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. 

Stella Dallas (1937)

stella-dallas-37Early on, when she is growing up, it seems very easy to read Stella (Barbara Stanwyck). She is a young woman born into a humble background with a family that could at best be called earthy. Still, Stella wants to know what it feels like to live in the lap of luxury. She wants a more refined life and it’s easy for all the cynics to assume she’s making eyes at the handsome mill executive Stephen Dallas (John Boles) for what he can give her.

And such a presumption would not be entirely untrue. She wants to become more like him. She wants to improve herself and gain access to the world that he has known all his life before his father tragically died. But there’s an earnestness about her. She’s not simply an opportunist. She is ready to pursue this life alongside Stephen and an emblem of that very fact is the subsequent birth of their daughter, Laurel. And this is where the film begins to progress towards its main objective.

As it turns out, Stella truly is a wonderful mother. Loving her daughter in every way and giving her all the affection she possibly can. Meanwhile, although still devoted to his daughter, Stephen is away most of the time occupied with work, so in many ways, Stella raises her child single-handedly. Her only company is the housekeeper, the fun but less than desirable Ed Munn (Alan Hale), and, of course, Laurel who soon grows up to be a young woman right before our eyes (Anne Shirley).

In a modern world of celebrity scandal and bitterness, two people such as this would probably have a divorce as soon as possible but there’s a civility between Stephen and Stella. Perhaps they don’t love each other and they hardly spend any time with each other anymore, but they both are devoted to their daughter and by transference, they still care about the other’s well-being.

But as “Lollie” begins to grow up into a sweet, effervescent beauty, the inevitable begins to happen. The upbringing and status of her mother are at odds with the rest of the company that Stephen keeps as well as most of Laurel’s peers. A lesser film would have allowed the chafing between mother and daughter be the undoing of their relationship. But that is a far too easy place to find drama. Stella Dallas is a more audacious film because Laurel could never bare to leave her mother’s side. No matter what her friends might say in passing, she is unswervingly faithful to the end. But it’s the fact, that Stella realizes, in a sense, that she is holding Laurel back (at least in her own estimation). And in the most sacrificial way she knows, she does everything she can to set Laurel up with the best future.

Ultimately, this life means moving back with her father, Stella divorcing Stephen so that Laurel might have a proper mother (Barbara O’Neil) to fit her upbringing, and finally driving her beloved daughter away so that she might truly find happiness. Stella Dallas gives so much of herself and as a viewer, it’s easy to question the validity of her actions. But I can only imagine, that as a parent you are willing to give up so much for the happiness of your children without even blinking an eye. So it is in this film.

Barbara Stanwyck is phenomenal, undoubtedly giving one of the greatest dramatic performances of her illustrious career. You would think for a woman so young and vibrant she couldn’t possibly pull off the role of a maternal figure convincingly but Stella Dallas repeatedly proves any doubters wrong. It’s an excruciatingly painful picture for the very fact that it is full of such an overwhelming amount of love — love of the highest order — the sacrificial love of a parent. And it turns on this axle so beautifully. We initially view Stella Dallas in one light and by the end of the story, our entire perspective has evolved. I cannot recall another scene in recent memory that has moved me so much as watching this mother observe from a distance as her daughter is wed.

It’s a searing portrait and Stanwyck and the equally sympathetic Shirley lend so much credence to the dynamic. We believe them because there is an obvious sincerity — an inherent honesty — in their word and deed.  To simply label King Vidor’s film a “Weepie” is a major disservice to the entire cast involved. This is a heart-wrencher with an overwhelming ability to move. There is little shame in tearing up. They don’t come much more poignant than this.

4/5 Stars

Japanese War Bride (1952)

Japanese_War_Bride_VideoCoverMuch like Sam Fuller’s Crimson Kimono (1959), Japanese War Bride’s title carries certain negative stereotypes, however, its central romance similarly feels groundbreaking, allowing it to exceed expectations.

The film opens during the waning days of the Korean War. A man lies incapacitated in a hospital bed, but he couldn’t be happier because he’s met the love of his life. Maybe it’s war fatigue or something else, but he simply cannot take his eyes off the pretty young nurse Ms. Shimuzu (Shirley Yamaguchi).

And although prospects don’t necessarily look that promising, since duty calls, Jim leaves that hospital bent on getting that girl for his wife. He’s serious. So serious in fact that he goes straight away to convene with Tae’s grandfather (Philip Ahn) that he might persuade him for Tae’s hand in marriage. Although warning that the road ahead will be a difficult one, the sagacious man, relents, reluctant to stand in the way of this blossoming love.

It’s after the happy couple is picked up at the train station by family and settle into the old family home, that it becomes obvious that things aren’t quite the same. They’ll be more difficult than they first appeared.

Jim’s parents and brother are welcoming enough, but there is still a necessary period of gelling as they get used to their new family member. Even Jim encourages his petite young wife to be more assertive and embrace American culture fully. She does her best.

japanesewarbride2Jim looks to build up a happy life with her as he looks to take some of his father’s land to keep a home of his own and raise crops. Tae begins to acclimate to her new life and gains the respect of the Taylor family while making a few friends including the kindly Hasagawa siblings (Lane Nakano and May Takasugi) who work at a factory nearby. The icing on the cake is when Tae announces she’s pregnant and Jim could not be more ecstatic.

Still, what crops up are the subtleties of racism through slight snubs and bits of insensitivity. First, the skeptical sister-in-law (Marie Windsor) drops pointed remarks towards Tae. At first, they are so veiled, they seem only a passing wisp of a word, hardly worth acknowledging. But following one of the neighbors confessing how much she hates all the Japanese, it becomes evident that all is not right in Monterrey.

