Wild Wyler West: Gary Cooper is THE WESTERNER (United Artists 1940)

It’s hard to believe that, except for two films in which he cameoed, I haven’t covered any movies starring my namesake, Gary Cooper . Nor have I written anything about any of major Hollywood director William Wyler’s works. So let’s kill two birds with one stone and take a look at 1940’s THE WESTERNER, one of the best Westerns ever. It’s a highly fictionalized account of the life and times of Judge Roy Bean (1825-1903), played by Walter Brennan in his third and final Oscar-winning role, with Cooper as a drifter at odds with “The Law West of the Pecos”.

That “law” is Bean, who sides with the open range cattlemen against the homesteaders who’ve moved into the area. Into the town of Vinagaroon rides Coop as Cole Harden on his way to California. Unfortunately for Cole, he rides in on a horse stolen from one of Bean’s cronies, and is put on trial in Bean’s saloon-cum-courthouse. The sly Cole is saved from the hangman’s noose thanks to some quick thinking, gloming onto Bean’s obsession with singer/actress Lili Langtry. Cole claims to not only have met “The Jersey Lily” but possess a lock of her hair, and smooth talks his way into Bean’s good graces.

The homesteaders are disheartened by the cattlemen’s constant harassment, and begin leaving West Texas in droves. Cole stops by one of the ranches to thank Jane Ellen Matthews, who tried to stand up for him at his trial, and finds out some of the sodbusters have ridden into Vingaroon to lynch Bean. Cole rides ahead to avert catastrophe, and an uneasy truce between cowboys and farmers is formed. That truce doesn’t last long, and Cole is forced to choose sides between Jane Ellen and the sodbusters and Bean’s men, while the judge awaits the coming of Lily Langtry herself to nearby Fort Davis…

The interplay between Cooper and Brennan is a master class in screen acting. The two actors made six features together, and were friends offscreen as well. Whether feeling each other out while guzzling some ‘Rub of the Brush’ (so strong it eats right through Bean’s wooden bar!), Cole’s fanciful tales of Lily Langtry captivating the enamored Bean, or their final showdown (which heavily influenced the finale of Don Siegel’s THE SHOOTIST ), these two are perfection. The taciturn, boyish Cooper is a movie star like they don’t make anymore, and Brennan matches him scene for scene.

Wyler came up through the ranks making silent Westerns at Universal, and his resume reads like an All-Time Great Movie list: DEAD END, JEZEBEL, WUTHERING HEIGHTS, THE LETTER, MRS. MINIVER, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, DETECTIVE STORY, ROMAN HOLIDAY, BEN-HUR. He directed fourteen actors to Oscar victories, which must be a record! Wyler and his frequent collaborator, cinematographer Gregg Toland , create a deep-focus Western world, and though the screenplay by Jo Swerling and Niven Busch may be historically inaccurate, the film’s look certainly isn’t. There’s an ambitious, exciting scene where the cattlemen burn out the homesteaders, and the “special photographic effects” are credited to another ace cinematographer, Archie Stout .

Doris Davenport plays Cooper’s love interest Jane Ellen – wait, who? Miss Davenport was a former model who was a contender for the Scarlett O’Hara role in GONE WITH THE WIND (wasn’t everybody?), and has but nine credits on IMDb. Apparently, she quit acting after 1940’s BEHIND THE NEWS, but her performance here shows she could’ve been a star given half the chance (at least in my opinion). A very young Forrest Tucker makes his debut as a farmer, while veteran Fred Stone appears in his last as Jane Ellen’s father. Others in the cast are a young Dana Andrews , Stanley Andrews, Trevor Bardette, Lilian Bond (as Lily Langrty) , Charles Halton, Paul Hurst, Lucien Littlefield, Tom Tyler , and Chill Wills.

THE WESTERNER is full of so many great bits it would take me all day to point them all out. So I’ll just say, putting all those bits together adds up to a classic Western that’s hard to resist for film buffs. The performances, the dialog, the camerawork, direction – what are you waiting for, go watch it now!

 

 

Fool’s Gold: BARBARY COAST (United Artists 1935)

BARBARY COAST probably would’ve been better had it been made during the Pre-Code era. Don’t misunderstand; I liked the film. It’s an entertaining period piece directed by Howard Hawks , with his trademark overlapping dialog and perfect eye for composition, rivaled by only a handful (Ford and Hitchcock spring immediately to mind). But for me, this tale of rowdy San Francisco during California’s Gold Rush was too sanitized by Hays Code enforcer Joseph Breen, who demanded major script changes by screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.

