The Virginian (1929)

220px-Poster_-_Virginian,_The_(1929)_01.jpgThough the image quality of the print I saw hardly stands the test of time, there’s something almost modern about The Virginian’s characterizations or at least what it deems interesting to show.

There’s actually a layering of tones and a fluctuation in the moral dilemma at its core that feel a great deal more nuanced than a cut-and-dry shoot ’em up western beholden to the stereotypes that the genre was founded on.

In Victor Fleming’s hands, The Virginian was not only a western but an early talkie extending the possibilities of the medium. It’s true that at this point there was a lot of pioneering still to do in film as there had been in the West.

One aspect this picture took advantage of in particular was exterior shooting which gives the West an almost palpable nature because we see the dust swirling up from the feet of the cattle, we hear the constant chorus of animal sounds, and the expanse of the prairie is daunting but also starkly majestic.

Beyond genre conventions, it’s indubitably a seminal picture since we get the overwhelming sense that we are seeing a persona coming into his own — the crystallized image of stalwart Americana — Gary Cooper. Although he was a minor star and this was not only his first starring role in a western but also his first talkie, soon enough he would be one of the most beloved actors of his day.

True, he also made many pictures outside the genre of considerable repute in their own right, and yet there’s no underselling how important the western was in further instilling Cooper’s legacy for generations of faithful fans. His eponymous character in The Virginian is an early marker of the mythology of western masculinity that would stretch all the way to High Noon (1952) and Man of the West (1958). In fact, at times this picture, featuring an imminent showdown, looks eerily similar to its future brethren from two decades later.

His cattle foreman character is a man’s man. He’s a plain-speaking, straight-talking man of few words (Yes ma’am, No ma’am), who nevertheless cares deeply about honor and personal integrity. Yet he still gives off the homely qualities of a man of the West. And it’s true that much of this film adaptation of Owen Wister’s novel and subsequent play is concerned with the butting of heads that comes with the clashing cultures between West and East.

On one side you have the Virginian and the rest of the townsfolk and on the other is the new schoolmarm, Molly Stark Wood (Mary Brian), who causes quite a stir among the men in town and is a welcomed bit of civility to everyone else.

There is a sense that she can help tame this uncivilized world that lacks manners, education, and law and order. The themes would crop again and again most notably in Ford’s own moody rumination The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). But here there’s an oddly good-natured comedy streak. It’s not all horse opera.

The Virginian and his old pal Steve have a fine time switching the babies about to be christened by the parson which causes quite the hubbub. But the two men also jockey for the new gal’s affection in all matter of things. Looking to carry her bags or get a dance with her at the community gathering.

The Virginian and Molly even conduct a discourse on Romeo and Juliet which proves to be an enlightening distillation of their two differing perspectives. All of this is fine and dandy. Even the swapping of infants like a pair of regular cow rustlers feels innocent enough. But there’s another side of this world as well.

The main antagonist named Trampas (Walter Huston) wears black and yet he’s more of a cunning thief than an ornery devil, all guns a blazing. He’s more apt to shoot a man in the back when he’s not looking like a coward than actually face him man to man.

He also happens to be a cattle rustler himself and he’s pulled Steve in with him because it’s a pretty easy business. Lots of reward for little risk. Except if and when you get caught there are no two ways about it. The law of the land says you’ll be strung up even if you’re a friend.

And so The Virginian doesn’t shy away from the harsher realities of this lifestyle whether it be hangings or the prevalence of gun duels. It’s a part of the life but also so at odds with what is considered respectable in other parts of the world. Thus, not only the schoolmarm, but the audience, and really everyone else involved must grapple with what is right and what is wrong and how we reconcile those perceived differences.

4/5 Stars

“When you call me that, smile!” – The Virginian

Test Pilot (1938)

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Test Pilot is a fine piece of time capsule filmmaking and there’s little doubt that the film showcases a dizzying array of airplanes that we very rarely see today. In that sense, it’s an aerial picture with some truly dazzling footage.

