Friday, July 1, 2011

Phyllis Planchard (The Westward Trail)

I readily admit to have a fondness for the PRC Eddie Deans. Yes, the studio spared every expense (PRC, in its day, was referred to either as “Pretty Rotten Crud” or, charmingly, “Prick Prod.”), with ramshackle sets, dreary and often dark location work, and less than stellar supporting casts. But Eddie Dean was a wonderful singer and despite a bit of ungainliness a pleasant enough presence, and sidekick Roscoe Ates actually manages to elicit a snicker or two, his much vaunted politically incorrect stuttering much overstated. Their camaraderie seems genuine and the plots usually progress with little or no fuss. But as Boyd Magers points out in his Western Clippings review of The Westward Trail (1948), this particular series entry falls much below par, especially in the casting. Usually, PRC would hire competent enough leading ladies like former Columbia starlet Shirley Patterson or Jack Holt's daughter Jennifer, but once in a while the studio would look elsewhere, if you get my drift. Because how else would you account for the presence here of a bleach blonde chorus girl type who looks like she has been around the block a few times. And supposedly portraying a serious young woman resettling in the West to save her younger brother (Steve Drake) from the bad influence of life back East. Unfortunately, as played by Phyllis Planchard (1923-2011), the young lady appears in great need to be saved herself. Miss Planchard is described as a former model in several sources and she played minor tough girls in such genre flicks as Roadblock (1951) and Women's Prison (1955), rather more obvious casting than the na├»ve prairie flower she plays in Westward Trail. She is joined in the latter by one Eileene Hardin, who one paper described as “a rodeo queen from a farm near Topeka, Kansas," and whose acting abilities remain exactly like someone from a farm near Topeka, Kansas.

This little oater, in retrospect, was fraught with tragedy. The young man who played Miss Planchard's wayward brother and billed himself “Steve Drake” was in reality one Dale Fink who, according to one report, had developed his muscles “driving an ice route back in Tulsa, OK.” “It was Steve's intention to carry on his father's ice business,” the story continued, “but he learned, during a Hollywood vacation one summer, that there was a future for good-looking young men and made new plans.” Alas, there was to be no future for the handsome newcomer. Reported a local San Fernando Valley newspaper on December 20, 1948: “Death today ended the meteoric career of young actor Steve Drake, who died from injuries suffered in an early morning automobile crash. The 25-year-old’s car ran out of control at a corner in the San Fernando Valley near Sherman Oaks, where he lived with his parents at 4135 Allott Boulevard. His car left the pavement and overturned early in the morning on Sunday as he drove south of Balboa Boulevard at Victory Boulevard. He died [at Burbank's St. Joseph Hospital] a few hours later.”

As for Phyllis Planchard, she drifted out of the business of show in the mid-1950s, only to turn up again in a news report very late in her life. And a sad ending to what was once a vibrant young starlet it proved to be. In May of 2000 Planchard became a ward of the Los Angeles County. The L.A. Times (4-11-2008) takes up the case from there:

“A B-movie actress and model in the 1940s, Phyllis Planchard always loved to dress in stylish clothes. A poetry lover, she collected the works of Robert Frost and Shelley. She cherished a 1920s maple bedroom set that once belonged to her parents. Planchard, then 77, was placed in the public guardian’s hands in May 2000 after exhibiting signs of confusion and mental decline. She owned a house in North Hollywood, but police found her living in her car. She was taken to a Burbank hospital, then discharged to a nursing home in Glendale. After becoming her conservator, the public guardian moved her possessions to a county warehouse in Pico Rivera. Attorney Lisa MacCarley, appointed to represent Planchard, said in court filings that she had asked that at least a few personal items, particularly clothes, be brought to the nursing home. On photos from her acting days, Planchard wrote across the bottom: “A beautiful Phyllis loves clothes!” But for seven months, Planchard lived in an almost bare room. She wore used clothing — even underwear — donated by her care home, mostly from patients who had died. “It’s about human dignity. She was aware she had clothing and it wasn’t brought to her,” MacCarley said. Planchard’s nursing home complained about her treatment to professional conservator Dan Stubbs, who asked a probate court to remove the public guardian from the case. Agency officials said an employee eventually brought Planchard some belongings and ordered her new clothes. Nonetheless, in 2001 a judge decided Planchard was better off out of the public guardian’s hands. The court named Stubbs as her caretaker.”

It is difficult, in hindsight, to watch The Westward Trail, this otherwise long-forgotten little oater, without pondering the vagaries of life.

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