Canyon Passage (1946): Ole Buttermilk Skies

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Portland, Oregon 1856 could lead us to many places but in these circumstances, it guides us to an enterprising mercantile store owner named Logan Stuart (Dana Andrews). Though he’s the main driving force behind the story, there’s little doubt this is a tale of pioneering far grander than a single individual.

As such, Canyon Passage is the epitome of a hidden gem, lined with talents who generally does not garner enough credit today for their many fine attributes. First of all, is Jacques Tourneur the French director who made a name for himself in a career laced with genre pictures and this one is no different, boasting a spectacular visual vibrancy.

The opening is exemplary, showcasing his skills as a master world-shaper, taking a western town that we only spend minutes in and through torrential rain pouring down, streets of mud, and various interiors, he’s already created a space that feels tangible to our eyes.

He continues this yeoman work throughout the story, which is a credit to its hardy terrain. We have sumptuous outdoor panoramas with rolling plains and expansive skies above. Then, there’s the verdant underbrush of the forests captured, the lush greenery, and even the interiors of cabins and shops have a rustic beauty about them that feels real.

Our trifecta of leads all proved substantial stars at one point or another beginning with Dana Andrews, then Susan Hayward, and Brian Donlevy, yet for whatever reason, it seems their names (much like their director) get lost behind a host of far more visible faces.

Nevertheless, they earn their due and in all other regards, Walter Wanger’s production is knee deep with equally memorable supporting players like many of the greatest westerns of the age. Hoagy Carmichael meanders about doing this and that with his mandolin and donkey, singing an occasional song, such as the instantly unforgettable “Ole Buttermilk Sky,” which captures a bit of the folksy milieu wafting over the picture.

Canyon Passage is also ripe with love triangles beginning with Logan and the future wife of his best friend, Lucy Overmire (Hayward) who he has been tasked with bringing home. They share a mutual affection but Logan respects his buddy George Camrose (Donlevy) too much to steal his girl; they’ve been through far too much together for that.

Instead, he sets his eyes on the pretty young woman (Patricia Roc) who was taken in by a genial frontier family headed by Andy Devine and his wife. They would gladly welcome anyone into their fold and it’s no different with Logan as he looks to make strides with Ms. Caroline.

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However, if this was all Canyon Passage was about, it would lack a sizable conflict. But Logan must simultaneously deal with the local instigator of trouble Honey Bragg (Ward Bond as a burly villain) who has previously had more than a few run-ins with Logan and he’s not looking to make nice.

In fact, the whole town congregates in The Golden Nugget saloon after Bragg challenges his adversary to a showdown to have it out once and for all. The full brutality of such a society sets in with the men crowding around ravenously for a good show of pugilism to get their blood stirred up. A hint of lawlessness has been injected into the air.

But George also has demons of his own, namely, a gambling habit, which he can’t break, owing money all across Oregon to the point his friend bales him out only if he promises to quit. Still, the urge for wealth and constant comparisons with Logan’s continual success, make him continually discontent. He goes straight back to the cisterns that prove to be his undoing.

Like some of the best westerns by the likes of Ford or Hawks, this one feels, at times, like it’s about nothing much in particular and yet the paradox is it’s about so much that’s meaningful, speaking to the humanity at large. There is a local house-raising for a young couple just starting out and they marvel at all the folks who come to help them out. Because, for all the charitable neighbors, this is an investment in their own livelihood.

We see crystal clearly. What is going on, in front of our eyes, is the fleshing out and the building up of an entire community. Then, we receive a showcase for men of principle going against a world that seems so violent, brutal, and utterly untamed. Instead of cowering in fear or remaining apathetic, they look to confront it in some way.

However, beyond this, we have another broad conflict that’s age-old. The chafing between those who began with the land — The Native American tribes — and then the white man expanding westward with a belief they deserve a chance at a new life. In the eyes of those who started there, these newcomers are desecrating their home. In the eyes, of the pioneers, they are making it into more of a home.

When human beings wind up in close proximity, with varying viewpoints, beliefs, and practices, there’s bound to be repercussions and there are. Watching Canyon Passage you realize these very things were affecting real people, men and woman, families and the children within them. It feels like a truly eye-opening scenario.

Bloodshed ensues and against such beautiful exteriors, it only makes the scarring of the land and the bodies all the more inescapable. There’s something inside of us saying this is not the way it was meant to be.

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What makes Canyon Passage quite powerful, frankly, is there’s no single point of contention or an individual goal in mind. It’s this all-encompassing drama with grand themes — grandiose in both scope and scenery — that concern a whole host of people trying to make lives in the western territories. You can begin to understand most everyone’s point of view. Amid the destruction and unrest, it’s easy to recognize the problems at hand. Surely, the West was meant to be more than this. Fights and warring, razing and killing.

