Man Without A Star (1955): Kirk Douglas Drifting

ManWithoutAStar1955Poster.jpgThere are few better ways to get yourself into the spirit of a western than the majestic gusto of Frankie Laine (self-parodied in hilarious fashion by Blazing Saddles). It’s the segue into a mythical world.

I assumed Kirk Douglas would be the fellow lacking a tin star. And yet the title is a bit more poetic, if not altogether helpful. He’s a staple of westerns just as the plot he finds himself ensconced in is an archetype. Dempsey Rae (Douglas) is the quintessential drifter, constantly on the move. He never had time enough to look up at the constellations and settle on his place among them.

Not surprisingly, all things in the film revolve around Douglas who brings his usual vigor to the role. A fun dose of jocularity tones down his usual intensity, finding time enough to even knock back a few tunes on the banjo. Because, if I’m completely honest, he’s not the first man you think of as a western star. Not the features or the physique.

Still, he’s able to inhabit the role such that he spills out into everything and holds down the film with his very presence. If not an immediately recognizable cowboy, he is a larger-than-life talent.  His part in the story begins in a cattle car where he winds up sharing his open-air compartment with a callow kid from Texas (William Campbell). They witness Jack Elam knife a man, turn him in to the authorities, and get out of further trouble as stowaways.

They stop at the nearest town just passing through with the two men joining forces and becoming instantly chummy. The older man mentoring the young buck — keeping him out of trouble, drubbing him up a job, and teaching him how to shoot. Fancy tricks don’t matter. You’ve got to be quick and sure on the handle. Furthermore, they keep each other constantly amused, a fine example being when the naive wrangler walks into the local saloon in the most hilarious new duds.

In fact, aside from the opening run-in with the authorities, this is a thoroughly amicable storyline, at least until barbed wire comes into the picture. One of the local ranching families aren’t bad folks by any means, but they certainly have a different way of thinking.

There’s a sense it all goes back to the mythos of the open range — nothing to stop you, nothing to drag you down — so you remain free. This is the type of idealized rhetoric Dempsey speaks in. The wire gets in the way of this tradition, finding a hard-and-fast way to section off and also commodify the land.

Strap Davis (Jay C. Flippen) is the foreman, a decent man who brings the boys on as cowhands to work The Triangle, owned by some unnamed investor from back east. Among other luxuries, they look with awe at the new-fangled inventions like indoor plumbing with a toilet inside the house. They’re in for an even greater surprise when their new boss turns out to be a woman named Reed Bowman (Jeanne Crain).

Crain is domineering as the cattle magnate and incumbent owner of the Triangle. Without question, it’s one of her most authoritative and thus, one of her most intriguing roles. Behind Douglas, she is the most commanding force as she looks to surround herself with cunning enablers, aspiring to oversaturate the pastures with her stock and gobble up as much wealth as she possibly can.

It’s the age-old conundrum. Douglas is smitten with her assured beauty, even to the proposition of marriage, and yet he can’t carry himself to stay with her as she becomes more and more consumed with her ambitions. The cattle wars end up being fought more by outsiders than those at its center.

Richard Boone and a new crowd are called in to give the cattle matron a more persuasive bargaining power. They rough up Rae something awful, leaving him hog-tied like a pig after one sound beating. Meanwhile, the formerly inseparable Texans are now on opposite sides of a feud. All of a sudden, Jeff’s not the callow laughing stock with a dumb grin on his face. He knows how to kill, losing a level of innocence. It becomes friend against friend.

Claire Trevor is a favorite, and she could play the hooker with a heart of gold part with her eyes closed.  Apart from being the obvious counterpoint to Crain, she is the friend and the romantic interest Rae can fall back on. She will always always have him unconditionally. She actually makes the dead-end role into something, but it’s a shame she’s not given something with more heft or narrative significance.

We have this continued swinging of allegiances. So it’s not a new storyline with its cattle and factions — disagreement over land, and guns looking to muscle their way in by railroading the competition. All of these elements are easily derivative from previous oaters.

But the cast is a joy to watch in action for what they are able to bring to the scenario. It makes for an engaging interplay as characters are turned against each other and stretched to their limits, just enough to make it compelling without breaking with convention too radically.

Expect there to be the preemptive happy ending where reconciliation is discovered and good gives evil a sound drubbing. There’s nothing wrong with that because it’s the drifter’s journey to get there holding our primary interest.

3.5/5 Stars

Note: This review was written before the passing of Kirk Douglas on February 5, 2020. 

