Canyon Passage (1946): Ole Buttermilk Skies

canyon passage 1.png

Portland, Oregon 1856 could lead us to many places but in these circumstances, it guides us to an enterprising mercantile store owner named Logan Stuart (Dana Andrews). Though he’s the main driving force behind the story, there’s little doubt this is a tale of pioneering far grander than a single individual.

As such, Canyon Passage is the epitome of a hidden gem, lined with talents who generally does not garner enough credit today for their many fine attributes. First of all, is Jacques Tourneur the French director who made a name for himself in a career laced with genre pictures and this one is no different, boasting a spectacular visual vibrancy.

The opening is exemplary, showcasing his skills as a master world-shaper, taking a western town that we only spend minutes in and through torrential rain pouring down, streets of mud, and various interiors, he’s already created a space that feels tangible to our eyes.

He continues this yeoman work throughout the story, which is a credit to its hardy terrain. We have sumptuous outdoor panoramas with rolling plains and expansive skies above. Then, there’s the verdant underbrush of the forests captured, the lush greenery, and even the interiors of cabins and shops have a rustic beauty about them that feels real.

Our trifecta of leads all proved substantial stars at one point or another beginning with Dana Andrews, then Susan Hayward, and Brian Donlevy, yet for whatever reason, it seems their names (much like their director) get lost behind a host of far more visible faces.

Nevertheless, they earn their due and in all other regards, Walter Wanger’s production is knee deep with equally memorable supporting players like many of the greatest westerns of the age. Hoagy Carmichael meanders about doing this and that with his mandolin and donkey, singing an occasional song, such as the instantly unforgettable “Ole Buttermilk Sky,” which captures a bit of the folksy milieu wafting over the picture.

Canyon Passage is also ripe with love triangles beginning with Logan and the future wife of his best friend, Lucy Overmire (Hayward) who he has been tasked with bringing home. They share a mutual affection but Logan respects his buddy George Camrose (Donlevy) too much to steal his girl; they’ve been through far too much together for that.

Instead, he sets his eyes on the pretty young woman (Patricia Roc) who was taken in by a genial frontier family headed by Andy Devine and his wife. They would gladly welcome anyone into their fold and it’s no different with Logan as he looks to make strides with Ms. Caroline.

canyon passage 3.png

However, if this was all Canyon Passage was about, it would lack a sizable conflict. But Logan must simultaneously deal with the local instigator of trouble Honey Bragg (Ward Bond as a burly villain) who has previously had more than a few run-ins with Logan and he’s not looking to make nice.

In fact, the whole town congregates in The Golden Nugget saloon after Bragg challenges his adversary to a showdown to have it out once and for all. The full brutality of such a society sets in with the men crowding around ravenously for a good show of pugilism to get their blood stirred up. A hint of lawlessness has been injected into the air.

But George also has demons of his own, namely, a gambling habit, which he can’t break, owing money all across Oregon to the point his friend bales him out only if he promises to quit. Still, the urge for wealth and constant comparisons with Logan’s continual success, make him continually discontent. He goes straight back to the cisterns that prove to be his undoing.

Like some of the best westerns by the likes of Ford or Hawks, this one feels, at times, like it’s about nothing much in particular and yet the paradox is it’s about so much that’s meaningful, speaking to the humanity at large. There is a local house-raising for a young couple just starting out and they marvel at all the folks who come to help them out. Because, for all the charitable neighbors, this is an investment in their own livelihood.

We see crystal clearly. What is going on, in front of our eyes, is the fleshing out and the building up of an entire community. Then, we receive a showcase for men of principle going against a world that seems so violent, brutal, and utterly untamed. Instead of cowering in fear or remaining apathetic, they look to confront it in some way.

However, beyond this, we have another broad conflict that’s age-old. The chafing between those who began with the land — The Native American tribes — and then the white man expanding westward with a belief they deserve a chance at a new life. In the eyes of those who started there, these newcomers are desecrating their home. In the eyes, of the pioneers, they are making it into more of a home.

