Sunday, April 11, 2010


The Redhead from Wyoming“Tarzan’s Magic Fountain” director Lee Sholem’s Technicolor western “The Redhead from Wyoming” (*** out of ****) qualifies as a thoroughly predictable but nevertheless entertaining, old fashioned horse opera about a range war between trigger-happy cattlemen and homesteaders in the 1880s, with Maureen O’Hara at her fiery best. Indeed, Scholem’s oater modified the Johnson County War which was immortalized later in the notorious, big-budget debacle “Heaven’s Gate.” Mind you, the 1929 and the 1946 versions of “The Virginian” and “The Ox-Bow Incident” (1943) dealt with the Johnson County War, too. “The Redhead from Wyoming” appropriates one real life participant James Averell as its villain here. Furthermore, Averell’s conspirator is his girlfriend. Like Averell’s real-life wife, both were accused of cattle rustling. The Maverick law, true-life, old West legislation, ignited the conflict. “Mrs. Parkington” scenarist Polly James, with an uncredited assist from Herb Meadow, who penned 1956 “Lone Ranger” movie, wrote the screenplay from her own story. The dialogue ripples with memorable lines and the writers furnish all four major characters with solid back stories. James and Meadow don’t squander a melodramatic second sic-king the heroine, the sheriff, the cattle baron, and the villain at each other. Sholem orchestrates the action with unobtrusive aplomb. Lensed by three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Winton Hoch of “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” “The Redhead from Wyoming” bears a rough-hewn, frontier look despite being shot on the Universal Studios backlot. This medium budget oater boasts an adequate amount of gunplay during its larcenous, 81-minute running time.

“The Redhead from Wyoming” unfolds with the following narration that sets the stage for the showdown between both factions. “When the territories of the great west were thrown open, men of all kinds rushed in. Most came to settle peaceably, lured by free land, gold, cattle. A man could begin a herd with a maverick, an unbranded stray on the public range. By putting his brand on it, he owned it. The cattle barons had started their great herds with mavericks. Now, they fought each settler who tried to do the same. They fought to keep the settlers off the public lands, drive them from their homes, destroy their towns. Vast ranges became the battlegrounds of cattle wars. When the Wyoming big ranchers found guns were not enough, they used the Maverick Law, a law through which they appointed themselves commissioners with power to rule on the ownership of every maverick branded. A commissioner’s ruling could declare the settle a rustler, outlaw his brand, make his mavericks illegal to sell. Of course, there was no shortage of sharp-witted men who were quick to take advantage of the law.”

Sholem backs up the narration with action footage before he shifts the scene to the town square of Sweetwater, Wyoming, where city slicker clad Jim Averell (William Bishop of “The Walking Hills”) campaigns for the high political office of governor. Watching from horseback on the fringe is big-time cattle baron, Reese Duncan (Brooklyn-born Alexander Scourby of “Affair in Trinidad”), and he doesn’t like a word that Averell utters. “The Maverick Law,” Averell avers, “was designed to protect us all against cattle rustling. There is nothing in the law that says new settlers can’t pick up unbranded cattle and call them their own. When a cattle commission was appointed to watch over brands and cattle that was for our protection, too.” Duncan has had enough of Averell’s speech and blasts a hole in his city slicker’s hat. Sweetwater Sheriff Stan Blaine (Alex Nicol of “Gunfighters of Casa Grande”) fires his gun and calms down everybody. This scene opens up when our leading lady, Maureen O’Hara, arrives by stagecoach with a gaggle of other fancy saloon girls. Kate Maxwell (Maureen O’Hara of “The Quiet Man”) learns she is a part of Averell’s grand scheme to infuriate Reece Duncan.

