End of the Trail: James Stewart in Anthony Mann’s THE MAN FROM LARAMIE (Columbia 1955)

I’ve covered several of the  Anthony Mann/James Stewart Western collaborations here. Their final sagebrush outing together THE MAN FROM LARAMIE was shot in Cinemascope and gorgeous Technicolor, features a bunch of solid character actors, has beautiful New Mexico scenery… yet felt like a letdown to me. Maybe it’s because Mann and Stewart set the bar so high in their previous Westerns, but THE MAN FROM LARAMIE is an anti-climactic climax to the director/star duo’s pairings.

Stewart’s good as always, playing bitter Will Lockhart, whose brother was killed by Apaches and whose mission is to find out who’s selling the guns to them. But the film came off flat, feeling like just another routine Western – good, but not in the same category as WINCHESTER ’73 or BEND OF THE RIVER. Those Mann film noir touches are nowhere to be found, replaced by (dare I say it!)… soap opera elements!

Cathy O’Donnell, so good as Wilma in William Wyler’s THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES and Keechie in Nick Ray’s THEY LIVE BY NIGHT , is not-so-good here as love interest Barbara. Granted, the part is underwritten by scenarists Philip Yordan and Frank Burt, as are most of the characters, reduced to mere cardboard cutouts. Even the great Donald Crisp struggles to make something out of mean ranch owner Alec Waggoman. Arthur Kennedy does okay as ranch foreman (and nominal villain) Vic Hansboro, but Alex Nicol is lousy as hot-headed Waggoman son Dave. Wallace Ford seems to be channeling Gabby Hayes as Stewart’s cantankerous sidekick Charley. Only Aline MacMahon as salty rival rancher Kate (“I’ve patched up bullet holes in places I wouldn’t like to mention”) and young Jack Elam as conniving town drunk Chris Boldt manage to create fleshed-out characters – and Elam’s killed off early!

On the plus side, Charles Lang’s cinematography is outstanding, with some truly breathtaking shots of New Mexico’s scenic vistas, enhanced by that previously mentioned Cinemascope and Technicolor. The film can also be violent and bloodily brutal in places, with some incredibly tough stunt work from pros like Bill Catchings, Ted Mapes, and Chuck Roberson. But let’s be honest – when I start talking about the background and stuntmen, you know I don’t have a lot to say about the film! It just doesn’t have that special “something” that set apart the other Mann/Stewart Westerns. Instead, it’s just another 50’s oater.

Anthony Mann directing Jimmy Stewart in 1953’s “Thunder Bay” (that’s costar Dan Duryea in the background)

Anthony Mann and James Stewart were scheduled to team again for 1957’s NIGHT PASSAGE, but Mann backed out over the casting of Audie Murphy as Jimmy’s outlaw kid brother. Mann claimed Stewart just wanted an excuse to play his accordion in a movie, and a rift developed between the two that never healed. NIGHT PASSAGE is more reminiscent of their work together than THE MAN FROM LARAMIE, a mediocre Western that completists will want to see…  the rest of us can just go back and enjoy THE NAKED SPUR or WINCHESTER ’73 once again.

 

 

 

You’re The Top!: Eleanor Powell Was BORN TO DANCE (MGM 1936)

Dancing masters like Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and The Nicholas Brothers all agreed… Eleanor Powell was the tops! The 24-year-old star made a big splash in MGM’s BROADWAY MELODY OF 1936, and the studio quickly followed up with BORN TO DANCE, showcasing Eleanor’s tap-dancing prowess in a fun musical-comedy-romance featuring a cavalcade of stars, and an original score by Cole Porter. Yep, Leo the Lion was going big on this one!

The plot’s your typical Boy Meets Girl/Boy Loses Girl/Boy Wins Girl Back fluff, this time around concerning submarine sailors in port and the babes they chase after. Nora Paige (Eleanor) enters the Lonely Hearts Club (no, not Sgt. Pepper’s! ) looking for work as a hoofer (“You don’t use a fan?”, says wisecracking Jenny Saks, played by wisecracking Una Merkel ). Nora shows what she can do in the hot number “Rap, Tap On Wood”, a joyous dance number (that Eleanor makes look so easy!). Enter sailor Ted Barker (Jimmy Stewart… hey, what’s he doing here??) and it’s love at first sight, because that’s the way things work in these movies!

