June 14, 2016


I marked the arrival of summer by watching one of Delmer Daves’ grandly romantic teen melodramas, Rome Adventure (1962). It is earnestly sweet travelogue about a 21-year-old ex-librarian who seeks her independence in Italy and falls for blonde bombshell Troy Donahue. Like the other films Daves made with Donahue (A Summer Place, Parrish, Susan Slade), Rome Adventure is disarmingly frank about the desires of its randy young characters. Instead it revels in the unstable beauty of these kids and their still-forming moralities. Rome Adventure pairs teen idol Donahue with the plucky, world-weary Suzanne Pleshette, an immensely likable personality to follow for the two-hours of the film’s Roman tour. Much of the film’s pleasures derive from simply walking around Rome with two-good looking kids while admiring Charles Lawton’s Technicolor cinematography. Since I won’t be making any European vacations myself this summer, Rome Adventure will have to do.


Delmer Daves suffered a heart attack in 1958, and was instructed by his doctors to avoid physically taxing shoots like the Westerns he had become known for (3:10 to Yuma, The Hanging Tree). So he abruptly switched gears to melodrama, which necessitates less running around. This sunk his stock with critics, who have never come around to these films, but kept his commercial success rolling. In both his Westerns and his melodramas, he had an unerring eye for locations, able to build up detailed social milieus for his inevitably forthright and sincere characters. For Rome Adventure, Delmer Daves dusted off Irving Fineman’s 1932 novel Lovers Must Learn for his adapted screenplay, lending some of the film an anachronistic quality – like the transatlantic steamship that takes Prudence Bell (Pleshette) from New England to Italy. It’s appropriate for a girl with an old-fashioned name like Prudence, though she does her damndest to undercut it.


Prudence opens the movie by quitting her job. She is working as a librarian at a hoity-toity New England college, and the spinster professors disapprove of a novel she personally lent to a student: Lovers Must Learn, by Irving Fineman (!). So she read the book the movie she is appearing on is based on – and will go on to act it out. Before they can fire her she quits, calling it “my independence day.” Just like that she jumps aboard a ship to Rome by herself, hoping to experience the kind of passion she only had read in literature. She will go on to test herself in a variety of romantic entanglements to see what works for her temperament. The movie is focalized through her perspective, so the film’s gaze is pointed outward from her and towards the men in her life, wondering which one will really ring her bells.



The first men she meets are a mousy student named Albert Stillwell (Hampton Fancher, who would go on to write the Blade Runner screenplay) and Roberto (Rossano Brazzi), an older slick tongued Roman who continually tries and fails to win Prudence’s heart. Albert is her parents’ choice, a safe milquetoast type whose only topic of conversation is the Etruscans. Naturally Prudence gravitates towards the more dangerous Roberto, who at least offers the possibility of new experiences. Both men try to lead her around town, but once Prudence sets her sights on the baby-blue eyes of Don Porter (Donahue), no other man stands a chance. Daves said that Donahue “looks like Young America wants to look”, and he was one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood in the early ’60s. This blonde-haired blue-eyed lunk was handsome but still retained some of his baby fat, giving him the unbeatable combination of beautiful and non-threatening.


What makes these films so pleasurable, though, are the characters that surround the main company, the little worlds that Daves is able to build. At her Rome home Prudence has the pensione owners and employees, a gaggle of sweet old Italian ladies who cluck over her every move. The most fascinating character is Daisy (Constance Ford), the owner of the “American Bookshop” where Prudence works. Daisy is a true independent spirit, a model, one would think, for what Prudence is trying to do in Rome. Daisy lives alone with her big English Sheepdog Mcguinness – having left her schoolteacher gig behind to follow her dreams of the romantic life in Italy. Introduced in yellow pajamas, thick glasses, and smoking a cigarette in an elegant holder, she is the vision of  a self-made eccentric. Constance Ford is hilariously funny in the part, playing Daisy as a woman with no filter. I wish she was more of a central character, as the tidbits we do learn about her are so tantalizing. She mentions that she makes yearly vacations to Ischia on which she inevitably meets and loses a man in the same weekend. I would have loved to have seen a spinoff movie (directed by Rohmer, ideally), that followed Daisy on one of these amorous trips, to see more of what makes her tick.