But the frontier has always been an arena for hardship. Death by any number of ways. It’s the resiliency people lived with that meant something. In Canyon Passage, there are the same kind of folks who don’t go skulking around in their troubles but instead rise up to make the best of the next day to come. One might wager a bet it’s one of the bygone markers of the American spirit. Hopefully, we haven’t lost it all yet. We could probably still use some of that just as we could still use ambition and love, friendship, and fellowship with an underlying empathy for our fellow man.

Only when “The End” flashed upon the screen did I realize, in my former days of channel surfing in vacation hotel rooms, I once caught the tail-end of Canyon Passage. There again was an indelible image I distinctly remember, Hoagy Carmichael ambling along on his donkey, through the forest, knocking back a tune. It made me distinctly mirthful like an old friend just recently discovered again. If this film isn’t considered a classic by now then it should definitely be in the running.

4/5 Stars

Fort Apache (1948)

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Fort Apache gives me the opportunity to consider one of John Ford’s most unlikely long-term collaborations with film critic turned screenwriter Frank S. Nugent. As with all Ford partnerships, it was oftentimes prickly but there’s no repudiating the impact. However, even the writer realized how improbable it was he would have such a hand in mythologizing the West alongside one of the great American masters. Nugent noted the following:

“I have often wondered why Ford chose me to write his cavalry films. I had been on a horse but once—and to our mutual humiliation. I had never seen an Indian. My knowledge of the Civil War extended only slightly beyond the fact that there was a North and a South, with West vulnerable and East dealing. I did know a Remington from a Winchester—Remington was the painter. In view of all this, I can only surmise that Ford picked me for Fort Apache as a challenge.”

The picture opens with a particularly acerbic and icy Henry Fonda as Owen Thursday, newly assigned to the cavalry outpost at Fort Apache. One could make a wager each of Fonda’s characterizations in everything from You Only Live Once to The Ox-Bow Incident and even My Darling Clementine all culminate right here. Though he’s dismissive of the assignment, Thursday is nevertheless intent on upholding his duty. He rides along the bumpy roadways with his teenage daughter Philadelphia (an effervescent Shirley Temple) who is simply glad to be by her father’s side.

To understand the picture, it’s useful to know Nugent developed extensive bios for every character to flesh out who they were exactly. We have John Agar in his screen debut starring opposite his new wife in real life (Temple) and playing the newest commissioned officer to the fort, Second Lieutenant Michael O’Rourke.

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Life as a cavalryman proves to be a family affair and one clan has an especially substantial presence in the camp. The Lieutenant’s father (Ward Bond) is stationed there too with his mother, the older man serving as a Sergeant Major. Meanwhile, many of the veteran soldiers provide a close-knit community including Sergeant Festus Mulcahy (Victor McLaglen) who has been a lifelong friend to the O’Rourkes. Here we see Irish-American blood flowing through the picture as Ford heralds his own ancestors part in this historical landscape not only during the Civil War but long afterward. The pride in this shared culture is undeniable.

For most of its run, Fort Apache is the epitome of character-driven drama. Nugent’s meticulous character development overlaid by Ford’s own distaste for expositional dialogue provides the groundwork for yet another story operating in vignettes more than anything else. At any rate, the dialogue comes off clunkily at times while the romance between Philadelphia and Michael O’Rourke begins to blossom.

However, with her father adamant against such a union and astringent in all manners of his command, it causes an instant riff in the camp. One of his finest lines comes with inspecting his officers and noting, “The uniform is not a subject for individual whimsical expression.” He expects everyone to abide by the letter of the law and his unswerving personality is glacial on all accounts.

Meanwhile, the old reliable guard has fun with the new recruits. Among their ranks, rather unbelievably, is the veteran character actor Hank Worden. Then, the community of wives and sweethearts led by Mrs. Collingwood (Anna Lee) and Mrs. O’Rourke (Irene Rich) look to help Philadelphia make a home for herself. John Wayne is in the picture as well though he takes a decidedly secondary role as Captain Kirby York, striving to work under Thursday’s guidance with as much obedience as he can muster. However, the final act is Wayne’s as much as it is Fonda’s however.

It hardly needs to be said at this point but Monument Valley is awesome. Watching horses streak across the plains ferociously kicking up storms of dust never grows old. Nor do images of Wayne and Pedro Armendariz perched on a towering rock formation taking in the view. You can’t make this stuff up. The beauty is majestic as only natural topography can be without input by human hands or CGI — the way it was probably meant to be photographed.

There’s the impending threat of Indians making their way south. Telegraph lines are down again. So a visit is paid to the scruffy horse trader who is quite conveniently liaison between the American Indians and the government within the territory. Despite his contempt for Meacham, Thursday will not do anything about him nor does he attempt any diplomacy with the belligerent Cochise. He decides instead on the executive decision to make an all-out charge on the Native Americans forces who are waiting, guns cocked and ready.

