Sunday, September 16, 2012

High Chaparral Musings

Some great news for fans of the 1967-71 TV Western THE HIGH CHAPARRAL: Henry Darrow, one of the show's stars, has written an autobiography, HENRY DARROW: LIGHTNING IN A BOTTLE.

This book from Bear Manor Media was cowritten by Jan Pippens. I learned about it from a wonderful article on Darrow by Susan King which just appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

Darrow is in Southern California this weekend; yesterday he appeared at the Autry Museum. I wish I'd been able to attend! Tonight he'll be honored with the Ricardo Montalban Lifetime Achievement Award at the ALMA Awards, which celebrate Latino actors.

Yesterday I had the chance to watch some of the HIGH CHAPARRAL marathon on the Inspiration Network, and -- combined with some recent viewing of the show on YouTube -- I was struck anew by what a good series it is, and how different it was from other TV Westerns of its era.

I hadn't seen the show for years but have always considered it my second-favorite TV Western, after MAVERICK and just ahead of THE VIRGINIAN. I've always especially remembered how "real" the show seemed, thanks to its extensive location shooting in Tucson. The characters are hot, sweaty, and dirty, and for the most part it's not faked in a soundstage. Occasionally exterior closeups are obviously done on a soundstage, but a huge percentage of the show's exteriors were actually filmed in Arizona. It's hard to believe this rugged series, with characters whose relationships change over time, was created by the same producer who was behind the much more phony and static BONANZA.

THE HIGH CHAPARRAL is considered a groundbreaker for its leading Latino characters and respectful treatment of Indians; the Apaches are often the enemy yet they are approached in a complex way, as people also simply trying to survive in a harsh land. I like that, when appropriate, characters often speak in Spanish or in Indian dialects. Siblings Victoria (Linda Cristal) and Manolito (Darrow) often break into Spanish when communicating directly with one another, and the audience simply infers the meaning. In one of my favorite episodes, the Thanksgiving story "For What We Are About to Receive," the exasperated Victoria begins yelling about her bullheaded husband (Leif Erickson) in Spanish, and he calls back "I can understand every word you're saying!" to which she huffily replies "I am glad!" Love that, especially as the characters in question seemed to enjoy their often fiery relationship.

Watching anew, I appreciated other details of the depiction of frontier life in 1870s Arizona, such as the outdoor kitchen and eating area as a way to deal with the heat. The ranch is under constant threat of attack from Indians, banditos, or the elements, and there's usually a lookout on patrol on the roof of the main house -- note the ladder inside the house, next to the front door -- or on a tower; there's also often an armed man stationed as the first line of defense at the ranch entrance.

Another aspect I like is that the "bunkhouse boys" aren't extras, but appear in every episode and occasionally get a real chance to shine. A couple of the actors, including Bob Hoy, doubled as stuntmen on the show. I especially enjoy Don Collier, who plays the ranch foreman Sam, older brother to Hoy's Joe.

One of my favorite descriptions of the show says it's about a "a mixed ethnicity step-family with relationship challenges." The characters are all flawed, fully rounded human beings who grow and change over time. The weathered, indomitable Big John Cannon (Erickson) is a powerful force of nature, an honorable man tough enough to build a successful ranch in an unforgiving land, but he's also perpetually cranky and has a rocky relationship with his sensitive son, Billy Blue (Mark Slade).

John's temperament on the show is balanced out by his devilish, charming brother-in-law Manolito (Darrow), who has a permanent twinkle in his eye, as well as by John's own rascally, sometimes immature brother, Buck (the irrepressible Cameron Mitchell). Uncle Buck also provides Blue with the understanding he often doesn't get from his own father.

It has been common in Hollywood to pair leading men with younger actresses, occasionally with uncomfortable results, but it works beautifully on HIGH CHAPARRAL because it's actually a believable part of the story. After his first wife Annalee (Joan Caulfield) dies, John enters into a mutual defense pact with Don Sebastian Montoya (Frank Silvera) which is cemented by the arranged marriage of John with Montoya's much younger daughter, Victoria (Cristal).

John and Victoria's relationship is awkward for some time, with John formally calling his wife "Mrs. Cannon" and Victoria battling John's memories of his late wife for her rightful place in his life; Victoria must also deal with the resentment of her stepson, Blue. Initially unknown by John, Victoria had agreed to the marriage because she truly admired him and believed she would have an exciting life as his wife. As time passes, John and Victoria's relationship turns to deep love, despite the marriage's inauspicious beginning and their differences in background and age.