But alas, the movie returns to Prudence and Don as they make their way across Italy, traveling to Lake Maggiore, where they stay in a tiny chalet by the water. Prudence is reluctant to sleep with Don, worried it would break the spell that they are weaving. Things start to unravel when Don’s ex-girlfriend Lyda (Angie Dickinson) returns to the scene. Something of a man-devourer, Lyda had dumped Don out of boredom, but has come back to toy with him some more. Gorgeous and imperious, she is the one thing more beautiful that Don. Dickinson is devilishly good in the part, chewing up the scenery just as she gnaws at Don’s ego.


The film ends on a disappointingly paternalistic note, one that undermines Prudence’s so-called “Independence Day”. Roberto, who early on promises to offer her a sexual education, later offers a narrow definition of a woman’s role – that of companion who is there to tame a man’s baser instincts. Essentially, to be a babysitter. Throughout the entire film Prudence has been the driving force of the plot, making her own romantic decisions, and then in the penultimate sequence Roberto swoops down like a mansplainer-ex-machina to throw the movie off balance. Prudence and Don are destined to be together, but it was a misstep to have their union decided not by Prudence, but by the kindly old Italian lech who lives around the corner. But this does not eliminate the multifarious pleasures of Rome Adventure, a relaxed, charming travelogue that I would have been happy to tag along on for many hours more.


January 26, 2016

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In 1958 Delmer Daves suffered a heart attack, forcing him out of the Wild West and into the boudoir. Instructed by his doctors to avoid physically taxing Western location shoots, he embarked on a series of lurid melodramas starring poseable Ken doll Troy Donahue. Donahue’s unthreatening blonde-haired blue-eyed good looks made him the heartthrob of choice from 1959 – 1962, when he made A Summer Place, Parrish, Susan Slade and Rome Adventure with Daves, all of which were box office hits and critical failures (the latter three are available on DVD in WB’s Romance Classics box set, while A Summer Place is out on its own). They are films about sex that treat it as an inevitable result of adolescence, not as a threat to be avoided, and teenagers of the time must have appreciated this honesty, along with the vibrant Technicolor photography capturing the dewy Donahue/Sandra Dee/Connie Stevens. And if you were going to have an illegitimate baby, the gentle Donahue would be the father of choice. I added a poster of Susan Slade to my Facebook page, and immediately one of my friend’s mothers commented, “I was in love with Troy Donahue.” These are movies that are weighted with sense memories for people of a certain age, and they are ripe for reevaluation.

Critics have prioritized Daves’ war films (Pride of the Marines) and Westerns (3:10 to Yuma, Jubal), but these disreputable melodramas are equally representative of his talents, trading Western vistas for suburban split-levels. Dave Kehr wrote in the New York Times that, “the virtues of Daves’s late romances are essentially the same as those of his adventure films: characters composed with the utmost integrity and respect; a gift for creating a detailed and convincing social background; and a strong, clear narrative style that allowed him to manage a large cast of characters and several simultaneous levels of dramatic events.” I have previously written about A Summer Place, but today I am going to discuss Susan Slade, a remarkably strange romance in which Connie Stevens, with the aid of her permissive parents, hides her unwanted pregnancy from the world, and then falls in love with the intellectual-novelist-stable boy Donahue, from whom she hides the truth. The film throws up any number of improbable barriers to their union, from a Guatemalan coal mine to an ill-fated cigarette lighter. Their union is impossible, until it isn’t.


Susan Slade was based on the novel The Sin of Susan Slade (1961), by Doris Hume, and was quickly optioned by producer Edward Small (Kansas City Confidential), who turned around and sold it to Warner Brothers. Eager to further capitalize on the success of one of their last studio-manufactured stars, they turned the book into the latest Daves-Donahue potboiler. Donahue’s real name was Merle Johnson, but WB’s publicity team re-christened him as Troy Donahue. Mere/Troy recalled the process to People magazine: “At first they had Paris, the lover of Helen of Troy, in mind,” Donahue says. “But I guess they thought they couldn’t name me Paris Donahue because there was already a Paris, France and Paris, Illinois.”  So Troy it was. Two years earlier A Summer Place had made Donahue a star, but his screen presence remained ethereal and remote. He was never really fit to take on the role of approachable West coast dreamboat, as he was an incorrigible alcoholic who drank his way out of the movie business in a few years. Resentful of the limited roles he was offered, he told People that,  “I would like to forever get rid of that image of the California beachboy.” He takes a drag on his cigarette and says matter-of-factly, “I’m an actor. Not an ornament.”


