Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The James Stewart Blogathon – Mr. Smith Goes to Grandview in Magic Town (1947)

This essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to The James Stewart Blogathon, currently underway from April 14-17 and hosted by The Classic Film and TV Café.  For a complete schedule of the movies and topics discussed in the blogathon, click here.

Actor James Stewart emerged from World War II as a full Colonel after originally enlisting as a private—one of the very few Americans to achieve that honor during the war.  Upon being demobbed, Stewart took a bit of time off from motion picture making; he was a little uneasy as to whether he’d be able to restart his acting career (it had been nearly five years since his last picture), but after briefly reconsidering a change of profession to working in the aviation industry (he had distinguished himself as a combat pilot during the war) Jimmy decided the actor’s life was for him.  He no doubt believed he made the right choice when his first postwar film, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), snagged him a third Best Actor Oscar nomination (not to mention nods for Best Picture and Best Director for Frank Capra).

It’s a Wonderful Life is now considered by many film buffs both a true movie classic (it was put on the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 1990) and a Yuletide viewing tradition…but at the time of its release, it had only moderate success at the box office.  Audiences, it would seem, were a little frosty towards the cheery optimism of the picture—preferring the pessimistic reality of a movie like The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) instead.  It took the failure of a similar film released after IAWL to convey this to the actor, who then “grew up” with more mature movies like Call Northside 777 (1948) and Rope (1948) before hitting upon a winning streak in the 1950s with the westerns of Anthony Mann (Winchester ’73, Bend of the River) and additional Alfred Hitchcock thrillers (Rear Window, Vertigo).  The movie that echoes much of IAWL is 1947’s Magic Town—humorously referred to by some as “the greatest Frank Capra film not directed by Frank Capra.”

Former GI Lawrence “Rip” Smith (Stewart) has but one goal in life: he wants to be rich.  His chosen profession is polling, taking the public’s pulse on the issues of the day…and Rip is convinced that if he could just stumble on to the perfect mathematical formula—one that doesn’t involve the intensive time-and-effort of statistical sampling and the like—his fortunes would be assured, since he’s financially strapped and lagging far behind his survey competitors.  He’s even been forced to close his business and excuse his staff of employees…and may wind up working for the number-one polling concern, headed by a man named Stringer (Selmer Jackson).

But from out of the blue, Providence arrives in the form of a letter from a Professor Hoopendecker (Kent Smith), who was one of Rip’s service pals during the war.  Hoopendecker has taken a survey whose results match Stringer’s painstakingly-taken results on the nosey; further examination reveals that Hoopendecker’s town, Grandview, harbors the precise demographics that would making polling a dream.  Rip and his co-workers, Ike (Ned Sparks) and Mr. Twiddle (Donald Meek), catch the next train to Grandview and their suspicions are confirmed: they will be able to ascertain the opinion of the average man, at one-tenth the cost.  The townsfolk are naturally going to get wise after a while, what with Rip and Company asking so many questions…so Rip invents a cover story that the three men are opening up an insurance firm.

Dickey, one of the paper's employees, used to be in the sausage business.  (Yes, that's "Weenie King" Robert Dudley from The Palm Beach Story.)

One Grandview citizen is already convinced that Rip is not entirely on the up-and-up: Mary Peterman (Jane Wyman), who runs the local newspaper with her mother (Ann Shoemaker) and has been trying for years to get Grandview’s council to approve a new civic center, a pet project of her late father.  When Rip overhears Mary’s pitch to the council—and fearing that any “change” could scotch his polling plans—he makes an impassionate speech against the civic center, and the council members vote the proposal down.  An incensed Mary publishes a nasty editorial about Rip, who by this time has become quite taken with her and even volunteers to coach the high school basketball team her brother plays on in an effort to get into her good graces.

On the eve of completing their polling assignment—which was completed in two weeks simply by getting the population of Grandview involved—Rip is paid tribute by Ma Peterman at a high school dance celebrating the school’s victory over a hated basketball rival.  Rip is noticeably touched by the affection shown to him by the inhabitants of Grandview, and is wracked with a little guilt over “using” them even though he rationalizes he’s done them no actual harm.  But when Mary overhears Rip’s phone conversation to Ike discussing more assignments—not to mention finding evidence of the “insurance” office’s true intent—she publishes a story revealing Rip’s deception to Grandview…something that will have great repercussions for the town and its people than either she or Rip could have imagined.

The Capraesque (or “Capra-corn,” if you prefer) qualities in the DNA of Magic Town can be chalked up to the participation of former Capra collaborator Robert Riskin, who wrote and co-produced the film directed by William “Wild Bill” Wellman.  Riskin wrote or co-wrote most of the major Capra classics—It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, etc.—until he had a falling-out with the director, whom Riskin believed had an annoying tendency to hog a lot of the credit.  (Crazy, I know. The apocryphal story goes that R.R. handed Mr. C a blank sheet of paper one day and shouted “Put the famous ‘Capra touch’ on that!”)  There’s an engaging whimsicality to Magic Town that is echoed in Riskin’s previous work with Capra, even if the movie can’t quite sustain itself to the end; the ending on this one (which I’m trying to keep under wraps in order not to spoil it for those who haven’t seen the film) drifts into the unbelievable.

Two of the finest cinematic "second bananas" make Magic Town their swan song: Donald Meek (L) and Ned Sparks (R).

Because there are so many Capra tropes in Magic Town—the idyllic small community where life is preferable to the big city; the engaging Everyman hero; the endearing eccentrics that make up its populace, etc.—it could be effortlessly argued that much of Frank’s success was Robert Riskin’s success as well.  Director William Wellman mimics the Capra style quite well (compare Town to Wellman’s Nothing Sacred, in which small-town life isn’t portrayed as quite so attractive), even copying the darker portions of IAWL in a Town scene where Stewart and Wyman’s characters regret that their actions have, in Jane’s words, “killed a town.”  The flavor of the 1930s Capra films is also captured with some first-rate casting choices of veterans who previously appeared in the director’s films: Stewart (of course), Ned Sparks, Donald Meek, Regis Toomey, Ann Doran…and many of the unbilled supporting players (like George Barbier—who plays Grandview’s mayor here but was also the high school principal in IAWL).  (Leading lady Wyman would go on to work with Capra in his 1951 comedy Here Comes the Groom.)

Character great Regis Toomey (R) and TDOY fave Ann Doran (L) are billed sixth and seventh in the opening credits of Magic Town...yet only appear in the final five minutes of the movie.  I suspect much of their initial footage wound up on the cutting room floor; my BBFF Stacia, on the other hand, chalks it up to the amazing negotiating prowess of The Toomster's agent.

