Sunday, September 20, 2020

Renfrew of the Mounted Project

A 400 page book documenting the history of RENFREW OF THE MOUNTED.

As many of you read a month ago, Laurie York Erskine's literary creation, RENFREW OF THE MOUNTED, started out as a series of short stories and novels and expanded to a lengthy run on radio (1936 to 1942), followed by a series of poverty row movies (1938 to 1940). 

Many consider the genre of Canadian Mountie fiction the same as B-westerns of the 1930s and 1940s, only with the hero wearing a red coat instead of chaps and spurs. With the scope of activity, including important elements of criminal investigation, action, and settings equaled to any pulp Western, and of outdoor adventure, film critics did not hesitate to point out how Saskatchewan might as well have been Texas. 

Screen cowboys Tom Tyler, Charles Starrett, Russell Hayden, Kirby Grant, Tim McCoy, Buck Jones, Bob Steele, Bill Elliott and many others swapped their six guns and holsters for a Mountie police uniform.

To be sure, there were Canadian Mounties of fiction literature before RENFREW OF THE MOUNTED, but none made a larger splash. So influential was RENFREW that by 1938 numerous imitations were established in an attempt to cash in on the same market. 

Even the creator of SERGEANT PRESTON OF THE YUKON, perhaps the most successful of the imitators, credited RENFREW for inspiration. Yet, Erskine's franchise fell into orphaned status and would have no doubt become forgotten if it was not for the fact that the eight RENFREW motion-pictures fell into the public domain and have since been released on DVD under multiple labels.

This October a new book will be published, documenting the history of RENFREW OF THE MOUNTED, paying tribute to Laurie York Erskine and his literary property. The author, Martin Grams, Jr., spent over a decade researching the subject by tracking down private archives across the country. In his search to document the series, he also found transcription discs that contain rare radio recordings that have never been heard since their initial broadcast circa 1936 through 1942. Also discovered was the 1948 unaired radio pilot that attempted to revive the program over NBC. 

As many authors would attest, royalties for book sales are minimal at best. In an effort to compensate for the years of travel expenses, copy fees and photo licensing, Martin is now accepting pledges on Kickstarter where a limited edition hardcover will be made available. (After the conclusion of Kickstarter, the book will be available only in paperback.) 

Those rare recordings are also being offered as a "thank you" gift to those who pre-order a copy of the book, paperback or hardcover. 

Five or six years ago, pre-selling books on Kickstarter was unconventional, but today this practice has become commonplace for authors. The following link is provided for your convenience:

Be sure to visit

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Sunday, September 13, 2020

Architects of Action: Western Stunt Performers and Their Craft

By Christopher Robinson, WMD Senior Editor

Rousing up-tempo music cues the anticipation and excitement; horses feverishly gallop while fists swing and six-shooters blast; glass from saloon windows shatter and cowpokes take impossible spills through rooftop balconies onto hard dirty ground below. It makes for entertaining western fun, in spite of so many other aspects that go into the cinematic process.

Ultimately, it’s the single word ‘action’, that initiates production when the set is silenced and a camera starts rolling.

In fact, motion picture stunts are so integral that they are often taken for granted, because it’s just as easy to forget that the celebrated leading stars aren’t always making that action happen.

Having evolved into an industry in itself, the western stunt community emerged after the dawn of cinema when rodeo stars were recruited to stand in for matinee idols or supporting actors and villain players that they may or may not have bore a resemblance to. Rodeo work entailed a variety of rugged skills like roping and horsemanship that suitably qualified many of those performers for western movie action.

Stunt Men or Stunt Horses?

Soon former rodeo stars who took their fair share of abuse as stunt men like Art Acord, Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson and Buck Jones became cowboy stars in their own right, with their peers now doubling for them.

Additionally, where would any of them be without their trusty horses to enable them in their endeavor? Many faithfully vigorous steeds consistently performed physically strenuous rides, jumps and falls alongside their regular stunt riders. Safety was always a primary consideration in the field of movie stunts where elaborate planning was carried out with utmost precision. Many wonder still, just how dangerous those stunts actually were.

