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Tag Archives: Henry Fonda

Fort Apache (March 9, 1948)

Understand me, gentleman. I am not a martinet, but I do want to take pride in my command. We here have little chance for glory or advancement. While some of our brother officers are leading their well-publicized campaigns against the great Indian nations — the Sioux and the Cheyenne — we are asked to ward off the gnat stings and flea bites of a few cowardly digger Indians.

This irony-laden speech by Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) occurs early in the second reel of John Ford’s Fort Apache. It foreshadows the tragic and violent finale of the film, and firmly establishes what kind of man Thursday is. Not only is he the dictionary definition of a martinet, but his underestimation of the Apache will be fatal.

When Captain Kirby York (John Wayne) protests that Cochise and his Apache warriors are far from “digger Indians,” Thursday refuses to listen, and the conflict between Capt. York and Lt. Col. Thursday only intensifies as the film goes on. When York, who is familiar with the customs of the Apaches, arranges a meeting with Cochise (played by Miguel Inclán), Thursday refuses to honor the agreement Kirby makes with Cochise. “There is no question of honor, sir, between an American officer and Cochise,” Thursday says. Kirby simply responds, “There is to me, sir.”

In a lesser film, Thursday’s rigid adherence to discipline would mask cowardice, but Thursday isn’t a coward. He isn’t vainglorious either. When York, who remembers Thursday as a general from Civil War, addresses him as “general,” Thursday curtly corrects him. “I’m not a general, Captain,” he says. “A man is what he’s paid for. I’m paid in the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.”

Fonda’s performance in Fort Apache is remarkable. His character is so clearly in the wrong so much of the time that it would be easy for him to be a stock villain, but he never is.

Fort Apache is a study in heroism and myth-making, and a story of how the messiness of real life will always end up either forgotten or completely remade.

Of course, since it’s a film directed by John Ford, it’s also a film full of broad comedy, mawkish Irish sentimentalism, and lionizations of the common man.

And no matter how much Ford ever deconstructed the idea of heroism and myth-making in any of his films, he couldn’t resist engaging in his own larger-than-life artistry. Just like My Darling Clementine (1946), Ford shot Fort Apache in Monument Valley because it looked good, not because it was where the real events of his story took place.

Fort Apache isn’t a perfect film, but it’s damned close. It’s an excellent western, and a great film about the U.S. Cavalry that doesn’t paint the Apache as mindless savages. There are references to men tied to wagon wheels, roasted alive (off screen, of course), but Cochise and his warriors are never two-dimensional villains.

Fonda and Wayne are the stars of the film, but they have excellent support from the rest of the cast, especially Ward Bond, who plays Sergeant Major Michael O’Rourke, and Pedro Armendáriz, who plays Sergeant Beaufort.

If there’s a weak link for me in the film, it’s John Agar, who plays Second Lieutenant Michael Shannon O’Rourke. When Agar appeared in Fort Apache he was the real-life husband of Shirley Temple, who plays Lt. Col. Thursday’s daughter, Philadelphia Thursday. (Agar and Temple married on September 19, 1945, and were divorced on December 5, 1949. They had one child together.)

In terms of action, Fort Apache is stately and fetishistic. There are no real skirmishes that lead up to the final battle — as there would be in any picture made today — there is only the aftermath of Apache raiding parties.

And in the charge that begins the final battle, the bugler is the first to be killed by Cochise and his men, putting an end to the stirring patriotic music, which is perfectly fitting. The final battle is accompanied only by Apache war whoops, gunshots, and the thunder of hoof beats.

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Daisy Kenyon (Dec. 25, 1947)

Maybe I’ve been watching too many crime melodramas, but I kept expecting Otto Preminger’s Daisy Kenyon to go in a different direction than it did. It’s a movie that’s often classified as a film noir, and the cinematography by Leon Shamroy is an atmospheric blend of light and shadow. David Raksin’s score is lush and moving. The performances of the film’s three stars are all excellent.

But I kept expecting things to devolve into murderous tragedy, and it was a little disconcerting when they didn’t. Granted, the film was based on a controversial bestseller by Elizabeth Janeway about adultery, so plenty of film-goers in 1947 and 1948 knew exactly what to expect when they bought their tickets. I, on the other hand, was thrown for a loop by how understated and mature the story ended up being.

