Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Tonight's Movie: Canyon River (1956)

I'm continuing to work my way through George Montgomery's Westerns of the 1950s, and the latest entry seen was CANYON RIVER (1956), which I found especially enjoyable. In fact, I think it was my favorite Montgomery Western seen to date.

Steve Patrick (Montgomery), a Wyoming rancher, travels to Oregon with his foreman Bob (Peter Graves) to buy cattle. In an unusual twist, Steve plans to drive the cattle east on the Oregon trail to Wyoming, where he plans to cross-breed the cattle and come up with a new strain well suited to Wyoming winters.

Bob, unfortunately, is feeling greedy and makes plans with a couple of no-good types (Walter Sande and perennial Westerns villain Robert J. Wilke) to stampede and steal the cattle when they return to Wyoming. Bob is also feeling the green-eyed monster because he loves a beautiful widow, Janet (Marcia Henderson), who only has eyes for Steve.

It's a fairly simple, straightforward story, but it's very nicely told, and I found great pleasure in experiencing it with an appealing cast. Montgomery is immensely likeable as the earnest, determined rancher, and he has a great entrance, kicking the gun out of a bad guy's hand seconds after he first appears onscreen. Marcia Henderson (ALL I DESIRE) is also very good as the spirited widow who makes up her mind Steve's for her and then finds a way to make it happen.

There's an interesting theme running through the film, in that while Steve's friend Bob was ostensibly once a good man who has secretly gone bad, the trail hands on Steve's crew are the opposite of Bob, a bunch of bad men gone good. George (Alan Hale Jr.) and his men, one-time gunslingers and outlaws, are so shocked and grateful when Steve offers them a real job and a home that they jump at the opportunity to work hard, eat well, and sleep peacefully at night.

It may seem to come a little too easily to be believed, but Hale is so likeable in the role, particularly in a scene where he puts Janet's little boy (Richard Eyer) to bed, that I was very willing to buy into the conversion. It's a really nice part, and Hale's performance helps elevate the film into something a little more special than the average Western.

As I watched Steve and George become friends after brawling in a saloon, I couldn't help thinking of Hale's father similarly battling and becoming friends with Errol Flynn in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938). I liked that thread of film history wandering into the movie for a brief moment. It's interesting how viewing a scene like that with a wider context in mind deepens the richness and texture of a film.

I also thought the film did a good job conveying the irony that if Bob had just continued along "doing the right thing," he would have had everything he'd wanted, at least in terms of ranching. "Crime doesn't pay" may be a cliche, but it's also the truth, illustrated here in an interesting way.

The movie looks beautiful, easily the most attractive visually of the Montgomery films seen to date. It was shot in CinemaScope by Ellsworth Fredricks, and the widescreen Warner Archive DVD shows off the vistas to great effect. The majority of the movie was filmed on location; IMDb only lists the Monogram Ranch, but I think the movie must have been shot in additional locations. This is a very nice-looking film with good production values, which keeps soundstage exteriors to the absolute minimum.

CANYON RIVER is a 79-minute Allied Artists film which was directed by Harmon Jones (PRINCESS OF THE NILE). The script was by Daniel Ullman, remaking another film he wrote, THE LONG HORN (1951), which starred Wild Bill Elliott. The supporting cast of CANYON RIVER includes Ray Teal, John Harmon, Jack Lambert, William Fawcett, and Lane Chandler.

As a side note, I've about given up on consulting Leonard Maltin's reference guide for accurate, knowledgeable opinions when it comes to most Westerns. I always make up my own mind about films, of course, but having read Maltin's guide since I was a kid in the '70s, I'm always interested to see what the guide has to say. Despite my great admiration for Mr. Maltin, I'm simply amazed at what he and his staff consider a 1-1/2 star Western. There's a disappointing lack of appreciation for the mid-range Westerns which may not have the artistry of a Ford, Hawks, or Wellman but are nonetheless solid, well-crafted entertainment. CANYON RIVER is such a film, and I'd hate to think Western fans might miss out on this one if they put any credence in Maltin's ratings.

I rented CANYON RIVER from ClassicFlix, but as it turned out, I liked it so much I put it on a list of Warner Archive DVDs I hope to purchase in the future.

