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April 06, 2021

Western Classics II


The Redhead from Wyoming
Lee Sholem - 1953

Pillars of the Sky
George Marshall - 1957

Gun for a Coward
Abner Biberman - 1958
KL Studio Classics BD Region A Three-disc set

Doing some research prior to watching the films in this set, I was reminded of how different film exhibition was at the time these films made their respective theatrical runs. Westerns kept within a certain budget were almost guaranteed to make a profit, and were produced as way of keeping the studios financially afloat. Unless they were prestige productions, these films were usually seen in urban areas in second-tier theaters as part of a double feature, and as single features for a run of two days in the small town and rural theaters. There were the series of westerns starring James Stewart, directed by Anthony Mann, and the unexpected career resurgence of Randolph Scott beginning with his first collaboration with director Budd Boetticher. But more frequently, the films featured aging stars who had commercially peaked a decade or more earlier. To call the films in this collection "classics" might be a stretch, but they are representative of the Universal-International released of their time.

redhead from wyoming.jpg

Star Maureen O'Hara described The Redhead from Wyoming as "another western stinkeroo for Universal". It is mildly entertaining, and can charitably be considered the high point in the career of Lee "Roll-em" Sholem. The prolific director was known for keeping within tight budgets and schedules, which kept him in good stead churning out TV westerns on the Warner Brothers lot in the Fifties. O'Hara plays the part of a saloon owner caught up in the conflict between a local cattle baron and the newer settlers, and a triangle between a politically ambitious former lover and the town's sheriff. Fans of television westerns can catch future stars Dennis Weaver and Jack Kelly in supporting roles. The best part of this film would be the costumes for the dance hall gals from costume designer Edward Stevenson. Technicolor is used to, pardon the cliche, eye popping effect here. Samm Deighan provides a well-prepared commentary track, mostly discussing O'Hara, the historical inspirations for the film, and aspects of the cultural context, gold polish on a cinematic brass ring.

pillars of the sky.jpg

George Marshall might be best remembered for directing three types of films - westerns, comedies, and comic westerns. Most serious critics consider Destry Rides Again, the comic western with James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich to be his best film. I much prefer Red Garters starring Rosemary Clooney, Gene Barry and Jack Carson. Much of that film takes place on a sparse, abstract set, kind of like Lars von Triers' Dogville, but more fun. Not as much fun is Pillars of the Sky.

Again there are two triangles. Taking place in 1868, Jeff Chandler is a sergeant who overseas an Indian reservation in Oregon, then still a territory. His job is to keep the peace between several tribes and enforce a treaty with the federal government. Due to a loophole soldiers come to build a bridge and create a trail through the tribal land. Added to this, Dorothy Malone, long in love with Chandler, but married to army captain Keith Andes, shows up. Along for the ride are a perpetually inebriated Lee Marvin, television's go to guy for playing Native Americans - Frank de Kova, and if you look close enough, Martin Milner. More significantly in the supporting cast is Olive Carey, who starred with husband Harry Carey in the wester, Love's Lariat, co-directed by George Marshall in 1916.

What makes this film very problematic for contemporary viewers is that the "good" Indians have been converted to Christianity by missionary/medical doctor Ward Bond. Several of the Native Americans have taken biblical names. The message of the film is that white people and Native Americans should and can live together, but only if the Native Americans negate their traditional beliefs. On the plus side, George Marshall fills the CinemaScope frame nicely with on location filming in Oregon. Western genre expert Toby Roan's commentary track includes pointing out many of the cast members and crew with overviews of their careers, a look at some of the production methods of the time at Universal-International, and a plethora of information not found in Wikipedia or IMDb.


There is not much subtlety with the hell raising youngest brother nicknamed Hade, while the meeker middle brother is named Bless. A bit of suspension of disbelief might be required to have the oldest rancher brother played by Fred MacMurray. If with this questionable casting, Gun for a Coward is the strongest of the three films in this set. With Jeffrey Hunter as Bless, Dean Stockwell as Hade, plus Chill Wills and Janice Rule, MacMurray has strong support. The film might be read as a parable about toxic masculinity. It should be a surprise to no one that Hunter redeems himself in the end, but not in the way that the title might suggest.

This is the only film currently available by actor turned director Abner Biberman. Not to be confused with the blacklisted Herbert Biberman, Abner Biberman does have an interesting, if small, filmography that includes a couple of thrillers from 1956 that respectively star Merle Oberon and Sylvia Sidney. Biberman makes use of the wide CinemaScope frame not only in his placement of people across the screen but also in composing shots that use as much of the depth within the frame. Unlike many wide screen films that emphasized lateral compositions, Biberman sometimes employs multiple planes in some of his group shots forcing greater active viewing. One standout scene is of Hunter and Stockwell making a late night visit to a virtually empty bar, the only business open in a what appears to be a late night. The pair are soon to be surrounded by a gang of bad hombres. In a film where much of the action can be anticipated in advance, this is the one scene with some genuine tension. Lee Gambin's commentary track places the film within the context of both the western genre and films made roughly within the same time that explored expressions of masculinity.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at April 6, 2021 04:45 AM