Tag Archives: Jacques Tourneur

Canyon Passage

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 12, 2015

Canyon Passage—Dana Andrews, Brian Donlevy, Susan Hayward, Patricia Roc, Ward Bond, Hoagy Carmichael, Lloyd Bridges, Andy Devine (1946; Dir: Jacques Tourneur)

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Dana Andrews is remembered these days primarily for such modern roles as he played in Laura (1944) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).  But he was also in several good westerns, such as The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), Three Hours to Kill (1954), Strange Lady in Town (1955)… and this one.

The movie opens in Portland, Oregon, in 1856.  Logan Stuart (Dana Andrews) is a freighter, running strings of pack mules from San Francisco to Portland.  While in Portland, he gets paid $7000 and arranges to take Lucy Overmire (Susan Hayward), fiancée of his friend George Camrose (Brian Donlevy), back to George in Jacksonville in southern Oregon.  He is also attacked by a robber, whom he thinks to be Honey Bragg (Ward Bond) and with whom he has unpleasant history.  The robbery is not successful, and the thief gets away.

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Lucy Overmire (Susan Hayward) and Logan Stuart (Dana Andrews) head south for Jacksonville.

On the way south to Jacksonville, they stop at the ranch of Ben Dance (Andy Devine) and his family, where Caroline Marsh (Patricia Roc) is staying.  Stuart is attracted to Caroline, but he seems also to have a relationship with Lucy.  At a cabin raising, he asks Caroline to marry him and she accepts, although she wants to stay put and is troubled that Logan is so footloose, constantly concentrating on expanding his freighting business.

Arriving at Jacksonville, Stuart fights Bragg and wins.  Lucy has been putting off setting a date for her marriage to George, but plans to go through with it after she goes to San Francisco with Logan to get a wedding dress.  Meanwhile, George is acting as a banker for miners in Jacksonville.  He has also been gambling and losing, and has been covering his losses by stealing from the gold deposited with him.  We see that George is also a man of restless affections, not limited to Lucy.  Eventually George stands accused of murdering one of his depositors for his gold, and Logan helps him escape before he can be hung.

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George Camrose (Brian Donlevy) finally persuades Lucy Overmire (Susan Hayward) to set the date for their wedding.

[Spoilers follow.]  As Logan and Lucy head south, they are attacked by Bragg.  They are unhurt, but their horses are killed, and they have to walk back to Jacksonville.  By that time the Jacksonville miners, led by Johnny Steele (Lloyd Bridges), have found and killed George in their absence.  After ambushing Logan, Bragg has also attacked an Indian woman, and now the Indians are torching farms and ranches in retaliation, including Ben Dance’s and Logan’s way stations and general store.  Dance is killed and the Indians are after Caroline Marsh, with Logan and the militia also in pursuit.  The Indians catch Bragg and take care of him, which seems to satisfy them for the moment.  Caroline decides she can’t marry Logan because he won’t settle down in one spot.  So Logan heads to San Francisco again to buy more mules to rebuild his operations.  And Lucy joins him.  They’re better suited to each other than Logan and Caroline were, anyway.

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A suspicious Johnny Steele (Lloyd Bridges) speaks for a band of vengeful miners.

Logan Stuart:  “There was a lot of good in George.”
Johnny Steele:  “He sure panned out no color.”
Logan Stuart:  “There’s a thin margin, Johnny, between what could be and what is.”
Johnny Steele:  “Yeah.  It was thin for you last night.  We were of a mind to hang you.”
Logan Stuart:  “You see how thin the margin is.”

Based on a story by Ernest Haycox, this is stuffed full of complicated and not-too-predictable plot and romantic triangles, densely populated with a good cast.  Dana Andrews plays Logan Stuart with the same stoic independence he did Det. Mark MacPherson in Laura.  Susan Hayward, an excellent and often fiery actress, has kind of a generically-written part that doesn’t really allow her to show what she can do.  She’s better in Rawhide [1951] and Garden of Evil [1954], both with meatier roles for her when she had become a bigger star.

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Ben Dance (Andy Devine) offers Caroline Marsh (Patricia Roc) a little avuncular advice.

