GOLDEN AGE WESTERNS–THE CANON (A Handy Ten, Times Two)

There is no way to limit Hollywood’s Golden Age westerns to a mere ten, or, as you’ll see, twenty, without seeming silly. You can do it with every other genre, even war films, even noir. The western is deeper at the high end, low end and every level in between, so I won’t be stopping here. A similar list of movies that aren’t as well known, will follow at some point.

But what with civilization crumbling faster every day, this seems like a good time to ruminate on the 1939-1962 period that defined what we thought of ourselves then and what troubles us now, as the thrashing about that was bound to follow the breakup of the Frozen Silence (1980-2016) proceeds apace and the past threatens to repeat its well-established pattern of eternal return to the anti-utopian verities. It won’t be long now before any discarded lessons contained herein will become valuable again.

Stagecoach (1939)
D. John Ford

There were other good westerns made in the late 30s, but John Ford’s return to the form–his first since his great silent Three Bad Men in 1926–is rightly regarded as lifting the game for his favorite genre. It wasn’t the first or last time he managed the trick, but it may have been the most influential. Rightly so. It made the western’s definitive star, John Wayne, solid box office, won Thomas Mitchell a well-deserved Oscar, and set Claire Trevor on a path to winning one later, some year when Vivien Leigh wasn’t making Gone With the Wind. They headed a deep, faultless cast, and the story, a series of intertwined character studies, grows like a fresh flower from the oldest dirt in the hills (or anyway Guy de Maupassant by way of Ernest Haycox).

After this, perhaps Ford’s most purely exciting and entertaining film, with action informing character, and character action, at lightning speed, the cliches that had propped up thousands of dime novels, silents, and serials for half a century were at last so well-defined the western–and the western alone–could go anywhere.

Destry Rides Again (1939)
D. George Marshall

And one of the first places it went, in the very same year, was a wiseacre spoof of itself. It’s prevented from stooping to parody by being a full-blooded western first, with a strong, well-developed, town-taming story that was pure Hollywood, owing little more than its title to Max Brand’s fine source novel. Highlights: Marlene Dietrich’s loose, unmannered performance, proof she should have done more westerns; Samuel S. Hinds’ tobacco-chawing judge, dispensing Boss Brian Donlevy’s mayhem with a firm, laconic hand; Mischa Auer’s seriously whipped “deputy”; and, the big screen’s greatest catfight, courtesy of Dietrich, the priceless Una Merkel, and “eight gallons of water.” Jimmy Stewart? Well, that’s a given, but it’s high even on his endless list of indelible performances.

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)
D, William Wellman

Wellman made better westerns (my later list will feature at least a couple of them), but none quite so iconic. Matching Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s superb source novel scene-for-scene, it’s not an easy watch. Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan (neither ever better) are a couple of cowhands caught up in a lynch mob. Jane Darwell, two years after her salt-of-the-earth Oscar turn in The Grapes of Wrath, plays the Spirit of the Mob, a kind of Rocky Mountain Madame LeFarge, with such conviction you might never see her the same way again. Here and there it’s a touch heavy-handed, but given the subject matter, that’s almost unavoidable and easy to bear. Certainly easier than the final scenes which put a noose around the neck of anyone who has studied enough history to know how often man’s gift for folly, from which God has not made him exempt, is the real source of horror in the universe.

My Darling Clementine (1946)
D. John Ford

Returning after a seven-year break, Ford remakes the Western again and sets the stage for everything it would become. Henry Fonda and Victor Mature play a Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday who are sufficiently removed from history that Ford asked studio head Darryl Zanuck for permission to change the names. Zanuck had a studio to run. No way was he going to give up those names. Ford, typically, doubled-down and vouchsafed the historical accuracy of the obligatory gunfight, claiming Earp had told him all about it in their silent-era bull sessions. But Ford the tall tale-spinner never got in the way of Ford the Artist. Ford the Artist knew the real story was about the epic Loneliness of the Gunfighter and how thin the line between lawman and outlaw was in a lawless land. In other words, the tall tales were what mattered, not the tawdry facts, which would have held nobody’s interest for more than thirty seconds. A century-and-a-half later, the Earp story is still being told and retold. No one has come close to giving it the significance it acquired here, as a cautionary fable.

Canyon Passage (1946)
D. Jacques Tourneur

This isn’t a town-tamer epic so much as a town-being-born Narrative, with all the nuances and complexities that implies. Susan Hayward was on her way up, and you can already see why she will make it to the top. Playing friends who are growing apart and beginning to compete for the same woman, Dana Andrews and Brian Donlevy are at their respective peaks as are the arts of cinematography (courtesy of Edward Kronjager) and Technicolor. Not even Ford’s westerns ever looked more spectacular. Ward Bond shows yet again why he was Hollywood’s supreme character actor, this time portraying a terrifying, animalistic thug who would have been at home in Deadwood…or Deadwood. As usual, the second romantic subplot is a little weak, but not fatally so–once Susan Hayward’s on the screen, it’s not likely the hero will end up with anyone else. As with Stagecoach, the story is from Ernest Haycox, another fine western writer who has been neglected by our urgent need to forget. The fate of Andy Devine’s family is all the more devastating for being handled with gravitas but no fuss. Not as famous as most of the films here, but like all the rest, it grows with time and distance.

Red River (1946–Released 1948)
D. Howard Hawks

Proof that Howard Hawks could conjure an “all is now right with the world” ending out of any scenario. But don’t let that deter you. According to Joanne Dru, Hawks needed editing advice from Ford. That seems to have been the principal reason for the film’s release being delayed for two years. We have Hawks’ own word–every bit as reliable as Ford’s–that this is where Ford saw Wayne’s performance and said, “I never knew the big sunnava-bitch could act!” The discovery would alter the course of the western for decades to come. As for Red River itself, it has more than enough going for it to justify its place in the pantheon: It made Montgomery Clift’s reputation, there’s stellar work from Dru, John Ireland, Walter Brennan and a host of sidekicks. The story, about the first trail-drive from Texas to Kansas after the Civil War, is epic and intimate in equal measure. And, yes, as only the very stupid or the very misinformed would doubt going forward, the big sunnava-bitch could act.

THE CAVALRY TRILOGY (1948–1950)
D. John Ford

Fort Apache (1948)

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

RIo Grande (1950)

John Ford’s three late-40s cavalry films have been considered a loose, informal trilogy almost since they were made. Themes certainly unite them, as does a keen eye for the details of cavalry life as men and women actually lived it in the post-Civil War generation during the conquest of what became the American Southwest. I’m treating them as one entry because there’s nothing else here I could leave off in good conscience–and certainly, none of these three could be left off!

What’s interesting narratively, is that each story stands alone at least as well as the three hang together. Ford viewed cavalry life as a continuum in three distinct modes, first as Tragedy (Fort Apache) then as a Comedy of Manners (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) and finally as Elegy (Rio Grande). Anyone who thinks Ford glossed the men in “dirty shirt blue” should give his subsequent takes on the subject a gander (Sergeant Rutledge, Two Rode Together, even The Searchers) for a stark, sometimes corrosive contrast.

