Budd Boetticher: A Career

3 November, 2008 (00:30) | Budd Boetticher, by Sean Axmaker, Directors, Essays, Westerns | By: Sean Axmaker

They can lick you (which they cant) or they can fire you, and once you know that youre not afraid of anybody. – Budd Boetticher on producers, 1988 interview

Budd Boetticher stumbled into the movies in the fluky way so many of the two-fisted directors of the silent days landed in the director’s chair, but with a high society twist only Hollywood could have written. The 20 year old kid from a wealthy family decided he wanted to learn how to bullfight and wound up teaching Tyrone Power how to look good in the ring for a Hollywood film. That’s the short version.

Budd Boetticher working his horses in Ramona, CA, 1992. Photo by Sean Axmaker

“I grew up rich, spoiled, and arrogant,” he joked in a 1992 interview. “It was bad enough being rich, but to be a rich athlete, I must have really been obnoxious.” This sports-mad son of a successful Illinois hardware magnate had planed for himself a career in athletics and threw himself into boxing, track, and football. At Ohio State, a knee injury (his second on the gridiron) sidelined him and he took a year off to recover. His plan was a long tour of South America, but his trip stopped short when he saw his first bullfight in Mexico City and stayed to learn the sport, under the tutelage of two of the finest and most respected matadors in Mexico. It was their sponsorship that gave this big, muscular American college kid entry into a sport where Americans were almost unknown.

When his parents, who had since moved to Los Angeles and moved among the best social circles, found out he braving the bulls in South of the border rings, his mother plotted ways to pull him safely back North. Her solution: land him a job as bullfighting adviser on a movie. With a little help from family friend Hal Roach, he was hired onto Rouben Mamoulian’s 1941 remake of Blood and Sand, teaching Tyrone Power his craft and advising screenwriter Jo Swerling on details of bulls and bullfighting. More important to his calling and his career was the crash course he got in moviemaking. In his autobiography When in Disgrace, Boetticher gave credit to editor Barbara McLain for explaining and illustrating the mechanics of storytelling in the most practical manner. The bullfighting kid who never really thought much about the movies was suddenly hooked on making them.

Boetticher worked his way up the ladder, learning his craft on the job: production assistant, second assistant director, first assistant director, then cutting his teeth on a string of B movies for Columbia. His first credited feature, One Mysterious Night (1944), was a 60 minute Boston Blackie mystery destined to be forgotten almost immediately after it was released. He signed it Oscar Boetticher, Jr., his given name.

Those were the days when Hollywood apprenticed its own, promoting from the ranks, and Boetticher learned some of his most important lessons then: how to stay on a 12 day schedule, how to deal handle the front office, how to hold your authority a crew much older and more experienced than you. Most of these films are unavailable, but the few I managed to see almost 20 years ago were entertaining, lean, a little rugged, and better than one would expect. My memories of Escape in the Fog, for instance, are of the exterior fog that envelopes the night in a blanket. It creates a nice mood of mystery while masking the limitations of his B movie sets. Following his Columbia apprenticeship he spent a few years in the Photographic Science Laboratory of the US Navy (where he turned out documentaries and service films for both civilians and soldiers), he returned to Hollywood to find himself back in the B movie rut.

Boetticher straddled two generations of directors. Like the John Fords and Howard Hawks and Raoul Walshes of the generation before, he fell into the film business after careers in more (for lack of a better word) muscular professions. For a director starting out in the 1940s, however, he’s an anomaly. Directors now came from the theater or graduated from other studio crafts, and a new kind of director was also starting to flex muscles in Hollywood: the writer/director, like Preston Sturges and John Huston and Orson Welles. Boetticher saw only one way to pull himself from the mire of low budget quickies, and that was to write his own script. The Bullfighter and the Lady, inspired by his own adventures as a young torero in Mexico (though certainly embellished for the screen) and produced by his pal John Wayne, is the story of a brash, cocky American (Robert Stack in a platinum blond coif that literally spotlights him in the crowds of dark-haired Mexican crowds) who blunders his way through tradition like a bull in a China shop. Filled with a reverence for the tradition of torero and a love of the Mexican culture, the film was almost unreleased, until John Ford stepped in.

