Rancho Notorious (1952): Chug-a-Lug

Rancho-Notorious-poster.jpgThe legend goes that the ever-meddling megalomaniac of RKO Pictures, Howard Hughes, insisted the film’s title be changed to Rancho Notorious because European audiences wouldn’t know what a “Chug-a-Lug” was. Director Fritz Lang, who was himself a European emigre, snidely replied they definitely knew what a “Rancho Notorious” was.

Regardless, Rancho Notorious doesn’t miss a beat with an opening close-up of a couple’s tender embrace. The lovers are pried apart reluctantly as Vern Haskell (Arthur Kennedy) goes back to work as a ranch hand, leaving his best girl, Beth (Gloria Henry), to mind her mercantile store.

As he leaves, two strangers ride into town scowling around and leering at the pretty gal waving her love off on his way. One of the two thugs enters the shop to inquire about the contents of the safe, glowering over her lecherously as she reveals its contents. It doesn’t take much to extrapolate what’s next. You can fill in the blanks.

This sequence alone is a testament to the fact that the menace of Fritz Lang can even encroach on the colored palette of the western through music and foreboding shadow. With a woman now ruthlessly ravaged and murdered, it sets her man off on the trail seeking vengeance. But being the snake in the grass that he is, one of the marauders shoots his accomplice in the back before absconding with their cache.

Haskell makes it to their encampment just soon enough to induce the dying man to let out his final breath. The only tidbit he has to go on is the phrase, “Chug-a-Lug” so he goes on the trail again sticking his nose anywhere and everywhere people might have a lead.

More often than not it leads to a near-mythical lady named Alter Kean (Marlene Dietrich), tall tales of her exploits being spread all across the territory. Everyone from neighborly townfolk to old acquaintances gladly spin myths and regale the interested passerby with their recollections. Because while he’s interested, so is the moviegoing audience.

There were her days as a saloon floozie, racing with all the other gals on the backs of eligible young men and she had the pick of them all. In those days she worked for Baldy Gunner (William Frawley) though her employment was terminated prematurely. She was too rough on the customers and they were too fresh so she got the boot.

But not before running off with most of Baldy’s money thanks to the even-keeled strong-armed tactics of Frenchy Fairmont (Mel Ferrer) who holds that often touted distinction of being “The Fastest Gun in the West.” He, like Alter, could easily be cast as a mythical figure. Everyone wants to see him and take him down. He just wants to be left alone instead of having to shoot his way out of every town he wanders into. Their reputations precede both of them and in that regard, they are kindred spirits. They seemingly understand each other. Romance might be in the air as well.

Why does this matter in Vern’s quest? For that, we must look to the Election Day taking place in a wild and wooly western town where Frenchy is currently being held along with a trio of crooked politicians. The three men are all set to be hung the very same day if their political party gets overturned. The trills of democracy haven’t really reached this far west yet. Anyway, Vern gets brought in on some minor charge to get close to this outlaw and gain his confidence.

Finally, his assiduousness pays off, and he follows Frenchy to an oasis for wanted thieves, lascivious vagabonds, and societal outcasts. He makes it to Chug-a-Lug, an isolated horse ranch now run by none other than Alter Kean, in all her glory.

He now has a group of men to begin whittling down because, if his suspicions are correct, then his culprit is undoubtedly among them. For now, it’s just Marlene and the boys of the range and she whips them pretty darn good, around the card table and otherwise.

Theatrically, Rancho Notorious has the relatively unique distinction of being an interior western. Certainly, there are exterior shots but due to budgeting at RKO and what he was given to work with, Lang is forced to go the cheaper route. However, he leverages that handicap which does often give way to a fake and garish looking mise en scène to nevertheless create an unnerving world of tension and claustrophobia.

The space is crowded with thugs just ready to go off like sticks of dynamite. They just need a match to light them off and Arthur Kennedy is precisely that. Of course, Dietrich is quite the firecracker in her own right and always the focal point.

The main themes highlighted in the title song of “Hate, Murder, and Revenge” would be returned to time and time again throughout the western canon but they also tie nicely into Lang’s own filmography.

