(Copyright 2014 by Don McGregor)
(IMPORTANT NOTE: ALL SCREEN CAPTURES ARE ONLY TO SHOWCASE SEQUENCES FROM THE INDIVIDUAL EPISODES OF SUGARFOOT – SEASON 3 AND DO NOT REFLECT THE SHARP, SUPERB QUALITY OF THE WARNER ARCHIVE DVDs)
Sugarfoot would not be a late 1950s/early 1960s known to deal with racism and sexism.
Yet, in viewing these distinct western dramas, it certainly does that with many ethnic groups.
Except with black people.
They could never have done such shows, made such equality stands, with black people.
Gitanos. Corsicans. Chinese. You could address such issues, apparently, head on. That’s one of the great things about these DVD collections: You learn facts about shows you did not realize they did during their initial run.
The shows are not lost, faithfully preserved.
You might expect to find such provocative topics in a series like Naked City. One of the most unusual aspects of Sugarfoot 3 now on DVD from Warner Archives is that the Naked City TV series of police procedurals unexpectedly invades the popular Western series.
More on that later.
Before we get into individual episodes, and how directly they often stare bigotry straight in its ugly eye, I need to tackle the issue of clones.
Some entertainment critics have postulated the notion that the Warner Brothers television series of the middle to the end of the 1950s into the early 1960s were all clones of the company’s first series hits, Cheyenne and 77 Sunset Strip.
I have to state here categorically that it just ain’t so.
Cheyenne was the first weekly hour long filmed drama on television and changed the dynamics of the medium with its success. Disney had an hour-long show, but it was an anthology. Warners came in big-time to a medium the company had stone-walled when televisions first invaded, like the Naked City will Sugarfoot, American homes.
No one had attempted to do a character driven series, week after week, filling an hour of programming. No one really knew the demands it would have on everyone, especially the lead actor.
Time was at a premium, and Clint Walker had to ride, shoot, memorize lines, take his shirt off continuously in that first season. A lot of lessons were being learned the hard way as the show skyrocketed in the ratings.
Roy Huggins developed three leads for the first hour long detective drama, 77 Sunset Strip, to ensure that not one person had to appear for a full 50 minutes every single damn week.
The Westerns and Private Eye series that followed in the wake of the success of these shows surely owed their existence to the success of Cheyenne and 77. But locales and personalities definitely differentiated the tone of the lead characters.
Bourbon Street Beat’s New Orleans jazz clubs and swamp settings and neon lit noir shadows influenced the stories and the private eyes and the people they encounter as much as 77s Los Angeles locale next door to the real Sunset Strip’s Dino’s night-club, owned by Dean Martin, and its sometimes Hollywood influenced milieu.
Sugarfoot was nothing like Cheyenne.
It could be debated that Sugarfoot was the opposite of the character of Cheyenne. Clint Walker’s Cheyenne was large, tall, rugged, and was fast to use a gun, never without provocation. He was the quiet, loner cowboy whereas Will Hutchins’ Sugarfoot was rooted in Will Rogers and Jimmy Stewart as Destry.
Sugarfoot is the would-be pacifist hero as opposed to Cheyenne, the shoot quick and stay alive hero.
Watching these Sugarfoot – Season 3 episodes, I had not recalled how effective Will Hutchins was in the role. He is extremely likeable, a quick, easy, genuine smile but able to showcase a steely strength when situations turn dark and hostile.
The show often does have him refrain from solving problems with a gun.
Warners casting people really had a sharp eye for talent and an understanding of the type of actor needed for a title role. It shows in so many of their titles from that time period.
With the first episode of the Season 3, Sugarfoot starts a guest star list that won’t only invest in continuity from previous Sugarfoot seasons, or with cameos from characters in other Warner TV series, but the show will also feature guest stars famous for iconic roles in other shows on the air in the late 50s, from non Western genres encompassing some of the best contemporary dramas of the time to sit-com favorites.
One might even see Batman as Doc Holiday.
THE TRIAL OF THE CANARY KID
In the 3rd year debut, Warners makes sure it distinguishes itself as the place where its heroes are in a specific time-period and share a unified universe, the way comic books had done in the 40s and would embellish and strengthen during the late 60s.
You hear or read the term “unified universes and shared mythology” all the time now.
Not back in the late 1950s.
The Canary Kid (the bad twin cousin that looks just like Tom Brewster (also known as a Sugarfoot for his mild mannered ways) returns just like a comic book villain who never bites the bullet and returns to haunt the hero another day. It was a sure-fire stunt for comics, but it was rarely done on television at that time (as unthinkable as that might be to people who are only used to programming in the new Millennium).
The Canary Kid gave Will Hutchins the chance to play off of himself, as not just the nice guy with the charming grin and the Aw-Shucks attitude, but snarl at his ownself when he is inside cell bars with his blood relative nemesis.
I know how a lot of combining an actor as two separate characters is done with split screen photography. Usually I can spot the cut-lines, the demarcation point between the two separate strips of film. I must admit sometimes Warners has me puzzled as to how they pulled some of these pairings off, they seem so seamless, with nary a separation line between the double image of Will Hutchins as both characters.
Eventually, after much bickering and throwing of fists, Tom is entrapped into defending his cousin in court.
The story-line and directing are done by one of my favorite television directors of the time, Montgomery Pittman. He continually prodded Warners to do sequels to episodes, do cross-overs from one series to another.
In this episode there is even a Maverick Easter Egg, decades before the term Easter Egg became fashionable in film with the advent of DVDs.
When Sugarfoot is led into the prison cell where his dastardly twin cousin awaits, who do we see on the Wanted Posters in the sheriff’s office, none other than that Warner Brothers scoundrel and card shark, Bret Maverick (James Garner).
Pittman obviously threw it in there, knowing not every viewer would get it, nor would every viewer care. For the real fans of the shows, though, it would bring a smile to their faces. And I sincerely believe Pittman knew that, and it brought a smile to his face, or why the hell would he have bothered in the first place.