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In the waning moments, Fort Apache becomes a more fully-realized, even emphatic indictment of recalcitrant and bluntly antagonistic leadership. Thursday holds a very entitled station — whatever he says, he says on behalf of the United States government — and no one else can say anything otherwise. What they do protest he backs up with regulations, honors, and code of conducts that might as well bury everyone.

Instead of addressing any area of compromise as minor as it might be, there is a straight and decisive path cut through any issue. They ride toward their inevitable deaths. The final bugle sounds for charge and yet it’s hardly a battle, target practice is more like it, and the horrifying thing is most everyone knows it going in. But when a man such as Colonel Thursday holds the reins you reluctantly cave to his demands lest you be clapped in irons for insubordination — even when the decisions are near lunacy. York is the one man brave enough to stand against and lives to fight another day. Many others are not so lucky

If Custer’s Last Stand was anything like this, it makes complete sense and simultaneously becomes an even more terrifying piece of history. In what might be called an early precursor to the glorification of a hero’s legend in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1961), much the same treatment is provided here for the far more dubious Owen Thursday. Once more Ford’s picture is able to get at this obvious discrepancy by pulling away and looking at the story from those folks who canonize history for all posterity. It’s oftentimes the newspaper men who are afforded that privilege. Whether their effusive praises are in order is another matter entirely and by the end, Ford Apache is a sobering portrait. It comes so far from seemingly homely even jovial roots within the compound.

So many lives were needlessly sacrificed so one man could be heralded a legend. The frightening thing is that Thursday was not a mere glory seeker; he fervently believed what he was doing was in the right. That kind of dogged methodology proved itself highly pernicious when no thought was given to discretion of any kind. It’s simply blind execution of duty. Whether it evokes Kant or not, I cannot help but think of one of the most famous examples of this in Adolf Eichmann, acting as a lowly Holocaust architect, who nevertheless proved the consequences of such a philosophy.

The dark horse of the Ford pictures, Fort Apache begins as one beast and comes out quite a different animal by the end. It so easily gets sidetracked, distracted, and lulled into different scenarios and there never is a true sense of urgency to keep the picture moving toward an obvious conclusion. Still, in the end, we get the finale and it’s unnerving as both a commentary and another projection of the mythical West. Somehow Ford stitches it together as a two-edged sword of both indictment and a moving paean to those passed.

4/5 Stars

Wagon Master (1950)

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“Wagons west are rolling…” – Sons of The Pioneers

Despite being a tighter film, Wagon Train still bears the irrefutable mark of John Ford. Together with producer Meridian C. Cooper, he crafts a piece of work as near to a fully realized articulation of his vision as he probably ever achieved; this made it one of his personal favorites.

Because there is no one to answer to except for himself and if anything, in contrast to his career prior, it’s a freeing proposition. Wagon Train contentedly meanders along ever toward its destination with time enough to stop and visions enough to keep an audience engrossed.

Without John Wayne, the story instead finds able space for other worthy stalwarts of the Ford stock company and in this aspect alone it’s a fine showing. Ben Johnson’s athleticism on horseback is matched by a plain-speaking integrity proving both steady and unperturbed.

The beauty of the casting is the very authenticity of it. He’s the real deal as a one-time rodeo hand, stunt double for the biggest stars like Gary Cooper and James Stewart, and a certified roping champion. He performed all his own stunts in the picture including the well-remembered scene where he weathers a bucking bronco after Joanne Dru dumps bath water out of the rear her wagon spooking his horse. He stayed on for 10 bucks before getting thrown. That was only after a previous take had to be reshot.

Furthermore, Ford gives the other prominent roles to young Harry Carey Jr. who is Johnson’s trail companion and the more spirited of the two. While Travis and Sandy are intent on selling their stock and nothing else, they eventually agree to come aboard as wagon masters for a caravan of Mormons heading out West. The Elder, played by the venerable Ward Bond, is a man of faith who nevertheless has the raw courage and determination to lead his people on their journey. And he has his usual bearing which only blesses the story. In truth, it’s an obvious precursor to the heralded TV western, Wagon Train, also starring Bond for its first few seasons.

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Even as the search for the Promise Land subsists, lead by Sister Ledyard (Jane Darwell) and the sounding of her horn, it is Bond who has decency enough to stop for those in need. They end up running across a hoochie-coochie show made up of a swacked trio (Alan Mowbray, Ruth Clifford, and Joanne Dru) who, without any water left, tried to survive off spirits.

Though a group of social outcasts and equally proud, the Elder obliges to help them out even as their own resources are dwindling. Thus, the procession exuberantly races toward the first sign of water. Jumping off horses, dipping their hats in it, taking a nice cool drink for the first time in far too long.

