SHIP OF FOOLS: THE LONG VOYAGE HOME (1940)

October 13, 2015

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The Long Voyage Home (1940) was self-consciously an art film. An atmospheric bummer adapted from four one-act plays by Eugene O’Neill, it was the first  movie made for John Ford’s independent production company Argosy (co-founded with Merian C. Cooper). This offered Ford an unusual amount of freedom, and co-producer Walter Wanger commissioned prominent fine artists (Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, Luis Quintanilla, Georges Schreiber, and Ernest Fiene) to come on the set and paint whatever they wanted.  In the biography Searching for John Ford Joseph McBride quotes the director as saying “I didn’t like the idea at first, but the artists proved to be a grand bunch of guys.” Ford and cinematographer Gregg Toland did their own painting with light, making The Long Voyage Home his most visually experimental film. There is the deep focus that Toland made famous the next year in Citizen Kane, plus low-light chiaroscuro and trick shots like anchoring the camera to the floor of the ship so the audience has a plank-level view of a storm, the waves crashing over the lens. It screened on 35mm (a UCLA restoration) in the Revivals section at this year’s New York Film Festival, but it is also streaming on Criterion’s Hulu page, if you are digitally inclined. At points the film feels like a workshop, to try out techniques Ford was unable to use on his bigger studio pictures, which gives The Long Voyage Home its patchwork quality. And yet Dudley Nichols’ sensitive script is able to tie the anecdotal structure together, and it remains a profoundly moving experience of unmoored men at sea, fruitlessly trying to claw back to land.

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The Long Voyage Home was shot in thirty-seven days for $682,495 at the Goldwyn Studios lot, as well as aboard the freighter S.S. Munami at Wilmington Harbor, CA. Eugene O’Neill was friends with Ford and proposed bundling his seafaring one-acts into a film. Dudley Nichols updated it to WWII, gathering a group of O’Neill’s dead-ender sailors on The Glencairn as they travel from the West Indies to Baltimore and on to England, transporting explosives through a war zone. It is an ensemble cast that includes Thomas Mitchell as Driscoll, a gregarious Irish rouster, John Wayne as Ole, a sensitive, big-hearted Swede, and Ward Bond as Yank, a bullet-headed brawler. In the digressive narrative room is given to the stories of Smitty (Ian Hunter), an alcoholic escaping his past, and Cocky (Barry Fitzgerald), a failure come to terms with his lonely life at sea. John Qualen and Billy Bevan are also on board to provide some nosy comic relief.

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None of them have managed to figure out life on land, so they continually sign up for more journeys on the ocean, in perpetual avoidance of the “real” world on solid ground. Instead they drink and brawl and pine nostalgically for the old days of drinking and brawling. The crew pairs off in friendships, with Driscoll and Yank as best friends and world travelers, even if they can’t remember half of their trips. Smitty and Cocky continually end up on deck with each other, as the rest of the crew gets blasted. Smitty is nervous, sweaty and haunted, the most noirish character of the bunch. The crew invents an elaborate backstory for his secretiveness, one that expands in complexity until they start believing his is a Nazi spy.  Most of their time is occupied inside of these fantasies. Smitty’s refusal to participate marks him as an outsider. The truth is sadder than any of them can comprehend. So they ignore it and move on.a_wa1094

John Wayne gives one of his most unusual performances, taking on a Swedish accent and playing Ole as a sweet, slow-witted goofball. He is a lovable giant, and the characterization runs counter to the All-American athlete persona he had been cultivating for years. But for John Ford he would do anything. Wayne was still finishing off his Republic Pictures contract, and had to shoot the drama Three Faces West for twenty days before taking on Long Voyage Home. Insecure at his talent for accents, he asked Ford for help. As quoted in Scott Eyman’s John Wayne: The Life and Legend, Ford responded: “Well, Jesus, all right if you want to be a goddamn actor. You don’t need it.” But Ford hired Danish acting coach Osa Massen to help him out, and if the accent isn’t quite accurate, her instruction put Wayne at ease, and his performance of wide-eyed innocence is one of the most delicate of his career. Though it was a glorified supporting part, Wayne was still given top billing, probably due to the smashing success of Stagecoach in 1939.

