It’s been a few years since I’ve really sat down for a “cockle warmer”, a film that really warms you at the heart, leaving you all soft inside and happy. It takes a lot to beat that feeling, a feeling that for a period of time Frank Capra was able to achieve film after film. Working during the golden age of Hollywood, reaching the masses during the Great Depression. From It Happened One Night (1934) all the way through to his crowning achievement It’s A Wonderful Life (1947). More than a decade of warming an audiences hearts. I’ve not seen It’s A Wonderful Life since I wrote my film talk about it. My eyes were opened to the directors thinking, his position in film after his time away at war, in charge of propaganda for the US armed forces. The country was then in a far different state. A country brought to it’s knees by the effects of a broken economy, to the highs of winning a war, which itself came with a heavy cost both financial and emotional. His own industry had grown up, his fellow directors who were out in the field of battle would never produce the same work again, each deepened by what they saw.
Now lets back track a few years to the midst of the Depression and look at one of his earlier films – Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936) his fourth big feature film and second large success. Even after all this time I could start to see the themes and ideas that run through his films. Most notably we have a number of recurring actors. Deeds was the first outing for both Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur, it was Capra’s relationship with James Stewart, which would be the most successful. We can see that Capra was able to work with actors he saw as either the every-man who could easily be transported to an unfamiliar world, turning his life upside down. Whilst the women, usually Arthur who his femme fetale (not that he would use that term) who turned the men’s lives upside down. This even works when the men come from the upper class to explore the working class. That’s another clear theme the blurring of class boundaries that his protagonists are brought into. Here Deed’s inherits 20 million dollars, which when inflation is taken into account is a very tidy sum at $357,281,159.42. Even now that’s too much money to even think about. For poet Longfellow Deed’s is nearly blows his minds. Instead of letting it all go to his head he decides to see what it’s all about. Taking with him a healthy dose of reality and his down-to-earth nature which in turn keeps him grounded. We see the same a few years later in You Can’t Take it With You (1938) when Tony Kirby (Stewart) who comes from money can see past his own trapping of wealth to love his girlfriend Alice Sycamore (Arthur) and her struggling family (who only have their own eccentricities and music to see them through the worst of times). Both men are grounded emotionally and financially enough to see what is in front of them.
Cooper seems to a be a man who seems as if he can easily be duped. Taking on the fortune, trying to make the best of it. He naively starts going out with the only girl that talks to him, all the time she’s a journalist trying to get a big scoop on the new rich man in town. It’s Babe Bennett’s job to potentially bring him down, going as far as giving him the name Cinderella Man, whilst her own paparazzi hide in a taxi or the bushes. In a later film Cooper becomes the face of a fictional newspaper story lead by Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) in the less success Meet John Doe (1941) which ultimately pushes and pawn in the newspapers hands to the brink of suicide. An act we finally see in Capra’s masterpiece – It’s A Wonderful Life when the ultimate every-man has been pushed to the limits of life for so long that he finally cracks and nearly gives up.
Apart from Wonderful Life they are all grounded in reality (ignore Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)) they acknowledge the country they’re set in, whilst hoping for a better life. Capra celebrates the working man, this is where he could be the communist and socialist leanings could easily be found. Probably why the films are still celebrated, they focus on the hard-working man. Raising them above all the corruption of government, the protectors of the law, even the Newspaper man whose job is to reveal the corruption to the public. There are quite a few journalists in Capra’s world, from the “wise guy” Peter (Clark Gable) out for the story of his life all the way to critic Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) who are all pushed out to find the stories that are to make their careers. That also includes trying to believe that even your aunties are capable of mass-murder. The hardworking man are seen either en-mass or in microcosm, this is always for the extra emotional punch. Deed’s is a god-send to the poor who are piling into his house as he plans to give all his money away to anyone whose willing to work a farm for at least 3 years. Whilst George Bailey ensures the residents of Bedford Falls (small town America) have a decent crack at life. Not living under the shadow of Mr Potter (Lionel Barrymore) the very epitome of capitalist America, the “communist Capra” fights back with Bailey ensuring that they can all own their own homes. Bailey’s the extension of Deeds intentions.
We see a man at his very breaking point in Bedford Falls, a 2nd class angel comes to the rescue of the troubled man. His actions don’t lead to the threat of being institutionalised – showing how dark that Capra’s prepared to go. Stewart plays a more convincing man on the edge, it took an audience over a few more years to see Cooper brought to the brink. We have a classic court room finale that allows us to look back and question Deeds actions over the course of the film. The suggestion of Manic Depression is made by the his own lawyers, who are out for his fortune at any cost. The idea of bipolar disorder is treated lightly, the commonly known highs and lows, or the depressive and manic states are used to try and blind the court with psychobabble without having analysed the patient, it’s used as a blunt weapon in hopes of stupifying the judges and the public. We all know that Deeds is the clearly sane with his own unique eccentricities that define him. Whilst throughout Wonderful Life we see a build up of events that see dream after dream crush a man who tried so hard threaten to jump. Only to have some fairy dust sprinkled over by the director who could only go so far. In his defence we do have a clear image of Deeds uncle who drives of a bridge, directed to be a very intentional act. Had all that money driven him to the edge? Was he a Mr Potter who’d had enough? It comes down to a layman’s definition of insanity – Pixelation that saves him as nearly everybody is suffering from it.