"The Bullfighter and Lady"

"The Bullfighter and the Lady"

“John Ford cut the picture to help me get it out,” he told National Public Radio in 1987. “He said ‘You’ve got about 40 minutes of chi-chi crap.’ Well the chi-chi crap that he cut out was the sentimentality of Mexico, the children of Mexico, the real romance between Stack and Roland. Men who are real men can show affection for other men, and that was cut out of the picture.” All of that tradition, the history of bullfighting, the grandeur of Boetticher’s vision was trimmed down, from a sweeping 125 minute drama to a tight, exciting 87 minute love story melodrama. What’s missing in this cut version is the richness. Even the gorgeous skip-frame slow motion finale, which turned the climactic bullfight into something almost mythic, frozen in time, was replaced with more of the crowds-eye shots of traditional bullfight footage. In 1987 the UCLA Film Archive restored Boetticher’s film to the full length, using a duplicate negative discovered in the Library of Congress and Robert Stack’s private 16mm print of the uncut preview version. In this longer version, the transformation of Stack’s headstrong, cocky American to a modest and respectful torero is almost spiritual, and the extended bullfights, the songs and the festivals, the sense of serenity among the bullfight community between the Sunday arena matches, creates a whole different world from the trimmed original release version. And the imagery of these scenes is delicious, a sentimental vision of peasant life, to be sure, but also a respectful one, where the details are not trumpeted as exotica in tourist brochure close-ups but woven through the backgrounds of scene after scene.

The Boetticher we know as Budd was born with this film, the first he claimed as one of “his” pictures. The Bullfighter and the Lady earned him a 1951 Academy Award nomination for Best Original Story and catapulted him up to the A list. Universal Studios immediately offered him a contract and he leapt, little realizing what drudgery was ahead. The mid-list salt-mines of Universal were almost as constraining as his B movie assignments: bland scripts and little creative opportunity, but with bigger budgets and better actors. He made some interesting films in his two years there, notably Red Ball Express, a WWII adventure celebrating the unsung effort of the Army Transportation Corps supplying General Patton’s advance, and the westerns Horizons West, Seminole, and The Man From the Alamo, but nothing as rich or personal as Bullfighter, and certainly nothing to suggest what he was capable of under the right creative conditions.

I said Who do you want to play the lead, Duke? and he said Well, lets use Randolph Scott. Hes through.‘” – Budd Boetticher on Seven Men From Now, 1988 interview

The so-called Ranown cycle was born when John Wayne approached with an offer. “Bood (as Wayne took to pronouncing Budd), I’ve got a script over here I want you to read,” he said, recounted Boetticher in his wicked Wayne drawl. The terse, austere, ruthless western was a first feature screenplay by a young writer named Burt Kennedy, and it proved to be a perfect fit with Boetticher. In fact, everything about this film fit, a convergence of qualities that created something far more brilliant than the sum of its parts. The aging Randolph Scott was cast as the wandering gunman in the desert on a mission of vengeance. Craggy and stiff, Scott had long been out of vogue but was quite happy turning out westerns under his own brand and was doing quite well, thank you very much (he died with a personal wealth of over $100 million due to these westerns… and a few cagey investments). This film made Scott’s “limitations” as an actor a defining part of his character: inexpressive, inflexible, hard, with a voice that masks his feelings and a body that is perfectly graceful riding a horse or handling a gun, tenses like an athlete’s when he senses danger or readies for a showdown, and becomes gawky and awkward in intimate moments. The plot is simple: Ben Brigade (Scott) is a former sheriff driven by vengeance and guilt as he tracks the men who killed his wife in a hold-up. He becomes the unwitting guide to an ill-equipped couple of homesteaders and the little group is filled out when a pair of outlaws join in. “Constructed partly as allegorical Odysseys and partly as floating poker games where every character took turns at bluffing about his hand until the final showdown,” wrote Andrew Sarris in The American Cinema, the first American critical re-appraisal of Boetticher’s career.

