Behind the Scenes: “The Deadly Companions / Trigger Happy” (1961)

There was enough controversy surrounding the launch of this picture without even invoking the behavior of director Sam Peckinpah. For a start its production heralded a revolution in exhibition. Cinema owners were intent on breaking the industry’s one sacrosanct law.

Since 1948 and the Paramount Decree which forced studios to shed their cinemas, it had been forbidden for a studio to operate as an exibitor and vice-versa. But the financial tsumani that hit the business at the end of the 1950s resulted in a shortfall of new releases and left exhibitors scratching around for product.

Taking the view that the situation was so dire that studios could not resolve it and imagining that the government would not look unkindly on the idea, exhibitors set up a company called Motion Pictures Investment Inc. Initially, the outfit was not so confrontational. The plan was simply to repackage old movies and send them out as reissues. There was no law against that since the exhibitors were not acting as production companies.

It was ambitious scheme, calling in 1958 for $25 million to be raised to fund a whole stream of old movies, sending them into reissue achieving the double aim of filling release gaps and preventing them from falling into the maw of television – Twentieth Century Fox in the process of selling 50 pictures dating from 1950-1955 to television for $10 million. 

The Actors’ Strike of  1960 halved production, making a dire situation intolerable. MPI bought the rights to Gary Cooper western Friendly Persuasion (1957) and put together a hefty marketing campaign to get that picture back on the market. Recognising that studios were likely to prevent their gems from being reissued when they could be sold so easily to television, MPI bit the bullet and moved into production. Pathe-America was the vehicle, “a production-distribution-exhibition project predicated on the theory that exhibitors can sense better than anybody what the pubic want on the screens.”

First film on the agenda – The Deadly Companions.

The driving force behind that picture was a female star intent on a bit of revolution of her own – Maureen O’Hara. The flame-haired actress – a star for over two decades, as comfortable in westerns like Rio Grande (1950) as dramas (The Quiet Man, 1952) and swashbucklers (The Spanish Main, 1945) had  decided her career was in need of a rejig. Demand for her services was slowing down – only four movies in the second half of the 1950s compared to 14 in the first half. 

In reality, her career was sinking fast and it felt like panic to imagine she could reconfigure herself at this late stage as a singer, signing a contract for an album first with RCA Victor in 1958 and then CBS in 1960 and starring in the Broadway musical Christine in 1960, a flop despite her “good singing voice and assured stage presence.”

But a bigger measure of her fall was that she ended up in television, spurred on initially by her brother, Charles B. Fitzsimons, who thought he could help better manage her career. Initially an actor, he had segued into production via independent producer Edward L. Alperson but without particular distinction.

They set up Tarafilm in 1958 with the aim of co-producing a series Women In the Case with CBS, profits to be evenly split. But that never surfaced and instead she was an actress for hire and at modest fees at that for, even for bigger stars, the small screen did not pay fees comparable with the movies. For the first time in her career a year passed without a single movie. In 1960 only television beckoned – Open Window, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Mrs Miniver and the DuPont Show of the Month. And there was something plaintive when O’Hara, who had espoused the freelance approach to her career, advised young stars to take a studio contracts if offered.

But Fitzsimons was feverishly working behind the scenes, trying to raise money for their Carousel movie production shingle, even going so far as applying to the U.S. Government’s Small Business Loan scheme. Without exhibitors determined to break the law, it’s doubtful they would have sourced the funding for The Deadly Companions. MPI put up nearly half the $390,000 budget for The Deadly Companions after Fitzsimons had commissioned a screenplay from novelist A.S. Fleischman.

Brian Keith was available because the television series The Westerner (1960) that had made him temporarily a star was cancelled after not even lasting a season.  He came cheap – a steal even for a low-budget picture – at $30,000. Sam Peckinpah, who had originated The Westerner, was primarily a television writer and director thirsting for an opportunity to make his mark on the big screen. So, also out of work after The Westerner was canned, he came cheap too, earning half Keith’s salary.

Peckinpah later complained about script problems, but that was par for the course with the director; if a movie failed it was someone else’s fault. O’Hara, who had worked with the best including Hitchcock and Ford, and like most top stars knew a fair bit about how and where to point a camera, later complained that Peckinpah was out of his depth. But that, too, was par for the course. Her autobiography Tis Herself was almost a litany of complaints.

The problem for O’Hara was more financial. While Peckinpah was guaranteed payment, she was not. As producer, she would be working for a fraction of her normal fee of $150,000, expecting to make that back – and more – when the movie went into profit. There was no reason to assume it would not make a decent sum, low-budget westerns having a habit of making money.

The movie was filmed on location in Arizona. The picture’s Gila City, where the bank robbery took place, was based on the Tucson of a hundred years before. Seeking authenticity, the set was constructed following artist drawings culled from the early 1860s. Props were also authentic – the doctor’s chair was from the period, the surgical instruments remnants from the era and even the apothecary jars had come from an early pharmacist shop.

