It has been noted that when Cheyenne premiered on September 20, 1955, as part of an anthology series, Warner Brothers Presents which contained three separate, alternating series, one show was based on Casablanca and the other was based on King’s Row.
Like the railroad stretching West, Cheyenne showed that a one hour dramatic vehicle was possible.
The lone Western hero who could be marshal, cow puncher, wanderer, or anything the producer and/or writers wanted, changed television in a significant way.
And by the time Cheyenne threw his last punch and pulled his trigger for a final showdown, one-hour filmed dramas had become the norm, filling nighttime airwaves on all three networks.
By the time Cheyenne rode into its final season in 1963, the television landscape had changed dramatically, the way so many Western stories heralded the radical change of the West from unchartered frontiers into hustling boom-towns bursting on the edge of the Pacific Ocean.
The Warner Brothers private eye and western series, along with Disney, made ABC, a real player as a third network.
Main title card art for later Cheyennes. Individual art for individual episodes was replaced with this backdrop. I would have sworn until watching Cheyenne Season 7 that the lyrics for Cheyenne played throughout the entire run, but I’m wrong. Only Cheyenne’s name is sung and the rest is instrumental. Not sure who was thinking what in making that change. I’ll stick with the lyrics, thank you very much.
I suspect the rules for what one could do on television weren’t defined yet because the medium was so new. Jack Warner may have wanted to ignore television as the 1950s began — and when he realized television wasn’t going to follow the buffalo into obscurity, he may have wanted to do television as cheaply as possible — but he lucked out entirely because of nepotism and of having William T. Orr oversee the Warner stable of possible series.
Warners was used to doing movies, and by and large the scripts for their TV series reflect this approach. When it came to TV shows, “Don’t have the money. Don’t have the time. Find a way to do it however you can do it!” seems to have been the motto.
Jack Warner had top talent in all departments at his company, but he especially did with a man like Roy Huggins developing his private eyes, cowboys and gamblers.
Under Huggins, Warners had one hit. And then another hit. Then one hit show following the next for the next few years.
Cheyenne. 77 Sunset Strip. Maverick. Hawaiian Eye. Sugarfoot. Surfside 6. Those were all one-hour shows, and the other production companies noticed their success bigtime. Lawman and Colt .45 were the only two half-hour Warner westerns that the company produced, as cowboys became the rage.
Bourbon Street Beat may have bitten the dust after one season, but the writers played up the film noir aspects of New Orleans that were rare for television at the time, and that cancellation didn’t mean the writers would abandon all the characters that they developed for the seriws. Richard Long would still be Rex Randolph. He would just abandon the French Quarter for the Sunset Strip.
Sexuality was a prime motivator in early Cheyennes. I suggest you buy the first couple of seasons and compare it with the final season.
I haven’t relooked at the first season’s Cheyennes, but I can tell you without any fear of being wrong that husky, handsome Clint Walker may talk softly and draw quickly, but as surely as there is gunplay, there is also always some reason for him to take his shirt off, and go into a clinch bare-chested with a female lead.
Check out the episodes in Cheyenne Season 2, Volumes 1 & 2.
Artwork from the Cheyenne episode “The Trap”
In “The Trap”, Cheyenne is forced into slave labor. Life may be tough for the rest of the prisoners, but Cheyenne has the attention of the slaver’s wife, as well as a second beautiful woman, just to complete two triangles. Cheyenne does not just kiss his horse in an episode like this, and adulterous affairs are a staple in early Warner shows. Cheating wives lured by lust, maybe on the edge of sanity, are not a problem, unless you’re the husband (right out of The Postman Always Rings Twice, but with horse-drawn buggies rather than automobiles) or if you’re the target of the obsession, like Cheyenne.
In “Land Beyond the Law”, the well-explored territory of the place where bandits congregate and hide out for a price becomes one of the most homoerotic TV episodes I have ever seen. There is no doubt watching James Griffith’s performance here as Andrew Duggan’s bodyguard, that his loyalty and attraction is not toward the women, but for Duggan. Don’t take my word for it, check it out. I have no idea how they got away with this. Robert Ryan said he played his sexual attraction to Robert Stack’s character in House of Bamboo, which was directed by Sam Fuller, but this episode of Cheyenne certainly gives Fuller and Ryan a run for the money.