But these are beautifully ornamented features, with Donahue perhaps the most beautiful. Susan Slade’s director of photography was Lucien Ballard, whose first gig was doing additional photography for Von Sternberg’s Morocco (1930). Donahue is outfitted in an apple red jacket to reference Rebel Without a Cause, and his character Hoyt Brecker is something of a destabilizing force. Brecker’s father was arrested for embezzlement and then hung himself in his jail, and all of the old family friends disassociate themselves. So Hoyt withdraws from society, only occasionally drawn out by Connie Stevens as Susan Slade, who still keeps in touch with this awkward, strikingly handsome lad.


Slade’s life is a parade of tragedies. The opening sequences detail her shipboard flirtation and passionate romance with a young playboy mountain climber named Conn (Grant Williams), who sleeps with her and cuts off contact. Hard to believe you can’t trust a man named Conn. There is a languorous, highly suggestive crane shot of slumped and supine partygoers lazily cuddling on a stateroom floor. Many are smoking, an intimation of post-coital bliss as the love theme from A Summer Place twinkles over the radio. It is here that Conn dips Susan down for a deep, loving kiss. It is here, one assumes, the doomed coupling takes place. Conn dies trying to summit Mount McKinley, leaving a distraught Susan pregnant and alone.


Her parents are played with glowing warmth by Lloyd Nolan and Dorothy McGuire, the models of connubial bliss. Nolan is all empathy, his jowly face in a continual mask of concern for his poor daughter. One of the more moving sequences occurs in close-up, after the Slades move into their new cliffside home in Carmel, CA, where he thanks God for all his blessings. It is an unusual sequence in how it slows down the narrative, but it is the kind of character grace note that gives these films their emotional punch. McGuire’s performance is more guarded, as she becomes more inward when the family decides to pretend that Susan’s baby is actually her mother’s. McGuire then has to convey a protectiveness of her pseudo-baby, hinting that she might be willing to take Susan’s son for good. This mother-daughter jealousy is further ramped up after the father’s passing, leaving the two women to fend for their son/grandon’s affections.


Connie Stevens has the most difficult role here, with Susan stuck between different phases of life: She is a doting daughter and a thwarted mother, an immature girl and an experienced lover. Connie threads the needle with the aid of costuming, hair and makeup. On the ship she has a sophisticated evening gown and up-do, whereas home in Carmel she ties back her hair in girly bows and dresses in giant sweaters. 23 at the time of shooting, she has a button-nose Mickey Mouse Club cuteness that makes the “adult” scenes even more shocking. But Stevens is an agile enough actress to balance these two extremes of her character. In the climactic scene of revelation, in which she lays the whole story bare, she speaks with steel in her voice, and bends Donahue to her will.


December 17, 2013


If my blog posts were the only articles you read this year, you’d come away thinking Delmer Daves was the most popular man in America. Alas, this is only true in my living room. But this was the year I delved into Daves, helped along by a two-part retrospective at Anthology Film Archives. The first was way back in May (of which I gushed here), and the second wraps up today, for which programmers Nick Pinkerton and Nicolas Rapold culled from Daves’ less reputable potboiler period. After a long career of open-air Westerns, Daves made a surprising turn to soapy melodrama. The change was necessitated by his health. Daves suffered a heart attack in 1958, and was instructed to ease back on stressful location shoots for the relative safety of studio-bound pictures. So he turned to the soaps, for which he escorted Troy Donahue into stardom. The most famous of these is A Summer Place, which scored a #1 pop hit while embracing the sexually permissive mood percolating in the country. Anthology is screening A Summer Place (yes, which I also wrote about), as well as Youngblood Hawke, his last melodrama for Warner Brothers, and the much-derided topic of today’s post.


