Tuesday, February 5, 2019

The legend of DeWitt Lee, Arizona's mysterious homegrown double-threat

DeWitt Lee in The Legend of Jedediah Carver
DeWitt Lee in The Legend of Jedediah Carver (1976)

I'm a great fan of the output of Mill Creek Entertainment. They're the people behind those ultra-budget DVD sets you'll sometimes find in a bin at Walgreens or Menards and other places you don't generally think of as entertainment outlets, the ones with names like "50 Drive-In Classics" or "Flying Fists of Kung-Fu" or "John Wayne: Western Hero." These collections generally consist of forgotten films of bygone eras whose distribution rights can be had for cheap. While these packs almost always contain a few underrated gems, for the most part they're low-quality prints of equally low-quality movies. That being one of my favorite genres of cinema, they're tailor-made for creeps like me.

One of my favorite things to do with a Mill Creek set is to play a kind of movie roulette. I reach into the case and pull out a disc at random, pop it in my DVD player, and watch whatever comes up while I work out on my basement elliptical. That's how I came to watch Apache Blood, a 1975 film included on Mill Creek's "A Fistful of Bullets" spaghetti western collection. As it turns out, Apache Blood is not a spaghetti western at all, but rather an Old West survival story filmed in the deserts of Arizona, written by and starring a man by the name of DeWitt Lee. In the couple of weeks since I viewed Apache Blood, DeWitt Lee has occupied an ever-growing portion of my thoughts.

Apache Blood is not one of the aforementioned underrated gems. It's a cheaply made, thoroughly familiar, verrrrrry slow-moving story of a white tracker who gets mauled by a bear, left for dead by his Army buddies, and hunted across the desert by a vengeance-minded Apache warrior. (It's apparently taken from the same source material as The Revenant, which I haven't seen because I devote my time to watching things like Apache Blood.) The only notable name in the cast other than Lee is Ray Danton, a solid character actor who flirted with leading-man status in the early '60s. Here he's tasked with a non-speaking and racially problematic role as the titular Apache. Unsurprisingly, Danton retired from acting after this film and moved into a steady career as a TV director.

DeWitt Lee rises from his grave in Apache Blood (1975)
DeWitt Lee rises from his grave in Apache Blood (1975)

Even though it's decidedly not a very good film, Apache Blood is just the kind of regionally produced, shoestring-budgeted, handmade project that I hold dear. This was clearly a labor of love, a notion that was reinforced when I did a little research and found that DeWitt Lee followed it up with a 1976 film called The Legend of Jedediah Carver that seemed to have a near-identical plot. Lee, it seems, really wanted to tell the story of a dude barely surviving in the desert.

The Legend of Jedediah Carver is even more obscure than Apache Blood (TMDB didn't even have a listing for it until I created one), but I was able to track it down on YouTube. As it turns out, it's pretty close to a scene-for-scene remake with a new cast, save for Lee in the title role. The most noticeable differences are a larger (though still scanty) budget and DeWitt Lee replacing Vern Piehl in the director's chair. It isn't saying a whole lot, but Lee proves a much more technically skilled director than the barely competent Piehl. Jedediah Carver is decidedly the better-made film, but its (very) comparative slickness makes it slightly less engaging for a trash cinema lover such as myself.

Having dug this far, I was more or less compelled to keep the ball rolling by watching Ransom Money, a 1970 thriller that is the only other film credit I've found for DeWitt Lee. It's the only one of the three where Lee wears just one hat, making his directorial debut while neither writing nor acting. It's also the most star-powered of his three features, with aging Oscar-winner Broderick Crawford headlining as a legendary and grumpy detective called in to investigate the kidnapping of a wealthy widow's young son from the Grand Canyon. Future Maytag man and WKRP star Gordon Jump plays the Phoenix detective heading up the search, which is complicated by the kidnapper's godlike command of cutting edge technology.

The dynamic duo of Gordon Jump and Broderick Crawford in Ransom Money (1970)
Gordon Jump and Broderick Crawford in Ransom Money (1970)
Ransom Money is quite watchable but pretty dumb, and the tiny bit of information I've found about it online suggests that it was a bit of a bummer for DeWitt Lee. One unsubstantiated anecdote claims that Broderick Crawford was so displeased with his experience on the shoot that he quit mid-filming. (That would explain why his character is abruptly killed off in an off-screen car accident late in the movie.) Still, Lee comes off as a competent director with a good feel for his Southwestern surroundings. Lord knows I've come across plenty of far worse directors with far better-known bodies of work.

With Ransom Money, I'd reached the end of the DeWitt Lee filmography, at least according to every database I've been able to find. I did, however, unearth a different branch of his trail.

Turns out film wasn't DeWitt Lee's only artistic avenue. He released at least two Country-Western singles in the 1960s. The first, from 1960, features a blatant but quite enjoyable knock-off of "16 Tons" called "Poor Man," backed with a goofy little party tune called "How Nice." Lee's second single, from 1967, goes a little more straitlaced with the mournful cowboy ballad "Six White Horses" (not to be confused with Tommy Cash's 1970 hit of the same name) backed with a folk-tinged number called "Call Me Mister Blue." None of these songs is groundbreaking stuff, but they're all solid, workmanlike entries in the '60s country canon.



These singles are clearly the work of the same DeWitt Lee. I can tell this not only because they were released on Arizona-based labels and maintain a similar fascination with Western themes, but also because "How Nice" pops up on a car radio in Ransom Money. As a great fan of low-budget directors slipping plugs for their other work into their movies, I gotta love that hustle.

Beyond those three films and two singles, the legend of DeWitt Lee seems to be enveloped in total obscurity. Did he retire from filmmaking after Jedediah Carver? Did he do more creative work under a different name? Is he still living? Still obsessed with desert survival stories? Did he see The Revenant? I don't have answers to any of these questions, and I may never.

Regardless, I'm glad that I've been able to delve into his work over the past month. (Heck, at this point I may be the world's leading authority on the DeWitt Lee canon.) While it's true that I wouldn't recommend his movies to 99% of my social circle, and his music is probably of interest to Classic Country heads only, I cherish both bodies of work. I'm endlessly impressed with artists working outside of the system with modest means who manage to get their visions realized. Whatever your take on their quality, DeWitt Lee made three feature films and at least four songs on his home turf, and they're all still in some form of circulation today. That's something on which to hang one's hat.  I'm thrilled that I could bear witness to that legacy. I live for this kind of thing.


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