The Harvey Girls (1946): The Painted Desert Meets The Musical

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It was during a pit stop along a cross-country trip through the Petrified Forest that I first became aware of The Harvey Girls. Because you see, The Painted Desert Inn is a bit of a relic of the past, and it preserves a history of the famous waitresses who helped pave the way for a certain brand of civility in the Southwest. They brought the sensibilities, respectability, fine china, and world-famous sirloin steaks from back east to forsaken lands normally ruled by saloons and brothels.

So while The Harvey Girls (1946), a cheery musical directed by George Sidney, does not have the same mythological quality in the taming of the West as a John Ford picture, the same process is being captured, albeit in more practical (and more musical) terms.

We get a taste of where all these girls come from thanks to the very catchy, “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe,” which suggests the vital importance that the transcontinental railroad played in such an endeavor. The recording would prove a viable hit for star Judy Garland and many others, taking on a subject akin to “The Trolley Song” out of Meet Me in St. Louis.

In that regard, Garland is out of sorts residing on the pioneering prairie with their dive saloons and floozies of ill-repute. But that’s exactly her charm. She traveled to this far-off, unknown destination as a mail order bride; her only correspondence with her future matrimonial partner is through letters.

He’s quite eloquent with a pen and yet she meets the colloquial but good-natured H. H. Hartsey (Chill Wills) and receives the shock of her life. All of a sudden they’re both a bit flustered and decide to dispense with the marriage on amicable terms.

As a result, Susan decides to join The Harvey Girls in their newly formed restaurant to bring entertainment and quality diversions to this godless territory of Sand Rock. Their main competition comes from a man named Ned Trent (John Hodiak) who runs the local watering hole replete with gambling, drinking, a whole host of dancing girls. One of them, Em (Angela Lansbury) is deeply in love with him, and it shows.

Trent conveniently has a partnership with the local Judge who has made it a practice to scare off anyone with a smidge of decency. He even ran a preacher out of town and his scare tactics include a gunshot fired into the Harvey Girl dormitory.

Though only a recent recruit, Susan soon mobilizes the women who are trained up by (Majorie Mann) ready to fight back against their opposition. Her distaste and inexperience with guns are endearing just as her plucky fearlessness gains her a certain amount of admiration.

Trent proves to be a far more complex man than he’s given credit for even as he tries to distance himself from the Judge and push the Harvey Girls out fair and square. It’s still a competition, but at least it’s honorable. Simultaneously, Em begins to see the twinkle in his eyes as he becomes enamored with Susan. Her principles and feisty nature are attractive, but Ems not about to lose him without a fight nor does Susan particularly fancy Trent. The romantic triangle is firmly in place.

In one sense, Lansbury feels poorly miscast, no fault of her own because they all but dubbed her singing voice to make her seem American. Her charm has to do precisely with the fact she is not one of us. And yet remarkably, she does a fine job as a sympathetic antagonist, if you will, that we grow to admire.

John Hodiak is easily clumped with actors of the 40s like Brian Donlevy or Cornel Wilde who are not quite buried in obscurity. However, because there is nothing that can be deemed electric about them, it’s easy for them to get lost in the fray. All that being said, I rather like Hodiak opposite Garland. He’s both slightly antagonistic but genial when he has to be.

“It’s a Great Big World” provides a fine showcase for Garland and her companions to dream together. On her own, Virginia O’Brien provides a comic aside singing “Wild Wild West” and giving the town’s jumpy new blacksmith (Ray Bolger) a capable helping hand. I must say I hardly recognized the young Cyd Charisse who earned her first speaking role to kick off a shining career in Hollywood as one of its preeminent dancers.

The most comedically gratifying scene has to be when the two rival factions resort to physical catfights to exert their dominance and show that they have a right to stay. The Harvey Girls also throw a party where Bolger’s length on taps is positively charming. It’s the old story that a dancer must be highly skilled to make their style look so very idiosyncratic, and I kept on thinking how I would never in a million years be able to pull of such a routine.

What follows is a Waltz that has everyone dancing even as the town is plagued further by arsons and a heated fistfight to right a few wrongs. We are getting down to the wire. However, with the outbound train about to leave, decisions must be made and one could wager that our leads make the right one, though fate and Em give them a helping hand in the end.

The Harvey Girls, produced by the Arthur Freed unit, and blessed with the song-smithing of Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer, delivers a repeatedly delightful western musical experience, despite the very fact that it was not initially supposed to be. However, a drama earmarked for Lana Turner got a facelift and pulled Judy Garland away from working with Vincente Minnelli and Fred Astaire to score her a low-stakes, lightweight hit.

To make things even better, she would finally get her chance to work with Astaire two years later in Easter Parade (1948). For now, let’s relish this one for the frothy pleasures it affords. My sojourning through the painted desert was almost 10 years ago, so it’s a pleasure to finally get around to see The Harvey Girls. 

3.5/5 Stars

Garden of Evil (1954): Starring Gary Cooper and Richard Widmark

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It does feel like one of the grand old westerns we left behind in more recent years. It’s a big picture in the horizontal majesty of widescreen, Glorious Technicolor, backed by the only score Bernard Hermann would ever arrange for the West. There’s little doubt we are in for a spectacle of the highest order.

Maybe Richard Widmark doesn’t look as good in color as the shrouds of noir, but he can act. Here he’s a poker player who fancies himself a poet on the side. As he gets off at an isolated Mexican outpost, he’s yakking away to the typically taciturn Gary Cooper. The taller fellow plods by his side quietly amused by everything coming out of the Widmark’s mouth.

