Thursday, June 12, 2014

Wagon Train - "The Fort Pierce Story" -1963

In “The Fort Pierce Story” episode of Wagon Train Ann Blyth is an officer’s wife, the only woman in a frontier fort, battling her demons with alcohol.

One can easily see why this script appealed to her: her character is multi-dimensional, gets to be angry, to show fear, depression, anguish, be occasionally silly, brittle at times verging on hysteria, and gets to play a drunk scene in the middle of a formal dinner. 

Her officer husband is played by Ronald Reagan in one of his last handful of TV roles before he entered California politics.  Though he strikes me as a little too old to play a young officer up and coming in his career, nevertheless, he draws our sympathy as being a man torn between duty and love for his wife.  He’s trying to find a middle ground, made more painful by the guilt he feels for subjecting his wife to life on a lonely outpost and the rigors of the frontier.

She seems as delicate to him as the fine china teacups out of which she drinks cheap whiskey when she is alone, and she is alone a lot.  Slipping a mint in her mouth when she hears his troop return, Ann steps gingerly out into the hot sun of the parade ground, where the other soldiers are on eggshells in her presence, as if fearing she will go off the deep end.

They have reason, as we will learn later when Mr. Reagan tells the horrific story of their baby having died two months previously while he was away on patrol, and Ann sat in her rocker with the child in her arms, refusing to give it up.

She wants no more children.

The happy news that a wagon train with settlers is coming through excites her, just the thought of seeing new faces, especially other women, and she gets a little giddy at the thought.  Our old friend John McIntire, who led the wagon train on a previous episode, “The Clementine Jones Story” which we discussed here, and appeared in several of Ann Blyth’s films, brings a feeling of civilization and hope with the settlers he is guiding west.  However, we have a secondary plot of the fort’s being understaffed due to Washington pulling back funding (“In Washington everything translates to votes and dollars”), and the military escort McIntire requests is denied.  The wagon train will be at the mercy of attack by Indians when they leave the fort to continue west.

Another fellow on board as a scout is Robert Fuller, whom we will meet again in an episode of Kraft Suspense Theater when he plays opposite Ann in “Jungle of Fear” (1965).

I especially like John Doucette as the grim colonel of the fort, who curtly debriefs Reagan on his patrols, and casts a severe eye upon Ann Blyth as a disruption to the discipline of his command.  He will order her to be taken away on the wagon train when it leaves.  He is steely, but intelligent and though he seems cold and strict, he is nonetheless fair.  Dry, sarcastic, demanding, yet one can envision in him a renaissance man by his crisp, educated speech.  The script by John McGreevey allows all parties to be flawed, but still possessed of a nobility of spirit.

Ann Blyth, left in the position to mind the baby of a young couple on the wagon train, played by Ron Hayes and Kathie Browne, learns that the only way to face the frightening future is to come to terms with the wretched present.  Traumatized and nearly sick with self-loathing, she takes her first steps at healing herself when she cuddles the crying baby.

Ronald Reagan must, in defiance of all the proud ancestors in his military family, carve his own trail through his career that includes his duty to his wife. 

John McIntire clashes with the colonel, as well, when he demands a military escort through dangerous territory.  The climax of the episode occurs when the wagon train, with Ann Blyth on board, leaves without escort, and the attack that follows.

Longtime fans (I’m looking at you CW) will note the soft waltz played on a banjo and fiddle that occurs outside among the pioneer families having a party as “The Tomorrow Waltz” which Ann sung in a previous episode of Wagon Train we covered here.

“The Fort Pierce Story,” from the seventh season of Wagon Train, was broadcast September 23, 1963.  It was Ann’s fifth and last guest appearance on the show.  According to a column by Joseph Finnegan, at least part of this episode was filmed at Kanab, Utah in the summer of 1963.  Several Wagon Train episodes have been up on YouTube from time to time, but happily, I believe all seasons of this show are now available on DVD.

Ann Blyth’s fifth and last child was born in April that year, and, along with her stint on WagonTrain, at 34 years old, she immediately launched into preparing herself for one of her early forays into summer musical theatre with a production of Carnival in July.  We’ll talk about her musical theatre roles in a future post.

Though stage musicals would present an entirely new career for her, there was still room and energy enough for a few more TV appearances. 

Come back next Thursday when we talk about TV in the 1950s and 1960s.

The News Texan, May 22, 1963, column by Joseph Finnegan, p. 2.
THANK the following folks whose aid in gathering material for this series has been invaluable:  EBH; Kevin Deany of Kevin's Movie Corner; Gerry Szymski of Westmont Movie Classics, Westmont, Illinois; and Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.

UPDATE:  This series on Ann Blyth is now a book - ANN BLYTH: ACTRESS. SINGER. STAR. -

The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on, and on Amazon and iTunes.

Also in paperback and eBook from Amazon, CreateSpace, and my Etsy shop: LynchTwinsPublishing.

 "Lynch’s book is organized and well-written – and has plenty of amusing observations – but when it comes to describing Blyth’s movies, Lynch’s writing sparkles." - Ruth Kerr, Silver Screenings

"Jacqueline T. Lynch creates a poignant and thoroughly-researched mosaic of memories of a fine, upstanding human being who also happens to be a legendary entertainer." - Deborah Thomas, Java's Journey

"One of the great strengths of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is that Lynch not only gives an excellent overview of Blyth's career -- she offers detailed analyses of each of Blyth's roles -- but she puts them in the context of the larger issues of the day."- Amanda Garrett, Old Hollywood Films

"Jacqueline's book will hopefully cause many more people to take a look at this multitalented woman whose career encompassed just about every possible aspect of 20th Century entertainment." - Laura Grieve, Laura's Miscellaneous Musings''

"Jacqueline T. Lynch’s Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is an extremely well researched undertaking that is a must for all Blyth fans." - Annette Bochenek, Hometowns to Hollywood

Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. 
by Jacqueline T. Lynch

The first book on the career of actress Ann Blyth. Multitalented and remarkably versatile, Blyth began on radio as a child, appeared on Broadway at the age of twelve in Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine, and enjoyed a long and diverse career in films, theatre, television, and concerts. A sensitive dramatic actress, the youngest at the time to be nominated for her role in Mildred Pierce (1945), she also displayed a gift for comedy, and was especially endeared to fans for her expressive and exquisite lyric soprano, which was showcased in many film and stage musicals. Still a popular guest at film festivals, lovely Ms. Blyth remains a treasure of the Hollywood's golden age.


Caftan Woman said...

Could you hear me humming the party music all the way from here?

A couple of tweaks to the script would have spared Reagan from looking beyond his character's age range. Other than that disconnect, the episode holds up very well because our attention is always on Ms. Blyth and she always comes through.

Parts of the story echo a season 1 episode starring Nina Foch (The Clara Beauchamp Story). Many of the 90 minute episodes reached back and, in most cases, improved upon the earlier ones.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Yes, I could hear you.

And I defer, as always, to your superior knowledge of this great TV show.

I agree the story hold up well, especially their heated discussions about Congress and military funding.

"...our attention is always on Ms. Blyth and she always comes through." Oh, my, yes.

I agree, a tweak to the script would have smoothed over Reagan's age, and I find no fault with his performance. There is sensitivity even in his rigid devotion to duty.

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