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….

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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could produce this…

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

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The very baddest of the badmen…

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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…

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is finally there to protect them…

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..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.

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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…

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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.

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WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Holding Patterns and Subterranean Connections Generate Mild Disturbances in My Brain…I Strive to Move Forward)

Rio Grande DIrector: John Ford (1951)

American Sniper Director: Clint Eastwood (2014)

Sergeant York DIrector: Howard Hawks (1941)

Zero Dark Thirty Director: Kathryn Bigelow (2012)

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This sort of thing usually starts innocently enough.

I’ve been taking a break from Ford. For me, that means going maybe three months without watching any of his movies for the umpteenth time. So this week I got back around to Rio Grande, the austere, black-and-white finishing touch on the Cavalry Trilogy, made on the quick as the price for getting Republic Pictures’ famously penurious Herb Yates to back The Quiet Man, which Ford had been nursing for years, if not decades.

As always, when I’ve been trying to push Ford to one side, half-convincing myself that some of those lean, mean, craftsman-helmed westerns from the Golden Age that make the genre so bottomless (recent go-to’s include Rawhide, Yellow Sky, The Law and Jake Wade….one could go on) are so good Ford can’t really be all that much better, I’m shocked all over again once I let him back into the center.

Rio Grande has to run fast and hard to make it into Ford’s top fifteen…one of his “jobs of work.” But, as always the jump from everybody else’s top drawer to Ford’s middle ground is dramatic, like going from a set of finely wrought short stories to a great middle-length novel plucked from a shelf full of even greater novels. I know there are people who think short stories are a higher, purer form than novels and all I can say is, well, everybody has a right to be wrong.

But even as I was noticing new elements in Ford’s way with narrative, all the obvious things he chooses to leave out not merely to speed things along in the usual style or even to evade obviousness but to validate the breadth of his canvas, to effectively say, “I can go anywhere with this and even if I don’t, it’ll feel like I might have,” my rock ‘n’ roll mind, forever at work, suddenly churned up the notion that Ford was Bob Dylan (stark, jagged, dissociative, barbed, weird)  and Howard Hawks was the Beatles (clever, puckish, organized, forthright, orderly). Or, if you like, Dylan and the Beatles were Ford and Hawks brought forward.

Now, you can kick something like that around until you kick it to death or you can leave it alone and let it sit until it either hangs together or falls part under persistent intellectual mastication disorder. For now, I’m leaving it alone (though the notion of Ford and Hawks as twinned engines pulling in opposite directions has been on my mind for a while), but since I finally made it to a theater at a time when American Sniper was playing (third try, long story, my own stupid fault, let’s move along) and since, in my heart of hearts, I suspect Clint Eastwood would be John Ford if he possibly could and that maybe he hasn’t even quite given up on the idea, I can’t leave it entirely alone.

Not with the world on fire and everything.

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I had some awareness of the “controversy” surrounding American Sniper and any relation it might have to how we’re all supposed-to-feel, are-feeling, might-feel, do-feel, can’t-feel, don’t-dare-feel, don’t-dare-not-feel about the “Iraq War” or the “Second Iraq War” or the “War on Terror” or “The Mistake” or whatever that particular phase of our quarter-century and counting conflict in the Middle East that happened to coincide with Chris Kyle’s tours of duty is being called this week.

I also had a strong sense that the controversy was breaking down along the usual lines.

You know how it works: the Right believes we’ve finally got a pro-American Iraq War film on our hands and the people are proving their support for the war that was by flocking to the box office, while the Left believes the Right just might have a dreadful point so let’s all go to our respective corners and come out shadow-boxing until our arms get tired and weasel-honor is satisfied. It’s all okay.

I mean, as long as nobody threatens the pre-existing assumptions.

Don’t worry. No one has.

Look. Ford always matters. A decade or so back, the great critic Molly Haskell wrote about fretting over a showing of The Searchers organized for inner-city kids. Living in a world where lots of film school profs at elite universities report kids being bored by Ford or even (per Tag Gallagher) getting angry and walking out of class, she worried they wouldn’t like it, wouldn’t get it, wouldn’t connect, etc.

Her fears were, perhaps unsurprisingly, unfounded. Turned out kids who had been raised on Biggie and Tupac got Ethan Edwards, Chief Scar and ten-thousand-year-old male honor codes quite well. I suspect they would have had no trouble understanding Rio Grande, either, with its main theme of a single mother willing to go any length to protect her only child from a world defined by violence.

Still, it might have only been serendipitous that I started thinking specifically about Ford and Hawks while watching Ford during the week I happened to catch American Sniper (and, incidentally, also happened to catch Sniper star/producer Bradley Cooper and screenwriter Jason Hall on Charlie Rose, where Hall said the whole thing clicked during an early conversation where they thought of it specifically in terms of a western).

Then again, it might be a case of the bleeding obvious. I mean, the subconscious isn’t necessarily subversive or indirect or freely-associative just because it lies beneath. It might just be trying to tell you something. In this case, probably something like, “Hey, you’ve been trying to see American Sniper since it came out and you’ll probably actually make it this week, doofus, so it’s not exactly a stretch to assume that this is going to be a modern version of Sergeant York, which is one of the two attempts (Red River, which Ford helped edit, being the other) that Hawks made at being Ford-ian, so think about linking all that up will you?”

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Seriously, I was prepared to leave it alone, subconscious or no subconscious, but then American Sniper turned out to be, at least on the surface, a pretty straightforward modern take on Sergeant York.

Clint Eastwood trying to be John Ford by imitating Howard Hawks imitating John Ford.

So–o-o-o?

Well, like Sergeant York, American Sniper is a well-crafted-not-quite-great film about a war hero. Like Chris Kyle, Alvin York was a southerner raised on religion and hunting. Like York, Kyle was a freakishly superb shot and a bit of a roustabout. Both movies make a stab at tying each man’s heroics to the particulars of his upbringing and the moral conclusions each man reached (in their respective movies but, on the evidence, also in life) were markedly similar.

Killing is terrible.

The only thing worse is watching other men kill your friends because you failed to stop them. So both movies are fundamentally about men trying to define their honor through religion, courtship rituals, family loyalty and, finally, the cauldron of warfare.

There’s one big difference, of course.

Alvin York fought in an actual war, one which had the only object actual wars ever have, which is to take and hold all the ground that’s necessary for your enemy to give up hope.

Chris Kyle, who likely saw even more (and more intense) combat, fought in a shadow war, a sort of kabuki-theater-of-the-absurd where he was continually asked to supply the purpose the culture he volunteered to represent and the political leaders he volunteered to serve denied him with malice aforethought.

The sensible question to ask about Eastwood’s film then, is this: Does it capture what its like to fight in such a war.

In short, for any flaws it might have (and it certainly has them) it does this one essential thing superbly.

Whether or not they might have shared my experience of passing a television in the lobby of the theater on the way out that was tuned to CNN and showing the headline “Obama Asks for War Powers Against ISIS,” in front of Wolf Blitzer’s perpetually benumbed expression, anyone who emerges from this film thinking gee, I want a piece of that, is either seriously delusional or psychotic.

Because, in truth, any similarity to Sergeant York is superficial, just as any similarity between York and a Ford film is superficial.

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A much better comparison is between Sniper and Zero Dark Thirty, a film which raised similar conversations (and similar evasions) on both sides two years back, though the roles were rather neatly reversed, thanks to director Kathryn Bigelow being perceived as reliably Liberal in the same way that Clint Eastwood is perceived as reliably Conservative.

However much Chris Kyle had in common with Alvin York, in life or on film, he had/has a much deeper bond with Zero Dark Thirty‘s heroine, Jessica Chastain’s “Maya,” a fictional character based on a real life CIA operative.

He ends by understanding what she understands to begin with:

Shadow Wars produce Shadow Warriors….and Shadow Results.

That’s what all those various pronouncements of “victory” that have linked Bush I, Clinton, Bush II and Obama really mean.

Nothing.

Well, that, and anybody who serves will be forced to play the Shadow Game one way or another.

Whether that’s what Eastwood meant, or even what Bigelow meant, is impossible to tell. Whatever they ever have or ever will talk about, it never has and never will be about that. War is not an option for either our culture or our political leadership. Neither is Peace.

That’s the difference between the No-Peace-No-Honor America we now all inhabit and the one Ford, the old-fashioned, out-of-step throwback, alone among Hollywood directors in forever looking backwards to better see around the corner, knew could so easily come to pass.

For what its worth, there’s a $300 million smash at the box office, which, knowingly or unknowingly, is carrying the same basic message all those “anti-war” flops carried.

We’re all Shadow Warriors now.

And even Clint Eastwood knows, as we prepare to retake some piece of Iraq yet again so we can give it back yet again, that we will win no more wars.

Which means there’s only one way for this week to end around here…a long way past the Beatles or even Dylan. Past everyone mentioned here. Except, you know, John Ford.