Monday, March 10, 2014

Tonight's Movie: Saddle Tramp (1950)

When I was growing up there were a couple of lesser-known Westerns shown on TV regularly which I loved and watched over and over. These favorites were among the key films which helped turn me into the classic film fan I am today.

One of those movies was A MAN ALONE (1955), a Western directed by and starring Ray Milland, and the other was SADDLE TRAMP (1950), a charming little Universal Western starring Joel McCrea.

McCrea plays Chuck Conner, a footloose wanderer forced by unexpected circumstances into growing up and settling down.

Chuck is on his way to explore California when he stops off to see an old friend (John Ridgely) in Nevada, only to have his pal die suddenly in an accident. Chuck resumes his trek to California -- but this time he's taking along his friend's four little boys (Jimmy Hunt, Orley Lindgren, Gordon Gebert, and Gregory Moffett). Chuck thinks maybe he'll find the boys a home somewhere and then keep on going, but it's soon clear he's growing increasingly attached to the brood. In order to provide for the boys he ends up hiding them at a campsite in the woods while he works for an ornery rancher (John McIntire) who hates children.

Before Chuck knows it he's added a runaway girl, Della (Wanda Hendrix), to his responsibilities. Della's on the run from her lecherous uncle (Ed Begley Sr.), and Chuck pledges he'll keep Della safe from having to return. And as it turns out, Della is quite the young lady once she's cleaned up, and the boys take to her mothering.

This is a short film with a lot going on, balancing moments of poignance, humor, and charm. Chuck doesn't want to be tied down, but being a decent guy at heart he also can't leave the kids to fend for themselves. He initially spends quite a bit of time yelling at his horse over his predicament! He ultimately realizes there are tradeoffs and while he loses his freedom, he gains much more in return. Still, the evocatively scored moment at the end, as he watches the birds fly away, brings a tear to the eye.

Such moving moments are counterbalanced by some delightfully funny bits. John McIntire's real-life wife, Jeanette Nolan, plays the rancher's Irish-born wife, a delightful lady who believes "the little people" are helping Chuck with his chores and causing food to disappear. They're little people all right, just not the magical sort she envisions!

The superb cast also includes John Russell as the foreman who repeatedly clashes with Chuck and Russell Simpson as an older hand with whom Chuck regularly trades nonsensical conversation. Antonio Moreno, Walter Coy, Thomas Browne Henry, and Paul Picerni are also in the cast.

Wanda Hendrix, who plays the tomboy-turned-lady Della, was a true chameleon. Her varied roles leading up to this film included a young Mexican peasant girl in RIDE THE PINK HORSE (1947), an Italian noblewoman in PRINCE OF FOXES (1949), and another Italian girl in CAPTAIN CAREY, U.S.A. (1950). In 1950 she also appeared in SIERRA (1950) with Audie Murphy, to whom she was briefly married, and in the comedy THE ADMIRAL WAS A LADY (1950).

The film has a high viewer rating at IMDb, but I noticed some people there complain about Hendrix's character being too young for a romantic lead. While she might have been on the young side for McCrea in 1950, in the era depicted in the film it was quite common for girls younger than Della to be married women, and for that matter it wasn't unusual for a girl to marry a husband who was quite a bit older, for multiple reasons I won't go into here. I felt Chuck and Della's connection made total sense in the context of this story, and Chuck was fortunate to find someone who understood him.

Many other things have changed since the time this film was set. I couldn't help reflecting on things such as Chuck contemplating the possibility of riding on and leaving the kids to fend for themselves on their ranch, or his leaving them alone in the woods overnight -- armed with guns, no less. At the end he piles them all on a horse and tells them to go to school. Those were not the days of hovering parents!

When a bunch of cowboys ran roughshod through Chuck's camp near the start of the film, I immediately thought of a similar scene with Robert Mitchum's campsite overrun at the opening of BLOOD ON THE MOON (1948). I was therefore interested to realize later that the story and screenplay for SADDLE TRAMP were by Harold Shumate -- who also did BLOOD ON THE MOON.

The print I saw thanks to Encore Westerns was 76 minutes; IMDb says there's also a longer version out there, but I'm hard-pressed to think of what could be missing, if anything.

SADDLE TRAMP was directed by Hugo Fregonese, who would make the fine APACHE DRUMS (1951) with Val Lewton the following year. The movie was shot on Southern California locations by Charles P. Boyle.

