Posted by Moira Finnie on August 19, 2009
Above: A WPA image of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s
A certain influential Mr. Turner–no–not the estimable Ted, but Frederick Jackson Turner the American historian, once pointed out that “the forging of the unique and rugged American identity had to occur precisely at the juncture between the civilization of settlement and the savagery of wilderness. The dynamic of these oppositional conditions engendered a process by which citizens were made, citizens with the power to tame the wild and upon whom the wild had conferred strength and individuality.” That was at the end of the 19th century, just as the American Western frontier was closing, but the impact of that view of America still has resonance today.
Watching the distinctly different Three Faces West (1940-Bernard Vorhaus) as part of the John Wayne Day for Summer Under the Stars celebration on TCM, the scholarly Turner’s sometimes controversial ideas came back to me out of the blur of my increasingly distant undergraduate days (or is it daze?). This Republic studios movie is among the least known of Wayne‘s movies, but one of the more interesting–since it came at a time when he was just beginning his ascent to a plane somewhere between a movie star and a force of nature. It incorporates ideas old and new, some of them still contentious, in the course of a brief 79 minute story that effectively portrays the savagery of that wilderness as it affected the lives of Midwesterners in the Depression era.
This film–which is not a Western shoot-em-up but more of a fin de siècle Pare Lorentz docudrama set in the late 1930s–begins with European refugees from fascism, Dr. Karl Braun and his daughter Leni (Charles Coburn and Norwegian-American actress Sigrid Gurie), appearing on the radio. During the broadcast the elderly orthopedist describes their harrowing escape from post-Anchluss Vienna with the Nazis breathing down their necks, concluding their sad story with the gentle father offering his services as a doctor to the American listeners. Coburn, grateful and hoping to be useful in his new country, offers to help communities in rural areas where there are few doctors.
Faster than you can say “Roosevelt and the New Deal”, the youthful leader (John Wayne) of a passel of beleaguered sod busters in Asheville Forks, North Dakota sends for the good doctor, who arrives with his reluctant daughter in tow just in time for a heckuva dust storm. After a whirlwind introduction to the devastating effects of erosion and drought on the overworked, parched prairie land and those trying to scratch a living out of it, the doctor insists on staying to help the desperate farmers. He must also coax his disheartened, cultured daughter to work as his nurse in this bleak wilderness. This decision occurs despite his daughter’s preoccupation with her grief for her reportedly dead fiancé in the old country, Eric, (Roland Varno) and the all-night sessions imposed on her generous father to treat everything from influenza to dust pneumonia to a dislocated limb.
As Dr. Braun (Coburn) begins to tend to the medical needs of this impoverished group, he is appalled at their plight. Despite his own fatigue and painful past, the doctor begins to identify with the grateful farmers. He sees that in some ways he is far better off than they, prompting him to comment quietly that “there must be a more tragic word than refugee” for these people. Gradually, just as John Wayne comments that people “stop being refugees when they leave Ellis Island”, the doctor and the young “Moses” begin to draw strength from one another throughout the film. Each encourages the other to believe instinctively that there are “no refugees in America when one has hope.”
At moments during these hectic introductory scenes, this movie may seem like a low rent B movie echo of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, the John Ford masterpiece that opened four months prior to Three Faces West. The first movie brought recent American history to the movie screen, and had every frame informed with Steinbeck‘s righteous eloquence, an inspired cast, a visual poet as a director, and a reported $750,000 budget. Three Faces West, a far more obscure companion piece to the story of the American dispossessed has a bit of unpretentious grittiness lacking in the large scale 20th Century Fox film.
The two films may share some inevitable similarities, such as the cast, (look for the ubiquitous Russell Simpson as a minister with a Scottish burr and and uncredited Francis Ford as a farmer in this cast as well as The Grapes of Wrath). Yet unlike Ford‘s masterful rendering of an American tragedy, which softened some of the politics of the original story, the people in this Dakota burg struggle to maintain a community against great odds, including their own self-doubt. The filmmakers of this $100,000 budgeted Republic Studios production–big money for studio boss Herbert J. Yates to dole out–managed to inject more topical themes into the storyline of the John Wayne movie than can possibly be resolved dramatically in one little movie. Still, it is an engaging reflection of the real world forces shaping movies just at that moment. With its fast-paced story, packing ideas by the carload into every frame without worrying about a dramatic payoff, Three Faces West was also less sentimental and not nearly as tragic as the better known movie. Consequently, Three Faces West lacked The Grapes of Wrath‘s power. What it did have, among other things, was John Wayne, just as his physicality and acting skill began to coalesce into something approaching stardom.