The result is a film that’s just misses the classic status mark. It’s 1849, and Susan Rutledge arrives in Frisco to marry her rich boyfriend, who has struck it rich in the gold strike. When she finds out he’s been killed by gambling czar Luis Chandalis, owner of the Bella Donna saloon, avaricious Susan sets her sights on him. Chandalis becomes enamored of her, dubbing her Swan and putting her to work at his crooked roulette wheel. Some of the townsfolk, including newly arrived newspaper editor Col. Cobb, aren’t happy living under Chandalis’s thumb, but his gang of cutthroats and murders prove to be too much to handle.

When Cobb prints a story detailing Chandalis’s misdeeds, the crooked town boss threatens him, only to be saved by his friend Swan. The upset Swan rides out, getting caught in a rainstorm, and stumbles upon the cabin of young miner Jim Charmichael, who speaks with a poet’s soul. When the insanely jealous Chandalis hears Swan was seen with another man, he threatens to find out who it was and kill him. Of course, Jim comes to Frisco, promptly losing his gold at Swan’s crooked roulette wheel, and has to work for Chandalis, who puts two and two together and goes after Jim, just as the fed-up townspeople unite for some vigilante justice of their own.

Sure, it’s melodramatic as hell, but Hawks and his excellent cast kept me glued to the screen. Miriam Hopkins (Swan) is one tough cookie at first, caring only for gold and the finer things in life. The tough cookie begins to crumble though when she meets Jim, and allows Miriam to engage in some dramatically weepy histrionics. Edward G. Robinson (Chandalis), despite his puffy ruffled shirts and dangling earring, is basically doing a variation on his gangster parts (“You work at the table, see”) – which isn’t a bad thing! Handsome he-man Joel McCrea (Jim) and his easygoing charm certainly fills the bill as Miriam’s poetry spouting romantic interest.

The supporting cast includes then 41-year-old Walter Brennan as the cantankerous old coot Old Atrocity, Brian Donlevy in one of his patented bloodthirsty henchman roles, Frank Craven as the crusading editor, and Harry Carey Sr. as leader of the vigilantes. Other Familiar Faces in smaller parts are Herman Bing, Clyde Cook, Ed Gargan, J.M. Kerrigan, Frank McHugh , Donald Meek, football legend Jim Thorpe, and Hank Worden . An uncredited David Niven appears early as a drunken sailor getting thrown out of Robinson’s saloon. Veteran cinematographer Ray June, whose career stretched all the at back to 1915, perfectly captures the mise en scene Hawks wanted. June’s work can be seen in such diverse films as HORSE FEATHERS, TREASURE ISLAND, CHINA SEAS , STRIKE UP THE BAND, H.M. PULHAM ESQ., A SOUTHERN YANKEE, THE COURT JESTER, FUNNY FACE, and his final feature HOUSEBOAT.

All this is set to a sweeping Alfred Newman score that features cues from old-time favorites like “Oh Susanna” and “Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair”. BARBARY COAST is a fun film, full of romance, action, and humor, made by a cast and crew of professionals who knew what they were doing, and did it well. I’ll hold off on calling it a classic, however; now, if it had been made in the Pre-Code era, with just a tad more spice…      

 

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.

 

 

Killer Christmas: HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS (ABC-TV Movie 1972)

Four daughters reunite at the old family homestead during Christmas to visit their estranged, dying father. Sounds like the perfect recipe for one of those sticky-sweet Hallmark movies, right? Wrong, my little elves! HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS, originally broadcast as part of ABC-TV’s “Movie of the Week” series (1969-1975) is part proto-slasher, part psycho-biddie shocker, and a whole lot of fun! It plays kind of like a 70’s exploitation film, only with a high-powered cast that includes Sally Field, Eleanor Parker, Julie Harris , and Walter Brennan, a script by Joseph (PSYCHO) Stefano, and direction courtesy of John Llwellyn Moxey (HORROR HOTEL, THE NIGHT STALKER).

Rich old Benjamin Morgan (Brennan) has summoned his daughters home on a dark and stormy Christmas Eve, claiming his second wife Elizabeth (Harris) is slowly poisoning him to death. Elizabeth was once ‘suspected’ of poisoning her first husband (though never proven) and spent some time in an insane asylum. The girls haven’t been back since their mother committed suicide nine years ago, and believe dear ol’ dad drove her to it. There’s seemingly level-headed Alex (Parker), pill-popping lush Freddie (Jessica Walter), multi-times married Jo (Jill Haworth), and sweet young grad student Chris (Field).

Freddie, drunk and stoned, has a freak-out when she enters her late mother’s room, and tries to commit hari-kari of her own with broken glass. Jo decides to split the scene, and is followed to her car by someone wearing a yellow rain slicker with red boots and gloves – items owned by Elizabeth! When Jo discovers her keys aren’t in the ignition, she turns back to the house, only to get impaled with a pitchfork! Freddie, recuperating in a hot bath with a bottle of vodka, is dragged under the water and drowned – by someone wearing those same red gloves! The phone is dead, the roads are washed out, and it’s thundering and lightening like crazy, so Chris gets the bright idea to try and make it through the woods to the nearest neighbor’s house a mile away.

Chris is stalked by that slicker-wearing, pitchfork wielding someone in a scene reminiscent of slasher movies to come, with some ominous piano and strings in the background. Ducking away, in a panic now, she heads back home, only to trip over Jo’s corpse! She hides in her father’s room, when Elizabeth enters and says “He’s dead”, causing her to go screaming into the night. Running down the dark country road, a car driven by Alex pulls up, and the real killer is revealed… and it’s not who you think (or maybe it is, if you’ve seen enough of these films!). This penultimate scene is followed by a cool twist ending which I wouldn’t have seen coming had I not watched the movie before.

Angelic young Sally Field makes a darn good Scream Queen… could be the kid has a future in pictures! Uptight Julie Harris, always skulking about and peering through windows, is as obvious a red herring as Bela Lugosi in a butler’s uniform! Triple Oscar nominee Eleanor Parker steals the show with her histrionics at the end, Jessica Walter goes over the top (but in a good way), and neither Brennan nor Haworth (BRIDES OF DRACULA, HORROR HOUSE)  get much to do, but add to the star power. I’ve been looking for something a bit different than the usual holiday fare this year, and HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS certainly fills the bill. If you’re craving your Christmas goose with a dash of arsenic this season, check it out, it’s available on YouTube!

 

Bravo for RIO BRAVO (Warner Brothers 1959)

bravo1

If there’s such a thing as the quintessential “John Wayne Movie”, RIO BRAVO may very well be it. Producer/director Howard Hawks created the perfect blend of action and humor, leading an all-star cast through this tale of a stand-off between the good guys and the bad guys. RIO BRAVO’s theme has been done over many times, most notably by John Carpenter in 1976’s ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. Hawks himself remade the film, with Wayne again starring, as EL DORADO and RIO LOBO, but the original remains the best of the bunch.

bravo2

The plot itself is pretty basic. When disgraced deputy Dude (called Borrachon, Spanish for ‘big drunk’) walks into a saloon looking for booze, no-good Joe Burdette tosses a silver dollar into a spittoon for kicks. Sheriff John T. Chance stops Dude from embarrassing himself, only to receive a whack in the head for his efforts. Dude goes after Joe and a fight breaks out, and Joe kills a man in cold blood. Chance ends up arresting Joe for murder, realizing Joe’s cattle baron brother Nathan Burdette will try to spring the neer-do-well before the U.S. Marshal arrives in town. Chance has Joe locked up under the watchful eye of the crippled old geezer Stumpy, whose land was taken by the evil Burdette clan.

Chance’s old pal, wagon master Pat Wheeler, rolls into town and offers to help, but Chance turns him down, not wanting to put his friend in danger. One of Wheeler’s men, the fast-gun kid Colorado, could be of service but doesn’t want to get involved. The stagecoach pulls in, carrying flirtatious card sharp Feathers, and is sabotaged by Burdette’s men, hoping to delay the Marshal’s arrival. When Wheeler is killed by Burdette’s hired guns, Colorado changes his mind and joins the fight to hold Joe as Burdette’s hired killers lay siege on the jail.

bravo3

This sets the stage for action and some fine character studies from the cast. Predominant among them is John Wayne as the stalwart Sheriff Chance, determined to uphold the law no matter what the price. It’s really the beginning of the “John Wayne Movie” formula the actor followed in his 60’s and 70’s movies. That caused many critics to complain that The Duke was basically playing the same role in all his films. There’s some truth to that in his latter-day films (notable exceptions being TRUE GRIT and THE SHOOTIST). But at this juncture of his career, Wayne was more Movie Star than Actor, his films being box office smashes no matter what he was playing. John Wayne had more than proved himself as an actor for years (check him out in STAGECOACH, RED RIVER, SANDS OF IWO JIMA, THE QUIET MAN, or THE SEARCHERS for proof of that). He may have been coasting along for the last twenty years of his career, but any notions that he couldn’t act had been dispelled long ago, and indeed, he won the Oscar for his Rooster Cogburn turn in 1969’s TRUE GRIT. If he wanted to just make “John Wayne Movies” by that point, he’d earned the right, and filmgoers didn’t seem to mind. They were always entertaining star vehicles and became a kind of genre of their own.

bravo4

Duke was surrounded in RIO BRAVO by a top-notch supporting cast. Dean Martin (Dude) was still trying to shed the “Jerry Lewis’s partner” tag in the late 50’s, and his portrayal of the alcoholic deputy went a long way towards that goal. Martin was another actor who was accused of trading in on his persona rather than giving a good performance, but he was more than up to the challenge when given solid material. Teen idol Ricky Nelson (Colorado), who shot to fame on his parents TV show THE ADVENTURES OF OZZIE AND HARRIET, truthfully wasn’t much in the acting department, being cast here mainly to draw in the younger crowd. He was a better singer than actor, as Nelson proves in the middle of the film by dueting with Martin on “My Rifle, My Pony, & Me”, then a rousing “Get Along, Cindy” with Dino and (of all people) Walter Brennan ! The triple Oscar winner channels his inner Gabby Hayes here as the crotchety old-timer Stumpy, always complaining about Chance but remaining forever loyal

bravo5

Angie Dickinson (Feathers) was just beginning her career in Hollywood, and RIO BRAVO was her breakthrough role. Wayne’s old pal and frequent costar Ward Bond (Wheeler) was known by this time as another wagon master, Major Seth Adams of the TV hit WAGON TRAIN. The rest of the cast is rounded out by sagebrush vets Claude Akins, John Russell , Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez, Bob Steele, Bing Russell, and Myron Healey .

Behind the scenes, screenwriters Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett  crafted a great script based on a short story by B.H. McCampbell. The dialogue sparkles with wit, especially the scenes between straight-laced Chance and the seductive Feathers. Dimitri Tiomkin’s score includes the use of the haunting theme “Deguello”, played while Santa Anna’s troops laid siege to The Alamo, setting just the right mood. DP Russell Harlan worked with director Hawks on several films. He was a six-time Oscar nominee who never got his due.

bravo6

The same could be said about Howard Hawks, who only received one nomination (for 1941’s SERGEANT YORK) during his illustrious career. That may be due to the fact Hawks was so adept at any genre he worked in, whether it be western, screwball comedy, noir, even musicals and science fiction. Just a short list from his filmography highlights some of Hollywood’s greatest movies: SCARFACE (1932), BRINGING UP BABY (1938), HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940), TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (1944), THE BIG SLEEP (1946), RED RIVER (1948), THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951), and GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES (1953). Hawks was finally recognized by the Academy with a lifetime achievement award in 1975, two years before his death. He remains one of America’s most influential directors of the Golden Age.

After Colorado warns that Walter Brennan (Stumpy) is standing next to a wagon full of dynamite, the older man retrieves a box of explosives and joins Chance.

RIO BRAVO is one of nine Hawks films declared culturally significant by the Library of Congress to be included in the National Film Registry. Besides that lofty designation, it’s a fun film that moves briskly along despite its two-hour, twenty-minute running time. Obviously, I love this movie, otherwise I wouldn’t be so long-winded here. The word “classic” gets bandied about pretty regularly when people discuss older films, but RIO BRAVO is one that’s well deserving of the sobriquet. Those who’ve never watched it owe it to themselves to go out and do so. And for those who have, rewatch and be amazed at Hollywood filmmaking at its finest!

 

How The West Was Fun: SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF! (United Artists 1969)

sup1

SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF! is played strictly for laughs. It’s broad performances and slapstick situations won’t strain your brain, but will give you an hour and a half’s worth of escapist fun. Easy going James Garner has the lead, with solid comic support from Joan Hackett, Walter Brennan, Harry Morgan, and Jack Elam. Director Burt Kennedy made quite a few of these, and this is probably the best of the bunch.

sup2

While burying an itinerant drifter, the townsfolk of Calendar, Colorado discover a mother lode of gold. The subsequent boom turns Calendar into a lawless, rowdy town that can’t keep a sheriff alive long enough to tame it. The town elders also can’t get their gold through without paying a 20% tribute to the mean Danby clan. Enter our hero Jason McCullough (Garner), who applies for the sheriff’s position “on a temporary basis…I’m on my way to Australia”.  Jason is a crack shot and fast on the draw, but prefers to use his brains over his gun. He locks up Danby brother Joe, much to the consternation of Old Man Danby.

sup3

Mayor Perkins gives Jason free room and board to stay in town and clean it up. He’s got a klutzy daughter named Prudy, who first discovered the gold, and keeps getting into embarrassing predicaments whenever Jason’s around. Jason hires “town character” Jake as his deputy after Jake backs him up in a saloon showdown. After several attempts at killing Jason fail, the Danbys gather all their relatives to descend on Calendar. Mayor Perkins and the townsfolk cower in fear, and Jason has only Jake and Prudy to rely on in the frenetic final confrontation with the Danby clan.

sup4

Credit director Burt Kennedy for his homages to the films of John Ford in this. Of course there’s triple Oscar winner Walter Brennan, lampooning his role of Old Man Clanton in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE. There’s another nod to CLEMENTINE with Garner sitting on the porch, leaning his chair back and trying to put his feet up a’la Henry Fonda. Ford regular Danny Borzage has a bit as the accordionist at the drifter’s gravesite. And that climactic gunfight has echoes of the OK Corral, only with a much more humorous outcome.

Burt Kennedy got his start writing for John Wayne and Randolph Scott before penning and directing the 1965 hit THE ROUNDERS, starring Fonda and Glenn Ford. Some of Kennedy’s other sagebrush spoofs were THE GOOD GUYS AND THE BAD GUYS (1969, with Robert Mitchum), DIRTY DINGUS MAGEE (1970, featuring Frank Sinatra), and the TV movies ONCE UPON A TRAIN and WHERE THE HELL’S THAT GOLD? (both 1988) starring singer Willie Nelson. There was also a sequel of sorts, 1971’s SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL GUNFIGHTER, reuniting Garner and Elam. He also made some serious Westerns, like WELCOME TO HARD TIMES (1967), HANNIE CALDER (with Raquel Welch, 1971), and Wayne’s THE TRAIN ROBBERS (1973). Kennedy wrote the screenplay for Clint Eastwood’s WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART (1990), and directed his last film SUBURBAN COMMANDO (with Hulk Hogan) in 1991.

sup5

Besides Garner doing his laid-back thing, the rest of the cast also gets into the silly spirit. Joan Hackett was an underrated actress who never really got her due, adept at both comedy and drama. Some of her films were THE GROUP (1966), WILL PENNY (1968), and her Oscar nominated role in Neil Simon’s ONLY WHEN I LAUGH (1981). Harry Morgan brings his comic expertise as Mayor Perkins, while vets Henry Jones, Walter Burke, and Willis Bouchey are the other town fathers. Brennan is fine as always, and a young Bruce Dern shines as his deadly but dumb son Joe.

sup6

The standout here is Jack Elam. After many years of  playing gunfighters, gangsters, and goons, Burt Kennedy gave Elam a chance to show his comic side, and the old rascal nails it. His Jake is a simple-minded, reluctant deputy, and the perfect comic foil for sharp sheriff Garner. Elam even gets to break the Fourth Wall at film’s end to deliver the movie’s punchline. Elam went on to be a go-to comic sidekick for the rest of his career, passing away in 2003.

SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF! doesn’t blaze any new Western trails and probably won’t make anyone’s Must See lists. It will make you laugh, though, and it’s fun to watch genre vets like Garner, Brennan, Morgan, and especially Jack Elam go through their comic paces. Recommended for one of those days when you need a good chuckle to chase the blues way.

Myths and Legends: John Ford’s MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (20th Century Fox 1946)

clem1.jpg

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”, says the newspaperman in John Ford’s 1962 THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE. The facts surrounding the famous O.K. Corral shootout are given a legendary backstory by screenwriters Samuel G. Engel and Winston Miller in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE. It may be historically inaccurate, but Ford’s painterly eye (aided by DP Joe MacDonald) elevate this low-key Western to high art. Every frame is a portrait, a Frederic Remington or N.C. Wyeth brought to life in glorious black-and-white.

clem2

In Ford’s version of the tale, Wyatt Earp and his brothers are driving cattle to California. Wyatt meets up on the trail with Old Man Clanton, who offers to buy the herd. Wyatt turns him down, but Clanton doesn’t give up easily. Wyatt and brothers Morgan and Virgil go into the “wide open town” of Tombstone for an evening of relaxation, while baby brother James stays to tend the herd. When the Earp brothers return in a rainstorm, they find their cattle gone, and brother James lying dead. Returning to Tombstone, former marshal Wyatt takes the lawman job there, with the notion to find James’ killers. He has a hunch the Clanton clan was involved, but can’t prove it.

clem3.jpg

Doc Holiday returns to town to find there’s a new marshal. Doc’s an ex-surgeon turned outlaw and gunfighter, and both men are familiar with the other’s reputation. A test of wills at the saloon ends with a wary mutual respect. Doc has a girlfriend who works at the saloon, a spitfire named Chihuahua, who’s already tested Wyatt’s mettle and come up short. Doc’s old flame from Boston, Clementine Carter, arrives on the morning stage. She’s been searching for Doc across the West, but the TB and alcohol ravaged Doc, trying to be noble, wants her to leave him be. Chihuahua is immediately jealous of Clementine, and does everything in her power to send the woman back East.

clem4

Into this scenario steps Granville Thorndyke, travelling Shakesperean actor, and I’d like to take a moment to focus on this sequence. Alan Mowbray plays Thorndyke as an erudite vagabond, and though the role is small, Mowbray gives it all he’s got.  When Thorndyke’s forced at gunpoint by the Clanton boys to perform in a rowdy cantina, he recites the Bard’s “To Be Or Not To Be” soliloquy with aplomb. Wyatt and Doc bail the frightened Thorndyke out, and when Old Man Clanton finds out the boys were outdrawn by Earp, he savagely whips them, snarling, “When you pull a gun, kill a man”. Thorndyke gratefully leaves Tombstone the next day with the parting words, “Great souls by instinct to each other turn, demand allegiance and in friendship burn. Good night, sweet prince”. Though the sequence doesn’t have much bearing on the overall plot, it’s one of my favorites in Westerns, and Alan Mowbray does an excellent job as the wandering thespian.

clem5

Chihuahua is found with a necklace that belonged to James, and she tells Wyatt she got it from Doc. He rides out to fetch Doc back to Tombstone, and they confront Chihuahua, who breaks down and confesses she’s been two-timing Doc with Billy Clanton. Billy, who’s just escaped through the window, fires and mortally wounds the girl. Doc is forced to operate while Virgil goes after Billy. He shoots Clanton and tracks him to the Clanton home, where Old Man Clanton shoots him in the back. Chihuahua dies, and the Clantons drop Virgil’s body off in Tombstone, where the bitter patriarch yells, ‘We’ll be waitin’ for ya, Marshal, at the O.K. Corral”.

clem6

Sunrise: Wyatt, Doc, and Morgan square off with the Clanton gang. This dramatic eight minute sequence is a true cinematic masterpiece, and shows why John Ford is The Great American Director. Skillfully shot and edited, with a minimum of dialogue, this showcases the power of the Western film as an art form. I can only think of the final gunfight in THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY as even coming close to it. Sergio Leone, of course, was a devotee of The Master, John Ford.

MBDMYDA FE002
MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, Henry Fonda, 1946, TM & Copyright (c) 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved.

There are so many wonderful moments in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE it’s impossible for me to go over them all without making this a book-length post, so let’s look at the cast. Henry Fonda stars as Wyatt Earp, and his ease of being and laconic nature shine in the role. Fonda and Ford did six films together, and of them all, I only rank THE GRAPES OF WRATH higher. Victor Mature (Doc) was a good actor with a Mitchum-like quality who didn’t get much respect from film critics. He may be guilty of walking through some of his movies, but here he’s superb as the ailing Holiday. Character actor supreme Walter Brennan makes Old Man Clanton one of the genre’s most memorable villains. The ladies are ably represented by sweet Cathy Downs (Clementine) and sassy Linda Darnell (Chihuahua). Besides Mowbray, others in the cast include Ward Bond, Jane Darwell, John Ireland, Tim Holt, and Roy Roberts.

Ford shot MY DARLING CLEMENTINE mainly on location in beautiful Monument Valley, Utah, which he used as a backdrop in many of his Westerns.  There’s a reason John Ford is the only director to garner four Oscars. His total devotion to his films give them a look and feel as distinct as an artist’s canvas. Indeed, film WAS Ford’s canvas, and The Great American Director gave us another of his masterpieces with MY DARLING CLEMENTINE.