Brian Donlevy didn’t always play villains (see him in Billy the Kid [1941] and Cowboy [1958], for example), but at this stage of his career he’s so identified with bad guys (the corrupt saloon owner Kent in Destry Rides Again and the sadistic Sgt. Markov in Beau Geste, as just two examples from 1939) that we don’t trust him from the start.  The role of George Camrose calls out instead for somebody like Robert Preston, who specialized during the 1940s in friend-gone-bad roles, in which he established himself as charming first.  Ward Bond also has one of his occasional bad guy roles (e.g., The Oklahoma Kid), and he’s very effective.  This has one of Andy Devine’s better roles, too, where he is not used simply as a form of comic relief.  Hoagy Carmichael plays Hi Linnett, supposedly a small merchant, but mostly there to provide musical interludes, as in To Have and Have Not, and to comment on the action.  Carmichael’s song “Ole Buttermilk Sky” got the movie’s only Oscar nomination.  Several of the film’s significant events happen off-camera:  Bragg’s attack on the Indian maiden, the killing of George by the miners’ mob, the killing of Ben Dance by Indians, etc.

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Hoagy Carmichael as minstrel Hi Linnet provides musical interludes, occasional commentary and the film’s only Oscar nomination.

Jacques Tourneur was a good director of westerns, although he wasn’t best known for them in the 1940s.  Later on in the 1950s, he made a few of them (Stars in My Crown, Wichita, etc.) with Joel McCrea.  Ernest Pascal adapted the Haycox story into a screenplay, with some crisp, sometimes even philosophical, dialogue.  Music, except for that provided by Carmichael, is by Frank Skinner.  This was filmed on location in Oregon in color (a rarity for westerns in 1946) by Edward Cronjager, so it must have had a significant budget for its time.  92 minutes.

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Logan Stuart’s mule train wends its way past Oregon’s Crater Lake.

The title doesn’t seem to mean much; there are no obvious canyons involved.  For other “passage” westerns, see Northwest Passage (1940), California Passage (1950), Passage West (1951), Desert Passage (1952) Southwest Passage (1954), Oregon Passage (1957) and Night Passage (1957), which are otherwise unrelated to this one or to each other.

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Wichita

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 2, 2015

Wichita—Joel McCrea, Vera Miles, Lloyd Bridges, Wallace Ford, Edgar Buchanan, Peter Graves, Keith Larsen Robert Wilke, Jack Elam, Walter Coy, Mae Clarke (1955; Dir: Jacques Tourneur)

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Director Jacques Tourneur is best remembered today for such 1940s fare as Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie (starring Frances Dee, Joel McCrea’s real life wife) and one of the very best films noirs, Out of the Past (1947), with Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas and Jane Greer.  In the 1950s he made several westerns with Joel McCrea, of which the best is probably Stars in My CrownWichita is one of those Tourneur-McCrea collaborations, a supposed retelling of the early pre-Dodge City part of Wyatt Earp’s career as a lawman.

The railroad has just been brought to Wichita, Kansas, by Sam McCoy (Walter Coy).  It’s starting to attract more cattle herds and those in search of new business opportunities, like young Wyatt Earp (played by not-so-young Joel McCrea).  He camps overnight with one of those herds, and two of their cowboys, the Clements brothers (one played by Lloyd Bridges), try unsuccessfully to rob him while he sleeps.  Foiling that, he moves on to the town, where he meets the local newspaper editor Arthur Whiteside (played as a typical heavy-drinking western newspaperman by Wallace Ford) and his young assistant Bat Masterson (Keith Larsen).  His first action in town is to break up a bank robbery, getting him lots of attention from the law-and-order part of the citizenry.

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When wild cowboys shoot up the town and kill a young boy, Wyatt accepts the marshal’s badge and starts to clean things up.  Not everybody is happy with that, including Sam McCoy, who’d like to see the town a little more open to promote business.  McCoy’s daughter Laurie (Vera Miles) is romantically interested in Wyatt, though.  Wyatt bans the wearing of guns in town.  Doc Black (Edgar Buchanan), the most corrupt of the town fathers, tries to hire a couple of slick-looking newcomers to kill Earp, but they turn out to be his brothers Morgan (Peter Graves) and James (John Smith).  When Wyatt runs Doc out of town, he seeks out the Clements brothers and engineers an attack on Wyatt as he leaves the McCoy house.  Instead of Wyatt, they kill McCoy’s wife Mary (Mae Clarke).  Giving chase, the Earp brothers kill one and capture another.