When human beings wind up in close proximity, with varying viewpoints, beliefs, and practices, there’s bound to be repercussions and there are. Watching Canyon Passage you realize these very things were affecting real people, men and woman, families and the children within them. It feels like a truly eye-opening scenario.

Bloodshed ensues and against such beautiful exteriors, it only makes the scarring of the land and the bodies all the more inescapable. There’s something inside of us saying this is not the way it was meant to be.

canyon passage 2.png

What makes Canyon Passage quite powerful, frankly, is there’s no single point of contention or an individual goal in mind. It’s this all-encompassing drama with grand themes — grandiose in both scope and scenery — that concern a whole host of people trying to make lives in the western territories. You can begin to understand most everyone’s point of view. Amid the destruction and unrest, it’s easy to recognize the problems at hand. Surely, the West was meant to be more than this. Fights and warring, razing and killing.

But the frontier has always been an arena for hardship. Death by any number of ways. It’s the resiliency people lived with that meant something. In Canyon Passage, there are the same kind of folks who don’t go skulking around in their troubles but instead rise up to make the best of the next day to come. One might wager a bet it’s one of the bygone markers of the American spirit. Hopefully, we haven’t lost it all yet. We could probably still use some of that just as we could still use ambition and love, friendship, and fellowship with an underlying empathy for our fellow man.

Only when “The End” flashed upon the screen did I realize, in my former days of channel surfing in vacation hotel rooms, I once caught the tail-end of Canyon Passage. There again was an indelible image I distinctly remember, Hoagy Carmichael ambling along on his donkey, through the forest, knocking back a tune. It made me distinctly mirthful like an old friend just recently discovered again. If this film isn’t considered a classic by now then it should definitely be in the running.

4/5 Stars

Barbary Coast (1936)

barbary coast 1.png

The production itself was fraught with some turbulence thanks to the contentious relationship between Miriam Hopkins and Edward G. Robinson. The latter actor was irritated how his costar was constantly trying to increase her part and keep him off balance with frequent dialogue changes. Regardless, the talent is too wonderful to resist outright.

How Howard Hawks ended up directing Barbary Coast is anyone’s guess, somehow getting involved as a favor to his screenwriting buddies Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur who spent numerous rewrites crafting something that the production codes might actually condone, overhauling the original novel’s plot points immensely.

Hawks has no major stake in the production and as such it hardly stands up with his most engaging works. Still, it does hold some merit demonstrating from the outset it’s a fast-moving, thick-on-atmosphere, period adventure set out in 49ers era California. That environment is enough to make a generally engaging yarn even if the narrative threads run fairly thin.

But the world is fully animated. Alive with honky-tonk pianos, crooked roulette wheels, and hazy city streets paved in mud. Just about what you envision gold country to be like, at least viewed through the inspired dream factory of old Hollywood. The blending of genre is a fine attribute as the picture is a mixture of historical drama, romance, comedy, adventure, and western themes sharing some relation to San Francisco (1936) and The Sea Wolf (1940), along with the lawless towns in Destry Rides Again (1939) or even The Far Country (1954).

A ship lands in the notorious San Francisco Bay, among its passengers a strangely out of place lady (Miriam Hopkins) and a gentlemanly journalist, Marcus Aurelius Cobb (Frank Craven). They are met with quite the reception committee of local undesirables.

Walter Brennan is a standout as the scrounging, toothless, eyepatch-wearing Old Atrocity preying on unsuspecting outsiders who happen to make their way to the streets of San Fransisco. Mary Rutledge is in town to join her fiancee who messaged her to come out and meet him as he’s struck it rich. She promptly finds out her man is dead, no doubt knocked off by the crooked Louis Chamalis (Edward G. Robinson).

With his restaurant the Bella Donna and adjoining gambling house, the ruthless businessman rakes in the profits by robbing prospectors of their hard-earned caches and getting tough when they object to his dirty practices.