Most of Ford’s stock company features throughout this cycle of Tragedy-Comedy-Elegy, keeping things lively in one, two or all three pictures. Beyond that, look for a teenage Shirley Temple, luminous in Fort Apache, John Wayne at his most moving and eloquent in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Maureen O’Hara’s twirling parasol in Rio Grande (If Ford had given it to Phil Sheridan it would have been yet another historical touch he was accused of manufacturing). Those and a thousand other things. (Stanley Crouch, lifetime Crit-Illuminati member paid in full, once described Shirley Temple in Fort Apache as “somewhat monstrous.” Has any actress ever done a more valuable service than making Stanley Crouch look under the bed?)

And keep going back to them. There’s always more to learn.

Where they rode, that place became the United States of America.

Colorado Territory (1949)
D. Raoul Walsh

Perhaps the greatest western heist flick. It’s a train robbery this time (as opposed to a bank or stage), and a redemption story to boot. Walsh remade his own High Sierra, setting the modern gangster story that had made Humphrey Bogart a star back three-quarters of a century and mining even more gold from it. Joel McCrea didn’t know how to give a bad performance but this time, as “nothing but a big Kansas Jay,” he had a script that allowed him to be far better than good. Same for Virginia Mayo as a girl who’s been run out of all the best saloons in the territory and proves more honorable than either the thieves McCrea’s character has fallen back in with or the good girl (Dorothy Malone, always a welcome sight even in a stodgy role) he has fallen for. A strong story, a sterling character study of a man trying to escape his past, and nobody, but nobody, ever said Raoul Walsh was anything less than an action master of the highest order. The climax stings, no matter how often I watch it.

The Gunfighter (1950)
D. Henry King

The pinnacle of the gunfighter-tries-to-lay-down-his-guns narratives. Gregory Peck proved one of many western leading men who were more convincing playing an older man than a younger one. He’s not grizzled exactly, but there’s an old soul watching every single thing from behind those eyes. This is one where the bullets hit the bone. You can feel the weight of the lives, and souls, at stake, including eternal sidekick Millard Mitchell in the role of a well-spent lifetime. Peck’s aging gunfighter keeps looking for answers and the film doesn’t let you believe he’ll find them–but it lets you believe he believes.

Leads to killing in the end. One of those films where you know where it’s going but you can’t stop watching just the same.

WInchester ’73 (1950)
D. Anthony Mann

Outside of John Ford’s very best, perhaps the greatest and most influential western of the era. It remade Jimmy Stewart’s career, allowing him to keep all the associations of his past everyman roles while he re-invented himself as a western hero who, while still on the side of the angels, serves them with a touch of warrior madness in his soul. It also vaulted Anthony Mann, who had already made several fine noirs and historicals, to the top shelf of Hollywood directors, where he was to remain for more than a decade. It’s great enough that, except for Rock Hudson, who didn’t make a very convincing Indian, everyone associated with it would be remembered even if they had never done anything else.

Just on a side note, it was seeing Winchester ’73 on a big screen (after a dozen viewings on video), that made me realize no great film can be appreciated on a television set. When the bullets hit the rocks in the famous final shootout between Stewart and Stephen McNally, I felt like the shards were knicking my cheek.

High Noon (1952)
D. Fred Zinnemann

Of the many good things that can be said for High Noon, the best thing is that it troubles hidebound souls straight across the political divide. No ideology you bring to it can survive its scrutiny, which is why so many feign boredom or derision or simply run out of the room to keep from confronting it. Its primal power has rarely been matched even in this most primal of genres.

The constant repetition of the theme song, the ticking of the endless  array of clocks, Gary Cooper’s stone face, all work to set the audience on edge (or drive them batty), as the plot keeps us invested in that most nerve-wracking of existential questions: What happens under the pressure of time that doesn’t happen any other way?

It’s the question that drove Howard Hawks, John Wayne, Louis L’Amour and other giants of the genre to distraction when they came to assess the film as Realism. That is, they, and others felt compelled to demand strictures from High Noon they rarely paid the least attention elsewhere, including much of their own best work.

I love it myself, for all those reasons and more. But it really doesn’t matter. Like the next film here (which seems to elicit similar discomfort from the tepid and the passionate alike), it needs to be confronted. Be careful, though. Like the next film on the list, If you pay too much attention it might start to work you over. You might start finding a lot of elements, like Katy Jurado’s face, that won’t let you run and hide.

Priceless exchange overheard in the men’s room by the director following the not-very-promising debut of his only western: “What does an Austrian Jew know about making a western anyway?”

Shane (1953)
D. George Stevens

Jack Shaefer’s source novel has a gem-like purity. George Stevens, with memories of Dachau still playing in his head, both toughened and expanded it without losing the story’s central iconic force. Among the more famous exchanges, including the last one between Alan Ladd’s Shane and Jack Palance’s Jack Wilson so oft-quoted elsewhere, I like this one best:

Shane: What’s your offer, Ryker?
Rufus Ryker: To you, not a thing!
Shane: That’s too bad.
Ryker: Too bad?
Shane: Yeah, you’ve lived too long. Your kind of days are over.
Ryker: My days! What about yours, gunfighter?
Shane: The difference is I know it.

The tragedy is that Ryker’s “kind of days” are never over.

Except in the valley Shane rides out of, slumped in his saddle, the dreamland where he has obliterated himself and there is no more need for his guns…or any guns at all.

The man who filmed the ashes and bones at Dachau, another man who made only one western, must have wished it could be so–and must have known it could never be.

The Man From Laramie (1955)
D. Anthony Mann

Anthony Man and Jimmy Stewart again. Each of the five westerns they made together is a masterpiece and ranking them by quality is a fool’s errand. But, after Winchester ’73, this is the one that seems to carry the most canonical weight. Stewart ratchets up his a-man-against-himself-is-a-man-against-the-world persona to Shakespearean proportions. The story and cast (exceptional: Donald Crisp, Arthur Kennedy, Aline MacMahon, Alex Nicol and the great Cathy O’Donnell who makes even the obligatory ingenue role sing) are up to the task. It’s a stranger-in-town saga (Stewart, with a secret and a purpose of course), crossed with a family drama of an aging cattle king (Crisp) reaching the time of life when he must choose between the son he has (Nicol) and the son he wishes he had (Kennedy).

Anyway, he thinks Kennedy is the son he wishes he had.

Like I said, Shakesperean. At least.

The Searchers (1956)
D. John Ford

The apex, a narrative so densely layered it can no more be plumbed than Hamlet or the Illiad or War and Peace. It’s also a hellishly entertaining Saturday Matinee western. John Wayne’s performance was one of the handful that makes awards irrelevant. The greatest American director’s greatest film. If Ford had made noirs or musicals or horror films, one of those would be the defining American genre.

He made westerns.

7 Men From Now (1956)
D. Budd Boetticher

The first of the Ranown western cycle made by Boetticher, producer Harry Joe Brown, writer Burt Kennedy, and star Randolph Scott. They are all endlessly rewatchable. At least four, including this one, Comanche Station, The Tall T, and Ride Lonesome, are masterpieces. People debate endlessly about which is best but the four are on a level where rankings are silly. I’m choosing this one because it’s first, it has an astounding performance by Gail Russell which has grown with time (and which, according to the great critic Blake Lucas, who had a good bit to do with restoring 7 Men From Now, Boetticher’s favorite of his western leading ladies, all of whom were excellent), and it’s Lee Marvin’s definitive bad guy turn.