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Ole has plans to quit the seaman life and return home to his family in Sweden. It is the crew’s solemn vow that they will protect him on shore leave and make sure he gets on the ship home. He has failed many times before, getting caught up in drink, getting in debt, and returning to work to pay off his debts. But for all of the men, Ole is a symbol of freedom, the only one who could conceivably forge a real life on land. Everyone else has had their family and friends die off or disavow them. The ship is their entire world. And the way in which Toland shoots them it feels like a moving mausoleum. Toland reserves his low light shots for the bridge, the tools of navigation bathed in darkness. They hyperreal qualities of deep focus here emphasize the empty spaces, of lost crew members and phantom memories. The most representative sequence is the shot of the raging storm that crashes onto the camera, which anticipates the GoPro techniques of Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s immersive boat film Leviathan. There are no actors in the shot, it is emptied of everything but the water. The crew of the Glencairn are disappearing, and they will all eventually be subsumed in the ocean. The shot is a foreshadowing of future absence, and for most of the crew, not an unwanted one.

OZARK ELEGY: THE SHEPHERD OF THE HILLS (1941)

June 16, 2015

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

WRECKED: WAKE OF THE RED WITCH (1948)

June 3, 2014

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In 1948 John Wayne appeared in Fort Apache, Red River, 3 Godfathers and Wake of the Red Witch. After seeing Red River, John Ford was reported to say, “I never knew that big son of a bitch could act.” He wouldn’t have been so surprised if he had seen Wake of the Red Witch first. Playing an alcoholic, obsessive sea captain hell bent on avenging his lost love, Wayne finds pockets of instability in his individualist persona. Compared to his other films that year, it has faded into obscurity, but Wake of the Red Witch held a pull over Wayne throughout his life. He got the name of his production company from the film, and when he was later battling cancer, he referred to the disease as the “Red Witch”. It is a ghostly film about a lost love, a dreamlike and violent potboiler that exhibits the blacker shades of Wayne’s persona.  I was drawn to watch the film (out on Blu-ray from Olive Films) while reading Scott Eyman’s superb new biography John Wayne: The Life and Legend. His book is invaluable for treating Wayne as an artist rather than an icon or a political symbol, and it illuminates the non-canonical work of his long career, most of which was produced at budget-minded Republic Pictures. It was the studio that kept him in the business after his initial star turn in The Big Trail (1930) was a financial disaster, and he remained loyal until the company started easing out of the film business in 1958. 

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Wayne had paid his dues at Republic in B-Westerns, but since Stagecoach had become the studio’s most bankable star. Though primarily in the business of Bs, company head Herbert Yates reserved a few slots for “Premiere” productions on A-level budgets. Wake of the Red Witch was one of these, made for over $1.2 million. It was an adaptation of Garland Roark’s 1946 novel of trade wars in the South Pacific.  Wayne had already worked with director Edward Ludwig on The Fighting Seabees (1944) and co-star Gail Russell on Angel and the Badman (1947). Every loyal, Wayne brought Ludwig back to direct Big Jim McLain in 1952. As he gained more power over production decisions, Wayne attempted to preserve a familial atmosphere on the set, his own version of John Ford’s stock company. Wayne even imported Danny Borzage to play accordion on the set, a loosening-up function that Borzage also served on Ford’s productions. Though taken from a novel, Wake of the Red Witch was Republic’s attempt to copy Cecil B. Demille’s Reap the Wild Wind (1942), which also featured Wayne as a morally ambiguous ship captain who brawls with a sea monster.

