At the Movies: The Lusty Men

July 15th, 2014 14 Comments

Lusty Men poster

I interviewed a lady named Sheila Varian a while back for one of the magazines I write for. For those of you who don’t know who she is, she breeds and trains Arabian horses, some of the finest Arabians anywhere, but what she is probably most famous for is being the first amateur, and the first woman, ever to win the Open Reined Cow Horse Championship at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. That was back in 1961, when the modern rodeo world of (relatively) big purses and associations was just starting to hit the big time. What made her accomplishment even more astounding was that she did it all on her own Arabian. To wipe the eye of life-long cowboys who were and are confirmed, dyed-in-the-wool, born-and-bred Quarter horse men, and to do it with an Arabian was, well, epochal. But what was fascinating to me was her accounts of the rough-and-ready world of rodeo back then, a world that reminded me greatly of Garth Brooks’ famous song, Much Too Young to Feel this Damn Old:

This ol’ highway’s getting longer

Seems there ain’t no end in sight

To sleep would be best, but I just can’t afford to rest

I’ve got to ride in Denver tomorrow night


I called the house but no one answered

For the last two weeks no one’s been home

I guess she’s through with me, to tell the truth I just can’t see

What’s kept the woman holding on this long


And the white line’s getting longer and the saddle’s getting cold

I‘m much too young to feel this damn old

All my cards are on the table with no ace left in the hole

I’m much too young to feel this damn old


The competition’s getting younger

Tougher broncs, you know I can’t recall

The worn out tape of Chris LeDoux, lonely women and bad booze

Seem to be the only friends I’ve left at all


And the white line’s getting longer and the saddle’s getting cold

I’m much too young to feel this damn old

All my cards are on the table with no ace left in the hole

I’m much too young to feel this damn old

Lord, I’m much too young to feel this damn old.


It was, as the song implies, a world spent on the road (or in the hospital, depending on your luck) chasing a dream and betting your health and life on your skills and reflexes, a world where only a tiny fraction of the competitors actually come out with anything to show for all the years and pain and injury but a handful of buckles.

All of Sheila’s stories came flooding back the other night when Darleen and I watched The Lusty Men, with Robert Mitchum, Susan Hayward, and Arthur Kennedy. It’s a black-and-white, filmed in 1952, about the rodeo life, about chasing a dream, about the risks and temptations and the prices that even the lucky ones, the most successful ones, have to pay.

Robert Mitchum

I am a huge Robert Mitchum fan (I once took an acting job in a short film without even reading the script because it starred Robert Mitchum and I wanted to meet him), but I had never heard of this movie. Nor had Darleen. And that’s a shame because it deserves more recognition.

A movie, just like a novel or any work of fiction, invites you to willingly suspend your disbelief and enter into that world, and the better the fictional world is created and portrayed, the more likely you are to suspend your disbelief. The Lusty Men captured the early-1950s world of rodeo so completely, so accurately, so believably, that there were moments when I almost believed I was watching a documentary. After all, this a world where many of the details are made up of little things that Darleen and I both know, so that a throw-away line about a horse coming out of the King Ranch breeding, a line most people might not even have heard, resonated with us. I know many of the towns and rodeo grounds where the movie takes place, and it all, even most of landscapes in the background, looked authentic to me (or very close to it), something that rarely happens in old films, where snow-covered mountains suddenly appear in the distance in Oklahoma, or open oak-studded savannah is supposed to represent the lush, heavy forest of the deep south, or—my favorite—flourishing farms sprout out of the Painted Desert.

But behind the technical details of filming (and some great performances, especially Mitchum’s) was the writing, writing that absolutely astounded me. I immediately went to look up the author and…And was disappointed.

The movie credits say it was based on a novel by Claude Stanush, but unless I have somehow missed something in my research, Claude Stanush only had one novel to his name, and even that was a co-authorship with his daughter written late in his life, long after The Lusty Men. He was primarily a journalist and short-story writer from San Antonio, Texas, who managed to hornswoggle his way into a stint with Life Magazine by camping out for weeks in the office waiting room until the editor, in frustration, finally agreed to speak to him.

(The conversation, apparently went something like this:

Editor: “What are your qualifications?”

Stanush: “Perseverance.”

Editor: “You’re hired.”)

But whatever his qualifications might have been, Stanush (who only died in 2011) was never a cowboy, nor even—until that one novel with his daughter—a novelist. The idea for the movie was taken from an essay he wrote while with Life. Was he so good at his research that he was able to capture the essence of rodeo life and rodeo cowboys so perfectly, so accurately, both the good and the bad? How did he learn so much about the details of horses, broncs, pick-up men, bulls, calf-roping, saddles, reatas, the endless driving from one rodeo to another, the wives, the buckle-bunnies, the broken down hangers-on, the self-destructive world outside the arenas, the whole panorama of that then small, tightly knit world?