They are joined by a third man (Cameron Mitchell) biding their time en route to the goldfields of California by listening to the floor show (Rita Moreno) at the local cantina. I do relish films that take place in multiple languages; perhaps it humbles me. Because as I’m no longer living near a Latino community and I haven’t studied in a long time, my Spanish is rusty, so I can only pick up bits and pieces. I am at the mercy of others.

But it also means Gary Cooper can pay a major service to the audience. He translates for us and with that comes an added depth to his character. He’s knowledgeable and must have been around. How does he know the language? We don’t know right off so it teases us to stick around in order to find out.

It’s quite relaxing until Susan Hayward bursts in on the men, effectively dropping the whole reason for the picture right in their laps. An adventure is afoot, and they take it up with few reservations. It doesn’t seem to cross their minds to question any of it; the compensation waved in front of them is high enough. Maybe they maintain their own private reasons. Soon they’re journeying through a mountain pass in order to help save the woman’s stranded husband (Hugh Marlowe).

A perfect moment on the road — making sure we’re aware of the stakes — features a dislodged frying pan clattering down below, ricocheting off the rock faces, and echoing through the canyon as it makes its descent.

As things progress, it becomes apparent the fine line between brooding and dull is a difficult one. It certainly is, more often than not, a slow burn with Widmark waxing philosophical and Cooper projecting an air of constant clear-sightedness about the world. He never loses his head. The rest of the time we’re waiting for something.

The confrontation between Hooker (Cooper) and the hothead Daly (Mitchell) is a particular sequence to relish as the young gun not once, but twice, is sent somersaulting on his back — his butt nearly putting out the fire and getting singed as a result. By the end of his drubbing, he’s practically rolling in it, and he’s been made to look terribly foolish.

But like Way of The Gaucho, the on-location shooting is what the movie can boast about the most. The action is middling and dull at best, because it’s a long haul to get a payoff.  We are waiting for things to come to a head and while Indians are said to be brewing up in the hills, they only show themselves briefly.

Oddly, Susan Hayward is thanklessly cast as the villain-turned-hero. Maybe it has to do with the time the picture came out since she hardly gets the delicious part of a femme fatale. More often than not, she feels like a scapegoat, that is until everyone realizes how faithful she is. It’s too little too late.

By the end of the story, the emotions lack resonance, because they haven’t built up into anything truly believable with continuity we can easily trace. It does feel a bit like running through the paces just to get to the marks, and it’s difficult to say given the talent on hand. They are a fine host of actors.

It’s possible to cast a bit of the blame on Frank Fenton’s script, which has fun with some dialogue — getting a bit profound about male avarice and passion — while supplying the actual plot little meat.

Gary Cooper and Richard Widmark too were always men of action, but there’s not enough here for them to accomplish. By the time they have chances to do what is purportedly brave and heroic, the deep recesses of meaning looking to be excavated are hollow — even strangely so, because we truly want there to be more, and there isn’t.

3/5 Stars

Rawhide (1951): Tyrone Power and Susan Hayward

220px-Poster_of_Rawhide_(1951_film).jpgThough it’s easy for this film to be overshadowed by Clint Eastwood’s Rowdy Yates, in retrospect, Rawhide is a spare outpost western nevertheless loaded with tension and talent. It is set against the backdrop of a network of stagecoaches transporting mail across the continental United States.

Rawhide Station is one such spot looked after by old-hand stationmaster, Sam Todd (Edgar Buchannan). He has been entrusted with training up young Easterner Tom Owens (Tyrone Power), whose father is division manager of the overland mail. This is a bit of on-the-job training before he moves back to the comfort of the East.

Power is slightly past his matinee idol prime, but he can still pretty nearly fake it with his dashingly handsome good looks. Meanwhile, Buchannan is always ready to be called upon, in a pinch, to play such a scraggly type, aided by his gravel-filled throat. It gives him instant credibility.

For whatever reason, Henry Hathaway is rarely remembered as a director, but when you take stock of his work, both in westerns and noir films, he really does have quite the catalog to his name over a very prodigious career spanning decades. Scriptwriter Dudley Nichols had a prominent career of us own as did cinematographer Milton Krasner. Thus, the technical credentials on the film are quite an impressive array.

But what makes Rawhide actually take as a contentious tale of the West is the rest of the cast. My, oh my, is the cast good. It’s stacked with a steady, reliable group who know their parts and play them handily. It’s tough to choose a standout.

Because Owens finds himself being held hostage by a pack of escaped convicts on the trail for gold. It just so happens a feisty young woman (Susan Hayward), toting a child back east, also has the unpleasant fortune of getting caught in their crosshairs.

This man, still fresh-behind-the-ears, is forced to grow up right quick in the face of such a dubious bunch. Hugh Marlowe plays an exceptionally perceptive bandit calling the shots, saddled by the trio of incompetents he broke out of prison with.

Jack Elam, with that wall-eyed stare of his, made a living for himself as one of the great heavies of all time, right up there with Lee Van Cleef. Because their eyes say it all. He’s the most lascivious of the bunch, prone to violent acts and leering at pretty women. Zimmerman has his hands full because while his other two cronies are older and more obedient, they’re no less dumb. Dean Jagger plays a near grandfatherly old coot while George Tobias is the scruffy foreigner Gratz.