Undeniably, stunt work was every bit as crucial to the motion picture formula as its other elements and even more so in that of westerns. The necessary practice of ‘fooling’ the audience might explain why so little was known about the lives and professions of stunt men and women. Often their feats and accomplishments were kept secretive rather than promoted so as not to shatter the illusion of the pictures themselves. As such, the movie stunt industry had developed into a somewhat autonomous and ‘underground’ organization, distinctly disparate from other familiar Hollywood coalitions.

So who were these unsung, rough-and-tumble heroes and how did they manage their unique occupation?

One undisputed pioneer of movie stunt work was Yakima Canutt, born in Colfax, Washington in 1896. He transitioned from champion rodeo performing to working in hundreds of westerns from the silent era to the mid-Seventies, doubling as an actor and originating innovative stunts that became industry standards.

Initially a leading cowboy star, the arrival of sound brought his employment options to a halt when his oddly-pitched voice proved unsatisfactory. (This was a common outcome for many stars during cinema’s sound transition.)

Canutt began working to emphasize and restructure the ways in which action was performed and photographed in movies, believing that a wide array of possibilities could be attempted and achieved.

The Wagon Drop

In the classic western, Stagecoach, Canutt vaults off a speeding horse onto a runaway stagecoach, landing between two of the team’s horses. Dodging gunfire, he drops below to the team’s galloping hooves climbing face-up towards the stage until he finally lets go as it runs over him, leaving him lying on the ground.

A similar approach was performed in another scene from Stagecoach where Yak jumps from the cargo area to the rear horses, moving across the three pairs to finally mount one of the lead horses.

The Classic Fist Fight

Beginning with the action serial Shadow of the Eagle, Canutt formed a friendship and working partnership with John Wayne throughout a series of films for Mascot and Monogram Pictures. The two developed an on-screen fighting technique that gave fistfights more believability with the placement of the actors in relation to the camera hiding the ‘point of contact.’ The subsequently dubbed-in ‘slap’ sound effect would complete the exciting illusion and become the industry standard more or less still used today.

Canutt also invented several utilitarian devices that assisted in the execution and(more importantly) safety of countless stunts. After a number of increasingly severe injuries, he continued his career as a stunt coordinator and second unit director until his retirement.

Hal Needham
Needham, often a stunt double for Burt Reynolds was, at one point, the highest-paid stunt man in the world. He introduced the use of airbags in stunts and won an Oscar for his ‘camera car.’

For Needham, one of the most dangerous western stunts was the ‘stirrup drag.’ Despite rehearsing horses’ movements their directions could not be controlled assuredly. Additionally, upon falling down while being dragged by a cable, one could end up getting trampled by a horse’s hind legs.

The Standing Stage Broad Jump

Needham’s toughest and deadliest stunt was in Little Big Man, doubling as an Indian who does a standing jump from his horse 14 feet onto one hitched to a stagecoach. As the stagecoach speeds away, Dustin Hoffman’s double jumps to the lead horses, followed by Needham. It took two days to shoot in 13 takes, shot at various angles, following six months set aside to train 18 horses.

The Fall Through the Roof

Often seemingly routine stunts can place a performer in extreme danger due to minor circumstances. In Sergio Leone’s epic, Once upon a Time in the West, Henry Fonda stands on a street where he is ambushed by his double-crossing henchmen. A nearby Charles Bronson spots a gunman on a rooftop above a painted clock face and warns Fonda.

“It’s already past twelve!” Fonda then fires his gun and we see a stuntman, believed to be actor Fabio Testi, fall over the false front, crash straight through a first floor roof and seemingly hit the ground landing on his head.

Women Wanted

In the earliest days of the western stunt profession, men, often of small stature, would double for most actresses with varying results. Whitey Hughes did so throughout his stunt career as did Dean Smith, who doubled for Maureen O’Hara in McLintock. Once accomplished stunt women like Helen Gibson(wife of Hoot) and Polly Burson arrived on the scene, a more realistic approach could be appreciated. Burson, whose husband was fellow stunt professional Wayne Burson, doubled for Dale Evans as well as Betty Hutton in The Perils of Pauline when Hutton’s stunt man was injured. Years later, Burson fell down a snake pit for Kim Darby in True Grit.

