Shirley Temple was, perhaps, the biggest star of the Silver Screen throughout the depression years, her death at 85 on February 10 means that the Good Ship Lollypop has taken its last voyage. The young American icon sang and danced her way into the hearts of a financially stricken U.S. and during a time when many were committing suicide because of lost fortunes and millions of American’s were on the bread lines and in soup kitchens Temple made America forget her financial woes for at least an hour and a half.
Published in 2010, The Nicest Fella is about one of the last of the cowboys. Ben Johnson was not just a “screen” cowboy, he was the real deal. Growing up in Oklahoma Son, as he was known to family and friends, earned his spurs on the back of a horse before doing so on screen. Johnson came to Hollywood to deliver horses to the film industry at a time when westerns were all the rage and the demand for horseflesh was high.
After discovering that he could make more money in a single day than he could for an entire month working on a ranch, he decided to stick around and began doing stunt work. He worked a lot with another stuntman who became an actor in his later years, Richard Farnsworth who was later nominated for an Academy Award for his role in The Straight Story. Ben would actually win an Oscar for his work in the film The Last Picture Show, which he referred to as a dirty movie because of the cursing and nudity in it.
Richard D Jensen does an excellent job chronicling the life and times of one of Hollywood’s greatest character actors. He had an enormous amount of help from Helen Lee Johnson Christenson, Ben’s sister, who had collected over 30 years worth of information on her famous brother. Jensen himself met Johnson in 1984 at a film festival and the two got on so well that they ditched the festival and spent the evening at a cafe talking. Jensen says that it was then that he knew he would write about Johnson one day.
The book goes back to Ben Johnson’s own famous father Ben Johnson Sr. A rodeo champion and manager of the largest ranch in Oklahoma, he was well known and well respected. Ben Jr, or Son, new that he would have to do something different from his father if he wanted to make his own tracks in the world. Although he would later return to the rodeo world and attempt everything his father had done as a sort of catharsis.
When Johnson first came to Hollywood, the industry was still in it’s infancy. He was not the only real cowboy in the industry. In fact the famous Tom Mix had not only started life as a cowpuncher, but he had worked on the same ranch as Ben Johnson Sr.
Ben Johnson was the last of the cowboys though. His code and moral stand stayed saddle bound his whole life, He did not hold with using foul language in front of women or children and he would stop others from doing so. This same “code” meant that he continually attempted to get Hollywood money funnelled into his home state to help those who needed it.
Johnson also took a “break” from Hollywood to go back to the rodeo. He is the only actor who won an Oscar and the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association‘s Team Roping World Champion title in 1953. Ben was later inducted into the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association‘s ProRodeo Hall of Fame in 1973.
The title of the book came from paraphrasing Johnson’s acceptance speech for winning the Oscar in 1972. At the end of his very short speech, he announced that what he was going to say would cause a lot of conversation but, “It couldn’t happen to a nicer feller.”
He was right. What the book shows is that very few, certainly not any in the book, had an ill word to say about the man. The cowboy turned stuntman; turned actor; turned rodeo star and back to actor, was a man of his word and had time for everyone. His strict moral ethos gave him the strength to stand up to notorious bully John Ford, and it says volumes about Johnson. Even more so that Ford, later in his career, would talk Ben into working in The Last Picture Show. If Ford had not “pushed” Johnson to do it, he would have kept turning the role down.
At 299 pages, the book is not overly long, but after biography finishes, Jensen has one of the most complete filmography’s I have ever seen. This was a monument to a great man and the author has laid his foundation carefully and built a wonderful bio of a brilliant character actor.
If you are a fan of westerns, you’ve seen Mr Johnson in countless roles in films that range from John Ford’s epic paintings to Sam Peckinpah‘s brutal realism. Well known as the “sidekick” of Duke Wayne and the best horseman in Hollywood. It is a wonderful read and definitely a book for anyone who is a fan of this excellent character actor.