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The book was adapted into a script by Harry Brown and Kenneth Gamet. Brown would work with Wayne on Sands of Iwo Jima (1950), while Gamet had already written for Wayne on Flying Tigers (1942) and Pittsburgh (1942). They introduce the world of the South Pacific as already soiled, plundered and ruined by the sclerotic whites who have taken over. The movie opens with this doom-laden line: “the idyllic peace and beauty of the South Pacific lay undisturbed for centuries. But the white man came eventually; he rolled it up, put it in his pocket and took it home to sell.”

The story creates tension by delaying the backstory of Captain Ralls (Wayne), the self-destructive skipper of the Red Witch, which Ralls plans to sink intentionally in the opening scene . While the plot indicates it’s the rich cargo Ralls is after, it turns out to be something far more personal. Ralls is haunted by the memory of Angelique (Gail Russell), the intense daughter of a local South Pacific Commissar. Her hand is given in marriage to rich trade company president Sidneye (Luther Adler), an oleaginous operator who has acquired his wealth on the backs of the South Pacific natives. His company is called “Batjak”, which Wayne borrowed to call his production company in 1951. A clerical error changed the spelling to “Batjack”, but Wayne thought it sounded good anyway, so he stuck with it. Ralls devotes his life to ruining Sidneye at any costs, especially if it includes giving up his own.

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Ralls’ instability is represented by two extreme close-ups, where Wayne walks bug-eyed toward the camera. These unusual shots show Ralls consumed by anger, in a state of catatonic rage. In the first he is bottles-deep on his latest bender, right before a horrific beating of his navigator, who would not go along with his plan to sink the ship. After the brawl, of which nothing is shown, there is a close-up of his bloody knuckles. It is an uncanny image, as John Wayne brawls usually end up with hugs and shots of liquor. Here the physical cost of fighting is made visible. The second and final occurrence of the extreme close-up occurs in flashback, to seven years earlier, after he has heard the news of Angelique’s marriage. He is on his boat, trying to burn off his anger in another meaningless fistfight. His face is sweaty and wild-eyed, as if he is suffering from the DTs. The time of the flashback and the present day has been flattened. Ralls is the same man as he ever was, consumed by hatred and addicted to pain.

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Angelique is not introduced for forty minutes, her presence an unspoken weight on Ralls’ shoulders. It is her vision that blurs his thoughts, distorts his dreams. Gail Russell’s performance is ethereal and barely there, a wisp of a woman already disappearing into the drapes. Ralls’ devotion to her memory is intense and all-consuming, entering the realm of fairy tale. Little is known about the seven intervening years between plot strands, aside from the fact that Ralls sailed the seas, thinking about her every day. It’s akin to the legend of The Flying Dutchman, who was doomed to sail the seas forever unless he won a woman’s love. Wake of the Red Witch is even darker, in which the love has already been lost, and self-annihilation is the only escape. Wayne brings his usual athleticism to the part, especially in a well-staged battle with a giant octopus, but it brings him no satisfaction or resolution. It is in the haunting finale, with his scuba mask filling with water, that Ralls recognizes a way out. He can reunite with Angelique in the last few seconds before death, remembering when he once had a future. 

GEORGE SHERMAN, DIRECTOR OF WESTERNS

April 2, 2013

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When director George Sherman passed away at the age of 82 in 1991, he was noted only for the quantity of his output. The obituaries in both the Los Angeles and New York Times pointed out the “175″ credits he had accrued as a director for screens both large and small (IMDb lists 126), although nothing as to their quality aside from their “low-budget” origins. I recently enjoyed some of Sherman’s Three Mesquiteers Westerns that he made for Republic (which I wrote about here), but a recent column by Dave Kehr has made me ravenous for more. Reviewing Dawn at Soccoro (1954, released as part of a TCM Vault Collection), Kehr describes him as “experimental”, and the film as,  “a western that might have been imagined by Kafka.” Fortuitously, more of Sherman’s work has been reaching home video. Last month Universal released a budget-priced“Classic Westerns” set of 10 films that include two Shermans: Comanche Territory (1950) and Tomahawk (1951), while Olive Films finished off their stash of John Wayne Mesquiteers films with Wyoming Outlaw(1939).

