Saturday, July 20, 2019

The 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing

The Apollo 11 crew: Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and
Buzz Aldrin
It was fifty years ago today that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to set foot on the moon. It had only been eight years earlier that President John F. Kennedy proposed before Congress that the United States "...should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. " It was only in 1962 that John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. Apollo 11 was not simply a remarkable achievement, but one of the greatest achievements in the history of humanity.

As might be expected, Apollo 11 would have a lasting impact on popular culture, although in many instances it was not immediately felt after Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon. It was after John Glenn had circled the earth on the Mercury-Atlas 6 mission that the United States (and to some degree other countries as well) became swept up in a space craze. While Tang had been manufactured since 1959, sales soared after its use in the Mercury and Gemini missions. Tang capitalised on its link to the space programme well into the Seventies. There were other spaced themed food products on the market in the Sixties that had no connection to NASA. . In 1965 Quaker Oats introduced a cereal with a space age theme. The spokesman for Quisp was was an alien with a propeller atop his head, named, appropriately, Quisp. There were numerous space-oriented toys on the market in the Sixties, from Mattel's "Matt Mason" action figures to RCA Victor's Astronaut Space Helmet.

Television fully embraced the Space Race. Sitcoms from Gilligan's Island to Bewitched featured episodes that touched upon space in some way. Space played a central role in My Favorite Martian, as well as I Dream of Jeannie (Jeannie's master was a NASA astronaut named Tony Nelson). There were space-oriented science fiction shows such as Lost in Space and Star Trek. It was not long before and shortly after the Apollo 11 mission that there were several space-themed movies, including Countdown (1968), Planet of the Apes (1968), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Doppelgänger (1969--now better known by its American title, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun), Moon Zero Two (1969), Marooned (1969), and Silent Running (1972).

As surprising as it might seem, Apollo 11 actually marked the end of the Sixties space craze. Public interest in the space programme waned once Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had set foot on the moon. The television audience for the further Apollo missions would decline over time. That having been said, Apollo 11 did prove to be a merchandising bonanza, with a wide array of products capitalising on the event both shortly before and after the mission. Among the best remembered products released in the wake of Apollo 11 was a booklet titled Journey to the Moon 1969 published by Tandy Corporation less than two months after the lunar landing. MGM Records released a commemorative record, First Man on the Moon, narrated by Hugh Downs. Saalfiend put out an Apollo Man on the Moon colouring book, while Milton Bradley published an Astronauts of Apollo 11 jigsaw puzzle.

Some products seeking to capitalise on Apollo 11 were more unusual than others. Tom Sims Kentucky Bourbon came out with an Apollo Space Capsule decanter (manufactured by McCoy Pottery). Marathon gas stations released a series of commemorative Libbey juice glasses featuring the Apollo 11, 12, 13, and 14 missions. In 1970 Avon manufactured what they called Moon Flight: the Game, which was basically a bottle of shampoo in the shape of the Apollo Command module and Lunar module. As might be expected, there were several toys on the market seeking to capitalise on the first mission to the moon's surface. Daishin Cogyo of Japan produced a battery operated toy Apollo 11 lunar module, while Blue Shield made a plastic toy Apollo Capsule. As might be expected, model manufacturers took advantage of Apollo 11. Revell produced an Apollo Spacecraft Model (with both the command module Columbia and the lunar module Eagle) and the Saturn V rocket, while Airfix produced an Apollo moon landing model kit.

Surprisingly enough, Apollo 11 would have very little immediate effect on music. Perhaps the song most associated with the space programme is David Bowie's "Space Oddity." The first versions of "Space Oddity" had been recorded as early as February 1969. The version that would appear on David Bowie's self-titled 1969 album David Bowie, as well as serve as the basis for the 1969 single, was recorded in June of that year. Mercury Records released the single to coincide with Apollo 11 on June 20 1969. That having been said, the BBC held off on playing "Space Oddity" until after the crew of Apollo 11 had safely returned. It proved to be a hit in the United Kingdom, reaching no. 5 on the singles chart. In the United States it stalled at no. 124.  The moon landing would inspire the Pink Floyd song "Moonhead," written in July 1969, but it has never been officially released. The only other song related to Apollo 11 that was released not long after the mission was The Byrds' "Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins," which appeared on their 1969 album Ballad of Easy Rider.

As mentioned earlier, the American Space Craze of the Sixties declined after Apollo 11. While there were a good many space related movies released not long before and not long after Apollo 11, there weren't that many released in the years following the mission. Hammer Films' science fiction movie Moon Zero Two, released three months after Apollo 11, did acknowledge the mission. After the mission had taken place, dialogue referring to Neil Armstrong was added to the film, as was a scene involving a monument to Apollo 11 on the moon.

Beyond Moon Zero Two and the many documentaries made about the mission over the years (1971's Moonwalk One being one of the earliest), there would be very little acknowledgement of the mission in movies until well after it had taken place. Movies referencing Apollo 11 would become much more common in the Nineties. Pontiac Moon (1994) was set in 1969 and centred around a father and son who make a road trip to the fictional the Spires of the Moon National Park (perhaps based on Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve) even as Apollo 11 is taking place. A Walk on the Moon (1999) was also set in 1969 when the first moon landing was taking place. Apollo 11 played an even bigger role in the Australian film The Dish (2000). The Dish was a fictionalised account of the Parkes Observatory near Parkes, New South Wales, Australia. The Parkes Observatory had played a crucial role in relaying live television images of the Apollo 11 Moon landing. In the Naughts Apollo 11 would play an important role in the plot of Men in Black 3 (2012). Released just last year First Man (2018) is a biographical film following Neil Armstrong in the years leading up to Apollo 11, as well as the mission itself. Of course, it must be kept in mind that there are many more films that have referenced Apollo 11 in some way shape or form over the years.

With regards to television, the Seventies science fiction series Space: 1999, set on Moon Base Alpha, obviously owed some debt to Apollo 11. It seems likely that the Eagle spacecraft on the show were named for the lunar module, Eagle, used in Apollo 11. Neil Armstrong would also be referenced on the show. As strange as it might sound, Apollo 11 was also referenced in the Seventies science fiction show Battlestar Galactica. In the final episode of the series, "The Hand of God," Apollo and Starbuck narrowly miss picking up a transmission from the Apollo 11 lunar landing.

As might be expected, Apollo 11 would be referenced on further science fiction shows. Apollo 11 has been referenced on Doctor Who multiple times, and it would play a crucial role in the plot of the episode "Day of the Moon." Apollo 11 would also play a role in the Timeless episode "Space Race," in which the heroes must insure that the mission takes place. Apollo 11 has also played a role in period TV shows. The Mad Men episode "Waterloo" is set as the mission takes place, and Bert Cooper (long a fan of the American space program) dies immediately after watching the Apollo 11 lunar landing. The Astronaut's Wives Club was a mini-series following the lives of the wives of the Mercury Seven. Its final episode, "Landing," dealt with Apollo 11. There have been at least two TV movies dealing with Apollo 11: Apollo 11 in 1996 and Moonshot in 2009. Of course, here I have to point out that there have been many more television shows and TV movies that have touched upon Apollo 11 over the years.

I was six years old when Apollo 11 took place. It is the first historical event of global importance I can remember. I remember watching as the Eagle lunar module landed on the moon and the words "Tranquillity base here. The Eagle has landed." I remember watching as Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. I remember that night looking up at the moon to see if I could somehow see the lunar module on its surface. I am sure there were many young Gen Xers and older Baby Boomers like me for whom Apollo 11 was event television. It was in the fall of 1969 that my parents bought my brother and I Tandy's booklet Journey to the Moon 1969. I have remained fascinated by NASA and the American space program ever since.

