He began the 1960s on Broadway proclaiming in a booming baritone how he’d never say no to The Unsinkable Molly Brown of Tammy Grimes and closed out the decade defiantly calling the wind Maria as the one naturally gifted singer among the principals of the movie version of Paint Your Wagon (1969). Harve Presnell (1933-2009), born 84 years ago today, got to reprise his down-to-earth but soaring-voiced Leadville Johnny Brown in the Debbie Reynolds-led film of Molly Brown, and if the filmic fates were kinder and the musical genre’s luster wasn’t fading at the time (with a few exceptions), he might have become a more regular screen presence as a movie musical go-to guy. (The role of Daddy Warbucks in Broadway and touring productions of Annie and its sequel Annie Warbucks was a smartly-tailored fit that anchored the period between the late 1970s and early 1990s; juicy nonmusical character roles in Fargo (1996), Saving Private Ryan (1997) and more on the big and home screen would provide a final robust decade of marvelous work.) But if the potent Presnell pipes wound up only gracing three movies in that first 10-year patch, rousing renditions of tunes from Molly’s Meredith Willson, Wagon’s Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe and – in When the Boys Meet the Girls (1965) alongside Connie Francis – pop/rock updates of three Girl Crazy standards by George and Ira Gershwin are a nice if not bountiful celluloid legacy of the piercing Presnell vocal presence.
In between his screen matchups with Debbie and Connie, Hollywood offered the handsome 31-year-old newcomer a crack at a straight leading-man role, and like Molly Brown, it was a fanciful riff on Western history. Based by screenwriter Sam Peckinpah on the novel The Dice of God by Hoffman Birney, The Glory Guys (1965) was a flavorful Cavalry yarn fashioned around a motley outfit of frontier troupers who lived and loved with good-natured gusto even as the machinations of a vainglorious commander would draw them toward a fateful encounter with hostile Native American tribes. The finale would echo General George Armstrong Custer’s disastrous Little Big Horn confrontation, but the run-up to it would draw on beloved movie tropes of romantic rivalry, rank-and-file horseplay and hard-won camaraderie under fire, all nicely shaped by Peckinpah and director Arnold Laven for an ensemble of 1960s stars on the rise. Second-billed Presnell plays a regimental scout who vies with a ramrod-steeled captain (Tom Tryon) for the affections of a lovely widow (Senta Berger); for a time, hostilities between the two men run deep, but they ultimately become unselfish allies when they realize that their Custer-like superior craves battlefield glory more than the strategic safety of the forces in his charge. Beautifully photographed in Panavision on expansive Durango, Mexico, locations by two-time Academy Award® winner James Wong Howe and percussively scored by the great Riz Ortolani, The Glory Guys didn’t catch on with moviegoers faced with other cinematic action and Western choices during that 1965 summer boasting more marquee-value stars, like Cat Ballou (a Twilight Time title), Shenandoah and The Sons of Katie Elder, and supporting players like James Caan, Andrew Duggan and Slim Pickens seemed to capture more glory than the three titular leads. Yet the movie solidly makes its point that a battalion – the raw recruits as well as the well-honed lifers – is the sum of its individual members who rise to their best when tested to the max. The Glory Guys allows us to get to know them all, have a stake in their survival and mourn their sacrifices. As it turned out, movie glory for the capable screen neophyte Presnell would merely be deferred to a later era. Ride hard and heartily with birthday honoree Presnell and the formidable forces of The Glory Guys on a smartly-outfitted TT hi-def Blu-ray.