I could literally be here for hours, write 1000s of words about what makes Capra’s films work. They of course tug at the heart strings, some more overtly than others. Expressing his own view of America, an immigrant who had to be politically careful of what he said. Almost confined to his films that whilst being very American we can see the Sicilian view of a country, all the goodness that the dream he had been living that could easily be taken from under his feet. You could argue he was naive to the world around him. The working man being essentially good, whilst those in positions of power are corrupt. Most foreign directors played with this idea to some degree, such as Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock. A view that’s shared by the rest of the world even to this day, that’s why Capra’s still respected, his work still holds up and you return to his films time and time again – the very definition of a classic. Now I’ve seen Mr Deeds I can really see what’s going on in his work. Maybe it’s time to revisit his work again.
I’ve been meaning to return to The Tin Star (1957) for a while now, an under appreciated Western by Anthony Mann without James Stewart, his first Western without Stewart due to a falling out between the two of them. I wonder how he would have approached this role, making it the 8th together. Instead turning to Henry Fonda, a longtime friend of Stewart’s making for the film we have today. Paired opposite a young pre-Pyscho Anthony Perkins which itself makes for interesting reading.
I could come at this review as a could have been different with James Stewart but that would be doing a dis-service to decent film that takes on the apprentice/master relationship. Something that has been done countless times, to become a man you must be able to defend yourself. Here however you don’t need the guns to do so. They are simply tools, something that fresh-faced Sheriff Ben Owens (Anthony Perkins) has to learn the hard way. When bounty hunter Morgan ‘Morg’ Hickman (Henry Fonda) arrives with bounty in tow he wants only to collect his money and leave, keep to himself and cause no trouble. His very presence in the town causes a stir with the establishment and business that have supported Ben who took over at little notice. “This is a law and order town” is mentioned a few times to warn Hickman off interfering on his way. This is not the Clint Eastwood bounty hunter whose very presence scares those he’s about to shout down and collect on. This town has moved on from this model of keeping law and order. It’s follow the law and live by the law. Yet we still have the classic Dead or Alive posters which contradict that thinking. criminals are still wanted, however the arrive is a different matter. Hickman’s presence spreads fast through the town, no rooms at the only hotel, no room for his horse at the livery stable (on the edge of town). They don’t want him to stay, he’s a reminder of a different time, he’s outmoded.
Instead of being filled with rage, like many of Stewart’s roles, there’s no build up of emotion, not big release that leads to great dramatic scene. Instead he holds his own in a town that resists him. Taking up lodgings with another outsider Nona Mayfield (Betsy Palmer) and her mixed race son Kip (Michel Ray) a curious boy who wants only to play with others. Not having many friends due to his Native American heritage (which isn’t really mentioned outside the house). Getting off to a rocky start, it could have increased in tension however it’s dealt with calmly the next day surprisingly well.
The main focus of the film is making a sheriff out of Owens who wants to assume the role with more confidence, something that he is lacking. This could also be seen in the actors hidden sexuality, hiding him true-self on-screen to conform and get work. Can only a heterosexual male become a sheriff? His skills with a gun are rough around the edges, it takes Hickman’s presence, a former sheriff himself to help him. It’s a reluctant help, after being pleaded by the sheriff, not the image we’re used to in our law enforcement out in the West. He’s still a boy who needs to learn the ways of being a man. It takes another to teach him. We get the classic target practice scene, not played so much for comedy, more to see how far he has to go. He wants to prove himself to the town and his woman – Millie Parker (Mary Webster) who wants him to take off the badge to live a safer life, unlike her father who died with it on.
Another test comes in the form of Bart Bogardus (Neville Brand) one of the ugliest men you could get caught up in a fight with. A man who should really be wearing the badge, instead he tests the sheriff to the limit. When a posse’s formed to catch two men responsible for the deaths of two elder men, he leads the mob mentality, which is stirred up. Owens seems powerless to really do much about him. If Ben can overcome him, stand up to the brute he has come a long way, learning how to hold himself in public and as the law. The bully of the playground has no one left to push around.
The real test comes as the posse are out chasing no-one after setting a light, Hickman has resisted the lure of the reward on the two wanted brothers Ed and Zeke McGaffey (Lee Van Cleef and Peter Baldwin), again mixed race with Native American heritage, these two face the full force of racism, whilst young Kip joins in from a distance playing sheriff on his new horse. Hickman is able to put his drive for money to one-side when he knows Kip’s caught up, becoming a father figure to him. Not forgetting his sheriff in-training Ben who just wont listen to reason, stay out of it and be safe. The life he wants is fraught with danger and heartache, which can be avoided. Instead he’s headstrong and blinkered, riding in to prove himself. Ultimately, no guns are used to safe the day and bring in the two men. Even when they face a lynch mob, guns are threatened not used, showing that can be used as tools not just weapons for protection.
