Drums Along The Mohawk (1939): Ford, Fonda, and Colbert

Drumsalongthemohawk.jpgRecently, it’s come to my attention there is really is a dearth of colonial America pictures between the likes of Disney’s Johnny Tremain and Mel Gibson’s The Patriot. The reasons seem somewhat obvious at least in the current day and age. Period pieces cost money and such material feels crusty unless you spice it up with ingenuity a la Hamilton.

For anyone who might want a dose of debatably historical entertainment, there’s Drums Along The Mohawk. Because what it cannot claim in the realm of accuracy, it more than makes up for with the usual shading of classic Hollywood reined in by a consummate professional directorial eye like John Ford’s.

This particular narrative begins with a newly wedded couple in Colonial America Lana (the always glamorous Claudette Colbert) and Gil (a severe-looking Henry Fonda). The ceremony takes place in a grand estate, and it’s true Lana comes from a wealthy family. In this regard, it’s easy to buy Colbert in this part given her image and even easier to comprehend her dismay when she is met with the stone-cold reality of frontier life.

Because, as it happens, Gil has sectioned off a plot of land near the Mohawk River, building a rudimentary log cabin just to get them started as they get on their feet as farmers. For his wife, it’s a shock to the system with the pelting rain and a late-night visit by the generally benevolent Native American: Blueback.

Fresh off their honeymoon, they make the acquaintance of the dubious John Carradine with allegiance to the Tories, matched by veiled threats of a potential Indian uprising. Otherwise, all the rest of the local folks are amicable, welcoming the Martins into their tight-knit community with open arms.

Like any God-fearing populous, they have church on Sundays and a ragtag militia carried away by the “Spirit of ’76.” It proves inconsequential when their homes get ravaged and razed to the ground by marauding Indians, an admittedly faceless tribe, catalyzed by a loyalist.

Until this point, Along The Mowhawk is not altogether compelling, despite our director and leads. However, it settles into its own when our protagonists have nothing; it forces them to make a crucial decision. They seek refuge on the farm of a blunt widow with enough gumption (and covert kindness) to make a new life seem feasible.

The word from the church pulpit is the most hilarious foray in comedy as the preacher takes a dig at Massachusetts men and notes the battle at hand, meaning that all men are expected to report or else be hung! He ends it with a resounding Amen. It’s old-time religion if there ever was such a thing, complete with an earsplitting “Hallelujah” from one of the good Christians.

A worthy image in the Ford catalog comes when the men march off in their column snaking down the dirt road, off into the distance, with the womenfolk watching them leave. It has the tangible sense of space — the assurance of a painting — informing the best pictorials of the director. The simplest measure of excellence is the fact it’s pleasing to the eye.

But of course, when soldiers go off to war some die and the rest come back as changed men. We recall the horror, the almost shell-shocked nature, of war.  Henry Fonda plainly detailing what they saw out in the thicket when they got ambushed is too real. You begin to remember this is right on the advent of WWII. WWI is still a heavy burden on America’s mind as the war to end all wars.

Within the context of this film, it becomes an even more complicated comparison when you place the antagonism of Americans versus The British of the colonial era with the soon-to-be conflict between Britain and The Nazis. In fact, Ford seems to make a distinction between calling the enemy “Tories” versus the British. In 200 years allegiances have changed a great deal.

However, it wouldn’t be a true Ford picture without folks kicking up their heels in a fit of merriment to fight off the dark tides with a joyful show of community. Ward Bond gets his finest moments opposite Mrs. McKlennar, calling into question her prowess in drinking and kissing. She gaily obliges. Meanwhile, in a lowly lit corner, Lana prays these good times might never end. Of course, they do.

Homes are burnt to the ground again. The townsfolk are forced to fall back to their fort to stave off the enemy onslaught in one valorous stand. It feels like a melding of apocryphal American Revolution history, “Remember The Alamo” sentiment and a moderate dose of Ford’s own mythologizing about the frontier. It’s not his very best, but there is a basic flare for the spectacle.

If we might try to encapsulate the reverberating theme to the last line, it would be fitting to evoke Revolutionary War General Nathanael Greene who is quoted as saying, “We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again.” Ford’s film reinforces this as being the American way. The only question remains who really gains the right to this way of life.

3.5/5 Stars

Jesse James (1939): Tyrone Power & Henry Fonda

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Reputed screenwriting scribe Nunnally Johnson starts off on clever footing by giving his mythic western hero an obvious antagonist. It was the railroad — that lawless iron horse — forcing Jesse James into the position of a criminal. Though he would evolve over time into the complicated human being projecting his legend, at least in the beginning, he was all but driven to take the mantle of an outlaw. At least in this telling. 

In making his hero fully sympathetic, Johnson has cast James as a western Robin Hood righting the wrongs perpetrated against him and others based the bloodthirsty land grabbing of railroad companies. Brian Donlevy, still yet to be promoted from his heavy roles, makes his rounds swindling the general populous and using more persuasive tactics to swipe their holdings.

Content notwithstanding, Jesse James is just about the glossiest possible extravaganza, you could offer a cold-blooded outlaw. The early Technicolor is gorgeous to behold, and in these prime early years of their careers, Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda aren’t in need of any favors.

Jesse James (Power) is nothing more than a gee-whiz country bumpkin when we first set eyes on him. His big brother Frank (Henry Fonda) sits in the house lazily chawing on tobacco. Despite living with their concerned mother (Jane Darwell), they aren’t squeamish about sticking up for their own. They also aren’t about to be squandered out of their land without a fight, and they’re ready to oblige any strong-armed tactics thrown their way. Dunlevy doesn’t stand a chance.

As they flee into the night with reward posters calling for them to be dragged in for a hefty reward, they on take the mantle of fugitives almost out of necessity. It’s not merely about absconding with payloads for their own pleasure. This is a form of just retribution to be enacted against the corrupt machine belching smoke and literally railroading every poor sap in its way.

A codgerly newspaperman (Henry Hull) is one of their primary champions, though each week spawns a new tirade, whether it be lawyers or dentists or any insufferable faction who are all destroying society as we know it. Rufus Cobb is one of the voices rallying the public on Jesse’s behalf because it is his daughter Zerelda (Nancy Kelly) that the man has an eye for, but he also genuinely likes the lad.

