Hittin’ the Dusty Trail with THE DESPERADOES (Columbia 1943)

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There’s a lot to like about THE DESPERADOES. Not that it’s anything groundbreaking; it’s your standard Western outing with all the standard clichés. you’ve got your two pals, one the sheriff (Randolph Scott ), the other an outlaw (Glenn Ford ). You’ve got your gambling hall dame (Claire Trevor ) and sweet young thing (Evelyn Keyes) vying for the good/bad guy’s attention. You’ve got your goofy comical sidekick (Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams). You’ve got your  supposedly respectable heavy (Porter Hall ), a mean heavy (Bernard Nedell), and a heavy who has a change of heart (Edgar Buchanan). What makes this one different is the movie seems to know it’s clichéd, giving a nod and a wink to its audience as it merrily makes its way down that familiar dusty trail.

Based on a novel by pulp writer Max Brand (who also created the Dr. Kildare series), this was one of Columbia’s big releases of the year, and their first in Technicolor. Charles Vidor, not usually associated with the sagebrush genre, directs with a light touch, even having some of his characters break the Fourth Wall on a couple of occasions. Robert Carson’s screenplay has a sense of humor and a definite touch of playfulness to . But don’t misunderstand, THE DESPERADOES is not a parody, the story’s taken seriously, and there’s plenty of action including a barroom brawl and a wild horse stampede. It just doesn’t take itself too seriously, and that’s the key to its success.

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Randolph Scott is stalwart as always as the hero sheriff. By this time, he was already well-established as a Western star. This was his first film for producer Harry Joe Brown, and the pair would collaborate on a series of oaters in the late 1950’s that are among the genre’s best (THE TALL T, RIDE LONESOME, COMANCHE STATION). Most of those were directed by Budd Boetticher, who worked as an assistant director on this film.

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A still-wet-behind-the-ears Glenn Ford plays the good/bad guy Cheyenne, alias ‘Bill Smith’. Ford was definitely on his way up in movies and, after serving in World War II, hit the jackpot with his role in another Vidor directed film, GILDA. Claire Trevor as The Countess does her patented bad-girl-with-a-heart-of-gold routine as Ford’s ex-gal, while Evelyn Keyes is her rival for his affections. Keyes would also win her man in real life, marrying director Vidor later that year. Edgar Buchanan had his loveable scoundrel part down pat by this time, a role he later perfected on TV’s PETTICOAT JUNCTION. Williams is goofy as ever, Hall as weaselly as ever, and there are fine bits by Raymond Walburn as a ‘hanging judge’ who loves his work so much he builds his own gallows, and Irving Bacon as the local bartender whose saloon gets wrecked more than his patrons.

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The movie features some gorgeous Technicolor shots of Kanab, Utah’s beautiful landscapes by DP George Meehan, though most of it was filmed at the famed Corriganville Western Ranch. Familiar Faces like Joan Woodbury, Glenn Strange , Chester Clute, Francis Ford , Charles King, and a host of others dot the landscape as well. The cast of pros in gorgeous Technicolor and good-natured humor make THE DESPERADOES a must for classic movie lovers, even those non-Western fans among you. Just sit back and enjoy the ride, pardners.

 

Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 11: Five from the Fifties

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The 1950’s were a time of change in movies. Television was providing stiff competition, and studios were willing to do anything to fend it off. The bigger budgeted movies tried 3D, Cinerama, wide-screen, and other optical tricks, while smaller films chose to cover unusual subject matter. The following five films represent a cross-section of nifty 50’s cinema:

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BORDERLINE (Universal-International 1950; D: William A. Seiter)

BORDERLINE is a strange film, straddling the borderline (sorry) between romantic comedy and crime drama, resulting in a rather mediocre movie. Claire Trevor plays an LAPD cop assigned to Customs who’s sent to Mexico to get the goods on drug smuggler Pete Ritchey (Raymond Burr , being his usual malevolent self). She’s tripped up by Ritchey’s rival Johnny Macklin (Fred MacMurray , channeling his inner Walter Neff), and taken along as he tries to get the dope over the border. What she doesn’t know is he’s also an agent, and thinks she’s a smuggler! The movie usually gets shoehorned into the noir category, but besides the drug smuggling angle, it’s just an average ‘B’ flick. Fun Fact: Claire’s husband Milton Bren was the film’s producer.