The script remains a model of austerity, watertight but never obvious or ornate in its complications, with dialogue written as if every word counts, whether it’s the garrulous nonsense of the husband (John Reed), the tension defusing interruptions of his peacekeeping wife (Gail Russell), the needling, stinging remarks of mercenary gunslinger Master (an insolently impudent peacock of a Lee Marvin performance), or the terse almost mono-syllabic observations and answers of Randolph Scott, who more often than not would answer a question with another, like a challenge. It brought out the best in Boetticher, who pared himself down to the rugged essentials and wrenched up the tension between the central characters, isolated in the empty desert, with remarkable economy. A creative partnership was born and this essential structure would become a model for future collaborations. Scott quickly snatched up Boetticher for his own production company Scott-Brown (which would officially become Ranown a couple of films later) and Boetticher directed Scott in six more films: The Tall T (1957), Decision at Sundown (1957), Buchanan Rides Alone, Ride Lonesome, and Comanche Station (the otherwise forgettable Westbound [1959] was a one-off for Warner Bros., a contractual obligation Boetticher directed out of friendship, not passion). But the films written by Burt Kennedy create a cycle that stands next to the greatest works of Anthony Mann and John Ford.

Randolph Scott in "The Tall T"

From Seven Men through The Tall T to Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station, Kennedy hews to a basic formula. The Tall T, adapted from an Elmore Leonard story, breaks the formula slightly but the impetus is the same: pare the screen down to a small but combustible group and get them out of town and into the desert, where (to use Sarris’ description) the bluffs can begin. Richard Boone stars as Frank Usher, Scott’s other, the charismatic and ruthlessly charming leader of a small gang of homicidal punks whose plot to rob the silver stage is upset when he hijacks a pair of aging newlyweds instead. Suddenly the heist turns into a kidnapping and Scott’s struggling rancher Pat Brennan is hauled along for the bad luck of being picked up by the wrong stage at the wrong time. As Usher expertly, pitilessly runs the show, he unexpectedly lets Brennan live. Brennan is a man where his gang members are merely boys (and stunted, shallow ones at that); a realist not afraid to admit he’s scared yet never showing it in his face; the one person in Usher’s admittedly limited social circle he feels comfortable in confiding his dreams in. He’s also Usher’s downfall.

Volumes have been filled with descriptions of the Boetticher/Kennedy superstructure, but the life of his films are in the vividly realized characters, the rich frontier simplicity of the dialogue, the brilliant use of the Lone Pine landscape to create a self contained world as unique to Boetticher as Monument Valley was to Ford. Many, many other directors shot in Lone Pine, a California wilderness area close to Hollywood, but only Boetticher turned it into a kind of western lost world, a purgatory for Scott’s guilt-driven heroes. They were shot on location, far from the studios, on tight 17 day shooting schedules. The tiny little production unit would travel through Lone Pine and you can feel Boetticher become more responsive to the landscape with each film. A grace permeates these films, not merely of visual style in Boetticher’s long takes and gentle moving cameras but a respect for the friendships that can never be and the world that hammers such characters as Usher on the anvil of the terrain.

Usher is but one of the charming antagonists that Boetticher and Kennedy love so much, but he’s the greatest of them and Boone is brilliant in the role: quiet in his command, both alert and relaxed, ready to jerk to attention. His easy body language couldn’t be more different from the stiff, self-conscious carriage of Scott, or from the insolent, lazy lean of the punk gunman Henry Silva. The language is equally defining. Scott, true to form, gets all the arch clichés in tough, terse bites and he delivers them in his usual flat tenor, but the two illiterate gunmen played by Silva and Skip Homeier speak in a kind of frontier poetry of simple words and offbeat grammar. I can’t testify to its historical accuracy, but it vividly describes captures their immaturity, their lack of education, and their own petty yet impassioned dreams with an unexpected sensitivity. Violent as they are, these boys are full of life and feeling.

Talk is the domain of Kennedy’s antagonists, from Marvin and Boone to Pernell Roberts in Ride Lonesome and Claude Akins in Comanche Station. Where Scott’s hard bitten heroes keeps his plans to himself until he’s forced to reveal them, these garrulous, swank gents can’t help but revel in their plans, whether it’s a taunt (in Akins case) or a matter of forthright respect (Roberts). And one of the things they talk about to almost embarrassing extremes is sex. The erotic rhapsodies of Pernell Robert’s Sam Boone, pitched to Karen Steele in Ride Lonesome, is the ultimate expression, and one has to wonder how much Boetticher’s romance with Steele influenced this almost pornographic blank verse (couched, as always, in colloquial dialogue and delivered with a longing sigh by Roberts). Never has a woman been reduced to such a pure sexual object in a Boetticher film–Steele’s arch performance doesn’t help humanize her, but that hardly explains the body-hugging costume and torpedo-breast blouse–yet there is a strange, powerful expression of loneliness, of lust, of desire in his dialogue.

