The Man From Laramie (1955)

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The title says it all. James Stewart is the eponymous stranger who rides into town delivering a load of supplies to an isolated outpost called Coronado. But that’s not his main business at hand. He’s searching for someone because he has some personal matters to take care of. In this small regard, Stewart heads a cast of enigmatic characters with hidden agendas and histories we piece together over time.

Within the opening frames what becomes evident immediately are the million dollar skies and cotton candy clouds captured in CinemaScope and vibrant Technicolor by veteran cinematographer Charles Lang.

At the local general store, the stranger meets the demure shopkeeper Barbara Waggoman who welcomes him to town though she seems less than thrilled to receive his goods as she’s intent on closing up her father’s shop since he died. Otherwise, she tips him off to the salt reservoir outside of town so he and his partner Charley (Wallace Ford) can make some more dough. I’ll always hold a soft spot for Cathy O’Donnell since The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and nothing has changed here. She is as soft-spoken and delightful as ever.

Unwittingly this sets them up with the film’s reoccurring point of conflict. Because they begin mining the resource not knowing it’s technically located on the infamous Barb Ranch run by a ruthless cattle baron (Donald Crisp) and yet he’s nothing compared to his crazed son toting an inferiority complex.

He rides in on them with his band of heavies and proceeds to raze all their wagons and shoot every last mule they have. Talk about overkill for mining salt. It’s a textbook overreaction that’s seemingly uncalled for but it only makes Dave Waggonman’s other behavior more believable.

In town, fisticuffs erupt in the middle of a cattle stall as Lockhart handily takes on his adversaries thanks to the help of a plucky woman named Kate Canady. With it Aline MacMahon makes a crackling entrance as one of the film’s most joyously rousing characters.

The picture continues to be a contentious family affair on the whole. The quiet strength of Donald Crisp resonates as a hard man who you know holds onto some regrets for the empire he has forged. Not least among them the entitled softness of his only son. At the same time, he loves the boy dearly and will do anything to maintain his land holdings.

Arthur Kennedy rarely gets a fair shake as an acting talent but yet again much like Bend of The River, he is a vital component of this particular story. Here he is Vic Hansbro, Alec’s loyalist workhorse and the man trusted to rein in Dave. Though not a blood relation Vic has been with the family for a long time and is planning to marry Barbara. He’s a great deal more rational than Dave but that doesn’t mean he’s not willing to fight for what’s in his best interest whether it’s against Lockhart or his longtime boss. He’s not about to be pushed around.

A single moment seared into our consciousness unfolds after the boy Dave ambushes Lockhart only to get shot in the hand. But he’s not about to take it like a man. Once his cronies are there to back him up he makes his rival pay in one of the most vindictive scenes out of the Mann canon. Jimmy Stewart gets treated to some eye for an eye maliciousness which only makes his personal vendetta smolder.

He’s intent on discovering the man who’s been giving the Apaches repeating rifles. Because he has a personal stake in it as do most everyone else in the story. It gets him in trouble nosing around. On one such occasion, Canady fishes him out of prison for the back alley stabbing of a man (Jack Elam) that he didn’t commit. As recompense, she asks him to finally accept the offer to be foreman of her ranch and he reluctantly agrees.

You see she has long been a thorn in the side of Alec. She’s been one of the few people he hasn’t pushed out of the territory. But maybe it has something to do with their past history together.

The final act brings everything to a stellar apex as Alec catches wind of the missing shipment of rifles and Vic begins to lose his cool as he does everything in his power to protect his boss, harming him in the process. The stage is set for a showdown, Will finally able to make his peace with Apaches also out on the warpath. It exceeds our expectations in typical Mann fashion.

Though regrettably they would never work on another picture together again based on a minor creative disagreement, James Stewart and Anthony Mann left us a stellar body of work including a line of five western pictures that remain a harrowing testament to the genre. If it must be the end, then The Man from Laramie is a fine capstone to go out with.