As we settle in for the long hall, Rawhide becomes a game of survival in pursuit of incremental victories like trying to sneak S.O.S. notes to incoming travelers. Then, they manage to swipe a knife from the kitchen to begin chiseling an exit out of their room on the road to escape. All the while, in the back of their mind, they’re thinking about staying alive so they can find the gun dropped out by the corrals. It’s the faintest of hopes

They are further concerned with protecting the young progeny Vinnie has vowed to take care of ever since the passing of her sister in California. It all matters because each individual piece is a single entity in this entire patchwork of cat and mouse — a chess match playing out on all sides. What hangs in the balance are the lives of all those involved. When those are the constant stakes, it’s extremely difficult to have a tedious story.

In a single instance, the tripwires start going off, and the bodies start tumbling. We hold our breath to see who will make it out alive in such a precarious showdown. It plays its hand well. Power readily accepts the challenge at hand with grit and determination, while Susan Hayward has nerves of iron packing a shotgun to finish the job.  The harrowing adventure gives us two stalwart heroes in the end.

In considering our leads, it does feel as if Power is making a concerted effort to maintain his box office pull, while Rawhide feels more like a stepping stone for Susan Hayward as her career progressed to continually more interesting parts in the 50s. But in neither case does it feel like we’re dealing with preening stars. They ably claw and fight for survival with the pack of criminals in their stead.

I will admit the way the story is bookended as just another tale along the “jackass mail” line from San Francisco to St. Louis, “Oh Susannah” playing in the background, somehow cheapens what we’ve witnessed. It seems to momentarily lose its credibility as a grind-it-out western. Maybe we can just say it’s faulty advertising and leave it at that. Otherwise, Rawhide has more in common with the lean constructions of Budd Boetticher than any kind of superficial high-adventure cowboy picture. It comes with real guts.

3.5/5 Stars

 

 

 

 

Silver Lode (1954): More Noir on The Range

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“It looks like Ballard’s past has come to town!”

A brood of leery guns lumbers into the town of Silver Lode. We have an instant clash of temperaments. Because this outside force is menacing and foreboding. Meanwhile, the townsfolk are getting everything together for their Fourth of July bash. They’re downright neighborly. They don’t hardly think twice when it comes to sharing the whereabouts of one of their locals: Dan Ballard (John Payne).

Though that’s not quite right because Ballard is a relatively recent addition to the community having arrived only two years prior and settled down as a pillar of Silver Lode’s community — well-liked by just about everyone. In fact, when the purported U.S. Marshall Fred McCarty (Dan Duryea) starts asking for him, Dan is in the middle of his marriage ceremony to Rose Evans (Lizabeth Scott) who comes from a highly respected family.

There’s no doubting the gunfighters are out for blood though. Although they are stopped in their stride by the even-keeled, rational-minded sheriff (Emile Meyer), they nevertheless have enough pull to burst into the matrimonial bubble.

Because, of course, Ballard knows this man. He killed his brother in California. It was a fair fight; the other man drew first, but McCarty calls it murder. He’s out for his brand of justice, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” The reverend fires right back with the prerogative to “turn the other cheek.”

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The thugs crash the ceremony regardless, the biggest wrinkle is the fact they represent law & order as marshals with a warrant for Ballard’s arrest. Though Dan greatly suspects the validity of the man who knew only as a cattle rustler, he willfully gives himself up. After all, the town is still standing by him. However, that can change.

They begin a grim procession, sullying the cheery proceedings around town, as they make their way to the Judge’s quarters. Dan keeps his buddies at bay even as he voluntarily follows McCarty. The sheriff is put in an uncomfortable position and yet he agrees to form a posse to join the contingent to make sure Dan remains safe in protected custody.

However, things heat up as the decks stack against him. The telegraph lines are conveniently down so there’s no way to verify the marshal’s credentials. There’s also a dichotomy between the respectable, God-fearing hypocrites and other folks, which hasn’t dissipated since the dawning of time.

The saloon matron, Dolly (Dolores Moran), is ever ready to help Ballard — because they had a history once. He doesn’t know who else he can trust. Already the resident Pharisees, with their up-turned noses, are clamoring for Ballard’s removal due to his pedigree as a hardened criminal. They don’t trust him. Dolly’s best retort is aimed at the Reverend, “I think some of your flock needs delousing.”

So she runs interference as Ballard tries to seek a meeting with one of McCarty’s brood. Harry Carey Jr., ever the brittle westerner looks to play the stooge in return for $5,000 and protection. He’s willing to rat, of course. There is a momentary glimmer of light that McCarty promptly snuffs out.

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A barn standoff could conceivably tie up the film in a minute if the sheriff wasn’t conveniently gunned down and the stoolie Johnson follows suit. It seems like the whole town is present, witnessing the guns in Ballard’s hands, again, the obvious criminal. Though winged, McCarty lives to fight another day — maintaining his lie in the process — all but damning Ballard for good.

Twists of wicked fate just keep on coming and McCarty now can wield the townsfolk against their former neighbor, turning them against him outright. It gets so bad he feels no recourse but take on the mantle of the hunted fugitive in order to survive and vindicate himself. Circumstances certainly look dire.

One of John Alton’s best setups is probably when Ballard dashes across town crouching and then sprinting a bit further to reach his destination — pursuers scurrying after him as he returns fire — executed in one uninterrupted dolly shot sweeping left to right across the compound.

We also have the ticking clocks of High Noon, metaphorically speaking. If we mention that film, there is no way we cannot mention HUAC and The Hollywood Blacklist. Because the parallels in the allegory are too apparent. We have good men who are turned upon and likened to criminals for past sins or beliefs that diverge from the pack.

