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The wild, wild West revisted by Mr. Burger

by Mark Burger

Due to so many time-related events during the early half of this month, it’s taken me a few weeks to get to my final round-up on the 31st Annual Western Film Fair, which took place in Winston-Salem in July.

This was the first time the event had come to Winston-Salem, having been held in Charlotte in years past — and it’ll be back next year, too, according to Wayne Short, the president of the Western Film Preservation Society.

“In Charlotte, we kind of got lost in the shuffle,” says Short. “We needed a shot in the arm, and figured a change of venue would do it. There are a lot of people here who are Western fans. I’ve seen quite an array of people. It’s been going real well, and I see a lot of new faces I haven’t seen before.”

Short’s been a member of the society for 28 years. “We’ve enjoyed doing this,” he says. “It keeps me off the street.”

When it comes to picking favorite Westerns, Short is diplomatic. “I love the old Bs,” he says with a smile, “but I like the As, too.” (Just for the record, my favorite Western is Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch — and if they ever remake it, I’ll be the first in line… to criticize it.)

Among the guest stars in attendance were actresses Caroline Munro, Shirley Eaton and Lynda Day George, and such familiar character actors as Geoffrey Lewis, Henry Darrow (who was a delight to chat with), James Best and Warren Stevens, whom I was fortunate enough to corral (pun intended) for an impromptu talk before the awards dinner.

Arguably Stevens’ best-known role was as the ship’s doctor in the 1956 science-fiction classic Forbidden Planet (inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest, in case you didn’t know). Stevens admits that he never thought it would turn out to be the most popular and enduring film of his career but is not at all surprised it turned out well. Shooting on the fabled MGM lot was certainly a dream come true, as was working alongside Walter Pidgeon, an actor Stevens revered, and the young leads, Leslie Nielsen and Anne Francis, both of whom Stevens befriended.

Stevens, who will turn 89 this year, was born in Clark’s Summit, Pa. — which immediately makes him okay in my book (I was born in the great city of Philadelphia) — and regaled us as much with his tales of his days flying dangerous missions during World War II as he did of his days making movies in Hollywood.

Of all the projects he worked on, Stevens said he had the most fun making Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ 1954 romantic thriller The Barefoot Contessa, in which he appeared opposite Humphrey Bogart, Ava Gardner and Edmond O’Brien, who won the Oscar for best supporting actor that year. When I mentioned that so few contemporary film fans remember Edmond O’Brien, Stevens smiled wryly: “That’s their loss.” (That’s one for Stevens.)

Working with Mankiewicz, one of the legendary writer/directors of classic Hollywood (with four Oscars to his credit), was also an experience. “He was tough,” Stevens says, “but he was so damned smart! You knew you had to bring your best game.”

Stevens also shared memories of working with an old friend, actor Richard Boone. If you don’t know who Richard Boone is, then you don’t know your Westerns. He was one of the all-time great screen heavies, and was known as a bit of a roustabout. Stevens admitted that he did tend to castigate Boone for his drinking, but it was said with great affection, and he recalled that his guest stints on Boone’s anthology series in the early 1960s were also among the best experiences he’d ever had as an actor.

As for the late Mr. Boone, “they do not make them like that any more,” Stevens says simply. “They broke the mold.”

Although the Western Film Fair has a long and illustrious history, it’s hardly a cash cow. “We’re lucky enough to have enough money to get going next year,” Short says.

The Western genre has seen its ups and downs throughout Hollywood history. Until the 1970s, it was a staple of both silver screen and television screen. The turning point may have been 1980, when The Legend of the Lone Ranger and Michael Cimino’s notorious Heaven’s Gate — both big-budget, grand-scale Westerns — tanked at the box-office. The genre was considered all but dead, despite the occasional success (Silverado, Pale Rider, the acclaimed TV miniseries “Lonesome Dove” and its various follow-ups).

At the Western Film Fair, many of the screenings are done “the old-fashioned way” — on a 16-millimeter projector. The advent of home video in the 1980s, Short theorizes, may have helped keep Westerns alive in the minds of film fans. Audiences were revisiting old favorites, which soon turned into a desire for new ones. Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning Unforgiven (1992) is the perfect example of a latter-day Western classic.

Cable television seems to be the purview of Westerns these days, “and there are some good Westerns being made,” says Short, who catches as many as he can. That’s even easier, he notes, with the premiere of The Western Channel on cable. Therefore, it’s safe to assume that reports of the Western genre’s demise are exaggerated, and it’s equally safe to assume that the Western Film Fair does its part to keep the love and lore alive.

“It’s a labor of love,” affirms Short. “I’m going to keep ’em going as long as I can.”

For more information about the Western Film Fair, just mosey on over to www.westernfilmfair.com.

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