The Nicest Fella: The Life of Ben Johnson by Richard D Jensen – Last of the Cowboys

Ben Johnson

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.

Richard Farnsworth
Richard Farnsworth (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Tom Mix
Tom Mix (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Johnson

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.

Ben Johnson (actor)
Ben Johnson (actor) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Michael Smith

United Kingdom

4 September 2013

Final Gig by George Eells: A Sad Stormy Life

Unknown

On October 19th, 1978 police found the bodies of Gig Young and his newlywed wife of three weeks Kim, dead in their New York apartment. Theories of suicide pacts, Triad murderers, and other shady underworld assassinations abounded. Although the police that investigated the double shooting have speculated that Young first shot his new wife and then himself, some people have never bought this scenario.

Author George Eells sets out to tell Gig Young’s less than idyll life story. From his beginnings as the youngest of three children (a “mistake” but apparently not a happy one) called Byron, whose successful father was hard pressed to give him the time of day.To the days leading up to the double shooting. Eells tries to leave no stone unturned and no relationship untold.

Gig Young made a career out of being the second lead in films. He was always the guy who “lost” the girl. He had a beautiful speaking voice and was always impeccably turned out in his films. The only real exception was the 1969 film ‘They Shoot Horses Don’t They?‘ in which he played the seedy and unpleasant owner/announcer of a dance hall who is overseeing a “Dance-a-thon.” This role landed him the only Oscar of his career.

Eells has been pretty thorough in his chronicling of Young’s life, paying special attention to his relationships with women. He reveals what each of Gig’s marriages were like and the reasons for their failures. It appears that he did not have a very good self-image and that he suffered from several types of mental “illnesses” that he was able to cover up for quite a long time with drink and pills. Later in his life he used both to excess and then tried to stop, most likely, too quickly.

Like most successful “stars” Young’s life reads more like a tragedy than a triumph. He was very adept at appearing to be the suave, sophisticated, amusing man about town, both on-screen and off. Reality was much different, here was a man haunted by demons and a feeling of not belonging or being wanted. These demons, in all likelihood, had been with Gig since childhood and his success as an actor could not save him from himself.

I only found out about this book while reading the meandering “tribute” to the late Elizabeth Montgomery. It is referenced at least twice. I decided to track the book down and read about this man who had fascinated me when he was alive and whose death confused me.

One of my favourite films when I was growing up was the Doris Day, Clark Gable film Teacher’s Pet. Gig Young played his usual second-lead role as Day’s boyfriend (or fiancé I don’t remember which) who loses her to Gable’s hard-nosed newspaper man. As much as I loved the film’s two “main” leads, it was Young who fired my imagination, especially after my mother explained that he, “Never gets the girl, even though he’s so handsome.”

I broke my usual iron-clad rule about Jane Fonda films (I never forgave her for being “Hanoi-Jane” during the Vietnam War) and watched They Shoot Horses Don’t They? just for Gig Young’s performance. It was easy to see why he won the Oscar. The last thing I saw him do was his small but important role in Sam Peckinpah‘s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. He play the mysterious Quill; one half of a “hit man” double act who hire Warren Oates‘ character to find Alfredo Garcia. After securing his (Oates’) services for a very large amount of money, Oates’ character asks for their names. His slurred, sad, and weary response is, “Dobbs. Fred C. Dobbs.”

He still had the ability to breathe life into whatever role he played. Sadly, he would do only one more film before the incident in 1978. Eells tries very hard to figure out what went wrong both in Young’s life and the week leading up to the double shooting. The end result is a tragic retelling of a star’s life. A story that will leave  you shaking your head and feeling, if truth be told, a little sad and depressed.

On the amount of detail that Eells has put into his book, I’d have to give it a 4.5 out of 5 stars. I’ve deducted a half a star for the overall sadness of the book and the conjecture raised about what happened the afternoon of the 19th of October, 1978. The only people who really know what transpired and lead up to the shooting are gone. They’ve taken their secrets with them and perhaps that is better for everyone involved.

"My Name? Dobbs. Fred C Dobbs."Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia - 1974
“My Name? Dobbs. Fred C Dobbs.”
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia – 1974

Jägarna aka The Hunters (1996) Swedish Straw Dogs

Directed and co-written by Kjell Sundvall, The Hunters proves that Thomas Wolfe was right; you can’t go home again. Or at least you probably shouldn’t as the main protagonist Erik Backstrom finds when he returns to his hometown of Norrbotten. Erik is a detective from Stockholm where he gained the status of hero after catching a criminal who also shot him.