If there had been Oscar justice, Marvin would have won for his supporting role in the same year John Wayne won for his lead in The Searchers.

Oscar ain’t about justice.

3:10 to Yuma (1958)
D. Delmer Daves

A morality/mystery/miracle play all in one, which I wrote about at length here.

I said most of what I had to say there, so I won’t pontificate. This about sums it up:

However, he got there, Daves must have recognized that 3:10 to Yuma was a chance to merge the presumably old-fashioned prestige genre with the just-about-to-be-cool one (noir) he had helped pioneer in a way that was rare, if not unique.

I say “must have” because films that are better on the eighteenth viewing than on the first don’t happen by accident.

It’s a lot more than eighteen now. And it’s better still. Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, each at their very best, give one of the top ten “dual-performances” in any Hollywood film and I doubt I need to restrict that to Hollywood.

The film’s prestige has grown sufficiently to have a Criterion release in recent years. Any list of a hundred American films that fails to include it doesn’t have my serious attention.

Avoid the pointless remake.

Rio Bravo (1959)
D. Howard Hawks

The story has been told, again and again, that Howard Hawks and John Wayne were disgusted by films like High Noon and 3:10 to Yuma, where professional lawmen seek help from amateurs. It was the seeking that disturbed them, not whether Gary Cooper failed to find a Van Heflin in his particular town. It’s our good fortune that by the time they actually made  Rio Bravo, their “answer” film, all that preaching was conveniently tabled and they just went out and made one of the all-time pure entertainments (one where it should be said Wayne’s John T. Chance is helped by amateurs whether he likes it or not–it’s okay, apparently, as long as he didn’t ask for it!). Everyone’s great, with special kudos to Angie Dickinson, Walter Brennan in what might be his defining comic role, and Claude Akins, playing that rarest of men–one with no redeeming virtues whatsoever.

The story doesn’t bear too much scrutiny measured against history or common sense. Just as a for-instance, drunks don’t dry out after a two-year bender and start shooting like Annie Oakley the next day, as Dean Martin’s Dude does here. But it works within its own miracle play assumptions and achieves its own kind of perfection.

The reason I know is that except for The Searchers, I’ve watched it more than any film here.

The Magnificent Seven (1960)
D. John Sturges

John Sturges made better westerns (more on that later)..but this is by far his most iconic and well worthy of the canon. It’s a remake of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. You can fall short of that standard and still be damn good. The Magnificent Seven falls a bit short of that standard–and is still damn good. (Sturges said no less than Kurosawa told him so.) The story has professionals putting their lives on the line for Mexican villagers who are plagued by a band of outlaws. No doubt Howard Hawks and John Wayne approved!

Truth be told, the village scenes drag a bit and Horst Bucholz, a good actor, was a bit miscast, not so much because he doesn’t seem Mexican as because he seems urban and modern, which might just be a way of saying too European (a problem that did not extend to Yul Brynner, who according to Bucholz, was the only cast member to extend him either courtesy or respect).

But Sturges was an action master and there’s a raft of career-making performances by Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn. That plus the great presences of Brynner and Eli Wallach as the outlaws’ leader make this an easy watch.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
D. John Ford

The direction of the country since its release–beginning with John Kennedy’s assassination a year later–has lifted this into competition with The Searchers as John Ford’s greatest, most prescient work. It would be great in any case. There’s definitive work from James Stewart, John Wayne, Lee Marvin, Woody Strode, Edmond O’Brien. Vera Miles gave one of the finest performances in American film. It’s also one of the great language films, the source of “Well, Pilgrim,” “Print the legend,” “You don’t own me” and much more.

And it contains the greatest line in American fiction, and the greatest line reading in American film, spoken by Miles’ Hallie Stoddard near the end:

Look at it. It was a wilderness. Now it’s a garden. Aren’t you proud?

Well, aren’t we?

Ride the High Country (1962)
D. Sam Peckinpah

Well, aren’t we?

There is almost no way to reconcile this film with Bloody Sam’s later, more famous exercises in style. It’s laconic, elegaic, sure-footed, unhurried, character-oriented, without a single false note. Here, he seems all but fated to pick up John Ford’s torch and carry it forward.

Fate, as it often does, had other plans. Peckinpah’s most famous film, The Wild Bunch, made a mere seven years later, is a lynchpin of another age, one that sought to extinguish not only all assurances but the traditions upon which they were based.

His later approach met with considerable short term success.

Whoever replaces us will get to decide what that’s worth. I don’t short The Wild Bunch‘s considerable virtues and I understand its reputation even if I don’t agree with it.

But for me, this film is worth far more.

Joel McCrea’s aging sheriff would have heard Hallie Stoddard’s question and answered: “Hell yes, I’m proud!”

But whoever was listening might have noted–might still note–that he was dying.

[NOTE: As I mentioned above, I’ll be doing another list of less well-known westerns from the same era. Give or take The Searchers, I think I can come up with a list of twenty that are just as good as what’s here, if not as iconic. Heck, I already have, and it wasn’t even hard.]

Til then….

THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED…AND WHY I WATCHED THEM (February 2019 Edition)

Feb. 7-The Bank Job (2008, d. Roger Donaldson, First Viewing)

Saw it in a bargain bin and decided, on the strength of Roger Donaldson’s name (and fond memories of Smash Palace and No Way Out), to take a chance. Good pick, bordering on a “wow.” It’ll take a few visits to decide whether this is great or near-great, but at first contact, it even made me like Jason Statham (whose presence tempted me to give it a pass) and more than a little. Based on the biggest bank heist in the history of the UK, and plausible down to the last detail even if parts had to be made up, as the movie itself says “to protect the guilty.” If England really is going away forever, whoever comes next can show this for proof of why it deserved its fate.

Feb. 8-Ace in the Hole (1951, d. Billy Wilder, Second Viewing)

Because it was showing at the college theater, free for students and alumni! They showed it on a medium-sized screen in the small room, but it was enough of a difference from my single DVD-viewing to raise it a notch to near-greatness. I imagine it would go all the way in a big hall. For those who don’t know, it’s Billy Wilder’s poison pill valentine to yellow journalism and boy is it contemporary. Kirk Douglas is the only big name in the cast. Everybody else, even the few familiar character actors, look as though they were hired on location for sub-union wages. Since Douglas  (never better) is playing a big-shot reporter who’s been thrown off of every decent paper in the east, slumming in some podunk town in the driest, hottest American Southwest ever filmed while plotting his way back to the big time, the contrast works beautifully. The crackling Wilder dialog never sounded better than here, coming out of the mouths of ordinary Americans grinding along, finally getting what they want in the way of excitement and getting it good and hard.

Feb. 11-The Departed (2006, d. Martin Scorcese, First Viewing)

Because I hadn’t seen it before. Because I’m always willing to give Marty Scorcese another try just in case he might one day make me root for one of his characters to do something other than die so yet another of his soulless, well-crafted movies can be over already. Because there was another bargain bin and I was really bored (and really miffed I still can’t afford a decent CD player because the bottom line is now fifty dollars more than the last time I couldn’t afford it) and this was really cheap.

Bottom line? I didn’t want the Leo DeCaprio character to die. Three guesses how that worked out.

