Tag Archives: Cecil B. DeMille

Unconquered

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 17, 2014

Unconquered—Gary Cooper, Paulette Goddard, Howard Da Silva, Ward Bond, Boris Karloff, Mike Mazurki, Katherine DeMille, Cecil Kellaway (1947; Dir: Cecil B. DeMille)

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Gary Cooper had made a reputation in a variety of film genres in the 1920s and 1930s, including upscale westerns.  By the 1940s he was among the biggest stars in Hollywood, and he only made four westerns during the decade:  The Westerner and North West Mounted Police in 1940, Along Came Jones in 1945 and Unconquered in 1947.  North West Mounted Police and Unconquered were not the low-budget productions typical of the genre then.  They were directed by Cecil B. DeMille, and Unconquered was DeMille’s usual self-conscious epic, made with a large budget, in color and with a long playing time of 146 minutes.

Unconquered begins in 1763, the time of Pontiac’s Uprising in the northwest frontier of Britain’s American colonies, more than a decade before the Revolution.  Comely young English woman Abigail Hale (Paulette Goddard) is sentenced to death or transportation to the colonies in indentured servitude for helping her dying brother resist impressment into the Royal Navy.  She chooses transportation.  As the ship carrying her and other convicts nears the colonies, Abby attracts the interest of smooth but nefarious Indian trader Martin Garth (Howard Da Silva), who bullies the slave trader on the ship into auctioning her prematurely.  Unexpectedly, she is bought by Virginia militia Capt. Christopher Holden (Gary Cooper, not young at 46), who distrusts and wants to frustrate Garth.  Holden arranges for her to receive her freedom when he leaves the ship the next day, since he’s meeting his fiancée.

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Abby (Paulette Goddard) catches the eye of Indian trader Martin Garth (Howard Da Silva).

Holden’s plans go astray.  His fiancée Diana (Virginia Grey) reveals that she has married Holden’s brother, and Garth bullies the slave trader into giving him Abby’s freedom papers and reselling her to his henchman Bone (Mike Mazurki).  Holden ends up inland at the Peaketown Fair, where he meets his blacksmith friend John Fraser (Ward Bond), sees Abby again, meets with Col. George Washington (Richard Gaines) and Sir William Johnson, the King’s premier Indian agent.  They hear of Pontiac’s plans to inflame the northwestern tribes (western Senecas, Shawnees, Ottawas) in the western Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan areas.  Holden agrees to carry wampum belts inviting the chiefs to a meeting, although he knows Garth’s Indian allies will be trying to kill him.  They do get his two scout comrades, but Holden makes it to Fort Pitt in western Pennsylvania.

There he finds the garrison is both depleted and reluctant to believe him.  He also finds Abby working in Bone’s tavern, and he abducts her to use as bait for Garth.  At a ball, Holden manages to challenge Garth to a duel, but Garth and Bone make off with Abby to the camp of Guyasuta (Boris Karloff), chief of the western Senecas and Garth’s father-in-law.  They leave Abby with Guyasuta, but his warriors and women begin to torture her.  Holden finds her and uses apparent magic (gunpowder explosions, a compass) get her released.  Pursued by Guyasuta’s warriors, they head downriver in a canoe, shooting rapids and going over a waterfall where Holden arranges a wildly improbable grab of a conveniently overhanging tree branch just in time.

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Abby (Paulette Goddard) and Holden (Gary Cooper) head for the falls.

As they make their way to the fort at Venango, Holden and Abby find evidence of Indian raids and slaughtered settlers.  At Venango, evidence suggests that the fort surrendered when given promises of mercy but the inhabitants were slaughtered by the Indians anyway.  However, the garrison at Fort Pitt refuses to believe them, and Holden is court-martialed and imprisoned.  Abby promises Garth she’ll stay with him if he’ll arrange for Holden’s escape.  He does, but also arranges for sharpshooters to ambush Holden during the escape.  Garth’s spurned Seneca wife Hannah (Katherine DeMille, Cecil’s daughter) re-directs Holden but is shot herself.

