Wednesday 27 July 2016

The Night of the Grizzly (1966)

Director: Joseph Pevney
Writer: Warren Douglas
Stars: Clint Walker, Martha Hyer, Keenan Wynn and Nancy Kulp
‘Big Jim Cole had come to the rim of Hell and nobody but nobody was going to push him over!’ screams the tagline on the poster. It sure doesn’t look that way as his wagon travels through gorgeous countryside into a town called Hope to claim his inheritance of a ranch. 150 miles cross-country in a wagon seat isn’t remotely as comfortable as they make it look, but hey, welcome to Hollywood, erm, Hope. Jim is played by a television legend, Clint Walker, who had played the title character on Cheyenne for seven seasons. He is perfect for this role: he’s tall, strong and softly spoken, he looks believably tough with his shirt off (which it often is) and he can backhand Ron Ely with style. Ely, famous for playing both Tarzan and Doc Savage, was 6’ 4½” tall, but Walker still had an inch and a half on him. Walker had his work cut out for him here, with a host of actors of all ages ready to steal the film out from under him, but he holds on to it with a quiet authority that backs up his character’s background as a former United States marshal.

Many of those scene-stealing members of the supporting cast were also best known for television. Nancy Kulp runs the local store, which also includes a cafĂ©, a pool hall and almost anything else that might be needed in Hope; she’s easily best known as Miss Jane Hathaway, Milburn Drysdale’s secretary in The Beverly Hillbillies. Her name in this story is Wilhelmina but Big Jim’s right hand man calls her Bill. The one thing she doesn’t stock is, well, stock, so Cole has to go to Hazel Squires for his cows and pigs; she’s played by Ellen Corby, another actress who’s fundamentally known for one role, of Grandma Walton in The Waltons. Both of them play pretty much the same parts here, even if the characters have different names. Only Ron Ely gets to do anything different: he was known as much for The Aquanauts as Tarzan on TV, but his role here as the spoiled brat of a son of the local villain isn’t remotely similar to either. It’s odd watching him not be in charge, but he has fun as Tad Curry, a pain in the ass hoodlum who’s always in trouble.
The story isn’t particularly original. In fact, it bears many similarities to Terror in a Texas Town, which I covered in March in honour of Sterling Hayden, though there’s no political undercurrent to be found here. Cole has come to Hope to claim a ranch that his dad Charlie won from Jed Curry in a card game; he’s brought his family along to work it with him and he’s keen to get on with it. When he discovers that there’s a $500 loan against the property, with another $175 in interest, he pays it without hesitation, though it’s most of his money and he hasn’t even seen the place yet. ‘I don’t need to see it,’ he says. It turns out to be not much to look at but it’s 640 acres of prime land and there’s another man in town who wants it badly: Jed Curry, its former owner, who wants it for his sons, Tad and Cal, the local troublemakers. He’s little different except that he has common sense, grit and control to go with their greed, and he’s played to gloriously barking effect by Keenan Wynn, who would have been a hundred years old today: 27th July.

Now, given that this is a time honoured framework for a western, you might wonder why it’s called The Night of the Grizzly. Well, in and amongst the usual subplots of honest man against the odds, redemption through young love and the retired lawman’s old life catching up with him, not to mention that old faithful of a little girl discovering what a skunk is the hard way, we have a new one: Old Satan. Regis Toomey gets to talk up this critter as Cotton Benson, the town’s banker, and he does it well. ‘1,500 odd pounds of the meanest, wickedest animal this side of Hades,’ is just introduction. ‘If that beast ain’t Lucifer in person, he sure is first cousin,’ he suggests. And just in case Big Jim thinks that it’s just another grizzly bear, he focuses in. ‘He’s got the heart of a cougar and he can out-think any man ever born,’ he explains. ‘He kills just for the wicked fun of it.’ Now, that’s the sort of build-up we expect to get for a movie called The Night of the Grizzly! Old Satan has terrorised Hope for years and Big Jim’s place is next on his list.
I enjoyed this film from the outset because of the simplicity inherent in the town of Hope. Every character’s motivation is written across his face and with his very first actions. Big Jim is a good man with a good family, even if his son Charlie is a handful and his young daughter Gypsy is a character and a half. His compadre and former deputy, Sam Potts, is the standard western sidekick but he’s immediately set upon by the fact that Hope is in a dry county. He finds that out at Bill’s general store, just as we find out that she’s fallen for him at first sight. We meet Tad and Cal there, all ready to steal Sam’s money on the pretext of supplying him with a bottle of illicit liquor. Their dad Jed is a bad man but one that’s good at being bad; everyone in town knows that he owns it, even if they’d like to forget. The banker is a decent sort, who would help anyone in need, but he knows who the principal shareholder is. There’s even a local odd job man, played by Jack Elam, who’s happiest sleeping on a bench outside Bill’s store.