It gets ugly when mob-like hysteria takes over, and there is no wisdom to guide the ensuing actions. Everything is dictated by fear and hate.  Mob violence is the death of any town as McCarty (Joseph McCarthy anyone?) plays on the fears of the people.

Ballard ultimately seeks asylum in the church as the horde almost breaks the doors down. In the end, it’s a showdown between the two men who always had a beef to pick. One defenseless, the other armed and ready to get his revenge and if not revenge, then something even better. In the end, it’s another serendipitous moment, worthy of a Mythbusters episode, that closes the action and allows us to breathe again.

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With every passing movie, I am always astounded by the obvious overlaps between the West and film noir, and it starts with personnel. John Alton was already mentioned. He is nearly as accomplished in color as black & white. Then, John Payne, not usually a western hero, nevertheless spent plenty of time roughhousing in the underworld. Even Lizabeth Scott and Dan Duryea are given a bit of a reunion after Too Late for Tears.

Duryea unequivocally steals the show again with a blistering, continually conniving performance. He truly has a monopoly on these roles, since he pulls them off with such conviction. Unfortunately, Scott while a  dazzling, toxic femme fatale, has a fairly flat and monotone part to play here.

Both the western and noir are also both innately American genres. They have the opportunity to take elements that ring true about our society and really subject them to scrutiny. What are our ideals? How do we treat one another? What dictates our standards of truth and our sense of good versus evil?

There’s nothing that says you need to consider any of these themes to thoroughly enjoy Silver Lode as an incisive, high-intensity showdown, but it’s a testament to movies that work on multiple levels. It still boggles the mind Allan Dwan made as many films as he did. I haven’t seen many of them. Still, this one shows an indubitable competency in the craft. After all, he had a lot of practice.

3.5/5 Stars

Station West (1948): Starring Dick Powell and Jane Greer

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First impressions suggest Dick Powell doesn’t fit the boots of a western hero as he did the fedoras of noir. Like Bogart or even Cagney, his physique isn’t imposing and yet he makes up for it with a wry wit. Running off his mouth as he often does fits the cynicism of noir.

Not that it can’t have a place in the old west as well, but with other actors, it feels like second nature and yet when he gets off the stagecoach, it really does feel like he has just entered western country for the first time.

As the film evolves, it plays a bit in his favor because this is a version of the West suited for his talents. Granted, The Tall Target (1951) is not a western, but in that film, Anthony Mann made a bit of a Civil War-era noir with a similar milieu. However, unfortunately, by reputation, Sidney Lansfield is no Mann so I’m not sure the material is ever injected with a similarly visceral and engaging energy.

Events simply happen, characters interact, and there is a resolution. Thankfully Station West serves up one major plot twist, suggesting there is more than meets the eye in this out-of-towner who all but picks a fight with a soldier boy in the local saloon.

Maybe Haven is more Phillip Marlowe than we were initially led to believe. Regardless, he’s immediately taken by the local lounge singer, since the quizzical look of Jane Greer does that to people. He is quite forward in looking to make her acquaintance and ends up having a run-in with the local muscle (Guinn Williams).

There are moments where the fighting between them feels genuinely frenetic blended with hokey shots that look horribly fake. I’m not sure what to feel but for the sake of the story, Haven is now a big shot and news gets around about him. It’s all just a smokescreen; he wants to investigate a suspiciously missing shipment of gold.

Still a few years away from his much-deserved starring stint on Perry Mason, Raymond Burr plays a relatively uncharacteristic Lilly-livered loser. I love Burl Ives as much as the next fellow, however, his ballad singing feels forced and frankly, inorganic. It breaks up the scenes in a strange way as he keeps his guitar handy, welcoming guests to his very stingy hotel.

What remains to be seen is the identity of Charlie, the person who has their hand in all the town’s major dealings. Our snooping hero has a feeling discovering this information along with staging another gold run might get him some much-needed leads.

It’s not quite a black pool forming around him, but he does get whacked over the head in the middle of a gold run. It’s another added complication in the mystery to settle who is masterminding these robberies. It might be a testament more to the cut of the picture I saw. Regardless, Station West winds up a bit disjointed.

The payoffs are barely satisfying, and there’s never much of a motor to the picture’s action even amid the burning of a warehouse and some gunfire. Qualms about Powell’s performance aside, the greatest disappointment was Jane Greer. It just never feels like she has anything interesting to do even as her part has inherent possibilities. The opportunities afforded feel wasted. Then again, it could come down to chemistry, and it’s hard to top what she was able to conjure up with Robert Mitchum in not only Out of The Past but The Big Steal as well.

3/5 Stars

Blood on the Moon (1948): A Robert Mitchum Horse Noir

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This is admittedly nitpicky, but the title cards of Blood on the Moon are a bit jarring as the white-lettered names all but disappear into the sliver of light stretching across the otherwise black canvas of the screen. Thus, I missed out on about a fourth of the names in the cast.

Opening credits aside, entering the world itself is an unmitigated pleasure as we are submerged straight into a rainstorm meeting us with a near tactile sense of tone. Against the dark slopes, a solitary rider sits aloft in wet hat and poncho. He’s seeking cover from the downpour.

Though he finds it,  his nice, warming fire essentially gets stampeded by a pack of steers, and a man with a gun comes to oust him. He comes in contact with a not too neighborly outfit led by a man name Lufton who is a part of a longstanding feud between two factions. The age-old animosity kicked up between cattlemen and homesteaders. Lufton is on the side of the cattle.

However, we have yet to know where this stranger — Jim Garry (Robert Mitchum) — falls along the gradient, if anywhere. He has his first run-in with a lady (Barbara Bel Geddes) and sends her packing into the adjoining stream with some nifty shooting. Then, he drifts into a town, which seems cloaked in a dubious conspiracy of its own.