Francis Bavier shows up as Sugarfoot’s Aunt Nancy, and she holds him at gunpoint to persuade him he should defend his cousin. The actress was the iconic Aunt Bee in The Andy Griffith Show. Many viewers know her as the kindly TV stereotypical Aunt. According to some accounts written on the Griffith show she might have been more like Sugarfoot’s pistol packing Aunt than the adorably sweet mother hen, Aunt Bee. Maybe that was where she was doing her “real” acting.
Inside the cell, the meeting between identical looking cousins doesn’t go smoothly. Don (Red Ryder) Barry is a long way from his Republic Western Serial days playing the famous comic strip character so prominently a part of Jean Shepherd’s A Christmas Story, and the famous Red Ryder BB gun that will shoot your eye out!
Barry returns as The Canary Kid’s broad buffoon side-kick; he is now a character actor rather than an actor taking on the mantle of a comic strip hero.
Olan Soule plays the judge presiding over the trial. Olan was often Paladin’s hotel check-in desk clerk in Have Gun, Will Travel. It seems to me Olan always played bit roles in series after series in the 50s and 60s. He checked you into hotels. He took your money in the bank. He was a judge, not just in Westerns, but probably in Perry Mason’s time as well.
Bronco shows up in town around the half-hour mark while the Canary Kid takes Sugarfoot’s place, so that Will Hutchins is now playing Canary acting as Sugarfoot, neither he nor Sugarfoot knowing who Bronco is. A night-time fist-fight resulting from the insulting of Texans helps accomplish the jail escape. It is a pretty set-to, with Wayde Preston showing up as Chris Colt, the Colt 45 government undercover gun merchant.
Think about that for a minute.
Johnny McKay (Peter Brown) the deputy from Warner’s Lawman comes into court with a surprise witness.
Okay, not The Batman, but Adam West, a surprise witness, as Doc Holiday.
Really, this episode alone, for some fans, would make the set worth owning.
THE WILD BUNCH
Don’t anyone get confused.
This Wild Bunch isn’t anything like Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch.
It’s more a toned-down, TV version of Evan Hunter’s The Blackboard Jungle.
One can’t help but wonder if someone at Warners did not have Peckinpah in mind since before the opening titles, Sugarfoot sees a mob on horseback chasing a Peckinpah out of their supposedly peaceful town.
Peckinpah, the peace-nik.
Warners stacked the second episode with a couple of the stars from their private eye series, Connie Stevens from Hawaiian Eye and Troy Donahue from Surfside 6. If you were an actor under contract at Warners during that time period you often-times had no idea what you were going to be playing next.
Oddly, Warners wastes Connie on a nothing role. Normally, the behind the scenes folks will let her be a little more adult and sexual than the balancing act she has to do as Cricket, in Hawaiian Eye, while she is singing torch songs.
Troy Donahue plays the young adult son of Morris Ankrum. Morris was a character actor in every genre imaginable. One of my favorites was the supposedly sycophantic, addle-brained Loco in the Hopalong Cassidy film, Borderland, while he really was the reprehensible villain who would torment even little girls in leg braces. Seriously. And Morris also shoots Hoppy (William Boyd) and watches him “bleeding out” in a staggering amount of blood for a B Western. By the way, that was the first 16MM movie print I ever bought back in the 1970s.
Troy Donahue leaves behind his wealthy, good-natured Sandy from Surfside 6, to play a belligerent cowboy punk who slugs Sugarfoot right in the school-room where he has been hired as a temporary teacher when employment as a apprentice lawyer doesn’t work out.
Sugarfoot ends up tangled in the school swings.
Writer Dean Riesner goes lightly on preaching in the script, and when Troy Donahue and another young guy plan to torch the school in retaliation to Tom one-upping them, one of the perpetrators gets trapped within the burning building.
Director Leslie Goodwin gets some fine shots of the young guy trapped in the flames, the cinematography captured in sharply delineated black and white startling contrasts and angles that emphasize the threat. The editing is sharp as a razor’s edge.
The episode also features one of the go-to-actors of the time, Ray Danton, who would also become a director in later years. Ray leaves the charm off, and becomes the Iago of the piece who taunts Troy Donahue to act on his worst impulses.
MACBREWSTER THE BOLD
Whether it was a Western or a Private Eye series, William T. Orr and his writers never let the premise lasso them in and corral where a story could go.
Sugarfoot could play for lighter episodes than Cheyenne, just as Will Hutchins’ persona was the radical opposite of Clint Walker.
Both heroes could become sheriff, range foreman, riverboat navigator, but pretty much they were true to their personalities.
I can’t imagine an invasion of Scottish bag-pipe playing warriors plaguing Cheyenne with good-natured, over the top fun, but they do it here.
Tom’s ancestors from Scotland show up, brandishing bag-pipes and swords, which come to make him the chief of their Clan.
I certainly cannot see any gang of malcontents forcing 6’ 6” Clint Walker up onto a riding a wooden hitching rail, as they do to Sugarfoot here.
But in Sugarfoot, you not only could get away with it, you make it amusing to watch along the way, and add some drama into the mix, which the Warner writers were well acquainted with from the company’s history of making genre films that had texture of tone to its pieces, down to the supporting cast. And along with that, a dash, a hint of lust when the company did their first television episodes in 1956 and 57.
By this time period, television is becoming more established, rules are being more carefully observed, and lust turns mostly to chaste romance.
Still and all, stereotypes and all, there’s a certain unique charm to seeing bag-pipe carrying Scotsman strutting around customary 1950s Western streets clean of horse shit, or riding on hell bent for leather stage-coaches.
Ruta Lee is always worth watching, even when the lust has been tamed down.
With the marauding Scotsman gone back to the Glen, the next place Tom Brewster visits has a gypsy circus come to town.
