Western

Judy Garland’s Comedic Gifts

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Judy Garland wears her Sunday Best to impress her new fiancé. Image: denverlibrary.org

Judy Garland made everything look easy.

She could sing and dance and make you believe she flew to an emerald city in a tornado. Combined with her dramatic talents, it’s easy to forget how funny she was.

We marvelled at her comedic gifts when we screened The Harvey Girls (1946), a delightful musical-comedy Western.

Garland plays a young woman travelling from Ohio to the Wild West to marry a man with whom she’s corresponded, but has never met. On the train, she meets a group of spunky-but-respectable gals who are training to be waitresses at a Harvey House restaurant in Arizona. (These railroad-stop restaurants, established in the 1870s, are regarded as the first restaurant chain in the U.S.)

Garland is utterly charming. In an early scene, she sits on the westbound train, glancing enviously at the fried chicken the Harvey girls are eating, while she pokes at a single leftover crust in her lunch basket. Nevertheless, she spreads her napkin with a flourish over her lap and peers into her basket as though she can’t decide which imaginary delicacy to eat first.

When she arrives in town and sees her rough, unglamorous betrothed (Chill Wills), she is horrified. This man is the opposite of his letters, which are romantic and full of curlicues. She realizes she can’t hide forever from her husband-to-be, and she’s too stubborn to get back on the train, so she swallows her alarm and disappointment. But Wills ain’t no dummy; he gracefully asks Garland not to marry him.

Garland promptly joins the Harvey Girls and dons the employee uniform:

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Judy sings and serves steak in the Old West. Image: Sweethearts of the West

However.

The Harvey House is not welcome in town because it represents Manners and Keeping Elbows Off The Table. The saloon across the street, the feather-boa Alhambra, hates the starched-white Harvey House because townsfolk might turn into Respectable People. (You see, the Harvey House is to Civilization what the Alhambra could be to Vegas.)

And yet.

The Alhambra is owned by Ned Trent (John Hodiak), a smirky fellow whose greatest pleasure is sabotaging the Harvey House generally, and Judy Garland in particular.

But.

It was Hodiak who wrote those letters for Wills, the same letters that made Garland fall in love and board a train to the middle of nowhere to marry someone she’d never met.

Oh boy, we’ve gotten off topic. We were talking about Garland’s comedic talents. We’ve only time to describe one more scene, the one where John Hodiak steals all the Harvey House steaks!

Don't mess with Judy. Image: lskdjf a

Don’t mess with Judy. Image: YouTube

When Garland discovers the famous Harvey House steaks are missing, she decides to get ‘em back. She snatches two pistols and grimly marches across the street to the Alhambra, guns drawn. She’s All Business, yet she shrieks when she accidentally drops her weapons.

Garland reaches the Alhambra as someone is being forcibly removed. She squats under the saloon-style doors, surveying the territory, pistols cocked in the air à la Yosemite Sam. She finally musters the courage to stand and enter the bar. “Stick ‘em up,” she announces, and is almost knocked flat by bouncers trying to eject another patron. “Come on,” she pleads, “stick ‘em up now.” But everyone is having too much fun to notice.

If you haven’t seen The Harvey Girls, we urge you to do so. It is a wonderful film that showcases the very amusing and charming Judy Garland.

The Harvey Girls: starring Judy Garland, John Hodiak, Chills Wills. Directed by George Sidney. Written by Edmund Beloin, Nathaniel Curtis, Harry Crane, James O’Hanlon, Samson Raphaelson. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Corp., 1946, Colour, 105 mins.

Oscar Snub: Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

Burt Lancaster (left)  dkfj alsfj woieur alskdfj asdlkfj. Image: A Certain Cinema

Burt Lancaster (left) asks Kirk Douglas to stop chewing the scenery. Image: A Certain Cinema

We admire a great script.

In our view, a great script is one that hides itself from us. It creates characters we love or hate, and makes us believe on-screen events are unfolding organically.

Such is the case with the 1957 western, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, the famous story of upright lawman Wyatt Earp and his unlikely partnership with the morally ambiguous Doc Holliday.

The script has all the hallmarks of a great western: memorable lines, interesting characters, and authentic-looking sets. But Gunfight at the O.K. Corral offers something more. It is an unflinching look at how people (us) choose to live their remaining days.

Burt Lancaster is Wyatt Earp, a man who wears his Sense Of Justice as comfortably as his freshly-pressed shirts. Kirk Douglas is Doc Holliday, a former dentist who is “in a state of complete financial collapse” and frequents poker games to support himself.

Kirk as Holliday is not a healthy man, and his illness will likely kill him, if his drinking doesn’t do the job first. He tells Lancaster: “[T]he only thing I’m scared of is dying in bed. I don’t want to go little by little. Someday somebody’s got to outshoot me and it’ll be over real quick.”

