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Tag Archives: Joanne Dru

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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All the King’s Men (Nov. 8, 1949)

All the King's Men
All the King’s Men (1949)
Directed by Robert Rossen
Columbia Pictures

Director Robert Rossen’s film adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the King’s Men was a big winner at the Oscars in 1950.

With seven nominations and three wins, All the King’s Men just trailed behind William Wyler’s The Heiress (an adaptation of Henry James’s 1880 novel Washington Square), which had eight nominations and four wins.

At the 22nd Academy Awards, All the King’s Men was nominated for Best Motion Picture, Best Director (Robert Rossen), Best Actor (Broderick Crawford), Best Supporting Actor (John Ireland), Best Supporting Actress (Mercedes McCambridge), Best Screenplay (Robert Rossen), and Best Film Editing (Robert Parrish and Al Clark).

It took home the awards for Best Motion Picture, Best Actor for Crawford, and Best Supporting Actress for McCambridge.

Broderick Crawford

These were huge wins for both actors. Broderick Crawford had appeared in a lot of movies, but probably hadn’t made a big impression on the movie-going public. Prior to All the King’s Men his biggest acting success had been playing Lennie in Of Mice and Men on Broadway, but when the film version was made in 1939, he was passed up for the role and Lon Chaney, Jr., was cast instead.

Mercedes McCambridge was an accomplished radio performer who did a lot of work on the air with Orson Welles, but this was her first appearance in a film. Not too shabby!

Rossen did a lot of work as a screenwriter before making All the King’s Men, but it was only the third film he directed. The first two films he directed were Johnny O’Clock (1947), which not very many people saw, and Body and Soul (1947), which was a hit with both critics and audiences.

All the King’s Men was an even bigger success than Body and Soul. In the 1950s, Rossen had trouble with HUAC, eventually “named names,” and continued directing films, but it would be a long time before he would make another widely acclaimed film (The Hustler, with Paul Newman, in 1961).

Just as Citizen Kane was a thinly veiled gloss on the life and career of William Randolph Hearst, All the King’s Men is a thinly veiled gloss on the life and career of Louisiana politician Huey Long.

Huey Long was Governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1932 and a U.S. Senator from 1932 until his death in 1935. He was a political operator who could turn wild dreams into massive public projects, he was a passionate advocate of wealth redistribution, and he was a divisive figure.

The film twists and amplifies Long’s legacy for dramatic effect, but enough of the details are close enough that speaking the name “Huey Long” was forbidden on the set.

Rally

As Willie Stark, Broderick Crawford doesn’t attempt a Southern drawl, but it’s probably better that way. I didn’t even think about the way Crawford was speaking while I was watching the movie. His performance is raw and powerful, and is the perfect mix of bonhomie, sincerity, menace, and naked ambition. Through the eyes of reporter Jack Burden (John Ireland) we see Willie Stark transform from an honest but inexperienced politician to a canny operator in charge of an enormous political machine.

Unlike Citizen Kane, which is one of the most highly stylized films ever made, Rossen and his cinematographer, Burnett Guffey, shot All the King’s Men in a naturalistic fashion. It’s mostly shot in real locations (which are occasionally very drab) and employs a lot of non-actors (a.k.a. “real people”) in small parts. The only really over-the-top visuals occur at Willie Stark’s political rallies, which often take place at night and are full of torches and rows of jackbooted police officers, which makes the rallies resemble the Nuremberg Rally.

I especially liked some of the casting choices. Dark-haired pretty boy John Derek plays Willie Stark’s son, college football star Tom Stark. He is oddly mirrored by Walter Burke as “Sugar Boy,” Willie Stark’s nefarious bodyguard. Derek and Burke have similar bone structure and coloring, but while Derek is handsome and charming, Burke is reptilian and creepy.

All the King’s Men is far from being a docudrama about American politics, but its over-the-top tale of ambition perverted by corruption is still relevant.

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.

