Actor: Ken Curtis
Film: The Searchers (1956)
NOTE: This is the first in a series of studies devoted–film by film–to an assortment of major and minor characters in John Ford’s oeuvre. If you’re asking “Why this approach?” or “Why John Ford?” I hope the posts themselves will ultimately provide the answers. I’m beginning with The Searchers for the simple reason that I’ve lived with it the longest and the closest…
I’ve known Charlie McCorry my whole life–and not just because he literally turned into Festus on Gunsmoke.
In my own world, he’s worn a half-dozen different names and faces but certain characteristics–besides his actually being referred to as “Festus” now and again back when the TV show was common cultural currency–remain constant.
Inherently shy, he tends to mask it by a show of boisterous, occasionally abrasive behavior. This includes a tendency to exaggerate whatever accent he was born with and a braying laugh that can fill a football stadium when he decides to unleash it.
His humor runs to the crude and obvious but is ameliorated by a spirit of genuine self-deprecation.
He is fiercely loyal to whatever rare authority he deems legitimate and–in the manner of all equal and opposite reactions–deeply suspicious of any deviance from same. This makes him a poor choice for captain but an extremely capable second-in-command, especially in small units (like, say, a Texas Ranger company). Capable, in part, because his trust will always have been earned–and because he’ll view any threat to his Captain as a threat to everything.
If it’s broke, he can fix it.
Once he’s fixed it, it stays fixed and, unless it’s in the practice of his profession, he will be deeply insulted if you try to pay him for it.
If it is in the practice of his profession, he will give you a price break. Unless he knows you really can’t afford it, in which case he’ll do it for free anyway.
He always has some special talent that surprises. This talent might range from playing a mean rockabilly guitar to doing beautiful, museum quality craft work (usually in wood or leather) to (as with Charlie McCorry himself) possessing a beautiful singing voice (which he not infrequently uses in the service of a church choir, though Curtis himself put his at the disposal of the Sons of the Pioneers).
He is slow to anger and an extremely tough opponent in any fight you manage to pick with him.
Judging by the quality of the women he ends up with, he is a formidable romantic rival.
No matter how many of his friends he outlives, his funeral will always pull a crowd.
Finally, because he is nearly always portrayed as a straight buffoon in American narrative–fiction, film or stage–it is not surprising to find him described by quotes like these:
“The subplot with Vera Miles and Ken Curtis becomes a bit more grinding every time you see the film.” (David Thomson, Have You Seen…?)
“A comically (even grotesquely) inappropriate potential partner” [for Miles’ Laurie Jorgensen] (Douglas Pye)
“Dumb hillbilly suitor” (David Grimsted)
“Country bumpkin” (Arthur M. Eckstein)
“Preposterously yokelish” (William Luhr)
(All from The Searchers: Essays and Reflections on John Ford’s Classic Western, Arthur M. Eckstein and Peter Lehman, eds.)
“An absurd booby” (Lindsay Anderson, About John Ford)
“Irritating,” “too coarse by half” (Scott Eyman, Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford)
“An oaf” (Tag Gallagher, John Ford: The Man and His Films)
“Gormless bumpkin” (Edward Buscombe, The Searchers: BFI Film Classics)
I could go on but you get the drift.
The only countervailing view I’ve found is J.A. Place’s insightful commentary in her The Western Films of John Ford–which judges Charlie McCorry by who he actually is in the film rather than by the response he is likely to draw from critics who might not ever best him in any other scenario but can very definitely out-type him. Doubtless there are other positive views somewhere or other but they certainly don’t add up to more than a tiny fraction of the intellectual scorn heaped on the character.
So, with this disconnect between image and reality fully established, let’s look at Charlie a little closer.
Outside of his broad accent–which is actually quite true to such characters in life, though Curtis was understandably reluctant to play him that way and expose himself to the inevitable tide of “sophisticated” commentary sampled above–the film makes no real distinction between Charlie’s qualities as a “suitor” and those of his rival, the movie’s hero, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter).
In no way does the film Ford actually made–as opposed to the one many seem determined to run in their heads (sometimes buttressed by cineaste-level knowledge of Ford’s own dismissive on-set comments regarding both Curtis–his son-in-law at the time–and the character, which are no more meaningful in terms of reading the ever-contrary Ford’s intent here than they are elsewhere)–suggest Martin is a superior man, or a worthier object of Laurie’s affection.
There’s little to choose between them socially. Martin’s better looking to be sure, but, in Ford’s universe, surfaces are as likely to conceal as reveal–though he certainly never discounts sexual attraction (or even obsession) as a powerful motivation for both rational and irrational behavior. Charlie has more responsibility in the community, is clearly a good provider and a stable, respected presence (though Martin is hardly deficient in these categories–his long absence is for reasons that seem perfectly valid to everyone but Laurie herself, and is hardly a sign of waywardness.)
Even when they fight, it’s to a draw, with both men finally collapsing in exhaustion.
Tellingly, in a movie where the main character, John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, is famously contemptuous of everyone and everything–and where his contempt is expressed directly, by look, word or deed, to Martin Pawley, Mose Harper, Jerem Futterman, Look, Laurie, Mrs. Jorgensen, Mr. Jorgensen, Brad Jorgensen, Nesby, Chief Scar, Ethan’s brother Aaron, the Reverend Captain Samuel Johnson Clayton, Comanches, “Yankee cavalrymen,” women who “ain’t white….anymore” and, finally, Debbie Edwards herself–he has no confrontational scene with Charlie McCorry.
