Tall In The Saddle (1944)

tall in the saddle 1.png

“Boy oh, boy has somebody come to town!” – Gabby Hayes

How else is there to describe Gabby Hayes except for a cantankerous old cuss? When we first set eyes on him he’s berating his old mare for making him spill his liquor although he’s already swigged down quite the snootful.

Even Walter Brennan who was often cast in similar roles showed some diversity in performances during his early years (maybe Hayes did too) but Gabby will always be such a lovable coot in my eyes. Because, you see, if you grow up on westerns of the B variety with the likes of Gene Autry and especially Roy Rogers, Gabby Hayes was a mainstay of the genre as far as sidekicks go. I was fond of Smiley Burnette and Slim Pickens but no one holds a candle to Hayes.

He makes us chuckle along with the tall handsome stranger who’s just witnessed the same events. Before ever interacting we know they will wind up good friends. They hold a mutual admiration for each other.

The man named Rocklin, played by Marion Morrison and known to the world as John Wayne, rides shotgun on the stage headed for the town of Santa Inez. The coach’s other occupants are a terribly irksome old crone and her demure young niece who are heading to the same town for some business. Rocklin has come for the prospect of work.

However, he finds out the man who paid for his train passage was killed and his holdings have passed onto to the very same young lady in the stage except her peevish aunt is not about to allow her to conduct her own affairs.

Rocklin seems to have little reason to stay and yet he does. He gets into a tussle with a young hot-head over a poker hand. Then, the next day he gets a faceful from strong-willed Arly Harolday (Ella Raines); she comes into town to get this brazen newcomer to hand the money over.

How can you not love John Wayne? His lady costar confronts him, guns-drawn and shrilling at him to stop and turn around but he just keeps on walking nonchalantly as she fires a hail of bullets all around. He pushes the saloon’s door open and saunters up to the bar, nice as you please.

The next such moment could have easily been a climax — as a gun duel looks all but imminent. Wayne cuts a business proposition short and proceeds to clock hulking George Clews over the head with the butt of his revolver before going back inside to return to his conversation. He subsequently gets hired on as Topaz ranch foreman.

tall in the saddle 2.png

As he so eloquently puts it, “No women is going to get me hogtied and branded.” However, that does not account for the power-hungry land grabs and the shooting of men in the backs that’s being orchestrated. Wayne must navigate with his own brand of sleuthing. A later highlight follows our hero destroying an entire office space having it out with his old football chum Ward Bond, playing a local judge.

While there’s nothing especially novel about the yarn spinning, there’s nevertheless something comforting in this as Paul Fix pulls double duty as co-scriptwriter (with Michael Hogan) and also portraying the thug Bob Clews.

It does feature two formidable female characters, one in Raines whose fiery pistol-packing showcases her own charisma opposite Wayne, while Audrey Long, who plays the reticent Easterner, proves to have enough intuition to see the picture to its conclusion. Because it must end with Wayne a wanted man, a posse coming to get him, and two guns looking to finish him off. But he has some corruption to thwart and let me assure you he puts an end to it just as assuredly as he nabs the girl — I’ll let you be the judge which one it ends up being.

Search for an underlying moral and you might not discover anything outright. What you will receive for your trouble is a good ol’ fashioned western vehicle for John Wayne that he tackles with his usual fearless gumption. Despite his rediscovery in Stagecoach in 1939, that didn’t mean that The Duke had quite risen above B fair completely. For what it’s worth, Tall in the Saddle does the low budget genre justice.  Besides Duke would get plenty of other quality movies in the future.

This is an unnecessary aside but whenever I hear John Wayne speak Spanish it always seems to add another layer of authenticity to his persona. He once said that he’d want to be remembered by the phrase, “Feo, fuerte y formal.” He was ugly, strong, and had dignity. Sounds about right.

3.5/5 Stars

Big Jake (1971)

Big_jake_ver2.jpg

The film has an opening gambit that nearly feels unbecoming of a John Wayne picture and yet there’s something simultaneously quite riveting about it. You can’t quite take your eyes off of it, waiting to see what will come to pass.

Our narrator sets the scene in 1909 where, while the East is rising in a constant deluge of modernization, the West is still as ornery as ever. What follows is a full display of that reality as a band of thugs led by John Fain (Richard Boone) rides into a sprawling ranch with one thing on their minds.