Tin Star is the beginning of a decline for Mann who had made some classic Westerns with Stewart, this could have been up there. Gary Cooper makes for a strong replacement in The Man of the West (1958). However from there on in it’s down and out, if we ignore a tense The Heroes of Telemark (1965) for a brief return to form. Here however we have a small budget film that tries to get into the characters, some more successful that others. There’s a lot going on in this 80 odd minute film, it’s tight with a bit of excess around the edges. I know I’ll be revisiting in future thanks to a fine performance from Fonda which gives it some weight and experience.
As soon as I saw the description for A Song is Born (1948) I knew it sounded very familiar, so familiar that I saw the original only a few months ago – Ball of Fire (1941). Both directed by Howard Hawks and written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett. I saw the original more for the smart writing than the direction. However I needed to see A Song is Born purely for comparison, what else I get is a massive bonus from a winning formula. I know that Hawks later remade Red River (1948) a few times as Rio Bravo (1959), El Dorado (1967) and Rio Lobo (1970) of course after the first two the returns on entertainment were diminishing, but that’s a different conversation to be had. I considered talking about Ball of Fire back in June however, the writing, the comedy and the chance to see two of the golden ages finest on-screen together Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper; both versatile actors having fun.
My feeling on remakes or reboots is very mixed, first its not original to go back to the same plot and simply re-produce it with different actors. However it was just not long after the war and audience taste had changed, new actors were entertaining them. Could an old favorite be dusted off for a new audience to enjoy? That’s a risk that Hawks was willing to make. Ball of Fire one of the latter Screwball comedies, everything thrown at you, high-concept ideas and fast gags. Ball of Fire sure fits the bill, with out-of-touch professors who have lived together for too long now. Writing an encyclopedia, the professors each taking a few specialist subjects – Prof. Bertram Potts (Cooper) the linguist specialists and the youngest of the men, who were all born in the 19th century. It’s only when he hears slang that is fresh to his ears is is mind opened to a new world that he had ignored up until now. Going into the outside world for research, handing out his card to those he ear-wigs on, new words and phrases that he wants to understand more about – inviting them for group research. Its really quaint when you look at it now. All this before he ends his day at the nightclub where he discovered club singer Sugarpuss O’Shea (Stanwyck) who delivers line after line of slang that makes little sense, but livens up the whole film from just being a ‘got to save the day’ film to something far more exciting. I’ll leave the synopsis there for now.
Now turning to the remake A Song is Born in more detail, you have a tried and tested duo in Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo much like Cooper and Stanwyck, both couples having chemistry. The similarities between the two films are quite striking from the beginning. I could list them all but that would be tiresome. Instead I’ll focus on a few. The first being the setting of the research institution is the same in terms of the set-design a quick recycle and change of plaque on the front before the daughter Miss Toten (Mary Field) who played the same role in both films. Now does this show clever thinking or laziness in not recasting and refreshing the role. The re-use of the set is easily explained as cost-cutting, unless we are seeing into Hawks thinking, is he trying to perfect a film the film that is in his head, based on “From A to Z”. The threat of funding being withdrawn is exactly the same too, leading to Toten being charmed by Professor Hobart Frisbee (Kaye) who she’s secretly attracted to, but exploited here so much. I’m starting to see the differences, the book they are working on, has a greater focus on music, an encyclopedia of all knowledge which only as out of touch as those writing it. Both groups of men are so wrapped up in the past they have forgotten the world outside.
Music is a stronger focus for the characters than just EVERYTHING, still very niche and rich, it allows the Kaye return to a world he is very much associated with, the musical. All courtesy of musicians such as Louis Armstrong and Tommy Dorsey. Of all of the musicians I’ve only heard of Armstrong, all of who though assume the roles of working club musicians, playing Jazz, swing, doo-wop etc, all exciting Frisbee, inviting them back to the institution, not for a Q & A but a performative exploration of music. Taking away the old blackboard and chalk and replacing them with a recording system.
All this before I’ve reached Virginia Mayo’s role of the club singer and gangsters girlfriend. On reflection I feel she was mis-cast in the role that is too dark for her. She does her best by playing up the comedy and musical numbers to compensate. More there as part of a package deal, you want Kaye, you get Mayo, it’s a partnership that’s proven, so why change it? What really lets her and Kaye down though is the recycling of script that is hardly altered really. On the surface it may sound different yet it leads to the same conclusions and jokes. There is a wonderful breakfast scene when Kaye comes down stairs to completely mess up his meal, unaware of what he’s doing, wrapped up in his new experience of love.
The film has it’s positives but I feel it’s weighed down by deja-vu to really be an original and fresh film. I feel that Hawks was either trying to work out a bad part of a film, ironing out the faults to deliver something better. Is that just for his ego though, or was he told by those higher up, your making a film with these two, think of something fast. And here’s the result. A film that has a good formula, with plenty of jokes, I did actually laugh and in the right places. However I was constantly comparing it with whats ultimately a far superior film which sparkles and crackles. An interesting early Wilder picture, who had to wait until 1942 to direct. His original script is merely re-used and reworked, which shows how fast the remake was put into production.
