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Set in the Colorado Territory in the 1870s, Tribute to a Bad Man (1956) follows the trek west of a young grocery clerk from Pennsylvania, Steve Miller (Don Dubbins). The easterner eventually finds work with Jeremy Rodock (James Cagney), a wealthy landowner who doesn't think twice about instant frontier justice - hanging - for any cattle rustlers he catches on his land.╩Rodock is involved with former saloon hostess Jocasta Constantine (Greek film star Irene Papas in her Hollywood debut) and their tempestuous relationship gradually escalates into a major standoff between the two with Rodock managing to alienate all of his friends and neighbors in the process. When he ends up shooting his former partner, L.A. Peterson (James Bell), the community turns against him and Rodock is forced to confront his own violent nature.
Tribute to a Bad Man marked James Cagney's final appearance in the Western genre but it is more infamous for the Hollywood legend it didn't star ╨ Spencer Tracy.╩ Originally titled Jeremy Rodock, the picture was first cast with Spencer Tracy and Grace Kelly in the leads. Reportedly, Tracy was looking forward to the production until he learned that Kelly didn't like the script and refused to accept the assignment. When her role was offered to Irene Papas, an actress Tracy didn't know, the actor lost all interest in the project. Besides, Tracy had no working knowledge of director Robert Wise and he secretly wanted to get out of his MGM contract so he could pick and choose his own movies like Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea (1958), a film adaptation he longed to do. Despite his true feelings about Tribute to a Bad Man, Tracy remained silent while Wise had a massive set constructed on location high in the Colorado Rockies. The actor then showed up for work six days late without offering an excuse and proceeded to behave in a thoroughly unprofessional manner, avoiding contact with his fellow cast and crew members and disappearing from the set when he was needed. The final straw was when he demanded that the current set be struck down and rebuilt at a lower altitude because his weak lungs couldn't take the thin mountain air. His demand resulted in MGM studio vice president Howard Strickling having to fly into Colorado to settle the matter. Between Strickling, Wise and MGM production chief Dore Schary, the decision was made to fire Tracy after four days of filming and on June 25, 1955, the Oscar-winning actor ended his relationship with MGM after having been a star at the studio for more than 20 years.
Other major stars were immediately sought as a replacement like Clark Gable but it was James Cagney who stepped in at the 11th hour. In his autobiography, Cagney by Cagney, he wrote, "Tribute to a Bad Man came in 1956 at a time when I was up on Martha's Vineyard. I had been working early in the summer, and I went up to take my ease there when Spence Tracy, then on location up a Colorado mountain, became ill. He couldn't go on with Tribute to a Bad Man, so Nick Schenck, the head of MGM, called and asked if I would jump in for him. There were some eighty people in Montrose, Colorado, waiting to get the job done. I was about as interested in working as I was in flying, which means a considerable level below zero, but after much gab, I agreed."
In Robert Wise on His Films, the director recounted what happened next: "I got a call from [executive producer Sam] Zimbalist saying that James Cagney had agreed to do it but wouldn't be available for a couple of months. There was nothing for us to do but fold everything up and return to Los Angeles. Then misfortune dogged us. During the layoff period, [actor] Bob Francis was killed in a plane crash. All the film I shot with him was now no good. We returned to the location and I shot around Cagney for about two weeks. Then Cagney came up and we went ahead with the film. He couldn't have been any more different in terms of his attitude than Tracy, but nothing was too rough for him. He took Don Dubbins, who was cast in the Bob Francis role, under his wing and was very helpful to Irene Papas. A complete reverse approach to the part, the picture, and the people he worked with."
Producer: Sam Zimbalist
Director: Robert Wise
Screenplay: Michael Blankfort
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Cinematography: Robert Surtees
Editing: Ralph Winters
Music: Miklos Rozsa
Cast: James Cagney (Jeremy Rodock), Don Dubbins (Steve Miller), Stephen McNally (McNulty), Irene Papas (Jocasta Constantine), Vic Morrow (Lars Peterson), Lee Van Cleef (Fat Jones), Royal Dano (Abe), Onslow Stevens (Hearn), Jeanette Nolan (Mrs. Peterson).
C-96m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
By Michael T. Toole