As gunman Ben Thompson (Robert Wilke) and the rest of the cowboys are about to try to get Wyatt, they reconsider as Doc Black’s role in the killings and trying to take down Wyatt is revealed.  Presumably Wyatt and Laurie can now get together, although of course that didn’t happen in real life.

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Laurie McCoy (Vera Miles) romances the new marshal (Joel McCrea).

In general, this is a pretty typical town-taming story.  Joel McCrea can play Wyatt Earp’s stern rectitude easily, but at 50 he’s too old for a young Wyatt, and too old for the lovely 27-year-old Vera Miles, who is fine but not very central to the story here.  Wallace Ford is also fine as hard-drinking newspaperman Arthur Whiteside, but we’ve seen this character before—notably Edmund O’Brien in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (also with Vera Miles, this time romanced by the too-old James Stewart and the too-old John Wayne), and even Thomas Mitchell’s Doc Boone in Stagecoach.  Edgar Buchanan does well as a villain, as he did in Texas (1941), with Glenn Ford and William Holden.  Robert Wilke and Jack Elam appear as bad guys, and the rest of the supporting cast is good.  You might even see future director Sam Peckinpah in an uncredited appearance as a bank teller.

So how do these goings-on relate to the actual Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson?  In real life, Wyatt Earp’s first law enforcement job was for a year in Wichita in the late 1870s, where he was deputy sheriff, not the main man.  He was 28 at the time.  Although Bat Masterson finished his career as a New York sportswriter, at this early stage he’d met Wyatt Earp when they were both hunting buffalo.  Wyatt didn’t take up any long-term romantic relationships in Wichita.  His brother James never did much in the law enforcement business, unlike Morgan and especially Virgil.  All in all, this isn’t very accurate historically.

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But it is worth watching, if not the most memorable of Joel McCrea’s westerns.  McCrea was a good actor, and in the late 1930s and early 1940s was a bigger star than John Wayne.  Like Gary Cooper, even if he’s too old for the role, he’s watchable.  This movie makes him the only star to play both Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson (The Gunfight at Dodge City, 1959).

The title song, sung by Tex Ritter, is forgettable.  Shot in color, at 81 minutes.

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Stars in My Crown

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 16, 2014

Stars In My Crown—Joel McCrea, Ellen Drew, Dean Stockwell, Lewis Stone, James Mitchell, Juano Hernandez, Charles Kemper, Arthur Hunnicutt (1950; Dir:  Jacques Tourneur)

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This is a slice-of-small-town-Americana film, with a dose of traditional religion thrown in, as one might guess from the title, which is also the title of an old-time hymn.  Josiah Dozier Gray (Joel McCrea in his most overtly decent moral-guy mode) is a Civil War veteran and a preacher in Walesburg, Tennessee, a town that is afflicted by lack of a church, and subsequently by typhoid, racial bigotry and a young doctor who doesn’t believe in God.  When Gray first shows up in town, he gives his first sermon in a saloon, using his guns to quiet the unruly non-church-going crowd.  The town builds a church, and Josiah settles in and marries Harriet (Ellen Drew).  They take in her orphaned nephew John Kenyon (Dean Stockwell) to raise, and from time to time it’s John’s adult voice that narrates the film (with the voice of Marshall Thompson).

StarsCrownPreachSaloonPreaching in the saloon.

Life happens in Walesburg.  Beloved and crusty old Doc Harris (Lewis Stone) dies, and his place is taken by his son young Doc Harris (James Mitchell), who believes in science, not religion.  He doesn’t fit in well and wants to move to a larger city, but he also wants to marry the school teacher Faith Radmore Samuels (Amanda Blake, with a symbolically named character).  Faith doesn’t want to leave Walesburg and postpones responding to young Doc’s proposal of marriage.