Daisy Kenyon (Joan Crawford) is a successful commercial artist who is in a long-standing relationship with a married man, a lawyer named Dan O’Mara (Dana Andrews). When the film begins, she’s beginning to realize that Dan is never going to leave his wife for her, even though he loves Daisy very much. This opening put me in mind of Joan Crawford’s last picture, Possessed (1947), which could be why I kept expecting Daisy Kenyon to end in a murder, a suicide, or both.

Another reason is the creepy, shell-shocked performance of Henry Fonda as combat veteran Peter Lapham, the man Daisy hastily marries after she breaks off her affair with Dan.

Interestingly, Daisy Kenyon is a story in which things start to go bad not when an adulterous love affair begins, but when it ends.

Even though there is a good deal of tension in the relationships between the characters in Daisy Kenyon, I didn’t find myself very invested in the story. I did appreciate that it was a well-made film with no real heroes or villains, but it never fully captured my imagination. The last 10 minutes are really good, however, and I honestly didn’t know how it was going to end.

Daisy Kenyon is recommended for Joan Crawford devotees, Otto Preminger completists, and fans of women’s pictures.

The Fugitive (Nov. 3, 1947)

Faith and religiosity are notoriously difficult things to depict on film. It’s easy to go too far in one direction — witness for instance, the brutal, mind-numbing literalism of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004). Belief and faith are abstract things, and while cinema can suggest the abstract, it is still a visual medium.

John Ford’s The Fugitive is rarely numbered among the director’s greatest achievements, but it was reportedly one of his personal favorites. It was filmed entirely in Mexico, and much of the crew was assembled from the Mexican film industry.

In it, Henry Fonda plays a fugitive priest, on the run from the authorities after the church and its emissaries have been made illegal following a civil war. He’s a man whose faith appears to be broken — or at least in the process of being tested — but it’s difficult to really know, because Fonda’s performance is so blank-eyed and tentative that it’s hard to know what’s going on in his mind for most of the picture. Ironically, The Fugitive is a movie that is strongest when it is at its most heavy-handed.

It’s clear from the outset that the movie is meant to be seen as an allegory — the opening narration tells us as much. Also, in the opening credits, we see that none of the characters have names. Fonda plays “A Fugitive,” Dolores del Rio plays “An Indian Woman,” Pedro Armendáriz plays “A Lieutenant of Police,” J. Carrol Naish plays “A Police Informer,” Leo Carrillo plays “A Chief of Police,” and Ward Bond plays “El Gringo.” It’s also not meant to take place in Mexico, but rather, as the narrator informs us, “merely a small state, a thousand miles north or south of the Panama Canal. Who knows?”

Graham Greene’s 1940 novel The Power and the Glory (also published as The Labyrinthine Ways) did actually take place in Mexico, but the filmmakers likely didn’t want to offend their host country with a story that was critical of the Mexican Revolution or any of its ramifications.

Greene wrote The Power and the Glory when he was himself a kind of fugitive. Twentieth Century-Fox and Shirley Temple’s lawyers had sued Greene and the magazine Night and Day for criminal libel over his review of the film Wee Willie Winkie (1937), which — ironically — was directed by John Ford. In his review of the film, Greene wrote of Temple that “she measures a man with agile studio eyes, with dimpled depravity. Her admirers — middle-aged men and clergymen — respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire.”

Greene’s trip to Mexico in 1938 was ostensibly at the behest of the Vatican, who wanted him to document anti-Catholic violence and persecution. According to Greene’s friend, director Alberto Cavalcanti, whose lost autobiography was recently unearthed, Greene’s real reason for going to Mexico was to escape Temple’s lawyers.

In any case, whatever narrative subtlety and moral complexity the novel had is not present in the film, which has little to offer in the way of ideas. I hesitate to call Henry Fonda “miscast,” because he’s usually such a wonderful performer, but he really is awful in The Fugitive. His facial expressions range from beatific to panicked, and that’s about it.

The power of the film — and it is a powerful film, especially toward the end — comes from its visuals. Ford and his cinematographer, Gabriel Figueroa, crafted a beautiful-looking movie, full of nighttime shadows, murky light, and sun-drenched wide open spaces. The final sequence, which is an allegory for the crucifixion and resurrection, is achieved with very little dialogue, and is well-done, if a little obvious.

