Helping Hands on a Rough Trail

Helping Hands on a Rough Trail

Posted by Mike Finnegan on Feb 19th 2018

Sixty years ago today, the final entry in the terrific trilogy of late-1950s Westerns made by director Delmer Daves and star Glenn Ford rode into New York theaters, following in the hoof prints of Jubal (1956) and 3:10 to Yuma (1957). Ford’s son Peter wrote in his 2011 biography Glenn Ford: A Life: “Many Hollywood movies have a long and circuitous history before they finally come to life on-screen, and Cowboy [1958] was one of them. It was based on a memoir by Frank Harris about a daydreaming Chicago hotel clerk who decides to join up with a tough cattle drive and learns to be a real man of the West. John Huston purchased the film rights in the late 1940s, hoping to star in the picture with his father, but Walter died n 1949, and the project was abandoned for a while. Huston then resurrected the film in the early 1950s with Spencer Tracy as the intended lead and Montgomery Clift as the young dude. By June 1954 Clift was out, and there was discussion with Columbia about my father playing the younger part. By 1956 it looked like it might be Gary Cooper and Alan Ladd, but the project was again shelved, until Delmer Daves went to [Columbia boss] Harry Cohn and pitched the idea that Glenn Ford could play the veteran cowboy; Cohn agreed. Dad insisted that the irrepressible Jack Lemmon – who was courting [Ford’s Jubal and 3:10 to Yuma co-star] Felicia Farr – was the perfect choice to play Frank Harris.” As the younger Ford further amusingly outlines, it took time – and several rounds of drinks – to convince the equine-averse Lemmon, who hadn’t ridden since he was a wee 11-year-old and had less than fond memories of it. Although promises were made to find the game actor a “good” horse, true to Lemmon’s fears, the shoot was hard on Lemmon’s backside from day one. Ford quotes Lemmon: “‘It toughened me up al right,’ Jack recalled. ‘I had to wear a Kotex every day for two months while I was on that friggin’ horse. I was never off the damn thing long enough to let it heal. I wanna tell you, by this time I could have killed Glenn Ford with my bare hands!’” 

Fortunately, that didn’t happen, and indeed, it would be the reliable Ford who helped rescue the terrified Lemmon when he was trapped in a perilous scene inside a cattle car full of horned steers which were supposed to be sedated but remained restless and ornery. In true mentor/neophyte tradition, a respectful friendship resulted. “Despite the risks, pain and physical exhaustion, both Dad and Jack managed to look back on the filming of Cowboy as a largely enjoyable, sometimes thrilling experience,” Ford continued. “‘I learned a lot,’ said Jack. ‘That was still fairly early on, and Glenn did help me a helluva lot. I leaned on him a little. I depended on Glenn a lot more than he thought. And he was a very giving actor, whether it was with a kid who had one line or the lead opposite him. He’s one of the better screen actors I’ve ever worked with, without any question. And a terrific guy, personally.’” ‘It was always a lot of hard work doing a picture with Del,’ mused my father, ‘but it was always worth it. We just had good chemistry right from day one. Del was like Fritz Lang. He knew exactly what he wanted to get from every shot he made. Very precise, very well prepared. I owe a lot to Del for helping me achieve my goal of portraying a real cowboy, not an actor pretending to be a cowboy.’” “A refreshing look at what it means to be a cowboy, without villains, Indian raiders, cigar-chewing town bullies, or even desperadoes” (The Motion Picture Guide) adapted for the screen by two Academy Award®-winning writers, the credited Edmund H. North (Patton) and the uncredited Dalton Trumbo (Roman Holiday, The Brave One), Cowboy also stars the exotic Anna Kashfi and such weathered and fresh-faced tried-and-true talents as Brian Donlevy, Victor Manuel Mendoza, Dick York, Richard Jaeckel, King Donovan, Frank de Kova and, in a startlingly moving death scene, Strother Martin. It rides tall – if painfully for some – in the saddle, and features a rough-and-ready Audio Commentary by Twilight Time ranch hands Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman on a marvelous TT hi-def Blu-ray, available here: http://screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/30902/COWBOY-1958/.