Go Hang Your Dreams: The Hanging Tree (1959)

The Hanging Tree (1959) is a Western marked by illnesses and maladies, a portrait of a violent man at war with his own impulses. It deploys Gary Cooper as a crumbling totem, the actor’s aching hip tipping his performance from his famous underplaying into a kind of pained decrepitude. It is one of Cooper’s most emotionally wrenching turns, as he is seemingly aware that he was reaching the end of his career, which would end with his death in 1961. Then there is the sickness that felled director Delmer Daves over halfway through the shoot, necessitating that Karl Malden take over behind the camera, using Daves’ storyboards as guides. These sicknesses are made legible in the film, from the name of Cooper’s character, Doc Frail, to the sun exposure that fells Elisabeth (Maria Schell), the Swedish immigrant who Frail nurses back to health, and who tests the boundaries of the doctor’s seemingly impenetrable emotional defenses. Long unavailable in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the Warner Archive has released a handsome anamorphic edition of the film on DVD, transferred from an inter-negative. There is some light print damage, but nothing to detract from the grandeur of Daves’ compositions, shot on location in the Oak Creek Wildlife Area outside of Yakima, Washington.

Cooper personally shepherded the project at Warner Brothers, the second film he produced following Along Came Jones (1944), through his Baroda Pictures imprint. His daughter Maria told Lou Lumenick at the NY Post that, “The story meant a lot to him. He was a Montana boy and had a real resonance with the characters and the drama of the era when there was a push to stake claims. He was born in 1901 in Helena when it was a funny mixture of a rough and ready town at the same time Montana had more millionaires than any other state in the union. Helena even had a hanging tree, so that was not a foreign dramatic touch to him.” The story was adapted from the 1957 novella by Dorothy M. Johnson, and regards the arrival of Doc Frail into the gold rush town of Skull Creek, Montana. He hides  wanted thief Rune (Ben Piazza) at his cabin, but asks for a form of indentured servitude in return. Rune reluctantly agrees, for a while, if only to avoid capture. So when Elisabeth is discovered in the desert, half-mad and blind, Frail and Rune are tasked with healing her. They go about their task increasingly insulated from the madness growing outside their doors, as gold fever has whipped up the town in an anarchic frenzy, encapsulated in the raving, violence-mongering preacher Grubb, played with grandiose menace by George C. Scott, in his indelible big screen debut.

This outside sickness, one of extreme individualism, is one that Frail is sympathetic to, having been burned by intimate relations in the past. So as the trio of himself, Elisabeth and Rune develop into a loving co-dependency, he cuts them off. Warm and giving when they are in need, Frail cannot stand the sight of the others when they have grown self-sufficient, the power relations shifting against him. There is an unsettling shot where Frail walks Elisabeth out to a cliff’s edge and determines that her sight is returning. The shift in his tone from solicitous caretaker to distant acquaintance is chilling in its swiftness and severity. It is clear that Frail has performed this act before, forever retreating back into himself. Daves repeatedly frames them against the dizzying rocky slopes of the Oak Creek Wildlife Area, images of serenity that ironically contrast with the relentlessly neurotic and interior Frail.

Despite her near-death experience, only Elisabeth seems truly comfortable in the land, opening a gold panning outpost with gusto, eager to work as much as any man. This confuses her dopey macho assistant Frenchy (Karl Malden), who with his floppy hat and head bob, looks like a schnauzer begging for treats. He is an idiot, and one who does not seem to have advanced beyond Freud’s polymorphous perversity stage, believing that everything and everyone around him is available for his pleasure. Frenchy is the representative of the town’s descent into narcissistic madness. Frail recognizes himself in Frenchy, in their selfish rejection of society. Perhaps this is why Frail turns aggressively violent in Frenchy’s presence, a bitter rage which results in a scene of shocking violence at the same cliff where Elisabeth regained her sight.

Malden not only gave a singularly unsettling performance, but saved the project from imploding. According to the AFI Film Catalog, production began on June 17th, and Delmer Daves’ sickness forced him to leave on July 25th. For the rest of principal shooting, which lasted until August 13th, as well as post-production, Karl Malden took over as director.  He recalls this period to Rose Eichenbaum in The Actor Within:

During the last two weeks of the picture, the director got sick and went to the hospital. So I got a call on Saturday to come over to Coop’s house. I get there, and he says they might have to close down production. ‘That’s too bad’, I say. So he says, ‘why don’t you finish directing this picture?’ ‘Me?’ ‘You can do it, you directed Widmark in Counter Attack. You can do it.’ So I said okay, but if I find that I’m lost and I don’t know how to do it, and we have to sit there and figure it out, don’t scream at me.’ ‘Kid,’ he said, ‘I’ve never spoken angrily to anyone in my life, and I’m not going to start now.’ So I accepted and directed the picture for two and a half weeks. When it was finished, Gary Cooper went over to Warner’s and said to them, ‘star billing!’ That’s the first picture in which I ever got star billing. That’s the kind of man Gary Cooper was.

In order to depict the destructive community of Skull Creek, which burns itself alive in a drunken revelry of greed, the production team had to function as a supportive one. Cooper had a chronic bad back as a result of a broken hip he had as a teen which was never set properly, and it was bothering him mightily on the set. He couldn’t sit side-saddle on a horse, as Marie Cooper tells Lumenick, so a special saddle was created where he would be perched off to the side. This worked for his character, allowing him to literally talk down to the characters Frail is so desperately trying to separate himself from.

The Hanging Tree is a fragile Western, one in which psyches are as easy to shatter as entire communities. Money is both their curse and their salvation, able to put their necks inside a noose as well as buy their way out of it.  The only thing it can’t seem to purchase is happiness, at least that found outside of a bottle. The final shots, in which Elisabeth divests herself of all her gold and land, and instead nuzzles Cooper’s downturned head, are some of the most radical, and radically moving, in the Hollywood Western.

0 Response Go Hang Your Dreams: The Hanging Tree (1959)
Posted By april : September 11, 2012 10:32 am

Thank you for a terrific analysis of one of my favorite westerns, and one of Cooper’s finest characterizations on screen. I can see the interesting paralells between sickness (physical and of the soul) that you point out—well done. I have not yet picked up the Archive release though I’ve purchased several versions over the years hoping for the best.

It’s an unsung Gary Cooper western that deserves much more exposure and praise and I hope your article will help it regard. By the way, you can see an interview with the cast and director in a “featurette” (on ocation) of The Hanging Tree in the 1958 television broadcast, “Dave Garraway’s Wide World: The Western”.

Posted By april : September 11, 2012 10:32 am

Thank you for a terrific analysis of one of my favorite westerns, and one of Cooper’s finest characterizations on screen. I can see the interesting paralells between sickness (physical and of the soul) that you point out—well done. I have not yet picked up the Archive release though I’ve purchased several versions over the years hoping for the best.

It’s an unsung Gary Cooper western that deserves much more exposure and praise and I hope your article will help it regard. By the way, you can see an interview with the cast and director in a “featurette” (on ocation) of The Hanging Tree in the 1958 television broadcast, “Dave Garraway’s Wide World: The Western”.

Posted By swac44 : September 11, 2012 11:51 am

I also had to settle for the VHS version for years (it’s been a while, but I recall it was open matte, not pan & scan), glad to see it’s been given the attention it deserves. I’m a fairly late convert to Daves’ work, but I’ve always enjoyed this late entry in Cooper’s filmography, along with Anthony Mann’s Man of the West.

Posted By swac44 : September 11, 2012 11:51 am

I also had to settle for the VHS version for years (it’s been a while, but I recall it was open matte, not pan & scan), glad to see it’s been given the attention it deserves. I’m a fairly late convert to Daves’ work, but I’ve always enjoyed this late entry in Cooper’s filmography, along with Anthony Mann’s Man of the West.

Posted By Pamela Porter : September 11, 2012 12:24 pm

I first saw “The Hanging Tree” on CineMax way back in the 80s. It has always stuck with me, and it’s time for me to revisit it.

Thanks for the reminder.

Posted By Pamela Porter : September 11, 2012 12:24 pm

I first saw “The Hanging Tree” on CineMax way back in the 80s. It has always stuck with me, and it’s time for me to revisit it.

Thanks for the reminder.

Posted By Kingrat : September 11, 2012 2:20 pm

Thanks for a great piece on one of the best 1950s westerns, a great era for westerns. Interesting to learn that Karl Malden finished the film.

Daves is a better director than he’s given credit for, with KINGS GO FORTH, A SUMMER PLACE, and several fine westerns.

Posted By Kingrat : September 11, 2012 2:20 pm

Thanks for a great piece on one of the best 1950s westerns, a great era for westerns. Interesting to learn that Karl Malden finished the film.

Daves is a better director than he’s given credit for, with KINGS GO FORTH, A SUMMER PLACE, and several fine westerns.

Posted By John Maddox Roberts : September 11, 2012 2:37 pm

A good chance to see Scott before his nose got reshaped by too many bar fights. Also, it had a rousing theme song by Marty Robbins (not Frankie Laine, as many assume).

Posted By John Maddox Roberts : September 11, 2012 2:37 pm

A good chance to see Scott before his nose got reshaped by too many bar fights. Also, it had a rousing theme song by Marty Robbins (not Frankie Laine, as many assume).

Posted By Juana Maria : September 11, 2012 4:51 pm

I have watched “The Hanging Tree” several times on TCM. I enjoyed though not to the same extent as “High Noon”,my favorite Western. It has Gary Cooper who I love to watch and Maria Schell who is excellent in this film! Karl Malden and George Campbell Scott are very effective in their roles as well. I first heard the song “The Hanging Tree” by Marty Robins,then saw the movie on TCM. So sometimes it’s the song I know first! I thing about movie songs,so bear with me. Thanks for the article,I love Westerns! I especially love Westerns that are more cerebral and emotional. Such as:”High Noon”,”Shane”,”The Naked Spur”,”The Tall T”,”A Man Alone”,”Tin Star”,”The Lonly Man”,”The Bravados”,”Posse From Hell”,”Winchester’73″,”Man From Laramie”,”Only the Valiant”,”Yellow Sky”,”High Plains Drifter”,”Pale Rider”,”The Unforgiven”,”Unforgiven”,”The Appoloosa”,”One-Eyed Jacks”,I could go on forever couldn’t I? Thanks a ton!

Posted By Juana Maria : September 11, 2012 4:51 pm

I have watched “The Hanging Tree” several times on TCM. I enjoyed though not to the same extent as “High Noon”,my favorite Western. It has Gary Cooper who I love to watch and Maria Schell who is excellent in this film! Karl Malden and George Campbell Scott are very effective in their roles as well. I first heard the song “The Hanging Tree” by Marty Robins,then saw the movie on TCM. So sometimes it’s the song I know first! I thing about movie songs,so bear with me. Thanks for the article,I love Westerns! I especially love Westerns that are more cerebral and emotional. Such as:”High Noon”,”Shane”,”The Naked Spur”,”The Tall T”,”A Man Alone”,”Tin Star”,”The Lonly Man”,”The Bravados”,”Posse From Hell”,”Winchester’73″,”Man From Laramie”,”Only the Valiant”,”Yellow Sky”,”High Plains Drifter”,”Pale Rider”,”The Unforgiven”,”Unforgiven”,”The Appoloosa”,”One-Eyed Jacks”,I could go on forever couldn’t I? Thanks a ton!

Posted By Rick : September 11, 2012 10:50 pm

Nice review of one of my favorite films and the best of the “adult Westerns” of the 1950s. It shares many similarities with the great Anthony Mann-James Stewart Westerns like Winchester ’73, The Far Country, and Bend of the River. The hero is a man with a questionable past who is given another chance at life. In the Mann-Stewart films, the heroes are often redeemed by communities (as in Far Country and Bend of the River). In The Hanging Tree, redemption comes in the form of a woman’s love and, to an extent, a boy’s respect for his father figure. Plus, The Hanging Tree also features my favorite Western movie ballad (sung by Marty Robbins) and one of the best closing shots of any movie.

Posted By Rick : September 11, 2012 10:50 pm

Nice review of one of my favorite films and the best of the “adult Westerns” of the 1950s. It shares many similarities with the great Anthony Mann-James Stewart Westerns like Winchester ’73, The Far Country, and Bend of the River. The hero is a man with a questionable past who is given another chance at life. In the Mann-Stewart films, the heroes are often redeemed by communities (as in Far Country and Bend of the River). In The Hanging Tree, redemption comes in the form of a woman’s love and, to an extent, a boy’s respect for his father figure. Plus, The Hanging Tree also features my favorite Western movie ballad (sung by Marty Robbins) and one of the best closing shots of any movie.

Posted By Marco : September 14, 2012 4:09 pm

I vividly remember the first time I watched The Hanging Tree. It was in 1959 in Salt Lake City, and I was nine years old and with my parents. I still remember the the long lines of people waiting to get into the cinema on Main Street and the fabulous display of an ominous hanging tree in the lobby. This was my initial exposure to an adult Western. Although I know I didn’t appreciate the subtle underlying themes that were interwoven with the fistfights and the gun play, it became one of my favorite Western movies. This is probably the most authentic depiction of placer gold mining and the denizens that lived on the western mining frontier ever filmed. As good as Gary Cooper is in this film, it is the cast of characters that Karl Malden, George C. Scott, and John Dierkes portray that makes this movie so believable. Every time I watch this movie I am amazed at how there is not a single false scene in the entire film, and it is great to see that is finally available on DVD. The Hanging Tree is truly among the best Westerns ever made, and one of the few films that focuses on the gold rushes that actually opened the American West. Gold does something to mens’ souls, and it does bring out the worst in some people, just like the collection of gold crazy characters in Skull Creek. It was interesting to read that Coop made such an effort to save this film and make Doc Frail one of his best roles.

Posted By Marco : September 14, 2012 4:09 pm

I vividly remember the first time I watched The Hanging Tree. It was in 1959 in Salt Lake City, and I was nine years old and with my parents. I still remember the the long lines of people waiting to get into the cinema on Main Street and the fabulous display of an ominous hanging tree in the lobby. This was my initial exposure to an adult Western. Although I know I didn’t appreciate the subtle underlying themes that were interwoven with the fistfights and the gun play, it became one of my favorite Western movies. This is probably the most authentic depiction of placer gold mining and the denizens that lived on the western mining frontier ever filmed. As good as Gary Cooper is in this film, it is the cast of characters that Karl Malden, George C. Scott, and John Dierkes portray that makes this movie so believable. Every time I watch this movie I am amazed at how there is not a single false scene in the entire film, and it is great to see that is finally available on DVD. The Hanging Tree is truly among the best Westerns ever made, and one of the few films that focuses on the gold rushes that actually opened the American West. Gold does something to mens’ souls, and it does bring out the worst in some people, just like the collection of gold crazy characters in Skull Creek. It was interesting to read that Coop made such an effort to save this film and make Doc Frail one of his best roles.

Posted By Juana Maria : September 14, 2012 5:43 pm

I agree 100% with the comments of Rick and Marco above! I too love Westerns this one in particular. I have read every book on the American Gold Rush of 1849 at my library,so I know a thing or two about the Gold Rush. That and I majored in History in High School. I still enjoy the goofiness of “Paint Your Wagon” and “Support Your Local Sheriff!” both set in mining towns. I love “The Far Country” and “Death Hunt” both set in the Yukon,with totally different stories and feels to them. I have stated strongly enough how much I LOVE Westerns?! Probably not. Ha ha..Happy trails y’all,and keep up the great writing and comments,amigos!

Posted By Juana Maria : September 14, 2012 5:43 pm

I agree 100% with the comments of Rick and Marco above! I too love Westerns this one in particular. I have read every book on the American Gold Rush of 1849 at my library,so I know a thing or two about the Gold Rush. That and I majored in History in High School. I still enjoy the goofiness of “Paint Your Wagon” and “Support Your Local Sheriff!” both set in mining towns. I love “The Far Country” and “Death Hunt” both set in the Yukon,with totally different stories and feels to them. I have stated strongly enough how much I LOVE Westerns?! Probably not. Ha ha..Happy trails y’all,and keep up the great writing and comments,amigos!

Posted By Vienna : October 22, 2012 3:35 pm

Great western. That final scene is so well composed – it’s like a painting. Thanks for the lovely shot of it.

Posted By Vienna : October 22, 2012 3:35 pm

Great western. That final scene is so well composed – it’s like a painting. Thanks for the lovely shot of it.

Posted By MovieMorlocks.com – Delving Into Delmer Daves : May 14, 2013 10:00 am

[…] Farber’s contradictory collisions, they both convey images of shallow postcard beauty. Then I saw Daves’ extraordinary The Hanging Tree (1959, on DVD from the Warner Archive), which uses a cliffside cabin as a visual metaphor for Gary […]

Posted By MovieMorlocks.com – Delving Into Delmer Daves : May 14, 2013 10:00 am

[…] Farber’s contradictory collisions, they both convey images of shallow postcard beauty. Then I saw Daves’ extraordinary The Hanging Tree (1959, on DVD from the Warner Archive), which uses a cliffside cabin as a visual metaphor for Gary […]

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