Tag Archives: Western Epics

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)

Cimarron1960PosterCimarron1960Poster3

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.

Cimarron1960Sooners

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.

Cimarron1960Lynching

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.

Cimarron1960Guvnor

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.

Cimarron1960MannDirectingCimarron1960WGun

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.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

How the West Was Won

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 11, 2014

How the West Was Won–James Stewart, Richard Widmark, John Wayne, Gregory Peck, Debbie Reynolds, George Peppard, Robert Preston, Henry Fonda, Walter Brennan (1962; Dir:  Henry Hathaway, John Ford, George Marshall)

NY Times, by Dave Kehr, Sept. 8, 2008.  Written on the occasion of the release of the restored version of the movie on DVD.

WestWonPoster WestWonPoster2

The first Cinerama features were travelogues, transporting 1950s spectators to parts of the world most would never see.  (Many of the earliest Edison and Lumière films, at the turn of the 20th century, fulfilled a similar function.)  Released in the United States in 1963, How the West Was Won would be the first — and, as it turned out, the last — narrative film to be shot in the three-strip Cinerama process.

In a sense the film’s guiding aesthetic is still that of the travelogue, but instead of visiting various scenic locations, it makes brief stops at most of the symbolic locations of the western genre, from the embarkation points of the Erie Canal to the California mountains of the Gold Rush.

The script, by James R. Webb (Vera Cruz), does its best to touch all the thematic bases of the genre too:  the male characters include a mountain man (James Stewart) and a river pirate (Walter Brennan); a wagon master (Robert Preston) and a riverboat gambler (Gregory Peck); a builder of railroads (Richard Widmark) and a frontier marshal (George Peppard).  The main female characters are even more broadly archetypal: a pair of sisters, portentously named Lilith (Debbie Reynolds, who becomes a saloon singer and budding capitalist) and Eve (Carroll Baker, who stakes out a farm on a Mississippi riverbank and mothers two boys).

WestWonStewartIndians

As a dramatic narrative How the West Was Won doesn’t work all that well.  Few of the characters are on screen long enough to establish identities beyond those of the stars who play them.  Most of the episodes are thinly developed, and over all the film has a jerky, stop-and-start rhythm, perhaps because it is the work of three different directors.

Henry Hathaway (True Grit) reportedly was in charge of the project and directed three episodes (“The Rivers,” “The Plains” and “The Outlaws”).  John Ford directed one (“The Civil War”), and George Marshall another (“The Railroad,” although Hathaway later said he had to reshoot much of Marshall’s material).

Instead this is a movie of visual epiphanies, ingeniously realized in the face of crippling stylistic challenges.  The Cinerama camera — an 800-pound behemoth that resembled a steel-girded jukebox — could move forward and backward with ease and elegance, resulting in some of the most impressive moments in the film (like the long tracking shot through a river town that opens “The Rivers”).  But it couldn’t pan from side to side without creating registration problems, and close-ups were all but impossible to achieve with the system’s short 27-millimeter lenses.

Moreover, characters couldn’t move freely across the wide screen, because crossing the two join lines — where the images overlapped — would create a distracting jump, and the action (beyond the broad movements of rushing trains or stampeding buffalo) had to be restricted to the center of the screen.

WestWonStage

Hathaway and Marshall are resourceful and craftsmanlike in dealing with these limitations, finding ways to position the actors so that the join lines are hidden, or filling the unused space beyond the center frame with vertiginously detailed landscapes that fall off into infinite distance.

But it is John Ford who rises to the challenge most poetically, chiefly by ignoring it.  “The Civil War” is an exquisite miniature (unfortunately padded out by some battle sequences lifted from Raintree County, an earlier MGM Civil War film) that consists of only three scenes: a mother (Ms. Baker) sends a son (Peppard) off to war; the son has a horrible experience as night falls on the battlefield of Shiloh; the son returns and finds that his mother has died.  The structure has a musical alternation: day, night, day; exterior, interior, exterior; stillness, movement, stillness.

WestWonTrain

In the first and last scenes the famous Fordian horizon line extends the entire length of the extra-wide Cinerama frame.  In the aftermath of the battle the horizon line disappears in darkened studio sets.  The sense of the sequence is profoundly antiwar — Generals Sherman and Grant, played by John Wayne and Henry Morgan, briefly appear as a couple of disheveled, self-pitying drunks — and it gradually becomes apparent that the elderly Ford is revisiting one of his early important works, the 1928 drama Four Sons.

