Friday, August 24, 2018

THE SECOND VAN JOHNSON BLOGATHON: Zane Grey Theatre, Deadfall (1959)


Michaela of Love Letters to Old Hollywood is hosting a Van Johnson Blogathon, her second in as many years. Click HERE to read what all the fans have to say.

A busy musical performer on Broadway, Van Johnson became box office gold for MGM in the 1940s. Popular with young fans, as he matured so did his acting ability with an interesting array of dramas and comedies in the 1950s including Three Guys Named Mike, Miracle in the Rain, The End of the Affair, Remains to be Seen, The Caine Mutiny, Brigadoon and 23 Paces to Baker Street.

In 1955 Van made his television debut playing himself on a charming episode of I Love Lucy titled The Dancing Star. By 1990 Van would rack up 43 credits on Classic TV performing in musicals, mysteries, comedies, mini-series, and westerns.


Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theatre was broadcast on CBS from 1956 to 1961. The 1950s was the heyday of anthology series and of westerns, and here we had the best of both worlds. Dick Powell, one of the founders of the television empire known as Four Star Television was the host of these half-hour character studies and adventure tales. Powell acted in some of the episodes as well.


Deadfall first aired on Thursday, February 19, 1959. The twists and turns are many in this episode written by Frederick Louis Fox (Black Saddle, Johnny Ringo, Branded) and Sloan Nibley (Death Valley Days, Wagon Train, The Addams Family) and directed by Jerry Hopper (Wagon Train, Burke's Law, The Fugitive).

Charles Fredericks, Van Johnson, Bing Russell

The all-male ensemble is headlined by Van Johnson as Frank Gillette. Gillette has moved to this town after a three-year prison stretch, hoping to start life with a clean slate. Fate has other plans as he is framed for a bank robbery by Sheriff's Deputy Stover played by Bing Russell (Bonanza). The town prosecutor, Hugh Perry played by Harry Townes (The Twilight Zone), speaks most eloquently of protecting their fair city. A recent silver strike will be attracting the wrong sort of person, of which Frank Gillette is a prime example.

Chuck Roberson, Hampton Fancher, Val Dufour

Sentenced to twenty years in prison, Gillette is being escorted by Sheriff Roy Lamont played by Grant Withers (Other Men's Women) and our old friend Deputy Stover when they are ambushed. Three desperadoes free Frank, but only after Harper played by Val Dufour (Search for Tomorrow) shoots the sheriff in the back.

Harper, young Linc played by Hampton Fancher (Black Saddle) and Brenner played by Chuck Roberson (McLintock!) are none too friendly to Gillette. They are closed-mouthed about the yet unseen boss of this little operation, but Gillette plays it cool, constant needling the hot-headed Harper.

Van Johnson, Harry Townes

Frank is not surprised when the Perry, the man who prosecuted him, turns out to be the leader of this gang. Perry's ultimate goal is to return to town a hero with the recaptured Frank. The town is about to boom, and Perry wants his share of the graft and power that will come with the position of sheriff.

Frank suggests a little twist to this plan. Instead of returning him as an escaped criminal, why not also prove the framing by Deputy Stover. This won't go over well with Stover, but the townspeople will see Perry as a fair-minded and honest man. Perry likes this idea.

Paul Langton, Harry Townes

Tom Lamont played by Paul Langton (Peyton Place) is the brother of the murdered sheriff and currently acting sheriff. He shoots it out with Stover when the Gillette framing comes to light. The impressed townspeople vote to make Lamont sheriff, spoiling Perry's plans.

The angered Perry and his gang again take Frank hostage and attempt to coerce him into murdering Lamont. The cagey Frank Gillette turns the tables on the outlaws by teaming with Sheriff Lamont. While his gang flees, the greedy Perry is caught by trying to grab the stolen loot. Gotcha!

Van Johnson

The villains tried to use Frank Gillette's past against him, but they didn't reckon on his present and his plans for the future.












20 comments:

  1. Great write up. Where do you find all these old TV programs?

    As for Van Johnson, As a young man, I only saw him in War Movies. So to me Van Johnson = tough Guy, and I still have trouble accepting him as a Song and Dance man. A Western seems like more of a natural fit. But evidently the MGM Bosses disagreed, since he only did one Western film. "Siege at Red River" - which isn't very good but it has a great tagline: And the two best soldiers in the line that day were the Captain from Georgia and the Yankee Spitfire!