John comes down with typhoid, and young Doc warns Josiah to stay away from people to avoid passing on the contagion.  He doesn’t listen, and the disease spreads.  John recovers, but it looks like teacher Faith won’t.  Josiah feels guilty that he didn’t do what Doc said, even though they both know the disease is water-borne, and he withdraws from the town and from his preaching, questioning his faith and his role in the community.  When Faith is dying (both literally and figuratively), young Doc sends at last for Josiah.  When she doesn’t die, Josiah and young Doc are reconciled; young Doc Harris has regained his Faith, and Josiah regains his faith as well.  John figures out that it was the schoolhouse well that spread the disease, and Josiah is vindicated.

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Uncle Famous (Juano Hernandez) at his cabin after the place has been trashed; Gray faces down the nightriders armed with only his moral authority and his wits.

An old black former slave, Uncle Famous Prill (Juano Hernandez), is targeted by white-sheeted night riders, who plan to hang him when he won’t leave.  The old Josiah would have used his guns, but now he faces down the night riders armed only with his moral authority and a little guile.  The Isbell family, led by patriarch (and old war friend of Gray) Jed Isbell (Alan Hale, Sr.) with several sons, backs him up, silently and unknown to Josiah, with guns.  But they too, even as non-church-goers, are impressed with the parson’s moral authority.  As the movie ends, the entire Isbell clan shows up at church at last.

In one of the movie’s better lines, after Gray has read Uncle Famous’ will to the nightriders and shamed them into leaving, the two-page document  falls to the ground, and John picks it up.  Seeing two blank pieces of paper, he says, “There’s no will here!”  “Sure there is, son,” responds Josiah.  “It’s the will of God.”  Not everybody could make that work, but McCrea handles its weight effortlessly with a mix of natural authority and humor.

By the end of the movie all has been conquered (including the preacher’s own doubts in himself), and the preacher and the young doctor have come to a certain appreciation of each other.  Joel McCrea is perfectly cast as parson Josiah Dozier Gray, and he said on at least one occasion that this was his personal favorite among his movies.  And in a long career, he was in some very good ones, working with such directors as Alfred Hitchcock, Preston Sturges, George Stevens, Cecil B. DeMille and Sam Peckinpah.  Ellen Drew is good as his supportive wife, and Dean Stockwell was at his peak as a child actor.  Stockwell and McCrea would appear together again in Cattle Drive (1951) the next year.  The supporting cast is very strong, with some very good character actors—Alan Hale, Arthur Hunnicutt, Juano Hernandez, Charles Kemper (as Professor Sam Houston Jones, a genial medicine show proprietor), and Ed Begley.  Perhaps the weakest performance is by James Mitchell as young Doc Harris, and he’s not bad.

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The preacher and his family:  McCrea, Stockwell and Drew.

The pacing in the film is slightly leisurely at only 89 minutes, but it matches well with the subject matter, giving relationships and issues time to develop.  If anything, it could be a bit longer.  French director Jacques Tourneur (Out of the Past, perhaps the greatest film noir ever made, and the gothic classic Cat People) was at the peak of his game.  He and McCrea would make a couple more westerns together, although they’re not as good as this one:  Stranger on Horseback (1955, with McCrea as a circuit-riding judge) and Wichita (also 1955, with McCrea as Wyatt Earp).  As with McCrea, this was said to be Tourneur’s favorite of all his films.  The titular hymn “Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown?” works well in this film, as do “Beulah Land” and “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” near the end.  It’s good to hear those instead of the over-used “Shall We Gather at the River” (John Ford’s favorite for such films) although there are some strains of that one, too.  It’s based on a novel by Joe David Brown, shot in black and white.  It’s an underappreciated gem in its quiet way, a forerunner of such more celebrated films as To Kill a Mockingbird.

The film was respectably profitable in its time although not a blockbuster, making about $225,000 in profit.  By some definitions, this may not actually be a western, since there are no Indians and the town seems somewhat established if not large.  Much of Tennessee was rural, but not exactly western after the Civil War.  But it has Joel McCrea, guns and cowboy hats in the 19th century.  This was apparently Alan Hale’s last movie.  James Arness (uncredited, as the oldest of the Isbell sons) and Amanda Blake, yet to star in television’s Gunsmoke, are bit players in this one.  It has been available in remastered form on DVD since 2011.

 

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