Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Virginia Gibson and "I Killed Wild Bill Hickok"

The first impression from watching I Killed Wild Bill Hickok (1956), apart from the overall poverty of the production and its playing fast and loose with history, is that nominal heroine Virginia Gibson is a fine little actress. A better thespian, in fact, than the second female lead, Helen Westcott, who actually plays I. Stanford Jolley's sister here and who once co-starred opposite Gregory Peck in Henry King's classic The Gunfighter (1950). But digging a bit into Miss Gibson's past quickly explains why:

As Virginia Gorski, her real name, she had made her Broadway bow as a soubrette in 1948 in Jerome Robbins' “Look Ma, I'm Dancing” with Nancy Walker and Alice Pearce. The following year she played in a revival of the musical “The Bloomer Girl” at the Muni Opera in her hometown of St. Louis, MO, a show that starred former silent screen actress Mabel Taliaferro; and she later appeared at the same place opposite coloratura Marion Bell in Rudolph Friml's “The Vagabond King.” Seven years later, however, she almost didn't get to co-star on Broadway opposite Ethel Merman and Fernando Lamas in “Happy Hunting.” Because, believe it or not, she was busy filming I Killed Wild Bill Hickok. Can you imagine that? Almost losing out on a plum Broadway role because of one of Johnny Carpenter's feverish B-Western concoctions? “Nobody here in New York knew who I was, and the producers didn't feel justified paying my fare [from Hollywood] to try out,” she told Broadway scribe Earl Wilson. A brief detour home to St. Louis and a fortuitous meeting there with agent Morton Baum changed all that and she went on to earn a “Tony” nomination for her efforts.

Virginia left the hit show to star on television's Your Hit Parade which, I'm sure, paid better in the long run. In promoting the show, television reporter William Glover explained how Virginia went from Gorski, of proud Irish-Polish extraction, to the less colorful Gibson: “apparently a film executive suggested “Gibson” as a stage name. Ginny though he was asking what she wanted to drink and she said yes.” Say what?

I Killed Wild Bill Hickok was one of four poverty-stricken but surprisingly well cast Westerns written and produced by stuntman Johnny Carpenter, who also starred here under the nome-de-cinema of John Forbes. In addition to the Misses Gibson and Westcott, the little sagebrush thriller also featured former teen heartthrob Tom Brown, as, bizarrely, Wild Bill himself, Denver Pyle (who looks really young) and Carpenter's real life brother, “Red.” I Killed Wild Bill Hickok ended Carpenter's career as a B-Western entrepreneur. The less said about the film itself – what with an abundance of silent era stock footage and a plot that adheres to something quite different than the historical fact and doesn't even take place in Deadwood, SD – the better. So that's what I'm gonna do.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent observations & analysis...