We know who each of these folk are and what they’re like just by looking at them. The script by Warren Douglas, who gets a brief appearance as a minister, isn’t keen on surprising us and it wouldn’t be as effective as it is without the right folk in these parts. An impressive amount of kudos needs to go to the casting director here, rather than the writer. This is late for Douglas, who appeared on the big screen for the last time after a minor acting career that went back to 1938; he had one TV movie left in him, 1973’s The Red Pony. In the fifties, he gradually switched over to writing, moving from features to television by the end of the decade. He was best known for western shows, having written episodes for most of the big ones: Bonanza, Gunsmoke and The High Chaparral, not to mention ten episodes of Cheyenne, starring Clint Walker. This feels like it could easily have been a couple of those TV episodes, one about the cold war between Big Jim and Jed Curry over the ranch and another about the search for a killer grizzly bear.
I didn’t enjoy this for the story; I watched it for the characters and for how far into their skins the actors got. I felt like I’d arrived in Hope along with the Coles and so I had a stake in what was going on. It didn’t hurt that I watched in Phoenix, AZ, where lines of dialogue like Hazel Squires’s, ‘It’s gonna be a long, mean summer,’ ring very true indeed. Of course, that’s a harbinger of doom if ever I’ve heard one and, sure enough, Satan comes visiting that very night, breaking into Big Jim’s barn and right back out again, after Cole shoots at him. The brief attack leaves Duncan, the ranch’s prize bull, dead. He’s only the first victim, however, as more promptly add up and gradually move the story towards a quest to rid the town of this 1,500 pound menace. The reward put up by Jed Curry plays nicely into the rest of the story, prompting Big Jim to join the hunt to earn that cash and save his ranch, but mostly it’s about a battle between the retired marshal and a man who figured strongly within that career, Cass Dowdy.

I chose The Night of the Grizzly as a celebration of Keenan Wynn’s career and he does a stellar job as Jed Curry, clearly the villain of the piece and not a man to cross in Hope, but also one who gains a little sympathy from us because of how much trouble Tad and Cal keep getting into, all of which he ends up responsible for cleaning up. I wanted more Jed Curry, because Wynn made sure that he played him differently to every other actor in the film, speaking quietly but with menace until barking out a line for emphasis. Unfortunately, he’s the villain in a movie where Satan the grizzly bear outweighs him by over a ton and doesn’t care what screen time he ends up with. It would have been easier to remove that grizzly from the script than any other component and, without it, Jed Curry’s part would have bulked up considerably. It’s fair to say that while Cole and Dowdy are out in the mountains tracking a killer bear, I was still thinking of what Curry might have been getting up to back in town.
Wynn had a long and interesting career, but not one with a quintessential role because he was so relentlessly versatile. I know him best from his role as Col Bat Guano in Dr Strangelove, but have previously reviewed him as memorable characters in films as diverse as Shack Out on 101, Bikini Beach and Battle Circus; others might remember him best for titles like The Great Race, Annie Get Your Gun or Son of Flubber. He was a third generation actor, with many family members in entertainment. His grandfather, Frank Keenan, was a New York stage actor and theatre manager who found his way to Hollywood, debuting in The Coward in 1915 and making over forty pictures. His daughter Hilda was a minor actress, but her husband, Ed Wynn, was a vaudeville clown who had his own TV show. He encouraged his son’s career and both Ed and Keenan Wynn appeared in Rod Serling’s Requiem for a Heavyweight. Keenan’s son was a screenwriter, Tracy Keenan Wynn, who wrote The Longest Yard, and his granddaughter, Jessica Keenan Wynn, is a stage actress.