This episode, as with many others in its early years, moves rapidly and covers vast expanses of time, but not at the expense of characterization. The dramas build toward climaxes that edge on sheer hysterical confrontations escalating between the principle characters, except for Cheyenne, who always embodies the soft-spoken cowboy, determined to be reasonable, until situations become so explosive and violent that he has to make a stand with words or gunplay – or sometimes both.
“The Long Winter” showcases the kind of scripting that was only done on Warner Brothers shows in those early years. It’s a saga that spans time and shifting liaisons. Small characters have sharply observed bits of business that makes them memorable. It doesn’t matter if there is the time or money to do a saga, damn if the directors and writers and actors weren’t out to give it all they had! For a time we’re herding cattle with Cheyenne, months trapped in wintry isolation that pushes people to the verge of madness. A year or more may have passed in Cheyenne’s life from the beginning of this episode to the end credits.
Warner Archives have released three of their classic TV Western series from the end of the 1950s. Right now, on their site, or on sale on Amazon, or DeepDiscountDVD.com, you can find all of the Cheyenne DVD season sets, as well as the first three seasons of Maverick, with James Garner and Jack Kelly, and the first two seasons of Sugarfoot, with Will Hutchins. Whoever would have thought Sugarfoot would be one of the series Warner Archives would do so quickly? In fact, if you buy while they last you can get Sugarfoot – Season 2 autographed by Will Hutchins. Not a bad deal.
Cheyenne might have been the cleanest cowboy. There was hardly an episode in the early seasons of the series where there wasn’t some reason for Clint Walker to take his shirt off. The actr
esses appearing with Cheyenne always seemed to appreciative, and sometimes, in the early days, an earnest lust for a cowboy who did not romance his horse.
Before I delve into the individual episodes of Cheyenne’s last ride into the TV screen’s black-and-white sunset, I want to make a few comments about the various Warner series.
Some people have stated that the private eye shows were all clones of one another. The cloning principle has also been leveled at the westerns.
While I would not argue that a Bourbon Street Beat or a Hawaiian Eye or a Surfside 6 could not have existed if 77 Sunset Strip hadn’t been such an enormous hit, I believe they are more than clones of 77. While certainly there is some recycling of scripts from time to time, especially during the writer’s strike that Warner’s tried to dodge like a gun-spray of bullets, the writers most often let the locale dictate and color the kind of story being told in these seris.
I’ll go into the private eye comparisons more when Warner Archive resolves whatever music clearance obstacles seem to have prevented the private eye series from being a reality at this time.
Warner Archives, you are going to find a way to make these shows happen, right?
I’m not comfortable using terms like “holy grail” for shows I want to see on DVD or Blu-ray, but I will write that the Warners private eye series are shows I want more than any others.
And if there was one single episode I desperately want to see, would plead to see, have done so before, and will do so again, it is the 77 Sunset Strip episode “Reserved For Mr. Bailey,” with Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. threatened with death in a ghost town and as the sole actor in the entire episode, directed by Montgomery Pittman.
And I mean sole actor on screen through the whole hour!
I’m begging you, folks! Please, get this on disc!
Believe it or not, when Dwayne McDuffie, creator of Ben 10, and I were talking about my writing an episode of that animated series, it started with his talking about Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. doing some voice work for him, and conversations they had. I started talking about “Reserved For Mr. Bailey,” and while there is nothing remotely on screen that would give any indication that the Ben 10 I wrote, “Night of the Living Nightmare,” was inspired by that show, the idea started with the tone of being alone and being haunted by threats.
In comparing the two Warner westerns that alternated with each other, Sugarfoot and Cheyenne, I was surprised how much the producers adhered to the contrasts between the two characters.
The two heroes are not clones. Cheyenne will solve a problem when he has no choice, with a gun. Sugarfoot is steadfastly against using guns to settle situations. I was surprised at how much he refuses to wear guns throughout the first two years of the series.