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THE NARROW MARGIN (RKO 1952; D: Richard Fleischer)

Highly influential ‘B’ noir about a tough cop escorting a mobster’s widow from Chicago to Los Angeles via train to testify on corruption, with hired killers onboard out to stop her by any means possible. Gruff-voiced Charles McGraw and sexpot Marie Windsor deliver Earl Fenton’s hard-boiled dialog with gusto; the film was Oscar-nominated for Best Story, but lost to THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH (they were robbed!). Director Richard Fleischer and DP George Diskant create a textbook example on how to make a tense, exciting movie for under $250,000, with a big plot twist I won’t spoil for those of you who haven’t seen this gem. The ambient sounds of the train travelling take the place of the usual music score, making the violence even more ultra-realistic. A must-see! Fun Fact: Marie Windsor was once a gag writer for Jack Benny. When the comedian finally met her in the flesh, he was stunned by her good looks and helped her secure a Hollywood contract.

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THE BIGAMIST (The Filmakers 1953; D: Ida Lupino)

San Francisco couple Edmond O’Brien and Joan Fontaine want to adopt a child, but when the child welfare investigator (Edmund Gwenn) looks into the case, he discovers O’Brien has another wife (Ida Lupino) in LA. O’Brien gives a sympathetic performance as the man leading a double life, and Lupino handles the sensational material with depth and sincerity. Watch for the scene where O’Brien meets Lupino on a Hollywood tour bus for glimpses of the homes of stars Barbara Stanwyck, James Stewart, Jack Benny, and Gwenn himself! A quiet but powerful film that’s worth your time. Fun Fact: Producer/screenwriter Collier Young was married to Fontaine at the time; before that, he had been the husband of director/star Lupino! Ah, Hollywood!

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THE WILD ONE (Columbia 1953; D: Laszlo Benedict)

The granddaddy of all biker flicks! Marlon Brando is leather clad Johnny, leader of the Black Rebels MC, who terrorize a small California town. Brando’s existential, iconic performance dominates the film, but Mary Murphy is equally good as Kathie, the girl who falls for him. Lee Marvin also deserves a shout-out as Chino, leader of rival gang The Beetles. The scene where Murphy is chased down by the bikers, saved by Johnny, still retains its power. Jerry Paris, Alvy Moore , and that great oddball actor Timothy Carey are among the cyclists; Jay C. Flippen, Ray Teal, and Will Wright represent some of the “straight’ citizens. A bona fide cinema classic, not to be missed! Fun Fact: Brando’s Johnny was the basis for Harvey Lembeck’s goofball Eric Von Zipper character in all those “Beach Party ” movies.

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ROCK ROCK ROCK (DCA 1956; D: Will Price)

13 year old Tuesday Weld makes her film debut as a teenybopper trying to raise money to buy a strapless evening dress for the prom, but you can forget about the dumb plot and enjoy a veritable Rock’n’Roll/Doo Wop Hall of Fame lineup: LaVerne Baker, Chuck Berry (“You Can’t Catch Me”), Johnny Burnett Trio, The Flamingos, Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers (“I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent”), The Moonglows, Big Al Sears, and others, hosted by pioneering rock DJ Alan Freed. Tuesday’s vocals are dubbed by Connie Francis, and co-star Teddy Randazzo was a minor singing star who later wrote the hits “Goin’ Out of My Head” and “Hurts So Bad”. Lots of energetic teenage dancing; just sit back and have a foot-wiggling good time! Fun Fact: This was the first film for the production team Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky, better known for their Amicus horror anthologies.

