Western RoundUp: Yvonne De Carlo

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!

Border River (1954) Joel McCrea and Yvonne De Carlo
Border River (1954) Joel McCrea and Yvonne De Carlo
Raw Edge (1956) Rory Calhoun and Yvonne De Carlo
Raw Edge (1956) Rory Calhoun and Yvonne De Carlo

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 (1945) Yvonne De Carlo and Rod Cameron
Frontier Gal (1945) Yvonne De Carlo and Rod Cameron

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 (1948) Dan Duryea and Yvonne De Carlo
Black Bart (1948) Dan Duryea and Yvonne De Carlo

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.

Dan Duryea, Yvonne De Carlo and Rod Cameron in River Lady (1948)
Dan Duryea, Yvonne De Carlo and Rod Cameron in River Lady (1948)

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 (1949) movie poster
The Gal Who Took the West (1949) movie poster

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!

Van Helfin and Yvonne De Carlo in Tomahawk (1951)
Van Heflin and Yvonne De Carlo in Tomahawk (1951)

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.

De Carlo and Edmond O'Brien in Silver City (1951)
De Carlo and Edmond O’Brien in Silver City (1951)

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.

Yvonne De Carlo in The San Francisco Story (1952)
Yvonne in The San Francisco Story (1952)

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.

Yvonne De Carlo in Border River (1954)
Border River (1954)

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 (1955) movie poster
Shotgun (1955) movie poster

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 (1956) movie poster
Raw Edge (1956) movie poster

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.

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8 Responses to Western RoundUp: Yvonne De Carlo

  1. I love de Carlo in Westerns, hell I love her in anything. But she was a natural fit for Westerns, especially Technicolor ones. She looked fantastic on her dresses.

    You chose really good movies that showcase her. Love all of them, but The Gal Who Took the West is just great fun.
    Raw Edge has always been one of my favorites. Yvonne and Rory, does it get any better? I like the story too.

  2. Laura Grieve says:

    Thank you, Margot, I’m so glad to know you enjoyed reading this and especially that you love Yvonne’s movies too!

    THE GAL WHO TOOK THE WEST is such a day-brightener. I need to revisit RAW EDGE, I thought it was fun, despite how strange it was!

    Best wishes,

  3. Walter says:

    Laura, another enjoyable write-up. I’ve been a fan of Yvonne De Carlo ever since I can remember. I like the two photographs you picked of her with Joel McCrea and Rory Calhoun. She liked doing Westerns and I like watching her in them. Something that isn’t mentioned much is what a wonderful sounding voice she has and I would recognize it anywhere and she should have done voiceovers. She was without a doubt one of the four “Queens of Technicolor” and always will be.

    Another Western she made, that I like is PASSION(1954) with Cornel Wilde. She gets to portray twin sisters in this tale of the Californio Era of old California and the afoot chase scene in the snow covered Sierra Nevada Mountains was photographed very well.

    Look forward to your next write-up.

  4. john k says:

    Wonderful listing of Yvonne’s Westerns,actually I love her in anything!
    Recently got the Blu Ray of CRISS CROSS and just watched FLAME OF THE ISLANDS
    on Talking Pictures TV UK. FLAME OF THE ISLANDS is an engaging piece of
    nonsense from Republic pictures and Yvonne is the whole show despite appealing
    male leads,Howard Duff,Zachary Scott and James Arness.

  5. Jerry Entract says:

    Another great write-up, Laura. She had great appeal as a woman in her films in that she was kind of real, honest, attainable even. Not a distant goddess-type beauty ever.

    Like John, I also enjoyed her very much recently in “FLAME OF THE ISLANDS” on our Talking Pictures channel, in which she displayed beautifully that appeal I was rather clumsily trying to describe above! Also on TPTV recently she displayed that appeal in “HURRICANE SMITH”.

    I don’t believe I have ever seen “THE GAL WHO TOOK THE WEST ” though.

  6. Laura Grieve says:

    Thank you so much for your comments, Walter, John, and Jerry!

    Walter, I’m glad you liked those photos of Yvonne with Joel and Rory. There’s something really fun about those shots and the camaraderie conveyed. I have a DVD of PASSION but that’s one I haven’t seen yet so I’m glad to read your thoughts on it. I agree about her voice!

    John, I do enjoy her in anything — CRISS CROSS is on a short list of my favorite film noir titles. FLAME OF THE ISLANDS I found just delightful — you describe it perfectly.

    Jerry, you make an interesting point in that she was so gorgeous yet down to earth — maybe that’s part of what I like about those “river” photos, she’s such a great beauty but there she is laughing while getting very wet LOL. I need to see HURRICANE SMITH, I’ve got that in a stack by my TV! Hope you can see THE GAL WHO TOOK THE WEST before long, I suspect you will really enjoy it.

    Thanks again to all of you for reading and taking the time to share your thoughts!

    Best wishes,

  7. Vienna says:

    Great tribute. Love that pic from Frontier Gal. Must try and see it.

  8. Laura says:

    Thank you so much, Vienna! I’m delighted you enjoyed it.

    Best wishes,

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