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The Three Mesquiteers B-Western series ran from 1936 – 1943 at Republic, and necessarily followed stock scenarios of the three ranch hands thwarting the plans of evil homesteaders and other n’er do wells. Sherman managed to helm the outliers in the series, including the zoo animal burlesque Three Texas Steers and revolutionary fantasy The Night Riders. Wyoming Outlaw is the most downbeat entry of the bunch though, a despairing portrait of institutional corruption feeding poverty and violence. The Mesquiteers, including John Wayne as Stony Brooke, are shockingly passive onlookers, unable to stop the degradation of the Parker family. Because they refuse to pay a tribute to local boss Balsinger (LeRoy Mason), the patriarch Luke Parker loses his job, and his son Will is reduced to stealing and slaughtering cattle for food. Despite their efforts to help, including muscling in on Balsinger’s thugs, the Mesquiteers stand helplessly by while Will turns outlaw and falls in a hail of bullets. For a series built on action and resolution, this is a curiously static and morally ambiguous film, more interested in Will’s forced descent into murderousness than the Mesquiteers knockabout good guy routine.

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Governments hadn’t been cleaned up in Sherman films a decade later, when he was at Universal International for the Technicolor spectacles Comanche Territory (’50) and Tomahawk (’51). Both feature attempts to swindle Native Americans out of their land, stoking a free-floating paranoia that merits Kehr’s comparison to Kafka. Sherman also imbues their background characters, like Will in Wyoming Outlaw, with an unusual level of sympathy. Comanche Territory has Macdonald Carey play Jim Bowie, who is delivering a treaty to the Comanche to allow the U.S. to mine for silver on their land. He is waylaid en route, the treaty stolen by local townspeople eager to drive the Comanche out so they can stake their own claims. Katie Howard (Maureen O’Hara) is involved in the scheme, a prickly entrepreneur who is introduced by galloping a horse down the main drag while not spilling a drop of the beer she is holding. O’Hara’s  performance is made up of a flurry of quick-twitch movements of a woman whose mind is never at rest. She dominates every frame she is in, while Carey, embodying a Western icon, recedes into the background. Katie, introduced as a rapacious capitalist and land grabber, becomes the fulcrum of the film, hoping for a pragmatic peace with the Comanche, and thus splitting off from her brother’s gang. The climactic shootout depicts the Comanche and Bowie gunning down the gang, a rare triumphalist moment for Native Americans in Hollywood film.

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The opening voice-over in Tomahawk (1951) presents the clearest example of Sherman’s instinct to investigate the motivations of his heroes and villains and everyone in between. He has internalized Renoir’s line in The Rules of the Game, “everyone has their reasons”.  The camera tracks down two diagonal lines. The first is of the U.S. cavalry, over which the sonorous voice-over describes the lives they have lost for what they consider to be “freedom”. The second diagonal is of a line of Sioux, who because of the White man “suffer starvation and sickness where once there was plenty.” In between them is Jim Bridger (Van Heflin) a long-time scout who was once married to a Sioux woman, before she was slaughtered by a Colorado vigilante group led by a preacher.  He is on hand to help negotiate an agreement for the Army to build a fort on Sioux land. The talks break down over the government’s bad faith, but the fort gets built anyway, and Bridger stays on as a scout. But when a Sioux boy gets shot in the back by a racist Lieutenant, there is nothing he can do to stop the slaughter to come.

Sherman sets the horizon line low throughout, filling the frame with sky in his frequent long shots of Rapid City, South Dakota. The figures are specks against the immensity of the blue, already lost to history before they lose their bodies. The Sioux line up on this horizon line near the end, unaware that advancements in repeating rifle technology will turn their battle plan into an abattoir. The final shootout is more like a Holocaust, Van Heflin’s severe face colored with nausea.

