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Tag Archives: Charles Kemper

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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Scarlet Street (Dec. 28, 1945)

Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street immediately draws comparisons to Lang’s 1944 film The Woman in the Window. Released just a year apart, both films star Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, and Dan Duryea. Both films feature Bennett as a femme fatale, Robinson as a milquetoast man approaching old age who is desperate for some kind of excitement, and Duryea as a hustler and a punk who’s only out for himself. The two films share motifs; murder with sharp objects, city streets at night, painted portraits, and foolish old men ensnared by mysterious young women.

In terms of tone and plot, however, the two films are quite different. The Woman in the Window is a well-crafted tale of mystery and suspense in which a murder occurs early on, and the protagonist spends the rest of the film dealing with the consequences. It’s a good picture, but its impact is undercut by a cop-out ending (possibly necessitated by the Hays Code) that castrates the grim dénouement and breaks the most basic rule of maintaining audience engagement with a narrative. Scarlet Street, on the other hand, is grim and fatalistic, and its single, horrific murder doesn’t occur until near the end of the picture. Robinson’s character in Scarlet Street isn’t drawn into a suspenseful adventure in which he has to hide evidence and protect a woman’s honor, he’s drawn into a doomed romance with a heartless and conniving young woman, and he only realizes the trap he’s walked into until long after its jaws have clamped shut around him.

Scarlet Street opens on a scene of a party. It’s the kind of party we don’t see very often in the movies anymore. There are no women, and all of the men are dressed in tuxedos. Christopher Cross (Robinson) is receiving a gold pocket watch for his 25 years of service as a cashier in a bank. When Cross’s employer, J.J. Hogarth (Russell Hicks), stands up, he is clearly the man in charge; tall, commanding, and about to leave the party for a date with a blonde. Cross sits on the opposite side of the table and appears diminutive and meek. When Cross reads the engraved message on the watch, “To my friend, Christopher Cross, in token of twenty-five years of faithful service, from J.J. Hogarth, 1909-1934,” he seems genuinely touched by the line, “To my friend,” and pauses briefly after reading the words to smile. He is clearly a man with few friends.

He is also a man locked in a loveless marriage. We later learn that he married his landlady just a few years earlier, after her police detective husband died while trying to save a woman from drowning. Her late husband’s ridiculously large portrait hangs above the mantle in their living room, and Adele Cross (Rosalind Ivan) never misses an opportunity to unfavorably compare Chris with her “heroic” first husband.

On his way home from the party, Cross meanders through the rain-slicked streets of Greenwich Village. He sees a young man beating up a young woman under elevated train tracks, and he impetuously runs to her aid. His rescue attempt can barely be called heroic (he covers his eyes as he jabs her assailant with his umbrella), but it is still an act of courage, which makes what comes next so tragic.

Scarlet Street is based on the novel La Chienne (The Bitch), by Georges de La Fouchardière, which was adapted as a play by André Mouëzy-Éon, and as a film in 1931 by Jean Renoir. The French title pretty much sums up Kitty March (Bennett). She and her “boyfriend” Johnny Prince (Duryea) only care about money and the objects money can buy. As soon as Chris tells Kitty that he paints, she gets the idea in her head that he’s famous and rich, and that she’ll be able to squeeze him for all he’s worth. Of course, he only paints on Sundays as a hobby, but he initially lets her believe that he’s a painter, just as he lets himself believe her claim that she works as an actress.

This being a film from the ’40s, the words “pimp” and “prostitute” are never spoken, but if the viewer infers that Kitty is a prostitute and Johnny is her pimp, absolutely nothing in the film contradicts the idea. (And this was indeed their relationship in La Chienne.) It is clear that Kitty has no regular job, but she regularly ponies up money to give to Johnny. Johnny also has no visible means of support except the money she gives him. He hustles a little here and there, but it seems as if his main source of income is Kitty. At one point in the film she even states that she’s given him a total of $900 over a course of time, and that she’s still waiting for him to buy her a ring with that money. That’s an incredible amount of money for a woman with no job or inheritance to produce in 1945, unless she was tricking. Also, the fact that she’s giving him money that she then asks him to possibly spend on her implies a pimp-prostitute relationship.