Double Bogie: THE AMAZING DR. CLITTERHOUSE (1938) and YOU CAN’T GET AWAY WITH MURDER (1939)

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Before Humphrey Bogart became the screen icon known as “Bogie”, he paid his dues as a Warner Brothers contract player, usually cast as a second fiddle gangster who winds up getting filled full of lead by the likes of James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson. It wasn’t until 1941’s THE MALTESE FALCON that Bogart hit the big time, remaining a box office star until his death from cancer in 1956. Here’s a look at two early movies that typecast Bogie again as a gangster, with wildly different results.

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1938’s THE AMAZING DR. CLITTERHOUSE is supposedly a comedy, starring Edward G. Robinson  as a Park Avenue surgeon who’s researching a book about the physiology of criminals, mainly by ripping off his high society friends. He meets up with female fence Jo Keller (Claire Trevor in another of her hard dame roles) and gangster  Rocks Valentine (Bogie). Clitterhouse, dubbed “Professor” by the crooks, takes over the gang, much to Rocks’ chagrin, and studies the goons while they work. Rocks double crosses him during a fur warehouse job, locking the doctor in a refrigerated vault. After escaping, Clitterhouse decides he’s done enough research and is ready to retire. But Rocks has other plans after finding the doctor’s notes, and threatens to reveal his role in the crimes unless Clitterhouse agrees to set up his society pals.

Clitterhouse hasn’t researched the “ultimate crime” yet though… murder! He drops some pyridyl chloride tabs into Rocks’ whiskey, causing an overdose, and dumps the body in the river. Dr. Clitterhouse finally confesses to his crimes, stating everything he did was in the interest of science. He tries to prove himself sane, but the jury disagrees, finding him not guilty by reason of insanity, claiming “an insane man cannot writer a sane book”.

Edward G. Robinson (Dr. T.S. Clitterhouse) is fascinated with the working of the criminal mind. He joins a gang of crooks headed by Humphrey Bogart (Rocks Valentine) for whom Clitterhouse masterminds a series of heists. With Maxie Rosenbloom (Butch) and Claire Trevor (Jo Keller).

Robinson is far too good for this mess, but manages to rise above the mediocre material. Claire Trevor hadn’t quite hit her stride yet as Queen of Noir, and she isn’t really given much to do here. The Warner Brothers Rogue’s Gallery is on hand as the gang members (Maxie Rosenbloom, Allen Jenkins , Curt Bois, Vladimir Sokoloff, and a young Ward Bond ), while Donald Crisp, Henry O’Neill, John Litel, and Gale Page represent law and order. Listen close and you’ll hear Ronald Reagan’s  voice as a radio announcer, his former occupation before hitting Hollywood. Another recent Hollywood arrival, Anatole Litvak, directed as if he’d never seen a gangster picture before.

As for Humphrey Bogart, he is said to have absolutely despised this film. Wouldn’t you, if your character name was Rocks Valentine? He referred to it as “The Amazing Dr. Clitoris” among friends. The one good thing to come out of it for Bogie was he became friends with co-screenwriter John Huston. When Huston was tabbed to direct his first film, THE MALTESE FALCON, he chose Bogie to play the lead, Sam Spade. This was the beginning of a long collaboration for the two men, “the stuff that dreams are made of”, to quote Spade.

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Much better is YOU CAN’T GET AWAY WITH MURDER, released in 1939. Bogart gets top billing in this B-movie, but he’s still playing second fiddle. Dead End Kid Billy Halop plays the lead as Johnny, a young punk who lives in Hell’s Kitchen with his sister Madge, and detests her straight-laced boyfriend Fred. He’d rather hang out with local hood Frank Wilson (Bogart), who takes him under his wing. Soon the pair steal a car and rob a gas station. Johnny steals Fred’s gun, and Frank uses it in a pawn shop stick-up, killing the proprietor. Fred is arrested for the murder, while Johnny and Frank get pinched for the gas station job.

All three are sent to Sing Sing, with Fred on Death Row. Johnny has a crisis of conscience; does he rat out his pal Frank, or let Fred fry in the hot seat? Frank and his thug pals plan a jailbreak, and take Johnny along with the intent of capping him, eliminating the possibility of him cracking under pressure. Johnny and Frank are the only two who make it out, and during a gun battle with the screws Frank puts a slug in Johnny’s  gut. Frank then gives himself up, but the still alive Johnny tells the authorities the truth. The youth is taken to the operating table but doesn’t pull through; however he gets to make amends with Madge and Fred before he dies.

