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 PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (Foreign Films: First Journey)

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
D. Carl Th. Dreyer

(I had no existing category for this, so I’m creating a new one for Foreign Films….Hoping it will be an excuse to watch more of them!)

The Passion of Joan of Arc is a cinematic masterpiece with a hole in its head.

Its Danish director, Carl Th. Dreyer, is rightly hailed as a titan of form. His ability to create and sustain mood, especially through striking images (true cinema then) hasn’t been surpassed. This is the only film of his I’ve seen (there’s a box set sitting around that will allow me to correct that now that I’ve finally rewatched this one), but it’s enough to sustain a legacy. Likewise, Renee Falconetti’s performance in the lead role–mostly a series of agonizing closeups–deserves its legend.

Not, as it happens, as a portrait of Joan of Arc.

That doesn’t seem to be what Dreyer was after. What, exactly, he was after, is a bit vague, but my brief research confirms a suspicion: He prized technique as a means to an end, and the end was emotional resonance above all.

Including every other kind of sense.

On the surface, this Joan is as close to “realistic” as it’s possible to get in a drama. The sets and costumes effectively transport the viewer through time and space. Much of the script is taken directly from transcripts of her trial for heresy, for which she was ultimately condemned to be burned at the stake. The pedantry of the bureaucracy which judged her will be familiar to anyone who has ever taken on a government agency. And Dreyer’s technique serves the ends pursued–he portrays Joan as a hapless victim, a simple farm girl caught in a web of what we now call Kafkaesque evil from which there is no escape. In its single-minded pursuit of an emotional state–or, better yet, a state defined by one overriding emotion, fear–The Passion of Joan of Arc is never likely to be surpassed.

One wonders, though, just how lightly we can cast aside a historical figure’s essence and still acknowledge why we are interested in the first place?

I’m hardly one to cast aspersions on taking liberties with “facts” (which, in any case Passion does not do). I’d never recommend anyone take Hollywood’s views of Abraham Lincoln or Wyatt Earp (to name two subjects for John Ford, my favorite filmmaker), as historical gospel. But I never reach the end of Young Mr. Lincoln or My Darling Clementine with the feeling their subjects’ fundamental characters have been cast aside along with the usual historical details. The Lincoln who walks up the hill at the end of Young Mr. Lincoln (the film Sergei Eisenstein listed as the one he wished he had made, other than his own), is a man who has earned a march toward history. The Wyatt Earp who rides away at the end of Clementine, is a man who fully represents the fundamental social and spiritual isolation of the gunfighter.

The Joan of Arc who burns at the end of Passion (with Dreyer’s style and Falconetti’s performance allowing the viewer to burn with her–no small feat) is what she is in the first frame–a scared rabbit.

In this sense, focusing entirely on the trial seems to have been for the purpose of dramatic unity. It’s not a coda on great achievement, as Lincoln’s assassination–ritualized with unusual accuracy throughout Hollywood history, from The Birth of a Nation on down–invariably is, even in films that aren’t about Lincoln. It’s not a meeting with destiny. It’s a story unto itself.

If you entered it with no idea who Joan of Arc was, it would leave you baffled as to why anyone cared enough about her to burn her alive, let alone fight over her legacy.

Since when are epic heresy trials–designed to ensnare scared rabbits–the stuff of legend?

Well, since they involve Joan of Arc. That’s when.

So perhaps a little history is in order.

Jeanne d’Arc was born a French peasant in 1412, the darkest days of the Hundred Years War (which. to that point, had resulted in the English occupying much of France). She was given what amounted to a military commission in the French army in 1429, when she was seventeen. Sent to the besieged city of Orleans, she led (or inspired, or lucked into, depending on who’s telling the tale) a remarkable military turnaround which reversed the fortunes of a French aristocracy decimated at Agincourt in 1415. That reversal saw the French Dauphin, who had commissioned her, crowned king (her own prophecy) and, within a generation, the English driven from French soil for good. The latter might have happened earlier had she not been captured by her enemies in 1430 (perhaps with the collusion of her “friends”), put on trial for heresy, and burned at the stake in 1431.

It was a heady history for a girl who did not live to see her twentieth birthday.

That she was exceptionally brave and charismatic, and believed herself ordained by God to defeat the English enemy, is undisputed. That she was a military genius is not out of the question. That she, an illiterate peasant, defended herself at her trial with a deftness which often baffled her learned inquisitors (and has presented a conundrum for skeptical historians ever since), is counted as no less remarkable than her miraculous ascension.

One thing no reading of history or legend can reasonably suggest, let alone take for granted, is that she was a scared rabbit, able to function only sporadically, and then in the throes of religious fanaticism.

Yet this is the very thing The Passion of Joan of Arc asks us to accept. On one hand, it is as skeptical of her faith as the worst of her interrogators. On the other, it grants her no exceptionalism except her faith–leaves her reduced to the abject helplessness written in Falconetti’s face from the first frames….

Before consigning her to smoke and ash…

Just as her persecutors intended…

They cheated. And, by leaving the viewer no reason to admire Joan on specific grounds rooted in what we know of her character–including her devotion above all--Passion does too. Joan’s tragedy–great enough to engender comparisons to Christ, the only martyr more famous because the only one more remarkable–sears us not because it should never have befallen her, but because it should never happen to any poor soul.

Which means The Passion of Joan of Arc–for all its bold style and masterful techniquemight just as well have been about anyone who suffered a similar fate.

I wonder, as Dreyer must have, whether Marie Antoinette, who had her head chopped off for pretty specific reasons, too, would have sold more tickets….

Or gifted a century’s worth of crit-illuminati with a similar excuse to wink, nod and genuflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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So he tames the town…

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And keeps it tamed….

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

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

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

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The man who can turn this…

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and this…

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into this…

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and this…

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

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

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and here…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Keith Carradine Nails Wild Bill Hickok, Gets Killed For His Pains)

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(John Hawkes and Timothy Olyphant, each assaying his entire range of facial expressions in Deadwood, and Keith Carradine as Wild Bill Hickok)

It may not always be obvious, but I really do prefer to accentuate the positive. So when I finally caught up to Deadwood this week, David Milch’s “revisionist/realist” vision of the west that ran on HBO from 2004 to 2006, I was hoping–against what I knew were long odds based on what I’d read and various clips I’d seen over the years–that I could find something good to say about it.

Not too long into the first episode, I realized it had one very good thing, which was Keith Carradine’s riveting performance of Wild Bill Hickok, a mytho-historical figure who has probably been portrayed on screen only slightly less often than Wyatt Earp and Jesse James.

Naturally, I didn’t want it to stop there. I looked really hard for a second good thing. Ten episodes in, I haven’t found it, unless having my suspicions confirmed that–given the bright “creative” minds involved–not much was likely to be very realistic and nothing at all was going to be revised counts as a positive.

I actually consider that last to be sort of value-neutral, so Carradine as Wild Bill it is.

I’ll admit it’s not a small thing.

I’m sure the script called for Hickok to meet his famous demise at the end of the fourth episode before Carradine was even cast. But, if it hadn’t, they probably would have needed to move the enterprise  forward. Based on the ten episodes I’ve seen so far, letting him hang around for even four episodes might have been a mistake, because having even one person walk through this drag-ass exercise in po-mo pretension for four seconds (let alone four episodes) who looks, sounds, moves and behaves like someone who might have actually lived a life worth telling  a story about–in the Old West or anywhere else–just knocks the whole enterprise sideways.

Once the famous fatal bullet finds its mark in the back of Will Bill’s head, we’re left with Ian McShane’s Al-Pacino-In-The-West bluster (I’d call it one-note but that’s giving it credit for far too much dimension) and Timothy Olyphant’s thousand-yard-stare (which, if, as I suspect, is his version of the laconic western hero, has given me a whole new measure of appreciation for Gary Cooper which I wouldn’t have previously believed either necessary or possible) and Milch’s evident belief that adding three “fucks” and a “cocksucker” to lines nobody who knows anything at all about “the West” as either history or myth could possibly read with a straight face to begin with will make it all come good in the end.

But, for all that, I’m still grateful Carradine got to assay his Hickok in something or other, and, while I regret he didn’t get the stage he deserved (preferably in something scripted by Charles Portis or Thomas Berger) I still have to honor a performance that gives us both a definitive version of the cold-eyed killer we’ve seen so often…

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and one we haven’t seen at all….

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(NOTE: Going over Carradine’s IMDB listing to see what all I might have missed I was reminded that he was a Robert Altman regular in the seventies. Robert Altman, if we didn’t thank you then–for this and many other gifts–we thank you now!)

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Bobby Fuller on the Sunset Strip and John Ford at the OK Corral)

The Bobby Fuller Four–Celebrity Night at PJ’s (Recorded–1965, Initial Release Cancelled–1966, Officially Released–1997)

(Listening close for the first time in years. My original copy, included in the awe-inspiring 1997 box set The Bobby Fuller Four: Never To Be Forgotten, got away in the great CD sell-off of 2002 and was recently reacquired when the collector’s price that soared into the stratosphere during my period of indigence finally dropped back to earth. So….)

This is possibly the strangest recording ever made.

PJ’s was a Sunset Strip night club that had begun as a cool jazz venue in the early sixties and, as the decade progressed, transformed itself (at least part of the time) into a swingin’ dance club where the younger Hollywood set could go to Twist and Watusi (the sleeve for the album has photos of Fuller posed with Sally Field and Ann-Margret, not Twisting or Watusi-ing alas, but merely smiling professional smiles).

Bobby Fuller’s band had made their way to Los Angeles in the mid-sixties after slogging it out for years on the era’s West Texas equivalent of an indie circuit.

By dint of having become perhaps the best straight ahead rock and roll band in America (and it was an extremely competitive time!), they had fought their way to the top of the L.A. pack, releasing several singles that caught on in the local market and one (“Let Her Dance”) that nearly broke nationally, plus becoming a sort of quasi-house band at PJ’s itself, by then a top-of-the-line gig (the actual house band at the time was the Standells of “Dirty Water” fame, no mean straight ahead rock and roll outfit in their own right).

A month or two after the Bobby Fuller Four recorded this show, they would break all the way, when “I Fought the Law” reached the national Top Ten.

Six months after that, Fuller was found dead in his car.

The coroner checked “accident” and “suicide” on the cause-of-death form and put question marks next to both.

Perhaps not surprisingly, dozens of murder conspiracy rumors have circulated in the decades since, involving everyone from Frank Sinatra to Charles Manson to Elvis (who had Bobby snuffed in a dispute over a car, don’t you know–proving yet again that people didn’t start saying stupid stuff about Elvis just yesterday even if it seems like a lot of them were born then!…it’s all nicely chronicled in this set’s truly outstanding liner notes.)

There was no way for Fuller and his band to know fame and death were waiting in such short order when they played “Celebrity Night” on the Sunset Strip in December of 1965.

But they certainly sound like a band who could feel the world both opening up and closing down.

Hence the album’s mysterious and utterly unique pattern, which, with a single brief break for a ballad early on, plays out something like this for well over an hour:

The band storms through a ferocious piece of hard rock (beginning with the not-yet-a-hit “I Fought the Law,”) played exactly as though they were still trying to fight their way out of the gut-bucket beer-and-blood circuit back home, the kind of places where people are there to drink and dance and don’t much care who is providing the background noise.

Then they are met with a tepid round of Vegas-lounge style applause from a crowd who are clearly there to see and be seen and, well, don’t much care who is providing the background noise.

After the “applause” dies down, Bobby then says some version of “thank you very much ladies and gentleman,” sometimes with a little plug for the great life at PJ’s thrown in.

Then the band takes a deep, collective breath and plunges in again, harder and louder and faster than before.

Along the way, a curious kind of tension develops. The band seems to keep betting themselves that this time–THIS TIME!–they will pull it off. They will finally play loud enough, fast enough, tight enough, that the crowd will have to respond.

And each time the crowd does not.

So the band goes another round–cranks it up another notch.

And the crowd does not respond.

So the band goes another round–cranks it up another notch.

And the crowd does not respond.

So the band goes another round–cranks it up another notch.

And the crowd does not respond….

Ever.

Not even once.

And the band does not stop pushing.

Not even once.

All the way to the end, where the evening is concluded with a thunderous medley of “Money/Shakedown” and is met by a crowd…that does not respond.

The planned live album was cancelled.

The reasons why have never been any clearer than the cause of Fuller’s death.

What is clear is that, on a night in December in 1965, the Bobby Fuller Four had every reason to believe they were as good as anybody on a planet that, just for starters, held the Beatles and the Stones and the Who and the Rascals and (just down the street) the Byrds, and no reason at all to suspect that the Oscar bait in the seats could tell them from the Rat Pack.

Bobby, wherever you are, I just want you to know….I’m leaning suicide.

The Bobby Fuller Four “Let Her Dance/Another Sad and Lonely Night” (Shivaree, before a somewhat more receptive audience)

The Bobby Fuller Four “Miserlou” (Live recording…However, NOT done at PJ’s, so who knows if it would have made the difference!)

My Darling Clementine, John Ford directing, Henry Fonda and Victor Mature starring, 1946.

I’ve seen the film many times. I was, however, newly impressed by the gunfight sequence.

Wisely, the sequence, like the rest of the film–also wisely–has little to do with any of the rather mundane and highly insignificant historical events that actually took place in Tombstone in the early 1880’s (though Ford may or may not have been duped, by Wyatt Earp himself, into thinking his portrayal of the gunfight, at least, was accurate).

But it does, oh-by-the-way, (the sequence, not the film, which contains multitudes) invent the essence of Sergio Leone in much the same way that the climactic sequences of Ford’s last two Will Rogers movies had once invented the essence of Preston Sturges.

Off-handedly as it were and without fanfare.

Just another reminder that, in art, there is the thing and there is the shadow of the thing.

Say what you will about him, Ford was always the thing.

Here’s the sequence:

Gunfight scenes from My Darling Clementine