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Wagon Master (April 19, 1950)

Wagon Master

Wagon Master (1950)
Directed by John Ford
Argosy Pictures / RKO Radio Pictures

I have mixed feelings about John Ford.

I absolutely love some of his films, and consider them masterpieces, but he also made a lot of films that I’m not crazy about even though every other classic film fan seems to revere them, like She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949).

After watching Wagon Master, which was the western that Ford directed after She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, I’m beginning to think that my expectations might play some role. (In between these two westerns, Ford directed the comedy When Willie Comes Marching Home, which I haven’t seen.)

High expectations and the reverence of others can sometimes make a film tough to enjoy. I thought that She Wore a Yellow Ribbon was stunningly photographed, and I liked some of the performances, but overall I found it poorly paced, historically inaccurate, and unbearably sentimental. I also really didn’t like John Wayne’s performance. I love it when the Duke plays variations on himself, but whenever he plays a “character” I find it hard to watch. His role as Nathan Brittles in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon isn’t as bad as when he played Genghis Khan in The Conqueror (1956), but I still found his “old man” schtick disingenuous and poorly acted.

Johnson and Bond

Wagon Master, on the other hand, is a film almost no one ever talks about. When I sat down to watch it, I had no expectations, nor anyone else’s reverence to contend with.

I really enjoyed it. I thought it was a poetic and leisurely paced western that I’d love to see again some day. Unlike Ford’s last two westerns, which were both shot in Technicolor, Wagon Master is shot in black and white. (At least until the 1960s, I think I prefer my westerns in black and white.)

In Wagon Master, Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr., who both had supporting roles in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, play a pair of horse traders named Travis and Sandy.

They’re approached by a group of Mormons who are led by a recent convert to the faith, Elder Wiggs (Ward Bond), whose constant struggle to not use profanity is a running joke in the film. The group of Mormons are heading west through desolate stretches and need experienced range riders like Travis and Sandy to guide them. The Mormons plan to found a settlement and begin growing crops so a much larger group of their brethren will be able to join them in their promised land a year later.

The range is full of dangers, including human ones, who come in the form of the murderous Clegg gang. They’re led by Uncle Shiloh Clegg (Charles Kemper). If you pay close attention you’ll spot future Gunsmoke star James Arness as another member of the gang, Floyd Clegg.

Kemper and Arness

The Clegg gang is menacing, but there are also friendly strangers who join the wagon train along their journey — a drunken snake-oil salesman named Dr. A. Locksley Hall (Alan Mowbray) and his two female companions, Fleuretty Phyffe (Ruth Clifford) and Denver (Joanne Dru).

Perhaps if I were to proclaim Wagon Master a masterpiece, it would collapse under the weight of my approbation. But I thoroughly enjoyed it, and thought it was a beautifully made film that unfolds at a perfect pace.

I especially enjoyed seeing Ben Johnson come into his own as an actor. The Oklahoma-born Johnson was a ranch hand and rodeo rider in real life, and he’s convincing and charismatic in this role. I liked his supporting role in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, but he carries the film here, and emerges as a great western star. He has no false bravado or unrealistic heroics, and even decides against pulling his gun at several times when the audience might expect him to.

Shock (Jan. 10, 1946)

Alfred L. Werker’s thriller Shock, which had its premiere on January 10, 1946, and went into wide release on February 1st, stars Vincent Price as the murderous Dr. Richard Cross and Lynn Bari as his manipulative assistant and lover, Nurse Elaine Jordan. If you were to play a drinking game in which you took a shot of whiskey every time one of the characters in the film said the word “shock,” you would likely require medical attention after the first 20 minutes.

Price wasn’t always a horror icon. In Tower of London (1939), which was as much a costume drama about Richard III as it was a horror picture, he was a supporting player. In Brigham Young (1940), he played the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith. In Hudson’s Bay (1941), he played King Charles II. In Laura (1944) and Leave Her to Heaven (1945), he was the aggrieved “other man.” A tall, stately man born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1911, Price was educated at Yale, where he studied art history and fine art. He radiated charm and erudition. He was a fine actor, and probably could have distinguished himself in any genre. As chance or fate would have it, however, his vocal delivery and arch facial expressions were perfectly suited to the ironic cinematic world of the macabre, and he is best remembered for his roles in horror pictures such as House of Wax (1953), The Fly (1958), House on Haunted Hill (1959), The Tingler (1959), and the innumerable Roger Corman-produced, Poe-influenced horror pictures that he appeared in throughout the 1960s.

While Shock is not a horror film, it has elements of one, and it’s the earliest role I’ve seen Price play in which he demonstrates some of the ghoulish mannerisms that would later make him famous. He doesn’t come close to the histrionics of some of his later horror roles, but there are some glimmerings.

The film opens in San Francisco, where a young woman named Janet (played by the somewhat sickly looking ingénue Anabel Shaw), is checking into a hotel, where she is to meet her husband, Lt. Paul Stewart (Frank Latimore), a former P.O.W. who is finally returning from World War II. Lt. Stewart doesn’t show up when he is supposed to, however, and as his emotionally fragile wife frets alone in her hotel room, she witnesses a murder. From her balcony, she can see through the window of an adjacent room. A man and a woman are arguing, and eventually the man settles the argument with a heavy candlestick.

Witnessing a murder drives Janet into a state of catatonic shock. When her husband finally arrives, she is unresponsive. When world-renowned psychiatrist Dr. Cross is brought in to consult in the case, Janet doesn’t recognize him, but Dr. Cross immediately realizes that the cause of Janet’s state of shock is the murder she witnessed him committing.

Janet is placed in Dr. Cross’s care, and he ignores the Hippocratic oath in order to save his own skin, giving Janet insulin treatments she doesn’t need, as well as using other unethical methods of driving her deeper into a state of shock so she will never be able to identify him. Cross isn’t portrayed as a total monster, however. That role is reserved for his lover, Nurse Jordan, a Lady Macbeth type who goads him on when his resolve to be wicked falters.

Shock is a programmer, to be sure, but it’s a well-made one, and kept me enthralled for all of its 70 minutes.

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