"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Friday, December 31, 2010

Sunset (Tristar, 1988)


The Sunset of Wyatt Earp



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So long, Wyatt, as you, and 2010, ride off into the sunset.And we reach the end of the thread of depictions of Mr. Wyatt Earp on the silver screen with the elegiac yet energetic Sunset.

Of course this is only a sample. imdb lists over 50 movies in which Earp appeared, either as star or in a minor part, http://www.imdb.com/character/ch0010210/ and that list isn't exclusive. But my little sample will do as a taster.

























In this tale of Wyatt's later years, before riding off into the sunset (well, actually, he rides off on a train), Wyatt Earp and his friend Tom Mix have solved a murder in Hollywood and proved themselves true Western heroes. In this fun film, directed by Pink Panther supremo, the late Blake Edwards, Bruce Willis (Mix) and James Garner (Earp) do a great job.




















Earp died in January 1929, aged 80, and had acted as advisor on early Hollywood movies. He knew William S Hart and Tom Mix (and even met a very young Marion Morrison, later to be John Wayne) and Mix was one of the pallbearers at his funeral. Garner was 60, not 80, when Sunset was made and is a shade more active than Earp would have been. Tom Mix is portrayed in his prime whereas in 1929 he was a fading star and pushing 50. But this film, like most Westerns, isn’t about the history; it’s about the legend.

It’s a Hollywood parody, a Western, a murder mystery and great fun. Garner had of course played Earp in Hour of the GunAt one point he smells honeysuckle and reminds us of the scene in My Darling Clementine. The film within the film is called ‘Lawman’ (hope it was better than the rubbish 1971 movie of that title). There’s a slight reference to the death of Thomas H Ince, the ‘Father of the Western’, who may (or may not) have been murdered on a yacht. There are various other references – you’ll spot them.

Willis captures well the 20s Hollywood megastar and does a good Tom Mix (on a good Tony Jr). Malcolm McDowell is an ex-Chaplinesque star become sinister movie mogul. Mariel Hemingway is decorative as a brothel madam in male attire and Patricia Hodge classy as the mogul’s wife. I liked Richard Bradford as the corrupt LA police captain and M Emmet Walsh as the overweight, sweaty studio police chief.

Lightweight stuff, really, but none the worse for that. And there are some great cars in it.

So long, Wyatt, as you, and 2010, ride off into the sunset.

 

Doc (UA, 1971)


The most beautiful woman on the planet.





 
Many films about Doc Holliday do a good job with the likeness of the man himself. But they persist in having glamorous stars with small noses as Kate, and they never give Kate her proper name. Never mind, we must allow for cinematic licence.

This was a revisionist Wyatt/Doc picture and while it is acceptable, indeed, worthy to redress the balance of all those portrayals of decent, tough Marshal Earps cleaning up Tombstone, this picture goes too far the other way. Wyatt (Harris Yulin) is a corrupt, scheming politician who cynically guns down the Clantons at the OK Corral in order to win an election when they have “just come to talk”.

Still, Stacey Keach in the title role is moving and powerful, one of the better Docs, it must be said. This is strong fare and the language and action will not be to everyone’s taste but I feel the film has its merits. The Pete Hamill dialogue is earthy and barbed. Gene Callahan, the production designer, and Gerald Hirschfeld, the photographer, produced a terrific Tombstone in southern Spain, more plausibly Mexican than is usual.

Denver John Collins is the best support actor, in the invented personage of “The Kid”. Faye Dunaway of course is a fine actress and one of the most beautiful women on the planet. And Dan Greenberg, as Clum, looks exactly like Quentin Tarantino.

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Not in the premier league of Wyatt/Doc pics, nevertheless Doc is worth seeing.

 

Wichita (Warner Bros, 1955)


 










Wyatt cleans up the town - but not Tombstone






On the last day of 2010 I am going to finish my theme of Wyatt Earp by talking about three more films that featured him.

The first of today's three films is Warner Brothers' attempt (why should they be left out? Universal, Fox and United Artists had made an Earp film), Wichita, with the excellent Joel McCrea.

Wichita is a minor Wyatt Earp picture which does not tell of Tombstone or even of Dodge but recounts his first job marshaling, in Wichita. It’s all nonsense, of course, though Earp biographer Stuart N Lake was on the set again to give the picture some historical credibility as technical adviser.























