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

Ramrod (1947)

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Right away, in the very first moments, we know something’s amiss when the driver of a passing wagon notes to the woman at his side that they just passed her father…and they proceed to keep going without even a word of greeting.

It’s true that Ramrod is a riff on the age-old family feud but it involves several other men who are tied up in it too. Frank Ivey (Preston Foster) plays god where nothing and no one sees the light of day without his say so. Because remember these are the days when whoever had the most firepower and the ability to lean on others was king.

True, the sheriff (Donald Crisp) has a duty to uphold the peace but his jurisdiction and authority can only reach so far. One man against an entire posse doesn’t amount to much. Important to this story is that the old man from the opening scene, Ben Dickason (Charles Ruggles), has long sided in all of his affairs with Ivey. He’s even told his daughter to marry him and he does it again when the bully runs her latest beau out of town.

But Connie Dickason (Veronica Lake) is resolute and not about to let anyone push her around and so she decides to take the land bequeathed to her and try and make a go of it as a cattle rancher. She knows its an uphill battle in opposition to Ivey but one key to the enterprise is Dave Nash (Joel McCrea) who finds himself all of the sudden on the wrong side of Ivey as well. Now he has a reason to take up an offer from Connie becoming the ramrod of her outfit.

Soon he assembles a workforce including his pal Bill Schell (Don DeFore) to see the game through by legal means playing by the rules because the local sheriff is a buddy and Dave is not about to put his friend in a compromising position. He respects him too much. Others are not so valiant. For all intent and purposes, total war has begun.

First Connie’s homestead is razed to the ground, a cowhand is given a going over, and another man is gunned down in retaliation. Both sides have blood on their hands’ thanks to this eye for an eye mentality that continues to escalate matters. A herd of cattle is stampeded. The sheriff gets it for attempting to enact justice. Dominoes continue to tumble with each subsequent shotgun blast of malice.

Dave winds up as a fugitive for avenging his friend’s death by gunning down his purported killer. He finds himself wounded and trying to sneak past the searching eyes of Ivey. They manage to get him away to a secluded cave but even their his safety is put in jeopardy by — you guessed it — Connie Dickason. She has her meddling hands in many things.

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The one person who won’t let him down, despite a myriad of faults, is Bill and he devises a plan to draw the enemy away from his friend by acting as a decoy. The posse winds into the mountain crags to gun Dave down for good; they fail to comprehend who they are actually dealing with.

With her then-husband directing, it makes sense that the film provided a prominent berth for Lake. It’s a juicy role full of a mixture of innocent intentions and conniving. There’s absolutely no question about it; it’s another femme fatale role as she plays a “man’s game” by pitting all the men in her life against each other to get her way so she can pick up the pieces. In totality, it’s a nifty bit of maneuvering to get the desired results, successfully pouting her way to the top. But a curious counterpoint is Rose (Arlene Whelan) who is without question the guardian angel of the picture tugging at Daves heartstrings while Connie continually entangles him.

Retroactively it’s seamlessly easy to label this a noir-western sharing company with such hybrids as Pursued (1947) and Yellow Sky (1948). This breed of western is dark and brooding, concerned with psychological warfare as much as it is rough and tumble enforcement of justice. We half expect Ramrod to cram itself down our throats and it might as well with all that goes down.

The cast is steady with a plethora of recognizable character actors including Charles Ruggles and the diplomatic hand of Donald Crisp. Don DeFore as the bright-eyed ranch hand nevertheless knows how to hold a grudge with the best of them. You’ve never seen him so grungy. Lloyd Bridges fills a near bit part as a hot-headed heavy as usual while the scapegoat Virg is portrayed by Wally Cassell (Cassell lived to the ripe, old age of 103). With the reteaming of Lake and McCrea we had a reunion of Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and yet the reason it didn’t happen earlier was McCrea was not all that fond of his leading lady. By no means does that detract from this minor western success.

3.5/5 Stars

National Velvet (1944)

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“Everyone should have a chance at a breathtaking piece of folly, once in his life.” ~ Anne Revere as Mrs. Brown

There’s been many a boxing and a ball sport movie and so it seems only fair that there be room for at least one more Technicolor horse drama, especially one with the breathtaking and gloriously unbridled energy of National Velvet.

It showcases the lofty aspirations riding on the back of a horse and carrying the effervescent hopes of a young girl. I’m certain we could use more movies like this — ones done with this amount of candor and geared toward a broad audience — namely the entire family.

True, Clarence Brown is a director mostly lost to time and perhaps understandably so. This isn’t so much of a technical marvel as it is a story that wraps up its audience with some amount of vigor.

Nor was it a film shot abroad in some exotic location. But that is hardly a criticism, mind you. This was Hollywood’s rendition of the British Isles created in Pebble Beach, California much in the same category of other such period classics like How Green Was My Valley (1941) and Lassie Come Home (1943) — the most obvious point of connection being the always admirable Donald Crisp.

