Western Roundup: Unexpected Western Leads

Western Roundup: Unexpected Western Leads

There are many wonderful actors we associate with Westerns, from John Wayne and Randolph Scott to Tim Holt and William Boyd, and too many others to name here.

Beyond those familiar names, occasionally actors not typically associated with Westerns turn up in the genre, often with unexpectedly good results. Here are a few of my favorite Western films starring actors one might not think of as “cowboy stars.”

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Franchot Tone, Trail of the Vigilantes (1940)

Trail of the Vigilantes (1941) Franchot ToneFranchot Tone in Trail of the Vigilantes (1940)

One tends to think of debonair Franchot Tone in a tuxedo rather than Western gear, but he fit right in Universal Pictures’ Trail of the Vigilantes. Tone was fittingly cast as Tim Mason, an Eastern marshal sent west to investigate the murder of a newspaperman. Using the moniker “Kansas,” Tim is hired by a rancher (Charles Trowbridge); the Easterner is sometimes tormented by other cowhands (Andy Devine and Broderick Crawford) but he’s also smart enough to outwit them at times and earns their admiration and friendship. Meanwhile, the rancher’s daughter (Peggy Moran) develops an instant crush on the new hand and is determined to land her man. This is a tremendously fun comedic Western which reminded me a bit of the much later Support Your Local Sheriff! (1968); in fact, supposedly Allan Dwan had the original “straight” script rewritten as more of a spoof, which was a brilliant choice. Tone is a good-natured, sly delight from start to finish, cementing my growing admiration for him.

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Dennis Morgan, Cheyenne (1947) and Raton Pass (1951)

Cheyenne (1947) Dennis Morgan and Jane WymanDennis Morgan and Jane Wyman in Cheyenne (1947)

Warner Bros. singing star Dennis Morgan appeared in a variety of films, including musicals, light comedies, romances, and melodramas, but he occasionally also turned up in Westerns. In the early ’40s, he was a Mountie in River’s End (1940) and Cole Younger in Bad Men of Missouri (1941), but he had far better Western roles years later, in Cheyenne (1947) and Raton Pass (1951). I particularly like Cheyenne, a Raoul Walsh Western alternately known as The Wyoming Kid. Morgan plays a gambler forced to go undercover and aid a sheriff in discovering the identity of a stagecoach robber. He’s charming and believable as the cagey gambler, and he’s supported by a terrific cast including Jane Wyman and Janis Paige. Raton Pass is more of a Western “film noir meets melodrama,” with Morgan as a tough New Mexico rancher and Patricia Neal as the femme fatale of the piece, a calculating woman who marries Morgan and promptly unleashes a full-scale range war. It’s a tough, gritty film which somehow also manages to fit in a plausible opportunity for Morgan to sing!

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Dick Powell, Station West (1948)

Station West (1948) Dick Powell, Jane GreerDick Powell and Jane Greer in Station West (1948)

Dick Powell is most often thought of as either a singing star or a film noir tough guy. Although he had played a radio star pretending to be a cowboy in Cowboy From Brooklyn (1938), he rarely made Westerns. What makes Station West (1948) work so well is that it essentially transfers the hard-boiled tough guy persona he developed in the ’40s to the old West. Powell plays an army lieutenant who arrives in a Western town on an undercover mission, solving the murder of two soldiers. (There seems to be an “undercover mission” theme here which is interesting!) Powell’s lieutenant pretends to be a rowdy type in order to become friendly with the town lowlifes; his sarcastic quips seem straight out of Murder, My Sweet (1944). It’s worth noting that while Jane Greer, as the movie’s femme fatale, and Burl Ives both sing, Powell definitely doesn’t! Powell was at home enough in Station West that the following year he was cast as another frontier lawman, playing a Mountie in the excellent Mrs. Mike (1949).

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Edmond O’Brien, Cow Country (1953)

Cow Country (1953) Edmond O'Brien, Helen WestcottCow Country (1953) Edmond O’Brien and Helen Westcott

Edmond O’Brien seems like the quintessential “big city” type, having starred in a number of notable film noir titles, but in the early ’50s he made a few Westerns, starting with The Redhead and the Cowboy (1951), Silver City (1951), and Denver and Rio Grande (1951). My favorite, though, is a little Western called Cow Country (1953), one of those movies some of us like to call a “darn good Western.” O’Brien plays Ben Anthony, who’s running a freight business in an area where cattle ranches are struggling. Ben doesn’t know that his childhood friend Harry (Bob Lowery) is plotting to drive the ranchers out of business and take over their land, and complicating things further is that Harry is simultaneously engaged to two women (Helen Westcott and Peggie Castle) who would clearly each be happier with another man. O’Brien plays a kind, ethical man who seems right at home in the West, and I really wish he’d made many more Westerns than he did. He would later appear in a handful of other Westerns, most memorably John Ford‘s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and Sam Peckinpah‘s The Wild Bunch (1968).