If you can get past the  Brooklynese “dese, dems , and doses”,  you’ll find a good performance from Halop. The leader of the Dead End Kids in films like DEAD END, ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES, and THEY MADE ME A CRIMINAL goes solo here, and shines as a slum kid angry at the world, putting up a tough guy front to mask his fear. The scenes with sister Gale Page are kind of schmaltzy, but don’t distract too much from the action. Bogart gives his stock gangster characterization as the vicious hood Frank, a follow-up of sorts to his Baby Face Martin in DEAD END. He’s good, but we’ve seen it done before.

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Henry Travers (Clarence the Angel from IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE) is on hand as Pop, an old con who befriends Johnny. Harold Huber, Joe Sawyer, and George E. Stone are hardened criminals, and much to my surprise, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson shows up as one of the prisoners. Harvey Stephens is much too bland as Fred… no wonder Johnny decides to follow Bogie! And no,  that’s not James Cagney’s son in the neighborhood pool hall scene. It’s Frankie Burke, a Cagney lookalike who played the actor as a youngster in ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES. Lewis Seiler keeps things zipping along; he had a long but undistinguished Hollywood career.

Humphrey Bogart continued to dwell in “B” purgatory until receiving good reviews in 1941’s HIGH SIERRA, which led to THE MALTESE FALCON and movie immortality. Watching his 1930’s efforts, we get a brief glimpse into what was to come. Of the two, I’d watch YOU CAN’T GET AWAY WITH MURDER again; far as THE AMAZING DR. CLITTERHOUSE goes, once was enough.

 

 

 

 

Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 7: Film Noir Festival

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I first got my DVR service from DirecTV just in time for last year’s TCM Summer of Darkness series, and there’s still a ton of films I haven’t gotten around to viewing… until now! So without further ado, let’s dive right into the fog-shrouded world of film noir:

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RAW DEAL (Eagle-Lion 1948, D: Anthony Mann)

This tough-talking film seems to cram every film noir trope in the book into its 79 minutes. Gangster Dennis O’Keefe busts out of prison with the help of his moll ( Claire Trevor ), kidnaps social worker Marsha Hunt, and goes after the sadistic crime boss (Raymond Burr) who owes him fifty grand. Director Mann and DP John Alton make this flawed but effective ultra-low budget film work, with help from a great cast. Burr’s nasty, fire-obsessed kingpin is scary, and John Ireland as his torpedo has a great fight scene with O’Keefe. The flaming finale is well staged, but I could do without Trevor’s sporadic narration. Fun Fact: Whit Bissell (BRUTE FORCE ) has a brief role as a killer on the run.

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THEY LIVE BY NIGHT (RKO 1947, D: Nicholas Ray)

Nicholas Ray’s first film tells the tale of two young lovers (Farley Granger, Cathy O’Donnell) on the run who try to but can’t escape his life of crime. Ray’s directorial flourishes aid tremendously in making this a good, but not quite great, movie. It bogs down about halfway through, and probably could’ve used some editing, but producer John Houseman gave Ray free rein to create his feature debut. Ray would go on to direct some great films (IN A LONELY PLACE, JOHNNY GUITAR, and of course REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE) and influence a generation of filmmakers. Character actors Howard DaSilva, Jay C. Flippen, Byron Foulger, Ian Wolfe, and Will Wright offer fine contributions, and lead actress O’Donnell gives an outstanding, subdued performance as Keechie. Fun Fact: Remade in 1974 by Robert Altman as THEIVES LIKE US, with Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall as the young lovers.

