This year I’ve also seen Cameron and Selander’s Panhandle (1948) and Stampede (1949), which were both co-written by future director Blake Edwards. Short Grass was written by Thomas Blackburn, based on his novel.
Loner Steve Llewellyn (Cameron) is in the wrong place at the wrong time; shot in the back by a thief, Steve eventually falls off his horse and is rescued by Sharon (Cathy Downs, My Darling Clementine) and her father Pete (Stanley Andrews), who live on an isolated ranch.
Sharon and Steve fall in love but want different things in life, and matters are further complicated due to a range war and fallout from the robbery Steve had stumbled across. Steve leaves town and the action jumps ahead half a decade to the bustling town of Silver Spur, where Sharon and Steve meet once again. Meanwhile, some of the same characters continue to nurse old grudges against Steve, and the range war continues.
There’s a lot more to the story than that; it’s quite a dense plot, but I don’t want to give too much away. Cameron and Downs both do a fine job creating very real, interesting characters who have a palpable longing for one another but can’t quite see eye to eye on things such as ranch life or the need for self-defense when bad guys won’t back down.
The large cast is filled with fine character actors, with Jonathan Hale having a real chance to shine as a storekeeper-turned-saloon owner; the honorable way he and Cameron handle an unfortunate financial situation, ultimately forging a years-long friendship, was refreshingly uncliched.
The excellent cast also includes Johnny Mack Brown as the ethical sheriff of Silver Spur; Morris Ankrum as the rancher who is Steve’s nemesis; and familiar faces like Harry Woods, Raymond Walburn, Myron Healey, Jeff York, and Tris Coffin. Alan Hale Jr., recently enjoyed by me in a nice part in Canyon River (1956), has another good turn in this one as Chris, Steve’s genuinely friendly neighbor who has Steve’s back when the going gets rough — as it does fairly often!
This is a very evocative film, thanks in part to New Mexico location shooting (by Harry Neumann) and some really fine, unusual sequences such as a rugged fistfight which takes place amidst the smoldering ruins of a burned-out ranch house. It was filmed so effectively that the viewer could almost imagine the smell of smoke in the air. While one ranch house is obviously sitting in a soundstage, most of the exteriors were done on location and the scenery looks quite different from many Westerns, which added to my enjoyment.
There’s also some really interesting staging by Selander and Neumann, such as an overhead shot following Johnny Mack Brown through the busy streets of Silver Spur. The climactic gun battle, with Cameron, Brown, and Hale taking on a huge crowd of bad guys, ranks as one of the finest I’ve seen, and I’ve seen plenty! It’s a movie with a lot going on in terms of both story and visual interest.
I’ve come to have quite a regard for director Selander thanks to these Cameron films, as well as Cow Country (1953), Arrow in the Dust (1954), Shotgun (1955), and his many Westerns with Tim Holt. As I recently commented in a discussion on favorite Western directors on the Riding the High Country site, Selander may not have been an artist on the level of some directors, but simply put, he made movies that I want to watch. And I’m enjoying watching a great many of them this year!
My only real quibble with this 90-minute film is that I didn’t care for the abrupt “saga” style turn it took a half-hour or so into the movie, jumping ahead five years. I was really enjoying the story as it had been up to that point and found the transition, including a change of locale and learning that one of the characters has married, a bit disappointing; I would have preferred if the story had stayed right where it was in the first third of the movie and continued on from there. Once past the storyline shift, however, I continued to enjoy the film.
Short Grass is available on DVD from the Warner Archive. The print occasionally goes a little soft, not being of the same quality as the Archive’s release of Stampede, but it’s still for the most part a fine and very watchable print. The Archive is providing a wonderful service making these lesser-known Westerns available once more in good prints.
Laura G. is a proofreader and homeschooling parent who is a lifelong film enthusiast. Laura’s thoughts on classic films, Disney, and other topics can be found at Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, established in 2005.