Joel McCrea is Wyatt. Always a dependable Western actor, he had a quiet authority suited to town-taming marshals. He is supported by solid character actors: reliable heavy Robert J Wilke plays Ben Thompson with Jack Elam and Lloyd Bridges as his sidekicks; Edgar Buchanan is the rascally Doc Black. It's an excellent cast.

Bat Masterson (Keith Larsen) is a cub newspaper reporter, for some reason, whom Wyatt recruits as deputy. James and Morgan Earp turn up towards the end (John Smith and Peter Graves) but don’t have much to do.

There are some lively scenes of cowboys hurrahing the town. A little boy gets shot, a certain way to get that star onto the shirt of reluctant Wyatt. The new marshal duly passes a gun law, stands his ground grittily and cleans up Wichita. The gang of cowboys backs down. He also gets the girl (Vera Miles, later to be Laurie for John Ford in The Searchers and Mrs. Senator Stoddard in Liberty Valance) and they go off at the end to start anew in Dodge.

There is some location shooting by Harold Lipstein though ‘Kansas’ looks like California and in fact is. Much of the film is shot on the back lot. It is photographed in a pleasant blue tone. The Frenchman Jacques Tourneur directed (he had done the quality Western Canyon Passage ten years or so before).

There’s a pretty dire song at the start and end sung by Tex Ritter. 1950s Westerns felt obliged to have one, more’s the pity.

It’s satisfactory and more than a B Western but not much more. Warner Brothers Westerns in the 1950s were not very good as a rule but this is a cut above.
 

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Hour of the Gun (UA, 1967)


Everyone likes James Garner





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Another in the long series of pictures about Wyatt Earp came out in 1967. It contained one of the better Wyatt/Doc duos in the shape of James Garner and Jason Robards. Garner, once the audience had put aside his Maverick persona, turned out to be a tough, gritty, hard-boiled Earp in the classic tradition. Robards is splendidly misanthropic and also technically superb as a man with TB.


Lucien Ballard’s Panavision photography is excellent (though it looks wonky on the small screen) and the Durango, Mexico locations are appropriately dusty and sunny. The music is good too and creates an atmosphere of menace and danger.

.Any Western with Robert Ryan in it is likely to be worth watching and here he is Ike Clanton, a rich rancher, political wheeler-dealer Ike, not the usual Arizona low-life. Ryan always did well as the hard boss, the superior tough.

John Sturges directed and he could be relied on to produce a suspenseful, well-told tale. He had of course told it ten years before in his popular Gunfight at the OK Corral.

So this telling has a lot going for it. However, the supporting actors are unmemorable and the picture lays itself open to attack by needlessly showing a block-capital introduction reading THIS PICTURE IS BASED ON FACT. THIS IS THE WAY IT HAPPENED. The movie may have been more accurate than previous versions in a few respects but as it has some preposterous hokum about Wyatt and Doc going down to Nogales and having a showdown with Clanton, leaving him dead in the dust, it shouldn’t really have claimed so much. Nobody blames Western movies for a lack of veracity. Except when they claim veracity.

Still, we mustn’t be too picky. The Edward Anhalt screenplay is tight, and unusual in the sense that the story begins, rather than ends, with the OK Corral. There’s action and the characters are well-drawn. This is a decent Western and a perfectly respectable version of the Tombstone legend.
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Plus, everyone likes James Garner.
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My Darling Clementine (Fox, 1946)

 







This review has been revised and updated. Please be kind enough to click here for the new one.
Thanks.
Jeff


 
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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Gunfight at the OK Corral (Paramount, 1957)

 







A solid, workmanlike Western.






 
The big 1950s version of the Wyatt Earp tale was Paramount’s Gunfight at the OK Corral, directed by John Sturges. It has been an enormously popular film and remains high in public awareness of Westerns as well as DVD sales but it is by no means the greatest telling, nor even, perhaps, a particularly good one.

The story is episodic, starting in Fort Griffin and moving to Dodge and Tombstone, trying to tie them all together with a Doc Holliday/Clanton clan plot. ‘Kate Fisher’ (Jo van Fleet) is Doc’s woman and Wyatt falls for Rhonda Fleming, a lady gambler (rather as Marshal Wayne was to do two years later in Rio Bravo) so that has to be woven in too. The result is a two-hour movie that doesn’t exactly drag but is about as far away from the classical unities of time, place and action as you could get.

