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Ramrod (Feb. 21, 1947)

Ramrod
Ramrod (1947)
Directed by André De Toth
United Artists

They called it God’s country … until the Devil put a woman there! screams the poster for André de Toth’s Ramrod.

That darned Scratch. Goin’ and puttin’ women where they oughtn’t to be.

The woman in Ramrod is Connie Dickason, whose slight frame and small stature belie her will of iron. She’s played by Veronica Lake (de Toth’s wife from 1944 to 1952).

Connie’s fiancé, Walt Shipley (Ian MacDonald), plans to bring sheep through public grazing land, which hasn’t endeared him to local cattleman Frank Ivey (Preston Foster), who has Connie’s father, Ben Dickason (Charles Ruggles), in his pocket.

Alcoholic cowhand Dave Nash (Joel McCrea) has worked for Shipley for the past three weeks. At the request of Connie, with whom he has a history, he backs up Shipley when Ivey and his men attempt to stop Shipley from leaving on the night stage. (If Shipley gets out of town, he’ll come back with sheep.)

Sheriff Jim Crew (Donald Crisp) cautions Dave to stay out of it. When Dave says to the sheriff, “I work for Walt,” the sheriff responds, “For three weeks? What do you owe that fool, your life?”

All of this takes place in the first 10 minutes of the film. De Toth drops the viewer into the action in media res. Without a scorecard, it’s hard to keep track of who’s who during the first reel. (And it doesn’t help that Shipley and Ivey look nearly identical.)

Veronica Lake

But things become more clear as the plot rolls forward. Shipley decides that he doesn’t love Connie enough to die for her, so he heads out of town, leaving her his ranch. Connie’s father expects that she’ll do his bidding after Shipley departs, but she throws down the gauntlet with a fiery speech: “From now on I’m going to make a life of my own. And being a woman, I won’t have to use guns. This isn’t just a fight between father and daughter. You’ve pushed Frank Ivey at me ever since I can remember. For years I’ve watched him run things his way. The town, the valley, you, and now me! No one’s ever had the nerve to stand up to him. Well I have!”

Connie hires Dave to be foreman of her ranch, the Circle 66. He in turn hires an old friend of his, a handsome, charming loose cannon named Bill Schell (Don DeFore). Dave is determined that everything the Circle 66 does to fight Ivey be above board, but Connie and Bill have their own ideas. Connie may have made the decent and honest Dave “ramrod” of her outfit, but it’s the violent Bill Schell who is the true instrument of her will.

Joel McCrea

Joel McCrea has the pleasantly handsome, soft-featured face of the dad next door, but he’s tall enough and projects enough quiet menace to be convincing as the ramrod of the Circle 66 ranch. Don DeFore, who usually played pleasant, jovial men, is excellent playing against type as a cold-blooded gunman.

Ramrod is a great western. It’s based on a novel by Luke Short, and de Toth does an excellent job of capturing Short’s hard-boiled western prose and talent for characterization. The tone of the picture is closer to the film noirs of the period than it is to the westerns.

In Ramrod, de Toth creates a grim, violent world in which the righteous are just as likely to die as the wicked. Fistfights in this film don’t end with a bunch of broken furniture, they end with blood. A group of Ivey’s men beat an unarmed cowhand to death in front of Connie. When Bill Schell slaps a man in the face to enrage him, he tells Bill that he won’t be “rawhided” into drawing, so Bill burns his hand with a cigar. When Ivey shoots a man, he steps forward and finishes him off with another shot. Ramrod ends with a shootout, of course, but it doesn’t end with a quick draw or any fancy trick shooting. It ends with a shotgun blast to the gut.

True to the noir tone of the film, there’s a “good girl” to counterbalance Connie, named Rose (Arleen Whelan). The intertwined relationships of Dave, Bill, Connie, and Rose are well-played, and evolve naturally over the course of the film. Character drives the plot of Ramrod forward as much as bullets and fists.

Ramrod premiered on Friday, February 21, 1947, in Salt Lake City, at both the Utah and Capitol theaters. The world premiere event was part of Utah’s centennial celebration as a U.S. Territory. Ramrod went into wide release on May 2, 1947.