Suzanne plays lust stronger than romance, though it’s a stretch that Sugarfoot tries to remain chaste while spending the night isolated with her around the campfire. Okay, so other suitors are hunting them. Basically they want to slice and dice Tom because he’s the one she’s snuggling up against her during the night.
You need more plot than that?
Well, it is Warners from the late 50s, so you will get more.
It starts with some nice images of the gypsy circus doing their stunt riding and acrobats through the dusty streets, and ends up with Tom trying to cool down two males from opposite cultures wanting the same woman.
Suzanne turned Zorro’s head. Would Zorro resist her? Hmm…
Guess it depends on what writer was writing the story, and what the writer thought could actually get done.
Once all the snuggling is past, and Tom resists Suzanne’s sexuality, events take a darker turn.
Sexism and racism raise their ugly senselessly stubborn hurt to human beings.
Suzanne is kidnapped by the cowboy (Bing Russell) obsessed with her, and there is no doubt what he wants from her when he keeps her prisoner within a small, isolated shack.
“Yes, Ma’am, I might even shave for you.
“Gypsy, you looking into the fire for your future?
“I can tell you what your future is.”
His laugh holds no romance in it.
One only wonders how far Edmund Morris’ script will go.
Suzanne isn’t the helpless damsel in distress; she can seduce when she needs to, and she certainly won’t stand uselessly by as the males do their fist dancing to save or destroy her.
THE CANARY KID, INC
The Canary Kid comes back quite quickly.
Someone must have liked the idea of the two opposing twins for this to be filmed maybe a few weeks after the first one for the season.
This return lacks the charm and speed of the first.
And it marks the last time the Canary Kid shows up ever.
There is a prison escape scheme involving coffins, and for a Warners episode, the story really meanders.
Chris Colt (Wayde Preston) comes back briefly, but not used as effectively as he was in the first entry of the season.
Don “Red” Barry still gets to play broadly, in a way he never did when he was Red Ryder in the Republic serial in the 1940s.
George Kennedy appears briefly, as one of the Canary Kid’s secondary helpers, as he continues to work his way toward Cool Hand Luke where he will earn an Oscar. He will also have a lot more to do in a few episodes down the trail with Sugarfoot.
This is the season to look at diversity for Sugarfoot, and the titular island is part pulp adventure amidst Mexican revolution on the shoreline of a fishing village.
Gerald Mohr (who was the Lone Wolf in the film series from the early 50s) plays The Baron, who kidnaps Merry Anders and her white Arabian Stallion off a train and takes her to be his bride on his island strong-hold.
Another kidnapped woman within the span of one episode for Sugarfoot to fight to save from a man who has more than wealth and power on his mind.
The authorities tell Tom, “A man like this would have killed Miss Sally as quickly as one of our guards. And to take along her horse suggests something else in his twisted mind.”
Tom responds, with his usual deceptive ease. “Well. I can’t speak for his mind, but when I catch up with him, he’s going to have a twisted neck.”
Gerald Mohr played many roles in Warner TV episodes. He was one of their “go-to” actors. He played Doc Holiday when Adam West (before he became Batman) wasn’t the tubercular, gun-slinger dentist.
APOLLO WITH A GUN
Mari Blanchard, who early 50s SF film fans know was The She Devil, plays an actress whose stage show climaxes (I choose the word knowingly) with her as Lady Godiva atop horseback.
The local miners start taking bets as to whether she will ride bareback on her stallion.
I know. You think I’m kidding, but this really is the plot.
Someone steals her horse, to win big on the bet.
Sugarfoot finds himself helping her find her horse, and the subject of her seductive charms.
Sugarfoot resisted Suzanne Lloyd’s advances, he can’t possibly do it with the Mari Blanchard She Devil/Lady Godiva can he?
The curvaceous Mari is eventually bound to a horse.
In this time-period from Warners women definitely looked like women.
Warners may have toned down some of the overt sexuality of early Cheyenne episodes from 1957. The Cheyenne show Land Beyond The Law is one of the most homo-erotic TV stories I’ve seen from that time period. I’m still not sure how they got it through.
The attraction between James Griffith and Andrew Duggan is palpable, and even stronger than Sam Fuller’s use of homosexual subtext in House of Bamboo with Robert Ryan and Robert Stack.
There is no subtext in that episode of Cheyenne. I would not know how one could interpret it any other way.
Adah (Mari) decides Tom Brewster would make a fine Apollo for her stage play. She certainly persuades him to overcome his protestations about being no actor, and by the finale Sugarfoot is in tights.
The stage show has a fine time with taking jabs at show-biz, while Sugarfoot dukes it out for real to the applause of the audience.
An old fashioned saloon fight raises pandemonium beyond the stage until, with lightning causing the stage to go light or dark as Mari finally rides.
At the conclusion, Apollo With A Gun ends taking jabs at critics, stripping the non-talented bully with doing his own strip-tease.
Mari sadly was diagnosed with Cancer in the 1960s. But many genre fans still appreciate the sultriness and beauty and strength she brought to her roles.
You know some of you would buy this set for this episode alone.
Oh, did I mention?
Apollo With A Gun is directed by Robert Altman.
Yes. That Robert Altman. While he did other Warner shows during this time period, Altman was a fan of the show. Will Hutchins even appears in the Maverick episode, A Bolt From The Blue Altman directed, where Altman toys with the audience as to whether the character is Sugarfoot or not.
So far, there have been Scotsmen, Gitanos, now it is time to go Argentinean, which is always a good time to showcase the usage of bolas.
It was apparently the one thing writers thought they knew about Argentina.
Tom rides up to a fallen wagon and discovers a gaucho from the Pampas bringing a prize bull for breeding stock.
In each episode, Sugarfoot is enraged when someone from another culture is treated unjustly.
It is a theme constantly examined in many Sugarfoots.
Curros Rivas (Carlos Rivas) runs afoul of the head rancher he was supposed to sell the bull to. He falls in love with Ellen Conroy (Lori Nelson), which doesn’t set well with the western white American males living in the area.
