Strother Martin Wednesday #5 Fool’s Parade

Western Director Andrew McLaglen produced and directed this film with his star from Shenandoah, Jimmy Stewart. McLaglen was also the director of McLintock! from our post two weeks ago.

This is a hard to find gem, as far as I can tell there is no legitimate DVD or Blu Ray available for the movie. You can stream it with commercials on a couple of sites. When I first was looking for it, streaming was not nearly as accessible as it is now. I bought a TCM bootlegged copy on ebay.

The story involves three released convicts who are in possession of a check for $25,452.32, a sum that would be more than a half million dollars in today’s world. In 1935, the idea that a convict could accumulate that much in prison from the pittance they earned is a stretch, but that is the set up. A corrupt prison guard and the bank manager plot to keep Jimmy Stewart’s character Matty Appleyard from collecting.

Strother is Lee Cottrill, Matty’s friend and partner in a general store they plan on opening. Their young associate is played by Kurt Russell.

George Kennedy and Strother have basically changed roles here from their previous collaboration in “Cool Hand Luke”. Now Kennedy is the evil Captain Doc’ Council, and Jay is the prisoner under his thumb. Lee is a cooperative ex-con who dreams of nothing more than stocking his store with the products he discovers everyday, looking for quality items that the public will want. He and Johnny, Russell’s character, follow Mattie’s lead and no one wants trouble, but the corrupt banker is determined that they will be stopped, at the point of murder if needed.

They meet a mining supply salesman who turns out to be a drunk, and they end up with his stash of dynamite while fleeing from Council and his two hired thugs. Lee is a failed bank robber and Strother plays him as a naïf, focused only on the items he adds to his list constantly, and only slowly aware of the dangers they face. As it becomes more apparent that they are in deep trouble, Strother dons his anxious and feckless persona and becomes a creature one could pity out of his simplicity.

Of course Lee can easily be distracted and when Anne Baxter shows up as a madam with a floating bordello/gin joint, Lee can’t really resist and gets the three men tangled up in another plot complication while trying to escape.

We all know that if dynamite is introduced in a story, it is going to be used in the film somewhere. The explosion that takes place on the river is pretty spectacular and Strother’s character gets a couple of comic lines that are maybe a little light given the destruction involved.

At one point, the three have separated from one another and Lee and Johnny have several scenes together. I’m pretty happy about this because I am a big fan of Kurt Russell and he is basically playing straight man to Strother.

This is a very substantial part in one of the last films that Jimmy Stewart was the featured star. The story works pretty well and the outcome is satisfying. The bad guy gets what is coming to him but we see it in a pretty indirect way.

This was a great role for Jay with Jimmy Stewart having worked with him in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance” and two years later they co-starred in a TV show called “Hawkins”, which only ran for one season but was highly rated critically [Jay was nominated for a Golden Globe for the series.]

Strother Martin Wednesday #4 The Deadly Companions

Let me start with an apology for the images on todays edition. I watched this on Amazon Prime and the edit they have is simply awful. I saw some other images on-line that looked better, but none of them featured Strother, and I’m not sure I want to buy a copy of the film on DVD.

“The Deadly Companions” is the first of the three films that Strother did with Director Sam Peckinpah, and it was Peckinpah’s feature debut after directing a number of TV Western episodes. Frankly, it is not a very well made film. It seems like a learning experience for the director, but in his defense he was unhappy about the lack of control he had over the project, so maybe there was a better film in his head.

The premise of the film has ex-union soldier Brian Keith, stalking a Rebel soldier who had tried to scalp him five years earlier during the Civil War. After luring the unsuspecting “reb” into a plot to rob a bank, they get to the bank too late, another group has already started and a shootout occurs. In the cross fire Keith accidentally shoots and kills an innocent, and he tries to salve his conscience by helping transport the body across Apache territory to be buried in a far off abandoned town.