The implausible novel by Herman Wouk regards a coal miner launched to stratospheric celebrity through his doorstopping book “Alms For Oblivion”. Hawke is also bulging with ravenous sexual appetites, though framed in Charles Lawton’s restrained B&W rather than the ripe Technicolor of Harry Stradling’s work in A Summer PlaceYoungblood didn’t match its predecessor’s success, and very rapidly became a punchline. John Gregory Dunne lays the groundwork in the December 4th, 1964 issue of Life magazine. After admitting he has a “perverse predilection for the awful”, he declares Youngblood Hawke to be the, “hippiest and funniest motion picture in years, one which not only summons up the implausibility of the vintage Marx Brothers epics but also is sure to be discussed by the long-haired Cahiers du Cinema crowd for some time to come.” Truffaut was an avowed Daves fan, though I don’t know if Hawke ever got the full Cahiers treatment. Dunne closes by saying Dr. Strangelove was “made by the hipsters unwittingly for a mass audience”, while “Hawke was made by a mass filmmaker unwittingly for the hippies. See it now or see it later: in years to come it should be the highlight of Delmer Daves festivals at the Museum of Modern Art.”

He is calling it camp, a source of unintentional hilarity made for hipster guffaws that might yet be over-interpreted by cinephiles. His prediction has not yet come true, as it faded into obscurity instead of into Mystery Science Theater or Cinema Scope.  Released in a restored DVD by the Warner Archive last year, I think it’s worthy of reconsideration as both ridiculous and sublime, a narrative absurdity and an aesthetic marvel, a grim B&W vision of mid-century NYC, with the emptied out modern design reflects the hollowed out characters. Dunne’s final jab may yet come true, as new adjunct curator at MoMA, Dave Kehr called Youngblood Hawke the “sleeper” of the Anthology series.


Warren Beatty was originally cast to play the title Hawke, and Hedy Lamarr was competing with Gene Tierney to land the role of Frieda Winter, the rich socialite who inducts Hawke into the ways of the city and her boudoir. None of this worked out. Jousting with WB management, Beatty quit the production, and Lamarr and Tierney were passed over for French actress Geneviève Page. After getting tossed off the studio lot for intransigence, Beatty eventually agreed to appear in Robert Rossen’s Lilith (1964). To replace him, Daves and the production team chose James Franciscus, the blonde-haired monolith who was starring in the NBC high school drama Mr. Novak. Instead of an alluring contrast of New and Old Hollywood,  Daves was left with incompatible parts. The bland functionality of Franciscus is a poor fit for the volcanic virility of Hawke, whom women “could feel across the room”, per the salacious tagline. He has rangy good looks but moves like a disgruntled mule, appearing as though he suffers from indigestion more than arousal or emotional turmoil. Geneviève Page was still adapting to Hollywood productions after years in Europe, and her English had not yet been perfected, yet hers is a more layered and affecting performance.


As Frieda, Page has to convey a flightiness masking a bone-deep melancholy. As an aging beauty (she was 37 at filming), Frieda needs to convince herself she can still bed the latest hot young literary thing – despite her rich husband and two kids. In one of the many hauntingly composed shots, Daves frames Page in the dark foreground, her faced edged by an adjacent lamp, while Fransiscus is immobile with lust by the fireplace behind her. They are both looking forward, their desires in momentary abeyance, when a smile flashes across Page’s face, an acknowledgement of the utility of her own beauty. Their bodily distance will soon be closed, but her smile announces this encounter as a mutually selfish act, a union of vain bodies. The lady whom Daves and Wouk’s script position as Hawke’s true love is Jeanne Green (Suzanne Pleshette), the Ivy League grad who edits Hawke’s unwieldy tomes. She is the modern future of femininity, on the inside of a publishing business at which Frieda can only chip at with her sexuality.