Lori is attracted to Curros.
Her father is killed.
Guess who gets the blame?
You could have inter-racial attraction on television with Indians, Asians, Gitanos, etc., but you ain’t never gonna see romance between a white woman and a black man in a TV series from this time.
Even if the producer had wanted to do it, the idea that they would get it aired would not happen.
I Spy was still half a decade away.
Did you notice in these last episodes of Sugarfoot how many beautiful women live surrounded by men who are all aware of their sexuality?
Take a note of the list of actresses in just the last four episodes.
Like many of the Warner shows, there is a little bit of everything included in an episode.
And some humor, with the Gaucho teaching Sugarfoot how to use the bolas.
And Tom screwing it up royally.
JOURNEY TO PROVISION
Night-time pulp and noir atmosphere.
The first fifteen minutes have Tom riding into town just looking for a night’s sleep.
A hanging noose hangs from a tree ominously.
In the dusk, people watch hostilely as Tom reads the sign beneath the looming gallows: JUSTICE IS SWIFT AND SURE IN PROVISION.
The opening has a lot of mood, incidents that don’t seem to make any sense. The stranger in town, Tom, is presented with one mystifying confrontation of enigma after another.
It doesn’t cost a fortune to produce, and if the writers know what they’re doing when the answers begin to unfold, the pay-off is there.
The pay-off here is why the hell all these things are happening to Sugarfoot.
By the way, as the third season unfolds, Tom is seldom referred to as a Sugarfoot.
Robert Altman is back directing Will Hutchins as Sugarfoot has time to share a bedside campfire with Ah Young (Judy Dan). You may have guessed it, this time Tom lies beside a beautiful Asian woman, on a trek that throws them together.
Yes, they are beset by danger.
Yes, they help each other.
The question I have no answer for is: With Sugarfoot meeting all these beautiful women from all different cultures, and sharing night-time campfires with them, many of whom make it obvious their attraction for him…Exactly why isn’t there sex on the range?
Oh, that’s right.
It’s the late 1950s.
People weren’t supposed to be having sex on television at the end of the decade.
Hitchcock would have to have visual metaphors like trains zooming into tunnels in North By Northwest.
Racism raises its ugly presence once again, this time with Chinese having to face daily disrespect and often-times threat.
When the hotel clerk verbally insults an elderly Chinese man, that Orientals are not wanted in his establishment, Sugarfoot stabs his hand with the sharp pen quill and makes him apologize.
The photos I have available to me here for the night-time shots do no justice to the effective Noir lighting, of shadowy figures and brightly lit entrance ways.
The elderly Chinese hires Tom to take a treasure from a local cemetery, where it looks as if his son is buried.
Tom learns that this is not an ending, but the beginning of a journey, and he will be shadowed by dark figures who want to end his life before he can complete it.
With somber photography admidst the grave, the old man explains he wants to ship his son back to China, where he can be buried in a place where he will be respected, and not just discarded as he has been here.
The body must be taken by wagon to San Francisco.
We know that Tom and the old man have been followed to the graveyard, for the digging up of the body.
Don Haggerty and James Hong make striking villains.
Hong uses a hatchet to carve his points.
Haggerty has spiked steel knuckles laced over his fingers to rip open flesh.
Before Tom can even leave the two, Haggerty is threatening Sugarfoot and moving the lethal looking weapon up his fingers. They make for a visually unusual assault on the eyes, and on wherever or whomever they hit.
Haggerty head butts Sugarfoot to the floor and displays his weaponry like some early Western Wolverine.
Tables in the saloon shatter in half under their impact.
Haggerty’s fierce demeanor and his ruthless use of his barbed fists gives a brutality to the proceedings that establish early that a spiritual trip will also be a costly physical one.
The journey has a painful start, before Sugarfoot goes back out onto the dimly lit street, filmed with desolate elegance by Altman.
Again, these stills do not come close to representing the clarity and starkness of the cinematography of the episodes.
Once outside, Sugarfoot finds the streets are no safer than the saloons.
Hong hurls his hatchet, and it slices through the darkness, to chuck into the wood beside his head.
The warnings are over.
The battle will be played for blood, perhaps over a corpse.
The old man tells Tom that they came to America to find the promise, and found debt and death. The man with the spiked knuckles is “head of one of the most vicious hoodlum gangs of all San Francisco.
“It is as I told you, Mr. Brewster, the worst of the yellow race…
“…and the worst of the white.”
Reflections of life, death, freedom ensue amidst the violence that shreds the peaceful moments.
Victor Buono appears as a San Francisco bartender with a beard and a full head of dark hair for the final fight between Sugarfoot and Haggerty.
This time around it isn’t white folk impersonating Indians or framing some ethnic innocent of foul deeds they did not commit; the white folks have found an ingenious way to incriminate wolves for bloody carnage.
The episode opens with an effective attack by the wolf-pack, as a winter-masked rider finds a frozen deer carcass just before an attack by wolves.
This is no glimpse into something happens within the show; it’s a true teaser, and the beginning of what will turn into a murder method skullduggery that’s an intriguing solution.
Shades of the Hound of the Baskervilles, against swirling snow and frozen landscape.
Warners uses its wintry mountain sets for a chilly atmosphere whenever Sugarfoot and the characters who will become suspects as culprits for human savagery ride up out of the usual Western confines of ranch and town.
Along the way, there are a number of people who have general misperceptions about wolves and what they do.
And some who are ahead of their time and care about the fate and the slaughter of the wolves.
It has been Tom Brewster’s friend who was attacked in the pre-credits sequence. He isn’t too trusting of the wolves even when learning all things may not be what the general consensus implies it is.
The story moves leisurely until the wolves make an unexpected kill, one most of the audience won’t see coming until it happens.
We go from frothy fighting to dark and ominous swamp setting replete with fog and quicksand, splendidly photographed in moody tones.
There is even a touch of Twilight Zone Karma in this treacherous landscape.
