Back in the Saddle

October 17, 2012

Lined up on the shelves of the library where I work are a number of television Westerns from Timeless Media, discs that I haven’t purchased (yet) and that Netflix doesn’t carry.  Recently I got around to taking home a stack of episodes from the first through the third seasons of Wagon Train, where I still have a lot of gaps.

Everything I’ve written about Wagon Train so far has been pretty critical.  I was mixed on the rejuvenated seventh season, which expanded to ninety minutes and went to color, and I also mocked the laziness of some of the episodes immediately preceding that change.  But a random survey of a dozen or so early segments reveals a better, cannier show.  Wagon Train doesn’t rank among the best television Westerns, but it can fill up an oppressive August weekend quite effectively.  What better actor to turn to than Ward Bond, with his grating, unmodulated donkey-bellow, to make himself heard over the full blast of my air conditioner?

Wagon Train started with a premise that was extremely well-designed, as simple and sturdy as a Conestoga.  It had two lead characters, Major Seth Adams (Ward Bond) and Flint McCullough (Robert Horton), each of whom could serve as the center of a story or step into the background whenever the guest star of the week took up most of the screen time.  That was important, because most Wagon Trains introduced a guest character in the very title (“The Joe Schmidlapp Story”), and the show was marketed on the basis of its big-name guest stars.

(This was a promise Wagon Train could deliver upon, initially, because it was produced by MCA, which until 1959 was also the biggest talent agency in town.  It’s doubtful that Shelley Winters or Ernest Borgnine, both at the peak of their film careers in 1957, would have deigned to appear in a television Western – a brand new one, no less – without a little arm-twisting by Lew Wasserman or his dark-suited lieutenants.  After MCA was forced to sell its agency business, Wagon Train’s guest stars became slightly less stellar, although they still comprised the top actors working in television.)

Adams and McCullough were modular leading men, versatile moving parts that could be plugged into a variety of different places.  If Adams remained tethered to the train, McCullough, a scout who rode ahead looking for trouble, could roam about and stumble into adventures of almost any sort.  Most dual-lead Westerns had interchangeable characters – the stage drivers of Stagecoach West, the rest stop minders of Laramie – but Wagon Train was conceived from the start to alternate between “home” and “away” stories. 

Think about what a useful blueprint that is, from every point of view.  The writers could tell almost any kind of Western story they could think of, without being constrained by the trail setting or the cumbersome pack of settlers in the train.  The two stars could minimize their screen time and avoid the fatigue that plagued actors who carried a whole show on their backs (although that didn’t spare Ward Bond a fatal heart attack in 1960).  Shooting on multiple episodes could overlap if necessary.  And the audience was treated to a much greater variety of faces and settings than on a typical weekly series.

The Flint McCullough episodes remind me of the “off-campus” event episodes that serial dramas would try decades later.  The West Wing and ER, especially, liked to send a main character – John Carter (Noah Wyle) or C. J. Cregg (Allison Janney) – off on his or her own once per season, to solve a personal problem or star in an action set-piece.  It was Emmy-bait (Janney’s one-off with Donald Moffat as her ailing father is still one of my favorite television hours) but, more importantly, gave the audience a break from the intricate and potentially exhausting multi-character storylines.  Wagon Train has the capacity to loosen up in the same way: just when I start to get tired of watching Ward Bond scream at the idiot settlers who wreak havoc on his train, there’s a breather where the smooth, likable Horton breezes through a less predictable adventure in a less familiar setting.

Wagon Train and ER might seem like apples and oranges, but in fact the Western series was one of the earliest dramas to take some tentative steps toward serialization.  Most seasons began with an episode or two set in St. Louis, at the beginning of the train, and ended with one or two segments set at the end of the trail, in San Francisco.  For instance, the third season opens with an episode (“The Stagecoach Story”) detailing the main characters’ return trip, by stage, from the West Coast to Missouri, following the preceding years’ train.  The next episode (“The Greenhorn Story,” with the inevitable Mickey Rooney in the title role) covers the formation of the new train, with an emphasis on the naïve easterners’ adjustment to a new, harder way of life.

In the middle of the season, episodes do not follow a chronology – some of them span the course of months, and the physical progress from one to the next would probably zigzag back and forth across a map – but the viewer is not discouraged from thinking of each season’s various progatonists as members of the same train, with every individual story one panel in a mosaic of headaches thrust upon Major Adams over the course of a single year.  The first season finale, “The Sacramento Story,” makes this assumption explicit; it is a combined sequel to three earlier episodes.  (The series would continue to “check in” with popular characters, bringing Borgnine back in the second season premiere to reprise his role from the pilot, “The Willy Moran Story,” and revisiting the young lovers from “The Heather and Hamish Story” a year later in “The Last Circle Up” – albeit with both roles recast.)  Since Wagon Train was never truly serialized, I tend to view its unusual commitment to beginning and ending at opposite ends of the trail as less about continuity than variety.  In other words, it was an excuse to plant a few episodes in an urban setting instead of amid the monotonous plains. 

In its willingness to make each episode as different from the others as the format would bear, Wagon Train became porous enough to allow for auteurism, among both its writers and directors.  I mentioned few of these cases the last time I wrote about Wagon Train, and I’m still uncovering more of them.  What to make of Jean Holloway, who wrote both the dull “Stagecoach Story” and the lively, appealing “Greenhorn Story”?  Somewhere in the middle, in terms of quality, falls “The C. L. Harding Story,” a “haircut” of Lysistrata in which a muckraking reporter (Claire Trevor) leads the women of the train in a general strike.  It’s tempting to read something into the fact that this very safe excursion into pre-feminism comes from the pen of one of the show’s two regular women writers, and probably much too cheap.  Sometimes the absence of a strong voice is itself revealing: “The Cappy Darrin Story,” with Ed Wynn as a sea captain who takes the term “prairie schooner” a bit too literally, was written by Stanley Kallis, a veteran production man who penned only a handful of scripts.  There’s an incongruous fantasy sequence, in which Cappy and his young grandson (Tommy Nolan) fight off some pirates, that rouses journeyman director Virgil W. Vogel from his slumber to try his hand at some dutch angles (even more incongruous in the world of Wagon Train).  These dead ends take me back to the Western’s long-standing showrunner, Howard Christie, who seems to have favored the rather cloying tone – light at heart but somehow leaden – that “The Cappy Darrin Story” shares with many other segments.

Then there’s “The Ruth Owens Story,” one of two early episodes directed by the great Robert Florey (Murders in the Rue Morgue; The Beast With Five Fingers).  This one is set mostly at night and includes many bold close-ups of actors, often in profile, framed against total blackness.  Its expressionistic imagery – the frame grabs assembled below illustrate only a few of the Florey’s bold compositions – doesn’t resemble any other Wagon Train I’ve seen or, indeed any other television episode this side of The Twilight Zone.

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