Monthly Archives: September 2014

Cattle Drive Westerns

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 29, 2014

Cattle Drive Westerns

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‘Steers to Market’ by Maynard Dixon, 1936.

Just as one of the iconic figures of the American west is the cowboy, one of the iconic western stories is the cattle drive, depicting the romance and skills involved in moving cattle from one place to another, usually to market in some form.  The drive is often accompanied by hardships and adventures of various sorts: nasty weather, floods, Indians, outlaws, stampedes, lack of water, etc.  The prototypical cattle drive story is north from Texas to Dodge City (Dodge City, Red River), Abilene or even as far as Montana (The Tall Men, Lonesome Dove).  Sometimes the drive involves an unusual location, such as Canada (The Cariboo Trail), Alaska (The Far Country), Australia (Australia) or even the East (Alvarez Kelly).  Sometimes the story of the drive is accompanied by another typical story, such as the-tenderfoot-comes-west (Cowboy, City Slickers) or a coming of age tale in which a young man or men grow up while learning the ways of the trail and the west (Cattle Drive, The Culpepper Cattle Co., The Cowboys, Lonesome Dove).  Sometimes the animals being driven are horses (The Man From Snowy River, Broken Trail).  Among the movies featuring cattle drives are some of the very greatest westerns (Red River, The Cowboys, Lonesome Dove, Open Range, Broken Trail).

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Nevada (1936)
The Texans–Scott (1938)
Dodge City–Flynn (1939)
Arizona—Arthur, Holden (1940)
Texas (1941)
The Old Chisholm Trail (1942)
Red River—Wayne, Clift, Dru (1948; Dir: Hawks)
The Cariboo Trail—Scott (1950)
The Showdown—Elliott, Brennan (1950)
Cattle Drive—McCrea, Stockwell (1951)

Gunsmoke–Murphy (1953)
The Far Country—Stewart, Brennan (Dir: Mann)
The Tall Men—Gable, Ryan (1955; Dir: Walsh)
Canyon River—Montgomery (1956; Dir: Jones)
Cowboy—Ford, Lemmon (1958; Dir: Daves)
Cattle Empire—McCrea (1958; Dir: Warren)
The Sundowners—Mitchum, Kerr (sheep, 1960; Dir: Zinneman)
The Last Sunset—R. Hudson, K. Douglas (1961)
Alvarez Kelly—Holden, Widmark (1966)
The Culpepper Cattle Co. (1972)
The Cowboys—Wayne, Dern (1972)
Lonesome Dove—Duvall, Jones (1989; Dir: Wincer)
City Slickers—Crystal, Palance (1991)
Open Range—Duvall, Costner (2003; Dir: Costner)
Australia—Jackman, Kidman (2008)

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Thomas Haden Church and Robert Duvall in Broken Trail.

Horse Drive Westerns

Wild Stallion (1952)
Gunman’s Walk (1958)
The Undefeated (1969)
The Man from Snowy River (1982)
Return to Snowy River (1988)
Wrangler (1989)
In Pursuit of Honor (MfTV, 1995)
Broken Trail (2006)

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Gene Hackman, James Coburn et al. in Bite the Bullet.

Endurance Horse Races

Bite the Bullet (1975)
Hidalgo (2004)

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Thunder Over the Plains

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 26, 2014

Thunder Over the Plains—Randolph Scott, Lex Barker, Phyllis Kirk, Charles McGraw, Hugh Sanders, Elisha Cook, Jr., Henry Hull (1953; Dir: Andre de Toth)

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Cavalry, carpetbaggers and quasi-vigilantes clash in 1869 Texas, before the state was re-admitted to the Union following the Civil War.  Captain (and native Texan) Dave Porter (Randolph Scott) and wife Norah (Phyllis Kirk) are finding Texas not entirely comfortable after he fought for the Union in the late unpleasantness between the states.  In part Norah’s discomfort is not only because she isn’t a native Texan like her husband, but perhaps also because she seems much younger than he—30 years, maybe?

Porter’s commanding officer Lt. Col. Chandler (the fussy Henry Hull) is mildly sympathetic to Porter’s concerns, but mostly he doesn’t want to mess up with the brass in the two years before he can retire with his pension.  Porter doesn’t really want to exterminate the local vigilantes led by Ben Westman (Charles McGraw, with the subtle name for his character) because he sympathizes with them to some extent.  Elisha Cook, Jr., is Joseph Standish, a corrupt tax assessor, being run by the more corrupt developer and cotton broker Balfour (Hugh Sanders).

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Bad guys Standish (Elisha Cook, Jr.) and Balfour (Hugh Sanders) with hands up (note the expensive clothes, obvious evidence of corruption).

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Dave Porter (Randolph Scott) tries to talk things out with wife Norah (Phyllis Kirk), but she’s having trouble seeing it his way.

Matters are further complicated when cavalry reinforcements arrive, led by handsome young Capt. Bill Hodges (Lex Barker, fresh off several performances as Tarzan), who knew Norah in a former life.  He’s a smug, by-the-book type who cares nothing about the locals but only about black-and-white orders.  Westman is falsely accused of the murder of Henley, a Balfour informer, and Porter tries to buy time to find the real guilty party (Balfour).  But Hodges starts shooting prematurely and also dishonorably makes a play for Norah, and Porter finds himself a wanted man for having released Westman from custody.  Fortunately, things work out as they should, after some angst for the Porters.

Norah Porter (Phyllis Kirk):  “Whatever became of Frances Bilky?”

Capt. Bill Hodges (Lex Barker):  “I don’t know.  She married a colonel, I think.  Maybe it was a general.  At any rate, she outranks all of us.”

