Friday, May 13, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: May 6-12

Stagecoach (1939) ****
Director: John Ford
Writers: Dudley Nichols, Ernie Haycox
Starring: John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Andy Devine, John Carradine, Thomas Mitchell, Louise Platt, George Bancroft, Donald Meek, Berton Churchill

Although John Wayne had already accumulated 78 previous film credits to his name, “Stagecoach” feels like his introduction to the screen. His introduction in the film says it all. Director John Ford’s camera swoops in toward him, long before such a shot was common in film, and says, “Here’s your star. This is the one to watch.”

The movie itself is thrilling and exciting. It doesn’t slow down much as it follows an oddball bunch of passengers on a stagecoach journey through dangerous Native American territory where Geronimo is on the warpath. I’m not sure how such a plot should be viewed in today’s PC society, but I’m pretty sure that the more hostile Indian tribes did occasionally attack early American settlers. So, there you go.

I believe the plot is rather intelligent in those regards, since most of the warring happens off screen and is between the Army and the Native Americans, while the travelers are really just caught in the middle. I found that despite the fact that many westerns since this classic have borrowed and outright stolen from it, it’s still fresh and held developments I didn’t see coming. “Stagecaoch” is truly one of the greats of its genre.

High Noon (1952) ****
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Writers: Carl Foreman, John W. Cunningham (magazine story “The Tin Star”)
Starring: Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, Katy Jurado, Thomas Mitchell, Lloyd Bridges, Otto Kruger, Lon Caney Jr., Harry Morgan, Ian McDonald, Lee Van Cleef, Robert J. Wilke, Sheb Wooley

It’s true. I’ve gone this long without seeing the western classic “High Noon”. One of the reasons I hadn’t gotten around to it until now is that I’ve heard many say that it isn’t as great as it’s often portrayed. I’ve heard the stories about how Gary Cooper’s performance was wooden because he was sick during filming. Many of the Hollywood elite criticized the movie as being an attack against blacklisting, including John Wayne and Howard Hawks who made “Rio Bravo” as a conservative answer to “High Noon”. More about that later.

I found the movie to be non-traditional, with an original plot line that saw a sheriff abandoned by those he’s sworn to protect when a man he put away returns for his head. It isn’t even that simple, however. Its moral points are argued pretty fully by both sides throughout the film. Many try to argue to support the sheriff, but in the end he’s left to defend himself alone.

Much has also been made about the film’s “gimmick” of telling the events in real time. The running time of the film is the same amount time as the events depicted. This would eventually lead to entertainment like television’s “24”. “High Noon”, however, doesn’t really draw much attention to this contrivance, which doesn’t allow it to become a distraction. Unlike, “24” the plot of “Noon” doesn’t outreach the real time gimmick.

Rio Bravo (1959) ***
Director: Howard Hawks
Writers: Jules Furthman, Leigh Brackett, B.H. McCampbell (short story)
Starring: John Wayne, Dean Martin, Angie Dickinson, Ricky Nelson, Walter Brennan, Ward Bond, John Russell, Pedro Gonzales-Gonzales, Claude Akins

So, “Rio Bravo” was intended to be a conservative answer to the leftist ideals in the anti-blacklisting movie “High Noon”. Wayne and Hawks believed that “Noon” wasn’t a good western because it depicted a sheriff who ran around town pleading for help and in the end his wife, a Quaker, saves him.  I don’t believe most of that can be attributed to Wayne, but author Michael Munn, did attribute that entire sentiment to Hawks in his biography on Wayne “John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth”.

I’m not really sure which parts of those thoughts disturb me the most, the devaluing of women, the devaluing of another person because of their religious beliefs, or the bull-headed ideal of refusing to ask for help with a life or death problem. As far as the final point, Wayne’s sheriff in “Rio Bravo” has plenty of help in containing a prisoner who’s friends come to town to bust him out, whether he’s willing to ask for it or not. What does it say about these conservative ideals that alcohol is such a valued commodity among the heroes of this plot? True, Dean Martin’s character is desperately trying to break his dependency, but I’m not sure the two-step program he’s in here has any sort of stability in its support mechanisms.