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The Best Years of Our Lives (Nov. 21, 1946)

The Best Years of Our Lives
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Directed by William Wyler
RKO Radio Pictures

William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives premiered in New York City on November 21, 1946, and in Los Angeles a month later, on Christmas day. It was a hit with both audiences and critics, and was the biggest financial success since Gone With the Wind in 1939.

The film swept the 19th Academy Awards, winning in all but one category in which it was nominated. The film won best picture, Wyler won best director, Fredric March won best actor, Harold Russell won best supporting actor, Robert E. Sherwood won for best screenplay, Daniel Mandell won for best editing, and Hugo Friedhofer won for best score. (The only category in which it was nominated and did not win was best sound recording. The Jolson Story took home that award.)

There are several reasons for the film’s financial and critical success. It perfectly captured the mood of the times. In 1946, returning servicemen faced an enormous housing shortage, an uncertain job market, food shortages, and a turbulent economy (price controls were finally lifted by the O.P.A. around the time the film premiered). Combat veterans also faced their own personal demons in an atmosphere in which discussing feelings was seen as a sign of weakness. By telling the stories of three World War II veterans returning to life in their hometown, The Best Years of Our Lives held a mirror up to American society.

The biggest reason for the film’s success, however, is that it’s a great movie. Plenty of films made in 1945 and 1946 featured characters who were returning veterans, but none before had shown them in such a realistic, unvarnished way. The Best Years of Our Lives doesn’t try to wring tragedy out of its characters’ personal situations. It’s an overwhelming emotional experience precisely because it doesn’t strain for high emotions. The film earns every one of its quietly powerful moments. Hugo Friedhofer’s score is occasionally overbearing, and a little high in the mix, but at its best it’s moving, and a fair approximation of Aaron Copland’s fanfares for common men. Gregg Toland’s deep focus cinematography is phenomenal. Every image in the film — the hustle and bustle of life in a small American city, the quietly expressive faces of its characters, and the interiors of homes, drugstores, bars, banks, and nightclubs — is fascinating to look at. (Toland was Orson Welles’s cinematographer on Citizen Kane, and he was an absolute wizard.)

Russell Andrews March

The actors in this film are, without exception, outstanding. Fredric March plays Al Stephenson, an infantry platoon sergeant who fought in the Pacific, and who returns to his job as a bank manager. Myrna Loy plays his wife, Milly, Teresa Wright plays their daughter, Peggy, and Michael Hall plays their son, Rob. Dana Andrews plays the shell-shocked Fred Derry, a decorated bombardier and captain in the Army Air Forces in Europe, who returns home to his beautiful wife Marie (Virginia Mayo), whom he married immediately before leaving to serve. Now that the war is over and they are living together, they realize they have very little in common. Harold Russell plays Homer Parrish, a sailor who lost both his hands when his aircraft carrier was sunk.

Russell was a non-professional actor who lost his hands in 1944 while serving with the U.S. 13th Airborne Division. He was an Army instructor, and a defective fuse detonated an explosive he was handling while making a training film. Russell’s performance is key to the success of the film. An actor who didn’t actually use two hook prostheses in his everyday life wouldn’t have been able to realistically mimic all the little things that Russell does; lighting cigarettes, handling a rifle, playing a tune on the piano. More importantly, Russell’s performance is amazing. From the very first scene that the camera lingers on his face as he shares a plane ride home with March and Andrews, I felt as if I knew the man.

Russell is so convincing as a man who has quickly adapted to his handicap that it’s gut-wrenching to watch as his exterior slowly breaks down, and we’re drawn deeper into his world. Homer Parrish has a darkness inside him, and he carries with him the constant threat of violence; bayonets adorn the walls of his childhood bedroom and he spends his time alone in the garage, firing his rifle at the woodpile. His next-door neighbor and childhood sweetheart Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) keeps trying to get close to him, but he pushes her away. In a lesser film, this all might have led to a violent and melodramatic finale, but it merely simmers below the surface, informing his character. Instead, the most emotional scenes with Homer take place in smaller ways, such as when we see that he is not as self-sufficient as he seems, and needs his father’s help every night to remove his prostheses before he goes to sleep.

