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Randolph Scott - 8/19
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Randolph Scott

Perhaps even more than John Wayne, one of the actors most closely identified with the western film has to be tall, ruggedly handsome Randolph Scott - so much so that when his name is mentioned in Mel Brooks's genre spoof Blazing Saddles (1974), it is accompanied by the sound of a reverent heavenly choir. Although he played a variety of roles over the years, particularly in the 1930s, Scott's career was bracketed by a string of cowboy pictures, with the later ones directed by Budd Boetticher considered the best in the genre. His status as a western hero was further confirmed a decade after his retirement from the screen when the country band The Statler Brothers made a hit country-western record lamenting the state of the movie industry and asking "Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott?"

Scott started life far from the open range. Born in Virginia sometime between 1898 and 1903 (sources vary), he was raised in North Carolina and attended college at Georgia Tech until sidelined by a football injury. Transferring to the University of North Carolina, he graduated with a degree in textile engineering and manufacturing but found himself called to the stage. He ended up in California, studying and performing at the Pasadena Playhouse, where so many other future stars of his generation got their first training and breaks. His father gave him a letter of introduction to Howard Hughes, who he knew slightly, and eventually Scott and Hughes met on a golf course, resulting in his first work as a bit player, significantly in westerns. His Southern roots served him well, when he was chosen to coach Gary Cooper in the proper accent for the early talkie The Virginian (1929).

Scott had a bit part in that western, but soon after found himself in mostly sophisticated modern stories, playing roles credited as "Joan's Rejected Suitor" or "Larry Rivers, the polo coach" in A Successful Calamity (1932). Several westerns and action roles followed as his career took off, but the Randolph Scott one usually thinks of from the 1930s was as often in a tuxedo as chaps. Although not a musical performer, he was in Roberta (1935) and Follow the Fleet (1936), both with Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire (who became a close friend). He soon became a popular leading man, paired with everyone from Shirley Temple - in three movies, including Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938) - to Mae West, playing smitten country boy to her slumming movie star in Go West Young Man (1936). He appeared three times with Irene Dunne: in the aforementioned Roberta; a western musical, High, Wide, and Handsome (1937); and as Cary Grant's rival for Dunne's affections in the screwball comedy My Favorite Wife (1940). Scott and Grant had met when they were both cast in a Nancy Carroll picture, Hot Saturday (1932), and became very close. They shared a home on and off for about a dozen years, and photos of them clowning by the pool or having supper with their dog led to rumors of a gay relationship that persist to this day.

Even during this period of breezy romantic comedies, Scott managed to get on a horse a number of times. Director Allan Dwan cast him as Wyatt Earp in Frontier Marshal (1939); he protected the new telegraph service from outlaws in Fritz Lang's Western Union (1941), played a lawman opposite Tyrone Power in the title role of Jesse James (1939), and was Errol Flynn's nemesis in Virginia City (1940). He also appeared twice in this period with fellow western icon John Wayne, both times battling for the attention of Marlene Dietrich, in The Spoilers (1942) and Pittsburgh (1942).

During World War II, like most male stars of the time, he saw plenty of on-screen service: as a maverick dive-bomber in Bombardier (1943), the leader of a battalion of Pacific Island raiders in Gung Ho! (1943), and the head of an American mission hospital in China Sky (1945). Scott even once tried his hand, none too successfully, in a swashbuckler, billed below Charles Laughton as the title character in Captain Kidd (1945). But he always alternated these parts with the western roles he loved best, pictures like Badman's Territory (1946) and Trail Street (1947), in which he played legendary lawman Bat Masterson.

By the late 40s, Scott was making westerns exclusively, turning out big hits, among them Return of the Bad Men (1948), which incredibly featured a host of legendary outlaws, including Billy the Kid, the Younger Brothers and the Sundance Kid. Early in the 1950s, he formed a partnership with veteran producer Harry Joe Brown. Under the production company banner Ranown, he found new success when other stars of his generation were beginning to dim. As a weathered, aging western star, he became one of the top box office draws of the decade, and his work with director Budd Boetticher (Seven Men from Now (1956), Comanche Station, 1960) is critically important to the history of the genre and its recognition as cinematic art. Over the course of seven films between 1956 and 1960, the two created an archetype of a solitary man, not always a "hero" or stereotypical good guy, facing great odds and tough moral dilemmas. Although generally considered mere second-feature programmers in their day, they were immensely popular and in recent years have earned much critical re-evaluation and respect.

Scott made his last film - which some critics say is his best - with Joel McCrea, another actor who started out in sophisticated '30s fare and reached his career heights late in life as a western star. The two were directed by Sam Peckinpah in one of his earliest movies, Ride the High Country (1962), in which their screen images were used to mythic effect. McCrea continued in films for a few more years, but Scott decided to retire, one of the richest men in the business, content to have made his mark doing respected work that he loved. In a fitting tribute, he was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in 1975, 12 years before his death.

For more information about Randolph Scott and his frequent director Budd Boetticher, visit the American Cowboy web site.

by Rob Nixon

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