Like I wrote earlier I could go into detail on every scene but that would serve little purpose and I wouldn’t enjoy doing it, finding fault in a minor film that forms a body of work in a director – Hawks who could produce some classic films that stand the test of time, lets call this a mis-fire and move on.
A few months ago I wrote a review about Barbary Coast (1935) which saw the Western trying to survive in the guise of another genre, then the gangster which if you think about is/was an updated version of that genre. It was fascinating to see what is honestly a much forgotten film, even with Edward G. Robinson in the lead, a fish out of water whose the shark that swims with the fishes who are the genre. Staying with the 1930’s, and the struggling Western I came across the sub genre of the Victorian epic, a more familiar film is Gunga Din (1939) however I’d like to focus on Beau Geste (1939) also.
As Richard Slotkin explained in Gunfighter Nation it was the Western in a different guise, moving the action from one large nation to another, which could be England or France throughout their all-conquering empire. Here we have the French aristocracy and 3 English brothers who’ve been adopted into it. Before meeting the brothers we see a troop of the Foreign Legion arriving at an outpost, populate entirely with the dead soldiers who once occupied. You can see they all died in battle, hanging over the parapet in the fort. They have all met grisly ends, that much is clear, we don’t yet know how they reached that fate.
Jumping back 15 years we meet these 3 brothers as children in the comfort of a stately home in the country, playing war in the pond with model battleships complete with explosives. From a young age they want to go off and play war. When a side looses instead of leaving it as that, onto the next campaign they treat the loosing side with respect, sending the loosing side off into the waters, setting fire to them, enacting a Viking burial. They have a respect for the dead even at the tender ages of 10 if not younger. They have an understanding of gallantry and honor in the field of battle, something that we shall see come through in the film. After this scene we see the sale of a sapphire, however it doesn’t get passed the children who hide, one inside a suit of knights armor – Beau Geste, on the surface its funny to see the child hiding. He’s escaping into a soldier’s uniform that has probably seen battle. Now its acts as protection against unseeing eyes in peace time of France.
Moving forward 15 years again to almost the time we first started the film, we finally meet the adult brothers, who are not really English but young American stars, still who cares they sold tickets and I’m not going to knock Gary Cooper in anything from the 1930’s. It’s all happy families in the midst of the England which they will soon go out to protect. The young girl who knew the brothers, now a young woman Isobel Rivers (Susan Hayward) is now the affections for John Geste (Ray Milland). However before they leave the Blue Jewel, (not sure if it’s a sapphire goes missing in quick switching off of the lights. A family treasure’s stolen before them. Unusually before they begin to investigate they allow Isobel to leave, as she’s a woman she’s above suspicion. It’s gallantry of an old respectable world that sees her leave, Leaving only the men and Lady Patricia Brandon (Heather Thatcher) and the men to work it out.
They don’t get very far before the action soon moves to a desert in Morocco, two of the brothers Beau and Digby (Robert Preston) are now in uniform, they’ve done their training and now ready for to defend the Empire. It’s all one happy Empire out here, and the troops are keeping the peace. This can easily be translated to America, enlisted soldiers living on the fort, protecting civilians from “Indian attack”. In Geste the land around this is sand dunes for miles, they are the only civilisation for miles. The new recruits are about to be introduced, the scruff’s that have made it this far are ready to defend. These include the final brother John who can’t be separated from them for long, combined with a strong of duty to his country.
I haven’t even looked at the broken chain of command, the power-driven Sergeant Markoff (Brian Donlevy) who will do anything to take command from the dying outpost commander Lieutenant Martin has died after a long fever leaving disciplinarian in command of the fort. This allows him to work on the men, bearing down hard on them like never before, making life hard for them. Training is over and a new regime has come into force. Teaming up with none thief and spy Rassinoff (J. Carrol Naish) who inform him of an impending mutiny among the men. They’ve had enough of being worked to death in this inhospitable landscape, time to rebel.
With all this set-up we go into a much darker second half that sees the fort pushed to the limit of endurance of following the chain of command. The Mutiny is soon thwarted when Markoff blows it wide open, placing all but the Geste brothers under arrest, they are the only ones with bayonets, armed but unable to fire at their fellow-men. The chain of commands being tested when hostile or Moroccan forces who surround them. It’s time to put the mutiny and prisoners to one side and defend, it’s all men to their stations – about 30 odd. You can see from the first wave that it’s futile to keep up the attack for too long. However this is a film and the Legionnaires must win, at least for now.Each wave represent an attack by Native Americans, coming back with more expendable warriors to fall at the guns of the Blue coats.
As the men start to fall they aren’t left as they fell, instead in a unorthodox manoeuver the fallen are propped up, acting as number of things. A second defence to take the bullets, as decoy soldiers acting as an improvised illusion, the appearance of more men when there are far less. The men left alive carry on, but know that once they fall they’re bodies will receive the respect of the fallen. I’ve never seen such a tactic used in on-screen battle, it’s a desperate move by a desperate man who wants not only power but wealth that’s promised in the rumor of the Sapphire being in the possession of one of the Geste brothers, Markoff will do anything for it. The rules if war and chain of command mean nothing to him. In the far off outpost they are alone and at times have to make up their own rules. It’s up to the Geste brothers to finally remind us of what they learned back home in England, they are the opposite of what the officers above them represent.
