I’ve been reading here and there about how eyewitness testimony can be undependable. It’s been shown to have happened in any number of court cases, for example, where people convicted by such testimony have later been proven innocent beyond all doubt. And now I have had my own confirmation of this phenomenon, from an unlikely source: old western movies.
Weekly B-westerns were a staple of my childhood. Every Friday and Saturday night, our older hometown movie theater would show a double feature: always a western first, followed by a mystery (Mike Shayne, Charlie Chan), or a comedy (The Bowery Boys, the Gas House Kids), sci-fi (“Red Planet Mars,” “Superman and the Mole Men”), and such-like. The second feature was eventually replaced by bringing back movie serials, the chapter being much shorter than a second B-movie, which often allowed me time to watch the western a second time before walking home.
In those days, we could play “cowboys” during grade-school recess. “Shooting” at one another with our fingers was not politically incorrect at the time. One day, a participant named Eugene came galloping around the corner of the school building on his imaginary horse going “Duh-de-duh” and I had an epiphany: background music was an integral to those westerns.
Given that each studio had its own library musical scores, I would hear the same themes for the various Republic, Columbia, RKO, Monogram, PRC and Universal screen heroes, week after week, to the point where I practically memorized them. Years later, I would hear introductory music to TV’s “Wild Bill Hickok” and recognize it as having been used as PRC’s Tex Ritter/Dave O”Brien “Texas Rangers” series. When they stuck two of those TV episodes together and called them movies, I recognized the introductory music as being from Monogram’s Johnny Mack Brown series, as well as the windup music under the credits for “Tales of Wells Fargo” being from the same source. When I began listening to classical music with the coming of LP records, I found that those Texas Rangers movies also swiped music from Berlioz’ “Symphanie Fantastique” (as did the first Batman movie serial) and Columbia’s “Durango Kid” theme contained a suspicious similarity to some notes from Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Le Coq d’Or.”
I note all this only to show that my memory for this stuff is generally okay.
So, there was this Johnny Mack Brown movie I saw as a kid. Bad guy Marshall Reed had taken the heroine hostage and was fleeing on a buckboard, pursued by Johnny. Not waiting to be rescued, the woman jumps off the speeding buckboard. Johnny pulls up beside her to make sure she’s all right. She assures him she is. “Go get him, Johnny.”
Ever since I saw that movie, I wondered why Johnny merely pulled up and didn’t get off his palomino to help her up. I always thought that was ungentlemanly. Years later, I saw the scene on TV. Johnny did hop off his horse and help the heroine to her feet. Then he remounted and sped off after the bad guy.
But both scenes–staying on the horse and getting off–are equally vivid in my memory. And the first one was all wrong.
I recently saw another Johnny Mack movie that I’d seen in seventh grade. I saw it twice, and know this because a friend of mine from out of town came to spend the night on Saturday and I went with him to see it again. I remember a remark he made about a particular character. There’s no doubt it’s the same movie.
Myron Healey, playing a gunman hired to get Johnny, is himself wounded instead and is grateful to Johnny for sparing his life. In the final gunfight, the aforementioned Marshall Reed has stationed himself on the upper floor of a building to be able to shoot down at Johnny. Healey spots him and pots him.
After the smoke clears, Johnny’s sidekick thanks Healey’s character for his timely action. Healey says he owned it to Johnny, and walks away, while the sidekick stands looking puzzled.
I would have sworn in court that the sidekick was played by Raymond Hatton, who co-starred with Johnny in many of his Monogram westerns. But it wasn’t. The sidekick was played by an actor named Milburn Morante. Hatton had left the series by then. Again, my memory of seeing Hatton in that scene is every bit as strong as my now seeing Morante in it.
Just be cautious when someone is certain about what he or she saw. Sometimes it’s just wrong.