By 1930s standards, this is also an action picture, a sprawling exhibition that simultaneously has a pretty thin story in some patches. In fact, it’s too long for its own good. But it’s a character drama as much as an aerial show, which takes precedence over anything else, narrative included.

The screenplay was forged by Howard Hawks (who worked on several other flight films) and a whole host of others. Its overall success is not necessarily in any amount of tension that is created or a certain brand of visceral storytelling though there are undoubtedly some emotional moments, the brunt of the heavy lifting comes from the cast as they articulate the beats of the script.

It’s true that under veteran director Victor Fleming and a cast including Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, and Myrna Loy, it’s difficult to find a more prestigious partnership out of MGM in the 1930s. This was pretty close to tops. Still, even in this dynamic, there were foreseeable problems. Spencer Tracy has a bit of a thankless job playing the faithful mechanic Gunner Morris, the character who is there to support his friend and he conveniently never gets the girl.

You can understand why Tracy could get a little tired of such roles because there’s no doubt that Gable is in one sense the main attraction as the eponymous “Test Pilot” Jim Lane. He was the great movie star of the age.

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However, Tracy was the acting powerhouse of the two and that’s the chafing at work once again in this picture. The stellar personality and the quality talent seesawing back and forth. Except Tracy’s stock had been rising year after year and by now he was a solid draw in his own right. It’s evident that he’s a formidable third wheel in the picture though he had his sights set on something slightly more gratifying.

In fact, he’s nearly invincible. Gable famously implored “Spence” to go ahead and die already because the actor milked his last words for all they were worth. However, even if this jousting match between the two male stars is most visible, out of the three I think Myrna Loy comes away having the most fun and getting the most out of the picture. It’s completely understandable why she cherished her work here.

She is the Kansas girl who has her head in the clouds like a ditzy farmer’s daughter watching as a man brings his plane down on her family’s land. He’s simultaneously an ungrateful lug and her shining knight. There’s something whimsical and wholly uninhibited about her that lets her meet a grouchy pilot out in the pasture with a wit of her own and yell her head off at ballgames like a seasoned fanatic.

Her performance runs the entire gamut from near screwball antics to deep heartfelt emotion. The dimensions there are at times difficult to read — even enigmatic. I think that’s why Jim falls for her. She’s in some ways just as tantalizing and fascinating to him as the air above.

Test Pilot also examines tragedy of such a pioneering and devil may care lifestyle — themes that Douglas Sirk would streamline in a picture such as Tarnished Angels (1956). Here we get the alluring frolicking fun of going where no man has gone before it is tapered by the stark reality at hand. Icarus had the thrill of his life but it’s possible to fly too high or for your engines to blow out or for your instruments to fail. It’s a part of the lifestyle that pilots come to accept. They take the risk because the skies call out to them so earnestly. It’s their obsession.

Jim is one of those who has always followed that call. His story is really about his romance with two women. His wife waiting for him on the ground and the blue heavens which call out to him from above. It takes a reality check ripping something so dear away for him to realize he doesn’t mind being grounded. It was the one thing he swore he would never do and yet, in the end, he gladly does it.

3.5/5 Stars

Red Dust (1932)

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My earliest recollection of knowing anything about Red Dust comes from the novel A Confederacy of Dunces where it’s recounted how the feckless oaf of a main character was born soon after his parents saw the picture being so caught up in the throes of Gable and Harlow’s cinematic passion. The fact we had this film in part to thank for such an annoying lout kept me away no fault of its own. But let’s forget Ignatius Jacques O’Reilly and cut to the picture.

The world we find ourselves in is a far-off land in Indo China on a rubber plantation. As such, Red Dust is a Pre-Code colonialist tale full of romantic heat, natives, tigers, and more heat. The only speaking part these natives are accorded belongs to the giggling cook who is not too bright as far as stereotypical Asian characters go. The tiger speaks a few times too. It’s noted more than once to be a dirty rotten country. It’s also true that to an untrained eye like my own the rubber industry looks a bit like a maple syrup colony but hardly as tasty.