He’s not the only one to talk about The End. In one scene, Lancaster meets with an old friend (Frank Faylen), a sheriff who is filled with as much cynicism as you can cram into one fellow. “It’s the end of the line for me,” he tells Lancaster. “Might happen to you someday. Like it happens to all of us.”

Like it happens to all of us. Here’s a screenplay that isn’t afraid to make us face our own mortality. In this film, death is a character sitting at a corner table, calmly sipping a whiskey and studying those around him. (Even the local newspaper is called the Tombstone Epitaph.)

But, given all this, the film doesn’t feel heavy and morbid. That’s because the crackling screenplay gives us hope, as embodied in Wyatt Earp and Holliday’s mistress.

Lancaster’s Earp is content to live his life, catching criminals and doing What Is Right No Matter What. But he shows signs of weariness, and even the great Wyatt Earp ponders his End. “All gunfighters are lonely,” he says. “They die without dime or a woman or a friend.”

Ah, but one day he does meet a woman (Rhonda Fleming) and suddenly there are new possibilities in life. He needs to ask if enforcing the law in Tombstone is really what a man wants; if Tombstone will be the end of the line for him.

But it is Douglas’ on-screen mistress (Jo Van Fleet) who shows us life is worth living. Even though she and Douglas have twisted relationship – as the screenplay makes evident early in the film – she refuses to give up on him. Douglas spews existential rubbish (“We don’t matter, Kate. We haven’t mattered since the day we were born.”), and still she nurses and mothers and loves him. She sees value in him that years of drinking and disappointment have concealed from his view.

This film was written by American novelist Leon Uris, who also wrote the screenplay for Battle Cry as well as lengthy, well-researched tomes like Exodus.

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral was the eighth top-grossing film in 1957, thanks in no small part to its shrewd casting, expert direction, and brilliant, thought-provoking script. But it did not win the Oscar in the category for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay.

It wasn’t even nominated.

The Oscar for best original screenplay that year was awarded to Designing Woman, a delightful romantic comedy.

But certainly no Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral: starring Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Rhonda Fleming. Directed by John Sturges. Written by Leon Uris. Paramount Pictures Corp., 1957, Colour, 122 mins.

Another review of Shootout/O.K. Corral movies can be found at Ted Hicks’ fab movie blog.

This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon hosted by Once Upon a Screen,  Outspoken & Freckled and Paula’s Cinema Club during the month of February. Be sure to read all the other fabulous contributions.

Walter Brennan’s Power Trip

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Judge Roy Bean (played by Walter Brennan, left) holds court in his saloon.

*SPOILER ALERT*

It’s funny, isn’t it, how sometimes you see a showdown coming. Look – there it is, galloping across the plain, heading straight toward you. Even if you try to jump out of the way, it’ll still knock you over.

Such is the case with the 1940 western, The Westerner. Here is a movie packed with conflict, but everything hinges on the relationship between two men – one of whom will have to kill the other before it’s done. There’s no way around it.

The Westerner takes place in the American west, in the days when homesteaders began settling in cattle ranching territory. The homesteaders’ fencing and agricultural activities angered the cattlemen because they saw it as an invasion of their range land.

This was also the time of Judge Roy Bean, who, according to the movie, “took the law into his own hands”.

Three-time Oscar winner Walter Brennan is the infamous Bean. We first meet Brennan as he hangs a man whom we suspect is innocent. After the man is dead, Brennan moves the festivities into his saloon. Drinks all around! (The bar, incidentally, bears a sign that says “Law West of Pecos.” This tells you about Judge Roy Bean’s judicial philosophy.)

The weakness in Brennan’s character is his obsession with entertainer Lillie Langtry, a woman he desperately loves but has never met. Lillie Langtry posters fill the wall behind the bar like a shrine.

Brennan’s men burst into the scene, toting a stranger by the name of Cole Harden (Gary Cooper), who is accused of stealing a horse. Cooper’s character, a man who can talk his way out of anything, sees Brennan’s obsession with Langtry and starts telling glowing stories about her. Brennan, a shrewd man but a fool in love, suspends Cooper’s sentence so he can “to look into the matter further.” He’s hopeful Cooper can arrange a meeting with Langtry.

An unlikely friendship develops between these two men, despite Cooper’s attraction to the daughter of a homesteader (Doris Davenport) and his own growing belief that homesteaders have a right to be in the territory. But he keeps Brennan in check by feeding him fiction about Langtry. There is genuine respect between the two characters, but you know a Bad End is coming.

Cooper is a dominant presence in any film, but this film is not his. It is Brennan’s film, and he wears it comfortably.

