Sunday, August 27, 2017

Tom Tyler as understated icon in “San Antonio”

Even though Tom Tyler was primarily relegated to bit roles in A-list films following his career as a B-western leading man, he remained capable of holding his own as an icon up against the big names such as John Wayne and Errol Flynn. As with his performance in “Stagecoach” where he portrays Luke Plummer, Tom turns in a top-notch performance in “San Antonio” but with an added twist: looking every inch the icon that he is. This western starring Errol Flynn and Alexis Smith also happens to be in glorious Technicolor, which allows the viewer to appreciate what Tom would look like in person minus the black and white factor of his B-westerns and two superhero serial films, “Adventures of Captain Marvel” and “The Phantom.”

Tom portrays Lafe McWilliams, a henchman for cattle rustler Roy Stuart (Paul Kelly) who is hot on the trail of cattleman Clay Hardin (Flynn), who is attempting to lay low until he can locate Stuart and turn him in to the authorities. Prior to Lafe showing up in his first scene, a group of townsmen congregating on the patio of a building are taking bets that Hardin will not make it to San Antonio without running into one of Stuart's men. While this event transpires, Lafe comes along, chewing tobacco and making his way between the men who form lines on either side and look at him in astonishment, as if he had the nerve to come along and disrupt their supposedly discreet transactions. His clothes alone make a statement: a slate colored button down shirt, brown vest, red and white checkered scarf, and red and white pinstripe pants – the kind that railroad conductors wore.
To top it off, Lafe also has a few days growth of stubble, to add to his tough guy persona. This entrance into the film is enough to have the townspeople and the viewer look at Tom Tyler and think, “there goes a real hombre”. Lafe is also clearly a take charge henchman, telling his partner Pony Smith (John Alvin) what steps to take in order to close in on Hardin once they catch up with him.The “real hombre” concept continues when Lafe interacts with Jeanne (Smith) and Henrietta (Florence Bates) as the ladies sit inside the stagecoach when they arrive in Laredo, hoping to obtain some information on the whereabouts of Hardin. With his head poking through the side window of the stagecoach, Lafe says “ I'm looking for a gentleman” to which Henrietta promptly responds with “Haven't seen one in a year”, referring to the unsavory men out west which have no appeal to her. In return, Lafe has a “what am I, chopped liver?” expression on his face, while he continues to exchange a few words with them regarding Hardin. Resorting to his
usual onscreen view of women on a sister-like basis, Lafe warns Jeanne and Henrietta about Hardin, who do not believe him for some reason, before he steps away from the stagecoach. As a final humorous response, Lafe gets a few pillows from inside the stagecoach thrown into his face before taking off, the two ladies making faces then smiling in his direction.

It is at the Cotulla Cantina during a nightly stop during their journey to San Antonio where Lafe and Pony finally meet up with Clay Hardin, but not without Hardin being notified, for his friend Charlie (John Litel) sticks close by, holding up a pole in front of the open-air cantina ready for action. Lafe and Pony approach the cantina from across the street, then discuss what measures will be taken in order to detract Hardin from Jeanne and get him when he least suspects it. Here, Lafe observes Clay from the cantina porch all alone, the camera concentrating on his face, his steely eyes and cool, almost robotic expression while he slowly moves his hand to adjust his hat. Still the subject of the moment, the camera remains capturing Lafe's continued series of
expressions, his eyes temporarily making contact with the camera before resuming concentration on Hardin who is inside the cantina, then gradually changing into a devious expression, eyebrows raised with a tiny smile on his face. It only takes a brief moment for the viewer to observe and fully appreciate Tom Tyler in “San Antonio” as icon, and visually transport him into a spaghetti western alongside Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef. Add to the mix his gravelly voice, and Tom Tyler is perfect for the 1960's decade of spaghetti westerns. This porch scene at the cantina is the precursor to the climactic scene Lafe has with Hardin inside the cantina – and Tom Tyler has an advantage over Flynn not only in appearance but also physical strength. Had “San Antonio” included a major fistfight between Tom and Errol Flynn, which would have been entertaining for the viewer, it would not be difficult to imagine Flynn being tossed about by the former weightlifting champion.

After being turned down for a dance by Jeanne, with Hardin standing by her table in the cantina, Lafe turns his attention to Hardin, suggesting that the wrong move by him could get him plugged. The two men engage in a face-to-face conversation which finally prompts Hardin to suggest they take their little problem into the street. Lafe's narrow eyes, set jaws and no holds barred dialogue give Hardin reason to suspect that some rough play is about to take place, but he has no plans on becoming a casualty. Of the two men, Lafe's profile exudes not just physical strength and toughness but also a sexuality that was not overwhelming by any means; as usual, he is the Omega male portraying an Alpha male. Lafe leads the way out of the cantina, which is his first error, since it makes him a vulnerable target. Charlie remains partially hidden and sees Pony, who he plugs first. As soon as Lafe turns his head to see who got plugged he wears a rather sinister smile, eyes glittering like rocks before he is unsuspectingly plugged by Flynn. Similar to his manner of dying in “Stagecoach”, Tom uses his long, drawn out walk and collapses dead onto the wooden walkway of the building across the street. Right up to the very end, Tom Tyler's role in “San Antonio” is iconic, as brief as it is, the scenes are memorable nonetheless, particularly those where he speaks no dialogue at all.

Tom Tyler was long considered the handsomest man in Hollywood at one point, and remains so even in films like “San Antonio” for a few reasons, even up against the likes of Errol Flynn. This is evident in the scenes where Tom makes his entry into the film in the town of Laredo, hismanner of walk, right up to the last few minutes of his onscreen time, when his trademark manner of death after being plugged takes place. Tom's natural coloring and facial features made him perfect for silent film. Technicolor only enhanced his exceptionally good looks. Add to the mix his sexiness and on the set personality, which made him one of the most desirable people to work with in Hollywood. Taking all of these factors into consideration, Tom Tyler was indeed an understated icon.

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