Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Baddest Man in Westerns was a Martian

Lee Marvin never hid behind hay bales to shoot Roy Rogers in the back. Lee Van Cleef never framed Rocky Lane for murder while attempting to start an Indian war. Jack Palance never put a burr under Slim Pickens' saddle in order to start a fight with Rex Allen and get them both fired so he would have no witnesses to his train robbery scheme. And none of these guys ever played an invading martian crime boss out to steal top secret rocket plans by taking over the body of an earth scientist. But the "King of the Badmen" did all those things and more. When talking about actors who wore the black hat, no one, and I mean no one, did more evil on screen than, Roy Barcroft. With a relish for playing the villain and a massive amount of roles (upwards of 150 films under his 10-year Republic contract alone!) Roy had both motive and opportunity to do a lot of damage to the good guys in his career. Amazingly, he didn't even begin acting until he was in his 30's, but once he got rolling, he became the workhorse villain in B-pictures and serials. And though his Lou Gehrig-like quantity and consistency of roles was impressive from the late 1930's through the 50's, it was the quality of his evilness that really impressed. Here are just a few of the hundreds of examples of his delicious villainy:

In the Red Ryder film, Stagecoach to Denver, Barcroft engineers a coach accident that not only kills two guys, but paralyzes a recently orphaned boy. He later kidnaps the orphan's aunt, who has come to take care of the boy, and substitutes one of his female gang members for her. By the way, all of this is just incidental to his master plan involving a land grab.

In an early Allen Lane vehicle, Trail of Kit Carson, Barcroft plays a kindly town doctor who is in cahoots with the local gunsmith to frame a guy for murder so they can steal his mine. In a scene with chilling undertones, Barcroft treats an injured character that he secretly wants out of the way.

In the Roy Rogers western, Eyes of Texas, Barcroft sicks a pack of wild dogs on a wealthy boy's home benefactor at the behest of his matronly boss so she can bring in a ringer to claim the estate and kick the orphaned boys out on the street. This is only the beginning of Barcroft's badness as he also abuses Trigger early on, ties Rogers to another horse that drags him around, and later, hides behind some hay bales and actually shoots Rogers!

In the Rex Allen singing cowboy opus, South Pacific Trail, Barcroft blows up a mountain while a passenger-laden train is traveling through it presumably killing everyone on board and then files a mining claim on the mountain so he can dig down and loot the buried train. (So far, this is my favorite of his dastardly deeds).

But it's not just his evil actions that makes Barcroft a standout, his varied characters often have other personal traits that distinguish them amongst the slew of western baddies. For example, in Bandits of Dark Canyon, Roy plays a peanut loving rogue who leaves a trail of shells wherever he wreaks havoc. In Oklahoma Badlands, he's a bit of a narcoleptic often napping before a big job. In The Bold Frontiersman, one of the darker Rocky Lane pictures, Barcroft plays saloon owner who guns down his victims while flipping a coin. While most villains in B-westerns were pretty one dimensional and utterly bland, Roy's characters usually had some quality that made them memorable. Additionally, what really elevated Barcroft from his contemporaries, was his absolute gleeful delight in playing the villain. Whether it was a high class criminal mastermind, the right hand henchman or just the town thug, it is very apparent Roy is enjoying twisting his mustache to no end. He truly relished the bad guy role in much the same way as someone like Vincent Price did.

Barcroft's best roles were done while under contract to Republic Pictures. In particular, the films scripted by Robert Creighton Williams and directed by R.G. Springsteen or Philip Ford (nephew of iconic western director John Ford) were standouts. Sheriff of Wichita from 1949 is arguably the best of the Rocky Lane films and a personal favorite that features a key role for Barcroft. An engaging mystery written by Williams and directed by Springsteen, the story begins with a jailbreak but ultimately winds up at an abandoned fort where a group of seemingly disparate people have come to meet an army Major who disappeared and was presumed dead at the same time a big payroll went missing. The group consists of the convict escapee, played by the future Lone Ranger himself, Clayton Moore, as well as some former soldiers who were in the Major's outfit including a haughty businessman played by the great, ever cranky, Gene Roth. Of course, Allan "Rocky" Lane is there as a lawman on the trail of the escaped convict and Eddy Waller co-stars again as Nugget Clark who is anything but the goofy sidekick in this installment of the series. Barcroft's role is an unusual one as well in that he is an outsider who is unrelated to the group, a notorious outlaw who has brought his gang to claim the missing payroll for himself. Once all the players show up at the fort, Barcroft has his gang surround it with orders to shoot anyone who comes out while he enters to discover the whereabouts of the payroll. The movie then becomes an atmospheric combination of siege, mystery and ghost story with a scene reveal that none other than Howard Hawks later boosted for El Dorado. As for Barcroft, he delivers one of his best lines ever when witnessing a fight between the Allan Lane and Gene Roth characters when he states "There's nothing I like better than a good, dirty fight."

Barcroft's own favorite roles in the Republic serials Manhunt of Mystery Island and The Purple Monster Strikes seem surprising given all the quality work he did in B-westerns, television and even some big budget pictures but clearly indicate the man had a sense of humor about himself and his work. In Manhunt of Mystery Island, Roy plays some kind of reincarnated pirate with a shapeshifting machine who doesn't seem to realize people in the 20th century don't run around in swashbuckling attire. He's an utterly ridiculous looking character but he plays it completely straight-faced which is part of the fun. He  dominates the very generic hero lead played by Richard Bailey not only in terms of on-screen presence but in the serial's promo poster as well. In another interesting twist, the female lead, played by "the queen of serials" Linda Stirling, has to keep coming to the hero's rescue repeatedly - something very unusual for 40's serials, but by my count, Stirling pulled Bailey's fat from the fire at a nearly three to one margin. It's a shame Stirling couldn't have outright been given the lead hero's role as she clearly has more presence than Bailey and would have made a good foil for Barcroft. As with most Republic serials, Manhunt of Mystery Island's strengths lay in its crazy fight scenes, cliffhanger endings but most of all in it's super villain/pirate Barcroft.
In The Purple Monster Strikes, Roy once again steals the show as a straight-faced, tights-wearing martian who has shapeshifting gas pellets that allow him to pose as the rocket scientist he has disposes of early on. He also imports some help from Mars in the later episodes in the form of Marcia (yes, Marcia the Martian) played by Clayton Moore's wife, Mary Moore. Again, this is played without a hint of humor though Barcroft did refer to himself off-camera as "The Jerk in Tights from Jackson Heights".  As entertainment, both serials are prone to the built-in repetitive weaknesses of the format especially the  shapeshifting scenes which are just the same scene played over and over again in each chapter. The real fun comes from the stuntmen's fight scenes where they throw everything, including themselves, at each other during the chaotic melees. And, of course, seeing Roy in his Martian or pirate outfits is rewarding all by itself.

Sheriff of Wichita 7.25/10
Manhunt on Mystery Island 5.5/10
The Purple Monster Strikes 5.75/10