As far as the movie goes, it’s still pretty good. It has a strange laid-back quality to it. It sort meanders along, but I liked that. It runs a little long. It has some good gunplay and a nice final shootout. It has good characters, and Angie Dickinson adorable as Wayne’s romantic interest. I could’ve done without the pop song from Ricky Nelson, but his duet with Martin is inevitable and a little more period appropriate.

Destry Rides Again (1939) ****
Director: George Marshall
Writers: Felix Jackson, Gertrude Purcell, Henry Myers, Max Brand (novel)
Starring: Marlene Dietrich, James Stewart, Mischa Auer, Charles Winninger, Brian Donlevy, Irene Hervey, Jack Carson, Samuel S. Hinds

I always thought that Madeline Kahn’s performance as Lili von Shtupp in Mel Brooks’ western send-up “Blazing Saddles” was an exaggeration of Marlene Dietrich. As it turns out, Kahn’s impersonation is straight. The fact that it was probably most directly derived from Dietrich’s performance in “Destry Rides Again” makes it very easy to see that Kahn was not exaggerating.

That’s not to say that “Destry” is the same level of slapstick that “Blazing Saddles” is. In fact, it’s a legitimate western, about a town that is being run by a crook who is swindling farmers out of their land so he can tax the cattle that run through it. A young lawman is brought in to straighten things out, but his methods are not what people are expecting. He doesn’t believe in guns. Therefore it’s fitting that the ultimate good guy, James Stewart, plays him.

Dietrich is the saloon madam who helps the crook in his schemes, but she can’t help but let Stewart get under her skin. I loved the different levels of entertainment this movie achieves, especially through its leads, who are opposite ends of the spectrum that allow themselves to wander into each others’ territories.

I’ve seen the movie categorized as a comedy. While it has funny parts, it isn’t strictly comedic. It holds moments of action, drama, and suspense. This is a fun movie. Stewart and Dietrich each make intriguing leads; and despite the fact that they don’t quite match, or maybe because of it, we get an interesting and original musical western.

One-Eyed Jacks (1961) *½
Director: Marlon Brando
Writers: Guy Trosper, Calder Willingham, Charles Neider (novel “The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones”)
Starring: Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Pina Pellicer, Katy Jurado, Ben Johnson, Slim Pickens, Larry Duran, Sam Gilman

I hadn’t even realized that Marlon Brando had directed a western until I found this one kicking around with a bit of an underground reputation for being a fairly good one. I can’t agree that this is a good western, however. It is bloated and overly melodramatic, and it just plain drags.

It involves two bank robbers in Mexico who get into a bind. Brando plays the Kid who allows his partner (Malden) to go for some fresh horses. When Malden never returns, Brando spends five years in a Mexican prison. Once he escapes, Brando finds himself in with a new group of bandits who travel to the American Oceanside town of Monterey.

As it turns out, Malden is now the sheriff of Monterey. He’s married a woman with a daughter to distance himself from his former life as much as possible. When Brando shows up on his doorstep, Malden knows his past has caught up with him. What he doesn’t suspect is that Brando will fall in love with his stepdaughter.

It’s an intriguing enough story, but the script is so drawn out, the drama so overblown, that it becomes too much to take after a while. It was a progressive western at the time it was made with its more cerebral approach to the genre and a raw look to it that suggests a west that is more accurate to its reality. It was the type of western Sam Peckinpah might’ve made, filmed when that rule breaker was still directing fairly traditional westerns. Unfortunately, it’s too overemotional for its own good.


Alan Bacchus said...

The saloon brawl scene in Destry is a classic!

And however flawed One Eyed Jacks, I kinda like it. It's fun to read up on Brando's crazed obsessiveness in directing this film. I think it took a year to shoot it

Alan Bacchus said...

Oh i forgot. Try and search out The Big Trail (1930) dir. Raoul Walsh, starring John Wayne. It's amazing. It was shot as a widescreen film decades before cinemascope. Huge epic scope in that picture. I consider that to be Wayne' introduction

Andrew D. Wells said...

I think Brando's obsessiveness shows, because it felt like it took a year to watch it! It certainly has qualities to admire, but it felt like something that had been thought about too much. I felt like he was unable to cut things that needed to be cut, like he was too fond of everything he shot. It needed to be tightened up, and then it could've been not just a good western, but a great one.

I think Destry was my favorite of this bunch just for the sheer fun of it. Although, I really love both Stagecoach and High Noon.