A host of characters sit around a poker table — among them Walter Brennan and Charles McGraw — shooting the bull about the new man. They want to get a read on him through a bit of deception. He reads them like a book, and it still seems like all the thugs are coming out of the woodwork just to take a shot at him.

Finally, he reconnects with his old comrade Tate Riling (Robert Preston). Their past is all but unspoken yet we understand they’ve been through some times together. Thus, it’s no less jolting to learn this man Tate is on the other side of the feud. He has sided with the local ranches and a government agent (Frank Faylen) to push Lufton’s cattle off the land. An awfully crooked Preston is girded by that age-old charisma of his. He somehow still gives off an aura of likability in a not too trustworthy sort of way.

So Garry has been unwittingly been called upon as a de facto gunman to help make the transition stick. He initially goes along with it, because Tate used to be his pal. What makes the story an interesting one relies on the fact Garry has that age-old deficiency — a human conscience.

The plucky rancher he shot at before was one of Lufton’s daughters, Amy, who though sore at him, eventually warms up when his integrity becomes apparent. She realizes he is a different breed than the rest. However, her sister Carol (Phyllis Thaxter), as fearful as Amy is fierce, falls for another man, making for the most intriguing foil in the movie.

Walter Brennan’s place as one of the ranchers taken in by Tate’s promises remains relatively understated and minor next to all the greats he’s played (especially given my last picture of his was The Westerner). Likewise, Charles McGraw isn’t given much to do aside from being gruff though he was still in the nascent stages of his career.

The stakes have been set for a surprisingly complicated interplay even as the cursory beats of Lillie Hayward’s script look all too familiar. It seems Robert Wise has the right pedigree for the material as does cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca because whether deliberate or not, this 40s oater is cloaked by film noir sensibilities through and through.

While not the cleanest of prints, there’s no denying the scope of the terrain nor the layers of atmosphere they’re able to draw out of the scenery, between shadows and light. If it sounds familiar, these are the shades of noir embodied as much in the character of Robert Mitchum as any of the mise en scène. The iconic lazy-eyed indifference of Mitchum transfers seamlessly from Out of the Past (1947) — coincidentally, also photographed by Musuraca.

Again and again, we must fall back on Mitchum and in all the RKO pictures he made, the onus usually landed on him because fewer resources meant more was asked of him. Aside from being a workhorse, Mitchum has the gumption and the unflinching enigmatic cool to bear the story upon his shoulders. It relies on precisely this quality dwelling within him, shifting so easily between attributes of self-service and integrity.

As far as psychological westerns go, I find the compact punchiness of Blood on the Moon far more appealing than Pursued (1947), starring Mitchum and Teresa Wright whom I adore. However, this story is not simply an excuse for deep-suited psychological issues. What the picture doesn’t skimp on are fairly complicated human relationships. There it finds a heady weight to carry it through to the end even if it does falter a little.

Mitchum has it out with his old pal in a deserted bar with near Anthony Mann level fighting, verging on the fanatically crazed. It’s a beautiful piece of stylized brutality. There’s disheveled and then there’s Robert Mitchum’s appearance after the altercation.

He was never one to be an untouchable white knight, preferring shades of gray. It’s a brilliant moment of pitch dark adrenaline. The film never quite regains this same energy, but there is still work to be done.

Garry, Amy, and the rancher Kris Barden all have a personal reason for wanting to get rid of Tate for good. The inevitable showdown occurs after a snowcapped chase, leading to a shootout in a forest with a wounded Mitchum and his two compatriots looking to hold down the fort.

I already mentioned this picture heavily relies on Mitchum so what would the final moments be without him going after his adversary systematically, injured though he may be, to finish this business for good? A happy ending lightens the impact, but it’s a small price to pay for this underrated horse noir from Robert Wise. He surely could make a gripping movie.

3.5/5 Stars

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: John Wayne

Our next addition to our classic movie guide is one of the most beloved mainstays of American popular culture and the western mythos. That’s right. We’re talking about Marion Morrison better known to the viewing public as John “The Duke” Wayne.

As is the case, we will provide 4 films to get you started and it must be acknowledged this is a foolhardy task. This man starred in over 170 films over his prolific career so to whittle it down is near impossible! Regardless, let’s get started, Pilgrim.

Stagecoach (1939)

This shouldn’t be much of a surprise because Stagecoach is the film that made John Wayne. He’d already been in dozen of movies after going from USC football player to Hollywood bit player on the urging of John Ford. Here the director frames the Ringo Kid as a hero, and Wayne does the rest spearheading an impressive allotment of talent including Claire Trevor, Thomas Mitchell, and John Carradine.

The Quiet Man (1952)

John Wayne is known for westerns and for good reason. But The Quiet Man is indicative of his talents outside of the genre. Not only is it another John Ford collaboration, it also pits our star against his most formidable leading lady the irrepressible Maureen O’Hara. The glorious Irish scenery and the charming brogues lay the groundwork for a classic romance. You should also catch them in Rio Grande, McClintock!, and Big Jake.

The Searchers (1956)

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I know I’m going heavy on the John Ford movies, but this revenge western is the granddaddy of them all as Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, one of his most vengeful incarnations (although Red River is right up there!). The final shot of Duke lumbering out of the log cabin framed in the doorway is an unforgettable moment in movies.