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Ray Milland, A Man Alone (1955)

Man Alone (1955) Ray MillandA Man Alone (1955) Ray Milland

Like Franchot Tone, Welsh-born Ray Milland is often thought of as more at home in a drawing room than a saloon, but Milland was, in reality, a fine horseman and thus well-suited for the genre. He occasionally turned up in Westerns, such as Paramount’s California (1945) and the very good Copper Canyon (1950), but the very best Milland Western was one he not only starred in but directed, A Man Alone (1955). Milland shows a perfect affinity for the Western, playing Wes Steele, a gunslinger stranded in the desert after his horse breaks a leg. He happens across the nightmarish scene of a stagecoach massacre, and upon riding one of the stagecoach horses to town to report it, he’s repaid by being shot at by the deputy sheriff (Alan Hale Jr.). Before he knows it the town banker (Raymond Burr) has pinned the murders on him, and he manages to hide in a basement during a sandstorm. The basement just happens to belong to the home of the sheriff (Ward Bond), who is sick with yellow fever. Wes ultimately falls in love with the sheriff’s daughter (Mary Murphy) and must engage in a good-versus-evil battle with the murderous banker.

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William Talman, Two-Gun Lady (1955)

Two Gun Lady (1955) Peggie Castle, William TalmanPeggie Castle and William Talman in Two Gun Lady (1955)

Before he became district attorney Hamilton Burger on TV’s Perry Mason beginning in 1957, William Talman was perhaps best known as criminals in such films as Armored Car Robbery (1950) and The Hitch-Hiker (1953). He’s surprisingly effective as a Western hero in this minor yet quite enjoyable low-budget Western. He plays Dan, a drifter who arrives in town and goes to work for mean Jud Ivers (Ian MacDonald), who has a psychotic son (Earle Lyon). But Dan may not be quite who he seems — there’s that undercover theme again! He becomes friendly with Kate (Peggie Castle), who has arrived in town to perform a sharp-shooting act at the saloon, and soon Kate and Dan find they have a common goal: Justice for the death of Kate’s parents. Talman and Castle had surprisingly effective chemistry; I bought into their relationship and liked the story. Plus watch for a scene where Marie Windsor appears to accidentally walk into a scene and then walk out again! The same year as Two-Gun Lady, Talman also appeared with Dana Andrews in Smoke Signal (1955).

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Stewart Granger, Gun Glory (1957)

Gun Glory (1957) Stewart GrangerStewart Granger in Gun Glory (1957)

British-born Stewart Granger may be most strongly connected with swashbucklers and adventure films such as King Solomon’s Mines (1950) and The Prisoner of Zenda (1952), but he occasionally dabbled in the Western genre. He appeared in The Wild North (1952) and The Last Hunt (1956), both of which I briefly discussed in my column on snowy Westerns, and he also co-starred with John Wayne in North to Alaska (1960). My favorite Granger Western, though, is Gun Glory (1957), a relatively simple yet engaging story about a gunslinger finally ready to settle down. Tom Early (Granger) returns to the family ranch after a long absence and, after discovering his wife has died, he attempts to begin a relationship with his wary son (Steve Rowland). The town preacher (Chill Wills) and Jo (Rhonda Fleming), who becomes the Earlys’ housekeeper, are two of the only people to welcome Tom’s return, but when cattlemen threaten to stampede a herd through town, the local citizens suddenly find themselves in need of a man with Tom’s skills. Granger is a charismatic presence and seems completely at home as a Western star; like the other films in this column, I think it deserves to be better-known and hope Western fans who haven’t seen it will give it a look.

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A few other unexpected Western stars come to mind which there’s no room to delve into here, such as Tony Martin  and John Lund. I’d enjoy thoughts on additional Western leads not typically associated with the genre in the comments!

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– Laura Grieve for Classic Movie Hub

Laura can be found at her blog, Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, where she’s been writing about movies since 2005, and on Twitter at @LaurasMiscMovie. A lifelong film fan, Laura loves the classics including Disney, Film Noir, Musicals, and Westerns.  She regularly covers Southern California classic film festivals.  Laura will scribe on all things western at the ‘Western RoundUp’ for CMH.

 

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16 Responses to Western Roundup: Unexpected Western Leads

  1. david weinstock says:

    cagney and bogart played in westerns, maybe oklahoma kid is the only one?