Brian Keith, Chill Wills, and Steve Cochran

The previous entry in “Strother Martin Wednesdays” was “McClintok!”, which included Maureen O’Hara in the cast. This film was a few years earlier and it is the first time Jay shared the screen with O’Hara. She plays a dance hall girl who has a tragic past and present and it is she who must cross the territory to complete the burial. Strother is the Parson in the town and he has only three scenes, but as usual, he makes the best of them.

After he walks in to the bar, which is serving as the church for Sunday Service, he greets the three strangers and Kit, the character played by O’Hara, as new congregants, and admonishes the men to remove their hats. That confrontation is complicated by Steve Cochran’s character pressing advances against Kit and her standing up to him. The Parson admires her fortitude and largely ignores the tut tutting of the townswomen who don’t approve of Kit.

As the story progresses, Kit is determined to transport the body to the abandoned other town for burial in a cemetery where she has loved ones. The town Mayor and the Parson arrive at the funeral parlor to try and dissuade her from undertaking the journey. The townsfolk apparently feel a bit of remorse at their treatment of Kit after the tragedy, and seem to be trying to make amends.

Sometimes Jay’s voice can sound like it is uttering platitudes, but he modulates it really effectively to make sincerity the emotion that comes through and this is one of those scenes where he manages to do that.

Much like “The Ballad of Cable Hogue”, Strother is in the opening section of the film and then reappears in the closing act. Unlike that other Peckinpah film, Jay’s part in the last act is not central to the events but he does have one very good line that helps close the film and satisfy the emotional reconciliation with the town and O’Hara and Keith’s characters.

After arriving with the posse chasing after the two bank robbers that had abandoned Keith and O’Hara on their journey, the Parson assures the laconic vengeance seeking Keith, that he will say the right words over the grave of the departed that everyone has traveled so far to deposit in this spot.

“I’ll say the right kind of words”

The middle act of the film is the journey, fraught with betrayal by evil companions Steve Cochran and Chill Wills. Wills also appeared with Strother and Maureen O’Hara in “McLintock!”, there he was the usual avuncular companion. In this film, he plays the prairie scum part that Strother would later own, and he was quite reprehensible in the role.

Strother was Fifth billed in this film, after the main lead actress and the three men who accompany her on the journey. This film came out in 1961 and Strother was not established as a name figure at the moment, but he was rapidly moving in that direction. An indication of how his status had changed over the years can be found on the packaging of the DVD where his name actually appears on the cover.

“and Strother Martin”.

As a side note, the screenplay was written by Albert Sidney Fleischman, supposedly based on his book, although it appears that the book grew out of the screenplay. Regardless, I think he was better known as Sid Fleishman, the author of children’s books. Fleischman was also a magician and an acquaintance of my Father, Magician Kirk Kirkham. I have a copy of one of my favorite childhood books, “Mr. Mysterious and Company”, about a magician and his family in the old west, that was signed for my Dad by the author. Just a coincidence that I found interesting.

Strother Martin Wednesday #3 McLintock!

What a cast of old timers and Hollywood Royalty, John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, as if their characters in “The Quiet Man” were transported to the old west and were still battling over manners and customs. “McLintock!” is a comedy western that focuses on the troubled relationship between Wayne’s George Washington McLintock and his estranged wife, Katherine. Basically everyone in town gets involved and that includes Strother Martin as the Indian Agent of the government, Agard.

Gordon Jones and Strother Martin

When it comes to Western stories, Jay famously described most of the characters he played as “prairie scum”. There are a number of Western characters however that were not degenerates but rather, self important bureaucratic types, and the Indian Agent Agard is one of them. Dragged into a continuing feud between a local rancher with government connections, Matt Douglas played by Gordon Jones, and G.W. McLintock himself, Agard is an ineffectual, over his head, lightweight who is used for comedic effect in almost every scene he appears in. Strother adds to his character the glasses that become the butt of several jokes, along with his usual tone of voice that strains to exert power when he can’t.