He returns home to attend his father’s funeral and he tells his brother Leif that he is returning to Norrbotten now that his kids have all grown and left home. He puts in for a transfer to the local police station and as there is a vacancy it is approved. He soon finds that small town police have a very bad habit of turning a blind eye to what they consider “victimless crime.”

In this case the crime is reindeer poaching on a massive scale. No one really cares about the Laplander’s animal’s being slaughtered as they are reimbursed by the government. Erik goes to investigate the latest incident and finds that his new partner is less than eager to pursue the matter. Once they return to the station, he discovers that the killings have been going on for a long time and he starts to realize the size of the problem.

As Erik delves deeper into the poaching problem, the local populace start to turn against him and the group of hunters he suspects include his brother. After a day of fishing one of the group Tomme starts needling Erik and he goes out to Tomme’s truck and confiscates his rifles to see if they are licensed or not.

They are not and the guns are supposed to be destroyed. Unfortunately Erik’s partner is related to Tomme and the guns are given back to him. As the heat on the men increases with each investigative act by Erik, they fall behind in their meat supplies and go out hunting in a bit of a hurry.

Tomme a Swedish good old boy.

They spy a deer while driving through the woods and using the truck they chase it down. Tomme shoots from the moving vehicle and when the men go to find the body, they find that Tomme has shot and killed a Russian blackberry picker by mistake. The men decide to cover up the accidental shooting and things quickly turn murderous.

In The Hunters, Kjell Sunderland tells us that you don’t have to live in the backwoods of America to find rednecks or people who act like creepy “inbred” hillbillies. The feeling you get after meeting the local “boys” in Norrbotten is that they would not be out-of-place in John Boorman‘s Deliverance country or the fictional Cornwall village of Wakely in Sam Peckinpah‘s Strawdogs.

These locals are not friendly if you don’t agree with what they do. Outsiders are treated as second class citizens and they are not above ostracizing people they don’t like. When they were younger Erik moved away while Leif stayed in the village. Their father was a cruel and harsh father who beat Leif often. In a scene early on in the film, Erik says that he always felt guilty about leaving Leif behind and asks if the “old man” beat him often. Leif replies off-handily that the beatings did not hurt him and that he was okay.

The film then goes on to show that Leif is far from okay and as the two brothers begin to argue the cracks of Leif’s “good-old-boy” facade begin to show and we realise that he is in fact a pretty nasty bit of work; someone who flouts the law and is not above shooting his own dog dead for disobedience.

This Swedish film was one of the biggest hits at the box office in 1996. *Courtesy of Wikipedia.* After viewing it, you can see why. The movie has been put together extremely well and the suspense of this tight intricate thriller is almost unbearable at times. It can also be very uncomfortable to watch and not a little frustrating as we see Erik getting more caught up in the action.

As Erik uncovers more evidence that will catch the poachers, more evidence becomes hidden. When he decides to “go public” the entire town and the police department turn against him.

The film captures the small town xenophobic practice of closing in against “outsiders” and the awkwardness of returning to your childhood home and finding that things have changed and discovering that even your family has a few skeletons in the closet. The Hunters feels like a Swedish Strawdogs meets Deliverance with a dash of Walking Tall thrown in.

Not a group that you’d want to go out drinking with; or hunting.

Spiritually the film belongs in that same sort of genre that so put the average tourist off of visiting rural America’s back roads. In this case though, I do feel like if I ever had the opportunity to visit Sweden, I’d stay on the well beaten track and avoid small villages. I am sure that Sweden is a safe place to visit as long as you don’t go hunting with the locals or wander out to pick blackberries.

Actor Rolf Lassgård plays Erik and he is an excellent actor. Well known in Sweden, he made me think (for some odd reason) of John Goodman. All the actors really sold the film with special kudos going to Jarmo Mäkinen as Tomme and Tomas Norström as the mentally challenged dog breeder Ove. I also fell in love with Helena Bergström as the Prosecuting Attorney and who has actually worked with Rolf before.

Another great “Scandi-crime” film and one well worth the effort involved to track it down. My final verdict is 4 and a half stars.

