Monday, June 24, 2013

Classic Movie Pirates A to Z

Aargh, maties! We're back with a new A to Z list and this time, the subject is those men--and women--who sail the seas beneath the jolly roger flag. Don't look for any of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies in this list. Our focus is strictly classic cinema.

Jean Peters means business!
A - Anne of the Indies. Jean Peters played Anne Providence, a female pirate, who falls for the charms of Louis Jourdan (who turns out to be married to Debra Paget!). Blackbeard appears as Anne's mentor; the story was inspired by the life of pirate Anne Bonny.

B - The Black Pirate. Douglas Fairbanks starred in this lively 1926 adventure about a young man seeking vengeance against the pirates responsible for his father's death. It was shot in two-strip Technicolor.

C - Captain Blood. There have been several films based on Rafael Sabatini's best-selling pirate yarn and its sequels. The best, of course, is 1935's Captain Blood, in which a then-unknown named Errol Flynn took over the lead role when Robert Donat turned it down. By the way, Sean Flynn--Errol's son--starred in The Son of Captain Blood.

D - The Devil-Ship Pirates. This is one of three pirate films made in the 1960s by Hammer Films (better known for their Dracula and Frankenstein series). Both Devil-Ship Pirates and Pirates of Blood River take place primarily on land! The former film is the better of the two with Christopher Lee as a nasty pirate captain. (For the record, Peter Cushing was a retired pirate in Hammer's Captain Clegg.)

Flynn looking dashing in
The Sea Hawk.
E - Errol Flynn. He played a pirate in Captain Blood, a privateer (i.e., a pirate for the Queen) in The Sea Hawk, and posed as a pirate in Against All Flags.

F - Frenchman's Creek. Joan Fontaine starred in this 1944 adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's novel about an aristocratic woman who falls in love with a French pirate.

G - Ghosts in Blackbeard's Ghost. Long before Pirates of the Caribbean, ghostly pirates haunted the screen in movies like Blackbeard's Ghost. It starred Peter Ustinov as a curmudgeonly pirate anxious to be reunited with his ghost ship.

Disney's colorful Hook.
H - Captain Hook. Peter Pan's archnemesis was delightfully voiced by Hans Conried in Disney's animated Peter Pan. My favorite Hook, though, was the one played by Cyril Ritchard in the Broadway musical (adapted for TV) with Mary Martin as Peter.

I - The Ice Pirates. Robert Ulrich and Mary Crosby teamed for this futuristic yarn about buccaneers searching for treasure--in the form of water! It's the best we could do for "I."

J - Jamaica. This Caribbean country serves as home base for many real-life and movie pirates, notably Captain Blood, The Black Swan, and A High Wind in Jamaica.

K - Captain Kidd. Some historians think William Kidd was more of a privateer than a pirate--though he was found guilty of piracy and hanged. Charles Laughton played him twice on films, in Captain Kidd (1945) and Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd (1952).

L - The Lost Continent. Hammer Films' third pirate picture is a wacky, entertaining fantasy-adventure with a modern-day tramp steamer going off course and docking near an island populated by the descendants of Conquistadors and buccaneers.

M - Moonfleet. The distinction between pirates and smugglers can be a bit blurry at times and this 1955 adaptation of the classic children's novel is a perfect example. Since the film involves the legend of someone named Blackbeard--even though he wasn't the Blackbeard--I'm counting it as a pirate movie!

N - Naughty Marietta. Jeanette MacDonald flees to New Orleans to avoid an arranged marriage, but her ship is captured by pirates. Never fear. Nelson Eddy is there rescue her and, yes, there is much singing!

Maureen looking pensive for
a pirate.
O - Maureen O'Hara. Was there a better a female pirate than Maureen in Against All Flags? You agree? I thought so!

P - The Pirate. Yes, there several possible picks for "P", so we'll stick with the obvious and go with this Gene Kelly-Judy Garland musical. Quick now, who played the real (retired) pirate?

Q - Anthony Quinn.  He, Errol, and Robert Newton may have played more pirates than any other actors. Quinn's pirate pics include: The Black SwanA High Wind in Jamaica, and Against All Flags.

R - Raiders of the Seven Seas. John Payne played the real-life Barbarossa in this fictional tale in which he falls in love with Spanish countess Donna Reed. (Apparently, that thing about shipboard romances applies to pirate ships as well.)