The Apollo 11 mission was an incredible accomplishment and one which has no equals in the annals of history. While Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins would become famous forevermore for their achievement, Apollo 11 was the result of the work of thousands of people, from Katherine Johnson (who calculated the trajectory of Apollo 11 and many other early space missions to Gene Kranz (Flight Director of Mission Control for Apollo 11 and many other missions) to the many engineers, technicians, and scientists who made the trip to the moon possible. For those of us who were alive to see it, the Apollo 11 lunar landing is a memory we will never forget.

Friday, July 19, 2019

The Woman in the Window (1944)

 (This blog post is part of the Joan Bennett Blogathon hosted by In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood)

The Woman in the Window (1944) is a pivotal film in cinematic history. It is counted not only as an early film noir, but one of the movies fundamental to the development of film noir. Arguably, it was director Fritz Lang's second film noir, immediately following his first (Ministry of Fear, released earlier in 1944). It would also be an important role for Joan Bennett. Beginning her career as a blonde ingenue, she went brunette in Trade Winds (1938), taking on a more sultry persona. With Woman in the Wind Miss Bennett became a film noir femme fatale. In the next few years she would appear in several more film noirs.

The Woman in the Window originated with screenwriter Nunnally Johnson, who had written such films as Jesse James (1939) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940). It was in 1943 that Mr. Johnson co-founded the independent production company International Pictures with producer William Goetz and RKO executive Leo Spitz. It was Mr. Spitz who secured distribution through RKO for International's movies. International Pictures' first film would be the comedy Casanova Brown (1944), which was both produced and written by Nunnally Johnson. International Pictures' second film would be an adaptation of the best-selling novel Once Off Guard by J. H. Wallis. Renamed The Woman in the Window, it would also be both produced and written by Nunnally Johnson.

The Woman in the Window would see director Fritz Lang and actress Joan Bennett working together for the first time since Man Hunt (1941). Edward G. Robinson played the male lead. A significant role would be played by Dan Duryea. Best known for playing antagonistic roles in films, he had earlier worked with Fritz Lang in Ministry of Fear (1944). Aside from Mr. Duryea's obvious talent, Fritz Lang insisted on casting him because he had noticed that in the novel every male character tended to be older and he wanted at least one younger man in the film. Raymond Massey played a pivotal role in the film as District Attorney Frank Lalor.

The Woman in the Window centred on middle-aged psychology professor Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson) who becomes fascinated by a painting of a woman in a store window. Eventually on one of his trips by the storefront he meets the woman in the painting, Alice Reed (Joan Bennett). He convinces Alice to join him for a drink. Unfortunately, when they go back to Alice's apartment, the wealthy man who has been keeping Alice, Claude Mazard (played by Arthur Loft) shows up and causes a scene leading to Richard killing him. From there Richard and Alice must figure out how to cover up Mazard's death.

The Woman in the Window received overwhelmingly positive reviews. It also proved to be a hit at the box office. Both the success of the film and Fritz Lang's desire for independence from the major studios would lead to Joan Bennett, Mr. Lang, and Miss Bennett's husband at the time, Walter Wanger, founding Diana Production Company. It would also lead to another movie teaming Edward G. Robinson with Joan Bennett, Scarlett Street (1945), produced by Diana Production Company and directed by Fritz Lang.

The Woman in the Window remains highly respected to this day. The films holds an unusually high 95% rating at Rotten Tomatoes. It is regarded as one of the best films Fritz Lang made in Hollywood. The film is also regarded as featuring one of Joan Bennett's best performances. Perhaps the only objection ever made to the film is its ending, which I won't reveal here. One has to suspect that the film's ending came about largely because of the Production Code. The original novel Once Off Guard ended with Professor Wanley, an ending that would have clearly violated the Code. Speaking for myself, The Woman in the Window is a remarkable piece of work regardless of its ending.

The Woman in the Window would have a lasting impact on film noir. Indeed, when Nino Frank first applied the term film noir to American films released in France in 1946, The Woman in the Window was included among those films. In their book Panorama du film noir américain 1941–1953, Raymond Borde and Étienne Chaumeton used The Woman in the Window as one of the examples in their attempt to define film noir. The influence of The Woman in the Window on film noir can be seen on further film noirs, as well as the related genre of neo-noir. The film would also have an influence on the careers of Fritz Lang and Joan Bennett. Mr. Lang would make several more noirs, while Joan Bennett would become one of noir's best known femme fatales. Nearly 75 years after its release. the influence of The Woman in the Window is still being felt.



Thursday, July 18, 2019

The Greatest Movies Hammer Films Never Made

From 1957 to the early Seventies, with the release of of Curse of Frankenstein, Hammer Film Productions dominated the horror genre in cinema in a way that no studio had since Universal in the Thirties and Forties. The studio would release such classics as Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula (1958), The Mummy (1959), and yet others. Hammer also released films in other genres, including psychological thrillers, swashbucklers, and caveman movies. While Hammer released a large number of classics and not-so-classics over the years, there were also those films Hammer had planned, but ultimately never produced. Here are what in my opinion the best films that Hammer never made.

1. The Night Creatures: Not to be confused with Hammer's 1962 swashbuckler Captain Clegg (which was retitled Night Creatures in the United States), The Night Creatures  would have been an adaptation of the 1954 novel I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. Not only did Hammer obtain the film rights to the novel's adaptation, but Richard Matheson himself would write the screenplay.

Unfortunately, The Night Creatures would run into trouble with censors on both sides of the Atlantic. The British Board of Film Censorship (BBFC) rejected The Night Creatures outright without suggesting any alterations or revisions to the script. In fact, the BBFC made it clear that if The Night Creatures was produced, it would not receive a certificate passing it for exhibition. Here it must be pointed out that Hammer had earlier run into trouble with the BBFC over Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula. The MPAA's Production Code Administration (PCA) in the United States submitted two pages detailing a number of objections to brutality, profanity, and immorality in the proposed film. Quite simply, if the script was shot as it was, the PCA would deny it a certificate of approval. Unlike Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula, and their other horror movies, it seemed that there was no way that Hammer could receive approval from industry watchdogs on either side of the Pond for The Night Creatures.

Hammer would ultimately sell the script to American producer Robert Lippert, who would use it as the basis for his film based on I Am Legend, The Last Man on Earth (1964). Dissatisfied with the movie, Richard Matheson insisted he be credited under the pen name "Logan Swanson." Mr. Matheson would publish the screenplay, along with two other unproduced screenplays he had written, in the book Visions Deferred in 2002.

2. King Kong: For Hammer Film Productions' 100th film in 1966, the studio planned to produce a remake of King Kong (1933). The company even approached Ray Harryhausen about the project. Unfortunately for Hammer, the project never got beyond the discussion stage. RKO refused to sell the rights for a remake, willing only to sell the rights for sequels to King Kong (such as Toho's King Kong vs. Godzilla). For their 100th film, Hammer then produced a remake of One Million B.C. titled One Million Years B.C. (1966) as their 100th film.