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BETWEEN MIDNIGHT AND DAWN (Columbia 1950, D: Gordon Douglas)

Programmer following two squad car cops (Edmond O’Brien, Mark Stevens) out to get the goods on gangster Garris (Donald Buka). The cops are also rivals for Gale Storm’s affections, and who can blame them…. I’ve had a crush on the sweet Miss Storm since adolescence! Not really a noir though it usually gets lumped with to the genre. A good cast can’t quite over come the hokey, clichéd script. Fun Fact: Be on the lookout for Madge Blake (BATMAN’s Aunt Harriet), Roland Winters (the last Monogram Charlie Chan), and Phillip Van Zandt (nemesis in countless Three Stooges shorts).   

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THE STRIP (MGM 1951, D: Laszlo Kardos)

You’d think a film noir with a jazz club setting would be perfect, and you’d be right… but this isn’t it (it’s 1941’s BLUES IN THE NIGHT, which I’ll be reviewing at a later date!). Mickey Rooney stars here as a jazz drummer fresh from the Korean War who gets involved with an aspiring actress ( Sally Forrest) and a gangster (Clark Gable wanna-be James Craig). The movie’s saving graces are it’s location scenes inside L.A nightclubs of the era, and some jazz numbers from legends Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Vic Damone, and Monica Lewis (the “Chiquita Banana” girl). Otherwise, pretty disappointing. Fun Fact: THE STRIP was nominated for (but didn’t win) an Oscar for the song “A Kiss to Build a Dream On”.

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INFERNO (20th Century Fox 1953, D: Roy Ward Baker)

Red haired sexpot Rhonda Fleming and lover William Lundigan leave her husband Robert Ryan to die out in the desert with a broken leg. They think they’ve committed “the perfect murder”, but didn’t count on Ryan’s sheer willpower and McGyver-like ingenuity. INFERNO was 20th Century Fox’s first 3-D movie (in Technicolor), and DP Lucien Ballard’s location shots in the Mojave Desert lend it a rugged feel (I would love to see this one on the big screen as intended). Director Baker also made the Marilyn Monroe noir DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK , and went on to direct some chilling Hammer films later in his career. Henry Hull (WEREWOLF OF LONDON) appears as an old desert rat, and the climactic fight between Ryan and Lundigan in a burning cabin will definitely hold your interest, as indeed will the whole movie. A neat film about survival and revenge, well worth watching! Fun Fact: Remade twenty years later as the TV Movie ORDEAL with Arthur Hill, Diana Muldaur, and James Stacy in the Ryan/Fleming/Lundigan roles.

I’ll leave you with wonderful Louis Armstrong and his all-star band swingin’ the tune “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abendigo” from THE STRIP:

Marlowe at the Movies Pt 1: MURDER, MY SWEET (RKO 1944)

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The first film to depict Raymond Chandler’s iconic private eye Phillip Marlowe was 1944’s MURDER, MY SWEET. Forty year old Dick Powell had spent the past decade playing romantic leads in musicals, and felt the time was right to change his screen image. Powell did just that as the cynical, wisecracking Marlowe, under the direction of a young up-and-comer named Edward Dmytryk.  Together they made one of the best Chandler adaptations ever, closely adhering to the complicated plot of the novel “Farewell, My Lovely”.

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When we first meet Marlowe, he’s wearing a blindfold and being grilled by the cops for a murder rap. The sleuth states he’s gonna give the lowdown on what really occurred, and the LA bulls are all ears as Marlowe relates the tale through flashback. The gumshoe was sitting in his office, minding his own business, when big Moose Malloy walks in and asks Marlowe to “find someone’, a red-headed dame named Velma who Moose had a thing with eight years ago before getting sent up the river. The big lug’s pretty persuasive, so Marlowe accompanies Moose to Florian’s, a gin joint where Velma was once employed as a singer. No one in the dump recalls Velma, so Marlowe tracks down Mrs. Florian, the widow of the late owner. The booze soaked old broad tells him Velma’s dead, but Marlowe isn’t quite so sure. Next day a dandy named Marriott shows at Marlowe’s place and hires him as a bodyguard. Seems there was a stick-up involving a woman Marriott’s been seeing, and her jewels are being held for ransom. That night Marlowe and his new employer take a ride to a desolate location, and the detective gets knocked on the noggin by a blackjack.