Howard Freeman, the actor who so memorably played Captain Burkholtz in the classic Car 54, Where are You? episode “The Beast Who Walked the Bronx” is in Magic Town as the villainous Nickelby, and movie veteran Wallace Ford generates many giggles as Lou Dicketts, a real estate salesman/council member who has difficulty completing coherent thoughts without throwing in a “whaddya-call-it.”  There are scads of character greats in the movie—George Chandler, Frank Fenton, Dick Elliott, Bess Flowers, Paul Maxey, Snub Pollard, OTR fave Vic Perrin and Emmett Vogan (plus Tom Kennedy and Dick Wessel can be spotted as movers)—but it’s Julia Dean who steals the proceedings as the wife of a U.S. Senator (played by George Irving) whose muffins have acquired a reputation as being particularly inedible.  “Oh, yes,” Stewart’s Rip replies when offered one, “I’ve heard about those muffins.”

“Take one anyway,” Dean snappishly retorts.  A few minutes later, after Stewart has set in motion the events that bring Town to a close Dean cries out: “Good heavens—I’m so excited I nearly ate one of my own muffins!”

A number of people have criticized Stewart’s “aw shucks” performance in Magic Town.  I didn’t have any real problems with it; I like to think of Jimmy’s turn in the film as a sort of “valedictory fare-thee-well” to the type of boy-next-door roles that originally made him an audience favorite on the silver screen.  It’s just impossible to dislike Rip Smith, even when he’s made to look a little foolish chasing after basketballs (he’s even hit on the head with one) and performing other awkward bits of physical humor; even his subterfuge in setting down roots in Grandview while hiding his real intentions is earnest and sincere in the hands of Stewart.  I also thought his romance with Wyman’s character was sweet; a review I read of the film complained that they had no chemistry and that Janie was “an ice cube.”  The reviewer compared it to the Stewart-Donna Reed relationship in IAWL, forgetting that in that movie it’s Reed who’s carrying a torch for Jimmy (who displays much disinterest a lot of the time) and here it’s Stewart who’s taken a shine to someone cool to his advances, necessitating a little work to win her over.

Still, I can see why the box office reception to Magic Town was so tepid at the time of its release; its evocation of 1930s small-town life doesn’t quite mesh with a period in which life in these United States was becoming more modern and urbanized (though that’s sort of the main theme of the film—the nostalgia for those little burgs in which we grew up, even if it’s not always like we remembered).  I remained convinced that it’s a worthwhile feature with which to sit down; it’s been off the radar for a number of years (I originally caught it on AMC back when the channel’s initials stood for something) but resurfaced in April 2013 as a DVD and Blu-ray release from Olive Films.  And it features James Stewart in his All-American icon glory…playing the role with which audiences were most familiar and one that he did so well.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Diamonds & Gold Blogathon: Harry Davenport in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

The following essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to The Diamonds & Gold Blogathon, currently tag-teamed at Wide Screen World and Caftan Woman from April 12-13.  Rich’s blog features the gentlemen…while Our Lady of Great Caftan spotlights the distaff side.  There will be spoilers in the film discussed in this post, so if you haven’t seen the movie you might want to wait until you do before proceeding further.

When TDOY faves Caftan Woman and Wide Screen World first jointly announced The Diamonds & Gold Blogathon project a couple of months back I had a little josh at the concept, commenting that the “subject is compelling in its simplicity: select an actor or actress who continued to work in films well into their twilight years…and ignore the fact that a good many of them probably had to, because 1) actors have to act and 2) some of them also have to eat.”  It was, you understand, just me being facetious, which you may have observed from time to time is my wont.

But I didn’t mean to convey the impression that I didn’t take this blogathon seriously—it’s just that while the motivation for a number of actors to continue practicing their craft might in some cases be financial (there are a number of thesps who were able to retire comfortably…but a lot more who weren’t)…performing for many actors and actresses was something in their blood, and audiences were not always easily walked away from.  Harold George Bryant Davenport would most certainly qualify; born in Canton, PA in 1866, Harry continued to appear in films until his death in 1949 (his last three films, including his cinematic swan song Riding High [1950], were released not long after they had shoveled the dirt over him).  In the case of Davenport, acting was his passion: he was born into a theatrical family—his father was the legendary Edward Loomis Davenport, and his mother Fanny Vining, the descendant of the 19th century Irish stage actor Jack Johnson.  (His sister, also named Fanny, experienced a flair for the buskin as well.)  His offspring with wives Alice Davenport and Phyllis Rankin (also an actress) went into the same line of work as their father.  His dedication to the profession was such that Harry, along with Eddie Foy, co-founded Actors Equity—the labor union for actors, originally called The White Rats—to address the mistreatment of their fellow thesps by the theatre owners and impresarios at that time. 

While Davenport’s stage debut came at the age of five in a production of Damon and Pythias, he was sort of a latecomer where “the flickers” were concerned; according to the (always reliable) IMDb, his earliest film credit was 1913’s Kenton’s Heir and he soon began to make a name for himself in a series of silent comedy shorts identified as Mr. and Mrs. Jarr (Harry co-starred with actress Rose Tapley in these one-reelers for Vitagraph in addition to directing a number of them).  He was in his late 40s by the time he got into the motion picture business; his successful transition to talkies at his advanced age allowed him to play judges, bankers and doctors in the course of over one hundred additional features.

Often Harry would be cast as a grandfatherly type—he graced a number of the movies in Republic’s The Higgins Family franchise (which starred James, Lucille and Russell Gleason) as “Grandpa,” and was prominently the focus in 1940’s Grandpa Goes to Town, a wonderful showcase in an admitted B-picture programmer.  Harry’s best-remembered film role might arguably be that of Dr. Meade in Gone with the Wind (1939), but he also made memorable impressions in the likes of The Life of Emile Zola (1937), Wells Fargo (1937), You Can’t Take it With You (1938), The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), Foreign Correspondent (1940), The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941), One Foot in Heaven (1941), Kings Row (1941), Larceny, Inc. (1942), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), The Thin Man Goes Home (1945), The Enchanted Forest (1945—one of his few starring roles), The Farmer's Daughter (1947), The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947) and Little Women (1949).

My favorite Harry Davenport performance is without a doubt his portrayal of Arthur Davies in the 1943 western The Ox-Bow Incident (1943).  Based on Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s 1940 novel, Harry’s Davies is the sole voice of reason in a searing indictment of mob violence as the citizens of an 1885 Nevada town take the law into their own hands by pursuing a group of suspected cattle rustlers/murderers.

Two cowpokes, Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) and Art Croft (Harry Morgan), lope into the sleepy little hamlet of Bridger’s Wells, NV and begin to wet their whistle at a saloon maintained by a man named Darby (Victor Kilian).  The two men are greeted with some suspicion: there’s been a spate of castle rustling in the surrounding area of late, and the hostility Gil and Art receive eventually boils over into a brawl between Gil and blowhard Jeff Farnley (Marc Lawrence).  (Art later apologizes to bartender Darby, explaining that his pal just needed a fight to put him a better mood.)