Maybe now I need to see more Victorian epics and see how they translate to the Western, see how the legends are created for another empire that can easily be rewritten for another. My exploration of this genre never ceases to amaze me.
About a week ago I tried to watch a very early film with William Holden and Glenn Ford – Texas (1941) which I just could sit through, it hadn’t aged well at all. You could see in-experienced actors trying their best to work of each other. Just stumbling around, I left it alone after 10 minutes, yes I’m brutal (or unfair) with some films. However a film from the same period – Arizona (1940) with the same production values, caught my attention and very early on. Even with my suspicions of Jean Arthur in the lead role of a Western, a brave move indeed, which actually paid off. An actress who was actually no stranger to the genre, having previously played Calamity Jane in The Plainsman (1936) opposite Gary Cooper who were a great screen pairing. Not only that having a rare female lead role in a Western as early as 1940 is something I never thought would have happened. I am still learning about this genre, even a few years in my exploration. It wouldn’t really be until the 1950’s with Rancho Notorious and Johnny Guitar (1952 and 1954) and not forgetting the gigantic Forty Guns and The Furies (1957 and 1950) with Barbara Stanwyck. Was it too soon for a female lead to own a western for audience, having to wait another decade for the psychological side to come oozing out.
From the first time we see Phoebe Titus (Arthur) on-screen she is wearing the clothe’s of a man, she is not defined by her sex, instead defined by the surrounding she chooses to live in. Even though she was the only American woman in the town or even territory, probably to spice up the film and sexual tension that her position might create. She runs an open bakery but is not a push over, even to the self-proclaimed judge Judge Bogardus (Edgar Buchanan) who has to wait at least an hour for his pie. She fills some of the criteria for a frontiers woman, yet is able stand alongside the men in her character. To be honest she has to as the film progress.
Another surprise is that Arthur was around 40 when the film was released, which shows that her screen image was more powerful than her own age. Paired opposite Peter Muncie (Holden) 18 years her junior. You just can’t the difference in age if you judge her by this film and not her long career in film already. She leads the film, even as much as it’s a vehicle to push Holden, they are still holding back with him. When they share the screen age looses all meaning, both appearing to be in their 20’s. It’s the power of youth being portrayed on-screen.
Moving onto look at what the film is really about, which took sometime. history is very much being played fast and loose with here as a territory in 1860 that apparently aligns itself with the Confederate states of America, which made no sense as it’s on the other side of the country and it wasn’t really involved in the Civil War (at least on-screen). After doing a little research it was in fact a divided state that supplied troops to both sides. It did indeed request protection from confederate troops from Apache’s. More historical than I first thought, yet still not going in to detail, ultimately this is a film and not a documentary, fact is only used as a backdrop for the birth of the state and a romance to be place upon. Arizona is not really mentioned in the more classic films that depict the War, instead focusing on the really Southern states.
So onto the plot which took sometime over this lengthy film that looks really at self-preservation from the Apache’s. Wanting protection of the Union who they were yet to join. The army moves out leaving them vulnerable to attacks. Now this is 1940, another world war has just begun and America is in a state of isolation. Pearl harbor is over a year away too, so they are not exactly ready to take up arms. However Hollywood was making films subtly that talked about the War, where they should stand, away from their allies or alongside them. Now this is just a theory as the people of Arizona want protection from the other, who could be Nazi Germany who are only an ocean away.
There are always a few who take advantage of the situation when Titus and Solomon Warner (Paul Harvey) join up to form a wagon train that delivers goods comes under attack by Apache’s who are working with Jefferson Carteret (Warren William) and Lazarus Ward (Porter Hall) who want control over the market. Could these be seen as a metaphor for the unknown German enemy who is working to support the Nazi as American ships travel the Atlantic. Move that to the wagon train route on Arizona and you have a Western. Its pretty clever and very simple too. Allowing for the romance to playing on the back-burner for a while as Muncie joins up with the Union army (not sure when he does) coming back to marry Titus and live the American dream that they found is under threat by two men.
A pleasant surprise for a very much forgotten Western that for a while tries to do away with the woman playing the weaker role, being more dominant. She is still taken advantage of but not for long. Even wearing the odd dress, its however all on her terms which makes this all the more interesting. Maybe it took a maturer actress to take on the role that requires more confidence in not just her clothes but the performance that you really believe in. Here Holden is playing the lesser role which we rarely see in the genre, which makes for an oddity in a genre dominated by men.
I had completely forgotten that William Wyler directed this sweet classic of a Western that I allowed into my heart a few years ago. Based on the imagery and the tenderness of this western that I needed to be reminded off. What I took away from The Westerner (1940) originally was Lily Lantree and a historically accurate saloon of Judge Roy Bean and his own makeshift courtroom where he assumes the role of the law, sheriff and judge of Vinergaroon, Texas. A keen supporter of the cattlemen in a state that was founded on upon. With the influx of homesteaders who legally claimed land and as history tells us erected fences soon went up to protect the crops they sewed. So the with cattle wars raging in other states we have a conflict between cattlemen and homesteaders, both reaping the vast open land that is slowly being ringed off.