The dead are supposed to rise up out of the swamp-murk depths of the Blackwater!
Tom rescues an elderly Indian from drowning in the mire, and thus begins a grim tale of a father who leaves his Indian wife for a white woman, and now facing a legacy of hate from the son he left behind.
James Coburn and Kevin Hagen are the hardcases who add to the misery with violence.
With Coburn, it’s easy to image, with his lean face chiseled like unforgiving rock as he seeks his target to kill.
Kevin Hagen is another thing altogether, as he had just come off playing the upright Mayor of New Orleans in Jock Mahoney and X Brand’s series, Yancy Derringer.
You can find that review of that series here: http://comicsbulletin.com/yancy-derringer-and-wolf-who-stands-water/
An Indian inter-racial marriage could get into Pop Culture, but there were still places where that would be taboo and move some people to violence.
My wife Marsha’s first serious love affair was with a Navajo Indian in the 1960s.
The cowboys reactions were, let’s put it this way, less than favorable.
But even with racist, separatist attitudes more prevalent, no one would get to make a TV series episodes with a black man and a white woman.
I had more than my share of experiences working in Pop Culture in the 1970s with including diverse people, and different sexual life-styles.
It’s still a cauldron of hot emotion for some people, even this many decades later, in 2015!
RETURN FROM BOOT HILL
If I were you, I’d skip the teaser to this episode because it contains a major spoiler of something that happens way into the story.
Diane McBain (who was one of the stars of Surfside 6 as Daphne Dutton) puts on a long skirt that her usual Socialite-type character would never wear.
Joan brandishes a rifle, and uses it effectively on Tom, and it appears she will have more to do than Connie Stevens did in The Wild Bunch show at the beginning of the season.
Unfortunately, the script more or less abandons her as events progress.
The story veers to center on Western archetypes with an alcoholic judge whose abuse of the law haunts him and a corrupt Mayor who is a Sociopath concerned not with the public’s welfare, but only his own.
Joan’s brother has been accused of robbing his own father’s stage-line and murder. He forces Tom to become his lawyer, at gun-point, and when he meets the sister, she has him at gun-point, as well.
DIANE: You better tell me who you are, Mister, or I’ll blow you plumb apart.
TOM: Why I never did see such a family. Every one of you wants to blow me apart.
Vinegroon opens with an exercise in immediate tension, violent execution on a small homestead.
A woman is hanging clothes outside. Boots appear beneath the swaying laundry. The dresses are swept aside by a man aiming a gun at her. He grabs her, smiling with intent that the censors would not allow in dialogue.
More men ride up as the woman struggles against the man. They laugh at her inability to break free. There is an impending gang-rape implied.
The woman’s husband rushes out of the house with a rifle. The horsemen gun him down. The woman rushes to her husband’s defense.
They gut-shoot her in the doorway to her house.
Sugarfoot arrives, finds the dying woman just in time for Richard Devon (another alumni from Yancy Derringer, the played-for-humor pick-pocket, Jody, always caught by Yancy) as a law-enforcer for the infamous Judge Roy Bean, to show up and believe Tom is the murderer.
That’s in the first five minutes.
Tom is brought before the ruler of Vinegaroon, the hornorable Judge Roy Bean and the tone of the story shifts radically. Brought to unorthodox trial under the totalitarian whim of the honorable judge, Tom takes his knowledge of the obsessive desire Bean has for the singer Lily Langtree, and before he knows it, not only is he acquitted of murder, he becomes acting judge while Bean takes off to find his vision of female beauty.
Richard Devon plays it straight; Frank Fergusen, a perennial character actor showing up in many venues in movies and on television, gets a genuine kick out of playing the besotted Bean, while Will Hutchins plays off him with a precision that makes them fun to watch.
The tone shifts once it rejoins the gang of cut-throats and molesters. Ric Roman as Rufus Buck is genuinely dark of tone and spirit as he kills an Indian woman without hesitation or a trace of remorse. He has both white and Apache blood in him.
ONE OF BUCK’S GANG: You got white blood in you, too.
RUFUS BUCK: Yeah. And in me, I got the worst of them both. And they’re both going to pay for that.
When the Indian woman’s husband tries to go the law, he is arrested, much to Tom’s anger, not unwavering in the least as once again Sugarfoot lashes out against bigotry.
HARKER: Maybe I was a little bit hasty. Maybe I was wrong. (About accusing the Indian when he never actually saw the violent incident he has testified about.)
SUGARFOOT: Well, Mr. Harker, maybe that’s the common fault with white men nowadays. We tend to blame everything that happens on the Indian.
When Tom attends to an old man chained to a stake outside Bean’s court and saloon, The Jersey Lilly, Rufus Buck and his gang ride into town.
In a nicely choreographed sequence, including extreme downshots that showcase Tom being battered by the running horses and driven to the dusty street.
Tom is dragged to another stake, and the darker proceedings of Vinegaroon come back with a gunshot to the helpless staked out old man, done with cavalier nonchalance by Rufus Buck.
I was surprised at how many different ethnic characters had stories built around them in this season of Sugarfoot.
They never could have done it with black characters in this time-frame.
When Warners put Sammy Davis, Jr. in an episode of Lawman (coming out on DVD from Warner Archive Collection also) shooting white man Richard Jaekel, the cigarette sponsor threatened to pull the plug.
The Producer stood firm, and the episode eventually got shown.
The only shows in the late 50s that had more than one episode with major black characters were Richard Boone’s Have Gun, Will Travel.
In The Long Road Home, Boone and Ivan Dixon establish a relationship of mutual respect and defense for each other. Most memorable is an actual rattlesnake biting Paladin’s arm, and hanging, writhing, from yanked limb.
In The Killing of Jesse May, Hari Rhodes plays a gunslinger who appears as if he might be faster than Paladin. William Talman (Hamilton Burger, the Prosecuting Attorney who always lost to Perry Mason) in also in the episode, along with Robert Blake (Baretta) as the title character.
