William Wellman and the Accusatory Close-Up

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Dana Andrews (centre) realizes he’s being railroaded. Image: Dr. Macro

*Spoiler Alert

The trouble with creating a masterpiece is sometimes people don’t automatically see it as such.

One example is The Ox-Bow Incident, a 1943 western directed by William Wellman. This film was released during some of the darkest days of WWII and, as a result, it was a box office disappointment. Audiences were in no mood to be reminded of the failings of human nature, and you can’t really blame them.

Fortunately, the film was recognized with an Oscar nomination for Outstanding Motion Picture, and is now considered one of Wellman’s masterpieces.

The Ox-Bow Incident is based on a novel by the philosophical American writer, Walter Van Tilburg Clark. The story takes place in Nevada, in 1885, and tells us What Happens Next when a popular rancher is shot on his own land.

At first, we sympathize with the town’s decision to form a posse. How dare someone shoot our neighbour! Let’s get ’em, boys!

But we soon discover the town’s leaders may not be as keen on justice as they are on other pursuits. A posse provides an opportunity to teach a harsh lesson to a young man, for instance, or provide an outlet to satisfy one’s bloodlust.

It’s not a comfortable film to watch; ten minutes in, you know things are going to end badly. This is Wellman’s doing. He feeds us the narrative in a controlled way, even while events unravel quickly.

Wellman also has a way of torquing scenes with the use of close-ups. His camera forces us to scrutinize characters as they scrutinize each other. Close-ups in this film signify a challenge to, or defiance of, prevailing conditions.

In one scene, we focus on a man (Dana Andrews) who has been arrested by the posse. While the posse waits for the sheriff to arrive in the cold mountain night, the camera isolates Andrews. He watches a woman and a man sitting close together; the man whispers in the woman’s ear and she laughs loudly. This could be a midnight picnic, except it’s not. It’s a prelude to an execution.

The most significant close-up of this film is one of Henry Fonda, and Wellman intentionally hides his eyes from our view.

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Henry Fonda (left) reads a letter that becomes an indictment. Image: ronhamprod.com

In this scene, near the end of the film, the men from the posse gather at the saloon. They are silent, glum, drunk.

Fonda opens a letter written by Andrews and, as he begins to read aloud, he leans against the bar, his back towards the others. Fonda’s eyes are hidden by the hat brim of his friend (Harry Morgan). We analyze Morgan’s expression instead, as he stares straight ahead while Fonda reads. Fonda’s voice is gravelly, betraying emotions he is trying to suppress.

Wellman has staged this close-up to force us to concentrate on the letter’s message. There’s nothing else to look at – no decor in the background, no supporting actor fidgeting with a whiskey glass. It’s Fonda and Morgan, and us.

We squirm a little as Fonda reads, because Wellman has brought us uncomfortably close to this letter.

The Ox-Bow Incident is a powerful, haunting film, and we can’t recommend it enough. Once you see it, you’ll agree that it deserves the reputation of a William Wellman masterpiece.

The Ox-Bow Incident: starring Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Mary Beth Hughes. Directed by William A. Wellman. Written by Lamar Trotti. Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp., 1943, B&W, 75 mins.

This post is part of the William Wellman Blogathon hosted by Now Voyaging. Click HERE to see the schedule.


A Word About Fräulein Maria

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The pre-Hollywood Captain von Trapp and Fräulein Maria. Image: br.de

Nine years before Hollywood unleashed the world’s greatest schmaltz-fest known as The Sound of Music, German filmmakers released a biopic of the famous von Trapp family.

Die Trapp-Familie (1956) is a more down-to-earth telling of the Fräulein-Maria-vs.-the-von-Trapps story. It set the basic template for the later Hollywood version, although neither film is an exact re-telling of actual events. (One could argue the German version is a smidge more factual.)

If you’re not familiar with the movie version of this story, it is set in Austria in the mid 1920s. (The Hollywood version takes place on the eve of the Austrian Anschluss in 1938.) A young woman named Maria (Ruth Leuwerik) is a happy, non-conformist novitiate living in a Salzburg convent, when she is suddenly dispatched to work as a governess to seven children. The children have a history of making their governesses quit; they’ve gone through a remarkable 26 governesses in only four years.

Although Fräulein Maria is charming, she is also one hard-boiled egg. Not only does she win the children’s affections, she discovers their widowed father (Hans Holt) has fallen in love with her.

There are several differences between the German and Hollywood films. In Die Trapp-Familie, Maria is already a teacher at the convent, so her new job as governess is a logical choice. She also uses religious language; for example, she often says “God’s greetings” when meeting people.