Holden makes it to Col Henry Bouquet at Bushy Run looking for reinforcements for Fort Pitt, but finds Bouquet’s ranks depleted, too.  He arranges to borrow Bouquet’s drummers and pipers and a hundred dead men, using them to feign a relief column to chase off the Senecas now besieging Fort Pitt just as Fort Pitt is on the verge of surrendering as Venango did.  As Garth and Bone try to escape with Abby, Holden catches them in a stable and finally shoots it out with Garth.

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Holden (Gary Cooper) has it out with Garth (Howard Da Silva), as Bone (Mike Mazurki) and Abby (Paulette Goddard) look on.

Although this is watchable, it has a few elements that don’t work well with modern audiences.  The color cinematography by Ray Rennahan is excellent.  The heavy-handed introductory narration and the dialogue can be clunky, and the Indians are mostly evil stereotypes, as one might guess from the casting of Karloff.  Some critics at the time referred to this as “The Perils of Paulette,” because of the way she seems to move from crisis to crisis.  The production design is good; DeMille gets the uniforms, forts and firearms right.  Cooper and Goddard are both a little old for their roles, but they work well enough.  Goddard had several fights with DeMille during filming, and he would never cast her again in one of his movies.  Her accent in this film is decidedly not English.  This was also the last of Cooper’s four films with DeMille.  Howard Da Silva makes an excellent villain.  In his memoirs, DeMille said that he was not completely satisfied with the ending and thought it needed to be stronger.

By this time, Cecil B. DeMille had been making westerns for more than thirty years, since The Squaw Man in 1914, the first feature-length movie of any kind.  This was his last western, but not his best.  Both The Plainsman (1936) and Union Pacific (1941) are watched more than North West Mounted Police (1940) and this.  Unconquered was based on Neil Swanson’s novel The Judas Tree; he also wrote Allegheny Uprising, another colonial-period western starring John Wayne and Clair Trevor.  The river scenes were shot on the Snake River in Idaho, and look very good.  Iron Eyes Cody is both in the cast and listed as an Indian language consultant, but we now know that Cody, despite making a career as a cinematic, advertising and television Indian, was in fact the son of Sicilian immigrants.

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Guyasuta (Boris Karloff) with daughter Hannah (Katherine DeMIlle); and Cecil B. DeMille directs Paulette Goddard in her bath scene.

Although Pontiac never actually shows up in this film, the traditional historical work on his wars is Francis Parkman’s The Conspiracy of Pontiac, first published in 1851 but still readable.  Guyasuta was not the unrelievedly evil character depicted here although he consistently opposed the expansion of American settlement in the Ohio country.  For a recent biography see Brady Crytzer’s Guyasuta and the Fall of Indian America (2013), which not only describes his role in Braddock’s defeat, Pontiac’s uprising and the Battle of Bushy Run as mentioned in this film, but takes him all the way up through the American Revolution and the Battle of Oriskany (see Drums Along the Mohawk) to his participation in the Indian defeat at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 by Mad Anthony Wayne.  For a description of the situation on the American frontier in 1763, see Colin Callaway’s The Scratch of a Pen: 1763 and the Transformation of North America (2006).

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North West Mounted Police

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 27, 2014

North West Mounted Police—Gary Cooper, Robert Preston, Madeleine Carroll, Paulette Goddard, Preston Foster, Lynne Overman, George Bancroft, Montagu Love, Akim Tamiroff, Robert Ryan, Lon Chaney, Jr., Wallace Reid, Jr. (1940; Dir: Cecil B. DeMille)

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This is a typical Cecil DeMille production for its time, with a large cast and shot in Technicolor at a time (1940) when that was still rare for westerns. Gary Cooper stars in the second of his three DeMille westerns. The first was The Plainsman (1936), and the third would be Unconquered (1947), set in colonial times. Cooper was a big star, and, although he initially made much of his reputation in westerns, he only made a handful of them in the 1940s. (See The Westerner, 1940, and the western comedy Along Came Jones, 1945.)