In one scene, Cooper confronts Brennan, saying he’s getting a warrant for his arrest. Brennan snaps, “If you come back with a warrant, you’d better be first on the draw.” He says this without hesitation, and we’re shocked that he could turn on his friend so quickly. We suddenly realize that, while we thought Cooper was fooling Brennan, Brennan was actually fooling us.

As he watches Cooper leave to get the warrant, Brennan’s face is a mixture of loss and revenge. “So long, Cole,” he says quietly. His soft farewell hangs in the air, revealing his cleverness; with three little words, Brennan snatches the entire movie.

The Westerner is about the old west, but it’s really about motive. All movies are about motive to one degree or another, but this movie drives it like a freight train. There is no getting out of the way until it’s too late.

If you are new to the western genre, give The Westerner a try. We think you’ll be adding it to your “Must Watch” list.

The Westerner: starring Gary Cooper, Walter Brennan, Doris Davenport. Directed by William Wyler. Written by Jo Swerling and Niven Busch. United Artists Corp., B&W, 1940, 100 mins.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, hosted by Once Upon a ScreenOutspoken & Freckled and Paula’s Cinema Club. It runs Feb. 1 – Mar. 3, in conjunction with Turner Classic Movies’ 31 Days of Oscar.

Man Who Shot Liberty Valance 1962 Paramount Pictures

Lee Marvin (back to camera) threatens James Stewart (kneeling) and John Wayne. Note Marvin’s suave black villain’s hat.

We love a movie that gives you so much to enjoy, you even like the hats.

Yes, the hats. No two in this film are quite the same – and if you’ve seen this movie, you know what we’re talking about.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) has all the fixin’s you need for a good Western: gun fights, bad guys, John Wayne – and a terrific assortment of hats. It’s directed by the crusty John Ford, and features costumes (plus hats) by the fabulous Edith Head.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is the story of a young(ish) lawyer (James Stewart), who journeys to the Wild West to open a law office. Alas, en route, his stagecoach is overtaken by the notorious Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), a man as cold and unforgiving as concrete. Not only does he rob the stagecoach, Marvin beats Stewart and leaves him for dead. But all is not lost; John Wayne finds him the next day and takes him to Shinbone, the nearest town, for medical treatment.

Stewart is put under the care of Hallie (Vera Miles), a feisty woman who helps run the town’s restaurant. She and Wayne have an Understanding, although Wayne has not yet proposed.  However, now that Stewart has arrived in town, with his law books and his readin’ and writin’ ways, Miles finds herself in a quandary.

Stewart’s character is a strong believer in the rule of law, and is appalled at any suggestion of carrying a weapon. According to Stewart, if one is armed with the law, then one has the ability to resolve conflicts rationally and justly. Wayne and Marvin, on the other hand, believe that a gun is more efficient than the legal process.

Wayne and Marvin hold the balance of power in Shinbone, and in this film. Marvin is volatile, but Wayne’s presence keeps him in check, like an Old West version of Detente. Even so, we the audience know that a showdown’s a-comin’ between Stewart’s principles and Marvin’s thirst for blood and power.

We (as in, yours truly) believe that a great western has great characters, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has some of the best. In this movie, Wayne is the self-appointed Boss Of Everything, like he always is, and frequently uses the moniker “Pilgrim” when addressing Stewart. (Example: “Take it easy there, Pilgrim.” or “You gonna be alright there, Pilgrim?”) He also orders his steak with a simple, “Burn me a good thick one.”

Stewart is well cast as a man who loves the rule of law and abhors violence, but in Shinbone he smacks into his principles as though they were a brick wall. His character is smart and determined – and not entirely predictable.

And let’s not forget Lee Marvin as the wicked Liberty Valance, a man who would rather chuck furniture out of his way than walk around it. It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Lee Marvin in this role, and even in his pristine Edith-Head designer duds, he is a perfect foil for John Wayne.

Our Edith was nominated for an Academy Award for her work in this film, but lost to Norma Koch for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is an interesting study of friendship and sacrifice, love and duty. It’s a film that you think you can predict, but you can’t. It’s a Western that we – ahem – take our hat off to.

Academy Award Nomination (1962):

  • (the fabulous) Edith Head, Best Costume Design, Black-and-White

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: starring James Stewart, John Wayne, Vera Miles. Directed by John Ford. Written by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck. Paramount Pictures, 1962, B&W, 123 mins.

A mega blogathon celebrating film honoured by the Academy.

A New Perspective of a Difficult History

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Robert Francis battles malaria and prejudice.

Sometimes Hollywood really did try.

The major studios made millions from portraying Native Americans as primitive warmongers with bad aim, but once in a while they made a movie that tried to correct the stereotype – if somewhat clumsily.