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Art director Leo Kuter and DP Charles Lawton do quite a bit to contextualize Hawke’s emotional state through mise en scene. His first NYC apartment is a dingy attic in far out Brooklyn Heights, in which laundry lines run through his workspace. Then, after his second novel (Chain of Command) wins the Pulitzer, he starts his own publishing company complete with his personal skyscraper and posh penthouse pad. Even back in the halcyon days of publishing this gargantuan wealth was far-fetched for any writer – Hawke even has cash to invest in a Long Island shopping mall scam. Most of it is poured into his home,  but all the angled wood and Eames furniture can’t suppress Hawke’s low-class lineage, as clothes lines still criss-cross the space, cutting it up into cramped squares rather than the luxurious open concept it’s supposed to realize. Hawke is constrained by the space around him as well as his own outsized ego. While Youngblood Hawke is not one of Daves’ masterpieces, it at least proves his unerring visual knack. Even if it never ends up at MoMA, it deserves a place in your living room.


July 23, 2013


The infernal weather system that soaked the Northeast in sweat this past week was moving backwards. In the United States these systems usually travel west to east, but this persistent “dome of hot air” was  traveling in reverse. I feel a kinship with this contrarian gasbag, so in its honor I will look back at an undervalued movie set during summer. A Summer Place (1959) is mainly remembered for birthing the #1 instrumental single by Percy Faith (adapted from the Max Steiner score), but it was a sensation at the time for its frank discussion of sex. It marked a transition in director Delmer Daves’ career from macho action-adventure films into melodramatic women’s pictures, one of the more reviled shifts in film history. He completed his twilight Western The Hanging Tree in August of 1958, and made four candy-colored romance pictures for WB afterward. Dismissed by both critics (the NY Times memorably called it “garishly sex-scented…. The whole thing leaves a rancid taste”) and ardent admirers (Jean-Pierre Coursodon called this period “dangerously close to artistic suicide”) , today they are ripe for rediscovery. A Summer Place is bursting with erotic energy that spreads out in the Technicolor widescreen frame, and treats adultery and teen sex with a forthright shrug.

Sloan Wilson was a hot commodity in Hollywood after his novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955) became a hit movie (1956) for 20th Century Fox. So when his 1958 book A Summer Place created another stir,with its teenage bed hopping and middle age lust, it was swiftly optioned by WB. Wilson wrote the initial script, but Daves rejected it because it retained the ten-year arc of the novel. Wanting a more linear, compact story, Daves re-wrote the screenplay himself, and compressed the action into one year. Daves had started his career as a scribe, and even had some experience with love stories, having co-written Leo McCarey’s sublime Love Affair (1939). His decision to switch to studio-bound melodramas can be attributed to his health, according to Delmer’s son Michael. Daves had a heart attack in 1958, and doctors advised him to limit his exertions, which would be easier to do at the studio than on location in the Arizona badlands.


The leading role of Molly, the young girl who falls for an inn owner’s son in Maine, was initially offered to Natalie Wood. She declined, and admitted to later regretting it. The part went to Sandra Dee, on loan from Universal, the up and coming emblem of innocence from Gidget (1959). While retaining her perk, the 17-year-old Dee gives an unselfconscious performance as a pragmatic teen in lust, ready to follow her body wherever it tells her to go. The location is Troy Donahue, the sensitive and slender blonde-haired blue-eyed preppie of every suburban white girl’s dreams. He had just been released from his contract with Universal, and after A Summer Place went nuclear signed a long term deal with WB. His earnestly handsome face would grace each of Daves’ next three films. Their parents, involved in an inadvertent wife-swapping roundelay, were played by consummate Hollywood pros Richard Egan, Dorothy McGuire, Arthur Kennedy and Constance Ford. An A-picture all the way, the film received a lushly romantic score from Max Steiner and ripe Technicolor cinematography from Harry Stradling (Johnny Guitar). Kennedy is especially memorable as Donahue’s dad Bart Hunter. A cognac swilling inn-owner who squandered his family’s fortune, Bart is a lost man who Kennedy plays with a slow, sad burn. Punctuating every line with a shot of booze and a lascivious glance, he’s the image of a decadent aristocrat gone to seed.