The show also boasts one of TV's all-time greatest themes; the evocative opening credits certainly rank up there with THE VIRGINIAN, HAWAII FIVE-0, THE ROCKFORD FILES, and a handful of other shows as TV's finest.

The High Chaparral website is perhaps the best site devoted to a TV series I've yet come across. Its detailed episode descriptions are just the tip of the iceberg; there's info on the show's stuntmen, costumes, publicity stills, cast reunions, and much, much more.

Speaking of reunions, a High Chaparral Reunion is scheduled for March 2013 in Tucson. Around the early '80s I had the pleasure of visiting the original ranch set of the High Chaparral at Old Tucson, as well as visiting Mission San Xavier del Bac, which doubled as the exterior of Don Sebastian Montoya's estate.

I wish I could say the Inspiration Network is airing the show as it deserves; while I'm glad to have it available on cable and willing to accept commercials for the privilege of seeing it again, the amount of onscreen clutter during the show itself, advertising upcoming shows, is ridiculously distracting. The network also cut out the end credits, at least for the marathon, printing them in unreadable white over each episode's final scene. This show cries out for a complete series DVD release, but in the meantime, I think the viewing experience is probably better online. Either way, I hope this fine Western series will find new audiences to appreciate it.

Update: Here's a few more thoughts on the series from Ivan at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, with my thanks for both the link and the very nice compliment!

June 2018 Update: Season One of this show is on the way to Region 1 DVD at long last, thanks to Shout! Factory!

2020 Update: Linda Cristal Passes On.

2021 Update: An obituary for Henry Darrow, who has died at 87.

September 2021 Update: Actor Don Collier, who played ranch foreman Sam Butler, has passed away at the age of 92.


Blogger Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Loved this post, Laura…just as much as I enjoyed watching the Chaparral reruns yesterday on INSP. I went ahead and e-mailed a link to this to INSP’s Melissa Prince, since I think she would enjoy your take on the show as well.

I have only vague memories of the program as a kid, but High Chaparral was a favorite of my mother’s…and she sort of lit up with interest when I told her what I did with most of my day yesterday. The fact that this show is not yet available on DVD (all four seasons have been released to disc in Germany, seeing as that the show was extremely popular overseas) is a crime against collectors, because it was extremely well-written and well-acted…and way ahead of its time with its unusual family relationships and positive depictions of Latino characters.

Manolito Montoya is one of TV’s most amazing personages. You get the feeling through Henry Darrow’s portrayal that Manolito didn’t take life too seriously, and that in doing so it made events for him so much more adventurous. I find it interesting that when you first meet Manolito he sort of comes across as the typical stereotype of a besotted Mexican bandit…and then the portrayal acquires more facets and dimensions after that with each subsequent episode.

And I had a major crush on Linda Cristal when I was young…as the brother of a famous sitcom radio psychiatrist based in Seattle often used to say: “Oh, Mama!”

Sadly, I think INSP’s presentation of Chaparral—the elimination of the closing credits and substituting of unreadable ones—is sort of a staple with the channel; I’ve noticed it on other shows there, too. Someone commented on this practice over at my blog and likened it to finishing a book, only to have someone thrusting another book in front of you without getting a chance to take a breather. It’s a shame classic shows are treated in this fashion, where networks have to cram in every bit of commercial space they can.

I didn’t get to see all of the Chaparral shows in the marathon—we took a dinner break about six o’clock and the ‘rents were still watching the Braves game but I did see the very beginning of the Jack Kelly episode and started chuckling, thinking of you at the same time. I also enjoyed the guest appearances from such folk as Patricia Barry (always a favorite) and, of course, Jack Lord before he got the Five-O gig. I will definitely make a point to tune the show in when they put it on the regular schedule, it’s too good to miss.

Oh, and I’m so glad you wrote this…you saved me the trouble of doing so!

5:09 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks so very much for your detailed thoughts, Ivan, as well as for passing on my post to your contact at Inspiration Network.

I couldn't agree more with your comments...I think the show really was ahead of its time, if one can say that about a period show like a Western, and it doesn't feel dated in the least; just the opposite. Some of the things I cited in my post, including attitudes and the liberal use of Spanish, make it feel quite modern.

