June 16, 2015
After the success of Stagecoach (1939), John Wayne was in demand. While still under contract to poverty row Republic Studios, he was lent out to United Artists for The Long Voyage Home (1940), Universal for Seven Sinners (1940) and Paramount for The Shepherd of the Hills (1941). While still making interesting features for Republic, including Raoul Walsh’s Dark Command (1940), he was positioning himself as prestige-picture ready. Shepherd of the Hills was a prime property adapted from a million-book-selling novel, to be shot in Technicolor by director Henry Hathaway and DPs Charles Lang and W. Howard Greene. Hathaway was an advocate for location shooting, and had already filmed Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936) in Technicolor at Big Bear Lake in California, where Shepherd would end up as well. The ongoing “Glorious Technicolor” series at the Museum of Modern Art is screening both Trail of the Lonesome Pine and The Shepherd of the Hills as part of its sixty feature extravaganza. Shepherd is a delicate, strange and mournful drama of the breakdown of an insular Ozark Mountain community, one trapped in a cycle of intergenerational violence. John Wayne stars alongside his childhood Western hero Harry Carey, and the film acts as a series of lessons from Carey to Wayne, on and off screen.
The Shepherd of the Hills is based on the 1907 novel of the same name by Harold Bell Wright, whose book was so popular he gets top billing on the theatrical poster (it was previously adapted to film in 1919 and 1928, and would be again in 1964) . The movie plots out the alignments and resentments of a small Ozark community. The Matthews family is a dark cloud, with matriarch Mollie Matthews (Beulah Bondi) spewing the thunder. Bereft since the death of her sister Sarah, she advocates retribution for any slight, a paranoiac shutting her family up behind their cabin doors guarded by a slobbering hound. The sunshine is let in by the Lanes, Jim (Tom Fadden) and his daughter Sammy (Betty Field), peacemakers who bridge the at times warring town. Sammy is close to Matt Matthews (John Wayne), Sarah’s son and Mollie’s nephew, and his natural gregariousness seems like an opening that could break the Matthews gloom. A stranger, Daniel Howitt (Harry Carey), arrives offering to buy part of the Matthews land, a plot nicknamed “Moaning Meadows” that it is rumored to be haunted by the ghost of Sarah, or at least of the suffocating atmosphere left by her death. Matt is incensed that an outsider might buy this living memorial to his mother, but Daniel’s kindness, which extends to paying for medical bills to restore sight to Granny Becky (Marjorie Main), kindles a tentative friendship. But Daniel is hiding his true identity, the truth of which will force Matt to decide whether to embrace his family’s history of violence, or chart a new path.
Hathaway keeps the color palette muted, using earth tones more than the succulent primary colors associated with Technicolor. The effect is in keeping with the characters. These are not chest-pounding pioneers welcoming civilization to the West, but a truculent group of recluses clinging to their allotted land. They are so isolated they speak in their own backwoods biblical poetry. Jack Pendarvis transcribed Sammy’s monologue about “Moaning Meadow”: “It’s where the haint comes from: frogs as quiet as grave-rocks, light coming from nowhere, and the trees don’t rustle, and the flowers grow big but they don’t have pretty smells.” Betty Field delivers these lines with wide-eyed sincerity, without a hint of irony that would have immediately turned the film into Southern kitsch. Instead it tumbles out as cockeyed truths, the town a bunch of inadvertent animists, worshipful, wary and grateful for each blade of grass that surrounds them.
Folks there talk to animals more often than each other, as one summery evening Matt addresses an owl with, “Evening, brother!” Wayne prefers to sidle up to the knotty dialogue, pushing out the lines towards the end of his breath. When he goes fishing with Harry Carey towards the end of the film, his lines are barely audible, as he fidgets with his rod, dips his head, seemingly wanting to disappear into the dirt. He nearly exhales the lines, “I got no right to love or marry. I gotta forget thinking about Sammy.” John Ford said he didn’t know the son of a bitch could act after watching Howard Hawks’ Red River, but Wayne was already an actor of great subtlety in 1941. This was during a turbulent moment in his personal life, as he was in the middle of an extra-marital affair with Marlene Dietrich, who he had met on the set of Seven Sinners, which wrapped just before Shepherd. Dietrich, after seeing Wayne at the Universal cafeteria, reportedly told director Tay Garnett, “Daddy, buy me that.”
Everything is ritualized in Shepherd of the Hills. Mollie atones for her sins by turning her home into a funeral pyre. And when Daniel reveals his true identity, Matt immediately enters into Matthews manner of vengeance. He silently accepts his role in the Matthews narrative, sullenly grabbing his rifle and stomping to Daniel’s cabin, ready to murder for reasons he doesn’t even believe in. It is in his blood. The showdown is set up in long shots of Wayne stalking forward, emerging from the landscape. His arrival is scored to an ominous two note cello phrase by composer Gerard Carbonara that today sounds like the Jaws theme, appropriate for the carnage that Matt wishes to inflict. But Daniel is wiser and quicker with a gun, wounding Matt as an act of mercy. It is a lesson in failure. Matt has to chip away at his masculine pride to accept his loss, and that losing that pride may allow him to love Sammy. Losing that masculinity may allow him to become a man. On-screen and off, John Wayne was learning from Harry Carey. Harry and his wife Olive treated Wayne like family, and, as Scott Eyman writes in John Wayne: The Life and Legend, “offered something approaching unconditional love.” Wayne remembered:
[Carey] had a style of acting that has now become the way of acting in our business. He tried to play it down a little and be kind of natural. You have to keep things going and try and get your personality through, which is what Harry could do. I loved him, because I’d known him for years, and I was a young man and he was an older man. Anyway, he and his wife were around…and I was talking about how I wanted to play every kind of part. the big hero that did everything, the heavies, everything. I wanted to play it all. And Ollie Carey said, “Well, you big dumb son of a bitch.” I said, what’s the matter?” She said, “Do you really mean what you said? That you’d like to play every kind of part? You think you’re Sydney Carton?” And I said , “Yes, I’d like to get the chance to play all those things.” And Harry was just standing there, and she said, “Do you want Harry Carey to be any different than he is in the movies?” And I said, “No, of course not.” And she said, “The American public [have] decided to take you into their homes and their hearts. They like the man they see. Forget all this other junk. Be like Harry.” That was something I never forgot.