Western RoundUp: Yvonne De Carlo
Canadian-born actress Yvonne De Carlo is remembered by many classic film fans as one of Hollywood’s most glamorous women.
Born Margaret “Peggy” Yvonne Middleton in Vancouver in 1922, De Carlo began her film career in bit parts in 1941, working her way up to leading roles in the 1945 films Salome, Where She Danced and Frontier Gal, which was her first starring Western.
Many viewers associate De Carlo with desert adventures and epics such as The Desert Hawk (1950) or The Ten Commandments (1956), while others think of her film noir classics Brute Force (1947) and Criss Cross (1949). And some TV fans, of course, best remember De Carlo’s decidedly unglamorous role as Lily Munster on TV’s The Munsters (1964-66).
When I think of Yvonne De Carlo, she comes to mind first and foremost as a Western star! From the mid-’40s through the late ’60s she was the leading lady in more than a dozen Westerns.
Viewers may not be aware that De Carlo’s roles in the Western genre were perhaps the closest fit for what the actress described in her autobiography as “the Peggy Middleton behind the facade of Yvonne De Carlo.”
In De Carlo’s free time she loved nothing more than leaving Hollywood and heading up California’s Highway 395 to spend time in the great outdoors; she frequently stayed in Lone Pine, which she called “my haven in the High Sierra.” She hiked, rode horses, and took her two sons fishing and camping.
It’s thus perhaps not surprising that she was so at home in Westerns. A couple of my favorite candid photos of her are on Western sets, standing in rivers laughing alongside Joel McCrea or Rory Calhoun. She looks like she’s having fun!
Here’s an overview of some of the De Carlo Westerns I’ve enjoyed. The list includes a couple of titles that might be remembered from my 2018 Western RoundUp column on “Universal Gems.”
Frontier Gal (Charles Lamont, 1945) – I think of this film from De Carlo’s breakout year of 1945 as sort of a Western Taming of the Shrew, depicting the highly tempestuous relationship between a saloon gal named Lorena (De Carlo) and Jonathan (Rod Cameron), a man on the run who was framed for murder. Lorena and Jonathan marry but are parted the next morning when the law catches up with Jonathan; when he returns six years later, he’s quite surprised to find he’s the father of little Mary Ann (Beverly Sue Simmons). De Carlo is funny and touching, desperately attracted to Jonathan but reluctant to show it, hurt she may not measure up as the “real lady” of his dreams. De Carlo also has the chance to do some musical numbers.
Black Bart (George Sherman, 1948) – This is one of my favorite De Carlo Westerns, in which she’s the love interest of rancher Charlie Boles (Dan Duryea), who has a secret life as a stagecoach robber. A friendly enemy (Jeffrey Lynn) and a Wells Fargo man (Frank Lovejoy) complicate Boles’ secret career. De Carlo and Duryea are terrific together, the year before they made Criss Cross, and the film has a fun, fast-paced story and gorgeous candy box Technicolor, not to mention a couple of dances by De Carlo. Although some filming was done in Utah, I suspect the principal actors didn’t leave California.
River Lady (George Sherman, 1948) – In this film De Carlo reunited with past costars, Rod Cameron and Dan Duryea. She plays Sequin, owner of the River Lady, a floating gambling palace. Frustrated when her love Dan (Cameron) won’t give up logging to help her build a business empire, Sequin conspires with Beauvais (Duryea) against Dan; she essentially becomes the villainess of the piece, with Dan turning to sweet Stephanie (Helena Carter) for true love. While, like Black Bart, it’s pretty obvious that second unit photography was done with stand-ins, the film’s logging scenes nonetheless give it a nice “fresh air” feel.
The Gal Who Took the West (Frederick De Cordova, 1949) – This one might be my favorite of De Carlo’s Westerns. She plays sassy, spunky Lily, an entertainer who arrives in a frontier town to perform at an opera house. A pair of handsome cousins (John Russell and Scott Brady) are soon fighting for her hand; I love the quips she trades with their grandfather (Charles Coburn). This is such a fun movie, it’s the perfect diversion for our challenging times. Hoping for a DVD release someday!
