Director Hugo Fregonese and Savage Pampas (Part One)

*contains spoilers

Director Hugo Fregonese (1908-87 heart attack) had a short career in Hollywood in the 1950s and ended up making international productions before his retirement in the 1970s. His brief Hollywood career working on cheap westerns and crime melodramas, with some epic elements, was bookended by his life in Argentina where he was born and died.

Director Hugo Fregonese

One of his first movies and also one of his last was a slightly epic tale set in the Dry Pampas which was the Argentinian frontier during the 19th Century. It was entitled Savage Pampas which he first directed in Argentina in 1945. The 1966 remake is one of my favourite churrasco or paella westerns, or westerns that were shot in Spain, despite its poor reputation. The tale of life among the gauchos stars a hardened Robert Taylor (1911-69 lung cancer) giving one of his best later performances.

Using various articles, including one by Santiago and Rubin de Celis in Film International and by viewing many of Fregonsese’s Hollywood films – we will find a few gems and also look at parallels in his life with Argentinian leader Juan Peron.

Robert Taylor as he appears in Savage Pampas (1966)

Fregonese was the son of Italian immigrants who was born in Argentina. Before he moved into filmmaking, he studied at the Buenos Aires University and helped develop a resort on El Tigre Island with his brother and it was there he would return to spend the last years of his life in happy retirement.

He was a tall and deeply tanned Latino with a pencil moustache like Clark Gable when he first went to America in 1935 to attend Columbia University in New York. He dropped out and moved to Hollywood where he mastered English and took film courses, something which led him back to Argentina at the beginning of World War Two. Argentina was known for its past support of the Nazi’s and Axis powers… Anyway, he worked in the film industry there while war was waged across the Atlantic.

A poster for the original movie Pampa barbara (1945)

He was working as an assistant with Argentina’s top directors on various projects until his chance came do direct a part of the first version of the historical Savage Pampas (1945) which was known locally as Pampa barbara. He was entrusted to film the action sequences in that film. I haven’t seen this, or Fregonese’s other Argentine work, but the film, which was a nationalist tale of the frontier and the soldiers who fought against the Indians and those soldiers who deserted to join the Indians. The tale also includes the couriering of prostitutes to the main fort so the men would no longer desert. Such is the epic tale of Savage Pampas.

Where Words Fail (1946) poster

It was a later film that Fregonese made in Argentina entitled Where Words Fail (1946) which he painstakingly oversaw a subtitled version for the United States, something he took there and which began Hollywood’s interest in him as a director.

It was there in Hollywood in 1947 that he met and married the protégé of Howard Hughes actress Faith Domergue (1924-99 cancer)… She was yet to have her start in a career that Hughes promised her and despite the couple honeymooning in Buenos Aires where Fregonese made another movie, they returned to California and settled there in 1949. It was around that time that Domergue started her career with the long gestating but rather poor Hughes produced film Vendetta (1950).

Faith Domergue and Hugo Fregonese

It was also around this time that Leonard Goldstein (1903-54 cerebral haemorrhage), who was a producer in charge of b-movies at Universal, signed Fregonese on a seven-year contract with the studio.

His Hollywood career started officially with One Way Street (1950) starring James Mason (1909-84 heart attack) and doomed Swedish starlet Marta Toren (1925-57 cerebral haemorrhage). This film is a noir and a good start by Fregonese. This black and white production tells of a doctor played by Mason who steals $200,000 from the mob and flees to Mexico.

Piper Laurie and Leonard Goldstein

It is there that he becomes a part of the village community thanks to his skills and is seen as a saviour in the lives of some thanks to medicine. It all leads to a change of heart within him… But, of course, with Dan Duryea (1907-68 cancer) as the mobster, it’s never going to end well.

Next was the colour western Saddle Tramp (1950) starring Joel McCrea (1905-90 pneumonia). This is more of a family movie than a shoot me up western, although sentimentality is avoided pretty well. It tells the story of McCrea, who would rather spend his life wandering through the country with his horse but is suddenly responsible for looking after four orphaned young boys of a close friend.