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Even as the James’ boys notoriety grows, Jesse and Zee get hitched in an impromptu church wedding. They find out, even among this congregation, they have a great deal of friends.

For every conceited businessman represented by diminutive railroad baron Mr. McCoy (a comically demonstrative Donald Meek), there is another humble, salt-of-the-earth human being like local Marshall Will Wright (Randolph Scott). He knows the law, in all its strictness, calls for him to chase down James as a craven villain. In his own way, he’s cheering for him to live another day, even as he turns the other way on at least one occasion.

It’s this sense of good faith and the pleading of his wife leading Jesse to turn himself into the authorities for a fair trial. The judge has vowed for leniency as negotiated by the marshall. They’re all for a fresh slate. Mr. McCoy is not such an understanding fellow. All he thinks of are dollars and cents. He uses his resources to bring in his own judge and make a harsher sentence stick.

However, he’s hardly counting on Frank James. He happens to be a brazen fellow, and when he vows to come in and retrieve his brother from jail before the stroke of midnight, you better believe he’ll keep his word or else be taken for a fool. Even after their thrilling escape — one of the most gratifying successes of the picture — we fall into a bit of a rough patch.

Not only has Jesse gone off on his own to leave his family to live without the specter of his reputation, he begins to change with the constant pressures and paranoia weighing on him daily. He’s no longer the same good-natured kid who once went on the run in a righteous coup against extortion.

While not a film you look for poignancy in, Henry Fonda is present and he does deliver one monologue that speaks to something supremely candid. Jesse has become hard and crazed, systematically alienating all those around him. And if there’s anyone who can speak to him, it’s his brother Frank. Fonda handles the scene with his usual subtleness dumping all these obvious grievances in the lap of his own flesh and blood. He encourages him to draw if he needs to. Frank’s not squeamish about it, but it’s his last-ditch effort to speak some sense into his kid brother.

What will come of Jesse if he doesn’t trust those who have still stuck with him? Of course, among the faithful, there is often a Judas. In this case, Robert Ford (John Carradine), intent on getting a payoff for stabbing his old compatriot in the back.

We understand implicitly we are reaching the beginning of the end. First, they get corralled in a town after a bank job and a hail of bullets comes raining down from any number of windows. This is not what does him in. If you’re acquainted with the history, you’re aware he got knocked off by a double-crossing skunk. Then, again, this is not the Sunday school truth. If anything, Johnson relishes tinkering with the details and coloring in the tall tales to fit his ambitions.

The verdict? Jesse James feels a bit sluggish as it runs its course. There’s not enough action or bank robberies in the span of the film to make it really feel alive with the overarching aura of the James brothers. In its most watchable moments, it functions, fundamentally, like a family drama. Even if the movie is only a minor oater, Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda are the main attractions, and they rarely disappoint.

3.5/5 Stars

Jezebel (1938): A Bette Davis Southern Belle

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The oldest movie theater near where I grew up was built in 1938 and by some peculiar coincidence, Bette Davis is said to have driven by the establishment time and time again. Being the iron-willed personality that she was, the rising star demanded they open with her latest movie. (I assume very few people crossed Bette Davis and lived to tell about it.)

Thus, the first film ever shown at the newly minted theater was her very own Jezebel. One of the attractions of the theater to this day is an old-fashioned parlor in the ladies room reminiscent of the days when women used to sit together while powdering their noses and sharing in the latest trivialities and juicy bits of gossip. At least that’s how I imagine it.

In truth, Jezebel would prove to be the actresses consolation prize for being passed over for the leading role in one of the biggest cultural attractions of the era, Gone with the Wind (1939). Though Davis was beloved and already extremely popular with the viewing public, the big wigs got the final say choosing Vivien Leigh instead. Of course, the rest is history.

But it’s difficult not to look at Jezebel in juxtaposition with its arguably more opulent and ostentatious rival. That begins with the differing palettes — black & white vs. color — and subsequently bleeds into the running times and comparative success as well.

Surely, Henry Fonda is no dashing rapscallion like Clark Gable, but I find him a more understated hero. More pleasantly reserved. Likewise, while Selznick’s behemoth production was a cash cow, you wonder how he was able to tie the picture together with so many moving pieces and names attached as directors, cinematographers, etc.

William Wyler guides Jezebel with his usual expertise and professionalism, cementing a long and fruitful partnership with Bette Davis. Not that they always were the perfect symbiotic relationship; he soon earned the nickname “99 Take Willie” and Davis was already known for her aforementioned recalcitrant nature.

But there’s little denying that they made each other better. He elevated her performance with his care and the collaboration with long-time cinematographer Ernest Haller lighting her in each scene, creates an ongoing continuity, while Davis brought something authentic and inherently obstinate, fearlessly commanding the screen.

This particular story takes us back in American history to Antebellum New Orleans in 1852. Davis makes a stirring impression as southern belle Julie Marsden arriving late to a fine to-do, not even changing out of her riding crop before bursting in on the company. The churlishness of her impropriety is startling and utterly appalling to the ladies and some of the gentlemen trained up by decades of Southern civility.

Ladies just don’t do such a thing. It isn’t decent. But you get the sense that’s precisely why Davis is impeccable for this role as a woman who willingly tramples over the normative without a second thought. She’s simultaneously an audacious nonconformist and a destructive force clouded by her own pettiness.

She currently resides with her hospitable and generally courteous aunt (Fay Bainter) who nevertheless has her hands full with such a strong-headed woman in her home. The most crucial personal conflict begins with Jezebel’s beau Preston Dillard (Fonda), an up and coming banker. They have a disagreement as he seems more taken with his work than with her.

However, for Julie, in her egocentric world, she is all that matters, and in a form of brash retaliation, she disregards traditional protocol again by ordering a scandalous red dress to wear to the forthcoming ball. Why is it unheard of? Because unmarried women are only ever seen in white. Never in their life would they dream of donning such a brazen symbol.

Throughout the entire film, Davis’ wardrobe, designed by Orry Kelly, essentially becomes an extension of her character, embodying her individuality and defiance of the culture she finds around her.

