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Yellowstone Kelly (DVD Review)

31 Aug, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$24.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Clint Walker, Edward Byrnes, John Russell, Andra Martin.

Now, this is ad copy.

Warner’s new on-demand DVD of a boomer benchmark utilizes the original poster for its jacket art — and for ripe wording, you just can’t beat, “Clint’s Back! … and ‘Kookie’ is with him! The Year’s Big New Thrill on the Big Theatre Screen!” Or, in patter that offers introduction to lead Clint Walker’s chief adversary: “John Russell as Gall — the love-crazed chief of the Sioux.”

I’m not sure of just what Clint was back from, other than perhaps one of his many fights with studio chief Jack Warner, but the ad pretty well spells out just why Chief Gall is so love-crazed. Sporting deep blue eyes to match Walker’s own is Arapaho maiden Wahleeah. Played by Andra Martin, who’d previously starred with Fats Domino and The Diamonds in The Big Beat, she’s referred to as “The-Girl-in-a-Blanket” on the poster, which further adds: “Men beat a warpath to her door.”

Though more familiarity might breed indifference were the movie not so infrequently shown these days, there’s definitely a nostalgic kick in re-seeing what was a very, very heavily promoted cross-demographic Western in its day. Filmed in a year when something like 35% of all TV series were Westerns, Kelly cast 6-foot-6 Walker as a trapper who respects the Indians and tries to warn several U.S. Cavalry troopers from the slow-learner’s class that maybe the latter’s fighting skills shouldn’t be undervalued. His sidekick, who keeps calling him “Mr. Kelly” during what must be one of the longer movie death scenes on record, is played by “Edward” Byrnes in an attempt to break away from his “Edd (Kookie) Byrnes” TV image, sparked by his flash-flood popularity playing a hipster parking lot attendant on ABC-TV’s “77 Sunset Strip” (now, there’s a Warners series ripe for on-demand release). This wasn’t easy to do given that the previous spring, he’d scored a No. 4 Billboard hit dueting with Connie Stevens on “Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb.”
Co-star Russell — he of the mile-high cheekbones and an impressive real-life World War II record — took a breather from the ABC/Warner series “Lawman” (another Western) to allow the makeup folks to turn him into a Sioux. The role of his always-angry nephew, one of many wanting to beat a warpath to Wahleeah’s blanket, went to Ray Danton — a year before he played the title gangster role in Budd Boetticher’s The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond, the kind of movie I would sneak off to see after doing an end run around my mother. In real life, Danton was married to Julie Adams, the actress who got carried off by the Gill Man in Creature from the Black Lagoon. (And Martin was married to ABC/Warner TV star Ty Hardin — I always wondered if anyone ever called him Tyrone — of Bronco.) All of this makes me feel very, very sorry for people who look at “That ’70s Show” and think they know anything about nostalgia.

The downside is that the movie is far more fun to watch from the outside than in — with “in” defined as being swept along by the narrative and caring a little about the characters. But from the outside, it’ll do, especially since the two most disagreeable Cavalrymen are played by Claude Akins (of course) and a very young Warren Oates (his second feature amid a lot of early TV appearances). As soon as Kelly rides into the fort early in the picture to endure some of their “mouth,” you know that a brawl is in store. In fact, the commander, played by Rhodes Reason, even seems to encourage it. (Isn’t it great that in the ’50s, there could be both a Rhodes Reason and a Rex Reason on screen? Actually, they were brothers.)

IMDb.com says the movie has a 1.37:1 aspect ratio (in 1959?), but the DVD is 1.85 and looks fine. It’s also in Technicolor because by this time the studio had wised up and scrapped the dreadful WarnerColor (if this movie had used it, the title would have had to been Orangestone Kelly). What’s in the frame is a checklist of familiar events: saloon mayhem, the long death scene, a spinal operation that Kelly must perform by campfire light with a knife — and be killed if he bungles it; the usual battle between a wizened Indian chief and a young hothead under his command; an arrogant Cavalry being humbled by Native Americans. Written by Burt Kennedy, it’s all pieced together in “let’s just get this one into theaters” by Gordon Douglas — who, in previous consecutive years had directed the giant ants in Them! and Liberace in Sincerely Yours.

This isn’t the kind of movie one usually platforms, but Warner gave it a November New York opening and then waited a while (hence, “The Year’s Big New Thrill on the Big Theatre Screen!” ad copy). Or maybe it was just overcrowding at the time. In my hometown, the RKO Palace played all the big Warner Bros. films, and split a lot of Universal-International and a few Fox titles with the Loew’s chain (which were mostly Paramount and MGM). But in late ’59 at the Palace, Universal’s Pillow Talk wouldn’t quit drawing — and then, following one week of Jack Webb’s -30- (said to be a coming Warner Archive release), in came Warner’s A Summer Place, and that was that for a while. Even Kookie couldn’t crowd out adultery and teen sex.

Kelly is ultimately a kiddie Western with Kookie for the teen- girl demographic. There was a comic book tie-in (which even more adult Westerns got: The Fastest Gun Alive, The Searchers, Rio Bravo, The Horse Soldiers to name four I owned as well as a youngster), and Warner promoted it to death on its studio-produced TV shows that all grade school “guys” watched, just as Disney promoted 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Lady and the Tramp movies on "Disneyland." Even at that, there are one or two combat shots here where it’s obvious someone is getting shot directly in the face. Today’s TV14’s are what every guy-kid saw as a steady diet 50 years ago — but don’t get me going.

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