Monthly Archives: October 2014

Branded

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 6, 2014

Branded—Alan Ladd, Mona Freeman, Charles Bickford, Joseph Calleia, Robert Keith, Peter Hansen, Tom Tully (1950; Dir: Rudolph Maté)

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Alan Ladd made this one just before he revived his career by playing Shane, perhaps his biggest role ever and certainly his best western.  He had been in movies for almost ten years at this point and was not quite as big a star as he had been after his breakthrough roles in This Gun for Hire (1942) and The Blue Dahlia (1946).  After Whispering Smith (1948), he moved more into westerns and made several good ones, including this.

“You got any friends?”
“My guns.”
“Kinfolk?”
“My horse.”

When we first see Choya (Ladd’s character), he is besieged by the men of a town where he has just killed someone who drew first on him.  He wears two guns in the kind of fancy rig often seen in the 1950s, which mark him as a gunman, and he escapes from his predicament resourcefully.  He is followed, however, by T. Jefferson Leffingwell (Robert Keith) and his partner Tattoo, who want to make him a business proposition.  Leffingwell knows of a south Texas ranching family whose son Richard was kidnapped 25 years previously.  The son had a birthmark on his left shoulder, and Leffingwell proposes that Tattoo give Choya the birthmark.  He will then pretend to be Richard Lavery to win over the ranching family and take over their ranch.  The story’s title refers to him after the tattoo.

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Choya (Alan Ladd) receives the tattoo that leads to the title.

Choya (Cholla?) is Spanish for a type of cactus, and Choya shares the plant’s prickliness.  That’s the only name he has, along with a spotted and murky past, and he agrees to Leffingwell’s plan, with certain provisos.  After receiving the tattoo, he heads for for the Laverys’ Bar O Ranch and starts by getting a job there.  Leffingwell, meanwhile, has killed Tattoo so as not to share the gains from this con, and has been told by Choya to lay low.

[Spoilers follow from this point.]  Choya gets a job on the ranch, despite suspicious foreman Ransome (Tom Tully), who doesn’t like him.  While fighting with the owner (Charles Bickford), his tattoo/supposed birthmark is spotted.  The family accepts him, including daughter Ruth (Mona Freeman), and he plays along, slowly and apparently reluctantly.  Leffingwell shows up to press the matter.  Choya/Richard is trusted to head a cattle drive to El Paso with Ruth, and he has second thoughts about this con.  Finally he sells the cattle for more than $180,000 and makes sure that it goes back to the family.  He has it out with Leffingwell, discovering that Leffingwell was the baby’s kidnapper and that Mexican bandit chieftain Mateo Rubriz (Joseph Calleia) has raised the child as his own son Antonio.

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Choya negotiates with the sleazy Leffingwell (Robert Keith) from a position of strength.

After warning Leffingwell not to set foot in Texas again, Choya heads south over the Rio Grande toward the mountain retreat of Rubriz.  Somehow he charms Rubriz and, while Rubriz is called away, manages to make off with Rubriz’s son Antonio (Peter Hansen), the Laverys’ real long-lost son, who doesn’t really want to go to Texas.  Life is fine for him where he is.

Rubriz was called away to see Leffingwell (we knew he’d show up again), who tells him what Choya’s up to, and Rubriz and his men give chase.  It’s a long way to the Rio Grande, and Choya doesn’t know the shortest paths.  Antonio was wounded in their getaway, and they are trapped in a cave while Rubriz’s men unknowingly camp below.  Choya has taken good enough care of Antonio, and told him enough stories of the Laverys, that Antonio is beginning to trust him and helps him steal horses to sprint for the river, stampeding the rest.  As Leffingwell takes a bead on Choya to shoot him down with a Winchester, the stampeding horses push him off a cliff.  Once on the other side of the river, Antonio faints from his wound and Choya passes out from exhaustion.  They are found there by Lavery and his foreman Ransome.

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Having barely made it back across the Rio Grande, Choya (Alan Ladd, with Peter Hansen) prepares to shoot it out.

