The Old Corral: A Tribute to George Sherman

Many of cinema's greatest directors worked in Westerns over the years (particularly in the '50s) -- Ford, Hawks, Daves, Mann, Wellman, Ray, etc. With such names turning out great, often epic films at a steady pace, it makes sense that some talented, lesser-known people, making smaller Westerns, would get lost in the shuffle of cinematic history. It's a real shame, because as fans of these things know, the smaller pictures are where a lot of the real treasure is found.

Some of those treasures come from George Sherman. His Westerns of the '50s are a strong lot -- whether he was working for Universal-International, Columbia, and RKO (in its last days) or MGM. Typically medium-budgeted, his Westerns are marked by solid craftsmanship, tight pacing and an incredible use of the great outdoors. Sadly, some of Sherman's key films aren't available on DVD -- at least not in the States. So we'll be focusing on what you can track down easily and encourage you to seek out the others.

George Sherman came to Hollywood from New York City, beginning his movie career in the mailroom at Warner Bros. He made his way over to Mack Sennett's place, working as assistant director on some early-'30s shorts. By 1937, he was a director at Republic Pictures, attached to their Three Mesquiteers series of six-day Westerns. Eight of the Mesquiteers pictures starred a young John Wayne as Stony Brooke and include Pals of the Saddle (1938), Overland Stage Riders (1938), Santa Fe Stampede (1938), and Red River Range (1938).

In the middle of this series, John Ford selected Wayne to play the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach (1939).

George Sherman: 'I directed Duke, Ray Corrigan and Max Terhune in those Mesquiteer pictures. We made one a week. Duke left us to do Stagecoach with John Ford. That made him famous. But it was all those awful pictures at Republic that built up his Western reputation.'

Stagecoach made Wayne a star, to be sure, but he still had some pictures left to do for Republic -- and they were eager to cash in on his new notoriety, quickly. So he and Sherman quickly had four more Mesquiteer films under their belts: The Night Riders (1939; This one was in production when Stagecoach premiered in March 1939), Three Texas Steers (1939), and Wyoming Outlaw (1939).

John Wayne went on to become, well, John Wayne, and Republic assigned Sherman to pictures starring Gene Autry and Don 'Red' Barry and to the ongoing Three Mesquiteers series. Rhythm Of The Saddle (1938), Colorado Sunset (1939), Mexicali Rose (1939), and South of the Border (1939) were made during this time.

Gene Autry: 'George Sherman was about the size of a popcorn kernel, but he was an artist. Like Howard Hawks, he had a taste for give-and-take dialogue and the tongue-in-cheek approach to making films.'

It wasn't all Westerns, however. Republic dabbled in other genres, and Sherman's X Marks the Spot (1942) is a fun little private eye picture.

Sherman wrapped up his time at Republic with The Lady And The Monster and Storm Over Lisbon (both 1944), two good, strange films starring Vera Hruba Ralston, Richard Arlen and Eric von Stroheim, and shot by the great cinematographer John Alton.

A move to Columbia meant more second features, and there are some real standouts from this period, such as The Secret of the Whistler (1944) and Last of the Redmen (1947).

And he would finally get to shoot in color with The Bandit of Sherwood Forest (1946) starring Cornel Wilde and Anita Louise. The Bandit of Sherwood Forest is fun nonsense (co-directed by Henry Levin) about the son of Robin Hood, shot in Technicolor by Tony Gaudio, one of the cameramen for Errol Flynn's The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).

Sherman's time at Columbia was brief, and he was soon a contract director at Universal-International. The studio was big on Westerns in the late '40s and '50s, and Sherman was assigned plenty of them during his time there. His Universal films include River Lady (1948), which sees Yvonne De Carlo caught up with battling lumbermen as well as:

Calamity Jane And Sam Bass (1949)

Cowboy Sam Bass (Howard Duff) turns up in Denton, Texas, looking for work. He's soon torn between Kathleen Egan and Yvonne De Carlo (as Calamity Jane).

Comanche Territory (1950)

When silver is found on Comanche territory, Jim Bowie (Macdonald Carey) tries to stop a war between the settlers (who want the silver) and the Comanche.

Tomahawk (1951)

Van Heflin stars as the legendary Indian sympathizer Jim Bridger, caught between the cavalry and the Sioux. Sherman was really hitting his stride with these larger Westerns (bigger than the Republics, anyway). His command of the action sequences is terrific.

War Arrow (1953)

Sherman turns an interesting premise -- Cavalry officer Jeff Chandler trains a band of Seminoles to quell a Kiowa uprising -- into a solid Western. His handling of the climactic sequence, as the Kiowas attach the army outpost, is masterful.

Border River (1954)

A band of Confederates led by Joel McCrea heads to Mexico to buy guns. McCrea quickly realizes there are very few people south of the border he can trust. Moab, Utah, doubles a Mexico in this fun, exciting, beautiful Technicolor Western. Sherman also directed McCrea is The Lone Hand (1953), another excellent middle-budget Western.

Dawn at Socorro (1954)

Sherman brings a great visual mood, aided by an outstanding cast and terrific Technicolor photography from Carl Guthrie, to a variation on the story of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. One of Sherman's best films and one of Universal's finest '50s Westerns.

It wasn't all Westerns for Sherman at Universal. A good example is Against All Flags (1952), a pirate picture with Errol Flynn at his swashbuckling best. Maureen O'Hara has to be the most beautiful buccaneer to ever wield a saber.

With his Universal contract up in the mid-'50s, Sherman worked independently for a while, doing superb worked as he hopped from studio to studio. The Treasure Of Pancho Villa (1955) is a terrific action picture, in Technicolor and Superscope, made for Howard Hughes' RKO. For Columbia, he made a couple of excellent Westerns with Guy Madison, Reprisal! (1956) and The Hard Man (1957). In 1958, for Universal again, he directed what might be his masterpiece, The Last of the Fast Guns, starring Jock Mahoney, Gilbert Roland, Linda Cristal and Lorne Greene.

Like so many other filmmakers of the period, Sherman made his way to TV in the late '50s and early '60s: Rawhide, The Naked City, Route 66 and more.

For Fess Parker's Daniel Boone series, Sherman worked as producer and occasional director for the first three seasons. He did the same thing with the Gentle Ben show in 1967.

Back in 1961, John Wayne recruited Sherman to produce The Comancheros for his production company, Batjac. He hired him again for Big Jake (1971), this time as director. But Sherman became ill and Wayne directed some of the picture himself, making sure his old collaborator got sole credit.

It would be George Sherman's last picture as director. He passed away in 1991. Sadly, his work wasn't really appreciated while he was around, so no one ever conducted the kind of career-spanning interview that would've provided insight into his film career. But these Westerns hold up beautifully, with Sherman's command of his craft apparent in every frame.

Special thanks to Blake Lucas, Los Angeles writer and film critic living, for his help with this article.

Toby Roan watches a lot of cowboy movies. His blog, 50 Westerns from the 50's, proves that point.