Friday, June 3, 2011

James Arness (1923 - 2011)

Sad news today.  After my lighhearted post about Glenn "Sam the Bartender" Strange yesterday, I just saw the news that James Arness passed away today of natural causes.  He was 88 years old.

This is just a year after his brother, Peter Graves left us.  Graves was 83.

Those two were giants in Hollywood, in more ways than one.  The brothers were both over 6 feet tall.  They brought me a lot of pleasure over the years, with quality acting in everything they touched.

They were not Bit Actors in any way, and they will be missed.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Is Glenn Strange

I was watching one of my new, favorite channels the other night, Encore Westerns.  Great westerns and lots of old TV shows, and no commercials.  What's not to like?

"Gunsmoke" came on.  And then there was a scene with Sam the bartender.  It brought back a flood of memories.  Many years ago I remember looking up who played Sam.  Glenn Strange was the name, and I remembered he was also a Frankenstein monster in some movies.  Time for more research on this outstanding Bit Actor.

Glenn Strange was born in 1899.  He taught himself how to play fiddle and guitar and started entertaining by the age of 12.  He was also a rancher and a cowboy.  In the 1930s he became a western singer on the radio, and then moved into movies.

Glenn started working on soundtracks, filling in the background music for early western talkies.  He soon found himself in front of the camera as an extra and in bit parts.  His size helped him get on screen.  He stood close to 6 1/2 feet tall, and was sometimes billed as Peewee Strange in his films. 

B-Westerns were all the rage in the early talkie days.  They were so popular, that many actors preferred to work in the lower stress atmosphere of making these six-reelers.  Feature films were more expensive, and if they bombed, the studio heads wanted to know why.  Plus, you could act in several of them while a feature look longer to make.  Many actors were paid by the picture, not the hour, so if you were in demand, you could make more money by making more films.

Strange made nine early films with Hoot Gibson (1892 - 1962), all talkies.  He also worked with John Wayne in 16 films.  He made 19 films with legendary stunt man, Yakima Canutt (1895 - 1986).  And in 1936, he got to play a robot in the Flash Gordon serial.

While the vast majority of these Strange films were westerns, Glenn did play in a few war films and made a good showing in horror flix.  In 1941 he appears in Playmates, starring Kay Kyser and his orchestra, John Barrymore, and the fetching Lupe Velez (1908 - 1944), playing an 'actor in a western film.'

By the mid 1940s, Boris Karloff was getting tired of donning the Frankenstein monster makeup.  In 1944 Karloff appears as Dr. Gustav Niemann (a name I won't remember) in House of Frankenstein, with Glenn Strange playing the monster.  It was strange that Strange looked strangely like Karloff, which led to him getting the part.  And at his height, he probably didn't need the platform shoes that Karloff used.  Glenn would play the monster again in House of Dracula (1945) and Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). 

The 1950s brought television and the TV Westerns.  Glenn was ready.  He was the original TV Butch Cavendish in "The Lone Ranger" series, and was seen in many television western series' as a guest star, over and over.  He was a stage driver on "The Rifleman" several times.

I wonder if he decided to settle down in Dodge City when he was hired by Miss Kitty at the Long Branch Saloon in 1961.  He stayed for a dozen years, and that was simply his most famous role.  "Gunsmoke" would make an impression on a whole new generation of fans for Glenn.  It did to me.  Good reason to watch House of Frankenstein again, and to go back and dig up some B-Westerns.

Glenn Strange has 311 titles listed on IMDb.  He died of lung cancer in 1973, just after retiring from tending bar.  He was never a big star, but he is an important Bit Actor who contributed his talent to so many worthwhile projects.  And that's not Strange at all.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Gunfighter

The Gunfighter (1950) is the story of Jimmy Ringo, loosely based on Johnny Ringo's life.  Very loosely.  Actually, all they did was use his last name and made him an outlaw.  The title role was played by Gregory Peck.  The film is pretty good, as is the acting, but by the last few minutes, the end becomes pretty obvious.  There was no surprise as to how Ringo would end up.  And it wasn't anything like the way Johnny Ringo ended his life.

The Bit Actors in this one were excellent.  I only watched it once, and that was before reading the cast list on IMDb.  Richard Jaeckel (1926 - 1997) was in it, but I missed him.  That is tough to do.  I remember him well for his part in The Dirty Dozen (1967).

Helen Westcott (1928 - 1998) played the love interest, schoolteacher, and wife (?) of Ringo.  Westcott has 78 titles on IMDb, starting when she was just six years old.  She appears in The Our Gang Follies of 1938.  Not many big hits, but she is also in With a Song in My Heart (1952) and Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953), then a lot of TV work.  Her last movie was I Love My Wife (1970) starring Elliott Gould.

The marshal was played by Millard Mitchell (1903 - 1953).  He only has 38 titles listed, but what a career.  It really got off the ground near the end of his life when he is seen in Twelve O'Clock High (1949), Winchester '73 (1950), You're in the Navy Now (1951), and of course Singin' in the Rain (1952).

In only his seventh film, the young, tough "gunny" is played by Skip Homeier (b. 1930).  It was a great start and he played it well.  In the same year he is in Halls of Montezuma with Richard Widmark.  He went on to a total of 133 titles and did quite a bit of TV work.  I remember him on "The Addams Family."  He was in the Don Knotts film, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966), and at least two of the original "Star Trek" shows.

The Gunfighters was a great movie for Bit Parts.  Watch for the names above in movies you see.  And since tomorrow is a holiday, that will give you time to spend in front of the TV.  Have a nice Memorial Day.