S - The Sea Hawk. Well, Errol Flynn is technically a privateer working for the Queen in this loose adaptation of Rafael Sabatini's novel. Still, it's Errol on a ship, plundering other ships--close enough to a pirate for me!

Newton in his most famous role.
T - Treasure Island. There have been numerous film versions of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novel, but the best remembered is probably the Disney version with a wild-eyed Robert Newton as Long John Silver. Newton reprised the role in a non-Disney sequel called Long John Silver and in a short-lived TV series.

U - Undercover Agents. Surprisingly, there have been several movies about undercover agents posing as buccaneers in order to infiltrate a pirate stronghold. Examples include Against All Flags, Yankee Buccaneer, and The King's Pirate (with Doug McClure in the Errol Flynn role!).

V - Captain Vallo from The Crimson Pirate. You knew the most acrobatic of all pirates--played by Burt Lancaster--would be on this list somewhere!

W - The Walrus, Captain Flint's ship in various film versions of Treasure Island. Typically, we only hear about Flint's ship since that notorious pirate is dead at the start of the story...and his treasure is buried.

X - is the "X" formed by crossbones beneath the skull on the Jolly Roger flag.

Jeff Chandler prior to posing
as a pirate.
Y - Yankee Buccaneer.  Jeff Chandler plays a Naval lieutenant who goes undercover to nab some pirates in this 1952 adventure. Two years later, in Yankee Pasha, Jeff would have to rescue his love (Rhonda Fleming) when pirates kidnap her and sell her to a sultan. (Yes, Yellowbeard would work for "Y", but it's just not very good.)

Z - Zaca. Yes, we are really stretching it by listing the name of Errol Flynn's real-life yacht. But Errol played several pirates--so we can legally make connection from pirate movies to Flynn to Zaca.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Happy 60th Birthday to "The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T"

Dr. T instructs his "favorite" pupil on the mega-piano.
Dismissed by critics and filmgoers in 1953, the wonderfully weird 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T has evolved into a classic fantasy favored by fervid fans. It also holds a special place in cinema history as the only film written by Dr. Seuss expressly for the screen (he penned the original story and co-wrote the screenplay). While some of his literary works boast mischievous characters (e.g., The Cat in the Hat), none of them compares to the delightful, dastardly villain of Dr. T-- a piano teacher who imprisons 500 children and forces them to play a giant piano ad nauseum.

August the plumber and Bart hatch a scheme.
Much of The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is presented as the dream of Bart Collins (Tommy Rettig), a young boy forced by his widowed mother to take piano lessons from the overbearing Dr. Terwilliker. In his dream--which comprises most of the movie--Bart transforms Terwilliker into the evil Dr. T, who has hypnotized Bart's mother and plans to marry her! The young boy enlists the aid of plumber August Zabladowski (Peter Lind Hayes) and sets out to thwart Dr. T's despicable plans. Oh, did I mention that The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is a musical?

Dr. T looking very royal!
As in many of Dr. Seuss's children's books, the presentation matters more than the plot. Dr. T's nightmarish castle--which favors a purple, blue, and green color scheme--includes a giant harp, a hooded elevator operator that looks like an executioner, a pair of rollerskating twins who share the same beard, and, of course, that gigantic piano. Rudolph Sternad's colorful, expressionistic sets can be best described as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari meets The Wizard of Oz. His work should have received an Academy Award nomination. Still, it was recognized where it mattered most--Sternad collaborated with producer Stanley Kramer on 21 films, including classics such as High Noon, Inherit the Wind, and The Defiant Ones.

The elevator operator, Bart, and August.
The only Oscar nomination received by The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T was for the music score by Friedrich Hollaender and Morris Stoloff. Dr. Seuss wrote the lyrics for the songs, with the most famous one being The Dungeon Song which was sung by the aforementioned hooded elevator operator. He describes each floor of Dr. T's castle in the song, but seemingly omits the third floor. That's because those lyrics were considered too horrific and were later edited out of the film. However, so you can judge for yourself, here they are:

Third floor dungeon:
Household appliances,
Spike beds, electric chairs,
Gas chambers, roasting pots,
And scalping devices.