It’s Always Fair Weather (1955): A Musical For The TV Age

It's_Always_Fair_Weather_(1955_film)_poster_(yellow_background)

Conventional wisdom tells us you don’t make a musical quite like this. It’s a bit of a nostalgia piece and already it seems like American was ready to move on with life after WWIII.

It’s relatively straightforward to assume that It’s Always Fair Weather (1955) was a harbinger of a change in appeal with the general public because if we look back to Good News (1947), that’s arguably where the run of great MGM musicals began and they could hardly be stopped. There’s nothing drastically different about the foolproof formula or the players behind the scenes, for that matter. We still have Arthur Freed, Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen, Cyd Charisse, Adolph Green & Betty Comden, as well as any number of integral folks I failed to mention.

Well, we do have one primary demarcation, deserving some acknowledgment. Here is a musical with a cynical streak — something that feels incongruous, like oil and water almost. In the opening minutes, I don’t mind saying that I was of the same sentiment. It doesn’t seem like a musical.

We have three boys marching home: Ted (Gene Kelly), Doug (Dan Dailey), and Angie (Michael Kidd), victorious from the war and frequenting the bar they always called home before. But at some point, reality hits — the emering complications at home in a drama such as The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) or an insidious film noir a la The Blue Dahlia (1946) or Act of Violence (1948).

But you see, this picture sets up its premise when the three inseparable war buddies bet the hard-bitten bartender, come rain or shine or sleet, they’ll get back together in 10 years, because they’re the real deal. Time won’t dampen their friendship.

They share a drunken cab dance, escalating in a garbage can crescendo that’s got that same panache of old. However, the merriment dies dow,n and they realize they’re civilians now. The inevitable parting arrives, and they go there separate ways. Only time will tell what happens next…

The production itself shows parallel issues involving the passage of time to mirror the plot. Even in casting. Initially Green and Comden envisioned this project as a spiritual sequel to On The Town, reteaming that film’s stars. They got Kelly, but with new leadership at MGM headed by Dore Schary, Sinatra was out and Munshin wasn’t a big enough name. Thus, we got the underrated pair of Dailey — a quality dancer in his own right, and Kidd, a workhorse choreographer, who blessed audiences with the Barn raising scene in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, among other efforts.

Still, undoubtedly, times have changed. Behind the scenes, Kelly was chafing with Donen. I suspect because the younger man had proved he could handle a highly successful picture on his own (Seven Brides with Seven Brothers), and he would continue to do so. The cracks in the collaboration were beginning to show.

And yet even as the film settles into the contemporary era, the ensuing themes become surprisingly resonant. The day is October 11th, 1955: 10 years to the day they split up, and things couldn’t be more different.

Ted never got married after his best girl dumped him and has stayed in Chicago working the crap tables, romancing dames, and recently winding up in the boxing racket with a young bull named Kid Mariachi. Doug has done well for himself, despite giving up his passion for painting, becoming a highly lucrative television advertising man. His sponsor spots for Molly Mop (voiced by the ubiquitous June Foray) are currently all the rage.

However, though married with a comfortable life, it doesn’t take a Sherlock Holmes to tell the years have left his stomach soft and his heart hard. Meanwhile, Angie’s married too with a whole house of kids and a loving wife who helps him run his burger joint: The Cordon Bleu.

The miracle is that they all keep there promise to be there! But as the euphoria subsides, they realize they have nothing in common. Beyond that, they can’t stand each other now, and it begins to gnaw at them. They’re ready to get on with their lives and accept this is how it goes when time marches on. Fate has other ideas.

It’s one shrewd advertising executive (Cyd Charisse) who spots an opportunity to reunite the boys on live television in the popular segment featured on Madeline Bradyville’s (Dolores Gray) nationally syndicated program. Ms. Jackie Leyton takes it upon herself to get Ted to the showing and enlists her colleagues to do the same with the other men.

She really is a marvel. Heading off any of his initial amorous advances and then taking on the male initiative to his complete bewilderment. On top of that, her Encyclopedic knowledge of any number of subjects has him speechless and wows the crowd at his boxing gym. Charisse doesn’t get too much time to flaunt her skill, but nevertheless, “Baby You Knock Me Out” is a comically upbeat number that does the trick.

Though the picture was shot in widescreen, it doesn’t necessarily lead to revolutionary musical numbers. However, much like Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? the canvass is used on multiple occasions to draw out the limitations and satirize the “idiot boxes” fast becoming all the rage in the American household.