There’s a sense that this late-period work from veteran director George Sherman, his last film, in fact, is well aware of Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (1969) and The Wild Bunch (1969) generation and it readily ups the violent content. Although it is a modern western in this sense, there are still blatant signs of not only antiquity but the deep-rooted hierarchy of the West along ethnic lines.

With his good buddy from the early days behind the camera, John Wayne has another personal vehicle on his hands. There’s no doubting the centrality of his presence on the plot even if his entrance is delayed. The stock company is rich and deep as per usual but there is a myriad of young guns too and Duke had a habit of making his work a family affair.

Bobby Vinton gets a near token cameo while little Ethan Wayne becomes crucial to keeping the plot chugging forward as the thugs run off with the boy expecting a ransom in return for his life. Duke’s other two grown sons are played by Patrick Wayne and Bob Mitchum’s boy Christopher. Though not quite family, Maureen O’Hara makes a lovely appearance as the strong-willed ranch matriarch who has long been estranged from her husband Jake McCandles. The scenes with her longtime costar end in a blink of an eye but with such a meaningful cinematic history together they leave the necessary impression.

Like most of these later works, similar to a McClintock! (1963), Big Jake is unequivocally a must-see for the John Wayne faithful — people who could watch him in just about anything will find time to be heartily entertained.

It’s somewhat of a menacing western drama but there’s still ample room for a cheeky and rip-roaring good time. Big Jake, though more violent than some of Duke’s predecessors nevertheless has his mark of approval all over it. There are falls in the mud. He gets plenty of time to smack his sons around and also receives his share of wallops as retribution. Pulling buckshot out of backsides and dousing them with whiskey is all in a day’s work. And Duke is as vociferous as ever.

That’s what will get people to stay. Because it’s one thing about John Wayne that is rather refreshing. Like him or not, you know full-well where he stands and how he’s going to play it. Larger-than-life and tough-as-nails but with unquestioned integrity. I’m drawn to that like many others because I come from a wishy-washy generation. But far more than that, even if I don’t necessarily agree with everything he does, the Duke never seems to do something purely out of spite. Instead, he has some deep-seated convictions.

He plays Big Jake McCandles with his typical presence that knows few equals in terms of longevity or sheer durability. Wayne certainly understands how to command a room and while everyone else tries to upstage him no one has the gumption. Richard Boone is probably the only old-timer who has the wiles and the pedigree to try to steal his spotlight and he’s, of course, the ringleader of our villains.

Despite being a man who left his family long ago, McCandles returns on a moment’s notice to rescue his kidnapped grandson. He’s a no-good old coot but there is that aforementioned sense of moral integrity. He’s has a funny way of showing it but he cares about family.

The truth is, he sees out his objective with his typical dogged resilience laced with worldly wisdom and tenacity. The conflict spawns from one son who is rightfully bitter and another son who seems like he’s traded out the past for new-fangled gadgetry. In the end, it seems the tried-and-true methods prove most effective. Wayne is joined in the task at hand by his feisty canine named “Dog” and a veteran Apache tracker named Sam.

Elmer Bernstein’s scoring automatically evokes layers upon layers of added richness from any western scenery and he’s somehow able to perfect everything that is resplendent and majestic about this way of life. There’s a deep abiding understanding of what The West meant and what men stood for.

Their final destination comes in a bustling boom town with thugs milling about and everyone looking to get a hand in on the cash payload that the McCandles have hauled around in order to save their young kin.

We know it’s only a matter of time before things come to a head. Of course, Duke gives it a bit of a kick in the rear by instigating barroom brawls to rile up the masses as a quality distraction. The resulting payoffs are as expected and gut-bustingly uproarious. And of course, John Wayne gets the last laugh of all from inside the shower stall of a barbershop followed by a final showdown where every member of the McCandle clan gets their own chance at redemption.

There’s nothing cutting edge here but this is a story of the dwindling West and so when that’s what your story is about, I think it can be said that Big Jake succeeds in these modest regards. After all, it’s a self-selecting film because anyone who wants to see it will be satiated and anyone else probably won’t search it out anyway. John Wayne has that influence on people even today.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: The Quiet Man (1952)

John_Wayne_Maureen_O'Hara

When you think of the combination of John Ford and John Wayne, it’s only normal to conjure up the quintessential western pairing. It’s true there are so many films that we could pay a nod to like Stagecoach (1939), The Searchers (1956), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1961), etc.

Thus, when considering such company The Quiet Man always felt like an obvious outlier and yet I’ve always been taken with it for those exact reasons. John Ford was an Irishman through and through. He made The Informer in 1935 and though How Green was my Valley (1941) was based around a Welsh family it might as well be considered an analogous world.