A man named Green (William “Billy” Benedict!) rides in and excitedly tells the saloon contingent that a rancher named Larry Kinkaid has been killed, shot through the head.  Farnley, Kinkaid’s best bud, immediately starts to assemble a posse to chase after the individual(s) responsible, but from the attitude of several men it appears that the group could quickly morph into a lynch mob.  Even though Gil and Art are determined to stay out of this affair (since the suspicion towards them hasn’t exactly lifted for their comfort), storekeeper Arthur Davies (Davenport) begs Gil to contact judge Daniel Tyler (Matt Briggs) and explain the situation before things get out of hand.  Gil and a man named Joyce (Ted North) go to see Tyler and brief him on the events, much to Tyler’s dismay—the judge is hesitant to act since the sheriff is out of town.  Butch Mapes (Dick Rich), the town deputy, assures Judge Tyler that he can handle the situation—something that leaves both Gil and Tyler uneasy.

Tyler appeals to the growing number of men signing on with the lynching party—he tells them that the sheriff has, in fact, already gone out to the Kinkaid property and he’s certain the sheriff will deal with the matters at hand.  Just when it looks like the crowd has been persuaded (Darby and Davies even propose buying the crowd drinks), a disgraced Confederate Army major named Tetley (Frank Conroy) whips the contingent into a murderous frenzy again and this time there’s no stopping them—yet Davies convinces Gil and Art to accompany him on the hunt, hoping they’ll be of use in quieting the mob.  While on the quest for the rustlers, the party comes into contact with a stagecoach (the driver of which shoots and wounds Art in the arm) that counts among its passengers Rose Mapen (Mary Beth Hughes), a former girlfriend of Gil’s, and her new husband (George Meeker) and sister-in-law (Almira Sessions).

Reaching Ox-Bow Canyon, the lynch mob finds three men: Donald Martin (Dana Andrews), Juan Martinez (Anthony Quinn) and Alva “Dad” Hardwicke (Francis Ford).  Martin is a rancher who’s just moved to nearby Pike’s Hole within the past three days, and he’s purchased fifty head of cattle from Larry Kinkaid…though he neglected to get a bill of sale from Kinkaid at the time.  Davies is the only member of the group who vocally expresses his belief in the trio’s innocence, and he pleads with Tetley and the rest of the mob not to do anything rash; let the sheriff administer justice.   But Tetley, Mapes, Farnley and the other executioners will not be swayed: though Martin is given time to put his thoughts down in letter form for his soon-to-be widow, he and the other two men will be executed at dawn after a vote is taken among those assembled.  Only seven men—Davies, Gil, Art and four others including Tetley’s weakling son Gerald (William Eythe) and a preacher named Sparks (Leigh Whipper)—vote Davies’ way,

All but seven.

A desperate Davies beseeches select members of the mob to read what Martin has written in an attempt to change their minds, which only angers Martin; it is also at that time that Martinez attempts to make a break for it.  Martinez—identified as an outlaw named Francisco Morez—is in possession of Kinkaid’s gun (he claims to have found it), which continues to confound the case against their innocence.  At daybreak, the three men are placed on their horses while Farnley and the lone female member of the mob, Jenny “Ma” Grier (Jane Darwell), prepare to whip the stallions out from under them.  Tetley orders his son to tend to the third horse, but Gerald is too decent (and too afraid) to do so.  Having accomplished their deed, the group starts to ride out of the canyon but are greeted by Sheriff Risley (Willard Robertson)—who informs the crowd that while Larry Kinkaid was shot he is not dead.  Risley asks Davies who was responsible for the lynching…and the storekeeper solemnly replies: “All but seven.”

Back at Darby’s saloon, Gil reads aloud the letter Martin left with Davies to give to his wife (his buddy Art can’t read):

Man just naturally can’t take the law into his own hands and hang people without hurting everybody in the whole world…’cause then he’s just not breaking one law but all laws…law’s a lot more than words you put in a book—or judges or lawyers or sheriffs you hire to carry it out—it’s everything people have ever found out about justice and what’s right and wrong…it’s the very conscience of humanity…there can’t be such a thing as civilization unless people have a conscience…because if people touch God anywhere, where is it except through their conscience?  And what is anybody’s conscience except a little piece of the conscience of all men who ever lived?

The innocent and guilty members of the mob have pooled their resources and have assembled a kitty of $500 for Martin’s widow…which Gil and Art plan to take to her along with her late husband’s last letter.  And thus the curtain falls on one of the greatest movie westerns of all time.

I first saw The Ox-Bow Incident during my carefree days as a CSR at Ballbuster Blockbuster Video, and it’s a film that I revisit quite often.  As I previously stated, it’s the movie that first comes to mind when I think of Harry Davenport—and his Arthur Davies, a man of unshakable decency, is truly one of my favorite movie characters.  It’s a sad commentary that Davies, who insists on observing the procedures and niceties of the judicial system, is dismissed by the bloodthirsty Farnley as a “whining old woman” simply because he’s convinced nothing good can come of a group of people going off half-cocked.  (I also admire how the character of Sparks, an African-American man of deep religious faith, is positively portrayed as the man who is first to stand with Davies when the “vote” is taken as to whether or not Martin and his friends will be lynched.  In one scene, Sparks relates to Gil how he witnessed as a young boy his own brother being lynched; when Gil asks him if his brother was guilty, Sparks replies: “I don’t know…nobody never did know for sure.”)

The Ox-Bow Incident was a pet project for actor Henry Fonda and its director, William Wellman; both men promised Darryl F. Zanuck they’d do projects at 20th Century Fox that they weren’t particularly crazy about in order to get his permission to make the film…and when Incident tanked at the box office, Zanuck never missed an opportunity to remind both Fonda and Wellman of their folly.  Thankfully, the passage of time has proved Hank and Wild Bill right—Incident is on numerous lists of the finest cinematic oaters in film history (it was selected for the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 1998) and was even nominated for Best Picture (it lost to that movie where Ingrid Bergman gets on the plane).  Featuring a first-rate cast of actors, a powerfully written script by Lamar Trotti and direction by William Wellman that is at times more Gothic melodrama than dry and dusty sagebrush saga, The Ox-Bow Incident features a seventy-six year old Harry Davenport in what remains for me his most memorable screen turn…a diamond of a performance in a diamond of a film.

Due to circumstances beyond my control…

I am swamped!  Swamped, I tells ya!  There’s Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s entry in The Diamond & Gold Blogathon that will post later today, plus some Radio Spirits assignments that I’m in the home stretch on…so I’ve had to pre-empt Serial Saturdays this weekend and the (triumphant) return of Doris Day(s) on Monday.  I’ve also got my entry in The James Stewart Blogathon to prepare for Wednesday, so while the ol’ blog won’t be completely content-free it’s look like I’ll have to get a better handle on this concept you humans call “time management” until I can clear out my inbox.