Meanwhile, things are just not going Ted’s way. Not only is he getting emasculated by this beautiful, befuddling woman, he learns from a dumb lug that a local gangster (Jay C. Flippen) has fixed his match. Kelly fails to have a truly singular moment until he pops on a pair of roller skates. We know it when he does the same charming shoulder shrug from Singin in the Rain that we are in for an indelible moment.

Sure enough, he goes gliding around studio street corners with ease, rolling and tapping his way along gayly until his curbside antics bring everything to a standstill — the masses cheering him on. It’s one of the first signs that fortunes might be turning.

It’s Always Fair Weather gets better and better with every passing minute maybe because it doesn’t ride the disillusionment all the way to the end. Even with commercialism, advertising, corruption, and whatever else, when we get out on the other side there is an underlying satisfaction to the ending.

Dolores Gray’s humorous “Thanks but no Thanks” complete with trap doors and rocketing male suitors off the stage, is another outrageous comic aside. Then, the three old buddies are brought together as part human interest story, part ratings gimmick. We think we know how it’ll go. It spells trainwreck in big, bold letters.

Well, that’s not quite right. Instead, we get a brawl captured by the candid cameras and broadcast the country over, complete with a confession by a top-level thug. It’s uproarious, fatuous, and far-fetched, but it’s also the exact catharsis we were begging for.

It reinforces values that we desperately hoped to be true, and it does it with a wink and a smile (along with plenty of broken tables and chairs). When friendship actually meant something. There was no Facebook or Skype or any faceless form of communication. To be with those people in the same space and share memories and go through galvanizing experiences together. That was all you had and sometimes, I would take one of those types of days over a boatload of the internet age’s connections.

Because I think most of us have gotten over Television. The medium has become status quo even quaint. It’s not killing us slowly (or maybe it already has), but the web is the new frontier just waiting to be eviscerated by a musical such as this. I would gladly watch that, but of course, such a project wouldn’t have names attached to it that mean so much to me: from Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen to my new favorite star Cyd Charisse.

Maybe It’s Always Fair Weather spelled that the classical Hollywood musical, as such, was dead, but even if contemporary reception was not stellar, it comes off today as a regularly insightful musical and satire. By now, I’d probably follow Kelly and Charisse to the moon and back again anyway.

4/5 Stars

They Live by Night (1948)

theyliveby4Regrettably, I have seen very little of Nicholas Ray, however from his debut in They Live by Night, I saw the same care spent on his youthful characters, which is also noticeable in Rebel Without a Cause. He does not treat “Keechie” and “Bowie” as cardboard cutouts or kids who are dumb and in love. They have value and feelings that are worth examining more closely.

The film opens with three thugs breaking out of the local prison. Two of the men Chicamaw (Howard Da Silva) and T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen) are weathered criminals. The third, Bowie is a baby-faced kid looking hardly a day over 20, but he went into the clink for a reason.

They find shelter at a nearby filling station where Chicamaw’s mangy older brother (Wil Wright) makes a living with his timid, no-nonsense daughter Katherine. They get a car and have enough money to get their feet off the ground before a big bank job in Kelton.

theyliveby2It goes off without a major hitch, but soon after Bowie gets in a car accident and Chicamaw takes him back to his brother’s to be cared for. Katharine is there and the two of them find companionship in each other because neither one has anyone else to turn to. They are young, naive, and in love. They’ve never had these types of feelings before.

Since Bowie needs to lay low, he takes “Keechie” with him and they make an adventure out of it. Ultimately, it results in a cheap $20 marriage and a lot of nice intimate nights spent together driving and cuddling. They’re living the lives of carefree newlyweds who need no one but each other. They find a simple cottage out in the backcountry owned by a homely proprietor (Byron Foulger), and it acts as a new home. A perfect oasis from the newspapers, the cops, and Bowie’s accomplices.

However, they do catch up with him eventually, and he and Katherine split fast after a tiff. They want a normal life, but Chicamaw and T-Dub won’t allow it because they need more money from another bank job. He won’t and in the subsequent attempt, his former partners eat it. The lookout is still hot for the boy as well.

theyliveby1He seems so undeserving of hard justice, but it is bound to come after him anyways. For such relative newcomers, Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell (The Best Years of Our Lives) have such genuine chemistry opposite each other. Granger is more often than not gentle and kind. O’Donnell is pretty in a simple, unadorned type of way. They elicit so much more sympathy than Bonnie and Clyde or even the fugitives in Gun Crazy. Perhaps because they aren’t even outlaws, only young kids who are victims of their circumstances.

4/5 Stars