3. Zeppelin v. Pterodactyls: Zeppelin v. Pterodactyls originated as an idea from When Dinosaurs Rule the Earth (1970) stop-motion animator David Allen. It then emerged as a 20 page synopsis titled Raiders of the Stone Ring by David Allen, Dennis Muren, and Jim Danforth. In Zeppelin v. Pterodactyls a German Zeppelin during World War I is blown off course and arrives in a lost world filled with dinosaurs and cavemen. Unfortunately, When Dinosaurs Rule the Earth went over schedule and Zeppelin v. Pterodactyls was dropped in favour of Creatures the World Forgot (1971).

4. Untitled Captain Kronos--Vampire Hunter sequel: Captain Kronos--Vampire Hunter (1974) remains one of Hammer's best loved latter day films. Producer, writer, and director Brian Clemens had planned for it to be the first in a series of movies featuring Captain Kronos. Subsequent films would have seen Captain Kronos battling different species of vampires in different parts of the world and even different time periods (given Kronos' name, it should come as no surprise that time travel could play a role). Unfortunately as shooting continued on Captain Kronos--Vampire Hunter, Michael Carreras was becoming disappointed with how the movie was taking shape. In the end, even though it was shot in 1972, Captain Kronos--Vampire Hunter would not be released until 1974. Worse yet, there would be not even be one sequel, let alone an entire series of movies.

5. Vampirella: While Hammer Film Productions had a steady stream of successes from the late Fifties through the Sixties, by the Seventies the studio was in trouble. Hammer Films head Michael Carreras then placed an ad in magazines published by Warren Publishing (publishers of Creepy and Eerie) asking what readers thought Hammer should produce next. The overwhelming response was a film adaptation of Warren's character Vampirella. An outline was written by Jimmy Sangster and then further developed by John Starr. Caroline Munro was approached to play the role, but she turned it down due to the amount of nudity that would be involved. Valerie Leon also turned down the role for the same reason. Finally, Hammer found their Vampirella in Barbara Leigh, who had appeared in the Steve McQueen movie Junior Bonner (1972).  Ads and posters for Vampirella were released. Michael Carreras even took Barbara Leigh, who had a Vampirella costume, and Peter Cushing to the Famous Monsters convention to promote the prospective film. Starting with Vamprirella #67, March 1975, Barbara Leigh would begin appearing in costume on covers of the magazine.

Unfortunately, a Hammer adaptation of Vampirella never came to be. First, Jim Warren of Warren Publishing insisted on retaining all merchandising rights to the character and even stormed out of Bray Studios. Second and more seriously, Hammer Film Productions could not secure backing for the project. Not only did Hammer never make a Vampirella film, but the studio would release no films following a remake of The Lady Vanishes in 1979 until their remake of Let Me In in 2010.

6. Kali: Devil Bride of Dracula: As a sequel to Scars of Dracula (1970), Hammer had originally planned a film variously called Dracula in India, Dracula: High Priest of the Vampires, and The Unquenchable Thirst of Dracula. The film would be set in 1932 and would feature Dracula in India. Unfortunately for Hammer, in 1970 Count Yorga, Vampire, a vampire tale set in the present day, was a hit. Hammer's distributor, Warner Bros., then requested that Hammer make its own Dracula movie set in the present day. The end result was Dracula A.D. 1972.

The Unquenchable Thirst of Dracula would almost be resurrected after a fashion. For a follow up to ill-fated Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, The Unquenchable Thirst of Dracula was dusted off and revised as Kali: Devil Bride of Dracula (later called Dracula and the Blood Lust of Kali). The setting was still India, but the time period was moved back to the 1870s so that the movie would have featured a younger Van Helsing and Dracula. Unfortunately, by 1975 Hammer Film Productions was in dire straits and was never able to receive backing for the film.

7.  Mistress of the Seas: Hammer Film Productions had produced its share of swashbuckler movies, including The Pirates of Blood River (1961), Captain Clegg (1962), and The Devil-Ship Pirates (1964). It was in 1967 that Hammer announced  a film based on the life of pirate Anne Bonney.  In 1970 Mistress of the Seas, based on the novel by John Carlova, was pitched to Universal with Raquel Welch set to star and promotional artwork even having been produced. Universal turned it down. Despite this setback, Hammer continued work on Mistress of the Seas.

The project would be revived in 1978 when the Rank Organisation expressed interest. Rank was financing Hammer's remake of The Lady Vanishes (1938) at the time, and if all had gone according to plan Mistress of the Sea would have followed. American producer Samuel Z. Arkoff was also providing financing for both films. Unfortunately, Samuel Z. Arkoff left when a request to Americanise The Lady Vanishes was refused. While The Lady Vanishes would continue production, Mistress of the Seas was left dead in the water.

Ultimately Val Guest would take his screenplay to Hollywood where John Derek changed its name to Pirate Annie and planned to produce it. as a vehicle for Ursula Andress It was at this point that Val Guest no longer became involved in the project when three other screenwriters were hired to write a whole new screenplay. That film would never be made either.

8. Nessie: Nessie, also known as Nessie--Monster from the Past was announced in 1976. If all had gone according to plan, it would have begun shooting on May 1977. The film was to be made in co-operation with Toho Co. Ltd. (then as now famous for Godzilla movies). In Nessie the Loch Ness Monster ingests a chemical which causes it to grow to enormous size and then proceeds to go on a rampage. The story had been written by Michael Carreras and Euan Lloyd, which in turn became a treatment by John Starr, which was turned into a screenplay by Bryan Forbes. Things began to fall apart when Columbia Pictures, its American backer, pulled out of the project. A new backer was sought in the meantime until, at last, in 1978 Toho even pulled out. Undeterred,  Michael Carreras tried to launch Nessie again in May 1979. Sadly, the project would fall apart again, never to be revived.

9. Jack the Ripper Goes West: Jack the Ripper had provided fodder for Hammer films before, in the film Hands of the Ripper (1971). Euan Lloyd, who had been with Hammer on the ill-fated Nessie, was appointed as Hammer's new line producer in 1978. He brought with him a script by Scot Finch titled Jack the Ripper Goes West. Jack the Ripper Goes West had the notorious serial killer leaving London for the American West in 1888. The project was announced in 1978 and again in 1979, but never got off the ground. Much of the problem may have been that by 1978 it had already been done. The 1974 B-movie Knife for the Ladies dealt with a serial killer in the West. Interestingly enough, among the many titles it would be released under would be Jack the Ripper Goes West.  Of course, by 1978 Hammer was in dire straits and would have trouble getting any of their projects made.

10. The Invisible Man: For their version of Dracula, Hammer worked out a distribution deal with Universal. It was also in the summer of 1958 that Universal announced a deal whereby Hammer could remake any of the classic Universal horror movies. Hammer would remake The Mummy's Hand (1940) as The Mummy (1959) and The Phantom of the Opera as the 1962 film of the same name. In 1958 Hammer then considered a remake of The Invisible Man (1933). For whatever reason, Hammer never did remake The Invisible Man. It is a shame, as its Victorian setting would have been perfect for Hammer.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

James Cagney: Song and Dance Man

Ruby Keeler, James Cagney, and Joan Blondell
in a promotional photo fro Footlight Parade.
It was 120 years ago today that James Cagney was born. Today Mr. Cagney still remains one of the best known actors of all time. Even people who have never seen his films know who he is. For better or worse, James Cagney also remains best known for the gangster movies he made. What most average people do not realise is that Mr. Cagney was also a song and dance man and thought of himself as such.

