If you’re seeking the perfect Christmas presents for the western fans on your gift list, here are two suggestions that will bring joy to their world.
Dick Foran Western Collection
Throughout a film and TV career that spanned four decades, journeyman actor Dick Foran appeared in everything from prestige dramas (The Petrified Forest) to horror flicks (The Mummy’s Hand). But for many fans, he remains loved most as a singing cowboy in a series of B-westerns he made for Warner Bros. No kidding: That’s exactly how he was billed — “Dick Foran — The Singing Cowboy” — while serving as the Warners’ answer to Gene Autry from 1935 to 1937.
During that stretch, Foran acted and sang in a dozen sagebrush sagas, starting with Moonlight on the Prairie, a briskly paced adventure about a personable cowboy who, when he isn’t crooning “Covered Wagon Days” and the title tune, clears himself of a murder charge and defends a widow and her young son against a land-grabbing villain. A few months after that one, he was back in action with “Song of the Saddle” (1936), which had Foran’s Frank Wilson Jr. avenge the murder of Frank Wilson Sr. while posing as an outlaw named — you guessed it! — The Singing Kid. The movie’s highlight: The Singing Kid interrupts a conference with his gang to belt out “Vengeance,” an anthem that sounds like it was cribbed from a Nelson Eddy-Jeanette MacDonald operetta.
All 12 of Foran’s musical B-westerns are included in the Dick Foran Western Collection package. No one will ever mistake any of them for great cinema, but each is enjoyable rainy-afternoon fun for longtime fans and new converts alike.
The Rebel: The Complete Series
Five decades before Cullen Bohannon started working on the railroad in Hell on Wheels, another former Confederate soldier loomed large in his own prime time series. As Johnny Cash sang during the opening and closing credits, “Johnny Yuma was a rebel. He roamed through the West.”
The Rebel, a half-hour TV drama that ran for two seasons (1959 – 61) on ABC, starred Nick Adams as the itinerant Johnny Yuma, a former soldier and budding writer who wanders across the West during the post-Civil War era, searching for adventure, fulfillment, and material for a journal in which he routinely records observations and impressions. Created by Adams and producer Andrew J. Fenady, the series depicted Yuma as a man profoundly affected by his experiences on the battlefield and as a prisoner of war and who is inclined to avoid violence whenever possible. On the other hand, he is adequately armed, with a pistol and a scattergun, to deal with ruffians unwilling to give peace a chance.
Yuma doesn’t look for trouble, but usually finds it anyway — sometimes in unexpected places. For example, in an episode titled “School Days,” Yuma lands a temporary gig as a small-town schoolteacher. Unfortunately, a comely Irish lass named Peggy (Fintan Meyler) feels compelled to apply for the position of teacher’s pet. Even more unfortunately, her interest in Yuma arouses the ire of rowdy Troy Armbruster (Warren Oates), an illiterate lout who nurses a crush on Peggy.
Given Yuma’s insistence on continuing to wear parts of his Confederate uniform long after the surrender at Appomattox, it’s no surprise he occasionally clashes with folks who don’t cotton to having some Johnny Reb in their vicinity. Throughout the show’s run, however, Yuma seems more intent on healing old wounds than inflaming new conflicts. In “In Memoriam,” he helps the grieving mother (Madlyn Rhue) of a Union solider who died in combat to achieve closure — even if that meant revealing her son died a coward. In “The Death of Gray,” Yuma convinces a Confederate colonel (Harry Townes) to finally accept defeat and, more important, stop pestering the people in a nearby town.
In one of the series’ best episodes, “Johnny Yuma at Appomattox,” Yuma recalls the time he nearly changed history by assassinating Gen. Ulysses S. Grant (William Bryant) before the latter could accept the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee (George Macready). As the two generals address each other with mutual respect, and Grant accedes to Lee’s requests for humane treatment of his soldiers, Yuma eavesdrops through an attic vent — and tearfully lays down his gun.
Robert Vaughn, John Carradine, Robert Blake, Leonard Nimoy, Dan Blocker (cast as a villain the same year he saddled up to play Hoss on Bonanza), Jack Elam, and Agnes Moorehead are among the guest stars who appear in the 76 episodes on the 11 DVDs that comprise The Rebel: The Complete Series. Also in the package: The Yank, producer Fenady’s unsold pilot for a proposed companion series, featuring James Drury (two years before The Virginian) as a former Union officer now serving as a doctor in the post-Civil War West.
From the November/December 2015 issue. Read more on The Rebel, and how it seemingly influenced Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight on The Telegraph blog.