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Scott, Randolph (1903?-1987)

Scott, Randolph (1903?-1987)

Probably more so than any other Western film star, Randolph Scott symbolized rugged individualism, unwavering honesty, and a gentleman quality seldom matched. As an actor, Scott was noted for his polite, civil manner in an industry filled with out-of-control egos and temper tantrums. A soft-spoken man with a rather passive screen presence, Scott made more than sixty pictures from 1932 to 1962, thus placing him within the ranks of Western film legends Gary Cooper and John Wayne.

Born in Orange, Virginia, in 1903 (some sources say 1898), George Randolph Scott attended Georgia Tech and the University of North Carolina to prepare for a career in textile engineering. After a brief stint working for his father's textile company in Charlotte, North Carolina, Scott moved to Hollywood to satisfy his growing interest in acting. He found work as an extra in several pictures and landed roles with local theater groups, including the Pasadena Playhouse. This exposure led to Paramount signing him to a seven-year contract. Although many of his early roles were bit parts, Scott received top billing from 1932 to 1935 in a popular series of nine Westerns based on Zane Grey stories. In seven of these films, Scott learned much about the acting process from director Henry Hathaway, a veteran filmmaker best known for directing John Wayne in True Grit (1969). Paramount used Scott in several non-Westerns as well, then in 1936 he was cast as James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking hero, Hawkeye, in The Last of the Mohicans.

When Scott completed his Paramount contract in 1938, he signed nonexclusive contracts with Twentieth Century-Fox and Universal. In 1938, Fox teamed him with Shirley Temple in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, then cast him opposite Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda in the financially successful Jesse James in 1939. As he did throughout his career, Scott played the tall, handsome marshal who was bound by his honor in enforcing the law. The box-office success of Jesse James prompted a Fox sequel, The Return of Frank James (1940), and a flurry of other outlaw tales. When the Daltons Rode (1940) and The Desperadoes (1943) again featured Scott as a lawand-order hero reacting to the colorful exploits of the outlaws.

After paying his dues in numerous Western film supporting roles in the 1930s, Scott finally achieved stardom by the early 1940s and was teamed with some of Hollywood's leading actors. Warner Brothers signed him to play opposite Errol Flynn in Virginia City (1940), while Universal teamed him with John Wayne in The Spoilers (1942), but those were not as successful as his Westerns. Nor did Scott appear particularly comfortable playing a sword-wielding son of an English nobleman in the pirate movie Captain Kidd.

After World War II, Scott returned to the genre that suited him best—the Western. Except for three pictures, Scott's forty-two post-war films were all Westerns. During the next fifteen years, Scott averaged five Westerns every two years. His total of thirty-eight Westerns from 1946 to 1960 made Scott the most prolific Western star of his time. Unlike his acting counterparts Gary Cooper, John Wayne, or Alan Ladd, Scott never made a critical or box-office hit. Instead, he relied on a steady stream of professionally made, action-packed, entertaining movies. In 1951, Scott revealed to a reporter his formula for making movies, saying that he looked for "a strong believable story with seventy-five percent outdoor action and twenty-five percent indoor. If you get any more of your picture indoors, you're in trouble."

Scott did some of his finest work in a series of Westerns he made in the 1950s and early 1960s with director Budd Boetticher. In such pictures as Seven Men from Now (1956), Decision at Sundown (1957), Ride Lonesome (1959), and Comanche Station (1960), Scott's presence filled the screen with courageous dignity and laconic stoicism in tales concerning redressing personal tragedy. In each of the films, Boetticher focused on a group of individuals reacting under stress, with Scott and a capable adversary inevitably facing a showdown.

Scott's final film before retiring is considered by critics to be perhaps his finest work—Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country (1962). In the movie, Joel McCrea was cast as the poor but honest former marshal who is hired to bring in a gold shipment from a mining camp. Scott played McCrea's longtime friend, also an ex-lawman, who hires on to help escort the gold shipment, but who intends to steal it. The theme of the displacement of aging frontier individualists by an encroaching civilization intrigued critics, and Western fans enjoyed watching Scott and McCrea work together. Between them, they had starred in eighty-seven Westerns since the early 1930s.

Following Ride the High Country, Scott retired from the movie industry, overseeing his considerable business investments in oil wells, real estate, and securities. By the time of his death in 1987, it was estimated that Scott's holdings were worth anywhere from $50 million to $100 million. But from a popular culture standpoint, Scott left behind more than substantial personal wealth—he left behind a body of work that helped define the rugged individualism theme of American Westerns and provided one of the more convincing portrayals of the frontier hero.

—Dennis Russell

Further Reading:

Crow, Jefferson Brim. Randolph Scott: The Gentleman from Virginia: A Film Biography. Carrollton, Texas, Wind River Publishing, 1987.

Everson, William K. A Pictorial History of the Western Film. Secaucus, New Jersey, Citadel Press, 1969.

Eyles, Allen. The Western. South Brunswick, A. S. Barnes, 1975.

Fenin, George N., and William K. Everson. The Western: From Silents to Cinerama. New York, Bonanza Books, 1962.

Hitt, Jim. The American West from Fiction (1823-1976) into Film (1909-1986). Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland and Company, 1990.

Scott, C. H., with historical assistance and editing by William C.Cline. Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott? Madison, North Carolina, Empire Publishing, 1994.

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