One of the very first of those comedic moments occurs when he attempts to mount a horse and accompany the townsfolk out to where a group of newly arrived settlers are planning on stringing up a local Indian, based on the suspicion the Indians have kidnapped a young woman from their group.

Of course it does not go well for the officious Agard, who ends up on the ground, glasses askew and looking ridiculous as a public official. At least he managed to keep his hat on.

The big comic set piece of the movie is the all out fistfight that takes place as McLintock tries to calm down the settlers and stop a lynching of an innocent Indian who is also a friend of his.

Of course Jay is right in the middle of it, trying to maintain his dignity and even attempting to hold back Kate from getting involved on her husbands side.

Strother and Maureen O’Hara, waiting to join the fray.

Strother’s character is singled out repeatedly in the film for special acts of degradation, so of course he does not join the fight willingly, and in fact, escapes any fisticuffs but does end up in the mudhole that all the characters visit in the scene.

Agard is going to end up down there with everyone else, but he gets deposited there in a way that is unique. He is lifted up and deposited into a mine car that is on a track leading directly to the hole. Agard is no Indiana Jones however, and he does not possess the ability to get the cart to do what he wants, it simply heads to the edge to make sure his moment of comedic glory is special.

You can pretty much be assured that if someone is going to be humiliated on a regular basis in the film, it is Strother’s character. There are a couple of incidents that come up at a party when Jay gets doused with his own beer or knocked down into a shed when he gets between two young men fighting. His character is the very definition of comic relief being punctuated with an exclamation point.

About the only scene he appears in where he is not the butt of a physical gag is at a hearing of government officials, who have gathered to determine the residential status of the local Indian tribe. Although he is not physically abused in this scene, he is still something of a comic figure, reduced to being in the background during this moment of bureaucratic stupidity.

If ever there were a “type” in movies of feckless official power, it can be pointed out in a western by looking at the costuming and the casting of the part. The bowler hat and the checked suit call out Strother Martin as an outsider to the real cowboys of the film, and make him almost an Eastern dude, lost among the real men of the west.

In a cast that includes Edgar Buchanan, Chill Wills, Jerry Van Dyke, Bruce Cabot and Perry Lopez, once again Strother Martin stands out and all eyes and ears will be on him when it is time for us to laugh.

Strother Martin Wednesday #2 The Ballad of Cable Hogue

Almost immediately after being featured in “The Wild Bunch”, Strother and his buddy L.Q. Jones found themselves cast in another Sam Peckinpah film, the somewhat comic, new western, “The Ballad of Cable Hogue.” Their characters here are distinctly more clever than Coffer and T.C., but in the end they are just as vile, although the character Jay plays almost gets a redemption arc, almost.

This story is mostly focused on the persistent Cable Hogue, played by Jason Robards, who is partners with Bowen (Strother) and Taggart (Jones) in some undisclosed enterprise that has left them in the desert without enough water in the canteen for the three of them. Basically, the other two get the drop on Hogue and abandon him in the desert, taking their mule and water and leaving him to die.

All of this takes place before the titles, and it starts Robards on his path, to success, love, and vengeance. The two antagonists do not return to the story until late in the last act. In the meanwhile, Jason Robards Title character carries on a one sided conversation with God, until he accidentally discovers a water hole in the wasteland, near enough to a stagecoach trail, to be of great value. The story then shows him becoming tentative friends with an itinerant preacher named Sloan, who is played by David Warner. Strother and Warner will be featured a decade later in the nature gone wild horror film “Nightwing”. Warner has an impressive list of credits and he continues to work, I last saw him in the sequel to Mary Poppins, but he did voicework in a Teen Titans cartoon recently.

I have actually written about this film before in a post on this blog, which was part of a Blogathon that I participated in. The subject of that post was actually Slim Pickens, who is billed immediately after Strother. While I do discuss Jay in that post, the focus was on Pickens, so the character of Bowen is mentioned mostly in passing. The really nice set off of Bowen’s character in the pre-title moments was the mocking song that the character sings as he and Taggart wander away from the abandoned Hogue. Much like the tune he sings off key in Butch and Sundance, Jay manages to bring an authenticity to a cowboy singing, that you will not find in a Roy Rogers or Gene Autrey film.

