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Pony Express (DVD Review)

30 Apr, 2012 By: Mike Clark

$24.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Charlton Heston, Rhonda Fleming.

Even before the onset of short-lived VistaVision in late 1954, Paramount Technicolor was always the most vibrant and instantly identifiable of them all, which made them a good studio for Westerns. Of course, take away Shane and One-Eyed Jacks, and they didn’t have many bragging rights on the genre’s world-beaters (even if Gunfight at the O.K. Corral does get Frankie Laine/Dimitri Tiomkin bonus points). Basically, the Paramount Westerns were attractive star vehicles with actors in cool-looking clothes, movies whose photographic brightness (and storytelling IQ’s) made them a good fit for drive-ins.

Now that Olive Films is distributing the Paramount library that its own studio has largely (and, in fact, uniquely) ignored for decades, a lot of these Westerns are emerging, with many more to come (including Nicholas Ray’s Run for Cover) as we approach and get into the summer. So, OK: there likely haven’t been too many film class term papers ever written on either Pony Express OR The Jayhawkers! — but they’re easy to take and stocked with the kinds of unpretentious actors who never demanded that too much Dom Perignon be delivered to the dressing room.

Pony Express is a splendid-looking crock about Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickok teaming up to help launch mail delivery’s onetime best friend against the opposition of California separatists. Though historically dubious, it is true that both of these household names (at least in 19th-century households) had true-life PE histories. Charlton Heston plays Cody, and it always surprises me to see how relaxed he occasionally seemed back when his big-screen career was just starting to roll and he didn’t have the world’s weight on those very big shoulders (I rode in an elevator with him once, and I know). Forrest Tucker plays Hickok, and he has almost nothing to do but wear nicer duds than Guy Madison ever did when playing the lawman on TV at the same time as he pushed sponsor Kellogg’s Sugar Corn Pops on willing kids. Tucker was probably just happy to get away from regular homestead Republic Pictures for a month and take fourth billing in an A-picture instead of slogging through a male-lead gig in Flight Nurse.

Thanks in part to a gorgeous print (in fact, one of Olive/Paramount’s best), the movie is somewhat more interesting on the femme side, which deals with the budding friendship between the movie’s heart-isn’t-in-it villainess (Rhonda Fleming) and Jan Sterling (cute tomboy haircut) as one who wants to but can’t get Cody out of his buckskin. Hitting it off after a bad start in which they heave stagecoach mud on each other, the two eventually share a sexy bathhouse scene in which it would have been fun to have been a third party. The director here is the perpetually nondescript Jerry Hopper, who did later direct Mr. Chuck in The Private War of Major Benson, a military school comedy whose box office success did the actor’s pre-Moses career a lot of good.

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