Despite the Leon Uris credit, the dialogue is a bit ‘B’. There’s even a line, “There’s a stage for Abilene in the morning. I want you to be on it.” The support acting is iffy too. There was always a temptation, when you had a big star as Wyatt, to feature nonentities as his brothers, presumably so as not to overshadow the hero. Virgil, Morgan and James (again, oddly made into the 18-year-old youngest) are very forgettable (I can’t remember their names; you can look them up if you want) and even key parts like Ike Clanton and Johnny Ringo (killed by Doc at the OK Corral) are unmemorable and bland. Only young Dennis Hopper as Billy Clanton is good.

Kirk Douglas, however, made a strong Doc and the Lancaster/Douglas pairing is perfectly respectable by cinematic Wyatt/Doc standards, holding its head up with Garner/Robards, Russell/Kilmer and Costner/Quaid, though not up to Fonda/Mature.

The music is nice. High Noon-style (and of course there are similarities of plot), it is orchestral variations on a cheesy title song again (Frankie Laine this time) but well done, even haunting (Dimitri Tiomkin). There are some nice California (‘Kansas’) and Arizona locations, well photographed by Charles B Lang Jr.

The movie starts with Lee van Cleef and two other baddies riding down a hill to the tune of the ballad. Wyatt throws his badge down at the end before leaving town for good. I wonder where the director got those ideas for starting and ending a Western? I can't imagine. Must have been original.

It’s Sturges so it’s a solid, workmanlike Western and it has its merits. But that’s it.

 

Wyatt Earp, in fact and fiction




This 2010 post has been revised and updated in April 2013.
To read the revised version, click here.


Wyatt

I'll come back to Wayne. In fact I've just ordered a boxed set of his 1930s Republic & RKO pictures so doubtless, once it arrives from amazon, I'll have a lot to drone on about, Waynewise.

But on another subject, I was just musing yesterday over how many movies were made about Wyatt Earp.
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It was the appearance in 1931 of the biography 'Frontier Marshal' by Stuart N Lake (1889-1964) that really started it off. Lake called Earp "the greatest gunfighting marshal that the Old West knew" and said in his introduction to the book, to give you the tone: "The lover of swift and decisive action, Wyatt Earp's achievements surely must be of interest in themselves. His taming of Mannen Clements and fifty cowboy killers in the streets of Wichita; his play against Clay Allison of the Washita in the Plaza at Dodge City; his protection of insignificant Johnny-Behind-the-Deuce against a Tombstone mob; the sanguinary battle of the O. K. Corral, his sawed-off shotgun duel with Curly Bill--tales of these exploits could not fail, even were they meaningless, to stir a reader's blood. Through them Wyatt Earp moves steadily, surely, sagaciously, implacable on, guided by a philosophy fitted to his surroundings, to which he gave fullest expression in admonishment of Ike Clanton, braggart outlaw, cow thief and murderer."

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Natural raw material for the Hollywood Western.
.The first attempt was Universal's Law and Order in 1932 with Walter Huston as Frame 'Saint' Johnson, the clean-up-the-town Marshal, and Harry Carey as the Doc Hollidayesque Ed Brandt. Earp family members were still alive and somewhat contentious; the real names were avoided. Brian Garfield, the Delphic oracle (actually, he was a bit too outspoken to be Delphic), said, "[T]his may well be the definitive Wyatt Earp movie." I haven't seen it. I'd love to. It's hard to get, though it does still exist.

They remade it in 1953 with future White House tenant Ronald Reagan in the Earpish part, and this is available easily on DVD, but, says Garfield, "it's a tired echo."

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In between the two Law and Orders, Fox got into the act with two versions of Frontier Marshal, in 1934 and 1939. The first starred George O'Brien as "Michael Wyatt" and Alan Edwards as "Doc Warren". Again, I haven't seen it but it is said to be a standard oater, without the class of Law and Order.

