Rise of Randolph Scott (Pt. 2)

Fighting Westerner

(Part 1 examined the evolution of Randolph Scott from generic leading man into the iconic Western star he would become through a series of low-budget Paramount Zane Grey adaptations directed by Henry Hathaway. The story continues:)

Just a year after he’d begun the Grey series, Scott had settled so effortlessly into the role of native Westerner that roles like Heritage of the Desert’s tenderfoot Jack Hare were already well behind him. The 1933 Sunset Pass, again with Harry Carey and Noah Beery, consolidated the image even further with his role as a young gunslinger falsely accused of murder – and in Man of the Forest that same year, he and Hathaway added the final ingredient to the persona that would make him a major box office attraction for the next 30 years.

As mountain trapper Brett Dale, Scott once again battles the bad guys and falls in love with the leading lady…yet for all his interaction with other characters, he ultimately remains a solitary, self-sufficient figure who lives by his own code and keeps his own counsel.

Of course, movie cowboys had traditionally been solitary figures since RockyMountain2the early days of film, a trait that had descended into cliché long before the advent of the talkies. What set the great ones apart from the crowd was the personality each brought to his expected solitude, and how those individual qualities of loneliness, rugged individualism or downright misanthropy informed their screen personas. A scant handful had what it took to achieve stardom beyond the matinee double features, and only three managed to maintain major careers that spanned the ‘30s through the ‘50s: Scott, Gary Cooper and John Wayne.

Cooper, despite his reputation, brought his well-known reticence and subtle humor to relatively few Westerns; only High Noon tends to be as well remembered as his modern-dress roles. Wayne, the biggest of them all, had tried to pattern himself after the tough but folksy Harry Carey, but as the Duke himself noted, he also “made the Western hero a roughneck” – an aspect that gradually took over until the typical Wayne character had become a brawling lout; the man who’d started out hoping to emulate Carey ended up as a successor to that great screen slob Wallace Beery.

By contrast, Scott came to project an image that was “dignified, democratic, quiet, dependable and at ease with himself” – the words used by Wayne’s biographers to describe Carey. In the early days, Scott’s acting still had some rough edges, and on occasion he could be positively wooden; but as he found his ease before the cameras, he seemed to evolve into an amalgam of the best qualities of Carey and William S. Hart while always remaining essentially himself: a strong, dignified loner with a past that sometimes left him embittered, but never devoid of basic decency. He never could have electrified audiences as Ethan Edwards, anti-hero of The Searchers; cast against type, Wayne’s Edwards was his finest performance…but with Scott in the part it would have been just another of many such complicated men he played over the years.

Manofthe Forest

As the Grey series progressed, Hathaway was allowed to ease off the earlier films’ reliance on stock footage and shoot more new material. In the case of Man of the Forest, the new stuff almost cost the star his life when old film of Jack Holt (from the 1926 version) scuffling with his character’s pet cougar was reshot with Scott and a new cat who turned out to have a taste for horse meat…which was just what Scott reeked of after shooting scenes in the saddle. Though bitten and clawed, he managed to avoid serious injury and filming continued without further incident.

The most complex of the series, To the Last Man, was so crammed with plot that little room was left for stock footage. Scott plays the eldest son of a Kentucky hill clan relocated to Nevada to escape a feud that’s destroyed generations of the Hayden and Colby families. In a familiar complication, Scott falls in love with Ellen (Esther Ralston), daughter of rival patriarch Jed Colby (Noah Beery.)

Dramatic and expertly directed, this was the peak of the series. As a sympathetic villain, Beery is still a top-notch scene stealer…but this time he’s matched by every member of the cast: Ralston as a tough-as-nails heroine, Buster Crabbe as Scott’s younger brother, and tiny Shirley Temple, in her first bit part. As for Scott, the rough edges were now all gone; all he needed to become a screen legend was a little age.

Last Round-UpA new year, 1934, brought The Last Roundup, based on the novel The Border Legion. It paled in comparison to the strong meat of To the Last Man, though Scott and Monte Blue turned in good performances. The cursory direction may have been due to Hathaway having other things on his mind, for Paramount had just rewarded him with a promotion to “A” features. He would return to Westerns years later, putting what he’d learned directing Scott to good use on such pictures as How the West was Won, The Sons of Katie Elder and True Grit.

In addition to Hathaway’s departure, 1934 brought other changes as the stellar supporting casts of the series’ previous entries were WagonWheels2replaced by solid but mostly unremarkable actors. Such was the case with Wagon Wheels, based on Fighting Caravans and directed by Charles Barton. Despite a bang-up climactic battle, this tale of a wagon train’s progress to Oregon was a slight entry that devoted far too much time to music and low humor. Arthur Jacobson directed another minor entry in Home on the Range, a horse racing drama adapted from Code of the West that offered an early star turn by Ann Sheridan, but made poor use of supporting players Dean Jagger and Jackie Coogan.

It wasn’t long before Scott, too turned the series over to other actors. His final entry, again directed by Barton and co-starring Sheridan, was Rocky Mountain Mystery (later re-released as The Fighting Westerner). In a wacky adaptation of Golden Dreams, he was embroiled in a Cat and the Canary-style thriller transplanted to a Nevada radium mine. A talky affair filled with creepy servants, grasping heirs and a cloaked killer on the prowl, it climaxed in a serial-like donnybrook among thundering machinery…followed by a final of Scott and Sheridan happily shacked up on their new spread in, yes, Hawaii.


Even such outright goofiness couldn’t shake the growing authority of Scott’s screen presence. By the end of his run on the Grey series, he’d become an actor in demand by studios and respected by his peers; a 1934 poll of screen actresses’ favorite male stars included Scott among such luminaries as Gable, Colman and Cagney. Though such affairs often smell of press agentry, that verdict would be upheld as the years went on by a more reliable source: the Motion Picture Herald Poll of the top 10 stars in the nation. Beginning in the late ‘40s, Scott appeared on that list year after year.

In the years following the Grey series, Scott brought his rugged charm to musicals, comedies, war stories and straightforward dramas for virtually every major studio in Hollywood, but he never gave up Westerns. He made 61 in all, and in 1948 he chose to devote himself exclusively to that genre. In 1962, he brought his distinguished string of 100 pictures to a close with Ride the High Country, which the Library of Congress has rightly declared a “national film treasure.”

Many of his Zane Grey films are available on dvd, offering new generations an excellent opportunity to observe firsthand how the heritage of Zane Grey turned a promising young actor into one of the greatest Western film legends of them all.


November 16, 2009 · Posted in Legends, Western  


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