ROBERT OSBORNE 1932 – 2017

Such sad news to hear of the death of TCM host , ROBERT OSBORNE.

Robert Osborne was the face of Turner Classic Movies from 1994, introducing screenings and interviewing many stars.

He had such a warm and friendly style,  and was so knowledgeable about classic Hollywood. He will be very much missed, just as the 2017 TCM Festival is due to start.

 

Robert kept track of the history of the Oscars in his book which was continually updated.

 

THE LOST CITY OF CECIL B. DEMILLE

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It happened nearly 100 years ago. It could only be a Hollywood fable that happened to be true.

In 1982 a friend of young independent film maker, Peter Brosnan pointed out to him an enigmatic paragraph  in the autobiography of director Cecil B. DeMille . It said,

If  1000 years from now archaeologists happen to dig beneath the sands of Guadalupe, I hope they will not rush into print with the amazing news that Egyptian civilisation extended all the way to the Pacific coast.”

Cecil B. DeMille had filmed his first version of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS in 1923. The location shooting was done on the sand dunes near the small town of Guadalupe CA. The 22,000 acres of dunes provided an approximation of the Egyptian desert, with no roads or other signs of modern civilisation.

 

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DeMille didn’t do anything on a small scale. He hired Paul Iribe ( who was called the father of Art Deco ) to design one of the last great sets of the silent era – a Great Wall, a dozen sphinxes, lions and 4 giant statues of the Pharaoh Ramses. Plus several hundred chariots.

 

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Artifacts  were made in Los Angeles and transported over 100 miles to the dunes.

A great tent city sprung up to house the thousands of actors and construction workers .

 

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The Ten Commandments was  the largest and most ambitious silent film ever made. Despite the enormous cost, it became the biggest box office success of the time. The parting of the Red Sea is still considered a triumph. Just look at the sizes of the Pharaoh’s statues. They look so real!

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Cecil B DeMille

 

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The sand dunes on the Pacific Coast

 

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Construction of the great city wall gets under way. The stones are in place to take the sphinxes . One is already in place (top left). Hundreds of construction workers can be seen .

 

 

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Showing the scale of the Sphinx heads. All plaster board and hollow.

 

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The question Peter Brosnan asked himself was, where in the many miles of the dunes, was the filming done.Ground penetrating radar was used.  An archaeologist came on board and they found remnants which were obviously from the set. Brosnan began a journey in 1982 that would take him until 2016 to finish his  film documentary.

So what did happen to this extraordinarily expensive film site back in 1923. Well, I guess it was decided that it wasn’t worth while bringing anything back to Hollywood. I’ve read that DeMille was contracted to dismantle everything and leave the dunes as they were. It’s also said that if he had left the huge statues and great wall in place, other filmmakers would have been tempted to use them for other movies.

The decision was taken to dynamite and bulldoze everything into large trenches. Wind, rain and the sand likely buried a lot of it under the dunes. The buried film set lay undisturbed for 60 years until Peter Brosnan started his project.

Ironically, the minerals in the fine grain sand helped preserve the plaster of the statues.

 

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Problems were always about funding and permits. The dunes were an environmental area and nobody was much interested in digging up what might remain of DeMille’s mighty sets. But Brosnan wouldn’t give up. His documentary has interviews from the 1980s with people who lived in Guadalupe in 1923, and with one of the film’s stars, Leatrice Joy. Also interviewed were DeMille’s granddaughter, Cecilia DeMille Presley and his niece, Agnes DeMille. And Jesse Lasky Jr, whose father lost confidence on the ever expanding costs of the film and tried to close it down. (DeMille raised funding to continue).

Finally in 2010, a lady from Texas, Francesca Judge Silva, provide the funding necessary to do further research at the site and complete the documentary.

I saw the documentary at the 2017  Glasgow Film Festival which executive producer Francesca Silva attended and answered questions after the screening.

 

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Other artifacts found at the dig included bottles of ‘cough syrup’, (probably alcohol, as this was during prohibition.), and a canister which contained some color film. (Some scenes in the film were in color.)

 

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Pride of place in the Dunes Center (www.dunescenter.org)  in Guadalupe is a plaster head of one of the sphinxes. The center has raised money for more digs. The location  is now an official State of California registered archaeological site. No artefact can be removed without permission. The body of a sphinx has been found and removed from the site. Hopefully, it will be on display too.

 

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Not mentioned in the documentary is the fate of two of the giant sphinxes which wound up at the Santa Maria County Club in 1923.  The picture above is from 1932. Sadly, they are gone now.

