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Thursday, 4 November 2010

Men of many parts

During Hollywood's Golden Age, almost all of the leading men were, at times, made to put on a Stetson or such like and saddle up and take to the cinema range. Some looked better than others. Some (Randolph Scott for one) looked magnificent. The actors that looked more at home on the range did their part in defining the look of the genre and scripts were often altered to accommodate the established style of the star. Some actors like John Wayne will forever be associated with the western but there were many stars who were equally successful outside the genre. Actors like Henry Fonda and James Stewart for instance were just as effective in melodrama and comedies as they were on the range.

Here are several actors who were as well known for other genres as they were for the western.

Errol Flynn - The actor brought his swashbuckling style to his westerns, making him for many years Warner’s biggest star. He was excellent as the cattleman turned lawman in Dodge City (1939). Another notable western role came in 1940's Virginia City but by far his most famous western role was as Custer in Raoul Walsh's whitewashed, but exciting They Died with their Boots On.

Robert Taylor – The actor’s early westerns were forgettable but when he cast aside his handsome leading man image, he really began to shine. Cast in the title role for 1941’s Billy the Kid, the actor seemed uncomfortable but there was a spark in his performance. However it was only as the actor aged that he made some great western appearances – 1950’s Devil’s Doorway saw him give an effective performance as a Shoshone Indian facing racial prejudice.  And he was superb as the aging buffalo hunter in 1956’s The Last Hunt.

Henry Fonda – despite making relatively few westerns, Henry Fonda will always be associated with the genre because of several key roles. The actor was displeased with his role as Frank James in 1939’s Jessie James and he was reluctant to repeat the role in 1940’s, The Return of Franks James. Fonda had to fight with the studio to cast him in the classic western melodrama The Ox-Bow Incident in 1943. The studio were worried that his role as a bystander who watches an illegal lynching would damage his leading man image, but Fonda’s performance was excellent and showed he had  a far greater range than previously displayed. He played Wyatt Earp with stoical charm in the magnificent but inaccurate, My Darling Clementine. When Fonda was cast in Fort Apache he insisted that John Wayne had the sympathetic role while he played the wrong-headed commander who was loosely based on General Custer. Another notable bad guy role came in Firecreek and of course he was exceptional as the smiling sadist in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West.

Gregory Peck – The actor may not be chiefly associated with westerns but he played some iconic roles in the oaters. He was excellent as the solemn man trying to escape his past in The Gunfighter (1950). For the role the actor donned a moustache and alienated many of him fans, but the film and his performance were excellent and the movie is rightly regarded as a classic. None of the actors other westerns could quite match this one but with his performance here guarantees him a place in any list of western greats.

James Stewart – the actor had excellent comedy timing and it is fitting that his first western success was 1939’s Destry Rides Again. It was a complete surprise then to see the normally mild mannered actor shine as a haunted cowboy in Winchester 73 which was directed by Anthony Mann. After this movie Stewart teamed with Mann for a string of classic westerns including, The Naked Spur (1953) which guarantees he will always stand in the line of western legends.

Alan Ladd – one film gives Alan Ladd his status as western legend and that was 1953’s Shane. The actor was superb as the strong, silent drifter who sides with a group of victimised homesteaders. And although Ladd’s other western roles were mostly forgettable it was his performance here that propels him towards the top of the list. Before Clint Eastwood, Alan Ladd defined the laconic loner.

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