Henry Fonda maintains a quietly stern resolve much to his credit. Because at face value I always take him for a benevolent soul, and he is when the moments of sincerity are called for. But one cannot acknowledge his candor without remembering the other scenes in You Only Live Once or The Grapes of Wrath where his utter alienation with the world is palpable.

Thus, he’s able to hold his own with Davis even if, by design, this is her picture. The steadiness of his own demeanor is able to be her counterbalance while also confronting the blind devotees of southern convention. Of course, it can’t be helped even as he and his mentor, Dr. Livingstone (Donald Crisp), try and speak sense into those around them.

Julie and Preston weather the Ball together as he forces her to make the ignominious walk of shame and subsequently dance with him, as all eyes fall on them stupefied. Their engagement falls to the wayside after that and Julie will not have him back.

Time passes as Pres goes up north for a spell and Julie becomes inconsolate, clinging to the hope that her former lover will come back to her on his hands and knees. She’s desperate and terribly broken up. Eventually, he does return, just like old times, and yet on his arm hangs his new wife, a charming northerner (Margaret Lindsay), who nevertheless gets slighted by her jealous rival.

In one last-ditch effort to make Prez jealous, Judy tries to use a cocksure southern gentleman named Buck Cantrell (George Brent) to stir up any dissidence she can between the two men. To a degree, her disingenuous contrivance works out in winning the man’s favor with consequences she cannot be absolved of.

Although the conflict between the North and the South is rising to a fever pitch, the film is never actually embroiled in the Civil War. Instead, it is stricken by the peril of the Yellow Fever which fails to discriminate between the rich and the poor.

We see most clearly in these waning moments the arbitrary nature of the southern moral code which would deem two men would have to die in a duel for absolutely pointless means. It’s infuriating to watch because no one’s honor was even at stake. It’s all on account of the needlessly puerile ploys of a woman completely consumed by selfishness, ultimately destroying the relationships around her.

Bette Davis’ pursuit of redemption at the end of the picture generally ruins what we are left with. Especially because she was well-known for playing strong often uncompromising women verging on the unsympathetic. That was part of her allure as an actor, making her so very unlike many of the Hollywood standard-bearers. She had those iconic eyes but also an implacable bullish nature. She’s always a cinematic force to be reckoned with even if her performance gets slightly compromised in Jezebel.

3.5/5 Stars

Fort Apache (1948)

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Fort Apache gives me the opportunity to consider one of John Ford’s most unlikely long-term collaborations with film critic turned screenwriter Frank S. Nugent. As with all Ford partnerships, it was oftentimes prickly but there’s no repudiating the impact. However, even the writer realized how improbable it was he would have such a hand in mythologizing the West alongside one of the great American masters. Nugent noted the following:

“I have often wondered why Ford chose me to write his cavalry films. I had been on a horse but once—and to our mutual humiliation. I had never seen an Indian. My knowledge of the Civil War extended only slightly beyond the fact that there was a North and a South, with West vulnerable and East dealing. I did know a Remington from a Winchester—Remington was the painter. In view of all this, I can only surmise that Ford picked me for Fort Apache as a challenge.”

The picture opens with a particularly acerbic and icy Henry Fonda as Owen Thursday, newly assigned to the cavalry outpost at Fort Apache. One could make a wager each of Fonda’s characterizations in everything from You Only Live Once to The Ox-Bow Incident and even My Darling Clementine all culminate right here. Though he’s dismissive of the assignment, Thursday is nevertheless intent on upholding his duty. He rides along the bumpy roadways with his teenage daughter Philadelphia (an effervescent Shirley Temple) who is simply glad to be by her father’s side.

To understand the picture, it’s useful to know Nugent developed extensive bios for every character to flesh out who they were exactly. We have John Agar in his screen debut starring opposite his new wife in real life (Temple) and playing the newest commissioned officer to the fort, Second Lieutenant Michael O’Rourke.

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Life as a cavalryman proves to be a family affair and one clan has an especially substantial presence in the camp. The Lieutenant’s father (Ward Bond) is stationed there too with his mother, the older man serving as a Sergeant Major. Meanwhile, many of the veteran soldiers provide a close-knit community including Sergeant Festus Mulcahy (Victor McLaglen) who has been a lifelong friend to the O’Rourkes. Here we see Irish-American blood flowing through the picture as Ford heralds his own ancestors part in this historical landscape not only during the Civil War but long afterward. The pride in this shared culture is undeniable.

For most of its run, Fort Apache is the epitome of character-driven drama. Nugent’s meticulous character development overlaid by Ford’s own distaste for expositional dialogue provides the groundwork for yet another story operating in vignettes more than anything else. At any rate, the dialogue comes off clunkily at times while the romance between Philadelphia and Michael O’Rourke begins to blossom.

However, with her father adamant against such a union and astringent in all manners of his command, it causes an instant riff in the camp. One of his finest lines comes with inspecting his officers and noting, “The uniform is not a subject for individual whimsical expression.” He expects everyone to abide by the letter of the law and his unswerving personality is glacial on all accounts.

Meanwhile, the old reliable guard has fun with the new recruits. Among their ranks, rather unbelievably, is the veteran character actor Hank Worden. Then, the community of wives and sweethearts led by Mrs. Collingwood (Anna Lee) and Mrs. O’Rourke (Irene Rich) look to help Philadelphia make a home for herself. John Wayne is in the picture as well though he takes a decidedly secondary role as Captain Kirby York, striving to work under Thursday’s guidance with as much obedience as he can muster. However, the final act is Wayne’s as much as it is Fonda’s however.

It hardly needs to be said at this point but Monument Valley is awesome. Watching horses streak across the plains ferociously kicking up storms of dust never grows old. Nor do images of Wayne and Pedro Armendariz perched on a towering rock formation taking in the view. You can’t make this stuff up. The beauty is majestic as only natural topography can be without input by human hands or CGI — the way it was probably meant to be photographed.

There’s the impending threat of Indians making their way south. Telegraph lines are down again. So a visit is paid to the scruffy horse trader who is quite conveniently liaison between the American Indians and the government within the territory. Despite his contempt for Meacham, Thursday will not do anything about him nor does he attempt any diplomacy with the belligerent Cochise. He decides instead on the executive decision to make an all-out charge on the Native Americans forces who are waiting, guns cocked and ready.