Hans Conried as Dr. T.
Yet, despite the stylish sets and memorable songs, the success of The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T hinges on its villain, who must be threatening and fun. No one could play the role better than Hans Conried, a well-regarded stage actor whose distinctive voice breathed life into Captain Hook in Disney's Peter Pan and Snideley Whiplash on the "Dudley Do-Right" cartoons in The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. Conried, who had a long, successful career in film and television, was also a member of The Mercury Theatre, the famous repertory stage company founded by Orson Welles and John Houseman. For many television viewers, though, Conried is best remembered as Uncle Tonoose on several episodes of Danny Thomas' Make Room for Daddy.

Ted Geisel and the Grinch.
Although The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is widely regarded as a fantasy classic today, it was a huge box office flop when originally released. It was panned by critics, too, though not everyone was unkind (Variety called it "sometimes fascinating, more often fantastic"). The harshest critic, though, was Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. In their book Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel: A Biography, Judith and Neil Morgan wrote: 

But for years, Ted grew grim at any mention of the film, and declined to list it in his official Random House biography. He called the making of The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T the greatest "down period" of his career. "As to who was most responsible for this debaculous fiasco, I will have nothing more to say until all the participants have passed away, including myself." 

While no one can deny Dr. Seuss's talent as a children's author, film criticism apparently wasn't his forte. The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T has exhibited an enduring appeal over the last 60 years. It has never achieved the mainstream success of Oz or Disney's fantasies, but its quirky look, delightfully odd songs, and the marvelous Hans Conried have made it a film to be treasured by children of all ages--even adults.

Monday, June 17, 2013

We Describe the Spy Movie (in 3 Words or Less)...You Name It!

Surely, I'm involved with this quiz!
For this quiz, we've shorted the movie descriptions to three words or less. Your mission--should you decide to accept it--is to name the films. Each answer is a spy flick made prior to 1970. A few of them are easy, but  three of them are pretty difficult. Please include the question number with your answer and limit your responses to no more than three--so other people can play, too. Good luck!

The phone in #4.
1. Bowler hat.

2. Rusted nail.

3. Chocolate.

4. Distinctive phone ring.

5. Wine.

The "bed-slide" in #7.
6. Oven.

7. Bed-slide into bubbles.

8. Code name "L".

9. Anti-gravity device.

10. Volcano.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Duke and Dino Re-team for "The Sons of Katie Elder"

John Wayne had recently recovered
from lung cancer.
Katie Elder lived modestly in the frontier town of Clearwater. Her alcoholic, gambling husband lost their ranch in a poker game and was fatally shot (in the back) that same night. She made dresses and gave guitar lessons to earn the money to send the youngest of her four sons to college. Katie only owned two dresses herself--one for the winter and one for the summer. She never heard from her sons, but told the town's residents that they sent her money on a regular basis. She counted her oldest sons' letters among her most prized possessions and read them frequently--though he had stopped writing new ones long ago. She even prepaid for her funeral.

Michael Anderson, Jr. replaced
Tommy Kirk after a scandal involving
the latter.
All of this is news to her sons, who arrive in Clearwater at the beginning of The Sons of Katie Elder to bury their mother. We learn that the eldest son, John (John Wayne) left home ten years earlier and eventually became a gunfighter (the sheriff notes: "John Elder isn't wanted for anything...around here"). Matt Elder (Dean Martin) is a con man and gambler. Youngest son Bud (Michael Anderson, Jr.) doesn't want to return to college. And Matt Elder (Earl Holloway), well, he just seems to be wasting his life away. In short, the Elder boys are not a very sympathetic lot.

Instead of going their separate ways again after the funeral, the brothers decide to look into their father's murder. Though they can't find any witnesses nor evidence, they become suspicious of Morgan Hastings, a gun-maker who now owns the old Elder ranch. The town's mortician confides to John: "Hastings' bent on taking over the whole county." As the audience, we already know Hastings is bad--he has hired a gunfighter (George Kennedy) to dispose of John. It quickly becomes apparent that The Sons of Katie Elder is heading steadily toward a major showdown.