When Ted saves musical comedy star Lucy James’ (Virginia Bruce) pet peke Cheeky from drowning, the publicity machine gets cranking: “FAMOUS ACTRESS IN LOVE WITH GOB” read the headlines, and poor Nora is stood up while Ted dines with Lucy. Misunderstandings abound, as Nora tells Ted she’s a married woman with a child (actually Jenny’s kid, whose dad is Ted’s sailor pal ‘Gunny’) so he’ll leave her alone. Nora then gets a job as a Broadway understudy for… who else but Lucy! The temperamental Lucy gets Nora canned, Jenny spills the beans, and the whole thing ends up with a rousing, twelve-minute, patriotic, Depression-busting showstopper set on a battleship that becomes a dazzling showcase for the terpsichorean talents of Miss Powell.

The stars of “Born to Dance”: Frances Langford, Buddy Ebsen, Eleanor, Jimmy, Una Merkel, Sid Silvers

Eleanor has some marvelous numbers, and I especially enjoyed the athletic love dance she does in Central Park after Jimmy croons Porter’s classic “You’d Be So Easy To Love” to her – and far as Jimmy’s singing goes, let’s just say Bing Crosby had nothing to worry about! Curiously, while Stewart was allowed to sing, Eleanor’s vocals are all dubbed by Marjorie Lane (wife of actor Brian Donlevy). The number “Hey, Babe, Hey” is another stunner, performed by Eleanor, Jimmy, and fellow cast members Una, Sid Silvers (Gunny), Buddy Ebsen (Mushy), and Frances Langford (Peppy), each getting a chance to shine. And then there’s that finale “Swingin’ the Jinx Away”, where Eleanor is a whirling bundle of energy and shows just why her contemporaries considered her the best ever!

Beautiful Virginia Bruce

Virginia Bruce has never looked more beautiful to me, but then again I’ve only seen her in two other films – as the tortured victim in the Pre-Code KONGO and the title role in THE INVISIBLE WOMAN , where I hardly saw her at all! Miss Bruce gets to introduce the world to the Porter standard “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” here, and her voice is as lovely as the rest of her. Una Merkel gets all the good laugh lines; after seeing Ted with Lucy James in the papers, she quips, “That dame’s first name shoulda been Jesse”. And to her precocious daughter (Juanita Quigley): “Sally, you’re gonna drive me to stop drinking!”. Blustery Raymond Walburn is on hand as the blustery submarine captain, Helen Troy has a cute bit as a nasally telephone operator, and Reginald Gardiner plays a cop who comes across Ted and Nora in the park and breaks into a funny impersonation of famed conductor Leopold Stokowski.

Dependable Roy Del Ruth directed, and with this cast it must have been a dream job. I know I use the phrase “They don’t make ’em like this anymore” a little too frequently on this platform, but in this case the old cliché fits like a glove. And they sure don’t make stars like Eleanor Powell anymore, a multi- talented lady whose career was all-too-brief, but oh-so-memorable:

St. Patrick’s Day Treat: POT O’GOLD (Complete 1941 Movie)

POT O’GOLD Is a fun little comedy-musical starring Jimmy Stewart, who goes to work for his music hating uncle after his music store closes, and gets involved in a feud with a clan of Irish musicians. Jimmy falls in love with the pretty daughter Molly – and since she’s played by Paulette Goddard, who can blame him! Directed by comedy vet George Marshall and featuring Charles Winninger and Horace Heidt’s Orchestra, enjoy POT O’GOLD!:

Happy St. Patrick’s Day from Cracked Rear Viewer!