On the suspicion that his essay-turned-movie script might have been sweetened by some other writer with first-hand knowledge of that world, I checked the credits. A total of six writers (including Stanush) were listed, three of them as “uncredited.” “Uncredited,” according to Dan Bronson ( probably means it was a case of arbitration by the Writers’ Guild. But of those six writers, one was a Brit, one was from New York, one from Tennessee, one from Hungary, and one was the Brooklyn-born, the legendary Jerry Wald, who wasn’t even really a writer at all, but rather a producer, a hustler, an “idea man,” (a guy who is paid to brainstorm ideas for everything from titles—this one is dreadful—to storylines to plot twists), and the putative inspiration for the character of Sammy Glick in Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run? The only one who was even from the West (if you count a major city like San Antonio as the West) was Stanush. Not one of them knew a damned thing about cowboys or rodeo, but somehow, between them, they turned out probably the most realistic rodeo movie ever made. I’m going to assume the credit has to go to Stanush; as a journalist, he would have understood the importance of research and accuracy, but he must have spent an awful lot of time on the road doing that research.

The bottom line, however, is that The Lusty Men is a great example of the magic of Hollywood. Take an idea, add a bunch of disparate men from all parts of the globe, all of them bursting with ideas and ambition and contention, and somehow, sometimes, out of this chaos comes magic.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to throw Robert Mitchum into the mix.

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Robert Mitchum était l’un des acteurs préféré de mes parents. Lorsque l’un des films dans lequel il jouait, passait à la TV, je restais devant l’écran fascinée…… je le trouvais très beau et très mystérieux……..
    Lorsque c’était un western, je m’imaginais dans des paysages complètement inconnus pour moi au milieu des cowboys et des indiens !!!!!!
    Le film qui m’a vraiment impressionnée lorsque j’étais petite était « La nuit du chasseur (the Night of the Hunter) » Son regard me terrorisait…..Je ne sais pas l’impact que ce film aurait sur moi maintenant……

  2. Anonymous says:

    That really is a bad title because it sound like it should be the title of a porn movie. I have never seen this movie and I really can’t think of any movie that I have seen Robert Mitchum in. I could count the number of Westerns I have seen on one hand and not even need all of my fingers. I remember seeing “HIgh Noon” when I was a kid. That town was really clean for a Western town and I think the song bothered me. When I was a teenager I saw “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”. The only reason I saw that is because it had Robert Redford in it. I also vaguely remember watching “Bonanza” which was supposed be a ranch. More recently I watched the remake of “True Grit”. That is about it.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I know even less about horses and rodes then I do about Westerns, but I once went to a rodeo. This true. Our whole family went to a rodeo years ago. In fact this rodeo turned out to be a rodeo for gay cowboys. I am not making this up. The reason we went to the rodeo in the first place is I saw the advertisement for it in the paper and it had the magic words “Kids attend free”. There was no mention in the ad about it being for gay cowboys and this was years before the movie “Brokeback Mountain”. We loaded our kids in the car and went to the old state fair ground were the rodeo was advertised. When we went in there was only one lone lady sitting there collecting payment for the adults. I looked around and asked “Where are all the cowboys?’ She answered ” Oh, they were out partying.” OK, at that point I thought “partying?”. That was new to me. We took our program and went to find seats. I did not bother to look at the program closely, but we waited for the rodeo to start. Some other people mostly men started filing in and the rodeo started. The first act if you want to call it that was a bunch of cowboys trying to rope a sheep and put bloomers on the sheep. That should have been the first clue, but no. There were other roping tricks that I do not remember and I think there was some horseback riding. My two daughters had to go to the ladies room and the second clue was there was no line for the ladies room. We returned and I started to look through the program and I noticed something odd. I thought “These are some strange advertisement for a rodeo”. Then a man in front of walked up to another man and kissed him. That was when the lightbulb finally went on. I thought “wait minute? What the heck?” Yep, never underestimate my ability to be oblivious to the obvious. At that point the kids we getting hungry so my husband and I decided it would be best if we left. The last act that we saw while we were leaving was cowboys riding horses in drag. So that is my rodeo story.

  4. Anonymous says:

    “Moma don’t Let your babies grow up to be cowboys”

  5. Anonymous says:

    “My Heros have Always been Cowboys”

  6. Anonymous says:

    Oddly, I remember singing this song in grade school. When I was kid I thought that this song was talking about dogs.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Hello JP,

    It sounds as if they had made this movie especially for you 🙂


  8. Anonymous says:

    I just saw this on AOL. James Garner has died. He played both a cowboy and a private detective.He was 86.

  9. Anonymous says:

    I was really surprised to read you two had not heard of this movie, but am sure there are many more that have not as well. I remember watching it when was about ten years old. The town I grew up in had a stations that aired older movies on Saturdays. The program was something like Afternoon At The Movies. Got to see you a lof of classics that way. Think that is where my old movie adoration came from.
    Nancy Darlene

    • Anonymous says:

      We used to have a show called “Bill Kennedy at the movies” that showed old movies. That is where I saw a lot of old movies. On Saturday they had a show called “Sir Graves Ghastly” That is the real name of the show. That one showed old horror movies like “Dracula” with Bela Lugosi .

      • Anonymous says:

        I remember that movie the Bela Lugosi one you named I mean. 🙂 I had that on VHS for years. Sounds like back when we were kids those were the kind of shows that were on in practically almost every town across the country. 🙂

  10. Anonymous says:

    That’s real sad news his and Darleen’s show from 1981 to 1982 “Bret Maverick” was one of the best I had seen.

  11. Anonymous says:

    After reading this, I will have to find it on Netflix and watch it.. thanks! By the way, I am re-reading your Accidental Cowboy… dang, I love your writing.. being a lifelong cowboy/rancher., I appreciate what and how you write about ranches, those who work on them and how they do the work and how so many of us think.. thank you.

    Robert Dennis

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