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What could have been just another routine western programmer for Universal International Pictures turned out to be a fast-paced and exciting film garnering good reviews and healthy box office, thanks largely to its attention to the finer dramatic details of a character study rather than simply traditional genre action. In Dawn at Socorro (1954), Rory Calhoun plays a gunfighter who has hung up his six-shooters and turned to gambling. In a lengthy flashback we see him earn his fierce reputation by wiping out an entire gang of bad guys single-handedly. Eventually he meets a young beauty (Piper Laurie) who has drifted into work as a dancehall girl after her stern, repressive father threw her out. Calhoun makes it his mission to save the young woman from the downward spiral of her life by winning her in a card game. He loses, but the corrupt saloon owner and his brutal henchman decide the former gunslinger is a threat to them and plot to gun him down in the streets of Socorro - at dawn, of course.
The picture might not have been quite the success it was if it had been marketed as Dawn at Socorro, starring Francis Durgin and Rosetta Jacobs. Of course, it was pretty common for Hollywood studios to give their young star-hopefuls new names: Lucille LeSueur became Joan Crawford, Archie Leach morphed into Cary Grant, etc. By the 50s, however, some of these pseudonyms had taken on rather unearthly proportions. Piper Laurie? Tab Hunter? Mamie Van Doren?
"Back then, everyone was Lana and Rock. No one had ethnic names," Laurie said in a 1995 interview. "I would still love to be using my name. I've always felt robbed of something by people not knowing I was a Jew. But I was so young and not assertive enough to say no."
Laurie, whose family and closest friends nevertheless continued to call her Rosie, was given the name when she signed with Universal at the age of 17 in 1949 for a role in Louisa (1950), starring Ronald Reagan (with whom she became good friends). The new moniker seemed to work well for the pretty but shy young ingnue...and it was still with her years later when she changed her image considerably by delivering such emotionally powerful performances as Paul Newman's crippled girlfriend in The Hustler (1961) and, after a screen absence of 15 years, as Sissy Spacek's evangelical nutcase mother in Carrie (1976).
Calhoun, on the other hand, had an image more suited for his tough Hollywood name, supplied by Henry Willson, the same agent who discovered and invented screen names for Rock Hudson, Guy Madison and Troy Donahue. As a teenager he dropped out of high school and ended up in a federal reformatory for car theft. He eventually found work as a lumberjack and was discovered by Alan Ladd while riding horses in the Hollywood Hills. Ladd gave him a start in pictures under his stepfather's surname, McCown, but his career really took off after the change to Rory Calhoun. The actor would find himself in the saddle dozens of times over the next four-plus decades in films and on television, where he did a stint on the late-50s western series The Texan.
Director George Sherman was no stranger to westerns, either. From his very first (uncredited) directorial effort, Hollywood Cowboy (1937), through the next 50 years or so, he worked almost exclusively in the genre. Although his pictures were generally low-budget programmers and his reputation never reached the heights of a Ford, Hawks, Boetticher or Mann, Sherman was identified strongly enough with westerns to be presented the Golden Boot Award in 1988, an honor bestowed on those who have made significant contributions to the development and preservation of the western tradition in film and television. As producer of The Comancheros (1961), Sherman also shared a Western Heritage Award with the director, writers and cast of that picture. The film's star was John Wayne, who appeared in Sherman's last feature, Big Jake (1971). That was the first time Sherman had directed his old friend since 1939 when they completed the last of a string of eight westerns at Republic studios (shortly before Wayne's breakthrough to stardom with Stagecoach, 1939). In fact, after Sherman began experiencing health problems on Big Jake, Wayne refused to let him be taken off the picture and ended up directing much of it himself, without credit. Wayne's real name, by the way, was Marion Morrison, which was not exactly synonymous with his image either.
At least one other player in Dawn at Socorro experienced a name change too. California-born Marilyn Watts went from chorus girl to model to sultry supporting player (and Playboy's 1958 Playmate of the Year) under the more alluring name of Mara Corday. She was married for many years to actor Richard Long, often best remembered for his role in the western TV series The Big Valley. Since Long's death in 1974, Corday has found ample work as a supporting player in the movies of her friend Clint Eastwood. One of Eastwood's first screen roles was an uncredited bit in Tarantula (1955), a sci-fi film that starred Mara Corday.
One final fact of note about this picture: It was produced by William Alland, who got his start as an actor in Orson Welles's Mercury Theatre and made his screen debut as the shadowy reporter seeking the meaning of "Rosebud" in Citizen Kane (1941). Alland's 15-year producing career, almost exclusively at Universal, encompassed mainly sci-fi pictures, such as the classic Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), and westerns, including The Rare Breed (1966), starring James Stewart.
Director: George Sherman
Producer: William Alland
Screenplay: George Zuckerman
Cinematography: Carl Guthrie
Editing: Edward Curtiss
Art Direction: Robert Clatworthy, Alexander Golitzen
Original Music: Frank Skinner, Herman Stein
Cast: Rory Calhoun (Brett Wade), Piper Laurie (Rannah Hayes), David Brian (Dick Braden), Alex Nicol (Jimmy Rapp), Edgar Buchanan (Sheriff Cauthen), Mara Corday (Letty Diamond).
by Rob Nixon