Baby Face (1933)

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Even in its opening moments, Baby Face made my heart heavy. I look at Lily, this young woman played by Barbara Stanwyck and sadness wells up within me. Because her environment is so oppressive. Getting constantly pawed at and manhandled with a father who has no conception of love. Then, she opens the window to get away from the asphyxiating haze of cigarette smoke only to be met with more smoke from the steam engines outside. This isn’t a life that anyone should be subjected to and it’s brought into sharp relief because she is surrounded by so many filthy men: Mangy scuzzballs, if you want to get scientific.

But the picture, even in this opening moment, before it gets to the nitty-gritty at hand, grieves me because it still has increasing pertinence in the present world we find ourselves in. Isn’t that strange? But I am met with this fact time and time again. You would think I would be less surprised there is still nothing new under the sun. In such an environment, Lily is essentially perceived to be worthless and the men around her keep her down.

However, there’s one man in particular who rallies her to get off the trash heap. In fact, Bragg is a man who broadens her perspective and helps her to realize her own worth.  The only unfortunate part is that he bequeaths her the philosophy of Nietzsche. And I say unfortunate very purposefully because the language he provides her is like so.

“You must be a master, not a slave. It’s about exploitation using men and being strong to get the things you want.” It’s laid out as overtly as you could possibly expect. This remains only the root of a wider problem that is exasperated because, of course, this is exactly what Lily ends up doing.

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She goes to New York with her constant companion Chico (Theresa Harris) and subsequently charms her way into a job, slowly moving up the ranks due to her ambitions and calculated manipulation. There’s no other way to put it. She’s systematically sleeping her way to the top.

The funniest anachronism of them all is seeing John Wayne, young and handsome, behind a desk in a corporation. He is one of Baby Face’s early conquests. But believe me, there will be more. No sooner has one top employee lost his job due to Baby Face then another man has become seduced by her inviting eyes and soft touch. There’s one particular mirror shot from the ladies’ room that says it all. The man is saying one thing and when he sees her his whole demeanor changes. Like putty in her hands.

But there’s another running gag easily understood with a little inference. A close up on the exterior of the mortgage department with a soft pan to the accounting department or wherever else ambition takes her, the score playing “St. Louis Blues” saucily to say all that needs to be said. And you get the sense that it’s for these very interludes that the film was marketed.

It pushed the boundaries of the censor’s board at the time and many have supposed, rightfully so, that Baby Face was one of the pictures which actually led to greater enforcement of the production codes in 1934. Certainly, all this is true.

But more than anything, the most troubling thing for me is her Nietzschean code of conduct continually dictating her worldview. He is the man who most famously said “God is Dead,” not as a derisive proclamation but more so a disillusioned fact. There is no hope or grace found in such a point of view. But of course, Lily never received any of those things in her formative years so how is she to know? She just keeps plodding on using her attributes the best she knows how to make a comfortable life for herself.

To quote Proverbs, “her lips drip honey and yet her feet go down to the grave.” She’s nothing but trouble and yet I would never hold it against her. She makes us so conflicted because there is so much manipulation there — even vindictiveness — while she still nurses wounds from youth that we cannot even begin to understand.

Stanwyck never ceases to amaze me with her incredible range of performances and the deep truth she seems to mine in each and everyone to make them charming, funny, or heartbreaking — whatever the tone calls for. She always seems to have it in ready supply. It’s little different in Baby Face.

As far as the film itself, what we have here is the epitome of efficient Hollywood filmmaking that somehow is still laced with a potency of emotion, at times heartbreaking and at others verging on the salacious. Still, it’s a picture that leaves you with something. There’s no way that any of the Barbara Stanwyck faithful would forget her, but this picture gives another reason to stand up and take notice.

It’s a striking image as the phonograph turns and all the men in her life flash by. In such a short time there’s been so many and yet some passed by like a blip we almost forget they were there. George Brent is the most substantial and even he comes into the storyline far later. That’s purely a testament to the picture’s ability to really fill out the entire scenario with surprising depth.

However, it’s crucial for the film to end on a realistic and deadly note because anything else would be untrue to the life that Lily has lived thus far. It was never pretty. The denouement cheats a little bit by leaving events open-ended but all that’s left to say is Stanwyck is devastating. She just might bowl you over.