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“A black pool opened at my feet. It had no bottom”. When Marlowe wakes, he finds Marriott dead in the backseat. Things get pretty thick from here, with beautiful dames, a phony psychic, and a rich old man all involved in the chaos, Moose Malloy lurking around, and the coppers always looking to play pin the tail on Marlowe. Marlowe gets beaten, shot at, deceived,  and drugged as he puts all the pieces together and solves the mystery, getting the girl in the end as a bonus for his troubles. A Raymond Chandler plot is always pretty dense, and I won’t spoil all the twists and turns along the way. The film’s never boring and you may figure it out before the sleuth, but you’ll sure have fun doing it.

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Dick Powell’s great as Marlowe, quick with a quip but hard when he needs to be. After years as the fair-haired boy in musicals like 42ND STREET, GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933, ON THE AVENUE, and IN THE NAVY, this movie gave him a new lease on life as a noir antihero. Films like JOHNNY O’CLOCK, PITFLL, and RIGHT CROSS put Powell back on top. He branched out into television, forming Four Star Productions with pals David Niven, Charles Boyer, and Ida Lupino in 1952. Powell himself was host of two successful anthology series, ZANE GREY THEATER and THE DICK POWELL SHOW. He also became a film director, with some hits (the submarine drama THE ENEMY BELOW starring Robert Mitchum) and misses (THE CONQUEROR, with John Wayne as Genghis Khan!).

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Sultry Claire Trevor nearly melts the screen with her smoldering sexiness as Helen Grayle, who’s not all she seems to be. “Queen of Noir” Trevor’s been discussed here before (BORN TO KILL, STAGECOACH), and she’s never been better than in MURDER, MY SWEET. Lovely young Anne Shirley (Anne) started as silent child star Dawn O’Day, changing her screen name after playing the title role in 1934’s ANNE OF GREEN GABLES. She was Oscar nominated for STELLA DALLAS, and this was her last movie role. Suave Otto Kruger (Anthor) did his villainous thing in Hitchcock’s SABOTUER, director Dmytryk’s HITLER’S CHILDREN, the noir 711 OCEAN DRIVE, and Universal’s JUNGLE CAPTIVE. He had a rare hero role in 1936’s DRACULA’S DAUGHTER. The Grand Old Dame of Noir Esther Howard (Mrs. Florian) is on hand, as she was in DETOUR, CHAMPION, and the previously mentioned BORN TO KILL. Miles Mander (Grayle) was a character actor noted for THE THREE MUSKETEERS, WUTHERING HEIGHTS, and HOUSE OF SEVEN GABLES.

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We’ve discussed Mike Mazurki’s background before here, so let me just give him a round of applause for his Moose Malloy. It’s his biggest role, and probably his best work on film. The massive, dim-witted Moose has a one-track mind, and that’s to find his Velma. Moose looms large both physically and figuratively in MURDER, MY SWEET, and Mazurki gives his all. Don’t let the man’s size and blank expression fool you, Mike Mazurki could act when given the opportunity, and he shines here like a rough diamond. Hats off to the former professional wrestling giant!

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Edward Dmytryk worked his way from the editing room to directing B features with sleuths Boston Blackie and the Lone Wolf, and horror flicks with Boris Karloff (THE DEVIL COMMANDS) and John Carradine (CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN). MURDER, MY SWEET was his big break, followed by hits like BACK TO BATAAN and CROSSFIRE. Dmytryk was blacklisted and did prison time as one of the Hollywood Ten during the House Un-American Activities “Red Menace” hearings, and it seemed his career was over. But in 1951, he named names, and was soon back in Hollywood’s good graces. Ironically, he directed the court-martial drama THE CAINE MUTINY, which had some parellells to the HUAC investigations. Dmytryk’s other later films included THE YOUNG LIONS, Harold Robbins’ soapy Hollywood story THE CARPETBAGGERS, and the Richard Burton black comedy BLUEBEARD.

