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Virginia Mayo Goes West Part 2

Next up are a pair of westerns that saw Virginia reteam with two well known leading men of the era with whom she had starred with in earlier outdoor adventures.

The Big Land   (1957)

For this Gordon Douglas directed effort from the Warner Brothers stable, Miss Mayo reteams with her Iron Mistress leading man, Alan Ladd. In a post civil war era we find Ladd leading a herd of 2000 head of cattle to market with his fellow southerners. The riches they expect don’t materialize when the only buyer is frequent Ladd costar and usually in a villainous role, Anthony Caruso. He cheats them and Ladd loses face in front of his weary gang of cowboys.

Shortly thereafter Ladd moves on coming across the alcoholic Edmond O’Brien. The two will partner up after Ladd rescues the drunken sought from a lynch mob led by the familiar John Doucette. It’s during this scene opposite Doucette that we’ll get the chance to see Ladd in fine Shane-like form when it comes to handling a six shooter. Once Ladd and O’Brien make their getaway, the plot is going to turn towards a wannabe epic on a workmanlike budget. O’Brien is an architect and when the pair come across a small group of homesteaders farming wheat led by John Qualen, they devise a plan to build a town that will lure the railway allowing for top dollars for both the wheat and the cattle Ladd intends to run cutting out middle man Caruso.

To get the railway interested, Ladd and O’Brien are off to Kansas City where our leading lady is to make her entrance. Turns out Virginia is Eddie’s sister and when Ladd takes a look at her, fireworks are slated for the balance of the film. Mayo is engaged to railroad magnate Don Castle but that won’t deter the budding romance between Ladd’s cool headed cowboy and Mayo who doubles as a dance hall attraction.

What’s ahead is a Once Upon a Time In The West feel with Ladd and O’Brien overseeing the building of a new town that doesn’t sit well with Caruso who knows this will cut into his domination of the cattle market. He’ll tangle with Ladd briefly at the half way point of our story which will only serve to heighten the final showdown when it comes. A major setback is to happen when Caruso and his band of outlaws set fire to the new town’s framework but the underdogs will prevail and when the town is built, the trains roll in.

This is where the film could have taken on a more epic feel but everything is finished off camera and an obvious jump in time takes place to the point where Caruso is back and making his presence known to other cattle buyers who quickly shy away from bidding when one of their fellow buyers ends up dead after verbally fencing with Caruso. With Ladd out of town, O’Brien is either going back on the bottle or face off against Caruso.

Either way we know Ladd is going to have to take care of his enemy at the fadeout and win over lovely Virginia who has already decided poor Mr. Castle isn’t the man she wants.

This is a pretty good western and typical of the Alan Ladd formula that worked so well for him in his westerns of the period. Along with Mayo and recent Oscar winner O’Brien, Ladd has a first rate cast supporting him in this big screen outdoor adventure put together by his own Jaguar Productions via Warner Brothers. Also appearing are Julie Bishop and even Alan’s young son, David, who would go on to star opposite his father in a personal favorite of mine, The Proud Rebel.

Mayo and Ladd do far better for me this time out versus their first film back in 1952, The Iron Mistress. A film also directed by Douglas. Ladd starred as Jim Bowie in that film and Mayo the woman he can’t live without though she isn’t worth the trouble. Caruso was also in there and not surprisingly, never survived in either film at the fadeout. For more details on the Ladd – Caruso relationship, click here.

Best line in this movie comes from O’Brien. When Ladd offers him water to drink, O’Brien the boozer responds with a classic line, “Water! What am I, a trout?”

The Big Land is on the shelf here at Mike’s Take thanks to the Warner Archive collection keeping us western/Ladd/Mayo fans happy.

The Tall Stranger   (1957)

A Louis Lamour story allows for this Allied Artists production that sees Virginia Mayo reteamed with her 1949 Colorado Territory co-star, Joel McCrea. In this Thomas Carr directed feature for producer Walter Mirisch, McCrea takes up the title role who will find himself shot and left for dead moments into the film only to be found and nursed back to health by Miss Mayo who is part of a wagon train headed to California through harsh country. Just mere seconds after coming to and meeting Virginia he’ll find out she’s a widow with a young son.

Care to guess where this relationship is headed?

