Monday, March 15, 2021

Lemmon and Ford: Life as a Cowboy Through the Eyes of a Tenderfoot

Jack Lemmon and Glenn Ford.
The incredibly versatile Delmer Daves directed three of my favorite Westerns from the 1950s, a decade in which the genre flourished. Each film is decidedly different from the other. The Hanging Tree (1959) is a tale about self-forgiveness and the power of love. 3:10 to Yuma shows how a family-oriented rancher and a bitter outlaw can develop respect for one another. The third film--the one we're reviewing today--is another tale of mutual respect. However, Cowboy is also a gritty, colorful portrait of life on the trail in the Old West.

Lemmon as a hotel clerk.
Frank Harris (Jack Lemmon) is a clerk at a posh Chicago hotel who has fallen in love with Maria, the daughter of a wealthy Mexican rancher. Maria's father dismisses Frank's marriage proposal and decides his family will return home to Guadalupe. Frank is heartbroken, but finds a glimmer of hope when cattleman Tom Reese (Glenn Ford) checks into the hotel. Reese knows Maria's father and discusses buying cattle from him. Frank seizes on a plan: If he can convince Reese to hire him as a cowhand on the trail, perhaps Frank can still pursue Maria.

Reese has no interest in taking a tenderfoot on a cattle drive. However, when he loses a large amount of money in a poker game, Frank offers to reimburse Reese's losses. There is one condition: Reese and Frank will become partners on the next cattle drive. Reese, who has been drinking too much, agrees and he wins back most of his money. When he tries to pay off Frank, the latter refuses the cash and insists on joining the cattle drive.

It's a grueling journey in which the two men learn a lot about each other. Frank becomes tougher and more realistic, while the hardened Reese becomes more compassionate about his fellow man.

Lemmon as a cowboy.
Made in 1958, Cowboy was based on the 1930 novel My Reminiscences as a Cowboy by Frank Harris. John Huston originally secured the rights as a vehicle for his father and himself. In the early 1950s, there were plans to adapt it for the screen with Spencer Tracy as Reese and Montgomery Clift as Frank. However, when those plans eventually fell through, Delmer Daves expressed interest in making it with Glenn Ford as Reese. Ford agreed on the condition that Jack Lemmon to be cast as Frank.

According to Peter Ford's biography Glenn Ford: A Life, Lemmon was initially hesitant because of his inexperience with riding a horse. Glenn Ford invited him to cocktails and, during a long evening of drinking, convinced Lemmon to accept the role. Lemmon spent the entire first day of filming on horseback and was so sore that three stuntmen had to lift him down from the saddle. In Peter Ford's book, he recalled: "I had to wear a Kotex every day for two months while I was on that friggin' horse. I was never off the damn thing long enough for (the wounds) to heal."

Richard Jaeckel and Ford.
As a film about Frank's experiences, Cowboy is understandingly episodic. Each subplot is designed to show Frank's evolution from tenderfoot to full-fledged cowboy. He watches a stupid campfire prank result in the death of one of his colleagues (Strother Martin). His rendezvous with Maria ends badly. He watches Reese and the other hands turn their back on a friend (Dick York) who's in trouble. In short, it's not an easy trek for Frank Harris, but one which does indeed toughen and transform him. Reese undergoes a transformation, too, even if it's a far more subtle one.

The two stars are fabulous together, with Ford at his gritty best and Lemmon at his most appealing in one of his first serious film roles. The latter makes it heartbreaking to watch Frank lose his initial joy as his perceptions are shattered one by one by the reality of the dusty trail. My only complaint is that Cowboy does them a disservice by rushing to its conclusion. After the script works hard to drive a wedge between the two men, it throws them into a dangerous situation and suddenly they bond together as the film ends.

Jack Lemmon never made another Western. Delmer Daves directed the excellent The Hanging Tree before transitioning to big screen soap operas. Glenn Ford, though, continued to forge a solid career in the genre, appearing in movies like Cimarron (1960), The Rounders (1965), and Day of the Evil Gun (1968).


  1. How clever of Glenn Ford to know that Jack Lemmon was the right actor to play Frank. I'm glad things worked out as they did in movieland. I agree that the rushed ending takes a little of the glow off of the movie, but I appreciate all its strong points on repeat viewings.

  2. Delmer Daves made some excellent westerns in the '50s. I wanted to mention another, Broken Arrow, which took a quite nuanced view of Indian-white relations for when it was released in 1950.

  3. I've had Cowboy on my to-watch list for years but never got around to seeing it. For some reason I thought it was semi-comedy ( perhaps because of Lemmon being in it ). The Spencer Tracy/Montgomery Clift pairing sounded good but who can go wrong with Glenn Ford? Great review, Rick! I'm excited to watch it now.

  4. Thanks for this review. I've never even heard of "Cowboy", but I know it will become a fave.