THE MARSHAL FROM WICHITA….JOEL McCREA (AFTER HE WAS JOEL McCREA) AS WYATT EARP (BEFORE HE WAS “WYATT EARP”) (I Watch Westerns: Take Five)

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Happy to be taking part in Toby Roan’s Joel McCrea Blogathon. Toby blogs at 50 Westerns from the 50’s, which is on my blog-roll and highly recommended for anyone seeking a better understanding of a bottomless subject. His comment section alone is more informative than a lot of books. Anyway, I picked McCrea’s turn as a pre-legend Wyatt Earp in Wichita, one of many superficially unassuming westerns that have grown with time and repeated viewings. Please take the time to click on the link provided and peruse the other entries….There’s always much to learn, even on an average day.

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By the time (1955) Joel McCrea played Wyatt Earp, in Jacques Tourneur’s Wichita, both men were at the height of their fame and iconography. McCrea had been a major Hollywood star for a generation. Earp had been a legend, both in his own mind and elsewhere, for nearly three-quarters of a century.

Nonetheless, on paper it  wasn’t the most natural pairing.

McCrea was sufficiently laconic to give Gary Cooper a run for his money, while Earp’s legend had grown, in part, because of his flamboyance–both as a lawman and a story-teller. Still, in the age just after the closing of the Frontier and just before our present Return to the Primitive, Civilization was thought best managed by the sort of man McCrea was best at portraying. It was what made him a star then and what now leaves him vulnerable to memory’s fast-fade. You don’t quite have to be an aficionado–of Hollywood or the Western–to recognize the value of McCrea’s name in a credit. But, each year more than than the last, it helps.

The Laconic Hero certainly wasn’t all he could play, even in westerns. He wasn’t Preston Sturges’s main boy for nothing, and, in a stone-cold classic like Colorado Territory, he was able to give his rock-solid persona the sort of tiny, invisible nudge (common to the great leading men of his day, virtually unheard of now that everyone’s been to “acting school”), that made him more than credible as the lone competent man in a brutal hole-in-the-wall hold-up gang…and, oh-by-the-way improve on Humphrey Bogart’s star-making turn in High Sierra (of which Colorado Territory was a superior western re-make).

Still, by the fifties, he had grown comfortable in his more basic man-of-the-west persona, and that’s certainly at the core of his presence throughout Wichita.

It’s also part of what makes the movie deceptively quiet. Despite a surfeit of plot and action, plenty of Tourneur’s always deft and subtly impressive visuals, and a strong cast even by fifties’ western standards (Edgar Buchanan, Vera Miles, Walter Coy, Lloyd Bridges, Jack Elam, Robert Wilke…like that, plus an especially fine turn from Wallace Ford as a newspaper editor who’s seen it all before), it can fool you into thinking not much is going on.

Wyatt Earp–not then a name carrying the particular weight that attaches to any version of the Dodge City or Tombstone tales upon which Earp’s legend was built–comes to Wichita to start a business. Then the usual stuff happens.

He averts a holdup at the bank where he is about to deposit his money….

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He turns down a marshal’s badge because he’s not interested….

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He then takes the badge when it becomes evident he’ll never get a business off the ground in any place as wild and lawless as Wichita (the woman is cradling her dead child, just shot through an open window by the cowpokes who have taken over the town…and whose business the town desperately needs)…

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So he tames the town…

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And keeps it tamed….

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To the point where he can enjoy the fruits of his labor…

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In part by wooing the town’s prettiest girl. (Miles, just before she altered the worlds of Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford. And, while she’s fine here–when was she not?–and you can already learn things by watching her, it’s clear Tourneur, one of the period’s finest directors, didn’t see the qualities they saw. One of the distinctions between even great talent and genius I suppose).

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More than all that, he begins to accept his destiny as a “natural born lawman….”

