Strother Martin Wednesday #11 The Shaggy Dog

This film came out when I was just a year old, so I know I did not see it at that time. I am pretty sure I did see it in a theater at some point but the real reason I remembered it, and that Strother was in it, was that I had a paperback novelization of the movie when I was in Middle School and it had a picture of Jay in it. I’m sorry to say I have no idea if I still own that book, maybe out in the shed in California, but I do have access to the movie as do all of you who have Disney +.

His name does appear on the clever title credits, which included some animated elements of a furry mop dog chasing after a grasshopper and wiping each title card off as the dog runs by.

This is a children’s film featuring a boy who magically turns into a dog and overhears the plans of the spies in a house down the street from where he lives.

Strother plays “Thurm”, the inside man at a missile plant in the town where the events take place. He shows up at the door of a renown art scholar who has taken over as curator at the local museum. We don’t know why he is there at first, the scene simply shows him arriving and being escorted upstairs. Francesca is the daughter of the man and the object of interest to the two teen boys in the story, one of whom will soon be transforming.

Fred MacMurray and Jean Hagen are listed as the stars, but they are simply the names. Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran are the sons in the family and they have most of the action. Kirk was a child star who made several Disney films, including “Old Yeller”. He passed away just a year ago.

Strother’s part in this film is relatively minor, but he did show up more than I had remembered. Once the spy subplot kicks in he is in several shots.

He arrives with a widget from “Section 32”, yes even Disney Kid’s pictures can have a MacGuffin in them. The dog overhears the plot to steal this secret and the rest of the story revolves around MacMurray’s dog hating mailman, trying to convince the authorities to believe he got his information from his son the dog. The daughter gets dragged away by the spies as they try to escape with the stolen secret.

There is a chase scene with the dog driving a hot rod and later a police car, trying to catch up with the spy ring before they get away. Actually, the talking dog effects are pretty good and the mix of puppets, real dogs well trained and even a guy in a dog suit, works just well enough to keep us from groaning at the silliness of it all.

The crooks end up trying to escape by boat, which gives the hero dog a chance to knock Strother into the water, jump on the boat and foil the escape as well as rescue the girl.

For us, the final important shot is one that is befitting a former diving champion. Strother is struggling in the water to get back up on the pier to be taken into custody by the police.

“The Shaggy Dog” is not a great movie but it is kind of fun for the family. Strother would usually remain a supporting character but those characters would have better lines and development as his career went along. This was one of the earliest films I could brag about to my friends that my cousin Strother Martin was in, at least they would have seen it.

Strother Martin Wednesday #10 Cowboy

This is only the third film on the summer project that I’d not seen before. It is also a film where Strother does not receive a screen credit, despite having a great death scene and being the focus of attention for everyone on screen for a couple of minutes. Of course the cast was pretty full of what were bigger names at the time, including: Brian Donlevy, Richard Jaeckel, Dick York and James Westerfield. Strother was probably better known as a TV actor in these days, having appeared in 15 episodes of television series in the same year that this movie came out.

He shows up driving the wagon that is going on the cattle drive. It may be that he was supposed to be a cook as well as a cowhand. He certainly appears to be much younger than in many of his more famous roles. This film stars Jack Lemon as a hotel clerk who buys his way into a cattle drive, headed by veteran cowboy Glenn Ford. The story revolves around the travails of a drive down to Mexico and back to Chicago. Lemon’s tenderfoot has to learn along the way, how unforgiving the trail can be.

Dick York plays a cowboy in the drive who has a way with the ladies and he and Strother discuss the aroma of horses as a attractant to the ladies. He also admires Jay’s boots and that becomes a minor story point in a later scene. Although there is no title card with his name on it, he is recognized by name on the back cover notes of the Blu Ray that I acquired for this entry. This was a Twilight Time Edition of the film. Twilight Time was a specialty company that produced exceptional versions of films in a limited run. This boutique manufacturing usually ended up with about 3,000 copies of any title. The company no longer exists but once in a while on ebay, you can find some of their product.

Strother is only in this early sequence and another one that comes up just a few minutes into the cattle drive when it starts.

You can see him here in the background, washing up the dinner dishes, another indication that he may be the trail cook. Unfortunately, his character does not have a name. On IMDB, he is listed as Cowhand Bitten by Snake, which gives away immediately why he has only the two scenes. In a moment of macho levity, the cowhands are tossing a rattlesnake at one another and they accidentally end up wrapping it around Strother’s neck.

