Sunday, September 01, 2013

Tonight's Movie: Masterson of Kansas (1954)

My recent George Montgomery Western festival continued today with MASTERSON OF KANSAS (1954).

My viewing of MASTERSON OF KANSAS followed Montgomery's GUN BELT (1953), THE LONE GUN (1954), and ROBBERS' ROOST (1955), all of which I've seen in the last couple of weeks.

Montgomery plays Bat Masterson, who teams with Wyatt (Bruce Cowling) and Virgil (Donald Murphy) Earp to deal with an unjustly convicted murderer (John Maxwell), Indian troubles with Yellow Hawk (Jay Silverheels) and his tribe, and conflict over the appearance of Doc Holliday (James Griffith) in Dodge City.

MASTERSON OF KANSAS has its fans, including my friend Toby at 50 Westerns From the 50s, but I've got to say this one disappointed me a little. The film felt overly stagy to me, from the hokey narration to Jay Silverheels' broken Indian speak to the phony backgrounds and stock footage to the forced dialogue, such as the scene between Amy and her father in the jail.

The other three Montgomery Westerns I've watched in the past week felt more natural, with much more relaxed performances from Montgomery. Here some of his dialogue delivery comes over as a bit tinny and awkward at times. It's not a bad performance, but it seemed a little off to me; perhaps he wasn't wholly comfortable under the weight of portraying the legendary Masterson.

Another problem with my enjoyment was that the fullscreen picture on the Sony Choice DVD-R seemed "squished." Although IMDb indicates the aspect ratio is 1:33, Toby says in his review it's 1:85, which would explain why the fullscreen DVD picture didn't look very good. I thought this was a fairly poor print, which is confusing as Toby seems to have reviewed and thought highly of the very same DVD, so I'm sure we'll be comparing notes on this! Is it possible that the MOD program has sent out two different versions of the same film? (Update: Please be sure to read the comments -- there are definitely two different DVD versions out there.)

The best reason to see the movie is to watch James Griffith as Doc Holliday. Griffith is an actor I've only just come to appreciate in the past year, in films such as APACHE DRUMS (1951) and RAILS INTO LARAMIE (1954). He's outstanding in a multilayered performance as Doc, which Toby describes really well. I'm surprised Griffith isn't better remembered today, given the quality of his work.

I loved the classic shot at the end of Masterson, Earp, and Holliday walking down the street of Hays City to confront the bad guys, six guns blazing simultaneously. It must be said that scene was pretty awesome for a Western fan.

Another plus is the beautiful, brightly colored title card, giving the opening of this Columbia Pictures film a Universal Westerns look.

MASTERSON OF KANSAS runs a quick 73 minutes. It was produced by Sam Katzman and directed by William Castle. The story and screenplay were by Douglas Heyes, who later did a lot of work on the MAVERICK series.

The movie was filmed in Technicolor by Henry Freulich. It was shot at Southern California movie ranches including Corriganville and the Iverson Ranch.

The Sony DVD can be rented from ClassicFlix.

This film has also been shown on Turner Classic Movies.


Blogger john knight said...

Gosh! So much happening in Lauraland since I have been off-line for a
couple of days.
I enjoyed your review of MASTERSON OF KANSAS and I take your comments
to be a pretty true description of the film,but for all the faults you
justly mention I still find it lots of fun. Hey,besides its a Sam Katzman
production so we are not talking "high art" here.
The only Katzman/Montgomery Western that I did not like was SEMINOLE
UPRISING;there is just too much stock footage in that movie.
My Sony MOD was a lovely 1:85 widescreen transfer BTW.
JACK McCALL DESPERADO is basically more of the same but I think,with
better production values.
You have really raised my interest with your TCM review so many interesting
films being shown.
Warner Archive say they will be releasing GREAT DAY IN THE MORNING so I
will resist getting my USA contacts to record this one. A "Superscope"
version of this film is one of my "most wanted" titles. This film is not
Jacques Tourneurs best Western but the film is interesting and offbeat
and has a more than decent cast. Raymond Burr plays a character called
"Jumbo" who has an obsession with elephants.
I need an upgrade of SHOOT FIRST (ROUGH SHOOT) which is a most engaging
Britflick with an excellent cast.Unusual to see Joel McCrea out of the
saddle in this one.In England the film played top half of a double bill
with MAGNETIC kinda double bill.

6:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Laura —

That's really weird about your aspect ratio problems. It's a well-done 1.85 on my Columbia DVD-R.

While I love the film and you didn't, a lot of your points are really good and I agree with them. The staginess you noticed is there — and it's in a lot of the Katzman/Castle films. Working too fast, I guess. And Montgomery isn't as natural here, probably due to the speed again.

My affinity for all things William Castle elevates it quite a bit. But the thing that makes this such a favorite is James Griffith's terrific performance. It's his film all the way.

And you're 100% right — that last scene as they come up the street is awesome!

8:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, Laura. You may want to try returning that DVD if you're able to. Here are some screen caps I took from my Sony MOD DVD, which presents the 1:85.1 aspect ratio:

With the sole exception of the crummy shot of the rock hitting Earp's head at the end of the film (that was done very lousy), I find most of its shortcomings and staginess amusing and charming.

8:41 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Well, we seem to have a really interesting DVD mystery here, with the existence of two different DVD prints from Sony! Thanks so much to John, Toby, and David for confirming they each saw this DVD in 1:85 widescreen, and thanks to David for the screencaps.

Fortunately I hadn't purchased this one; it was a ClassicFlix rental. This morning I peeled the mailer back open to take another look at the disc before returning it. It was a white disc with black print, copyright Sony in 2012. The inner ClassicFlix envelope said Columbia Classics, which was the name of the MOD program before it was retitled Sony Choice, but the disc itself did not say either Columbia Classics or Sony Choice.

I also appreciate the feedback on the film itself. Interesting thought on the speed of the filmmaking affecting what shows up on screen, Toby.

I think I would enjoy the film more on a second go-round, with a much better print to enjoy and knowing what to expect going in. The tone is really quite different from the other Montgomery films I've been watching, and having a greater understanding of the Castle/Katzman films would have better helped me to appreciate the film for what it is rather than what it's not, if that makes sense. At times I almost felt I was watching the movie equivalent of an oldtime theatrical melodrama, and I could see that having a certain charm, as David says, if that's what one is expecting to watch at the outset.

John, thanks for the info on GREAT DAY IN THE MORNING, that one really has me interested between the cast and director. Also love the info on the original SHOOT FIRST double bill. I get a kick out of the movies actors like McCrea, Ray Milland (CIRCLE OF DANGER), and Robert Montgomery (EYE WITNESS) shot in England in the early '50s.

Best wishes,

9:13 AM  

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