Miriam Hopkins, both radiant and sharp, isn’t about to snivel about her lost prospects and heads straight away to the Bella Donna to see what business she can dig up for herself. There’s little question she causes quite the stir because everyone is taken with this newly arrived white woman — including Louis. As Robinson’s character puts it, she has a pretty way of holding her head, high falutin but smart. That’s her in a nutshell as she earns the moniker “Swan” and becomes the queenly attraction of the roulette wheels.

It’s there, an ornery and sloshed Irishman (Donald Meek in an uncharacteristic blustering role) gets robbed blind and causes a big stink. Louis snaps his figures and his ever-present saloon heavy Knuckles (Brian Donlevy) makes sure things settle down.

He’s sent off to do other jobs as well. In one such case, he shoots someone in the back but with a mere Chinaman as an eyewitness in a kangaroo court presided over by a drunk judge, there is little to no chance for legitimate justice. Then there’s the manhandling of free speech by forcibly intimating Mr. Cobb in his journalistic endeavors and nearly demolishing his printing press for publishing defamatory remarks about the local despot. Swan is able to intercede on his behalf as Cobb resigns himself to print droll rubbish and it seems Louis has won out yet again.

barbary coast 2.png

Joel McCrea has what feels like minuscule screentime and achieves third billing with a role casting him as the romantic alternative, a good guy and yakety prospector from back east who is as much of an outsider as Ms. Rutledge. He’s eloquent and strangely philosophical for such a grungy place. He’s also surprisingly congenial. It catches just about everyone off guard. First, striking up a serendipitous friendship with the woman and gaining some amount of rapport with Chamalis for his way of conversing.

Though the picture stalls in the latter half and loses a clear focus, the performances are nonetheless gratifying as Robinson begins to get undermined. Vigilantes finally get organized using the press to disseminate the word about Louis and simultaneously battle his own monopoly with an assault of their own.

One man must die for the right of freedom of speech to be exercised while another man is strung up like an animal. Our two lovebirds get over the lies they told each other looking to flee the ever-extending reach of a jealous lover. Chamalis is not about to let them see happiness together. The question remains if they can be rescued in time from his tyrannical clutches. The dramatic beats may well be familiar but Barbara Coast still manages to be diverting entertainment for the accommodating viewer.

3.5/5 Stars

Impact (1949)

Impact_1949_poster.jpg“In this world, you turn the other cheek and get hit by a lug wrench.”

Impact is literally bookended by a dictionary that is opened and then closed with a concise description of the titular phrase to frame our narrative. It couldn’t be more uninspired but the word “impact” gives us some reason to hope the movie within those covers will offer some thrills.  We must brace ourselves.

The story follows Walter Williams (Brian Donlevy) the world’s most perfect industrialist and husband. He can overturn deadlocked board meetings with his stunning entrances and continually rains down affection on his wife looking forward to a weekend away in Tahoe together.

Of course, his wife (Helen Walker) has other ideas. She plays the docile and lovey-dovey wife but really she’s up to something. We see it all too quickly. Mrs. Williams is looking to get rid of her husband with the help of her boyfriend and her hubby isn’t any the wiser. He’s a sitting duck.

The script penned by Jay Dratler relies on the fact that though he gets left for dead at the side of the road, it’s a botched attempt and while disoriented, Mr. Williams is still alive.

The film is mostly encumbered by its length as it starts to sag in the middle so that even Ella Raines’ entry about halfway through the picture isn’t enough to salvage the wreckage. She shows up in all places as a mechanic in a small Idaho town and business hasn’t been good lately.

Once again Mr. fix-it Walter Williams is there to save the day. Conveniently, he keeps his past a secret. He’s happy with this simple life away from the drama that’s happening back home. Here he can go to church on Sundays and have lazy strolls out in nature. One frenzied sequence involves the volunteer fire department stirring into action which Walter readily joins.