    • Stuart Cook says:

      Cagney made two more westerns after THE OKLAHOMA KID. They are RUN FOR COVER (1955) and TRIBUTE TO A BAD MAN (1956).

      • Lyson says:

        I recently watched Run For Cover and enjoyed it. I like the premise of this post – and enjoy seeing actors in a different genre than their usual comfort zone.

  2. Billy Slobin says:

    GREAT post–loved it!

  3. Jerry Entract says:

    Great idea for a rather different post, Laura!

    I very much like “COW COUNTRY”, “A MAN ALONE” & ” GUN GLORY” too. All are excellent examples of my favourite genre of movie. You mentioned that Milland was an excellent horseman and so was Granger. The scene where he uses his horse adeptly to move cattle (or was it horses) around a pen showed just what fine control of his horse he had. Granger was a very ‘physical’ actor, whatever the genre, so in that sense he was an ideal fit for westerns.

  4. Stuart Cook says:

    Dick Powell hosted ZANE GREY THEATER on TV from 1956 until 1961, and even starred in a number of the episodes. He was able to adapt well to westerns.

  5. mel says:

    Thank you for a very interesting post, Laura.

  6. A couple of new titles for me to enjoy, and a couple of old friends to revisit. I always learn so much from you.

  7. walter says:

    Laura, a real good idea for a post and I enjoyed your really good write-up. During the hey day of western movies, almost every major star appeared in at least one. Tony Curtis starred in THE RAWHIDE YEARS(1956) for Universal-International. Tony had been in three previous Westerns, but not as the star. In real life, Tony was an excellent rider and raised horses, with his wife on their ranch in Nevada.

    You could, very well, do a part II of this particular post. Also, a post on leading women like Joan Crawford in JOHNNY GUITAR(1954).

  8. Laura Grieve says:

    Thank you all very much for the comments!

    The Cagney titles are great contributions to this list — I need to see all of them for the first time. Thank you!

    Billy, I appreciate your kind words very much. Delighted to know you and others have enjoyed it.

    Jerry, thank you! We share so many lesser-known favorites — I hope others will perhaps be inspired to check these titles out as well. Great comments re Granger. I’ll be watching for that scene next time.

    Stuart, great mention re Dick Powell. I have collected his ZANE GREY THEATER on DVD yet haven’t cracked the sets open yet — having so many choices of things to watch is a great problem to have but I sure wish I had time to see more than I do! Looking forward to it.

    Mel, thank you for reading!!

    Patricia, I know you love the genre like I do and am really happy to know I suggested a couple new titles you might like. Thank you!

    Walter, it’s always great to hear from you. Glad to know you enjoyed this piece as well. THE RAWHIDE YEARS is a great one for the list – another one I need to see. There is a huge poster for it in the Museum of Western Film History in Lone Pine so that’s all the more reason I should see it. I like the idea of a Part II and including leading women as well. (In the meantime, I have a post on some leading ladies of “B” Westerns in the works…)

    Thanks to all of you for taking the time to comment!

    Best wishes,
    Laura

  9. Colin says:

    Nice selection there, Laura, and a few I’m not familiar with.
    Thanks for mentioning Raton Pass as it’s movie I’d been keen on seeing for a long time, and then I somehow forgot all about it. You’ve now brought it back to my attention.

  10. Laura says:

    Thank you, Colin! So nice to hear from you. I’m delighted you enjoyed the article and that I mentioned some titles that were new to you. RATON PASS is an interesting film, I’d love to read your thoughts on it at some point!

    Best wishes,
    laura

  11. Cristiane Young says:

    Interesting post! I would add Robert Taylor in one of my favorite movies, Westward the Women (1951). Looking on IMDb, I see that he did a handful of westerns during his big star days, and then quite a lot on TV, but I don’t think of him that way. (He’s not my favorite actor, but I love Westward the Women!)

  12. Laura Grieve says:

    Thank you, Cristiane! I’m glad you enjoyed it. WESTWARD THE WOMEN is one of my very favorite Westerns. It’s a great film!

    As you mention, Taylor did do a number of good Westerns; another I especially like is AMBUSH (1949). Thanks for reading!

    Best wishes,
    Laura

  13. Doug Abbott says:

    Gun Glory with Stewart Granger is also on the top of my western film lists and I have been hoping that Twilight 0r Kino would release a Blu-ray of the film.

  14. Laura Grieve says:

    Hi Doug! So glad to know you love GUN GLORY also.

    Since the Warner Archive put out GUN GLORY on DVD, our best hope for a Blu-ray is probably from them — they put out Granger and Robert Taylor’s THE LAST HUNT on Blu-ray, so you never know, it could happen!

    Best wishes,
    Laura

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