Canyon River

Back in the saddle. It’s been a while now since I’ve featured a western on this site, not that I’ve been consciously avoiding them, it’s just that other material has been occupying my thoughts as far as posting is concerned. Added to that is the fact I like to vary the content, to try to keep staleness at bay if nothing else. Anyway, I’ve found myself watching, and indeed writing up, a number of CinemaScope movies lately – others will follow in the weeks ahead. The first of those to make an appearance is probably the least of them, which is not to say it’s a bad movie. Canyon River (1956) is perhaps unremarkable yet it’s also entertaining and, what’s even more important, quietly satisfying in the way so many 1950s westerns manage to be.

There can be few things more satisfying than seeing a bullying loudmouth such as Robert J Wilke’s character have his pistol spectacularly kicked out of his hand and then get laid out by two well aimed haymakers. The man meting out this punishment in the opening scene is Steve Patrick (George Montgomery), a Wyoming rancher who may be facing financial difficulties but isn’t taking anything lying down. No, this is a man with a plan, albeit a plan which plenty of people will tell him he’s crazy to attempt. In brief, he wants to introduce a new cross breed of cattle, something which will involve a big gamble on his part and necessitate driving a herd along the Oregon Trail in the opposite direction and out of season. Aside from the hardships to be faced, there’s also the challenge of finding a crew willing to go along with this, not to mention the fact that the man he considers his closest friend (Peter Graves) is secretly plotting to take both his life and his herd. If all that didn’t represent sufficient difficulty, there’s also the matter of a young widow (Marcia Henderson) and her son (Richard Eyer) to consider.

What Canyon River presents is a fairly standard trail drive western, blending in that familiar yet always welcome 1950s focus on redemption and the potential for a fresh start. The redemptive aspect is related mainly (though not exclusively) to the greed and betrayal of Peter Graves’ character. I’m not entering spoiler territory here as the treachery is revealed to the viewer very early on and the knowledge of that adds a layer of suspense to the plot. How, or indeed whether, Graves will redeem himself is not resolved until late in proceedings and in the meantime another thread of redemption – more straightforward this time – is explored. This concerns the crew hired by Montgomery to undertake his unconventional drive. Well, they are an unconventional group, headed up by Alan Hale Jr and consisting of a ragtag bunch of criminals and ex-convicts. For them, this represents an opportunity to find a path back into society, a means of escaping destructive get-rich-quick schemes and winning back some degree of self-respect. Last but by no means least, the whole affair offers a chance of a fresh start for Montgomery himself along with Henderson and Eyer.

Canyon River, from Daniel B Ullman’s script, is a remake of the 1951 Bill Elliott western The Longhorn. Not having seen the earlier version, I can’t comment on that or make any comparisons but I do like this iteration. A number of films directed by Harmon Jones have been featured here in the past and I’ve found them all quite enjoyable. While this is a modest picture overall there is plenty to admire, from the attractive widescreen imagery, shot by director of photography Ellsworth Fredericks, to the feelgood positivity of it all, and that latter aspect is something I think we can all do with sampling in these stubbornly trying times.

A big part of what makes Canyon River work so well is the presence of George Montgomery. He imbues the part of Steve Patrick with an enthusiasm and verve that is infectious. However, what is even more important is the generosity and openness of the character; this is the key to the success of the central theme. It’s his simple faith in himself and human nature in general that draws in, inspires, and indeed shames some of the other characters. The sheer likeability of the man makes Graves’ betrayal of him appear even less appealing. I liked Marcia Henderson’s work in Back to God’s Country and she brings great warmth to her role in Canyon River, making the romance which blossoms between her and Montgomery especially sweet. This also applies to Richard Eyer, who is wonderful as the hero worshiping youngster. At one point, after a hard day on the trail, the boy quietly falls asleep by the fireside and Alan Hale’s reformed outlaw spots this.  Demonstrating unexpected tenderness, he carefully picks him up and gently deposits him in the wagon; it’s a fleeting moment but a telling one and a delightful little grace note.

Hale is extremely engaging all the way through and his gratitude is in stark contrast to the jealousy and duplicity of Peter Graves. Graves does fine work portraying this, and he also succeeds in getting across the inner turmoil of the character as the doubts and guilt slowly grow within him. Other villainous parts are taken by perennial louse Robert J Wilke, whom I spoke of above, as well as a somewhat underused Jack Lambert and Walter Sande. I sometimes feel no western would be complete were Ray Teal not to appear at some point, and he obligingly pops up as the cattleman who sells his herd to Montgomery.

