‘Queen of the Cimarron’ (26 September 1958)
Rex Allen, singin’ cowboy turned Frontier Doctor (as Dr Bill Baxter), faces down tough bad-girl cattle baron Miss Fancy Varden. Her herd has been diagnosed with anthrax and it’s likely to spread, she’s been given all the information, she knows what’s right, there’s only one thing to do: cull the herd and cut her losses. Fancy, however, has other ideas, and certainly isn’t willing to risk losing her investment just because her business enterprise might wreak hideous destruction on the community. Sorry Rex, nuthin’ doin’.
(US DVD: 21 Nov 2006)
Surprised? Nah. But Rex, on the other hand: “I’ve heard of people who value money more than human lives, but I never thought I’d have the dishonor to meet one of them face to face.”
Jeez, Rex is pushing 40 (and his general demeanour is pushing 60)—it’s nice to think he’s never run into such a money-lovin’ scoundrel before. Even Fancy’s tough cowboy boyfriend/henchman is so shocked by this revelation that he walks out on her. It’s one helluva god-fearin’ town where even your hired thugs won’t stick by your money-making schemes.
It’s easy to dismiss these kind of shows as being based on blinkered and enclosed notions of how the world works, but Allen’s naïve limpness can hardly be seen as decisively representative of the cowboy hero of the era. By 1958 when Frontier Doctor aired (although the show appears to have been filmed a year or two earlier), there were plenty of cowboy heroes on TV who were quick, witty and worldly.
Richard Boone’s Paladin from Have Gun - Will Travel and James Garner in Maverick were no dopes. Chuck Connors’ Lucas McCain in The Rifleman and Clint Walker in Cheyenne were a little more down-to-earth and conservative, but we could see they’d been around and knew the score. There was even another medic-cowboy over on radio around 1954-55, Dr Sixgun, whose name alone more or less showed he was in a tougher league than Allen.
Dopey kiddie Westerns have their charms too, of course—but somehow Allen’s drifting passivity also gets in the way of that odd moral fundamentalist thrill that comes with the clear-cut moral action of the most straightforward Western heroes.
Frontier Doctor seems lost somewhere between the two, a kiddie western in an adult western world, and with some moderately ambitious dramatic intentions lost in the mix. While Allen’s role seems to involve trotting around in his buggy and being generally dull (at one point prescribing gum-drops for anxiety), the scattered episodes available at least seem to try to make use of their slightly more modern Western setting to propel their stories towards some large-scale dramatic moments.
‘The San Francisco Story’ reaches its climax in the midst of the famous 1906 San Francisco Earthquake (as did the 1936 film San Francisco, the 1923 Lon Chaney film The Shock, and apparently upcoming disaster film 1906), ‘Mystery of the Black Stallion’ wraps its story around an attempted race-track assassination of a horse (as in Stanley Kubrick’s gloomy classic The Killing (1956)), and ‘The Outlaw Legion’ hits its peak with an exploded dam, driving rain, and a small town racing to deal with a terrible flood (that, unlike the way these things usually work, actually hits).
None of these climaxes are especially extraordinary, but they at least suggest a tendency towards exciting large-scale storylines almost completely antithetic to Allen’s humdrum presence. Our gum-drop-prescribing doctor in his horse-drawn buggy tends to dilute these action setpieces—whether they have the potential to be sincerely dramatic or simply movie serial style thrills.
Naturally, the ideas never fully pay off as a result: the flood in ‘The Outlaw Legion’ seems to cause plenty of destruction, but suddenly doesn’t seem to be an issue once the villains are captured; the great earthquake simply crushes the killer so that he can give a deathbed confession.
On the plus side, Allen’s blandness in the face of such turmoil has its own amusing charms, such as the dull delivery of narration like ‘Knowing that my death was imminent…’, and helpful advice like ‘a little to the left’ when instructing Doris Singleton (of I Love Lucy fame) during a makeshift operation to remove a bullet from his shoulder (he does at least manage to make a couple of ‘ouch’ faces while it’s happening).
Jean Willes as Penelope in Son of Paleface
What’s interesting about series opener ‘Queen of the Cimarron’ is that the evocative and oddly sympathetic bad-girl businesswoman Fancy (a name I’ll be sure to keep in mind if I ever have a daughter) more or less finds herself in the same position as one of these fumbled action climaxes—she bursts to complicated life for a moment, only to be unconvincingly swept away by the dullness of the expected resolution. Uncompromising in her goals after a life of marginalisation, Fancy seems to belong in an altogether more adult affair, her momentarily vibrant presence in this series more or less drawing attention to the flimsiness of the narrative conventions around her.