4/5 Stars

Heroes For Sale (1933)

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We are inserted, presumably, into a war picture courtesy of William A. Wellman, situated in WWI trenches. The downpour is compounded by the constant hail of bullets as a group of men conduct a near suicide mission. One of the soldiers, Tom Holmes (Richard Barthelmess) proves his heroics on the battlefield while his friend Roger dissolves in fear. But the battle leaves Tom, now a prisoner, with debilitating pain from some splinters of shrapnel lodged near his spine. He’s given morphine to keep it manageable.

He comes back from the war addicted. He gets the shakes at his bank job where he works under his war buddy Roger and the other man’s father. Tom is constantly in need of his fix and it just keeps on getting worse and worse.

Early on, the picture begs the question, how are heroes made? We turn them into near mythological beings and even if it’s well-vested that doesn’t mean that they consider what they did to be anything extraordinary. Imagine if it’s not deserved. Tom and Roger understand exactly what this is like. In the wake of a scandal and his ousting from the bank, Tom gets interned at a drug clinic only to come out a year later a new man ready for a fresh start.

It struck me that in a matter of minutes the film drastically shifts in tone, suggesting at first the dark shadows overtaking a picture like All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) only to come out unscathed and don the coat and tails of an industrial comedy-drama. I must say that while the former feels more akin to Wellman’s usual strengths, I do rather prefer the latter, though the picture doesn’t dare end there.

Wellman introduces us to our latest locale with a dash of humor delivered through an array of pithy signs adorning the walls of an old diner. But it’s the people under its roof that make it what it is. Pa Dennis (Charley Grapewin) is the most genial man you ever did meet and he would give you the shirt off his back if you needed it. His daughter Mary (Aline MacMahon) is little different though she chides her father for his loose finances.

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Still, her jovial hospitality charms Tom into striking up a conversation and considering renting a room from them. Meeting the disarmingly attractive Ms. Ruth Loring (Loretta Young) from across the hall all but seals the deal. Cue the music as Young enters stage right and let’s disregard it and just say she more than deserves the fanfare.

You would think the inventor with overt “Red” tendencies, adamant criticisms of capitalism, and a chattering habit like a squirrel would be a turnoff for prospective boarders. Not so.  Soon Tom joins the ranks of the local laundry where Ruth also works forging a happy life for themselves.

The mobility of Heroes for Sale is another thing that struck me. It results from a different era but this is also very much a Depression picture in the sense that we are seeing what a man can still do even if times are tough as long as he has a strong head on his shoulders. Machinery is implemented not to steal work away from eager employees but to cut down on long working hours and increase output. All in all, it sounds like a thoughtful and humane objective.

But a heart attack leaves the company in different hands that are looking to work only in dollars and cents, not in humanity. Thus, it looks like Tom’s idealistic enterprising has been turned on its head, now completely sabotaged. All the folks who put their trust in him are bitter with the prospect of losing their jobs. Put out of business with their own funds.  This same unrest runs through the pages of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (1940) too as modernity begins to put out all outmoded methods standing in the way of so-called efficiency.

What we have here is a populist picture daring to show the plight of the people. Richard Barthelmess is an affecting lead because he seems almost unextraordinary. His voice is steady and calm. He’s not unkind. But there’s an honesty to him that asserts itself. The fact that he gets a bum steer and takes it without so much as a complaint speaks volumes so he doesn’t have to.

Heroes for Sale feels like a micro-epic if we can coin the term. It’s ambitions somehow manage to be grandiose as it sweeps over cultural moments like WWI and The Depression which underline further social issues including heroism, drug abuse, communism, and worker’s rights. All done up in a measly 71 minutes. Look no further than the standoff between an angry mob and the riot squad for squalid drama. This is no minor spectacle. Nothing can quite express the anguish watching Young frantically run through the violent frenzy in search of her husband.

There is no excuse if this is the standard we put longer films up against. Not a moment seems wasted. Yes, it goes in different directions. Yes, it feels like a couple different films and yet what connects it all is this abiding sense of Americana. Themes that resonate with folks who know this country and its rich history made up of victories and dark blots as well. Most brazenly it still manages to come out of the muck and the mire with a sliver of optimism left over. Heroes For Sale is no small feat.