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In the waning moments, Fort Apache becomes a more fully-realized, even emphatic indictment of recalcitrant and bluntly antagonistic leadership. Thursday holds a very entitled station — whatever he says, he says on behalf of the United States government — and no one else can say anything otherwise. What they do protest he backs up with regulations, honors, and code of conducts that might as well bury everyone.

Instead of addressing any area of compromise as minor as it might be, there is a straight and decisive path cut through any issue. They ride toward their inevitable deaths. The final bugle sounds for charge and yet it’s hardly a battle, target practice is more like it, and the horrifying thing is most everyone knows it going in. But when a man such as Colonel Thursday holds the reins you reluctantly cave to his demands lest you be clapped in irons for insubordination — even when the decisions are near lunacy. York is the one man brave enough to stand against and lives to fight another day. Many others are not so lucky

If Custer’s Last Stand was anything like this, it makes complete sense and simultaneously becomes an even more terrifying piece of history. In what might be called an early precursor to the glorification of a hero’s legend in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1961), much the same treatment is provided here for the far more dubious Owen Thursday. Once more Ford’s picture is able to get at this obvious discrepancy by pulling away and looking at the story from those folks who canonize history for all posterity. It’s oftentimes the newspaper men who are afforded that privilege. Whether their effusive praises are in order is another matter entirely and by the end, Ford Apache is a sobering portrait. It comes so far from seemingly homely even jovial roots within the compound.

So many lives were needlessly sacrificed so one man could be heralded a legend. The frightening thing is that Thursday was not a mere glory seeker; he fervently believed what he was doing was in the right. That kind of dogged methodology proved itself highly pernicious when no thought was given to discretion of any kind. It’s simply blind execution of duty. Whether it evokes Kant or not, I cannot help but think of one of the most famous examples of this in Adolf Eichmann, acting as a lowly Holocaust architect, who nevertheless proved the consequences of such a philosophy.

The dark horse of the Ford pictures, Fort Apache begins as one beast and comes out quite a different animal by the end. It so easily gets sidetracked, distracted, and lulled into different scenarios and there never is a true sense of urgency to keep the picture moving toward an obvious conclusion. Still, in the end, we get the finale and it’s unnerving as both a commentary and another projection of the mythical West. Somehow Ford stitches it together as a two-edged sword of both indictment and a moving paean to those passed.

4/5 Stars

Review: The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

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We know the score. Two drifters ride into town. They sidle up to the bar for some shots, looking for something to do in a lazy Nevada dust-hole. Their faces are equally familiar to anyone who has ever seen even a few of the old oaters. Feisty Henry Fonda as Gil Carter and his more even-keeled pal Art (Henry Morgan). Though folks question what they’re doing around, it comes to nothing except an exuberant fist fight for Fonda just itching for some thrills. He’s not disappointed.

Soon the community catches wind of the death of a beloved local named Kincaid at the hands of cattle rustlers. The wheels are set in motion as the sleepy town awakens and a lynching mob forms under the guise of a posse. With the sheriff out of town doing his duty and the local judge incapable of stopping them, they ride off looking for vengeance and some excitement to liven up their one-horse town. As the deputy illegally swears in the entire crowd as temporary deputies, our boys Gil and Art reluctantly sign on as not to draw more suspicion to themselves.

A Major Tetley (Frank Conroy) tries to take charge forcing his callow son (William Eythe) to join in as they begin their hunt. The two most reluctant and subsequently the most interesting additions to their party are the African-American preacher named Sparks (Leigh Whipper), whose own brother was lynched when he was a boy, and then the rational-minded Old Man Davies (Harry Davenport) who desires for true justice to be upheld. He is wary of the repercussions of a mob mentality.

Ultimately, they happen upon three strangers and circle them like ravenous wolves practically willing them to be guilty. In these crucial interludes, Wellman deliberately focuses on close-ups instead of scenery to ratchet the tension. It’s evident the bread and butter of this picture are within the characters themselves.

The crowd begins peppering the suspects with questions though they’ve already drawn up their answers for them. It doesn’t help that the trio’s leader (Dana Andrews) must try and explain some extenuating circumstances, namely how he acquired some of Kinkaid’s stock, which he purportedly bought off the murdered man without a bill of sale.

True, the posse doesn’t go off absolutely nothing but the integrity of democratic justice, as flawed as it might be, in the day-to-day, still maintains people are innocent until proven guilty. It’s not the other way around. That’s key. It also calls for not dealing in emotions like anger and hatred but impartial wisdom. Again, that might be impossible to attain but we must try our best. Otherwise, the consequences are potentially dire.

William A. Wellman was so eager to adapt Walter van Tilburg Clark’s original novel he agreed with Daryl Zanuck to direct two other pictures that are now all but forgotten. The Ox-Bow Incident might be small but it’s no less mighty thanks to the teaming of Wellman and Lamar Trotti. In fact, its volatility was so great no one knew how to market it during the war years. How do you try and redeem the debasement of humanity originating out of our own traditions, even as we try and reconcile that with the evil going on overseas? It’s a tall order.

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The equally horrifying thing is the fact lynchings had yet to be exterminated from American society and the blood of such injustice still soaked American soil. Though this is a showing of three men getting hung, one white (Andrews), one old (Francis Ford), one Mexican (a defiant Anthony Quinn), this could have just as easily been racially charged with African-American victims.

Regardless of guilt or innocence, justice was never meant to function in this fashion where lawlessness is masked by perceived legitimacy. Nothing good can come of it. Fonda’s own memories drew him to the material as he supposedly witnessed the lynching of a man named Will Brown in Omaha, Nebraska on September 28, 1919. You can only imagine how the images scalded him for life. 12 Angry Men (1957) is indubitably another film which dealt with comparable themes very close to his heart.

His part, along with Morgan by his side, remains crucial because they essentially act as impartial bystanders and their choice is faced by anyone at the crossroads of such an issue. Because good can be quantified by commission and omission just as evil can be perpetrated through action and inaction.