Nothin’ Dirty Goin’ On: THE CHEYENNE SOCIAL CLUB (National General 1970)

THE CHEYENNE SOCIAL CLUB isn’t a great movie, but it’s not a bad one, either. It couldn’t be; not with all that talent in front of and behind the cameras. You’ve got two legendary leads, James Stewart and Henry Fonda , Oscar winner Shirley Jones, Gene Kelly in the director’s chair, and John Wayne’s favorite cinematographer William Clothier . Still, the film, while amusing, should’ve been so much better.

The story’s fairy simple: two old Texas cowhands, John O’Hanlon (Stewart) and Harley Sullivan (Fonda) are plying their trade when John receives a letter. Seems John’s brother has died and left him an inheritance – The Cheyenne Social Club in Cheyenne, Wyoming. John and his old pal head north, and it turns out The Cheyenne Social Club is a cathouse, run by Madame Jenny (Jones), and she and the girls warmly greet the perplexed duo. Uptight John, who’s always wanted to be a “man of property”, decides he’s going to fire the girls and open a boarding house, but Harley doesn’t seem to mind the set-up, sampling all the fine young wares!

The girls are upset when John gives them the news, and the townsfolk are up in arms. There’s an obligatory barroom brawl which lands John in the pokey, and he then discovers if he gets rid of the girls, he loses the property, due to an agreement his brother, “the late DJ”, made with the railroad. Jenny receives a brutal beating from irate customer Corey Bannister, and John straps on his shootin’ iron (even though he’s “no hand with a gun”) and goes after him. Thanks to Harley’s inveterate habit of cracking nuts, John wins the gunfight, only to have the entire Bannister clan descend on Cheyenne for the inevitable shootout scene….

Critics of the time called the film “smutty”, but it’s pretty harmless when seen today. There’s a lot of chuckles to be had, but like I said it’s not the great movie it could’ve been. The problem as I see it is two-fold, the first being Gene Kelly’s meandering direction. Kelly is my favorite among Golden Age dancers (sorry, Fred Astaire), and co-directed one of my all-time favorite films, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN. But his career as a solo director was hit-or-miss, and the pacing in this Western comedy is off by a country mile. Someone like Burt Kennedy would’ve had a ball with this material, but Kelly is out of his element. Then again, James Lee Barrett’s script doesn’t help matters. It’s far too talky and lacks characterization. Only the three main stars get anything resembling distinctive, motivated parts; everyone else is a cardboard cut-out.

Fonda and Stewart, of course, can do no wrong. The two actors had been friends since their salad days at the University Playhouse on Cape Cod, and became lifelong friends despite the differences in their personalities. Both men became major stars, and appeared together in three films: the 1948 anthology ON OUR MERRY WAY, the Western drama FIRECREEK (1968), and this one (both were in the all-star HOW THE WEST WAS WON, but appeared separately). Jimmy’s still being Jimmy here, but the usually taciturn Fonda’s Harley is a garrulous, randy old coot, and gives the funnier performance. Stewart and Fonda never let their political differences get in the way of their friendship (something sorely lacking today), and even got to satirize it in this exchange:

John: “Solid, respectable, Republican business. That’s what makes America, Harley.”

Harley: “Our folks were Democrats, John.”

John: “Yeah, and where did it get you. A lifetime on the range and sweat in the summer and freezin’ in the winter, and sleeping on the ground and fightin’ wolves and the rattlesnakes… oh no, Harley. There can’t be a finer calling in the world than being a Republican businessman.”

Harley: “I don’t like to dispute you, John, but didn’t you always vote Democratic?”

John (in that trademark Jimmy Stewart hemming and hawing): “Wal, wal, that was when I didn’t know any better.”

And later in the exchange – Harley: “John, you don’t mind if I still vote Democratic, do you?”

John: “Just so long as you’re not seen with me when you do it. Be bad for business.”