True Grit (1969)

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I wanted to include some late-period John Wayne. Sure, he won an Oscar for the eyepatch-wearing U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn, but I could care less about that. The film works because of his crotchety persona. When he faces off against Lucky Ned Pepper in the open clearing, reigns between his teeth, guns blaring, it’s the epitome of the John Wayne persona.

Worth Watching:

The Long Voyage Home, They Were Expendable, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Bravo, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Shootist, and many more!

The Westerner (1940): Made by Walter Brenna and Gary Cooper

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I do appreciate older films running their credits at the beginning, and I make a habit of perusing them for familiar names. More often than not, I’m rewarded in some small regard. However, The Westerner features a rather unusual notice:  “This story is legend founded on fact and, with the exception of “Judge” Roy Bean and Lily Langtry, all the characters are fictional.”

It seems a curious statement to make, but upon actually viewing this western, it makes complete sense. Not simply because the genre thrives off of myths, legends, and larger-than-life heroes, but the story is as much a testament to its characters than the offbeat movements of its plot. To a varying degree, it precedes thematic elements found in pictures like Shane (1953), The Far Country (1954), and Day of The Outlaw (1959).

Judge Roy Bean is one of the eccentric and notorious “hanging” judges of the Old West who supposedly lorded over the Texas territories. It’s difficult to think of a better man to play the ornery son of a gun than Walter Brennan. It’s even harder to think of a better part for Brennan. He’s got his name all over it.

Because he’s part of the local crowd of cattlers who are ready to do everything in their power to get the miserable sodbusters off the land they deem to be rightfully theirs. After all, they got to the land “first” so dibs should obviously go to them, no matter how much land is available.

The animosity is already fierce when the film opens with the cattle ranchers looking to scare off and gun down any of the opposition. Meanwhile, the homesteaders are intent on protecting their own with guns if they have to, continuing to grow their crops and fence off their territory.

But one brazen individual isn’t so lucky as he’s tracked down and brought before the “Judge” who holds court in his own bar and sentences the man be “hung.” It’s one of the grimmer moments in a western offering otherwise ripe with jocular even humorous interludes.

Because the inevitable occurs and the prototypical saddle tramp, Cole Harden (Gary Cooper) is drifting his way to California. It wouldn’t mean much except for the fact he’s accused of riding a stolen horse belonging to one of the cattlemen.

As is typical in the territory, he’s about to be tried and strung up right there in the bar. The Judge is all ready to throw the book at him. But Gary Cooper is not your typical man. Normally we would say he’s a stellar gunfighter or a fierce personality, but what he’s armed with, in this picture, is a quick wit.

We see his eyes gazing up at the wall above him as his mind works coolly to make up a story to save his own skin. It’s quite obvious that Bean has a special admiration for one dancehall performer Lilly Langtry and so, of course, Cole’s story goes something like this…

He once met Ms. Langtry while she was touring the states and struck up a friendship with her. Why he even asked for a lock of hair to hold onto as a keepsake. And of course, he doesn’t have it on his person. He would have to call for it. By this point, Bean is licking his lips with relish; the jury concurrently convening on whether or not the out-of-towner should be strung up.

We see Harden has gained a very influential admirer and he and the Judge strike up an uneasy partnership that we might tentatively call friendship. Conveniently, another horse thief — the real one — is found to take his place. Thereafter, the story is injected with subsequent comic undertones following a real bender, leading into a chase on horseback as Brennan tries to catch up to Cooper. He really wants that lock of hair for himself!

They both end up rolling around in the dirt conducting a meeting of the minds to decide if he will stay. In a perfect follow-up, the camera switches angles with Brennan’s back to the camera as they continue to converse and Cooper nonchalantly slips the other man’s gun into his boot.

It’s interludes like these that continually assert the film as a wholly idiosyncratic take on the western genre, which, by all accounts, wasn’t much to Gary Cooper’s liking. Because The Westerner lacks the classical elements we’ve come to expect, and there you have part of what makes it a good-humored time.

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But this blissful note strikes too soon. There is an inferno of drama ready to envelop the film leaving behind charred remains and pained relationships. One of the most integral people is plucky Jane Ellen Matthews (Doris Davenport) who spoke up on behalf of Cole and subsequently castigated the judge for his corruption.

In the end, she feels betrayed by Harden in his attempts to play mediator between both sides. One questions whether or not this is the last straw. Surely he will ride on to leave behind all the trouble at hand.

Still, with any Gary Cooper hero, there must be an inherent decency to be abided by. It’s little surprise he sticks around to cross wills with Bean one last time. They meet indoors waiting for Ms. Langtry’s stunning debut at a local theater. For some reason, it feels like we are sitting in on Ford’s Theater with some unnamed tragedy about to occur.

What goes down thereafter feels a bit like an anti-payoff after all we have gone through. Although it does come with a wide array of bullet holes. There must be more to this story. Then again, maybe it is just the right resolution for a rare oater such as this. At any rate, the film is at its best not as a wide-ranging epic but on a micro-scale. This is a story owned first and foremost by our two leading men.

Taken as it is, the story is uneven even subpar, but it gives us enough that is unorthodox and set alongside the incandescent performances of Cooper and Brennan with Gregg Toland’s ever superb compositions, there’s too much to like here to disregard it outrightly.

While William Wyler was never synonymous with the West like a John Ford, he nevertheless delivered on several occasions. The Westerner was one and The Big Country another. It comes from stellar character dynamics and cinematography more than anything else. However, when put together compellingly, they do make a sterling combination. For this one, we could not envision the West without the likes of Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan.

