Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Tonight's Movie: Powder River (1953)

The 20th Century-Fox film POWDER RIVER is a colorful reworking of the Wyatt Earp story, starring Rory Calhoun.

Calhoun plays Chino Bull, a former marshal turned gold prospector, who returns to wearing a badge when his partner is killed. He patiently bides his time, waiting for the opportunity to bring in the man responsible for his friend's death.

While serving as marshal, Chino is sometimes aided by foe-turned-friend Dr. Mitch Hardin (Cameron Mitchell), a fast draw who suffers from a brain tumor. Mitch is having an affair with saloon owner Frenchie (Corinne Calvet).  Then Mitch's former fiancee Debbie (Penny Edwards) comes to town...

POWDER RIVER has a screenplay by Geoffrey Homes, who wrote the screenplay or story for many classic film noir and Western titles, including OUT OF THE PAST (1947), THE TALL TARGET (1951), and a little Western I admired quite a bit called ROUGHSHOD (1949).

The movie is strongest in the early going, particularly in some very well-written and performed action sequences which incorporate humor along with the gunplay. A scene where Chino's can of peaches is shot and he's sworn in as a temporary deputy in the midst of a gunfight is delightful, especially as at the time Chino has given up wearing a gun and handles the situation in an unorthodox fashion. These scenes actually made me think a bit of a much later favorite film, SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF! (1969), written by another great Western/noir writer, William Bowers.

The movie's energy begins to slow with the arrival of Debbie in town, which is just about the point that it becomes clear that the film is a loose redo of the earlier Fox films FRONTIER MARSHAL (1939) and MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946). The characters have been renamed and the situations are changed, but the basic outline is there until the story veers off the traditional course near movie's end.

I think the film would have been stronger if it had continued in a more original vein, as the familiar elements of the story were the least interesting. Anyone who's seen Nancy Kelly or Cathy Downs look lovingly around Doc's empty hotel room really doesn't need to see Penny Edwards do it again. It doesn't help that Edwards (TRAIL OF ROBIN HOOD) is a fairly pallid heroine whose character doesn't contribute much of interest. It's a bit hard to see why Chino is drawn to her, other than her china doll looks.

That comment aside, the supporting cast is terrific. This is one of those movies where the faces alone will make any Western fan happy. There's Robert J. Wilke riding up, playing, what else, a villain. There's Frank Ferguson as the loyal friend, and here comes gambler John Dehner to show Chino the wonders of canned food. By the time James Griffith walked into the hotel lobby I was in character actor heaven. Four of the very best actors from countless '50s Westerns.

Additionally, John Beradino is a card dealer, and actors such as Carl Betz, Mae Marsh, Robert Foulk, and Doodles Weaver can also be spotted in supporting and bit roles.

Rory Calhoun is a fine, confident Western lead and is one of the best things about the movie. His initial confrontation with Mitch is another of the film's very well-done early scenes. Calhoun and the filmmakers do a good job creating a character who uses brains instead of guns whenever possible, one of the film's more unusual and appealing aspects.

Cameron Mitchell does fairly well as Mitch in the early going, especially in the initial confrontation scene with Chino where they recognize one another as worthy adversaries and part friends. I did feel he could have brought more shading to the role; in the second half he becomes self-pitying, which isn't nearly as interesting as the fiery character of the opening scenes. Perhaps it's unfair of me, but I couldn't help comparing his performance here to his role as Uncle Buck on THE HIGH CHAPARRAL in the late '60s, where he created one of TV's most lively and indelible Western characters. Maybe any other part would seem a little too bland by comparison!

Corinne Calvet added some oomph to the film, in more ways than one, although her accent at a couple of points was almost too heavy to be easily understood. Her wardrobe was nicely done by Travilla, with a blue and green dress a particular standout.

The film was shot in Technicolor by Edward Cronjager; there's some lovely bright and sunny location work. (IMDb is silent on where the film was shot.) The movie was directed by Louis King, brother of Henry. It runs 78 minutes.

POWDER RIVER is available on DVD-R from the Fox Cinema Archives line. It's a very nice-looking DVD. It can be rented from ClassicFlix.

For more perspectives on this film, it's been previously reviewed by Toby at 50 Westerns From the 50s and Colin at Riding the High Country.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

That covers pretty much all the bases Laura. The Earp / Holliday story is a good one but, as you say, this particular take has been seen before, apart from the ending. Calvet is very good and adds a lot of sass to the whole thing. And Calhoun - well he just belonged in westerns, didn't he?

1:06 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks very much, Colin. It's been fun to compare notes. I certainly agree about Rory Calhoun, I am really enjoying getting to know his work in the genre. Like him a lot.

Best wishes,

11:30 PM  
Blogger Arlee Bird said...

I've wanted to see this film since I was a kid 60 years ago and still haven't. A publicity photo of the juggler Val Setz who appeared in the film hung on my parents walls since my childhood. Somewhere I still have that photo I think. My parents knew Setz and he had given them the sign publicity still from the film. I watched the juggling portions on the internet the other day--the movie is available on line so I guess I could watch it there.

Nice post on the film.

Arlee Bird
Tossing It Out

12:06 PM  

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