George Montgomery: A Western Idol in a Golden Age of Heroes

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The golden age of the westerns produced a smattering of heroes:  John WayneRoy Rogers, Gene AutryAudie Murphy, and… George Montgomery? If you are, like me, saying who the deuce is George Montgomery?

Sit back while I fill you in on what I learned.

George Montgomery Letz was a contemporary with John Wayne. In fact he got his start, as Wayne did, as a stunt man and horseback rider. He even shared the big screen with the Duke on a couple of Wayne’s early movies. Most of his early roles were in films with Gene Autry, where he garnered bit parts and stunt work.

Montgomery was raised on a farm in Montana so he came by his riding skills naturally. He spent one year in college (where he was the university boxing champ), but decided he wanted to work in the movies instead and went to Hollywood. He worked at Republic Studios where he appeared mostly with uncredited appearances or as George Letz. In 1940, he moved to 20th Century Fox, where they dropped the last name and billed him as George Montgomery. And also gave him his first big role. But due to the lack of success in major dramas, he was relegated mostly to B-Westerns, of the type which I am reviewing today.

He was also a self-taught sculpture artist.  He created busts of many celebrities, including Ronald Reagan (when the latter was still just an actor).  The bust he made resides in the Reagan Presidential Library now.

He did have one other claim to fame.  From 1943 to 1963 he was Mr. Dinah Shore.  His bust sculpture of Dinah is on display at the Mission Hills Country Club, home of what used to be known as the LPGA Dinah Shore Invitational.

Some of his classic films include:

Gun Belt (1953)

In this movie, George plays Billy Ringo. Billy is the brother of and former outlaw band mate of his brother, Matt (John Dehner). Billy has reformed and is no longer committing crimes. Instead he is working a ranch with his nephew, Matt’s son, Chip (Tab Hunter).

At the beginning of the movie, Matt breaks out of jail and joins up with his gang. They go to a man who has a plan for a robbery of a Wells Fargo wagon, but will only tell the details to Billy. The reason Matt was broken out of jail in the first place was to convince his brother to go rogue again.

Matt and his gang (including a young Jack Elam) go to Billy’s ranch, where Billy is not elated to see his brother, but Matt’s son Chip is. Matt is unable to convince Billy to join the plot. Matt decides to stage a bank robbery in order to frame his brother, and convince him to go in on the deal. The frame-up goes as planned, but afterwards, while Billy is trying to convince Matt to give himself up, Matt is accidentally shot.

Billy goes back to town to try to clear himself, but the townspeople are in no mood for talk and try to lynch him. He escapes this lynching, and eventually meets up with Wyatt Earp (James Millican), the sheriff of town, and convinces him of his innocence and makes plans with him to help foil the Wells Fargo robbery. Meanwhile, Chip is convinced that Billy killed his father on purpose. He joins the Ike Clinton (William Bishop) gang, a rival to the gang Matt had headed.

You will notice some familiar names. Wyatt Earp, of course, was a famous lawman. The rest of the names have been altered slightly, God only knows why. Johnny Ringo and Ike Clanton from the fight at the OK Corral legend are now Billy Ringo and Ike Clinton. Of course, this isn’t that legendary fight, nor is there any need to have the characters be real people, but it still makes one wonder.

There is a lot of twists and turns, and double dealing to go around here. It’s fairly standard fare however.  I couldn’t help but think of The Roy Rogers Show, of which I watched reruns with my father over the holidays. Of course, Billy is no good guy of the Roy Rogers kind, but the action resembled the old serial in many ways.

The Lone Gun (1954)

In The Lone Gun, Montgomery plays a wanderer named Cruze who happens to meet up with an amiable gambler, Fairweather (Frank Faylen).  [Note: why these two main characters only were only given one name while most of the rest were given two is a mystery to me, but that’s the way it is.]  Together they go into a town by the name of Marlpine.

Fairweather manages to get into a fight with the resident bad apple Trey Moran (Neville Brand, a familiar face in a lot of B-pictures of the day).  After Cruze beats up both Trey and his two brothers, Gad and Hort (Douglas Kennedy and Robert Wilke, respectively), the town asks Cruze to be the new sheriff.  One of his first duties as sheriff turns out to be investigating cattle rustling.  In the course of the  investigation, he goes to the Downing ranch where Cass and his sister Charlotte (Skip Homeier and Dorothy Malone) are running a ranch, but have allowed the Moran brothers to graze on their land.

Cass owes money to the Morans or he would have run them off, as he is aware that they are the cattle rustlers. Cass goes to town to try to get a loan from the bank, but is rejected. He then tries to win the money gambling. Trey offers to play him one hand for the debt, with Fairweather the dealer. Fairweather deals Cass a winning hand, but then Cass is shot by one of the Moran brothers with Fairweather’s gun, which had been left at the bar while he dealt cards. Fairweather is framed, but Cruze has no choice but arrest him.

Once again, the plot thickens and simmers as the truth is uncovered in typical B-western fashion. George Montgomery, while not exactly Academy Award material, if these two movies are any indication, is still the classic good-looking hero, who probably easily entertained kids and adults alike at the Saturday matinee. One added note in common with these two movies, they were both directed by Ray Navarro, a director who had a prolific career in directing these kinds of B-westerns.

Jim Brymer, AKA Quiggy, runs the movie blog The Midnite Drive-In, check it out for more insights on other classic films.