Previous reviews of George Montgomery Westerns: CRIPPLE CREEK (1952), GUN BELT (1953), THE LONE GUN (1954), MASTERSON OF KANSAS (1954), BATTLE OF ROGUE RIVER (1954), ROBBERS' ROOST (1955), and GUN DUEL IN DURANGO (1957).


Blogger Blake Lucas said...

I for one very much appreciate what you say about Leonard Maltin and Westerns. He and his staff have kept many a fine Western down with their ratings--these things to have an effect on what gets restored, released on DVD, so many things.

It is worth reiterating that the 50s Western, so often devalued by Maltin and the people who write for him, was actually the artistic height of cinema. It's not for nothing that someone we both know and admire has a blog dedicated to that idea. And may I add that I am saying this as someone who knows and loves world cinema I love silent cinema, all genres, all the national cinemas I know and Japanese especially, New Wave films as well as classical, but through my whole life it is the 50s Westerns that stand out, not just Ford, Hawks, Walsh, and Mann but so many others. I am personally infuriated when I hear people--including critics who should know better--says that all these Westerns are the same. They cannon appreciate the subtle inflections that make so many that travel familiar ground very individual works--it is much like classical music in sonata form. It is the subtle differences that mark out the films. Ranown cycle, for example, is built on this idea, and not any portentousness or artistic grandiosity.

I still haven't seen CANYON RIVER--sounds good and your strong review has made me feel that I will make a point of it, Laura. I like Harmon Jones in his other Westerns, usually starring Dale Robertson, and have spoken to that before, as others have, know he can do well in the genre.

11:03 PM  
Blogger Vienna said...

I'm not that keen on George Montgomery - find him a bit bland, but your review definitely will make me seek out this western. The plot and cast look good.
Thanks ,Laura
If I had a list of my favorite films, I know there would be several 1950s westerns. That is my decade for westerns.

11:56 PM  
Blogger john k said...

Great take,as always Laura on a pretty little known Western. Hey,it must be obscure because not even Blake has seen it.
I did mention earlier that I thought you may enjoy this one more than I did. I guess I was expecting too much taking into account the star and director. Its one I never saw as a kid and the Warner Archive release was the first time that I caught up with it. Funnily enough Maltin gives Harmon Jones A DAY OF FURY a super review. Thats one that Blake and I rate extremely highly.
I think the fact that Allied Artists shot so many of their "programmer" westerns in Scope makes them even more attractive.
I am waiting for The Archive to release the offbeat GUNSMOKE IN TUSCON and OREGON PASSAGE which I have never seen.GUNSMOKE IN TUSCON has some really odd plot developments but scope and color make it a most attractive film to watch.Actually my personal favorite of the four Westerns George Montgomery made for Allied Artists
was Paul Landres LAST OF THE BADMEN. Landres like Harmon Jones made some excellent minor films.LAST OF THE BADMEN was remade by Allied Artists as the Audie Murphy vehicle GUNFIGHT AT COMANCHE CREEK.

4:26 AM  
Blogger barrylane said...

I've not run Robber's Roost as yet but based on your review I have ordered Canyon River. Could be a double-bill is in order. AS for Maltin, mostly he and his staff are on the money. Montgomery is no Randolph Scott.

8:33 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

So nice to see my post on this movie receive several responses, thank you all!

Blake, I enjoyed your comments and especially like what you write about the subtle differences being part of what makes Westerns so interesting. So true. The familiar setting and recurring themes are part of what makes Westerns "comfort viewing," yet there are so many variations on how the filmmakers approach the material.

Vienna, I hope you'll enjoy this if you check it out. I have a soft spot for George Montgomery as my younger daughter has loved ORCHESTRA WIVES since she was very young. :) I'm really enjoying getting to know his Westerns work. And I certainly agree with you and Blake about how many great '50s Westerns there are!

John, thanks for mentioning A DAY OF FURY. I've got that one in my "watch" stack. I noted Jock Mahoney is in that one -- my dad has recently caught a couple of his Westerns and strongly recommended JOE DAKOTA. I just got out my little notebook and jotted down the titles you mentioned!

Barrylane, I hope you'll enjoy the movie! A double bill of that and ROBBERS' ROOST sounds great -- they are probably my two favorite Montgomerys so far and both costar Peter Graves.