Management regrets the delay, and we’ll be taking off shortly…so please fasten your safety belts and observe the ‘no smoking’ signs…and thanks for flying TDOY.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Game of Showns

It was a most productive cinematic haul this weekend as I enjoyed AT&T U-Verse’s free HBO/Cinemax weekend; I watched a bodaciously large number of flicks courtesy of their On Demand service…and what offerings weren’t On Demand I DVR’d off the schedule for transcription at a later time.  (Something that takes meticulous planning, I should add…I’m like one of those generals you always see in the movies playing with toy cannons and soldiers on a map.)  I was stymied by a power outage this morning (something that apparently affected U-Verse subscribers all across this great land of ours) that kept me from recording Walk the Line (2005), so I guess Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon will wait another day.

Oh, and a little poking around at AT&T U-Verse’s website revealed that a free Showtime preview is in the works for May 9-11.  And with that, here are some of the movies I gazed at intently this weekend.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012) – Okay, I knew from the title that this one was going to induce a lot of eyeball-rolling…and it’s pretty much what you’d expect: an over-the-top horror pic that posits that the sixteenth president of the United States was also a badass destroyer of the undead in his copious free time.  Based on a novel by Seth Grahame-Smith (who also penned the screenplay), Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter stars Benjamin Walker as the rail-splitter himself…who teams up with a man named Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper) to dispose of bloodsuckers willy-nilly when his ma (Robin McLeavy) dies at the hand of a slave trader (also a vampire) named Jack Barts (Marton Csokas).

Again, a guy who’s also written a book entitled Pride & Prejudice & Zombies (which will be released to motion picture theaters in 2015) is naturally going to take a little literary license…but I think Vampire Hunter would have worked better if they had left such figures as Harriet Tubman (Jaqueline Fleming) and Jefferson Davis (John Rothman) out of the narrative (in this alternate universe, the institution of slavery was set up so that the undead would have access to a constant food source) as well as concentrated Abe’s hobby to the years before he became president.  Still, while I was able to tolerate a lot of the explodiations and stuntery of this popcorn movie (including a fiery train sequence that’s impressive in its sheer audaciousness) the disappointment came in the performance of my beloved Mary Elizabeth Winstead (who I adored in Smashed) as Mary Todd Lincoln (way too anachronistic, even in this wacked-out world).

Dark Shadows (2012) – Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’s Seth Grahame-Smith also wrote the story and screenplay for this one (so it seemed only fitting that I watched it after Vampire Hunter—sort of a bloodsucker two-fer), inspired by the Gothic soap opera Dark Shadows, which was a cult favorite of TV audiences from 1966-71.  Johnny Depp plays Barnabas Collins, the heir to the substantial Collins estate who receives a mojo from a vindictive witch named Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) that transforms him into a vampire.  Imprisoned underground for nearly two centuries, he’s freed from his coffin and sets out to restore the family fortunes that have suffered from the machinations of the same sorceress who cursed him.  Barnabas also falls for the new family governess, Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcoate), whom he believes to be the reincarnation of his dead wife.

When I saw the trailer for this movie back in 2012, I fell prey to that familiar eye-rolling malady of mine because the coming attractions played up the comedic aspects in the film—and while there are light moments in Dark Shadows it’s a fairly straightforward homage to the TV series, with a few tongue-in-cheek tweaks here and there.  (I’m not sure if this was such a good idea because part of the appeal of the TV show was that it was unintentionally funny.)  Johnny Depp is not a favorite of mine, though I am considerably more charitable to him than my mother (which is probably why I watched this one alone), yet I’ll freely admit he’s pretty good reprising the role made famous by Jonathan Frid (who makes his swan song in a cameo in this film, along with Shadows alumni Kathryn Leigh Scott, David Selby and Lara Parker in a party sequence)—particularly when he’s able to deliver a line like “Goest thou to hell, and swiftly please, and there may Azmodaeus himself suckle from your diseased teat!” while maintaining a straight face.  (It helps that he’s a fan of the show.)  Any movie that features Christopher Lee (as a sea captain) and Alice Cooper (as himself—Depp’s Collins remarks he’s the “ugliest woman I’ve ever seen”) can’t be a total loss, and I was amused that famous movie creep Jackie Earle Haley plays Willie Loomis (essayed by future Cagney & Lacey cast member John Karlen in the original TV version) because it’s pretty much the part he was born to play.  Watch this one if you’re in the mood for something silly.

Disconnect (2012) – One of the real gems I watched this weekend; Disconnect highlights three stories—a couple (Paula Patton, Alexander Skarsgård) find themselves victims of computer identity theft; a teenager (Jonah Bobo) tries to take his life after being cyberbullied; and an ambitious TV reporter (Andrea Riseborough) wants to interview a teen (Max Thieriot) who earns his living at an adult webcam site.  Written by Andrew Stern and directed by Henry Alex Rubin, the movie’s stories are separate yet intersect at two points: the father (Jason Bateman) of the suicidal teen is also the lawyer for the station that employs the reporter and the ex-cop (Frank Grillo) investigating the identity theft is the father of one of the kids responsible for bullying the teenager.

This engrossing thriller hooked me from the get-go and marvelously sustained itself from start to finish; I applaud its message of how individuals find it difficult to relate to one another despite the leaps and bounds made by “social media.”  The writing, direction and performances are all solid but I was pleased that one of my favorite actresses, Hope Davis, plays the role of the suicidal teen’s ma (I’ve loved her since the days of The Daytrippers and Next Stop Wonderland)…and Kasi Lemmons, best known as Jodie Foster’s roommate in The Silence of the Lambs, also appears as an FBI agent.  (Lemmons’ directorial debut, Eve’s Bayou, was a film that I enjoyed tremendously and recommended to one of my friends during my exile in Morgantown.  A decision I would soon regret, since one of her friends watched it with her and never missed an opportunity to inform me how much it “sucked.”  Philistine.) 

The East (2013) – If you stop by the blog on a regular—or even irregular—basis, you know I’m not much of a fan of noisy movie blockbusters with their penchant for blowing things up real good.  The East is a remedy for that: an operative (Brit Marling) for a private security firm infiltrates an anarchist collective (I will not refer to them as “eco-terrorists” because I don’t believe any of them work for BP) whose mission is to give corporations a taste of their own medicine; led by their charismatic leader (Alexander Skarsgård again!), “The East” crashes a party and dopes the champagne swilled by pharmaceutical execs with a drug that they sell (and claim is safe), for example.  The agent, who identifies herself as “Sarah,” soon develops an emotional attachment to the group members that threatens to compromise her allegiance to the people for whom she works.