In fact, it would be as a song and dance man that James Cagney's career would begin. He learned to tap dance when he was only a boy. He made his Broadway debut in the musical Pitter Patter in 1920. In turn, this would launch Mr. Cagney on a ten year career in vaudeville. He would return to Broadway several times, including the musical Grand Street Follies. He also appeared on London's West End in the musical Broadway. While James Cagney had established himself in both vaudeville and Broadway as a song and dance man, it would not be one of his musicals that led him to a film career. In 1930 he appeared in the drama Penny Arcade alongside Joan Blondell, with whom he had earlier appeared on Broadway in Maggie the Magnificent. Despite largely negative reviews from critics, Al Jolsen bought the film rights for Penny Arcade for $20,000. Afterwards he sold the film rights to Warner Bros. on the condition that they retain James Cagney and Joan Blondell from the play. In adapting Penny Arcade as a film, they gave it a new name: Sinners' Holiday. It was released on October 11 1930.

In Sinners' Holiday James Cagney recreated his role in Penny Arcade as Harry Delano, a young man who becomes involved in bootlegging. As a result of the strength of his performance in Sinner's Holiday, James Cagney would find himself cast in another gangster movie, Doorway to Hell (1931). While James Cagney's next three films would be two comedies and a drama (in which he didn't play a gangster), he would find himself typecast as a gangster due to the phenomenal success of The Public Enemy (1931).  Curiously, Edward Woods had originally been cast as Tom Powers, while James Cagney played his best friend Matt. It was director William Wellman who switched the two roles, thinking Mr. Cagney would be better as Tom Powers. Regardless, over the next several years at Warner Bros. James Cagney would find himself consistently cast in gangster movies, crime movies, and dramas.

It would be in one of his gangster movies that James Cagney would first dance on screen. In Taxi! James Cagney played a young taxi cab driver named Matt Nolan. In one portion of the movie Matt takes part in a ballroom dance competition. His partner was his love interest, Sue, played by Loretta Young. His primary competition in the contest would be another song and dance man who had been typecast in gangster movies, George Raft (who goes uncredited in the movie). It was George Raft who won the contest.

That a lengthy ballroom dance contest should appear in a Warner Bros. crime drama probably did not surprise audiences in 1932. While Warner Bros. was well known for their gangster movies, they were also well known for their musicals. In the early Thirties the studio had seen success with such musicals as Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929) and 42nd Street (1933). At the same time that Warner Bros. was making musicals, James Cagney was anxious for a change of pace. It should come as no surprise, then, that song and dance man James Cagney actively fought to be cast in Warner Bros.' musical Footlight Parade (1933).

It was in 1933 that Warner Bros. had phenomenal success with two musicals featuring choreography by Busby Berkeley: 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933. As soon as James Cagney learned that the studio was planning a follow-up to these two films, he campaigned to be cast in the film by reminding Warner Bros. he had started out as a song and dance man. Fortunately, Mr. Cagney was able to convince studio head Jack Warner to cast him in the film. It was then that Footlight Parade would be James Cagney's first movie musical.

In Footlight Parade James Cagney plays as a failing Broadway producer who takes to producing live musical prologues that would be performed before movies in cinemas. He would be reunited with Joan Blondell, with whom he had appeared on Broadway and in the films as Sinner's Holiday, The Public Enemy, and Blonde Crazy (1931). It would also re-team Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler, who had already made several films together. For the most part Footlight Parade plays out as a somewhat racy comedy, holding back the bulk of its musical numbers for the very end. The film's climax, featuring the song "Shanghai," proved once and for all James Cagney's credentials as a song and dance man.

Footlight Parade would prove to be one of Warner Bros.' big hits of 1933. Unfortunately, it did not mean that the studio would start casting James Cagney in musicals. His next film, The Mayor of Hell (1933), would see him playing the deputy commissioner of a reform school. Over the next few years James Cagney would appear in dramas and comedies, but no musicals. In fact, his next musical would be produced by a studio other than Warner Bros.

It was in 1935 that James Cagney broke ties with Warner Bros., even suing the studio for breach of contract. Once free of Warner Bros., Mr. Cagney signed with the newly formed Grand National Films. The first movie that he made for Grand National was Great Guy, another crime film. His next film for Grand National would be the musical Something to Sing About. Like Footlight Parade, Something to Sing About capitalised on James Cagney's talents as a song and dance man. It is James Cagney's dancing and singing that begin and end the film. The film also teamed him with two friends from vaudeville, Johnny Boyle and Harland Dixon, both of who had influenced Mr. Cagney's dance style. Something to Sing About also featured such luminaries as William Frawley, Gene Lockhart, Kathleen Lockhart, and Dwight Frye.

Although Something to Sing About would turn out to be a highly entertaining film, it is obvious that its budget was much lower than musicals produced by such major studios as Warner Bros. As Grand National Films was an independent, it also did not receive very good distribution. Ultimately, it would fail at the box office. Grand National Films would make six more movies before going bankrupt in 1939.

Following the failure of Something to Sing About and his lawsuit against Warner Bros. being decided in his favour, James Cagney returned to Warner Bros. with a much better contract. It was with his first film back at Warner Bros., Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), that he would receive his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. While Angles with Dirty Faces was a gangster film, James Cagney would find himself appearing in more of a variety of films than he had earlier at the studio. He appeared in Westerns (The Oklahoma Kid), comedies (The Strawberry Blonde), and war films (The Fighting 69th) in addition to gangster movies. Eventually he would appear in another musical. What is more, it was the most famous musical he ever made. It would also be the favourite of James Cagney's films that he made.

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) is a biographical musical about legendary composer and producer George M. Cohan. As shocking as it might seem today, there was a chance that it might never have been made. Earlier George M. Cohan had made an agreement with MGM for them to make a movie called The Four Cohans, based on the life of his family. It would have starred Mickey Rooney as Mr. Cohan. Fortunately, George M. Cohan had a falling out with MGM when they refused to give him final cut of the film. Samuel Goldwyn then wanted to make a George M. Cohan movie, with Fred Astaire as George M. Cohan. Mr. Astaire turned Mr. Goldwyn down, feeling that the role of Mr. Cohan was not right for him. Finally, Warner Bros. got the rights to produce a George M. Cohan movie. They promptly cast James Cagney in the lead role. George M. Cohan himself thoroughly approved of the casting.

James Cagney was more than ideal as George M. Cohan. Among the people who had taught Mr. Cagney how to dance was Johnny Boyle, who had appeared on Broadway in George M. Cohan's various productions and had even choreographed dances for Mr. Cohan's productions. For two months prior to shooting began, Johnny Boyle taught James Cagney and his sister Jeanne Cagney (who played George M. Cohan's sister Josie in the film) George M. Cohan's dance style. What is more, he taught James Cagney George M. Cohan's various mannerisms. By the time shooting began, James Cagney was more than ready to play Mr. Cohan.

Yankee Doodle Dandy proved to be a hit at the box office, and proved to be the second highest grossing film of 1942. It also received overwhelmingly good reviews. It also did well at the Academy Awards, winning the Oscars for Best Actor in a Leading Role for James Cagney; Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture; and Best Sound Recording. It was nominated for several more Academy Awards, among them Best Picture, Best Director, Best Film Editing, and Best Writing, Original Story.


Despite the success of Yankee Doodle Dandy and the variety of roles that James Cagney had played in the Forties, he was still largely identified with the crime genre in many people's minds. It would be in 1949 that White Heat would be released. The role of criminal Cody Jarrett would become one of James Cagney's best known roles. Fortunately for Mr. Cagney, his next movie would be another musical, The West Point Story (1950).