Shirley Jones won the Oscar for playing a prostitute in ELMER GANTRY, and she’s a bawdy good time here. Her Jenny is the only one of the girls – Sue Ane Langdon , Jackie Joseph, Elaine Devry, Jackie Russell, Sharon DeBord, all capable actresses – with a fully fleshed out character. Jean Willes is entertaining as Alice, a saloon girl with her sights set on Harley, but again she’s just a stock character, as are the other Familiar Faces here: John Dehner, Dabbs Greer, Myron Healy, Arch Johnson, Robert Middleton, J. Pat O’Malley, Charles Tyner, Jason Wingreen. I’ll usually watch THE CHEYENNE SOCIAL CLUB whenever it’s aired (and have many times), but I can’t help but wonder how much better it could’ve been with tighter direction and a richer script. James Stewart and Henry Fonda together on film for the last time is what makes it worthwhile for me.

Hollywood Souffle: WIFE VS SECRETARY (MGM 1936)

Gable’s back and Harlow’s got him , but so does Myrna Loy , with Jimmy Stewart along for the ride in WIFE VS SECRETARY. MGM boasted it had “more stars than there are in Heaven”, and this film is the very definition of “star vehicle”, a harmless soufflé of comedy, drama, and romance all wrapped up in a neat little package by veteran studio director Clarence Brown.

Publicity still for ‘Wife vs Secretary’

The plot’s as thin as Gable’s moustache: He’s a hard-driven publisher, and Loy’s his trusting, faithful wife. Harlow plays his loyal secretary and trusted aide-de-camp. She’s also quite beautiful (obviously, since she’s Jean Harlow!) and Gable’s mother tells Myrna she should get rid of her. Myrna laughs it off, but the seed of doubt has been planted. Jimmy plays Jean’s fiancé, who’s not too happy about being constantly cast aside by Jean’s work demands (and who can blame him; she’s Jean Harlow!). Gable’s secret business plans cause a series of misunderstandings that culminate in Jean dumping Jimmy and Myrna seeking a divorce before order is restored and everyone is back together.

“The King”

This is all just an excuse for MGM to show off its “star power”, and Clark Gable has it in spades. There’s a reason he was called “The King of Hollywood”; he was the biggest male box office attraction at the time of making WIFE VS SECRETARY, and could do no wrong far as the public was concerned. Mostly during this period he just played “Clark Gable”, the man’s man who all the ladies loved. Here, he’s no different, just a big, fun-loving lug, and that was more than enough for filmgoers, who made the film one of MGM’s biggest hits of the year.

Two Hollywood Queens: Harlow & Loy

Jean Harlow began toning down her ‘Platinum Blonde’ sexpot image in WIFE VS SECRETARY, all the way to toning down her hair color a notch. She’s still beautiful as ever (after all, she’s STILL Jean Harlow!), only now we find her as a “nice girl” rather than her former boisterous blonde self. Myrna Loy is radiant as Gable’s wife, and proves once again both her dramatic and comedic skills are sharp as a tack. Why this woman never won an Oscar is a mystery to me! Jimmy Stewart’s little more than a fourth wheel in this, his fourth feature film. Jimmy was just getting started (he’s billed sixth) and wouldn’t hit his stride for a few more years, but he holds his own with Gable, Harlow, and Loy. Others in the cast include May Robson (as Gable’s mom), George Barbier, Tom Dugan, Gloria Holden (the future DRACULA’S DAUGHTER), and John Qualen .

‘Hey, uh, don’t… d-don’t forget… I’m in this picture too, ya know!”

The screenplay by Norman Krasna, John Lee Mahin, and Alice Duer Miller is a frothy confection that gets bogged down a bit later in the film by some soap opera melodramatics, but all in all it serves it’s purpose – to get our stars on the big screen and let them do their stuff. WIFE VS SECRETARY isn’t a great film, but it’s a good one, and the quartet of Gable, Harlow, Loy, and Stewart make it worth your time.

Western Noir: James Stewart in BEND OF THE RIVER (Universal-International 1952)

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.

 

Cold in Them Thar Hills: THE FAR COUNTRY (Universal-International 1955)

James Stewart and Anthony Mann’s  fourth Western together, 1955’s THE FAR COUNTRY, takes them due North to the Klondike during the Gold Rush of 1896. It’s a bit more formulaic than other Stewart/Mann collaborations, but a strong cast and some gorgeous Technicolor photography by William H. Daniels more than make up for it. The film is definitely worth watching for Western fans, but I’d rank it lowest on the Stewart/Mann totem pole.