In these Westerns Sherman cannot film a victor without depicting the resultant loss. There are no heroes or villains, just flawed people with ingrained, unshakeable beliefs and perspectives that set them into conflict. That some pass on and others survive seems incidental to these works, which simply aim to see what makes people tick, and then stop. George Sherman couldn’t stop making films, but he was not only a prolific artist, but a profound one.

THE YOUNG ADVENTURES OF JOHN WAYNE

January 22, 2013

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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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The Mesquiteers films were Wayne’s second go-round at Republic, after a series of low-cost A action films at Universal failed to ignite audience interest. He told Maurice Zolotow that “the exhibitors wouldn’t touch a John Wayne movie with a ten-foot projector”, so when his Universal contract expired, he returned to Republic at a lowered salary. He considered his return the lowest point of his career, and was suitably dismissive of his work in this period, saying “Christ, they were awful. They were kids’ movies.” Secretary Mary St. John recalled that Wayne looked like a “wounded puppy — sad, frustrated and unhappy. He felt like his career has bottomed out.” Yet these are marvelously entertaining works, with spectacular stunts directed with speed and clarity by George Sherman, Joe Kane, and other Republic craftsmen. Wayne may have been in a depressive funk, but on film he registers with his lighthearted, almost lilting delivery, emitting from a powerfully angular frame knifing through the wilderness.

While John Ford’s Wayneare always haunted by the past, his step slowed to allow his pained memories to emerge around him, the Republic Wayne is engaged in the perpetual now of a chase. Stony is without past or future, each Mesquiteers film a new beginning. Paired mostly with fellow upright gent Tucson Smith (Ray Corrigan) and comic ventriloquist sidekick Lullaby Joslin (Max Terhune), these three earnest cowhands inevitably get roped in to save their community from evil land developers of one shade or another. These quickies are strongly pro-New Deal, pitting the Mesquiteers against a parade of oily land speculators and tin-pot dictators. In this series Wayne is, above all else, a community organizer.

Ostensibly a Western series, the constant need for stories (Wayne made 8 in less than two years) incorporated all manners of cliffhanging dramatics, from the crime procedural of Red River Range (where Stony impersonates a gangster) to the surreal circus comedy of Three Texas Steers. By the end of the Mesquiteers’ time-folding run, they were fighting Nazis. The most elaborately strange of the Wayne Republics would have to be The Night Riders (1939), which imports a Mexican revolution narrative onto the Western U.S. A disgraced cardsharp is convinced to impersonate a Spanish nobleman in order to claim a “Western Empire” of 13 million acres from forged land grants. So what starts as a riverboat gambling brawler ends up as a revolutionary war drama, complete with the Mesquiteers donning masks as a violent protest group, redistributing wealth with the verve of a 99-percenter. The vigilante trio even stumbles into the bedroom of a slumbering President Garfield, who can only offer back channel support against the Western Empire dictator, his hands tied by the isolationist mood of the government. Screenwriters Betty Burbridge and Stanley Roberts stole not only from pulp novels but from the headlines, as FDR was battling isolationist sentiments even as Hitler had invaded Czechoslovakia in March ’39. The Night Riders was released on April 12th.

Wayne’s career was at a standstill until his friend John Ford cast him in Stagecoach. Eager for the chance to star in an A picture, he accepted the part of Ringo Kid for the low salary of $3,000, barely above his Republic pay. In comparison, the female lead, Claire Trevor, would receive $15,000. Republic agreed to release him to film the project in return for $600 a week. Herbert Yates had no expectations that the film would raise Wayne’s standing. In fact, by the time Stagecoach was released in March of 1939, Wayne was already back making the Mesquiteers quickies Three Texas Steers, Wyoming Outlaw and New Frontier. But eventually the film’s overwhelming success, both critically and at the box office, made Wayne a valuable commodity, and he became their A feature star, for the one or two big budget features they produced each year. Dark Command (1940), one of the first results of this new contract, reunited Wayne with director Raoul Walsh, who had tapped him for stardom ten years previously in The Big Trail.