Tomahawk (George Sherman, 1951) – This is one of several films De Carlo made with director George Sherman. De Carlo once again plays a traveling frontier entertainer; she’s attracted to Jim Bridger (Van Heflin) but matters grow complicated when she mistakenly thinks an Indian girl (Susan Cabot) he’s traveling with is his wife. This film has some excellent location photography in the Black Hills and is notable for its even-handed treatment of Indians. With a terrific cast including Preston Foster, Rock Hudson, Alex Nicol, Jack Oakie, and Tom Tully, it’s a solid exemplar of what makes Universal Westerns so enjoyable.
Silver City (Byron Haskin, 1951) – This enjoyable Paramount Pictures Western costarred Edmond O’Brien as Larkin Moffatt, a man who once made a mistake and considered stealing some money; he had second thoughts and returned it, but is hounded out of jobs by resentful Charles Storrs (Richard Arlen) all over the West. Moffatt finally catches a break as a foreman working for De Carlo and Edgar Buchanan, playing her father. De Carlo is at her best when her characters have a chance to show a humorous side, and a sequence where she’s flustered when she believes O’Brien might be interested in her is delightful. There’s also some attractive location filming in Sonora, California. This film was based on a story by Luke Short, whose writing inspired many a good Western.
The San Francisco Story (Robert Parrish, 1952) – This film set during the California Gold Rush is relatively modest, including black and white cinematography, but it does have its pleasures, starting with the teaming of De Carlo and Western favorite Joel McCrea. Yvonne is exquisitely beautiful in this one — though wasn’t she always?! — gowned by Yvonne Wood. There are terrific supporting performances by Richard Erdman as McCrea’s wry sidekick and Florence Bates as the eyepatch-wearing proprietor of a waterfront dive who shanghais sailors on the side. Worth a look for anyone who likes the cast.
Border River (George Sherman, 1954) – De Carlo’s second teaming with Joel McCrea has better production values than their first film, with beautiful Technicolor filming on the Colorado River and other locations. McCrea plays a Confederate soldier attempting to purchase Army supplies in Mexico. There are some good action scenes along with romance and espionage, and all in all, it’s a likable Western. Pedro Armendariz costars.
Shotgun (Lesley Selander, 1955) – This Allied Artists Western co-starring Sterling Hayden and Zachary Scott is one of De Carlo’s best films of the genre. Hayden plays a lawman with a wild past who’s on the trail of the man who murdered his boss (Lane Chandler). He meets up on the trail with a saloon gal (De Carlo) and a bounty hunter (Scott). This is what some might call a “chamber Western,” with its main focus on the relationships among the trio of lead characters. Most of the movie was shot on location, including Sedona, and the film has a tough, gritty look, with the actors in realistically dirty clothes! Some particularly interesting background is that the film was co-written by actor Rory Calhoun. De Carlo tells a story in her memoirs of a disastrous date with Calhoun in the ’40s when he didn’t talk to her all night; despite that, in the ’50s they became good friends, to the point that he was one of the only people invited to her 1955 wedding to stuntman Bob Morgan.
Raw Edge (John Sherwood, 1956) – De Carlo worked with Calhoun in front of the camera in this oddball yet entertaining Universal Pictures film set in the 1840s Oregon territory. There’s an…unusual!…law in the area that any woman who is widowed is up for grabs by the first man who claims her. Calhoun arrives to avenge the death of his brother (John Gavin) at the hands of DeCarlo’s husband (Herbert Rudley), and he ends up also protecting her from the vultures who begin circling in anticipation of her hubby’s death. I give the story points for originality, even if it’s rather bizarre! DeCarlo and Calhoun are fun to watch together, and the filming in San Bernardino National Forest is an added plus.
Viewers who enjoy the above films will find that there are even more De Carlo Westerns to seek out, including Calamity Jane and Sam Bass (1949); her supporting role in John Wayne‘s McLintock! (Andrew V. McLaglen, 1963); and her lead roles in multiple ’60s Westerns produced by A.C. Lyles.
– 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.