One moment that Lang’s camera brings these themes to light most blatantly occurs when Kennedy spies the broach he gave his dead girlfriend on another woman. His gaze jumps down the gallery of leering thugs (maybe they’re only grinning) all around him with each successive cut. It’s jarring and also makes it supremely evident what Vern thinks of each and every one of them. The rage burns red hot. But he keeps it under wraps for now.

For now, the only progression that seems evident is Vern slowly moving in on Frenchy’s turf. Relations all down the line get continually testy. What follows is a contentious bank job that suggests there is no honor among thieves. Meanwhile, Alter is selling her ranch and ready to pick up and leave the territory. The end is nigh. We must have the Gunfight at Rancho Notorious or better yet The Gunfight at Chug-a-Lug to wrap up all the loose ends.

While not quite on par with Johnny Guitar, Dietrich, like Joan Crawford, more than holds her own, still strikingly alluring and fiercely independent. She also earns herself an ending that evokes and, in some ways, surpasses Destry Rides Again (1939).

In full disclosure, I rather like the title Rancho Notorious because not only is it slightly provocative but it gives some indication of the people who reside right at its heart. People driven by vice, rage, greed, jealousy, and passion. Because regardless of the location or the genre or the characters, Lang’s pictures were always about these intense emotions and innate urges at the core of human beings.

One of them is a purportedly good man who turns callous. Thus, we must question if the very same proclivities don’t rise up within ourselves. Could it be we’re all capable of a little notoriety? We all require a place to hide out one time or another and we all desire a second shot at redemption. Of course, the Chug-a-Lug wheel of fate is not always so forgiving.

4/5 Stars

Destry Rides Again (1939)

Destry-Rides-Again-1939Destry Rides Again is integral to the tradition of comedy westerns–a storied lineage that includes the likes of Way Out West, Blazing Saddles, and Support Your Local Sheriff. It takes a bit of the long maintained western lore and gives it a screwy comic twist courtesy of classic Hollywood.

The rambunctious town carries the fitting name of Bottleneck which runs rampant with guns, beer, floozies, and more beer. The town’s mayor has a permanent seat in the local saloon playing solitary games of checkers while turning a blind eye to many clandestine activities. Meanwhile, the bar’s proprietor and local hot shot (Brian Donlevy) keeps grips on numerous shady dealings including dirty poker and murder, if you want to get technical. Though he does put on a good time with a floor show courtesy of his best girl Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich) who has the whole town swooning with her knockout looks. That’s the way the world works in Bottleneck and it’s a fairly crooked operation.

After the latest sheriff is laid waste the banjo-playing drunk is christened the town’s next lawman. It certainly is a fine joke but he does something somewhat admirable. He resolves to lay off the sauce and sober up. Calling in the grown son of one of his buddies from the old days to be his deputy.

Now he’s no longer a drunk. Just a blustering old fool who no one takes seriously for one moment. Still, when Destry comes into town he believes he will have the hulking spitting image of the boy’s father, a man who will instill fear in every local troublemaker. After all, that’s how things have worked in Bottleneck as far back as anyone can remember.

But instead of a leering heavy, he finds himself face to face with gangly Tom Destry Jr. who makes a memorable first impression on the town holding a woman’s parasol and a cage of parakeets as he helps a young lady off of the stage. However, in those opening moments he does a seemingly dangerous thing, instead of exerting his dominance he seems oddly comfortable in his skin. The townsfolk think he’s a pushover and he strings them along rather well. After all, he doesn’t carry any guns. He spends a great deal of time whittling and there’s a good-natured affability to his demeanor in nearly all circumstances. Added to that he has the oddest quirk of supplying an ever-ready stream of anecdotes for any given situation.

It’s such displays that earn the glee of the local thugs and hoodlums and the ire of not only his sheriff but the folks who feel he’s aiding their enemies. And yet in certain moments, he surprises them, proving to be an incredibly humble marksman (a precursor to Atticus Finch), breaking up a vicious catfight between two women with a pail of water, and getting buddy-buddy with the town’s rebels only to turn on them.

He seeks to bring law and order to the town on his terms looking to pin a murder on Kent in order to put him away for good. Of course, he’s not about to take it lying down and the town blows up into a scatterbrained finale that equals any of the zaniness in any of its aforementioned brethren of western comedy. As the menfolk fight it out with guns, Frenchy with a new resolve gathers all the womenfolk in an assault on the opposition using all blunt instruments imaginable from rolling pins to gardening tools. It’s sheer madness.