Norah Porter:  “But that’s wonderful!  Now she’ll have her lifelong ambition to lead the cotillion.  Well, I guess that’s what I always wanted too.”

Hodges:  “You don’t have anything like that around here, do you, Captain?”

Capt. David Porter (Randolph Scott):  “Oh, I don’t know.  The Indians come down once a month and dance for us.”

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Smug Capt. Hodges (Lex Barker) prematurely starts the violence. Perhaps a Tarzan yodel would be effective here.

Westman’s friends abduct the corrupt Standish, intending to trade him for Westman before he can hang, but Col. Chandler is having none of that.  Dave Porter is about to get Standish to provide written proof that Balfour killed Henley when the increasingly sleazy Hodges raids the camp and shoots Standish, apparently trying to get Porter.  When he brings in Westman’s men and Porter, they manage to escape.  While Porter finds Standish’s evidence, Balfour and three henchmen try to kill him.  Of course they fail.  He is, after all, played by Randolph Scott.  And Hodges gets sent either (a) back to Washington in disgrace, or (b) to an assignment in dangerous Indian territory–Chandler gives conflicting signals about which it is.  And a little voice-over narration neatly wraps up Reconstruction in Texas and returns its government to the locals much more congenially than it actually happened.

The title has no apparent relationship with the movie’s content.  Randolph Scott always looked good in a cavalry uniform, with his straight-backed bearing and obvious rectitude.  Fess Parker has a brief part here (and in The Bounty Hunter) before becoming more widely known as Davy Crockett on television.  There is heavy-handed voice-over narration at the start and end.  In all, this is a decent job by one-eyed Hungarian director Andre de Toth, although it’s not his very best work.  That would be Ramrod (his first western, with Joel McCrea) and Day of the Outlaw (his last western, with Robert Ryan).  But this is one of the better efforts from his Randolph Scott period in the early 1950s, when De Toth and Scott made six westerns together.

Screenwriter Russell Hughes also did Anthony Mann’s The Last Frontier and Delmer Daves’ Jubal, as well as giant bug movie Them.  Cinematography was by Bert Glennon.  In color, at 82 minutes.

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For another movie about Texas during the carpetbagger Civil War aftermath, see Three Violent People, with Charlton Heston and Anne Baxter (1956).

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Relentless

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 24, 2014

Relentless—Robert Young, Marguerite Chapman, Akim Tamaroff, Barton MacLane, Mike Mazurki, Clem Bevans, Willard Parker (1948; Dir: George Sherman)

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In the early 1940s, Robert Young was being groomed to be a major star.  He appeared in primary roles in two big-budget movies with western connections:  1940’s epic tale of the French and Indian War, Northwest Passage, with Spencer Tracy, and 1941’s tale of Manifest Destiny and technological expansion in Western Union, with Randolph Scott and Dean Jagger.  He was outshown by Tracy and by Scott in each of these.  After the war he didn’t make many westerns, but he made this one.

The title refers to Nick Buckley’s pursuit of the man who can clear his name.  Nick Buckley (Robert Young) is a drifter with a thoroughbred horse that has just foaled.  The horse is stolen and ridden to death; when Nick catches up with the thief, they shoot it out and Nick kills him.  A witness to the confrontation (Barton MacLane) says he’ll tell the sheriff about the shooting and that Buckley shot in self defense; instead he tells the sheriff Nick killed three miners for their claim, and Nick now has a price on his head.  The only way to clear his name is to find the witness, Tex Brandow (MacLane), and get him to tell authorities the truth.

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Nick Buckley (Robert Young) and Luella Purdy (Marguerite Chapman) hunt for Tex Brandow, in order to clear Nick’s name.

While trying to escape a posse and keep the foal alive, Nick falls in with Luella Purdy (Marguerite Chapman), a young woman with a wagon who intends to return east now that her father is dead.  She helps Nick escape twice, and Nick finally tracks down Brandow at the disputed claim, only to see him shot down by gambler Joe Faringo (Akim Tamaroff) and his henchman Jake (Mike Mazurki), who want to kill Nick and take the claim.  Luckily the sheriff Jeff Moyer (Willard Parker), who hasn’t believed Nick up to this point, is a witness to Brandow’s dying confession, and Nick and Luella ride off together, presumably to quit drifting.  There’s a soulful burro named Sappho that fosters the foal.  Pleasant enough but unremarkable; not much seen these days.

Young didn’t catch on as a major star after the war, but in the television age he did become a significant star in that new medium.  He is remembered now principally for his roles as the ultra-competent father in Father Knows Best from the 1950s, and as the kindly and omniscient Dr. Welby from Marcus Welby, M.D., in the 1970s.  He’s not bad here, but the spunky Marguerite Chapman tends to be who you remember from this movie.  She was in Coroner Creek with Randolph Scott the same year as this film was released.

More than twenty years in the future, director George Sherman would still be making the occasional western, even some good ones like Dawn at Socorro and Big Jake, although many were B movies, especially in the 1950s.  This one was shot in color in Simi Valley, California, at 93 minutes.

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Five Card Stud

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 22, 2014

Five Card Stud (aka 5 Card Stud)—Dean Martin, Robert Mitchum, Roddy McDowell, Yaphet Kotto, Inger Stevens, Katherine Justice, John Anderson, Denver Pyle, Ted de Corsia (1968; Dir: Henry Hathaway)

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With a great production team, good cast (except for one), and decent budget, this should have been better.  The weakness is probably in the story and other aspects of the writing.  Directed by Henry Hathaway shortly before True Grit (one of his last movies), produced by Hal Wallis, with music by Maurice Jarré.