Sammy Davis, Jr. (who along with Robert Culp were among the fastest quick draw guns of Hollywood) was also in The Rifleman, displaying his acumen with a gun.
It was not easy to do black dramatic characters in Pop Culture in the 1950s.
I Spy with Robert Culp and Bill Cosby opened many doors, and settled many questions of what a black character could actually be shown doing on television.
When I was offered Jungle Action at Marvel Comics during the early 1970s, I was informed at a later point in time that editorial thought the book would not sell, because DC had just failed with Tarzan being done by Joe Kubert.
Editorial gave me the series and said it should take place in the hidden, super-secret African nation of Wakanda.
They were increasingly non-supportive when Panther’s Rage had an all black cast. Just unheard of in Pop Culture in that time-frame. I resisted when the powers that be wanted white heroes to come in and help the black hero (The Black Panther) win the day.
They wanted white people in the series.
Where were the white people supposed to come from in this hidden, technologically advanced, African nation? From Poughkeepsie?
It was a different time than 2015, where racism still flourishes its ugly head since the election of a black President, but Pop Culture has changed, at least to public image, its tune.
There were artists who would refuse to illustrate inter-racial characters; and quit a series.
Why do I suspect they would not want their names mentioned today? It’s a part of comics history. Not just mine, but there’s, as well.
There was no chorus line behind you urging you onward, believe me, no matter what they may say now.
Which is probably one of the reasons I am impressed that Sugarfoot was so diverse in its characters and stories in the 3rd Season of the show.
Bravo for them!
It often surprises me how much artistry some of these Warner TV episodes have in the B&W cinematography.
The stark shadows, the sharp strike of light, the compositions of shots harken to the expertise many of these people brought from working in film noir and low budget films before television.
They have little time to film, and yet there is often a shot if you pause and consider it that is so artfully done, so effective to the story-telling power itself.
The Corsican displays such brooding atmosphere.
Race continues to come to the fore in this episode, as well.
A Corsican hires a covered wagon transporter to take him and a enigmatically sacred statue of religious significance to a trading post where the owner is committed to neutrality between the Sioux and the white trappers and peddlers.
Tom rides into the fray, guns blazing, to help when the Sioux attack the band. It isn’t often the show has much Western galloping and sustained riding and gunplay as it does here.
Soon, as the immense, sorrowfully intense
As soon as the towering carved symbol is seen, with its sorrowful intensity, the tone of the story gains a distinct, dark, surreal quality, examining not just contrasting cultures, but also religious intolerance.
Like Blackwater Swamp, the show takes on an eerie, Twilight Zone-ish atmosphere at times, even as it explores the abusive relationship between a religious father who treats his daughter (Mala Powers) abysmally.
His gross mistreatment of her because she is not a son is given a emotional stake to the heart by Mala’s performance, whose stoicism grows to resentment at verbal and physical abuse by her father.
FATHER: I don’t know how I could have displeased the Lord to give me a daughter. And I weak one, instead of a son.
The words deaden any light in her eyes.
The light brightens when the wounded Corsican (played by Paul Picerni, one of Robert Stack’s Elliott Ness Untouchables) tries to help her, and they both become attracted to each other.
Sex rears itself erect to disturb other parties, once again.
Why do so many people feel compelled to be appalled by and to regulate other people’s sexuality?
I don’t get it. Never have.
I guess I never will.
I had no clairsentience that as a writer I would have to confront such issues in the 1970s of racism and sexism within the Hallowed Halls of Marvel Comics and other Pop Culture venues.
FATHER: Less lollygagging around with that cussed Corsican, give you strength enough to do a decent day’s work.
Puts me to shame to see my own flesh and blood moonin’ over a fallen idolater.
Well. There’s no shilly-shallying around about what’s going on here.
When the father attempts to kill the Corsican because of their passion for each other, his words cut like sharpened knives into his daughter.
Mala Powers’ eyes are pleading and despairing and on the verge of rebellion.
FATHER: You’d attach yourself to any mongrel.
The daughter holds onto the unconscious man, as the father continues to rant in front of the small trading post folk about them.
FATHER: I’ll be done with you. Take him. But you’re none of mine. I’ll not have you back after he’s finished with you!
And thus, he banishes his daughter, from his future, and from family.
Strong stuff for Sugarfoot. I wouldn’t have thought it.
I wish the screen captures could capture how powerfully moody Perry Finnerman’s photography is as the wagon move at night.
The barren trees stab leafless limbs into the dark heavens, as if portending the cosmic symbolism of the huge, graven image that haunts all that are around it.
Through-out the story the statue imbues many metaphors.
From the past set in concrete.
To religious symbolism dividing people of different heritage and dogma.
To a marble scarecrow.
And even a Goddess in Stone, who cannot change, the way a flesh and blood woman can. Mala Powers handles the histrionic challenges at the end with earnest conviction and loss, a woman who feels she cannot win, she has not been shown how to believe she can win, in life, or in love.
BLUE BONNET STRAY
Tom becomes a surrogate dad when a mother disembarks the train she has been riding on at a late night stop in a small town.
When the train takes off, and the mother doesn’t return, Tom panics with the human blue bonnet stray on his hands.
There are some gentle comedic sequences in the midst of the concerns about why the mother might have disappeared.
The script deftly juggles between the two in its opening segment.
Men give the single man with the blue bonnet stray much advice on babies, from warming milk bottles up inside coffee pots to their responsibilities as fathers to children they have sired.
When the story does return to the mother, it seems to veer in 50 Shades of Grey territory. But as Tina Turner sang, “What’s love got to do with it?”
MAYOR O’CONNELL: Just remember…There’s more than one way of shutting your mouth.
The town political leader says this in a classic bondage scenario, not believe the woman bound to the bed-springs with leather thongs is a Mom. All this while he ties a scarf over her mouth.