Feb. 13-Life of Crime (2013, d.  Daniel Schechter, Umpteenth Viewing)

Because, in these few short years, it’s become one of my go-to movies of this or any decade. Even though they sort of work the same side of the street, and it’s not my side, I have a higher tolerance for Elmore Leonard than Martin Scorcese. A lot of good movies have been made from his stuff, going all the way back to the 50s and I seldom want his people to die, which, among other things, makes it a relief when they don’t. I’ll always watch this one for the look on Jennifer Aniston’s face when she’s getting high to the sound of “Let Your Love Flow,” and for trying to decide whether she, Mos Def (Yasiin Bey), or John Hawkes has the best voice going, not just here but anywhere, and who looks and sounds the most like they stepped straight out of the 70s.

Feb. 15-Against the Ropes (2004, d. Charles S. Dutton, First Viewing)

If you notice an unusual lot of first-time viewings here, well, that’s what happens when I get cheap and bored. I picked this one up because I vaguely remembered Meg Ryan getting some of her last good reviews for it. She earned them. The rest of the movie is boilerplate (albeit reasonably well-executed), But Ryan’s performance as pioneering boxing promoter/manager Jackie Kallen, who was the first woman to do pretty much everything in the field, and the first to do a few things period, is all that. How much you like this movie will depend on how much you like Jackie Kallen. I liked her quite a bit. Better than I expected to because Ryan didn’t make her lovable. I don’t think it’s a go-to. There’s plenty of Meg Ryan elsewhere for that. But I’m glad I saw it once.

Feb. 16-Gambit (1966, d. Ronald Neame, Umpteenth Viewing)

Well because it’s for always and my favorite comic heist flick. But especially for the way Shirley MacLaine’s Nicole Chang gets smarter whenever Michael Caine’s Harry Dean gets dumber and vice versa. They make it a miracle of ease (and comedy, and romance). Hollywood spent years trying to remake it and finally succeeded with Cameron Diaz and somebody or other. Why no one knows. I haven’t seen it. It was probably part of a drug deal. Certainly, it was some sort of criminal enterprise, like every attempt to improve perfection. To pull that off you’d need these actors…and a time machine.

Feb. 18-The Terminator (1984, d. James Cameron, Umpteenth Viewing)

Because, as I’ve said before, it’s the greatest pulp movie ever. James Cameron has spent the rest of his life trying to live up to it without even coming close, maybe because he never got another performance out of an actor to match what Linda Hamilton did here, growing from a scared rabbit to the “mother of the future” without a false move. Naturally, she was rewarded with a TV show. Her next best part on film was as the action hero in Terminator 2 and it was the best by miles any woman has done with such a role. But it was barely one-dimensional compared to this. That and the nine hundred deservedly iconic visuals that keep popping off the screen (not to mention the only successful triple-climax in the history of action movies), will always make it bottomless.

Feb. 19-Angel and the Badman (1948, d. James Earl Grant,  Umpteenth Viewing)

Because John Wayne and Gail Russell and because it was time. It’s always time.

Feb. 21-French Kiss (199, d. Lawrence Kasdan, Fifth Viewing)

Like I said. there’s plenty of go-to Meg Ryan, none better than this, probably the breeziest part she ever had. It actually helps that the iconography of When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle are missing. You can watch it without wondering whether you’ll need to memorize pull quotes for the dissertation. And, at least five times around, Kevin Kline playing a randy French jewel thief is more fun than Billy Crystal playing an uber-mensch or Tom Hanks playing an uber-WASP. He might even catch you by surprise once in a while.

Feb. 23-The Conversation (1974, d. Francis Ford Coppola, Fourth Viewing)

For the best movie of the 1970s…and the best movie about the 1970s (I’m not sure any movie has ever been both for any other decade). It makes sense in a way. If by chance anybody caught the peculiar mood of the 70s on film, it was bound to become definitive as time went on. This one always places high on “best of” critical lists….but never too high. That will come in the future when we don’t have to deal with what all we didn’t do to avoid living where we do now.

Til next time…

HONOR BOUND….7 MEN FROM NOW (I Watch Westerns: Take Seven)

7 Men from Now (1956)
D. Budd Boetticher

(NOTE: Mild spoilers ahead, concerning the early part of the film.)

It’s common for the honor of one or two central characters to be tested in a western. It’s rare that everyone’s honor is tested.

Most of the values assumed by Burt Kennedy’s haiku-perfect script for 7 Men from Now, (sometimes rendered Seven Men from Now) the first of the magnificent string of westerns made by the director-star team of Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott on shoestring budgets through the late fifties, have either vanished or gone underground. For three thousand years prior, those values–or, if you like, the value of those values–was unassailable. With sixty years of “progress,” we’ve managed to render them obsolete, which is why we ourselves will soon follow.

Meanwhile, we can have fun remembering.

You can’t have much more fun doing anything than watching Seven Men from Now, whether for the first or fiftieth time.

Nowadays, a man who sets out to avenge his wife’s death in a movie is a cartoon character, or else a mere projection of fantasy. The underlying urge is still understood–modern action movies thrive on revenge. Only it is bound to be rendered safely, in no more than two dimensions (and preferably fewer), devoid of emotional content that cuts any deeper than the thrill of seeing blood spurt (a thrill that animates a remarkable number of “intellectuals,” prone to bragging about their capacity for absorbing faux-violence from the cheap seats while calling for more, always in the name of “realism”).

Everyone knows that, in the real world–in what now passes for reality anyway–this is a job for law enforcement.

Of course, it was always a job for law enforcement, when and where they were up to the task, and the first brilliant stroke the creators of  7 Men from Now rendered, was having Scott play an ex-Sheriff, Ben Stride, who retains the moral authority of law and order, but no longer wears the badge that makes his authority official.

it was hardly the first time the idea had been tried, but Scott had reached a point in his life, and his career, where he carried the intrinsic weight of the contradiction like its own badge–one buried in his chest instead of resting on his shirt.

His test of honor is the simplest. Will he be able to kill the men who killed his wife?

The men on the run have robbed $20,000 in gold and they don’t know it’s his wife they’ve killed in the process. The outlaw who does, Bill Masters, doesn’t ride with them and he plans on parlaying his knowledge into some sort of edge that will give him possession of the gold.

He’s played by Lee Marvin in his early villain stage, so you know going in his code of honor is going to be a bit slipperier than Scott’s….or even those other outlaws.

It’s real, though. A good part of the plot involves finding its limit. The force of that journey is magnified considerably by his double testing of John Greer, a westward moving settler (a stolid Walter Reed) who is having his own manhood tested by the rigors of the trail, a plot twist you might not see coming, and his ability to hang on to his attractive wife, Annie (the always luminous Gail Russell), whose own hold on a wife’s honor is simultaneously stretched and burdened by her attraction to Stride (either because he’s Randolph Scott or because he’s a man who can handle the wilderness that has her husband buffaloed) and threatened by a leering Masters, who would count his reward far more than doubled if he landed her and the gold….and who is either perceptive or narcissistic enough to guess she might just go along if he’s the last man standing.

The tension in the plot, then, involves a good man who won’t dishonor a wedding vow, a woman who just might, a husband who depends on the men who are better than him being decent about it, and a bad man who wants what he wants but knows he’ll have to earn every bit of it.

In a modern context all of this would need explaining. (Anywhere it doesn’t need explaining isn’t modern yet.) And such explanations would  dispense with the narrative tension that 7 Men from Now ratchets, line by terse, stoic line.