Back home a Lt. Quincy (Charles Coburn) is making a routine going over of the case and Mrs. Williams is making arrangements of her own unaware of the unfortunate turns her plans took.

The film would have done well to have a leaner line of action because it comes out of the mayhem feeling like 2 or 3 separate movies. There are the delightful noir bits of an unfaithful wife trying to work with her lover to end her husband a la The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Then, there’s an ensuing court case where Williams finds the murder rap turned on him. Again, not unlike the high stakes scenario in the former film.

But in the middle, bisecting the picture in half is a warm slice of Middle America by way of Idaho with its palpable geniality acting as an oasis. It could have used with some shaving down. Otherwise, we have some great location footage of San Francisco and the Sausalito area circa 1949. The performances are fine though neither Donlevy or Raines particularly pop.

Anna May Wong essentially plays the movie from the sidelines as a maid until she’s absolutely necessary to save the story; it’s a major pity she was not utilized better. Helen Walker, however, gives a deliciously malicious performance as the wife who never denies loving another man and yet looks to get out of her fix to save her pretty little neck. It’s individuals such as herself that make film-noir a veritable breeding ground for truly degenerate reflections of humankind. However, Impact could have been so much more potent.

3/5 Stars

Destry Rides Again (1939)

Destry-Rides-Again-1939Destry Rides Again is integral to the tradition of comedy westerns–a storied lineage that includes the likes of Way Out West, Blazing Saddles, and Support Your Local Sheriff. It takes a bit of the long maintained western lore and gives it a screwy comic twist courtesy of classic Hollywood.

The rambunctious town carries the fitting name of Bottleneck which runs rampant with guns, beer, floozies, and more beer. The town’s mayor has a permanent seat in the local saloon playing solitary games of checkers while turning a blind eye to many clandestine activities. Meanwhile, the bar’s proprietor and local hot shot (Brian Donlevy) keeps grips on numerous shady dealings including dirty poker and murder, if you want to get technical. Though he does put on a good time with a floor show courtesy of his best girl Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich) who has the whole town swooning with her knockout looks. That’s the way the world works in Bottleneck and it’s a fairly crooked operation.

After the latest sheriff is laid waste the banjo-playing drunk is christened the town’s next lawman. It certainly is a fine joke but he does something somewhat admirable. He resolves to lay off the sauce and sober up. Calling in the grown son of one of his buddies from the old days to be his deputy.

Now he’s no longer a drunk. Just a blustering old fool who no one takes seriously for one moment. Still, when Destry comes into town he believes he will have the hulking spitting image of the boy’s father, a man who will instill fear in every local troublemaker. After all, that’s how things have worked in Bottleneck as far back as anyone can remember.

But instead of a leering heavy, he finds himself face to face with gangly Tom Destry Jr. who makes a memorable first impression on the town holding a woman’s parasol and a cage of parakeets as he helps a young lady off of the stage. However, in those opening moments he does a seemingly dangerous thing, instead of exerting his dominance he seems oddly comfortable in his skin. The townsfolk think he’s a pushover and he strings them along rather well. After all, he doesn’t carry any guns. He spends a great deal of time whittling and there’s a good-natured affability to his demeanor in nearly all circumstances. Added to that he has the oddest quirk of supplying an ever-ready stream of anecdotes for any given situation.

It’s such displays that earn the glee of the local thugs and hoodlums and the ire of not only his sheriff but the folks who feel he’s aiding their enemies. And yet in certain moments, he surprises them, proving to be an incredibly humble marksman (a precursor to Atticus Finch), breaking up a vicious catfight between two women with a pail of water, and getting buddy-buddy with the town’s rebels only to turn on them.

He seeks to bring law and order to the town on his terms looking to pin a murder on Kent in order to put him away for good. Of course, he’s not about to take it lying down and the town blows up into a scatterbrained finale that equals any of the zaniness in any of its aforementioned brethren of western comedy. As the menfolk fight it out with guns, Frenchy with a new resolve gathers all the womenfolk in an assault on the opposition using all blunt instruments imaginable from rolling pins to gardening tools. It’s sheer madness.