The snakebite goes right into the vein, meaning there is nothing they can do for him. They end up making mundane small talk while he dies on the ground while the group is helpless. It is a pretty chilling scene.

Lemon’s character is flummoxed over what seems to him the casual way that the cowboys receive death. When Richard Jaeckel’s character starts to remove the boots that had been admired earlier, Lemon’s character takes umbrage and a fight starts but it is finished pretty quickly by trailboss Ford.

The notes in the Blu ray box are similar to those you would find in a Criterion release, something thoughtful, written by a film expert. I did not copy the whole page, but here is the relevant Strother passage.

Glen Ford then confirms that Strother has died,

and the movie moves on. The film is actually very good. There is a growing respect from Ford toward Lemon’s character, and Lemon learns some lessons too well from his “partner”. There are stampedes, and fights, and Indian attacks throughout the rest of the film, but none of them is accompanied by the familiar voice or face of Strother Martin.

Strother Martin Wednesday #9 True Grit

I’m proud to say that Strother Martin was a part of the film that finally won John Wayne a long overdue Academy Award. There are some who believe this was simply a sentimental make good for years of great work and that the performance itself was not particularly deserving. That hypothesis should disappear as you watch the movie and see the range of Wayne’s work in this story and the sincerity with which it was committed to the screen. In addition to the Duke, you will get a Strother Martin Performance that is limited to two scenes, but for which there is simply no comparison. Dakin Matthews is a prolific actor with an appropriately withered tone in the 2010 Coen Brothers version of Tue Grit, however his part, while effective lacks the sparkling humor that Strother provides here.

As you look at the opening credits above, you will see a heady list of actors in supporting roles in this Wayne vehicle. Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, Jeff Corey should give you plenty of links for your next game of “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”. Jeff Corey also appeared in another 1969 western that featured Strother Martin, the biggest box office hit of that year “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”. We may get to that film on this summer project, where Strother was onscreen with both stars. In this film, all of his role is played against a single actor, Kim Darby, playing the young Mattie Ross.

In his opening introduction, Strother as Col. G. Stonehill, Licensed Horse Trader, he struts confidently down his porch stairs to the corral where Mattie is admiring the horses, and he begins a sales pitch, much like a car dealer does with folks who wander onto a car lot. He believes at this point that he has the upper hand. Oh how he is mistaken.

In an instant, he goes from an authority in a position of strength, to a victim of a sustained legal attack that he was clearly not anticipating. You can see the doubt creep into his expression immediately, beginning a process of advancing and retreating that will make up the nature of his exchange with Mattie for the rest of their scenes.

Basically, young Mattie is making demands of Coil. Stonehill, regarding the deal for horses that her dead father had made. She is also seeking compensation for the horse stolen by her father’s killer, which was being stabled at Col. Stonehill’s livery. The Colonel thinks his position is unassailable, but Mattie is not an ordinary 14 year old girl. She persists.

One of the differences between this version of the story and the one told by the Coen’s is that there is a transition from an exterior scene to an interior of the Colonel’s office. You can see the resignation on Jay’s face here as he chooses to retreat to the interior as a way of regaining the upper hand. It is not a successful strategy.

Retreating behind his desk must have seemed like a good idea, but you will notice from the actor’s expression, that the character has not found strength in the dominant territory he expected. The line readings at this point quietly thunder with the antipathy that Col. Stonehill feels toward the young woman who is getting the better of him.

Col. G. Stonehill: I’ll take it up with my attorney.

Mattie Ross: And I will take it up with mine – Lawyer Daggett. And he will make money and I will make money and your lawyer will make money… and you, Mr. Licensed Auctioneer, you will foot the bill.

After flummoxing the Colonel with her threats and negotiating skills, she produces the release document and puts it in his hand as he requested, and he knows he has been got the better of because she already had it prepared.

When she returns to complete their arrangement by picking up her father’s saddle, she reengages in an attempt to purchase one of the ponies that she has previously sold back to the horse trader. Upon her arrival he makes a comment that is incredibly funny in how it reveals his attitude toward her reappearance on his doorstep.

Colonel Stonehill: I just received word that a young girl fell head first down a fifty foot well on the Tolson Road. I thought perhaps it was you.

Mattie Ross: Do you know a Marshal Rooster Cogburn?

Col. G. Stonehill: Most people around here have heard of Rooster Cogburn and some people live to regret it. I would not be surprised to learn that he’s a relative of yours.