The expressionistic middle sequence, with its studio-built swamp, refers to F. W. Murnau, whose Sunrise was one of the great influences on the young Ford, while the open-air sequences that bracket it, with their unmoving camera, long-shot compositions and rootedness in the rural landscape, recall the work of the American pioneer D. W. Griffith.

When, in the final panel of Ford’s triptych, a gust of wind tousles Peppard’s hair in the foreground and then continues across to the forest in the middle distance and on to the stand of trees in the most distant background, it seems like a true miracle of the movies: a breath of life, moving over the face of the earth.  No less formidable a filmmaker than Jean-Marie Straub has called “The Civil War” John Ford’s masterpiece; for the first time, thanks to this magnificent new edition, I think I know what he’s talking about. Birth, death, rebirth.

WestWonCivilWarPoster

Note:  This epic of the west is long, at 164 minutes.  Voice-over narration is by Spencer Tracy.  Music was by Alfred Newman.  In addition to this piece, Dave Kehr was the writer of a 2005 documentary on director Budd Boetticher entitled Budd Boetticher:  A Man Can Do That.  After fourteen years of writing a column for the New York Times on new DVD releases, of which this was one, he now works as a film curator for the MoMA in New York.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

The Big Country

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 25, 2014

The Big Country—Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, Jean Simmons, Burl Ives, Carroll Baker, Charles Bickford, Chuck Connors, Alfonso Bedoya (1958; Dir:  William Wyler)

BigCountryPosterBigCountryJap

The Big Country is a self-consciously big movie, an epic sprawling family saga with a big, top-flight cast full of alpha males and a long running time, at 165 minutes.  William Wyler had inherited Cecil B. Demille’s spot as the master of the large-scale film, and this one was between The Friendly Persuasion (a Civil War movie, said to be Ronald Reagan’s favorite film) and the even more epic Ben-Hur.  Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston and Jean Simmons were at the peaks of their careers.  At the time of its release, President Dwight D. Eisenhower (who was known to relax by reading pulp western novels) gave the movie four consecutive showings at the White House and called it “simply the best film ever made.  My number one favorite film.”

Jim McKay (Gregory Peck) is the scion of a family with a seafaring empire and has himself been a successful sea captain.  His father was given to dueling, and was killed in a final duel ten years previously, leaving McKay with a distaste for meaningless violence.  He has met young Patricia Terrill (Carroll Baker) in Baltimore, where she has been in school, and they became engaged.  He has come to the Terrill estate in Texas for the marriage.  So a familiar western plot emerges:  the easterner comes west, and the tenderfoot is educated in the ways of the west.  But in this case, the easterner is already competent in the world of men and does not automatically buy in to the supposed code of the west.

BigCountryBlessing

Major Terrill (the cranky Charles Bickford) gives the young couple his blessing.

In town, Jim is introduced to Pat’s friend Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons), the local schoolmarm, granddaughter of one of the first ranchers in the area (now deceased), and owner of a neglected ranch with the best water source in the area, the Big Muddy.  Heading for the Terrill Ranch, McKay is hoorahed, roped and dragged by drunk cowboys led by Buck Hannassey (Chuck Connors, clearly playing a bad guy).  When McKay is rescued by Terrill foreman Steve Leech (Charlton Heston), Pat is deeply humiliated that McKay didn’t stand up to the Hannasseys.  McKay has found himself in the middle of a long-term feud between Major Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford) and the patriarch of the lower-class Hannasseys, Rufus (Burl Ives), both of whom want the water of the Big Muddy.

Leech is the closest thing Terrill has as a son, and he clearly doesn’t think McKay is worthy of the Terrill daughter.  In one of the traditional tropes of a western like this, Leech has the cowboys saddle up Old Thunder, a beautiful but apparently unridable appaloosa, for the tenderfoot, but McKay declines the set-up.  Major Terrill leads a group of twenty of his riders in shooting up the Hannassey place in Blanco Canyon and beating up three of the riders involved in the McKay incident while Buck hides in a wagon.  While everybody is gone, McKay does in fact ride Old Thunder with only vaquero Ramon Guiteras (Alfonso Bedoya) to see.

At a Terrill party to celebrate the engagement of McKay and Patricia, Rufus Hannassey invades the festivities to issue a challenge to the Major.  McKay takes off on a multi-day ride around the country, and everybody assumes he is lost in the vastness of the ranch and its surroundings.  In fact, he can navigate fine with the help of his compass, and he encounters Julie again at her ranch.  She says she’d like to get rid of it, and McKay buys it from her, adding the promise that both Terrills and Hannasseys can use the water of the Big Muddy.