In The West Point Story James Cagney played an out of work Broadway director who is asked to produce the annual 100th Night Show (so called because it is the first of the last 100th days at the Academy) at West Point. Co-starring were Virginia Mayo, Doris Day, Gordon MacRae, and Gene Nelson. If Warner Bros. had been hoping for another Yankee Doodle Dandy, then they were going to be disappointed. While The West Point Story received positive reviews, it did not receive the acclaim of Yankee Doodle Dandy, nor did it perform as well at the box office.

James Cagney would have a cameo as himself in the musical Starlift (1951). He would make a more significant appearance in the comedy musical film The Seven Little Foys (1955). The Seven Little Foys starred Bob Hope as comedian Eddie Foy. Mr. Cagney reprised his role as George M. Cohan, who engages in a tap dance competition with Edddie Foy.

It would also be in 1955 that James Cagney would appear in the biographical film  Love Me or Leave Me (1955) starring Doris Day as singer Ruth Ettig. Love Me or Leave Me would be much heavier fare than Miss Day and Mr. Cagney's previous film together, The West Side Story. It was a dramatic, at times dark film. Although not generally considered a musical, it does feature several nightclub sequences in which Doris Day gets to sing. Playing gangster Martin Snyder, at no point does James Cagney get to sing. Regardless, Love Me or Leave Me did well at the box office and received positive reviews. It also won the Academy Award for Best Writing, Motion Picture Story and was nominated for several other Oscars, including Best Actor in a Leading Role for James Cagney.

James Cagney's final musical would be Never Steal Anything Small (1959). The movie was based on an unproduced play, The Devil's Hornpipe by Maxwell Anderson and Rouben Mamoulian. Never Steal Anything Small centred around James Cagney as Jake MacIllaney, a gangster out to control a union and also starred Shirley Jones, Roger Smith, and Cara Williams. Unlike Love Me and Leave Me, James Cagney gets to sing and dance in the film, including a duet with Cara Williams, "I'm Sorry, I Want a Ferrari." Sadly, James Cagney's last musical would not be a success. Critics were underwhelmed by the movie, and it did not do particularly well at the box office.

Despite having been typecast in crime dramas, James Cagney always thought of himself as a song and dance man. In his autobiography, Cagney by Cagney, he writes, "Once a song and dance man, always a song and dance man." Sadly, Mr. Cagney was rarely given a chance to display his talents as a song and dance man on screen. In a career consisting of over sixty movies, he only starred in five musicals and had the opportunity to sing or dance in a few more. This is made all the sadder still by the fact that James Cagney was very talented as a song and dance man. It is with very good reason that he won an Oscar for Yankee Doodle Dandy.  It is also with very good reason that Footlight Parade and Yankee Doodle Dandy are counted among the greatest movies ever made. I do not think it is far-fetched to say that if Warner Bros. had not typecast James Cagney as a gangster, he might be counted alongside Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, and Gene Kelly as among the greatest musical stars of all time.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Gorillas, Dinosaurs, and Aliens, Oh My! DC Comics in the Early Silver Age

If there was one thing that separated the Silver Age of Comic Books from the Golden Age, it was the prevalence of science fiction themes. This was particularly true of DC Comics. When DC Comics rebooted many of its Golden Age characters in the late Fifties and early Sixties, they provided the new characters with origins rooted in science fiction. The power ring of the Golden Age Green Lantern, Alan Scott, was created from a magical lantern. In contrast, the power ring of the Silver Age Green Lantern, Hal Jordan, was provided to him by the Guardians of the Universe, who operate an intergalactic police force known as the Green Lantern Corps. The prevalence of science fiction at DC Comics through the Fifties into the early Sixties was so great that science fiction tropes could even be found in titles that originally had not been sci-fi, most notably Batman.

DC Comics' first science fiction title, Strange Adventures, debuted with a cover date of September 1950. It would be followed by Mystery in Space, which debuted with a cover date of April/May 1951. The two titles proved fairly popular. In fact, they proved so popular that they outsold many of DC's other titles. This should come as no surprise, as science fiction was fairly popular in the Fifties. The late Forties and early Fifties would see such juvenile science fiction TV shows as Captain Video and His Video Rangers, Tom Corbett: Space Cadet, and Space Patrol. For much of the Fifties movie theatres were filled with such sci-fi films as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1961), The Thing from Another World (1951), and This Island Earth (1955). Science fiction was so popular that it would have been surprising if DC's sci-fi titles had not sold well.

While it seems likely that it was the success of DC's science fiction titles that led the company to inject science fiction into many of its titles (even ones where it doesn't belong), it cannot definitively be said who decided DC should do so. The credit for that is generally given to Irwin Donenfeld, editorial director of DC Comics and son of the company's founder Harry Donenfeld. That DC's science fiction titles were outselling many of their other titles would not have been lost on Irwin Donenfeld. While Irwin Donenfeld is usually credited with steering various DC titles towards using science fiction tropes, according to Batman--the Complete History by Les Daniels, Mr. Donenfeld couldn't remember exact details, saying, "I like to take credit for everything, but truthfully I just don't know."

Regardless, science fiction began playing a greater role in DC's titles in the late Fifties. Aside from the various superhero titles, DC Comics' House of Mystery would be among the first titles in which science fiction began playing a large role. Originally a  horror anthology, after the introduction of the Comics Code in 1954 House of Mystery shifted more towards mystery and suspense. It was in 1957 that House of Mystery, along with the recently launched House of Secrets, began featuring science fiction stories. House of Mystery would more or less remain a science fiction title until 1964 when, with the renewed popularity of superheroes, it became the home of the Martian Manhunter (a superhero with a decidedly science fiction bent). Of course, by 1968 it would return to being a horror title.

Of course, DC Comics' remaining superhero titles would also begin featuring science fiction oriented stories. For the various Superman titles this would not present much of a problem. After all, Superman was already a science fiction character to a large degree (in the words of the TV series, he was "a strange visitor from another planet") and even in the Golden Age stories with science fiction themes appeared. That having been said, science fiction tropes began appearing in stories featuring characters who were not rooted in the genre. A notorious example of this is Batman.

Upon his debut Batman was an at times brutal vigilante influenced by such pulp characters as The Shadow. With the introduction of his sidekick Robin, Batman's character was softened a bit, although he still operated primarily at night and fought dangerous criminals. By the Fifties Batman had drifted further away from his pulp roots, actually operating in daylight. That having been said, he still mostly fought his rouge's gallery and various other criminals. All of this changed in 1957. While science fiction-type stories had appeared in the pages of the Batman titles as far back as the Golden Age, they were infrequent. It was the story "Batman's Super-Enemy" from Detective Comics #250, December 1957 that began around a six year stretch in which Batman fought aliens and monsters, travelled to other planets, and was transformed into everything from a giant to a baby.

Over the years many fans have blamed editor Jack Schiff for the abundance of science fiction stories in the pages of the Batman titles from 1957 to 1964. That having been said, Jack Schiff had edited the Batman titles since 1942. During those 15 years Mr. Schiff made very little use of science fiction tropes. What is more, Jack Schiff himself was uncomfortable with science fiction being injected into the Batman titles. In a 1983 interview in The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide, he said, "I was having disagreements with the management about the 'monster craze' everybody was into.  I fought the introduction into Batman and Superman of this trend, but I was pressured into using them." Ultimately sales for the Batman titles would drop and would not recover until Julius Schwartz took over as their editor and introduced the New Look for Batman. The science fiction stories, as well as such characters as Batwoman and Ace the Bathound, disappeared from the titles, replaced by stories that placed an emphasis on detective work.