Wayne’s performances, perhaps chastened by the incessant insults Ford would throw at him on set, became more deliberate and thoughtful, as if he weighed each word before letting it loose. This makes Wayne’s characters seem haunted from the first frame in Ford’s works, even in the sprightly Irish romance The Quiet Man, in which Wayne is dogged by an accidental murder in his past. Winston Hoch’s luminous cinematography, which elaborates an endless palette of greens, can do nothing to prettify the striding husk of Wayne, who drags his violent history along with him into every frame. When he sees Maureen O’Hara emerge like a flame-haired ghost in the open plain though, some of that Mesquiteers lightness returns.

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TRUE GRITS

December 14, 2010

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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.

MEMORIAL DAY MOVIES: THEY WERE EXPENDABLE (1945)

May 25, 2010

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“This isn’t going to be some goddamned two-bit propaganda flick.”

-John Ford to Vice Admiral John Bulkeley, USN

John Ford put off making They Were Expendable for over two years. He was busy with his Field Photo Unit making war documentaries, and he wasn’t eager to to go off active service. He was completing post-production on The Battle of Midway (1942), and dealing with the negative reaction to December 7th (directed by Gregg Toland), a Pearl Harbor re-enactment whose depiction of a less than prepared Navy led to its shelving, and to the future censoring of the Photo Unit’s output. Joseph McBride, in his magisterial biography Searching for John Ford, writes that “the navy reacted to the long version of December 7th ‘by confiscating the print and ordering Ford to lock up the negative.”

MGM was developing They Were Expendable this whole time, hiring Sidney Franklin to polish Frank “Spig” Wead’s script and assigning Ford associate James Kevin McGuiness as the executive to oversee the project. Wead was a former Navy aviator who turned to writing about flyboys after a tragic fall down the stairs broke his neck (he wrote Hawks’ great Ceiling Zero, and Ford filmed his life story in the underrated The Wings of Eagles (1957)). The raw material for the story was the exploits of John D. Bulkeley, a lieutenant in command of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Three, based in the Philippines, as reported in a best-selling book by W.L. White, and then an essay in Life magazine. With a skeleton crew and no lines of support, Bulkeley took down multiple Japanese planes and ships, and famously spirited General Douglas MacArthur from Corregidor to Mindanao (from where he escaped to Australia) over 620 miles of open water.

McBride opines that another reason for Ford delaying production until ’45 was that he couldn’t film such a downbeat subject in an appropriate manner while the war was still raging. For Bulkeley’s story ultimately ends in defeat, as the U.S. is forced to retreat, and the majority of Bulkeley’s crew is killed. McBride quotes Bulkeley:

I was very bitter about the thing. …We went over there with 111 men and only 9 men came back alive. [The War Department] put 80,000 soldiers over there, and that was a political decision on the part of the president and [Secretary of War Henry L.] Stimson that we were going to show the Asiatic race that we supported them, that we did not back off the Japanese. But the war plan was totally, utterly hopeless. You could not send a battle fleet out there and defeat the Japs and bring aid and so forth to the Philippines. We were not only too far away, we weren’t ready. To try to defend the Philippines was stupid, we couldn’t do it. But we had to put up a fight.