4/5 Stars

 

Angel and the Badman (1947)

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With John Wayne partnered with his longtime collaborator James Edward Grant (Hondo, McClintock!) it’s easy to see Angel and the Badman as an early vehicle for his conservative ideals but far from being heavy-handed, it goes down as a solid B-picture with a surprisingly unique perspective on the West.

In this instance, the western is used to construct a fairly simple parable that plays out over the frontier using figures that we know well from every cowboy picture we’ve ever seen.  The outlaws and the homesteaders, the sheriffs and the doctors, they’re all present.

But underlying their every interaction is a certain purpose. It’s not simply to entertain — though the film is adequate in that department and has it’s share of gunfights and showdowns. It foregoes most of the normal set pieces to carry out its main objective as a moral tale. Still, these established figures help draw up the themes by the very way they see the world.

Quirt Evans (John Wayne) has and always will be an outlaw as preordained by society until the fateful day when he finds sanctuary in the home of a Quaker family after incurring a wound. They take care of him and nurse him back to health but above all, they give him the benefit of the doubt — that he is not too far gone and he still has more than a fair chance to redeem his life if he so chooses.

The local apothecary functions as the main counterpoint to our angelic first family. He is very rational-minded, devoted to scientific thought and his cynicism leads him to begrudgingly patch up the outlaw all the while grumbling under his breath. It’s telling though that he holds this overtly religious family in high regard. But nevertheless, the parameters have been set. We must sit back and find out where John Wayne falls within the frames of this corral.

It’s true that he’s saddled with a past full of womanizing, guns, greed, and every other sin known to man. In fact, the local sheriff is bent on hanging a rope around his neck but the old veteran (Harry Carey) is a sly fellow ready to bide his time and let Quirk slip up somehow.

The main point of contention is a payload of gold that a band of glowering thugs is intent on getting a handle on. Quirt is all that stands between them and the prize but even in his injured state he still packs a gun — the bullets inside and his stellar marksmanship being the key deciding factors.

Playing against this very storyline is a parallel thread that bears equal importance if not more. Penelope Worth (Gail Russell) is the daughter of this Quaker family and she is tasked with taking care of this formidable outlaw. In any other scenario, they would be oil and water. Their lives and personalities should never mix and yet in this romance, they ultimately do. True, his lawless lifestyle chafes against the worldview of these religious Quakers who promote an existence of good will and pacifism. Still, people can change.

John Wayne notably disliked High Noon (1952) and his most famous denouncement of the picture can be seen in Rio Bravo (1959), viewed by many as a cinematic answer to its predecessor. However, in this earlier film, you see in Wayne’s character a man who also falls for a Quaker much like Will Kane (Cooper) does in High Noon. But here he comes from the wrong side of the law. Still, she redeems his very nature and far from throwing off the perceived shackles of her beliefs or simply tolerating them to stick to what he knows best (namely gunplay and showdowns) he does the fairly brazen thing and wholeheartedly embraces her way of life. Because he loves her.

It begs the question, which outcome is more believable: The sheriff who went against his wife’s pleas so he could uphold his personal convictions or the outlaw who gave up his old way of life even in the face of death because he was transformed by the love and lifestyle of his woman? Rather than drawing up which one is better exactly, it might suffice to say that Angel and the Badman, while lesser known, is still a diverting western with its own moral dilemma because westerns are and always have been horse operas.

3.5/5 Stars

McLintock! (1963)

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Apparently the name McLintock doesn’t come with the letter T. At least that’s the sense you get when the townsfolk send a salutation to the estimable cattle baron G.W. McLintock (John Wayne). Those who do pronounce that T are either out of towners, educated people, or probably the folks GW doesn’t like much. It’s true that the film is a western reworking of Taming of the Shrew so it’s very much a comedy. For all intent and purposes, it acts as a slapstick farce highlighted by a particularly raucous town-wide fist fight followed by a bungled hanging that just happens to commence right above a mudhole. The results speak for themselves.

But with the influence of its iconic star John Wayne, McLintock is also a fairly obvious commentary from one of Hollywood’s staunch conservatives. Still, the film never acts as a typical Western is supposed to.  In some ways, McLintock is a very modern representation of the West where you have the most amiable sheriff in the world, hardly anyone ever pulls out a gun, and numerous folks have college educations. Except in so many ways, this film can be critiqued for being outdated by today’s standards. There are “Indians,” belligerent Chinamen, and feisty women. GW has mutual respect and good relationships with many of these people but some of the usual sensibilities are still visible.