THE LONG DRY
Robert Armstrong (who uttered the indelible lines “Twas beauty killed the beast” in King Kong) and Francis McDonald (who probably worked in every Western made in the 1950s, probably worked more often than the stars of many series) are the only men with water holes in a land where drought has struck.
The shortage of water supply provides many a Western plot.
It’s so emotionally essential that it transcends any time or place.
Watching this episode The Long Dry couldn’t help but make me think of being in San Diego with my daughter, Lauren, and son-in-law, Gilbert, and my grand-kids.
The headlines are about California’s drought, and specifically how they are impending threat to San Diego.
Almost every day in San Diego, the skies are beautiful shades of vibrant blue. The sun is warm, not scalding. The nights are cool.
It is paradise.
The talking heads on the TV speak conversationally about California being without water in a year.
I ask what that means. When you turn on the faucet, no water comes out
Sludge is all that remains?
If any of that happens, paradise rapidly turns hellish.
The rich green turns to brown withered blades and then dust.
I ask my Grandson, Alexander Mouritizen, about it.
He says, “They’ll do something about it a month before it happens; when time is at a premium, and the water isn’t going to be there when you turn the spigot.”
A month before it all becomes real. The sad thing is, Alexander is probably right.
Francis J. MacDonald tells Arch Johnson that he has given water freely to Armstrong’s rival ranches, and what has he gotten for it?
FRANCIS J. MACDONALD: You tell me this Carmody outfits got water, and you got none. So what happens? You start fighting over it. I get a killing in front of my door. I even have to go and work to bury the man.
The decade, the century, it doesn’t matter much what the time, if you don’t have water.
Daily life goes on as usual while there is still some vestige of water, along with jealousies and thrusts for power still on display until thirst becomes the primary focus of everyone.
There is no energy for anything else.
In this episode, the tone becomes lighter and takes on a Noah’s Ark obsession that, taken at its most basic impulse, if dwelled upon, is mating.
Tom and Robert Armstrong’s daughter (Jennifer West) become the chosen two.
Imprisoned and shackled with Jennifer, it would seem this time Sugarfoot has no way out of being “paired” with the beautiful co-star of the week.
When her father comes to MacDonald’s watering hole to find his daughter, all of the ranchers lusting for water learn he has survivalist measures built to ensure the defense of his perimeter: Explosives buried into the ground that will explode when hit by bullets.
Armstrong’s men, trying to take advantage of the desperate water shortage, decide Tom should be one less mouth to drink, and are ready to shoot him dead when he stands before them on their horse. Shoot him dead at point blank range as he tries to negotiate with them on a rocky ledge above the old man’s Noah’s Ark refuge.
It’s really a helluva leap Tom makes off the cliff, before he can be gunned down.
The stuntman hits a ledge half-way down, plummets off the ledge, hurtles into the ground below and comes up running.
I’d have made the attempt if the other option was being gunned down helplessly where I stood.
In this story, it won’t be beauty kills the beast.
It will be beauty torn with bullets, as the battle for water erupts.
Violence fills the area where life-giving water flows. Bodies are smashed against the rock walls.
It will be warfare over water that kills the daughter.
Sugarfoot tries to free her of her bondage.
There are a number of artfully framed and lit sequences of the conflict.
Look how beautifully framed Robert Armstrong is under the horse, trapped by his own mendacity.
The lack of water as a threat to survival and thus becoming worth more than any kind of wealth, gold or greenbacks, is a constant that story-tellers come back to time and again.
I remember reading a Rick Bryant book (the science equivalent of the Hardy Boys) when I was in my teens, during the 50s, dealing with desalinization plants, converting salt water into drinkable water.
I’m told it’s too costly to do. Even this many decades later.
I read another Pop Culture figure has proposed a watering pipe system taking water from an area in California where there are floodings of crops and transferring it to points in California like Los Angeles and San Diego that are in their own Long Dry.
Someone better think of something.
Better, someone find a viable solution, and act upon it, before the Long Dry affects us all.
FUNERAL AT FORTY MILE
Lightning strikes a lynching tree three years after a body has been hung from it.
An expensive coffin shows up in the town, with a black reef and a rope with a hangman’s noose.
The good townspeople who formed the mob and supplied the rope and sanctioned the hanging are condemned by the people who loved the victim.
Innocent or guilty, someone loved the man who swung from those branches, now dead as the corpse lying three years under the ground in the local cemetery.
Funeral at Forty Square is a film noir Western, with Sugarfoot thrust into the middle of a great cast of suspects, marked for death by some mysterious avenger, or Fate.
There is a touch of what would become famously known as giallos in the 60s and 70s in Italian film cinema.
Fate marked in thunder and lighnting and sharp shadows.
Foretellings of violent death marked on tombstones.
Unknown figures threateningly obscure and determined.
The people marked for death, one of whom may be killing others in moody night-time settings, have among them George Kennedy (as a mean-spirited drunken blacksmith), Louise Fletcher long before she takes over the Cuckoo’s Nest and tries to destroy Jack Nicholson, and Percy Helton (who is in many a Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes, so notable for his distinctive croaking, whiney, put-upon voice).
Once the coffin arrives with black wreath and Biblical death warning, and the people all declare their innocence or guilt, the story moves quickly, with a effective brutal streak displayed by Kennedy.
If you like this kind of Vengeance is mine, maybe from those around you or from the grave, you’ll find this an effective entry in that particular story-telling staple.
Percy Helton goads the fight on, the kind of thing his grating, wheezy voice was made for in murder thrillers of this type.
As the theme song lyrics proclaim: Once you get his dander up…
After black funeral wreaths and waiting horse drawn hearses herald death, George Kennedy wanders into a lantern lit room, mean as a rabid skunk, and glowers around as if he is looking for Mario Bava.
Bava would become known as one of the prime creators of the Giallo cinema in 1960s Italy.
Kennedy finds exactly what many a victim/possible psychotic killer might discover in a Giallo, the camera sweeps to reveal a freshly killed corpse left on haunting display.!