When Fox remade it, with Randolph Scott and Cesar Romero, the real names finally appeared. Filmed on the tenth anniversary of Wyatt's death, it had all the Lake-inspired myths firmly in place. It came out in the same year as Union Pacific, Jesse James, Destry Rides Again and Stagecoach, so it got rather overshadowed, but it's energetic and entertaining.
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Of course, between the Scott version and the Reagan one, John Ford decided to treat the theme for Fox again and in 1946 he came out with what I consider (not having seen the first Law and Order) to be the finest Earp picture ever, My Darling Clementine. I haven't got space to review it here but I will, in a later post. Suffice it to say at the moment that the Henry Fonda/Victor Mature pairing was inspired and if Ford hadn't later made The Searchers, this film would have stood as his masterpiece.
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Ford portrayed Earp again in 1964 with James Stewart, no less, in a cameo appearance in Cheyenne Autumn. Dudish and in a splendid panama hat, almost as good as that of Laurence Harvey in The Alamo, Stewart made the most of the part.
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Stewart had made the fine Winchester '73, of course, in 1950 and in that movie there is also a cameo Earp, played by Will Geer. Earp here is jovial but Geer attempts to show the steel beneath.
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In 1942, Paramount had decided it didn't want to miss out and Pop Sherman, the Hopalong Cassidy producer, brought Richard Dix and Kent Taylor to the screen as Wyatt and Doc in the alliteratively titled Tombstone, The Town Too Tough To Die. "Plenty of clichés and very dated," says Guru Brian. "Still, it's a sturdy and fairly spirited Western of the old school."
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In 1953, the same year as the Reagan Law and Order brought out by Universal, Fox actually got Stuart Lake to participate in the writing of Powder River, a routine oater, but the names were non-Wyatt/Doc again, even if the story was clearly the same.
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Joel McCrea was an excellent Wyatt in Wichita in 1955, telling of Earp's early life cleaning up another town, and in that same year the famous TV series started with Hugh O'Brian as the Buntline-toting Marshal. The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp was enormously popular and lasted for six seasons, till 1961, for a total of no fewer than 229 episodes. When many of us think of Wyatt Earp, we think of O'Brian in his fancy vest with that absurdly long-barreled pistol.

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The series gave a new lease of life to the cinematographic Wyatt Earp. In 1957 Lancaster and Douglas did the job as Wyatt and Doc in the famous Gunfight at the OK Corral, directed by John Sturges. It's one of the best-selling Westerns of all time, VHS- and DVDwise, and the name has passed into the language as 'the' Western in many people's eyes. It wasn't bad, but it was far from the best Earp picture. Sturges made it again in 1967 with the excellent James Garner (who did look a bit like Wyatt) in The Hour of the Gun (United Artists). It's just as preposterous, despite the mendacious "this is the way it really happened" title, but it's interesting because it starts with the OK Corral. Also, Jason Robards was among the best Docs ever. Review follows.
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A fashionably post-modern deconstructed Wyatt appeared in 1971, in Doc, with Stacy Keach this time leading as Holliday and Harris Yulin as Wyatt Earp relegated to the secondary role. This film isn't as bad as has been claimed (Garfield: "It is impossible to be kind to this kind of trash") and OK, it does debunk the myth but you know by this time the myth needed a bit of debunking. This time, and finally, Doc's mistress Big-Nosed Kate gets a decent part, although to judge by photographs of her, Faye Dunaway was slightly more glamorous. Actually, Dunaway was totally fabulous.
. Garner reprised his Earp role in 1988 in the rather charming Sunset, Tristar, directed by the late Blake Edwards. In this he is an ageing Wyatt Earp, advisor on the set of Hollywood movies in the 20s (which he was) and friend of cowboy superstar of the period Tom Mix (which he was), played, rather well, by Bruce Willis. It's a fun film.
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The 1990s had their go and two movies were made almost simultaneously, Tombstone and Wyatt Earp. The latter is rather earnest and long, but it was directed by Lawrence Kasdan, he of the excellent Silverado, and had (just) the better Doc Holliday in the shape of Dennis Quaid. Kevin Costner made a worthy Wyatt but... Tombstone was the more fun picture, lively and colorful, with a better Earp, Kurt Russell, but an almost equally good Doc, Val Kilmer. They are both enjoyable, big-budget Westerns that do the OK Corral, of course, but also take the story on. Wyatt Earp also tries for Wyatt's early life and this was a mistake because it makes the movie too long. Gene Hackman is Earp père.
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Wyatt Earp made other appearances, such as in an episode of The Young Indiana Jones (Leo Gordon there) and he is one of the most durable and recognisable of Hollywood Western heroes.

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Truth or fiction?