It is 1885, and the Second Riel Rebellion is brewing among the mixed-ancestry Metís (pronounced “meet-us” in this movie) people of Saskatchewan in Canada. Louis Riel (Francis McDonald) is retrieved from Montana, where he has been teaching school, by Dan Duroc (Akim Tamiroff) and Jacques Corbeau (George Bancroft, who had played the good-hearted sheriff in Stagecoach the previous year).  Riel has reservations about any association with the rough Corbeau, who has a history of running liquor and guns to the Indians, but Duroc persuades him to go along because Corbeau has a gatling gun which will equalize things with the Queen’s forces.

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Ronnie Logan (Robert Preston) and the fiery Louvette (Paulette Goddard).

Two red-coated Mounties, Sgt. Jim Brett (Preston Foster) and Ronnie Logan (Robert Preston) discover in Batoche, the Metís capital, that the rebellion has reached dangerous proportions, with Big Bear’s Crees on the verge of joining the Metís. Romantic interests are established for both of them, Logan with Metís maiden Louvette Corbeau (daughter of Jacques Corbeau, played by Paulette Goddard as kind of a dark-skinned, blue-eyed Gypsy) and Brett with Logan’s sister April Logan (Madeleine Carroll), a selfless nurse among the Metís in Batoche.  She doesn’t seem convinced that Brett’s for her.

Into this cauldron of brewing rebellion and budding romance rides a Texas Ranger, Dusty Rivers (Gary Cooper), who is looking to arrest Corbeau for a murder in Texas.  He is received dubiously at Fort Carlton, especially by Sgt. Brett, when he develops an immediate attraction to April Logan. Brett goes off to persuade Big Bear to remain allied to the Queen, but when Corbeau promises to bring him red coats covered with blood, Big Bear gives him three days to do that before he will join the rebellion.

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Sgt. Brett (Preston Foster) negotiates with the Crees for Rivers (Gary Cooper) and a Scottish scout (Lynne Overman).

Ronnie Logan and another Mountie are sent off to remote guard duty at Duck Lake.  When April hears of the seriousness of the rebellion, she sends Louvette Corbeau to warn Ronnie.  Instead of warning him, she lures him into a situation where she can take him prisoner.  In his absence, a column of Mounties are mostly massacred at Duck Lake, including the commander (played by Montagu Love).  His dying command to Brett is that he get Ronnie and make him pay for his desertion.

While Sgt. Brett takes command of the few surviving Mounties left at Fort Carlton, heading on an apparent suicide mission to Big Bear, Rivers helps April flee the burning fort and heads for Batoche, where he distracts the defenders by cutting their canoes loose and destroying the gatling gun.  He helps Ronnie escape the clutches of Louvette, only to see him cut down by an Indian assassin hired by Louvette to get Rivers.

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Rivers liberates Ronnie Logan from his scheming captor Louvette;  River woos nurse April Logan (Madeleine Carroll).

At Big Bear’s camp, Brett is improbably successful at retrieving the Crees’ loyalty and the rebellion seems to be over, with Duroc dead and Riel and Corbeau captured.  A Mountie tribunal is on the verge of convicting Ronnie of desertion, until Rivers comes in and attributes to Ronnie his own efforts in destroying the gatling gun at Batoche, saving Ronnie’s reputation.  At the end, he abducts Corbeau to take him back to Texas, but as he leaves with his prisoner, Brett and April find him and announce that April is marrying Brett.  But Brett allows Rivers to take Corbeau and leaves Rivers’ version of Ronnie’s heroism to stand even though he suspects otherwise.

Joel McCrea had starred for DeMille in Union Pacific in 1939 and was the first choice to play Rivers.  But he dropped out to do Alfred Hitcock’s Foreign Correspondent and was about to be cast in two Preston Sturges films (all included in the best work of his career), so the role went to Gary Cooper.  English actress Madeleine Carroll had made her reputation working with Alfred Hitchcock as the first of his cool blondes (The 39 Steps, Secret Agent) and in costume dramas (Prisoner of Zenda, Lloyd’s of London).  By 1938 she was said to be the highest-paid actress in Hollywood.   After her sister Marguerite was killed in a London bombing raid, she spent the rest of the war as a field nurse and in other war efforts.   She became a U.S. citizen in 1943, but her career never revived after the war.  At this stage of his career, Robert Preston often played the friend or brother who went bad (Union Pacific, Blood on the Moon, Whispering Smith), and his character usually died because of that.  Several young actors, including Robert Ryan, Lon Chaney, Jr., Regis Toomey, Rod Cameron and Wallace Reid, Jr. (son of a silent star who died of drug addiction) play young Mounties or Indians.