The final wallop of the film is, of course, finding out what the actuality of the matter is — knowing full well they acted in error. To cap off the most moving showing of his generally hardboiled career, as the dying family man, Dana Andrews touches them from the grave with his words one last time:

“A man just naturally can’t take the law into his own hands and hang people without hurtin’ everybody in the world, ’cause then he’s just not breaking one law but all laws. Law is a lot more than words you put in a book, or judges or lawyers or sheriffs you hire to carry it out. It’s everything people ever have found out about justice and what’s right and wrong. It’s the very conscience of humanity. There can’t be any such thing as civilization unless people have a conscience, because if people touch God anywhere, where is it except through their conscience? And what is anybody’s conscience except a little piece of the conscience of all men that ever lived?”

Even if his words serve the film more than they are the authentic words of a husband, their affecting nature is undebatable. Every man standing around the bar sullenly has been given a costly lesson — a lesson requiring the lives of three men. It’s fitting for our two drifters to ride out of town just as they came in the same hound dog sulking across the road. And yet so much has changed. If anything our hero has found his conscience in a sea of injustice.

4/5 Stars

Review: My Darling Clementine (1946)

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The first time I ever saw My Darling Clementine I couldn’t get over how unimpressive it seemed. If nothing else it certainly didn’t give off any self-aware sense of its own importance. There was nothing that struck me as outright epic and monumental. And yet this western has been a heralded favorite since its initial release in 1946. People love this movie. I think this time around I understand it better.

Maybe it’s all those reruns of the M*A*S*H classic “Movie Tonight.” Colonel Potter (Harry Morgan) eases the camp’s aggravations with a showing of his favorite horse opera which, of course, is My Darling Clementine.

But while the reels are spliced and diced for poor Klinger (Jamie Farr), the audience still gets something impactful out of the experience spilling out into their shenanigans together which makes for a quality evening. Because for once My Darling Clementine is a western with many moments that feel unextraordinary in the most human of terms.

Surely there was no greater and more prominent mythmaker of the Old West than John Ford. The key is in the realization Ford need not push anything, allowing everything to unwind in a way that’s the cinematic equivalent of organic action. The director goes with his proclivities of narrative scope, pairing down dialogue, focusing the story instead around activity — and those moments don’t necessarily have to be the perfectly suited sequences for instigating incendiary drama.

Ford’s actual meeting with the real Wyatt Earp on a film set back in the 1920s was a seminal moment for him. One could say he was imparted the blueprint and the inspiration for this picture and that is enough. Because the western never thrived on facts but the embodiment of romanticized figures and ideals. Wyatt Earp was such a figure.

Here Earp (Henry Fonda) is herding some cattle with his brothers when they pass by the town of Tombstone and leave the baby of the family to hold down the fort. In the most simplistic terms, their cattle get rustled and there’s little need to guess who the perpetrators are. The grizzled Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan) is right there with his boys, a most obvious culprit. He needn’t even bother denying it. He never does nor does Earp ever accuse him outright.

Instead, Earp decides to stick around for a while and takes up the tin star for marshaling in Tombstone, that illustrious hell hole, emblematic of western lawlessness. Straightaway he shows a bullish tenacity in running drunks and troublemakers out of town but there’s still something more to him.

Ward Bond and Tim Holt act as his brothers and his constant companions. They don’t have a whole lot to do but stand behind their brother at the bar or eat their vittles at dinner tables. But then again, you could make the case most everyone has a fairly unostentatious part.

There is no standout performance and that seems very purposeful. Surely Fonda is the glue holding it all together but it’s not due to flare so much as an ever-steady portrayal that never feels like it’s vying for attention. He leads by example and yet this does not mean the film doesn’t have moments that leave an impression.

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Linda Darnell gives him a slap and he proceeds to dunk her handily in the watering trough for her part in a crooked poker game. She’s the devious, saucy, and unfortunately named Latina Chihuahua. There’s the introduction of her man Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) that clears the bar and would have ended in a gunfight in most any other picture. Wyatt Earp smooths things over allowing life to sink back into the status quo.

A local theater production evokes a particularly rowdy atmosphere where Fonda gets a hat thrown his way which he promptly tosses right back while Darnell looks to whop someone over the head. The locals are aiming to make their displeasure known to the actor who has run out on them on multiple occasions. Earp and Doc go to fetch the man who is being harried by the Clanton boys. In one of the most articulate and entrancing sequences in a western to date, we are treated to Hamlet on the range. You know the words but never have they come out of a man such as Doc Holliday — suggesting that there is a side of him even an amount of breeding that we fail to comprehend.

Finally, Clementine comes to town (Kathy Downs) and we begin to understand. She was Doc’s girl back east when he was still practicing and known in circles as Dr. John Holliday. He’s different now, plagued by illness and alcohol-fueled demons while emphatically wanting her to go back from whence she came. It’s Wyatt who stands by with all sincerity. Getting up, tipping hats, and opening doors for her. The peaceful countenance she wears coaxes him in the direction of the church bells and a dance social.

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We know what must come in the end. It’s all but inevitable: The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. In all truth, My Darling Clementine’s shootout is not the most climactic and I could readily name numerous others I prefer. But in capturing it the way he has, Ford has remained true to the essence of the narrative thus far. What strikes me is it is by no means a sensationalized picture. It never even feels like drama or caters to the theatrical. But John Ford has made it cinematic and though it might sound like some form of paradox, I do not think it is.

We are acutely attuned to the moments with no music intuitively because there is little auditory manipulation or further distraction. Everything of import is derived from figures placed up against Monument Valley or staged in crisp interiors. Likewise, few words need to be put to any of it. Because we are fully aware, almost subconsciously. We have just seen a microcosm of the West being tamed and made livable for common folk. The old world is being undone and churches and schools now find a place in the new social order provided by men like Wyatt Earp — embodied by the likes of Clementine as the new schoolmarm. All of this is evoked not by dramatic shifts but a near meandering rhythm of scenes stacked one on top of another.

Again, we go back to the indelible image that everyone instantly conjures up of Henry Fonda with his feet propped up against the post leaning back and just resting his feet a spell. And of course, he’s our hero and the same man who will enact this change. But Ford makes him a laconic figure and one he seems content as anything just to relax.

He’d rather get a shave at the Bon Ton Tonsorial Parlor or carry the bags of a pretty gal than get into a gunfight any day. True, he can be ornery when he wants. Still, only as a last resort. Fonda’s the perfect man for the part because there’s nothing burnished about him but he comes off honestly with a straightforward sense of integrity. This allows My Darling Clementine to induce a generally optimistic portrait of the West from a picture that could have otherwise dwelled in the depths of near noirish cynicism.