The Best Years of Our Lives is a great film, and should be seen by everyone who loves movies and is interested in the post-war era. It’s long — just short of three hours — but it didn’t feel long to me. The running time allows its story to develop naturally as the characters enter and re-enter one another’s lives. It also felt more real than any other movie I’ve seen this year. (I can’t think of another movie that wasn’t about alcoholism that featured so many scenes of its characters getting realistically drunk.) And despite all the personal difficulties its characters face, it’s ultimately an uplifting film, full of quiet hope for the future.

The Strange Woman (Oct. 25, 1946)

Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Strange Woman, directed with uncredited assistance from Douglas Sirk, is based on the 1945 novel of the same name by Ben Ames Williams.

Born in 1889, Williams was a prolific novelist who is probably best known today for the same reason he was famous in 1946; he wrote the novel Leave Her to Heaven in 1944, which was made into a hit film in 1945 starring Gene Tierney as Ellen Berent, a calculating sociopath with twisted ideas about love.

The Strange Woman was a natural choice to be made into a film following the success of Leave Her to Heaven. Both stories are psychosexual portraits of women with Electra complexes who use their allure to ensnare men and who don’t allow conventional morality to keep them from their goals; even taboos like murder mean nothing to them.

Unlike Leave Her to Heaven, The Strange Woman is a period piece. The film begins in Bangor, Maine, in 1824. Young Jenny Hager (Jo Ann Marlowe) is being raised by a single father (Dennis Hoey) whose only love in life seems to be drink. After Mr. Hager receives stern words from prosperous shop keeper and importer Isaiah Poster (Gene Lockhart) when he once again begs a jug of liquor off of him, the scene switches to a river bank, where young Jenny is tormenting Mr. Poster’s son Ephraim (Christopher Severn), a sickly boy who can’t swim. She pushes him into the river and holds his head under with her bare foot, but when Judge Henry Saladine (Alan Napier) arrives in a carriage, she says, “Poor, poor Ephraim,” and jumps in. She drags him to shore and blames his predicament on the boys she was with.

The judge is disgusted with Mr. Hager for stumbling through life drunk and failing to care for his daughter, but once Jenny and her father are alone, it’s clear that she loves him unconditionally. “Before long we’ll have everything,” she says. “Just as soon as I grow up we’ll have everything we want, because I’m going to be beautiful.” Mr. Hager tosses his empty jug into the river, and when the ripples clear, child actress Marlowe’s reflection has become that of the beautiful Hedy Lamarr.

Jenny may be all grown up, but clearly only a few years have passed. All the adults are played by the same actors, and things are much the same in Bangor. Her father is still a hopeless drunk and Mr. Poster is still the wealthiest, most powerful man in town. Bangor appears to be a little rowdier, however, with more commerce coming through the docks, and more drunken sailors stumbling around. Jenny and her friend Lena (June Storey) hang around the waterfront, attracting the attention of sailors. Lena tells Jenny that, with her looks, she could get the youngest and best-looking men around, but Jenny replies that she’s only interested in snagging the richest.

When her father confronts her, she flaunts her sexuality, bragging that she can make any man want her, and he beats her viciously. The whipping he gives her, while they stand face to face, is a little ambiguous, and more than a little sexual.

She runs away to Mr. Poster’s house, and shows him the stripes on her back, throwing her hair forward and dropping the back of her dress, as if she’s posing for a racy portrait, and his face registers both shock and lust.

It’s not long before Jenny marries Mr. Poster. It’s clear that he is a replacement for her father. Her physical longing, at least for the moment, is focused on her old friend — and new son-in-law — Ephraim, who has been sent away to school. She writes Ephraim a letter telling him how lucky he is to have a “nice young mother” and that she will “demand obedience and love.” She writes that if he refuses her, “I will punish you by not kissing you good night” and ends her letter with the line “…come home and see what a fine parent I can be. I do think families should be close, don’t you? Your loving mother, Jenny.”

Ephraim (now played by Louis Hayward) returns home, and he and Jenny slowly but surely fall for each other.