What impressed me so much about The East is that while it’s truly a first-rate suspense thriller…it doesn’t need to throw in a bunch of car chases or explodiations.  The movie’s star, Marling, co-wrote the screenplay with director Zal Batmanglij, and the screenplay also promotes the belief that irresponsible corporations need to be confronted about the severity of their actions (even though Sarah doesn’t entirely improve of the methods used by the group).  Patricia Clarkson co-stars as Marling’s formidable boss, with Ellen Page in a nice turn as one of the group’s purely idealistic members and Jamey Sheridan as her dad, an exec whose company’s chemicals resulted in a young boy’s death from cancer.  (Julia Ormond is also on hand as one of the Big Pharma bosses.)  John Ritter’s son Jason also has a small role as Sarah’s husband, demonstrating that talent is often diluted the farther down the family tree you go.

Infamous (2006) – George Plimpton’s book on Truman Capote (which interviews folks who knew him) was the source for this movie written and directed by Douglas McGrath that was released the year after the movie bio Capote won the late Philip Seymour Hoffman a Best Actor Oscar.  Infamous covers similar ground, focusing on the background that would inspire the author (played by British thesp Toby Jones) to write what many consider to be his finest novel, In Cold Blood—in fact, it wouldn’t be stretching things to note that the film is in many ways a remake of the 1967 Blood…only told from Capote’s point of view.  (McGrath does take a few liberties with the book, including a sexual encounter between Capote and Perry Smith that would not have happened unless both of them were in the sneezer.)

Film critic Rex Reed went on record as saying that he wasn’t particularly on board with Hoffman’s Academy Award triumph, noting “they gave the Oscar to the wrong Truman Capote” and that Hoffman was doing more of an impression while Jones “moves into Truman's skin, heart and brains.”  I never met the real Capote so I’m not going to split hairs as to whether Reed is accurate (he would probably know him better than I) but I did enjoy Jones’ performance, as well as Juliet Stevenson’s dead-on portrayal of Diana Vreeland and Sigourney Weaver as Babe Paley (the wife of CBS president William S.).  (Hope Davis is in Infamous, too—that was a plus.  But I will warn people who are not Bill Crider that Gwyneth Paltrow is also in this movie…and that she sings.  Run fast, run far.)  I was less enamored of Peter Bogdanovich’s attempt to convince folks he was Bennett Cerf…for the simple reason that Bogdanovich was pretty much playing Bogdanovich.  I’ll admit that my longtime preference for Catherine Keener gives her a slight edge in her Capote interpretation of Truman’s longtime BBF (Nelle) Harper Lee over Sandra Bullock (I’m just not a fan of hers—she’s like TDOY bête noire Julia Roberts, only with less teeth) but I did think Bullock acquitted herself nicely here.  As for Daniel Craig—he’s a shoo-in for the eventual Tommy Lee Jones biopic (the man known as the current 007 plays murderer Smith).

Killer Joe (2011) – Playwright Tracy Letts reworked his 1993 play into this film (directed by William Friedkin) that casts recent Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey as an ice-water-in-his-veins hit man who’s hired by a trailer-trash family to dispose of a relative in order to collect the insurance.  The son (Emile Hirsch) can’t come up with the $25,000 deposit for McConaughey’s services so McConaughey arranges to avail himself of the sexual charms of the son’s Baby Doll-like sister (Juno Temple) as a “retainer.”

This jet-black comedy thriller is admittedly not for all tastes but I thought it was a crackerjack piece of filmmaking; Friedkin nicely captures that endearing (if dangerous) loopiness that often defines the Lone Star State (there are a lot of Blood Simple overtones in this) and the performances are superb, particularly McConaughey as the titular assassin and Thomas Haden Church as the clueless patriarch (I’ve been a longtime fan of Church’s since Wings, and his Ansel Smith in Joe makes Lowell Mather look like a Mensa candidate).  Gina Gershon is Church’s duplicitous wife, who performs a bit of fellatio on a KFC chicken leg (she calls it “K-Fry-C”) that won’t disappear from your memory banks anytime soon.

Mama (2013) – Oddball horror film focuses on the plight of two little girls (Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nélisse) whose father (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) scoops them up and takes them with him when he has to lam it out of town (he’s just killed two of his business partners and his estranged wife), only to be murdered by a mysterious “something” as he and his daughters become stranded in the woods.  Five years later, the girls are located (and are in a feral state) and returned to his twin brother (also Coster-Waldau), who attempts to provide a home for them along with his girlfriend (Jessica Chastain).  The problem is—that “something” (which the girls call “Mama”) has followed them home—and when “Mama” ain’t happy…ain’t nobody happy.

An exercise in “old school” horror, Mama terrified the absolute sh*t out of me even though a few of the plot strands left me a little bewildered.  Directed by Andrés Muschietti (who elaborated on his 2008 short of the same name), the movie delivers the fright goods in spades; I was thinking the whole time that if I saw half of what goes on in Chastain and Coster-Waldau’s house you’d be forwarding my mail to Cleveland someplace.  Produced by famed director Guillermo del Toro, whose The Devil’s Backbone (2001) I would have DVR’d during the free Starz/Encore preview had U-Verse not demonstrated such ruthless efficiency by removing the channel on schedule.

Man of Steel (2013) – I don’t remember if it was Matt Zoller Seitz—or possibly the crazy lady who stands outside the Golden Pantry every morning yelling at invisible people (I didn’t take notes)—who mused some time ago that a movie like Superman (1978) could never do well in the current tenor of the times, when most of the “superhero” motion pictures have a kind of dark quality about them (thank you, Tim Burton).  Man of Steel adds a little “dark” to the Superman story (the screenplay is by David S. Goyer and directed by Zack Snyder…but Batman rebooter Christopher Nolan left a few fingerprints as producer) by re-telling the legend of the superhero (played by Henry Cavill): from his escape of doomed planet Krypton (Russell Crowe plays his pop) to arrival on Earth (Kevin Costner as his Earth Pop), where he must do battle with some renegades from planet K, led by bad guy General Zod (Michael Shannon).

Confession time: I am such a huge Superman fan (I even liked Superman Returns—sue me) that I enjoyed Man of Steel…even though I was disappointed that a lot of the wonderment from the 1978 classic has given way to that darkness I mentioned earlier.  I don’t think Cavill or Brandon Routh can measure up to Christopher Reeve’s take on the World’s Mightiest Mortal so the strengths have to be searched for elsewhere: Crowe and Costner are great as Jor-El and Jonathan Kent, respectively (though I will admit Kev pales slightly in comparison to Glenn Ford in the role) and Diane Lane was a revelation as Supe’s mom (I always have difficulty seeing beyond her teen years in The Outsiders and Streets of Fire).  I also liked Amy Adams as Lois Lane but I’m not sure I’m comfortable with a Daily Planet that erases Jimmy Olsen (I know he’s useless…but it’s Superman, ferchrissake) from the masthead.  Man of Steel was pretty much what I expected—stunts and explodiations—but I’d be lying to you if I didn’t admit it makes me want to see the sequel.  (By the way, I told Mom that Christopher Meloni was in this movie—and she still took a pass on seeing it.)