The man running this particular one is named Dennis (Clark Gable). Why he could care for such a life is a worthy question and the one and only answer is that he was made for this country. It runs in his blood and he was born smelling the smells of rubber. But that doesn’t mean he wants other people in his life.

The film introduces two women in particular who test him in different ways. The first is (Jean Harlow) who gabs and gabs while pushing the boundaries of what is decent during the 1930s. She annoys the man mostly. There’s no question that Clark Gable and Jean Harlow light it up. In fact, they sizzle like hot coals. It’s often the case that true romantic chemistry that burns like this comes out of conflict and they have plenty of it.

He’s a strapping man’s man and he doesn’t want a worthless gal with a dubious reputation motoring her mouth off around him. He’s got work to do. She’s not about to be pushed around and she’s going to push all his buttons (You won’t grow up to be a big strong boy if you don’t eat your din-din ) and stay around as long as she pleases. The kerosene and gorgonzola is provided. Just stay around for the fireworks also free of charge.

This could be the picture right there. However, the new surveyor arrives, which is news enough, until it comes out that his wife is with him as well. It’s an added complication especially for Dennis because after her husband gets sick and they nurse him to a full recovery, he finds himself falling for a married woman. The difficulty is that the feelings are mutual.

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There’s a clear evocation of David and Bathsheba when Gable sends off his new surveyor into the swamps and his wife is left behind. It’s the perfect opportunity to get to know her a lot better. He knows what he is doing. She probably does too.

When the monsoon hits and Clark Gable plucks Mary Astor up and starts carrying her through the underbrush you can feel the forces of nature ripping through the country. It’s one of those precise moments when you remember why we go to the movies.

Then we also realize why Clark Gable was so popular with the ladies. He was a brash yet handsome cad. “Dreamboat” was written all over his rugged features. In the movies it spelled stardom but if this were real life it would mean disaster for true romance.

In some sense, you would think that Gable and Harlow own the picture but Astor has just as much right to it as anyone with her performance that while begging pathos is still slightly muddied by her own indiscretions. She’s not quite without fault as we find out.

But the film ends with imperfect people making certain decisions that look to preserve lives rather than utterly ruin them. Sometimes those are the most impressive feats. It’s not simply the white knights remaining untarnished but the already muddied ones willfully doing something decent. So Red Dust is a fairly landmark love story but to the credit of its cast and crew, there’s still some magic left in it even today. I won’t begrudge Red Dust anymore than I already have. It deserves that much.

Famously John Ford would remake the story as Mogambo (1953) which brought back Clark Gable 20 years later with two more ladies portrayed by Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly. I feel like colonialism was more in vogue during the 1930s.

4/5 Stars

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

6bda0-419px-wizard_of_oz_original_poster_1939Coming from the great year in film of 1939 this is one of the quintessential musical, fantasy, and family films. It has some of the most famous songs around, a memorable cast including Judy Garland, and serves as a constant reminder that there’s no place like home. Furthermore whenever we think villain the film’s Wicked Witch is almost always ingrained in our minds. 

*May Contain Spoilers
The story is adapted from the L. Frank Baum novel and it follows a young Kansas girl named Dorothy who lives on a farm with her aunt, uncle, the dog Toto, and three farm hands. When a big tornado hits, Dorothy becomes unconscious and when she wakes up she finds herself in Oz. There she encounters the good witch and the land of the Munchkins. As Dorothy begins her journey to the Great Oz to get home, she meets several unique characters. First there is a scarecrow who wants a brain, then a tin man who desires a heart, and finally a lion who aspires for courage. Together they travel to Oz and the wizard tells them they must kill the Wicked Witch of the West. Dorothy finds herself eventually in captivity but her new found friends rally to save her and inadvertently kill the Witch. When she gets back to Kansas Dorothy realizes that there is truly “no place like home.” With iconic characters, memorable lines, and infectious songs it is easy to understand how this film became a classic. The added color does not hurt and also the special effects are not too shabby for 1939.

4.5/5 Stars