April 2, 2013

16_1939 Wyoming Outlaw

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).


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.


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.


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.


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.

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.