Sunday, March 19, 2017

Too Much TV: LARAMIE (1959-63)

When I was a kid the westerns you saw most in reruns were Bonanza and The Big Valley. Those, at least, are the ones I remember most vividly, if that's the right word for my memories of Bonanza. I never saw Laramie, which ran the same number of seasons as Big Valley, until it appeared on the Grit channel, and then on Encore Westerns, in 2015. Encore -- or Starz Encore Westerns as they call it now -- is the ideal place to view the show since the economy premium channel runs episodes uncut and without commercials. Created by John Champion, Laramie relates the adventures of rancher Slim Sherman (the perversely pseudonamed John Smith) and drifter-turned-ranch hand Jess Harper (Robert Fuller), who operate a stagecoach station on Sherman's ranch in Wyoming. In the first season they share their little home with Slim's younger brother Andy (Robert Crawford Jr.) and comedy-relief handyman Jonesy (Hoagy Carmichael). Jonesy was dumped after that season, while Andy made occasional appearances on holidays from boarding school. For the most part the Sherman Ranch was a bachelor pad that year, but even in the innocent days of 1961 there must have been some anxiety over the possibilities for two young men living together, for in the third season Slim and Jess are saddled not only with a new, adopted orphan kid (Dennis Holmes), but with lovable old lady Daisy Cooper (Spring Byington), who acts as housekeeper and "aunt" figure for the boy. I suspect that Daisy is the model for the Aunt Harriet character on the Batman show, who may have been introduced for similar reasons, down to being known as "Mrs. Cooper." A persistent presence in later years who never quite graduated to regular starring status was Sheriff Mort Corey (Stuart Randall), who often had cause to deputize Slim and/or Jess for various missions, when they weren't getting into trouble on their own.

Laramie was a black-and-white show (except for its pilot) for its first two seasons, and ran in color for the last two. Unlike many shows that made the conversion during the Sixties, Laramie was hardly diminished visually in color. Credit for that goes to two-time Oscar winning cinematographer Ray Rennahan, who shot the majority of episodes and strove not to make them look cheaply overlit, even when occasionally forced to shoot on obvious soundstages. The black-and-white episodes are probably superior visually, but the color Laramies look quite nice, especially when they're shot on location, however unconvincing Bronson Canyon may be as a Wyoming location.

While the show is about Slim Sherman and Jess Harper, it is not, despite whatever fears led to the third-season changes, about the relationship between Slim and Jess. TV producers had responded to the challenge of filming a season of hourlong episodes by giving shows multiple heroes -- see Bart Maverick joining brother Bret, or Ben Cartwright and his three grown sons -- each of whom could be given a quota of missions per season. Presumably Smith and Fuller would be filming Slim-centric and Jess-centric episodes with separate units simultaneously to complete the show's schedule of approximately 31 episodes per season. If Slim was the main character, Jess might appear in bookend scenes to see him off and welcome him back. In a minority of episodes the two stars would share the spotlight equally. In later seasons the old lady and the boy would mostly be relegated to bookend scenes, carrying few episodes themselves. Sheriff Corey may actually have had more screen time in the final season than either of the two supplementary regulars. Apart from the sheriff's constant presence, Laramie has little to no continuity as we understand it today. Episodes are always complete unto themselves, and the implicit reset button meant that there were never "game changing" episodes with permanent consequences for the main characters. By the standard of our time that made every episode "filler," but in effect that meant that no episode was filler. Because no episode was going to change the main characters significantly, the focus often was on the guest stars during this golden age of character acting. Certain actors could appear multiple times (e.g. Lloyd Nolan, Rod Cameron, L. Q. Jones, Lee Van Cleef) without viewers questioning why they looked exactly like characters they'd seen before. While any given episode might not seem significant in terms of its impact on the main characters, they at least provided the satisfaction of a thoroughly plotted story with a beginning, middle and end that's often missing from the random series episode today. Of course, expectations are different now and the long-form series with tight continuity between episodes has many virtues, but I still enjoy being able to see a truly complete story in approximately 50 minutes.

Laramie is admirably short on comedy episodes, more rough than rollicking. Even in the first season, Jonesy was acceptable as a comic-relief character because he was convincingly competent at his job. In later years efforts at comedy didn't go far beyond Daisy's attempts to make Slim and Jess do the more mundane ranch chores like painting the barn roof. While not the darkest or most hard-boiled western, Laramie will appeal to those who like their westerns straight, tough and violent. While John Smith was top-billed, the show really proved a showcase for Robert Fuller, whose work here was a revelation to me. I knew Fuller almost exclusively from Emergency, a 1970s Jack Webb series in which Fuller played an ER doctor with Webb's characteristically stolid realism. My few views of Fuller on Wagon Train, which he joined after Laramie closed down, didn't dissuade me from thinking of him as a block of wood. On Laramie, however, the 26 year old Fuller got to be the hothead to Smith's calmer, or more slow-burning Slim, and his emotional and physical intensity -- he did nearly all of his own stunts, as far as I can tell -- surprised me. As the outsider, Jess drives more episodes because he's more likely to know the guest character passing through. There are four basic situations for the outsider character: Jess can trust a stranger based on experience, and either be vindicated or disillusioned, or he can distrust the stranger because of a past offense, and either be vindicated or proven wrong. Fuller handles all possible situations like a champ, and while Smith initially seems like a big stiff in comparison, over time you realize that still waters run deep with him, making it more meaningful when circumstances force Slim to cross lines of propriety or legality, if not ethics. Their contrasting but complementary personalities, supplemented by Stuart Randall's stalwart sheriff, provide a stable frame on which the show's writers and its stable of veteran directors (especially Joe Kane and Lesley Selander) can hang any number of variations on basic western themes. A meat-and-potatoes western prepared with high craftsmanship, Laramie might be the best western series that people haven't really heard of.

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