If the auteur theory can pertain to an actor than this film has Wayne’s handprints all over it. This isn’t a Ford film or a Hawks film or a Hathaway film starring John Wayne. This film is John Wayne’s, even more so than usual.

His son Michael helped produce, he enlisted the son of his old buddy Victor McLaigen to direct, his own son Patrick got a prominent position as a plucky young cattle hand, and so on. He fills the ranks with numerous veteran performers beginning with his greatest female costar Maureen O’Hara as his estranged wife who comes back to town threatening to divorce him and whisk his daughter away to the high society back east.

His trusty right hand Drago is played by Chill Wills while Strother Martin, Hank Worden, and even Edgar Buchannan take supporting turns. Perhaps the most unusual appearances are the presence of the radiant young Stefanie Powers as his daughter and yes, Jerry Van Dyke as a dorky college boy. A special guest spot was found for Yvonne De Carlo as a favor due to the fact that her husband had recently been injured on another film production.

But there’s also a pointed jab at Hubert Humphries in the form of the spineless, insensitive governor Cuthbert H. Humphrey, proving that even Wayne’s politics are channeled into the picture.

The final climax is played for laughs and it does provoke uneasy laughter, at least by today’s standards. It’s hard not to feel strange watching Maureen O’Hara running through town in her undergarments as G.W. pursues her and the town follows behind in hot pursuit. It’s full of pratfalls and slapstick moments that are indeed funny but at what cost?

For some reason, despite the light tone up to this point, it feels cringeworthy when Wayne knuckles down and gives his long-absent wife a shellacking right in front of everyone. Of course, by the end of the film they are together again and I wanted to be happy but this was not The Quiet Man (1952). It felt like Maureen O’Hara had conceded and lost. She returns to the cult of domesticity with her husband which isn’t inherently a bad thing but she hardly feels like a full partner in their complementary relationship.

By this point, although she had the upper hand the entire movie, digging in her spurs, she’s put in her place. In the end, she and GW get to live the life he wants. Because as he notes, “all the gold in the United States Treasury, all the harps in heaven, can’t equal what happens between a man and a woman with all that growing together.”

It’s true that using the word petulant to describe McLintock just doesn’t work. His daughter tries it and he laughs it off and I’m sure if any critic wrote as much Wayne would have done the same or cuffed him one maybe. There were invariably many people who didn’t much like John Wayne but it’s hard not to respect him–even in a comedy.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Rio Bravo (1959)

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During the 1930s and 40s, Howard Hawks was an unstoppable force of nature churning out a string of classics year after year: Only Angels Have Wings, His Girl Friday, Sergeant York, Balls of Fire, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, and Red River. All these titles stand as a collective testament to his prowess.

Over a decade later, Rio Bravo is a film that reflects something of the mastery Howard Hawks still held as a filmmaker making his way through every interlude with impeccable skill. It showcases his ability to string together scenes in a perfect rhythm, balancing humor with tension, romance with conflict, and making the western into a thoroughly entertaining experience once more. To say Rio Bravo is Hawks’ greatest films is not too far off the truth. He makes it so easy, the way he constantly tracks with his characters in space — often just talking — sometimes serious others times not, and it’s all so fluid, natural, and fun. It’s what makes the film, that’s over two hours, run seamlessly like the sweetest of liqueurs.

The script courtesy of Leigh Bracket and Jules Furthman is a bounty of inspiration and amusement. One such moment includes the perfect meet-cute between John T. Chance (John Wayne) and Feathers (Angie Dickinson) when she catches him in a compromising position with a pair of red bloomers. From that point on their dynamic is constantly churning with energy.

Dimitri Tiomkin’s score takes some cues from his earlier work Red River (also with Hawks) including the addition of the hauntingly sorrowful notes of “El Deguello.” With such talent as Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson, it also makes the prospect of a song a rich opportunity and Hawks finds ways to weave a musical aside into his film, showcasing the especially memorable tune, “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me.”

