When Uncle Frank Jenks out-acted Raymond Massey

cantreadmylinesME TV (Memorable Entertainment Television) is one of several networks catering to Boomers by broadcasting reruns of 1950s and 1960s era TV programs we loved.

Sometimes I think it would be kinder if they left some shows to our fading memories. If Perry Mason or The Beverly Hillbillies were not as brilliant as we remember them, what does that say about us? That we were not as sophisticated about popular culture as we thought?

I tended to favor westerns when I was growing up. I still enjoy watching The Rifleman Chuck Connors brace his 44-40 Winchester into his hip and blaze away at an unseen target (this is the early sixties so we’re not supposed to see this as an erotic metaphor). I love listening to Richard Boone quote Shakespeare or Euripides as he outdraws the menacing bad guy and climbs on his horse to serenely ride away, a weekly scene on Have Gun, Will Travel. I can even get through the first twenty minutes of Gunsmoke without switching to CNN.

But my favorite western was Wagon Train. And it is Wagon Train that I wish METV had left unmolested on the shelf. Each rerun has been a painful disappointment.

The weekly show dramatized the adventures of a wagon train traveling from Missouri to California.  It featured Ward Bond (Bert the cop in It’s a Wonderful Life and Rev. Captain Samuel Johnson Clayton in The Searchers) as wagon master Major Seth Adams, and Robert Horton as scout Flint McCullough. Bond was one of those character actors who played his craggy self in hundreds of roles, and Horton was the show’s pretty face, so neither of them was called upon to actually act.

Each episode featured a guest star famous enough to give the show heft and attract viewers. Over the years they included Dan Duryea, George Gobel, Joan Blondell, Gloria DeHaven, Ernest Borgnine, Annette Funicello, and Charles Laughton. Few of them appeared to take their roles seriously, and Laughton – playing a mean-spirited British officer – seemed to be reprising his Captain Bligh pouts from Mutiny on the Bounty.

RayMasseyasMontezumaBut the distinguished actor who did the worst job was Raymond Massey, although it probably wasn’t his fault. Massey, who was nominated for an Oscar for his 1940 portrayal of Abe Lincoln in Illinois, was assigned the silliest role of his career: Montezuma IX, complete with an ornately feathered Aztec crown and a garish Aztec royal robe.

In Wagon Train’s sixth episode of its fourth season, the story line finds Flint McCullough leading a four-man party searching for the father of one of the riders. They encounter – inexplicably it would seem – an Aztec princess from a lost remnant of a tribe that has been extinct for 400 years. Princess Lia is played by Linda Lawson, the only member of the cast still alive, and the role requires little of her but to maintain a blank face and speak in etherial monotones. Since Lawson has continued acting for decades after this role, she must have been capable of a wider emotional range than was permitted by the script or by Wagon Train director Richard Whorf.

As the story progresses, Flint McCullough falls improbably in love with Princess Lia, despite her wooden demeanor and dazed expressions. Their love is star-crossed because Lia is to be sacrificed to an Aztec God, a fate she accepts with stoned stoicism. When Flint finds out about it, Robert Horton’s limited acting range is harshly exposed:

“You were born to live a full life, to know the love of a man, to bear his sons,” he pleads, flatly and unconvincingly. “Everything that I am and everything that I feel and believe demands that I stay here and fight for you.” But when Lia insists she must die “for the greatest good,” Flint needs little persuading to high-tail it out of there.

But the award for the most excruciating performance in the episode belongs to Massey, who must feel as ridiculous as he looks in his feathered crown and gilded frock. The only emotion he betrays is suppressed embarrassment, and when the role calls upon him to show anger he must be motivated by an urge to strangle his agent. Massey seems to be reading his lines from a cue card, and he sounds painfully aware of their inanity (“You and your party enter the gates of Tenochtitlan favored by the gods. We are honored by your presence and it is our heartfelt wish that happiness attend you each day you stay with us …”

In my opinion, the most stellar performance in the episode belongs to Frank Jenks, a busy but fairly obscure character actor of the 1940s and 1950s. METV viewers can catch Frank, a distant relative of mine, on reruns of Perry Mason, The Adventures of Superman, and various TV oaters, usually playing a bartender, a con man, or a petty hood. Curiously, his role in this episode of Wagon Train is utterly superfluous. I can only surmise that the director saw him as a Greek Chorus commenting on the action.

Uncle Frank plays a character named Carl “Dutch” Anders, described by Flint McCullough as a man “available for almost any job for almost any money.” But as the four-man party embarks on its search Frank is called upon to use his nasally voice to set the mood for the episode: “I’m sorry I took this job. I’ll swear I felt eyes on the back of my neck all afternoon.”

When Flint discovers Princess Lia of the Aztecs along the trail, Frank utters a necessary warning: “The Aztecs made human sacrifices didn’t they?”

Later, when the search party is led into the re-fabricated city of Tenochtitlan, Frank is called upon to exchange incredulous glances with his fellow actors as Massey’s Montezuma proclaims the interlopers as messengers of the gods. “We’re not messengers of the gods,” Frank complains undiplomatically. “We’re a searching party. We’re from a wagon train. Were on our way to California.”

Frank’s longest speech is a dialogue with Flint McCullough on the second day of their stay in Tenochtitlan:

“Someone washed my clothes while I was lulling in my marble bed. I never took a marble bath in in my life before.” He picks up a small artifact and tests its weight. “Solid gold, Take it from me those jewels aren’t glass. There’s a couple of pieces in my  room too. They’d make nice souvenirs don’t you think? What do you think? You haven’t said a word. The old man sure talks a lot of mumbo jumbo doesn’t he.”

Flint dissuades Frank’s character from grabbing souvenirs, and in a later scene Montezuma explains to the visitors that gold has little value in Tenochtitlan. “You mean a man  is poor if he has gold?” he exclaims to the emperor. “You sure out of touch with the world.” I suspect that was intended to be a profound insight, and Frank pulls it off with aplomb.

That’s the last time we see Frank in this ridiculous episode, which ends with Flint’s unconvincing melancholy over his lost love. More likely he dodged a bullet. At least he will not be spending the rest of his life with a catatonic woman in an emotionless trance.

This episode may well be the worst Wagon Train ever produced. But, for me and other Jenkses and Jenks relatives, it has some redeeming value.

This is the episode in which Frank Jenks acted circles around the great Raymond Massey.

It suggests to me that Frank could have gone much further than he did, if casting directors had given him half a chance. I can’t see him as Abe Lincoln in Illinois, exactly. But I can easily see Frank Jenks as Adam Trask, bringing James Dean to tears in East of Eden.

But regardless of Frank’s presence, was Wagon Train really as bad as all that?

I invite nostalgic boomers to judge for themselves:

 

About Philip E Jenks

Philip is a retired communicator for American Baptist Churches USA, the U.S. Conference for the World Council of Churches, the U.S. National Council of Churches, and two Philadelphia area daily newspapers. He and his spouse, the Rev. Martha M. Cruz, live in Port Chester, N.Y.
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