The Long Night (May 28, 1947)

Anatole Litvak’s The Long Night is a remake of Marcel Carné’s 1939 drama Le Jour se lève. It stars Henry Fonda, Ann Dvorak, Vincent Price, and Barbara Bel Geddes in her screen debut.

Litvak, who was born in Kiev, worked in the Soviet cinema system in Leningrad, in the pre-war film industry of Berlin, in France after Hitler’s rise to power, and finally in Hollywood, where he became a contract director for Warner Bros. in 1937. Litvak became an American citizen in 1940, enlisted in the Army, and worked with Frank Capra on his Why We Fight series of short films. Litvak finished the war with the rank of colonel and returned to directing Hollywood features. Two of his most famous films would follow — Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) and The Snake Pit (1948).

The Long Night, his first post-war feature, is less well-known. For a long time, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who remembered seeing it. But thanks to a pristine print on DVD from Kino Video (released in 2000 along with a VHS version), this flawed but worthwhile drama is now widely available. In the special features section of the Kino DVD, there are a couple of side-by-side comparisons with Le Jour se lève — a murder sequence in a darkened stairwell and the first meeting of the two lovers — that show how heavily Litvak borrowed from Carné’s film, at least stylistically. (The ending of The Long Night is radically different from the ending of Le Jour se lève, however, which is a standard practice in Hollywood remakes of depressing European art films.)

Despite the happy ending, Litvak infuses The Long Night with a pervasive sense of doom. After shooting a man in his apartment building in an unnamed steel town somewhere near the Pennsylvania-Ohio state line, Joe Adams (Henry Fonda) sits alone in his rented room, the door barricaded as police and onlookers swarm the street below his window. Accompanied by a refrain from Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, Joe tells his story through flashbacks, and we learn what brought him to this desperate place. “How can I explain when I don’t understand myself?” he thinks to himself.

Joe Adams grew up in an orphanage. “Class of ’34,” he tells the pretty young Jo Ann (Barbara Bel Geddes) when he meets her. (We must presume that Joe is younger than the man who plays him, since Fonda was 29 years old in 1934.) Jo Ann also came from the orphanage, and her romance with Joe is simple, childlike, and profound. Fonda plays Joe as a sweet-natured boy with no ability to plan long-term or handle disappointment or frustration. Bel Geddes plays Jo Ann in much the same way, but instead of being petulant she is naïve and unworldly, and open to the manipulation of a slimy magician named Maximilian the Great (Vincent Price).

Maximilian is a congenital liar. His relationship with Jo Ann is nebulous for some time in the film. He first tells Joe that Jo Ann is his daughter, but that he had to go on the road for 15 years and leave her in the company of strangers. After another series of flashbacks, however, it becomes clear that Maximilian and Jo Ann were romantically involved. He took her to see the Cleveland Symphony when she had never been as far west as Pittsburgh, and forced himself on her when she had never been kissed. Jo Ann was uncomfortable with Maximilian’s actions, but she was also lonely, and Maximilian offered her a world of excitement and glamor.

The visual style of The Long Night, its doomed protagonist buffeted by forces outside of his control, and its story told through flashbacks are all hallmarks of film noir, but it also has elements of social realism. For instance, Joe befriends Maximilian’s assistant Charlene (played by the always wonderful Ann Dvorak). He lies on her bed on a Sunday afternoon, reading the funnies, in her crummy room full of clutter, next to a couple of big bottles of beer and a bag of pretzels he brought for them to eat. She provides a stack of toast. She’s in the bath when he arrives, and throws on a slinky silk robe. It’s unclear how close Joe and Charlene really are, but the realism of the setting and the intimacy of the situation push the limits of Hays Code acceptability.

Along with the realism and intimacy of some of the interior settings, there’s plenty of artifice in The Long Night. Unlike the typical Hollywood production in which backdrops were either matte paintings or rear-projection film, production designer Eugène Lourié used elaborate sets with tricks of forced perspective in The Long Night. For example, a factory on a hillside in the distance is really a small model that could be lit in whichever way the filmmakers wanted. Lourié and Litvak intended to achieve a kind of “poetic reality,” and they succeeded. At the same time, the artifice sometimes clashes with the realism, and when it does the film feels aimless.