The second act of the film is mostly taken up by the romance between Cable Hogue and a local working girl named Hildy, played by the delicious Stella Stevens. Miss Stevens had a long early career as the sex appeal in a lot of films. TV movies and series, she was also a Playboy Centerfold. (I also just discovered she was in a long term relationship with the late Bob Kulick, who I met at the Kiss KruiseFest in October of 2019). Hogue, Sloan and Hildy have a variety of adventures and incidents in the middle of the film as the story meanders around the path that Hogue is following. It is enjoyable stuff but it is not what I wish to focus on right now.

Let’s get back to our subject for the day, “Bowen” the more feeble of the two backstabbers from the opening scene. You knew it was inevitable that these two would come back into Cable Hogue’s world, and they do so in a pretty funny way. They get off the stagecoach when it arrives at the way station and are surprised to discover that it is a thriving enterprise run by their old partner.

While they seem to have prospered in their time apart, it is clear that it is not a result of being on the straight and narrow. Slim Picken’s stagecoach driver regales them with the financial success that Hogue has enjoyed as a result of the waterhole. Hogue plays is cool and smiles as he thanks them for helping him find his way to riches. Of course he is laying a trap for them when he mentions that he doesn’t trust banks to keep his money and that his riches are in his possession at the station.

The two of them return on horseback, determined to rob Hogue and convinced by their previous encounter that they can get the best of him. Hogue suckers them into digging a deep hole in pursuit of his buried treasure, leaving inconsequential amounts of copper and silver coins as breadcrumbs to convince them to keep digging, when what they are actually doing is digging their own graves.

Cable gets the drop on them and drives them out of the pit with a few well chosen rattlesnakes lobbed into the hole with them. We then get a restaging of the opening sequence when Cable did have the upper hand but lost it, this time, will the result be different? It’s not to hard to imagine that it will be.

Cable wants to force them into the desert like they did to him, but complications do ensue and soon we get the chance to marvel at Strother and his incredible whining. Bowen reveals himself to be a craven coward and is hardly humiliated at acknowledging the fact. He whimpers like a whipped animal and crys up a flood in pleading with Hogue not to fulfill his plan for him. This is a strong sequence for Jay as he gets to play to his strengths, which were usually playing weakness. The prairie scum he so often portrayed, are almost pitiful wnen he turns on his voice and scrunches his face into desperate contortions.

It is not entirely surprising what happens next, because we have established that Cable, while not a Saint, is also not a wicked man. He gets an opportunity to punish his enemy in a passive aggressive manner by giving him responsibilities that he can probably never live up to, but for which he will spend the rest of his life trying to do.

All in all, “The Ballad of Cable Hogue” is a great showcase for Strother Martin. He plays vile in the opening, and pitiful at the end. While his screen time is limited, like all great character actors, he brings his A game and makes the most out of the role, and adds to the picture in just the way the director wanted him to.

Strother Martin Wednesday #1 Slap Shot

This Summer we are going to do some catching up on the Strother Martin Film Project. My attention has been a lot of different places over the last couple of years, but I have never abandoned my goal of doing a post for all the film projects that Strother “Jay” Martin was credited with. We may not get to the TV projects because they are simply innumerable and hard to find sometimes, but this Summer we will do something special with the films. Every Wednesday this Summer, I plan on putting up at least one new post. By the time Labor Day arrives we should have a dozen projects covered. We are kicking off the Summer Strother Celebration with a personal favorite and reportedly Paul Newman’s favorite film of his career, “Slap Shot”.

Strother as Hockey Team Manager Joe McGrath.