I have a lot of respect for Maltin and his crew -- indeed, that's why I've kept copies of his guide on hand for decades -- but have consistently found "non-classic" Westerns disregarded with seemingly little thought. I don't equate George Montgomery with Randolph Scott (at least his films on the Boetticher level) -- but that's kind of my point. They're not classics, but many of them are well-made films deserving of 2-1/2 to 3 star ratings. The 1-1/2 star Maltin ratings I've noted for very enjoyable Westerns starring actors like Montgomery, Calhoun, Hayden, etc., make no sense from my perspective. The movies aren't perfect but those who skip them, thinking they're boring or close to turkeys, are missing out on some good films and the kinds of interesting genre variations which Blake notes above.

Best wishes,

11:11 AM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

Just to be clear, I respect Maltin and he's done a lot of good. I kept his guide handy for years too though now am more likely to look at IMDb. My complaint, like yours, is only for the way Westerns are treated when they have not been taken for classics. Even Budd Boetticher had a hard road there if you look at the early editions, but of course, by now Ranowns have had some upgrades in his ratings.

Laura, Jock Mahoney is one of my personal favorites of these programmer Western stars as I've written about, especially at Ridin' the High Country. Thanks to Colin advising of its Spanish release I now have what I consider his best film THE LAST OF THE FAST GUNS (Universal has not released this here yet), a 1958 Western directed by George Sherman that I consider a masterpiece and typical of what Maltin & Company tend to treat dismissively. JOE DAKOTA, which your father mentioned, is also excellent and highly recommended--its director Richard Bartlett is another unrecognized talent and he loved Mahoney, using him in four films which also include the excellent MONEY, WOMEN AND GUNS (how's that for a perfect movie title!) and, not a Western, but about Hollywood, SLIM CARTER, a delightful movie with one of Julie Adams' best roles and performances--she was very appreciative when I told her how much I liked that one.

Ex-stunt man Jock Mahoney came to his level of Western in its late phase (mid to late 50s) and I believe even though he was accepted and liked by fans of those kinds of movies, the movies didn't continue to be made that would sustain that kind of career, or we would have more of him. Only Audie Murphy really managed to hold his own at that level in the

11:30 AM  
Blogger barrylane said...

There is more to Randolph Scott ten Boetticher's work. Check out Western Union as example. Doolins of Oklahoma. The Walking Hills. Many more marvelous performances even in films below par.

1:49 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Blake, I've wanted to see SLIM CARTER for years. What a cast! Thanks, as always, for elaborating on your thoughts and especially for sharing your appreciation of Jock Mahoney. I've obviously got a lot of enjoyable viewing ahead of me in that regard.

Barrylane, I'm a big Scott fan and certainly agree there are strong Scott films which weren't done by Boetticher, but he can really be all over the map. There's CORONER CREEK but then there's also WHEN THE DALTONS RODE -- and the latter ironically scores 3 points in Maltin's book, while for me that's a one-star Western if ever I saw one. (Grin)

All of which circles back to my main point, these lesser-known Westerns all deserve to be watched and fairly assessed, preferably by someone who appreciates the genre and won't so easily write off a non-classic Western as "trite," "routine," or some of the other meaningless descriptions I come across in the short Western reviews in Maltin's book. These terse reviews seem to be done with close to zero effort by someone who didn't care and watched the films because he or she had to.

Like Blake I want to reiterate my admiration for Mr. Maltin, who's probably forgotten more about movies than I've ever known -- it's been a thrill to meet him a couple of times. Today's publishing market being what it is, I tend to doubt these reviews will be revisited and revised like some of his other early reviews, but I think the constructive criticism is worth putting out there, especially in case it happens to cause those relying on the book to be more willing to watch and judge a Western for themselves.

Best wishes,

2:35 PM  
Blogger john k said...