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    1. That is a cool tagline.

      We used to get Zane Grey Theatre on a western specialty channel. It was great when it started then began showing modern adventure movies and went off the air. Geesh. Some DVDs of the program showed up on my Christmas wish list a couple of years ago. Sometimes Santa listens.

      Van could do just about anything the studio asked of him. It's up to the rest of us to discover what we like best.

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    2. I have the same issue...I saw Van Johnson first in the war movies. The was time you could have convinced me if you made a war movie between 1940 and 1960, it had to have either John Wayne or Van Johnson. That also means I have trouble with the song and dance thing.

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    3. This is very interesting. With me it's the other way around. I can't see Van Johnson as anything other than a song and dance man. I haven't seen his war pictures but I've seen him in the quasi-Noir Scene of the Crime and he barely made the cut as tough guy PI. I have to seek out his TV appearances.

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    4. Margot, check out Battleground, Command Decision and The Caine Mutiny, my three favourite war picture featuring Van.

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    5. J-Dub, thanks for visiting. I find it very interesting how we all came to the same actor through different aspects of his career. Is versatility a gift or a curse?

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  2. Thanks for bringing this episode to my attention and to my blogathon! I'm seriously behind in my classic TV viewing (probably because I just keep watching the same three shows on repeat...), but I will definitely try my best to track this episode down. It sounds like a great showcase of Van's talent.

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    1. You made me laugh. I know the same three shows on repeat loop well. Zane Grey Theatre has lots of terrific guest stars, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, Ida Lupino, Edward G. Robinson, Chester Morris, Marsha Hunt, Audrey Totter, Eddie Albert, Sammy Davis Jr. - and that's only the tip of the iceberg.

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  3. Would love to see this episode. A lot of episodes are on You Tube but not this one.

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    1. I love catching things on YouTube, but isn't that always the way? Never the one you want.

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  4. There I was reading about Van Johnson in your interesting review of a ZANE GREY THEATRE episode when I caught the name of actor Hampton Fancher. Well, who could forget that name? I remember him fondly as Karl Malden's no-good son in PARRISH and, many years later, as the screenwriter of BLADE RUNNER. What a career! We return you to the life and career of Mr. Van Johnson....

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    1. I think the best of actors have a writer inside of them. He was born at the right time, to show up in all the westerns that provided work in the 50s and 60s.

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  5. Paddy Lee, another good write-up of a good TV series with a really good guest star. That is what is so good about watching Classic TV.

    I, somewhat see Van Johnson as a song and dance man, also. Although, not for the usual musicals. I first remember seeing Van Johnson in the delightful song and dance comedy KELLY AND ME(1957). Channel 3 WREC-TV EARLY MOVIE would show this movie frequently during the 1960's, and I so enjoyed watching it as a youngster. Kelly was a white German Shepard and he and Van were really good together as a vaudeville act in the 1930's.

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    1. I grew up loving old show biz movies and I don't remember this one at all. Thank you so much for mentioning it. I will be looking for it and for that warm nostalgic feeling.

      Zane Grey Theatre provided a lot of interesting actors in engrossing stories. It's what I think of when I think of classic TV.

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    2. I found Kelly and Me on YouTube. I can't believe I haven't seen it until now. Thanks.

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    3. Paddy Lee, you are so very welcome and I hope that you like KELLY AND ME.

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  6. I like the idea of Van Johnson in this type of role.

    Let's be honest. I like the idea of Van Johnson in ANY type of role...

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    1. And Van aimed to please you with his roles.

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  7. Great selection for the Van Johnson blogathon CaftanWoman, I used to watch these so many years ago. I've always liked and admired Van Johnson, and his versatility. It's too bad he wasn't used more as a dancer, which he was also great at. Thanks for highlighting this one.

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    1. Thank you, Christian. One of my happy places is loosing myself in these television shows with the amazing guest stars.

      I enjoy Van the musical star. I'll even sit through Till the Clouds Roll By to get to Van and Lucille Bremer's I Won't Dance.

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