One Way Street (1949) lobby card

The film features a young Wanda Hendrix (1928-81 pneumonia), who is so petite, you can see while she was married to actor and former soldier Audie Murphy (1925-71 light plane crash) for a while as he too was vertically challenged.

Saddle Tramp contains another easy-going McCrea performance and one of the boys is played by Gregory Moffett (1943-) who appeared in the classic bad movie Robot Monster (1953). Fregonese proved he could fill a colour frame beautifully with this one.

Tiny Wanda Hendrix and tall Joel McCrea in Saddle Tramp (1950)

It was then he made Mark of the Renegade (1951) shortly after the birth of his son – Domergue would also produce a daughter with him – which stars Ricardo Montalban (1920-2009 heart failure) and it is another Technicolor movie.

It was perhaps a rarity to have a Mexican actor play the hero in an American film and also have the villain played by another Mexican Gilbert Roland (1905-94 cancer). It tells of a masked hero, in 1920s Mexican ruled Los Angeles, not unlike Zorro, although the movie isn’t half as good as The Mark of Zorro (1940) starring Tyrone Power (1914-58 heart attack).

Mark of the Renegade (1951) lobby card

“I like you better without the mask,” says actress Andrea King (1919-2003 in sleep) to Montalban as she rips off his mask in this cheap swashbuckler which shows that the actor cut a fine figure as a Latin lover and also had the moves as he dances in one scene with Cyd Charisse (1922-2008 heart attack). Remember these were only b-movies!

The same year Fregonese made what could be seen as his first low budget masterpiece entitled Apache Drums (1951). It was the last film to be produced by low budget master Val Lewton (1904-51). There is spectacle to be found in the second half of this film as it tells the tale of townsfolk who are trapped in a church by marauding Indians.

Lewton wrote to his mother and sister: “The studio is well satisfied with it and it was a lot of fun to make. I enjoyed working with the director Hugo Fregonese who is an extremely nice and able young man.”

Apache Drums (1951) quad poster

The truth about Fregonese was that he was really a loner and a life-long individualist who didn’t fit in with the studio system, according to reports, and who also didn’t mingle with the Latino community which was fragmented into different nationalities anyway. He was called a recluse who was withdrawn and solitary.

If you read the names of what appears to be a lacklustre cast in Apache Drums, you probably would instantly pass on this impressive low budgeter. It stars Stephen McNally (1911-94 heart failure) and Colleen Gray (1922-2015 natural causes) but it is McNally who gives the best performance as the hero who was once spurned by the town because he keeps shooting men in self-defence in the local bar.

Apache Drums (1951) climaxes well with a church siege

Fregonese’s last film at Universal was not half as good according to critics but I can’t say as I haven’t seen it. It was called Untamed Frontier (1952) and stars Joseph Cotton (1905-94 throat cancer and pneumonia), Shelley Winters (1920-2006 heart failure) and Scott Brady (1924-85 pulmonary fibrosis). It was the first credit for tragic actress Suzan Ball (1934-55 cancer) who died aged 21 after having malignant tumours found in her leg. While it is a notch higher in terms of its cast compared to Apache Drums, Fregonese must have been unhappy with the results and he bought himself out of his Universal contract because he said he wanted to be more ambitious than just churning out unimaginative, low budget westerns such as this one which lacked what Val Lewton had brought to Apache Drums.

A foreign release poster for Untamed Frontier (1952)

It was for Columbia Pictures that Fregonese went on the create one of his best films which was My Six Convicts (1952). Although it is probably regarded as slightly dated today, this film spent nine days shooting at San Quentin and didn’t use deep focus so none of the criminals in the background could be recognised.

My Six Convicts (1952) showed the director at his best

If Fregonese was trying to be more ambitious, he scored with this movie which was produced by Stanley Kramer Productions. Kramer (1913-2001 pneumonia) was a producer and director of ‘message movies’ like the racism themed movies The Defiant Ones (1958) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). My Six Convicts is definitely in the line of succession in terms of message films made by Kramer as it tells the true story of a prison psychiatrist who tries to reach the minds of the prisoners and help them realise their potential through gaining insight into themselves.