BigCountryBigMuddy

McKay (Gregory Peck) and Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons) at the Big Muddy.

Terrill riders led by Leech finally encounter McKay, and tempers are at the boiling point.  McKay declines to fight Leech, and again Pat is humiliated.  McKay decides he has to leave, but before he does he visits Leech privately and they batter each other inconclusively at length.  Major Terrill and Rufus Hannassey come to the conclusion they have to decide matters between them as well.  Terrill gathers a force of riders, and Hannassey arranges his defenses in Blanco Canyon and sends Buck to bring back Julie Maragon.

Patricia Terrill:  “But if he loved me, why would he let me think he was a coward?”

Julie Maragon:  “If you love him, why would you think it?  How many times does a man have to win you?”

BigCountryHeston

Steve Leech (Charlton Heston) at the battle of Blanco Canyon.

The abduction of Julie is ostensibly the reason for Terrill to ride against the Hannasseys.  Rufus sees that Julie despises Buck, and she tells him that she’s sold the Big Muddy to McKay.  Buck attacks Julie until he is pulled off by his disgusted father.  McKay also hears of the abduction and takes off for Blanco Canyon with Ramon.  He arrives and doesn’t believe Julie when she says she’s there of her own choice.  Rufus figures the matter should be decided in gentlemanly fashion, using McKay’s father’s pistols in an old-fashioned duel.  As they pace off and turn, Buck fires prematurely, demonstrating his cowardice again.  McKay fires into the ground.  As McKay turns away, Buck grabs a gun from a cowboy, takes aim at McKay’s back and is shot down by Rufus, who can’t countenance such dishonor.

Meanwhile, Leech has tried to talk Terrill out of the attack on Hannassey.  Terrill doesn’t listen, and the Terrill riders are trapped in the canyon.  As McKay and Julie ride out of Blanco Canyon with Ramon and Rufus, the Terrill and Hannassey patriarchs face off.  We don’t see exactly the results, but the suggestion is that both are killed.  Presumably McKay and Julie live happily ever after at the Big Muddy, and Leech marries the spoiled Pat and continues to run the Terrill spread.

BigCountryDuel

Jim McKay (Gregory Peck) faces off against the scurrilous Buck Hannassey (not shown).

The dominant performances are by Peck, who had a producing role, and Burl Ives, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for chewing the scenery while wearing huge false eyebrows.  Those characters are the most interesting in the film, and they make it move.  Charlton Heston was at his epic peak, between his roles as Moses in The Ten Commandments and Judah Ben-Hur in Ben-Hur, as well as starring in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil.  But he accepted a supporting role and fourth billing in order to work with director Wyler.  It turned out to be a good career move, since Wyler directed him in Ben-Hur, too.  He was big and in great shape, as we can see from a couple of scenes in which he’s shirtless.  (Gregory Peck has no similarly shirtless scenes.)

BigCountryHannasseys

Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives) and rotten son Buck (Chuck Connors).

The weakest point in the cast is Carroll Baker, a hot screen commodity since her performance in Baby Doll, but she’s a little light here.  There is no screen chemistry between her and Peck from the start: it is immediately obvious that Jean Simmons would be a better match.  Charles Bickford is fine, if a little stiff, as he’s supposed to be.  This was the last film for Alfonso Bedoya, who is surprisingly effective as Ramon the vaquero.

The elements of this film are top-flight as well.  The cinematography by Franz Planer conveys that it is, in fact, a big country, although most of it was shot in California, not Texas.  Several writers are credited, including Jessamyn West (well-known in her time, with whom Wyler had worked on The Friendly Persuasion) and Robert Wyler, the director’s older brother.  The memorable music is by Jerome Moross, who received his only Oscar nomination for this film score.

One difficulty was in the script; seven writers were involved, including novelist Leon Uris (Exodus, Battle Cry), but shooting began without all the bugs ironed out.  According to Gregory Peck, “After seven writers, I don’t think either of us [Peck or Wyler] was completely satisfied with the script.  But by this time, we had made expensive commitments with an all-star cast and a cameraman.  We had financing from United Artists.  So we got ourselves painted into a corner, where we were obliged to go ahead with a script that neither of us were fully satisfied with.”

BigCountryCast

On the set: the cast with director William Wyler.