Whether these portrayals bore any resemblance to the true and factual Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp (March 19, 1848 – January 13, 1929), farmer, teamster, buffalo hunter, miner and boxing referee - oh, and peace officer from time to time - is quite another matter.
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You can get what seems a decent and accurate summary of the real life of Mr. Earp at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wyatt_Earp The most authoritative and convincing biography I have read is Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend by Casey Tefertiller (Paperback, 1999). If you want to go into the matter in depth.
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You may just prefer to forget all that and enjoy the screen Wyatt, in all his variety and variations and various voluminous versions.






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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Fury at Furnace Creek (Fox, 1948)


It might have gone badly wrong


 
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Kanab Movie Fort in Utah stood in at one time or another as Fort Laramie, Fort Bowie, Fort Yuma and the army post in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon. It was pretty versatile and got attacked by Indians quite a few times. It was also ‘Fort Furnace Creek’ in Fox’s fairly conventional but lively late 40s Fury at Furnace Creek.

Directed by H Bruce Humberstone, famous for his Charlie Chan movies and not at all known for Westerns, and written by Charles G Booth, also far from a Western specialist, starring actors not known for their cowboy roles, such as matinée idol Victor Mature and war-film expert Glenn Langan, it might have gone badly wrong. Yet it works. It’s a tightly-plotted, fast-paced actioner with a lot to recommend it.

Coleen Gray is pretty and spirited as the waitress that Mature falls for. Englishman Reginald Gardiner is out of place as the plummy-voiced ex-US Cavalry captain who has taken to the bottle but after all, the US Army was full of men from all nationalities, some of them renegades, so it’s not implausible. Fox talkie stalwart Charles Kemper is fun as Peaceful Jones, the town drunk (a sort of Fuzzy Knight role) with his portable prison. And there’s splendid nasty Albert Dekker who could play the principal baddy with aplomb in anything – Western, war film, gangster movie, you name it. New York accent, well-cut suit and caddish mustache – perfect.

Jay Silverheels is the Apache chief Little Dog, looking very unTontoish. We are told that he is very fierce, almost as fearsome as his line manager Geronimo. We have to be told this because his character isn’t developed at all.


I spotted good old Ray Teal in there as an Army sergeant.

Despite the fact that Mature had been quite masterly as Doc Holliday to Henry Fonda’s Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine two years earlier, he wasn’t a Western actor. He was more at home in sword-and-sandal epics (or on the golf course). In this movie he is rather, ahem, wide and while great in our first sight of him, in jail in his gambler’s frock coat, flicking playing cards expertly across the cell into his hat, as soon as he changes into Western duds he is unconvincing. Never mind. We forgive him anything for his wonderful Doc.

There’s some good black & white location photography by Harry Jackson and a very decent Western town. The original music by David Raksin is charming, with variations on the themes of traditional songs.

All in all, this is a minor but very decent late 1940s Western which you probably wouldn’t purchase on DVD and watch often (The Searchers it ain’t) but you could do a lot worse if it came on TV. In my case this evening it was Furnace Creek or Pirates of the Caribbean. No contest.

 

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

True Grit (Paramount, 1969)

 
This post has been revised. Please click here to read the updated version. Thanks. Jeff.

 

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Vengeance Valley, novel by Luke Short, 1949, MGM movie, 1951













Next time you point a gun at me, shoot






Luke Short

Frederick D Glidden (1908 - 1975) was a fine writer of Western stories and one of my favorite authors. His books are tightly-plotted, full of authentic detail and have strong, memorable characters. He wrote under the nom de plume Luke Short, a moniker he presumably borrowed from the dandy and gambler-gunfighter of that name (1854 - 1893), another interesting character.
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But the writer Short is definitely worth reading. He wrote dozens of novels, from The Feud at Single Shot (1935) to Trouble Country (1976).
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A remarkable number were turned into films. This is because the books were shortish and lent themselves to cinematic treatment, especially because, as I have said above, their plots and characters were so strong, they were full of action and they reeked of authenticity.
 
The 1949 novel Vengeance Valley is a good example.
 
The 1951 Western movie that MGM made of it has an almost documentary feel to it at times as we get a cattle drive with voiceover commentary by one of the drovers (Carleton Carpenter, very well played). The cowboy scenes are true-to-life and there is skillful cutting out of steers to admire. There are impressive numbers of cattle – no ultra-low-budget cowboy film this.

.But it’s also a family drama and tale of how the misdeeds of a wastrel, ne’er-do-well son, Lee (Robert Walker, rebuilding his career after time in the sanitorium), are foiled by the sturdy, decent adopted son and foreman, Owen (Burt Lancaster). You can tell Lee is a bad one when he says to his wife, after beating a horse, “A good whipping never hurt any filly” (a line not in the book).

