BEND OF THE RIVER, the second of the James Stewart/Anthony Mann Westerns, isn’t quite as good as the first, WINCHESTER ’73 . That’s not to say it isn’t a good film; it’s just hard to top that bona fide sagebrush classic. Stewart continues his post-war, harder edged characterizations as a man determined to change his ways, and is supported by a strong cast that includes a villainous turn by the underrated Arthur Kennedy .
Jimmy plays Glyn McLyntock, an ex-outlaw now riding as trail boss for a group of farmers heading to Oregon to begin a new life. He encounters Kennedy as Emerson Cole, a horse thief about to be hanged, and enlists his help on the trail west. Both men know each other’s reputations; they were both once raiders along the Missouri/Kansas border. The wagons are attacked at night by Shoshone, an arrow piercing young Laura Baile, daughter of farmer Jeremy. The pilgrims arrive in Portland, where Laura must stay behind to mend, buying supplies and meeting up with “gambling man” Trey Wilson. Jeremy’s other daughter Marji is sweet on him, but the gambler prefers to stay put; the farming life is not for him.
A local recognizes Cole from his outlaw days (though no one, including Jeremy and the farmers, is aware of Glyn’s past), and a shootout ends with Trey assisting Cole. The settlers take the steamboat River Queen upriver to get to their new home, but after months of waiting their supplies start dwindling. Glyn and Jeremy ride back to Portland to find what the holdup is, only to discover gold fever has turned Portland into a boom town, and boss Hendricks has raised the prices of all supplies. Cole and Trey and now working in Hendricks’s gambling emporium, as is Laura. When Glyn confronts him, a fracas ensues, with Cole and Trey choosing to side with Glyn. They escape on the River Queen, with Hendricks’s men in hot pursuit. Glyn has a plan to get to the settlement by finding a mountain crossing, a plan with peril and treachery behind every bend…
Mann’s taut direction and Borden Chase’s screenplay turn BEND OF THE RIVER into Western noir in theme if not in style. The characters of Stewart, a man with a past and something to prove, and Kennedy, whose greed drives him to desperate measures, could fit into any shadowy crime drama of the era. Though it’s Stewart’s film all the way, Kennedy’s role is the showier of the two, and his performance made the movie for me. Jay C. Flippen as Jeremy Baile is always a welcome presence, and a trio of Universal contract players round out the main cast: Julie Adams (Laura), Lori Nelson (Marji), and Rock Hudson (Trey), a young actor on his way up. Familiar Faces dotting the Oregon landscape include Frances Bavier , Royal Dano, Frank Ferguson, Chubby Johnson (as the River Queen’s Cap’n Mello), Donald Kerr , Jack Lambert , Dallas McKinnon, Harry Morgan (still being billed as Henry), Howard Petrie, and Lillian Randolph.
Also in the cast is Stepin Fetchit, the black actor whose lazy and shiftless characters causes modern-day audiences to cringe. Yet here Fetchit is Cap’n Jack’s right hand man as Adam, the two sharing an obvious friendship. Fetchit (1902-1985), Jamaican by birth, was a vaudevillian who parlayed his comic persona as “The Laziest Man On Earth” into a film career that three decades later was denounced by civil rights activists as derogatory to African-Americans. Fetchit’s slow-drawling, slow-moving parts in movies found him playing opposite Will Rogers (a personal friend from their vaudeville days) in four films, two with Shirley Temple (THE LITTLEST REBEL, DIMPLES), the 1929 SHOW BOAT, ON THE AVENUE, and many others. Fetchit was the first black actor in Hollywood to make over a million dollars, though he later declared bankruptcy in 1947. Yes, his stereotyped roles are indeed cringeworthy today, but he is an important figure in Hollywood history, and should not be shuffled off to its dustbins.
BEND OF THE RIVER is important as Stewart and Mann’s first Technicolor Western, its noirish elements, and the continued maturing of the team as forces to be reckoned with in the genre. Next up was THE NAKED SPUR , which further honed Stewart’s darker screen persona. More than just another oater, BEND OF THE RIVER is a film that gets better with repeated viewings.