There’s a deep enough mix of cynicism and romanticism in Marvin’s  remarkable performance (and perhaps even more remarkable presence, to speak of bygone concepts), to encompass everything Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah got up to when they set about to “revise” the western in the following decade, right down to a denouement that’s a full-blooded precursor of the self-destruction that swallows William Holden and company at the end of The Wild Bunch.

The principal difference–the one that will allow each present-day viewer to chalk up a clear preference, one way or the other (because before that, it’s a close run)–is that Marvin’s Bill Masters is more lucid about his aims and the crucial showdown in 7 Men from Now literally takes an eye-blink. For me, the impact is force-multiplied by the compression of time, rather than dispersed by arty slo-mo, but, of course, tastes will vary.

But this is not a simple case of the charismatic villain stealing the show. None of the formidable writing/directing/acting principles were ever better.

Scott’s Stride has a steely conviction that burns deep. He doesn’t strive to be likable. He has no interest in winning friends or influencing people and it’s clear that this isn’t merely a product of riding the revenge trail. We learn, early enough, that it’s the very quality that put his wife in danger.

Gail Russell’s job, playing Annie Greer, is to convey an attraction powerful enough to absorb such knowledge and remain torn between what she feels for Stride and what she owes her husband, even as it becomes clear that Stride would not be an easy man to live with and her husband grows into a figure of whom Marvin’s Masters can say “I was wrong Clete, he wasn’t half a man.”

That’s a tricky line to walk and Russell–one of those actresses who was forever accused of “playing herself” no matter how much one of her screen selves was unlike another–does it beautifully. (I’ve elsewhere called it the most affecting and unassuming performance ever given by a strikingly beautiful woman in a Hollywood film and I’ll stand by that….Did it help that her beauty had faded a touch through hard living and self torment? Maybe. Does it matter? No.)

One false note from the three leads, or even the supporting cast, and the spell would be broken.

It never breaks.

It’s easy enough to say “they don’t make ’em like that anymore” and easy enough for the response to be what a Bill Masters would want. You know: “Thank God for that.”

But the problem isn’t so much that we can’t now make a film like 7 Men from Now (not from lack of the talent–there’s always talent–or even will–put the talent at the disposal of a single strong, gifted personality and you’d be surprised what can result), as the reason we can’t.

It’s not that we can’t live it. We couldn’t “live” it in 1956, when the values that underpin it were still commonly recognized as virtues.

It’s that, absent those virtues, we can’t dream it.

The real residual value of the western (or any other marker of lost worlds, including rock and roll), isn’t what our present can take from it, but someone’s future.

Let’s all hope that future can arrive without an intervening collapse…

…but, hey, ya’ll know how I feel about that.

[NOTE: A recently acquired friend of the blog, the film critic, Blake Lucas, was preeminent in the restoration of 7 Men from Now a few years back. I’ve assured him that his place in heaven is secure.]

THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED….AND WHY I WATCHED THEM

I haven’t done any hard statistics on this, but the vast majority of my movie-watching these days is revisiting movies I’ve seen before and a fair amount is revisiting movies I’ve seen many times.

This habit has grown over the last ten to fifteen years and intensified a bit in the last year or so after I suspended (and ultimately disconnected) my television service. I might go a month without seeing anything new and I now tend to treat movies like music, so watching favorites is more like listening to familiar albums than, say, re-reading a novel.

Like albums, movies tend to draw me back for certain very particular reasons–the parts I never get tired of. Hence, the “why I watch” bit. I’m offering this up as a snapshot of the kind of thing I engage with and very rarely write about. And if I very rarely write about this stuff it isn’t because it’s not worth writing about, it’s just because there isn’t enough time in the world….So, for fun, in reverse order, ten days, ten movies:

Dec. 8–Scaramouche (1952, George Sidney, Umpteenth Viewing)

SCARAMOUCHE

For Eleanor Parker; for the greatest sword fight in movie history; and for one of the sweetest and bitterest final scenes. Besides, it was my birthday (very early hours). I was also impressed this time around by the scenes in the National Assembly, which present the real fight boiling underneath the burgeoning French Revolution as one between the aristocrats and the wannabes. A timeless theme if ever there was one and hardly relegated to the French (let alone the Hollywood version of the French), though they’ve certainly made an art form of it.

Dec. 6–Life of Crime (2014, Daniel Schechter, 2nd Viewing)

LIFEOFCRIME1

For Jennifer Aniston, who reinforced everything I said here, and, yes, still definitely should have played at least one of the female roles in American Hustle.

Dec. 5–Saskatchewan (1954, Raoul Walsh, 2nd Viewing)

saskatchewan

For the scenery; for the measured and reasonably complex view of both Native American politics and the White Man’s code of military honor; for some fine action scenes involving canoes, of which there can never be enough;and for the memories of happy days a good friend and I spent honing our “It-ain’t-really-a-western-unless-Shelley-Winters-or-Joan-Blondell-shows-up” theory, which, for those of us born within a certain time span, has turned out to be surprisingly durable.

Dec. 5–Wagonmaster aka Wagon Master (1950, John Ford, Umpteenth Viewing)

wagonmaster2

For a cast that, even within the context of John Ford’s oeuvre, reminds me remarkably, almost painfully, of the vanished people I grew up among (and no, they weren’t Mormons). That, plus all the usual reasons for watching any of Ford’s numerous masterworks. To take just one such: The long, gliding scene that begins with Joanne Dru’s showgirl turning down an invitation, offered at a “squaw dance,” by one of the outlaw band who have hitched a ride with the Mormon wagon train, and ends with the man being tied to a wagon wheel and whipped by the Mormons while the stoic Navajo elders look on. I’d have to revisit my Shakespeare to be sure, but it might be the most remarkable piece of compressed narrative that exists in any form.

Dec. 4–The War Wagon (1967, Burt Kennedy, Umpteenth Viewing, though the first in a very long while)

Original Cinema Quad Poster - Movie Film Posters

For the memories; for “Mine was taller.”; and for Kirk Douglas finding all those different ways to jump on horses from every conceivable angle without, so far as I could tell, mangling his manhood!.

Dec. 2–7 Men From Now (1956, Budd Boetticher, Umpteenth Viewing)

7MENFROMNOW1

For Gail Russell; for Lee Marvin (“I was wrong Clete. He wasn’t half a man.”); for Randolph Scott’s finely wrought study in stoicism; and for the peerless storytelling, delivered with haiku-level perfection.

Dec. 1–Star Wars (1977, George Lucas, Umpteenth Viewing)

starwars1

Just gettin’ ready.

Nov. 30–Casablanca (1942, Michael Curtiz, Umpteenth Viewing)

casablanca1

For Rick and Ilsa and Frenchie. And to hear Dooley Wilson sing “As Time Goes By.” What, there are other reasons? Sure, but who needs ’em.

Nov. 29–An American In Paris (1951, Vincente Minnelli, Umpteenth Viewing)

ANAMERICANINPARIS2

For Leslie Caron, dancing or not, and for the glories of the vanished studio system.