However, even with its strains of the mundane — far from feeling prosaic — the film is blessed by Ford’s mastery of the image. Because what is Film if not a visual medium? The West was by far the most American canvass and Ford one of the finest masters of the art form. There need not be a better reason to relish My Darling Clementine. Aside from my expatiating, I would be amiss not to acknowledge this film as good old-fashioned communal entertainment. M*A*S*H 4077 is the case and point.

4.5/5 Stars

Note: I watched the Pre-Release cut which was restored by UCLA with slight differences from the theatrical release (arguably closer to what Ford originally intended).

The Tin Star (1957)

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You can master a gun if you have the knack. Harder to learn men.” ~ Henry Fonda as Morgan Hickman

A veteran bounty hunter rides into town with a corpse slung over the rear of his horse and gets the whole town gawking. They don’t quite fancy this entrance because they’re about law and order in these parts. Paid guns have no place in the western utopia that they have envisioned.

Obviously, no one in town wants to house such a reprobate and he has no place to bed down his horse at the livery stable either. Finally, he finds room and board with the only folks who have enough congeniality to welcome in a man like him. Because in one sense they are ostracized too, living on the outskirts of town as local pariahs. The single mother Nona (Betsy Palmer) gets by doing needlework in the evenings and trying to keep her son out of mischief. He’s half-Indian. Hence the reason no one wants anything to do with them.

But in this man who seems little more than a hardened killer, they find someone genuine and compassionate when you get to know him. Though initially surprised by the boy’s paternity his kindness doesn’t slacken admitting only that many others grow up hating Indians. They are preached as much by their parents and take it to heart so they can’t hardly change their ways. It’s unfortunate.

I’m not sure if I dare use the term “revisionist western” lest viewers get the wrong idea but seeing of all people gun shy Anthony Perkins as sheriff over a town you realize that something is gravely different with the film’s character types — at least this crucial one. His skittish nature is perfectly-suited along with his boyish looks because, as he soon learns, being a sheriff is not only about what you do but how you look doing it. Being smart, working your mind, and projecting a certain image.

At first, Ben Owens (Perkins) is like everyone else. He sees Hickman only at face value. But soon he gathers there is much to glean from this veteran who is handy with a gun and holds a wealth of knowledge. Most impressively he’s lived long enough to talk about it and that means he must be a pretty smart fellow. He’s become well-versed in human nature.

He looks at Owens, a young gun beholden to the duty thrust upon him, and he sees a dead man walking. He’s not going to last long. Hickman knows it. Ben’s girl (Mary Webster) knows it. Perhaps deep down Ben knows it too.

Finally, he asks the bounty hunter to be his mentor and reluctantly Morg agrees to it because his pupil still has his training wheels on as it were. He’s not ready to stand down the town or confront a hulking heavy like the local bad boy named Bogardus (Neville Brand).

One of the film’s finest creations is the local Doctor Joseph McCord (John McIntyre) who not only pulled strings to get Mrs. Mayfield work but he is keen to play matchmaker with two of the fast-growing babies he brought into the world. Indeed he is well-liked by all on every side.

Mann pulls another stunt, not unlike the one in The Far Country (1954) with the Doc making a grand entry with his horse into town to much fanfare on his birthday. It’s one of the film’s most indelible sequences.

A pair of half-breed brothers are also on the lamb and wanted for a couple of crimes. Bogardus gathers a mob of his own to go after them. But begrudgingly following the advice of Morg who has remained hands-off, the Sheriff decides to track them alone.

Morg lingers behind and ultimately ends up being the one who smokes them out without any bloodshed. He delivers the McGaffey Brothers (including Lee Van Cleef) over to the Sheriff so that justice can be implemented first in the jailhouse then in the courtroom.

But that is just the beginning. The final act takes on an uncanny turn toward a High Noon-like allegory. One man faced with a major opposition and yet resisting to back down. But whether or not that motif is McCarthyism incarnate or not, Mann’s handling of the sequence is arresting.

He sets up the action in such a way that we are standing behind Perkins peeking past his solitary frame. He’s unimposing and spindly standing there on the jail steps with his shotgun but he is a better man than me. The question he must grapple with is where the line between a good man and a dead one exists. Sheriffing is a nervewracking business and most men die young in such an occupation. Mann makes us comprehend exactly why that is.

And yet, in the end, it’s all for naught as the picture collapses too easily lacking that typical hard-edged savagery of Mann’s other pictures with James Stewart. While Dudley Nichol’s high-minded script might be quality stuff for a minor picture, it’s not necessarily the script best-suited for Mann.

He was never one for moralizing. In fact, his best films about isolation or outsiders never seemed to make a point of a racial divide or any other societal issues. It felt like they were very much implicit in the story at hand. They never were didactic instead choosing to viscerally speak to us delivering any themes through mere osmosis.

By no means does that downplay the fine chemistry between Henry Fonda or Anthony Perkins both seemingly impeccably cast. However, The Tin Star is a picture that could have been even more resonant.

3.5/5 Stars

Daisy Kenyon (1947)

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Otto Preminger always moves through space so fluidly with his camera, and Daisy Kenyon is introduced with a single scene, but it’s the perfect post for the film to hang its hat on.

There’s Dan O’Mara (Dana Andrews) trying to get the cabby to keep the meter running only to relent when the cabby gives him the statistics on New York’s taxi shortages. Joan Crawford’s punching pillows as Daisy Kenyon, a successful artist who has had an amiable fling for some time with the man. He already has a wife and kids. It’s not where she wants to be. She’s not looking to be a homewrecker. But it’s partially O’Mara’s fault, a successful lawyer who walks in and grabs himself a cup of coffee as nice as you please — all part of his normal routine.

Moments later, another cab appears with Henry Fonda, the understated G.I. Peter Lapham, who winds up on Daisy’s doorstep to call on her for a date. In this opening moment, it takes us so long to know how these characters relate to each other. Maybe it’s the fact that for two people not married to each other Crawford and Andrew’s characters have such a casual, even comfortable, relationship. This isn’t the passionate tryst we’re accustomed to seeing. That’s a beginning and it only gets more fascinating as time marches on.

