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Trails of O'Brien

Edmond O'Brien stars in two fun action-packed Technicolor westerns, SILVER   CITY and DENVER & RIO  GRANDE, both now on Blu-Ray and DVD from Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.
Edmond O'Brien stars in two fun action-packed Technicolor westerns, SILVER CITY and DENVER & RIO GRANDE, both now on Blu-Ray and DVD from Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.
(c) Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment

SILVER CITY and DENVER & RIO GRANDE

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As far as I'm concerned not enough praise can be heaped upon the rather broad shoulders of underrated actor Edmond O'Brien. What can I say? I love the guy.

To most filmgoers, the rugged, stocky always-dependable thespian is best known for his exemplary work as a character actor. Which is fine. Except there's a lot more going on behind that perpetually worried, square-faced Irish brow.

Like Spencer Tracy, who effortlessly stole scenes by spouting dialogue while fixing his tie or eating a meal; or Jimmy Cagney, who arched his shoulders back before zeroing in for an attack; or even Bogart, who could dominate your attention by simply doing a combination grimace/teeth grit, O'Brien, too, had a sure-fire, never-fail trick. And he owed it all to the Bell System. Give the guy a telephone, let him sweat – and you were in business. He sweated his way to a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1954's The Barefoot Contessa; a decade later, he served up the middle-aged version – perspiring to glory in Seven Days in May. There's no two ways about it: the dude gave great phone!

But, as indicated, there were many times when Edmond O'Brien shined without the benefit of the Ameche and/or his formidable glandular condition. He defined Evil 101 in Jack Webb's 1955 jazz age saga Pete Kelly's Blues. A year hence, Frank Tashlin mined his immense comic talents, basically resulting in a parody of the former in the hysterical The Girl Can't Help It. He was positively brilliant as an all-too-real desert rat in The Wild Bunch; many, including myself, felt he should have won another Supporting Actor Oscar (he wasn't even nominated). Between all these memorable turns, O'Brien did scads of TV – and, much to folk’s surprise, starred in usually bottom-of-the-bill noirs – with some notable exceptions (1950's D.O.A. and two Ida Lupino-directed pics, The Hitch-Hiker and The Bigamist). He even directed a couple of nasty, gritty thrillers that lovingly revealed the craftsman's attraction to the underbelly of society.

As a young pup, he played the romantic lead opposite Maureen O'Hara in 1939's The Hunchback of Notre Dame. After World War II, a startlingly aged O'Brien returned from the front, acing supporting roles in topflight noir entries, such as The Killers (1946) and White Heat (1949).

But there's yet another area of O'Brien's career that is perhaps the least-known: that of a he-man action hero. This was never better displayed than in a pair of wonderfully entertaining Paramount Technicolor westerns: 1951's SILVER CITY and 1952’s DENVER & RIO GRANDE, now on Blu-Ray and DVD from Olive Films and Paramount Home Entertainment.

Corset-wearing O'Brien's participation in the above pair is all-that-more amazing when one becomes aware of a situation not unearthed until Don Siegel's fascinating 1993 memoir A Siegel Film, published eight years after the actor's death.

In 1953, Siegel was contracted to direct China Venture, a WWII actioner for Columbia, costarring O'Brien and Barry Sullivan. As was Siegel's way, he always had his cast do a script-read at his home. “I had never been turned down until I ran into...Edmond O'Brien. He astounded me because I knew he took his work seriously.”

Siegel was relentless, but O'Brien held firm – offering up one excuse after another (“I'm tired...I just finished a tough picture.” “My throat's been bothering me.”) Siegel persisted, offering him the services of a fine tonsorial physician, threatening that if the actor didn't show, he would have to read the lines himself, and ruin the entire session. “There's no one even close to my inadequacy,” joked Siegel, adding that, “...the cast and I will love you.” Still O'Brien reneged indicating that he'd rather work out the dialogue with his pal Charley. Figuring him as a snob, Siegel angrily concluded that “...O'Brien was full of guile, perfidy and sham. I lost the respect I had for him. Oh well...maybe I'll read O'Brien's part so well that I'll replace him with me.”