As strange as the science fiction bent in Batman's stories from the late Fifties and early Sixties might seem, DC Comics injected science fiction into titles where it even more obviously had no place. The character of Tomahawk had been introduced in Star-Spangled Comics #69, June 1947 and earned his own title in 1950. Tomahawk was a Revolutionary War era character and throughout the late Forties and most of the Fifties his adventures were appropriate to that era. This changed in 1960 when Tomahawk began facing giants, dinosaurs, aliens, and gorillas. Tomahawk would not start having more appropriate adventures until 1967.

The Batman titles and Tomahawk certainly wouldn't be the only DC Comics titles in which science fiction was introduced where it really should not have been. The Blackhawk Squadron had been introduced at Quality Comics in Military Comics #1, August, 1941. Led by the mysterious Blackhawk, the Blackhawk Squadron was a multi-national fighter squadron who originally fought the Nazis during World War II and later Communists following the war. With the very first issue of Blackhawk published by DC Comics, the Blackhawks began fighting a variety of science fiction menaces that would become more prominent as the Sixties progressed. It was with Blackhawk #228, January 1967 that the Blackhawks shifted to being superheroes, which was arguably even less appropriate for the team than fighting science fiction monsters...

For the most part DC's war titles would remain unscathed during the company's "monster craze." G.I. Combat and Our Army at War (the home of Sgt. Rock) would continue to publish stories appropriate to World War II or, more rarely, World War I. This would not be the case with Star Spangled War Stories. With Star Spangled War Stories #90, May 1960 the series "The War that Time Forgot" began. "The War that Time Forgot" featured soldiers fighting dinosaurs on an uncharted island in the South Pacific. The series ran until 1968, when Enemy Ace (a World War I German pilot) replaced it. "The War That Time Forgot" wasn't the only example of science fiction to be found in Star Spangled War Tales. "Goliath from the Western Front!," from Star Spangled War Stories #93, November 1, 1960, featured American soldiers facing off against a Nazi giant.  As might be expected of a DC comic book during this era, even a gorilla made an appearance in Star Spangled War Stories. In the story "You Can't Pin a Medal on a Gorilla" from Star Spangled War Stories #126, May 1966 a gorilla trained to entertain the troops helps take out an enemy gun post.

Of course along with the emphasis on science fiction stories in Silver Age DC comic books, there was also a proliferation of gorillas in DC comics of the era as well. The large numbers of gorillas that appeared in DC comic books actually pre-dated the Silver Age. Reportedly, the whole trend towards gorillas in DC Comics throughout the Fifties and well into the Sixties began with Strange Adventures #8, May 1951. The lead story for that issue was "The Incredible Story of an Ape with a Human Brain." Quite naturally, the ape of the story was featured prominently on the cover. Strange Adventures#8 sold very well, something that made Irwin Donenfeld curious. Editor Julius Schwartz guessed it was because it featured a gorilla on the cover. Mr. Schwartz then decided to try featuring a gorilla on another cover. Once more it sold well. Gorillas then began appearing regularly on the covers of Strange Adventures and would eventually spread to other DC titles, from Batman to Tomahawk.

The popularity of gorillas at DC Comics would eventually see gorillas who were recurring characters in their titles. The character of Congo Bill had first appeared in More Fun Comics #56, June 1940. Originally he was an adventurer based in Africa who owed a good deal to the newspaper comic strip character Jungle Jim. In Action Comics #248, January, 1959, one of Bill's friends, a dying African chief, gave him a ring that would allow him to enter the body of a legendary golden gorilla for an hour. It was then that Congo Bill became Congorilla. The second recurring gorilla to appear in DC Comics in 1959 was an opponent of Superman, Titano the Super-Ape, who first appeared in Superman #127, February 1959. The third recurring gorilla character to appear in DC Comics would also be the most famous. Gorilla Grodd, the super-intelligent, telepathic ape who is also the enemy of The Flash, first appeared in The Flash #106, May 1959.

It would be for similar reasons that dinosaurs would appear so frequently in DC Comics of the early Silver Age. At some point later in the Fifties a tyrannosaurus rex appeared on the cover of a DC title. That particular title sold well, so soon dinosaurs were appearing in a diverse variety of DC comic books.

Here it must be pointed out that there were some lines of DC Comics that went through the Fifties and Sixties without featuring science fiction stories, gorillas, or dinosaurs. With the exception of Star Spangled War Stories, DC's war titles continued publishing the same straight-forward war stories they always had. Neither DC Comics' Western titles nor their romance titles embraced science fiction, let alone gorillas or dinosaurs. DC Comics' humour titles tended to be a mixed bag with regards to the "monster craze." The Adventures of Bob Hope more or less continued as it always had. The Adventures of Jerry Lewis frequently featured gorillas, but then it had done so when the title was still The Adventures of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Sugar and Spike only rarely used science fiction tropes (well, beyond Bernie the Brain's various inventions, anyway), so that for the most part it continued as it always had. Of course, Angel and the Ape (which was first published in 1968) obviously featured a gorilla prominently.

DC Comics' love affair with science fiction, gorillas, and dinosaurs would fade as the Sixties progressed. The science fiction plot lines would be excised from the Batman titles in 1964. Tomahawk would go back to fighting the British and American Indians in 1967. Star Spangled War Stories would return to being a more typical war comic book in 1968. Blackhawk would shift to being a superhero title in 1967 and then back to being a paramilitary group in 1968. House of Mystery shifted to being a superhero title in the mid-Sixties before shifting back to horror in 1968.

While the trend towards science fiction (not to mention gorillas) would fade at DC Comics as the Sixties progressed, its legacy is still felt to this day. Such science fiction oriented characters as The Flash and Green Lantern still appear in the pages of DC comic books. Not only has The Flash appeared in two live-action TV shows, but Gorilla Grodd has appeared regularly in the latter. DC Comics has even revisited "The War that Time Forgot" from time to time. As goofy as some of the stories from DC Comics' early Silver Age might seem (particularly those published in the Batman titles), the impact of that era is still being felt at DC today.

(Credit Where Credit is Due Department: While I am familiar with DC Comics during the Silver Age, this article did require a bit of research. I owe a debt to the books Batman: The Complete History by Les Daniels, Comics Gone Ape! by Michael Eury, and Was Superman a Spy?: And Other Comic Book Legends Revealed by Brian Cronin. I also owe a debt to Commander Benson for his excellent write-up on the late Fifties/early Sixties Batman science fiction stories, "From the Archives: Deck Log Entry # 21 The Science-Fiction Batman---BEM's in His Belfry." )

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Bonanza and the Ranch Westerns of the Sixties

Beginning in 1955 there would be a cycle of Westerns on American television that would last until 1960.  It would perhaps be the largest cycle of any given genre in American television history. In fact, from the 1958-1959 season to the 1960-1961 there was at least one Western TV show, sometimes more, on each night of the week. Despite the sheer number of Westerns on American television at the time, there was not a whole lot of variety in the Westerns of the late Fifties. Most of them centred on lawmen of various types (marshals, sheriffs, and so on), individuals whose professions required them to travel (bounty hunters, gamblers, and so on), or drifters. Conspicuously missing for much of the cycle were any Westerns set on ranches.