The Defiant Ones (1958) trailer

It was not a major award winner but the quality was a hop, skip and a jump ahead of Untamed Frontier. The film garnered a Golden Globe win for actor Millard Mitchell (1903-53 lung cancer) as Best Supporting Actor and Fregonese got a Director’s Guild of America nomination of directorial achievement.

My Six Convicts is at times amusing and is an unexpected prison movie. Yes, there is the usual plans for a breakout, but among the petty criminals, the psychopaths and those who are mentally disturbed through their upbringing, there is a sense of humanity and hope which is central to Kramer’s films.

Millard Mitchell (third from right) won an award for My Six Convicts (1952)

It asks us what makes a criminal and it also asks the criminal what made him, which is the key to an early release and possibly not reoffending. It is Mitchell, who these days would be guaranteed an Oscar, as the world-weary convict who knows the system inside and out, which is the lynchpin of the cast. Under the tutelage of the psychologist played by John Beal (1909-97 after stroke), he, along with Gilbert Roland, as another cast member, grow as men. I wonder if Fregonese was friendly with Roland as this is his second appearance in one of his movies.

Actor John Beal as the psychologist walks through San Quentin

“I still don’t know what goes on in a con’s mind,” says the warden of San Quentin to Beal, who also tells him that he’d be lucky if the convicts trusted him with more than the time of day. The warden meanwhile says: “You’d better be a bright psychologist, or you’ll be a dead one.”

This black and white journey of several characters is worth taking and it was probably Fregonese’s best attempt at movie making as an art form and acceptable to those who dole out awards for such achievements.

Decameron Nights (1952) poster

Fregonese had made six films in three years in Hollywood and 1953 would see the release of Decameron Nights (1952) which is a colourful period piece released by RKO. Based on tales of The Decameron with Louis Jourdan (1923-2015 natural causes) as writer Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75 heart failure) and an aging Joan Fontaine (1917-2013 in sleep) as the object of Jourdan’s affections, there are three tales told in the movie.

Decameron Nights (1952) trailer

Critics have scorned this film, but it shows that Fregonese didn’t mind branching out into differing types of movies and was true to his word in that he wanted to diversify. It’s advertisement as “Boldest of the World’s Love Stories” may not be true… but made while there was perhaps still passion in his marriage to Domergue or as a love letter to his wife – the film still resonates. Filmed essentially in Spain, it was Fregonese’s first step away from the studio system and Hollywood and toward his preoccupation of international movies. But he still had some Hollywood films left to do…

Domergue was reportedly meant to appear in Fregonese’s next movie made for Warner Bros. called Blowing Wild (1953). It is a poor and forgettable title despite a cast which stars Gary Cooper (1901-61 prostate cancer) and Barbara Stanwyck (1907-90 emphysema).

A foreign release poster for Blowing Wild (1953)

Set in South America, although it was filmed in Mexico, the cast also includes another Latino in Anthony Quinn (1915-2001 throat cancer and pneumonia) as it tells the tale of wild-cat oilmen staking their claims and drilling for that big gusher which will make them rich.

Cooper won his Oscar for High Noon (1952) during the production of Blowing Wild while Quinn won one for Viva Zapata! (1952) as well. It is not a particularly memorable movie and the pairing of the two stars didn’t ignite the screen. It was Ruth Roman (1922-99 in sleep), just past the peak of her greatest beauty, who sat in for the Domergue role and why she didn’t appear was never explained. Maybe the marriage was on the rocks, as her career was hardly thriving elsewhere.

Blowing Wild is essentially a modern day western with a love triangle written by a talented writer in, soon to be Oscar winner for Broken Lance (1954), Philip Yordan (1914-2003). But despite a great song by Frankie Laine (1913-2007 heart failure) and music by Dimitri Tiomkin (1894-1979 after a fall) it was not going to capture half the magic of Cooper’s High Noon which was a Stanley Kramer Production. Perhaps a repeat viewing will reveal more.

We follow Hugo Fregonese to the end of his career in PART TWO.

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