The old rancher, Arch (Ray Collins) knows, deep down, that his son is no good. The film makers have put Arch on crutches, like Edward G Robinson in The Violent Men, which he wasn't in the book; it isn't quite clear why. Perhaps to make him more vulnerable.

It’s quite a daring theme for 1949/1951. A town girl has an illegitimate baby and will not reveal the identity of the father. It is clear from the first chapter (and first reel) that it's Lee. Lily's brothers, the Faskens arrive, played by John Ireland and Hugh O'Brian, both very good (and the latter very unEarpish). They will have the name of the father and force a marriage or there will be hell to pay.

There’s good Colorado scenery (round Cañon City, where many of the early silents were filmed) photographed by George J Folsey.

The Short story (as it were) is adapted for the screen by Irving Ravetch. Several important changes are made apart from the detail of the crutches. Chiefly, the characters of Jen, a neighboring rancher, and Edith, Lee's wife, have been combined. Owen loves rancher Jen in the book and rather despises the gold-digger and unWestern Edith but in the movie, he and the Jen/Edith figure (Joanne Dru, Mrs. Ireland, in fact) are in love. While changes of this kind are often worse than the original book, in this case it adds well to the rivalry between Lee and Owen and is probably better.

Another change is made in the ending but I will not discuss that here to avoid spoiling it for you if you have not read the book and/or seen the movie.

Richard Thorpe directed tidily. He had been making two-reelers and B Westerns since the early 1920s and went on to do Jailhouse Rock.
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Vengeance Valley is no epic with sweeping, nation-building themes (Short's books weren't like that; he was more interested in the interplay of a small number of characters) but it is a good story and Lancaster does an excellent job.

Burt stands for no nonsense when one of the Fasken boys points a gun at him. He says, “You’ve scared me twice tonight. Next time you point a gun at me, shoot.” The bad man later takes him at his word but should have known better.
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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Shane revisited


The Big Trail (Fox, 1930)

 










See it, for the curiosity value



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It is extraordinary, really, how far movies came in only a decade. In 1939 John Ford was to produce a Western of the sophistication of Stagecoach yet only nine years earlier the standard was little more than a silent with occasional dialogue. The Big Trail is a most interesting film to see from an historical point of view but it really is very crude.
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Of course, we can only judge it by its present form. It was shot simultaneously in 35 mm, by Lucien Andriot, and in widescreen 70 mm, by Arthur Edeson.  This was a very early widescreen format known as Fox Grandeur. The best camera angles were reserved for the widescreen version. The huge cost of this helped push Fox over the brink as the 1929 crash impacted. In fact only two theaters were equipped to show the widescreen version, the Roxy in New York and Grauman's Chinese in LA. Most people in later years have seen the Edeson version cropped on both sides - the worst of both worlds. Eventually, in the 1990s, the Museum of Modern Art restored the film, converting Fox Grandeur to Cinemascope, and the splendid Edeson version to be seen there is apparently brilliant. Those who have seen it say that The Big Trail is a masterpiece. Most of us, of course, see the 35 mm or 70mm chopped version on tiny DVD and we think it isn't a masterpiece at all, just an interesting part of cinematic history.
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Even on your TV at home, it’s still impressive in many ways. It was made on a truly grand scale and the sheer number of wagons and people and animals is very impressive (it was an Oregon Trail movie made as a kind of reply to Paramount's The Covered Wagon, the famous silent of 1923). Director Raoul Walsh had an enormous $2m budget. There are remarkable scenes, notably of the buffalo hunt, the lowering of wagons down cliffs and the crossing of a river. They seem to have been made with a blatant disregard for the welfare of all the horses, mules, cattle and oxen involved but the standards were different then. You can’t help admiring the grandeur and scale of this movie. .

The acting is a different story. The movie is famous, of course, for having chosen a Fox prop boy as the lead, a fellow named Marion Morrison to whom Walsh gave the name of John Wayne (the myth that John Ford invented John Wayne came later). Wayne looks the part alright and is very tall and handsome and also has a winning naïf charm but as an actor he had everything to learn. He really couldn’t handle lines. He wasn’t much helped by the dreadful, wooden script of the kind that has characters say, “I’ll just go over there.” (Goes over there). It was sad that Walsh's first choice, Gary Cooper, was not available.