Shooting the movie was not without its problems.  Tempers flared on the set between numerous individuals, particularly between director Wyler and Charles Bickford, who had fought on the set of Hell’s Heroes (1930) decades earlier and were continuing their antagonism.  Wyler liked to shoot numerous retakes and Bickford was very cranky, often refusing to say a line he didn’t like or to vary his performance no matter how many takes he was forced to deliver.  According to Charlton Heston, “Charlie Bickford was a fairly cantankerous old son of a bitch.”  Jean Simmons was so traumatized by the experience that she refused to talk about it for years until an interview in the late 1980s when she revealed, “We’d have our lines learned, then receive a rewrite, stay up all night learning the new version, then receive yet another rewrite the following morning.  It made the acting damned near impossible.”  The experience also also touched off bad feelings between Gregory Peck and Wyler, who made up a couple of years later.

Burl Ives in effect reprises his Rufus Hannassey character in the much smaller Day of the Outlaw, made about the same time with Robert Ryan.  Ives got on well with Wyler, unlike some of the others.  That year he was also getting rave reviews for his work as Big Daddy in the film version of Tennesse Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin RoofGregory Peck and Charlton Heston are good in several other westerns.  And Jean Simmons shows up ten years later in Rough Night in Jericho.

BigCountrySpanBigCountryGerm

Director William Wyler was perhaps the most respected in the business by this time, or at least up there with John Ford.  Unlike Ford, Wyler didn’t make many westerns at this stage of his career, although he had started as a director making two-reel westerns in the 1920s.  During the 1930s and 1940s he had gone on to make such classics as Jezebel, Wuthering Heights, The Little Foxes, Mrs. Miniver and The Best Years of Our Lives.  He had made The Westerner with Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan in 1940.  He had done well with Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday earlier in the 1950s and would go on to do other successful large-scale movies like Ben-Hur and Funny Girl.  He was nominated for the Best Director Academy Award twelve times (the most ever–he was the Meryl Streep of directors), and he won three times.  He directed more Oscar-nominated performances than any other director (36), of which fourteen won.  No wonder actors wanted to work with him, even if he required so many takes.

The film was a modest, but not a universal, success in its time.  An expensive production, it barely made it into the black financially.  It was 11th at the box office for 1958.  As Gregory Peck put it:  “I suppose that any movie that grosses $9,500,000 can’t be classed as a failure. The exhibitors made money, the grips made money.  Everybody on the picture made money but me — the producer and star.”

If you were a film critic with a Marxist bent (Philip French of The Observer, say), you might see this sprawling film as an allegory of the cold war era, with the inconclusive fight between Peck and Heston demonstrating the futility of the macho ethos and the arms build-up of the 1950s and 1960s.

Make sure you have allotted enough time to watch this.  Wyler later admitted he should have cut the film more.  “Would I cut it today?  Yes, I would cut it.  I would probably cut 10 to 15 minutes out which would make you feel as though you cut half an hour out.”  The story occasionally seems to be developing at a leisurely pace, but it doesn’t drag.  At the end you may wonder if there’s really enough story here for all that time, but it works if you let it.  This is good enough that many consider it one of the great westerns, and it’s probably the best of its kind—the epic western family saga.  But for us, it’s on the line between great and near-great.  See what you think.  

 

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Duel in the Sun

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 7, 2014

Duel in the Sun—Gregory Peck, Joseph Cotten, Jennifer Jones, Lionel Barrymore, Lillian Gish, Walter Huston, Charles Bickford, Harry Carey, Butterfly McQueen (1947; Dir:  King Vidor)

DuelSunPosterDuelSunSpan

David O. Selznick’s sprawling and over-ripe western melodrama has not aged well in the more than sixty years since its release.  In some ways it seems even older than it is.  Social attitudes and movie tastes change, as this movie illustrates; and maybe the public just doesn’t have the taste for cinematic melodrama it once did.  Some of the fault lies in the overheated and clunky writing.  For a skilled director like King Vidor, the acting seems un-subtle, and there’s lots of old-fashioned violin music by Dimitri Tiomkin on the soundtrack.  Both Vidor and Tiomkin amply demonstrated elsewhere that they can do much better.  There are lightning and tempests in the background to emphasize how passions are out of control.  There’s opening narration in the weighty tones of Orson Welles.  The whole thing seems old-fashioned even for its time.  