Jimmy is Jeff Webster, a headstrong cattleman who drives his herd from Wyoming to Seattle to ship up north to the beef-starved gold miners for a huge profit. Webster killed two men along the way who tried to desert the drive, and barely escapes Seattle before arriving in Skagway, Alaska. There, he unintentionally interrupts a hanging being conducted by crooked town boss ‘Judge’ Gannon, who confiscates Webster’s herd as a fine for spoiling his fun. Webster and his two compatriots, talkative old Ben and boozy Rube, are then hired by saloon queen Ronda Castle to lead her on the trail to Dawson. Ronda’s more than a bit fond of the tall, laconic Webster, as is young French-Canadian tomboy Renee Vallon. But Webster’s got plans of his own, as he and his crew re-steal the cattle from Gannon and cross the border into Canada, where there’s gold in them thar icy hills…

Stewart’s Jeff Webster is an independent sort who has no use for either foolishness or companionship, save that of old Ben. Like all Stewart’s post-WWII characterizations, he’s aloof and bitter, claiming he doesn’t need anybody, but that changes over the course of the film. Walter Brennan once again provides his patented sidekick schtick as Ben, and you can’t go wrong with that in a Western! The women in Webster’s life are Ruth Roman as sexy saloon owner Ronda and pretty Corinne Calvet as Renee. Miss Calvet is an acquired taste; I’m not a big fan, but she’s more than adequate in her role.

John McIntire , never a big star but always a welcome presence, does a good turn as Gannon, a villain with charm and a sense of humor. Jay C. Flippen plays the souse Rube, a character who plays an important part in the proceedings. The main cast is supported by Familiar Western Faces galore, including Steve Brodie , Paul Bryar, Royal Dano, John Doucette, Jack Elam , Kathleen Freeman, Terry Frost, Connie Gilchrist, Cubby Johnson, Harry Morgan , Eddie Parker, Chuck Roberson (who was John Wayne’s stunt double for decades), Eddy Waller, and Robert J. Wilke.

Also in the cast is Jimmy Stewart’s favorite costar, a sorrel stallion named Pie, who Stewart rode in 17 films. The two were first paired in Mann’s WINCHESTER ’73, and worked together until 1970’s THE CHEYENNE SOCIAL CLUB. Stewart and Pie were so in tune that when the horse was called upon in THE FAR COUNTRY to walk down the street alone, foiling an ambush by the bad guys, all Stewart had to do was whisper a few simple instructions in Pie’s ear, and the stallion completed the scene in one take!

Screenwriter Borden Chase began his career writing for the pulps, and his short story DR. BROADWAY was adapted into Mann’s first film as director. Chase also wrote the scripts for WINCHESTER ’73 and BEND OF THE RIVER, but is more closely associated with the films of John Wayne: THE FIGHTING SEABEES, FLAME OF THE BARBARY COAST, TYCOON, and the classic RED RIVER. Daniels’ breathtaking location footage of Alberta’s Jasper National Park add a majestic realism to the movie, and Mann’s direction is on point. Though it’s not my favorite of the Stewart/Mann Westerns, these two could do no wrong together, and THE FAR COUNTRY still makes for an entertaining film.

 

 

Rocky Mountain High: THE NAKED SPUR (MGM 1953)

 

 

(By sheer coincidence, this post coincides with the birthday of character actor Millard Mitchell (1903-1953), who plays Tate in the film. Happy birthday, Millard! This one’s for you!)  

James Stewart and Anthony Mann  moved from Universal-International to MGM, and from black & white to Technicolor, for THE NAKED SPUR, the third of their quintet of Westerns together. The ensemble cast of five superb actors all get a chance to shine, collectively and individually, creating fully fleshed out characters against the natural beauty of the Colorado backdrop.