Nov. 28–The Truth About Spring (1965, Richard Thorpe, Umpteenth Viewing)

TRUTHABOUTHSPRING1

For Hayley Mills, decked in denim; for more deathless lines than I ever found in a classic screwball (“Tommy, if you dare shoot Ashton, I’ll never cook for you again!”); for the evocation of every Florida kid’s dream-life; for “Here’s one they won’t get. Here’s one for freedom.”; and for a chance to tell the lingering shade of that lucky little so-and-so, Jimmy MacArthur, who got out of the last frame with Hayley once and Janet Munro twice: “I ain’t sorry you’re dead!” and half-hope he won’t be able to decide whether I’m kidding. Oh, yeah, and: “Of Catfish Key….Da-h-h-ling.”

REPUBLIC PICTURES BLOGATHON…ANGEL AND THE BADMAN (I Watch Westerns: Take One)

REPUBLICBANNER

Toby at 50 Westerns from the 50s is hosting a blogathon devoted to Republic Pictures and he’s been kind enough to include me. I’m hardly in the league of the western devotees who frequent Toby’s place when it comes to deep knowledge of the subject, but I do have a deep connection to one of the studio’s signature films so I thought I’d put in my two cents. Please click over to 50 Westerns from the 50s (it’s on my regular blog roll or you can link here) and check out the other entries. You can have a lot of interest in Golden Age westerns and still learn something every time you visit either Toby’s site or Colin’s at Riding the High Country (also on my regular blogroll). I certainly do. They both have extensive blogrolls of their own, incidentally, which make for excellent adventures in further research.

For any of Toby’s readers who find yourself here for the first time, this is a pop culture site with a particular emphasis on classic rock and soul, so I don’t specialize in westerns (though I really need to get back to writing more about them). But I do write about them occasionally and I have a couple of ongoing categories devoted to John Ford which might be of interest and which I really do intend to get back to very shortly! They can be found in the blogroll at the right. You can also follow the links within the post to some further thoughts on Gail Russell, among other things. There’s also a friendly search engine if you want to look up, say, Anthony Mann or John Wayne. Please know that if you want to comment on an older piece I will see it and respond.

Now to business….

ANGELANDTHEBADMANPOSTER

What I know about Republic Pictures is what every junior grade film buff knows.

Herb Yates. Tight-fisted. Quick buck. No fancy-schmancy. Seat of your pants operation.

All the stuff you can pick up here and there from folks who may or may not know of whence they speak.

What I know about Angel and the Badman, besides it being made for Republic, is what I see when I pop it in one of the modern devices few were conceiving could give their day’s work such a long afterlife back in Republic’s not-quite-as-seat-of-the-pants-as-it-probably-seemed heyday.

All of which makes me think there is such a thing as cultural auteurism and that Republic’s was as distinctly American as real apple pie or double-header baseball or any of those other things that used to mark us off and now seem like relics of a rapidly receding, ever more elusive past.

I doubt any film the studio put out could have been made in Sweden or Italy.

Angel and the Badman certainly couldn’t.

It probably shouldn’t have amounted to much as it was, American or otherwise.

The director and producer were both first timers, albeit first timers who had worked their way around the block more than once in other capacities before they got to the head of those particular lines. The female lead was a notoriously shy ingenue whose life was already on the brink of wreckage and disaster. The supporting cast was purely stock, except for maybe the aging, silent-era cowboy taking on one of his last work-where-I-can-get-it character parts. The location shooting was solid but hardly inspired.

Going by his reputation, then, it’s about what you’d think Herb Yates would come up with circa 1947.

And, if so, more power to him. Or, if you like, more power to his memory and the memory of his little studio that could.

You stick your nose in there often enough, and you might occasionally–or even frequently–run into something that amounts to more than just a pretty good living.

Of course, sometimes, mostly later on, Yates would team up with a Frank Borzage or a John Ford, and the chance at making something enduring would lean in a little closer. But Angel and the Badman proved (as I’m sure plenty of his other specifically non-auteurish projects did, but I’m sticking to this one because it only takes one and this is the one I know best) he didn’t need all that.

It endures and it says something about us.

1947’s Oscar nominees combined could hardly claim more.

*  *  *  *

That first time producer was John Wayne and, if he weren’t such an iconic movie star, we might be more inclined to remember what a formidable producer he actually was.

He showed his savvy right here, at the beginning. The first time director he wanted, James Edward Grant, turned in a solid job and, though he only directed one more film, he also became Wayne’s favorite go-to screenwriter. The cripplingly shy female lead did what she often did and gave an indelible performance which nobody credited as “acting” no matter how unlike her other indelible non-acting performances, or how unlike anybody else’s pure acting job, it was. The aging cowboy put a beautiful capstone on his career without breaking a sweat. The stock company put the glue in the cracks just like they were supposed to.

And while this sort of thing happened a fair amount in Hollywood’s golden years, I’d argue the pieces rarely fell into place so beautifully as they did here.

The folks who read this aren’t likely to need reminding of Wayne’s own formidable acting skill, but I don’t see this one put among his top-line performances as often as it should be. It’s his great transitional role, delivered in the same year he made Red River (you want a lesson in acting, try a double bill of those two made-in-forty-six specials). Red River has been justly celebrated as the role where he stretched, matured, played older, got John Ford to admit “I never knew the big son of a bitch could act.” It’s all of that.

But I’d argue that what he did here, working for himself, was just as grand. He took on the role of “the kid”–ultra-familiar to his core audience from dozens of truly B-westerns and serials, some of which, contracts being what they were, he kept right on playing after a similar role in Stagecoach made him a star–one last time.

And he made the kid’s transition into a world his character should have rejected out of hand seem not merely plausible but so inevitable that almost anyone watching the movie for the first time will have the satisfaction of seeing the change coming and saying, of course, to themselves when the final credits roll.

No mean trick that, because, by then, you might have forgotten who he really was at the beginning…a man even Gail Russell didn’t have at hello.

NVE00186

A man who might have become Ethan Edwards as readily as he remained the Ringo Kid…

NVE00188

And in case you wonder how much acting skill that took, her “hello” was in the old style, when everybody on a second-line Hollywood lot knew what nobody on any lot knows now, which is how to film an entrance.

NVE00189

So, okay, maybe she doesn’t have him at hello. Nobody could. But she at least has his attention. Because nobody wouldn’t give her that.

NVE00190

So forget the double bill. You could just watch that minute-and-a-half and have done with the acting class.

Because, in a sense, that’s the whole “movie” part of the movie right there.

The Quaker girl’s spell. The hell-raising cowboy’s attempt at resisting.

Her attempts to give in to him without losing herself. His attempt at remaining himself, and finding whether it will be worth it to give in.

Simple. You could probably explain it to Herb Yates in the traditional “you got two minutes.”

If Angel and the Badman stopped right there, just carried that story to any one of its logical conclusions (even the one Hollywood was bound to demand), it would, at very least, be what most critics, be they industrial or high-brow, seem to think. Entertaining diversion. Good little western. Not bad for a Republic effort. Etc., etc. etc.

Making the Angel a Quaker gives it more than a spin, though.

We don’t have a lot of narratives about Quakers. In American life, they’ve always punched way above their weight. Look at any movement toward freedom and you find them (abolition, women’s rights) or their principles (civil rights, war resistance) at the foundation. In American narrative, whether purveyed by novelists, dramatists, filmmakers or historians, they hardly register.