That’s not to say that Destry does not have its share of tragedy and that might be its greatest fault. Sometimes it doesn’t quite know where to fall between the lines of comedy and drama. Still, with the two legendary icons as luminary as James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich, it’s hard for this one not to be a winner though they seem so diametrically opposed to each other.

However, Cooper and Dietrich worked surprisingly well in Morocco and so Stewart and Dietrich work in a pinch here.  There’s also an abundant stock company including future stars like Brian Donlevy and Jack Carson not to mention small time funnymen like Billy Gilbert, the long-suffering bartender, and Mischa Auer, the man who unwittingly loses his pants in a poker game. Moral of the story is, don’t gamble. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Destry would come in with a story right about now.

4/5 Stars

 

The Glass Key (1942)

the-glass-key-1942With Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon making a splash just the year before and giving a big leg up to its star Humphrey Bogart as well as its director John Huston, it’s no surprise that another such film would be in the works to capitalize on the success. This time it was based on Hammett’s novel The Glass Key and it would actually be a remake of a previous film from the 30s starring George Raft.

But instead, we had Alan Ladd in the lead fresh off a career-making performance the year before. True, Ladd’s no Bogart and the forgotten Stuart Heisler is hardly the caliber of Huston, and still, the film is somehow entertaining in its own way. It channels the political corruption of Force of Evil with a bit of the unfathomable plot and mile-long laundry list of characters rather like The Big Sleep. And once more like any comparison with the Maltese Falcon, it hardly holds a candle to these other films but it’s not trying to be overly smart. It never makes an attempt at commentary or some deep philosophical character study but it does ladle out some unabashed noir entertainment.

There’s the pairing of Ladd and Veronica Lake once more to capitalize on their breakout success in This Gun for Hire. Noir regular Brian Donlevy stars alongside them playing a tough guy and political boss named Paul Madvig. His right-hand man Ed Beaumont (Ladd) stands stalwart by his side until Madwig gets caught up in politics as well a murder accusation. By day he tries to win the hand of the pretty daughter (Lake) of an aspiring governor while at night he looks to run out the towns gangsters namely one Nick Varna. As one might expect murder, corruption and familial turmoil all become integral plot points

Once more Ladd shows his aptitude for playing “leading roles” that still somehow allow him to stand on equal footing beside other stars. His most prominent performance as the gunslinger Shane is a fine example because although he is the title character, still somehow he manages to walk in the periphery and he does so with a quiet confidence. Similarly, in This Gun for Hire and The Glass Key, there is a cool curtness to his demeanor that he pulls off well. It allows him to be the star without really seeming like it. That’s the quality he’s able to cast and Lake works well to balance him out. Donlevy gives a surprisingly spirited performance but he’s not a magnetic star. If anyone, this is Ladd’s film with Lake too.

As we would expect with any decently entertaining noir thriller, the rest of the film is filled out with quite the menagerie of characters the most memorable of those being William Bendix as a rough and tumble henchman. He and Ladd have it out in a couple of scenes and in real life, they would become lifelong friends. The way they beat each other up though it’s sometimes hard to tell.

3.5/5 Stars

Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)

220px-The_Miracle_of_Morgans_Creek_1944_posterPreston Sturges was a revelation when I first saw Sullivan’s Travels and then The Lady Eve. His scripts are always wildly hilarious and full of memorable characters, whether they are headliners or just supporting the stars. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944) was a lesser known film to me, starring Eddie Bracken and Betty Hutton, but I was ready to see what this screwball could deliver.

With the start of the war, there began a push on the home front to strengthen morale by throwing parties and drinking victory lemonade in honor of the boys going overseas. Young Trudy is intent on dancing the night away with a lot of soldier boys. She just wants to do her part in the war effort after all. Her grumpy and domineering daddy Mr. Kocklenlocker (William Demarest) forbade her from taking part in such a shindig.