Our two heroes, also begin to call on their lady friends. Travis tries to extend a gentlemanly hand to Denver (Dru), who defiantly rebuffs his advances and simultaneously Sandy starts eyeing a Mormon girl who already has a beau. In another interlude, a fist-fight erupts between the two young men which the Elder handily breaks up, only to wind up with his pants torn to pieces by a feisty dog.

What becomes evident in the stages of this story is how it is never truly about one individual but an entire community. Part of that comes with the absence of a marketable star like John Wayne or Henry Fonda — two regulars in Ford pictures. However, like My Darling Clementine (sans Fonda), there is this sense of the communal nature of civilization. This western on wheels brings together religious pilgrims, medicine show performers, and Navajo Indians who are all able to find a certain amount of common ground.

Dances become something not only proving to be a form of gaiety and lively human interaction; they might very well be a mechanism for how a bit of home is brought to new territories as a means of making them more habitable. It’s a sign of kinship.

Of course, every society has its outside stressors and in this case, the caravan is paid a visit by a band of glowering men led by a crotchety old-timer (Charles Kemper) winged in the arm. It’s a tenuous partnership at best as his “boys,” including James Arness and Hank Worden, are a testy and trigger-happy bunch. Even as he knows how dangerous they are, The Elder agrees to extend the olive branch, while Travis bides his time knowing now isn’t the time to act. Sandy can’t quite fathom this initial passivity but their forbearance is rewarded in the end.

A John Ford gunfight ensues and not unlike its brethren in My Darling Clementine, the exchange of bullets is efficient and to the point; it’s not meant to bear the entire weight of the picture. Instead, Ford settles back into a broader perspective, reinforcing the lyrical quality of his imagery with the vocalization of The Sons of the Pioneers.

I remember them most vividly from my days watching Roy Rogers serials, hearing the group sing their harmonies, and I do miss the throaty vocals of old folk western tunes like “Song of the Wagonmaster” and “Wagon’s West.” Though I hesitate to call Wagon Master, an all-out musical because that would probably give the wrong impression, it is indebted to its music much in the same manner of a High Noon (1952) or a Rio Bravo (1959). You cannot begin to separate the two.

4/5 Stars

3 Godfathers (1948)

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3 Godfathers is a Christmas western if there ever was one and it’s probably the most sensitive picture that John Ford ever made. Anyone familiar with Don Siegel’s short film Star in the Night (1945) might recognize basic similarities with this picture based on the same biblical motif of the three wise men.

Ford honors his dear friend, the late, great Harry Carey even christening him the “Bright Star Of The Early Western Sky” and it’s very true. In fact, the director probably would have never remade the film if Carey had not passed away in 1947. The reason being that he had worked on an earlier version called The Three Godfathers way back in 1916 and the Ford-helmed silent Marked Men (1929). Not satisfied with just that, the director subsequently cast Harry Carey Jr. as The Abilene Kid alongside John Wayne and  Pedro Armendáriz. Although a big star in Mexico by this point, Armendáriz garnered little respect from Ford as you might expect.

The script penned by film critic turned screenwriter Frank S. Nugent with Laurence Stallings and Robert Nathan, takes the story of three lawless bank robbers and turns them into modern-day incarnations of the trio of kings from the advent story.

The heady combination of some on-location photography in Death Valley, as well as early Technicolor, gives Ford’s picture an impressive composition even as it can’t quite stand up to his most iconic images. The story as well is a mild even maudlin affair at times but for the very fact that Ford rarely seemed to inch into such territory — or Wayne either for that matter — it does come as somewhat of a treat to behold.

Because here we have three hoodlums, men of ill-repute who have robbed a bank and are on the lamb running for their lives. Ward Bond as the local sheriff — a decent man who also happens to be pretty shrewd — chases after our antiheroes with his hapless deputy (Hank Worden). Though they ride off, he cripples their water supply and looks to cut them off from any of the wells scattered across the territory. The lack of water could prove to be their downfall.

However, the story takes its most obvious turn when they happen upon a wagon. It turns out to not be completely abandoned as a one lies isolated and about ready to give birth to an infant son. Though she is too weak to continue she makes a vow with them that they protect her boy and make sure he grows up healthy and strong.

She doesn’t know their previous actions only the character that they exhibit in front of her and maybe it is even her angelic trust in them that causes each man to agree to this promise. All of the sudden they throw of the shells of their former selves and take on this seemingly virtuous task.

However, that does not make survival any easier living off the drippings of barrel cacti and traipsing across the salt flats with the noonday sun beating down. First, losing their horses in a ferocious maelstrom and with water scarce, they do everything in their power to take care of the child. Reading a baby book on how to look after an infant and bathing and feeding him. His Uncle William sings him “Gather at the River” as a lullaby. And all three men agree their godson will share their three names. Robert Hightower (Wayne) bickers with Pete about using Spanish around the baby. They want him to grow up American.