The Place Beyond the Pines (2013) – Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) gives up his stunt motorcycling gig with a traveling carnival to stick around the burg where his girlfriend Romina (Eva Mendes) hangs her hat; he’s just learned that she has sired him a son and to make life better for them he embarks on a career of robbing banks with the help of a mechanic buddy (Ben Mendelsohn).  But Luke’s outlaw spree comes to an end thanks to the expert police work of uniformed cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), who capitalizes on his “hero” status to fulfill his political ambitions.  Along the way, Cross gets an idea of what the concept of what bearing “the sins of the fathers” is all about.

Derek Cianfrance’s three-act tragedy was promoted relentlessly last year—it seems like every time I watched an episode of Community or Parks and Recreation on demand I’d also be treated to that damn trailer.  My hesitancy to fully embrace The Place Beyond the Pines stems from the fact that by the time the movie enters its third act—concentrating on Luke and Avery’s sons (Dane DeHaan, Emory Cohen)—the viewer finds out that their story just isn’t as compelling as their dads’.  Cianfrance is reunited with Gosling after the two of them worked together on the critically-acclaimed Blue Valentine; Pines also features Ray Liotta (playing a corrupt cop, which is a bit out of his wheelhouse—don’t you think?) and TDOY fave Harris Yulin as Cooper’s dad.

Teeth (2007) – Here’s another offbeat horror vehicle that didn’t quite scare me as much as Mama (though I laughed a lot more): chaste teen Dawn O’Keefe (Jess Wexler) is saving herself for marriage (she even belongs to an abstinence group dubbed The Promise) but it’s not easy—she begins to have impure thoughts about Tobey (Hale Apperman), a fellow Promiser she’s just met, and the afternoon the two of them head off for an innocent swim results in alarming consequences.  Tobey starts to have his way with her the way rough boys often do…and discovers to his horror that Dawn has what is referred to in various mythologies as vagina dentata.  (Google it, non-Latin majors.)

For those males out there who just crossed their legs after Googling that last part—Teeth assures us in the closing credits that “No man was harmed in the making of this film.”  It’s a hysterically original film that explores the horrifyingly comic side of teenage sexuality, with a wonderful performance by Wexler (who won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance that year).  There’s plenty of smart satire on hand, as well as none-too-subtle symbolism and in-jokes (my favorite is the clip from The Black Scorpion)…and the fate that befalls Dawn’s surly stepbrother (John Hensley) shouldn’t happen to a dog.  (Apologies for that last part.)  If anything, Teeth lets us know that Lenny Van Dohlen—who I remember from Tender Mercies and Electric Dreams (the Her of its day)—is still working; he plays Dawn’s pa.

The Dodo is not extinct…

My evil plans were to resurrect Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s award-winning* feature Doris Day(s) this week since I had also promised a new installment of Serial Saturdays…but while I was able to fulfill the commitment of posting Chapter 14 of Riders of Death Valley (1941) on the blog (and it was riveting stuff, was it not?) I fell woefully short in the Doris department.  The reason for this is because I spent this weekend gorging on the free goodies offered up during our HBO/Cinemax preview (which I will highlight in a post later today), as well as working on a few things for Radio Spirits.  (I had the Riders chapter done before all this.)  I’m really hoping to have Doris back on the blog next Monday where she belongs.

But I thought I would share with you the above photo, which I rooked off of Jackie Joseph-Lawrence’s Facebook page (not to mention the one of Dor clapping); while we haven’t progressed that far in our weekly dissections of The Doris Day Show you might be aware that Joseph was a co-star on the sitcom from 1971-73, along with Mister John Dehner.  Some of Dodo’s friends got together and threw a big birthday shindig in her honor last week…and everyone had their gasts flabbered when Ms. Day made her presence at said affair since she’s been somewhat reclusive in recent years.  Anyway, the above snap was taken of the two women during that raucous get-together; I had a mad crush on Jackie during the show’s run that has yet to subside and she’s the real reason why I drop in on the occasional Josie and the Pussycats rerun from time to time as well.

For those of you who availed yourself of Me-TV’s tribute to Doris’ ninetieth natal anniversary with airings from her sitcom yesterday afternoon…well, I did try to warn you.  You have no one to blame but yourselves.

*This is a lie.  Sorry about that.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Riders of Death Valley – Chapter 14: A Fight to the Death

We’re back!

OUR STORY SO FAR:  Kirby, in an effort to prevent Jim Benton from getting his ore to the smelter, orders Davis to serve a fake warrant on Benton the moment he enters town.

Jim and Tombstone give Davis and his fake deputies a thorough beating, then head back to meet the wagons.

“The Wolf” and his pack, attempting to run down Jim and Tombstone, force them into the teeth of a terrific electrical storm in a wild mountain canyon and…

I know, I know, I’ve been away from Serial Saturdays for a long time; the last chapter was covered back in early January.  But the screen capture above kind of explains why it took me a while to get back into the spirit of these things since the Chapter 13 cliffhanger would seem to suggest that there are supernatural forces at work in the serial world; the Chapter Play Gods have been angered at how long it’s taken Riders of Death Valley (1941) to unfold, and have meted out their vengeance accordingly.  (I’ll bet they’re as sick of hearing Fingal’s Cave as I am, too.)

So after having struggled with the metaphysical implications of such a chapter ending, I have overcome my crisis of faith and am prepared to continue…because, believe me, no one is more anxious to quickly put this thing to rest than I am.  (And I’ll tell you right now: while I’m still trying to decide which serial will be the next in the spotlight—I’m torn between revisiting The Black Widow or checking out one I’ve not seen, Government Agents vs. Phantom Legion—it’s not going to be one that I have to endure for fifteen chapters.)

"Avert your eyes!"
Wolf (Charles Bickford), Butch (Lon Chaney, Jr.) and the rest of the “pack” are astonished to see the Serial Gods attempt to smite their adversaries…but of course, the resilient Jim Benton (Dick Foran) and Tombstone (Buck Jones) manage to overcome this intrusion by the cliffhanger deities and just wind up a little moist, thanks to a nearby body of water.  “Look, Wolf!  It didn’t get ‘em!  They’re in the river!” Butch alerts the gang leader, perhaps under the impression that he’s been momentarily blinded.  He then sees the rest of the Death Valley Riders approaching in the distance with their wagons filled with Lost Aztec Mine ore.  “Yeah, they got the Johnson gang with ‘em…too many for us…come on!” yells Wolf, in what some would describe as a tactical retreat.  (Others a bit meaner than I might refer to it as “tails tucked between their legs.”)