On that level, Angel and the Badman, probably conceived as a Hollywood pitch that a tight-fisted producer could go for, really is, in the American vein, the little picture that could. What should have been a gimmick–what really was a gimmick even in a film as fine as Witness (made nearly forty years later with the Quakers replaced by the Amish, lovely people who really do make a point of standing outside of history)–takes hold. It takes hold in a way that more serious minded efforts don’t. No less than William Wyler tried it on with Friendly Persuasion a decade later and it was just fine. That and no more.

Angel and the Badman is something more.

I don’t mean it’s a tract. Far from it.

The film’s running argument as to whether the Friends’ beliefs and lifestyle can co-exist with a violent world without being protected by violent men, doesn’t go terribly deep (though I’d argue it goes deeper than Friendly Persuasion, in part because it doesn’t try as hard).

But it lays out the fundamentals of the argument extremely well and without proselytizing or even drawing much attention to the tug and pull.

And that’s where John Wayne’s inherent generosity, his best quality as an actor, producer and (probably) man shone through.

He got that this was Gail Russell’s movie. That it wasn’t just a traditional love story, beautifully as that part is handled, but one where ways of life counted more than the lives themselves.

I give the credit to him because I really doubt that it occurred to Herb Yates or even James Edward Grant that she even could carry a movie that had John Wayne in it, let alone that it would fall over on its side if she didn’t. He seems to have believed that she could carry a love story where the girl has to make it clear to the boy (and it’s worth remembering that Wayne, pushing forty, could still convey hell-raising boyishness convincingly–that acting thing again), that she will follow him anywhere but she won’t abandon her core convictions.

And, oh by the way, he was right.

Her beauty alone might give a man pause, even an untamed boy-man who defines himself by his untamability.

NVE00197

But it wouldn’t hold him at the end. Not unless those core convictions had worked their way past his defenses over time even more thoroughly than his all-American animal magnetism (part cowboy-anticipating-movie-stardom, part movie-star-summoning-the-mythos-of-the-cowboy) worked its way past hers in the first instant, when he was barely conscious of her. So much so that this…

NVE00313

could produce this…

NVE00314

a mere moment after he had convinced himself (and everyone else) that he was still this…

NVE00308

The very baddest of the badmen…

NVE00310

Who would never be anything else.

Russell’s Penny Worth had more closeups than I care to count in this movie that runs on closeups. And for a Quaker girl, she sure got into a lot of clinches. So, on top of everything else, it’s one of the truly fine Hollywood romances.

But it wouldn’t register nearly as deeply or distinctively without the back story–without her ability to convey both the overpowering sexual chemistry and the absolute unwillingness to abandon her belief, even if she abandons her home and family, not as though they represented contradictions being resolved, but as though they were two sides of the same coin.

A conventional reading of the plot resolution, and boy there are a lot of them so I don’t have to guess, would contend that it’s simplistic, or unrealistic, even miraculous. And, on paper, this reading would be right.

The Badman can be with the Angel, on her terms, only because the old cowboy who set out to haunt them…

NVE00281

is finally there to protect them…

NVE00329

..with, I might add, two shots that are too close together to have possibly come from a repeating rifle fired by the same man.

But that misses the point.

In the real world behind the fantasy worlds we work out in movies and elsewhere, the pull of the just is a little more powerful than a cynic, supposedly contending for “realism,” might want to admit. The fight for the freedom of the spirit is always going on behind the fight for something more temporal. It’s the real reason the temporal fights are carried on so bitterly and for so long. After all, there are plenty of beautiful girls in the world.

NVE00270

Some of whom are even willing to love a Badman…to dream they, believing only in their particular dream, might be the one who makes him see the light…

NVE00273

But Angel and the Badman, made for a Saturday afternoon audience, under the rudest all-American circumstances, isn’t just a first class entertainment. Thanks to the classiness of more than a few of those involved and a culture, no longer extant (be it Hollywood’s or America’s) that once gave them room to breathe, it has a certain grace that transcends even the most considerable and conscientious craft. It offers a reason for remembering why the believers in the possibility of a better world are so often the instigators of fights that can’t possibly be won until the moment they are.

NVE00336

ONE SAD EYED LADY TO RULE THEM ALL, ONE SAD EYED LADY TO BIND THEM….THINKING OF GAIL RUSSELL (Found In the Connection: Rattling Loose End #39)

GAILRUSSELL1

Quite often, I think I’m going to write about something here…and then I don’t.

A couple of months back–under the fresh spell of the Criterion release of 1944’s The Uninvited–I was set to write a piece pondering whether the movie’s heroine, Gail Russell, (giving one of her several indelible performances, each markedly different from the rest, each forever attributed to her ability to “play herself” as it was well known she “couldn’t act”) might have been in the DNA of Bob Dylan’s “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.”

I was coming down on the side of “yay, verily” (yes, I know it was probably “about” Dylan’s then wife Sara Lownds if it was about anybody, but, genius or no, it’s hard to believe that title would ever occur to any man who had never seen a Gail Russell movie).

Time got away from me. YouTube wouldn’t let me post the best scene from the movie. I decided to let it go.

Then a couple of weeks back, I was considering a piece on Rick Nelson’s fabuloso box set Legacy, which, after many a long year, had finally come within range of my budget via the used-on-Amazon-and-I-know-from-long-experience-that’s-the-cheapest-it’s-ever-gonna-get routine.

It was going to have something to do with him being at the core of so much that became “California” rock, even as far back as the late fifties (that is, long before the Byrds or even the Beach Boys), when he was supposedly a teenage idol being manipulated hand-foot-and-mouth by puppet-masters.

In the further, relentless press of time, I let that go, too.

I tend to let go of a lot. In this case I really regretted it, though.

I mean, I even had to let go of my own personal Gail Russell anecdote, which had to do with me saying, “She had a sad life,” after I had identified the mystery starlet in the 8X10 I was purchasing to the lady behind the counter of an antique store in North Dakota, to which the lady replied, “Yes, I think you can see that in her eyes.”

Then, this week, I came across this:

“I’ve learned you can’t satisfy everyone. You start and then, all of a sudden, it stops and you can’t even please yourself.” (Gail Russell to Hedda Hopper: Source “Gail Russell Memoriam” Los Angeles Times, 2007)

Russell died, alone in her apartment, in 1961. The cause was essentially acute alcoholism leading to liver failure. She was 36.

I’m guessing this quote would have been printed in some fan mag that was circulating in Hollywood, circa the late fifties, where Rick Nelson had grown up on television, very much a part of the world that produced that quote from an actress who, despite being on the short list of “most beautiful woman in the history of Hollywood” (and my own personal pick), suffered hobbling, then crippling, bouts of stage fright, insecurity, depression.

There’s no way of knowing if Nelson ever read that quote. If he did, he probably didn’t take any special note or remember it for the ages.

Strange, though, that a decade after Russell was found dead (her life and death bearing striking similarities to certain others: Marie Provost, a thirties’ star who had passed away at a similar age in similar circumstances and would become the inspiration for one of Kenneth Anger’s fantasies in Hollywood Babylon, which in turn became the source for Nick Lowe’s “Marie Prevost,” wherein Anger’s tale of Provost dying alone in her apartment and being partially consumed by her pet dachshund in the days that passed before the body was discovered was granted the power of myth; and, a year after Russell’s own death, she was joined by the pathologically insecure Marilyn Monroe, crippled by many of the same demons, playing out a truly myth-making version of the same tale), Rick Nelson would come off a bad gig at Madison Square Garden and scribble a song about the experience.

