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Monday, 17 June 2013 02:01

Jimmy Wakely (a Singing Cowboy), Lash LaRue & Other Matters

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Seriously, is there anything more gloriously American than the singing cowboy?  A white hat-wearing, square-jawed male specimen equipped with a sharp aim, a stout heart and a dramatic tenor, the performance of which would cause even a tone deaf villain to tip his hat?

We seem to have the singing cowboy on our minds here in Oklahoma – Roy and Dale were actually married in Davis, and Ol’ Gene has an entire town that bears his moniker – the only such in America named for a movie star. 

But today it is not of the first team we speak – no, our long legged guitar pickin’ men also enjoyed “B” picture status and played for teams bearing names such as Monogram.  We speak today of Oklahoma born Jimmy Wakely, whose cinematic exploits have recently been released in wonderful box sets from Warner Archive.

Jimmy Wakely was from Rosedale, Oklahoma and became fast friends with my grandfather from Wayne, Oklahoma… Louie Westervelt Beck.  So close were they that, as Jimmy moved up in showbiz to become a celebrity featured singer on Oklahoma City’s WKY radio, the future six-gun singer returned and traveled the 45 or so miles back to his hometown as a campaigner for my grandfather when he ran – and won – a seat in the Oklahoma legislature.

But the likes of the Sooner State couldn’t hold Wakely much longer, and after some career advice from Mr. Autry (he to whom they all aspired), who had heard the lad over the Oklahoma airwaves, headed west and never returned.  Ah, but that is not the end of the Wakely/Beck legacy.

Roaring Westward

My grandfather was an officer in a JAG detachment stationed in southern California , not far from where Wakely and his family lived.  Over this time, my mother and uncle were ill prepared for the movie magic that followed this fellow who had at one time been “Uncle Jimmy” – suddenly, there’s Johnny Mack Brown and Monte Hale and Rex Allen milling around the house.  Also, next door was Andrew Slye, whose son, Leonard, was known by the name of Roy Rogers.  My uncle each week would buy the latest comic books starring these silver screen icons and have them signed.  Of course, no one can find them now.  My mother, who was friends with Wakely’s daughter Linda, also got to go on tour with the singer. 

I think all of us have some sort of relationship or family story regarding folks in the movies.  My hometown of Purcell, Oklahoma, also gave us the woman – name unknown – who took that slap for Anne Baxter at the delivery of Erich Von Stroheim in Five Graves to Cairo.  And it’s also somewhat ironic that I have a very strong relationship with a cowboy singer who also acts.

Catch the Wakely/Monogram collections from Warner Archive (available at this link).

Lash LaRue

OK – here’s a story regarding yet another matinee icon who was, at the time this takes place, a tad over the hill.

My job throughout the early part of the 90s was to produce a local television show called  Discover Oklahoma which featured travel destinations from around the state.  Through this position, I became friendly with many local civic leaders; none more so than those who ran a community some 30 minutes north of Oklahoma City called Guthrie.

Guthrie, which has maintained many of its pre-statehood buildings, once was the homestead of perhaps the first big cowboy star – Tom Mix.  In celebration of that relationship, the town would host, each year, a “Tom Mix Festival” that would bring in several cowboy actors.  The year of which I speak, I think that The Virginian star Doug McClure was to have been there.

For whatever reason – I think he had just been diagnosed with the cancer that would eventually cause his death – McClure, at the last minute, had to cancel being Grand Marshall of the Tom Mix parade, as well as serving as the keynote speaker at a banquet attended by the elite citizenry of Guthrie.  The town was crestfallen and its leadership called me to see if I had some last minute replacement thoughts.

By absolute kismet, I was watching a local morning news show the day before these non-McClure hosted events were to take place, when I heard that an upcoming guest was Lash LaRue. 

