Thursday, August 1, 2019

Sugarfoot (1961)

Though it had hit the top 30 in the Nielsen ratings in its first two seasons, reaching #24 in its 1957-58 debut and inching up to #21 the next season, Sugarfoot was the first of the three rotating Warner Brothers westerns to be canceled, with only 5 episodes airing in 1961, the last on April 17. Even though Bronco (hatched a year after Sugarfoot to combat Clint Walker of Cheyenne in his dispute with the studio's skin-flint practices) never reached the top 30, it was kept around until 1962, the same year that Cheyenne bit the dust. But Warners didn't entirely abandon westerns that year because they also launched a new series, The Dakotas, in the fall of 1962, though it lasted only a single season. So it's unclear exactly why Sugarfoot got the axe when it did.

Without evidence to the contrary, it appears that the decision to cancel the series may have been an impulsive one. Warner Brothers was still employing their crossover scheme of having Bronco's Ty Hardin guest star on Sugarfoot in the third-from-last episode "Angel" on March 6, 1961. The following week Will Hutchins' Tom Brewster character was featured in the Bronco episode "Yankee Tornado." The crossover scheme was intended to lure fans of one series to watch the other series, so if Sugarfoot were on the way out, it makes little sense to have Hutchins appear on Bronco a month before his show was to be canceled. Secondly, the introduction of sidekick wannabe Toothy Thompson in the January 16, 1961 episode of the same name hardly seems like a move for a dying series. By the end of this episode Thompson is invited by Brewster to come along on his adventures, seeming to set up a future duo for the series. He does not appear in the next episode, "Shepherd With a Gun," but he does return in the following episode "Angel," wherein we are left with the reason why he will not continue accompanying Brewster--he chooses to stay behind and attend to the wounded deaf-mute title character, the only woman who ever showed him any kindness. In his memories of actor Jack Elam, who played Toothy Thompson in both episodes, in his March 2008 column for the web site, Hutchins does not mention any plan to make Elam a regular part of the cast. Hutchins merely says that since Elam was so good in the first Toothy Thompson episode, he was invited back for a second appearance (Warner Brothers obviously found something they liked because he was chosen as one of the co-stars for The Dakotas). But the ending of the first Toothy Thompson episode sure seems like he is intended to be a future regular, and the ending of "Angel" seems like an explanation for why the original partnership is ending. Who knows what really happened behind the scenes amongst the Sugarfoot producers, but in an era when recurring characters were discarded with little or no fanfare, Toothy Thompson is given an entire episode to explain his departure.

But in speculating on the demise of Sugarfoot, the trope of Tom Brewster as itinerant cowboy law student had certainly worn thin--in the last 5 episodes we never see him check his mailbox for his latest school assignment--but he still uses his legal studies to help solve the problems of the people he randomly chooses to help. In "Shepherd With a Gun" (February 6, 1961) he notes that a will bequeathing 2/3 of a man's ranch to his rapacious daughter had been witnessed by two people who were not disinterested parties, rendering the will invalid (however, a bill of sale in "Stranger in Town" [March 27, 1961] suffers from the same defect but is not deemed invalid). And in the aforementioned "Stranger in Town" episode Brewster learns of the European custom of dating correspondence with the day of the month before the month itself, thereby proving a letter from a dead Swedish mine owner to his siblings in which he asks them to come to America to help run his mine is actually dated after the bill of sale transferring ownership of the mine to a greedy land-owner, meaning the bill of sale is a forgery. In the series' final episode, "Trouble at Sand Springs" (April 17, 1961), Brewster gets to try out his defense attorney skills in representing an ex-con against a charge of murdering a bank president and cleaning out the bank's safe. He is pitted against another law student, this one a woman, who is the former girlfriend of the accused man, and as on Perry Mason it takes a last-minute discovery of new evidence to save the day, which prompts the female law student to decide to give up her career for the role of wife to the acquitted man, while Brewster is given her tall stack of law books for his own future study. The concept of melding a Perry Mason-like legal drama with a western was never a good one, but at least the show had a concept, unlike Bronco.

Hutchins, in his columns on, has echoed James Garner's criticisms of Warner Brothers for recycling scripts from their movies and between their own shows. He has also called the stories melodramas, and not as a compliment. But one episode that deserves special opprobrium is "Shepherd With a Gun," written by Warren Douglas, who also authored the Toothy Thompson episodes as well as multiple episodes for Cheyenne and Bronco. In this episode Douglas wants to cast ranch foreman Simon Getty as the worst possible villain, so he has him shoot the dog of two young shepherds Marie and Pablo simply because they defy his command not to bring their sheep through town. Depicting animal abuse to make a point, even in a fictional story, is never a good idea. But here it is compounded when Pablo vows to take revenge, while Marie cites the Old Testament's eye-for-an-eye policy, while Brewster counsels them that taking a human's life is different than killing an animal because a man's life is "sacred." He then urges them to look forward rather than backward, in other words, sweep the murder of their beloved companion under the rug. The problem here is the fallacy of speciesism--that one species, humans, is elevated above all others and therefore are free to abuse and exploit all other species. This is why Douglas can't show how evil Getty is by having him shoot a baby or small child. The same "logic" is used to elevate one race or religion above all others to justify abuse. Douglas then ties his "logic" in knots by having Brewster explain to Pablo that killing another man kills a part of you as well, that the gun becomes a bigger and bigger part of you until you are always on edge, expecting to be attacked, yet at the same time he admits that he has killed men himself, so what does that say about him? And at episode's end when Pablo sneaks off with the family rifle and heads to town with the intention of gunning down Getty only to arrive after Brewster and two other men have beat him to the punch, Pablo is shocked by the display of violence and thanks Brewster for the valuable lesson that he will never forget. If only we could forget this ill-conceived episode.