March 1, 1880:  Gambler Van Morgan (Dean Martin) is in a seven-man game of five card stud in Mama’s Place in Rincon, Colorado.  He takes a break and returns to the game minutes later, only to find that during his brief absence a stranger in the game was caught cheating and taken out to be lynched.  This is all driven by the local cattle baron’s son Nick Evers (a miscast Roddy McDowell).  When Morgan rides up to stop the hasty hanging, Nick pistol-whips him and he’s left in the street at Rincon.  Morgan leaves for Denver after paying a visit to the Evers ranch, where he says goodbye to Nick’s sister Nora (who’s clearly got a thing for him although he holds back) and punches Nick.

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The fatal game of the title.

The Rev. Jonathan Rudd (Robert Mitchum in another of his skeevy preacher roles) shows up in town to rejuvenate the church.  He’s clearly good with a gun, too.  Those in the fatal card game start to die one by one, with various forms of smothering and strangulation.  The movie at this point becomes a whodunit–or a who’s doing it, and why.  Morgan returns to Rincon and meets Lily Langston (Inger Stevens), the new local madam at a tonsorial parlor.  The town’s nerves are on edge, and some miners start a shootout.  As matters work out, Jonathan Rudd is the brother of the card cheater, and Nick has been feeding him the names of the card players one by one.  There’s some tension as to how things will work out until Rudd goes too far by believing Nick and killing bartender George (Yaphet Kotto), who was not a participant in the game.  At least Rudd then kills Nick and has a final showdown with Morgan.  Morgan leaves town for good, but he seems to have chosen Lily over Nora.

A miscast Roddy McDowell doesn’t have enough of an edge for the role of Nick, and his accent doesn’t work.  Though this is a late western for Dean Martin (Rough Night in Jericho, Bandolero!, Showdown) and Inger Stevens (Firecreek, Hang ‘Em High), they are sometimes shot so their ages show.  That shouldn’t be the case, particularly with Stevens.  There is a good supporting cast:  Kotto, John Anderson (the local marshal), Denver Pyle (Sig Evers, father of Nick and Nora), Ruth Springford (Mama Malone, saloon proprietor).  The script has a flavor of late 1960s anti-establishment feeling about it, and a lot of people get killed.  There are several occasions when people seem conveniently not to hear gunshots.

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Gambler Van Morgan (Dean Martin), Madam Lily (Inger Stevens) and Rev. Jonathan Rudd (Robert Mitchum).

Van Morgan:  “You’ve preached a lot of funerals around here lately.  You got something new for this one?”

The Rev. Jonathan Rudd:  “The funeral is for the living, Mr. Morgan.  I’ll say what his folks want to hear:  that Nick Evers was a good son, a good brother, a loyal friend and a respected citizen.”

Morgan:  “You think you won’t gag on all that?”

Robert Mitchum narrowly escaped being crushed by a falling camera during shooting on this film.  The theme song (written by Jarré) is sung by Martin.  Screenwriter Marguerite Roberts also did True Grit.  This is a possible remake of 1950’s noir-ish Dark City (Charlton Heston’s screen debut).  Shot in color in Durango, Mexico.  103 minutes long.

 

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Skin Game

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 19, 2014

Skin Game—James Garner, Louis Gossett, Jr., Susan Clark, Ed Asner, Brenda Sykes, Andrew Duggan (1971; Dir: Paul Bogart, Gordon Douglas [uncredited])

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This was the third and last of the three good western comedies starring James Garner in his amiable con-man persona.  Some might also consider Sunset and Maverick from late in Garner’s career to belong in the same category, but this is Garner in his prime.  Here he is ably joined by Louis Gossett and Susan Clark.

Not long before the Civil War, Quincy Drew (Garner) and his friend and partner Jason Rourke (Gossett) are running a con in Missouri.  Jason is a free black man from New Jersey; the two met in a Pennsylvania jail and started working together.  The two of them ride into a town in a border state, with Quincy pretending to be an impoverished slave owner reduced to selling his favorite slave.  He conducts an impromptu auction, usually in a bar, and rides out of town with the proceeds.  Jason later escapes at an opportune moment and rejoins Quincy, to repeat the con in another town.

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Selling Jason (Lou Gossett) again.

They find themselves in Kansas, which is voting on whether to adopt slavery amid high political feelings on both sides.  Quincy puts Jason in a larger slave auction, but things don’t run smoothly this time.  Jason becomes enamored of Naomi (Brenda Sykes), another young slave up for sale.  Quincy is attracted to Ginger (Susan Clark), with whom he strikes up a liaison.  Matters are further complicated when fiery abolitionist John Brown (played by Royal Dano) shows up and violently liberates the slaves, and Quincy finds that Ginger has liberated him from his stash of money.

Jason and Quincy manage to find each other again, but matters still do not run smoothly.  Trying the con just one last time, Quincy’s con is exposed by Plunkett (Ed Asner), a nasty slave trader who has already bought Jason once.  Plunkett takes Jason south and sells him down the river, and Quincy is tossed in jail.  To Quincy’s surprise, Ginger manages to spring him from jail and volunteers to help him rescue Jason.

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Quincy (James Garner) is taken with (and by) Ginger (Susan Clark).

They pose as medical missionaries seeking a slave with leprosy, as they look for wherever Jason may have been sold.  They find him at the Calloway plantation in Texas, with Naomi and several African recent arrivals who don’t speak English but have a way with horses.  The Africans have adopted Jason as their leader, and he refuses to leave without them.  Quincy is exposed while plotting their getaway, and is given a taste of the whip.  But the group manages to escape and head for Mexico.  It looks like Quincy and Ginger will stick together, although they still have issues about who’s in control and who holds the money.