Could I be dreaming?  I called the local station who said he was appearing in promotion of a local gun show.  I quickly called the powers that be in Guthrie and pronounced myself a savior – I would deliver unto them a “name above the title” western star who would most certainly fill the bill and then some.

I got permission to negotiate with La Rue and made my way to the gun show, where I found our hero dressed in black… well, ok… hung over and smelling, shall we say, ripe.  I quickly introduced myself and made the offer.  After checking his schedule, LaRue almost immediately agreed, a deal was made, and statues of yours truly were being planned in Guthrie.

Lash LaRue

I don’t remember why, but I couldn’t be at any of the festivities.  But, believe me, I got an earful on that Monday.

Apparently, Mr. LaRue snarled at children and old ladies during the parade, and – in a banquet hall filled with a band of do-gooders – had about twelve shots in a row and announced to the throng that he completely believed that Jesus Christ was crucified four or five times.

This story is not to speak ill of Mr. LaRue, who, I think, lived a hard life.  No,  the stooge in this story is actually writing it.

That Reminds Me

Thought I would also answer my trivia question from last time.  Remember?  I had wondered for years who Larry McMurtry and Peter Bogdanovich had in mind when they wrote the original post-Last Picture Show script that became the novel (written solely by McMurtry) called Lonesome Dove.  Remember… it was to star John Wayne who had, at that time, recently won an Oscar for True Grit and was starring in Rio Lobo, James Stewart, then in Fools’ Parade and Henry Fonda, who was between Once Upon a Time in the West and My Name is Nobody.  Who was to play Woodrow Call, Augustus McRea or Jake Spoon?  John Wayne was to be Call, Stewart was to be Gus and Fonda was supposed to play Spoon – parts that were later played by Tommy Lee Jones, Robert Duvall and Robert Urich.

On Video

Each year, we here at The Bits nominate the best Blu-ray and DVD box sets and so forth, and I don’t imagine there will be a better set than No Pryor Restraint: Life in Concert, a seven CD, two DVD box set released by Shout! Factory which features 12 hours of prime Pryor from 1966-1992.  There are the seminal stand up films, a large mishmash of all Pryor’s comedy albums and rare, unseen standup footage.  Owning this is a must.Richard Pryor: No Prior Restraint

Twilight Time has achieved one of their finest Blu-ray restorations with the fabulous Technicolor film noir Leave Her to Heaven, released in 1945 with Gene Tierney, Cornel Wilde, Jeanne Crain and many others.  This picture, as tawdry as ever was made, is so stunning in its outdoor color shots (Oscar winning) that several times I paused the disc to look at them as though they were museum-hung works of art.  The disc package includes commentary with Daryl Hickman (in the films as well) and noted historian/critic Richard Schickel and, as is usually the case with Twilight Time, an isolated score track.   Also this month is the 1993 Oscar winning film Philadelphia with a bunch of extras, including commentary by Jonathan Demme.  (Reviewed here at The Bits by our own Adam Jahnke.)

Three new MOD discs from Warner Archive?  How about the classic boardroom melodrama Executive Suite, with William Holden, Barbara Stanwyck, Frederic March and many, many more; A Big Hand for the Little Lady, a terrific Sting-like western with Joanne Woodward, Henry Fonda and Jason Robards, and Cruising, one of the most interesting films of the 80s, directed by a newly resurgent William Friedkin and starring Pacino.

In Theaters

Here’s a word you don’t hear enough of when describing new films – fun.  Iron Man is a gloomy gus, Captain Kirk et al are saving the universe, while all around America four magicians of various specialties are recruiting to pull a magical, stupefying heist in Now You See Me, one of the great sleepers I’ve seen in a while.

You know that, really, truly there is no such thing as a “sleeper” anymore, right?  Every picture is so merchandised and package that there is very little left for the audience to discover on its own.  Only the very dumb would pass up the chance to see this exciting, keep ‘em guessing thriller.  Oh, that’s right… they’re in seeing After Earth.

- Bud Elder


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