Bart’s whole kingdom is falling apart at the Maine resort town of Pine Island. Formerly a wealthy scion of a prominent family, he is reduced to renting rooms at the family mansion. A vindictive drunk, his wife Sylvia (McGuire) can barely stand his presence. Their son Johnny (Donahue) is the only proof their union wasn’t a waste. Then Ken Jorgenson (Egan) decides to bring his family for a visit. A former lifeguard at the Hunter estate, he’s now a self-made millionaire with a lingering crush on Sylvia. His wife Helen (Ford) is a neurotic terrified of sexuality, who sleeps in separates beds and browbeats her daughter Molly (Dee) about the sanctity of virginity. When they all come together in the inn, the atmosphere turns hothouse. Bart, sensing the ratcheting erotic tension, teases Helen about his “perverted garden” and its “aphrodisiac” qualities. Within days of the the Jorgenson’s arrival Molly is necking with Johnny while Sylvia and Ken rendezvous in the boathouse. There are divorces and recriminations and unexpected pregnancies, but these are not punishments, they are brute realities waiting to be overcome by couples who are truly in love.

A hallmark of Daves’ films are the forthrightness of his characters. They fall for each other with total abandonment. There is no manufactured tension about “will they or won’t they”, only about the realities of what happens after you do. In Pride of the Marines (1945) doughboy John Garfield woos Eleanor Parker in the opening scenes – the majority of the film revolves around how they cope with his blindness inflicted by the war. Love is total and intoxicating in his movies, but are then rattled with the impositions of living. Late in A Summer Place, Ken is agonizing over how to speak to Molly about sex, wanting to warn caution without robbing her of its joys. Sylvia responds, “Warn her that first it’s the passions and desires that rule a girl’s wants, but that love is far wider and deeper than that. Love is a learned thing between a man and a woman. And after those first, fierce passions start to fade, it’s that love, that learned love, that counts for everything.” Delmer Daves’s movies are about this learning.



May 14, 2013


Delmer Daves is having a moment. The Criterion Collection, the closest thing the U.S. has to a cultural gatekeeper, just released 3:10 To Yuma (1957) and Jubal (1956) on DVD and Blu-ray, while the Anthology Film Archives in New York City is holding a mini-retrospective of rarely screened Daves titles, including Pride of the Marines (1945) and The Red House (1947). I had never delved into the director’s work because the ambivalent words of Andrew Sarris and Manny Farber were ringing in my head. Sarris thought his films had “stylistic conviction in an intellectual vacuum”, while Farber positioned Daves against the Spartan “Hawks-Wellman tradition” as  “a Boys Life nature lover who intelligently half-prettifies adolescents and backwoods primitives.” While encapsulating their writing approaches, Sarris’ lucidity versus 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 Cooper’s moral atrophy, and realized his use of landscape is far more complex than Boys Life kitsch. Eager for more, I watched five Daves films over the weekend, which revealed a sensitive director of actors drawn to tales of regeneration both spiritual and physical.

On the surface Pride of the Marine appears to be a basic WWII propaganda programmer, telling the true story of working class Philadelphia boy Al Schmid (John Garfield) and his path to winning the Navy Cross for his actions in a battle at Guadalcanal, which blinded him. But Daves and screenwriter Albert Maltz (later blacklisted) are more concerned with Schmid’s fragile psyche than his kill count (200 in one night, reportedly). Much time is spent on location in Philly with Schmid’s combative courtship of Ruth (Eleanor Parker), establishing the cocoon atmosphere of life in the pre-War States. The scene in which news of the Pear Harbor bombing breaks on the radio is one of blithe self-absorption. It’s during a dinner party with Schmid and his friends and they think Pearl Harbor is located in Jersey, their whole world limited to the northeast U.S. After the battle, shot like a horror movie in quiet and shadow, Schmid is forced to discover the world anew as a blind man. He becomes bitter and withdrawn, resentful of the U.S. for sending him into that abattoir, and awakening to the racial inequalities of American life. His best pal Lee is Jewish and informs him that as a blind man Schmid would have an easier time getting a job than himself. It is only Ruth’s compassion that can re-integrate him into society, and prevent him from succumbing to nihilism. Schmid is one of many emotionally enclosed Daves protagonists forced to open up due to physical debility.