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Meanwhile, Hawks builds on this almost cartoonish mythology of the West where every person of interest lives life with a nickname spending as much time jawing and bickering as they do gunslinging. A great deal of that vibrancy is provided by the actors themselves with John Wayne as our anchor. Walter Brennan and Ward Bond prove to be his wizened counterparts while Dean Martin, as well as newcomers Ricky Nelson and Angie Dickinson, hold their own against the old vets.  It’s great fun to watch Dickinson spar with Wayne and Nelson lends his matinee idol looks to a laconic role as young gun “Colorado.” In an inspired bit of casting, Dean Martin plays a drunk and Brennan takes up his post in the jailhouse as a crotchety old man. It all fits nicely together.

But the question many engaged viewers might ask is whether or not Rio Bravo is a response to the earlier western High Noon. The concise answer is “yes” but that probably is not enough. It’s up to the viewer to discern which example is more truthful and honest in its portrayal of humanity. And High Noon certainly is a somber portrait full of doubt and inner turmoil. However, Rio Bravo is probably just as compelling because of its relational dynamics. John Chance is the sheriff, and as sheriff, he has a certain obligation to uphold the law. That means keeping murderer Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) behind bars. He’s the no-nonsense harbinger of justice that we expect and because he’s John Wayne he’s also tough as nails.

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But that’s what makes the first scene of the film so crucial. It’s notable because it begins with no dialogue, opening up on the town drunk in a saloon that also gets a visit from sheriff John T. Chance. Whether it’s an act of charity or disdain Chance saves El Borrachon’s self-respect only to get bashed over the head in return.

However, this moment is vital in how it sets up Chance’s character. Yes, he maintains a rough even grouchy exterior but looking closer, you see something else. He holds onto his friendships pretty tightly, namely old reliable Stumpy (Brennan) who he bickers with like an old married couple. Then his pal Wheeler (Bond) who comes into the bottled up Texas town with a load of supplies.

And they’re not the only ones. Chance looks to turn away a woman who’s got her face plastered on wanted posters, but slowly shows an affinity towards her. He certainly would not admit it at first but he ultimately does care for her deeply. Also, one of his most faithful allies is the spirited hotel owner Carlos (Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez) who is always ready to come to the sheriff’s aid while simultaneously talking his ear off.

Lastly, we go back to the Borrachon who was once Chance’s deputy but lost his sobriety in pursuit of a girl. Honestly, many people would not blame Chance for giving up on this man as a lost cause, and at several junctures, it looks like he has. But the bottom line is that he never does and in his own ornery way, he sticks by his old compadre — never deserting him or doubting him in crucial moments.

Thus, when we put High Noon up against Rio Bravo it’s not a weak sheriff versus a stalwart sheriff in the conventional sense as Hawks and Wayne might have supposed. However, what makes Chance strong are the people he surrounds himself with. In a way, when he is weak, then he is strong because he’s surrounded by people who are faithful and beholden to him. Yes, he’s still John Wayne and he’s one deadly man to cross, but he’s a lot more lethal with friends guarding his back. And that’s a testament to the people he surrounds himself with and also the ones who gravitate towards him. You get the sense that these are not fickle relationships — even in the cinematic sense. The characters can spend as much time ribbing each other as they do toting a gun through town. And perhaps the most telling part is that as an audience we grow to cherish these characters in a similar way. They’re fun to spend time with and that makes Rio Bravo a true gem.

5/5 Stars

Walking in the Footsteps of Duke

john_wayne_publicity_photo_1952Contrary to popular belief, I wasn’t always a classic movie aficionado or a western lover but you do not have to be either of those to know and love the Duke because he is more of an American icon than a simple movie star in the conventional sense. He’s so integral to the very cultural fabric of our country. For instance, by watching I Love Lucy or M*A*S*H (and Radar’s impressions) or having one of your dad’s favorite film being True Grit, you can get to know him by simple osmosis. It’s just a fact. Even words like “Pilgrim” and “Baby Sister” begin to sneak into your everyday lexicon. You cannot help but hear them and by association use them (I’m not speaking from experience at all).

Even from an early age I had an awareness of John Wayne and I’m not quite sure where that began but I certainly do recall knowing who he was. However, I’m not sure if I had ever seen one of his films or at least not one of his famous ones. Watching the likes of Stagecoach, The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, even True Grit came years later. However, from early on I think it was evident that in many ways I almost subconsciously grew up walking in the footsteps of John Wayne. It’s only now that I realize the undeniable facts.

