Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Not much dough in rodeo

Where in the world is this place???

Hints - 
It's not located in Norway, Denmark or Sweden.
It's not Solvang, California.
Monte Clark, former head coach of the 49er's and Lions, was born here.
Well-known, legendary character actor, Louis Burton Lindley Jr., was also born here.

What?... Who is Louis Burton Lindley Jr.? Oh boy, here we go again...

Hints -
He was inducted into the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame for his work as a rodeo clown.
He was partnered up with singing cowboy, Rex Allen, in several of his earliest movie roles.
He's appeared in every blog post I've ever written.
He's worked with the likes of Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, Stanley Kubrick, Sam Peckinpah (6 times!), Otto Preminger, Jonathan Kaplan, Mel Brooks, Frank Perry, Irvin Kershner and Charles B. Pierce.

In 1919, 60 years before I would graduate from a small high school in the tiny San Joaquin valley town of Kingsburg, California, Louis Burton Lindley Jr. was born into this same "Swedish Village". Located in an agriculturally rich rural region, the career opportunities for young Louis were limited at the time to basically farming, ranching or other forms of agri-business. Despite being just a couple hundred miles in proximity to Hollywood, there were not too many show business jobs available outside of rodeo in the area. And despite Louis Burton Lindley Jr being told there were slim pickings to be made in rodeo, he joined up anyway at age 12, adopted the name Slim Pickens and a star was born.

Recently, I've been revisiting some of my favorite hometown hero's pictures and realized I'd seen very few of them pre-Strangelove. In an effort to remedy, I went on a sort of Slim-bender watching as many of the man's early movies as I could lay my eyes on. His first credited role came in a 1950 western with Errol Flynn called Rocky Mountain. But it was his next eleven movies where he gained fame as Rex Allen's sidekick, a character who by some amazing coincidence was also named Slim Pickens.

In order to talk about Slim, you have to start with Rex Allen aka The Arizona Cowboy. Allen was the last of the singing cowboys to be signed on by Republic Pictures. Like Slim, Allen was an entertainer and ex-rodeo star looking for an easier way to make a living. With matinee looks, a quiet Gary Cooper-ish style and mellifluous singing voice, he was a natural to follow in the footsteps of Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and the like. As with any singing cowboy, Allen needed a fun and loyal sidekick but had trouble early on finding one that fit the bill. Gordon Jones was solid in his first film, The Arizona Cowboy (1950), as the dimwitted I.Q. Barton, but was soon pulling duty as Roy Rogers sidekick, Splinters Mcgonagle. After utility man, Fuzzy Knight, and grown-up Our Gang star, Alfalfa Switzer, were tried in the next two films, Buddy Ebsen was drafted in Under Mexicali Stars (1950) and worked in five consecutive films with Allen. But Ebsen's characters never quite jelled and became progressively goofier and clunkier over the course of his run. In 1952, Republic did a little revamping and assigned regular Roy Rogers director William Witney to the Allen films. Witney, best known to modern day exploitation fans for Darktown Strutters (1975) was on the ground floor when Republic Pictures was formed in 1935 and became one of its most reliable directors of serials and programmers. Pickens was brought on board for Witney's first film, Colorado Sundown (1952) and stayed around for the next ten. In addition, Witney and Pickens would later work together in more serious, non-Allen related westerns like Santa Fe Passage (1955) and Stranger at My Door (1956). But it was the Arizona Cowboy movies that ultimately launched Slim.

Although known popularly as a folksy, comedic actor, a lot of Slim's early work was peppered with more serious roles. I was surprised to see he actually played the heavy, and quite effectively, on more than one occasion. Despite his very distinctive look, speech and style, he's quite believable regardless of the tone of character he's playing. Below are some of the best I viewed from his early career.

Fun Pickens
When I offhandedly mentioned to an acquaintance I'd been watching a lot of Slim Pickens' movies recently, a spontaneous smile broke out on his face. It's the same reaction I always have whenever I see Slim's credit show up at the start of a film. What better tribute to a man's memory could there be than a joyful reaction at the mere sight or mention of his name. It's the same feeling as getting an RSVP back from the guy who successfully wore the lampshade at your last party.

Colorado Sundown (1952)

Synopsis: Rancher Rex Allen accompanies his buddy Slim to a newly inherited timberland property. Complications ensue when fellow heirs attempt to con Slim and other land owners out of their property by claiming a bark beetle infestation of the surrounding woodlands.

