If you leave out the accident of my birth, the origin of this book dates back to 1952. The Korean war was raging overseas, HUAC and Senator Joe McCarthy were raging on the home front, the blacklist was on full tilt, and I was nine years young, living in Roselle Park, New Jersey. One night my parents, taking me along, went out to an appliance store to buy their first television set. It was, if memory serves, an Admiral with a 12Ĺ-inch screen. The price was around $225 or $250. For the next several years that set drew me to it like a magnet.
In the early Fifties the major movie studios considered TV the enemy, offering for nothing the same product that theaters charged admission for. They wouldnít allow their old films to be shown on the small screen, and in their current pictures they often wouldnít allow a set amid the furniture of a living-room scene. Growing up in the New York City area, I had access to seven channels: the CBS, NBC and ABC affiliates (Channels 2, 4 and 7 respectively), the short-lived DuMont network, plus three independent local stations. With the majors boycotting the medium and the number of made-for-TV series rather small, TV programmers starved for material on film had to fall back on the smaller fry among movie-making companies, mainly Republic, Monogram and PRC. During the Thirties and Forties those companies had put out an endless stream of B pictures, primarily but not exclusively Westerns, and Republic had also offered dozens of cliffhanger serials. This was the product, interspersed with Hopalong Cassidy movies (out of which William Boyd, the only actor to play Hoppy, made mega-millions by buying the rights to those flicks and licensing them to stations across the country) and early made-for-TV series like THE LONE RANGER and THE CISCO KID, that kept me glued in front of the set for hours every evening. I became a certified telefreak.
On that tiny screen I watched movies featuring the exploits of various Western stars of previous decades over and over. Some were trio pictures with groups like The Three Mesquiteers and The Range Busters and The Rough Riders. Most starred a single hero: Gene Autry, Eddie Dean, Buck Jones, Ken Maynard, Kermit Maynard (Kenís less successful but perhaps more talented brother), Tim McCoy, Jack Randall, Tex Ritter, Roy Rogers and of course the young John Wayne. I got to the point where I could identify at sight dozens of the actors in B Westerns who usually fell to the heroesí bullets or fistsóRoy Barcroft, Tristram Coffin, Kenne Duncan, I. Stanford Jolley, Charles King, John Merton, Marshall Reed, Hal Taliaferro, Harry Woods, just to name a few at random. Eventually I caught on that the person usually named in a pictureís final credit must be important, but what a director did and how he did it I hadnít the foggiest. As I grew older I lost interest in shoot-em-ups and cliffhangers, considering them beneath the notice of a young intellectual such as I fancied myself to be.
Years slid by. I completed college and law school, passed the bar, and eventually uprooted myself from the east coast to St. Lou-is where I was invited to become a law professor. And then, slowly but surely, a strange thing happened. I became interested in those old movies again. I had the pleasure of meeting in their golden years some of the actors whose younger incarnations I had watched for hours on end, magnetized by that 12Ĺ-inch screen. Most important of all, I began to meet and become friends with some of the men whose names were familiar to me from the final credits of those pictures. The ones who called the shots. The directors. I got to watch their films again, sometimes sitting beside them. I got to listen to their stories. Eventually I began to write about them.
This book is the culmination of that process. Itís taken me thousands of hours of viewing time and hundreds of hours of writing time but in my twilight years I still consider the time well spent. I hope Iíve communicated what Iíve gotten from all those films, and from the people who made them, in the following pages. But perhaps I can spell out here what Iíve looked for, and often found, in pictures of this sort. Reduced to two words, what the first-rate films contain and what the first-rate directors infuse into their films is visual imagination or, in two more words, visual excitement. This quality is the alpha and omega of the kind of movies discussed here.
Each chapter is self-contained and can be read separately. But many also throw light on other chapters, and to help readers navi-gate among them, the first time in any chapter the name of a director is mentioned who is the subject of an earlier or later chapter, that name is highlighted. For example, in the chapter on William Witney you can see highlighted names like John English or Alan James or Ray Taylor from Billís point of view, and later you can turn to the chapters on those men and see Bill from their perspective.
The directors I knew best tend to get the longest and most quote-filled chapters but, because they contributed so much to this book, I want to single them out for mention: in the order of their births, Spencer Gordon Bennet (1893-1987), Joseph H. Lewis (1907-2000), Thomas Carr (1907-1997), and my closest Holly-wood friend, Bill Witney (1915-2002). A few others covered here, like Oliver Drake (1903-1991) and R.G. Springsteen (1904-1989), I knew but not all that well. Others, who died too soon, I never had the pleasure of meeting. Among the persons other than directors who contributed to this book, no one has done more than Boyd Magers, in whose Western Clippings newsletter many of these chapters first appeared.
Every director covered here is dead and most of them died be-ore the beginning of this century. In a sense this book is an assortment of flowers on their graves. In another sense it brings them back, I hope, to life.
Francis M. Nevins
St. Louis, Missouri
August 2, 2015