To start, it must be noted that Wayne was a transplant to Southern California, my home for many years now. He actually was born Marion Morrison, larger than life even at birth in the town of Somerset, Iowa in 1907. It’s true that I got to visit his home, now a makeshift museum that memorializes his career in humble fashion (On a side note: I too have family from Iowa so that’s yet another small connection to the Duke’s beginnings).

300px-Wild_Goose.JPGBut it’s from these roots that he ultimately moved out to sunny California, a noted member of the USC football team before a career-ending injury. This is a part of his life that I will mostly gloss over. Because it was the next part of his life that always resonated with me on a personal level. His very persona seems imprinted on the world that I grew up with from an early age. His name and likeness could seemingly be found everywhere. I grew up seeing his statue and even passing by his personal boat The Wild Goose and seafront home on family excursions (also featured in a Columbo episode).

Rumor has it that his son Ethan roamed the same hallways and the same classrooms as I did in high school. By association, I even hold a personal anecdote of the Duke that my father has often regaled me with. Once, in a local shop, he saw Rooster Cogburn himself in all his imposing glory, sans eyepatch, patronizing the local establishment. That was probably only a few years before he passed away in 1979 — only a single momentary occurrence.

Although that was still some years before I even became acquainted with him, there’s no doubt that John Wayne is a timeless figure and I will enjoy him on film for many years to come because there’s something personal about his persona both on screen and off. I truly feel like I do walk in his incomparable footsteps, looming large even now, so many years after his final film The Shootist in 1976.

Because he is far more than a movie star. He’s not simply John Wayne, Marion Morrison, or the Duke, he’s a multifaceted, colorful figure, polarizing but also so personable. In every role, you knew it was him and he never felt like he was faking one word or action. He’s authentic, straight-talking, and true. He held unswervingly to certain convictions and fought tirelessly for those who did not pack a shotgun as well as he did. And I admire that. Thus, John Wayne is not simply an actor who I enjoy seeing for his sheer timelessness but I’ve also had the enjoyment of walking some of the paths that he frequented and blazed. They certainly are big boots to fill but it’s fun to see their impact even today.

For the John Wayne Blogathon HERE

Review: True Grit (1969)

truegrit1My father has always maintained that two of his favorite films are The Magnificent Seven and True Grit. The first one makes sense with its stellar cast, resplendent score, and some top rate gunslinging. The second film, well, it makes sense too, but for completely different reasons.

Director Henry Hathaway is never flashy but he is a self-assured worksmith of early film-noir and westerns such as The Sons of Katie Elder. Those are minor classics, and yet each one is gripping in its own way.

John Wayne is just John Wayne pure and simple except with an eye patch slung over his eye, but do we care? Not in the slightest. When you have such a presence in a film, it will never lack at least a shred of viewing value. He was always memorable, but he was probably never more iconic than his turn as Marshall Rooster Cogburn. He’s a gruff, tough, drinking man who is willing to take on anyone and everyone at the drop of a hair. Yet despite all of that fury, Wayne embodies him in such a way that makes him lovable all the same.

Wayne is usually a given to steal the spotlight but Kim Darby gave him more than he bargained for as the stubborn, no-nonsense Maddie Ross. Following suit, singer Glen Campbell showed he can do more than knock back a tune, playing the Texas Ranger.

Darby beautifully embodies the rational-minded young Maddie with her terse and straightforward rhetoric. She knows what she wants and she will not budge on those proclivities – whatever they might be. Glen Campbell was hardly an actor, but instead a country music superstar and yet the musician makes a handy Texas Ranger in a pinch bringing a sense of camaraderie and humor to wrangle with his counterparts.

As with many of his other great westerns, Wayne and company are surrounded by a solid group of stock characters including the likes of Dennis Hopper, Robert Duvall, Strother Martin, and even John Fiedler.

The film is adapted from the Charles Portis novel where Maddie, intent on catching the man who killed her father, hires Cogburn to track him down. They are joined by Laboeuf and thus begins their search.