SADDLE TRAMP is one of my favorite Joel McCrea films and a wonderful example of the '50s Universal Western at its best. Very much recommended.

7 Comments:

Blogger Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

I think what made the romance in this film not quite "work" for me was not the age difference of the characters, which I can understand perfectly, but rather the fact that both actors seemed to be playing characters younger than they were, and doing it a little awkwardly. I loved Jeanette Nolan's character and the "little people" subplot, though, and thought the cinematography was beautiful. If I'm not mistaken, I've seen the set used for McIntire's ranch in a number of Republic B-Westerns.

5:21 PM  
Blogger SimpleGifts said...

Enjoyed your review, Laura. I heard Jimmy Hunt speak at the McCrea Ranch about his boyhood roles. In addition to SADDLE TRAMP, Hunt and McCrea were in THE LONE HAND and Joel was the young Hunt's favorite co-star. Hunt told how he enjoyed hanging out with the tobacco chewing wranglers on the set and Joel gave him a bag of black licorice pieces so the boy could chew and spit along with the cowpokes! Best, Jane

9:49 PM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

This is mainly to reassure you and anyone else who knows the movie that 76 minutes is the correct running time and always was. I looked at the original trade reviews sometime ago and those and all other sources confirm it so I don't know why IMDb made that mistake, and hopefully they will correct it.

This is a personal favorite of mine too as you know, and I just watched it again (same nice print recorded off Encore Westerns) only a few months ago

I enjoyed reading your piece, and I appreciated that you did take note of what happens during that last scene, which I continue to find amazing. Though it sounds like you respond the same way to those fleeting moments, possibly I find them more inflected with ambivalence then you do. In any event, in its quiet way, this modest, cosy movie hits an unusually profound note on the wandering/settling theme that American cinema has treated so much and so well.

It probably wouldn't have worked as well with anyone but Joel McCrea, who--even if we didn't know anything him personally--seems like a guy that could settle down, and of course he did with beautiful Frances Dee and theirs is not the usual story of a Hollywood couple as we all know. Because he does project this, the wanderlust that is so much a part of Chuck and which McCrea projects just as believably is so poignant.

This movie is one of the reasons (APACHE DRUMS is another) why I include Hugo Fregonese in my hierarchy of best Western directors that I posted at Ridin' the High Country some months back, though I know few others would be likely to do so.
For me he groups naturally with a director like Jacques Tourneur, who I also especially value--they are capable of being expressive, both visually and dramatically, in such a subtle, understated way and that's virtually gone from American cinema now, so it's precious. Not surprisingly, I think both of these directors were ideal for McCrea, who is so natural, and, like them, doesn't need to be showy or emphatic to do so much.

1:05 PM  
Blogger Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

This sounds charming, and I'm sorry to say I've never seen it. I'll be on the lookout now.

2:21 PM  
Blogger barrylane said...

I saw this film on its initial release, and it was memorable mainly for McCrea. I do not believe that the considerable story values, clearly indicated in the screenplay, seem to have been fully tapped, nevertheless it does more than entertain. As for Wanda Hendrix, an excellent actress, her problem isn't merely age, although she is clearly way too young for him, but they are not a couple and there is only the slightest chemical connection. The song played throughout, Cry of the Wild Goose, became a few years later, one of Frankie Lainne's major hits.

6:31 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thank you all so much for your comments!

Jane, that anecdote from Jimmy Hunt is so adorable. You can see from that that Joel was good dad material. :)

Blake, thank you so much for confirming the running time, that is great to hear.

It's interesting to me how this film struck a deep chord with Blake and myself but has more mixed, though generally positive, feelings from others. To me, McCrea and Hendrix seemed to be playing their ages and to convey a nice sense of interest and longing in their limited screen time. It initially also gives McCrea's character yet another way to prove his innate decency, keeping her from returning to a bad situation. I would have enjoyed even more time for their characters but really like what's there.

Blake, I appreciated your sharing your thoughts on the ending and Fregonese. A very interesting point about the understated style he shares with Tourneur. I like your description of the film as "cosy" -- yes, I think that's one of the things that drew me to it over and over as a child.

Jacqueline, hope you can see it...I might be able to help. ;)

Best wishes,

10:22 PM  
Blogger barrylane said...

Re Cry of the Wild Goose. That should have read a few months later. Lyrics were written, and the Frankie Laine explosion of popular western movie music continued and included High Noon, Gunfight at the OK Corral and Rawhide. Many more.

9:16 AM  

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