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Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely filmed once before, in a 1942 adaptation THE FALCON TAKES OVER, with George Sanders’ sophisticated sleuth standing in for Marlowe. The story was remade in 1975 as an homage to noirs past, with icon Robert Mitchum stepping into Marlowe’s gumshoes. I haven’t seen the Sanders/Falcon take on it, but I’ve watched both the Powell and Mitchum versions. I couldn’t say which I liked better, because they’re both worth watching. MURDER, MY SWEET was the first Philip Marlowe flick though, and that alone is reason to watch it. The performances are all good, there’s plenty of hard-boiled dialogue to savor, and the RKO noir magic is on display. There’s only one thing better than a Philip Marlowe movie: read the books!       

A Star is Born in Monument Valley: John Wayne in John Ford’s STAGECOACH (United Artists 1939)

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If you think the characters and Western tropes in STAGECOACH are familiar, you’re right. But let’s be clear… STAGECOACH introduced many of these now-clichéd devices to film, and is one of the enduring classics of the American West. Director John Ford was well versed in Westerns, having cut his professional teeth on them during the silent era. This was his first sound Western and Ford was determined to reinvent the genre, with much more adult themes than the usual Saturday matinée kiddie fare. He succeeded with a daring story featuring an outlaw and a prostitute as his heroes, and exceeded his goal by creating a brand new Hollywood star in the process: John Wayne.

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Wayne had been a football player for the USC Trojans when an injury caused him to lose his scholarship. Through some university connections, he was able to gain employment in the film industry as a prop man and extra, working with cowboy star Tom Mix and director Ford, who took a liking to the young man. Wayne was noticed by Raoul Walsh, who cast him as the lead in his 1930 epic THE BIG TRAIL. The movie flopped at the box office however, and Wayne was relegated to budget Westerns and serials at Monogram Studios, then later at Republic. His career was going nowhere fast when Ford offered him the part of The Ringo Kid in STAGECOACH. It was a fortuitous move on both parts, and led to a long and prosperous screen teaming for both men. When that camera zooms in on Wayne early in the film, you knew right then and there this young actor was destined for great things. Wayne always credited Ford for making his career, and he’s right. Without John Ford, there is no John Wayne, at least not the Wayne we’ve all come to know through his movies. Wayne was Ford’s cinematic alter ego, what the director wanted to be, and Ford was Wayne’s movie muse, compelling him to give his best.

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STAGECOACH takes its characters on a perilous journey through hostile Indian territory while the renegade Geronimo is on the warpath. Dallas (Claire Trevor) is a prostitute being run out of town, as is the drunkard Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell in an Oscar-winning performance). Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt) is an Army wife seeking her husband as she’s about to give birth. Major Hatfield (John Carradine) is a proud Southerner and professional gambler. Peacock (Donald Meek) is a whiskey “drummer” from Kansas. Local banker Gatewood (Berton Churchill) is leaving town with embezzled money. Stage driver Buck (Andy Devine) is joined by Marshal Curley (George Bancroft) riding shotgun, searching for escaped convict The Ringo Kid (Wayne). Ringo joins them when his horse goes lame, and he’s taken into custody by Curley. They’re given a cavalry escort to the halfway point, where another regimen is to take over. But the other troop is engaged in battle with the Apaches, and the stage has to go it alone to reach Lordsburg alive.

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This simple story is the peg on which Ford and screenwriter Dudley Nichols hang their character studies, turning the stereotypes on their ear. Outlaw Ringo has broken out of prison to find Luke Plummer and his brothers, the men responsible for killing Ringo’s father and brother. Booze soaked Doc shows great compassion toward Dallas, while the mannered, courtly Hatfield is filled with contempt. Upstanding citizen Gatewood is a loudmouth and a thief, but whiskey peddler Peacock is a soft-spoken family man. Whore Dallas is treated with scorn by Mrs. Mallory, but when Mallory has her baby, it’s Dallas who takes care of it. Marshal Curley is sworn to uphold the law, yet sets Ringo free to ride off with Dallas at the film’s conclusion. Ford and Nichols give us a reverse view of these individuals, rejecting the notion that everyone’s either a good guy or a bad guy. As in life, the characters in STAGECOACH are colored in shades of grey, not starkly cast in black and white.