Canyon River was an Allied Artists production and therefore it can be found on DVD via the Warner Archive. It’s a reasonably good looking transfer, in the correct aspect ratio and boasting strong, attractive colors. As far as I know, there are other copies available on assorted European labels. I remember coming across this movie on TV years ago and thinking at the time that it was passable but nothing special. Revisiting the movie recently, I came away with a far more favorable impression. Nevertheless, I don’t want to oversell it and have people thinking it’s some unmined gem that has just been unearthed. It is no world beater yet the mood, the message, and some good performances make for a very pleasurable 80 minutes of entertainment.

45 thoughts on “Canyon River

  1. Sounds really interesting, thanks Colin. What really caught my attention here is Graves’ role as I’ve been watching a lot of the Mission Impossible TV shows. Nice to be reminded of how he could play nasty … 😀

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    • I think when actors went on the appear in long running TV series it’s easy to associate them with those subsequent roles and forget their earlier, and sometimes much more varied work. I know I grew up thinking of Raymond Burr, for example, as Perry Mason or Ironside. It was only later that I found him turning up all over the place as I started watching more films noir and other genre pictures, and the contrast was arresting to say the least.

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  2. Colin
    Again, another Montgomery film I need to see. Every one of his you put up is on my need to see list. A promise to myself for the new year is to get my arse in gear with these films. The mention of Ellsworth Fredericks is another reason to seek this out., Nice write-up as usual.
    Gordon

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    • He is very watchable, isn’t he? And is capable of projecting quite a lot of warmth on screen too. I don’t believe he had a huge range but he was very good in the type of roles, such as this one, which played to his strengths.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This is a nice little Montgomery Western. Apart from the man himself, who is of course immensely appealing, I really liked the entire cast, the love story and the redemption plot. It may be a modest picture but it certainly has a lot to offer.

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  4. I waited years to see CANYON RIVER-right up to the Warner Archive MOD/DVD of 10 yearsor so,back. I must say I was underwhelmed expeciting more from Harmon Jones who made the exceptional SILVER WHIP and even better A DAY OF FURY.
    In the UK CANYON RIVER did not even get a circuit release it was a floating release mainly shown in flea pits. The support I believe was a Bowery Boys comedy.
    Most, but not all, Allied Artists were picked up by a major cinema chain namely ABC Cinemas,and many of them played as main features WICHITA,THE FIRST TEXAN,THE OKLAHOMAN,while others played as support pictures THE TALL STRANGER,AT GUNPOINT. Still, not only Colin enjoys CANYON RIVER but also Margot and Laura.
    I’m also not that impressed by another Harmon Jones Allied Artists Western BULLWHIP which also was granted a major circuit booking. Warner Archive have released most of the Allied Artists Westerns that they own but sadly a whole chunk of the Allied Artists/Monogram catalog was sold to Republic back in the 60’s. Republic is now owned by Paramount which means several very good Allied Artists Westerns have little chance of getting a DVD/Blu Ray release.
    The Paramount owned titles include LAST OF THE BADMEN (in my opinion, the best Western Montgomery made for Allied Artists) JACK SLADE, RETURN OF JACK SLADE,THE TALL STRANGER,AT GUNPOINT, DRAGOON WELLS MASSACRE.
    Great to see Colin back in the saddle.

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    • I saw Bullwhip not long ago. It has a fairly bad reputation but I thought it was OK. I was on a Guy Madison trip – who was a natural in Westerns – and watched The Charge of Feather River, The Command and the fantastic The Hard Man all in one day. Was a pretty good day.

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    • John, when I first caught this film I wasn’t especially enamored of it. I didn’t dislike it by any means but it was perhaps not what I had expected. It’s certainly not the movie of The Silver Whip or A Day of Fury; the latter remains almost criminally underrated in my opinion. That said, this revisit left me feeling much more positive about the film and I very much enjoyed the way the material was handled.

      Those Allied Artists titles now with Paramount do need to be out there – but you never know what might show up in the future.

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      • With all the folks here who seem to prefer watching movies on-line
        or cable or whatever the chance of Westerns from second string Western
        stars released are over. Re-issue labels need sales for such fare to
        get released Kino Lorber did give ROBBER’S ROOST a shot but
        obvioulsy it did not generate enough sales for similar releases to
        follow.There will always be Westerns released from the likes of
        Douglas,Lancaster and Mitchum but for the Rory Calhouns,
        George Montgomerys and Rod Camerons it’s game over.
        The only hope for these type of pictures is say SOUTHWEST
        PASSAGE with the continued appeal of 3D.
        I’d love to be proved wrong but sadly I hold out no hope for the
        Allied Artists titles Paramount hold-I guess us collectors must
        be thankful for what we have got so far.
        Sidonis,France is the last hope for fans of those great second string
        Western stars.