Peter Brosnan has said, “We don’t see this as a fake Egypt  – we see it as real cinema history.”

This a great documentary  and I hope it gets a dvd release. This is a fascinating piece of  Hollywood history. The Washington Times called it “the stuff of Hollywood legends.”

 

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KING OF JAZZ (1930)

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Highlight for me of the 2017 Glasgow Film Festival was the beautifully restored 1930 Universal revue, KING OF JAZZ. Only the second movie to be filmed entirely in (two-strip) Technicolor.(The first being Warners 1929 ON WITH THE SHOW.)

This is the  film that introduced the film going public to BING CROSBY and to the most famous band leader of the time, PAUL WHITEMAN.

 

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Paul Whiteman in front of the giant scrapbook which was used to introduce each section if the film. The book was 20  feet high and was designed by Wynn Holcomb.

The scrapbook and Master of Ceremonies Charles Irwin were the connecting threads for the  revue.

 

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A giant piano with the orchestra on top.

Paul Whiteman insisted on pre-recording all the songs and music.He felt that a Sound Stage didn’t offer the acoustic control of a recording studio.

The usual approach in the early days of sound was to film musical numbers live in performance , with cameras in soundproof booths and microphones on the orchestra and stage. Plus an engineer mixing the sound during the performance.

For King Of Jazz, all the music and songs were pre-recorded on 35mm film in November and December of. 1929.

Playing the recorded music through loudspeakers on the sound stage  allowed  JOHN MURRAY ANDERSON  to direct action like a silent film director.

The sound and syncronisation are perfect for such an early sound film.

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Three technicians show the scale of the prop piano.

 

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The Rhythm Boys, Harry Barris, Bing Crosby, Al Rinker.

Bing Crosby’s first film appearance.  The Rhythm Boys  were Whiteman’s vocal trio. After the film, they left Whiteman and briefly joined the Gus Arnheim orchestra in Los Angeles, but they disbanded soon after. Bing stayed in Hollywood and became a Paramount star. Universal had had him in their grasp and let him go.

Universal also didn’t hold on to the film’s director John Murray Anderson. KING OF JAZZ was his first and only film. He was known for his ambitious Broadway shows and many of the musical numbers and performers in the film originated in his stage productions.

Technicolor cinematographer,RAY RENNAHAN ,praised Anderson –

“From the film point  of view, he knew nothing about it, but he could explain  what he wanted….”

John Murray Anderson

John Murray Anderson

Cameraman Jerry  Ash had  been a magician. Anderson asked him to make a list of  trick photography he’d like to try.

Ash staged the intro to the “Meet The Boys” number ( Whiteman introducing his band members)).

Whiteman enters the scene carrying a small valise. He places it on a miniature bandstand and watches as the band members come out of the valise. There is then  a dissolve into a full size set. It’s very well done.

 

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The spectacular sets were designed by HERMAN ROSSE who won an Oscar for his work on the film. He designed a moving bandstand which separated in the middle and he used motifs from classical literature.It’s fascinating to see sketches for the bandstand in the book about the film ( see below), and how faithfully the studio  technicians brought it to life.

 

 

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Dancer JACQUES CARTIER ‘playing ‘ the clarinet solo at the start of ‘Rhapsody in Blue.’

Two strip Technicolor was basically red and green colours.  Not a lot of blue. A technical advisor suggested that the Rhapsody was an emotion, not a colour!

 

Jacques Cartier

Jacques Cartier

 

 

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Jeanette Loff  and Stanley Smith

‘A Bench in the Park’ which was reminiscent of the later Busby Berkeley ‘Pettin’ in the park’ number.

 

 

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The Sisters ‘G’ (Eleanor and Karla Gutchrlein)  , from Germany, were stars of continental revues.They had previously worked for the film’s director, John Murray Anderson.

 

John Boles

John Boles

‘The Song of the Dawn’ was sung by JOHN BOLES, a Universal player.

John’s first talkie was The Desert Song.

Bing Crosby was slated for this song but he was involved in a drink-drive incident and Whiteman gave the number to John Boles.

 

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Amazing dance scene during ‘Rhapsody in Blue’.  The voodoo dancer is actually a white Englishman, Jacques Cartier. He had perfected this kind of dance in Broadway revues. He dances on an enormous African drum and his shadow is projected on a background screen. Very dramatic.

Not a single black performer appeared in the movie.