As the film poster above rather obviously shows, Jenny has two faces. For instance, when she and Ephraim sit on the banks of the river together, her recollection of pushing him into the river when he was a boy is flawed. She tells him that those rotten boys did it to him, and she tried to save him. Is she lying? Does she know she is lying? Does he know? Does he go along with it because he loves her, or does he truly believe her?

Jenny’s dual nature mirrors the nature of Bangor itself. On the one hand it is a prosperous New England town with an active churchgoing population of well-to-do people (like Mr. Poster and his young wife), but on the other hand it is a seedy little port city full of drunken sailors and “grog shops and low houses” (a.k.a. pubs and brothels). Jenny uses her husband’s money from his shipping and lumber businesses to improve the town, shaming him publicly into contributing large sums to the church. In private, however, she is carrying on with Ephraim, and even encourages him to arrange an “accident” for his father so they can be married.

Ephraim won’t be the last man in Jenny’s trail of conquest, either. As soon as she lays her eyes on John Evered (George Sanders), the tall, strapping foreman of Mr. Poster’s lumber business, it’s clear that the weak-willed Ephraim doesn’t stand a chance.

The Strange Woman is a well-made film with fine performances all around (with perhaps the exception of Gene Lockhart, who as Mr. Poster exhibits some of the most over-the-top reaction shots I’ve seen since watching Grayson Hall on Dark Shadows). Its narrative is sprawling, and clearly adapted from a novel, but the filmmakers keep everything moving along nicely.

Director Ulmer was a talented craftsman who toiled away in Poverty Row for most of his career, producing a few masterpieces, a few awful pictures, and plenty of films in between. The Strange Woman represents the rare film on his résumé with a decent budget and a reasonable shooting schedule. He was lent out by P.R.C. (Producer’s Releasing Corporation) at Lamarr’s insistence (apparently they were friends back in their native Austria-Hungary). He was paid $250 a week for the job. P.R.C. studio boss Leon Fromkess, on the other hand, received roughly $2,500 from United Artists. While he may have gotten the short end of the stick financially, the deal gave Ulmer a chance to work with a professional cinematographer (Lucien Andriot), a major star or two, a well-written script based on a hot property, and major studio distribution.

Along Came Jones (July 19, 1945)

AlongCameJonesAlong Came Jones is a silly little western that verges on being a spoof of the genre, but it’s worth seeing for a couple of reasons. Gary Cooper pokes fun at his stalwart image without devolving into parody, and the gender reversals in some of the action scenes are still surprising.

Cooper plays a singing cowboy (sort of), named Melody Jones. This in itself is funny, because Cooper can barely sing. He’s halfway between a hum and a grumble in the few scenes when he’s called upon to croon a ditty. Along with his crotchety old sidekick, George Fury (played by William Demarest), Jones rolls into the town of Payneville, where he’s mistaken for vicious outlaw Monte Jarrad (played by vicious little squirt Dan Duryea), because his monogrammed saddle has the same initials, “M.J.” The only problem is, it’s not a charade he can keep up very long. Although Jones is tough enough, and can dish out haymakers with the best of them, he can’t handle a gun to save his life (which, by the end of the film, he will be called upon to do more than once). It’s not just that Jones can’t shoot straight, he literally can’t get his revolver out of its holster without it flying out of his hand. At one point, the real Monte Jarrad’s girlfriend, Cherry de Longpre (played by Loretta Young), calls Jones a “butterfingered gun juggler,” and it’s an apt term of derision.

The interesting thing about this film is that Jones never gets any better at handling a gun. Yes, he eventually manages to hold it steady, but he still can’t hit the broad side of a barn. Cherry, on the other hand, is a crack shot who could give Annie Oakley a run for her money. In the climactic showdown, she becomes a distaff John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), and the effect is stunning. Nevertheless, Cooper never comes off as unmanly, especially since he’s willing to stand up to overwhelming odds with absolutely no shooting skills whatsoever. And he twice kisses Young in what has to be the most macho way I’ve ever seen in a movie. I don’t want to give anything away. Just see it.