Buddy Ebsen had his fair share of success on television, starring in two huge hits -- The Beverly Hillbillies and Barnaby Jones -- and playing a key role in the mega-successful Davy Crockett episodes on Disneyland, but lost in the shuffle are some interesting movies. Like his George Russel character in the Crockett episodes, Ebsen often played the sidekick, the right hand man to the gent in charge, and he was great at it. In 1964's Mail Order Bride, the longtime TV star gets a crack at a leading role and succeeds in a big way.
In this semi-comic, semi-serious western, Ebsen plays a cowboy who drifts along the trail minding his own business. It's the type of character you wouldn't be surprised to see John Wayne or Robert Mitchum play as they did in any number of westerns. But why this part fits so well within the movie is because it isn't Wayne or Mitchum. Huge stars like that would have overshadowed the story and the rest of the characters. With Ebsen though, he does what he does in a solid leading role but knows when to step back and let the supporting players take center stage.
A young hell-raiser named Lee Clark (Keir Dullea) rides home one day to find an older cowboy by the name of Will Lane (Ebsen) working around the ranch, shoeing horses, fixing fences. Lee isn't much for work and would rather be drinking, gambling or visiting the girls in the backroom of the saloon. Lane though has a document from Lee's dead father giving him ownership of the ranch until Lee is old enough to handle the place himself. Nothing seems to calm Clark so Lane thinks of a way to tame him, get a mail order bride who will help him grow up. He finds Annie Boley (Lois Nettleton), a young widower, who with her son moves onto Lee's spread. Young Lee has a plan to push Lane out the door, but a friend of his, another drifting cowboy (Warren Oates) has other plans.
Director Burt Kennedy turns in one of his better efforts here in this light-hearted and good-natured western that for the most part hits all the right notes. Almost exclusively a director of westerns, Kennedy had a knack for these smaller stories and goes against the grain with almost no gunplay whatsoever here. The story is as straightforward as a story can get, and the ending is easily predicted about 30 seconds into the movie. Okay, maybe a little longer than that. For the filming locations, California stands in for Montana and looks beautiful. Clark's little spread is picture perfect, set up in a little mountain valley with plenty of water and trees all around.
As drifter Will Lane, Ebsen has a peaceful way about him that makes the character easily likable from the start. He's been a cowboy all his life, but we never do find out much about him. The task in front of him is not an easy one, but Lane wants to keep his word to his old partner no matter how difficult his job may be. And for once, it's nice to see Ebsen get a starring role instead of being pushed back with the rest of the supporting characters. His Lane does disappear some in the second half, but the story turns its attention more to Dullea's Lee and Nettleton's Annie. Ebsen is adept as action or comedy, especially the scene where he's looking for the prospective brides that include an older woman, a prude, and a dance hall girl. His face sells the comedy nicely.
My only other experience with Dullea is in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but this is clearly a strong part for him. Lee is far from likable and through 40 minutes or so I found myself wishing Ebsen would just pop him one in the face and ride out. But Dullea brings the character around as he starts to grow up and realize there is more to life than drinking and gambling. Working with Nettleton's Annie, the duo has some strong chemistry together as they try to figure the other one out. Still early in his career in movies and playing bit parts on TV, Oates gets to play the friend turned bad guy who looks out for No. 1 above all else. The confrontation between him and Dullea at the end is a little disappointing but works in terms of storytelling.
This is a Burt Kennedy western, and he rounds out the cast with several recognizable and always reliable western character actors, including Paul Fix as Sheriff Jess Linley, the beautiful Barbara Luna as Marietta, one of the backroom girls who has a history with Lee, Denver Pyle in a funny scene as the angry preacher marrying Lee and Annie, and William Smith as one of Oates' gunhands. Nothing really sets this western apart from the pack, but I enjoyed it. Good-natured story with good characters, just don't expect much in the way of action.
Mail Order Bride (1964): ***/****