View from the Cheap Seats

Oklahoma Cowboy Rides into the Sunset

March 26, 2013 - 1:47 pm   |   By 

A few weeks ago, the AP wire and even Entertainment Weekly made the simple announcement that Dale Robertson, age 89, had died in southern California.  And while the world had lost their western hero Jim Hardie and the state of Oklahoma, where he was born and would always remain faithful, had lost a favorite son, I lost a dear mentor, friend and brother.

Dale Robertson was perhaps the most un ambitious movie star of all time.  Even at the height of his fame, he told all who would listen that he would work in Hollywood until he had enough money saved up to move back to his beloved Sooner State.

A World War II hero and recipient of a Purple Heart, a photograph of our handsome hero was on display in an L.A. photographer’s window when it was noticed by Harry Cohn, who asked Dale to test for the screen version of the popular play Golden Boy, which, of course, was given eventually to William Holden.  His first movie was The Boy with the Green Hair, which was rather ironic in that Dale was a true conservative who wouldn’t have exactly been in agreement with the political statements of director Nicholas Ray.  In quick succession, Dale was in Flamingo Road, with Joan Crawford and The Girl from Jones Beach which starred his friend for life, Ronald Reagan.

Bud Elder and Dale RobertsonIn a rare candid moment – Dale was not one to spill the beans – I asked him whether or not it was true that Joan Crawford (raised in Lawton, Oklahoma ) would dally with handsome young unknowns on her pictures.  He answered “Whatever you think is true is probably what happened.”  I never had the nerve to ask him point blank about his relationship to Marilyn Monroe, who was a young Fox contract player at the same time as he.  Actually Dale’s first wife, little known fact, was film star Mary Murphy, she of The Wild One.

His first real break was in a Randolph Scott film called Fighting Men of the Plains, which is occasionally shown on TCM.  Robertson then went on to sign a contract with Fox and was a leading man in some 20 pictures for the studio, predominately westerns.  During this time he worked with great directors like Robert Wise (Two Flags West), Delmer Daves (Return of the Texan) and Henry Hathaway (O. Henry’s Full House).

In fact, Dale loved to tell a story about the first day of shooting on O. Henry.

“Upon our first meeting Henry Hathaway walked up and warned me that he might scream and holler at his actors but that it was all for the good of the movie and that he truly meant nothing by it,” Dale said.  “I told him that I had a hard fast rule that any director that berated me in front of the cast would have his teeth knocked out.  We became friends after that.”

Dale’s favorite of his pictures was The Gambler from Natchez. My favorite was City of Bad Men, wherein Dale and Richard Boone and some other bad guys are going to rob the take from the famed “Gentleman Jim” Corbett – Bob Fitzsimmons fight, before Dale’s character has a change of heart and stops his former outlaw partners.

After his contract with Fox ran out, Dale signed a three picture deal with Howard Hughes, who Dale had met through a mutual love of horses.  According to Dale, Hughes called him at 3:00 in the morning to meet at the Santa Anita Race Track, where their movie deal was forged in the back of Hughes’ limo.

One result of this partnership was Dale’s lowest point in film, the Son of Sinbad, which should be watched at all costs.  Hughes had gone all over the country promising local beauty queens parts in one of his pictures, then decided to make good by putting them all in Sinbad, where they each had one line when the action broke that went something like “Oh, Sinbad!”

Dale then moved to television and it was here that he would find his greatest fame in Tales of Wells Fargo, a program which Dale owned completely (one of the first stars to own his own series) and he would, uncredited, write and direct many episodes.  He returned to television in The Iron Horse in the late sixties and then, many years later, he starred in J.J. Starbuck, written and produced by Stephen Cannell.  He guest starred in Murder She Wrote and had continuing parts in both Dallas and Dynasty.  By then he had made good on his promise to move back to Oklahoma , where he lived until the last month of his life.  He also starred in the then highest rated television movie of all time The Kansas City Massacre, playing Melvin Purvis.

Here’s a great story from Wells Fargo.Dale Robertson in Wells Fargo

“I was on the set when Spencer Tracy walked in,” Dale remembered.  “He told me that he and ‘Kate’ never missed an episode and it would be a tremendous favor to him if I would call her at home to say hello.  We talked for an hour – she was a woman of refined taste!”

Dale was quite a singer and recorded several albums.  He was originally asked to take the lead in the Broadway production 110 in the Shade, a musical version of The Rainmaker, but he declined because of the two year commitment to live in New York.  Music was a very large part of his life.  His next door neighbor in Beverly Hills was the comic pianist Victor Borge and he had a huge library of first cassettes then CDs of classical music.

During the mid 60s, he independently financed a cartoon western called The Man from Button Willow and made some films oversees.  He also turned down the Sergio Leone films that became the “Man with No Name” trilogy.

A mutual friend introduced Dale to me some years ago, and we bonded immediately.  I wore him out with questions about this or that director or star and I think he appreciated someone really remembering the good old days.  We also had a mutual interest in the University of Oklahoma football program – his cousin, Port Robertson, was the assistant head coach to Bud Wilkinson when the team had their unbelievable 47 game winning streak in the 1950s.  He never missed a Sooner football game on television and, as former athlete, enjoyed all sports.

I traveled with Dale to many western film festivals up until the last three or four years of his life, to L.A., Vegas, Laughlin, Tombstone and other places. There he would meet with fans, sign autographs and spend time with his peers.  At these shows, as well as the Golden Boot Awards in Beverly Hills, I was able to hang with buddies like Ernest Borgnine, Ann Miller, George Montgomery, Harry Carrey, Jr., L.Q. Jones, James Drury, Donna Martell, Dick Jones (the voice of Pinocchio), Monte Hale and many more.  I loved their stories and I was honored to be with him.Bud Elder and the daybill from O. Henry's Full House

I ate lunch with Dale in different Oklahoma City restaurants as often as three times a week.  I never saw him be anything but gracious to his legion of local fans and he stopped any conversation any time to see children or a baby.  I never heard him say an unkind word about anyone.  When I told him I had lost my mind and was opening a restaurant, he sent in a signed Australian daybill, autographed, from O. Henry’s Full House, to put on my wall.