4/5 Stars

Girls About Town (1931)

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I came to this film for Kay Francis and I stayed because of Kay Francis, George Cukor, Joel McCrea, Eugene Pallette, and Lilyan Tashman. All to say, it is a supreme pleasure to watch this cast in action and already Cukor seems capable of handling the material in a way that intuitively understands the comedy while never losing sight of the romantic heart. That balance seems key.

But we also see another Cukor hallmark with two strong female characters who are central to the film’s integrity. Wanda (Francis) and Marie (Tashman) make a living as girls about town. They are bankrolled to get comfortable with out-of-town businessmen. Because a little female company and a lot of bubbly makes any business transaction go down smoothly.

Marie doesn’t mind the vocation but you can see it in Wanda’s eyes. She’s tired of the same haggard men and droll conversation. She wants something of a little more substance. An actual man and a real relationship.

Yet she concedes to do another gig as part of a yacht excursion that’s looking to schmooze a wealthy whale of a man named Benjamin Thomas (Palette). He also is a self-proclaimed king of practical joking. In fact, he doesn’t know when to quit whether it’s glasses of water or deep sea diving for golf balls. Marie gravitates to him for a laugh.

Meanwhile, Wanda has her eyes set on the younger one, Mr. Benjamin’s associate (McCrea) who isn’t much for conversation or any kind of companionship. As hard as she tries there’s nothing doing. But they finally strike up a compromise by playing “pretend.” Their relationship becomes jovial. The only problem is that Wanda is falling for a man who never meant to romance her. Things get a little too real.

But thank goodness, the feelings are mutual and it looks like they will be together for good. A zoo might as well be the tunnel of love as our two euphoric romantics smooch their way through the animals. At this point, the love story is floating on air. Until Jim mentions marriage.

Here Girls About Town earns its keep as a Pre-Code picture due to its subject matter, the flippancy with which it deals with romance, and even fairly radical views on the necessity of the institution of marriage between two people.  None is the focal point per se but they certainly make the picture quite bold even in what it deems to be the status quo when placed up against films that came a mere three or four years later. The inevitable bomb is dropped but it hits like a pin drop. She’s married already. She doesn’t even bat an eye. Divorce is what is called for and there’s no reason her husband would not grant her one. She hasn’t lived with him for a time.

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The films secondary narrative involves Benny’s own wife coming back into his life to try and save his reputation only to join forces with the surprisingly reasonable Marie as they scheme to get the old curmudgeon to spend his money and show his affection for his wife.

The final complication just gets better and better and it keeps the picture interesting. At this crucial stage, Wanda’s spineless husband Alex turns an about face and crosses paths with Jim to talk it out.  Now the indignant Jim smells blackmail and lashes out not only at this man but his formerly soon-to-be wife. You can see the heady implications.

But there’s something more to Adam. Perhaps he’s not the villain we assumed him to be. That would have been too easy. So instead of getting the money back from him, Wanda sets her sights on the next best option. An impromptu auction is undertaken as the girls rally to raise $10,000, complete with a heel for a gavel and a wheeling-dealing Marie presiding.

Certainly, it’s not the necessity but the principle of the matter as Wanda wants to pay her man back to show her true character. She was never looking to take advantage of him and she is willing to go to great lengths to renew his trust. It’s made easier by the fact that he’s torn up about what happened. Now she has him where she wants him. Her days as a girl about town are numbered.

Ernest Haller is our cinematographer and there are several setups that are particularly interesting because they trade out our normal frame of reference as the audience by putting us in different places. The first instance comes in the zoo where we find ourselves literally inside different cages with a bear and then some reptiles.

Then, there’s a later sequence where we similarly end up behind the glass of a display case. And of course, we can’t hear the exchange going on outside but the pantomime gets it across just fine. But the creme de la creme is the flurry of close-ups on Palette’s face when he sees all the jewels that he thought he bought for another woman on his wife. Priceless.

3.5/5 Stars