Thursday, August 20, 2020

LEGENDS OF WESTERN CINEMA WEEK: The Big Valley, The Great Safe Robbery, 1966

Hamlette's Soliloquy and Along the Brandywine are our hosts for the online celebration Legends of Western Cinema Week, during August 17 - 21. The celebration of your (our) favourite westerns will certainly brighten the summer of 2020.

The Barkleys of The Big Valley
Barbara Stanwyck as Victoria
Lee Majors as Heath
Peter Breck as Nick
Richard Long as Jarrod
Linda Evans as Audra

Today's celebration of Barbara Stanwyck and television westerns turns to The Big Valley, 1965-1969. For many fans, this series was our introduction to Barbara Stanwyck and the admiration and affection would last a lifetime.

Barbara Stanwyck won her second Primetime Emmy Award in 1966 for playing the role of Victoria Barkley. She would be nominated two more times for the series and win a third Emmy for The Thorn Birds in 1983. 

"I try to make Victoria Barkley as human as possible. She doesn't come waltzing down the stairs in calico to inquire as to the progress of the cattle. She's an old broad who combines elegance with guts."
- Barbara Stanwyck to the New York Journal-American, 1965

"Some producers think women did nothing in those days except keep house and have children. But, if you read your history, they did a lot more than that. They were in cattle drives. They were there."
- Barbara Stanwyck to The New York Times, 1965

The Big Valley was created by A.I. Bezzerides and Louis Edelman, writer and executive producer of The Barbara Stanwyck Show, 1960-1961. Over 4 seasons and 112 episodes each leading character of The Big Valley had the opportunity for feature stories and acting challenges. As matriarch Victoria Barkley, Barbara Stanwyck played in touching dramas, exciting thrillers, and even some comedy. Her filmography attests to her expertise in all those areas including performing her own stunts when the series turned to action.

This trilogy of television posts began with laughs in a western spoof on The Barbara Stanwyck Show and we will conclude in a similar vein with a look at a comic episode of The Big Valley.

Written by William Norton
Directed by Virgil W. Vogel
Aired on Monday, November 21, 1966

Victoria Barkley and her daughter Audra have been visiting friends. The Barkleys, rancher Lou Johnson played by Bill Quinn and Lee Kreiger as the Station Agent are brought up short by three strangers who have ridden into the train station at Bixby Flats.

The Barnes brothers have plans to rob the station safe to get themselves out of desperate poverty. Warren Oates as Duke is the leader of the gang by virtue of his ability to shout the loudest, and deference to the leg he injured in the war.

Christopher Cary is Shorty. Duke may get all the ideas, but Shorty is more of a critical thinker. He's just quiet about it.

Kelton Garwood plays Elwood. He's the strongest and he may look like a lunkhead, but he is quite observant and has a sarcastic sense of humor.

The situation is ripe for a dramatic offering of The Big Valley, but the musical score underlines punchlines and a lighthearted tone even if you didn't notice the look on Victoria Barkley's face. She is not worried in the least. In fact, she is rather amused. 

Time out for the distraction of Audra's escape attempt. A mailbag over her head and into the baggage room she goes!

The safe is new and cannot be opened, in the normal sense of the word, until the head office in St. Louis provides the correct combination. This is where Duke starts coming up with ideas. His ideas are mainly violent in nature including all sorts of banging and physicality. None of these ideas have any effect on the implacable safe. 

Duke blames the gabbity, know-it-all woman who keeps interrupting! Guess who?

With the next train due at the station Duke gets the idea of using dynamite on the safe. There is dynamite at the old mine shack in the hills from whence they came. The brothers will take the safe with them along with Victoria and Audra for shields. The gabbity women will be kept in line with the threat of mailbags.

The robbery commenced because the brothers were hoping for a few hundred dollars to better their lives. They now learn that the safe holds $3000 so as their desperation increases, Victoria and Audra are free to work on the bandits.

Shorty is entranced with the Barkley princess and open to her talk of his real worth and breaking from Duke.

Duke is a little more open to Victoria's yakking when she saves him from blowing himself up with the dynamite caps. 

Audra: "I never thought I'd live to see the day my mother would be trying to blow up a safe."

A Duke-sized explosion.

A Duke-sized reaction.


Not-so-frightened hostages.

In the meantime, Nick and Heath lead a posse after their kidnapped womenfolk and the outlaws. The posse includes a sheriff played by Mark Tapscott and a railroad detective played by Joe Higgins. The detective has the combination to the safe which actually holds $20,000! 

Presumably worn out by his battle with the inanimate safe, Duke listens to Shorty's change of heart regarding their current path to a better life. Duke cuts his losses and rides off. Shorty expresses regrets to the Barkley women and goes to collect Elwood who has been watching for the posse.

The safe has been so banged up by Duke that the railroad detective can't get it open. He vows to do so if it is his last action on this earth! 

That's something Victoria and Audrey have heard before, and often on this day.

A fun episode that stands out among its more serious compatriots and the first thing I associate with Warren Oates, doing a bang-up "angry Festus" impersonation.

Today's effort concludes three posts strolling down Memory Lane with Barbara Stanwyck, TV western legend.


  1. Never knew about that connection to Stany’s previous show. She must’ve felt really comfortable with that writer-producer team.

    1. Barbara Stanwyck and producer Lou Edelman became friends back in the 1930s when he was working at Warner Brothers. Bezzerides created The Big Valley and wrote 45 episodes of the series. It is easy to see that they had her back and she knew it. Barbara Stanwyck seems to have engendered those happy creative friendships throughout her career. It speaks volumes.

  2. "elegance with guts" - that could sum up Stanwyck herself. It must have been a fun week to be able to write about her!

    1. A wonderful summation of the woman herself.

      Once the idea came to me I had a lot of fun.

  3. WARREN OATES guest starred on an ep of BONANZA and ten eps of GUNSMOKE. He was on an ep of the western BLACK SADDLE(59) which starred...PETER BRECK.

    1. Actors crossed paths many times in the days of the popular westerns.

  4. Paddy Lee, I've really enjoyed your posts, "strolling down Memory Lane with Barbara Stanwyck, TV western legend." It's led me to stroll down memory lane, also. I've watched "The Great Safe Robbery" a few times, fact is I've watched all the episodes of THE BIG VALLEY(1965-69). I liked this Western TV show back in the day and I still do today.

    In 1973 Barbara Stanwyck was inducted into the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum Hall of Great Western Performers for her outstanding individual works in film and television, which have kept the American West in the public’s collective eye. In 1982 her stunt work and professionalism on film sets, led her to be named an Honorary Member of the Hollywood Stuntmen’s Hall of Fame.

    1. Walter, I don't believe I was aware of Barbara's induction into the Hollywood Stuntmen's Hall of Fame. What an honor! And what it tells us about this favourite actress cannot be measured.

      Like you, I have been a fan of The Big Valley since its original run (I was a "tween" at the time). My enjoyment in and admiration for the program has not abated one bit since that time. If anything, it has increased.

      Thank you so much for your always fun and interesting conversation. Be well.

  5. Oh, this was so fun to read -- thank you! (And it gave me a new idea for the monthly Inklings link-up I host -- different safe cracking scenes! Wouldn't that be interesting?)



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