Looking at the plot alone, this film is about a journey to apprehend a fugitive man named Tom Cheney, who killed Maddy’s father as well as a Senator back in Texas. But really what we’re watching is this unlikely trio joins forces to do things we would never expect from them. It’s certainly no coon hunt, but then again it’s hardly a single-minded mission. Maddy has one opinion, the Texas Ranger has another, and Rooster Cogburn’s mostly drunk when he’s not belittling his rival or poking fun at “Baby Sister.” Do we mind? Certainly not because time makes these three companions into friends. Their ribbing gives way to trust and their anger and annoyance breed mutual respect.

Nothing beats the adrenaline rush of seeing Wayne charge across a vast meadow towards Ned Pepper and his cronies, with his guns drawn and a bridle between his teeth. The sequence is enhanced by the spectacular Colorado landscape that adds another character to the entire film. You cannot witness such a scene and simply write it off as average. That’s part of the reason we go to the movies – to see men with True Grit.

The Coen Brothers brought us a darker, more dramatic interpretation of this film, but it is hard to beat the fun of Henry Hathaway’s version. John Wayne, Rooster Cogburn, whatever you want to call him, he has True Grit. Isn’t that right baby sister?

4.5/5 Stars

Review: Red River (1948)

redriver1Any conversation on quintessential American Westerns certainly has to at least consider Red River. It has genre mainstay John Wayne in one of his most stirring performances, a moody precursor to The Searchers. It boasts the debut of the often criminally under-appreciated method actor Monty Clift. Moreover, it’s cinematic space is filled out by a colorful array of prominent Western stock players. You have the always ornery Walter Brennan, pudgy Noah Beery Jr., Harey Carey Jr., Hank Worden, and numerous others. For a second you can even forget that this isn’t a John Ford film, but instead, the story is placed in the ever-adept hands of Howard Hawks, who knows how to craft compelling stories no matter the genre he’s working in.

In 1851, before Tom Dunson (Wayne) settles on a new plot of land near the Rio Grande and begins to raise his cattle with the brand of the Red River D, he loses the love of his life to an Indian raid, while also picking up an orphaned boy in the aftermath. That young man, Matt Garth (Clift), would become like Dunson’s adopted son and his right-hand man when it comes to running his ranch. The rest of Red River is essentially a road film that chronicles the first cattle drive along the Chisolm Trail. It’s bound to be a gritty, sweaty, and undoubtedly smelly road ahead as Wayne and Clift take the reins on this journey. The intrigue comes with power dynamics because when you put two or more people in a confined space sparks are bound to fly at some point.

redriver2When Dunson begins the massive journey to sell his cattle in Missouri, many wranglers sign on for prospects ahead, but they don’t quite know the degree of hardship that they will face. Soon enough, a stampede leaves one man dead and the company without one of their chuck wagons of provisions. Dunson is a hard taskmaster, who expects his hired hands to finish their job. Morale in the band begins to sink from lack of food and fierce downpours that leave most everyone dejected and distraught.

Then, when Dunson prepares to hang two deserters to make an example out of them, Matt must finally step in. He’s always the subservient one, always backing Dunson with his gun, but for the first time in his life, he crosses the will of his mentor. All the wranglers are quick to continue the journey as they change course for Abilene Kansans and the prospect of the railroad. But Garth leaves a brooding Dunson behind, vowing to kill Matt if it’s the last thing he does. It’s this act of the story which brings to mind the Biblical vendetta of Esau as he pursues his kin for stealing his birthright.

redriver6Garth and his contingent do end up getting to Abilene and are met with open arms by the kindly Mr. Melville, however, perhaps, more importantly, Matt falls in love with a fiery beauty (Joanne Dru) and must leave her behind. Days later Tess Millay also meets Tom Dunson, the man she has heard so much about, and he’s far from being dissuaded from his mission.

Thus, the expected showdown comes with Dunson riding into town with his hired guns, the alarm being sounded, and Garth waiting for him. Dunson draws and Garth will not. It’s a fitting moment, but Howard Hawks develops it in a fabulous way. He fills it with tension and ultimately a hint of humor. The addition of Joanne Dru shifts the power dynamic and she says what everyone else is thinking while angrily packing a pistol.

redriver4Because if Red River was story alone, it would not be the preeminent Western that it is, and I think I made that mistake before. Hawks is a master at using all his actors to perfection in not simply the climactic moments, but also the lulls. With such a substantial ensemble, even the way he positions all his players in the scene holds importance. His scenes are continually interesting from talk of Walter Brennan’s false teeth to complaints about the abysmal quality of the coffee.