That’s not to say that Destry does not have its share of tragedy and that might be its greatest fault. Sometimes it doesn’t quite know where to fall between the lines of comedy and drama. Still, with the two legendary icons as luminary as James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich, it’s hard for this one not to be a winner though they seem so diametrically opposed to each other.

However, Cooper and Dietrich worked surprisingly well in Morocco and so Stewart and Dietrich work in a pinch here.  There’s also an abundant stock company including future stars like Brian Donlevy and Jack Carson not to mention small time funnymen like Billy Gilbert, the long-suffering bartender, and Mischa Auer, the man who unwittingly loses his pants in a poker game. Moral of the story is, don’t gamble. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Destry would come in with a story right about now.

4/5 Stars

 

Morroco (1930)

Gary_Cooper_and_Marlene_Dietrich_in_Morocco_trailer_2.jpgBefore the exoticism of Casablanca, Algiers, or even Road to Morroco, there was Josef Von Sternberg’s just plain Morocco but it’s hardly a run-of-the-mill romance. Far from it.

Although it involves soldiers, it’s also hardly a war film but instead set against a backdrop that presents an exotic love affair as only Sternberg could. With a sultry Marlene Dietrich matched with a particularly cheeky Gary Cooper, it instantly looks to be an interesting dynamic because they couldn’t be more different.

She, a radiant German beauty with an evocative pair of eyes to go with a somewhat sullen demeanor. He, America’s ruggedly handsome ideal of what a man should be. And it in Sternberg’s film neither of them is what we’re used to.

He’s a renegade soldier in the French Foreign Legion. She’s a cabaret singer (that hasn’t changed) but she also manages to be French, not German. Somehow it’s easy enough to disregard because it’s not necessary to get caught up on the particulars.

All that matters is that they both find themselves in Morocco. He is traipsing through town with his division and spends some free time taking in her floor show along with the rest of the rowdy masses. Neither one of them has found someone good enough for them — they’re equal of sorts. He’s a gentleman cad if you will and she’s hardly an upstanding woman, making a living in a dance hall but there’s more to her. It’s hinted that she once had love, perhaps.

It takes so long for them to actually speak to each other but they’re flirting from the first moment they lay eyes on each other. They say so much through simple expressions all throughout the cabaret show. Things proceed like so. She slips him a flower, then an apple, and finally a key. At this point, he gets the drift and we do too.

Later that evening he winds up at her flat and they spend their most substantial time together. It’s full of odd exchanges, meandering conversations that run the risk of sounding aloof. In fact, their entire relationship is replete with oddities.

Another man (Adolph Menjou) is smitten with Amy but he’s never driven to jealousy. He’s good-natured and generous in all circumstances. People like him must only drift through the high societies.

She holds onto some wistful longing for the tall dashing Legionnaire who drifted through her life. But she’s slow to act. Meanwhile, he hardly seems to take it as a blow to his love life when she resigns to stay behind. After all, he’s quite the ladies’ man. He probably doesn’t need another woman. He’s always got several draped over each arm.

Morocco is a film interesting for the spaces that it creates and not necessarily for the story it develops. Visually, by the hands of the director and then simultaneously by Cooper and Dietrich as they work through their scenes both together and apart. Though it might in some ways lack emotional heft, its stars are still two invariably compelling romantic stars of the cinema.

Somehow it still manages to be quite lithe and risque when put up next to its contemporaries. It exudes a certain mischievousness of the Pre-Code Era. It’s not so much licentiousness and debauchery but it wishes to suggest as much. It can be implied without actually going through all the trouble of showing it.

Dietrich sums it up perfectly in her little diddy about Eve (What am I bid for my apple/ the truth that made Adam so wise? On the historic night/ when he took a bite/ they discovered a new paradise). In essence, the world got a lot more exciting when sex and deceit were brought into the equation. Maybe she misses the implications the Fall of Man but that’s precisely the point. Still more Pre-Code sauciness case and point.