BORAX (as Jim and Tombstone emerge from the river): Ol’ lady luck was sure ridin’ on your shoulders!
PANCHO: Don’t you know the lightning come from upstairs don’t care who it hits?
JIM: I know all about that…but what I’m worried about is how we’re gonna get that ore across with the bridge out!

This does seem to present a problem.  Well, the amigos do a “let’s went” and a fade finds us back in the office of Joseph Kirby (James Blaine), the ineffectual head of operations who engages in dickish villainy because he’s so darn good at it.  He discusses his latest failed scheme with his second-in-command, the pathetic Rance Davis (Monte Blue).

DAVIS: Looks like that murder charge we trumped up against Benton isn’t going to work out…
KIRBY: No…tear up that fake warrant…if it got in the wrong hands, it’s be pretty hard for all of us… (Rance starts to look through his pockets) What’s the matter?
DAVIS: I guess I’ve lost it!
KIRBY (standing up): You sure Benton didn’t get a hold of it?
DAVIS: Well, he might have…when I was knocked out…

Well…here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.  Outside Kirby’s saloon, we observe Wolf and his gang riding up…and the six men walk into the saloon, whereupon the boss orders them to “Get yourself a drink.”  Wolf then takes Butch with him inside Kirby’s office.

KIRBY: Well?  Did you get Benton?
WOLF: No…we were right on his tail at Mud Creek when lightning wrecked the bridge and cut us off…
DAVIS: Lightning this time…eh?
WOLF: Yeah…things do happen, don’t they?

There seems to be just a soupçon of animosity between Davis and Wolf throughout this serial…and yet the filmmakers convey this ever so subtly.

KIRBY: Wolf—if you listened to me once in a while…
WOLF: Well, what have you got to offer?
KIRBY: Uh…I don’t know…

I hurt myself laughing at that exchange.  (“Ah…I got nothin’, big guy.”)  But all are in agreement that they have to do something to stop Benton.  The scene then shifts back to our heroes, who are still stymied with the dilemma of getting the ore to the smelter “without anyone getting wise.”  Providence arrives in the form of a grizzled old prospector who answers to “Cactus Pete”; Pete is played by serial stalwart Ernie Adams, whom you might know from Raiders of Ghost City (1944) (the subject of several posts at the award-winning blog of my BBFF, She Blogged by Night) as Hans Plattner (a.k.a. Bill Jasper) and also from Brenda Starr, Reporter (1945) as Charlie the Stoolie.

CACTUS: Say, Jim…I heared you struck it rich and I was thinkin’ on another grubstake…
PANCHO: Yeah…but I don’t think you get no more grubstake from Mister Jim…
JIM: I haven’t seen you for a long time, Cactus…
TOMBSTONE: Where ya been hidin’ yourself?
CACTUS: Well, I’ve been down on Flat Creek…say…I thought I’d struck it rich when I found these…

Cactus Pete pulls a sack out of his pocket and shows it to the Riders…the contents comprise some pieces of gold ore that Pete hypothesizes might have dropped by another prospector (“Found a skeleton close by, so…I reckon it was him”).

JIM: Hey, Cactus…you didn’t show those to anyone else, did you?
CACTUS: No, si-ree…I didn’t want to start no stampede where there weren’t no gold now…
PANCHO: Hey, you know I think if you started stampedes…everybody gonna leave Panamint, then we go get the gold with the wagons…

“Listen, I think you got something there, Pancho,” responds Tombstone enthusiastically.  “There’s something that comes out of that adobe brain of yours besides cucarachas.” (Oh, brother…the racism…it burns…)  So Jim, the brains of the outfit (snicker), devises a plan whereupon Cactus will mosey on into town and show the quartz to Kirby.  Benton gives Pete a note to give to Judge Knox, and emphasizes that Kirby and Kirby alone is the only one who should be made aware of the quartz…because all they need to do is make certain that Kirby and his men are the ones to ride out of town.  Pancho (Leo Carrillo) volunteers to follow Cactus into Panamint, and Jim suggests he take Borax Bill (Guinn “Big Boy” Williams) along as well.

Back in Panamint, Wolf has devised a cunning plan to rid everyone of Jim Benton and his riders once and for all…and it’s only taken him fourteen chapters to do it.

WOLF: We’ll trap ‘em at Funeral Pass…
KIRBY: We’ve got to be sure this time…if you fail again, Benton will get his gold ore into town…
WOLF: We won’t fail…Butch will take half the men, I’ll take the other…we’ll go at ‘em from both ends of the pass…where there ain’t room on the trail to turn a burro around…

There is a knock on the door, and Trigger (Jack Rockwell), one of Reade’s goons, brings Cactus in for a chinwag.

KIRBY: Whaddya want?
CACTUS: I think I hit on somethin’ big, Kirby!  And I thought maybe you’d like to grubstake me…
KIRBY: Get out…you think I have nothing to do but finance you desert rats?
WOLF: Waitaminnit…see what he’s got…

So Cactus pulls out the quartz and shows it to Kirby, who takes the bait like a mouse with a Gouda addiction.  He reveals the “location” to Kirby, and Kirby promises him a stake of $100 plus fifty percent of what they dig out…providing he keeps everything on the Q.T.  Another moment of unintentional hilarity occurs when Kirby threatens Pete: “If you do…you’ll never prospect again.”

“Trigger,” adds Kirby, “tell the barkeep to give him all the liquor he wants.”  Okay, new plan, everybody!

DAVIS: Hey, Kirby…that’s the richest piece of quartz I’ve ever seen in Death Valley!
KIRBY: The richest I ever saw anywhere
WOLF: We gotta move fast on this…I’ll get the boys ridin’ to Dry Creek and stake out Blue Gulch from one end to the other!
DAVIS: What about Benton?
KIRBY: Benton can wait…
WOLF: His wagons are still plenty miles from town…come on, Butch…

Shouldn’t that be “Come on, Woim”?  Knowing that the only way Benton can pay off Kirby’s note involves Jim’s ability to get advance money from Judge Knox via his ore, Kirby decides to pay the ethically-challenged magistrate a visit at the Panamint Savings and Loan.  In the meantime, Wolf and Davis gather up the crew to head for Dry Creek—and as the pack heads out of town, they are watched from a safe distance by Pancho and Borax Bill.

PANCHO: Hey…that Wolf and his men are in big hurry to get to Dry Creek, no?  I guess that joke that Cactus Pete he make worked, eh?
BORAX: Sure looks like it…we’d better hightail it out of here and tell Jim!
PANCHO: Let’s went!

Back at First Panamint Trust, Kirby enters and presents Judge Knox (James Guilfoyle) with the fruits of Cactus Pete’s labor.