Bitter Howard Kemp, whose wife sold their ranch and ran off while he was serving in the war, is hunting down killer Ben Vandergroat for the $5,000 bounty in hopes of rebuilding his life. Along the trail he meets old prospector Jesse Tate and recently discharged (dishonorably) Lt. Roy Anderson. The trio manages to capture Vandergroat, but he’s not alone… he’s accompanied by pretty wildcat Lina Patton. Now they must cross the dangerous Colorado territory to bring the outlaw back to Kansas, encountering danger and treachery at every turn, as Ben tries to drive a wedge of greed between them.

Lanky Jimmy Stewart plays Kemp as a conflicted man, at turns downright mean yet developing feelings for the untamed Lina. She’s played by Janet Leigh , the daughter of Ben’s dead outlaw buddy torn between loyalty to him and her growing fondness for Kemp. Though Lina’s a wild, feisty  young woman, she shows tenderness towards him when he’s wounded during an Indian attack. She cries as Kemp callously shoots her sick horse, not wanting to be slowed down in bringing his prisoner to justice, yet isn’t willing to let Ben kill him. Stewart and Leigh bring great depth to these two contradictory, all too human characters.

Robert Ryan  has a field day as the snickering, scheming Vandergroat,  using Lina to seduce Kemp, tricking gold-fevered Tate into freeing him, and working on everybody’s baser emotions to his advantage. Ryan gets all the good lines (“Money splits better two ways ‘stead of three”), and makes a charming sociopath. Ralph Meeker’s   Lt. Anderson thinks he’s a charmer too, putting the make on Leigh’s character from the get-go, and that Indian attack I mentioned earlier is a direct result of Anderson taking liberties (to put it nicely) with the daughter of the tribe’s chief. Meeker’s character is driven by lust, for both money and women, and the actor does well in the part.

Character actor Millard Mitchell plays the grizzled old Tate, who’s been searching for a gold strike for decades without success. His obsession with striking it rich is his weakness and ultimately his downfall when he finally breaks his word and attempts to aid Vandergroat. Mitchell played opposite Stewart in Mann’s WINCHESTER ’73, and enhanced many a classic film with his talent: KISS OF DEATH, THIEVES’ HIGHWAY, TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH, THE GUNFIGHTER. He was the marshal in THE GUNFIGHTER and studio boss R. F. Simpson in SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, and an actor who deserves more recognition for his contributions to cinema.

There are no true heroes in the script by Harold Jack Bloom and Sam Rolfe, only five disparate characters thrown together by fate, a theme closer to Mann’s early work in film noir than the wild west. Both writers would go on to create popular TV shows; Rolfe was the man behind THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E and Bloom co-created the hit EMERGENCY!. William C. Mellor’s stunning outdoor photography provides the perfect picture of man vs. nature, both the terrain and his own baser instincts. Bronislaw Kaper’s score adds immensely to the film’s overall mood. Anthony Mann is in top form here, guiding his ensemble through their paces with a strong hand. THE NAKED SPUR is grand entertainment, and has gotten even better over time. This is a film that bares repeated viewings to absorb all that’s going on, and not to be missed!

Look At Me Look At You: Alfred Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW (Paramount 1954)

When you go out to the neighborhood cinema, you’re indulging in a voyeuristic experience, watching the lives of people unfold before you on the screen. The theme of viewer as voyeur, peeping in on the privacy of total strangers, has never been done better than in Alfred Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW, nor more entertainingly. Like James Stewart’s protagonist L.B. Jeffries, we the audience are the voyeurs in the shadows watching from afar, stumbling onto things not meant for our eyes, and powerless to stop them without outside assistance. Hitchcock is not only the Master of Suspense, but a master of audience manipulation, and this dazzling piece of moviemaking is not only a hell of a thrill ride but a technical marvel as well.

