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Tag Archives: Ben Johnson

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.

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She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (Oct. 22, 1949)

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
Directed by John Ford
Argosy Pictures / RKO Radio Pictures

As a cinephile, I feel like any criticism of the almighty John Ford must be made in hushed tones.

So in that spirit, let me begin by praising the aspects of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon that I found praiseworthy.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is one of the most beautifully shot westerns I’ve ever seen. Winton C. Hoch won the Academy Award for best color cinematography for this film, and he deserved it. Hoch had previously shot 3 Godfathers (1948) for Ford, and would go on to lens three more films for Ford, The Quiet Man (1952), Mister Roberts (1955), and The Searchers (1956).

Technicolor is a process that often looked oversaturated and occasionally even gaudy, but She Wore a Yellow Ribbon looks simultaneously lifelike and hyperreal. It stands as a towering achievement of what a talented cinematographer could do when shooting in Technicolor.

I also really enjoyed Ben Johnson’s performance as Sgt. Tyree, a former Confederate captain now serving in the U.S. Cavalry as a scout. Johnson was as comfortable in the saddle as he was on his own two legs, and he would go on to a long career in Hollywood, specifically in westerns. I enjoyed his role in Mighty Joe Young (1949), but it didn’t hint at his future greatness in the same way that his performance in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon does. I also enjoyed Richard Hageman’s score, and I found this film enjoyable moment to moment.

John Wayne

But overall, I really didn’t like it. I like plenty of John Ford’s movies just fine, but for more than 20 years I have been mystified by the universal reverence film fans have for his work.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is emblematic of what I don’t like about Ford’s films. His westerns were grand operations in mythmaking, but with an excess of sentimentality. They were historically inaccurate and geographically incoherent, and without a great actor like Henry Fonda in the lead, his films feel like they’re adrift at sea.

I like John Wayne. I really do. But he was better at being an iconic presence than he was at turning in a good performance. The only “performances” of his I’ve found compelling were ones that contained a streak of nastiness, like his roles in Red River (1948) and The Searchers (1956). In She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Wayne is mostly himself, but he has a few opportunities to emote, and those scenes were dead on arrival for me. There’s nothing interesting about his character, unlike Henry Fonda’s deeply flawed character in Fort Apache (1948).

This is a film with remarkably low dramatic stakes. Almost nothing happens in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. This would be fine if it were simply a realistic look at the role the U.S. Cavalry played in the settling of the American West, but it’s not in any way realistic or historically accurate. It takes place in 1876, shortly after the massacre of General Custer and the 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The film’s narrator informs us that multiple Indian nations are joining forces to fight the U.S. government en masse, and that just one more defeat like the one Custer suffered and it will be a century before the Pony Express will be able to safely cross the west again. Historically, this is utter hogwash, and not just because the Pony Express ceased operations in 1861.

Of course, a western doesn’t need to be historically accurate to be entertaining, but with no interesting characters, no dramatic tension, and extremely little action, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon just didn’t work for me. Perhaps my viewing was a victim of high expectations, since She Wore a Yellow Ribbon seems to be universally loved by classic film fans. It’s the second in Ford’s unofficial “Cavalry Trilogy,” but aside from the gorgeous visuals I thought it was a much weaker movie than the first, Fort Apache. (The third part of the trilogy is Rio Grande, which was released in 1950 and also starred John Wayne.) On the other hand, I brought no particular expectations to Ford’s last film, 3 Godfathers, and I enjoyed that one quite a bit.

Mighty Joe Young (July 27, 1949)

Mighty Joe Young

Mighty Joe Young (1949)
Directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack
Argosy Pictures / RKO Radio Pictures

This review originally appeared last year on The Mortuary as part of The Ludovico Film Institute’s program on Ray Harryhausen.

Mighty Joe Young is a wonderful fantasy movie, but I doubt it would have much staying power without the special effects work of Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen.

At a young age, Harryhausen was influenced by the groundbreaking stop-motion effects O’Brien created for the dinosaur epic The Lost World (1925). At a slightly less young age, Harryhausen was even more bowled over by O’Brien’s work on King Kong (1933), and a lifelong obsession was born.

Harryhausen’s first professional work was a series of Puppetoons shorts for George Pal at Paramount Pictures. During World War II he worked on various short films. He also worked on commercials and an anthology short called Mother Goose Stories. But Mighty Joe Young was his first big feature film. He was working under the direction of his idol, Willis O’Brien. (In supplementary features on the DVD of Mighty Joe Young that I watched, Harryhausen affectionately refers to him as “Obi.”) O’Brien did all of the continuity sketches, but the majority of the painstaking stop-motion animation was carried out by Harryhausen.

Mighty Joe Young armature

In reality, Mighty Joe Young was a metal armature with hinges and ball-and-socket joints covered with rubber and fur. But on screen, he is a living, breathing creature with emotions that are as easy for the audience to understand as the most overwrought histrionics of a silent-movie actor.

For instance, watch the clip below, which shows Mighty Joe Young’s first appearance at the Golden Safari Club (which was reportedly inspired by the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Los Angeles). Look at the mix of emotions on Joe’s face. Confusion. Concern for the girl he’s holding up, who is his only friend. And curiosity about all the people thronged to see him. Mixed with the music of “Beautiful Dreamer” (Joe’s favorite song), it’s a powerful moment, and it was created one frame at a time by Ray Harryhausen with metal, rubber, fur, and bits of clay for Joe’s lips and brow.

If Mighty Joe Young had been played by Ray “Crash” Corrigan in a gorilla suit, it just wouldn’t have had the same effect.