Red River (Aug. 26, 1948)

Red River
Red River (1948)
Directed by Howard Hawks
United Artists

Howard Hawks shot Red River in 1946, but its release was delayed due to legal difficulties. The eccentric Howard Hughes contended that parts of Red River were taken from his “lust in the dust” western The Outlaw (1943), which starred Jane Russell and her magnificent breasts.

Anyone who’s seen both Red River and The Outlaw can tell you that any claim of story infringement is spurious, but there was bad blood between Hughes and Hawks (Hawks had worked on The Outlaw as an uncredited co-director), and it took until August 26, 1948, before Red River finally had its premiere.

So while Fred Zinnemann’s The Search (1948) was the film that introduced many moviegoers to Montgomery Clift, Red River was his first acting role in a feature film.

Clift was a born movie star. He was achingly handsome, rail-thin, and blessed with a uniquely vulnerable type of masculinity. On screen, he had a presence that seemed completely natural. Red River is a phenomenal western that works on a number of different levels, but one of its most important aspects is the relationship between Clift and the film’s star, John Wayne.

Wayne and Clift were on opposite ends of the spectrum in every way imaginable; politically, professionally, physically, and sexually. But it’s this contrast that makes Red River work so well.

Wayne and Clift

Red River is the story of a cattle drive along the Chisholm Trail up from Texas. Thomas Dunson (John Wayne) is a big, tough cattleman who took his land by force.

When Dunson was first establishing his grazing land with his best friend Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan), the woman Dunson loved (Coleen Gray) was murdered by Comanches, and he never loved another.

The sole survivor of the massacre, a young man named Matt Garth (played as a boy by Mickey Kuhn) came wandering through the land, leading a cow. Dunson’s bull mated with Garth’s cow, and from this union eventually grew a herd of more than 10,000 longhorns.*

Fourteen years pass, and Garth grows up, now played by Montgomery Clift. The Civil War has ended, and Dunson is no longer able to sell beeves to the impoverished southern states. He decides that he’ll drive his entire herd north to Missouri, where they’ll fetch a fortune. He’s spent his life building his empire, and he wants to pass it down to Matt Garth, his protégé.

The only problem is that Dunson’s greatest strength — his unbending will — is also his greatest weakness, which eventually puts him at loggerheads with the more even-tempered and empathetic Garth.

John Wayne and Montgomery Clift

Borden Chase, who wrote the Saturday Evening Post story on which Red River was based (as well as the screenplay for the film with Charles Schnee), drew liberally from Mutiny on the Bounty in crafting his story.

Despite the fact that his middle name was “Winchester,” this was Howard Hawks’s first directorial credit for a western, which is remarkable considering he’d been directing films since the 1920s and had more than one masterpiece under his belt.

In addition to his own estimable talents as a director, Hawks had some of the finest crew members who ever worked on a Hollywood western when he made Red River. Composer Dimitri Tiomkin’s score is epic. Editor Christian Nyby’s cutting drives the film forward with relentless intensity. And cinematographer Russell Harlan had toiled away for years working on B pictures (mostly westerns) before finally breaking into A pictures with Lewis Milestone’s war movie A Walk in the Sun (1945). He went on to become one of the best cinematographers in the business, and his work on Red River is proof.

Red River is one of the greatest westerns ever made. As I said above, it works on a number of different levels. At its most basic level, Red River is a rousing adventure film about men on a dangerous mission, struggling against the elements and against each other. But on a deeper level, it’s a timeless myth about fathers and sons.

Red River will be shown on TCM this Friday, March 1, 2013, at 10:15 PM ET.

*If you’re a fan of sexual innuendo in old movies, the scene in Red River in which Matt Garth and gunslinger Cherry Valance (John Ireland) compare revolvers is a classic. Many see a gay subtext, which could be there, but gay men hardly have a monopoly on comparing phalluses to see whose is bigger. I think the sexual bonding between men in Red River goes much deeper. Remember that the herd being driven up the Chisholm Trail in Red River are all descended from the union between John Wayne’s bull and Montgomery Clift’s cow. Even though Dunson and Garth are not blood relations, they are bound together.