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The man who can turn this…

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and this…

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into this…

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and this…

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And make it stick until he and the girl can ride off into the sunset, where–having both his history and his myth handy–we know he will clean up other, even more raucous towns, and, unlike most legendary western characters, live to make sure at least some of the tales get told the way he wants them told.

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Simple enough. But that basic story rests inside a larger, subtler one, one which involves a hard-headed look at small town politics, the responsibilities of leadership and power, the testing of character and, yes, the fragility of Civilization. How close the run is between here…

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and here…

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and here…where even those who rejected Civilization a moment before are suddenly reminded of its virtues.

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By movie’s end, McCrea (and his legend) and Earp (and his legend) have merged in a way that hardly seemed possible at the beginning, when the “pilgrim, probably looking for something to eat” approached a cattle drive that would soon shape his destiny.

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In that beginning, McCrea’s at his most lock-jawed and generic. He really could be almost anybody and it’s only upon reflection that you realize how perfectly that suits the Wyatt Earp who, as a later Prophet might have had it, is busy being born. In the world of 1955, or 2016, we expect anyone playing Earp to have a star quality that’s evident from the moment we set eyes on him. But McCrea, who was perfectly capable of exuding that quality, holds it in check as he rides into the movie. It’s preparatory to his playing Earp as a character we don’t know, and who perhaps does not yet know himself. Once you realize that–and I confess it took me several viewings, though of course that’s an acknowledgement there was always plenty to draw me back–the movie itself gets a whole lot more interesting.

It’s credible that McCrea’s Earp is the kind of man a couple of cowpokes would take for an easy mark. And just as credible that they lose first their sense of superiority, and, consequently, their lives, for their mistake.

That’s the sort of duality McCrea’s rare breed of actor specialized in. He had company in this regard, but you wouldn’t need much more than a card table to seat them. Gary Cooper. Randolph Scott. Just then coming on the scene, James Garner. Maybe Jimmy Stewart at a stretch. But you could be as great as John Wayne or Robert Mitchum or Kirk Douglas and never convince an audience that the dumbest cowpoke ever born could mistake you for a mark.

McCrea splits the difference between “aw shucks” and “don’t push me” so easily it could take the viewer just as long to notice as his adversaries do, even in a film where the adversaries aren’t limited to the obvious bad guys. That he’ll tangle with Bridges, Elam, Buchanan, is clear enough. Here, as elsewhere, they were hired to be the sort of men Joel McCrea would have to dispense with. They, too, could do other things, but it’s not asked of them here at the birth of Wyatt Earp, where they do what they do as superbly as ever.

This Wyatt Earp’s biggest run-in, though, is with Walter Coy’s character, Sam McCoy, and not just because he’s Laurie McCoy’s (Miles) father.

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Coy was a fine actor who was often hired to play basically decent but feckless men. This might be his best turn. He shifts from glad-hander to big shot to concerned father to vengeful widower to the film’s chastened conscience as easily and naturally as McCrea shifts from wanderer to lawman and it’s these performances, along with Ford’s beautifully underplayed curmudgeon and (underutilized though she is) the early peek at Miles, already shouldering the permanently thankless burden of representing Civilization, a heartbeat before The Wrong Man and The Searchers, that give the film enduring interest.

I don’t know if the interest is bottomless…But I feel like I’m a long way from being done with it yet.

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WHEN JIMMY STEWART RAN INTO NATALIE MERCHANT….ON THE WAY UP NO DOUBT (Memory Lane: 1997)

Mentions of Jimmy Stewart’s birthday around the internet today (he would have been 107), prompted a flashback to July 2, 1997. I was on my way to my sister’s house in South Florida, driving across Highway 40 (which connects I-75 to I-95 for those who want to avoid Orlando or the Florida Turnpike).