The Bible passage about finding a donkey to ride into Jerusalem gives some guidance fittingly as the child makes his pilgrimage to the town of New Jerusalem. We know that a miracle just might be in order.

The inevitable happens and Wayne must face off against Bond but what makes that dynamic far more meaningful is the child in their midst. Because Hightower’s care and concern for the child’s well-being reveals a side of him that is the complete antithesis of his outlaw persona. It’s a reflection that he is a redeemable figure and the film strikes a compromise between a really saccharine ending and cold hard reality. While no one will concede that it’s Ford’s best work, it’s nevertheless a fine vehicle for the talent and a thoroughly unique take on yuletide moviemaking.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: My Darling Clementine (1946)

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The first time I ever saw My Darling Clementine I couldn’t get over how unimpressive it seemed. If nothing else it certainly didn’t give off any self-aware sense of its own importance. There was nothing that struck me as outright epic and monumental. And yet this western has been a heralded favorite since its initial release in 1946. People love this movie. I think this time around I understand it better.

Maybe it’s all those reruns of the M*A*S*H classic “Movie Tonight.” Colonel Potter (Harry Morgan) eases the camp’s aggravations with a showing of his favorite horse opera which, of course, is My Darling Clementine.

But while the reels are spliced and diced for poor Klinger (Jamie Farr), the audience still gets something impactful out of the experience spilling out into their shenanigans together which makes for a quality evening. Because for once My Darling Clementine is a western with many moments that feel unextraordinary in the most human of terms.

Surely there was no greater and more prominent mythmaker of the Old West than John Ford. The key is in the realization Ford need not push anything, allowing everything to unwind in a way that’s the cinematic equivalent of organic action. The director goes with his proclivities of narrative scope, pairing down dialogue, focusing the story instead around activity — and those moments don’t necessarily have to be the perfectly suited sequences for instigating incendiary drama.

Ford’s actual meeting with the real Wyatt Earp on a film set back in the 1920s was a seminal moment for him. One could say he was imparted the blueprint and the inspiration for this picture and that is enough. Because the western never thrived on facts but the embodiment of romanticized figures and ideals. Wyatt Earp was such a figure.

Here Earp (Henry Fonda) is herding some cattle with his brothers when they pass by the town of Tombstone and leave the baby of the family to hold down the fort. In the most simplistic terms, their cattle get rustled and there’s little need to guess who the perpetrators are. The grizzled Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan) is right there with his boys, a most obvious culprit. He needn’t even bother denying it. He never does nor does Earp ever accuse him outright.

Instead, Earp decides to stick around for a while and takes up the tin star for marshaling in Tombstone, that illustrious hell hole, emblematic of western lawlessness. Straightaway he shows a bullish tenacity in running drunks and troublemakers out of town but there’s still something more to him.

Ward Bond and Tim Holt act as his brothers and his constant companions. They don’t have a whole lot to do but stand behind their brother at the bar or eat their vittles at dinner tables. But then again, you could make the case most everyone has a fairly unostentatious part.

There is no standout performance and that seems very purposeful. Surely Fonda is the glue holding it all together but it’s not due to flare so much as an ever-steady portrayal that never feels like it’s vying for attention. He leads by example and yet this does not mean the film doesn’t have moments that leave an impression.

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Linda Darnell gives him a slap and he proceeds to dunk her handily in the watering trough for her part in a crooked poker game. She’s the devious, saucy, and unfortunately named Latina Chihuahua. There’s the introduction of her man Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) that clears the bar and would have ended in a gunfight in most any other picture. Wyatt Earp smooths things over allowing life to sink back into the status quo.

A local theater production evokes a particularly rowdy atmosphere where Fonda gets a hat thrown his way which he promptly tosses right back while Darnell looks to whop someone over the head. The locals are aiming to make their displeasure known to the actor who has run out on them on multiple occasions. Earp and Doc go to fetch the man who is being harried by the Clanton boys. In one of the most articulate and entrancing sequences in a western to date, we are treated to Hamlet on the range. You know the words but never have they come out of a man such as Doc Holliday — suggesting that there is a side of him even an amount of breeding that we fail to comprehend.

Finally, Clementine comes to town (Kathy Downs) and we begin to understand. She was Doc’s girl back east when he was still practicing and known in circles as Dr. John Holliday. He’s different now, plagued by illness and alcohol-fueled demons while emphatically wanting her to go back from whence she came. It’s Wyatt who stands by with all sincerity. Getting up, tipping hats, and opening doors for her. The peaceful countenance she wears coaxes him in the direction of the church bells and a dance social.