It’s post civil war and the wagon train is made up of Southerners while Joel wears the blue of the North. This doesn’t sit well with Whit Bissell and Ray Teal who are part of the ensemble but it’s scout and trail guide George Neise who McCrea will find himself at odds with. Joel believes Neise is somehow leading the train astray and into territory that can’t be travelled by way of a valley owned and lorded over by Barry Kelley. Kelley happens to be McCrea’s brother and the two had a falling out during the Civil War.

When the wagon train turn nesters attempt to stay in the valley at the urging of Neise, bloodshed will surely follow if Land Baron Kelley has his way. For a vast majority of the film McCrea will attempt to play peace keeper while at the same time romance Virginia if she’ll have him. “You’re a man’s woman. I just haven’t figured out which man’s. Bashful Joel always did have a way with words. Simple and to the point. But of course our Tall Stranger can easily be roused to action when cornered, fighting to right the wrongs played out against him and Mayo.

Now let’s look at these three names in the cast list. Leo Gordon, Michael Ansara and Michael Pate. If you guessed all three would be playing heavies (and who wouldn’t) you’d be wrong! Big Leo actually plays a level headed lead hand under Kelley who continually attempts to talk his boss into a peaceful solution. Pate plays a gentle Indian employed at the ranch who will stand tall for Miss Mayo in the final clash but alas, Mr. Ansara is indeed on the team of baddies and McCrea will soon learn he’s the man who shot and left him for dead over the opening scene of the film.

I believe the saying is “two out of three ain’t bad.”

For a brief moment in the film I thought maybe Virginia was gonna play it tough like say Maureen O’Hara as the picture below and on the poster clearly shows but in the end she’ll have to lean on Joel to come through and save her and her young son from harm at the hands of Neise while bringing peace and harmony to the valley once again.

Mayo and McCrea are once again well suited to each other on camera and while this oater is totally watchable, it pales in comparison to their 1949 Raoul Walsh effort, Colorado Territory which was actually a western redo of Bogie and Walsh’s High Sierra. A story that would go before the cameras again, returning the gangster genre for 1955’s I Died a Thousand Times. The Tall Stranger is not a film I’ve seen readily available but thankfully came across an admittedly poor copy on TCM during a festival of McCrea titles.

So put a checkmark on this one here in the vault at Mike’s Take.

9 Comments »

  1. The Tall Stranger does seem a bit elusive – I’ve only seen it once myself and found it fairly OK, just not a world beater. I read the source novel too ages ago and I remember liking it as well.

    • Good way to put it, not a world beater. Nice cast but that again is one of the things that makes 50’s westerns so much fun. Every now and then I’ll watch one and find myself disappointed if it doesn’t have a Caruso a Pate or a Gordon in there causing havoc.

  2. I’m really enjoying this Mayo fest (parts 1 & 2) some really well chosen films.
    Good to see you mention Don Castle Mike,a talented actor who’s life in many ways mirrored Ladd’s.
    THE BIG LAND was Castle’s penultimate film and the actor is best remembered for a series of second string Noirs
    including the outstanding THE GUILTY (1947) as cruel and mean spirited as any Noir can be.
    THE TALL STRANGER is fast moving fun and sadly is one of those Allied Artists films not owned by Warners
    otherwise by now we would have had a nice Archive MOD version.
    Mayo fans might like to check out her quotes on imdb especially regarding as to who she liked working with and those
    that she did not.

    • Thanks for the heads up on Castle. Not familiar with that title. I was surprised Stranger appeared on TCM for what appears to be just that one time and it was oh so obvious the print was poor. Again Mayo appeared in so many movies I watched as a kid was hard not to get a bit of a crush on her.

  3. Was a nice surprise to see Leo Gordon in a sympathetic role in Tall Stranger. A pity it didn’t happen again as far as I know.
    I remember seeing The Guilty and liked Don Castle – and Bonita Granville playing twins.

    • Another vote for Guilty. I’ll have to hit the books. I seem to remember an episode of Little House on the Prairie where Leo had a sympathetic role as an aging wrestler going town to town taking on all comers. We watched that show often growing up.

  4. Oil billionaire Jack Wrather married Bonita Granville and also dabbled in film and TV production.
    Many of Wrather’s movies starred Don Castle who also served as producer on Wrather’s TV ventures
    like LASSIE. Wrather’s son Jack Junior played Alan Ladd’s other son in THE BIG LAND.
    THE GUILTY is well worth checking out-I understand it has been restored and hopefully will get a DVD
    release. Because of his troubled life,perhaps, Don Castle is an ideal Noir actor. Like Alan Ladd Castle
    passed away at a young age in pretty much the same circumstances.

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