Like all directors then, Walsh was more used to telling a story in pictures than in words and Wayne moved in such a catlike way that he was ideal from the visual point of view, such a contrast to the lumbering Tyrone Power Sr.
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His supporting actors, including Power, billed fifth, all shout their lines. They had to, because the sound quality and microphones were so bad and the open air location shooting made it necessary. The plot is awful corny, too.

.Power is the wicked wagon boss (he looks like a buffalo in his robe and sounds like one too) in league with the sly Louisiana gambler Ian Keith to thwart honest scout Wayne’s designs on the winsome Marguerite Churchill. You may guess who wins out and claims the fair maiden. Actually Wayne, with his Indian skills, in his buckskins and with no gun, looks more like Hawkeye than the hero of a 19th century wagon train.
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There’s the inevitable comic Swede, El Brendel, who was actually billed in the cast as ‘Gus, Comical Swede’. Corny it may be by today’s standards but it was a lot more sophisticated than the silents The Covered Wagon (1923) or The Iron Horse (1924).
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One thing you can say, even in the small-screen black & white version, some of the photography is very good: Indians on hilltops, moving buffalo, California redwoods at the end. Impressive. It was shot in the Grand Teton pass, Yellowstone, The Sequoia National Park, in Montana, Oregon, Yuma – the cost must have been huge.

A two-disc DVD was released in the US in 2008, containing both 35mm and 70 mm versions, and would be a good investment.
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See The Big Trail anyway, for the curiosity value. The poster said it was "The most imortant picture ever produced." That's hooey but nevertheless it's a milestone on the trail of the development of the Western.
 
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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Angel and the Badman (Republic, 1947)

 










It’s a nice little film.






Since we're on a John Wayne thing, let's look at his first film as a producer, Angel and the Badman, a love story really, with occasional action sequences rather than the other way round.
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The great thing about it is the writing. The movie was written and directed by Wayne’s friend James Edward Grant and he did a fine job with the screenplay. The script is intelligent, occasionally dryly witty and interesting too. The characters, even the minor ones, are very well delineated. World-weary (and physically weary) Dr. Mangram, for example (Tom Powers) or Frederick Carson, the neighbor (Paul Hurst). Most especially strong is Harry Carey as Marshal Wistful McClintock. Wayne was a huge admirer of Carey, star of so many silent Westerns and part of the John Ford clan. Certainly here he is masterly, bringing power to a relatively minor role and remaining in the memory. It was one of his last films and he died in September that year (though he appeared in Red River, his last Western, because although that did not come out till 1948 it was filmed in '47).
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Wayne is Quirt Evans, a badman whom a Quaker family helps to recover from his wounds. In that way it’s a kind of Friendly Persuasion ante diem, although it is a far better film than that and also more of a proper Western. As in Friendly Persuasion, however, the Quakers can’t manage their thees and thous. “How does thee know?” or “Thee are shocked.” That kind of thing. In fact thou never gets a look in. Is it that nineteenth century Quakers didn't know the difference between thee and thou, or that Hollywood scriptwriters didn't? Never mind. Gail Russell is delightful as the Quaker daughter Penelope who leads Quirt from the ways of iniquity on the gentlest of leashes.
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The black & white photography is by Archie Stout, so competent it verges on arty. There are some lovely shots of riders on a ridge, a favorite image of his. The Richard Hageman music, however, is pretty dire – straight B Western overdramatic fare.
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Laredo Stevens is the heavy, played by Bruce Cabot and his sidekick is Hondo (Louis Faust) so what with Hondo and McClintock (McLintock, anyway) Wayne got two names to conjure with later. Cabot was a great pal of Wayne's despite the fact that they had competed for the part of Ringo in Stagecoach.
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There’s an excellent bit where Quirt tells his wet rival to marry Gail, even though of course we all know he’s going to do that himself. There’s a good car chase - well, wagon chase - culminating in a fine stunt as the wagon plunges into a river and Quirt and Penelope hide under a waterfall. Very oddly, Quirt’s hat changes from white to black after the stunt, though it retains the same handsome silver hatband.
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The funny thing is that all the characters, even the saloon doves and the heavies, are sympathetic.
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The final showdown is clever and dramatic
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It’s a nice little film, no great Western perhaps but Wayne does a solid job and is occasionally powerful. It’s worth seeing, however, even by non-Waynists, for the performance of Harry Carey.
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