One moment Tae is getting accosted by a drunken merrymaker at a party who jokingly calls her a geisha girl. Then the family is scared, rightfully so, when Mr. Taylor receives a threatening letter. It voices the opinion of an unnamed “friend” about the fact that there are rumors floating around that Tae’s baby looks fully Japanese and she has been spending time with Shiro Hasagawa. A scandal of this kind will ruin Mr. Taylor’s reputation among his fellow growers. It will ruin him period.

But most important to this story, it infuriates Jim with a fiery rage. He’s angry at all the narrow-minded folks he used to call friends. He’s mad at his family and most of all Fran for her part in Tae’s distress. It’s in these most tenuous moments that  Tae decides to take her baby and seek asylum somewhere else to get away from the cultural chasm that has formed. Of course, they are reunited and there is a version of a happy ending, but it does not take away from the bottom line. They’ll still have to struggle against societal pressures and flat-out bigotry. However, if you’re in love, there are many rivers you are willing to ford and the same goes for Jim and Tae.

japanesewarbride1Japanese War Bride is continuously fascinating for the presence of Japanese within its frames. First, we have a rather groundbreaking and relatively unheard of interracial romance between the always personable average everyman Don Taylor and stunning newcomer Shirley Yamaguchi. Their scenes are tender and hold a great deal of emotional impact. It’s the kind of drama that has the power to make us mentally distraught but also imbue us with joy.

The film carries even more sobering underlying tension given the relative freshness of World War II. Mothers are still bitter about the deaths of their sons and that righteous anger is not discriminating between people. It only sees race. Meanwhile, Shiro and his sister reflect the times as Nisei, who were affected by internment and increased amounts of prejudice. While Shiro was imprisoned in Japan during the war, his family was interned at Tulare near Sacramento and his resentful father nearly had all of his land taken. Many other Japanese farmers were not so lucky.

For her part Marie Windsor plays her prime role as the antagonistic woman to the tee, effectively embodying all the small-minded, underhanded folks out there that live life without a genuine kindness for their fellow man. Poisoning other people’s mind just as they are poisoned, and it’s this type of rancor that leads to fear and bigotry. A breeding ground for hatred. In some shape and form, it still rears its ugly head to this day. What makes this film special is how it reflects the realities as it pertains to Japanese and Japanese-Americans. Veteran director King Vidor’s effort is a generally authentic and nuanced tale that pays his subjects the ultimate respect even in its more melodramatic moments.

3.5/5 Stars

The Crowd (1928)

220px-Crowd-1928-PosterThe Crowd is a true piece of urban Americana, setting the standard when it comes to your average everyday American. King Vidor’s film lacks big-name star power and plays on a universal story similar to Murnau’s Sunrise. Our protagonist is Johnny Sims, who was fittingly born on the 4th of July. He’s the quintessential stand-in for anyone who has ever pursued the American Dream. He faces the death of his father at an early age and grows up getting lost in the masses of New York. With wall to wall skyscrapers towering above and a hopping city life, it’s easy to disappear.

This film is not Metropolis, but it is about a metropolis with the same behemoth sets swimming over the top with extras. In fact, at his job, Johnny looks like the original C.C. Baxter from The Apartment. He’s a cog in the giant mass of humanity, a little stop in the ever-churning conveyor belt.  Like Baxter, Sims becomes smitten with Mary, a lovely girl he meets on a double date with his joking colleague Bert. A lively night at a carnival and going through the tunnel of love cements their relationship. Soon they are married and heading off to the perfect honeymoon destination: Niagara Falls. This is where the love story is at its peak, riding on a wave of euphoria since these two are loved and in love. They feel indestructible, and there’s no one in the world that they would rather be with.

But as per usual, life happens to get in the way of love. Johnny isn’t too fond of Mary’s brothers and her mother, and the feelings are mutual. They just don’t see eye to eye, and they are skeptical of his prospects as a breadwinner. Matters are made worse during a tiff where Mary threatens to leave, and Sims does little to object. Their house is slowly falling apart, although they keep it together momentarily since she announces her pregnancy. That is the thin thread that binds them together.

Following their baby boy, comes a little girl, and finally, the raise that Johnny has been hoping for, but it’s not much. Things continue to be difficult as Johnny still waits for his ship to come in. His wife is annoyed with him and the meager prospects ahead. We are reminded that it’s not the big things but often the little ones that cause the most damage. Like little biting remarks that cut to the quick. And yet somehow, Johnny and Mary hang onto their romance.

In one scene she gazes down from the windowsill at him on the street below and they make up after a row. It’s rather reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet, reflecting that they still care about each other. But matters are not helped by the fact that Johnny seems pretty useless. On a beach holiday Mary struggles to get everything right, and despite her best efforts, it all turns out wrong.

Only a few years before Johnny laughed out loud at a man forced to humiliate himself carrying signs masquerading as a clown. How embarrassing! And yet a desperate Johnny winds up with a similar lot. It doesn’t help that personal tragedy strikes his family where they are most vulnerable. In its day it was actually considered obscene (for featuring a toilet), and it was far from a success due to a downbeat ending. This is a Pre-Depression world, and yet life is still far from easy.  And that allows The Crowd to stand the test of time fairly resiliently because it’s still possible to relate with its patriotism, its tragedy, and its resolute optimism.

4.5/5 Stars