In the final moments, where Dietrich abandons her heels and goes slinking across the sand chasing after her man, it feels less like a romantic crescendo or even a tragic turn and more like a ploy by the director to make his leading lady the focal point of his story one last time. She is granted the final bit of limelight. Because in many ways Gary Cooper could not win when it came to upstaging Marlene Dietrich orchestrated by her devoted partner/director Sternberg. Thus, Morocco turns out to be a rather curious love story different than some of the more typical Hollywood fare.

4/5 Stars

Shanghai Express (1932)

shanghaiex2The same year as Grand Hotel there came another film, that while still boasting an ensemble cast felt far more intimate. In its day it was christened “Grand Hotel on wheels” and its narrative does unravel aboard a train. However, Josef von Sternberg’s film opens with a faceless atmosphere spilling over with the bustling commotion of a railway station. It takes a few moments to lock onto the characters we will be making the journey with, but we won’t soon forget them.

The always reputable Eugene Palette, perpetually gambling his way to Shanghai. The invalid opium dealer is rather an annoying fellow, and the man of faith appears conventionally narrow-minded, although he does make a turn for the better. Warner Oland takes on a more menacing iteration of his Charlie Chan character, while Anna May Wong gets a well-deserved role as a fellow passenger who shares a room with the famed Shanghai Lilly, the fastest lady in the East. Yes, Marlene Dietrich is Lilly, a woman of notorious reputation, but she also carries a distant, wistful love affair in her memories. The train to Shanghai brings all that hurtling back in the form of Captain Donald Harvey (Clive Brooks).

All this is set against the backdrop of a Chinese nation fraught with unrest. When the engine isn’t impeded by a stray cow or chicken, Chinese soldiers board it to apprehend an enemy agent. But that’s just the beginning. The rebels retaliate by holding up the train as well and questioning all the passengers on their financial and political capital. It’s a tense sequence of events that has no simple resolution.

shanghaiex1It is in these moments that are two female heroines must act. Hui Fei (Anna May Wong) so that she might defend the honor of herself and her country. Lilly so that she might express the great, expansive depths of the love she still holds for “Doc.”

Shanghai Express exhibits a simplistic view of religious faith as well love, but perhaps that’s actually one of its strengths. It suggests that faith and love go hand and hand whether it be Christianity or romantic relationships. It’s true that there’s no greater act of love than someone laying down their life or putting their life on the line for friends. There’s nothing overly melodramatic here, but everyone ends up where they are supposed to and justice is dealt. It’s an eventful, passionate, perilous train ride indeed.

Ironically enough, this is a film for the masses that completely disregards their class in favor of the first class club car. Except you could make the argument that they rather preferred the sumptuous extravagance of the upper classes to their own Depression-filled lives. Movies most certainly were the grandest of escapes from reality. Shanghai Express undoubtedly quenched their desire. At the same time, it’s simultaneously a story of exotic intrigue and human drama that blends the prodigal and the personal in high fashion.

To its credit, the film makes comment on Warner Oland’s complete lack of ability to look Asian, although he does fall into some other stereotypical potholes. Also, it acknowledges the preconceived expectations of Asian women that Anna May Wong resoundingly rebuts with her performance. She represents everything pushing back against the Yellow Face of Oland’s numerous portrayals. The effort by Asians to get more complex, multidimensional, and sympathetic. The path is still yet to be fully paved, and representation in media for any class or race is never going to be fully realized. We can never expect it to be perfect or overly politically correct. Because humanity is inherently broken and always and forever incorrect.

You can certainly say that Marlene Dietrich unequivocally overshadowed the career of her longtime lover and collaborator Joseph von Sternberg, but Shanghai Express belongs to both of them. He as her director. She as his muse. Despite, its meager running time, it’s a fine achievement and an enduring Pre-Code classic. 