She sullenly goes to the movies with Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken), the young man who has been infatuated with her since they were kids. However, she somehow talks Norval into letting her go off to a party, and she spends the night living it up, while he waits dejectedly at the theater. When she finally returns its late morning of the next day and Norval knows her father will kill him.

However, Trudy also discovers a ring on her finger signifying that she married a soldier in her wild stupor the night before. The only problem is she cannot remember who it was, there were so many soldiers that she danced with after all. On top of that, add the prospect of a baby and you have a real doozy that has small-town scandal written all over it.

Norval tries his best to help remedy things for Trudy, only to wind up in jail with a big to-do building up — even making its way to the governor! Things don’t look good for poor Norval until Trudy gives birth and it’s a MIRACLE! When he finds out about what happens he has a little fainting spell.

That’s the craziness that is the Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, thanks to the rapid-fire dialogue and caricatures created by Preston Sturges. William Demarest is especially memorable as the hard apple Mr. Kocklenlocker who is always bossing his daughters around, but he’s not all bad. By now Morgan’s Creek looks dated, but all the same, it is still a memorable piece of WWII homefront cinema. Supposedly it was standing room only back in the day and honestly, it’s surprising that this film ever got past the censors. Bigamy, pregnancy, and so much more all comically mentioned in a 1940s film. Who would have thought?

4/5 Stars

The Big Combo (1955)

b456e-bigcombo1There is so much to the plot of The Big Combo, but the irony is that the story is not altogether extraordinary. Instead, highlights include David Raksin’s (Laura) jazzy score infused with brass which is somewhat unusual for the genre. Cinematographer John Alton also helped in making this film visually and stylistically engaging. There are some crazy, overstated shadows making this undeniably film-noir. There are very few better examples of so-called “dark” cinema with prototypical chiaroscuro and low key lighting.

Honestly, I have never been a huge fan of Cornel Wilde, and I can understand why he is not that popular or well known. He’s relatively beady-eyed, not particularly good looking, and his voice is not altogether memorable. Like Mr. Brown said in the film, “It’s personality. You haven’t got it. You’re a cop.” Even Dick Powell has some wit but Wilde’s character is straitlaced and steady. There’s nothing of much repute about him. But enough about Wilde.

The story is your somewhat typical procedural with a righteous cop facing off against a big time mobster. Mr. Brown is practically untouchable with a large pool of money at his disposal and a group of faithful thugs ready to do his bidding. He has a girl, Susan Lowell, who is about fed up with him, but she sticks around.

Lt. Diamond (Wilde) is totally fed up with the corruption but himself is also infatuated with Lowell. His only lead is the name “Alicia” which leads to trouble with Brown and his thugs who rough him up and leave him drunk. However, he learns from a man named Betini that “Alicia” was Brown’s wife who was supposedly murdered and thrown overboard with an anchor.

Next on the beat is a tight-lipped Swedish antique dealer, and ultimately, Diamond comes up with proof that Brown’s wife is still alive. He’s getting too close so Mr. Brown sends out his thugs Fante and Mingo to shut him up for good. They get the wrong person.

Alicia finally turns up, a few more figures get mowed down in Mr. Brown’s wake including Diamond’s trusty colleague Sam (Jay Adler). All that’s left is a showdown at the airport that is like Casablanca‘s atmosphere on steroids. It truly is a stunning achievement in visual storytelling for Alton and director Joseph H. Lewis.

There is not a great deal of sympathy to be had for a lot of the characters who got it, and though she seemed to have little bearing on the plot, Rita’s demise was surprisingly difficult to take. She was the girl with the heart of gold. Brown’s heartlessness finally came back to bite him but honestly, I could have cared less if Diamond was the one to catch him or not. He couldn’t have done it without Susan anyways.

3.5/5 Stars