The German version touches on von Trapp’s loss of wealth during the Depression and the family’s difficulties in emigrating to America, developments left untouched by the Hollywood version.

A notable difference between the two films is the treatment of Nazi occupation. In the German version, filmmakers carefully tiptoe around the subject, which was likely still a raw topic with German audiences. Hollywood, on the other hand, torques the Nazi occupation to expertly amp the film’s tension.

Of all the differences between the two films, the most striking is language.

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Maria and the children wow ’em in concert. Image: YouTube

It’s weird to see this familiar Hollywood story told in German, which is strange in itself because German would have been the family’s mother tongue. By contrast, the Hollywood version uses such over-the-top British enunciation, it has to continually remind you these people are Austrian.

The German film allows us glimpses into the zeitgeist of post-war Germany. In one scene, von Trapp is told by a well-meaning friend, “A little unhappiness in childhood is the best preparation for life.”

The version we watched also had flawless translation that explained the script’s cultural references that may not be familiar to English audiences. For example, early in the film Maria asks her class for examples of words starting with the letter “D”. Some of the children give words that the translation politely describes as “expression[s] of anger”, which not entirely appreciated by the religious Maria.

We were so impressed by this translation, and the care that went into it, we asked our friends at Smartling (developers of translation software) about the business of cinematic translation. Their own blog explains the challenges of translating for the cinema, including using minimal text and ensuring no more than two lines appear at the bottom of the screen at any given time.

We feel Die Trapp-Familie is an excellent example of translation that pulls the viewer into the film, even if it does sidestep some difficult history. (Incidentally, this film was so successful, a sequel was made two years later: Die Trapp Familie in Amerika.)

If you are interested in the von Trapp story but want a more authentic-feeling film, then you’ll enjoy Die Trapp-Familie.

Die Trapp-Familie: starring Ruth LeuwerikHans HoltMaria Holst. Directed by Wolfgang Liebeneiner. Written by George Hurdalek and Herbert Reinecker. Divina-Film, 1956, Colour, 106 mins.

The Algonquin Table of the Old West

Gordon MacRae's pimped-out surrey, with a fringe on top. Image: lsdkjf askdjf

Gordon MacRae’s fully-loaded surrey, with a fringe on top. Image: Los Angeles Times

You would have a skewed view of life if you only watched musicals.

For example, look at the recently-restored Rodgers and Hammerstein western-comedy musical, Oklahoma! (1955). This film is about a group of farmers and ranchers in turn-of-the-20th-century Oklahoma, who hold a box lunch social to raise money for the schoolhouse roof.

This film makes it look like these farmers and ranchers have nothing to do but sing and dance and make merriment. In one scene, a train pulls into the station and everyone on the station platform suddenly – and without warning – leaps into a impromptu hoedown.

The rustic Oklahoma in this film looks gla-mor-ous. Men’s tailored shirts are neatly pressed, and women’s Orry-Kelly gowns dresses are made of sumptuous fabrics. Life is so effortless, folks do their chores while wearing crisp, white clothes. There’s not a drop of sweat in sight.

You’ll notice a lot of dancing in this Oklahoma, even interpretive dance where themes of innocence and exploitation are examined.

The villain in this neck of the woods is played by Rod Steiger, a surly and vaguely creepy man who is the only one in the film with grime on his clothes. He lusts after young Shirley Jones (in her film debut) and resents the cowboy Gordon MacRae for wooing her.

You could be forgiven for thinking these are simple, unsophisticated folk. Indeed, the film opens with MacRae (in a glorious CinemaScope tracking shot) riding his horse along a row of corn, underneath a dazzling blue sky. He sings about the beautiful morning and a “bright golden haze on the meadow”.

Basic, wholesome people living a basic, wholesome life? Not so fast, partner.

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The marvels – wholesome and unwholesome – of Kansas City. Image: Dusted Off

What really makes this film, besides the wardrobe and the scenery, is the song lyrics. The clever lyrics easily outpace the script in wit and innuendo.

Notably, the songs seesaw between the conflicted feelings of the characters. For example, a man sings about his visit to Kansas City and, alternating between amazement and disapproval, he describes life in the prosperous, fast-growing burg:

Everything’s up to date in Kansas City
They’ve gone about as far as they can go!
They went and built a skyscraper seven stories high
About as high as a building ought to grow.

He then goes on to detail, with a twinkle in his eye, various other sights including a burlesque show.