Averell announces his plans to turn ownership of the saloon that he has been renovating over to Kate. Now, everybody can enjoy music, high-kick dancing, and “the straightest card game in Wyoming.” Averell promises the homesteaders that they will have the bucks to blow, too. He adds with a dastardly gleam in his eyes, “Kate’s a cattle buyer now. She aims to buy up every maverick you can lay a rope on. Kate’s got her own brand, and not some outlaw brand. She’ll market your mavericks for you and there’s nothing that Duncan and his Cattlemen’s Association can do about it.” Kate is already suspicious. The last time that she saw Averell was “running out of Abilene like a jack rabbit” leaving her to hold the sack. Duncan rides up and warns Kate not to buy any of his cattle. “Anything you take from me has lead coming after it.” As everybody disperses and Averell escorts Kate over to her saloon, they meet Blaine. Throughout the entire scene, only Alex Nicol received a close-up. Averell account for Blaine to Kate. “He’s just a drifter. Doesn’t make any trouble, doesn’t want any.” In the saloon, Averell draws Kate a picture of her brand: K Bar M. Kate wonders if the world isn’t coming to an end. “Not only is Jim Averell giving things away, but he’s paying his debts.” Averell grimaces, “I guess somebody ought to give me a necktie party for what I’ve done to you.” No, he doesn’t swing in “The Redhead from Wyoming.” Indeed, Averell wants to woo Kate back into his arms. He explains that if Reese Duncan is eliminated, he will become governor. Brags Averell: “I’m going to make the whole territory of Wyoming my own private range.”

Meantime, the nefarious Averell incites anarchy. He hires his own gunmen to rustle Duncan’s livestock. Eventually, Kate learns the truth but is powerless to retaliate. Earlier, Blaine encountered Duncan chasing Matt Jessup (Dennis Weaver of “McCloud” fame) for rustling cattle. Blaine turned back Duncan so Matt could escape. Eventually, Kate and Blaine meet. Blaine explains he started drifting at age 13 after his entire family was wiped out in a deadly range war near Houston, Texas. Later, after Kate leaves him behind her saloon by the corral, Blaine sees men running cattle into her corral. When he investigates, Averell’s three gunmen clobber him. This represents the second time that Averell’s men have had the chance to kill the lawman. Kate insists they let Blaine live. Averell orders them to dump Blaine somewhere far off so he will have a long walk back to town. Blaine recovers in the brush about 15 miles from town and trudges back to recover his Stetson and one of his two six-guns. Later, 'Knuckles' Hogan (Robert Strauss of “Stalag 17”) drives Kate out to visit Duncan. Duncan explains he came to the territory when he was ragged kid with holes in his boots. He doesn’t intend to let the homesteaders force him off his property. Kate appeals to him to leave the settlers alone so that he will win their gratitude and wind up in the governor’s mansion instead of Averell. About that time, one of Duncan’s men tells him that Matt and Hal Jessup (Greg Palmer of “Big Jake”) are rustling their cattle again. Duncan lights out with his men to corner the Jessup brothers. Kate appropriates one of Duncan’s mounts and joins them. Seizing Duncan’s six-gun, she holds him at gunpoint, and buys the Jessup Brothers time to get away. Considering that Matt and Hal had exhausted their supply of ammunition, they were indeed lucky. Eventually, Averell’s henchmen kill one of Duncan’s men, Wade Burrows (Ray Bennett of “Texas Renegades”) and plant a branding iron under his body that frames Kate. Kate is thrown in jail, but Knuckles and the boys break her out. Robert Strauss’ Knuckles character is virtually a forerunner of Bud Spencer in Spaghetti westerns. Duncan and Blaine trap Averell into revealing his villainy in a huge gunfight at the end that incriminates him.

Clearly, Maureen O’Hara is dressed in the gaudiest colored outfit imaginable to make her stand out among everybody else, including the other women. Meanwhile, Alex Nicol plays the hero in one of his ‘good guy’ roles and incarnates the standard western hero, an individual who is just ‘passing through’ when he agrees to pin on the sheriff’s star. William Bishop is aptly treacherous as the city slicker villain. Alexander Scourby makes a good bad guy who really isn’t that bad. He is rather like a red herring. You think that he is wicked, but he cannot match William Bishop’s cunning villain. Anybody who has spend any time watching vintage western television shows will recognize not only Dennis Weaver of “Gunsmoke” but also Jack Kelly of “Maverick” as William Bishop’s bodyguard. This is about as abrasive a performance as an adversary as Kelly ever gave. “The Redhead from Wyoming” is a gold, old-fashioned oater that never wears out its welcome.