All this is fact (more or less), in with Gary Cooper and Doris Davenport we begin to rewrite that into myth and even folklore, An actor of Cooper’s stature, with so many classics already behind him. The stoic cowboy who stands tall, unfazed by what he’s faced with, nothing scares this man, he is a hero of the silver screen. Placed on the frontier again he can do no wrong, well he can when he’s caught between two sides of a conflict that has been going on since the end of the Civil War, peace and hope develop and war starts over as we fight for what we believe in. From the moment we first see Cooper as Cole Harden he’s accused of being a horse thief. Not fazed by the charge, knowing he’s innocent, the audience don’t even doubt it. Entering a part of the country that’s ruled by the fear of cattlemen, shot-gun trials that always end in a hanging. Surely there’s no escape from his almost certain fate until the only female Jane Ellen Mathews (Davenport) character in the film storms into his defence.
What I did forgot for sure was how effectively Harden manipulates Judge Roy Bean (Walter Brennan) who falls under the spell of his lies that he concocts under his nose. These are beautiful scenes of comedy that have the audience almost believing them until we look into his eyes, almost winking to us. We see the gullible side to Bean who adores an actress Lily Langtree (Lilian Bond), an early star to travel America. Elevating her to goddess like status without even meeting her. Harden uses this to his advantage at every opportunity to manipulate the powerful yet stupid judge who eats it all up. Harden is creating his own myth for Bean just as much as Wyler is adding his own pages to the myth of conquest, taking a fact and repackaging it for the screen, complete with conflict and even a love interest that thankfully is played down to an extent.
The real love story is between Harden and Bean, admittedly one that is hopefully to each others advantage, both have something they want. One wants peace in the town, the other wants that lock of Langtree’s hair. That in itself is a lie that is ultimately taken to the grave and only known the audience. All part of the myth-making process, when we are presented with an object, a history or origin can easily being written into it orally or through out-right lie. If told with enough authenticity and confidence we can swallow it.
Turning to the other more conventional love story that is very much played down between Harden and Jane a very modest homesteader who will not give up easily in the face of Bean. Very much a frontiers woman that are usually found on their own is here with his father and others making a go at farming. You can see Harden working his charm on her, with more sincerity than with Bean who has met his match. You could say that at one point he is using her to help his relationship with Bean – the lock of hair which he has to produce to ensure his own safety.
I found that scene with the homesteaders share some of the warmth that we find in John Ford‘s films of the same period, thinking of My Darling Clementine (1946) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940), there’s a strong sense of community and religion in those scenes as they work and play together. However I don’t think that Ford would have even looked at Bean as a subject matter for a film. As they work together to fight the fire that eventually drives them out, we see some incredible fire scenes that show the real power of the cattle men who are behind that act. Its an image that is photographic in silhouette towards the end.
You could say its a fairy tale Western, you have the hero, the villain, the damsel in distress, the oppressed people who need the hero to stand up for them. Instead of resorting to gun straight away he attempts diplomacy, the method of the 20th century man in a 19th century world that knows only violence. Its the beginning of the end as the gunfighter are all being caught, the law is sweeping through the land. There is only a few gunfights in this short and ever so sweet film that that is more a fairy tale than a legend, its too soft to be seen as hardened chapter of the West. That’s not a negative but shows how versatile the genre truly is.
- The Westerner (mrmovietimes.com)
- The Westerner (1940) (buddiesinthesaddle.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Westerner (1940) (fredrikonfilm.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Westerner (1940) (chickflickswesterns.blogspot.co.uk)
- Short Takes: The Hard Way (1943) and The Westerner (1940) (twentyfourframes.wordpress.com)
- The Westerner (1940) A Film Review (haphazard-stuff.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Westerner (1940) (2009and-scene.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Westerner (MGM, 1940) (jeffarnoldblog.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Westerner: If only Judge Bean had a blog (cinemaocd.blogspot.co.uk)
High Noon (1952) was thought to be “un-American” by the most American of actors John Wayne until later in life when time was able to make things clearer. On the surface a town turns against it’s sheriff in its darkest hours. As three men await the arrival of newly released convict Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) who has come to even a score against Marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper) who five years ago put him behind bars. His past has come back to haunt him. If we look beyond the harsh statement made by the Duke – Un-American, what defines America? It’s a big question to answer which could draw a lot of answers, some good, some bad. I’m not sure what my answer would be. A young country that grew up fast, tamed a country and re-shaped in it the shape of an idea, of dreams. A country that prides itself of self-sufficiency, to better yourself. Whilst on the other hand we have wild gun-play under the guise of the right to bear arms, which recently has seen countless innocent people killed in massacre after massacre. I could go on, when I think the Western would not be half the genre without that six-barreled weapon that helped defend and give birth to a nation. A very flawed and sad statement but still holds some truth.
The freedom of expression is another ideal that was discussed in High Noon as one industry was having a witch-hunt, weeding out creatives just for their political beliefs, if they weren’t a Republican or Democrat they’re seen as Communist. Pressured to admit to things that may even not be true. The town of Hollywood as reflected in the frontier town that was looked down upon by the North who at the time was at war. As a town turns against one of their own for one reason or another. Today we would see these reasons as poor, stand-up and be counted, defend yourself. That’s what it is to be American, either as an individual or a group, to stand up and be counted, and respected.