In another scene, MacRae confronts the surly Steiger with a song that swings between threats and flattery. MacRae suggests no man will be more highly praised at his own funeral than Steiger himself:

He’s looking oh so pretty and so nice
He looks like he’s asleep.
It’s a shame that he won’t keep,
But it’s summer and we’re running out of ice.

That’s a bit twisted, no? MacRae is taking chances, singing this kind of stuff to the temperamental Steiger.

In another scene, Gene Nelson proposes to his girlfriend (Gloria Grahame), although she doesn’t really want to settle down. After the he proposes, Grahame replies:

But if a wife is wise, she’s gotta realize
That men like you are wild and free …
Stay up late and don’t come home till three
And go right off to sleep if you’re sleepy.
There’s no use waiting up for me!

Oklahoma! won Academy Awards for Best Music and Best Sound, and raked in $6.8 million at the box office that year. We think you’ll enjoy this cheeky, light-hearted tribute to the 46th state of the union.

Oklahoma! starring Gordon MacRae, Gloria Grahame, Gene Nelson. Directed by Fred Zinneman. Written by Sonya Levien & William Ludwig. Magna Theatre Corp., 1955, B&W, 145 mins.

Buster Keaton: Animal Rights Activist

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Buster Keaton with his best friend. Image: Britannica.com

Have you ever wondered what would happen if a herd of cattle were suddenly turned loose in a major city?

Really? You’ve never wondered about that?

Well, if you have pondered this, then you must see the 1925 Buster Keaton comedy-western, Go West. You’ll be delighted with a glorious scene where Keaton frees 1,000 head of cattle from a train in downtown Los Angeles.

It’s funny to see the newly-freed cows and bulls milling about; they visit a china shop (ha ha – get it?), a dress shop and a Turkish bath. They also wander into a barber shop, where a stray cow licks the shaving cream from a terrified customer’s face.

Even if you don’t care for the ol’ bovine-in-the-big-city schtick, you’ll still enjoy this film about a young man (Keaton) who ends up working as a ranch hand in Arizona. The film’s title, Go West, is from the famous quotation, “Go West, young man, and grow up with the country”, commonly attributed to author Horace Greeley c.a. 1850.

Keaton’s character doesn’t have friends (he’s referred to as “Friendless” in the credits), nor does he care. He accepts good luck and bad, equally, with that stoic face.

His fortunes change, however, during a round-up on the ranch, when Keaton removes a stone from a cow’s hoof. Here he gains his first real friend – a cow named Brown Eyes. This grateful cow develops a little “crush” on Keaton, and refuses to leave his side. Keaton repays this loyalty by saving her from the branding iron, and by chasing coyotes away from the barn at night.

But when the owner of the ranch (Howard Truesdale) decides it’s time to ship his 1,000 head of cattle – including Brown Eyes – to the stockyards, Keaton’s equanimity vanishes. When his best efforts to shelter her prove futile, he decides to stow away on the cattle train to protect his best friend.

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Keaton is told to smile when he calls someone a cheat. Image: blu-ray.com

Go West is a delightful film, written and directed by the rubber-limbed Keaton. His character’s circumstances are rather dismal, but Keaton never lets us pity him. This determined young man is so oddly charming, it’s hard to believe he isn’t the most popular person in town.

As director, Keaton is superb. He sets up his shots for maximum comic effect, and threads running sight gags throughout the film. He also includes innovative camera angles, such as the view from atop a charging bull.

He’s also famously unafraid to place himself in harm’s way. In one scene, he realizes the cattle train is out of control, so he runs along the top of the train and leaps into the engine room. (It’s reminiscent of his masterpiece, The General, released the following year.)

Keaton isn’t a large-scale animal rights activist in this film; he’s intent on saving one animal, not the entire herd. But there is that glorious scene of freeing those poor bovines: When the train arrives in L.A., Keaton methodically slides open the bars on each cattle car and the animals, sensing their Big Chance, spring loose. Director Keaton captures the escape in such a way that we know how these cattle feel: free at last!

Go West isn’t one of Keaton’s most famous movies, but it ought to be. It’s a must-see film that shows us why Keaton became a legend in the first place.

Go West: starring Buster Keaton, Howard Truesdale, Kathleen Myers. Directed by Buster Keaton. Written by Buster Keaton (& Lex Neal). A Metro-Goldwyn Production, 1925, B&W, 54 mins.

This post is part of the BUSTER KEATON BLOGATHON, hosted by Silent-ology. Click HERE for a list of all participants.


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


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.


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!

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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

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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.


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

Yikes - this ain't lookin' too good

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)

I've been waitin' to use this thing

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.