THE CAPTIVE LOCOMOTIVE
For the last episode of Season 3, the Naked City invades Sugarfoot terrain once again with the presence of Horace MacMahon, the irascible superior, Lt. Mike Parker of Paul Burke’s Adam Flint Manhattan homicide detective.
I’m still not sure how Harry Bellaver or MacMahon found time to make their presences known on the Sugarfoot western sets, but it was probably a lot more comfortable than a 6 am location shoot in winter, frozen, soot-blackened snow sidewalks of New York City.
It’s always interesting to see people you know from roles that they are most remembered for in other types of films.
MacMahon is actually a part of the shenanigans in Abbott &Costello Go To Mars.
Sugarfoot rides into immediate danger, with Rex Reason holding a pitchfork to his throat, believing Tom is a tax collector come to drive him and his young sons off their farm.
The interesting thing to see here is not MacMahon as a corrupt corporation guy taking advantage of drought (Yes! Two episodes later and another place where the weather has aided and abetted skull-dugger.), but to see him hitting on the lead actress in the story, with a lecherous leer that Mike Parker would have scowled disapprovingly at.
MacHahon wants to present a honest face, while using severe tax collections to put small land-owners bankrupt, and Tom Brewster once again finds himself the interloping defender of the people. When MacHahon threatens Tom, in a low-key manner for him, he responds with a choice line.
SUGARFOOT: Mr. Cameron, there are two things you can’t escape…and taxes is one of them.
After the battle lines have been drawn, a little romance is thrown in, and Tom cleverly veers the proceedings into an abrupt shift in tone, as Tom chains himself to the local locomotive to halt MacMahon’s personal graft.
The workers for the train station all have effective bit character parts that keep everything lively, including scalding MacMahon’s britches everytime he passes the engine.
CAMERON: What does this mean?
SUGARFOOT: It means, this here train is going to stay put…until the railroad…pays its taxes.
Love to see someone turn the tables that way these days!
JACK ELAM COMES TO PLAY WITH WILL HUTCHINS IN SUGARFOOT’S LAST HURRAH!
Since this column has become much more mammoth than I’d ever intended when I started, I might as well include a few facts about the 4th and last season of Sugarfoot.
I have no idea how Warners came up the idea of the teaming Jack Elam as an ornery, yet ultimately pain-in-the-ass loveable side-kick for amiable Tom.
Nothing on this unlikely duo has ever been covered in interviews over the year as far as I know.
Will Hutchins and Jack Elam. The Western odd couple.
Jack Elam was almost always playing bad guys in those days. Unshaven. Crazed, gleeful eyes, one wider than the other. The kind of bad guy who delights in sadistic smiles while taunting or torturing you.
As Toothy Thompson, he’s got a temper, and a bad attitude, and a mad-on for a friend of Tom’s who’s running for public office. When Toothy lands in jail, both men get to know each other beyond the exterior, and there is a nicely written sequence between them by Warren Douglass, from a story by Howard Browne. Douglass, by the way, wrote many of the Sugarfoot episodes. Lee Sholem often displayed an atmospheric sense of lighting and framing for many of those stories.
TOOTHY: When a man’s as ugly as I am, it ain’t hard to build up a case against him.
SUGARFOOT: How can you grin when that mob’s riling up to hang you?
TOOTHY: Fellow that grins, ain’t nobody can see inside of him.
Anyway that stuff out there ain’t nothing new to me. All my life trouble’s followed me like a hungry bob-cat. When I was a little boy whenever something was missing, they’d say old Toothy took it. If there was trouble, it was old Toothy caused it; it was Toothy’s fault.
SUGARFOOT: Had me an old hound dog once. Folks used to say he was so homely it was a sin. Most vicious looking dog they ever seen, they said. But to me, he was beautiful. ‘Cause inside he was gentle and kind and loving. He had the heart of a lion. No sir…Don’t ever remember that dog being homely.”
By the time the scene is over, Toothy is lighting a cigarette off rolls of flaming paper, and declaring that since no one took up his cause before, and Tom has saved his life, he’s now obligated to follow him about, still being a pain-in-the-ass, but loveably trying to help.
This seems to be some half-hearted attempt by Warners to add a camaraderie to the series in a measure to boost ratings.
Tom finally reluctantly signals for Toothy to ride after him as he attempts to sneak out of town alone at the end.
Jack isn’t Sugarfoot’s saddle pal for the next couple of episodes; Tom is back to being his usual loner self. He reappears two episodes before Tom Brewster takes his last ride.
When Toothy does show up in Angel he falls for lovely looking Cathy O’Donnell as the deaf-mute Angel who has witnessed her father’s murder.
Jack and Cathy use sign language to communicate and become attracted to each other.
Jack Elam gets a love interest!
I did not know this until talking with Grace Bradley Boyd, but Jack Elam was William (Hopalong Cassidy) Boyd’s business manager when the Hoppy merchandising behemoth was Star Wars mega-big. Marvel Comics Mega media big.
Can you imagine?
Continuing the Warner Brother’s television tradition of a shared mythos between their different series, Bronco Layne shows up to shoot six-guns beside Sugarfoot!
There are two more episodes, ending with Lassie’s original television series boy owner, Tommy Rettig, as a teen trying to break his good guy Hollywood image.
And then the ride is over.
Sugarfoot makes that last ride into the sunset.
And, as with most of the series, he does it alone.
Copyright 2015 by Don McGregor
You can find copies of the IDW
hardcover DETECTIVES INC right here: http://www.amazon.com/Detectives-Inc-Don-McGregor/dp/1600104940/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1425521468&sr=1-1&keywords=don+mcgregor+Detectives+Inc
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Sugarfoot would not be a late 1950s/early 1960s known to deal with racism and sexism.
Yet, in viewing these distinct western dramas, it certainly does that with many ethnic groups.
Except with black people.
They could never have done such shows, made such equality stands, with black people.