Alice Van, who doubled for Gail Davis and Dale Evans, first rode a palomino named Golden Cloud while doubling for Olivia de Haviland in The Adventures of Robin Hood in 1938. Golden Cloud was later bought by Roy Rogers and renamed ‘Trigger.’

Needless to say, considerable risks were inherent in nearly every western stunt attempted by these men and women, depending, of course, on the nature of the stunt itself and how it was filmed, as well as the extent to which it had been embellished or perfected.

Editor's Note: Learn more about Alice Van on Action Actors by Neil Summers! 

They may often be dismissed as crazy or mindless, but these were a special brand of professionals who took their risks into account and planned their work meticulously, accepting the obligatory injuries and pain that went along with it. Like much that can be attributed to the world of the old west- they simply don’t make ‘em like that anymore.

About the Author

Western Magazine Digest Senior Editor Christopher Robinson is a writer, filmmaker and musician in New Jersey who has contributed to several magazines and websites.

Robinson also worked as a cameraman, videographer, cable access TV host, teacher and producer. He scripted and produced commercial videos as well as cable television programs for local consumption.

For more info about Christopher, click here.

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Sunday, September 6, 2020

Remake of An Interview With ‘The Virginian’, Parts 1 & 2

Back a few years ago, Senior Editor Christopher Robinson interviewed James Drury, The Virginian. 

That telephone conversation culminated into a two-part story, which continues to receive high marks from our readers. 

Today, we offer the entire interview in one reading, all because you’re one of our valued readers. Thank you for following our work! 

Want to read it? Click here:

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Sunday, August 30, 2020

Jack McCall: The Coward Who Murdered Wild Bill Hickok

By Allan B. Colombo

The name Wild Bill Hickok is well known among Old West enthusiasts, but not so much the name of the man who put an end to his life. Wild Bill took his last breath on August 2, 1876, murdered by a man by the name of Jack McCall. The object of our attention in this Western Magazine Digest (WMD) article is the coward who did him in.

Most of us are aware of portions of Hickok's illustrious past. According to Terry Breverton, author of Immortal Last Words, Quercus Publishing, Inc., 2010, Hickok's full name was James Butler Hickok. He was born on May 27, 1837 in today's Troy Grove, Illinois.

The inscription on his tombstone reads, 'Wild Bill, j.B. Hickok killed by the assassin Jack McCall in Deadwood, Black Hills, August 2, 1876. Pard, we will meet again in the happy hunting ground to part no more. Good bye, Colorado Charlie, C.. Utter.'

Why We Celebrate the Old West in all Its Glory

None of us are here on planet Earth indefinitely, but many of us feel a small undefined quiver in the depths of our soul when we contemplate the actual events that surround famous men and women of the Old West. Over the last year, for example, the writers of WMD have covered the imaginary character, Inspector Douglas Renfrew of the Royal Canadian Mounted, which included many real-to-life cases in which actual Mounties were involved (LINK).

We also covered some of the gory details pertinent to Brevet Major-General George Armstrong Custer of the 7th Calvary and his defeat at the Battle of Little Bighorn (LINK). We agonized as we read about the deaths of all Custer's soldiers during the skirmish that ensued on June 25th, 1876. We also covered The Lone Ranger and Tonto (LINK); a former slave turned lawman, Bass Reeves (LINK); Davy Crockett (LINK); and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (LINK)!

This is what history is all about—not only to remind us of the mistakes that we've made in the past, but also to realize the solutions and lessons learned because of them. The objective of written history is to assure that we never make the same mistakes again. And yet, with that said, because of the bravery and love for others that some notable souls have shown during life threatening events--often forsaking self to save others—we find inspiration and thankfulness in the most odd places.

