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The Straight Shooter

The no-bullshit Budd Boetticher took an unsentimental approach with his Ranown Cycle westerns

Oscar "Budd" Boetticher Jr. was raised in patrician comfort as the adopted son of a wealthy Chicago businessman, and educated at Culver Military Academy and Ohio State University. But don't hold any of that against him: At the age of 20, he rebelled against his privileged background and pursued graduate studies in the school of hard knocks.

He journeyed to Mexico City, made his home in a notorious bordello -- where he was very, very friendly with the madam -- and decided in 1938, more or less on a romantic whim, to become a bullfighter. Figuring he could learn the most from the best, Boetticher trained with the great matadors Lorenzo Garza and Fermin Espinosa. He learned his lessons well, and despite an occasional setback, like a goring that left him with a splinter in his stomach, he made his mark as a matador. Which is how he got into an even riskier profession: filmmaking.

With a little help from producer Hal Roach Jr., a former classmate, Boetticher landed a job as technical adviser for Blood and Sand, a 1941 drama starring Tyrone Power as a naive matador who's distracted from his true love (Linda Darnell) by a cunning temptress (Rita Hayworth). He paid close attention to director Rouben Mamoulian and editor Barbara McLean, studying their work as attentively as he had practiced the smooth moves of Garza and Espinosa. Boetticher soon knew enough to be employed as an assistant director by such notables as George Stevens and Charles Vidor. But he never learned how to kowtow to anyone on or off a studio set.

Shadow catcher: Budd Boetticher (left, seated) always thought his hero (Randolph Scott, center) could trade places with the villain, even when saving beauties like Maureen O'Sullivan (right).
Museum of Fine Arts
Shadow catcher: Budd Boetticher (left, seated) always thought his hero (Randolph Scott, center) could trade places with the villain, even when saving beauties like Maureen O'Sullivan (right).

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June 8 through June 29; 713-639-7531
Museum of Fine Arts' Brown Auditorium, 1001 Bissonnet

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"What I learned from bullfighting," he says, "is to have absolutely no fear in dealing with anyone from Hollywood. It gave me tremendous concentration and a lot of control."

Better still, it gave him the gumption to stand up to the infamously combustible Harry Cohn, then production chief at Columbia Pictures, when the latter paid an unannounced visit to the set of Stevens's The More the Merrier (1943). When the assistant director failed to jump fast and high enough to a barked command, Cohn angrily addressed him as "You son of a bitch!" Boetticher responded by describing what damage might ensue if his foot made contact with Cohn's posterior. Impressed by the outburst -- at least, that's how Boetticher tells the story -- the Columbia chief offered to make him a full-fledged film director.

"And you know," Boetticher recalls, "the only lie I ever told in my life is when I told Harry Cohn I knew how to direct. I was 25 then; I wasn't about to say I didn't know what the hell to do.

"But later on, when they asked me who taught me how to direct, I could tell the truth when I said, 'I taught myself.' Really, I didn't have a mentor. I watched my 12-day pictures by myself, all alone in the projection room. I was 26 by then. And I told myself, 'My God! Don't ever do that again! That is really a piece of crap!' And I never did do that again. So I guess I taught myself pretty well."

Well enough, in fact, to attain the status of living legend -- with the emphasis on "living." Irrepressibly feisty and gregarious at age 85, he resides in Ramona, California, with Mary, his wife of 30 years, and still talks about a possible comeback after three decades away from filmmaking. He is unfailingly gracious, and sometimes profanely funny. And he takes unabashed delight in hearing about events such as "The Chicago Matador: The Westerns of Budd Boetticher," the retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

After an extended period of on-the-job training as a director of mostly forgettable B-movies, Boetticher came into his own with The Bullfighter and the Lady (1951), a semiautobiographical drama about an American-born would-be matador (Robert Stack) who studies with an aging master (Gilbert Roland). He was so proud of his handiwork that, for the first time, he billed himself simply as Budd Boetticher, the name he has signed to his movies ever since. But he was so furious when the movie was recut by John Ford, who served as co-producer with longtime buddy and collaborator John Wayne, that he nearly took his name off the picture.