GARDENPARTY1

Somewhere in there, if you get the bifocals out and peer close enough, you can read the words that revived Nelson’s career (and shattered any doubt that he was ever anybody’s puppet):

Well it’s alright now
I’ve learned my lesson well
You see you can’t please everyone
So you got to please yourself.

And hey, a little more than another decade on, he died in a plane crash. But at least he didn’t die scared and he didn’t die alone.

He learned Gail Russell’s lesson well–took her truth to heart in a way she never could, even if he never knew it was hers before it was his.

But here’s something even stranger.

Once I started thinking about it, I realized Russell might just as well have been in the DNA of another Bob Dylan song.

The one that went “she never stumbles, she’s got no place to fall” and (nice line for a movie star who wrecked as many cars under the influence as Gail did and missed vehicular homicide only by the grace of some mysterious God) “she’s nobody’s child, the law can’t touch her at all.”

Which just happened to become an actual hit in the version done by….aw, you know how it works with mysterious muses around here:

 

THOSE WOMEN OUT WEST….ALWAYS GETTIN’ IN THE WAY! (I Watch Westerns: Special Edition)

“In fact we always throw a woman into the story, because without a woman, a western wouldn’t work. Even though she isn’t necessary, everyone appears to be convinced that you cannot do without a woman. But as soon as you get to fighting against the Indians, or to the chase scenes, or when the heroes discover the traitor, then the woman gets in your way. So then you have to come up with a clever trick and send her somewhere so she won’t be in your way, and you won’t need to film her. It’s sad to say, but women do not have much importance in westerns…On the other hand, maybe someone will make a western some day with a woman as the main character.”

(Source: “Interview With Anthony Mann,” conducted by Charles Bitsch and Claude Chabrol for Cahiers du Cinema, March 1957 and reprinted in the booklet accompanying the Criterion Collection’s release of The Furies)

Well, with all due respect to one of my favorite directors (and one of the greatest western directors) it was hardly as bad as all that!

It’s true women weren’t usually leads in westerns, but Mann himself had, for instance, seven years prior to this interview, made The Furies, in which Barbara Stanwyck–being, you know, Barbara Stanwyck–had not exactly shrunk into the background just because she had top billing and the most screen time and was the script’s central character and all.

And as for them “getting in the way,” when the going got heavy? Well, I guess that was sort of a rule, but I could point to a lot of exceptions.(My favorite being Susan Hayward’s sharpshooting at the end of Rawhide–beautiful because it comes straight out of her character even though we’ve never seen her with a rifle in her hand before that moment–Jack Elam might have looked surprised at having that twitch in his eyelid permanently stilled but there’s no reason we should be!)

Still, while Mann’s expressed view may have amounted to a kind of selective amnesia, it was and is–all evidence to the contrary–a common one.

Too bad, because, outside of what used to be called “women’s pictures,” actual women (as opposed to the admittedly marvelous fantasy creatures favored by the makers of screwball comedy, musicals , biblical epics, film noir and Li’l Abner movies) played a more significant role in westerns than in any other major Hollywood genre.

If we’ve mostly forgotten their vital presence, it’s probably because we don’t think we need their kind any more.

Since I beg to differ–and since I need to update my file of self-defining things–I’m listing a countdown of my five favorite examples out of a potential hundred or so (with accompanying introductory and valedictory shots):

5) Gail Russell as Annie Greer in 7 Men From Now (1956: Budd Boetticher, director)–Quite probably the most affectless and unassuming performance ever given by a strikingly beautiful woman in a Hollywood film. Russell’s own inherent shyness and troubled life–which had very much left its mark on that beautiful face by then–probably worked in her favor here, even as it had almost certainly kept her from major stardom elsewhere. One wonders if the brief time she had left might have been lengthened if more people had noticed.

All in a day's work...

All in a day’s work!

After the bodies have stopped falling.

After the bodies have stopped falling.

4) Angie Dickinson as “Feathers,” (aka “The Girl,” aka “The Lady,” aka “The Lady She Did Not Go!”) in Rio Bravo (1959: Howard Hawks, director)–The Hawksian woman–greatest of all Hollywood’s femme fantasies–improbably and indelibly humanized.

I think we might be in a Howard Hawks movie...

I think we might be in a Howard Hawks movie…

Yes...yes we are.

Yes…yes we are!

3) Claire Trevor as Dallas in Stagecoach (1939: John Ford, director)–The epitome of turning a shop-worn cliche (in this case “the hooker with a heart of gold”) into flesh and blood, maybe because she did the best job of showing that the heart wasn’t made of gold but of pain and fear. The Oscar waited down the line, for some year when Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel weren’t performing miracles in Gone With the Wind. But Ford’s single-handed resuscitation of the western as an art form could never have worked all the way through without her.

Shamed in sunlight...

Shamed in sunlight…

Redeemed in darkness.

…Redeemed in darkness.

2) Kim Darby as Mattie Ross in True Grit (1969: Henry Hathaway, director)–Darby played Mattie Ross, one of the great prickly pears in American fiction, as though Charles Portis rather than Hollywood convention should be the prevailing authority on the subject. (Pick to click: “If I smelled as bad as you, I wouldn’t live near people.” But there are oh, so many.) Boy has she been slagged for it, especially in light of Hailee Steinfeld’s very fine, if rather comfortingly modern, take in the 2010 remake. Boy are people wrong. Among the dozens of reviews I read when the newer version hit theaters, only one–by the conservative critic James Bowman–bothered to point out that Darby was much more convincing than Steinfeld when taken as the frontier woman Mattie Ross is supposed to be. (Granted Steinfeld wasn’t always helped by the newer script, which, among other things, has Mattie professing ignorance of what horses eat!) Out of Darby’s many adroit touches, my own favorite is the arm-swinging walk she used to hold up against John Wayne in long shots. Yeah, it was Mattie Ross to a “T,” but I’ve also often wondered how many of the great thespians Wayne routinely dominated in such shots over the years wished they had thought of that.

Old maidhood awaits...

Old maidhood awaits…

...Not without its memories.

…Not without its memories.

1) Vera Miles as Hallie Stoddard in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962: John Ford, director)–Not just one of the great gender/genre performances but one of the great performances period and, as almost goes without saying, she’s received scant thanks for it. All she had to do, for starters, was hold her own–playing twenty-something and fifty-something–in a western that had John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Lee Marvin all at the very top of their considerable games. She made that look easy (and made it look easy in that particular way that allows many people to assume that it could only look so easy if it really was easy). Then she had to make it her character’s movie without resorting to any obvious scene-stealing (not so much because anyone would have cared–though they might have–as because such obviousness would have fatally unbalanced the story). After all that, at the very end, she had to deliver the “Aren’t you proud?” speech in such a way that the answer would remain naggingly ambiguous, forever reminding us that the value of the past will always be determined by what we make of the future–while leaving room for those who insist on “knowing” to make up their own minds. And yes, she made that look easy, too. Ever gallant, Hollywood rewarded her by providing that all her best future roles be TV show murderesses and Disney wives.

Age...

Age…

...to youth

…into youth

And youth...

And youth…

...to age.

…into age.

Please feel free to add your own…Like I say there are many to choose from!