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We know what must come in the end. It’s all but inevitable: The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. In all truth, My Darling Clementine’s shootout is not the most climactic and I could readily name numerous others I prefer. But in capturing it the way he has, Ford has remained true to the essence of the narrative thus far. What strikes me is it is by no means a sensationalized picture. It never even feels like drama or caters to the theatrical. But John Ford has made it cinematic and though it might sound like some form of paradox, I do not think it is.

We are acutely attuned to the moments with no music intuitively because there is little auditory manipulation or further distraction. Everything of import is derived from figures placed up against Monument Valley or staged in crisp interiors. Likewise, few words need to be put to any of it. Because we are fully aware, almost subconsciously. We have just seen a microcosm of the West being tamed and made livable for common folk. The old world is being undone and churches and schools now find a place in the new social order provided by men like Wyatt Earp — embodied by the likes of Clementine as the new schoolmarm. All of this is evoked not by dramatic shifts but a near meandering rhythm of scenes stacked one on top of another.

Again, we go back to the indelible image that everyone instantly conjures up of Henry Fonda with his feet propped up against the post leaning back and just resting his feet a spell. And of course, he’s our hero and the same man who will enact this change. But Ford makes him a laconic figure and one he seems content as anything just to relax.

He’d rather get a shave at the Bon Ton Tonsorial Parlor or carry the bags of a pretty gal than get into a gunfight any day. True, he can be ornery when he wants. Still, only as a last resort. Fonda’s the perfect man for the part because there’s nothing burnished about him but he comes off honestly with a straightforward sense of integrity. This allows My Darling Clementine to induce a generally optimistic portrait of the West from a picture that could have otherwise dwelled in the depths of near noirish cynicism.

However, even with its strains of the mundane — far from feeling prosaic — the film is blessed by Ford’s mastery of the image. Because what is Film if not a visual medium? The West was by far the most American canvass and Ford one of the finest masters of the art form. There need not be a better reason to relish My Darling Clementine. Aside from my expatiating, I would be amiss not to acknowledge this film as good old-fashioned communal entertainment. M*A*S*H 4077 is the case and point.

4.5/5 Stars

Note: I watched the Pre-Release cut which was restored by UCLA with slight differences from the theatrical release (arguably closer to what Ford originally intended).

Review: The Quiet Man (1952)

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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

Heroes For Sale (1933)

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We are inserted, presumably, into a war picture courtesy of William A. Wellman, situated in WWI trenches. The downpour is compounded by the constant hail of bullets as a group of men conduct a near suicide mission. One of the soldiers, Tom Holmes (Richard Barthelmess) proves his heroics on the battlefield while his friend Roger dissolves in fear. But the battle leaves Tom, now a prisoner, with debilitating pain from some splinters of shrapnel lodged near his spine. He’s given morphine to keep it manageable.

He comes back from the war addicted. He gets the shakes at his bank job where he works under his war buddy Roger and the other man’s father. Tom is constantly in need of his fix and it just keeps on getting worse and worse.

Early on, the picture begs the question, how are heroes made? We turn them into near mythological beings and even if it’s well-vested that doesn’t mean that they consider what they did to be anything extraordinary. Imagine if it’s not deserved. Tom and Roger understand exactly what this is like. In the wake of a scandal and his ousting from the bank, Tom gets interned at a drug clinic only to come out a year later a new man ready for a fresh start.

It struck me that in a matter of minutes the film drastically shifts in tone, suggesting at first the dark shadows overtaking a picture like All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) only to come out unscathed and don the coat and tails of an industrial comedy-drama. I must say that while the former feels more akin to Wellman’s usual strengths, I do rather prefer the latter, though the picture doesn’t dare end there.

Wellman introduces us to our latest locale with a dash of humor delivered through an array of pithy signs adorning the walls of an old diner. But it’s the people under its roof that make it what it is. Pa Dennis (Charley Grapewin) is the most genial man you ever did meet and he would give you the shirt off his back if you needed it. His daughter Mary (Aline MacMahon) is little different though she chides her father for his loose finances.

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Still, her jovial hospitality charms Tom into striking up a conversation and considering renting a room from them. Meeting the disarmingly attractive Ms. Ruth Loring (Loretta Young) from across the hall all but seals the deal. Cue the music as Young enters stage right and let’s disregard it and just say she more than deserves the fanfare.

You would think the inventor with overt “Red” tendencies, adamant criticisms of capitalism, and a chattering habit like a squirrel would be a turnoff for prospective boarders. Not so.  Soon Tom joins the ranks of the local laundry where Ruth also works forging a happy life for themselves.

The mobility of Heroes for Sale is another thing that struck me. It results from a different era but this is also very much a Depression picture in the sense that we are seeing what a man can still do even if times are tough as long as he has a strong head on his shoulders. Machinery is implemented not to steal work away from eager employees but to cut down on long working hours and increase output. All in all, it sounds like a thoughtful and humane objective.