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DeMille directs Carroll and Cooper as they flee Fort Carlton in a canoe.

One of the screenwriters here is Alan LeMay, author of the novel The Searchers was based on.  But the dialogue is clunky, and Cooper’s, in particular, is excessively of the aw-shucks homespun variety.  Between that and his character’s too-precious name, it’s not one of his more successful performances.  He could play frontier characters naturally and was doing so convincingly at this time in his career (playing western in The Westerner the same year, and playing Appalachian backwoods in Sergeant York, for which he won the Best Actor Oscar the following year), but it doesn’t work well here.  Neither the abrupt end of the rebellion nor the abrupt change of heart by April Logan are entirely convincing, either.  After the opening scene, Riel largely disappears, and we never discover why he’s essential to the rebellion.  He certainly has little charisma as depicted here.

This is one of the fifty movies listed in The Fifty Worst Films of All Time (and How They Got That Way) by Harry Medved and Randy Lowell (1978).  It’s not that epically bad, but is it worth watching? It is if you are interested in either Cooper or DeMille, not to mention the beautiful Carroll.  For another (and better) story of an American gone north, see Gunless (2010).  For another story of Mounties and Indians, see Raoul Walsh’s Saskatchewan with Alan Ladd (1954).  If you’re interested in the background of Canada’s Second Riel Rebellion, see Strange Empire by Joseph Kinsey Howard (first published in 1952).

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In color, at 126 minutes.  Shot principally around Big Bear Lake in California, San Bernardino National Forest.  The movie won an Oscar for Best Editing.

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Union Pacific

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 15, 2013

Union Pacific—Joel McCrea, Robert Preston, Brian Donlevy, Barbara Stanwyck (1939; Dir:  Cecil B. Demille)

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In the movies’ greatest year, we had this rare western by one of the cinema’s greatest showmen.  It obviously had a big budget, being made in the DeMille style, and was promoted very expensively.  As well as being a great year for movies generally, 1939 was also a good year for westerns, with this, Dodge City, Stagecoach, Destry Rides Again, Frontier Marshal and the misbegotten curiosity The Oklahoma Kid.

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Joel McCrea, a bigger star than John Wayne at the time, is Jeff Butler, a troubleshooter for the Union Pacific Railroad at the End of Track, wearing two guns with pistol butts facing forward.  His childhood and Civil War friend is Dick Allen (Robert Preston, charming in his first big part), now in the process of drifting over to the dark side for a big score.  They are both romantically interested in Molly Monahan, played with a painfully thick Irish brogue by Barbara Stanwyck.  Brian Donlevy, as one would expect, is the principal villain as Sid Campeau, the slimy saloon owner who corrupts Allen.  (See a young Anthony Quinn briefly as a sleazy gambler and Campeau confederate Jack Cordray, who tries to shoot Butler in the back.  The screen’s original Tarzan, Elmo Lincoln, is said to be an uncredited player in this, too.)

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Its overarching story is the driving of the Union Pacific railroad line westward after the Civil War to meet the Central Pacific, overcoming all obstacles:  outlaws, Indians, snow, unmet payrolls and unfriendly mountain terrain.  The golden spike used in the meeting-of-the-lines scene is the real spike from 1869, borrowed from Stanford University.  McCrea and Preston are very good in this, Stanwyck a little less so, although that may not be her fault with her part written so faux-Irish.  Butler ultimately values his friendship with Allen and is able to escape hanging his friend, even when it becomes obvious that Allen has been involved in train robberies.  As one would expect, Allen redeems himself as he dies at the end.  At this stage of his career, Preston seemed to specialize in this kind of a role–the friend who goes bad (see Whispering Smith and Blood on the Moon, for example).