Mighty Joe Young is a series of grand stop-motion set pieces. Each is more spectacular than the one before it, and each tells us more about Joe’s character. When we first see him, he’s a ferocious beast, smashing open a lion’s cage. His ferocity remains formidable, but we grow more sympathetic to him as we begin to see his noble heart. Not to mention the fact that he’s mistreated by humans in infuriating ways.

The human protagonists of the film aren’t nearly as interesting as Joe, but they all give good performances.

Robert Armstrong plays Max O’Hara, the blustery Hollywood producer who brings Mighty Joe Young to America. It’s a very similar role to that of Carl Denham, who Armstrong portrayed in both King Kong (1933) and Son of Kong (1933), both of which — like Mighty Joe Young — were directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack.

According to Harryhausen, writer Ruth Rose patterned the character of Max O’Hara on producer Merian C. Cooper, who always wanted things “bigger!”

Moore and Joe on stage

Terry Moore plays Joe’s oldest human friend, Jill Young, a white girl who grew up in Africa on her father’s farm. She purchased Joe from two natives when he was still an infant. (She was lonely and had no one to play with.) In many ways, Jill is as much of an outsider in America as Joe is.

Film fans today probably know Ben Johnson best from his work with Sam Peckinpah — he appeared in Major Dundee (1965), The Wild Bunch (1969), Junior Bonner (1972), and The Getaway (1972). Or possibly they know him as “Sam the Lion” in Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971) or as G-man Melvin Purvis in John Milius’s Dillinger (1973). If you’re a horror fan, you might know him from Charles B. Pierce’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976) or Roger Spottiswoode’s Terror Train (1980).

In Mighty Joe Young, Johnson plays Gregg, an Oklahoma ranch hand and rodeo rider, which is exactly what Johnson was in real life. He’s a little wooden, but his authenticity makes up for it. Johnson had bit parts in a bunch of films before Mighty Joe Young, but this was his first leading role, and the first time he had his name in the credits.

Moore and Johnson

Mighty Joe Young won one Oscar at the 22nd Academy Awards, for best visual effects.

Despite Harryhausen’s spectacular special effects, Mighty Joe Young was a box-office disappointment at the time of its release, and plans for a possible sequel, in which Joe would team up with RKO’s other hot jungle property — Tarzan (at this point played by Lex Barker), were scrapped.

But it was just the beginning for Harryhausen.

Mighty Joe Young will be shown on TCM on February 24, 2014.

3 Godfathers (Dec. 1, 1948)

3 Godfathers
3 Godfathers (1948)
Directed by John Ford
Argosy Pictures / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

After making the western masterpiece Fort Apache (1948), director John Ford returned to the religious overtones of the movie he made right before Fort Apache, The Fugitive (1947).

3 Godfathers reimagines the biblical story of the three wise men as a story of three bank robbers from Texas who are fleeing a U.S. Marshal in the Arizona Territory.

Unlike Ford’s previous several black & white films, 3 Godfathers is shot in Technicolor. It’s dedicated to the memory of Harry Carey, “Bright Star of the early western sky.” (Carey acted in dozens of Ford’s early films, and died on September 21, 1947.)

3 Godfathers stars John Wayne and Pedro Armendáriz, and “introduces” Harry Carey’s son, Harry Carey, Jr.

I put “introduces” in quotation marks because he’d already had credited roles in several films, including Pursued (1947), Red River (1948), and Moonrise (1948).

The three bank robbers are named Robert Marmaduke Hightower (John Wayne), William Kearney, a.k.a. “The Abilene Kid” (Harry Carey, Jr.), and Pedro “Pete” Roca Fuerte (Pedro Armendáriz). John Wayne’s drinking buddy, Ward Bond, plays the U.S. Marshal who pursues Robert, William, and Pedro after they rob a bank. Bond’s character is named Perley “Buck” Sweet, or “B. Sweet,” a name Robert finds hilarious. Marshal Sweet’s bearlike body and easygoing nature belie his craftiness. When he first pursues the bank robbers, he shoots a hole in their waterskin, then he sets up camp with his deputies at the spot he thinks they’ll have to circle back to in order to get water.

Godfather John Wayne

Wandering through the desert, the three bank robbers find a dying woman (Mildred Natwick), who has just given birth to a baby. She tells them that they will be the boy’s godfathers, and she names her baby after the three of them — Robert William Pedro.

The following section of the film is sort of like a religious version of Three Men and a Baby in the Old West, as the trio of roughnecks try to figure out how to care for a baby in sometimes hilarious ways. When they finally rig up a nursing device and fill the bottle with milk, John Wayne laughs and says, “Boy, he hops to it like a drunkard at a Fourth of July barbecue.”

There are tender moments, too, like the one in which Carey holds the baby and sings “Streets of Laredo” in a beautiful baritone.

The religious aspects of the story are fairly explicit. The three godfathers follow a bright star in the sky toward the town of New Jerusalem, and they do so to the musical strains of “Away in a Manger” as the desert sands blow over the large wooden cross they’ve placed over the baby’s mother’s grave. They also use Bible verses as guides and portents in their journey.

3 Godfathers is based on Peter B. Kyne’s first novel, which was published in 1913. An immensely popular little work, The Three Godfathers was first filmed as The Three Godfathers (1916), a silent film directed by Edward LeSaint that starred Harry Carey. John Ford filmed the story as Marked Men (1919), again starring Carey. Ford made another version of the story called Action in 1921, William Wyler made a version called Hell’s Heroes in 1929, and Richard Boleslawski filmed a version called Three Godfathers in 1936.

I’ll admit that John Ford’s appeal sometimes eludes me. I’m not nearly as in love with some of his masterpieces as others are. But while 3 Godfathers will probably never be counted as one of Ford’s masterpieces, I thought it was a well-crafted, emotionally satisfying film. It’s also the perfect choice if you love westerns and are looking for a good movie to watch around Christmas with your family.