Even more tellingly, the scene where this might have been expected to take place–when Martin and Ethan arrive just in time to interrupt Charlie’s planned wedding to Laurie and where Ethan might have been expected to lay on something more than even his usual withering sarcasm, plays this way:
Charlie: “Marty with ya’?”
Ethan does allow himself a wry smile and it might be at Charlie’s specific expense (as opposed to general bemusement at the overall situation he has walked back into). But he’s careful to save it until after Charlie has left the room.
It is true that Ethan is wearied by this point, but he’s ready enough with his usual barbs when Laurie begs him to stop the ensuing fight (“Why? You started it.”), when Mrs. Jorgensen wants a better view (“Don’t forget you’re a lady!”), when Lieutenant Greenhill shows up (“Yeah, he’s a Yankee cavalryman.”)
Charlie McCorry is spared all this for a simple reason.
Ethan Edwards–and John Ford–knew him a lot better than your average film critic does.
Charlie’s real place in the moral universe of The Searchers is the place he actually tends to occupy in the sort of community the film depicts–the sort of communities that have to exist first in order for film, or film critics typing away (not to mention a lot of other things), to exist in turn.
He’s a guardian of order and his thanks is the usual–see above.
In addition to inspiring phrases like “gormless bumpkin,” an awful lot of typing has been variously dedicated to Charlie’s relationship with Laurie and even with Martin.
I’ve never seen a single word about his relationship with Ethan.
That’s certainly in part because the relationship is not exactly verbal. Though they are present in numerous scenes together, the exchange above is the full extent of what they actually say to each other….in the entire film.
Easy enough to understand how such a relationship can be missed, even by people who have a lot of time for studying such things.
But they do have one and it’s a long way from incidental.
It involves Charlie keeping watch.
What he keeps watch on is anything that threatens his community’s stable underpinnings.
The first time he starts keeping watch on Ethan Edwards–the very first time he pays him any extra attention at all–is early in the film, at the dawn of the original “search,” when Ethan shoots out the eyes of a dead Comanche. Watch that scene and you’ll see that Charlie McCorry (left) keeps staring at Ethan long after even his Captain has turned away.
Once he cottons to Ethan being a man who needs an eye kept on him, their relationship remains fixed–and silent–until Charlie is understandably forced to turn his attention to Martin near the end of the movie.
If Ethan chunks a canteen at Captain Clayton, everybody else watches the canteen….or the Captain.
Charlie (second from left) watches Ethan.
The first time Ethan utters “That’ll be the day,” it is in defiance of Clayton.
The Captain gives him a long look before calling for the horses.
Charlie (right) gives him a longer look.
Finally, in the aftermath of the river shootout that follows close on, Charlie–who we should note has been the coolest head in the fight itself, the only man who has remained entirely untouched by fear, rage, confusion or the pure elation of killing the enemy (again, quite true to his character in life)–is on his feet in an instant when the long-simmering confrontation between Clayton and Ethan boils forth.
Watch that scene and what you see is everyone present doing their level best to stay as far away as possible.
Except for Charlie (moving from the left).
Charlie is at his Captain’s side in an instant, without the least hesitation–quite prepared to take on Ethan Edwards in that moment or any other where he has strayed across the line.
Just as he will be when Martin’s “Well, if it’s all the same to you Reverend, I ain’t goin’ to Austin.” finally makes him something taking Laurie away could not–the new threat to earned authority. Yes, Charlie’s response is given extra heat by his jealousy–but it’s what we would expect in any case if we’ve been paying attention–“You’re goin’ if the Cap’n says you’re goin’.”
And I should add that this relationship between the “Captain” and Charlie is well earned. Earned for all the reasons mentioned above and best demonstrated by the fact that Charlie is the only one who consistently calls him Captain, as opposed to Reverend, (all of which, in turn, is maybe the reason the Captain is not likely to let anyone else tend any wound that shows up in a highly inconvenient location as a result of the “Yankee cavalryman” getting careless with his saber–in a scene that grates on many a delicate sensibility, though I’d call it a perfect example of Ford’s consistent ability to use the commonest devices, in this case low comedy, to delineate character and a put an exclamation point on a relationship that is no less important for never having to be spelled out).
The measure of respect that Ethan Edwards drops into the only word he speaks to Charlie McCorry–a word spoken at the very moment when Charlie is about to be spiritually cuckolded and would seem most prone to mockery–is thus fully earned as well.
With the possible exception of Laurie Jorgensen, he is also the only character in the film who Ethan never makes the mistake of misjudging or underestimating.
He does not poke him or prod him or insult him or throw him on the ground or kick him square in the ass. He does not romanticize him. He does not underestimate him. He does not mete out any of the usual fates or judgments that otherwise accompany proximity to Ethan Edwards.
He does not mess with him at all.
Most of all, he does not speak to him until he’s spoken to.
Ethan Edwards knew Charlie McCorry very well indeed.
He probably even knew that Laurie Jorgensen could have done a whole lot worse than end up married to him.