“There are some gambles that haven’t any right to pay off. This one had, because of a lovely girl called Fatima who couldn’t take no for an answer.”
This is my contribution to the James Garner Blogathon held by Gil over at Realweegiemidgetreviews. Long been an admirer of Garner’s easy-going screen presence and thought about writing about The Americanisation of Emily (1964, Arthur Hiller), Support Your Local Sheriff (1969, Burt Kennedy), or his turn in Marlowe (1969, Paul Bogart). The latter is a contemporary updating of Raymond Chandler’s novel ‘The Little Sister’ and feels like a dry run for The Rockford Files (1974-1980).
However I’m currently making my way through Garner’s breakout role in Maverick so it made sense to choose an episode from that show. I’ve gone with episode 1:07, ‘Relic of Fort Tejon,’ because it perfectly balances the humour and Western genre elements that made Maverick so successful. This episode is also the last time Garner carries this show alone. From what I can gather the heavy production schedule was already causing problems with cast and crew so Jack Kelly was brought in as an alternate lead with each actor starring in an episode apart and then occasionally sharing screen time.
Though they play brothers the essential character sketch is the same. Maverick is a gambler and a wanderer who lives on his wits and travels everywhere with a $1000 bill sewn into his jacket. The actors make the two Mavericks distinct though. Garner’s Bret Maverick is as you would expect very charming with perfect comic-timing. Kelly’s Bart is more taciturn. I like Jack Kelly a lot, particularly in the surprisingly bleak ‘Prey of the Cat’ where he thinks he’s made friends in a small town but ends up being blamed for the death of a man he liked. I’m not sure he could have been the lead in ‘Relic of Fort Tejon.’ The absurdity of the episode’s premise suits Garner better.
The script is based on a magazine short story written by Kenneth Perkins. Writing a single episode using existing material is something you don’t really see episodic television doing anymore but it seems to have been quite common back then. There’s an even an episode taking Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story ‘The Wrecker’ and turning it into a Western. The teleplay by Jerry Davis mixes Perkins short story about a man riding a camel through the desert in search of an escaped outlaw with a recurring theme in Maverick. That of corrupt authority figures abusing their powers for profit.
We first see Bret in his usual place at a poker table. He bluffs his way to cleaning out a Reverend despite holding the weaker hand. This backfires though when the Arabian Mount included in his winnings turns out to be a camel named Fatima.
Maverick is naturally taken aback but he looks after the animal until he can find a new owner. Even a guy as charming as James Garner can’t sell a camel to a cowboy so he resorts to paying a local farmer to look after Fatima. However she begins pining for Maverick as soon as he leaves.
Maverick has business to attend to in the small town of Silver Springs. There he runs into an old flame, Donna (Maxine Cooper) who’s about to get married to local bigwig Carl Jimson (Fredd Wayne). Carl is the reason Maverick is there. Though he is well liked and about to be voted in as Mayor, Carl is running crooked card games in his saloon. It’s a common plot in this show. The Maverick brothers setting out to right a wrong by conning a con-artist. Carl seems like a nice guy at first. When a punter turns violent after losing at cards Carl defuses the situation by recompensing him. Donna clearly loves him. But when he hears Maverick’s taking the house for $5000 he hides a pistol up his sleeve and joins the game.
Maverick wants the deck cut citing Hoyle’s rules on poker, a book on card games referenced earlier episode in the series which allows a player to call for a change at any point during a game. Jimson refuses and shoots Maverick claiming he was about to reach for his gun. Donna pleads with the wounded gambler to leave town but he’s got a score to settle. Besides an unlikely ally has followed him all the way to Silver Springs.
Every episode of Maverick opens with a pre-credits sequence showing one of the brothers in trouble. Then they’ll show us how Maverick got himself into this mess. Here it’s a gunfighter calling him out in the street in front of the entire town. Drake (Tyler Macduff). has been hired to by Jimson to finish off what he couldn’t do at close range. There are episodes of Maverick where Bret or Bart will draw their gun but it’s always as a last resort. Creator Roy Huggins and Garner wanted a show about an atypical hero. In Maverick’s world quick wits will beat a quickdraw expert most of the time.
Cowards are harder to deal with though. They cheat at poker and everything else. Jimsen tries to ambush Maverick in his hotel but misses again. He’s not much of a shot. When he sneakily tries to break a temporary ceasefire so Donna can get away Jimson shoots her in the chest and frames Maverick for attempted murder forcing him to flee on horseback into the desert.
Jimson follows intending to kill Maverick, but we know already he’s a lousy shot. The gunfire spooks Maverick’s horse sending it running off into the desert. Jimson runs the other way. Maverick finds his horse exhausted and dying from the heat.
However salvation arrives in the form of Fatima. It’s Chekov’s gun theory but with a camel. Don’t show something in the first act unless you plan to use it in the third.
Everything is wrapped up neatly by the time Maverick chases down Jimson and brings him back to Silver Springs. Donna is awake and identifies the would-be Mayor as the man who shot her. Maverick is now the most popular guy in town but nothing can persuade him to stay.
I haven’t seen many of the other 50s’ Westerns that dominated TV screens in the 50s’ but they seem like precursors to the drifter sub-genre of show. Heroes who turn up in some new place, get caught up in the town’s troubles, and then move on because they can’t ever stop. Something always compels them to leave whether it’s their restless nature or they’re being pursued by forces which are too strong to fight. Roy Huggins would go on to create The Fugitive (1961) which is perhaps the best known of these types of shows. Sometimes they make a connection though. A bond even running away can’t break.
Thanks again to Gil at Realweegiemidgetreviews for letting me take part in this Blogathon.