John Elder watches the funeral.
While Sergio Leone was reinventing the Western in Europe in the mid-1960s, American filmmakers like Henry Hathaway were churning out solid, traditional Westerns like this one. There are effective moments in the opening scenes of Katie Elder, such as John watching his mother's funeral in the distance, knowing his presence would only cause disruption. Hathaway frames his celluloid images like a painter, with colorful mountains often adding visual majesty to the backgrounds. There are some potentially rich themes in The Sons of Katie Elder, too, principally that tragedy can reinvigorate the bonds of family. After spending time with his brothers, John apparently wants the camaraderie to continue and proposes they join together to deliver a herd of horses. It's not a long-term solution toward reuniting the family, but it's a start.

Anthony Mann explored the importance of family masterfully in his adult Westerns of the 1950s. One wonders how Mann would have handled this material with a different cast (e.g., imagine an embittered James Stewart as John!). But The Sons of Katie Elder has no intentions of being a "serious Western." Yes, there are killings, but the bickering brothers also brawl playfully whether carousing in Mom's cabin or throwing each other in a river. And when it turns somewhat serious toward the end, the film jettisons its "importance of  family" theme in favor of two lengthy shootout scenes.

Dean co-starred with the Duke twice.
One can't fault the cast, which certainly appears game. However, it's unfortunate that Katie Elder re-teams  John Wayne and Dean Martin--simply because it recalls their earlier pairing in Howard Hawks' superior 1959 Western Rio Bravo. My recommendation is that you block out that movie and just accept The Sons of Katie Elder for what it is: a well-made, likable, but disposable Western that missed the opportunity to be more.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Classic Movies About Amnesia

Garbo ponders her identity.
A plot device staple, despite its unlikely real-life occurrence, amnesia has shown no favoritism toward any particular genre nor sex. Screen legend Greta Garbo made it fashionable for women to forget their identities in 1932's As You Desire Me, thus inspiring other actresses to ponder “Who am I?”  A sample roster spans five decades and includes Jennifer Jones (Love Letters), Ava Gardner (Singapore), Karen Valentine (Jane Doe), and Lindsay Wagner (Stranger in My Bed).  

Peck and Ingrid Bergman in Spellbound.
Males have proven to be equally forgetful, especially William Powell and Gregory Peck, both of whom suffered two bouts of amnesia (Powell in I Love You Again and Crossroads, Peck in Spellbound and Mirage). Greer Garson, who dealt with Ronald Colman's loss of memory in Random Harvest (1942), experienced it herself earlier in Remember? (1939). In an unusual plot twist, she and Robert Taylor played a bickering couple who take a potion that causes amnesia and then wind up falling in love again. Amnesia has also separated lovers in high-class soap operas like Random Harvest, Love Letters, and Singapore.

A confused Garner in Mister Buddwing.
It's hard to remember many amnesiac comedies, although Desperately Seeking Susan and The Road to Hong Kong spring to mind with little difficulty. The most interesting amnesiac plots have appeared in mysteries and espionage thrillers. Gregory Peck played the new head of an asylum who turns out to be an impostor with amnesia in Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945). Warner Baxter's The Crime Doctor was a sleuthing psychologist, who had been a master criminal before being reformed by amnesia. Unethical psychiatrist Tony Perkins tried to manipulate amnesiac killer Charles Bronson into murdering his wife's lover in the 1971 thriller Someone Behind the Door. James Garner, unable to remember his name, saw a Budweiser truck and an airplane and decided to call himself Mister Buddwing (1966). It was certainly one of the more commercial films of its time.

The article was reprinted with the authors' permission from the Encyclopedia of Films Themes, Settings and Series.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Coop's a Quaker and Hayley Buries Dead Animals

Gary Cooper and Dorothy Maguire.
Friendly Persuasion (1956). This pleasant, heartfelt tale of Quaker life in southern Indiana during the Civil War lacks the drama that went into bringing the film to the screen. Jessamyn West's 1945 novel was comprised of short stories published in various magazines beginning in 1940. William Wyler acquired the rights in 1948, but the project languished for several years. It didn't help that the House Committee on Un-American Activities proclaimed screenwriter Michael Wilson to be an "unfriendly witness." Despite winning an Oscar for co-writing A Place in the Sun in 1952, Wilson was blacklisted in Hollywood. When Wyler finally produced Wilson's adaptation of Friendly Persuasion, the credits did not list a screenwriter (in 1996, the opening credits were updated to include Wilson). As for Wyler, he intended to shoot the film on location in Indiana, but the budget spiraled out of control, forcing him to finish it in California (some outdoor scenes were clearly filmed in a studio).