To film a realistic portrait of this event would be impossible in ’42, but in ’45 he pulled it off – and it’s one of the most mournful, moving, and static war films ever made. Very little happens. Men leap on and off PT Boats, rag on a callow ensign, and occasionally exchange fire with Japanese planes and battleships (I now realize I’ve inadvertently copied James Agee, who said: “all you have to watch is men getting on or off PT Boats, and other men watching them do so. But this is made so beautiful and so real that I could not feel one foot of the film was wasted.”) The love interest, Donna Reed, glows incandescently for a few scenes with John Wayne, and is then re-located by command. She does not return. The narrative is jagged, with dead-end detours followed by long sinuous set-pieces, lensed by cinematographer Joseph August. The action scenes are evenly-lit in razor sharp deep focus, while the interiors are sepulchral and shadowed – both the harrowing surgery sequence (held on Reed’s clenched, disbelieving face), and the staff dinner (again centered on a Reed close-up, adjusting her necklace for a reminder of normalcy), are shot in heavy chiaroscuro, as if the characters didn’t want to see the world outside their doors.

On the surface Robert Montgomery was an offbeat casting choice to take on the Bulkeley role (here named Brickley), as he rose to stardom as a light comedian. But in his naval service he was assigned to Bulkeley as executive officer during PT boat combat in the Southwest Pacific in 1943, earning a bronze star. His performance is of implacable good humor, a stalwart, impenetrable veneer that quickly compartmentalizes disappointment to do the job at hand. John Wayne plays the blustery, self-destructive Rusty Ryan, whom Brickley keeps together through force of will. When Ryan, hiding a blood disease contracted after a hand injury, is about to lunge into battle (and begin, one expects, a major subplot surrounding the disease), Brickley sees the hand, and forces him into a hospital. Professionalism trumps drama here at every turn. Aware that they are cannon fodder, they enter the breach again and again, trying to give their side just a few more seconds to turn the tide. It is an insane kind of dignity, which perhaps makes it even more admirable. So when Rusty places his hand on Brickley’s shoulders, and squeezes, right before they are to take their leave for Australia, it speaks for all the men they lost, and the few they might have saved. It’s one of the most beautiful moments in John Ford’s cinema, and so, of all cinema.

THE LATE FILM: RED LINE 7000 AND EL DORADO

May 26, 2009

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In introducing El Dorado at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Andrew Sarris bemoaned  Howard Hawks’ future. He peered silently at the sparse crowd, and declared that the turnout was unsurprising. The recent class he offered on Hawks at Columbia University, he told us, was the least popular of all his auteur courses. Where have all the Hawksians gone? Well, I’m right here, and BAM tried to draw them out in their recently concluded program, “The Late Film”, which screened Red Line 7000 and El Dorado on consecutive nights, a crash course in late Hawks and a lesson about what cultures decide to preserve and forget.

Buried on a double-bill with the youth-baiting Beach Ball,  Hawks’  Red Line 7000 completely tanked upon its release in November of 1965. It quickly disappeared from popular culture’s memory, despite the best efforts of Hawksians like Robin Wood. Production on his follow-up, El Dorado, began in October of the same year, the fastest turnaround between projects in his career (principal shooting on Red Line ended in April of ’65).  This thinly-veiled Rio Bravo remake was a box office hit upon its release in 1967, and has been a staple of cable channels and home video re-packagings ever since (the latest DVDcame out last Tuesday). Red Line 7000 has remained incredibly difficult to see, aside from the ever-present fuzzy bootleg videos.

The forgetting of Red Line 7000 was enabled by Hawks himself, who slagged the film over multiple interviews. In 1971: “I don’t like it.” In 1974: ” I didn’t like it, I thought it was awful.” In 1975: “I think it’s lousy.” His main complaint has to do with the narrative construction, which tries to weave together three different romances:

Just when you get people interested in one story, you jump to another story. Just when they’re interested in that, you jump to another. By that time they’ve forgotten the first one. They’re all mixed up and they say, “The hell with this thing!”

The nominal lead is James Caan as Max Marsh, an ace driver with deep neuroses regarding the purity of his girlfriends. He’s both attracted and repulsed by Marianna Hill as Gabrielle, an uninhibited racing fan who recently broke up with another driver, Dan McCall (James Ward). After their amicable parting, McCall pursues Holly (Gail Hire), a superstitious, mournful type who blames herself for the deaths of her three previous lovers. The third story is more tangential: that of the tomboy daughter of the crew chief (Laura Devon as Julie) in love with the strapping young driver Ned (John Robert Crawford).