Played by ‘50s TV veteran Jean Willes (check out that filmography!), Fancy’s disinterest in the well-being of general society comes through as a fairly understandable point of view—she makes it clear she’s had to work hard to overcome her past and social status, both as a woman and a thinly-veiled prostitute (‘Call me any name you want to, I’ve heard em all before. And I’m used to em.’), and isn’t about to do any favours to a society that pushed her aside now that she’s finally in a position to make something of her life.
This is her last chance, and she’s not about to blow it: ‘I have no intention of starting again in the gutter and dragging myself all the way back up. I’m getting a little too old for that kind of competition. My time’s running out.’
Willes’ mix of delicacy and toughness, sensitivity and corruption, should all add up to make Fancy a great tragic heroine. When her well-intentioned goals are derailed by the anthrax outbreak, her determination to succeed turns from a blissful dream of escaping sleazy dancehall life to an act of ultimate contempt for the society that put her there in the first place and would just as cavalierly send her back - her boyfriend’s attitude as he walks out making clear the social gap even between the two of them: ‘Maybe my dirt don’t smell as perfumey as yours, sweetheart. But at least I can wash it off after an honest day’s work’.
As indefensible as Fancy’s decision to drive her anthrax-ridden herd into town may be, it’s her refusal to compromise or negotiate for her own sense of herself that elevates her status above that of a mere villain—the refusal to relent that these figures represent, even when their doom is imminent, carries a particular kind of monomaniacal thrill. In fact, certain schools of psychoanalytic theory define this as a particularly ‘feminine’ ethic (which always leads to trouble), noting those figures like Antigone who find their true essence of being when they elevate their own personal compulsions above those of the world around them, finally emerging thoroughly in opposition to established social compromises and necessities. Similarly, Fancy’s socially destructive fidelity to herself evokes memories of Margarete Schön’s Kriemhild in Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen: Kriemhild’s Revenge (1924), whose final vengeful destruction seems to persist beyond achieving any identifiable goal, seemingly embracing destruction for its own sake, and ceasing only when she is betrayed by one of her own men.
But despite Willes having one heckuva role and delivering one of her best performances, Frontier Doctor just doesn’t know what to make of this odd, sad mix of outcast and tyrant. Rather than recognising the tragic contradictions of her character, it fumbles around trying to have it both ways, making sure she sorta gets her comeuppance and sorta gets off the hook. She shoots her boyfriend in the back without much reason, almost to make her role as a villain clearer, just in case we start to cheer her on: it’s actually pretty stirring stuff when Fancy rides out herself to bring in her diseased herd, sends her newly-hired men out to fight, and still refuses to surrender when the fight is lost.
A cerebral and liberal-minded gunfighter like Paladin in Have Gun - Will Travel would surely have sympathised but have been forced to reluctantly gun her down, highlighting the irresolvable conflict rather than the simple resolution. Frontier Doctor fumbles its opening episode gambit, and shows its naiveté in a TV Western world more complex than it appears. Fancy’s boyfriend recovers and absolves her of the shooting, saving her from an attempted murder charge, but the sheriff runs her out of town anyway (‘If you’re still here tomorrow, I’ll dig up some charges that’ll put you away for a long long time’). It’s a wonderfully evasive mass of corruption that the show ends on, the false statement making sure we don’t feel too bad for punishing Fancy, and the casual police corruption making sure we don’t have to think about her again either.
It may be dull doc Rex Allen who we’re left with, but it’s the fiery presence of Jean Willes in this first episode that raises the episode above a mere television relic. It’d be a shame if the fact that Frontier Doctor is ultimately forgettable means that Willes’ Fancy Varden is similarly forgotten.
Thankfully, there’s no shortage of Jean Willes appearances to seek out, even if she rarely got the opportunity to take centre-stage. Willes may be best remembered for small roles in major films like From Here to Eternity (1953) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but a closer look at the small screen, from Three Stooges shorts to Maverick, provides plenty of opportunity to get acquainted with this fine supporting actress.
And, if nothing else, at least Fancy gets this wonderfully puritanical sendoff, a Dragnet-style closing tough-guy line Frontier Doctor-style, a final indignity for Fancy Varden:
Fancy: ‘Just one more thing, Doctor. Have you got anything in that black bag of yours that’s good for a headache?’
Dr Baxter: ‘You might try going to church. Best relief I know’.
You tell ‘er, Rex.