Just before making this movie, the thirty three year old Wayne, who had languished in poverty row and B movies since his first big film, The Big Trail (1930-Raoul Walsh), had shot to critical and popular success in Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) playing the Ringo Kid. Just after making Three Faces West, the Duke gave one of his best early performances as part of an ensemble for his mentor, in John Ford‘s adaptation of Eugene O’Neill‘s plays in The Long Voyage Home (1940). It’s fascinating in Three Faces West to see Wayne on camera developing from the characteristic stiffness of an awkward day player into a graceful, naturally articulate leading man at other moments throughout this movie. His blend of authority and diffidence as well as understandably conveyed moments of self-doubt demonstrate how good a player this emerging actor was becoming, even before he became an icon of world cinema. The script mercifully does not enable him to resolve his problems as the leader of a sometimes recalcitrant bunch of grumbling, skeptical farmers entirely with his fists or a six-shooter, compelling the actor to use his magnetism and earnestness in this part as a “young Moses” to be convincing. The absence of traditional action scenes also allows the movie to transfer some of that dynamic into the appealing love scenes between Wayne and Sigrid Gurie.
Gurie, a Brooklyn-born child of Norwegian parents, had been cast by independent producer Sam Goldwyn previously in films as an exotic beauty. Playing a Chinese maiden opposite Gary Cooper in the unfortunate The Adventures of Marco Polo (1938) and an Algerian girl in love with Charles Boyer‘s Pepe le Moko in Algiers (1938) had done little to win critics or audiences. While Sam’s hopes of nurturing his own alternate film goddess to Greta Garbo were not realized by his protégée, I found Sigrid Gurie to be credible as the initially frosty and melancholy daughter of the doctor. Actually, she did not become a lot less melancholy as her ice princess exterior melted in the course of the movie, though she did take to the plow, learn to be less self-centered, and unbend in her romantic moments with Wayne. Interestingly, there are distinct echoes of another, better known John Ford film here. As a matter of fact, I strongly suspect that Ford took two scenes from this black and white film and adapted them beautifully to his later cherished technicolor movie and first rate romance, The Quiet Man (1952). Gurie‘s first kiss with the Duke occurs in a welcome rain storm soaking both her and Wayne in a torrential downpour mirroring their emotions. In another, later scene, as the couple encounter several self-imposed obstacles to their love, Wayne enters the room where Gurie is brooding while a dust storm roars outside. The door flies open, light pours in through the the entrance around the towering actor, and he somewhat roughly embraces the woman who is half-hidden in chiaroscuro, again reflecting her confused loyalties and the pent-up longing both characters feel.
The effectiveness of these scenes may owe something to a skilled crew, some of whom have only met with relatively recent acknowledgment among cinephiles. These included a talented journeyman director, Bernard Vorhaus, (a mentor for David Lean who credited him as a major influence), and the influential cinematographer John Alton, (who worked with Vorhaus nine times). The relatively large Republic budget for this movie also gave F/X man Howard Lydecker, and art director John Victor Mackay a chance to display their virtuosity. Throughout this movie, the remarkably evocative moments of potency, and is quite effective at times, weaving newsreel footage of the real Dust Bowl with recreations of pitiable bleakness on location in the Alabama Hills, in the Lone Pine, California region.
That arid landscape in this movie is unlike many of those usually associated with American Westerns, which visually celebrate both the power, the possibility and the emptiness of ever-changing horizons. In this movie, the vistas suggested by the interesting camera angles, the actual newsreel footage of people and animals struggling in the eroded farmland and the montages of cars and trucks instead of covered wagons lumbering across the landscape suggest that Mother Nature is not as malleable as previously believed. Beleaguered mankind, in this instance, represented by John Wayne and his followers, are almost undone by the power of the earth and their own reluctance to face the truth about their situation. As Wayne‘s character describes it, “Nature’s cockeyed”, but human beings had a role in making it so unsettled.
There are several scenes when the filmmakers toy with several powerful ideas trying to encompass some of the daunting issues of their day. Their introduction in the screenplay, (credited to veteran scenarists F. Hugh Herbert and Doris Anderson, poet Joseph Moncure March, Popular Front and later member of the Hollywood Ten Samuel Ornitz), does not mean that the story will ever develop these points to their logical, often politically radical ends in the course of the movie. Some of the topics touched on are ecology, cooperative farming, the delicate balance between leadership and dictatorship, xenophobia, the role of necessary violent upheaval in social change, the appeal of a potentially fascist leadership when a society is in desperate straits, and even Nazi budgetary practices the German-Soviet Pact, as well as the proposed need for “socialized medicine” in America, (how timely can you get!?). And that’s not even getting into the love triangle, though the need to sacrifice self for the group and the choice of duty over emotional fulfillment also crop up in this plot skein, especially after Sigrid‘s former intended magically reappears, fresh from being brainwashed by the Nazis and a trip to Russia on a diplomatic mission from the Third Reich!
As would become increasingly clear as the history of the next few years, the political values of the right and left and of love and commitment, might not amount to much when weighed against the fate of the world. This embedded message of this movie seems to be alerting viewers to prepare for the coming upheaval, (though most individuals had endured more than their share already by this point in the 20th century).
In one of the better developed plot points, Wayne initially tries to educate his fellow farmers by utilizing books and expert advice from the New Dealers about irrigation, windbreaks and contour plowing. Despite resistance from his implicitly anti-intellectual neighbors, personified by the eternal malcontent, character actor Trevor Bardette, the efforts to improve their existing farms is attempted but proves futile.
Eventually, a representative from the Department of Agriculture (called a “swivel-chair farmer” by Wayne), tells the homesteaders that their land has had it, and they might as well give up. This pantywaist tells Phillips (Wayne) to move his entire town to a new promised land, (historian Turner would have loved this touch evoking his notion of the “eternal frontier” as it existed in the American mind, even after it was no longer a reality). This land, which–again through the magic of movies, appears to be there for the asking, is indicated on the bureaucrat’s strangely drawn map, which appears to place Oregon somewhere around Oklahoma, (I guess the budget wasn’t big enough to go out and buy an accurate Rand-McNally of the Western U.S. for this scene).
The angry, dispirited farmers begin to turn against their government, but Wayne‘s character remains a voice of reason, soothing their resentment, and their need to assign blame for their misfortunes, with xenophobia and city vs. country folk tensions coming to a near boil. Some of the farmers feel that they may as well “stay put and go on relief”, but Wayne exhorts them to pool their resources. Realizing that a diaspora is inevitable, the townspeople, (represented by almost no women other than Gurie), seem about to disperse. Wayne galvanizes them again, exhorting them to pool their money (what money?) and “to move like an army, not like a rabble. Let’s make it an advance and not a retreat.” It is again the casual grace and sincerity conveyed by a youthful John Wayne that drives this story as much as the surprisingly nuanced view of life that is contained in the story.
Just as the parallels with the Old Testament’s Exodus begin to mount up, Bardette again tries to persuade the people to change direction and head for that Pacific Golden Calf by the sea, California. There they could all find “plenty of work pickin’ fruit”, but would become, as Wayne points out, just “one of 200 or 300 thousand migrant workers, not farmers with their own land.” The “bitter, hard and cruel” trail that a series of long montages of moving vehicles depicts finally dissolves into another of awfully well fed and happy folk plowing, building and growing their food in the mysteriously readily available bottom land in the Northwest culminates in a marriage under a spreading oak in the new Promised Land.
Implicitly, despite the inevitable Hollywood oversimplifications and a satisfying happy ending, this movie seems to recognize that life in the 20th century is far more complex than any one government or program can hope to solve. Solutions to complex problems, the impending war, the conflicts between men and nations, and men and women are all seen as surmountable in time, if a cooperative attitude and effort is adopted. People might even cherish this struggle if things fall easily into our laps. The muted hope at the ending of the film blends optimism with some faith in the endurance and flexibility of communities to survive, change, and develop when faced with seemingly overwhelming odds, and largely avoids the pat solutions to all issues.
So far I haven’t been able to find any opinions expressed by John Wayne about some of the possible left wing implications of this movie, but given his widely known later political views, I can’t help but wonder what the story conferences on and off the set might have been like. Both Wayne and co-star Charles Coburn would go on to be key supporters identified with the conservative Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. While Coburn would be an officer of that organization and Wayne a frequent spokesman, it is possible that the implied messages about the nearing European war and communal need to support the nation in a crisis may have overridden any qualms they may have had about some aspects of this script. Both performers also probably needed the paycheck.
The American born director, Bernard Vorhaus, after honing his skills by guiding several “quota quickies” to theaters from England in the ’30s, knew first hand what it was like to have the Nazis on his trail. Vorhaus, who actively helped fight fascism by his support of the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War, and the production of films such as this, eventually found himself described as “prematurely anti-fascist” during the McCarthy era. Vorhaus, who was nearly forgotten after his blacklisting and living in obscurity in Wales, found a new generation of admirers after David Lean expressed his debt to the man in an interview in the 1980s. Archivists re-discovered many of his films, including this one, as well as several others, unearthing the haunting cult favorite, The Amazing Mr. X (1948) with Turhan Bey (the film may be better known by its British title, The Spiritualist).
Though it is difficult to assign contributions to a script by one writer in any Hollywood production of this period, screenwriter Samuel Ornitz, a deft storyteller whose credits also included the original, better (imho) version of Fannie Hurst’s racially charged Imitation of Life (1934) and the excellent Richard Dix prison exposé movie, Hell’s Highway (1932), was also a doctrinaire communist sympathizer. He would also be among those who served time in prison as one of the Hollywood Ten following examination during the most contentious period of HUAC influence on American political life.
Only in Hollywood would such a mixture of political and aesthetic tastes collaborate in one movie–at least for a time. One of the myths about our “endless frontier” and its endless ability to shape our evolving national character was revived here, suggesting it still had spiritual strength, while others, such as long held notions of America’s being separate from the rest of the world, were amended, up to a point. At approximately 80 minutes running time, the movie may have tackled more subject matter than was wise, but, as Charles Coburn‘s sage doctor observes in passing, “No soldiers do we see, no frontiers do we cross, no cats and mouse, no guards…Here at last we find peace…Our lives begin again in a happy land, with a happy people.” Well, isn’t it nice to think it so?
Three Faces West (1940), which can be purchased on DVD, will be re-broadcast on TCM on Oct. 1st at 4:15AM. If you’re interested, you have time to set your DVRs!
Davis, Ronald, Duke: The Life and Image of John Wayne, University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.
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