Walter Brennan leverages his role to become one of the most endearing of antagonists. And if it’s pushing it to say he’s lovable, then at least there’s something tragically inane about him so agog over a lady, even to the point of renaming his town after her. Since actors like Chill Wills and Dana Andrews are mere blips on the screen, Cooper is the only character coming close to his equal.

There’s only one final thought left. It really is a shame Gregg Toland never shot more westerns, especially with John Ford (his collaborator on two contemporary pictures). Some of the most captivating images in The Westerner come from sunlight glistening through the cornfields as the homesteaders thank the Lord for their bounty. What could he have done with Monument Valley as his playground?

4/5 Stars

The Lusty Men (1952): Nicholas Ray Transcends His Material Again

TheLustyMen7.jpgThe connotation of the film’s lurid title feels slightly deceptive. Because The Lusty Men might have basic elements of men who desire after women but it’s fairly restrained in this regard. At least more than I initially conceived. However, it is a film characterized by a zeal or a lust for life. The male protagonists are intent or were formerly driven in the pursuit of high living with all the benefit such a life affords.

We recognize this outright from a parade rolling down main street and then “The Wildest Show on Earth” that features the finest rodeo entertainment the world over. It’s high stakes and highly dangerous but also invariably lucrative. Many men are drawn to it greedily like moths to a flame.

Nicholas Ray sets up a high-octane environment of thrills that proves hardly as straightforward as one might imagine. Because the first man we meet is Jeff McCloud (Robert Mitchum), a lifelong rodeo man who, after his latest throw, has decided to take a break and leave the tantalizing life behind while he’s ahead. It’s a young man’s dream, but only the veterans live to make it a profession.

Coming from restless stock, he returns to his dilapidated childhood home now owned by an old homesteader (Burt Mustin) only to find the old tin can he buried two coins in when he was a kid. They’re still there and they’re also the only true assets he has to his name. Instantly we have a read on him. He has no possessions, a drifter, laconic in speech. You know the type and better yet you know exactly who he is with Robert Mitchum playing him — his true bread and butter.

He meets a pair of newlyweds, the Merritts, and manages to grab a job as a ranch hand. The husband Wes (Arthur Kennedy) is taken with the aura of the older man who has quite the reputation. For the time, Jeff takes it in stride.

It seems every film I see Susan Hayward in has managed to slip past me for a long time. But she fills the screen with an undoubted strength of her own. There’s something about her upper lip that I can’t quite put my finger on, but together with her near imperious gaze, you have a face capable of supreme expressiveness. She and McCloud both latched on to something. For her its a husband striving after what she wants. For him, its a man who can help him. It’s reciprocal.

This dynamic makes Kennedy’s character the most obvious and least interesting though, like Rancho Notorious, he’s meant to be playing a young man and manages to imbue the part with a cocky ebullience. He’s intent on a certain life and even if he seems a straight enough arrow, his way gets clouded by these aspirations.

We received glimpses early on, but The Lusty Men is also the most visceral and intensive rodeo movie I can recall. What follows is an ugly evolution in our characters; Wes most obviously. The distinction being, everything he is happens right before our eyes as he calls on the expertise of McCloud to help him conquer the rodeo circuit.

Everything Jeff exists as finds its origins outside of the frame, based on years and years as a rider with an unspoken history we can never completely comprehend. Mitchum carries the onus of time well, and it makes him continually intriguing.

We can’t quite get a line on him. He seems to go around as nice as you please. Maybe a fresh word or two but that’s just his personality (Hasta Luego. That’s Spanish for, “If the shower don’t work call McCloud”). There’s hardly an advance and yet you half expect him to be working a David & Bathsheba angle, except a battlefield has become a rodeo. He keeps the cards close until the last possible moment.

There’s a pool of weathered supporting players he reunites with including the broken but resolutely chipper Arthur Hunnicut, who maintains a taste for the rodeo even though he’s long since left the corral behind. Then, you have the likes of Al (Frank Faylen) and Rosemary, a match made in heaven, as they have all but resigned themselves to the life. It might as well be in their blood. The beauty is how their characters are almost contours but we want to know them more than we have the chance to.

Whenever you have a group of people who have bought into some sort of madness whether the stage, aviation, rodeo, or anything else, there is a near-insane amount of devotion put into the lifestyle. Look at Stage Door, Only Angels Have Ways, or West Side Story to see have a certain mentality easily pervades the world to create a collective consciousness of sorts.

This lifestyle becomes the status quo, and they have become so used to it and callous to the hardship, any trauma can hardly shake them out of it. Not unsurprisingly, such a dangerous profession comes with deadly repercussions. These hardships are what shake a person out of their reverie to decry the hazards at hand. It seems inconsequential to document them here because you can probably imagine them already.

With every person, it becomes a matter of weighing the pros and cons. There’s the choice of getting out of the cycle and ridding yourself of the dangers or otherwise willingly submitting yourself to the consequences.  Mitchum is such a curious individual because he seems to have made his peace and yet a woman he’s only pursuing half-heartedly leads him to take uncharacteristic risks.

But far from being regretful, in the end, he takes the tragedy thrust upon him with his usual coolness and casual indifference. Bitterness is not in his vocabulary, and he goes out just as he came into the film, aloof and yet somehow still showing a certain vulnerability. Because he allows affection to best him. There’s nothing shameful in that.

Rather than let the same lifestyle savage their souls, the Merritts get away too. Wes is shaken free of his bull-headedness, realizing in an instant there are far more important things than fast cash. What springs to mind are the care of a loving wife and the ability to grow old and gray together without the fear of constant peril.