Anthony Perkins.
Gary Cooper stars as the patriarch of the Birdwell family, although the film focuses on his oldest son Josh (Anthony Perkins) and daughter Mattie (Phyllis Love). Mattie has fallen in love with a Union officer and Josh can't decide whether to fight alongside his friends in the war or whether to remain faithful to his Quaker beliefs. It's a leisurely, episodic movie that doesn't build to a strong climax, but there are effective scenes along the way (e.g., when Mrs. Birdwell, played by Dorothy Maguire, deals with the Confederate soldiers). Cooper, then in his mid-50s, had doubts about playing a father--and a pacifist one at that. Just five years earlier, he starred as a strong-willed sheriff with a 23-year-old Grace Kelly as his bride in High Noon. Still, Cooper anchors Friendly Persuasion and provides the film with some much-needed humor, some of it centered around the elder Birdwell's desire to beat a neighbor in a weekly "unofficial" buggy race.

The surprisingly plush Birdwell home.
Friendly Persuasion won an Oscar for Best Sound and earned other nominations for Best Picture, director, supporting actor (Perkins), song, and--incredibly--screenplay (though the nomination was for the script and not the writer because Wilson was blacklisted). Pat Boone crooned the title song, written by Dimitri Tiomkin and Paul Francis Webster, which went to #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

Sky West and Crooked (aka Gypsy Girl) (1965).  At the age of 19, Hayley Mills had pretty much wrapped up her highly-successful career as Walt Disney's biggest child star. She could still play teenagers, but adult roles were just around the corner. During this period in the mid-60s, she made several "transition" films such asThe Chalk Garden and The Truth About Spring--both personal favorites. She also starred in the unusual Sky West and Crooked, a Mills family project directed by Hayley's father, acclaimed actor John Mills, and co-written by her mother, Mary Hayley Bell.
Ian McShane as Roibin, the gypsy.
Set in rural England, Sky West and Crooked casts Hayley as Brydie White, a seventeen-year-old girl who has mentally blocked out a childhood tragedy. Her widowed, alcoholic mother possesses no parenting skills--leaving Brydie to fend for herself. The townsfolk think the girl is a bit daft (I surmised that was the meaning of the film's title). The local vicar and a coffin-maker's family treat her kindly and she has become the unofficial leader of the village children. Indeed, when Brydie buries her two dead hamsters in the church cemetery (she forgot to provide them with water), the other children follow suit. Soon, the children are scouring the countryside for dead animals to bury in the cemetery--much to the dismay of their parents. Brydie's life is further complicated by the arrival of a handsome gypsy lad (Ian McShane).

An animal's grave.
Sky West and Crooked is an obvious attempt to duplicate the success of the superior Whistle Down the Wind, a 1961 classic starring Hayley and based on a novel by her mother. Both films feature rural settings, uninvolved parents, and a group of children led by Hayley. They also explore religious themes: in Whistle Down the Wind, the children believe an escaped convict is Jesus; in Sky West, the coffin-maker's children launch into an unexpected discussion about souls during afternoon tea with their parents.

The entire cast is convincing, with acting honors going to Hayley, Geoffrey Bayldon as the vicar, and Ian McShane as Hayley's love interest. While Sky West and Crooked certainly doesn't rank with Hayley's best films, it's still an interesting--if slowly-paced--tale about the need for love and the challenges of becoming an adult.

Monday, June 3, 2013

James Drury Chats with the Café about "The Virginian," Sam Peckinpah, and "The Yank"

Television Western icon James Drury starred as The Virginian on NBC from 1962-71. The 90-minute series aired 249 episodes, making it one of television's most enduring Westerns. The series continues to air today and attract new fans. Mr. Drury, who was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, graciously agreed to sit down for a chat at the Café.

Café:  Prior to The Virginian, you appeared in Ride the High Country (1962), directed by Sam Peckinpah and starring Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea (who once played The Virginian in a movie). What was it like working with that group?