The beginning of the shoot was no better. Siegel was startled at how clumsy O'Brien was, stumbling around the jungle set – unable to do even the most minor gags. “I couldn't believe that a tough street-fighter and athlete like Eddie was so inept...In order to continue shooting...I decided to take away some of the difficult physical things that he would be called upon to do. I rewrote several sequences with Sullivan and others in the patrol doing them. The next day, I went over the new pages with Eddie. He immediately yelled in desperation for 'Charley.' When Charley came on the run, Eddie broke down, 'Don, I can't see. That's why I have Charley read the lines to me each day, and I memorize them. The reason I didn't go to your reading was because the cataracts in both eyes make it impossible for me to see. I knew if you told the studio about my condition, I was dead.'” Siegel then went over the new pages with all the trying physical stuff removed. “'You get with Charley and work with him.' He thanked me and walked off...I felt terrible about the whole situation. I realized how gutsy Eddie was.”

Now the reason I recounted the above lengthy anecdote was...well, because it's incredible...but especially so when one considers everything the actor achieved AFTER and just prior to China Venture, namely the two oaters that comprise this piece. Having a full-time acting career while essentially being blind tops any other SAG member handicap, including Herbert Marshall's wooden leg!

Watching SILVER CITY and DENVER & RIO GRANDE becomes even more rewarding, as these location-filmed adventures show O'Brien to be doing many of his own perilous stunts – including riding, fighting, climbing, jumping, leaping and French-kissing Yvonne De Carlo. To quote Marlene Dietrich in Touch of Evil, Eddie O'Brien indeed was “...some kind of a man!”

SILVER CITY and DENVER & RIO GRANDE are templates in smart filmmaking – and much credit must be given to genre producer Nat Holt, who first gained fame bringing Hopalong Cassidy to the screen. Not only is every dollar up on the screen – there's money that wasn't even spent; in short, these movies look WAY bigger than they are, often dwarfing actual super-A productions, some made by the same studio.

Both these pictures represent Paramount's successful attempt to jump aboard the Technicolor programmer bandwagon that ruled the nabes through most the 1950s. Major-minor companies like Columbia and Universal-International made their fortunes by churning out lavish-looking budget westerns, tits 'n' sand Arabian escapades and mediocre medieval epics – generally clocking in at under 90 minutes. When Paramount, Warners, Fox or MGM went this route, they easily trumped their cookie-cutter predecessors, turning out cinematic Cadillacs on the Volkswagen assembly line. And with good reason – Paramount & Co. had their mammoth studio's vast resources to pool from, be it props and costumes, art and set design, music and scoring, plus a roster of actors and actresses in the final years of the contract system. Directors and producers would also have access to sumptuous standing sets left over from bigger-budgeted extravaganzas taking place in similar locales or time periods concurrent to their vest-pocket versions. Thus, there's no doubt in my mind that both SILVER CITY and DENVER & RIO GRANDE played many cities as a top or even single feature. And like their star's unfortunate disability...you'd never know...

Lode Warrior

Plot-wise, 1951's SILVER CITY is almost a film noir disguised as an action-packed western. The unusual narrative trappings come by way of the always-intriguing pen of writer Luke Short, and a no-nonsense script is by veteran scenarist Frank Gruber. Former SFX artist-turned-camerman-turned-second unit-maestro-turned-director Byron Haskin keeps the story at never-let-up pace from the initial fade-in.

In nothing less than a sagebrush version of a Ponzi scheme, assayer Edmond O'Brien learns that his trusted partner has engineered a swindle involving their company and the profits of their clients. The dastardly scoundrel’s one mistake is that he didn't off the feisty (and now very angry) scapegoat, who has nothing left to his name...BUT his name...and a very fine one it is: Larkin Moffatt. But, alas, he even has to change that in order to find menial employment in mines across the west...only to be inevitably found out as that miserable, crooked ass-ayer (no foolin' – they really do emphasize the 'ass'...something Larkin regretfully accepts, as his one big mistake was going into business with the duplicitous scumbag in the first place).

The idea of an assayer as the hero is concurrently unique and ideal for an everyman guy like O'Brien. After all, he likewise elevated the generally uninteresting profession of CPA to heroic status in the noir gem D.O.A. Of course since SILVER CITY is a western, the lead is also a tough-as-nails mining expert – quick on the trigger when dealing with the baddies (and there be a whole hornet's nest a-full of 'em), but sweet as honey when it comes to the gals – of both the good girl and good-time girl variety.

