Today is the birthday actor Randolph Scott (1898-1987) and we here at The Jade Sphinx are delighted to participate in the Randolph Scott Blogathon, sponsored by Toby Roan and his wonderful site, 50 Westerns From the 50s.
In thinking about the many attributes of this fine performer, I came to realize that he was not only a capable Western performer, but someone who personified the most admirable attributes of a Western Hero.
Born George Randolph Scott, this tall, handsome Southerner hailed from Virginia. From a well-off family, he attended private schools (which, clearly, added a level of polish that was evident in his acting), and was an excellent athlete, concentrating on swimming and football. When the Great War came around, he enlisted and saw action in France. He returned home and went to college, dropping out before earning his degree and joining his father at the textile firm.
But … something about acting has also intrigued the handsome Virginian, and he moved West, thinking of a career in the movies. He worked as a bit player and extra in several films, and then worked on stage to further develop his abilities. After time he garnered a contract from Paramount, and went on to star in a series of Westerns based on the novels of Zane Grey. His first important, starring role was in Heritage of the Desert (1932), and he went on to make 10 B Westerns for Paramount in their Zane Grey series. A Western star was born.
Well … not quite. In his early career, the Virginian starred in a wide variety of movies, including musicals (including turns with Shirley Temple!), comedies, crime pictures and adventure movies. He appeared in everything from the science-fantasy She (1935) to the musical Roberta, with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
But it was in Westerns that the Virginian made his most significant impact. He would appear in more than 100 films, but the majority of them would be Westerns. In his early Westerns, he is capable – and, in bigger-budgeted pictures, often the second banana. But as he aged, he brought to his Western performances a gravitas, a hardness, and a touch of tragedy. He wears stoicism like a suit of armor, only emerging from under it to write wrongs and mete out justice.
His face and body only improved with age. As the Virginian entered his 50s, he lost much of his callow handsomeness, leaving him with an impressive, sculptural beauty. It is a handsome face, but one carved from stone, with all the strength and impassivity associated with rock. His muscular frame became leaner and harder as the Virginian aged into indestructability. It is almost impossible to imagine, in these days of films made almost exclusively for addled children and undemanding adults, such a mature action hero. But the maturity and the gravity were key ingredients to the Virginian’s later greatness; without them, he was diminished.
This Western persona hit its stride in the 1950s, and was particularly majestic in a series of seven Westerns he made with director Budd Boetticher (1916-2001). Each and every one is a small masterpiece in its way, with the best being Ride Lonesome (1959). When introducing people new to Westerns to the genre, this is usually the film I chose … and if you only see one Western, it may as well be this one.
When thinking about Scott and his Western screen persona for this retrospective, I realized that the actor had seemingly walked off of the very pages of the first great Western novel, The Virginian, written in 1902 by Owen Wister (1860-1938).
Like the nameless Virginian, Scott was a tall, handsome native of that state. Like Wister’s hero, he would come to represent all of the virtues of the Western Hero – justice, chivalry, integrity, mercy and a sense of honor. He is a straight-shooter, a man of moral substance and of self-respect. He has seen it all and it has cost him much; but it has not made him bitter or hateful … merely watchful. He is self-possessed and a gentleman around women, but not a ‘ladies man’ in the traditional sense.
For all of his exterior hardness and privacy, there is warmth and approachability in both Virginians. There is a flinty hint of laughter around the crinkles of his eyes, and a wry humor. Both Virginians live simply, speak honestly and are nature’s noblemen. As the narrator in Wister’s novel says, often in their spirit sat hidden a true nobility, and often beneath its unexpected shining their figures took a heroic stature.
Scott’s final film was the excellent Ride the High Country (1962), which may be only good film by Sam Peckinpah. In it, Scott and fellow-Western star Joel McCrea (1905-1990) are aging lawmen tasked with transporting gold across the frontier. Both have lived hard lives, and both have seen the world change too much. During the trip, one of the pair plans to make off with the gold and fund a comfortable retirement. Playing against type – Scott plays the potential thief.
The real joy of High Country is the continual interplay between McCrea and Scott. Originally, the roles were to be reversed, with Scott playing the honest and honorable lawman, and McCrea the more cynical, out-for-what-he-can-get ex-lawman. However, during the initial reading, both realized that switching parts would be more effective, and they were entirely correct. McCrea’s flat, Midwestern delivery is perfect for the moral compass of the picture, and Scott, in the role of a lifetime, uses his rich, Virginian accent to great effect as he makes sardonic, pithy remarks throughout the film. In fact, his running commentary is one of the most satisfying elements of the screenplay, and the timbre of his voice is essential.
Throughout the 1950s (and much of the 1940s), the Virginian focused primarily on Western films, and he brought to his performances the full weight of his screen image, and he played upon audience expectations of who he was and what he would do.
There have been many Western stars who rode tall in the saddle, but the Virginian, Randolph Scott, was one of the most impressive. With his calm demeanor, steely reserve and moral compass, he was a reflection of the best part of ourselves.