As Antonio wakes in a bed on the Lavery ranch, Choya explains things to him.  But Rubriz and his bandit band have found him, and Rubriz plans to kill both Choya and Antonio, whom he views as a traitor.  Choya manages to talk him around, though, and it looks like Antonio will have a family on both sides of the border.  As Choya makes yet another escape, he is caught by Ruth, and it looks like this time he will not get away so easily.

Based on a story by Max Brand, the outline of this plot seems a bit contrived.  But it works in part because Ladd manages to be convincing (if short) as the irascible Choya.  The supporting cast is strong, too, especially Robert Keith as the delightfully loathsome and unprincipled Leffingwell, Joseph Calleia as the bandit chieftain and family man Rubriz, and Peter Hansen as Antonio. Calleia, who was of Maltese origin, often played heavies and Mexicans, but he was particularly good when the role called for some ambiguity, as his does here.  He could give his roles an enigmatic humanity, when in other hands they might just be stereotypes.  Charles Bickford, said to be as irascible as Choya and hard to work with on other film sets (see The Big Country, for example), is fine here, as he was in Four Faces West with Calleia a couple of years earlier.  Mona Freeman always played younger than she was in movies, and doesn’t have many nuances to her performance, but she’s fine here.

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This isn’t really what his two-gun rig looks like.

Shot on location in Arizona and southern Utah, with Charles Lang doing the cinematography in color in “academy aspect,” full-screen.  Not terribly long, at 104 minutes, it nevertheless moves at what sometimes seems a leisurely pace.  The movie was recently released on DVD by Warner Archive (Sept. 2013).

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The Avenging Angel

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 3, 2014

The Avenging Angel—Tom Berenger, James Coburn, Charlton Heston, Kevin Tighe, Jeffrey Jones, Fay Masterson, Leslie Hope, Andrew Prine (MfTV 1995; Dir: Craig R. Baxley)

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“They trained him to shoot.  To ride.  To kill.  He was the hunter.  Now, he’s the hunted.”

Conspiracies and counterplots among the polygamous Mormons of Utah in 1872 drive this made-for-television (TNT) account of Mormon assassin/bodyguard/security agent Miles Utley (Tom Berenger).  Historical figures such as Brigham Young, Porter Rockwell and Bill Hickman are mixed with fictional ones like Utley in an environment that has some historicity but was probably not as overheated as depicted here.

Young Miles Utley is headed west with the Mormons in 1847 when his father dies.  Brigham Young (Charlton Heston, playing the American Moses) assigns Bill Hickman (Tom Bower) to care for young Utley and raise him.  Hickman and Utley are shown as members of the Mormon militia that slowed down Albert Johnston’s army invading Utah in 1857.  Fast forward to 1872: By this time Utley is a kind of security agent for the Church, reporting to Milton Long (Jeffrey Jones), its head of security.  He is shown dispatching dissident Jonathan Parker with a bowie knife to the throat, so he is not exactly a good guy.  He is also shown frolicking with Young’s daughter Miranda (Fay Masterson), so we know he takes political/spiritual chances, too.

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Miles Utley (Tom Berenger) takes aim. Not all his enemies are obvious.

Long assigns Utley to shadow a couple of suspicious newcomers in Salt Lake City, and he follows them to the Assembly Hall on Temple Square.  Elder Benjamin Rigby (Kevin Tighe, playing a fictional character) preaches fire and brimstone against outsiders.  Brigham Young arises to espouse more restraint and less violence against non-Mormons.  As he does so, a hooded figure approaches him and pulls a derringer; Utley intervenes and shoots the supposed assassin first and is himself attacked and rendered unconscious.  When he starts asking questions about the person he shot, he is again hit (he should be suffering from multiple concussions by now).  He awakens on the shores of the Great Salt Lake.  Apparently his assailants intended that he should drown, but he floated in the salty waters.

He is retrieved by Eliza Rigby (Leslie Hope), who doctors his wounds.  She is an estranged polygamous wife of Elder Rigby, who she says was more interested in her sister Sarah.  As Utley heals, the two develop an interest in each other.  He is about to leave when Rigby himself shows up, with Alpheus Young (Daniel Quinn), Brigham’s son.  Young leaves and Rigby is heard hitting Eliza, with Utley restrained by the pleading of her young daughters.