As a western comedy, this is fairly successful.  It seems unlikely that a comedy with slavery as one of its central elements would be made today.  Among filmmakers, the current sensibility is not to see slavery as an element of history, but to portray it as so unrelievedly evil and patently wrong that no comedy can exist in its presence.  But in the late 1960s and early 1970s there were two good western comedies involving slavery: this, and 1968’s The Scalphunters, with Burt Lancaster and Ossie Davis.  Django Unchained (2012) also comes to mind as a recent western involving slavery with some comedic elements, but it is not primarily a comedy and Quentin Tarantino is unusually strong-minded in going his own way as a director.  The slavery element will rub some viewers the wrong way, but this movie does not condone slavery in any way.  If anything, it expresses some slightly anachronistic but perhaps accurate views of how slavery affected people, as Quincy is educated in how it feels.  It’s worth watching but seldom seen.

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James Garner is the principal reason to watch this, but Lou Gossett balances him nicely in a strong performance.  The friendship between them is persuasive.  To see more comedic Garner from the same period, look for Support Your Local Sheriff (1969, perhaps his very best movie and role of this kind) and its sequel of sorts, Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971, with mostly the same team but not as successfully done).  Susan Clark is surprisingly good as the amoral pickpocket-con woman Ginger, a good match for Garner’s Quincy.  To see her in another western, check her out as Burt Lancaster’s reluctant hunting companion in Valdez Is Coming, also from 1971.  Ed Asner as Plunkett also makes an excellent despicable slave trader and villain.  As another villain, see him as greedy range boss Bart Jason in El Dorado (1966), with John Wayne and Robert Mitchum.

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A taste of the lash for Quincy when he is discovered trying to free slaves.

In color, at 102 minutes.  As with Django Unchained, there is heavy use of the “N-word,” which is probably historically accurate.  Not to be confused with the seldom-seen Alfred Hitchcock movie from 1931, The Skin Game.  The characters from the movie later appeared in a made-for-television sequel Sidekicks (1974) directed by Burt Kennedy, with Lou Gossett reprising his role as Jason Rourke (or O’Rourke) and Larry Hagman playing the part of Quincy (or Quince) Drew.  This time the two con artists after the Civil War hatch a scheme to collect a $15,000 bounty offered for the capture of an outlaw.  For another comedy from the same period with slavery as one of its key points, see The Scalphunters from 1968.

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Hannah’s Law

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 12, 2014

Hannah’s Law—Sarah Canning, John Pyper-Ferguson, Billy Zane, Danny Glover, Greyston Holt, Ryan Kennedy (MfTV, 2012; Dir.: Rachel Talalay)

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This made-for-television movie was produced for the Hallmark Channel and shows its awareness of its audience (largely female and older, but reaching for younger viewers, too) by embracing anachronistic attitudes toward feminism, killing, ethnic diversity and sex.  It is part of a line of female revenge fantasies going back at least to Hannie Caulder in the early 1970s and extending to the present through The Quick and the Dead (the one directed by Sam Raimi, not the one based on a Louis L’Amour novel) and 6 Guns (also made for television).  Although it attempts to introduce actual historical characters into its story, it takes some of them (Isom Dart, Stagecoach Mary) out of their actual times and locations.  This appears to be set in Dodge City when Wyatt Earp (Greyston Holt) was a deputy there, making it the late 1870s.  Doc Holiday (Ryan Kennedy) is also a character (relying heavily on Val Kilmer’s performance in Tombstone for inspiration), but Doc and Wyatt do not yet appear to be friends.

Hannah Beaumont’s family was killed by ruthless post-Civil War outlaws twelve years ago.  She (Sarah Canning) was raised in the orphanage in Dodge City and tutored in bounty hunting by Isom Dart (Danny Glover).  Now, one by one, she’s bringing in members of the gang that killed her family, without killing any of them.  Physically, she’s attractive but fairly small.  Wyatt would like to advance his relationship with her, but she’s not paying attention.  At least once, she sleeps recreationally with Doc.  She has carefully interracial relationships with Dart and with Stagecoach Mary.

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Danny Glover as Isom Dart, Hannah’s bounty hunting mentor.

Frank McMurphy (John Pyper-Ferguson), head of the outlaw gang, finally figures out his men are disappearing and decides to get Hannah before she gets any more of them.  Isom Dart, now wanted himself, has returned to Kansas, and McMurphy thinks Hannah will be looking for him.  (She’s actually plenty easy to find herself in Dodge, so this subterfuge isn’t necessary.)

As McMurphy and his gang come to town, everybody appears to desert her at the instigation of the town boss (Billy Zane), even her friends Earp, Isom, Holliday and Mary.  Predictably, they haven’t really deserted her, but she (not terribly believably) bears the brunt of the fight.  As Wyatt is forced to shoot McMurphy, the bad guy has just revealed to Hannah that her brother is still alive but did not say where he is or what name he is using, clearly setting up a potential sequel.

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Sarah Canning as Hannah in her bounty hunting attire, and looking more traditionally female with the young Doc Holliday (Ryan Kennedy) and Wyatt Earp (Greyston Holt).

Stagecoach Mary (real name:  Mary Fields) was actually significantly older than Isom Dart.  She would have been around 45 at the time of this story, a former slave living in Florida.  Around 1883 she moved to Montana, where she became known by her nickname.  Isom Dart would have been about 25-30 years old at the time of this story, not the 60-ish shown.  A rustler, he was killed around the turn of the century by Tom Horn in Brown’s Hole, where Wyoming, Utah and Colorado come together.

Uses of minorities in westerns are welcome, but one would like to see them used more authentically and less anachronistically than this.  Similarly, it would be good to see more female directors of westerns like Rachel Talalay–especially of good westerns.  This was kind of a low-budget production ($5,000,000), and it’s short at 88 minutes.  Shot in Alberta, Canada.

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Friendly Persuasion

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 10, 2014

Friendly Persuasion—Gary Cooper, Dorothy McGuire, Anthony Perkins, Robert Middleton, Phyllis Love (1956; Dir: William Wyler)

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Not much of a western, this slow-moving story of a family of Quakers during the Civil War is set in southern Indiana.  The father is Jess Birdwell (Gary Cooper, looking pretty old for the part at 55 but a good actor; even at his age he didn’t want to play the father of grown-up children as he does here).  The mother and authority figure is Eliza Birdwell (Dorothy McGuire, effective in an unusually sedate role for her), a frequent preacher in the local Quaker congregation.  The Quakers are determined pacifists in a world spinning toward conflict in the Civil War.

“I want you to know, sir, I honor your prejudices–um, uh, convictions.”

Most of the tension, such as there is, comes from the non-conflict between hyper-religious Eliza and slightly more worldly Jess, who likes fast horses and buys a showy (to Eliza) small home organ.  Any potential conflict is muted, since it is made clear that the two are united more by their affection for each other, even when arguing, than they are divided by their different interpretations of what their religion requires.  The implication is that the two occasionally even, well, you know ….  It is a given that their religion sets them apart from their neighbors and is not understood by others.

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Parents Jess (Gary Cooper) and Eliza Birdwell (Dorothy McGuire) sort things out.

Meanwhile, their two older children Joshua (Anthony Perkins) and Mattie (Phyllis Love, a weak spot in the cast) are more affected by the Civil War than the parents are—Joshua by the necessity to fight when Confederate raiders under John Hunt Morgan approach, and Mattie because she is romantically attracted to a young local officer (Mark Richman, who seems too old for her even by 19th century standards).  Jess confronts violence when a Confederate raider kills his friend (Robert Middleton); he lets the soldier go.  Eliza confronts the raiders when they approach the family farm. Jess has to go off to the fighting in search of Joshua eventually.  They both come back.

The reticent but sly chemistry between Cooper and McGuire works.  The movie seems designed more to be heart-warming than anything else.  It was put together from stories by Jessamyn West, who also worked (uncredited) on the screenplay with the director’s brother Robert Wyler.  Music is by veteran composer Dimitri Tiomkin, the theme song sung by Pat Boone.  It is expertly directed by William Wyler, who would soon make the epics Ben Hur and The Big Country.  It also features the most effective cinematic use of a goose in the last 70 years.

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Son Joshua Birdwell (Anthony Perkins) does not fare well in the war.

Modern audiences may have forgotten what an effective character actor Robert Middleton was.  He was always reliably good (see him in a small part in The Law and Jake Wade and in Big Hand for the Little Lady, for example), and he’s excellent here.

The film was nominated for Best Picture, Best Directing, Best Supporting Actor, Best Sound Recording and Best Song Oscars.  This movie is still surprisingly effective at what it’s trying to do. It’s said to have been the favorite film of Ronald Reagan. In clear and beautiful color if you’re watching a good print or decent DVD transfer.  137 minutes long.

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The marketing of this movie overseas clearly rested more on Cooper’s image from prior films than it did on the pacifist plot of the actual movie.  For another story about Quakers on the frontier, see them trying to convert John Wayne in 1947’s Angel and the Badman.

 

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The Legend of Zorro (2005)

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 8, 2014

The Legend of Zorro—Antonio Banderas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Rufus Sewell, Nick Chinlund, Adrian Alonso, Shuler Hensley, Michael Emerson, Julio Oscar Mechoso (2005; Dir: Martin Campbell)

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The 1998 recasting of the Zorro story (Two Zorros! The passing of the mask and sword!) in The Mask of Zorro was a hit with audiences, so a sequel was inevitable.  Anthony Hopkins’ Diego de la Vega died at the end of Mask, so he doesn’t return for the sequel.  But the attractive Catherine Zeta-Jones and Antonio Banderas return as Diego’s daughter and the replacement Zorro Diego trained before his death.

Now it’s 1850, and Alejandro (Antonio Banderas) has taken the De la Vega name (you’ll recall his original name was Murrieta).  He and Elena have been married for almost ten years, with a son named Joaquin (after Alejandro’s long-deceased outlaw brother).  Spanish California is American territory in the wake of the Mexican War and is now voting on statehood.  Although the Zorro story is traditionally set in southern California around Los Angeles, this one seems to be set in San Mateo, not far from San Francisco in northern California.  The De la Vega marriage is stressed; Elena wants Alejandro to throw in the cape and retire from the business of righting wrongs and fighting evil, while Alejandro thinks there is still a need for Zorro and resists retirement.

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Scarred villain Jacob McGivens (Nick Chinlund).

There are still villains, almost more than the viewer can keep track of.  The initial one is Jacob McGivens (Nick Chinlund), a nasty, scarred American religious fanatic trying to steal the statehood elections until Zorro leads him and his men on a merry chase.  During the chase, Zorro’s identity is momentarily revealed to a couple of other Americans (Shuler Hensley and Michael Emerson).  After this exploit, Alejandro and Elena argue and separate.  Alejandro seeks solace in strong drink.

Elena takes up with a French count Armand (Rufus Sewell) she had known in school back in Spain.  He seems charming enough, but the De la Vegas don’t agree about him.  Elena serves Alejandro with divorce papers, despite the fact that they are both presumably Catholic.

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The De la Vegas are still attracted to each other (Catherine Zeta-Jones and Antonio Banderas).

As matters develop, during his brief unmasking Alejandro was identied by the two Americans, who turn out to be Pinkerton agents.  They use that knowledge to blackmail Elena into doing some spying on Armand for them, and that’s why she has broken with Alejandro.  However, they would view her demise as unfortunate but perhaps necessary to their enterprise.  The De la Vega son Joaquin thinks his father is a coward, unlike Zorro, so he’s clearly not in on the secret, and he constantly gets in trouble at school.  The nasty McGivens is working for Armand, who in turn is part of an international conspiracy (the Knights of Aragon, whose Latin motto is “Orbis Unum”—One World) which plans to weaken the U.S. before it can attain international prominence.  They plan to do that with strategic use of nitroglycerin made from soap.

Elena’s spying is discovered (she’s not very subtle about it), and she and Joaquin are taken prisoner on Armand’s train carrying the nitroglycerin to a rendezvous.  Alejandro rides as Zorro, both to stop the train and to rescue his loved ones.  He starts by defeating and killing McGivens and his minions.  He finds himself and his horse atop Armand’s train but manages not to get killed when it goes through a tunnel.  (The mounted rider atop a moving train is a sign the things are out of hand with the movie, as in 2013’s The Lone Ranger.)   Alejandro as Zorro manages to get Joaquin off the train, and he plays an active role in the rescue.  Eventually, Alejandro and Elena escape the train as it barrels toward the end of the track with Armand on the cowcatcher at the front and a car-load of nitroglycerin in bottles.  The De la Vegas are reconciled and remarried.

As with most sequels, this is not as good as the original—in this case, significantly worse.  The plot is incoherent and, with all the squabbling between Elena and Alejandro, uninteresting.  In the improbably prominent role for child Joaquin (Adrian Alonso) in the last part of the movie, he proves to be irritating, too.  There are too many villains, and consequently too many loose ends.  With a greater role for Elena than in the first movie, we can hear that Catherine Zeta-Jones’ Spanish accent is inconsistent and unpersuasive.

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Zorro (Antonio Banderas) and Armand (Rufus Sewell) duel atop a train.

The story of Zorro is rooted in a particular historical place and time, and this film moves it farther from that place and time.  It seems to take place in northern California rather than in southern California.  It is quite cavalier about anachronisms:  The Pinkertons as an agency (or any agency like them) did not exist until the Civil War, about fifteen years later than 1850.  Nitroglycerin was not invented until the end of the 1860s, at least twenty years later than this film takes place.  It is unlikely that American bad guys in California in 1850 carried swords at all, let alone carrying them rather than repeating pistols.  That would place Zorro at a considerable weapons disadvantage, since he is primarily a swordsman.

On top of all that, there are many movie-making problems with the film, starting with a poor story and bad writing.  Although Zorro is acrobatic, much of the stunt work (and the editing related to the stunts) seems over the top and completely unrealistic.  This may not be quite as epically bad as, say, The Wild Wild West, but it belongs in the same category.  It had a budget of $75 million, but only made back just over $45 million, so apparently the movie-going public agreed in 2005.  It’s in color, and at 129 minutes it seems much longer than that.

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Ramrod

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 4, 2014

Ramrod—Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, Don DeFore, Donald Crisp, Charles Ruggles, Preston Foster, Arleen Whelan, Ian MacDonald, Ray Teal, Lloyd Bridges, Wally Cassell, Nestor Paiva (1947; Dir: Andre de Toth)

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“Men are so easy!… A little lace, a pair of lips, a touch, and they kill for you!”  Despite the lurid line on the poster (which nobody says in the film), this is a very good western.

This was the first of eleven westerns directed by one-eyed Hungarian-born Andre de Toth, and it was one of his two best. Star Joel McCrea was moving into the phase of his career during which he would, as Randolph Scott had done, choose to make mostly westerns.  He and Veronica Lake (now Mrs. De Toth) had starred early in the decade in Preston Sturges’ excellent Sullivan’s Travels, and now, as her career waned, they reunited in a very good western directed by her husband.  It was based on a story by Luke Short, usually a good sign for a western, especially in the late 1940s.

There’s a lot of backstory as the movie starts, and a large cast of characters with complicated relationships.  The ramrod of the title is Dave Nash (Joel McCrea), who is coming back to himself after an extended period of heavy drinking.  His wife died giving birth to a son, and the son died in a cabin fire, triggering Nash’s descent into alcoholism.  Three weeks before the film begins, sympathetic sheriff Jim Crew (Donald Crisp) had gotten him a job with Walt Shipley (Ian MacDonald), who plans to bring sheep into the area and break up the cattle ranchers’ monopoly on the valley’s free range.

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Stars Veronica Lake and Joel McCrea behind the scenes.

The cattle ranchers are led by the fierce Frank Ivey (Preston Foster), and they include Ben Dickason (Charles Ruggles).  He and his strong-willed daughter Connie (Veronica Lake) are on the outs; he wants her to marry Frank Ivey, and she’s engaged to Walt Shipley instead.  She has moved out of her father’s ranch house and into the local hotel.  As the movie starts, Shipley is about to take the stage out of town to buy sheep, and Ivey has vowed to stop him.

It’s night as the stage is about to leave; Dave is in front of the hotel to back up his boss with his gun as the occasion presents itself.  But Walt can’t stand up to Ivey, and he folds.  He disappears from town quietly, leaving his Circle 66 ranch to Connie.  Red Cates (a young Lloyd Bridges), one of Ivey’s riders, prods Dave in a bar; they fight, and Dave wins and almost comes to blows with Frank Ivey, too.  Connie plans to run Shipley’s ranch and hires Dave as her foreman (or “ramrod”), figuring he’s one of the few who’ll stand up to Ivey.