I have to give this a five out of five stars just because Richard D Jensen does a brilliant job and he is the only writer who has taken the time to write a Ben Johnson biography. The book is available from most book sellers, but sadly, is not in an ebook format.
4 September 2013
- Top cowboys set to cap Ellensburg Rodeo (yakimaherald.com)
- New Ranch Bronc event puts real cowboys in the rodeo arena (wenatcheeworld.com)
Growing up all three of these men were an integral part of my childhood. Specifically John “Pappy” Ford in the cinemas and of course John Wayne ‘Duke’ and Ward Bond as well, but Mr Bond had the added distinction of being in my folks’ living rooms each week as Major Seth Adams, in Wagon Train.
Of course, I saw all the films and television shows long after they were initially made. The films, I saw on Saturday night at the movies (usually accompanied by a huge bowl of popcorn and a tall ice filled glass of Coca-Cola) and the Wagon Train episodes I watched were the newer ones with John McIntire with the occasional re-run with Ward Bond in. Come to think of it, the McIntire ones were probably re-runs as well.
I do remember with perfect clarity that my family adored the John Wayne film Rio Bravo and we watched it every single time it came on the telly. The Searchers was another family favourite because it was a John Ford film with both Duke and Bond in it; not to mention Hank Worden as good ole Mose Harper. Another John Ford favourite was The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
This book, lovingly crafted by Mr Nollen, tells the warts and all story of this triangular “bro-mance” long before that phrase came into vogue. These three remarkably talented men had a love affair with one another that abided until death. Not in a sexual sense, although rumours persisted that Pappy might just have an inclination “that way.” But in a father and two sons sense. Ford often spent more time with his two adopted sons than he did his own children.
Besides taking an in-depth look at all three men, Nollen gives one of the best breakdowns of Wardell Edwin Bond’s career than any other book I’ve read. I never realised that on top of the television shows he made, Bond had over 271 screen credits in films alone. Besides this all-encompassing career breakdown, we learn more of Ward himself, what made the man tick and why, perhaps, he did some of the more unpopular things that he did.
I have long been a fan of all three men and it was delightful to see such an honest telling of these men’s relationship with one another and the myths that they built and embellished over the years. It is disappointing to lose that childlike reverence for great artists, but it is more important to have an adult’s respect for what they accomplished on-screen and off; good and bad.
Wayne, for all his American for all seasons hero, personally stood for political things that hurt his personal image. These same political stances also hurt others in the same industry. Bond had similar feelings and he too practised a very biased type of politics that, like Wayne’s, could be vengeful. It was surprising, to me, to find that John Ford didn’t agree with either of his “two boys” in the area of politics, for I’d assumed (wrongly) that politically all three were peas in the same pod.
Nollen has given us a personal look at three legends of the silver screen, big and small, and talked to some of the people who worked right along side of them. For a fan of these three talented men, this is a gold mine of a book. I only wish I could have afforded the hardback version instead of having to buy the eBook version.
Not because the eBook is less readable, but for a book about such old Hollywood legends, it would be nice to have an old-fashioned book to hold and look at.
I cannot end this review without giving thanks to Colin over at Riding the High Country blog for making me aware of this book through his excellent review of it.
If you are into books about the entertainment business this will be a 5 out of 5 stars. Only the rules of math keep me from giving it a 6 out of 5.
- John Wayne’s college roommate and best friend, as well as the star of the 1950’s number one television show “Wagon Train” was born today in 1903. Now WE know em (carl-leonard.com)
- John Wayne’s college roommate and best friend, as well as the star of the 1950’s number one television show “Wagon Train” was born today in 1903. Now WE know em (nowweknowem.com)
- “7 Women”: John Ford’s Furious Farewell (newyorker.com)
- Glenn Frankel: In search of “The Searchers” (powerlineblog.com)
- Weekly Top Five: The best of John Ford (chicagoreader.com)
- John Wayne on liberals (pumabydesign001.com)