At the movie’s heart are the two McCanles brothers, the heirs of the Spanish Bit Ranch, a huge Texas ranching empire owned by Senator Jackson McCanles (Lionel Barrymore).  The brothers are set against each other by mixed-race temptress Pearl Chavez (Jennifer Jones, who was in general more likely to play saints and nuns than half-Indian seductresses).  Lillian Gish is Laura Belle McCanles, the McCanles mother, who brings Pearl into the household initially.  For once, Gregory Peck plays the bad brother, the more macho but increasingly evil Lewt McCanles.  Senator McCanles is a more or less typical overbearing cattle baron who wants his own way, except that he never seems to have a very good grip on what he’s doing.  It’s not one of Barrymore’s better performances, although he could be an excellent character actor with better material and direction.

 DuelSunJones2gregory peck 1945 - by madison lacy

Lewt gets worse and worse through the movie, refusing to marry Pearl or let the decent Sam Pierce (Charles Bickford) marry her, either, after Lewt heartlessly has his way with her.  He causes a nasty and colorful train wreck worthy of Cecil B. DeMille (DeMille loved to film trains crashing).  The Senator chases good son Jesse McCanles (Joseph Cotten, never entirely comfortable in westerns) away to Austin, where he gets engaged to a railroad heiress.  Finally, Lewt shoots Jesse down in cold blood, and, when it looks like Jesse will survive, Pearl decides she has to shoot Lewt or he’ll eventually be successful in his attempts to kill his good brother.  They (Pearl and Lewt) shoot each other in the desert and die in each other’s arms. 

DuelSunJonesPeck

Both Jones and Peck seem miscast in this epic, although Jones was nominated for an Oscar as best actress for her performance here.  And there are some social attitudes that don’t play so well these days.  For example, Butterfly McQueen is a stereotypical black domestic named Vashti, painful to watch now.  An underlying assumption seems to be that one of the reasons for Pearl’s sexual voracity is her mixed racial heritage.  It might be acceptable if it came from her lack of education, perhaps, but not from her half-Indian ancestry.  Her devotion to Lewt seems to be born out of his rape of her, a concept modern feminists are bound to find offensive.  These may have been common attitudes in the 1870s, when this movie is set, or in the 1920s, when Vidor was already a major director of silent movies and Gish and Barrymore major stars.  Or maybe they come from Niven Busch’s novel on which this steamy epic was based.  But they make the movie seem old and uncomfortable now.

DuelSunDeath2

It had a very big budget for its time, and it looks good.  The movie is very much the creature of its producer, David O. Selznick, Jones’s future husband and the Svengali of her career.  Although it made some money eventually, it marked the end of this kind of extravaganza for Selznick.  Reportedly, Selznick’s constant interference is responsible for the overwrought nature of the many of the movie’s elements.  It had worked for Gone With the Wind eight years earlier, but not here.  The affair between Jones and Selznick, both married to other spouses at the time, was one of the worst-kept secrets since the movie industry moved to California, giving an edge to the film’s notoriety with the public.

Nicknamed “Lust in the Dust,” it’s kind of a clunky movie despite all the talent involved.  The word most often associated with it today is “campy.”  Watch out for the screen awash not only with vivid Technicolor, but with strong undercurrents of sexual obsession.  At 144 minutes, it’s long for a western in the 1940s.  But maybe not for a Selznick epic.

DuelSunSunset

At the time of its release, it was the most expensive movie ever made.  Selznick spent two years making it, at a then-astronomic cost of $6 million.  Although King Vidor is named as the director, Otto Brower, William Dieterle, Sidney Franklin, William Cameron Menzies, Josef von Sternberg, and even Selznick himself sat in the director’s chair at one point or another during production.  Martin Scorsese claims this was the first movie he ever saw and one of the reasons he became a director.  Maybe it’s also the reason he’s never made any westerns.  Still, it’s something you have to see if you have ambitions to be the next Scorsese.  Gregory Peck was in lots more westerns, including, ten years later, another large-scale family epic like this one:  The Big Country.  It’s much better.