Henry Fonda feels like he should be the third wheel of the picture and though recognized as a phenomenal actor, he had been out of the game so long like his buddy James Stewart; it’s hardly possible to know what to expect from him. We have My Darling Clementine (1946) and that’s about all. When he pops up, we almost lose him behind the personality of Crawford and Andrews’ own brand of charisma.

But that’s why I’ll always admire Fonda as an actor, because his natural delivery leaves an impression that’s a perfect counterbalance, almost to the point of undermining what his costars are doing.

Meanwhile, Dana Andrews doesn’t appear to make a very convincing father, because every time you hear him say “Baby” to his daughter, a noir dame like Gene Tierney or Linda Darnell springs to mind. The associations have already been made long before this picture. It makes it hard to go back now. Remarkably, in all other respects, he fits the bill and he hardly places a foot wrong. It’s the side of Boomerang (1947) that’s rather more interesting. A big-time lawyer’s family life going to shreds outside the courtroom, spilling into his work as well.

Thus, Daisy Kenyon rolls out the carpet in the fashion of a romantic love triangle and we can make that assumption right off the bat with the stars whose names flash above the title. But what sets this picture apart mostly has to do with the account of the ensuing melodrama. Because it’s hardly melodrama at all, or at least, it’s a more authentic, even honest strain that feels noticeably genuine compared to what Hollywood generally seemed capable of in the 1940s.

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Case and point is a very simple sequence around a table at a bar. Our three stars are gathered there together to talk things out like rational-minded adults. They’re the kind of conversations that can be unpleasant and most certainly of a private nature. Still, in another picture, they might have continued the dialogue as the waiter comes up without a second thought, but here the conversation ceases because that’s more like real life. The film itself seems openly aware of this fact as well.

What becomes equally noticeable is the lack of the kind of soppy manipulative scoring we might see in other works. Embraces and kisses and sweet nothings but none of the same mood created. Again, a little like the real world. Choirs only play in lovers’ heads.

I do greatly appreciate David Raksin’s score, his work in Laura (1944) being transcendent, and here it fits the mood with its sparing arrangements around certain moments to accent nightmarish attacks and more tranquil interludes. It’s almost counter-intuitive if not refreshing.

Subsequently, we witness the most painful sequence of infidelity. Just watching things unravel gives me a heavy heart and I want to grieve even if this is only a cinematic space within which the events are taking place. Because it feels so brazenly real as the lines get crossed and irreparable damage is done.

A part of this messy process is the ensuing complications like divorce, settlements, splitting up custody of the kids, and all the future roadblocks that make people more embittered and jaded when it comes to life.

Though by title and content alone it doesn’t let much slip, there were also murmurs that Daisy Kenyon featured Japanese-Americans in its storyline and as one myself I usually jump at the chance of any such story. Because normally, they are few and far between in Classic Hollywood. That makes any picture with such content a minor revelation for me whether it was Preminger’s impetus or not.

At any rate, The Civil Rights Association comes a calling on O’Mara to represent a Nisei war veteran named Tsu Noguchi who came home to find his farm had been legally taken away from him. We never see the man and there’s not that much more said on the issue except that “It isn’t anyone’s kind of case” but Dan takes it up, assumedly because he wants to impress Daisy and there’s an inkling that he has a shred of decency in his being too.

Now here is another picture to add to that modest but still formidable list including The Steel Helmet, Go for Broke!, Japanese War Bride, and The Crimson Kimono. It proves to be a victory for even conceding that such a world and such a history existed. That is enough for me.

It’s an extension of the entire film really, constructed of minor intricacies that succeed in making this picture an unprecedented example of 1940s Hollywood. It’s ending is wonderful for how it defuses everything we expect from a courtroom drama or a woman’s picture or any other genre convention. It ends on a natural, smooth note like a nice glass of bourbon cradled in the palm of your significant other. Like clockwork, there’s Henry Fonda again. The man we should never, ever write off. What is the age-old adage? He who laughs last, laughs loudest? Yes, indeed.

4/5 Stars

Advise & Consent (1962)

Advise-&-Consent-(1)This is an Otto Preminger film about politics. That should send off fireworks because such a divisive topic is only going to get more controversial with a man such as Preminger at the helm — a man known for his various run-ins with the Production Code. All that can be said is that he didn’t disappoint this time either.

Who knew a film revolving around the seemingly simple task of passing the president’s nomination for the new Secretary of State could be so complicated and lead to such turmoil?  True, the nomination of Robert Leffingwell (Henry Fonda) might be controversial, but there’s a lot more to it than we initially conceived.

There’s the obvious political angle on Capitol Hill involving a Subcommittee chaired by majority member Brigham Anderson from Utah (Don Murray). Meanwhile, the majority leader is working behind the scenes to gather the necessary support, since he is loyal to the president, despite his share of doubts. However, old curmudgeon Seeb  Cooley (Charles Laughton) is prepared to unleash all his fury and political wiles to stop the nomination in his tracks. Soon it seems to be working well enough.

But that ends up being hardly the half of it. There’s perjury, the aging president (Franchot Tone) is biding his time, and Brig begins to receive threatening telephone calls at home. At first, they seem wholly unsubstantiated, but it seems there really are some dirty little secrets to be drudged up on him. As one who is faithfully looking to uphold their position and do a credible job accessing Leffingwell, it looks like someone really doesn’t want him to reject the nomination. Brig doesn’t end up having time to find out.

And so the day of decision in the Senate Chamber turns out to be an eventful one, bringing old rivals together and resolving the issue of the nomination once and for all. It seems that so much legwork was done all for naught, but that’s politics for you.

Advise & Consent is a fascinating representation of the political system because it involves so many interconnected, intertwining conversations and interactions going on behind the scenes. There’s the pomp & circumstance, the traditions that go with these posts, but it’s actually all the side conversations behind closed doors, in private, where the real work seems to get done. Preminger uses extended shot length to allow his audience the luxury of watching events unfold methodically while using a fluid camera to keep them from being completely stuffy. And his laundry list of stars great and small lend a depth to Capitol Hill.