Extras were genuine cowboys or Native Americans. Apaches and Papagos were hired as Native Americans. At a casting call at the Ramada Inn, producer Fitzsimons found the genuine cowboy article in the in the lobby “their Stetsons stained by sweat and faded by the sun and most of them wore working jeans and multi-colored shirts that had been washed but not ironed…leathery-faced men…speaking in low voices of how bum the cattle business was from all this drought and how fine it was a man could pick up a few dollars riding with the movie company.” Even the cactus was authentic, the director favoring scenes which featured the giant Sauaro species.

The cave for one scene was also genuine, not a stage set,  the result of an earthquake fault, 50-foot high and 40-foot across at the opening, spiralling hundreds of feet into the mountain. The roof, made up of boulders, was particularly precarious as any rumble could send it tumbling to the ground. Only essential crew were permitted for the scene which saw O’Hara firing a shotgun at an Apache. Fearing the sound of detonation might affect the roof, flash powder was used instead of cartridges.

Stunts involved included overturning a stagecoach and falling 35-feet. Stuntman Chuck Hayward nearly died during rehearsal when the horse bolted and the stagecoach struck a tree. He was married to Ellen Hayward, daughter of Joan Blondell and Dick Powell.

Perhaps the most immediately unusual aspect of the movie was the score. Among instruments used by composer Marlin Skiles were a toy trumpet, xylophone, vibraphone, kettle drum and cracked belt.

To help promote the picture the screenplay was novelized and went on to sell half a million copies, though it went out under the title Yellowleg and was not noticeably a movie tie-in.

The movie received good reviews. Box Office, which might be expected to back any exhibitor initiative, deemed it a “well above average western” with “superb performances” and “exacting direction.” Variety, which sided more with studios than exhibitors, nonetheless was mostly positive, except for “lapses and weaknesses” finding it “fairly engrossing” with O’Hara’s performance “one of her best for some time.”

As you might expect, exhibitors, too, got behind the picture. There was double “Gala World Premiere” in Tucson and Phoenix, on June 6 for the former the following night for the latter, attended by the stars. Surprisingly, given it was a target for saturation (i.e. multiple release region-by-region) and a low-budget number, it was shown in some major houses, in Detroit the 5,000-seater Fox, in Pittsburgh the 3,700-seater Stanley, a 3,600-seater in St Louis, in Buffalo the 3,000-eater Lafayette, in Cleveland the 2,739-seater Palace and in Seattle the 2,200-seater Music Hall. But bookings were scattered between June and September 1961.

But giving a  movie a helping hand would not necessarily translate into decent box office. Takings were poor – the best result a “good” $15,000 in Detroit. Cleveland produced a “fair” $9,000, St Louis a “fair” $10,000, Pittsburgh a “drab” $8,500, Buffalo a “thin” $5,000 and there was but $2,500 in Seattle. No major first run theaters signed up in Los Angeles or Kansas City, in each location going out in small multiple release, edging a “dim” $8,5000 from three cinemas in the former and a “moderate” $15,000 from three in Kansas City. Nor did first run line up to host it in New York and by the time it reached Portland it was playing on the lower half of a double bill.

In an attempt to recover some of its $60,000 loss, MPI changed the title in 1962 to Trigger Happy, altered the poster to focus on action rather than sex, and programmed it in a double bill with its second production The Checkered Flag. That proved a failure and MPI was wound up.

Buoyed by the unexpected success of The Parent Trap (1961), O’Hara’s career recovered and she was paired with James Stewart in Mr Hobbs Takes a Vacation (1962) and reunited with John Wayne for McLintock (1963). Brian Keith never became a major star but still had a very decent career toplining smaller-budgeted films and in supporting roles. Charles B. Fitzsimons made a success of production, though mainly in television. We all know what happened to Sam Peckinpah.  

SOURCES: Brian Hannan, Coming Back to a Theater Near You, A History of Hollywood Reissues 1914-2014 (McFarland, 2016) p117-120;  Pressbook, The Deadly Companions; “Maureen O’Hara As Disker,” Variety, May 7, 1958, p59; “Maureen O’Hara Bagged for Series,” Variety, August 27, 1958, p27; “Christine Gives Columbia 3 On Showtime Shelf,” Variety, March 23, 1960, p45; Review, Christine, Variety, May 4, 1960, p56; “Longplay Shorts,” Variety, September 28, 1960, p58; “Family Classics,” Variety, November 2, 1960, p27; “MP Investment Trust Puts Coin into Pathe America Release,” Variety, January 25, 1961, p5; “Pathe America’s First Star: Maureen O’Hara,” Variety, November 9, 1960, p4; “Pathe Companions into Saturation Playoff,” Variety, June 7, 1961, p5; Review, Variety, June 10, 1961, p10; Review, Box Office, Jun 12, 1961, pA11; “Gala World Premiere for Deadly Companions,” Box Office, June 12, 1961, p10; “Don’t Do As I Do,” Variety, August 2, 1961, p4; “Fitzsimons Switches Pitch,” Variety, August 29, 1962, p16; “Motion Pic Investors Draws Criticism for Faltering Achievement,” Variety, December 12, 1962, p3; “Missouri-Made Feature in Second Round,” Variety, June 5, 1963, p18. Box office results: “Picture Grosses,” Variety – June 14 and 28, July 19, August 16 and 23, September 6, 13 and 20.

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