These are the qualities that bring life to the archetypes, the themes, the poker games of the Boetticher/Kennedy films. But something else interesting happens by Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station, a pair of film with almost identical plots but essential, elegant differences. Like variations on a theme, these films pare the thematic music down to the essence. They become more austere. They become more abstract. They exist entirely outside of civilization, with only stagecoach stations to remind the characters of its existence. The only humans that cross their path are Indians (themselves more a part of the natural world than the social world of frontier towns) or dying settlers. Completely isolated from society, it’s as if Scott’s leathery heroes live in a perpetual state of wandering, a prisoner of the desert (to borrow a ricochet reference from a John Ford picture of similar qualities).

"Ride Lonesome"

Pernell Roberts and Randolph Scott in the unmistakable landscape of Boetticher's west: "Ride Lonesome"

Scott plays self-imposed outcast with a past and a mission, and his journey becomes wound up with a woman he saves/escorts and a collection of mercenary outlaws who invite themselves along as riding companions and competitors: both are after the same thing and neither is ready to back down. Yet these men, that would see each other dead, will save each other’s lives before the final showdown. Scott makes his entrance into each film walking through a sheer crevice, hemmed in by walls of rock on either side, and this barren image is the defining state of his world: barren deserts, rugged plains where the rocks jut out of the Earth instead of trees, featureless valleys, all ringed by distant mountains that are as much fences as borders, trapping them in a domain far from civilization. Even when the films leaves the sun-parched desert for the green coolness of the forest (Boetticher carefully paces the rhythm of landscape his parties travel through), it’s merely an oasis in the self-inflicted purgatory. “A man needs a reason to ride this country. You gotta reason?” he asks the men he meets. More than a valid query, it’s a telling one. These characters are driven by the past and can’t stop talking of the future, but the films are viscerally in the moment, in the now, as if neither past nor future exist. When all is said and done, these are American frontier odysseys with tragic dimensions. At the end of each film Scott escorts his party back to the fringes of civilization, but turns back into to wilderness himself. John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards suffers the same fate in one of the great American films of all time, John Ford’s The Searchers, but as Randolph Scott turns away time and time again, driven by the ghosts of his past in Seven Men, in Ride Lonesome, in Comanche Station, to a self imposed exile, the quietly understated gesture is transformed into an existential expression of impossible loss.

It’s no surprise that these films were ignored by the critical establishment. This was, after all, the age of the super-western, the “adult” western, the psychologically shaded studies and symbolic commentaries. Where the ponderous, heavy-handed “sophistication” of High Noon and the mock mythicism of Shane, with their stock villains and stalwart heroes and the self-aggrandizing direction of Hollywood pros trying to “lift” the silly little western genre into art, look all the more plastic and pretentious with the years, Boetticher’s tight, taut, often savage little pictures are both graceful and visceral, direct, and rich in character. The Boetticher/Kennedy westerns aren’t concerned with history or social commentary. These are simply westerns pared down to their essentials, lean stories about men on the frontier living a life in a dangerous, inhospitable world and they look better than ever today.

Somebody said to me once, How could you as an established director of category go to a foreign country, lose your wife, your money, possibly your reputation, and nearly your life, to film the story of a friend? And I said, Young man, wouldnt it have been a wonderful thing if the director of The Agony and the Ecstasy had had Michelangelo instead of Charlton Heston?‘” – Budd Boetticher on Aruzza, 1988 interview

Boetticher made one more film, the offbeat little gangster picture The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond with Ray Danton as the real life dancer turned urban thug, before he too turned his back on civilization and wandered into his own desert. His dream project was to create the great bullfighting film, and after two works of Hollywood fiction–The Bullfighter and the Lady was followed by the bigger budget drama The Magnificent Matador (1955) with Anthony Quinn and Maureen O’Hara–he turned his energies to documentary, specifically a portrait of Mexico’s greatest torero Carlos Arruza as he embarked on a return to the ring as a rejoneador, a horseback bullfighter. The project took him to Mexico for seven years and the ordeal almost killed him. The adventure is too great and complicated to encapsulate here (fully two-thirds of Boetticher’s 391 page autobiography When In Disgrace chronicles this spellbinding odyssey), but when he finally returned to Hollywood he was broke and divorced, his leading man Carlos Arruza was dead (of a traffic accident) and most of his crew had passed away, and Boetticher himself was lucky to survive a lung infection, a jail sentence, and a midnight commitment to an insane asylum. Quentin Tarantino once expressed interest in putting this story on the screen, and it deserves it.