KIRBY: I heard you tell Jim Benton this morning that you’d advance him the money to meet my note…
KNOX: Yep!  Jim’s got good security…and if the quartz he’s bringing in measures up to the sample he showed me…you’ll get your money, all right…
KIRBY: That’s just the point, Judge…I don’t want him to pay me yet…on account of another deal I’d like to make with him…thought I could persuade you to hold off a little…

“That’s why I came in the front door with this wheelbarrow filled with money…”

KNOX: You did, eh?  How?
KIRBY: By cutting you in on the richest strike ever made in Death Valley…look… (He pulls the sack out of his suit pocket) Did you ever see gold ore like this before?
KNOX (examining the quartz) Yep…saw some like this this morning…same ore exactly
KIRBY: You did?  Well, who showed it to you?
KNOX: Jim Benton…this ore’s from Jim Benton’s Lost Aztec Mine…and it’s the sample on which I offered to advance him money…

Ha ha!  Ya burnt, Kirby!  To add insult to injury, Cactus Pete staggers into the bank (of course he’d be staggering—he’s no doubt drank his fill and then some at Kirby’s watering hole), wanting to cash the $100 check Kirby gave him for the grubstake.  Kirby threatens to add a few pounds of lead to the “old reprobate’s” frame but is warned off by Knox, who asks: “Did Jim Benton put one over on you?”  This is rather a curious development insomuch as earlier in Riders, Knox appeared to be siding with Kirby when he refused to lift a finger to help late bank president Lafe Hogan (Jack Clifford) hold onto his financial institution.  There are several different conclusions we might reach from this development: either Knox is several chess moves ahead of Kirby, scheming to take over the Lost Aztec Mine for his own evil judicial purposes, or he's had a Road-to-Damascus conversion and has renounced his wicked magistrate ways.  (Or maybe he just didn't like Lafe Hogan in the first place.  Which would seem to make the most sense, since he took over his friggin' bank even before the body was cold.)

Judge Knox tells Cactus that Kirby’s check is legitimate and instructs one of the bank’s underlings to get the grizzled old prospector his $100.  But also in the same breath, he advises Pete to “make yourself scarce in Panamint for a while.”  Cactus then gives Knox the note from Jim.

Kirby returns to his saloon, pissed off to the max, and spies Trigger sitting at a table.  The two men go into Kirby’s office—I’m guessing because he doesn’t want the regular barflies to hear the instructions he’s going to give Trigger.  (Which doesn’t make much sense—most of them are three sheets to the wind anyway.)

TRIGGER: Well, what’s wrong, Kirby?
KIRBY: Everything!  That strike of Cactus’ was a fake to get my men out of town!
TRIGGER: Fake?  Why, that quartz Cactus had looked real to me
KIRBY: Aw, shut up and listen…you ride to Dry Creek…overtake Wolf and the men…tell the Wolf we’re going through with that attack at Funeral Pass as we planned!  I’ll have some men there to meet him…
TRIGGER: But they got too long a start!  Besides, that horse of mine is lame—I could never catch ‘em…
KIRBY: All right, take my horse!

“Don’t bother me with details!  Honestly!”  The scene then shifts back to Benton and his Merry Men as they join up with Pancho and Borax; Pancho is still laughing at the prank that they pulled on Kirby as if it was the greatest in the history of practical jokes.

PANCHO: It is to laugh!  That Cactus Pete, he make the trick work all right, didn’t he?
BORAX: Sure did!  We seen the Wolf and his pack hightail it out of town toward Dry Creek…
JIM: Good!  Then we can take a chance and take this stuff through Funeral Pass…
MARY: But, Jim…if that gang ever finds out that poor ol’ Cactus double crossed them his life won’t be worth an ounce of fool’s gold…
TOMBSTONE: Hey, don’t you worry about that old desert rat…he’ll be harder to find than the gold he’s huntin’ for…

Pete ought to hide in a bathhouse…they’d never think to look for him there.  So as Jim and the Riders continue into town, we shift to a scene where Wolf and his men ride into a clearing…and a split second later, Trigger comes riding up after firing off a few rounds to get their attention.  If Trigger was able to catch up to that group in such a short amount of time riding Kirby’s horse…maybe Kirby should consider entering that nag in a few races.

TRIGGER: That yarn Cactus told was a fake…a trick of Jim Benton’s to get ya out of town…
DAVIS: So he could get his wagons into the smelter!  We’d better head back to Panamint…
TRIGGER: No…Kirby says to catch ‘em at Funeral Pass…he’s sendin’ some other men to meet ya there…
WOLF: Right!
DAVIS: Well, I’ll head back to Panamint to make sure they’re on their way…
WOLF: Take care of yourself, Davis…I’ll worry about ya…

Oh, that sounded sincere.  Well, as Jim and his band of brothers head toward Funeral Pass (that cartographer had a macabre sense of humor) they discover that said pass has been blocked by some strategically-place rocks…so the wagon crew and riders get to movin’ them boulders.  No sooner has the stone excavation started when eagle-eyed Mary (Jean Brooks) spots Wolf and his homies off in the distance.  That’s the serial’s cue to do what it seemingly does best (and really, what it’s done throughout the previous thirteen chapters): feature an indeterminately long chase sequence with the two warring camps.

After a minute or two of some really smashing stock footage, Wolf and the pack take up residence at a vantage point that looks remarkably similar to the rocks they hid behind in the last chapter…

Last chapter.

This chapter.
…which would seem to suggest that the “wide open spaces” might have been a teensy exaggeration, if Riders of Death Valley is any sort of document of record.  Once Reade’s mob and the Riders have established their positions, then the shooting-and-missing starts.

PANCHO: Hey—the Wolf pack is come from both sides…I wish I was twins!
BORAX: I don’t…one of you’s enough!

Pancho then gives him a few choice words in Spanish, and though my college Español is a little rusty, I translated it as “You always hurt the one you love.”  Surveying the fine kettle of fish they’re in, Jim feverishly formulates a plan:

JIM: Hey, Tomb…they’re too well-covered…suppose I go up in those rocks and smoke ‘em out for ya…
TOMBSTONE: What you’ll miss I’ll get!

Can you smell what the rocks are cookin’?  Must be the testosterone.  Naturally, Jim’s retreat to the rocks does not go unnoticed by the Wolf man:

WOLF: Benton’s headed for that ledge…he’ll pick us off like a lot of blackbirds…follow me, Trigger…

More shooting follows, but I did want to point out this poignant scene…

…yes, despite no longer possessing a corporeal form, Ghost Smokey (Noah Beery, Jr.) continues to assist his comrades.  What a great guy.

Okay, most of the remainder of the running time in this thing is shooting and Jim’s scrambling to get a better position so that he can go blackbird hunting.  Wolf follows him, and they eventually engage in a mano-a-mano struggle that leads to this cliff…

…which presents Trigger with an ethical dilemma.  What if he hits Wolf by mistake?

Well…Trigger never was really good at ethical dilemmas.