*Warning: this film contains scenes of animal dismemberment and a lot of blood and literal guts. If you are offended by seeing what appears to be real butchery of animals do not watch the first moments of this film.*

shoot
If animal bloodshed makes you feel like this, avoid the film. (actor Rolf Lassgård as Erik)

The Wild Bunch (1969): Iconic Death

Cover of "The Wild Bunch - The Original D...

I had been hearing that Tony Scott (Deja Vu, The Fan) was in talks with Warner Bros to re-make The Wild Bunch. About a thousand Rolaids later and it looks to be, hopefully, stalled. The last internet mention of this project was August 2011.

Good.

I have a list of films that, in my humble opinion, should never be re-made. Top of the list was True Grit (1969) and of course the Coen Bros re-made it and (he said grudgingly) they did a pretty good job. The big number two on my list is The Wild Bunch.

Director Sam Peckinpah (Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Straw Dogs) made a truly iconic western with The Wild Bunch. His story of a band of outlaws trying to cope with the modernizing of the west was brilliant, touching and bloody.

But more than anything else, it was a last’ hurrah’ for Sam. I think it is the best film he ever made and that’s throwing  Ride the High Country into the mix. Both films were autumnal westerns, but each were autumnal in different ways.

Ride the High Country told of two ‘old’ gunmen who hold onto the old ways and in doing so defeat a new type of outlaw. The Wild Bunch tells of a group of older bandits who are struggling to cope with the ‘new west.’

The Wild Bunch was made in a small Mexican town that agreed to hold off getting electricity until Sam finished filming. I learned this little bit of information from a featurette on blu-ray edition of the film. The ‘making of’s’ on the DVD were damn near as good as the film.

Casting for Wild Bunch was spot on. Sam used the crème de la crème of the character actors available at that time:

William Holden (as Pike Bishop), Robert Ryan (as Deke Thornton),  Ernest Borgnine (as Dutch Engstrom), Ben Johnson and Warren Oates (as the Gorch brothers), Edmond O’Brien ( as Freddie Sykes) and Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones as two of the rag-tag group of bounty hunters.

The film opens with the Bunch robbing a bank. Unbeknownst to them, a special posse of bounty hunters put together by Railroad man Mr Harrigan (Albert Dekker) are waiting; scattered through the town in hiding spots. This is all happening against the backdrop of a Temperance Revival Meeting and Parade.

When the Wild Bunch leave the bank, timed to coincide with the parade passing in front it, (they’ve spotted the posse), the bounty hunters open fire. The resulting gun battle  ends with scores of towns people killed and injured and very few of the intended targets hit.

*Just a quick word about character actor Albert Dekker. Dekker had a long and  diverse career as an actor. The Wild Bunch was his last film. While the film was being edited, Dekker was found in his locked apartment in his locked bathroom, dead. It was very suspicious and unfortunate (Dekker was engaged to be married). The details of his death has been recounted in Hollywood Babylon II Kenneth Angers gritty book about the ‘dark’ side of Hollywood.

Back to the fiim. The outlaws notice that the person apparently leading the posse is old gang member Deke Thornton. Thornton had been caught and put in prison, This was his chance to ‘go straight’ by helping to catch the rest of the gang.

The rest of the film follows the outlaws and their flight from the posse. We get a bit of back story on Pike and Thornton. More importantly we learn that this group of outlaws have a code. We also learn that the posse does not. Peckinpah shows repeatedly that in the class system of the old west, the posse are the ‘dirtbags’ of that era.

The posse seem to be made up of  ‘hillbillies’ who scratch and claw for the spoils of their freshly killed targets. The outlaws on the other hand, seem almost dignified, even the Gorch’s.

The Wild Bunch gained notoriety when it first opened for the amount of blood spilled in each gun battle. Actually blood spurted would be a better description. The bloodshed combined with the slow motion almost balletic death scenes led to many critics panning the film outright.

But Peckinpah’s genius won out. It was well received by the audience and has been a cult favourite for years. One of the films most iconic scenes, the long walk, Peckinpah made up on the spot. It was not in the script and Sam turned to his AD and said, “I want them to do a walking thing.” [sic]

I would recommend to anyone that The Wild Bunch be seen at least once. Preferably the director’s cut. Once you have seen this breathtakingly original film you will wonder why on earth would anyone try to re-make perfection.