Everything's accentuated to the max in this sumptuous-looking oater: the barroom brawl is more spectacular, the shootouts more elaborate, the scenery more Technicolor awesome, the lowdown skunks more stinkier...and so on. And no one's a bigger skunk than slimy land-owner R.R. Jarboe – a refreshing change-of-pace role for Barry Fitzgerald. Essentially an anti-Christ version of his syrupy Father Fitzgibbon in Going My Way and approximately 900,000 subsequent performances, Fitzgerald does everything but scurry under the stove when someone flicks a light on in the kitchen. “It does a man good to let off a little steam sometimes,” he purrs malevolently as he devises a plan sure to deplete Hollywood of their entire stockpile of Max Factor hemoglobin.

From skunks to skanks, we go to Jo...an absolutely ravishing flame-haired Laura Elliott, whose association with the assayer personifies navel lint in the in-and-outie guide to doomed relationships. Apparently emanating from the town of Gloriagrahameville, Elliott masterfully wisecracks and connives her way through the proceedings, effortlessly ascending to the position of SILVER CITY's number one gold-digger. When it comes to staking her claim, Elliott puts the 'wh' in front of ore. Elliott's looks are so double-take amazing that she gives female lead Yvonne De Carlo a run for her money – and that's quite a sprint (Elliott, in case you can't place her, achieved screen mortality the same year this movie was released, playing Farley Granger's trampy ho’ wife in Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train)! BTW, De Carlo, lusty buckskin wearin' heroine, goes against the grain in hiring O'Brien as the foreman for the outfit she runs with pater Edgar Buchanan.

As one might have already gleaned, SILVER CITY boasts an excellent cast – and the roster goes on; prominently featured in throughout the 91-minute running time are such familiar faces as Richard Arlen, Gladys George, John Dierkes, Myron Healey and Billy House.

To me, as important as the cast, is the credit Color by Technicolor...or, to be exact, the splendid cinematography of the process’ heralded practitioner Ray Rennahan. And whoever did location scouting deserves a pat on the back as well. Ditto the prerequisite rousing music, which thunders over the plains with gusto, courtesy of composer Paul Sawtell.

Granted, unless you and and your'n are ravenous western fans or live in a hamlet that has Gulch in the border charter, it's likely that no one will ever ask to see a Blu-Ray or DVD called SILVER CITY. What you need to do is to have it on your monitor as your movie day/afternoon/night pals file into your media room. Trust me, once it's on the screen, they'll be surprisingly pleased and, if it's not the color, the scenery, the female pulchritude or the action – the overall appearance of the razor-sharp platter will do the job. Of course, there's the aforementioned cast – and here's your chance to do a little acting yourself. All you need to do is to say, “Oh, I'm sorry...I didn't realize the time...I'll take this off...” I guarantee you'll be cut off with a “No, no – that's all right...This looks kinda good...” And it kinda does.

Loco Motives

To call 1952's DENVER & RIO GRANDE a slam-bang western transcends mere hyperbole – because it IS a slam-bang western...LITERALLY. Allow me to explain – and in doing so enlighten those of us who underesti-mate the artistic merits of the role of a produc-er.
The real hero of this picture is not the on-screen two-gun shootin'/two-fist punchin' Edmond O'Brien – it's the behind-the-scenes participation of veteran oater-promoter Nat Holt.

As discussed earlier, Holt had the panache to give modestly budgeted pics an aura of grandeur. With DENVER & RIO GRANDE he elevated this knack to genius level. In a move that would make any historical society retch, the famed titled railroad had scheduled two eighty-year-old vintage locomotives, both still operational, for the scrap heap. Just where the Smithsonian's honchos were sleeping (or the local Coloradan's cultural guardians for that matter) was never made public. Never mind – Holt got wind of this travesty and set his publicity-obsessed brain into high gear. He contacted the D&RG and made them an offer they couldn't refuse: he would take the engines off their hands, crash 'em up for a big Technicolor movie, make the wreck an event, and tie-in their luxury travel service (rail was still “the” way to go in 1952) with the picture's release. Voila: win/win. Crashing two trains for any movie (let alone a glorified “B”) would be an enormous coup, essentially adding a million dollars of production values to the project (to say nothing of the reams of ballyhoo that the stunt would generate). Byron Haskin was brought in to direct, Eddie O'Brien to star...and so on and so forth. The success of SILVER CITY allowed for a greater budget, and what with the story climaxing around that non-SFX spectacular near-zero-costing set-piece, this meant top-drawer tech people and a larger “A” picture cast. Laura Elliott, who fatally femmed Yvonne De Carlo out of the limelight in the previous picture was brought back, now the solo lady-lead, riding not only horses but the praise from Strangers on a Train (like she did to De Carlo, Elliott pulled the female rug out from under star Ruth Roman). I guess you could say I'm a big Laura Elliott fan; in fact, say it! It's ironic that in spite of her early display of camera-chemistry, she's best remembered today as the ditzy wife of Larry Tate from the Bewitched series (which she appeared in under her alternate moniker of Kasey Rogers).