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The same is true of Edward G. Robinson in The Red House (’47), a delirious farmhouse thriller in which Robinson ritualistically intones, “don’t go into the woods”. An aging patriarch with a wooden leg, he lives with his spinster sister (Judith Anderson) and his adopted daughter Meg (Allene Roberts). Living in an isolated cabin (as alone as Cooper’s cabin in The Hanging Tree), they rarely venture into town, causing rumors to swirl. Robinson is repressing a terrible secret, and he moves with such coiled deliberation it seems he’ll break into a sweat with each utterance. The film locks into such a hypnotic rhythm it could be mistaken for tedium – it’s a series of seized-up Robinson warnings followed by Meg and her young boyfriend Nath (Lon McCallister) searching the woods for a mythical “Red House”. The landscape takes on a menacing character, as filled with traps as the world outside Philly is for Schmid. Once the circular plot breaks open and Robinson’s secret is revealed, a preternatural calm sweeps across his face as death rises to greet him.


Broken Arrow (1950) returns the social concerns of Pride of the Marines, with a script from the now blacklisted Albert Maltz fronted by Michael Blankfort, who received the credit. It is generally regarded as the first Hollywood film to give a sympathetic portrayal of Native Americans, although numerous Bs as well as John Ford’s Fort Apache (1948) could also make that claim. It displays Daves’ obsession for historical detail (he consulted his grandfather’s diaries, who crossed the country in a covered wagon), shooting the story of Cochise close to where he actually lived, on the Apache White River Reservation and the Coconino National Forest in Arizona. The setting is overwhelmingly beautiful in Technicolor, shot by Ernest Palmer, that does have a picture postcard prettiness, a fantasy land for this alternate history in which Apaches and Americans live in peaceful assimilationist harmony.


The Criterion release Jubal (1956) returns to Dave’s theme of renewal, the first of three such Westerns he would make with Glenn Ford. Daves co-wrote the screenplay about vagabond cowboy Jubal (Ford) found starving in the woods by  thriving farm owner Shep (Ernest Borgnine). Jubal builds up his strength and self-respect until he becomes foreman, and begins to woo the daughter of a Mormon minister. Shep’s bored housewife Mae (Valerie French) wants a renewal of her own, leading to a destructive jealousy. This is another of Daves’ isolated locales, a tight grouping of Shep’s home, work bunks and stables nestled in the Grand Tetons of Wyoming. These buildings are together but separate, the crossing their boundaries causing dissension among the farmhands. The main dissenter is Pinky, played with perverse artifice by Rod Steiger.As Kent Jones notes in his DVD booklet essay, “It’s odd to watch the actor stretch every syllable as far as it can go (“nothing” becomes “nuh-thiiiiiihn”)”. This method madness is a poor fit for the naturalistic presences of Ford (deliberate and reticent) and Borgnine (who is spectacular as a garrulous innocent), but is still fascinating to watch to see how he chews off each particular scene.


Jack Lemmon also seems like a poor fit for the Daves universe, but in Cowboy (1958) he gives a nuanced performance as another damaged Daves loner sliding into self-pity. He stars alongside Ford in a cattle drive odd couple. Lemmon is a Chicago hotel clerk ready to light out for Mexico to chase a girl. Ford is an arrogant, usually rich cattle trader who agrees to take on tenderfoot Lemmon after a generous cash investment. Ford suffers the physical ailment, getting punctured by an arrow, while Lemmon suffers a spiritual malaise, his clumsy urban neurotic becoming a self-destructive wretch after completing his first drive, his romantic dreams of cowboy life dissolved in cow shit and snake bites.  Again concerned with the textures and rhythms of that historical period, Daves adapted Frank Harris’ semi-autobiographical 1930 novel On the Trail: My Reminiscences as a Cowboy. The film is littered with process, from how to put on chaps to how to make a steer stand up in a moving train car. Showing a light touch he would use in his 1960s romances, the film turns into a love story between Ford and Lemmon, as they recognize each other’s frailties in themselves. It ends with a shot of them in matching bathtubs, equality achieved at last.


September 11, 2012

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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.