But a heart attack leaves the company in different hands that are looking to work only in dollars and cents, not in humanity. Thus, it looks like Tom’s idealistic enterprising has been turned on its head, now completely sabotaged. All the folks who put their trust in him are bitter with the prospect of losing their jobs. Put out of business with their own funds.  This same unrest runs through the pages of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (1940) too as modernity begins to put out all outmoded methods standing in the way of so-called efficiency.

What we have here is a populist picture daring to show the plight of the people. Richard Barthelmess is an affecting lead because he seems almost unextraordinary. His voice is steady and calm. He’s not unkind. But there’s an honesty to him that asserts itself. The fact that he gets a bum steer and takes it without so much as a complaint speaks volumes so he doesn’t have to.

Heroes for Sale feels like a micro-epic if we can coin the term. It’s ambitions somehow manage to be grandiose as it sweeps over cultural moments like WWI and The Depression which underline further social issues including heroism, drug abuse, communism, and worker’s rights. All done up in a measly 71 minutes. Look no further than the standoff between an angry mob and the riot squad for squalid drama. This is no minor spectacle. Nothing can quite express the anguish watching Young frantically run through the violent frenzy in search of her husband.

There is no excuse if this is the standard we put longer films up against. Not a moment seems wasted. Yes, it goes in different directions. Yes, it feels like a couple different films and yet what connects it all is this abiding sense of Americana. Themes that resonate with folks who know this country and its rich history made up of victories and dark blots as well. Most brazenly it still manages to come out of the muck and the mire with a sliver of optimism left over. Heroes For Sale is no small feat.

4/5 Stars

Johnny Guitar (1954)

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“I’m a stranger here myself.” ~ Sterling Hayden as Johnny Guitar

In watching even only a handful of Nicholas Ray films, it’s possible to discern fairly quickly that his films are often about the marginalized outsiders. Rebel Without a Cause (1955) is the most iconic example but this theme goes a lot further than that single movies. He even plays with the same ideas in Johnny Guitar his extraordinarily distinctive western from 1954.

There are other westerns that open like this. A stranger (Sterling Hayden) riding through the mountains and making his way to the nearest town. He overlooks a stagecoach robbery going down and miners blasting away at a mountain with dynamite. There must be a purpose to it all but the significance fails to resonate quite yet.

He goes to the local watering hole: Vienna’s. Except there’s no one there. It’s a ghost town. There are only a few solitary figures working the roulette wheels and the bar. No one else. But still, the stranger walks in as if he’s meant to be there. We don’t know why yet.

By all accounts, Sterling Hayden wasn’t much a cowboy but he had the presence of one. In the movies sometimes that’s enough. Here’s the eponymous Johnny Guitar, the man with his instrument strapped to his shoulder with little stake in the local goings-on.

Namely, the grudge match brewing between the hotel’s fierce proprietress Vienna (the always cutthroat Joan Crawford) and fiery western lass Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge) who packs a whole posse of cattlemen including ornery John McIvers (the venerable Ward Bond). It doesn’t help matters that Vienna opens her doors to the despised Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) and his cronies.

We, like Johnny, have no particular stake in their quarrel though there is a sense of some past grievances. In fact, everyone seems to have a history but we are hardly ever given a nibble, never through flashback and rarely in exposition.

Nicholas Ray creates a gorgeous world in color that showcases some of the most attractive imagery of the West in Classic Hollywood on par with The Searchers (1956) and Rio Bravo (1959). And it boasts an equally colorful array of characters including quality supporting cast members like Bond, Ben Cooper, Ernest Borgnine, Royal Dano, John Carradine, Frank Ferguson, and Paul Fix.

But the subversion of all norms begins with Joan Crawford, the woman who loves the sound of the roulette wheels spinning, ever severe, packing a six-shooter in her blue jeans. While the TruColor does much to enhance not only the scenery but her performance as her piercing eyes burn through everyone she stares down. Johhny Guitar might be in our title but Vienna is our undisputed star.

The relish of the film is perfectly rendered by the complete lack of clarity initially. It’s trying to get a line on everyone in an attempt to understand what’s going on as their allegiances are made fairly evident. It’s a matter of picking a side. But the sides are incredibly difficult to decipher. In fact, even in her moments of complete innocence, it helps her character that Crawford very rarely comes off as a sympathetic person — in reality or on the screen. So if she’s our protagonist then we’re in for a tough outing.

Of course, the feud that’s central to the tale was also twofold unraveling on both sides of the camera. Mercedes McCambridge and Joan Crawford loathed each other to put it lightly. They probably wanted to tear each other’s hair out and while not the most benevolent of relationships, it undoubtedly stoked the fires of the film’s drama. In fact, it seems like there weren’t many people who did like working with Crawford. Hayden never wanted to be in another picture with her again either. Still, once more, it all functions in front of the camera exquisitely.

