I’ll be the first to admit I knew who Virginia Mayo was long before I figured out who Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were. And why not. When your a boy watching Sunday afternoon matinees, you’re watching swashbucklers with Greg Peck and Burt Lancaster, a series of comedies with Danny Kaye, gangster pics with Cagney and of course westerns with Alan Ladd and Joel McCrea. Not a Crawford or Davis pic among them but what did each genre and leading man have in common? A beautiful leading lady named Virginia Mayo that the hero was sure to have on his arm at the fadeout and this youngster took notice.
Miss Mayo would turn up in several westerns over the latter part of her career so I’m embarking on a three part series featuring six westerns in total with an eye toward creating some interest in both the genre which I always refer to as my favorite and of course lovely Virginia herself starting with ….
Devil’s Canyon (1953)
In this 3-D effort, Virginia scores top billing co-starring with two lesser known leading men and not quite the box office draws of those ahead in this Mayo spotlight, Stephen McNally and Dale Robertson. It’s an RKO release from the stable of Howard Hughes that takes place in Arizona Territory of 1897. Mayo looks splendid in her cowgirl get up as the film opens. Tight fitting jeans and shirt, lipstick painted on perfectly and the color photography illuminating her beauty for the paying public. Riding into a frontier town she’s on a mission to pay back a debt by warning Robertson that two gunslingers are gunning for him.
It’s a well staged shootout and though ex-lawman Robertson was defending himself, he scores a prison stretch in a penitentiary overseen by genteel warden Robert Keith and a vicious head guardsman played by Jay C. Flippen who has a past score to settle with Robertson. Flippen is the least of his worries when it’s revealed that McNally is also an inmate in the pen. It’s his two brothers that Robertson shot down earning him his stay on the inside.
Before Mayo resurfaces in a script only Hollywood could come up with, we’re introduced to a wonderful list of character players along with Keith and Flippen. Arthur Hunnicutt and Whit Bissell are cell mates of Dale’s while a super young Earl Holliman is one of McNally’s followers. Morris Ankrum was the town sheriff who placed Robertson under arrest. Another face I easily spotted as a guard on the wall in charge of a Gatling gun was Paul Fix. His appearance caught me somewhat off guard as I was surprised he hadn’t received any billing at all in the opening credits.
Lovely Virginia is about to enter the plot once more. Would you believe she has earned a two year prison term and has been sent to an all male population rock quarry/pen looking like she’s just left the pages of a fashion magazine? No, she’s in no immediate danger from this female starved population of hardened criminals. Turns out she’s evil McNally’s gal and her appearance is all part of a greater scheme. Yes a break out is in the works to go alongside McNally’s wanting Robertson’s body on a slab in the morgue.
Has Virginia gambled her future on vicious killer McNally who excelled in these kind of roles versus the righteous Robertson? Might be but once the gun smoke settles she’ll hopefully right her wrongs and along with Dale they can finish their debts to society and walk off arm in arm.
Silly? You bet but with a cast assembled like this one for director Alfred Werker it’s hard not to forgive the ridiculousness of the plot and kick back to enjoy the proceedings. Better still if you find Miss Mayo’s beauty appealing for she looks gorgeous here as the cowgirl of your dreams. On a side note if you’ve seen this title before and the 1970 western, There Was a Crooked Man, don’t Whit Bissell and Hume Cronyn look one and the same portraying a weak minded inmate?
Keep your eyes on the TCM guide for a chance to see this one which is where I located it.
The Proud Ones (1956)
From 20th Century Fox and in Cinemascope comes this solid western that sees Robert Ryan scoring the leading role and turning in a superb performance as a hardened lawman coming to terms with a young gunslinger, losing his eyesight and looking towards marriage and retirement with his leading lady, Virginia Mayo.
Noticeable from the opening of this Robert D. Webb directed effort is the superior photography from Lucien Ballard. It’s cattle country and when a trail herd approaches Ryan’s town he politely warns the cowboys to leave their guns in camp before coming in to unwind in the local halls and saloons. This doesn’t sit well with Jeffrey Hunter portraying a youngster with a major chip on his shoulder. Ryan had previously gunned down his father and if Hunter is to believe the rumors, his father was unarmed.
Once in town we’ll meet another first rate cast along with Ryan and Hunter. Miss Mayo runs the local restaurant and hotel in between taking time to look after her man and accepting his marriage proposal. Arthur O’Connell and Walter Brennan are Ryan’s deputies. Whit Bissell (again) is on town council, Edward Platt the town doctor, Richard Deacon a store keeper and bringing his villainous A game to the proceedings as a crooked saloon/casino owner, Robert Middleton. Middleton has long been a formidable foe on screen and one you’re not likely to forget.
It’s the Middleton – Ryan relationship that will determine the plot’s direction. They’ve tangled in previous frontier towns and Middleton knows the only way he’ll be able to operate in this new setting is with Ryan removed. In a barroom shootout where Hunter steps in to assist Ryan, the elderly sheriff takes a grazing bullet to the head leaving him with what I assume we’d call a concussion by today’s standards that will leave him incapacitated at the most inopportune times over the next hour of screen time. During the shootout Hunter has also taken a bullet to the leg and Ryan will see to it that he’s looked after in Miss Mayo’s hotel.
And so begins the stormy relationship between the wise gunmen and the hot headed youngster. Ryan’s role here could almost be considered a precursor to that of his Deke Thornton in The Wild Bunch. A film that also had Ballard as it’s cinematographer.
Unlike Devil’s Canyon, Miss Mayo’s screen time is mostly limited to the first thirty minutes in this tough western entry. Ryan and Hunter will continue to circle each other for the majority of the proceedings despite Ryan doing his best to teach the youngster how to stay alive and best manage a town when you wear a badge. The more pressure Ryan applies to Middleton’s operation, the more Middleton strikes back. This includes bringing in gunslinger Rodolfo Acosta to take out Ryan. Their violent encounter that will see Acosta shot down on the street will only serve to strain the relationship between Hunter and Ryan.
It’s a bloodier than average affair for a 1950’s western and one of the better ones should you get the chance to see it even if it does ride familiar territory. Ryan has always been a favorite of mine once I was old enough to see past his role as Colonel Breed in The Dirty Dozen. He’s solid in this but again it’s easy to see how he some people have a hard time liking him on screen (My Dad). His characters are often bitter, unforgiving and look no farther than his contributions to Noir cinema to back that up. This serves as a good film to check out if you’re looking for a 1956 double feature of Jeffrey Hunter flicks alongside Ford’s classic The Searchers. A shout out again to the wonderful Walter Brennan who underplays his role here and is the total opposite of Stumpy in Rio Bravo but rest assured, he steals practically every scene he’s in and does it while sitting in a chair for much of his screen time.
Not to worry about Miss Mayo either as she’ll be sure to turn up on occasion over the final sixty minutes and of course at the fadeout.
The Proud Ones is out on DVD and it’s a treat for western fans and for those that love the leading cast members, Ryan, Hunter and Mayo. OK, Walter too.