For five seasons in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Dick Powell hosted and produced his own Western television show. Officially named Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theatre, most of the episodes were loosely based on the popular Western novelist Zane Grey who Powell had grown up reading. Grey’s westerns like Riders of the Purple Sage and Heritage of the Desert had been the basis for dozens of Hollywood westerns dating back to the 1910s heavily influenced the look and feel of the Western genre in its earliest years. Of course, trimming down an entire novel proved difficult and in later seasons more original stories were written for the series.
Alongside Powell’s introductions and a couple of appearances in the stories himself, each episode features a different special guest star in each episode. Whether established stars like Joan Crawford, Robert Ryan, and Edgar G. Robinson or budding actors like James Garner and Lloyd Bridges, their appearances make the series a fascinating look at some of our favorite stars on the small screen.
Dick Powell’s only appearance in this particular episode.
One of the stars best suited for the show was Barbara Stanwyck who starred in four different episodes across three seasons. Of the four, the most compelling is “Hang the Heart High”, Season 3 Episode 15 airing originally on January 15, 1959, several years prior to her big biggest television success starring in another western series The Big Valley. The plot was well in her wheelhouse: Stanwyck’s character attempts to have a lover kill her husband a la Double Indemnity (minus the wig).
The episode opens as an ex-con Dick Porter (David Jannsen) rides away from a posse of ranchers trying to catch him for cattle rustling. In his escape, he crosses onto Regan Moore’s (Barbara Stanwyck) property where she shelters him from the men riding after Porter. Taking him back to her house, she introduces him to her husband Jed (Paul Richards) who excitedly hires him as a reclamation project. We learn that Mr. Moore prides himself in bringing those with troubled pasts into his ranch making it his personal responsibility to frequently test their resolve a. Regan herself was a dance hall girl before Jed pulled her up the social ladder.
Regan and Dick plotting their check move.
Running at a tight twenty-forty minutes, the episode doesn’t hesitate in the slightest. Lingering glances between Regan and Dick quickly turn into a kiss or two and Regan confides in Porter how much she feels trapped by her moralistic husband who holds her past over her head in an effort to keep her strong against temptation. A femme fatale like no other, Regan drops the slight suggestion that Dick could bump him off and they could share the ranch together. Of course, as soon as Dick shows interest, Moore has a detailed plan all ready planned for the right sucker to undertake on her behalf. Will their plan succeed or will further complications ensue?
Stanwyck gives an excellent performance. It takes real talent and experience to make such a believable character with such little exposition and almost no time to linger. How Stanwyck contorts her face when being held by her husband and staring at Dick opposite her tells us all we need to know about the married couple’s one-sided relationship. At the breakneck speed many 1950s television shows like Zane Grey Theatre were shot at, having an established actor with such strong instincts does a lot to pull together the thinnest of plots.
Just one image tells you all you need to know about this marriage.
Beyond the femme fatale angle, the relationship dynamic between Regan and Jed packs a lot of punch despite its limited screen time. On the outside, Regan admits that her marriage is the envy of the town. She loves the ranch and the freedom it gives her but can’t fully move on from her previous destitute orphan upbringing with her husband reminding her every day to strengthen her resolve against temptation. While David Jensen’s Porter is no Fred MacMurray, he manages for his character to come off as an opportunistic, out-of-luck ex-con rather than simply a dunce for falling for Regan’s scheme
As to whether this particular episode was originally adapted from one of Grey’s novels, I wasn’t able to locate any information suggesting it was or wasn’t. If the episode wasn’t a direct adaptation of Grey’s work, it certainly did a great job of molding it into Grey’s distinct style of using archetypal stock characters to explore deeper human emotions and relationships.
For any Stanwyck fans or Western fans, I can wholeheartedly recommend her four episodes. Like any anthology series, there will be ups and downs but with such an assortment of Hollywood talent in nearly every episode, the episodes I’ve been able to watch have been well worth the watch. I’d love to dive into more of Zane Grey Theatre and find better-quality versions of each season since they aren’t currently streaming anywhere. Fingers crossed better version will pop up sooner than later.