 

The world of globetrotting photojournalist Jeffries has been boiled down to the view of the courtyard outside his apartment window, just as the audience’s world is now focused on the screen. Jeffries, confined to a wheelchair with a broken leg, spends his days watching the lives of others unfold before him. The courtyard itself is a massively constructed replica on a Paramount sound stage complete with fully furnished, functional apartments costing somewhere between $75-100,000 dollars to build (reports vary). The lighting was rigged to simulate dusk to dawn, mimicking the real world outside the studio confines. It’s incredible to me that Hitchcock would pay so much attention to detail, yet most of the action (except a few brief scenes) is shot from Stewart’s apartment! That’s what separates a true artist from the multitudes.

Across that courtyard, Jeffries (and the audience through him) observes his neighbors, each becoming their own film-within-a-film. Hitchcock had dabbled in many genres before donning his “Master of Suspense’ mantle, and we are privy to the mini-tales of a frustrated songwriter (played by real-life songwriter Ross Bagdasarian, later to achieve fame as Dave Seville, mentor to Alvin and the Chipmunks!) trying to follow his own muse (this is where Hitch’s annual cameo comes into play), the delectable Miss Torso (Georgine Darcy) fending off the wolves while waiting for her serviceman lover to return home, a put-upon married couple ( Frank Cady aka Sam Drucker of GREEN ACRES  , and Sara Berner) and their cute little dog (who will play a part in the unmasking of the crime), a newlywed couple (Rand Harper, Havis Davenport) celebrating their honeymoon (her cries of “Harrrry” are a lot different from Allison Hayes’s bellowing in ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN !), an eccentric artist (Jesslyn Fax, perhaps standing in for Hitchcock himself?) and the sad tale of Miss Lonelyhearts (Judith Evelyn), an unmarried woman “of a certain age” who dines alone and cries herself to sleep.

Yet all this is superfluous to where Jeffries (and our) real focus is: the goings-on inside the apartment of salesman Lars Thorwald and his invalid wife. We watch as Thorwald draws the shades in the bedroom, then late at night takes trips to and from home, carrying his sample case, holding what we don’t know. When Thorwald is seen cleaning a butcher knife and a handsaw, and bundling a large trunk with rope, Jeffries (and us) can only come to one conclusion – murder most foul has been committed! Noir heavy Raymond Burr conveys a sense of menace as the bulky Thorwald even from afar, and the in-joke is the actor is made up to look like Hitchcock’s bete noire, producer David O. Selznick, whom Hitchcock clashed with during his time spent under contract. The penultimate scene, where Burr enters Stewart’s apartment with malice aforethought, is a masterpiece of utilizing sound and vision on film to their best advantage, and should be studied by aspiring filmmakers as much as PSYCHO’s vaunted shower scene.

There’s  another conflict going on during the film with Jeffries’ culture clash with his girlfriend, glamorous model Lisa Freemont, portrayed by Hitchcock’s ultimate “ice blonde” Grace Kelly. When Jeffries balks at the thought of marriage to her, I thought, “Are you crazy??”. Kelly (beautifully gowned by the great Edith Head) is a vision of loveliness, and the polar opposite of working class Stewart, and his character believes their different worlds will never allow them to successfully navigate the swift rapids of relationship bliss. It’s only when Lisa proves her mettle by doing some “amateur sleuthing” (a favorite Hitchcock motif), and places herself in great jeopardy that Jeffries finally realizes she’s the one for him. Stewart and Kelly engage in some titillatingly hot sexual banter, and their scenes together allow the audience to peep on the peeper, indulging Hitchcock’s (and our) voyeuristic streak and taking it to yet another level.

And what can one say about Thelma Ritter except “Bravo”! Her sarcastic role of Stella, the nurse attending to Jeffries, is a real hoot, and lets Hitchcock set his comedic side loose. Thelma gets off the best lines with her own inimitable style; my favorite is when Stewart asks what Thorwald could possibly be selling at three o’clock in the morning and she replies, “Flashlights”. It breaks the tension as Stewart’s character is becoming more and more convinced that Thorwald is up to no good. She also gets in the last word regarding the contents of a hat box found in Thorwald’s apartment, delivering it as only Thelma Ritter could. Wendell Corey, an actor I usually find too bland, does a good job as Jeffries’ police pal Tom Doyle, skeptical about the whole situation, and serving to plant the seeds of doubt in Jeffries’ (and the audience’s) mind.