While the Randolph Scott Westerns represent the critical high-water mark of Boetticher’s career, Arruza is the film that defines Boetticher’s character. For seven years Boetticher lived in Mexico, broke most of the time, and faced imprisonment and death, because he would refused to give up and compromise his vision. “I did not compromise on any shot in Arruza,” remarked Boetticher in a 1970 interview. “And I still sit in the theater and cry a little and love it and shout ‘Olé’ at my friend. So I cut Arruza. Right or wrong, that’s it.”

During the final years of Arruza,” Boetticher started developing other projects. He finished two original screenplays–A Time For Dying and Two Mules For Sister Sara, both of which were produced (the latter completely rewritten by Albert Maltz and directed by Don Seigel)–and two original story ideas, titled A Horse For Mr. Barnum and When Theres Sumpthin To Do, to date still unproduced.

A Time For Dying (1969) became Boetticher’s last feature. The story reads like a dark twist on his Scott westerns: A naïve farm boy with a talent for shooting falls in with an equally naïve young woman from the East, lured west by the promise a job that turns out to be prostitution. Too innocent and dim to understand their predicaments–a kangaroo court trial by Judge Roy Bean, a meeting with Jesse James, and a shoot-out with psychotic gunfighter Billy Pimple–the become two more victims of the lawless frontier. The production was set with Peter Fonda as the kid when Audie Murphy, in desperate need of money to cover his gambling debts, approached him. Boetticher turned the film into a low budget production, cast inexpensive no-names in the leads, with Victor Jory as Roy Bean and Murphy as Jesse James, a small but impressive part. The financing was shady and the film was never meant to play the US, and when Audie Murphy died in 1971, the ownership of the film was thrown into question.

Boetticher never directed another film after A Time For Dying in 1969, unless you count his video documentary My Kingdom For… (1985), but he never gave up his hopes to get back into Hollywood and he never stopped being a storyteller. He spent decades reworking his original scripts When Theres Sumpthin to Do, a western about a crew of cowboys who cross the border to find adventure in the Mexican revolution originally written for John Wayne and Robert Mitchum, and A Horse For Mr. Barnum, about a trio of American cowboys sent to Spain to bring back a string of Andalusian horses for the Barnum circus. On my second visit to Boetticher’s place, on a mission to interview the legend, he lent me the latter, a laconic, easy-going story with a kind of delight in old fashioned story-telling. I still remember his eyes dance as he read a passage from the script aloud, and describing his original script for Two Mules For Sister Sara, a sunset western written for Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr that was blithely rewritten into a violent adventure for Clint Eastwood and Shirley MacLaine. He wrote an autobiography, When In Disgrace.

Otherwise, he and his wife, Mary (they married in 1972) bought a string of Portuguese-Andalusian horses, which they brought back to the US to raise and breed, and Boetticher trained his horses in the art of rejonea (without the bull of course).

In 2000, the UCLA Film and Television Archive rescued his masterpiece Seven Men From Now, effectively missing-in-action for decades, from the vaults of Batjac. The restored print “premiered” at UCLA and was featured in Budd Boetticher tributes at the 2000 New York Film Festival and the 2000 Telluride Film Festival. Boetticher, ever the storyteller, appeared to tell a few of his stories to the crowds. New prints of his classic Ranown films made the rounds of film festivals and film societies. After his brief vogue in the auteur driven critical climate of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and his years of being feted in film festivals across Europe and South America in the 1980s, this was his last hurrah. And just in time. Cancer was killing him. The man whose retirement kept him vigorous through his sixties and seventies, working and training his horses four hours a day, was confined to his home outside Ramona, California. He looked gaunt and frail in his final public appearance at Cinecon 37, an LA based festival of classic movies, in September, 2001, and passed away two months later, on November 29, 2001, at his home. He was 85.

© 2008 Sean Axmaker

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