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        • To be honest, I’m grateful we’ve got as much as we already have. That said, and while I do recognize the market for physical media is shrinking all the time, I’m not necessarily as pessimistic. It’s worth remembering that it’s in the interest of rights holders to ensure that up to date masters of their properties exist as TV and streaming services are not so likely to want to run weak copies – that’s what drives most of the restoration work in the first place, any disc releases tend to be by-products of that investment. So, as long as rights holders are interested in making money through licensing their titles to any of these services, the potential remains for a hard copy coming on the market.

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          • Fair enough but just look at the volume of
            vintage Noir and especially Horror/Sci Fi that gets
            released. With Horror there is always an ever evolving
            generation of kids that buy vintage titles.
            Just look at Indicator’s fantastic Columbia Noir sets
            could you imagine them doing the same with Columbia
            Westerns-I know we had the Boetticher set but there again
            Budd has gained a “cult” reputation over the years.
            I watched THE LAST POSSE recently,what a little gem
            how I’d love a Columbia Western collection with films
            of a similar quality like THE HARD MAN and REPRISAL!
            and indeed THREE HOURS TO KILL.
            but it’s not gonna happen-then again I’d love to be proved
            wrong. The bottom line is that Horror/Sci Fi and Noir fans
            actually BUY stuff unlike stingy Western buffs!

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            • Yes, point taken. I guess I was speaking more in general terms about restoration, and subsequent or potential hard copy releases. Genre does play a role in the marketability of this stuff though, and I can’t deny that. The horror/Sci-Fi/fantasy market is especially strong and noir, while not in that league, does have a pretty constant and enthusiastic set of fans, not that this seems to be making much headway as far as Universal product is concerned of course.
              Westerns don’t have that kind of fan base for one reason or another.

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  5. Good to be ‘back in the saddle’ with you, Colin. A very fair write-up of an enjoyable western – the type, to be honest, that I return to often. As you say, no classic but what I think of as ‘bread-and-butter’ western. In other words routine, which is just fine with me.
    I would recommend you consider the very nice Warner Archive set that includes the Wild Bill Elliott original, “THE LONGHORN”. In that modest but enjoyable version the friend who betrays him is played by Myron Healey.
    George Montgomery made some pretty good westerns and his presence and appearance (those big stetsons) always a pleasure.

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    • I don’t believe I’ve actually seen any Bill Elliott westerns, Jerry – I should probably be saying that sotto voce, I know.

      Routine seems to carry a pejorative meaning, doesn’t it? This is a genre movie with a lot of standard tropes on display but it doesn’t feel tired or lackluster. It simply presses a lot of the buttons genre aficionados will know and more importantly appreciate, and it does so in a hugely enjoyable way.

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  6. Yes, BULLWHIP also stars Rhonda Fleming-I thought she and Madison made a good team-pity the film was not better. As you say, Madison was great in Westerns and THE HARD MAN is excellent and REPRISAL! even better. The opening scene where Madison is forced to kill his friend (Myron Healey) in a gunfight during a storm is sensational. Also, Valerie French is the femme fatale in THE HARD MAN, which is also a plus factor. I only watched her last night in THE GARMENT JUNGLE which I also thought was very good-too bad her career never progressed as it should have.

    Harmon Jones also directed lots of RAWHIDE episodes, including some very good ones. Another Jones flick I enjoy is WOLF LARSEN, which in the UK was the support to AL CAPONE. The film is strikingly shot by Floyd Crosby and I love the scene where Peter Graves is dragged out of the sea.
    “What work do you do” asks Barry Sullivan.
    “I’m a literary critic” replies Graves
    “I said WORK” barks Sullivan.
    I understand the film was mostly shot on Sterling Hayden’s yacht, who was originally supposed to star.

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  7. Coming up on cable here is…
    ALONG CAME JONES -45
    THE INCIDENT – 67
    ROCKY MOUNTAIN -50
    TENSION – 49
    THE SELLOUT – 51
    DEATH OF A SCOUDREL -56
    BAND OF ANGELS -57
    THE CROOKED WAY -49
    SWORD IN THE DESERT -49
    THE IRON MISTRESS – 52
    DRUMBEAT – 54
    THE BIG LAND – 57
    GUNS OF THE TIMBERLAND -60
    CARSON CITY-52

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  8. “Tension” is terrific. Audrey Totter plays the cold-hearted, mean spirited wife to the max! I pitied Richard Basheart’s milquetoast pharmacist who is married to this shrew. There’s a brutal scene where, with joyful expectation, Basehart takes Totter to look at a new suburban home he wants to buy for them. She is so filled with disdain she won’t get out of the car and beeps the horn to make him hurry up; she actually starts the car up and is ready to take off without him.