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This was Ford’s first film to be shot in Monument Valley, Utah. The breathtaking scenery of this Colorado Plateau, with its majestic mesas and long, lonely plains, gave the director the perfect canvas on which to paint his American West masterpiece.  Ford would return to the Valley numerous times to give his films the authenticity they’re known for, including MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON, and THE SEARCHERS. Other filmmakers followed suit, and Monument Valley can be seen in such diverse works as Wayne’s ANGEL AND THE BADMAN, the counter-culture classic EASY RIDER, Kubrick’s 2001:A SPACE ODYSSEY, Eastwood’s THE EIGER SANCTION, and Robert Zemeckis’ FORREST GUMP. Rumor has it the backgrounds in all those Road Runner cartoons were also based on Monument Valley!

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Any good Western has to have action, and STAGECOACH is no exception. The almost ten minute chase scene features one of the most exciting and dangerous stunts ever performed on film, when Yakima Canutt jumps from his horse onto the coach’s tandem, falls between the horses, and gets trampled over. This stunt was done in one take, and it’s a wonder Canutt didn’t get killed. The former rodeo rider handled the stunt action in over 250 movies, as well as acting and second-unit directing on numerous films. He was given a well-deserved honorary Oscar in 1966 for his contributions to the motion picture industry.

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Besides John Wayne, the players here shine in their respective roles. Claire Trevor received top billing, her name meaning more at the time than Wayne or  the rest of the cast. She was one of Hollywood’s best “bad girls”, later becoming “Queen of Noir” in films like KEY LARGO and BORN TO KILL . Mitchell won his Oscar here,  though he could have just as easily won for the same year’s GONE WITH THE WIND (or as Uncle Billy in 1947’s IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE). Carradine again shows why he was one of the great character stars, before becoming a B horror star. Platt is rather stiff as Mrs. Mallory, but that’s exactly how the part was written. The rest of the cast is equally up to the task, with a special shout out here to loveable Andy Devine. Tim Holt, Tom Tyler, and Chris-Pin Martin have minor roles, and if you look closely you may spot Dorothy Appleby, William Hopper, Paul McVey, Woody Strode, and Hank Worden.

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STAGECOACH is probably the most influential film in Ford’s canon. It’s been said Orson Wells watched it over and over, studying its composition and pacing before he began working on CITIZEN KANE. It’s been remade twice, in a 1966 all-star version (with Ann-Margaret and Bing Crosby, among others) and a 1986 TV Movie featuring Country Outlaws Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson. Neither film comes close to matching the greatness of the original. Movie fans of all genres need to watch this one, for its strong acting, beautifully shot scenes, exhilarating action, and the birth of a true Hollywood icon, John Wayne. Do not miss an opportunity to see this extraordinary piece of Americana.

Beyond Redemption: 1947’s BORN TO KILL

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The darker side of man (and woman) is on full display in 1947’s BORN TO KILL. Sex, violence, greed, blackmail, lust, and murder abound in this mean little film. It’s loaded with crackling hard boiled dialogue (example: “You’re the coldest iceberg of a woman I ever saw, with the rottenest insides”) by screenwriters Eve Green and Richard Macauley. BORN TO KILL shows the RKO film noir style at it’s moodiest peak. It’s hard to believe the director is the same man who helmed the sticky sweet Oscar winning THE SOUND OF MUSIC!

Robert Wise got his start in RKO’s sound editing room, graduating to film editor in 1939. He was nominated for Best Editing for Orson Welles’ classic CITIZEN KANE and was soon promoted to the director’s chair, working with producer Val Lewton on psychological horror gems like CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE and THE BODY SNATCHER (with the great terror tandem of Karloff and Lugosi). His resume includes bonafide classics like THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, I WANT TO LIVE!, WEST SIDE STORY, THE HAUNTING, and the aforementioned saga of the Von Trapp Family. But without a shadow of a doubt, his toughest movie is BORN TO KILL.

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