All of that would begin to change in the 1958-1959 season with the debut of The Rifleman. The Rifleman centred on Lucas McCain (played by Chuck Connors), who lived on a small homestead with his son Mark in New Mexico. It would be in the 1959-1960 season that two different Western TV shows based around ranches would debut. The first of these was Bonanza, which debuted on September 12 1959. Bonanza centred on Ben Cartwright (played by Lorne Greene) and his three sons, who together ran the Ponderosa Ranch just a few miles outside Virginia City, Nevada. The oldest son was Adam (played by Pernell Roberts), the level headed one with a college education. The second oldest son was Hoss (played by Dan Blocker), a gentle giant with a gift for caring for animals and people. The youngest son was Little Joe (played by Michael Landon), the impulsive one with a tendency to fall in love often. Ben's sons were technically only half-brothers. He had married three times, siring a son by each wife, only to lose his wives to death in childbirth (Adam's mother), an Indian massacre (Hoss's mother), and an accident with a horse (Little Joe's mother).

Bonanza debuted on Saturday, September 12 1960 at 7:30 PM Eastern. During its first two seasons, it did respectably in the ratings, even coming in at no. 17 for the year in its second season. In its third season NBC moved Bonanza to 9:00 Eastern Sunday night and the show really began to take off. For that season it jumped all the way up to no. 2 in the ratings for the year. The next few years Bonanza would remain in the top five shows until, in the 1964-1965 season, it became the no. 1 show on the air. It remained the no. 1 show for the next three seasons. Ultimately, Bonanza would spend nine consecutive seasons in the top five and would last 14 years. As might be expected, the success of Bonanza would lead to more Western TV shows set on ranches.

Before that, however, there was another ranch Western that debuted in the 1959-1960 season, as mentioned earlier. Laramie was set on the Sherman Ranch and stagecoach relay station. It starred John Smith as Slim Sherman, owner of the ranch, and Robert Fuller as Jess Harper, a drifter who settled down to help Slim run the ranch. In the first season the cast also included Slim's much younger brother Andy (played by Robert L. Crawford) and Jonesy (played by Hoagy Carmichael), who handled the domestic duties on the ranch.

Laramie led a somewhat schizophrenic existence. For much of the first season the show's episodes centred on the ranch and stage stop. For the show's second season NBC did not renew Hoagy Carmichael's contract, so that Jonesy was no longer on the show. Andy was phased out, only appearing in a few episodes of the second season. And while the first season saw many episodes set around the ranch, the second season saw many episodes in which Slim, Jess, or both of them were away from the ranch. This changed with the show's third season, which also saw the show change from black-and-white to colour. Spring Byington joined the cast as Daisy Cooper, a widow who became the Sherman Ranch's new housekeeper. Dennis Holmes also joined the cast as orphan Mike Williams who finds a home on the ranch. The third and fourth seasons would then see most of the episodes set around the Sherman Ranch or Laramie. Unlike Bonanza, Laramie  was never a ratings success. It would be cancelled in its fourth season due to declining ratings. That having been said, it developed a following that it maintains to this day.

It was perhaps because of the success of Bonanza that a show which saw its hero travelling a great deal became a ranch Western. Originally Tales of Wells Fargo centred on Dale Robertson as Jim Hardie, a detective for Wells Fargo. At times as much of a detective series as it was a Western, Tales of Wells Fargo would see Jim Hardie travelling across the West on various cases. It was in the sixth and final season that Tales from Wells Fargo expanded from a half hour to an hour. It was also at the beginning of the sixth season that Jim Hardie bought a ranch outside San Francisco. While Dale Robertson had been the only star on the show for its first five season, the sixth season also saw the addition of a supporting cast consisting of William Demarest as his ranch foreman Jeb Gaine, Virginia Christine as his neighbour Olive, and Jack Ging as Hardie's assistant Beau McCloud.

Many of the ranch Westerns that followed in the wake of Bonanza have been accused, rightly or wrongly, of being Bonanza imitators. That would not be the case with the next ranch Western to debut, which was based on a classic novel. It was a young story editor at Columbia Pictures named Frank Price who suggested a television version of The Virginian by Owen Wister, which by that time had entered public domain. It was then in 1958 that Screen Gems produced a half hour pilot for a TV series based on The Virginian by Owen Wister. While the pilot failed to sell, NBC found the young actor cast in the title role, James Drury appealing. Of course, 1958 was the peak of the Western cycle. In fact, Wagon Train, airing on NBC, was the no. 1 show on television for the year. It would be Wagon Train that would lead to The Virginian finally coming to television.

Wagon Train was produced by MCA's television production subsidiary Revue Studios. It had proven very profitable for MCA, and in the 1961-1962 season was still the no. 1 show on the air. Jennings Lang, vice president of MCA-TV, figured he could get twice as much money out of Wagon Train by selling it to another network. Mr. Lang then sold Wagon Train out from under NBC to ABC. Fortunately, he would not leave NBC empty handed. Instead he sold them The Virginian, which would not only be shot in colour (somewhat of a rarity then), but would be a full 90 minutes in length. James Drury, who had played The Virginian in the unsold 1958 Screen Gems pilot, was cast in the title role. Frank Price, who had instigated the 1958 pilot, was brought on board to write the format for The Virginian. He would also serve as the show's producer in its early days and later as its executive producer.

The Virginian was very loosely based on the novel of the same name. It was set on the Shiloh Ranch outside Medicine Bow, Wyoming in the 1890s, owned by Judge Henry Garth (played by Lee J. Cobb). Judge Garth had a young daughter named Betsy (played by Roberta Shore). A major change from the novel was in the character of Trampas. In the novel Trampas is actually the primary villain. On the TV show however, Trampas (played by Doug McClure) was The Virginian's fun loving friend. Trampas would be only one of two characters, along with The Virginian, who would be on the show for its entire run. As to The Virginian, just as in the novel, he was the ranch foreman.

While The Virginian proved successful, the show underwent many changes through the years. Lee J. Cobb left after the fourth season, after which the Shiloh Ranch would go through three more owners. In fact, there were so many cast changes on The Virginian that ultimately only James Drury and Doug McClure would remain with the show for its entire run. The ninth season would see the show's title changed to The Men from Shiloh and the look of the show was revamped as well in an effort to attract younger viewers. Not surprisingly, there was also a new owner of the Shiloh Ranch in the form of Colonel Alan MacKenzie (played by Stewart Granger).

Despite the many cast changes on The Virginian, the show remained successful for most of its run. In its second it ranked no. 17 for the year in the ratings. For its third and fourth seasons it ranked in the top twenty five. The Virginian peaked in ratings during its fifth season, when it ranked no. 10. Ultimately, the only year in which it did not rank in the top twenty five would be its eighth season, when it did not rank in the top twenty. It was still doing well in its ninth and final season, ranking at no. 18 for the year. Unfortunately, the 1970-1971 season was when the Rural Purge took place. While CBS axed the most shows for having audiences too old or too rural during the Rural Purge, NBC axed its share of shows as well. Among them was The Virginian.

The Virginian would have a lasting impact. As the first ninety minute show with continuing characters it established the format as viable. It was then that the other networks made their own attempts at ninety minute Westerns. ABC expanded Wagon Train to ninety minutes in its 7th season. The experiment failed and the show was returned to an hour the following year. During the 1967-1967 season CBS aired its own ninety minute Western, Cimarron Strip. It was cancelled due to low ratings. Despite the failure of both Wagon Train and Cimarron Strip as ninety minute shows, there would be ninety minute shows in other genres following in the wake of The Virginian. The Name of the Game was a ninety minute drama that aired on NBC from 1968 to 1971. In 1971 The NBC Mystery Movie debuted. While it started out at ninety minutes, it would eventually expand to two hours.