 

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It Happened In Monterey

 

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When the film premiered at the Roxy Theatre ( capacity 6,000)  in New York in May 1930, the Whiteman orchestra and George Gershwin appeared in a 40 minute stage show 5 times a day for the first week! Wow.

Released at the same time as Universal’ s ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT,  King of Jazz was not nearly as popular with audiences. ‘All Quiet ‘ went on to make a good profit for the studio whilst King Of Jazz lost nearly a million dollars. (Hollywood insiders dubbed it Universal’s ‘Rhapsody in Red’.)

One critic said of Junior Laemmle,

“Thanks to ALL QUIET, his vision has saved Universal, for it is doubtful it would have survived without the success of this picture.”

Seeing a pristine print today, with all its glamour and huge production numbers, you wonder why it didn’t attract larger success.

From what I’ve read, audiences back then much preferred films to have a plot they could follow, with characters moving the story forward. For a revue, they expected big Hollywood names.

The stars of King of Jazz were the skilled performers that John  Murray Anderson brought from New York.

All the big studios ,with the advent of sound , had rushed out musicals, using their roster of stars  in a series of revues – MGM’s Broadway Melody of 1929; Paramount had Paramount On Parade ( which opened a week after King of  Jazz); Warner Brothers had Show Of Shows.

MGM’s big guns included Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Buster Keaton, Marion Davies.

Warners had Myrna Loy, Noah Beery, John Barrymore,Loretta Young, Richard Barthemless. ( but no Al Jolson).

Paramount not only brought out their big stars like Maurice Chevalier,Kay Franics,Gary Cooper,Clara Bow, but also a slew of directors like Ernst Lubitsch, Dorothy Arzner,Edmund Goulding.

Trouble is Universal  didn’t have much of a roster. They gambled on the name of Paul Whiteman, the most well known band leader of the 1920s, to sell the film. Whiteman signed a contract in October 1928 which guaranteed him 40% of net profits, with a guaranteed $200,000.

Filming was to start in February 1929. In fact it didn’t start till November and lasted 4 months. (Most production  schedules took 5 to 6 weeks.) The budget for the film was one of the biggest ever in Hollywood (2 million dollars),   even without a lot of star names.

In November, Laemmle laid off 70 % of regular employees  ie everyone not working on the two big films, King of Jazz and All Quiet on the Western Front. Universal were taking a huge gamble on just two films.

The 1929 Stock Crash didn’t help business either.

 

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Publicity shot  of the Markert dancers on the giant piano.

The Markert Dancers were from the Roxy Theatre in New YorK. In 1932,they moved to the new Radio City Music Hall and became The Rockettes.  Their precision dancing was skilfully choreographed by RUSSELL MARKERT.

 

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Pianist Roy Bargy was the soloist on ‘Rhapsody in Blue.’ He looked so like Gershwin, some reviewers said it was Gershwin at the piano. (Even though Bargy’s name was prominently displayed on screen.)

Why didn’t George Gershwin do it? The perfect opportunity to get him on film  playing his famous composition.

Gershwin  did insist on a $50,000 payment just for the use of his ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, and he also wasn’t happy with the  proposed orchestration for the number.

Sad that he didn’t feel the need to be recorded on film playing his famous composition with the orchestra he had first performed it with in 1924.

 

The Laemmles and Paul Whiteman

The Laemmles and Paul Whiteman

Carl Laemmle  Sr. had started Universal in 1912. . In 1929 he made his 21 year old son, Carl Jr. (1908 – 1974) head of all production at Universal City.

‘Junior’ ( as he became known) may not have been up there with young Irving Thalberg ( who had also worked at Universal) ,but he did oversee King Of Jazz and All Quiet On the Western Front (which was in production at the same time.) Laemmle Sr.gave  full credit to his son for purchasing the rights to All Quiet and choosing its director.

‘Junior’  would later bring Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy to the screen. He also produced BACK STREET and IMITATION OF LIFE. He championed director JAMES WHALE and was working on SHOW BOAT  when Laemmle Sr. lost control of the studio.His final production, MY MAN GODFREY  started shooting  during Junior’s final week at the studio.

I really knew nothing about Carl Laemmle’s son until reading about King of Jazz. He had stepped down as head of production in 1934 and formed  his own production company at Universal.

He never produced another film after Show Boat  in 1936.  I would love to know more about him. Maybe not ‘a boy genius’ like Thalberg,  but worthy of some attention for the 6 years he ran Universal.

