June 16, 2015

Poster - Shepherd of the Hills, The (1941)_04

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.

John Wayne

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.

Poster - Shepherd of the Hills, The (1941)_01

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.


December 14, 2010

true grits

Regrettably, this post is not about the cookbook True Grits: Recipes Inspired By the Movies of John Wayne. My apologies to writers Lee Pfeiffer and Michael Lewis, although I do intend to make  “They Were Eggspendable” (p. 6) and “Hondocakes” (p. 12) for breakfast this weekend. No, instead I’ll be considering Charles Portis’ 1968 novel, True Grit, and the film adaptation by producer Hal Wallis and director Henry Hathaway the following year. All of this was spurred, of course, by the Coen Brothers’ take on the material, still named True Grit, which comes out on December 22nd.

Portis’ novel is anchored by the starched voice of Mattie Ross, a stiff-backed Presbyterian who recalls the grim events that followed the murder of her father, Frank. Narrating the tale as a prim spinster in 1928, she details, with stark Old Testament morality, how she earned her revenge as a young girl from Dardenlle, Yell County Arkansas (she intones her birthplace to strangers like a prayer) in 1873. She is decisive and declamatory, with an eye for irrelevant bits of history. When the trail of the murderer snakes through Indian Territory to a supply store , she dryly notes: “The store is now part of the modern little city of McAlester, Oklahoma, where for a long time ‘coal was king.’ McAlester is also the international headquarters of the Order of the Rainbow for Girls.” There is a bit of the schoolmarm in her, eager to educate as much as to “avenge her father’s blood.”

It is her voice that captivates, a preternaturally calm control stabbed with stubborn wit, rarely exhibiting the childishness of her age. As Ed Park wrote in his epic ode to Portis in The Believer, “Her steadfast, unsentimental voice—Portis’s sublime ventriloquism—maintains such purity of purpose that the prose seems engraved rather than merely writ.”  I could only detect one scene of playfulness – when she asks her two lawmen to act out a ghost story around the fire. These two men, Marshal Rooster Cogburn and Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (he prononunces it “LaBeef”), are far more immature than Mattie, at one point wasting a third of their corn dodgers for an impromptu shooting competition (not dissimilar to Montgomery Clift and John Ireland’s macho shoot-off in Red River).

Cogburn is an inveterate drunkard and former member of Quantrill’s Raiders, a Confederate guerrilla group. He’s also a Federal Marshal who had killed over 20 men since his short time wearing the badge, a fact which led Mattie to choose him to help her find the killer, Tom Chaney. Incapable of a domesticated life (“Men will live like billy goats if they are let alone”), he thrives on the deprivation of the outdoors. LeBoeuf is handsome, conceited, and a bit of a dandy. Upon first seeing him Mattie remarks, “His manner was stuck-up and he had a smug grin that made you nervous when he turned it on you.” Despite that, “he made me worry a little about my straggly hair and red nose”, one of the other rare notes of vulnerability in her bullish persona.

Mattie is a shifty, opaque creation, and endlessly fascinating. She’s a whip-smart girl who turns personal history biblical (her vengeance on Chaney, who is physically marked like Cain, recalls the Old Testament God), and biblical history local (she quotes verse to settle daily disputes). She stubbornly sits still on the ledge in-between, refusing to concede her pragmatism or her divine beliefs as rattlesnakes nip at her flesh.

Before the book was published, Portis’ agent passed out galleys to the major studios, setting off a minor bidding war. According to Randy Roberts and James Stewart Olson in John Wayne: American, Wayne’s production company, Batjac, submitted a bid of $400,000, but it was issued after the deadline had closed. The rights were awarded to Hal B. Wallis, whom Wayne soon wooed to land the part of Rooster Cogburn. The role of Mattie Ross was originally offered to Mia Farrow, who turned it down, supposedly on the advice of Robert Mitchum, and it was eventually given to Kim Darby, a little-known TV actress.  Robert Duvall snarls through the film as gang leader Ned Pepper, and Dennis Hopper has a bit part as a squealer at the same time Easy Rider was unspooling, a portentous straddle of Old/New Hollywood.  Wallis switched the shooting location from Arkansas to Montrose, Colorado, in the western slopes of the Rockies, over Portis’ objections.

Hathaway and Wallis lightened the tone of of Portis’ more fatalistically comic work, turning it into an agreeably swashbuckling affair centered on Cogburn, whose rough edges and thieving past are sanded down to an inoffensive nub (Dave Kehr opted to call it “cutesy-poo”). There is no voice-over, which eliminates many of Mattie’s idiosyncratic asides, and the ace DP Lucien Ballard’s cinematography here is made up of bright and airy postcard shots that looks like a well-funded autumnal Coors commercial. It lacks the textural menace of nature in the book, in which cold and hunger attack as much as Chaney.

Wallis’ True Grit, then, is an entirely new work, with only a surface relationship to Portis’, and shouldn’t be limited, or belittled, solely in comparison to the book’s greatness. It was transformed into a John Wayne star vehicle as he was transitioning into more cantankerous character parts, so the film was rigged up into a sturdy, eager to please example of old Hollywood craftsmanship. Stocked with stellar supporting performances from Duvall, Hopper, Strother Martin, and even Glen Cambpell as the preening pretty boy LeBouef, it’s a companionable if not resonant bit of Saturday afternoon entertainment.

In a revealing exchange, Henry Hathway recalled the arguments he had with Wayne over wearing the eye-patch:

When he was first put to it, Wayne told me, ‘I’m not gonna wear that patch on my eye.’ He said, “I’m not an actor to begin with, I’m a reactor, and no way will I wear a patch.”

This is a wonderful pocket self-analysis from Wayne of his work – he’s such a superb and sensitive performer because of how he reacts to the actors around him. Some of his best work is in backgrounds – think of his proud, fatherly gaze and reluctant gait in Rio Bravo as he stands outside his circle of friends singing in jail – maneuvering his bulky body to convey the resignation of old age and the burdens of leadership. He’s one of the finest collaborative actors, whether it’s sparking off Montgomery Clift in Red River or bending towards Maureen O’Hara in Rio Grande like a weed to the sun. In donning the eye-patch, he becomes the buffoon being reacted to, a gallumphing showboat rather indifferent to the performers around him (Kim Darby is unmoored and affectless as a result). But his self-parodistic grunting and hamming stirred the dozing Academy voters, who awarded him his first and only Oscar for best actor.