by Dean Brandum
I have recently been finding the time to enjoy the Budd Boetticher box set released on R1 by Columbia last year. For some inexplicable reason no mention is made on the cover of the star of the five films contained – the legendary Randolph Scott. In any case the set is splendid. The prints are excellent and the supplementary materials are thoughtful.
I have long been a Scott fan, having enjoyed many Saturday afternoons as a kid sitting with my dad in front of the box watching the actor go about his business in his assured, unfussy way. Even at that young age I could recognise that there occurred a marked change in Scott’s acting and characterisation as he aged, no longer was he the cheerful hero of his earlier films, instead (like his physical features) he took on a leaner, leathery and harder look and his characters followed suit. It was this persona that was to be found in the cycle of seven films he made with Budd Boetticher.
Although we are an forum for open ideas here at Filmbunnies, I think it is outside this blog’s paracinema parameters to spend a great deal of time talking about the westerns of Randolph Scott. For that matter there is little more I could add to the seminal work of Jim Kitses in Horizons West, along with a number of other fine scholars who have nailed this actor-director partnership in print. Might I also mention our friend Livius over at Riding the High Country – http://filmjournal.net/livius/category/actors/randolph-scott/ – who has done a sterling job in covering the films of the Scott-Boetticher boxset.
However, one aspect of the series that has not been given the coverage it deserves is the assertion that these were ‘B-films’. Nowadays the term ‘B-Movie’ is tossed about with such thoughtless abandon that it has become commonplace to apply the description to any piece of cinema that is based on low culture material (Tarantino, comic book adaptations), is low budget (the Saw series) or is just plain ‘bad’ (Battlefield Earth). The term has basically lost all meaning. In its truest industrial sense, B-films were introduced in the years of the Great Depression as an addition to the bill so that audiences would be provided with a full night’s entertainment for the cost of a ticket. All the major studios had B-units which would churn out a vast quantity of such entertainments to accompany their more expensive A-features. Rarely running more than 75 minutes (and occasionally as few as 50 minutes) these films were almost always of a specific genre and often used as a training ground for young talent (and often as a last stop for those on the way down the star scale). Independent producers also got in on the B-film act with the Poverty Row likes of Monogram and Republic specialising in such product. Unlike A-features that would share a percentage of box-office receipts, B-films were sold at a flat rate, so distributors knew exactly how much money they could make. Once they had sold a certain number of playdates they had a floor ensuring a profit, but they also had a ceiling which would limit that revenue. This should all be common knowledge to any self-respecting film buff, as should the fact that B-films fell out of favour in the mid 1950s as audiences preferred to stay at home to watch television; if Hollywood were to lure them out of the house it was not going to be with low budget B-films, instead it had to be for something they could not get at home.
Here is where previous smaller studios came into their own. Columbia and Universal had always been seen as the poor cousins of the majors, with little in the way of theatre holdings and rarely spending much on their product. As the other majors were in mass panic over having to divest their theatre holdings (as per the 1948 ‘Paramount decree’) and were investing in big budget spectaculars and the poverty row production houses were closing shop, Columbia and Universal (and to an extent, Warner Brothers) stepped in the breach by offering a selection of mid-budget features starring performers with a pleasing marquee value. These were ‘programmers’ or ‘intermediates’ (sometimes referred to as A- or B+ pictures) that would paired with a similar feature, either of which could play the top of the bill, depending on which market the engagement was to screen.
Here’s where Randolph steps in. Up until the late 1940s Scott had been a reliable but minor A-star drifting through most of the majors and although prominently in western garb he had been in everything from Shirley Temple vehicles to supporting Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. From 1948 Scott worked in westerns exclusively and although he still provided his services as a performer only, he also appeared in a number of films in which he also co-produced with Harry Joe Brown (firstly through the company ‘Producers-Actors’ then ‘Ranown’). These films were distributed through either Columbia or Warner Brothers and often packaged with another of that studio’s features, although, in the case of the Columbia films, they could be picked up by any major who wanted a quality co-feature to partner one of their own mid-budget features on a quality double-bill.
To watch the Scott-Boetticher westerns on pristine DVD prints has been a fine privilege, but via such a medium they have been removed from their original context. For these films almost never played as solitary features. If one lived in certain markets – say, Kansas or even here in Melbourne – a Scott film would usually receive top billing and given a prominent release. For other, generally urban centres, the Scott fan would have to wait, sometimes many months, for an appropriate slot for the latest Randy western to appear. In either case the films only existed to be screened as half of a night’s entertainment and although they can be watched individually today, for viewers lucky enough to see them on first release, the Scott westerns (like any co-features of that time) would be mired in the memory with whatever film shared that bill.
The Scott westerns of the mid-late 50s featured their star as a loner, often embittered, who in trying to go about his business as unobtrusively as possible, is unwillingly thrown together with a a disparate group of villains, damsels and fools. By maintaining his calm and by adhering to his own personal code of decency, the Scott character will see the fools and cowards gunned down, will outwit his flashier adversaries and do the decent thing for the women he finds himself accompanying.
Scott once made a western called Riding Shotgun and for much of his later career he spent his time riding shotgun for a slew of studio product that needed a quality hand to guide it through the dangerous plains of showcase release. Poor Scott. Although he almost always was the star of the better film on the bill, when it came to urban market he was forced to support a number of unsuitable main features. Let’s take a look at his time in New York in the late 1950s and into the early 60s.
A homicidal child.
A newlywed couple – one a shrill American and the other a taciturn Italian. (apologies about the poor reproduction)
A hip-swivelling warbler with a dubious thesping talent.
An ill-matched pair for a romantic comedy.
Look closely at the top of this ad for the film playing at the Met – The Robert Taylor starrer Saddle the Wind (1958) had Scott’s Decision at Sundown as its support. When the MGM film went wide a week later, Scott took well-earned rest and the fine Anthony Mann feature The Tall Target, on re-release, took Scott’s place on the bottom of the bill.
A gurning clown.The re-release of a hand-drawn wicked stepmother.
A swashbuckling fop.
Yul and Kay? There’s a comedy match made in heaven.
Dubbed Italian musclemen.
Pity the poor Scott fan having to purchase tickets to this dispiriting (other than The Bad Seed) lot in order to catch their favourite star’s ltest feature. But if they were anything like the actor they would have gritted their teeth and got on with it. No fuss, no concern, satisfied with their lot and getting their companions through a week in New York. That was Scott – the rest have mostly fallen by the wayside, whereas the great western star now has a boxset of DVDs available for viewing.
As Scott says at the end of The Tall T – “Come on now, it’s gonna be a nice day”.