Robin Wood called Red Line 7000 “the most underestimated film of the sixties”, partly because of the structure Hawks so derided:

The fact that the Ned/Julie relationship is so little integrated in the main action is not really the structural fault it at first appears. The other two relationships are parallel: in both, a strong, mature partner (Dan, Gaby) helps someone whose development has been arrested (Holly, Mike); the threads of plot continually interweave. The Ned/Julie relationship offers a contrast, and Hawks keeps it separate. Here, both partners are immature.

I believe Hawks and Wood are both right, that the film is both “lousy” and “underestimated”. The structure has interest, as Wood indicates, but it doesn’t have the performers to put life into its motions. Actors are incredibly important to Hawks, as so much of his script is improvised or written on the set with their participation. Without their engagement, his lived-in community of professionals becomes a cold line-up of earnest-sounding mannequins.

Gail Hire is the most embarrassing here, her labored rasp a caricature of Bacall’s rumbling bass in To Have and Have Not. It’s so ridiculous the audience I saw it with broke out into laughter, and I couldn’t blame them. James Ward and John Robert Crawford  are just blond-haired, blue-eyed blanks, showing none of the charisma or camaraderie essential to Hawks’ work. As Todd McCarthy states in his exemplary biography, he “labored to make the story and the actors come alive. Because of his case members’ limited experience, Hawks got much less creative input from them than he normally liked, and he had to deal with burgeoning egos.”

The film only comes alive in the Caan-Hill sequences, which show the combative sparks of his greatest romances. Hill’s insouciant sexuality baffles Caan’s repressed straight-arrow, and their mutual attraction can only be consummated on the race track. In a beautiful sequence where action replaces exposition, their combustible sexuality is revealed when he lets her take a spin around the track. Through his studied direction, she flawlessly takes the turns, until she spins out joyfully at the end, laughing violently. She tells him it was like “taming a lion”. Having to control Caan’s unstable boy is her dangerous task for the rest of the film. Hidden like a pearl for eager auteurists, this scene both confirms Hawks’s directorial hand and stands as a reminder of what the majority of the film was missing.

El Dorado is something else entirely. It has the feel of a valediction, a re-telling of Rio Bravo (1959) that takes aging as it’s central theme. John Wayne returns to the Hawks fold as Cole Thornton, an old gun-for-hire who rejects a job from corrupt landowner Bart Jason (Ed Asner). Robert Mitchum plays the town’s alcoholic sherriff, J.P. Harrah (the Dean Martin role in Rio). James Caan and Arthur Hunnicut round out the group of ragtag heroes, who try to protect the MacDonalds, a local farming family, from the predations of Jason’s acquisitive clan. Mortality is brought to the fore immediately, when Cole shoots down a MacDonald kid out of self-defense. Mortally wounded, the boy kills himself to end the pain. This random act haunts the rest of the film – it leads to the bullet lodged in Cole’s back and in J.P.’s leg, persistent reminders of their physical degradation.

If it is not as perfect as Rio Bravo – one certainly misses the presence of Walter Brennan and Angie Dickinson – for me it is as equally affecting, especially when viewed in the context of Hawks’ and Wayne’s career. As they slowly pirouette through the well-worn jokes one more time (Dry out the drunk, patronize the kid, prod the old coot), it is tinged with sadness – the bullet pressing closer to Cole’s spine with every move. It’s impossible to overstate the grace of John Wayne’s performance here, the hint of grief he exudes when Caan is searching for a gunman, the stoic regret he portrays after he kills the MacDonald kid, and the luxurious slowness in which he moves, whether simply sliding off a horse or leaping off a carriage, he carries the weight of his age with him. It’s a beautiful performance. There’s no grand send-off at the end, just a couple beaten old men, wobbling down the main drag and soaking up every last light of the moon.