One time I had the brilliant idea to bring in a highly popular local writer that would work with Dale on a biography.  I took friends to back me up when I pitched the deal to him.  He immediately said no.  When I asked why, he said “because I don’t know how the story ends yet.”

Well, now actually we do know how it ended.  And, while his legion of fans from all over the world will never forget Dale L. Robertson (we called him “Coach.”  Don’t ask) we who knew and adored him were honored for the time spent in his company.

I’ll piecemeal out all the stories I have from my years with Dale and I’ll parcel them out over time.

 

On DVD

Glenn Ford: Undercover Crimes (DVD)Follow my thought process here – I liken Turner Classic Movies, their channel and their brand, to Frank Sinatra.  Here’s why.  Sinatra never thought of a song as “old.”  Even if it had been written thirty or forty years previously, he made the music as fresh as if it had just been penned.  He treated each song so respectfully that they seemed vibrant, alive.  I used to scream when people said, while he was still performing, “Frank Sinatra was great” because he was always so in the moment, no matter what age either he or his songs were.

It’s the same with TCM.  They talk about movies as living, breathing things.  Even films that were released as duds in the 30s are treated with such a sense of awe and wonder that one has to give them a look.  I have friends who work there (their chief photographer is from Oklahoma City) and they are all movie buffs who seriously love their jobs.

The latest from the TCM Vault Collection is Glenn Ford: Undercover Crimes, which features five fully restored films which are brought to DVD for the first time.  Of the five, The Lady in Question, Framed, Undercover Man, Mr. Soft Touch and Convicted, the real find is Undercover Man.  Directed by the legendary Joseph L. Lewis, this is indeed a rare treat, and a marvelous noir.  The others are all of merit as well and can be purchased exclusively through the TCM online store.  Seriously, see Undercover Man.

Twilight Time has recently released The Fury, Christine and The Song of Bernadette.  Sure we’ll review these later and I hear that Christine might already be sold out.  Go to ScreenArchives.com to see all Twilight Time offers.

 

In Theaters

Oz: The Great and Powerful

In the late 30s, studios MGM and the Walt Disney Company were at their creative zeniths – MGM, who also had a small picture out about that time called Gone with the Wind, created The Wizard of Oz, with Judy Garland subbing in for a non contract player Shirley Temple and MGM stalwart Frank Morgan taking the role of the wizard from an unavailable W.C. Fields.  Disney created Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first all animated musical feature, in 1937, changing forever the way we look at movies.

How the mighty have fallen.

As quickly as you can say “hocus pocus,” Disney now has the rights to a hugely budgeted wide release picture called Oz: The Great and Powerful, while MGM is but a shell corporation, which, because of its purchase of United Artists in the 80s, is known to the public only through the new James Bond movies.

oz great

Oz: The Great and Powerful, Disney’s new film prequel to the 1939 MGM classic, is quick to disappoint on all fronts.  How a modern studio, with all the money and talent in the world could obliterate the legacy of a group of malcontents off to see the wizard, along with those dreaded fields of poppies, heart rending songs, a skipped upon yellow brick road, and perhaps a little dog, too, is beyond comprehension.

Our director here, Sam Raimi, last made Spider-Man 3, which was enough to make one arachnophobic, and this picture doesn’t do much to assuage any hesitancy to see him take on another big budget film.  His touch is one that avoids straightening out even the most general plot questions and the film is so uneven that one cannot guarantee either that it won’t scare the ever living gonads out of your kids or that said won’t fall asleep.

Our picture’s first ten or 15 minute segment is by far its best.

We meet Oscar Diggs, our “wizard,” in a two bit sepia toned Kansas carnival Oscar, nicknamed Oz, is a practitioner of prestidigitations with a specialty in charming demure coquettes.  He is doing just that very thing when (take your pick, because the movie doesn’t say) a lover, father or brother of one such in hot pursuit, chases him into a convenient hot air balloon just in time to be sucked into an oncoming tornado, where he is then catapulted into the wonderful, and, oh yes, colorful land of Oz.  Who knew he had it so good in Kansas?  At least things there partially made sense.

There’s a prophecy involved once we’re fully ensconced in Oz, about a great wizard bearing the name of their city who will come to save those poor slobs by killing the wicked witch.  There are here three sort of witches, the powers of each never fully explained, said for some razzmatazz green lightning coming out of their manicured fingers.  So confusing and exasperating are these practitioners of the dark arts that we highly advise against any who have read the original Baum novels, where strong, imaginative women characters were the order of the day, buy a ticket at all.

To compare the original with this dreck is somewhat unfair.  Disney has taken a true American classic and stomped on it like a foot at the end of a Monty Python skit.  Nerve this picture has – all we’re missing, actually, is a little brain and lots of heart.

(with the assistance of Korey Anders)

 

Final Thoughts

Thanks for all the good words after my first turn at bat here on The Digital Bits.  I would like to answer a question I received regarding a DVD of the 1977 William Friedkin film Sorcerer.  On the fifth of March, Friedkin, who has a new biography coming out in April, tweeted this: “The long and twisted legal path of Sorcerer is slowly being unwound.  Thanks for your patience.  More as I get news.”

He also said on February 11: “The original negative is in good condition and it’s now being budgeted to make a new digital master.”

See everyone at the Flix!

- Bud Elder

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