The resolution is almost expected, but the actors shine as Nicholas Ray guides us through yet another outsider’s tale infused with authentic emotional longing. The film is constantly shifting between what we might easily call tropes or commonalities until it comes away with something different. It helps when you have three leading stars more than capable of playing the scenes with resonance, emoting when its called for and providing their characters with a greater tangibility.  Ray is one of those directors who continually manages to transcend his material.

The Lusty Men predates many similar films that spring to mind from Giant (1956) to The Misfits (1961) and even Hud (1963). Each one details a modern depiction of the West — having totally relinquished its glorious image and succumbed to real-world issues of aging, isolation, and decay. If you can believe it, The Lusty Men just might be the least ostentatious of them all, but it’s equally ripe for rediscovery.

4/5 Stars

Dodge City (1939): An Errol Flynn Western

Dodge_City_1939_Poster.jpgThe year is 1866. The Civil War is over and anyone with vision is moving west. One such outpost is Kansas where the railway is replacing the stagecoach. It’s a world of iron men and iron horses. Because a place like the notorious Dodge City is a “town that knew no ethics but cash and killing.”

It’s not a decent place for children and womenfolk for the time being. But some affluent magnates with vision see the profits it affords. That’s their business. It will take others to smooth out the rawness and make it into a land worth cultivating and settling down in.

Though lawlessness runs rampant in the streets led by town bad boy Jeff Surret (Bruce Cabot), a wagon train led by a caravan of seasoned cowhands looks to be yet another signifier of change. Because one of the men riding with the rest is self-assured Wade Hatton (Errol Flynn) supported by his pals. You can bet even with an accent Mr. Flynn makes an able-bodied western hero but he’s not alone.

Alan Hale was forever Flynn’s right-hand man from Robin Hood to The Sea Hawk (even playing his father in Gentleman Jim). They also get the boisterous and yet generally good-natured Tex (Guinn Big Boy Williams) to round out their trio. Hatton has his eyes on a pretty passenger who is easy on the eyes. Unfortunately, her younger brother is a drunken hellraising nuisance. He instigates a stampede that turns deadly and from thenceforward Wade and Ms. Abbie Irving (Olivia de Havilland) have a contentious relationship at best.

Seeing Dodge growing so much leaves everyone all agog. Never has a western outpost been crammed with such activity. It feels authentic in one sense. You understand how disease and waste could begin to run rampant in such a bustling atmosphere and crowded conditions. Hatton gets his first taste of Surret when one of his business associates named Orth is shot. But the story is not all drama.

In an ongoing scenario, the boisterous Algernon Hart (Hale) forgoes the tempting calls of the local Gay Lady Saloon for the Pure Prairie League, residing right next door, attended by all the town’s most proper womenfolk.

What follows just might be one of the finest brawl fight ever spilling over into the lady’s social, overwhelming the scene with all sorts of gory sights and gut-busting crashes, bams, and bangs. It feels wild, alive, and somehow thoroughly enjoyable. Maybe because we get to sit on the outside looking in at the merry madness accompanied by whoops and raucous accordion music.

What’s more, it forces a response. A drunken Hart is singled out by Surret and his thugs who get ready to string him up in the plaza right then and there. While Hatton quells the injustice without a standoff, there’s a sense that things will only continue to escalate. No sheriff will stick out their neck in such a country. No man seems strong enough.

Finally, a child (Bobs Watson) is lost it’s the final straw and Hatton vows to clean up the streets and bring civility, law and order to the territory. Rounding up the rowdy troublemakers and ending the citywide shootouts forcibly. He clamps down like no one has ever done and it begins to make things peaceable again.

It’s the old story of civilization moving in on the wheels of law and order, which slowly begin to push out the graft and corruption. Someone must have the guts to lead the crusade with ideals and guns, if necessary. But it takes a community behind him to make it stick.

In this case, he is backed by the paper and its audacious editor Joe Clemons (Frank McHugh) an ardent purveyor of free speech. Change happens incrementally. Scare tactics come and go. De Havilland joins the paper too in order to represent the interests of the local ladies and then becomes an integral member of Hatton’s crusade for good. He takes Surret’s right-hand man Yancy (Victor Jory) into his custody knowing full well that fierce retribution is coming.

Because it’s common knowledge that when two immovable objects come barreling toward each other, there’s bound to be drama. In Dodge City it comes to pass in a flaming railcar finale, one moment dire and in another thrilling, with faceoffs, ambushes, gunfights, prisoners, hostages, and some stellar sharpshooting. But a man like Wade is not meant to remain stagnant. Husband and wife ride off toward their next adventure on the range.

It truly is double trouble with Ann Sheridan and Olivia de Havilland. But Sheridan’s role had the potential to be far more compelling than it is, unfortunately. Aside from a few musical numbers and screaming for a brawl to stop, she doesn’t get much screentime before disappearing for good.

De Havilland is the obvious ingenue love interest and though she abhorred the unimaginative parts she was being handed, she nevertheless has ample talents to imprint herself on the picture. She and Flynn go through the expected beats of mutual distaste toward ultimate affection, and we delight in their chemistry even if it’s easily plotted from start to finish.

However, to survey Dodge City is to look at various pieces that feel almost incongruous. Here is Erroll Flynn playing a cowboy. The palette is Technicolor but the action is focused on towns and interiors opposed to magnificent plains. It’s not Ford. It’s not Wayne or Fonda, and yet it manages to be a fine actioner to add to the western canon due to compelling characterizations, deep-seated conflict, and of course, enough gunplay and romance to make it a true horse opera.

4/5 Stars