In only his third film role, Pickens comes out of the gates like an experienced comedy bronc buster immediately establishing his character as a lovable, country-fried oaf who washes his face in a horse trough, bathes in a warsh-tub, eats raw eggs and their shells ("it's the best part"), carries a picture of his ma (who looks a lot like Slim), rides, ropes, fights and even helps out with the singing on occasion. It's a tour de force supporting performance and would have stolen the show if not for the outrageous script featuring the three timber business siblings who'll stop at nothing, including shooting a poodle, a maid and poisoning people, to get their way. Credit director William Witney in keeping this movie coherent while weaving all the seemingly disparate elements together. Imagine a script where someone gets shot and may die in one scene followed by a bouncy country song. But the crazy contrasts in story and character are a big part of the fun. Whereas previous entries in the Arizona Cowboy series were becoming quite predictable and slower in pace, there's no such problem here - this is one quick, crazy, enjoyable ride with Slim and Rex.
Score - 6.5/10

The Last Musketeer (1952)

Synopsis: The wealthy descendant of the town of Taskerville's founder controls all the water in the area and is attempting to force the locals out. Standing in his way is cattleman Rex Allen and water diviner Slim Pickens.

The first scene of Slim using his divining rod while being followed by his buckboard immediately elicits a smile. Whatever happened to divining rod comedy? It seems to have disappeared about the same time as getting-into and falling-out-of-the-hammock jokes. Anyway, Slim really gets to show off his rodeo clown skills and physical humor in addition to getting whizzed on by a lizard. Arthur Orloff wrote the strongest entries of the Rex Allen movies and he blends the humor, action and drama quite nicely here. In addition, the stars seem to have been given a lot of latitude in doing their own stunt work and the flaming buckboard finale may be the best action sequence of the series. The fact that Slim inadvertently saves the day and becomes his own fountain monument is a nice bonus.
Score - 6.75/10

South Pacific Trail (1952)

Synopsis: Rex and his crew get fired due to a dirty trick played on Slim by the ranch foreman who has plans of robbing a local train and wants them out of the way. Meanwhile, the hacienda owner must figure a way to stop his granddaughter from marrying a gold-digging actor.

Another good Arthur Orloff script in a movie that features Slim getting serenaded by Estelita Rodriguez of Rio Bravo fame, bad boy Roy Barcroft killing an entire trainload of people and some surprising pathos brought by Nestor Paiva's ranch owner character who would rather be out on the range with Rex, Slim and the boys than running his business. There's an unlikely coincidence in the story, and I doubt I'd easily forgive the guy who'd just fired me much less help him out, but this is an enjoyable one on every level with a wraparound joke involving Slim.
Score - 6.75/10

Good, Reliable Pickens
As much fun as his lighter roles are, I really enjoy seeing Slim in a non-comedic role. My favorite, as the banner on the blog suggests, is his Sheriff Baker character in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. Even though he's a skilled comedic actor, when Pickens plays smart, experienced and capable, he's still completely believable and somehow just as lovable.

Rocky Mountain (1950)

Synopsis: A small group of battle-hardened Confederate soldiers come out to California in an attempt to start a second front during the waning days of the Civil War. They get sidetracked, however, when they come to the aid of a stagecoach besieged by hostile Indians.

A logical assumption to make about Pickens' career arc would be that he learned his chops as the comic relief side kick in the Rex Allen films and then moved on to more serious roles. But Rocky Mountain defies that logic with Slim doing a fine job in an early dramatic role playing a surprisingly tough, competent and serious character. He no doubt benefited from working with very experienced, colorful actors in the ensemble like Guinn 'Big Boy' Williams and Chubby Johnson not to mention the legendary star of the film, Errol Flynn. The supporting ensemble is so strong in fact that they nearly upstage Flynn. The movie feels a bit too John Ford-ish at times with some of the more sentimental aspects, like the young rebel boy and his dog (who has his own music stings), threatening its more serious tone. However, the Confederates-out-west story was unique and the ending was surprisingly satisfying especially given the era it was made in. 
Score 7/10 

Santa Fe Passage (1955)

Synopsis - A disgraced trail scout and his tough sidekick are hired by the owner of a wagon train to escort them through hostile Kiowa country to Santa Fe.

A surprisingly good-looking, Republic picture shot in Trucolor and one of director William Witney's best efforts, Santa Fe Passage features Slim in a tough and serious sidekick role. Slim is just as likely to pull Payne's bacon out the fire as the reverse and his presence is established immediately at the start of the film as he rides down a Kiowa brave, rifle-butts him unconscious and then spits on him. Despite this un-PC opening, it's lead John Payne who becomes the unreasoning, bigoted one of the pair and pre-dates John Wayne's hate-filled character in The Searchers. The writing of the film by Lillie Hayward is superior for a Republic western with some great bits of dialogue as when Rod Cameron's character challenges Payne's with the line, "I was wondering if your nerves are as good as your eyes advertise them to be." Slim also gets a good line early on when he questions Payne's bravado with the Kiowa - "If they's gonna lift your scalp, I want to peek under it to see what you been usin' for brains." The film is surprisingly gritty as well, featuring a scene of a room full of scalping victims whimpering in pain, and later, one of the antagonists getting on the receiving end of a partial scalping delivered by Payne. The theme is laid on somewhat thick as Payne's character overcomes his unreasoning hatred a little too easily with help from Slim and The Domergue, but this is one of the rare Republic pictures that can go toe-to-toe with the big studio releases in terms of story, character, action and look.