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Bill Schell (Don DeFore) is recruited by his friend Dave Nash (Joel McCrea).

In turn, Dave hires four or five more riders, beginning with his long-time friend Bill Schell (Don DeFore).  Schell has a long-term grudge against Ivey, and few scruples about staying on the right side of the law.  He brings in the other riders, who all have issues with Ivey.  When Ivey and his men burn down the former Shipley ranch house and buildings while Connie is retrieving things from her father’s house, Dave moves her into a nearby stone line cabin used by Ivey.  When they file for title to the line cabin, Ivey and his men show up there, and Ivey orders Virg (Wally Cassell) to beat Curley (Nestor Paiva), who is there to give Connie protection.  The camera work is tight on Virg’s face, managing to convey the brutality of the beating without showing the actual blows.

Connie takes what’s left of Curley into town, where he is cared for by Rose Leland (Arleen Whelan), the local dressmaker.  She and Dave have a relationship of sorts, but now there are questions by some, including Ben Dickason, about the nature of Dave’s relationship with Connie.  Dave insists on allowing Jim Crew to follow the law as they plan the next step after Curley’s beating.  However, Bill Schell finds Ivey’s ramrod Ed Burma (Ray Teal, in an early role although he was not young even then) in a livery stable.  Schell prods him into a fight and guns him down.

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Frank Ivey (Preston Foster) and his men ride up to the line cabin now taken over by Connie (Veronica Lake).

Connie senses Dave’s reluctance to do anything downright dishonest, so she approaches Bill Schell to stampede her herd and blame it on Ivey.  As Sheriff Jim Crew goes to arrest Ivey, Ivey shoots him down.  When he hears about it, Dave finds Virg and kills him in a gunfight, taking a bad wound to the shoulder himself.  The dying Virg tells him it was Ivey himself who killed the sheriff, not Virg.  The doc fixes Dave up at Rose’s, but Bill has to get him out of town before Ivey finds him in such helpless condition.  Curley finally dies from the effects of his beating.

Bill hides Dave in a mine in the hills, but Connie rides there to take them supplies.  Ivey’s men follow her. Dave is healing, but not yet enough, and Bill puts him on Connie’s horse and sends him one direction.  He takes Dave’s horse and heads higher into the mountains, where Ivey and two other men track him.  Ivey kills Schell with two shotgun blasts to the back.  As Dave makes it back to town, Ben Dickason tells him how Schell was killed.  With his arm still in a sling, Dave takes a shotgun into the street to call Ivey out.  Ivey still thinks of Dave as a drunk and taunts him about how close he’ll have to get to make the shotgun work.  He does.  The question then remains:  Will Dave take up with Connie, who now has the way clear to her own ranching empire, or is he still more interested in Rose?

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Dave Nash and Frank Ivey finally have it out, shotgun against pistol.

Joel McCrea is excellent as the reforming alcoholic Dave, and Veronica Lake has a very strong role as the scheming Connie.  At first she’s pushed into using whatever she can, but we can see that she comes to relish using all the tools at her disposal.  This was her only western, but she’s good in it. Use of her as a femme fatale nudges this into the noir western category.  Don DeFore is very good as the genial, good-with-a-gun but not terribly scrupulous Bill Schell, and a lot of the smaller roles are well played, too.  Preston Foster is a standard despicable villain as Frank Ivey.  Charles Ruggles, often a genial or comedic father figure (see Ruggles of Red Gap, for example), is still genial but not commanding as Connie’s father.  Arleen Whelan is pretty good but not great as Rose the dressmaker, although it’s kind of a thankless role, since she’s mostly playing the counterpoint to Lake’s Connie.  This and Kidnapped (her first starring role) were the high points of her career.

This complex western cost more than $1 million to make in 1947, and it didn’t make that back at the time.  However, modern audiences tend to like it better than those of 1947.  It’ll make you wonder why you haven’t heard more about it.  It’s available on Blu-Ray since 2012.

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A still of the sultry Veronica Lake in her role as Connie Dickason.  You can see why the Spanish title was La Mujer de Fuego (“Woman of Fire”).

Although there’s a lot going on, the story is economically told in 95 minutes.  The dialogue is well-written, crisp and intelligent.  There is both good camera work and excellent western scenery, since the film was shot in southern Utah in and around Zion National Park.  Cinematography is in black and white by Russell Harlan, who also shot Red River, The Big Sky and Rio Bravo for Howard Hawks, not to mention Lust for Life and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Joel McCrea was in several strong westerns about this time in the late 1940s, including Colorado Territory, Four Faces West, Stars in My Crown and The Outriders.  Andre de Toth went on to make a series of westerns, many of them starring Randolph Scott, until he burned out on them in the mid-1950s.  Several of them, such as The Bounty Hunter, Riding Shotgun and Carson City, are well worth watching.  His last western was Day of the Outlaw in 1959, with Robert Ryan and Burl Ives. His first (this one) and his last were his best.  If you like his work, look for his well-known 3-D horror classic, House of Wax with Vincent Price.

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Cimarron (1960)

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 1, 2014

Cimarron—Glenn Ford, Maria Schell, Anne Baxter, Harry Morgan, Arthur O’Connell, Mercedes McCambridge, Robert Keith, Russ Tamblyn, David Opatoshu, Edgar Buchanan (1960; Dir: Anthony Mann)

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As a word, “Cimarron” is very evocative of the west.  Cimarron County, Oklahoma, is at the very tip of Oklahoma’s panhandle, neighboring New Mexico, southern Colorado, southwestern Kansas and the Texas panhandle.  It was named for the Cimarron River, which flows through the area and was crossed by the Cimarron Cutoff on the legendary Santa Fe Trail.  It was a remote area, late to be settled and brought under regular law—the area where Comanches killed mountain man Jedediah Smith in 1831 and not far from where the gunman Clay Allison had a ranch in the 1880s.  It is farther west than the area dealt with in this movie.