But with this picture, we see Ford’s final venture into such a country — the homeland of his people and there’s certainly an idealized quality to it. Where the Catholics priests (Ward Bond) pretend to be Protestants when the local magistrate comes through the village to inspect the parish. Where the colorful figures of the village, despite small stature, are painted with bright and jovial strokes that nevertheless seem larger than life. There’s nothing lackluster about them and no harm in that.

Stereotypically wrought or dated by today’s standards you might say but Ford is undoubtedly paying a final homage to the lore of his ancestors. A history that stretches further back than many of us might be able to comprehend. There’s a surprising affection that courses through the picture. If not simply in the people than certainly through the capturing of scenery as well.

Exterior sets aside, the on-location imagery is on par with John Ford’s most  resplendent scenes from Monument Valley. There couldn’t be a sharper contrast either in Winston Hoch’s photography of rolling hills with the arid plains that define most of the indelible visuals from Utah. Again, that makes them all the more resonate, the true epitome of lush mise en scene.

Because The Quiet Man is a film that is continually blessed by a big screen where the Technicolor tones overwhelm you with their fervent grandeur only surpassed by the feisty fire bursting forth from Maureen O’Hara. Ireland has never looked more gorgeous and the same can be said of the bonniest lass I did ever lay eyes on clothed in red and blue. Victor Young’s score proves to run the paradoxical gambit between utter serenity and majesty with playful dips to match the film’s own backbreaking brand of broad comedy.

Sean Thorton (John Wayne) makes the pilgrimage to the little community of Innisfree intent on buying back his childhood home and finding himself a local bride. He’s reticent as to why exactly he’s decided to return. But regardless, the yank is not accustomed to the way the world works in the old country. He is in need of some sagely council.

Sean’s main guide is the bright-eyed leprechaun in human form (Barry Fitzgerald) who becomes his matchmaker, the liaison between him the and barrel-chested bully Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen). Though Sean is taken with the man’s sister, he can’t call on her until the squire gives his consent and a squabble over some real estate makes their relationship tenuous at best.

There are certain sensibilities. Certain customs that are unspoken law of the land. Life moves a little slower too.  But when it does move it rolls down the roadways with a blistering pace of good-natured thunder. Local horse races become the arena for men to exercise their prowess and win the favor of the local ladies through feats of athleticism leading to a bonnet-lined finish.

Sean finally gets some consent and the courtship begins though Flynn constantly warns against any amount of “Paddy Fingers.” And they get on well enough until Mary Kate, being the proud woman that she is, demands her husband collect the dowery that is rightfully hers. He could care less about the money or her hulking brother and yet he declines. She figures him a coward and not to be touted as such, he finally relents, ready to have it out with his rival onece and for all.

To make his point, he deals with both of them setting up The Quiet Man’s exemplary showdown. It’s a final fist-throwing wallop fest that’s all spectacle. The whole town runs rampant across the countryside as the two men (Wayne and McLaglen) wail on each other. Back and forth. One decked. The other pushed, kicked or whacked. They’re on the receiving end of a face full of water and start it all over again. In the end, its all in good fun and that’s how this movie would have it. There’s little need to take it too seriously. The pure enjoyment factor is one of its most laudable virtues.

It’s also the stuff of legend what Maureen O’Hara was coaxed by her director to whisper to Duke in those last moments. The words are said michievously and his face lights up with sheer incredulity. For me, it doesn’t matter because his expression says it all and the way she playfully leads him off into the distance, enticing him to follow her across the row of stones, is so candid.

The chemistry between them is as real as anything I’ve ever seen on screen. He whips her around and drags her along, gives her a slap, and yet she’s got fire enough to face off against him and give him a run for his money. She keeps him on his toes and he goes to great lengths just to be with her. The Quiet Man works because that central dynamic is robust and still equally passionate. Their natural affinity for one another cannot be counterfeit. It’s too sincere. It’s what made them so iconic together and it’s part of what made John Ford’s The Quiet Man an idiosyncratic and still thoroughly luxuriant classic.

5/5 Stars

Baby Face (1933)

baby face 1.png

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.

baby face 4.png

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)

Angel_badman.jpg

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)

mclintock_4

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)

howard_hawksrio_bravo_trailer_39

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.”

Howard_Hawks'Rio_Bravo_trailer_(31).jpg

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.

howard_hawksrio_bravo_trailer_26

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