooting and greater acceptance by the public of foreign films. The old guard was still turning out exemplary work, as seen in the films of John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, William Wyler and King Vidor, all of whom had gotten their start during the silent era, while younger directors with bolder visions and new stylistic approaches had emerged during and after the war, including Orson Welles, Billy Wilder, John Huston, Elia Kazan, Anthony Mann, Vincente Minnelli, Nicholas Ray, Don Siegel, Samuel Fuller, Robert Aldrich, Douglas Sirk and Otto Preminger. In addition, a host of new talent was emerging from television, Broadway and documentaries and quickly finding their way to Hollywood, including Stanley Kubrick, Arthur Penn, Martin Ritt, Delbert Mann, Sidney Lumet, John Frankenheimer, and Robert Altman. These overlapping waves of directors offered an unprecedented talent pool the likes of which Hollywood has never seen since. It’s no coincidence that a group of French film critics developed the auteur theory around this time.

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Glenn Ford Centennial

1 May

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I’m taking a break from my Japan Journal in order to pay tribute to Glenn Ford, who would have turned 100 today, May 1, 2016. He was a movie star who may not have created as lasting a film legacy as many of his contemporaries, but still had a remarkable 54-year career in Hollywood. He died ten years ago, in 2006, at the age of 90. He had a pretty good 20-year run as a top-ranked studio movie star from the late 1940s to the late ’60s before turning to television and character work, which he did steadily up to 1981, working intermittently after that until his final screen and TV work in 1991, closing out a career that had begun in 1937. He’s probably best-remembered by film buffs today for three films: GILDA (1946), in which he played opposite a sultry, satin-clad Rita Hayworth; the film noir cop thriller, THE BIG HEAT (1953), directed by Fritz Lang; and the western 3:10 TO YUMA (1957), directed by Delmer Daves, in which he served as the film’s antagonist, one of the few times he played an outlaw in his career.

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B-Western Heaven: The Star-Director team of Roy Rogers and William Witney

22 Jan

This entry is part of CineMaven’s Classic Symbiotic Collaborations Blogathon, which highlights star-director teams of note from Hollywood’s classical era. I have chosen to cover director William Witney and his most frequent star collaborator, Roy Rogers.

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William Witney was a director who specialized in action and is probably best known today for directing or co-directing several of Republic Pictures’ finest serials of the 1930s and ’40s, including SOS COAST GUARD, ZORRO RIDES AGAIN, FIGHTING DEVIL DOGS, DICK TRACY RETURNS, DAREDEVILS OF THE RED CIRCLE, ZORRO’S FIGHTING LEGION, ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN MARVEL, and G-MEN VS. THE BLACK DRAGON, to name a few. He went on to devote the years 1946-1951 to directing Roy Rogers westerns in the final years of Roy’s reign as Republic Pictures’ top western star. He directed 27 Rogers westerns, including all 19 of Roy’s Trucolor westerns. Roy was the only western star to make this many B-westerns in color. Trucolor was a two-strip color process perfected by Republic’s house lab, Consolidated Film Industries, and used exclusively by Republic Pictures. (The most famous film to be shot in Trucolor is probably Nicholas Ray’s JOHNNY GUITAR, 1954.)

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Precursors to THE HATEFUL EIGHT

10 Jan

When I first read a pre-production description of Quentin Tarantino’s THE HATEFUL EIGHT and its tale of hardbitten characters waiting out a blizzard in a mountain outpost in the post-Civil War west after a stagecoach drops off its quartet of passengers, joining four suspicious characters who are already there, I immediately thought of several films with similar plots, but the ones that first leapt to mind were a western from 1951 and a samurai film from 1970.

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2015 – The Year in Movies and Television

30 Dec

Each year I like to single out not only the best new films and TV shows I saw in the year, but the best new discoveries from the full spectrum of film and TV history. If I’m seeing something for the first time, no matter how long ago it was produced, then—guess what?—it’s a new movie. This is the first time I’ve done this for my blog. (And where else are you going to find a Best-of list that includes both Ozu and Pokémon?)

Partly because I retired this year, I made more trips to movie theaters this year than I have in a single year since 2004. I made 31 trips to theaters in 2015 and saw 33 movies. 18 were U.S. productions, eight were from Japan, six from the U.K., three from China, and two from Hong Kong. 24 were new releases dating from 2014 or 2015. 17 were indies and six were documentaries (the most I’ve seen in one year on the big screen in a few decades). Ten were revival/repertory screenings. Only six were major studio Hollywood releases. It helped that I’m now eligible for senior citizen discounts at some theaters. ($8 at the Paris!)

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