As indicated, the cast of DENVER & RIO GRANDE eschews the budget – placing the 90-minute pic defiantly in the Mr. Big Stuff league. Costarring with O'Brien is Sterling Hayden as his chief adversary, with Dean Jagger, Lyle Bettger, J. Carrol Naish, ZaSu Pitts, Paul Fix and Tom Powers in “Oh, wow!” support.

Hayden (atypically greasy, grubby, but nevertheless still resembling the most normal family member from the Wrong Turn franchise) is particularly vile as the head of the opposing Canyon City & San Juan rail gang. The race between that outfit and the D&RG constitutes the crux of the picture. Natch, O'Brien is out to do it on the square – concurrently making the wilderness safe for chillun an' womenfolk. Hayden's approach is more direct: kill whoever gets in your way – sort of Norman Bates by way of Ayn Rand.

As one might expect, DENVER & RIO GRANDE is a pure adrenalin rush from fade-in to fade-out. Like its predecessor, it benefits enormously from the awesome 100% location work, all rendered in rich hues and tones – again via the splendid palette of Ray Rennahan.

“B” trappings, however, do rear their clichéd head through the music by returning composer Paul Sawtell – who, while thoroughly professional, tends to rely way too much upon renditions of “I've Been Working on the Railroad,” not exactly an inspired display of subtlety. Then there's the comic relief, in this case a frightening non-railroad coupling of the romantic kind betwixt Pitts and Fix. Trust me – it would drive Gabby Hayes screaming to Brokeback Mountain. “The” barroom brawl, certainly providing enough employment to turn 1952 into a stuntman's union paradise, simply makes no sense. I know – does it ever? But here's why I bring this up: O'Brien's roughneck crew of morons revolt against the constant mishaps (the dirty work of Hayden) that have disrupted their otherwise carefree lifestyle of skull-busting and likely inbreeding. They take it out on O'Brien in the local tavern. While countless injuries – some permanent, some possibly fatal – incurred, the men merrily equate this carnage to taking a breather or “stretchin’ one’s legs” (albeit not their’s!), and happily traipse back with O'Brien to their camp. I don't get it – but at least I'm satisfied that the movie wasn't filmed in Smell-O-Vision...or that I wouldn't have to deal with so many of these celluloid idiots again until Quest for Fire. A lot of this blame can, I suppose, be heaped on alumnus writer Gruber; however, one must take into account that he was employed primarily for the purpose of quickly concocting a story whose only objective was to showcase two trains interacting like a Mob Wives dinner party (reminiscent of The Movies’ embryonic days of yore where nearby real-life disasters were filmed by rushed-to-the-sight company cameramen, and scenarists then called in to write a one-reeler around it).

That basically encompasses the majority of the picture's shortcomings. The above annihilate-and-frisk saloon sequence is especially numbing when compared to Elliott's rather “it’s complicated” role as a duplicitous corporate spy – sort of a Mata Oakley – up to her adorable armpits in sabotage and intrigue.

And, finally, then there's Lyle Bettger. Not twenty minutes into the proceedings, he's already champing at the bit to blow up the D&RG...The funny thing is that he threatened the workings of L.A.’s Union Station in the pic of the same name two years earlier. And later that year, Bettger would be instrumental in causing the massive derailing in DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth. DENVER & RIO GRANDE's budget was probably one-tenth of C.B.'s over-bloated Cirque-du-Oy-vey catastrophe. Yet, today, for obvious reasons, the wreck in D&RG comes off way better than the phony miniature/soundstage mock-up destruction in Greatest Show). Apparently suffering from severe train-damage made Bettger Paramount's rail-and-farewell go-to guy of choice.

SILVER CITY. Color [full frame: 1.37:1; 1080p High Definition). Mono Audio [DTS-HD MA] UPC: 887090040006. Cat #: OF400. SRP: $29.95.
Also available on DVD: UPC: 887090039901. Cat #: OF399.
SRP: $24.95.

DENVER & RIO GRANDE. Color [full frame: 1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]. Mono Audio [DTS-HD MA]. UPC: 887090040204. Cat #: OF402. SRP: $29.95.
Also available on DVD: UPC: 887090040105. Cat #: OF401.
SRP: $24.95.