Miles Utley:  “You know, Alpheus, the problem with polygamy is that when you’ve had 27 wives and 56 children [a reference to Brigham Young’s extensive family], one’s just bound to turn out as dirt-stupid and pig-ugly as you.”

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Utley (Tom Berenger) finds Porter Rockwell (a hairy James Coburn) in the canyons of southern Utah.

Still investigating the deceased assassin, Utley finds apparent grave robbers digging up her body.  Yes, it was a woman—Eliza Rigby’s sister Sarah, a disaffected former Mormon.  Put in jail, Utley is sprung by his boss Milton Long; both Long and Miranda Young smuggle him guns.  He warily heads south, looking for his long-time friend and mentor Porter Rockwell (James Coburn, with long hair and beard wigs).  He visits his sister’s family (with daughters played by two Berenger girls).  As Utley departs, he is attacked by and forced to kill Alpheus Young.  He stops to see his disaffected, alcoholic foster father Bill Hickman in Kanab and is given Jonathan Parker’s diary before heading into wild country. As he leaves, he is attacked again, and joined by Miranda Young, who is wounded.  He fights the attackers off and sends Miranda back with their remnants.  He reads Parker’s diary and finds that he was simply an honest dissident and was doing nothing for which he deserved killing.

Utley and Rockwell join forces to fight a conspiracy led by Elder Rigby to take over the Church and Utah.  Brigham Young is reported to have headed to his winter home in St. George, threatened by the conspirators.  Rockwell creates a diversion without killing any of Young’s faithful bodyguards and Utley enters the house, to find that Milton Long is part of the conspiracy and he is now captured.  Brigham Young slips him a gun, which he uses to take out Long.  He heads back to Salt Lake, to the Assembly Hall, where he finds an unhinged Rigby speaking to an imaginary audience, now that his conspiracy has fallen apart.  Eliza persuades Utley not to kill Rigby, and he hangs up his guns.

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Brigham Young (Charlton Heston) is about to slip Miles Utley (Tom Berenger) yet another gun.

The title refers to the Danites, a supposedly historical group of thugs and assassins who did the Church’s dirty work, of which Utley is supposed to be one.  To the extent they were real, they existed principally in the 1830s; by 1872, they were long gone.  Porter Rockwell was the most prominent of those said to have been Danites, and he was an actual lawman and frontiersman well into the Utah period, dying about the same time as Brigham Young in 1877.

Elements of the cast are very good.  Berenger is sympathetic as Miles Utley, although he sometimes seems confused in his religious environment.  His character could have used a bit more subtlety in the writing of his motivations.  He made this between appearing as Gen. James Longstreet in Gettysburg and as Lewis Gates in Last of the Dogmen.  His production company played a role in getting this made.  Aging actors Heston and Coburn are fine in their roles.  The casting of Jeffrey Jones and especially Kevin Tighe telegraphs that their characters are not to be trusted, however.  The female parts are not strongly written.

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The sometimes autocratic Brigham Young, ca. 1870, about 69 years old; and the aging Mormon lawman and frontiersman Orrin Porter Rockwell.

The polygamous Mormon church, with its secrets and undercurrents under Brigham Young and his successors, would make a fertile environment for mysteries and action films for a generation after the time depicted here, until the church gave up the practice in the early 20th century.  This is based on a novel by Gary Stewart, who apparently has a Mormon background, and, while enjoyable enough, it’s not particularly memorable.  Mormons may enjoy watching it for what strikes them as historical and what seems misplaced.  It was written by somebody who likes guns; when Utley is smuggled guns in jail, they are described in loving detail (a Smith & Wesson .44, said to be just like Jesse James used; a .36, said to be light but effective) as they are slipped to him.

The screenplay won the Western Writers of America 1996 Spur Award for Best Drama Script (Dennis Nemec).  Not to be confused with another made-for-television western, Avenging Angel, with Kevin Sorbo (2007).  For another western featuring Brigham Young, see Dean Jagger in 1940’s Brigham Young, with Tyrone Power and Linda Darnell.  For historical background on Young, see Brigham Young, American Moses, by Leonard Arrington (1985) or John Turner’s Brigham Young:  Pioneer Prophet (2013).  The definitive biography of Porter Rockwell, an authentic western character, is probably still Harold Schindler’s Orrin Porter Rockwell, Man of God, Son of Thunder (first edition, 1966; go with the revised edition, which is easier to find).