"Mind you, I wound up being nominated for an Academy Award [for original screenplay] even after they cut 42 minutes out of it," Boetticher says. "Fortunately, UCLA put it all back together 15 years ago. But at the time, Jack -- I was one of the few people who ever got to call him Jack -- thought it was too long. And he knew just what he wanted to cut. He told me, 'You got that Stack guy and Gilbert Roland acting like a couple of queers!' So I said, 'Well, Mr. Ford, men can love each other...' And he said, 'Not in my picture!' "

Fortunately, local audiences will have access to the fully restored version of The Bullfighter and the Lady when the much-admired drama is screened at 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 29, as part of the MFA retrospective. Even more fortunately, the MFA also will present classic selections from what has become known as "The Ranown Cycle," a series of brawnily austere westerns made by Boetticher with leathery screen icon Randolph Scott and veteran producer Harry Joe Brown (co-founders of the Ranown indie production company). "Boetticher explored the bare essentials of the genre," an admiring Martin Scorsese has written. "His style was as simple as his impassive heroes. Deceptively simple."

Filmed on small budgets (usually around $750,000) and tight shooting schedules (three weeks or less) between 1956 and 1960, the Ranown films -- each lasting a terse 78 minutes or less -- are celebrated by film buffs and filmmakers alike as unsentimental, sharply observed character studies of taciturn loners who display grace, courage and, from time to time, darkly sardonic humor under pressure. (Many key moments in the films are surprisingly, even shockingly, funny, and Buchanan Rides Alone skirts close to outright absurdity.)

Burt Kennedy wrote many of the scripts, and did uncredited rewriting on others, which partially explains the recurrence of themes, conflicts and defining dialogue -- "There are some things a man can't ride around!" -- that give the Ranown films an air of the ritualistic. The hero, invariably played by Scott with grave self-assurance and (quoting film scholar Andre Bazan) sublimely inexpressive blue eyes, usually is a man indelibly scarred by tragic loss but relentlessly driven by a private code of honor. More often than not, there is a missing or murdered wife to avenge, and a sense that life exists solely as a solitary quest for meaning (and, maybe, redemption). Always, there is an antagonist who glimpses in Scott's character a kindred spirit, who genuinely regrets what he sees as a necessity to defeat, or even kill, such a worthy opponent. "In every one of the Scott pictures," Boetticher admits, "I felt I could have traded Randy's part with the villain's.

"See, in the old days, villains were dark: black horse, black suit and hat. You couldn't wait for them to get killed. Which I felt was wrong. See, I learned something from watching Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will. Now, Riefenstahl was a great director, but she obviously loved Hitler. And she wanted you to love Hitler. I never forgot that.

"So when I came around to making these westerns with Randy, I wanted to show these colorful villains -- Lee Marvin, Richard Boone, Claude Akins and the others -- who made a job of killing people. But they always admired Randy. In fact, they damn near fell in love with Randy. But they had to be killed at the end. Which always makes you really care about the situation.

"You know, nobody realizes this, but in six of the seven movies Randy made with me, we started out Lee Marvin, who was nobody at the time; Richard Boone, who was nobody; Pernell Roberts and James Coburn, who were nobodies; and Craig Stevens and Claude Akins. And Randy always had such great rapport with these guys. He'd come up to me and say, 'Budd, who was that guy I had that scene with today, that young fellow in the red underwear?' And I'd say, 'That was Jim Coburn.' And he'd say, 'I like that boy. Let's write him some more lyrics.' "

When it came to casting unknowns, Boetticher always trusted his instincts and ignored anyone else's second-guessing. While preparing The Tall T, for example, he set his sights on Boone -- then best known as the grim-faced surgeon of Medic, a deadly serious TV series -- for the ingratiating villain of the piece. "I loved the pock marks on his face," he explained, "and I loved his voice. So I went to the studio, and they told me, 'You don't want him. Your pictures are funny. You put a lot of humor in them, and this guy doesn't have a sense of humor.' I said, 'How do you know that?' And they said, 'Well, just look at him.' "

Undeterred, Boetticher phoned Boone and offered him the part -- with the proviso that the actor meet with the Columbia brass as soon as possible. Like, maybe tomorrow.