The Long Night was a commercial and critical failure, and lost approximately $1 million, but it was also the springboard for Barbara Bel Geddes’s long onscreen career. After seeing her performance in the film, RKO signed her to a seven-picture deal.

My Darling Clementine (Dec. 3, 1946)

My Darling Clementine
My Darling Clementine (1946)
Directed by John Ford
20th Century-Fox

“This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” — The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

John Ford’s My Darling Clementine is one of the most lauded westerns of all time.

Most criticism of the film is directed at its numerous historical inaccuracies, not its artistic merits. The ages of the Earp brothers are changed, for what seems no discernible reason. Characters die in the film who didn’t die until decades later. The chain of events that led up to the shootout near the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, in 1881 is highly fictionalized. In reality, Doc Holliday was a dentist, not a medical doctor. The list goes on and on.

So to enjoy this film, it’s probably best not to watch it with a talkative history junkie.

And if you yourself are a history junkie, try to ignore all the little details and appreciate this film for what it is — one of the great westerns, full of iconic scenes, memorable performances, finely staged action, and little moments that would be copied over and over again in westerns in the decades that followed.

My Darling Clementine is a remake of Allan Dwan’s Frontier Marshal (1939), which starred Randolph Scott as Wyatt Earp. Both films are based on Stuart N. Lake’s book Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal, which was based on interviews with Earp, although most historians suspect that either Lake was embellishing or Earp was.

Again, it really doesn’t matter when it comes to this film. The plot is not the important thing, it’s Ford’s evocation of a frontier town. The rhythms of life, the strong feeling of nighttime, daytime, daybreak — all are perfectly realized. It doesn’t matter that the real Tombstone isn’t anywhere near Monument Valley. Ford shot there because he liked the way it looked.

Day for night shooting can look terribly fake, or just plain terrible, but in this film Ford makes it look beautiful. In one nighttime scene, Wyatt Earp appears on a rooftop, shot in low angle, firing his revolver at a man fleeing on horseback. Behind him is a dark sky full of silvery clouds. The scene clearly wasn’t filmed at night, but it’s still breathtaking.

Henry Fonda

Henry Fonda’s performance as Wyatt Earp is one of the finest I’ve ever seen in a western. Protagonists in westerns tend to be stalwart men of few words, and Earp is no exception, but the humanity Fonda is able to express merely through his eyes is remarkable.

Fonda generates absolute authority in every scene. Except, of course, when he’s with the pretty Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs). The scene in which he takes her to a Sunday dance at the site where the town’s church will be built is one of the highlights of the film. As Earp walks beside Clementine, the congregation sings “Shall We Gather at the River?” (later to be paid gruesome homage to by Sam Peckinpah when he made The Wild Bunch in 1969). The budding romance between the two is palpable, and is a fine example of Fonda’s wonderful silent acting.

Walter Brennan is also great as Old Man Clanton, the vicious patriarch of a nasty clan. Brennan played a lot of cuddly, blustery sidekicks, but here he’s completely convincing as a cold-eyed villain who tells his boys things like, “When you pull a gun, kill a man.”

I’m less bowled over by Victor Mature’s performance as Doc Holliday. The oily Mature seems to be in a different picture in most of his scenes, as he drinks to escape his past and romances the tragic prostitute Chihuahua (Linda Darnell).

As I said, the liberties Ford takes with history are legion. But as Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp (1994) showed, an accurate recitation of the facts doesn’t necessarily make for compelling drama. And who cares about the actual details of the shootout near the O.K. Corral when we have things in this film like Earp standing perfectly still as a stagecoach pulls in, then running to his left as soon as it kicks up a trail of dust, nearly invisible even to the viewer as he fires several shots and hits his target?

Producer Daryl F. Zanuck notoriously tinkered with this film. He thought Ford’s original version was too long, so he had director Lloyd Bacon shoot some new footage, and then re-edited the film himself. While some of Ford’s lost footage has been unearthed, his original version is lost. Would it have been a better film? Possibly. Is the version we are left with still a great film, and one of the greatest American westerns? Absolutely.