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There’s a fair amount of spectacle here, with two train crashes (one caused by Indians, one caused by snow) and a major Indian attack, in addition to the nefarious outlaws.  It’s in black and white, but so were most movies in 1939, especially westerns.  (The exception:  see Dodge City, below.)  Compare this with the later (1941) technological western and winning-of-the-west epic Western Union, featuring Randolph Scott as the conflicted lead who has to sort out his loyalties while (a) being tempted by the dark side and (b) playing off straight arrow Robert Young.  Both movies are quite watchable.

DeMille didn’t make many westerns, but some would say that he invented the feature-length western with The Squaw Man in 1914.  By 1939, he’d been making movies for more than 25 years already.

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The Plainsman

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 14, 2013

The Plainsman—Gary Cooper, Jean Arthur, James Ellison, Charles Bickford, Helen Burgess, Porter Hall (1936; Dir:  Cecil B. DeMille)

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In Belgium, Hickok wasn’t even billed as the main character.

Two or three years later, and this large-scale western would have been made in color.  This may be Gary Cooper’s best pre-High Noon western, although many of his earliest efforts in the genre (The Winning of Barbara Worth, The Virginian, Wolf Song, The Spoilers, Fighting Caravans) can be hard to find now.  It is better than The Westerner, a 1940 version of the Judge Roy Bean story.  This and the 1936 version of Last of the Mohicans are probably the most watchable pre-1939 westerns of the 1930s.

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Cooper plays Will Bill Hickok, the long-haired plainsman of the title, although that could also be his friend Buffalo Bill Cody (James Ellison), newly married to easterner Louisa (Helen Burgess) as this film starts at the end of the Civil War.  The events between 1865 and Hickok’s death in 1876 are compressed seemingly into just a few months, and the movie is an overt exercise in myth-making.  Still, it can be fun to look for the actual history when it shows up.

Bill heads to Hays City, Kansas, where he finds miscreants led by Jim Lattimer (Charles Bickford) planning to sell surplus repeating rifles to the Sioux and Cheyennes.  Trying to prevent that, Bill gets into trouble both with the Indians and with Custer’s Seventh Cavalry (the historical Hickok did have run-ins with Custer’s brother Tom and other soldiers as a peace officer in Kansas in the late 1860s).  Meanwhile, Cody’s new wife Louisa tries to get him to settle down and start a hotel with her.  The third principal character is Calamity Jane (Jean Arthur, considerably more blond and much better-looking than the historical character), who has an ambiguous relationship with Bill but would obviously like to make it more romantic.

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After capture by Indians, a couple of battles and attempts by Custer to find and arrest him, Bill’s pursuit of the gun peddlers takes him to Deadwood, where he kills Lattimer and holds the rest of Lattimer’s gang for the army, until Jack McCall (Porter Hall) shoots him in the back, leaving a beautifully unmarked corpse.  Cody arrives with the Fifth Cavalry, Bill is posthumously exonerated of any wrongdoing and America goes on to conquer Indians, evildoers and the frontier generally.

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Two frontier Bills (Wild and Buffalo) holding off the Cheyennes under desperate circumstances.

Cooper plays one of the most attractive Hickoks on film, tall and lean with restrained humor and wearing two guns with butts facing forward (he’s convincingly good with them).  Arthur is quite good as well, although she looks very little like the historical Calamity Jane, and Ellison is adequate if a bit wooden in a good-looking way.  Director De Mille reportedly hated Ellison’s performance and wanted to ensure that Ellison never had as good a part in quite as good a film ever again.  If so, he was successful.  The historical Cody marriage was troubled, as this one starts out.  Young Anthony Quinn shows up toward the end of the movie as an unnamed Cheyenne.  

Jean Arthur began her career in silent movies, and she was in some very good movies in the 1930s and early 1940s.  But they were mostly in urban settings working with great directors–Frank Capra, Howard Hawks, George Stevens–in such films as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Only Angels Have Wings, The More the Merrier, etc.  She wasn’t bad in three westerns, though:  The Plainsman, Arizona (1940), and Shane (1953), her last movie.

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DeMille directs Ellison and Cooper in The Plainsman.

In black and white.  DeMille hired famous Indian photographer Edward S. Curtis to shoot some stills and film for this movie.

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