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The Sea of Grass

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 1, 2014

The Sea of Grass—Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Melvyn Douglas, Harry Carey, Robert Walker, Phyllis Thaxter, Edgar Buchanan, Ruth Nelson (1947; Dir: Elia Kazan)

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Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn were one of the great pairs from Hollywood’s golden age, appearing in nine films together.  This one is based on a 1936 novel by Conrad Richter, reckoned a considerable literary light in his time.  The director, on only his second movie, was Elia Kazan, who turned out to be one of the greats.  There’s a terrific supporting cast, and an excellent screenwriter in Marguerite Roberts (Ambush, True Grit).  A superb cinematographer is on board in Harry Stradling.  Should have been a recipe for a classic, right?  Well, it’s probably one of the two least-watched of the Tracy-Hepburn collaborations, along with Keeper of the Flame.  This is a family saga-range war story, albeit one with more literary roots than is normal for such tales, and it’s also an easterner-comes-west-and-doesn’t-get-it melodrama.

In 1880, Lutie Cameron (Katharine Hepburn) of St. Louis decides to marry Col. James B. Brewton (Spencer Tracy) of Salt Fork, New Mexico Territory after a short courtship in St. Louis.  He’s the biggest rancher in the Salt Fork area, consisting of high (7,000 feet) plains he calls “the sea of grass.”  Brewton owns the water holes in the sea of grass, but he does not have title to the thousands upon thousands of acres he uses as grazing land for his many cattle.

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Lutie Cameron (Katharine Hepburn) arrives in Salt Fork.

Brewton was unable to come to St. Louis for the wedding because he’s embroiled in a trial with Brice Chamberlain (Melvyn Douglas) as opposing counsel.  A homesteader was shot and driven off his 160 acres, and Chamberlain’s representing him in suing the supposed assailants.  As Lutie arrives, she meets Chamberlain in the local hotel while looking for Brewton.  He is obviously taken with her.  As he returns to court, the jury finds that the homesteader was attacked by “parties unknown.”  Brewton reiterates his view that the high sea of grass won’t work for farming (much as John Wayne’s G.W. McClintock would put it in the comedy McLintock! twenty years later).

Lutie and Jim are married in town, and Jim takes her out to the ranch, where the nearest neighbor is fifteen miles away.  She doesn’t get Jim’s insistence on keeping the land as grassy range, but she wins over Jeff, the ranch’s crusty cook (Edgar Buchanan).  The Brewtons have a daughter, Sarah Beth, and Lutie talks Jim into allowing her friend Selina (Ruth Nelson) and husband Paul to homestead, although he says they will only last six months.  During a winter blizzard, the Brewton cattle knock down Paul’s fences; he shoots one and is beaten by Brewton riders.  Selina loses her baby and terminates her relationship with Lutie.  Chamberlain tries to talk Lutie into running away with him.

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Brewton (Spencer Tracy) and Lutie (Katharine Hepburn in white) argue; Chamberlain (Melvyn Douglas) tries to romance Lutie (Hepburn in black).

After a couple of years (one character or another frequently announces that it’s been two years since the previous scene), Lutie takes off to Denver to shop and perhaps to take an extended break.  While there, she encounters Chamberlain at the historic Brown Palace Hotel where she’s staying, and they indulge in a night of passion.  But Lutie discovers that she loves Brewton and goes back to Salt Fork, only to realize that she’s pregnant with Chamberlain’s child.  When she gives birth to a boy, she tells Doc (Harry Carey) and Jim the truth while she’s apparently out of her head.  Things are never the same between them again.  She goes back to St. Louis after another two years; Brewton keeps the children.

Chamberlain is appointed a federal judge and sees that the range is opened to homesteaders with the support of the cavalry.  At first they do all right, when there’s a lot of rain.  But after two or three years of drought, their farms blow away and there’s no longer grass to hold the soil down.  The Brewton children grow up; Sarah Beth (Phyllis Thaxter) goes east to school, and son Brock (Robert Walker) becomes a wild hand, good with a gun.