James Drury:  It was a wonderful experience. Working with two such prominent and well-known actors as Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea was a great honor and privilege for me. And of course, Sam Peckinpah, who went on to direct The Wild Bunch and many other great movies, was just starting out in his career. I guess he’d done some movies before that, but this was his first major studio-backed movie. It was made at MGM, which at that time was a big, big studio. Everything involved in the film was first-class. Sam Peckinpah had a vision about a movie he was directing that he always kept at the forefront of his mind. We were never really told about the whole vision, but we trusted him because he was so easy to understand and easy to communicate with. He gave us all sterling direction and it turned out to be a classic film. It’s shown at least once a week somewhere on television and I’m always proud to hear about it. I was very delighted to get that role.  That role, I think, partly influenced my selection as an actor to play The Virginian.

Mariette Harley and James Drury in Ride the High Country.
Café:  Before being offered the lead in The Virginian, you made a pilot for a 30-minute Western series called The Yank. What would have been the premise of that show?

Nick Adams as The Rebel.
James Drury:  The Yank was a story of a man who had been a medical doctor before the Civil War. He had left his medical career behind and had gone to war with the Northern army as an artillery captain. The show takes place in a decimated South. Most of the Southern doctors had been killed in the war. There were only a few of them left. The lead character took to heart the words of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural speech when he said: “We must bind up the nation’s wounds." The Yank went to the South and offered his services as a doctor; the show would have consisted of stories of his adventures in the South. It was a spinoff of a very popular series with Nick Adams called The Rebel. Andrew Fenady was the producer of both shows and he wrote a wonderful script. At that time, the networks were going to one-hour shows and they were abandoning the half-hour Western format. Since we were a half-hour pilot, we weren’t picked up. It was a heartbreak to me when it didn’t sell, but if it had sold, I probably wouldn't have had the opportunity to play The Virginian. So, everything worked out for the best.

Café:  During the nine-year-run of The Virginian, your ranch foreman worked for Judge Garth (Lee J. Cobb), Morgan Starr (John Dehner), John Grainger (Charles Bickford), Clay Grainger (John McIntire), and Colonel MacKenzie (Stewart Granger). Who was your favorite owner of the Shiloh?

The Shiloh's first owner in the opening credits.
James Drury:  All those lead characters played the owner of the ranch at various times in the nine-year run and I enjoyed working with all of them. They all brought something different and unique to the roles. And, of course, Lee J. Cobb was the catalyst that got us started off as a series. Because of Lee J. Cobb’s name being immensely important, we were able to start a ninety-minute series with continuing characters, which had never been done on television before without even making a pilot. We went right into production because Lee J. Cobb was associated with the project. It was a success from the very first show. Lee was wonderful in the role of Judge Henry Garth--but he didn't like the series. He stayed for three years and then opted out. We missed him a lot, but John Dehner came along. He had another take on the ranch owner. He was very strong and very wonderful and I liked him a lot. Then, we came to John Grainger, played by Charles Bickford. He had been a big, big star in motion pictures, a very knowledgeable and wise actor. I learned a great deal from him, things that I use everyday. John McIntire, who played Clay Grainger, was, of course, a monumentally gifted actor. He and his wife, Jeanette Nolan, usually worked together; they did so in The Virginian as man and wife. They brought another important dynamic to the show. Then, we came to Colonel MacKenzie (Stewart Granger) in the last year. I really had very little to do with him. I think we were in one or two shows together; most of the time he was off doing another episode. Of them all, I couldn't pick a favorite and I wouldn't pick a favorite. They were all valuable in their own way.

Café:  The Virginian's name was never mentioned in Owen Wister's novel, but that must have created occasional challenges for the TV series' script writers. Was there ever any discussion about revealing the Virginian's name?

James Drury:  No, there wasn't because we were maintaining the framework of The Virginian novel (The Virginian, Horseman of the Plains, written by Owen Wister in 1902) as much as we could. Now, we changed everything else, but we didn't change the fact that the original author did not give the Virginian a name. I believe he did that as a very sound dramatic device, because the Virginian was a mysterious character. When he came into a room and people whispered behind the back of their hand, "There’s the Virginian over there," it gave him an aura of  mystery that you couldn't achieve in any other way. That gives the character a mysterious potential. There is no other character that I know of in Western fiction that has had that characteristic. If you notice, the Virginian has been influential in so many of the Western films that were made; in fact virtually all of them. Where did we get The Man with No Name? Where did we get the title to The Redheaded Stranger? Where did we get the title to all the great Westerns that were made, The Searchers and The Plainsman, The Magnificent Seven and The Professionals? All these movies had main characters that either obscured their name or did not give a name. That harkens right back to the original book published in 1902--a great dramatic device. I enjoyed playing the role.