"I figured if he met with them, they'd see what I saw in him, and there wouldn't be any more discussion about it. But he told me, 'Budd, I think my wife has cancer.' Which turned out not to be true, fortunately. But at the time, he and his wife were going off to a clinic for tests, for a whole week. And so he asked me, 'What seems to be the problem?' And I told him, 'The head of the studio doesn't think you have a sense of humor.' And he said, 'Well, you have to admit, those heart operations [on Medic] are pretty fuckin' funny.'

"You know what I said after that? I said, 'When you get back from the clinic, go into wardrobe and call me. You got the part.' "

Seven Men from Now (1956), the first of the Ranown films, featuring Marvin as a scene-stealing baddie, isn't included in the MFA lineup. (Neither is Westbound, a 1958 Scott-Boetticher collaboration that the director dismisses as a minor effort, unworthy of inclusion in the canon.) But the retrospective does feature the following:

The Tall T (7:30 p.m. Friday, June 8) -- Ramrod-turned-rancher Pat Brennan (Scott) and copper mine heiress Doretta Mims (Maureen O'Sullivan) are held captive by a sly stagecoach bandit (Richard Boone) and his thick-witted cohorts, while Doretta's cowardly husband seeks a ransom from his wife's wealthy father. A nice touch: The bandit refrains from killing Brennan primarily because he's desperate for intelligent conversation. But their budding friendship is soured by the bandit's determination to start a new, more respectable life with the ransom money. (1957)

Decision at Sundown (9 p.m. Friday, June 8) -- Easily the most downbeat of the Ranown westerns. Bart Allison (Scott) rides into Sundown to kill the tyrannical town boss, whom he blames for his wife's suicide. Thanks to his crusade, just about everybody, including the villain, gets a shot at redemption. (1957)

Buchanan Rides Alone (7:30 p.m. Friday, June 15) -- In a small Tex-Mex border hamlet run by a corrupt family, Tom Buchanan (Scott) befriends a young Mexican who avenges his sister's honor by fatally shooting the spoiled son of a politically ambitious judge. The judge is more than willing to free his son's killer in return for a hefty campaign contribution. But the money can't be held by anyone for very long -- and thanks to Buchanan, neither can the killer. Almost, but not quite, a black comedy, Buchanan has an understated but richly satisfying flavor of self-parody. (1958)

Ride Lonesome (9 p.m. Friday, June 15) -- The best of the cycle finds bounty hunter Ben Brigade (Scott) bringing a captured outlaw (James Best) across Indian territory. Two semi-reformed bandits (a pre-Bonanza Pernell Roberts, whose insouciant preening suggests a Wild West version of WWF's The Rock, and a callow James Coburn) want to wrest control of Brigade's captive in order to claim an amnesty offered for their past crimes. But Brigade isn't interested in amnesty, or even a reward. Rather, he wants to lure the outlaw's older brother (Lee Van Cleef) into a forced feeding of just desserts. (1959)

Comanche Station (7:30 p.m. Friday, June 22) -- The final chapter is a straightforward western drama with an affectingly melancholy aftertaste. Jefferson Cody (Scott), obsessed with finding the wife who was kidnapped by Comanches more than a decade ago, barters with Indians for the release of another white woman (Nancy Gates), the wife of a man who has posted a huge reward for her dead-or-alive return. Hearty outlaw Ben Lane (Claude Akins) tries to muscle in on the transition, but Cody won't be dissuaded from competing his chivalrous task. He remains true to himself, even though his noble gesture brings him no nearer a closure. The ending suggests he will never stop searching. Which, of course, makes him the paradigmatic Budd Boetticher hero. (1960)

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