By the way, the aforementioned Sugarfoot – Volume 2 that has Will Hutchins’s autograph also has the first three appearances of Sugarfoot’s bad-guy cousin, the Canary Kid. Montgomery Pittman wrote and/or also directed those episodes. Pittman also has Chris Colt make guest star appearances from his own Colt .45 series in those episodes of Sugarfoot. Characters crossing over from one series to another were rare in those days.
Somehow, Montgomery Pittman always seemed to be able to do a little more than many the other talent behind the camera, as writer and director.
Warners, at times, could be truly audacious, though, at how they would plug their other series within the context of one of their other shows. The one that sticks most in my mind is the 77 Sunset Strip episode “The Attic,” which has Roger Smith bound on cross-beams, with an B & D bondage ball in his mouth, and a rattlesnake (I’m not kidding!) on his crotch. (Show me the contract again where it says I let rattlesnake slither over me and take a nap in my lap!) In that episode John Dehner checks into a hotel and wants to make sure they have television so he can watch his favorite show, Lawman. You just gotta smile and shake your head about how they were amusingly shameless about that cross-promotion.
Maverick is my favorite Warner western series from that time frame. I really like the packaging on all three DVD sets for that series. If you were to purchase just one collection, I’d tell you to go for Maverick – Volume 2, with the excellent episode, “Shady Deal at Sunny Acres,” with all kinds of guest stars from Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. to John Dehner. James Garner may be Jim Rockford to some; he will always hold a special place in my mind as Bret Maverick.
All the wit and charm that made James Garner shine as a star, all the charisma comes to play and develop as you watch these Maverick episodes.
But Maverick – Volume 3 is Maverick running full tilt out, having established its unique sensibilities. Jack Kelly often gets short shrift as Brother Bart, but he’s just fine in his episode. It just isn’t a role made for the right actor with the right spark to make it brighten the screen. Jack seemed to mostly take it all with good grace.
One last detour before Cheyenne – Season 7, one more plea to Warner Archives, before they start putting the private eye series onto disc: restore the bumpers!
I’ve written this before, I’m not stopping now.
No one did bumpers between commercials better than Warners.
Warners did them better than Disney! And the company from “the entertainment capital of the world” never did it better than they did on the detective shows. The theme-song came up. The announcer’s voice was sure and clear. The title of the episode was against the Sunset Strip locale. All this told you that you were watching something special.
If they can get the bumpers into Peter Gunn, Dobie Gillis and Hawaii 5-0, then why not get them from the company that showed them how to do it best?
Please, Warner Archive, get back to me on this!
Cheyenne – Season 7 starts now:
“The Durango Brothers”. The season starts off with a light-hearted episode in which Cheyenne is forced into a shotgun marriage to Sally Kellerman by her Ma, Ellen Corby and her sons, one of them Jack Elam. It’s all been done before, but it’s fun seeing Ellen clout her large sons around whenever they get out of line.
“Satonka” is straight pulp noir western, played straight with dark shadowy cinematography. We’re a long ways from the premiere episode. James Best and Andrew Duggan join the hunt: sometimes the stalker, sometimes the prey. Everyone approaches the material earnestly, the best way to pull this kind of stuff off.
Robert McQueeney walks the tightrope as “Sweet Sam”. Is he Saint or Satan? Does he use love to manipulate or heal? McQueeney is successful enough to make that a question.
Lee van Cleef had been acting in TV guest star
roles since The Range Rider, with Jock Mahoney and Dick Jones, in the early 1950s, and he rode and smirked and snarled through every western series from Have Gun, Will Travel to Gunsmoke, but he still doesn’t appear here until almost a half hour into “Man Alone” as a bad bartender. Steve Brodie, who was in a number of film noirs, rides after his amnesiac nephew, the titular lone man Cheyenne saves.
“The Quick and the Deadly” is a generic title. I have no idea who the quick is, but more than one person dies. Jeanne Cooper is a saloon owner who may or may not have helped frame her Marshall fiancée, and she brings some grit to her scenes with Cheyenne.