The one-way exchanges of money and Johnny’s casual mention of various men from whom Kitty could get $50 for the night isn’t the only thing that marks Johnny as a pimp and Kitty as his whore. The casual way he slaps her around several times over the course of the film implies this, as well as the fact that he constantly refers to her as “Lazylegs.” Later in the film we even learn that Johnny was beating her up in the street at the beginning of the film because she showed up at the end of the night with less money than he expected.

The callousness of Johnny and Kitty and their pimp-prostitute relationship isn’t the only taboo this film breaks. Scarlet Street may very well be the first film made after Hollywood began enforcing the Hays Code that shows a character committing a murder that goes unpunished. Scarlet Street was distributed by Universal Pictures, but it was independently produced by Fritz Lang Productions, which may have given Lang more leeway in the way he presented his conclusion. On the other hand, the end of the film isn’t really about “getting away with murder,” since the hell the murderer is trapped in is worse than any earthly prison. It’s a bleak, existential ending, and one of the most tragic I have ever seen.

The Southerner (April 30, 1945)

SouthernerFrench director Jean Renoir directed this adaptation of George Sessions Perry’s novel Hold Autumn in Your Hand, which won the first National Book Award in 1941. (The novel was adapted by screenwriter Hugo Butler, with uncredited contributions from Nunnally Johnson and William Faulkner.)

Zachary Scott, in a role originally intended for Joel McCrea, plays a Texas cotton picker named Sam Tucker who decides he doesn’t want to be a sharecropper anymore. He wants to grow his own cotton, harvest it, and be responsible for his own destiny. So he buys a piece of land and a ramshackle little house, and moves his wife (played by Betty Field), his children, and their crotchety grandmother onto it. Once there, the Tuckers must valiantly struggle against nature, disease, and their fellow humans to make a go of it.

The Southerner received three Academy Award nominations, including one for best director. Renoir didn’t win, but he was named best director by the National Board of Review, which also named The Southerner the third best film of 1945, after the World War II documentary The True Glory and Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (which won the Oscar for best picture). Despite all these accolades, I was lukewarm about this picture. Scott is good in his role. His acting is understated, and he embodies “quiet dignity.” J. Carrol Naish is also very good as the villain of the piece, Tucker’s neighbor who seeks to destroy Tucker merely because of his inchoate hatred for anyone who tries to rise from his station in life. In fact, all the actors are good, except for perhaps Beulah Bondi, who hams it up a bit as Granny, a prickly pear if ever there was one. (Also, it might be hard for modern viewers to see her sitting in her rocking chair in the bed of a slow-moving pickup truck along with all the family’s worldly possessions and not think of The Beverly Hillbillies, which is unfortunate, since this film strives to be a realistic human drama.) My tepid reaction to the film is not related to any of the particulars, but rather to the overall feeling I had at the end. I just felt as if something was missing. Some essential component that would make me care about the characters and their situation more than I did.

Renoir is today best known for his French-language films like Grand Illusion (1937) and The Rules of the Game (1939), but he made a few English-language films besides this one. The first was Swamp Water (1941), which, like The Southerner, is about simple rural Americans. Perhaps my cool reaction to this film was due to the fact that I don’t find simple people as compelling as complicated people. Or maybe it’s just because the print I saw was kind of crummy. If the visual beauty of the countryside were allowed to shine through, maybe I would have liked it more. I’ve read that Renoir considered this his favorite American-made film. And, as I mentioned above, it was very successful with critics. So if this sounds like the kind of film you enjoy, then by all means you should see it. Meanwhile, I’ll be next door, watching a late ’40s film noir set in a big city about paranoid, sweaty people who aren’t quietly dignified in the slightest.