Alfred Hitchcock is like a cat with a catnip-stuffed toy mouse here, pawing at his audience and batting it around the courtyard with glee. REAR WINDOW is a movie about murder, but it’s also about moviemaking, about the audience as voyeur, and about manipulating our collective emotions like the Master of Suspense he truly was, drawing us in to this constructed world and making it look and seem all too real. That the reality is only an illusion on a Paramount sound stage is a testament to the genius of Alfred Hitchcock, and REAR WINDOW is essential viewing for the voyeur in all of us.

 

 

Dark Western Sky: James Stewart in WINCHESTER ’73 (Universal-International 1950)

James Stewart  and Anthony Mann made the first of their eight collaborations together with the Western WINCHESTER ’73, a film that helped change both their careers. Nice guy Stewart, Hollywood’s Everyman in Frank Capra movies like MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON and IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, took on a more mature, harder-edged persona as Lin McAdam, hunting down the man who killed his father, Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally ). As for Mann, after years of grinding out B-movie noir masterpieces (T-MEN, RAW DEAL ), WINCHESTER ’73 put him on the map as one of the 1950’s top-drawer directors.

The rifle of the title is the movie’s McGuffin, a tool to hold the story together. When McAdam and his friend High Spade (the always welcome character actor Millard Mitchell) track Dutch Henry to Dodge City, the two mortal enemies engage in a shooting contest judged by none other than Wyatt Earp (Will Geer). Lin wins the event, only to be jumped at his hotel by Dutch Henry, who steals the prized “One of a Thousand” Winchester and rides off with his gang to Riker’s Bar, a lonely outpost saloon. It’s there Dutch loses the rifle in a poker game to gun-runner Joe Lamont (a very good John McIntire ). Lamont sells his wares to renegade Indians, all riled up after the Sioux massacre Custer at Little Big Horn.

But Indian warrior Young Bull (played by a young Rock Hudson !) covets the new repeater, and Lamont pays a heavy price, losing his scalp in the process. The renegades chase Lola Manners (pretty Shelley Winters ), a “dance hall girl” run out of Dodge by Earp, and her fiancé Steve Miller (Charles Drake) into an encampment of soldiers led by Sgt. Wilkes (Jay C. Flippen ), then Lin and High Spade are also corralled, and a battle at dawn between the soldiers and renegades ensues, with marksman Lin picking off Young Bull. The two men ride off, and a young recruit (young Tony Curtis!) finds the rifle. The sergeant hands it over to Miller, who rides away with Lola to meet Waco Johnnie Dean.

Waco Johnnie is played by Dan Duryea at his psychotic best, a thoroughly nasty character if there ever was one. Waco kills Miller and steals both his rifle and Lola, sends his men out to their doom in a fierce gunfight with the local marshal and his posse, then rides away with Lola as a shield to meet up with… you guessed it, Dutch Henry, who takes possession of the Winchester. Waco and Dutch plot to rob a gold shipment in Tascosa. But Lin and High Spade are still tracking Dutch (who, it turns out, is Lin’s brother), and manage to foil the robbery, leading up to a memorable mano y mano shootout between Lin and Dutch among the high rocks.

The screenplay by Borden Chase and Robert L. Richards is filled with tension, keeping the viewer on the edge of his (or her) seat. William H. Daniels’ B&W cinematography beautifully captures the Arizona locations, and matches them well with the studio-shot footage. The other cast members are all Familiar Faces on the sagebrush trail: John Alexander, James Best Abner Biberman Steve Brodie John Doucette , Chuck Roberson, Ray Teal, Chief Yowlachie, and John War Eagle.

James Stewart gives a us a brooding, deeply shaded performance, guided through the darkness by film noir vet Anthony Mann. Out of all the Stewart/Mann Western collaborations, WINCHESTER ’73 remains my favorite, a gritty saga of revenge that gave new screen life to both the actor and director, aided and abetted by a superb cast of character actors. It’s a must-see oater for film fans in general, and Western buffs in particular.