Although Henry Fonda might be the headliner the film’s focus is wonderfully distributed by the well-balanced cast of players. In fact, you can easily make the case that this is Walter Pidgeon and Don Murray’s film with the decrepit-looking Charles Laughton (who unfortunately passed away months later) falling close behind. Murray is the principled tragic family man, while Pidgeon is wonderfully cast as a veteran white knight of politics. Laughton while beleaguered, still manages a wry performance worthy of his final screen appearance.

Preminger also includes his longtime collaborator Gene Tierney in her return to the screen in a small but crucial role and Lew Ayres as the benevolent V.P. Harley Hudson. Even Peter Lawford is involved in a role supposedly inspired by his real-life brother-in-law incumbent president, John F. Kennedy. Some notable inclusions in the cast include the formerly blacklisted actors Will Geer and Burgess Meredith. One notable part that didn’t end up being cast was Martin Luther King Jr. in a cameo as a Senator from Georgia. Although it truly would have been a lightning rod of a political statement, in reality, Preminger didn’t end up needing it. His film already used words and covered topics hardly touched previously thanks to the watchful eyes of the Production Code. It didn’t need more dynamite.

While Advise & Consent may not be the greatest of political films or the most stirring, it still certainly has its share of riveting moments. Most anything from Otto Preminger is bound to be interesting and this one is no different.

4/5 Stars

Review: The Lady Eve (1941)

theladyeve3“You have the darndest way of bouncing a fellow down and bumping him up again” ~ Henry Fonda as Charles Pike

The story goes that screenwriting wunderkind Preston Sturges penned The Lady Eve with Barabara Stanwyck in mind. He promised her a great picture and he most certainly delivered a stellar screwball like only he could. It plays off the archetypal biblical temptress with comic effect, and it finds the greatest of comic couples in Stanwyck and Henry Fonda. They both are iconic stars, but the narrative works so well, due to that, but also the fact that the film constantly undermines the typical plotting. As the title suggests the woman is really the focal point of the film — she’s the one in control.

In this instance, Stanwyck is shady trickster Jean Harrington, who joins forces with her equally conniving father (Charles Coburn) to take people to the cleaners in any way possible. They’re real smooth operators with cards and any other type of con you could think of. A luxury ocean liner seems like the perfect place to set up their business. Out of all the many high profile passengers, one man stands a head above the rest. His name is Charles Pike (Henry Fonda). He keeps his nose buried behind a book, tries to avoid the gazes of all the pretty girls, and has a penchant for reptilian wildlife after getting back from a long expedition. He also just happens to be the heir to a gargantuan Ale fortune. That’s what catches everyone eye, including the beautifully sly Stanwyck.

theladyeve2In fact, we have a brilliant introduction to her as she narrates the scene unfolding in front of her with the aid of her compact mirror. She trips up the bumbling bachelor and their introduction is the first exclamation point in a bumpy relationship. She’s ready to play him and marry rich and famous, because he’s a pretty naive fellow, and stiff around the ladies. Fonda’s nervous charm proves the perfect recipe for success as he is constantly being overwhelmed by Stanwyck’s frenetic barrage. His defenses are down and he hasn’t the foggiest what has hit him. Either he was really that uncomfortable or otherwise, he does a superb job of faking it since there’s never another moment where he’s not being fondled or manipulated.

Jean is very quick to get cozy with “Hopsy” (after alcohol and not a rabbit), but something strange begins to happen. For some strange, ludicrous reason she begins to fall for her mark — this goofy guy with loads of cash. That certainly was not in her cards, yet she doesn’t seem to mind. What follows are some wonderful card playing antics between Charles Coburn and Barbara Stanwyck as she tries to stave off her father from pulling one over on her new beau. But of course, just as Pike is getting his sea legs he catches wind of the whole charade quite by chance, and he’s quick to turn off Harrington for the fraud he thinks she is.

theladyeve4The story could end there, but Sturges has set his story up perfectly for a killer second act. Jean plans a perfectly sneaky revenge plan to get back at “Hopsy” by posing as the British niece of another con man (Eric Blore). He uses his own wily charm and influence to get them an invitation to the Pike household for dinner. There we see several other great character actors in action including Horace Pike (Eugene Pallette), and the perennial sourpuss Muggsy (William Demarest). Jean shows up now as the Lady Eve and successfully convinces her “Hopsy” that she is a completely different individual. The film works wonderfully on this axle of ludicrousness because  young Pike is completely befuddled and awestruck again. He goes thudding, clanking, and crashing all evening long, a true victim of love. Pike thought he lost one girl for good and here’s another even better prospect. A whirlwind romance follows and everything is falling into place beautifully. There’s a frantic montage in preparation for the big day and then it happens. They get hitched. Afterwards, it’s all done and the two lovebirds are on a train barreling down the tracks interspersed with the long laundry list of all Eve’s beaus from Angus, to Herman, and Cecil and so on. It’s Charles’ worst nightmare, and he hopes to get out of it as quickly as possible.

But then by chance, he runs into the first girl, who is, of course, Stanwyck as well. He’s genuinely happy to see her, and they embrace like nobody’s business. Being the honorable man that he is, Pike acknowledges that he is, in fact, married now, but the joke’s on him. She is too! It’s an entirely irregular ending, but that’s screwball comedy for you.

theladyeve1What makes Sturges’ film so wonderful is all the parts making up the whole. His script is perfectly contrived mayhem. He sprinkles it with his typical slapstick, his loudmouthed stock company lends an added layer, and his typically lightning-quick repartee is brought to life by his leads. Stanwyck was the quintessential leading lady of the 1940s and in 1941 she was in fine form (Balls of Fire and Meet John Doe). She can dance so effortlessly between dynamic comedy to heartfelt drama that is positively palpable.  She overshadows Fonda in a sense, but they still work together, because he is her perfect foil, the precise innocent fool to fall into her web of feminine wiles. She can muss up his hair, manhandle him, and completely manipulate his feelings. Yet we still like both of them in spite of it. They are a hilarious match, and there’s space for some passionate canoodling as well. It’s probably one of the most perfectly wonderful, utterly dysfunctional relationships we could ever hope to see put on screen.  By continually whipping out punch line after punch line to the very last quip, Sturges makes this comedy look positively effortless.

4.5/5 Stars