The Actors

For the biography of Will Hutchins, see the 1960 post for Sugarfoot.

Notable Guest Stars

Season 4, Episode 5, "Toothy Thompson": Jack Elam (shown on the left, played Deputy J.D. Smith on The Dakotas, George Taggart on Temple Houston, Zack Wheeler on The Texas Wheelers, and Uncle Alvin Stevenson on Easy Street) plays social reject Toothy Thompson. Gregory Morton (Mr. Wainwright on Peyton Place and Walter Williams on Ben Casey) plays corrupt Arizona Territorial Governor Lee Dandridge. Richard Collier (Harry Price on Many Happy Returns) plays hotel owner Alvin. Claude Stroud (Rudy Cromwell on The Duke and Hobert Nalven on The Ted Knight Show) plays a watch theft victim. Phil Tully (Charlie the bartender on The Deputy) plays a bartender.
Season 4, Episode 6, "Shepherd With a Gun": Linda Dangcil (shown on the right, played Sister Ana on The Flying Nun) plays shepherd's daughter Marie. Rafael Campos (Ramon Diaz, Jr. on Rhoda) plays her brother Pablo. Regis Toomey (starred in Alibi, Other Men's Women, The Finger Points, His Girl Friday, and The Big Sleep and played Joe Mulligan on The Mickey Rooney Show, Lt. Manny Waldo on Four Star Playhouse, Lt. McGough on Richard Diamond, Private Detective, Det. Les Hart on Burke's Law, and Dr. Barton Stuart on Petticoat Junction and Green Acres) plays weak ranch owner John Peel. Nancy Hadley (Marilee Dorf on The Brothers and Barbara Simpson on The Joey Bishop Show) plays his daughter Mattie. Don Haggerty (Jeffrey Jones on The Files of Jeffrey Jones, Eddie Drake on The Cases of Eddie Drake, Sheriff Dan Elder on State Trooper, and Marsh Murdock on The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp) plays his foreman Simon Getty. William Joyce (Kellam Chandler on Days of Our Lives) plays ranch hand Tex. 
Season 4, Episode 7, "Angel": Cathy O'Donnell (shown on the left, starred in The Best Years of Our Lives, They Live by Night, Detective Story, The Man From Laramie, The Deerslayer, and Ben-Hur) plays prospector's deaf-mute daughter Angel Wilson. Jack Elam (see "Toothy Thompson" above) returns as misfit Toothy Thompson. Bruce Gordon (see the biography section for the 1961 post on The Untouchables) plays Leadville, Colorado kingpin Jake Ellis. John Pickard (Capt. Shank Adams on Boots and Saddles and Sgt. Maj. Murdock on Gunslinger) plays his sidekick Windy Creel. Frank Albertson (starred in Alice Adams, Man Made Monster, and It's a Wonderful Life and played Mr. Cooper on Bringing Up Buddy) plays Leadville Sheriff Billy Boyce. Max Baer, Jr. (Jethro and Jethrine Bodine on The Beverly Hillbillies) plays deputy recruit Frank. Percy Helton (Homer Cratchit on The Beverly Hillbillies) plays rich land-owner John McTavish. Ann Robinson (starred in The War of the Worlds, Dragnet, and Midnight Movie Massacre and played Queen Juliandra on Rocky Jones, Space Ranger and Helen Watkins on Fury) plays his wife Marie. Ty Hardin (see the biography section for the 1960 post on Bronco) plays Brewster's friend and fellow deputy recruit Bronco Layne.
Season 4, Episode 8, "Stranger in Town": Jacques Aubuchon (shown on the right, starred in The Silver Chalice, The Big Boodle, and The Love God? and played Chief Urulu on McHale's Navy) plays wealthy land-owner Harry Bishop. Richard H. Cutting (Manners, the tiny butler in 1950s Kleenex commercials) plays his gunman Vester. Harry Holcombe (appeared in The Fortune Cookie, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Foxy Brown, Escape to Witch Mountain, and Empire of the Ants and played Frank Gardner on Search for Tomorrow, Doc Benson on My Mother the Car, Mr. Kendricks on Barefoot in the Park, and Dr. J.P. Martin on Bonanza) plays renowned Judge Harry Davis. Kenneth MacDonald (played the judge 32 times on Perry Mason, played Col. Parker on Colt .45, and appeared in several Three Stooges shorts) plays a small-town sheriff. Mary Adams (see the biography section for the 1961 post on Window on Main Street) plays a doctor's wife Mrs. Turner.
Season 4, Episode 9, "Trouble at Sand Springs": Craig Hill (shown on the left, appeared in Detective Story, Tammy and the Bachelor, and The Swinger and played P.T. Moore on Whirlybirds) plays ex-con rancher Rance Benbow. Harry Lauter (Ranger Clay Morgan on Tales of the Texas Rangers, Atlasande on Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, and Jim Herrick on Waterfront) plays his brother Bart. Tommy Rettig (Jeff Miller on Lassie) plays their kid brother Jimmy. Dayton Lummis (Marshal Andy Morrison on Law of the Plainsman) plays bank president Silas Rigsby. Suzanne Storrs (Janet Halloran on Naked City) plays his daughter Rhonda. Ross Elliott (Freddie the director on The Jack Benny Program and Sheriff Abbott on The Virginian) plays bank teller Jeff Hackett.

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