4/5 Stars

The Blue Angel (1930)

blueangel1The Blue Angel is the name of a nightclub and it turns out to be a very fateful nightclub indeed. It just takes us a while to figure out why. Although Josef Von Sternberg’s film is known, rightly so, for making a star out of Marlene Dietrich — in the first of their 6 collaborations — this early German sound film is nevertheless about the decline and fall of Emil Janning’s character. Immanuel Rath begins as a professor at the local college, and although his pupils are unruly, he commands the utmost respect. He sees it as his prerogative, and he is quick to bring order and discipline to these young lads. But boys will be boys and they become corrupted by the beautiful cabaret singer Lola-Lola (Marlene Dietrich). One evening the professor drops into the seedy joint to look out for some of his troublemakers and talk with the proprietor. Of course, he unwittingly ends up meeting the gorgeous girl backstage and returns the following evening with a seemingly very flimsy excuse.

Ironically, his boys are not the only one who take a liking to her. The once restrained and reserved man of learning begins to change. He becomes a man obsessed and infatuated beyond the point of logic. But what does he care? He enjoys being in Lola’s company and the idea of a marriage proposal makes complete sense in the reverie that he is swimming in. So they do get married. The professor leaves all the common sense behind and goes on the road traveling with his wife and their promoter.

blueangel2But by this point, he is a sorry figure, so pitiful and bedraggled in every way. He reluctantly parades himself in front of audiences as a clown just to make some money for him and his wife. It is, of course, inevitable that he return back to his old stomping ground, and it does eventually happen. He reluctantly goes onstage and it is difficult to watch this final chapter. Lola is no longer his. He’s completely ruined. Completely destroyed. Oh how far the man has fallen, as he winds up keeled over on top of his former desk in the gymnasium.

I think I enjoyed Emil Janning’s in The Last Laugh more and yet to its credit The Blue Angel does not cop out in the end. It has a tragic trajectory that in some ways feels like a precursor to such noir as Scarlet Street and Nightmare Alley. It’s understandable how Dietrich became a star because stars have the capability of drawing your attention. Janning’s gives a wonderful performance certainly, but the allure of Dietrich is too much to discount. She steals the show just like she steals the Professor’s heart. We’re just “Falling in Love Again and we Can’t Help It.”

4/5 Stars

Destry Rides Again (1939)

4ff56-destryridesagainposterThis comedy turned dramatic western, starring James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich, begins in a town run by a saloon owner and inhabited by a sleazy song girl. Corruption and cheating reign supreme as the sheriff is killed and the town drunk takes his place. He turns right around and calls the son of an old friend, Tom Destry Jr., to be his deputy. Despite a comical entrance, and an abhorrence for guns this man is very different. Using his smarts and playing dumb, he is able to work for justice even though he seems to be helping the villains. He picks up the trail of the dead sheriff only to have the present sheriff shot as well. In the final unorthodox showdown, good fights bad and the womenfolk join the fray. Destry finally takes up his gun and is nearly killed, but he gets the town boss in the end. It carries another great cost however. Despite this tragic end, the film finishes on a lighter note. You will finish the film understanding that Destry knew a lot of people in his time.

4/5 Stars

Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

This epic court drama relates the true story of the War Crime Trials after World War II. With Stanley Kramer directing, this cast is amazing. Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Marlene Dietrich, Montgomery Clift, Judy Garland, Werner Klemperer, and even William Shatner all play a part. However, Maximillian Schell is by far the standout because he is such an amazing defender of his country’s honor throughout the entire film. He wants the Holocaust to be known and yet all the while he goes through the case with dignity even though the pressures are so great. For every intense moment the viewer is stuck in their seat and when the verdict comes it is hard to contain the emotion. This movie should be seen by all not only because it is great but it also chronicles an important event in history. Whatever happens we should never forget the events surrounding the Judgment at Nuremberg.

4.5/5 Stars

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Starring Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power, and Marlene Dietrich with direction by Billy Wilder, this courtroom drama follows the trial of a man accused of murder. Laughton is an English defense attorney just recovering from a heart attack. However, soon he gets so intrigued by Power’s case that he agrees to defend him. Power’s character Vole seems to be falsely accused for the murder of a widowed woman he hardly knew. He does have an alibi in his wife (Dietrich) but she seems to refute Vole’s words and the case takes a bad turn. Through a flashback we see into their complicated past. The befuddled Laughton finally catches a break and is able to prove Dietrich is lying. He has been victorious in defending Vole but then the plot takes a cruel twist. What was reality before now seems to be completely false. Adapted from a story by Agatha Christie, this film has good characters and a brilliant climax.

4.5/5 Stars