My only qualm with the film is the rather shoddy transitions, and so I am interested in getting a look at the theatrical cut with narration from Brennan. John Ford famously quipped that he never knew that Wayne could act until this film, and it’s true that he gives a darkly vengeful performance. But in many ways, Clift proves himself as a worthy co-star. There’s always a tightness, a lilt to his voice, that signals an earnestness and vulnerability. It starts coming out in this film right when he knows that he’s no longer going to follow Dunson. It took two starkly different actors to make the narrative work as well as it did, and Hawks added yet another classic to his catalog. On a side note, the music of Dimitri Tiomkin was noticeable, because the refrains can be heard verbatim in Rio Bravo. If something’s good why change it, right?

4.5/5 Stars

Lee Marvin as Liberty Valance (1962)

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I can enter into a discussion of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance from two different avenues. Most obvious is the film itself. As far as star power, Lee Marvin is playing third fiddle to John Wayne and James Stewart, the undisputed stars of this film.

However, Liberty Valance is a wonderful role, because certainly this is about Wayne and Stewart, but on the other hand its Marvin who has his name in the title, and that’s not something to be taken too lightly. He’s at the core of this film, because it is his villainy and criminal activities that create the conflict in this story line and elicit a response from both of our leading men. He forces their hand and it becomes the call to action for a final showdown.

The fact that the film’s narrative is told, rather like a film noir, with a flashback creates this type of aura not only around Wayne’s Tom Doniphin but the notorious Liberty Valance himself. Because although we see Ransom Stoddard (Stewart) in the present along with his faithful wife (Vera Miles), the  two other men are only made available to us through eyewitness account. Around them is built a type of legend and that ultimately makes Liberty Valance a fascinating figure. Dressed in black, swinging his whip menacingly and boisterous as all get out, Lee Marvin is the perfect man to portray Valance.

In a sense, it feels like he’s at the crossroads of his career, in transition from his heavy roles to being a top billed tough guy. The Big Heat and Liberty Valance represent his earlier turns before he progressed to The Dirty Dozen and Point Blank as a silver-haired tough-as-nails leading man. Marvin was arguably never more larger-than-life than his time as Liberty Valance. Perhaps it was because he was forced to hold his own against Stewart and Wayne. As the famous quotation goes, “When legend becomes fact, print the legend..” Well in this case, Lee Marvin did make Liberty Valance in a legendary villain deserving to be among the pantheon of baddies.

However, there’s also Gene Pitney’s billboard charting tune also called “The Man Shot Liberty Valance,” which although it was not featured in the film, sums up its story quite impeccably.

The lyrics read like so:

When Liberty Valance rode to town, the womenfolk would hide, they’d hide
When Liberty Valance walked around, the men would step aside
‘Cause the point of a gun was the only law that Liberty understood
When it came to shootin’ straight and fast, he was mighty good

From out of the east a stranger came, a law book in his hand, a man
The kind of a man the West would need to tame a troubled land
‘Cause the point of a gun was the only law that Liberty understood
When it came to shootin’ straight and fast, he was mighty good

Many a man would face his gun, and many a man would fall
The man who shot Liberty Valance
He shot Liberty Valance
He was the bravest of them all

The love of a girl can make a man stay on when he should go, stay on
Just tryin’ to build a peaceful life where love is free to grow
But the point of a gun was the only law that Liberty understood
When the final showdown came at last, a law book was no good

Alone and afraid, she prayed that he’d return that fateful night, aw, that night
When nothin’ she said could keep her man from goin’ out to fight
From the moment a girl gets to be full-grown, the very first thing she learns
When two men go out to face each other, only one returns

Everyone heard two shots ring out, one shot made Liberty fall
The man who shot Liberty Valance
He shot Liberty Valance
He was the bravest of them all

The man who shot Liberty Valance
He shot Liberty Valance
He was the bravest of them all

So if Marvin’s portrayal doesn’t already make Liberty Valance into a mythical villain, then this number certainly does. We can read it a bit like a western folktale, emotive and surprisingly true to the film’s narrative arc. But what it leaves us with are the result of that showdown that happened so many years ago…

The point of a gun was the only law that Liberty Valance understood, and he was forced to pay penitence for his misdeeds under the barrel of that same law — at the hands of the hero christened only by the name “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”

Written as part of The Great Villain Blogathon featured HERE

 

They Were Expendable (1945)

They_Were_Expendable_posterThere’s nothing very intriguing about a film entitled They Were Expendable. In essence, we already know what the conclusion of the film is, however it is important to understand the context of when this John Ford World War II docudrama was coming out. In 1945 the Nazis and Japanese had finally been quelled, and the Allies could look back at the sacrifices that had been made.