 

Paul Whiteman, Carl Laemmle Jr.

Paul Whiteman, Carl Laemmle Jr.

 

Carl Laemmle, Carl Laemmle Jr.

Carl Laemmle, Carl Laemmle Jr.

 

 

Bing Crosby

Once Bing became a star, he was featured prominently on any publicity .

 

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Carl Laemmle Jr made at least 9 foreign versions , with a different Master of Ceremonies (Charles Irwin in the English version.)

Bela Lugosi did the Hungarian intros. Nils  Asther did the Swedish  version.

The movie was more popular abroad than in the States.

The studio tried to recoup some of the costs by reissuing the film in 1933, but they reduced the film’s length to 65 minutes. Some exhibitors advertised it as starring Bing Crosby. Others featured John  Boles who had been successful in  BACK STREET. By 1933, Whiteman was no longer the star attraction. ( The public are fickle!)

A profit of $100,000 was made.

The next Universal musical wasn’t for two years – MOONLIGHT AND PRETZELS.

John Murray Anderson went back to the stage. He featured ESTHER WILLIAMS in one of his aquacades and later on he staged the spectacular finale of Esther’s first feature, BATHING BEAUTY.

Paul Whiteman was active in radio and live performances throughout the 1930s.

 

 

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A perfect accompaniment to seeing the film is the 2016 book by James Layton and David Pierce. It tells you everything you need to know about the making of the film and is full of terrific illustrations.

David Pierce is the co-founder of the Media History Digital Library which provides online an excellent selection of motion picture magazines ,free to view.

 

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The story of how King  Of Jazz   came to be made is in itself a great insight into the early days of sound pictures and how this one picture reached our screens.

I’ve only covered some of what’s in this film. Being  a revue, there are sketches ( some funny, some  dated), eccentric dancing , an animated cartoon ( first one in color), ‘The Stars and Stripes forever ‘ played on a bicycle pump)!  I loved all of it!

Congratulations  are due to Universal for restoring this fascinating film, and to James Layton and  David Pierce for their excellent history of the film.

Now, let’s have the DVD soonest!

And my thanks to the Glasgow Film Theatre for screening it.

 

Some thoughts on LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN 1945

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CRAZY WOMAN

The French title for LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN  may not be as good but it does tell you in two words that GENE TIERNEY’s ‘Ellen’ is far from normal.

Seeing the beautifully restored print at the Glasgow Film Festival was such a treat. As I looked around me at the almost full cinema, I wondered how many were seeing it for the first time.

Imagine my surprise then when , 20 minutes into the film, my feeling was that it was slow moving. It’s supposed to be noir but so far it’s more like a romantic melodrama.

 

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The first gorgeous set in the film. Ellen (Gene Tierney) meets Richard (Cornel Wilde) whom she thinks looks very like her recently deceased father. She is engaged to lawyer Vincent Price but immediately breaks it off with him.

The two characters who could have been better written – Ellen’s mother,Mrs. Berent (Mary Philips) and Ellen’s adopted sister Ruth (Jeanne Crain). Their history with Ellen is only hinted at.

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Mary Philips, Gene Tierney

 

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Jeanne Crain

They both seem to have reached an accommodation regarding Ellen which amounts to never arguing with her. Ruth obviously accepts that she will always be in the beautiful Ellen’s shadow.

Ellen’s  obsessively close relationship with her late father appears to have caused a rift in the family relationships.

Ruth tells Richard that she was adopted as a child partly because Mrs. Berent felt excluded by Ellen and her father.

 

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Ellen is a manipulator. All that matters is what she wants. Other people’s feelings don’t concern her.  Richard is mesmorised and she knows it.

Gene Tierney’s husband, Oleg Cassini, designed some beautiful costumes for her.

 

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Richard is a writer. Ellen resents even the time he spends at the typewriter.

 

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Richard’s brother Danny (Darryl Hickman) has polio.

 

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One of the best scenes in the film. Ellen tries to convince  Danny’s doctor to tell  Richard  that Danny needs to stay in the hospital. She says “After all he is a cripple.”

As she is talking and the doctor is growing more horrified at her lack of empathy, Richard walks in and without a breath, she immediately changes – “Darling, wonderful news.. .” She says she has persuaded the doctor to let them take Danny home with them.

The doctor (Reed Hadley) is so bemused, he says nothing.