DuelSunPoster2

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Cimarron (1931)

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 14, 2013

Cimarron—Richard Dix, Irene Dunne, Edna May Oliver, Estelle Taylor (1931; Dir:  Wesley Ruggles, uncredited)

 cimarroncimarronPoster2

The first western to win the Academy Award for Best Picture (or any Academy Award, for that matter), and the last for 60 years until 1990’s Dances With Wolves.  By modern standards, this epic based on Edna Ferber’s 1929 best-seller seems dated:  the quality of the sound in the early days of talkies was not great; long-haired leading man Richard Dix, playing Yancey Cravat, has the looks and dramatic style of an earlier sort of matinee idol (reminiscent of Francis X. Bushman); and the existing print (as shown on TCM, which has pretty high standards generally) is not in great shape.  The racial attitudes may make modern audiences cringe, but if you watch carefully, you realize that is one of the points the movie is making.  So its social attitudes would be progressive for its time. Irene Dunne, in one of her earlier starring roles (just her second movie, in fact) as Yancey’s wife Sabra, is quite watchable still.  Edna May Oliver is Mrs. Tracy Wyatt, embodying prissy attitudes of the more respectable parts of the community in quasi-comic form.  She’s the most memorable of the supporting cast, just as she was in Drums Along the Mohawk..

cimarronDunneDix Irene Dunne, Richard Dix

Handsome lawyer-newspaper editor Yancey Cravat is afflicted with wanderlust, which takes him away from his young family in Wichita to become one of the Oklahoma Sooners in the land rush of 1889.  He has some kind of mysterious background on the range, and is good with guns, of which he wears two.  His friends include the outlaws led by the Kid (William Collier, Jr.).  When he loses out on the quarter-section of land he wanted due to the good-natured trickery of a lady of easy virtue, he returns to Wichita and brings his wife Sabra and four-year-old son Cim to the new town of Osage, Oklahoma, where he becomes a community leader by his guns and his newspaper. 

cimarronRush1889: The Land Rush is on!

In Osage he shoots it out with undesirables, including Lon Yountis (Stanley Fields) and eventually with the Kid and his gang.  He advocates and embodies progressive social attitudes, befriending a Jewish peddler and Dixie Lee (played by Estelle Taylor, Jack Dempsey’s former wife), the young woman with a lurid past who beat him to the land he wanted.  Just as his family is becoming prosperous in 1893, Yancey disappears to join yet another land rush to the new Cherokee Strip farther west, and his family doesn’t hear from him for five years.  Sabra runs the newspaper he founded, the Oklahoma Wigwam (cringe again), and does well. 

Yancey reappears in 1898 in the uniform of a Rough Rider, just in time to defend Dixie Lee in court from charges brought by, among others, Sabra.  Dixie Lee is acquitted.  Yancey stays until statehood and has dreams of running for governor when Oklahoma reaches statehood in 1907, which are scotched when he publishes an editorial advocating rights for Indians.  When Cim wants to marry an Osage Indian, Sabra is horrified but Yancey sides with Cim. 

cimarronDix Dominating the meeting.

He soon disappears again, more or less for good this time.  Sabra hears rumors of him being spotted in the fighting in World War I at Chateau Thierry, although he would have been close to 60 at the time.  She keeps his name on the masthead as editor and publisher, and time vindicates many of his social stands.  Sabra prospers on her own and in 1929 is herself elected to Congress.  After a party celebrating her new status, she is touring a new oil field when an accident to an old worker (Ol’ Yance, he’s called) leaves him dying in the mud.  It is indeed a bearded Yancey, and it’s not clear why he never came home again even though it seems like Sabra would have welcomed him.  He dies in her arms.  The movie ends with that, and she presumably goes off to Congress.

Yes, it now seems old-fashioned, both the story and the manner of its presentation.  But it’s still a good story and is quite watchable, although seldom seen these days.  It’s long for its time, at more than two hours (131 minutes, to be exact).  Spanning more than 40 years, it gives its actors the opportunity to play their characters at different ages.  Dunne does it best, partly because Yancey isn’t around to age much.  Irene Dunne received a Best Actress nomination for her work here, the first of five nominations for her.  Cimarron was remade in color almost 30 years later with Glenn Ford and Maria Schell in the principal roles; the remake doesn’t work quite as well as this original.  Some of the Oklahoma land rush story was told again in Ron Howard’s Far and Away of 1992.

 cimmaronDix2

Supposedly the Yancey character is based on Sam Houston’s gun-toting lawyer son Temple Houston.  One of the extras was Nino Cochise, a grandson of the famous Apache chief, along with his friend Apache Bill Russell.  The land rush scene took a week to film, using 5,000 extras, 28 cameramen, 6 still photographers and 27 camera assistants.  The movie lost $565,000 on a budget of $1.433 million.  It was re-released in 1935 and the red ink mostly disappeared off RKO’s books.  In black and white, except for the posters–those are in vivid color.  The movie might be more than 80 years old now, but those are really great posters (see above).

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone