The Young Adventures of John Wayne

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Marion Morrison had to work hard to become John Wayne. His earth-straddling lope and taffy-stretched line readings were not invented by John Ford or Howard Hawks, only finely exploited by them. The flood of Republic Pictures movies released on Blu-Ray by Olive Films illustrates this fact, filling in the blanks of the evolution of one of the screen’s most indelible personalities. Following the box-office failure of the Raoul Walsh masterpiece The Big Trail (1930), Wayne would have to wait nearly a decade before his delayed acceptance as part of Hollywood’s firmament in John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939). The period in between shows him sliding into obscurity, from Columbia and Warners down to the resourceful Poverty Row studios Mascot, Monogram and the slightly more reputable Republic. Olive has so far transferred sparkling editions of seven of the Republics, most of which finds him stepping in to play Stony Brooke, the leader of the long-running Western trio The Three Mesquiteers (he already played in a modern dress Three Musketeers for a 1933 Mascot serial – endless remakes are nothing new). Stony Brooke is lithe and quick where the classic John Wayne figures are slow-moving monuments, visible in Olive’s gorgeous 4K scan of The Quiet Man, out today on Blu-Ray, but his Mesquiteers voice exudes the chummy warmth and presence of Wayne-ness, not yet weighed down with history.

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On the Death of Harry Carey, Jr.

careyjrcardDuring the last phase of his career, Harry Carey, Jr., appeared in small but significant parts in some of the few westerns produced in Hollywood during the 1980s. In Walter Hill’s The Long Riders, he played a stagecoach passenger named George Arthur, who is robbed by members of the James-Younger Gang. When George reveals that he had fought for the South during the Civil War, Bob Younger shakes his hand. The unreconstructed rebel bonds with the outlaws as he helps them rob a cowardly passenger who lies about fighting for the Stars and Bars. As the gang rides away with guns blazing, George walks toward the camera, murmuring in amazement, “I’ll be god damned and go to hell”—a proper testimonial after an encounter with legends. The stage hold-up is one of my favorite scenes in the film because it is Harry Carey, Jr., who delivers this line. As a member of John Ford’s stock company, Carey had walked among a few western legends himself, albeit cinematic ones.

Carey died last week at the age of 91, and most obituaries identified him with Ford, John Wayne, Ward Bond, Ben Johnson, and the other actors associated with Ford’s troupe. Carey was proud of his close association with Ford and his westerns even when he didn’t fully agree with the great director’s attitude toward his actors. In his autobiography Company of Heroes: My Life As an Actor in the John Ford Stock Company, he declared, “. . . I’ve only had one teacher. That man was John Ford. He was my nemesis and my hero. There were times when I was not an admirer—but when the day’s work was done—I loved him.”

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HARRY CAREY, JR., c. 1948

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Ralph Nelson’s DUEL AT DIABLO (1966)

As soon as the credits start to roll in Ralph Nelson’s DUEL AT DIABLO (1966) you know you’re in for something very different. A knife suddenly appears to cut through the screen and immediately starts slashing apart the United Artists logo. This stunning gesture told audiences at the time that they were about to watch a very violent film but also a film that was going to defy expectations. DUEL AT DIABLO does that but it’s also one of the most entertaining American westerns produced in the ‘60s and a great example of why I appreciate that groundbreaking decade so much. Prejudices were being set aside and old Hollywood was forced to change with the times. DUEL AT DIABLO was made during the height of this transition and although it might not be considered a major film that contributed to the birth of “New Hollywood” it’s an important milestone in the western genre thanks to the pioneering performance of its star, Sidney Poitier.

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Whips, Guns, and Horses: The Westerns of Barbara Stanwyck

From Baby Face to The Lady Eve to Double Indemnity, Barbara Stanwyck thrived during the 1930s and 1940s as the hardscrabble, working class dame who was accustomed to staying one step ahead of men. Her throaty voice and no-nonsense delivery suited her tough-talking screen persona. During the 1950s, Stanwyck appeared in a number of westerns that exploited the aggression and independence associated with her star image. The unofficial series included Cattle Queen of Montana, The Violent Men, The Maverick Queen, Trooper Hook, and Forty Guns. Oddly, this period in Stanwyck’s career is either brushed off as a time when the aging star was trying to re-establish her position in Hollywood, or simply presented as a decline in her career. After Forty Guns was released in 1957, she did not make another film until the colorfully flamboyant Walk on the Wild Side, released in 1962. Biographies then note the resurrection of her stardom on the small screen, first as the host of The Barbara Stanwyck Show, which won her an Emmy, and then in The Big Valley. Later, she costarred in the mini-series The Thorn Birds and lent her considerable star presence to Dynasty and its spinoff, The Colbys.

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The Great Silence

It’s not often that I wire over a thousand dollars to European banks for the privilege of screening an obscure western. And, yes, more than one bank was involved because the exhibition rights were held in Germany (Beta Cinema GmbH), while the actual owner of the 35mm print resides in Switzerland (Kinemathek Le Bon Film). My interest in Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence (aka: Il Grande Silenzio, Le Grand Silence, The Big Silence, 1969) was sparked by my interview with Alex Cox on March 13th of last year, in which he referred to it as “maybe the best western of all time.” That was the kind of glowing recommendation that made me want to screen it at the film series I program to share with my general audience, but my initial attempts at finding someone in this country that had a print fell short of any decent leads. [...MORE]

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.

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Snapshots of the Fall

The art house film calendar that I program goes to press in two days and, although I’m still waiting for some confirmations, I’m sharing the rough-draft with TCM readers, along with some brief thoughts regarding the choices made.

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Toshiro Mifune, Japan’s John Wayne

During Toshiro Mifune’s impressive career in front of the camera he was often referred to as the “John Wayne of Japan.” Like Wayne, Mifune was a powerful and commanding screen presence and one of his country’s biggest box-office stars. His rugged good looks and macho posturing seemed to represent a distinct kind of masculine ideal that post WW2 film audiences found particularly attractive. Both Wayne and Mifune often played characters that were tough, strong-willed, courageous, self-sacrificing and more than willing to carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. They also shared a sense of humor and natural confidence that allowed them to occasionally take on challenging roles that threatened to tarnish their universal appeal.
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Home Video Roundup: Witches and the West

I had a similar reaction to Mr. Stewart when I watched Kim Novak purr her way through Bell Book and Candle, just released by Twilight Time on a gorgeous blu-ray.  He also might have been agog at Westward the Women (1951), the William Wellman femme-Western released in a well-appointed DVD from the Warner Archive, which includes an audio commentary from film historian Scott Eyman. They are two films that focus on female desire, a rare occurrence in the generally leering male gazes of post-code Hollywood (pre-code films were replete with sexually independent women – check out Baby Face (1933) for a bracing example). Bell Book and Candle is set in motion because of Novak’s uncontrollable lust for Stewart, and Westward the Women kicks off because of hundreds of ladies’ self-sacrificing desire for a better life out in California, a gender bending variation on Horace Greeley’s advice to, “Go west, young man”.

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Blake Edwards’ Sunset

The recent success of Hugo and The Artist has sparked interest in the silent era and film history in the press and among the public. This attention has already waned, but, in an era when silent film is completely off the radar of most movie-goers, entertainment reporters, and bloggers, the focus was nice while it lasted. As a film studies instructor, I have taken advantage of both films to help my students connect to silent film in a way previous classes could not. After spending a week grading midterm papers, I am proud of my students who wrote about the films with depth and feeling, analyzing everything from the differences between silent and sound-film acting to references to movies or historical figures to the filmmaking techniques used by the directors. I was gratified that students applied what they had learned about Georges Melies and his special effects to draw comparisons to the CGI-laden films of their generation, and I was touched by their passionate declarations that the pioneer should never be forgotten.  Though some of my colleagues dismissed the Oscar-winning The Artist as a pleasant trifle, my students recognized the visual techniques director Michel Hazanavicius used to complement the actors’ performances and to compensate for the lack of spoken dialogue. I liked The Artist very much, but their observations and discoveries made me appreciate the film even more. Recognizing techniques, references, and ideas beyond the level of plot is like having the keys to unlock any film, and, once my students realize this, they are excited by the possibilities.

The prominence of Hugo and The Artist combined with my students’ clever critiques of both films reminded me of another movie set in the silent era that references historical events and real-life film legends. Directed by Blake Edwards, Sunset features Bruce Willis as cowboy star Tom Mix and James Garner as Wild West legend Wyatt Earp. In honor of both Bruce Willis and Wyatt Earp’s birthday, which is today, I thought it fitting to bring some attention to this film.

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