There’s certainly some truth in drawing up parallels with George Stevens’ Shane (1953) but the moral lines are a lot more jumbled and the intentions of the plot far less direct. Shane is a success because it’s a fine piece of classical storytelling still underlined with an imminent threat. Johnny Guitar is beguiling because it breaks with all the conventions of the West while still carrying its own amount of subtext that’s hard to figure.

Should we even care that the posse gets these men? But you see, that’s nearly beside the point. It’s not about right or wrong but this muddled center controlled by Joan Crawford and Sterling Hayden. The man and the woman with a bit of a past but not enough that they will fall into each other’s arms and live a faithful life at one another’s side. That’s just not in their nature. Still, riding the fence proves to be a taxing ordeal.

We witness the most peculiar bank robbery as far back as I can remember committed by the local outlaws who until they ran off with the loot hadn’t exactly done anything wrong, in spite of being despised by a whole town. In other words, they played the roles expected of them. Then, a pair of hangings takes place but instead of your typical unrepentant criminals being strung up, you have a kid and a woman both ending up with a rope around their necks. The enforcers’ stomachs begin to churn uneasily. This isn’t how mob justice is supposed to work.

Subsequently, the battle to subdue the frontier is brought home with the most unconventional showdown in the western canon that’s fundamentally also one of the most stunning. It blows up in your face and then leaves you questioning this entire ordeal.

Peggy Lee’s title track is used to sing them out as one final note in this dazzling western courtesy of Nicholas Ray; dazzling for the very reason that it does everything contrary to what we have learned. It continually makes a conscious choice to upend the accepted script attached to the mythology of the West, rewriting its own narrative full of vivid imagery and equally blistering outcomes.

4.5/5 Stars

On Dangerous Ground (1951)

on-dangerous-ground-1Father hear my prayer. Forgive him as you have forgiven all your children who have sinned. Don’t turn your face from him. Bring him, at last, to rest in your peace which he could never have found here. ~ Ida Lupino as Mary Malden

On Dangerous Ground is essentially a throwaway plot about nothing but Nicholas Ray turns it into to something — something about everything that is universal and even transcendent about film. Bernard Herrmann’s score draws the audience in with a killer hook as he did for many of Hitchcock’s most iconic films later in the decade.

There are cop killers on the loose and the force is on high alert. The particular cops that we have the benefit of following get the honor of scrounging around every dive bar and crummy joint in town where the scum of the earth dwell at all hours.

It’s in these opening vignettes that we are introduced to the seedy underbelly of the urban wasteland. It’s no good but there are innumerable interesting characters and they’re not all bad. There’s Doc at the drugstore ready to fix ailments while also being handy for a sundae. Streetcorner newsmen are ready with a tip in a pinch almost on cue.

Still, Jim Wilson (R0bert Ryan) is all out of sorts — restless and prone to aggressive outbreaks. He’s not sparing the rod when it comes to apprehending criminals and questioning riff raff. And the very fact that Robert Ryan almost always has a nondescript expression on his face make his more heated outbursts unnerving. It’s enough of an issue that the police chief (Ed Begley) has to get on him. His partners warn him too, namely, the veteran Pop who has his share of ailments while still finding some time to wax philosophical about life.

Soon, enough is enough and Wilson is transferred to a case out in the country tracking down the culprit in the murder of a young girl. And in these moments On Dangerous Ground becomes all too real. He’s actually on thin ice if you want to get really technical, in both the figurative and literal sense. The vengeful patriarch (Ward Bond) is out for blood, waving around his shotgun just waiting to fill someone full of lead. And as it happens, the story becomes a snowcapped manhunt out in the country with Nicholas Ray developing a second distinct world in stark juxtaposition with the first.

If you wait for Ida Lupino’s entrance you will not be disappointed because it is a fabulous one indeed. She and Robert Ryan do make a heady combination as the film devolves into an extraordinary sensitive picture. Ray’s use of closeups near the end is remarkable in creating an immense intimacy between his protagonists. It leads to the question, can a film about police brutality also be about a policeman’s loneliness? In this case, the answer is yes. Because it seems like a great deal of the people within this story are in a similar state. There are frightened youths as well as alienated and isolated individuals who do not know how exactly to deal with other humans. But thankfully we can all learn.

On Dangerous Ground isn’t so much a cynical film as it is melancholy and so, far from seeing its ending as a cop-out, it actually feels like an extension of what Ray was doing all along. It’s this passionate almost spiritual escape from the world at large as reflected in the setting and ultimate outcome. The cop starts to untangle the mess of his life and begins to settle on a firmer foundation. His story need not end in the bowels of darkness. A holiday in the country is still attainable for him.

4/5 Stars

 

 

Review: Rio Bravo (1959)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5/5 Stars