The towns-people in Wild West terms are cowards, yellow and weak. Even as the Duke says the women want the men to fight, hiding behind words and ideas that they could just out there, part of the Marshall’s posse, what a different film this would be. Then writers such as Carl Foreman were left out in the cold by his colleagues and friends in Hollywood. A powerful reflection of the once respected turn against at the slightest sign of trouble. For a whole town to turn against you in your hour of need, even your newly married Quaker wife (Grace Kelly) is not what you really need.
OK context aside and time to see High Noon as just a film, well that’s not really going to happen, it is the backbone of this tense western where the tension and drama just gets hotter and hotter. There is no real relief as Marshall Kane goes from the saloon to the church in hopes of recruiting his posse. Whilst out of town Millers gang waiting his arrival, switching back and forth as the 80 minutes before his arrival passing by. The short running time adds to that illusion, believed, edited to be real-time, which didn’t work-out this time I viewed the film. This suggest that the passage of time only adds to the drama, it becomes all the more real as not only the town is turning against him, so is the passing of the last hour potentially the last hour of his life. The more times you see a clock you believe time is slipping through you hands like grains of sand, becoming precious things you can’t get back.
You cannot forget Tex Ritter‘s title song that plays throughout, acting as Kane’s conscience is eating away at him. Or the town taunting him as he walks the lonely streets as they all run-away from him. The song is his inner soul torturing him that lingers. Whilst his newly wed wife Amy who would rather run-away than stand by her man as he feels duty and honor bound to see of Frank Miller dead or himself. He’s seen as the only American in the film you can respect. Played by Cooper one of only a few actors who could embody that ideal to the world.
We look into Kane’s past in the town, how he has affected those around him, both good and bad. There are only a few who will standby him and that’s just not enough to fend off Frank Miller. We as an audience find ourselves frustrated at this ludicrous statements as they all turn away from him. He has a supporter in his old flame Helen Ramírez (Katy Jurado) still sees him for who he is, even when his wife is ready to leave him at the very sight of a gun. An image she is associated with at the end of the film which makes for one hell of a finale that is really rarely seen today.
So why the return to High Noon you may ask? Well to see where the Un-American idea comes from, the build-up of tension and playing with time in order to do that. Not many films this short really want to show you the time they are on-screen, more interested in the content they can get on there. This is a masterclass in allegory and tension, in a genre that was really starting to hit it’s stride in the 1950’s and what an addition to the genre.
- High Noon (1952) (westernsontheblog.blogspot.co.uk)
- High Noon (1952): Fred Zinnemann and the Hawks/Wayne Backlash (iceboxmovies.blogspot.co.uk)
- Movie – High Noon (1952) (tipsfromchip.blogspot.co.uk)
- High Noon (1952) (spellboundcinema.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Chaney Blogathon: High Noon (1952) (thrillingdaysofyesteryear.blogspot.co.uk)
- High Noon (1952) – Fred Zinnemann (myworldoffilm.blogspot.co.uk)
- Gary Cooper in High Noon (1952) (hollywooddreamland.blogspot.co.uk)
Noted as Gary Cooper‘s last starring western I knew he had something special in The Man of the West (1958) could the same darkness be replicated? The answer is complicated really. One you don’t have Anthony Mann behind the camera, Man of the West was really his last great film before his death. What we have in The Hanging Tree (1959) is a film about our primitive urges as human beings, not exploring all of them in real depth but at least scratching under the surface of the idea to reveal just how easily lead we can be as a group, a society when pushed, and not even that hard.
When Dr. Joseph ‘Doc’ Frail (Cooper) rides into yet another boom town, gold is being found and spent. A good ol’ fashioned hanging is taking place over a a crime that is never made clear. The whole town i is there, driven by revenge and a sense of justice, a law and order that they all get behind, you break the law and you break your neck. The Doc looks on saying little, is he different from these average townspeople who are hungry for gold, living on a shoe-string at times until their luck comes in. In this opening sequence you can see no expense is spared as the surrounding landscape is built upon to bring this gold-mining community alive of only for a few month as filming got under way in Washington-state, a landscape straight out of the classics which we identify as the old west, a perfect setting for a forgotten way of life.
We don’t have to wait long to discover what the Doc is like as he treats his first patient Rune (Ben Piazza) for a gunshot wound after stealing gold from another mans (Frenchy Plante (Karl Malden) mine. With no money to pay him for his services another method is needed, becoming his man-servant, a slave almost to the doctor, a public figure who the community should look-up to. A private arrangement based on blackmail brings these two men together, one of slave and master, both white so invisible to those around them. The Doc’s reputation is one that precedes him, one of dark acts that they cannot forget. Having both friends and enemies in the town.