Ellen knows how to act ‘normal’, but sometimes the mask slips and the real Ellen is revealed eg telling an astonished  Ruth  she doesn’t want the baby; or when Richard invites Ellen’s mother and Ruth to their lodge. Ellen simply cannot conceal the fact that she doesn’t want to see them. They are an intrusion in her private world with Richard.

A very weak comment from Mrs. Berent about her daughter, “There’s nothing wrong with Ellen. She just loves too much.”

I think we can agree Ellen is a lot more complex!

 

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Now this is noir . Black and white photo of that moment when Ellen’s profoundly disturbed mind sends her crashing down the stairs in order to abort the baby she is carrying.

She only had one thing on her mind. To make herself beautiful again to Richard  The thought that she might do herself serious injury or even kill herself doesn’t seem to occur to her.

 

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Poor Vincent Price. What a one-note performance. Not his fault. The character was poorly written.

The court scene near the end of the film could have been so much better. As one IMDB reviewer said, “Wilde opens his mouth and the case disappears.”

It is so highly improbable that Richard relating what Ellen had told him before she died ( admitting killing Danny and their unborn child) would be accepted without any evidence.

And Richard’s prison sentence didn’t make any sense.

 

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Ellen after the fall down the stairs. It’s as if it never happened. She had her figure back, she’s beautiful again. Her husband is mourning the loss of their child but she hasn’t the capacity to appreciate other people’s feelings, even her husband’s.

 

Of course the famous lake scene in Leave Her To Heaven is unforgettable. Ellen lets her young brother in law die simply because he is in the way. She cannot share Richard with anyone.

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I was impressed by Mary Philips who played Ellen’s mother. I hadnt realised that Mary Philips was married to Humphrey Bogart from 1928 to 1938. She was a stage actress who only made about 20 films.

I’d love  to have seen Dana Andrews reunited with Gene Tierney. Cornel Wilde just didn’t seem up to the part of the husband.

I felt a bit for Jeanne Crain. This really was a supporting role and her character of Ruth isn’t very interesting. She is just too good in contrast to the complicated Ellen.  You wanted either Ruth  or her mother to stand up to Ellen  for once,  but it never happened.

The restored film is a stunning technicolor feast for the eyes – beautiful sets, locations ,clothes.  The Alfred Newman score fits perfectly. Director John M. Stahl ( Back Street, Imitation of Life) has made a highly charged  melodrama. Film Noir? I don’t think so.

(Anyone want to argue?!)

The Tierney character is undoubtedly noir, but the rest of the film isn’t. It reminded me of the 1950s  Douglas Sirk films like Written on the Wind.

Of Gene Tierney’s top roles, I still prefer LAURA !

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I wish I could have asked some of the first time viewers at the screening what they thought of the film. We were so lucky to see such a beautiful print.

 

 

 

ARIZONA BUSHWHACKERS 1968

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The second last of the A.C.Lyles westerns of the 1960s. Missing from the usual stock company were  Lon Chaney and Richard Arlen.

I was surprised to see Howard Keel in the lead. ( Howard played the lead in three of the Lyles westerns.)

Set near the end of the Civil War, Keel plays an ex- confederate soldier who comes to town to take over as Sheriff. As usual, the mayor (Brian Donlevy) wants law and order. Barton MacLane is the crooked sheriff who allows saloon owner Scott  Brady to run the town as he wants.

James Craig works for Brady.

John  Ireland is MacLane ‘s honest, one -armed deputy. He’s in love with shop owner Yvonne de Carlo.

Marilyn Maxwell has a small role as a saloon gal.

The plot involves two of the main characters identified as southern spies. But I lost interest. If you study the film’s poster above, it reveals too much!

Roy Rogers Jr. has one brief scene as a young man about to join the Union army. He did look like his father.

It was sad to see Brian Donlevy in only a couple of scenes. What a waste. Howard Keel didn’t seem a natural for non-musical westerns. His attempt at a southern accent was poor.

It was interesting to hear James Cagney doing the voiceover at the start of the film. He describes the situation whereby Confederate soldiers in military prisons could enlist in the Union army. They wouldnt be asked to fight in the South, but to settle and patrol the west, including bringing order to lawless towns. 

Arizona Bushwhackers was filmed back to back with the Lyles last western BUCKSKIN.

I still enjoy seeing all the familiar faces but I guess they were running out of ideas.

 

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Yvonne de Carlo, John Ireland

 

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Marilyn Maxwell, Howard Keel.

 

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Scott  Brady, John Ireland,Barton MacLane ,Brian Donlevy.