    “The Incident” — Ed McMahon!

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  9. Just for fun,plus the fact I’ve got lots of time on my hands
    I thought I’d list what Allied Artists Westerns were coupled with
    at UK cinemas-Allied Artists pictures had a deal with ABC Cinemas
    so they normally,but not always were able to get a major circuit release.
    These later Allied Artists Westerns had the attraction of being in
    CinemaScope and Color which made them attractive especially when
    they supported weak main features…so here goes.

    WICHITA/JAIL BUSTERS (Bowery Boys)
    CHARLEY MOON/SHOTGUN
    IT’S NEVER TOO LATE/AT GUNPOINT
    THE FIRST TEXAN/IT’S MAGIC
    THE MOONRAKER/OREGON PASSAGE
    SHE DIDN’T SAY NO/BULLWHIP
    GIRLS AT SEA/GUNSMOKE IN TUCSON
    THE BIRTHDAY PRESENT/DRAGOON WELLS MASSACRE
    THE TOMMY STEELE STORY/LAST OF THE BADMEN
    THE GOLDEN DISC/THE TALL STRANGER
    The Golden Disc was so weak Cinemas eventually made The Tall
    Stranger the main feature.
    LIFE IN EMERGENCY WARD 10/MAN FROM GOD’S COUNTRY
    I WAS MONTY’S DOUBLE/COLE YOUNGER GUNFIGHTER
    THE LADY IS A SQUARE/GUN BATTLE AT MONTEREY
    THE BIG CIRCUS/KING OF THE WILD STALLIONS
    (Allied Artists double feature)
    Several Allied Artists Westerns failed to get a major circuit release and were
    mainly shown in flea pits/revival cinemas:
    CANYON RIVER/HOLD THAT HYPNOTIST (Bowery Boys)
    SNOWFIRE/SABU AND THE MAGIC RING
    NAKED IN THE SUN/SPOOK CHASERS (Bowery Boys)
    Also Allied’s appealing Sci Fi WORLD WITHOUT END failed to get
    a major circuit booking where it was teamed with SPY CHASERS
    Those darned Bowery Boys again. Some of these double bills were a life line
    to struggling independent cinemas. ABC Cinemas even turned down
    INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS where it became a “floating release”
    paired with THE INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN

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      • Could it be……..
        IT’S MAGIC was the big hit song from the 1948 film “Romance on the High Seas” that launched the career of songstress/actress Doris Day and eventually propelled her into huge stardom for Allied Artists.
        …….in 1956, THE FIRST TEXAN was released by Allied Artists.
        …….utilizing their biggest box-office star, Allied Artists put together a promo titled IT’S MAGIC for the upcoming release of “The Come On” and other to be soon releases.
        https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0049089/mediaviewer/rm4229182464/?context=default

        Just a few thoughts……what do ya think?

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        • I’ve no idea bout this. Well aware of Romance on the High Seas, but that was in 1948, so thought Its Magic may be part of a live performance or the title of a lower case British film.

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            • or what about this one………
              It’s Magic
              BBC Television, 18 November 1955
              Synopsis…….
              Richard Murdoch presents It’s Magic
              A miscellany of mystery with Garvan, Maskar and a panel of guests to see fair play.
              Contributors
              Presenter: Richard Murdoch
              Entertainer: Garvan
              Magician: Maskar
              Orchestra Director: George Clouston
              Producer: Graeme Muir

              Liked by 1 person

            • Scott, well done for sleuthing out this information and thanks for reminding me of the much-loved David Nixon. I certainly remember him as a very talented magician but also as a charming and courteous entertainer (oh for those days!!). He was a mainstay of ‘What’s My Line’ and I would watch this on Sunday nights with my parents on BBC (only 1 channel then).

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  10. Colin
    I recall this from when I was a kid. I have been watching the odd episode on You-Tube every once and a while. A decently written series in my humble opinion.

    Gord

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  11. Colin, I really missed your review of westerns! Its was such an awfully long time! Canyon River was just ok. The climax was a disappointment as it was pitch black. Enjoyed it for its location shooting, colour and cinemascope. Harmon Jones’s Bullwhip was also a disappointment even with Fleming n Madison. Best regards.

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      • I got a kick out of James Griffith (#3 billed) who portrayed the ever scheming ‘Slow Karp’ who knew how to work the circumstances of those around him to his benefit. His presence and lines seemed to be interjected at opportune moments by the man himself. It was like here’s the premise of the scene and go out there and do your stuff. One thing I’ve come to realize about Griffith, when he is cast near the top of the billing one is going to see good stuff.

        Liked by 1 person

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