I had the biggest crush on Manolito when I was younger! Still do, I guess. :) I just saw the episode "Mark of the Turtle" and was struck by the way the seemingly "lazy" Mano tumbles out of his hammock, laughingly calls Big John a "magnificent fool," and heads off to help find a solution to a situation which could break John's pact with Mano's father. This single scene depicts exactly what you say about Manolito not taking things too seriously but also approaching life as an adventure.

That's a very good analogy about having a "new book" shoved at you before finishing the old one! As an inveterate reader of credits, I find the impossible-to-read credits on channels like Hallmark incredibly frustrating; having them printed over the action on Inspiration, and the almost imperceptible breaks between episodes -- the better to retain viewers, I'm sure -- well, I know why they're doing it but I'm sure not a fan of these practices.

The Jack Lord episode is one of several that I caught yesterday, and the Jack Kelly and Patricia Barry shows are in my DVR! (You doubtless know she's in one of the best-ever MAVERICK episodes, "Two Beggars on Horseback.") Today, incidentally, is the anniversary of Jack Kelly's birth. :)

Thanks again!

Best wishes,

6:53 PM  
Blogger Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

I have only vague memories of seeing bits of this when I was little. One channel—I can't remember which—used to run a whole lineup of Westerns on Saturday afternoons: Bonanza, The Big Valley, The Rifleman, High Chaparra; and Gunsmoke. I do recall that High Chaparral's theme music was one of my favorites (Big Valley was tops there). Your post makes the show sound so interesting I'd like to see it again sometime.

Speaking of the Autry, did you know about the Virginian cast reunion there next weekend?

5:42 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Wow, Elisabeth, I hadn't heard about the VIRGINIAN reunion! It sounds fantastic. I would love to go but am not likely to be able to swing it due to ongoing recovery from some recent surgery.

I hope you have the chance to become better acquainted with THE HIGH CHAPPARAL! Since you're a big Westerns fan I'd love to know what you think.

Best wishes,

10:21 AM  
Blogger Lois said...

What I liked about the High Chaparral was that the ranch hands were also continuing characters. In one episode, the entire crew ends up accidentally crossing the border to a town preparing for a fiesta. I believe that Fernando Lamas is the former bandit, who has become police chief, and ends up arresting the Chaparral crew and sentencing them to be executed. (His plan is to take over the town and force everyone in the town to join his "army," which he hopes to oppose the current national rulers. Prior to the Chaparral crew being captured, one of the recurring ranch hands decides to slip away from the crew and go visit his cousin, who makes and sells fireworks for fiestas. When the tardy ranch hand eventually arrives in town, and learns that the rest of the crew has been sentenced to be executed, he rushes back to his cousin's home, and the two cousins come up with a plan for rescuing the Chaparral crew before they can be executed. This is similar to a Bonanza episode, during which Ben, Adam, Hoss and Little Joe arrive in a strange town, and end up being accused of robbing a local establishment and murdering one of the employees. (It is really a robbery which is being pulled off with the full knowledge of the local sheriff - who plays a part in railroading the Cartwright clan.) Little joe manages to escape and returns in the nick of time, accompanied by a substantial number of Ponderosa ranch hands - all of whom are NEVER seen again. Which always left you wondering that IF the Cartwright clan had that many men working for them - why didn't they just assemble their men at OTHER times when they could have used help? However - back to the High Chaparral - As the High Chaparral crew is about to be executed, the tardy ranch hand and his cousin arrive in town, pretending to be nondescript and awkward fireworks salesmen. The recurring ranch hand and his cousin set off their fireworks, and release the Chaparral crew in time for Big John and the others to coerce a confession out of the Fernando Lamas character. What I thought was wonderful was that the writers gave one of the recurring characters an opportunity to be the hero who saved everyone in the nick of time - and carried off the rescue in a believable way. I thought that was much more interesting than the sort of difficult-to-believe sequence of events when the same story was aired on Bonanza - with Little Joe heroically escaping from the corrupt sheriff and returning in time with enough nondescript and rarely-seen Ponderosa cowhands to force the corrupt sheriff into making a confession.

8:28 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks so much for taking the time to share your thoughts on a favorite TV show, Lois. I certainly agree that having the ranch hands be regular characters made the show more believable and enjoyable, and it was also nice when one of them had a real chance to shine. :)

Best wishes,

10:41 PM  

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