Only the great Paul Newman was listed in the opening credits, but Strother is first in the closing credits, making him second billed. George Roy Hill had used him in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, a small role but a great part. This was the final of six movies he made with Paul Newman and it is fittingly his biggest role in any of those films. He plays Joe McGrath, the penny pinching, publicity seeking, feckless manager of a small time hockey club that finds itself on the brink of collapse. This is a comedy, and the man at the center of a lot of the comic moments is Jay.

Joe tries to keep local interest in the team up by trying a variety of publicity stunts. One regular one is having the players model fashions at the local department store. None of the players are enthusiastic about doing so, and one, when given a particularly festive robe to model, threatens to open the robe and show his hockey stick to the crowd. Joe doesn’t think he will do it but as he is making a phone call, he hears the crowd response off screen and he reacts as you might expect, with a resigned sign and an exhausted pose. Strother has many opportunities in this film to do reaction shots that fit the moment.

I am famously not a hockey fan. I may have seen one complete game in on television in my life. However, hockey has always been one of my favorite subjects for a sports movie. I love “Mystery Alaska”, “Goon”, and especially “Miracle”. I first saw “Slap Shot” in a theater when it opened in the winter of 1977. Over the years I have recommended it as one of my favorite comedy films of all time.

To be fair, Jay is not the only funny character in the film. The movie gets stolen from everyone by the three Hanson Brothers, the young, immature Goons that Joe has acquired and the leading character, played by Newman, Reggie, decides to exploit to bring up the enthusiasm for the team.

McGrath: “I got a good deal on those boys. The scouts said they showed a lot of promise.

Their exploits on the ice and the way they interact with the other players is a key ingredient in the films success. They take over the top violence, combine it with a naivete of youth, and juxtapose it against the background of the decaying town and team.

There is also a semi-serious story intertwined in the film about the relationships of the two main players on the team. Reg is still in love with his wife but is so caught up in the hockey lifestyle that his separation from her and their impending divorce, doesn’t keep him from tomcatting around the league. He is also flirting in a playful way with the dissatisfied new bride of his star player, Ned played by Michael Ontkean. She is the young Lindsay Crouse, and her bitterness overflows and is ruining her relationship with her husband. Reg and his soon to be ex-wife intercede to try and repair the young couple before they go down the same trail they have traveled.

While the story is interesting, and the exploits of the team on the ice are hysterical, it is the subtle use of facial expressions by Strother Martin that reminds us that this is supposed to be a real world story. Sure there are some exaggerations at the right moment, but most of the time, Joe McGrath is a everyday guy, trying to cope with a bad situation, and failing on most days.

An especially nice moment occurs when McGrath is trying to get the bail reduced for the Hanson Brothers, and he offers a gift to the desk sergeant of a Charleston Chief’s Key Ring. It is a sincere gesture from a man who does not have the means to do any better for his players, who all hate him anyway for making them do the dumb publicity stunts he comes up with.

Strother’s best moment of his patented feckless frustration however, comes during the climatic championship game. The team has clawed it’s way to the game, the crowd is packed, and Joe has hockey scouts and executives at the game in hopes of securing his and the player’s futures. The other team has decided to out goon the Chiefs at the very moment, that Ned has guilted Reg into playing hockey in the traditional, sporting fashion.

McGrath: “Every scout in the NHL is out there tonight, with contracts in their pockets, and they’re looking for talent. For winners. OOOOOOOOOH. All my years of publicity. All the fashion shows and radiothons for nothing… They come here tonight… to scout the Chiefs… the toughest team in the Federal League! Not this! Buncha… pussies.”

This was the apex moment of frustration, and the teams reaction is the catalyst for the conclusion, perhaps the least exciting end to a championship game ever. They basically back into a victory by flouting convention and getting a forfeit. As far as the team and the local fans are concerned, a win is a win. Time to celebrate

There is a lot more to say about the film, but of course we are trying to focus on Strother Martin’s contributions here and I think that pretty much covers it. One more on screen moment to highlight:

And roll Credits…