Television often treated the racism against Indians much better than many films in the same time frame. In “Indian Gold”, a doctor states he isn’t a “veterinarian” when Cheyenne insists he treat her. When it is discovered she has tuberculosis, even Indian Gold won’t get her into a Sanitarium for cure. “Not the way it should be,” says Cheyenne in quiet grief. “But it is the way it is.” The story has some twists and kinks in it with Trevor Bardette just coming off playing Old Man Clantan in Hugh O’Brien’s Wyatt Earp and Peter Breck close to beginning his role on The Big Valley with Barbara Stanwyck, playing it close to the vest where he stands on the racial divide.
Peter Breck is back in “Dark Decision” with Diane Brewster (who is the female con artist counterpart to Bret and Bart Maverick) as a blind woman who sings, “I have a hive full of honey for the right kind of honey bee.” That’s subtle as a sledgehammer. I wonder how they got that through the censors. This is a slight reminiscence of the sexuality in the early Cheyennes. James Griffith is back, but though he plays a side-kick, with little exploration of why he is Peter Breck’s side-kick, there aren’t any homoerotic tones to this appearance.
“Pocketful of Stars” is one of those dicey race episodes. Cheyenne is partnered with Peter Brown (which Lawman fans will appreciate) as surveying consultants to the building of the railroad West. While the episode does not ignore the racism toward the Chinese, the script totters a precarious tightrope of stereotypes and gender roles. However, Peter Brown and Lisa Lu (who was Hey Girl in Have Gun, Will Travel for one season) are energetic and engaging in their roles. Robert Foulk once again plays a rat. Somebody’s got to play the rat. It’s a character actor’s living.
In “The Desperate Breed” Cheyenne becomes a Senator and gets impeached. The story begins with a buffalo stampede and the most serious brutality since “Satonka”, but then veers sharply to roast politicians mercilessly and deservedly. Who would expect that thundering buffalo would yield to a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington platform? In our time period, when officials don’t want photos taken of authorities in action and invoke clauses where they can invade homes merely by writing the word “terrorist” on a piece of official paper, it’s pretty neat hearing Cheyenne take the Senate floor and do his Jimmy Stewart type speech. Roy Roberts has a delicious time in this episode as the jovial, glad-handing, pork-belly, corrupt politician.
Here is Cheyenne with his shirt off again. Here is another appreciative woman coming in close. Blondes, brunettes, redheads, they all went for Cheyenne.
“Vengeance Is Mine” has the fiercest fistfight of the season between Clint and Leo Gordon (Big Mike McComb in Maverick). Leo starts the fight off by taking off his gunbelt and using it to swing wide and clout Cheyenne upside the head with the gun in the holster. Thereafter there are axes used, doors bashed off hinges, fences demolished by hurtling bodies. No need for Senatorial speeches here. Jean Willes plays another saloon hostess. I wonder how many of those she portrayed in Warner westerns. Jean was the go-to saloon hostess/prostitute; Robert Foulk was the go-to rat. Van Williams (fresh from Surfside 6) is the “mine” for vengeance, just before he becomes the Green Hornet, with Bruce Lee as Kato.
The best part of “Johnny Brassbottoms” is the two adversaries (Tony Young, Indian scout here, star of the short-lived Gunslinger TV series) and Adam Williams (one of the bad guys from North by Northwest) who find a unexpected common denominator in their views on the idealistic love for a woman. I did not expect them to bridge such a human connection.
“Wanted for the Murder of Cheyenne Bodie” would have seemed a more appropriate title for the last show of the series rather than the penultimate one. The story ambles along until Cheyenne is arrested. For killing himself!
Andrew Duggan and James Griffith return for the last Cheyenne, “Showdown at Oxbend”. We are a long ways from the hysteria and homosexual overtones of “Land beyond the Law”. This is a leisurely told tale that starts as if Cheyenne is going to settle down, as if indeed this is the final trail for the wanderer cowboy raised by the Cheyenne.
Except he doesn’t settle down.
Cheyenne rides off, albeit in a wagon, and not atop a horse, and with his shirt on, and quite confidently, knowing, behind his calm face, that his series never jumped the shark.
Copyright © 2013 Don McGregor