When Sarah Beth comes home, she finds that Brock is largely out of control.  His birth circumstances are an open secret in Salt Fork, and when another gambler brings it up during a card game, Brock shoots him.  He jumps bail despite Jim’s asking him not to, and a posse finally hunts him down about the time Lutie comes back to Salt Fork.  After fighting it out with the posse, Brock dies in Jim’s arms, and Jim and Lutie are finally reconciled.  Presumably the settlers did not survive the drought on the sea of grass.

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Brock Brewton (Robert Taylor) gets into a dangerous game.

For a couple whom we know to have been romantically involved for years, including while this movie was made, and who had superb chemistry in other films, the relationship of Tracy and Hepburn is curiously flat throughout this one.  We never see what brought the Brewtons together; they have few interests in common and disagree on a big one that affects Col. Brewton.  There are several occasions when it seems like these people could resolve matters between them if they would just talk to each other about them.  When they don’t, that tends to be frustrating in a movie.  Tracy, who was a superb actor, doesn’t show much range in this film.  Hepburn, as Lutie, is not terribly sympathetic, in part because the writing doesn’t play to her usual strengths and independence.  If you like melodrama, this may be your cup of tea, though.

This was director Elia Kazan’s only western.  In his autobiography, his comment on it was, “It’s the only picture I’ve ever made that I’m ashamed of.  Don’t see it.”  And in the 65 years since it was made, viewers have largely followed that advice.  It’s not terrible, but it doesn’t really come to life.  This is not the best work for either the fledgling director or the writer.  At the time this was made, Kazan was a talented stage director and nobody knew then that he would turn out to be a great screen director.  He didn’t really demonstrate that with this film, and he went back to the stage for a few years.

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Director Elia Kazan confers with Hepburn and Tracy behind the scenes.

During filming, director Kazan complained that Kate kept changing her character’s outfit in every scene.  Costume designer Walter Plunkett, who had been dressing Hepburn and her characters since 1933, explained, “It’s because of Spence.  He’s the love of her life, and she wants him to think she’s prettier than any other girl.”  Kazan explained, “I mean in the movie.”   Plunkett responded, “The movie!  I mean in real life.  That’s what matters.”  We don’t see that chemistry in this film, though.

For Harry Carey, this was the next-to-last of his movies, made just before Red River was released.  He carries kind of a folksy authenticity, as he always did, in playing Doc Reid.  A long-time giant of the screen, he had made 132 westerns, many of which from the silent era are now lost.  Melvyn Douglas is good in a role that calls for him to be both self-righteous (about the homesteaders) and a bit slimy in trying to make off with another man’s wife.  He’s hard to like, but it’s believable that there could be a character like that.  Edgar Buchanan is excellent as the cook-cum-nursemaid Jeff.  Both Ray Teal and Hank Worden have small, uncredited roles in this, too.  Robert Walker would play a similar role again in 1951’s Vengeance Valley, with Burt Lancaster as the good brother to Walker’s wild, amoral brother.

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Katharine Hepburn with costume designer Walter Plunkett, staying pristine between scenes.

Brice Chamberlain: “Why do women insist on loving men for what they want them to be instead of what they are?”  [Seems like this ought to be a line for Jim Brewton, but he never says anything this vulnerable, so Chamberlain says it for him.]

For Tracy in better westerns, check him out in Northwest Passage (1940, set during the French and Indian War of the 1750s) and Bad Day at Black Rock (1955, set in a modern west).  Hepburn made no other westerns for another 25 years until she made Rooster Cogburn with John Wayne, a sequel of sorts to True Gritor and/or a remake of The African Queen, depending on how you want to look at it.

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Watching this movie, the cinematography is occasionally dazzling, with small wagons against immense, brightly lit rock formations.  Even the shots of the sea of grass are persuasive.  This is one of those that, if made just a few years later, would have been shot in color and in widescreen format, which would have made it better.   Although Harry Spradling was a superb cinematographer, nominated thirteen times for Academy Awards, he’s known much more for shooting large scale musicals, including My Fair Lady, Hello Dolly and Funny Girl, as well as A Streetcar Named Desire and many others.

Music is by Hubert Stodhart.   Excellently shot in black and white, at 123 minutes.

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