How McCall Pulled It Off

In the case of Wild Bill, if he could redo the events of that fateful day in 1876, I'm reasonably sure he would not have sat himself down in a chair with the entrance to his back. It was a poker game at Nuttal & Mann's Saloon #10 where the event took place. Evidently Hickok entered the game later than usual, so his customary chair with its back against the wall was not available and the person sitting there, Charles Rich, refused to trade.

So, in walks Jack McCall, who, for whatever reason, went by the alias of Bill Sutherland. Other aliases included Crooked Nose Jack and Broken Nose Jack.

This wasn't the first time that McCall and Hickok had met. The night before, the two were engaged in a mutual game of cards during which McCall, who had been drinking heavily, lost his money. According to historians, Hickok gave McCall enough money for breakfast the following day, offering him advice not to return to the game until he could cover his bets. It's said that this insulted McCall.

Well, that second night, with Hickok's back to the door, McCall was able to position himself about three feet behind his chair, as if looking at Wild Bill's hand. As the story goes, McCall shot him point blank in the back of the head with his Colt single-action, .45-caliber revolver. Bystanders claimed that McCall shouted, “Damn you! Take that!”

According to historical records, McCall claimed he shot Hickok because he had murdered McCall's brother-in-law in Abilene, Kansas.

Hickok's Final Words and Recorded History

It's said that Hickok's final words, just before the shooting were, “The old duffer—he broke me on the hand.”

I recon you were waiting for some prophetic words to live by, but these were the last and final spoken words alleged to have come from Wild Bill's lips that fateful day in history.

According to author Breverton, the first newspaper report of Hickok's death was published in the Black Hills Pioneer on the fifth of August, 1876. It read:

'On Wednesday about 3 o'clock the report stated that J.B. Hickok (Wild Bill) was killed. On repairing to the hall of Nuttall and Mann, it was ascertained that the report was too true. We found the remains of Wild Bill lying on the floor. The murderer, Jack McCall, was captured after a lively chase by many of the citizens, and taken to a building at the lower end of the city, and a guard placed over him. As soon as this was accomplished, a coroner's jury was summoned, with C.H. Sheldon as foreman, who after hearing all the evidence, which was the effect that, while Wild Bill and others were at a table playing cards, Jack McCall walked in and around directly back of his victim, and when within three feet of him raised his revolver, and exclaiming, “Damn you, take that,” fired, and ball entering at the back of the head, and coming out at the centre of the right check causing instant death, reached verdict in accordance with the above facts.'
It Took Two Trials To Hang McCall From a Tree

In reality, the jury during this first trial deliberated for approximately 2 hours, after which a verdict of “not guilty” was rendered. But that was not the only trial to take place where Jack McCall was tried for the murder of Wild Bill Hickok.

Soon after the not-guilty verdict, McCall decided it was best to leave town, so he ended up in Wyoming where local authorities decided to try him a second time for the murder of Wild Bill. Evidently, McCall didn't know when to close his mouth, so he began bragging about killing Hickok, the famous gunman in what he called a 'fair fight.'

Right about now, you might be asking whether this second trial equates to double jeopardy, as did I. But it was clear to local law enforcement in the area that McCall had not been tried in a legitimate court. A federal court in Yankton agreed and a date was set for a retrial.

I'm sure that Jack McCall, if he had more time to think about his mistake, would have ruled the day he ended up in Deadwood, but they didn't give him a lot of time to ponder his plight. A new trial began on December 4, 1876, and a guilty verdict was rendered on December 6th. His sentence was 'Hanging by the neck until dead.'

It was March 1, 1877, at 10:15 a.m., when Jack McCall met his maker in Yankton. He was only 24 years of age.

About the Author

Allan B. Colombo has appeared in print since 1986. His work includes newspapers, print and digital magazines, and other forms of the written word. He and Gary Miller, WMD writer and co-founder, started this magazine in August of 2018. You can reach him at Read more about him on his WMD  Partner Page!

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Sunday, August 23, 2020

Thank you for reading Western Magazine Digest!

Thanks for reading Western Magazine Digest 

Our next feature will be published on Sept. 13th 

In the mean time, please enjoy some of the interesting and enjoyable art work that's appeared in the magazine over the past two years.