In those days, I still listened to radio on the road more often than not (of late, I generally try to have a good supply of CDs available for anything longer than a trip to town) and whatever station was playing, I was, in fact, just thinking about what tape I wanted to hear (cassette days for me back then…I’m notoriously resistant to technological change) when I hit Highway 40’s well known dead spots when the standard issue hip-hep-happy dee-jay’s voice suddenly took on a somber tone and announced that the iconic film actor James Stewart had passed away.

After a few lines of the usual bio and not-quite-canned remorse he faded to black and let the next song play without comment.

I’m sure it was just the next thing in the playlist, but, on July 2, 1997, I bet you could have searched a top 40 catalog for anything that had come out in the past five years (usually the furthest back anyone will ever reach for an “oldie” on a hip-hep-happy station in any era) and never found proof that sound sometimes matters more than words quite as convincing as this:

 

BOOK REPORT (9/12 and 10/12)

Rough September. Back to my usual slog in October!

Civil War in the Ozarks, Phillip W. Steele and Steve Cottrell (1993)

Fiction research. Bone dry and rather skimpy but it’s a building block. It looked like a close call for a while, but I ended up knowing more when I finished than when I started. Whew!

The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda, Devin McKinney 2012.

I could quibble.

McKinney hews to the crit-illuminati’s standard line on Fonda’s most important director (John Ford as “myth-maker,” g-r-r-r-r-r, there go my teeth, grinding again) and thus gets some important things wrong (such as concluding that Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West is the greatest western ever made…I’m a fan of Leone and the movie and calling it the greatest western is one of those instances where one man’s opinion is one man’s opinion but it’s also what we used to call bull hockey).

He overrates by a mile Fonda’s contribution to The Wrong Man–the actor’s single collaboration with Hitchcock,which was utterly dominated, on screen and in the director’s mind, by Vera Miles–and does so in service of his own thesis, rather than the search for Fonda’s heart and mind or his place in the larger story McKinney is trying to tell.

And, for reasons that one can only guess at, he leaves Fonda’s relationship to Jimmy Stewart (lifelong best friend, staunch political opponent, and chief competition for Hollywood’s greatest male movie actor) so far in the background it’s basically invisible.

In a psychological bio-portrait of Henry Fonda, I don’t count these as minor flaws.

But boy, there’s a lot to like. McKinney can make sentences, paragraphs and pages move. He’s got a handle on Fonda’s odd combination of stiffness-without-rigidity, righteousness-without-priggishness, loneliness-without-existentialism and orneriness-without-meanness and on why and how he–and he alone–was able to turn these somewhat prickly attributes into first stardom and then iconography. And he’s especially strong on Fonda’s famous children. I don’t feel like I need to read a biography of either of them now, and they don’t take up a sentence more than they should in a 350-page book about their father.

Most importantly, McKinney is able, despite occasionally straying from the path, to make the case for his basic ideas. I especially like his notion of Fonda being the first real movie star president–the one the country most wanted to see be president in the movies (and perhaps still does), not least because we knew how unlikely it was we would see his movie like (as opposed to his “reality”) get anywhere near such high office.

McKinney makes a good deal of the deeply and genuinely Rooseveltian Fonda’s spiritual defeat by Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election–the man most people wanted to be president in the movies yielding, at death’s doorstep, to the man no one could imagine being president and who had not only come to overthrow the New Deal but would succeed, in part, because Fonda himself had rendered us so much assurance in the role.

By 1980, we were used to thinking of a movie star being president, even if we didn’t quite know it yet, and McKinney’s Fonda provides a nuanced outline of just why and how that came to pass.

That’s a lot to put on a movie star, but McKinney makes a convincing case that Fonda’s career and character can bear the weight. Leaving the actor’s famous and oft-repeated account of his childhood witness to an Omaha lynching for the end is a brilliant, novelistic stroke. Linking it to the unprovable but compelling and realistic possibility that Fonda’s father had seen something similar in his own youth on virtually the same ground ends the book on a note of epochal sadness and disorientation which this writer’s swift, economical style does full justice.

Caveats or no, highly recommended.