A hard man who is tough to break until a stagecoach hold-up leaving one survivor who suffers badly under the sun. Its set-up like a car crash hit and run, rolling down the hill, minus the explosion. The Doc takes his time to visit his latest patient a foreign girl Elizabeth Mahler (Maria Schell) who is to become his most important patient after taking all kinds of payment for his work. From a simple kiss from a child on the cheek, to receiving horses. He’s more like the traditional image of Doc Holiday than your average frontier doctor wanting to treat the sick and heal the wounded after gun0fight. He does have compassion and drive to do his job, sometimes his motives can be questioned.
Once he has comet the aid of Elizabeth he hardly leaves it until she is on the road to recover, when we see another side to Cooper’s character, something I didn’t find as Link Jones in Man of the West whose violent past came back to haunt him. Here we have a man driven by his urges, unable to shake them off, something bathing in them as he lashes out, especially opposite Frenchy who at least admits that he’s only human. You could say he’s a pervert by todays standard, washed down for the 1950’s. He can much like Rune can see through the doctors image to find a possessive figure who won’t let Elizabeth go once better.
When the three (Elizabeth, Rune and Frenchy) of them team up and stake a claim which is propped up by Doc behind the scenes. Never far away from the trio, pulling the strings, supporting Elizabeth, a confident woman who won’t take any messing about. When the success comes the trio’s away, striking gold, mayhem ensues in the town. Giving into basic urges following the few leading to destruction and eventually death in the town, bringing us back full circles, that little seen or spoken of tree of justice is brought back, Showing just how human and flawed we are, following the crowd, our greed and desire for safety are out of control, no measure of fairness, witness and crime and prosecute.
For Coopers last western, not quite his last leading role but certainly in the American frontier he has come full circle from being the all round hero who saves the day to being a flawed and complicated man. The male figure is not so straight forward in reality, not even in the west are things that simple, finding ways to survive, making mistakes in their past and trying to live with them. All in the midst of all the progress in the gold rush and the drive for law and order. What I can take away from this film is the landscapes and complicated characters who try to look into the darker side of life.
It’s been a while since I’ve seen a cockle warmer by Frank Capra and to be honest I could have waited a lot longer after seeing Meet John Doe (1941) which sees Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck for the first time. I think all of Capra’s work will always be held up to his most successful picture It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), of course it was It Happened One Night (1934) which won all the Oscars, but it’s the James Stewart classic which sums up Capra as great director which every-time brings so much warmth into your heart it hurts when you cry just that little at the end.
Yet going over the films of his I have seen, comparing them full of warmth and values of a period in time and film history. I feel by the time of John Doe‘s release Europe is very much at war and America is watching from a safe distance, and the public is wondering when they will be drawn into the bloodshed that was WWII.
The set-up of journalist Ann Mitchell (Stanwyck) who will types out her last piece for a newspaper that has made her redundant, sparks a national outcry when a fictional letter of a man on the edge of life, fed up with the state of America and life declares that he was going to commit suicide on Christmas eve. This single letter sparks a reaction in the nation that wants this life to be saved, to speak out for the values that are in decline. Most importantly to raise circulation for the paper. Ensuring Mitchell’s job security and that of another man to become the face of this campaign. They pick John Willoughby, now known as John Doe (Cooper) who is accompanied with the suspicious ‘Colonel’ (Walter Brennan) who always brings Willoughby to account, to remind him of his hobo roots, to understand what money can do to a man if he lets it go to his head.
It takes a while for the campaign of John Doe to really settle in the mind of a would be pro baseball player, now giving his all to a cause that encourages the average joe of America to reach out and help their neighbour. These are very Christian values that underpin the film. Whilst in the background the owner D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold) of the paper is using the campaign to engineer a third political party to go against those in Washington.
There are moments of schmaltz that are synonymous with Capra which are immediately forgive, yet the tone of the film is too political, even in the wake of Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939). When the power of the downtrodden man is brought across. However they are not half as emotive as past efforts such as You Can’t Take it With You (1938) where everything about those scenes is just right. I feel by the time of It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) everything that made a Capra film came together and sparkled, once more with his best leading man, began to crumble with his next film State of the Union (1948) which was extremely political and sadly outdated, even with one of Hollywood’s greatest on-screen partnerships.
For me all of those thoughts and ideas overlook heavily what could be a much greater film, there are moments but very few that see both Cooper and Stanwyck sparkle on screen in films to follow. John Doe will never harm Capra’s legacy which will be one of happy feel good films that touch the audience in a special place and speak of traditional values from a bygone era that to today’s audiences is a gateway to another time.
- Meet John Doe (1941): Frank Capra Takes On Facism (classicmoviesdigest.blogspot.co.uk)
- Meet John Doe (1941) – Film Locations (dearoldhollywood.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Nazis and ‘the People’ in Capra and Riskin’s Meet John Doe (ayearinthedark.wordpress.com)
- Meet John Doe (rheaven.blogspot.co.uk)
- Meet John Doe (1941) (anotheroldmovieblog.blogspot.co.uk)
- Notes on two films by Frank Capra: Meet John Doe (1941) and It´s a Wonderful Life (1946) (shomingekiblog.blogspot.co.uk)
- Meet John Doe (1941) (and-scene.blogspot.co.uk)
- Meet John Doe (1941) (nothingiswrittenfilm.blogspot.co.uk)