Monday, November 25, 2013

Tonight's Movie: The Silver Whip (1953)

THE SILVER WHIP is another one of those unsung '50s Westerns which are so much fun to discover. The film has a fine cast, evocative location shooting, and a surprisingly hard-hitting storyline. It's definitely worth the investment of 73 minutes.

Robert Wagner plays Jess, a young man who dreams of driving a stagecoach. He's mentored by Race (Dale Robertson), with Sheriff Tom Davisson (Rory Calhoun) also keeping a friendly eye on Jess.

When the stage line manager (James Millican) gives Jess his first big opportunity to drive the stage, things go terribly wrong when there's a holdup. Jess's refusal to drive away and leave Race leads to the death of his passengers. Jess and Race each have trouble coping with the aftermath of the incident, with Jess making additional poor decisions and the embittered Race seeking vengeance against the robbers.

It's up to the sheriff to teach Jess how to handle the situation constructively and to keep Race from making decisions he'll regret forever.

There's a lot to like about this film, and for me the list starts with the performances of two of my favorite Western actors, Rory Calhoun and James Millican. Calhoun is a reassuring presence as the calm, competent sheriff who juggles helping young Jess mature while keeping his friend Race from doing something stupid, with a lynch mob nipping at his heels in the final reel. One of his final scenes, as he reassures Jess about how he handled the lynch mob, is rather moving.

The versatile Millican, who that same year played a shy immigrant farmer in COW COUNTRY (1953), here plays the crusty stage line manager. He likes the young kid -- note the way he smiles in the opening scenes when Jess isn't looking -- but he also has a job to do, and when Jess blows it he must lay down the law. In the final scenes, with a lynch mob demanding a hanging before a trial, he backs Calhoun's sheriff in every way. Calhoun and Millican are two of the reasons I love '50s Westerns.

Dale Robertson also has an interesting role, playing a friendly, generous man whose feelings of guilt and loss lead him to a dark place. Also of note in the cast is Kathleen Crowley, who's impossibly young as Wagner's fiery girlfriend. She was just 20 or 21 when this was filmed, and Wagner was about 22.

Paul Wexler has a great bit as a settler who comes to town to provide information to the sheriff, requesting the princely sum of three bits for his trouble. He reminds me a little of Timothy Carey in this scene, which is amusing while also moving the plot along.

THE SILVER WHIP was directed by Harmon Jones (CANYON RIVER). The supporting cast includes Lola Albright, J.M. Kerrigan, Burt Mustin, Harry Carter, John Doucette, and John Kellogg.

The movie was shot in black and white by Lloyd Ahern. I've been unable to learn where the filming took place -- my best guess is the Lake Arrowhead area -- but the outdoor locations look quite a bit different from other Westerns of the era. Wind and snow flurries give the scenes additional depth and a "you are there" realism.

The score is by Lionel Newman, but I had a feeling the familiar opening credits theme may have been written by Lionel's brother Alfred Newman. Fox reused Alfred Newman's themes on a regular basis. (Incidentally, Lionel Newman was just honored last week when 20th Century-Fox renamed their music building in his honor.)

THE SILVER WHIP is available in a nice print from Fox Cinema Archives.

For more on this movie, visit Toby's post at 50 Westerns From the 50s, which also has a good discussion following in the comments.

May 2015 Update: Here's even more about this Western by Colin at Riding the High Country.


Blogger Vienna said...

This sounds good. One I don't know at all. Nice to hear James Millican has a good part.

12:54 AM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

I'm trying to remember if you've seen Millican's final film yet, RED SUNDOWN, in which he shares the first and especially fine third of the movie with Calhoun. One of the best films of both--and Millican especially is moving in arguably the best role of his career. This 1956 U-I gem is not to be missed by anyone who likes either actor and that 50s theme of gunfighters trying to leave the past behind. It has been on the Western Channel though Universal vault has not gotten around to it yet. Very nice review of THE SILVER WHIP, Laura, which I also liked very much the one time I saw it.

11:27 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Vienna, I hope you enjoy it when you catch up with it!

Blake, thanks so much for your note. I have a recording of RED SUNDOWN from the Encore Westerns Channel and need to bump that higher in the viewing stack. Although I read about the movie at Toby's blog a while back it completely escaped my notice that James Millican is in it -- perhaps because he's someone I've just really come to appreciate it recent months. RED SUNDOWN sounds like it will be a real winner for me as well.

Thanks for the feedback on THE SILVER WHIP, glad to know you enjoyed it too.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Best wishes,

9:27 PM  
Blogger Karen said...

The Silver Whip was at least partially shot in Tuolumne County, CA, where our family has a cabin. At one point, a character scrambles up a huge boulder that looks like it's on Sonora Pass, and jumps off the other side into Pinecrest Lake -- miles away in real life. My aunt remembers hanging around the location crew as a girl, agog at the glory that was Robert Wagner.

10:32 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Karen, That is fabulous information!! Thank you so much for sharing. Although I had guessed Lake Arrowhead, the area really looked different -- how wonderful to know where it all took place. Thank you so much for sharing!!!

Best wishes,

10:41 AM  
OpenID vienna said...

Just watched It and enjoyed it. Wagner showing a nice relaxed style for a young man, and it was unusual to see Dale Robertson and Rory Calhoun sharing the lead.
Paul Wexler, as you said, was great in his small scene.
A pity James Millican didn't have a bigger part.
IMDB says that Chuck Connors had a minor role but I didn't spot him.

9:45 AM  
OpenID livius1 said...

Just wanted to say I liked this piece on the film, Laura, and also to thank you for the link to my place.

10:51 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks so much for sharing your, thoughts, Vienna, I'm delighted you could catch up with it! I agree, more screen time for Millican is always a good thing.

You're very welcome, Colin, I enjoyed your post and the ensuing conversation very much!

Best wishes,

5:07 PM  

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