Featured front and center is Elizabeth Taylor in the days when she hadn’t yet been propelled to iconic sex symbol status and still remained the sweet precocious little girl who made the screen sparkle with her adorableness.

Here she is as Velvet Brown. Other girls, namely her big sister (Angela Lansbury) are boy struck but Velvet can best be described as horse struck. She dreams about them in her sleep, thinks about them in her waking hours, and must stop the moment she sees one of her favorite thoroughbreds in the fields on the road home to her town of Sewells.

From the first time she sees “The Pie” in all his majesty, she’s absolutely enchanted by him. It was a love story meant to be. Stirred up by her mother’s own past forays in sport, Velvet begins to entertain thoughts of entering her beloved horse in the Grand Nationals which she believes he is capable of winning with the right training and a rider who knows him.

With the guidance of Mi (Mickey Rooney), a young nomad hired on by the family, they get the horse trained up for competition. But of course, the only one who truly can ride “The Pie” and believes he cannot put a foot wrong is Velvet herself.

Perhaps it’s not as epic as a Ben Hur chariot race or a pod race but there’s still somehow such investment in Velvet and her horse and we feel the same urgency that’s coursing through Mi as he’s watching the race. It’s an infectious moment that catches us up in its swelling emotions to the very last leg.

Far more important than the outcome of the race, however, is how Velvet remains true what she deems to be right. She never lets her pure love of horses — or this particular horse — be muddied by any amount of press or potential fame that might come out of the partnership. Because she’s not seeking any of that. Her intentions are very sincere. She’s doing it all for the sheer joy of getting to gallop across country with her best friend. That’s reward enough for her.

It’s true that Velvet’s parents prove to constantly upend our typical expectations and there’s a pleasure in finding out more about their true character bit by bit. They are folks of hardy stock who are plain but not without their unostentatious charm that comes from being bred in a world of hard work and no doubt Christian charity.

Anne Revere gives one of the most enjoyable performances of her career, start to finish, imbued with an impeccably dry wit that also comes with being a mother who loves her family dearly and aspires for them to have hopes and dreams to carry them through life. You get a sense that she desires they might be decent people who never weary of doing the right thing. There’s a sublime nuance to her turn that would be lacking from the film’s frames otherwise. She is the moral heartbeat and the counterbalance to every other character.

Fiction also mirrored reality in that Elizabeth Taylor truly became the tenderhearted horse whisperer as one of the few people who could actually handle and ride her horse. There’s no sense of parlor tricks and if it’s possible to say this, there’s almost a visible chemistry between her and her steed. They seem meant to be together. Fittingly, on her 13th birthday after the filming was done she was bequeathed her four-legged friend and they remained together for his entire lifetime.

The only rather odd performance or casting choice might seem to be Mickey Rooney who was still a major star in 1944 but sometimes his role doesn’t feel the most authentic. It feels like he’s playing at his part. Meanwhile, Taylor continually bowls us over with every drop of cheerfulness she has in her being.

Maybe I am unfairly prejudiced against Mickey Rooney but he always seemed more like a personality than a true actor. Here as Mi he more or less looks like a tragic story waiting to happen but now thanks to a girl and a horse, he’s getting his shot at redemption. Thankfully for us, this is not wholly his story but more so the story of the horse and its girl.

It’s a wonderfully forward-thinking message for its day that a young girl with ambition can succeed in a man’s world even on the racetrack. Fantasy or not this is a story that uplifts with sheer climactic euphoria.

To all the future teachers, doctors, lawyers, explorers, scientists, and jockeys, this film gives its message loud and clear. Dare to dream. You can’t worry about what others might say. Just go out and pursue whatever it is with all the passion you can muster. No matter the outcome, there will be little to regret.

4/5 Stars

How Green Was My Valley (1941)

Starring a cast including Roddy McDowell, Walter Pidgeon, Maureen O’Hara, and Donald Crisp, with director John Ford, the film is told from the eyes of a young boy (McDowell) from a Welsh mining family. Huw has five older brothers, an older sister, and two strong but goodhearted parents. As times get tougher, he sees one brother get married and two others leave for America. Huw faces his own struggles recuperating from an injury and surviving his schooling. Along the way he is aided by the kindly preacher (Pidgeon). However, soon he sees his family torn apart even more when his sister is unhappily married off, a brother is killed, and two others lose their jobs. Then, finally when his sister returns, the town folk start a scandal, and Mr. Morgan becomes trapped in the mine. It does end on a good not and the family stays resilient. This film is full of adversity but more importantly it has warmth and good people. The camera work is excellent and the Welsh singing is memorable.

4.5/5 Stars