Café:  A lot of regular cast members came and went over The Virginian's long run, with you and Doug McClure being the only constants. Who were some of your favorite fellow regulars?

Roberta Shore as Betsy.
James Drury:  Gary Clarke and Roberta Shore started with the show and then Randy Boone and Clu Gulager came in and they all brought a unique perspective to their characters and to the series. They were all my favorites. We changed and Diane Roter came in and then Sara Lane and Don Quine came in. They all did a marvelous job in what they were assigned to do. L. Q. Jones played several guest star roles and then he came on as a regular character, Belden in the bunkhouse. He was a great source of humor and pride. I was really happy he was there because he had been one of my brothers in Ride the High Country.  Also, John Anderson, who was my older brother in Ride the High Country, played several guest star roles. I just enjoyed working with all of them. I love them all.

Café:  Given the current TV landscape, it's hard to fathom the making of a 90-minute TV series with 30 episodes a season.  That's like a movie a week. What was the filming schedule like?

James Drury and Doug McClure.
James Drury:  The majority of The Virginian episodes were shot in eight days. When we started out, they took about ten days. They decided they couldn't afford that much time because we aired the episodes every five days (excluding weekends). To keep up with the airing schedule, we had to run multiple units--as many as four or five different episodes filming at the same time. I would ride my horse or take the studio limousine back and forth between the sets to do my two line piece in one episode, ten pages of dialogue in another episode, do a cattle drive in another episode, a wild horse drive in another, and then a gunfight and a robbery in yet another episode. I had to keep everything straight and it was absolutely no problem and a joy to do. I would do it all over again tomorrow. It was a horrendous amount of time. I usually got to the studio about 6 AM and usually got out of there around 9 or 10 PM. And then I had to learn my lines for the next day, if I had any time at all. But, I have several gifts that helped me with that, the most important of which is my photographic memory for dialogue. I can’t remember my phone number half the time, but I can remember dialogue from plays I did forty years ago that I’d rather forget.

Café:  During season 9, The Virginian was restructured as The Men from Shiloh with a format in which you, Doug McClure, Stewart Granger, and Lee Majors rotated starring in episodes. What did you think of the changes?

L.Q. Jones and Drury (with long sideburns)
in The Men from Shiloh.
James Drury:  At the time, it seemed like a good idea. Everybody liked it, everybody endorsed it. I went along with it and thought it would be a good thing to give the show a new look. We all got new costumes and longer sideburns. I got a 7 ½ inch barrel Colt instead of a 5 ½ inch barrel Colt and a new horse. It all seemed bright and new as a new penny. But the American audience was looking for The Virginian in the ninth season and they couldn't find it on their TV. They never heard of Men from Shiloh and we went off the air. So, that just goes to show you, as the cowboy said when he jumped into the prickly pear bush: “It seemed like a good idea at the time”.

Café:  You've stayed busy after The Virginian, appearing in films and television series, providing the voice talent for audio books, and appearing at classic TV and Western conventions. Are there any upcoming events or projects that you'd like to share with our readers?

James Drury (photo from his FB page).
James Drury:  All my personal appearances are listed on my website: I have a schedule of personal appearances that I keep nearly every year. We’re going to the Memphis Film Festival in Tunica, MS (June 13-15, 2013), Cowboy Up for Veterans Horse Show in Swanton, OH (July 20-21, 2013), and Western Legends Round Up in Kanab, UT (August 22-24, 2013). This year, I'll attend some new festivals: Spirit of the Cowboy at Chestnut Square in McKinney, TX (October 11-13, 2013) and Weird West Fest in Giddings, TX (December 7, 2013). There will probably be other event requests as the year progresses. We try to go everywhere that is reasonable to get to and where the event organizers are able to come up with my requirements. I would like to be working in motion pictures every day of my life. At the age of 79, there don't seem to be too many inquiries in that direction. So, I do what I can and hope for the best. That’s about all we can do any day of our life.

In addition to his website, you can learn more about James Drury at the following Facebook pages: