Ride Away: John Wayne in John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS (Warner Brothers 1956)

John Ford’s  THE SEARCHERS is without question an American Film Classic. I’d even go as far as saying it’s my second all-time favorite film, directly behind CASABLANCA. Every shot is a Remington Old West masterpiece, every actor perfect in their role, large or small, and not a minute of footage is wasted. The film has also stirred up quite a bit of controversy over time for John Wayne’s portrayal of the main character Ethan Edwards.

The plot is structured like Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”, but let’s get it out of the way right now: Ethan Edwards is no hero. He’s a mean, bitter, unreconstructed Confederate who’s been on the shady side of the law since war’s end. When he returns to his brother Aaron’s homestead, he makes no bones about his distaste for “half-breed” Martin Pawley (really an eighth Cherokee). His hatred of Native Americans even extends to their dead, as we see him shoot out the eyes of a Comanche corpse so his soul “must wander the spirit world between the winds”. He taunts Martin when the young man unwittingly marries the squaw Look, derisively referring to her as “Mrs. Pawley”.

Ethan is a hard man to get along with, yet for all his macho bravado (“That’ll be the day”, he intones whenever someone challenges him), he shows signs of compassion throughout the film. He’s tender with his nieces and nephews (and sister-in-law Martha; there’s a suggestion that they were once more than friends). He spares Martin the agony of looking into the burned out homestead to gaze upon the bodies of his loved ones. His love for family is delineated as he tries to shield niece Lucy’s grim fate from Martin and young Brad Jorgensen, and his response when Brad asks what happened is tortured: “What do you want me to do, draw you a picture? Spell it out? Don’t ever ask me! Long as you live, don’t ever ask me”.

Ethan’s search for surviving niece Debbie, captured by the renegade Comanche Scar, has a murderous purpose; he intends to kill the despoiled girl to save her from what he considers a fate worse than death – miscegenation. Yet when he finally tracks her down, blood in his eyes, he has a change of heart, and the softly spoken, haunting words, “Let’s go home, Debbie” never fail to mist me up. Ethan Edwards is a complex character, Kris Kristofferson’s “walking contradiction” come to life, as imperfect and flawed as the rest of us. It is indisputably John Wayne’s finest screen performance; the fact he wasn’t even nominated for the Academy Award is another in the long list of Oscar crimes.

Wayne’s dark Ethan Edwards is counterbalanced by Jeffrey Hunter’s sweet-natured Martin Pawley. A somewhat naïve young man, Martin longs for acceptance by ‘Uncle’ Ethan (Edwards disdains the term when Martin uses it), and is as dogged in his determination to find Debbie as the older man, though his intentions are more altruistic. Martin’s letters home to his sweetheart Laurie (played by Vera Miles) serve as narration to the story, and the scenes they share together as comic interludes to the film’s heavy tone. A 20th Century-Fox contract player, Hunter got his big break with THE SEARCHERS, and plays well off Wayne’s Edwards (Ford used the actor again in both THE LAST HURRAH and SERGEANT RUTLEDGE). Two of his most famous roles were in Nicholas Ray’s 1961 Biblical drama KING OF KINGS (which Hunter referred to as ” I Was a Teenage Jesus”) and the pilot episode of STAR TREK as Enterprise Commander Christopher Pike, later reworked into a two-part episode titled “The Menagerie”. Jeffrey Hunter continued his career in Europe, including a pair of Spaghetti Westerns (THE CHRISTMAS KID, FIND A PLACE TO DIE) before succumbing to a brain hemorrhage in 1969 at age 42.

By far my favorite character in THE SEARCHERS is the slightly crazy Ol’ Mose Harper, played by sagebrush vet Hank Worden. Long a Ford favorite, this was Worden’s biggest role, and he surely takes the tommyhawk and runs with it! The simplistic Mose greets every insult to his intelligence with a hearty, “Thank ya kindly!”, and holds the key to finding Debbie, wanting only in return “Just a roof over Ol’ Mose’s head, and a rockin’ chair by the fire – my own rockin’ chair”. Worden, best known to modern-day viewers as the waiter on the original TWIN PEAKS, was a member in good standing of the Ford Stock Company, and was used by Wayne in many of his later films (you can read my piece on Hank Worden’s career by clicking this link ).

Henry Brandon as Comanche war chief Scar is Ethan’s opposite number; he’s as filled with hatred for the white race as Edwards is for the Indians. Unlike the noble opponents found in many Wayne Westerns (SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON,  MCLINTOCK!), Scar is as ruthless and uncompromising in his hostility as Edwards, and his reaction to the white man’s hatred and oppression is hatred and oppression of his own, which only serves to fan the flames of discord between the races. It’s a lesson neither Scar nor Ethan ever learn, and continues today on the extremes of the political spectrum (Left and Right).

The rest of the cast is equally superb, including Natalie Wood as Debbie, Ward Bond as Reverend/Texas Ranger Samuel Clayton Johnson, Ken Curtis as Martin’s love rival Charlie (they engage in a comic brawl over Vera Miles’ affections), John Qualen as Lars Jorgensen, and Harry Carey Jr as Brad. Harry’s mother Olive Carey is cast as Mrs. Jorgensen, and in that famous final shot in the doorway Duke pays homage to her late husband Harry Carey Sr. by grasping his right arm at the elbow, a pose Carey struck in many a Western. Wayne’s son Patrick appears toward the end as callow Lt. Greenhill, and it’s fun to watch The Duke watching Pat act opposite Bond; that bemused look on his face is priceless! There are other Familiar Faces dotting the landscape as well, Danny Borzage, Dorothy Jordan, Mae Marsh, Antonio Moreno, Chief Thundercloud, and Natalie’s sister Lana Wood (playing Debbie as a child) among them.

 Speaking of landscapes, DP Winton Hoch beautifully brings Ford’s favorite shooting canvas Monument Valley to life in breathtaking VistaVision and Technicolor. Additional location footage was shot in California, Utah, and Alberta, Canada, as well as Hollywood’s soundstages, all blended brilliantly by editor Jack Murray. And no one other than the great Max Steiner could do justice to a film of this magnitude; his score ranks among his all-time best.

As for the Old Master himself, John Ford was at the peak of his creative talent, his keen eye for detail making every shot a work of art. But THE SEARCHERS would be his last great masterpiece (though a case could be made for THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE). Ford was 66 years old, his eyesight failing, and his years of alcohol abuse were beginning to take their deadly toll. His pictures after this seemed to be losing their vibrancy, that distinctive John Ford touch. Thus it is that THE SEARCHERS is the note the director should’ve ended on artistically, but unfortunately life never truly imitates art, does it? It’s a film that consistently ranks high in critic’s and filmmaker’s top tens, and one worth repeated viewings to soak in all the nuances of characterization and mise en scene. THE SEARCHERS is a film I don’t just recommend, I implore you to watch. It is truly that damn good.

 

Sail Away: John Wayne in John Ford’s THE LONG VOYAGE HOME (United Artists 1940)

This is my third year participating in the TCM Summer Under the Stars blogathon hosted by Kristen at Journeys in Classic Film , and second entry spotlighting Big John Wayne . The Duke and director John Ford made eleven films together, from 1939’s STAGECOACH to 1963’s DONOVAN’S REEF.  Wayne’s role in the first as The Ringo Kid established him as a star presence to be reckoned with, and the iconic actor always gave credit to his mentor Ford for his screen success. I recently viewed their second collaboration, 1940’s THE LONG VOYAGE HOME, a complete departure for Wayne as a Swedish sailor on a tramp steamer, based on four short plays by Eugene O’Neill, and was amazed at both the actor’s performance and the technical brilliance of Ford and his cinematographer Gregg Toland  , the man behind the camera for Welles’ CITIZEN KANE.

THE LONG VOYAGE HOME is a seafaring saga detailing the lives of merchant marines aboard the ship Glencairn  on the cusp of World War II. The film is episodic in nature, as screenwriter Dudley Nichols wove the four one-act plays into a cohesive narrative. Duke is ‘Ole’ Olsen (no relation to the great vaudevillian), a sweet-natured young buck longing to return to his homeland and his elderly mother. Ole is a gentle giant of a man, whom the hardened sailors look out for, treating him as a kid brother. The naïve Ole has been out at sea ten years, trapped as the others are in a cycle of time on the ocean followed by spending all their dough on liquor and women when they hit port, forcing them to return to their cruel master the sea. This time around, they’re determined to make sure Ole gets back to his farm in Sweden, to break free of the lifestyle they are all caught in by fate and misfortune.

Wayne’s much-maligned Swedish accent isn’t all that bad, as some critics have harped on. Duke was nervous about doing the part justice, and had Danish actress Osa Massen (A WOMAN’S FACE, YOU’LL NEVER GET RICH) coach him with the rhythm and cadence of the language. His big scene at the bar, where he’s being set up to be shanghaied by the ship Amindra’s salty crew, shows Wayne’s accent was more than passable, and once again proves to the audience he could do more than just sit tall in the saddle and throw a mean punch at the bad guys. John Wayne, when the occasion called for it, could act.

Due to the structure of the screenplay however, Wayne doesn’t have to carry the film on his broad shoulders. Though ‘Ole’ is the glue that holds the film together, the rest of the ensemble all take their turns in the spotlight. The standout here is Thomas Mitchell , winner of the previous year’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar for STAGECOACH, as the boisterous veteran seaman Driscoll, a two-fisted Irishman whose sad fate at film’s end will haunt you. Ian Hunter, an underappreciated actor, plays the role of Smitty, whom the others suspect of being a Nazi spy, but instead harbors another dark secret. Ward Bond , the rowdy Yank, is given a solemn death bed scene, and gets a chance to show off his own acting chops. Barry Fitzgerald seems to be preparing for his role as Micheleen in THE QUIET MAN as Cocky. Fitzgerald’s brother Arthur Shields is the philosophical Donkeyman, who never leaves the ship for fear of triggering his alcoholism. Mildred Natwick makes her film debut as the prostitute Freda, charged with the task of seducing Ole before he’s shanghaied. John Qualen does his own inimitable Swedish part as Axel, mentor and protector to Ole. Familiar Faces Billy Bevan, Danny Borzage, James Flavin, J.M. Kerrigan, Wifred Lawson, Cyril McLaglen (brother of Victor), Jack Pennick, and Joe Sawyer round out the rugged cast; most were members in good standing of Ford’s stock company.

The real star of THE LONG VOYAGE HOME is Gregg Toland, who Ford had compete trust in to create the film’s visual mood. Toland’s experimental deep-focus style, utilizing back projection, makes the film an illusion of reality, his heavy shadows and dramatic lighting schemes a definite precursor to what would become the film noir style. John Ford was no stranger to making art films, and together with Toland certainly achieves success. Orson Welles once said he watched STAGECOACH over 40 times before filming CITIZEN KANE; there’s no doubt in my mind he did the same with THE LONG VOYAGE HOME.

While it’s not the type of film one would normally associate with the John Wayne/John Ford canon, THE LONG VOYAGE HOME should be watched by fans of both men’s work. The somber mood is laced with black humor, the cast is superb, Toland’s influential camerawork is a marvel to behold, and it’s a chance to see a different side of John Wayne. Sandwiched between STAGECOACH and THE GRAPES OF WRATH, THE LONG VOYAGE HOME doesn’t get the attention the other two attract, but deserves a place in the pantheon of John Ford’s masterful film classics.

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

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

Irish Eyes Are Smiling: THE QUIET MAN (Republic 1952)

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With the passing of screen legend Maureen O’Hara today, I’ve decided to put aside my Halloween Havoc! series this evening to take a look at one of my favorite Maureen movies, THE QUIET MAN. Paired once again with John Wayne and director John Ford, Maureen shines as Mary Kate Danneher, a feisty, hot tempered colleen who refuses to honor her marriage vows until she gets her “fortune” from brutish brother Red Will Danneher (perennial big lug Victor McLaglen). Mostly filmed in Ireland by Winton Hoch, the countryside scenery is breathtaking in vivid Technicolor, with Maureen radiant as ever.

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The story concerns American ex-boxer Sean Thornton (Wayne), returning to his Emerald Isle birthplace of Innisfree after accidentally killing an opponent in the ring. When he first sets eyes on Mary Kate herding sheep, he’s immediately smitten. Sean buys his family homestead from the Widow Tillane (Mildred Natwick), outbidding Danneher, who knows how to hold a grudge (he has his flunky Feeny write every slight down in a notebook). Sean wants to wed Mary Kate but Will holds back his consent, a custom Sean’s not too fond of, so the locals convince Danneher that Widow Tillane will marry him if he gets Mary Kate out of the house. Sean and Mary Kate get hitched, but when Danneher finds out he’s been duped, he withholds his sister’s “fortune”, consisting of furniture, fine china, and 350 pounds in gold. Mary Kate won’t consummate the marriage without her fortune, and thinks Sean’s a coward for not demanding it from her brother. When she finally gives in, and Sean still refuses to fight for her dowry, she leaves him, heading for the train to Dublin. Having had enough, Sean retrieves her then drags her to Danneher, followed by the whole town. Danneher gives up the money, and the couple throw it in the incinerator, infuriating Red Will. The two finally get into a rollicking fight (one of the longest in screen history, lasting nearly ten minutes) and Sean emerges victorious. The two brothers-in-law, now totally soused, march to the Thornton cottage singing “The Wild Colonial Boy”, and Sean and Mary Kate live happily ever after in this cleverly crafted Irish fairy tale

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There are so many great scenes in this film, including that now-classic battle royal. Sean and Mary Kate escaping their chaperone Micheline (the one and only Barry Fitzgerald), running through lush green fields and getting caught in a rainstorm, is one of the most romantic in movies. Ford won his fourth and final Oscar for directing this gem, and Hoch took home the statue for his cinematography. The score by Victor Young, peppered with Irish folk tunes, should’ve won (Dmitri Tiompkin got the win for HIGH NOON). The cast is perfect, with Duke giving a restrained performance as the ex-patriate. McLaglen is his boisterous self as Danneher, Fitzgerald plays his role like a leprauchan, and the rest of the ensemble (Ward Bond, Arthur Shields, Jack MacGowan, Sean McClory) add to the authenticity. THE QUIET MAN is somewhat of a family affair, with director Ford’s brother Francis taking part, Wayne’s children featured in the horseracing segment, and Maureen’s brothers Charles Fitzsimons and James O’Hara in supporting roles.

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Maureen O’Hara herself is marvelous as the coquettish yet headstrong Mary Kate, a role made for her talents. She was never lovelier than in THE QUIET MAN, even more so in gorgeous Technicolor. This is one of my favorite films, and no one else could’ve played Mary Kate but Maureen O’Hara. The woman is gone now, but her movies will live on for as long as there are classic film lovers, and we pass them down to the next generation. Here’s to you, Maureen:

“May your glass be ever full – May the roof over your head ever be strong – And may you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead!”

Gangsters On Horseback: James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart in THE OKLAHOMA KID (Warner Bros, 1939)

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James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart traded in their tommy guns for six-shooters in THE OKLAHOMA KID.  The film moves like a serial, going swiftly from one set-piece to the next. The plot’s your standard cowboy outing, but what makes THE OKLAHOMA KID so much fun is seeing the two great gangster stars going through their paces in a Western setting.

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When the Oklahoma land rush is opened, Whip McCall (Bogart) and his gang decide to rob the stagecoach carrying newly minted silver to pay the Cherokee Nation. The Oklahoma Kid (Cagney), a free-spirited rascal, beats them to the punch. The Kid enters a camp where he meets Judge Hardwick (Donald Crisp) and his pretty daughter Jane (Rosemary Lane). Jane’s beau, Ned Kincaid (Harvey Stephens), knows something about the Kid’s mysterious past. McCall then puts a “sooner” claim on a parcel of land that becomes Tulsa. The town is wide open thanks to McCall, now running the saloon and gambling joint. The concerned citizens decide to take on the racketeers, I mean outlaws, by running Ned’s dad John Kincaid (Hugh Southern) for mayor. McCall frames Kincaid for murder, then tricks Judge Hardwick into going to Kansas City, setting up his own corrupt judge to preside at the trial. Jane sends The Kid to fetch him back, but it’s too late. The hand-picked jury has found Kincaid guilty.

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The Kid decides he’s going to bust Kincaid out of jail, but the old man won’t go with him, preferring law and order over anarchy. McCall incites a lynch mob to grab Kincaid and they hang him high. The truth is now revealed: The Kid is Kincaid’s son! He tracks down and kills McCall’s gang except for Doolin (Edward Pawley), who confesses McCall gave the order for the frame-up and lynching. Meanwhile, Ned has been named U.S. Marshall and goes to arrest McCall. The villain gut-shoots Ned, then engages in a wild brawl with The Kid. McCall’s about to finish The Kid off when Ned, in a last desperate act, shoots the bad guy down, thus saving his wayward brother before he dies.

Cagney’s Oklahoma Kid is a smiling, swaggering maverick who has no use for “civilization” (and he explains why in a well-written, libertarian speech to Judge Hardwick). He’s a charming rogue of an outlaw, and his portrayal of The Kid is fun to watch. Cagney even gets to sing a tune (“I Don’t Want To Play In Your Yard”) during the course of the action. Bogart plays his usual slimy bad guy as McCall, dressed all in black and ordering around his minions. The cast is full of Western veterans (Ward Bond, George Chesebro, Bob Kortman, Al Bridge), and director Lloyd Bacon keeps things moving along. Max Steiner’s music helps set the mood, and the cinematography of legendary James Wong Howe adds greatly to the overall atmosphere. THE OKLAHOMA KID is a fun movie to watch, made even more fun by the presence of Cagney and Bogart out of their gangster element.