So nice that there are some Jock Mahoney fans out there. I really want to see SLIM CARTER so bad.Its the only one of his six Universal Westerns that I have not seen although,I understand its more of a modern-day Western.
As far as getting acknowledged is concerned even Boetticher had to wait for time to sort things out. In the early Sixties the British Film Institute ran a season of films by "one shot" directors;i.e. directors who had only made one film or only one film of note. Budd was somehow included in this group for THE RISE AND FALL OF LEGS DIAMOND. It took a brilliant young writer ( and later scriptwriter) called Chris Wicking to start bringing attention to Budds work and the ball has never stopped rolling since.To be fair the French were already ahead of the game and pretty much took Budd seriously from SEVEN MEN FROM NOW onwards.Of course Budd is virtually canonized
by the BFI these days.
Actually a friend who works for the BFI makes me turn fifty shades of green with his tales of his USA trips and his meetings with George Montgomery,John Russell and Jock Mahoney.He was lucky enough to spend quality time with the latter two and said they were all really warm and friendly.
Actually concerning Randolph Scott one of his most overlooked Westerns was MAN IN THE SADDLE..what a wonderful cast.

3:35 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Love hearing about your friend's interactions with John Russell and Jock Mahoney, John, that's wonderful to hear. I have a real soft spot for John Russell and LAWMAN.

Speaking of John Russell, it's been a number of years now since I last saw MAN IN THE SADDLE. I enjoyed it yet just found it sort of so-so -- I'd like to circle back to that one now and watch it in a new context, having seen so many other Scott movies in the meantime.

Just recorded a Gene Autry movie from Encore Westerns today -- with Jock Mahoney roughly 6th billed. Should be fun to check it out.

Best wishes,

10:39 PM  
Blogger john k said...

John Russell told my friend a most interesting story which I have told on-line before on Toby's blog but I will repeat it here because its a good one. Russell made three films with Clint Eastwood: THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES,HONKYTONK MAN and PALE RIDER.
Russell told my friend that he was somewhat peeved that a considerable part that he had in HONKYTONK MAN largely ended up on the cutting room floor. He can be seen scowling at a bar but that's it. In the cut material Russell ends up in a brawl with Eastwood. The suits at Warners however demanded the scene ( and Russells role) be removed from the film because: (Russells words) "we cannot have Clint Eastwood beating up an old man." Russell did however state that Eastwood was the total professional. It would be so cool if Russell's part in the film was restored for a future DVD release.
I found some very adult themes in MAN IN THE SADDLE. Why has Joan Leslie rejected tall handsome Randolph Scott for the certainly less fanciable Alexander Knox. Well it transpires that Leslie's character came from a very humble background. Knox is the ruthless king pin of the territory. They have an "arrangement" Leslie will be the perfect "trophy wife" but Knox will be denied any physical element to their relationship. On their honeymoon night Knox thinks surely Leslie will relent just once but she is adamant. Leslie goes to her bedroom alone and Knox is left brooding with a bottle of booze. Understandably Knox then starts a range war and that's just the start. Brooding in the shadows is John Russell who fancies Ellen Drew who in turn fancies Scott. All I can say is that MAN IN THE SADDLE is a powerful,complex film. Do hope you give this one another look Laura would love to hear your take on it and Colin's too if he is out there.

6:43 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

That's a great John Russell story, John!

I will definitely give MAN IN THE SADDLE another look. I have a nice VHS tape of it. My memories of the movie are very vague, and I have a feeling I may get more out of it on the next go-round. Thanks for the encouragement to revisit it!

Best wishes,

9:40 PM  
Blogger Raquel Stecher said...

Sorry to hear about your frustration with Maltin's book and the movies you are watching. I have to take most of those things with a grain of salt. A lot of movies I enjoy aren't considered high quality cinema but they work perfectly for me.

Nice review! Glad you are enjoying Westerns.

6:47 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

This has definitely been "the year of the Western" for me, Raquel! Have been enjoying a "deep dive" into Westerns, from the B's of the '30s and '40s to a variety of Western films of the '50s.

Like you I take the ratings with a grain of salt, it just makes me sad to see such a pattern and think the ratings might possibly turn others off of trying such enjoyable entertainment. The last four Westerns I watched were evenly divided between 1-1/2 stars and 2-1/2 stars in Maltin's book, and, if you ask me (grin), all were underrated.

Thanks so much for stopping by!

Best wishes,

1:44 PM  
Blogger Vienna said...

Have seen it at last and enjoyed it. As you say, George Montgomery is thoroughly likeable . Couldn't ever see him as a villain.
Canyon River has a decent,if straight forward ( as you said) plot and and a good cast.

10:10 AM  

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