He gives her some advice that she feels she does not need and they conclude their business with him once again capitulating in complete surrender to her approach.

The film is not a comedy, but it does have some compelling comedic elements. The greatest amount of laughter to be had from the movie occurs in the few minutes that Jay is on screen.

This is the complete first scene, containing much of what I just described. Enjoy, don’t laugh too loud.
Closing Credits

This may be my favorite performance from Strother. If it is not his best it is his most entertaining, and it came in the year that he starred in three of the greatest Western ever made.

Strother Martin Wednesday #8 The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance

There are other versions of the song above that are available on YouTube, but they include clips that give away key information about the film, so I took the one that follows the song best but does not identify what happens. The song will give you enough of the story that you can follow along with these comments without having had to see the film.

“The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance”, as far as I can tell, is the first of the six films he made with John Wayne. He had already worked with Lee Marvin a couple of times, including an episode of the Twilight zone. Lee Marvin (Liberty Valance), Strother Martin (Floyd) and Lee Van Cleef (Reese) had all previously appeared together in The Twilight Zone: The Grave (1961), which aired on October 27, 1961.

Strother did not make the top ten in billing for this film, but you can see from the company he was keeping, that was no slight, rather it was a great cast of character actors who all got listed after title cards featuring the main stars of the film. I don’t see that he ever worked with Lee Van Cleef again, but as we have already seen, he did work with Lee Marvin again in “Pocket Money“.

If his character name Floyd is ever used in the film, it was just in the background, and I can’t remember hearing it. In this story he plays Lee Marvin’s toady, a psycho who seems to derive pleasure out of other’s suffering.

At one point, hard-drinking newspaper editor Dutton Peabody refers to the bad guys as “Liberty Valance and his Myrmidons.” The Myrmidons were figures of ancient Greek mythology, skilled warriors in Homer’s Iliad commanded by Achilles. Because they were known for their fierce loyalty to their leader, the term came to be used in pre-industrial Europe almost as “robots” would be today. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term has since come to mean “hired ruffian” or “a loyal follower, especially one who executes orders without question, protest, or pity–unquestioning followers.” (IMDB Trivia)

When we first meet the crew, you don’t see Strother’s face because the gang is masked, but his diminutive height and shifty eyes give him away. Later, when the gang arrives at the dinner house and takes over a table already occupied, you can see he is the number two man in Liberty Vallance’s crew, but he ends up being more noticeable for a couple of lines and his gleefully deranged expressions.

As we have explored before, his reaction expressions are priceless and one of the things that made him a valuable asset to film makers for the three decades he was active. The shot above is when he notices Jimmy Stewart in the café for the first time, after having participated in his beating during the hold up at the start of the story. A couple of minutes later, he gets kicked in the ass by John Wayne’s Tom Doniphon, and he comes up off the floor pissed but powerless.

Strother had worked in Westerns plenty of times, and in many of the TV shows he was cast in, he played the grungy miner, cowhand, or criminal. Floyd seems like a combination of those types, maybe lacking the dirty face of a lowly mule riding desert vagabond, but definitely not someone of status. His clothes mark him as the working stiff of the gang, nothing fancy that would compete with his peacock of a boss, Liberty.

The scene where Liberty and his gang tear up the newspaper office and beat Mr. Peabody the editor to near death, has Strother heaving and smiling and licking his lips at the sadistic treatment of the newsman. In an interview he did a short while before his death, Strother said that Director John Ford, recognized that Strother was playing a sex psychopath in his scenes and seemed to deeply approve of it.

Strother’s biggest moment in the film occurs at the delegate election meeting where he is the one who steps up and nominates Liberty Vallance to be a delegate to the state convention. It’s so funny when they take the vote of all the men attending the meeting, and Liberty manages to get only two votes.

The conclusion of the film begins with the death of Liberty Vallance and Floyd calling for the Doctor as Liberty lays in the street.

It seems Floyd is the only one who truly morns Liberty’s death. Strother gets a another scene right after this where he and Reese (Van Cleef) are insisting that Stewart’s Rance Stoddard be lynched for killing Vallance.

Tom Doniphon, who knows what really happened and is devastated by the effect it will have on his romantic life, shuts the two of them up and tosses Floyd out the barroom doors. The last we see of Strother is him crawling on the street.

Once again Strother was not the star in billing, but he was when it came to acting and making an impression.

No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

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.