Of course, The Virginian would inspire more than other ninety minute shows. Its success sparked a new cycle towards Westerns that would produce such shows as Destry, Branded, The Wild Wild West, and Iron Horse. It also insured that more ranch Westerns would produced during this new cycle towards Westerns on television.

It was in 1965 that a ranch Western debuted that differed from all the others in that its lead was a woman. The Big Valley was created by Lou Edelman and A.I. Bezzerides as a vehicle for acclaimed actress Barbara Stanwyck. For inspiration they looked to the Hill Ranch, a historical ranch that had operated in  Calaveras County, California from 1855 to 1931. In 1861 Lawson Hill. owner and operator of the ranch, was murdered, after which his wife Euphemia took over running the ranch with her three sons. Developed following the failure of The Barbara Stanwyck Show, Lou Edelman was unable to interest anyone in a show about a woman running a ranch. Of course, much of this might have had to do with the fact that by 1961 Western TV shows were on their way out.

Fortunately, with a new cycle towards Westerns underway in the Sixties, Levy-Gardner-Laven Productions was able to strike a deal with ABC and Four Star Television for the prospective show. As might be expected, they asked Barbara Stanwyck if she was still interested in the show. Of course, she was.

The Big Valley centred on Victoria Barkley, a widow who owned the Barkley Ranch just outside of Stockton, California. Among her sons were the eldest Jarrod (played by Richard Long), the refined level headed attorney, and the second eldest Nick (played by Peter Breck), the hot tempered manager of the ranch. Victoria also had a daughter, Audra (played by Linda Evans). The Barkley's were joined by Heath Barkley (played by Lee Majors), the illegitimate son of Victoria's husband.  There was also youngest son, Eugene (played by Charles Briles), who was studying medicine at Berkeley. He only seen sporadically on the show before eventually being written out of it.

The Big Valley debuted on ABC on  September 15 1965. Critics were dismissive of the series, with some referring to it as a Bonanza imitator ("Bonanza in skirts"). Despite this, it proved popular with audiences. In a readers' poll conducted by the magazine TV Radio Mirror, The Big Valley was voted the favourite new show of the 1965-1966 season. While The Big Valley never ranked in the top thirty shows of the year, it did well enough to run four seasons. It would also prove to be a success in syndication.


While The Big Valley was often accused of imitating Bonanza, the next ranch Western to debut would be created by Bonanza creator David Dortort. That having been said, it was a far cry from Bonanza. The High Chaparral centred on the ranch of that name in Arizona during the 1870s. The High Chaparral starred Leif Erickson as John Cannon, owner of the High Chaparral, whose wife had died in an Indian raid not long after settling in Arizona. His neighbour was powerful rancher Don Sebastián Montoya (played by Frank Silvera), who promised to be his ally if he would marry his daughter Victoria (played by Linda Cristal). Realising that Montoya would be a powerful enemy, John consented. Victoria differed from many Western television heroines in being strong willed and intelligent. In time she came to love John and John came to love her.

Coming with Victoria to live on the High Chaparral was her brother Manolito (played by Henry Darrow). Manolito had a strong streak of independence, not to mention a good deal of cunning and charm. Also living on the High Chaparral was John's brother Buck. Although uneducated, Buck had a good deal of common sense and would not hesitate to help someone. Rounding out the household was John's son Blue (played by Mark Slade), who at times find himself at odds with his father. The High Chaparral differed from other ranch Westerns in that it actually featured ranch hands in recurring roles. Among them were ranch foreman Sam Butler (played by Don Collier), Sam's brother Joe (Bob Hoy), Pedro (played by Roberto Contreras), and others.The High Chaparral also differed from previous Westerns in featuring several Lantix characters. Like Bonanza before it, it often dealt with various issues, particularly racism.

The High Chaparral debuted on September 10 1967 on NBC. It would not repeat the success of Bonanza. While The High Chaparral received respectable ratings for much of its run, it never ranked in the top thirty for the years. In the end, it lasted four seasons and 98 episodes. It would prove successful in syndication, and it maintains a cult following to this day.

The final ranch Western of the Sixties was Lancer. On the surface, Lancer would appear to owe something to Bonanza. Lancer centred on Murdoch Lancer (played by Andrew Duggan), who is struggling to protect his ranch in the San Joaquin Valley from bandits in the 1870s. To help, he seeks out his two sons, each by one of this two wives, neither of whom he had seen since they were children. The eldest was Scott (played by Wayne Maunder), the educated son from Boston. The youngest was Johnny Madrid, a half-Mexican gunslinger. In return for their help, he offers them one-third ownership in the ranch each. Teresa O'Brien (played by Elizabeth Baur) was Murdoch's ward, the daughter of his foreman who had been killed. Paul Brinegar, who had played Wishbone on Rawhide, joined the cast in the first season progressed as the Lancers' cook and ranch hand Jelly Hoskins.

While Lancer resembled Bonanza on the surface, in many ways it was a very different show. While Ben Cartwright was a wise and usually gentle father, Murdoch Lancer could often be obstinate and sometimes downright cruel. Indeed, while Ben's wives had died, Murdoch's wives simply left him. Scott's mother, born of wealth, took Scott back to Boston where she raised him. Johnny Madrid's mother ran off with a gambler and returned to Mexico. Particularly early in the show, Murdoch's two sons sometimes came into conflict due to their differing backgrounds. There was a world of difference between the Cartwrights and the Lancers.

Lancer debuted on September 24 1968 on CBS. Unfortunately, the show was scheduled against one of the big hits of the 1968-1969 season, The Mod Squad on ABC. As a result it struggled in the ratings. It would be cancelled after two seasons. That having been said, like many of the ranch Westerns it would maintain a cult following.

Of course, much of the reason Lancer may have lasted only two seasons is that it simply debuted at the wrong time. The cycle of Westerns that had been started by The Virginian had wound down by 1968. Lancer was the only one of two Westerns to debut in the 1968-1969 season, along with The Outcasts (which lasted only one season). There was also another possible reason for the decline in Westerns in 1968 beyond the cycle having come to an end. Quite simply, following the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, there was renewed outcry over television violence. In fact, at least one Western (the spy-fi/Western hybrid The Wild Wild West) would be cancelled in 1969 dues to its allegedly violent content. That to some degree or another the networks associated the Western genre with violence is borne out by an article published in the Pittsfield Berkshire Eagle, the Corpus Christi Caller Times, and other newspapers in mid-March of 1969. An ABC executive uses as an example of the network's efforts to reduce violence on the small screen the fact that they have eliminated all Westerns from their schedule. Indeed, it seems that several Westerns would go off the air in the year 1969: The Big Valley, The Guns of Will Sonnett, The Outcasts, and The Wild Wild West. While some of these shows were probably cancelled due to ratings, it seems possible that violence may have played a role in the cancellation of some of them (it certainly did with The Wild Wild West). Those Westerns that remained would find it more difficult to accurately portray the Western milieu. As Milburn Stone, who played Doc on Gunsmoke said at the time, "How can you have Westerns without violence?"

Regardless, by the late Sixties Western TV shows were already in decline. Lancer left the air in 1970. Both The High Chaparral and The Virginian (under the title The Men from Shiloh) left the air in 1971. None of the new Westerns that debuted in the Seventies would be ranch Westerns and none of them would last beyond three seasons, with most having much briefer runs. If there was a sign that the ranch Western on television was truly dead, it was the cancellation of Bonanza in 1973.  After well over a decade, the era of the ranch Western was over.