Great American Westerns (Part 1) – ace directors and star actors hunt in pairs: Randolph Scott

The Western is a uniquely American genre in the history of cinema. Through a significant part of the 20th century from the 1930’s to the 60’s, they dominated the output of Hollywood. Every well-known director including Cecile B. DeMille, John Ford, Howard Hawks and Sam Peckinpah counted Westerns among their most successful films. Likewise, in front of the camera, household names such as John Wayne, Gary Cooper, James Stewart, Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum and Clint Eastwood had some of the biggest hits of their careers starring in Westerns. As is usually the case in this industry, some directors and actors formed strong partnerships that yielded some of the most iconic films of this genre. Perhaps no creative pairing is as well-known as that of John Ford and John Wayne. Over nearly a quarter century, the two giants of Hollywood worked together 8 times to create arguably the most celebrated films of their respective careers, all except The Quiet Man being Westerns. But there were other notable director-actor collaborations in the category, some of which are not quite as well remembered today.

In the first part of this series, let’s look actor Randolph Scott and his most significant collaborations. Throughout his career, Mr. Scott had a tendency to build partnerships with directors, working with Henry Hathaway, Ray Enright, Edwin L. Marin, Andre DeToth and Budd Boetticher across multiple films.

Randolph Scott in Comanche Station (1960)

Henry Hathaway and Randolph Scott

Heritage of the Desert (1932), Wild Horse Mesa (1932), The Thundering Herd (1933), Sunset Pass (1933), Man of the Forest (1933), To the Last Man (1933), The Last Round-Up (1934).

Perhaps the earliest actor-director collaboration in the Western genre was between director Henry Hathaway and actor Randolph Scott. Heritage of the Desert in 1932 was Hathaway’s first film as a director and Scott’s first as a leading man.  The two paired up and churned out six more films for Paramount over just two years, all based on Zane Grey novels. Many of these films were remakes of earlier silent films from the 20’s, in some cases featuring the same supporting cast, but with the lead role now taken over by Randolph Scott. The fast rate of production was possible because the films were each only about an hour long, but they showcased impressive production quality for that time, including scenes involving mountain lions in Man of the Forest and an avalanche in To The Last Man. The absence of a musical score and some wooden dialogue delivery make the films difficult to appreciate when watched today. But Randolph Scott made for a very appealing leading man with his lantern jaw and chiseled looks. In 1933’s The Thundering Herd and Man of the Forest, he sports a moustache that makes him the spitting image of Errol Flynn, well before Flynn himself started wearing a moustache in his movies (probably in The Charge of the Light Brigade in 1936).

The films were a launchpad for a young Olympic swimmer named Buster Crabbe, who had supporting roles in three of them, just before he became a star in the late 30’s playing Flash Gordon and Tarzan. To the Last Man also included among its cast a 5-year-old Shirley Temple in a small uncredited role, just a year before her breakout performance in Little Miss Marker.

Verna Hillie and Randolph Scott in Man of the Forest (1933), directed by Henry Hathaway

Andre DeToth and Randolph Scott

Man in the Saddle (1951), Carson City (1952), The Stranger Wore a Gun (1953), Thunder Over the Plains (1953), Riding Shotgun (1954), The Bounty Hunter (1954).

After World War II, Randolph Scott was at his busiest, starring in over two dozen westerns during a 10 year period from 1946-56. He made multiple films with three directors – Edwin L. Marin, Ray Enright and Andre DeToth. These films wouldn’t feature in a list of most influential Western movies, instead they represent the Western genre ‘formula’ or ‘assembly line’ at its peak.

DeToth was one of the more colorful Hollywood directors, sporting an eye patch, having lost his eye at an early age. He is perhaps best known for having directed the first major studio 3D production, the horror film House of Wax in 1953. In the latter part of his career, he did uncredited second unit work on acclaimed films like Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Superman (1978). But during his heyday in the 50’s, he directed several Westerns, including six with Randolph Scott, and it’s believed he added elements of the thriller to the genre, helping to place these films a cut above the rest of Scott’s work during this period. The first of this series was Man in the Saddle in 1951 and it also started off Scott’s involvement in film production with producer Harry Joe Brown, which started off as Scott-Brown Productions and eventually became Ranown Pictures Corp.

Some of the films have Scott involved in extended and elaborately choreographed fistfight scenes (using stunt doubles, of course), most memorably in Man in the Saddle and Carson City (fo. The last of the films, The Bounty Hunter, was apparently the first Western to showcase a bounty hunter as its hero. In all these films, Scott’s character frequently dressed in black, a bold and distinctive choice for a leading man in Westerns in those days. Although he was past 50 by this time, he was very fit and cut quite a dashing figure.

Filmed in Technicolour, the movies feature some notable actors playing Scott’s adversaries, the likes of Raymond Massey as an evil mine owner in Carson City, Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin as henchmen in The Stranger Wore a Gun, and Borgnine again as a trouble-maker in The Bounty Hunter (a year later, Borgnine would win Best Actor for Marty). Watch Riding Shotgun to see a brief but intense Charles Bronson performance in one of his earliest big screen parts.

Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott

7 Men From Now (1956), The Tall T (1957), Decision at Sundown (1957), Buchanan Rides Alone (1958), Ride Lonesome (1959), Westbound (1959), Comanche Station (1960).

At a time when one would have expected Randolph Scott to transition to supporting roles as he approached his 60s, he kicked off a career rebirth (like Liam Neeson did in 2008 with Taken) by teaming up with director Budd Boetticher to star in seven Westerns released over a 4-year period. Because they were produced by Scott and Harry Joe Brown’s Ranown Corp., the films are collectively referred to as the Ranown Cycle. Six of the films were set up at Columbia Pictures whereas Westbound was with Warner Bros. and technically is not part of the cycle, although it features the same team. Shot in Cinemascope on Eastman Color and dominated by the sparse vegetation and burnt sienna palette of California, the films are little known gems that should be seen by any fan of Westerns. Four of the films were scripted by Burt Kennedy, who was originally hired by John Wayne’s production company Batjac to write scripts for Wayne. In fact, the series kicked off because John Wayne was committed to shooting The Searchers for John Ford and therefore recommended Randolph Scott to take the lead role for the production of Kennedy’s 7 Men from Now script. All seven films are masterclasses of economical storytelling, coming in under 80 minutes running time, packed with exposition, character interactions and plenty of action. Scott’s characters are usually cast in the same mould – even-tempered loners, men of principle, riding “tall in the saddle”. Not unexpectedly the films are all very male-centric, although Karen Steele does play significant roles in Decision at Sundown, Ride Lonesome and Westbound.

Some famous actors made early screen appearances in these films. A lanky young James Coburn made his feature film debut in a supporting role in Ride Lonesome which also has Lee Van Cleef in a brief but impactful appearance as an outlaw. Actor L.Q. Jones who was such a staple of Sam Peckinpah’s films in the 60’s had one of his earliest significant speaking roles as the likeable Texan Pecos Hill working for a bunch of cutthroats in Buchanan Rides Alone. And Lee Marvin was again Scott’s nemesis in 7 Men From Now.

Karen Steele and Randolph Scott in Westbound (1959), directed by Budd Boetticher

Randolph Scott acted in just one more film after the Ranown cycle and it turned out to be perhaps the most highly regarded film of his career. Ride the High Country, released in 1962 was Sam Peckinpah’s second feature film and set the director on the path to greatness. Co-starring another acting veteran Joel McCrea, it was the best possible swan song for Randolph Scott, the ‘gentle giant’ of Westerns.

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