Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Man in the Saddle (1951)

Randolph Scott is a rancher in this western, with a nasty neighbor (Alexander Knox) who doesn’t like to share. Knox is the biggest rancher in the valley, and he wants the whole valley. That includes Joan Leslie, who tires of waiting for Scott to pop the question and marries Knox instead in the first reel.

From that point on, Kenneth Gamet’s script either runs out of ideas or goes after too many of them. There’s a second woman (Ellen Drew), with a small ranch nearby and a lot of gumption. She is sweet on Scott, but he’s still hankering for the married Leslie. It’s hard to understand why. She’s heartless as they come having married for money, and skip the connubial bliss, as the groom learns on his wedding night.

Plot. Knox and his foreman (Richard Rober) try to force Scott off his ranch, and they get pretty rough. They stampede his cattle and kill first one and then another of two cowboys. When Scott retaliates by shooting up a line camp full of Knox’s men, he and his house get shot up in return.

Ellen Drew, 1939
Leslie, meanwhile, has second thoughts about marriage to Knox and wants Scott to run off with her. But when he takes a round in one leg, he is rescued by Drew, who takes him to a mountain cabin to recuperate. Things are pretty friendly between them, and there’s the suggestion that something’s going on when the lights go out at night.

Enter loose cannon John Russell, who’s been making moves on Drew from the beginning and won’t get the hint that she’s not interested. He follows Scott and Drew to the mountain cabin with the professed intent to finish them both off. There’s a spectacular fistfight that first brings down the roof of the cabin and ends up with both men (then Drew) hurtling down a muddy mountain slope. Russell not only gets a drubbing from Scott but, when he returns to the ranch, is shot dead by Knox, his boss.

Cutting to the chase here, the final settling of scores happens in the hotel and the streets of town during a fierce, tumbleweed-blowing gale. Knox is shot when he steps into the line of fire between his foreman and Scott. The foreman attempts to outdraw Scott but fails. Scott and Drew then ride off together in a buckboard.

Tennessee Ernie Ford, 1957
Added value. The film was shot in Technicolor in the always handsome Alabama Hills of central California, with the snow-clad Sierras as a backdrop. The mountain cabin is located on wooded slopes above the snowline, where spring thaws swell the streams.

Tennessee Ernie Ford with his rich baritone voice appears by a roundup campfire to sing the theme song, “Man in the Saddle.” It was his first film appearance, and with a cowboy hat and a shaved upper lip, he passes easily as a ranch hand.

The presence of wonderful character actor Clem Bevans is a pleasure in the early scenes before he disappears from the plot. Bevans, thin as a rail and sporting a thick mustache, had a career of playing codgers. John Russell, of course, with his chiseled features, went on to star as TV's Lawman (1958-1962). The film also marks an early appearance of Cameron Mitchell, who would later turn in performances on 97 episodes of TV’s High Chaparral (1967-71).

Clem Bevans (right), The Kansan (1943)
Mexican actor Alfonso Bedoya plays Scott’s cook, and while taking a ribbing for his awful coffee, his character is more than an ethnic stereotype. He gets to play in some action scenes, and a running gag about his unsuccessful attempts to acquire a proper hat plays right to the last scene, where he snaps up the dead villain’s Stetson. Not sure how funny that is, but for what it’s worth, Bedoya gets the last laugh.

As for the action, there’s that spectacular fistfight between Scott and Russell. During the cattle stampede, Scott races to jump onto a runaway chuck wagon, which then ignites and bursts into flames behind him. A shootout in a saloon takes place in the dark, and we have to wait until the lights come back on to see who was a casualty.

Wrapping up. The film was based on a 1938 novel by Ernest Haycox, and anyone who has read it can say whether one bears any resemblance to the other. What’s missing for the audience is a clear understanding of Scott’s character beyond his desire to keep his ranch. His stiff upper lip says a lot but not enough.

His adversaries are cardboard characters, with the murderously irrational desire to possess what they can’t have. Leslie’s character is downright puzzling. What does she really want and does she even know? At the end, she seems intent on carrying out the wishes of her dying husband, but where did that come from?

There’s a slap-happy humor in some scenes and outright farce in others that might fit in a B-western but seem somewhat out of place in this film, where the drama seems meant to be taken seriously. The costuming and domestic interiors take advantage of the Technicolor and are so tastefully designed, you know you’re not far from Hollywood and Vine.

In a directing career that lasted from 1939-1987, Andre de Toth brought a number of memorable westerns to the screen, including Springfield Rifle (1952) and Day of the Outlaw (1959) both reviewed here earlier. Man in the Saddle is currently available at netflix and amazon.

For more of Tuesday’s Overlooked Movies, head on over to Todd Mason’s Sweet Freedom.

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Ridgwell Cullum, The Story of the Foss River Ranch (1903)


  1. Randolph scott just never looked western to me. Not sure why.

  2. I definitely have to disagree with Charles. I've seen most of the Randolph Scott westerns and I would have to say that he represents the west as much as any other actor I've ever seen. He looks the part, wears the clothes, knows how to ride a horse, talks like a man of the west.

    If I had to pick my favorite western actor, Randolph Scott would definitely be in the running for top spot. I've only seen MAN IN THE SADDLE a couple times; this post has reminded me it's time to watch it again.

  3. Is Haycox worth seeking out? I've read a couple of his short stories, and know he was once a major name, but nothing about those stories is coming back to me at the moment...

  4. I recommend Haycox. At one time he was one of the best of the western writers in the pulps, especially writing alot for SHORT STORIES and WEST in the late 1920's and early 1930's. He went on to the slicks and died an early death at age 51 in 1950. You can still find his work easily available in vintage western paperbacks. Like so many paperbacks they are inexpensive.

  5. I don't recall seeing a Randolph Scott western before. This one seems like a typical western flick with fistfights and gunfights that looks appealing to me. Thanks, Ron.

  6. Charles, I agree with Walker. Physically he moves like a big cat in front of the camera, and well into his later years; didn't get bulky like John Wayne. Nice range for a cowboy actor; could be cold and stern or warm and quick with a smile.

    Todd, I'd go with Walker's advice on that score. I'm not authority on mid-century western fiction.

    Prashant, it's definitely your typical western with the "good" parts well done.