They Rode West is a 1954 western set in the American midwest circa 1870. It examines the relationship between the American army and Native Americans (in this case, Kiowa) who were recently confined to reservations.

The movie opens as the doctor at an isolated army base prepares for surgery. He is drunk and he cleans his scalpel by wiping it on his coat. The patient, unsurprisingly, dies and the drunk doctor is thrown off the base. Clearly, this detachment is in need of a real physician.

Enter his replacement, Robert Francis as Allen Seward, a young doctor who’s come west with the army to gain the experience he needs to build his own practice. On the same train as Francis is Laurie MacKaye (Donna Reed), a colonel’s niece and coquette who flirts with every man within a 10-mile radius. Much to Reed’s dismay, Francis’ character is Serious and Purposeful and doesn’t have time for her tomfoolery.

During the two-day ride from the train station to the base, the company is ambushed and rifles are stolen. Their brisk, no-nonsense captain (Phil Carey) is convinced that the Kiowa are behind this dastardly deed and he makes plans to invade the reservation ASAP, with Francis in tow.

Here is a scene that’s designed to make you uncomfortable. When the army arrives at the village, Carey makes the Kiowa line up as men search the teepees. As a viewer, you are acutely aware of the Kiowa’s humiliation: they have been robbed of their land and now they don’t even have the privacy of their own homes.

It doesn’t stop there. Francis refers to the Kiowa as “people”, but he is rebuffed and told they are merely “indians”. He also meets the village’s medicine man, Isatai (Frank deKova) with whom he develops an instant liking and rapport. The army is not amused.

While the search for the rifles is being conducted, Francis notices a boy who is ill with malaria. His beautiful mother (May Wynn) speaks flawless English but, sadly for Francis, is unavailable. The attraction that Francis has for Wynn does not go unnoticed by Reed, who has enough time to juggle several boyfriends and keep tabs on Francis’ love life.

It is not long before others in the Kiowa village succumb to malaria, including Wynn’s husband. Francis realizes the cause is contaminated water; the army decrees where the Kiowa may live and they refuse to grant permission to move to a higher elevation with clean drinking water.

(Hullo, what’s this? An acknowledgement that Native Americans may have been mistreated by the American army?)

This is not a perfect movie, and much effort is given to planning how to “rescue” Wynn’s character from the reservation. The time spent on this scheme, when so many others are dying of malaria, tells us that Wynn’s life is more valuable than the the rest of the Kiowa.

And yet, They Rode West is an entertaining film with a believable story and footage that looks startlingly modern. If you’re looking for a different perspective of a difficult chapter in American history, this is the movie to see.

They Rode West: starring Robert Francis, Donna Reed and May Wynn. Written by DeVallon Scott and Frank Nugent. Directed by Phil Karlson. Columbia Pictures, Colour, 1954, 90 mins.

The Naked Spur (1953)

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James Stewart and Millard Mitchell have a little chat with Ralph Meeker.

We simply cannot believe this! Get our agent on the phone!

We are are terribly dismayed to discover that the movie, The Naked Spur, features Robert Ryan – one of our all-time favourite movie bad guys – and we’ve never heard of this movie! Ever!!

Adding to our embarrassment, this happens to be one of Ryan’s best performances. Ryan steals every scene as a smirky, aggravating fugitive who manipulates those around him. And we had no clue!

Ryan plays Ben Vandergroat, a wanted man from Kansas with a $5,000 sticker price. James Stewart is Howard Kemp, a troubled and vengeful man determined capture Vandergroat and cash him in. Early in the movie, Kemp meets grizzled Jesse (a barely-recognizable Millard Mitchell), and Civil War vet Roy (Ralph Meeker). These three serendipitously capture Vandergroat, along with his unexpected companion (Janet Leigh).

Now, it turns out Kemp and Vandergroat knew each other back in Kansas. The opportunistic Vandergroat twists the tragedies in Kemp’s life to turn the other two captors against Kemp – and each other. These are the best parts of the movie: Stewart’s unstable character struggling to keep himself together, while Ryan’s smug character continually goads him.

Admittedly, we didn’t expect Leigh to be very good here, but we were wrong. She’s so natural in this element we wonder why she didn’t do a ton of westerns. She’s tough and feisty – and as unglamorous as any 1950s Hollywood make-up artist would allow.

For regular western fans, there’s lots of the typical action here, like yelling, chasing and shooting. But this is also a pensive film that examines the concept – and consequences – of getting revenge.

We are really quite embarrassed that we hadn’t heard of this movie before. Don’t let this happen to you! It’s not too late! Make sure you see it the first chance you get.

Starring James Stewart, Janet Leigh and Robert Ryan. Written by Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom. Directed by Anthony Mann. MGM, 1953, 95 mins.