Edna Ferber’s large-scale 1929 best-seller was made into a 1931 movie that won the Academy Award for Best Picture, the first and, for 60 years, the only western to win that accolade.  Add to this previously successful mix Anthony Mann, one of the best directors of westerns from the 1950s, and a good cast for a modern update, and you should have a winner.  But it didn’t turn out quite that way.

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Sooners in 1889. Yancey Cravat is among them.

The improbably-named Yancey Cravat (Glenn Ford) gets married at the start of the film in 1889. A lawyer at the time of his marriage, he has a bit of a backstory, some pieces of which emerge bit by bit. He has been a gunman and a cowboy, for example; he seems well acquainted with outlaws and prostitutes who refer to him as “Cim,” short for Cimarron. He insists that his new wife Sabra (Austrian actress Maria Schell) join him in the Oklahoma land rush. As they come to the starting line, they meet a string of Cravat acquaintances, notably Sam Pegler (Robert Keith); an itinerant newspaper editor and publisher; and his printer Jesse (Harry Morgan); the large but poor Wyatt family from Missouri (Arthur O’Connell and Mercedes McCambridge); a few outlaws, including the Cherokee Kid (Russ Tamblyn); a wagon of soiled doves, especially Dixie Lee (Anne Baxter); and Jewish tinker Sol Levy (David Opatoshu).

In the race Yancey loses the piece of property he wanted to Dixie, who seems to be trying to get it to spite him.  When he finds the Pegler wagon overturned and Sam dead in the wreck, he decides to try being a newspaperman instead of a rancher.  As the town of Osage develops, Yancey reveals that he has strong sympathies with underdogs (Indians and other minorities, the Cherokee Kid) and a tendency to take on responsibility in stressful situations.  When an innocent Indian is lynched, Yancey takes in the widow and daughter after taking out the ringleader Bob Yountis.  He has a son, whom he insists on naming Cimarron.  When the Cherokee Kid and his gang come to rob the local bank and take refuge in the local school, it’s Yancey who rescues the kids, if not the Kid.  He urges Tom Wyatt to drill for oil on his property, which Wyatt eventually discovers.

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Yancey (Glenn Ford) is too late to stop a lynching.

Yancey is also a man who is always looking beyond his current horizon.  When Sabra refuses to join him in the rush to the Cherokee Strip farther to the west in 1893, Yancey nevertheless goes and disappears for five years.  He doesn’t write, but Sabra hears hints that he is in Alaska and then has joined the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War.  At the conclusion of the war, he shows up in Osage again and is taken back by his family.  The newspaper prospers modestly, and in 1904 Yancey is offered the post of territorial governor, which he turns down because he’d be indebted to the oil interests led by Tom Wyatt.  (Presumably he would have been the last territorial governor; Oklahoma became a state in 1907.)

When he turns down the governorship, Sabra blows up at him and Yancey disappears again, for good this time.  When their son marries an Indian, Sabra drives the young couple away.  They go to Oregon and she never sees them.  Obviously, she doesn’t share Yancey’s sensitivity to minorities.  In the ten years after Yancey’s departure, the newspaper prospers with financial help from Sol Levy, who would like to marry Sabra.  In 1914, Sabra hears that Yancey has joined the British army during World War I.  The movie ends the next year when Sabra gets word from the British army that Yancey has been killed in France.

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Yancey (Glenn Ford) tells Sabra (Maria Schell) he’s turning down the governor’s post.

In the earlier film version, Yancey survives the war, only to die in the 1920s in an oilfield accident.  Sabra becomes a Congresswoman.  But this film is already two and a half hours long and forgoes that extended ending.  In the first version, Yancey comes and goes inexplicably.  This version focuses more on the personalities and relationship of Yancey and Sabra, and finally it’s an unsuccessful relationship.  In the 25 years covered by the movie, Yancey and Sabra are together maybe ten of those years, and little of the second five-year period is shown.  Sabra spends most of her time being unhappy with Yancey even when they are together.  We don’t really get Yancey, either.  It makes for kind of a glum film, especially in the long second half, when Yancey has disappeared much of the time.  And Glenn Ford often has distractingly bad hair.  Maria Schell is a decent actress, but she’s not as good as Sabra as Irene Dunne had been in 1931.  She seems excessively weepy, especially in the second half as the film moves into more melodramatic territory and just camps there.  All in all, it’s just not all that compelling.  And it did not do well at the box office upon its release.

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Anthony Mann directing, with Maria Schell and Glenn Ford; still of Glenn Ford going after the Cherokee Kid’s gang.

Maria Schell had appeared in one other western, Delbert Daves’ The Hanging Tree.  After this her career moved back into mostly European movies.  Anne Baxter is very good although underused here.  The land rush sequence is good, featuring several crashes and other mishaps.

This was Director Anthony Mann’s last western, and not among his better ones.  Mann was moving from westerns into the final stage of his career, when he focused more on epics like El Cid.  This had been a troubled production, with Mann being fired toward the end.  Reportedly producer Edmund Grainger filled in the editing of the last part without Mann’s participation or consent, which may account for why that part seems dull.  This version was written by Arnold Shulman and shot in color by the excellent cinematographer Robert Surtees.  There is good musice by Franz Waxman, so the film looks and sounds good.  Long, at 147 minutes.

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