One such example was in the Philippines after Pearl Harbor. Despite being undermanned and without much support, the brave men in the navy wreaked havoc against the enemy trying to hold onto their strongholds as long as possible before being forced to evacuate. It is far from a glamorous moment in the war because the war seemed to favor Japan and our forces were made to flee. However, in those moments of distress and tragedy, bravery seemed to flourish and our resolve only greatened. General Douglas MacArthur summed up the sentiments of every man when he promised, “I shall return.”

That being said, John Ford’s They Were Expendable is not always easy to follow; it can feel slow and deliberate, however, it exudes a gritty realism that is hard not to appreciate. It certainly is patriotic, but it does not often over sentimentalize war with high drama. We see it for what it often is. It means smoke, explosions, shipwrecks, death. It means breaking apart friends, crews, and men and women who care about each other.

Part of that realism is probably helped by Ford’s work filming a documentary of the Battle of Midway and lead Robert Montgomery (who plays Lt. Brickley) also fought on a P.T. boat during the war. Although he was not ever in the military, John Wayne always has a knack for reflecting American ideals of grit and determination. That’s why he was made for westerns as well as war films. This time around playing the fiery but loyal Lt. Rusty Ryan. Donna Reed on her part has a rather small role, and yet it is an integral part because she represents the brave nurses who support the military. She is the lifter of morale, the girl next door, all these ideals that fit this pretty young lady from Iowa. It’s hard to know if she’s just playing herself or not.

At times it’s a hard film to follow because it often seems to jump or skip events. Maybe it happens in an attempt to cover more story or maybe Ford did not want to hold his viewer’s hand, I’m not sure. I do know that I am far less of an informed viewer about this time period or this moment in World War II history. It often seems like most of the limelight is given to mainland Europe and not the Pacific.

As much as I was drawing connections and finding similarities, this film is far from McHale’s Navy. The story is far more somber, more realistic, and at times depressing to watch. It’s the kind of film that could only be made after we had won. It affirms our American resolve and honors those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. That and the film’s beautiful low lit images make it worth watching. The cinematography makes numerous scenes far more interesting by layering characters in darkness and accentuating the shadows in a hospital corridor for instance. Rather than making everything feel stylized, it only helps to augment the realism that makes They Were Expendable a worthy testament of WWII.

3.5/5 Stars

Hondo (1953)

0a5df-hondo3In many ways Hondo feels a lot like Shane since it came out the same year and follows a wandering gunslinger who comes in contact with a frontier family. The story based off the novel by famed western writer Louis L’Amour is a lesser addition to the Western canon, but its hard to complain about a film with John Wayne. I was not a big fan of Geraldine Page (she seemed too needy) but I was happy to see some western mainstays in Ward Bond and a young James Arness.

The film opens with homesteader Angela Lowe and her 6 year old son Johnny spotting a man off in the distance. At first they are tense but as he gets closer and they interact with Hondo, it is clear he only has the best intentions and needs assistance since he lost his horse.

A great deal of the film revolves around the conflict between the native Apache and the U.S. Cavalry with Lowe and her son stuck in the middle of it all. Both sides seem to be at fault at times and in the right in others. Hondo used to be a scout for the Cavalry and he killed three men in the past year which raises the lady’s suspicions but she does not know the circumstances.
When Hondo’s not having run-ins with the Apache or on the brink of being killed, he gets in hot water with Lowe’s vagrant husband. Through it all he returns to the ranch and watches over Johnny who has been made a blood brother to the Apache.
His relationship with Angie deepens and when all seems to be lost during an Apache ambush, he breaks up their wagon circle and kills the enemies leader allowing them to flee. Hondo has a happy family life ahead of him, but it is pretty evident that the Apache existence will die out soon with the arrival of still more Cavalry forces.
3.5/5 Stars