Escort West (1958)

Synopsis: A former confederate officer traveling west with his young daughter runs afoul of both former yankee soldiers, hostile Indians and stranded civilians.

Slim has only a small supporting role in this one but he's in good company with Noah Beery Jr., Ken Curtis, Roy Barcroft and Harry Carey Jr. to name just a few of the guys in his calvary contingent. Like Rocky Mountain, the film features a rebel out west who comes to the aid of a lady. Like Sante Fe Passage, there is an escort mission involved. The film is not quite up to the standards of those two, however, due to some flat characters like Domergue's one-note harpy and some standard story-telling. The relationship between Mature's character and his daughter, played by Reba Waters, is good enough to carry the early part of the film and Slim gets to play one of the heroes again near the end. The CinemaScope is always a treat even though the film is shot in black and white.

Bad, Bad Pickens
When most people think of Slim, it's either as the lovable, Rooskie-hating, warhead-ridin' Major 'King' Kong in Dr. Strangelove or as Hedley Lamarr's hilariously evil henchman Taggart in Blazing Saddles. But Slim's bad guy characters were not always comical - not at all.

One-Eyed Jacks (1961)

Synopsis: After being cornered by Federales, an outlaw is abandoned by his partner but seeks revenge after his subsequent escape from prison.

With both Peckinpah and Kubrick attached to this film at various stages as writer and director respectively, it's no surprise to see Slim in it. He worked with Peckinpah more than Oates, Kristofferson or any other actor, and his role in Kubrick's film would become iconic. Ultimately though, this would turn into Brando's movie and despite the very questionable dismissal of both Peckinpah and Kubrick from the project, at least someone was smart enough to keep Slim on board. It didn't hurt to have Karl Malden or Ben Johnson around either. The strength of the film is, without a doubt, the acting by all involved with Slim playing a despicable deputy, Lon Dedrick, who winds up taunting Brando's character at one point (probably not a good idea). Dedrick is a selfish manipulator who has eyes for Brando's girl and takes the opportunity to pour gas on the smoldering fire that exists between the former outlaw friends played by Malden and Brando. It's a nice little turn in a dirtbag role that Slim plays without a hint of humor or irony and he sells it completely.
As for the film overall, it's a strong, excellently-acted western in an unusual Monterey seaside setting with a serviceable story and decent, if perfunctory, direction. It falls short of greatness due to the pat, studio ending and Brando's inability to keep it tight - the original first cut was reportedly five hours long. At well over two and forty minutes, the film is still surprisingly well-paced, but clearly, there's not enough story to fill out its bloated running time.

An Eye for an Eye (1966)

Synopsis: Two bounty hunters go after a bad, bad man.

Slim's evil character, Ike Slant, is immediately established post-credits as he rapes a woman, tells her to "shut up your damn cryin'", sets fire to the place, then shoots her and her baby! Clearly Slim has parted ways with Rex Allen. Unfortunately, Ike Slant doesn't get developed much further than that and is limited to a couple of showdowns with the protagonists and a scene with Strother Martin's patented weaselly guy. Robert Lansing and Patrick Wayne play the two bounty hunters that go after Ike and the story takes an interesting turn after their initial confrontation. Michael D. Moore, who spent most of his career as an A.D., directed the film and does a pretty good job with a limited budget. I particularly liked  the tone set by the opening credit sequence which features a slow pan of the Sierras with an acoustic guitar playing on the soundtrack accompanied by Muzzy Marcellino's whistling. My main problem with the film is the Shane-like family the two bounty hunters encounter who come complete with a precocious kid (played by Clint Howard of course). It really gives the story an unwanted syrupy quality and a predictability that belies that lonely-feeling credit sequence and harsh gritty opening with Slim. Overall, the movie felt much more like a pilot for a TV show, albeit one I would've watched, than something more cinematic.

Recommended Pickens
There's still a lot of Slim's movies I've yet to see, but below are the highest recommends.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Rancho Deluxe
Pat Garret & Billy the Kid
Blazing Saddles
Stagecoach (1966)
White Line Fever
Poor Pretty Eddie
The Ballad of Cable Hogue
Will Penny
Rough Night in Jericho