But I can only review what actually happens, not what plays out in my mind while the movie is going on, and what happens is the rekindling of old grudges between Cole, who needs the reward money, and Dowdy, whom Curry hires to make sure he doesn’t get it. Nothing that happens in the last third of the film carries any surprises, with each little plot twist either telegraphed or obvious. However Walker is as solid in the mountains as he was on the plains and Leo Gordon is suitably imposing as his opponent. Just like Walker was the epitome of the tall and quietly spoken western hero, Gordon is the epitome of the tall and quietly spoken western villain. He didn’t have the quirky performance tricks of a Jack Palance or, in this picture, a Keenan Wynn, but he had the look and the feel and what he himself called ‘a craggy-ass face.’ He exuded menace just by standing up, even if his stocky 6’ 2” frame was a full four inches short of Walker’s, and his deep voice just added to that tone. You simply knew he wasn’t anyone to mess with.

Of course, Victoria Paige Meyerink didn’t seem like anyone to mess with either, but in a rather different way, given that she was a six year old girl, the Coles’ youngest. Kevin Brodie, as her screen brother Charlie, was a more seasoned actor, with four features to his name already, even though he was only fourteen. Candy Moore certainly caught the eye more as cousin Meg, but she had little to do except turn green in a bizarre effects shot when Tad Curry suckers her into drinking a glass of moonshine instead of punch. Meyerink got all the best scenes, including a bunch with Jack Elam, after she decides to just lie down on the next bench over. She’s Rosebud and he’s Champeen and they’re an unlikely pair who genuinely seemed to hit it off. Little girls tend to either fade into the background or steal every scene they’re in; my guess, from the amount of them that Meyerink ended up with, is that the director, Joseph Pevney, was in no doubt about her falling into the latter category. She comes closest to stealing the show from Walker.
One prominent member of the cast I haven’t mentioned yet is Don Haggerty, who plays Big Jim’s sidekick, Sam Potts. In the time-honoured tradition of westerns, he’s as blustery as his boss is calm, but he gets quite a bit of opportunity here, including a superbly awkward romantic angle to work with Bill. I couldn’t help but see a huge amount of irony in his performance in this film, though it isn’t actually warranted. I’d read that Don Haggerty was the father of Dan Haggerty, who went on to great fame as Grizzly Adams, a connection underlined by the latter accidentally receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame that had been intended for the former. The family connection seems obvious, especially when Don interacts with Satan, and extends far beyond their respective bushy beards. However, I checked with Arizona’s official western film historian, Charlie LeSueur, who confirms that they weren’t actually related! Dan Haggerty’s father really was a Don Haggerty, but he wasn’t this Don Haggerty, so the irony is coincidental.

I tried to find out who played the bear too, but the information doesn’t seem to be findable online. I don’t even know if it was male or female, so I’ll use ‘he’ and hope for accuracy. Whoever he was did a decent job, but not up to the level that we would soon come to expect from various TV shows and films starring the non-related Dan Haggerty. I didn’t buy into the hype Cotton Benson spins up for him, perhaps because he looks like a demonic teddy bear on the poster. He does turn out to be a big bear, but he really isn’t put to the sort of use that we might expect a big bear in a movie called The Night of the Grizzly to be put. The closest Joseph Pevney got to the horror genre was The Strange Door a decade and a half earlier, starring Charles Laughton and Boris Karloff. He did direct genre material, such as a fifth of Star Trek’s episodes, but the grizzly side of this story needed horror treatment and he didn’t have a clue. Title aside, the grizzly is merely a distraction from a well cast and well acted but routine western drama. Goodnight, Satan!

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