Even as we speak we are in the midst of Day #5 of Turner Classic Movies month long salute to the Hollywood western (see yesterday’s post here). Every Tuesday and Wednesday in July Turner Classic Movies will be showing westerns the entire day, for a total of 100 movies in all. Here is tomorrow’s line-up. I think you’ll find that in the daytime, it’s lots of Glenn Ford and in the evening lots of John Wayne. The times below are all Eastern Standard Time, and beware that I always include spoilers. And the first few are new to me.
6:45am: Heaven with a Gun (1969)
8:30am: Day of the Evil Gun (1968)
10:15am: The Last Challenge (1967)
12:00pm: The Rounders (1965)
A latter day western, written and directed by Burt Kennedy. It’s kind of a comedy lark. Stars Glenn Ford and Henry Fonda as a couple of modern day bronc busters. Chill Wills hires them to break in some horses. In lieu of payment he gives them a roan who proves to be unbreakable. To earn money they decide to take the horse around to rodeos and bet riders they can’t stay on him. The scheme works until the horse falls ill and they spend all their money on vet bills and wind up right where they started, as cowboys always do. Also in the are cast Edgar Buchanan, Kathleen Freeman, and Doodles Weaver.
3:00pm: Cowboy (1958)
A Delmer Daves effort, very uncertain in tone. The opening and closing acts feel like light comedy, but the in-between is deadly serious. Jack Lemmon is a Chicago hotel clerk who buys his way into a cattle drive by loaning $3,800 to ranch man Glenn Ford so he can continue his card game. Lemmon’s motivation is a Mexican senorita he wants to marry. Ford gives Lemmon a more than a tough time all the way down, treating him like dirt. These scenes need more nunance, they don’t pave the way for Ford’s eventual journey (he softens by the end and the two become friends). Likewise, Lemmon becomes hard as the film progresses, but again he hates his boss too much, needs more nuance. The cowboys are loathsome, don’t care about each other, don’t protect each other. Strother Martin is one of the ranchhands, who is killed by a rattlesnake. No one sheds a tear. Dick York is in the film as one of the cowpokes who likes the ladies. The film is apparently based on a true story.
4:45pm: 3:10 to Yuma (1957)
Elmore Leonard wrote the story this film was based on and it’s far superior to the 2007 remake. Directed by Daves. Bears certain similarities to High Noon, released five years earlier. It asks the question, what do you do when you’re torn between duty to your community, duty to your family, and duty to yourself? Van Heflin is a failing rancher. He and his two boys come upon Glenn Ford and his gang robbing a stagecoach and see him murder the coachman. Heflin feels impotent, ashamed that he can’t do anything about it. Later, when the townspeople catch Ford, Heflin takes a job transporting the prisoner to jail in Yuma on the titular 3:10…but he has to get there first. Tense waiting for the gang to to come and spring Ford, without anyone to back Heflin up. Very good casting. Ford, usually known for playing straight arrows, sometimes has a James Dean like quality in a lot of his 50s pictures; here he’s so cool he rattles Heflin—who, in turn is very good as an actor at sweating and snapping. Like Heflin, we don’t know how to read Ford. At moments he seems to have a heart. More often it seems more like diabolical charm, which he can use to manipulate anyone he pleases. In the end the gang shows up…Heflin almost makes it on the train with Ford, but then the whole gang is there and he’s sure to be killed. But then Ford volunteers to go on train, saving Heflin’s life. (Heflin had earlier saved ford’s life, making it tit for tat).
6:30pm: The Fastest Gun Alive (1956)
A “Method” western! Adapted from a successful television script (the ultimate Method medium). Full of Freudian stuff. Glenn Ford, while older, seems to be channeling James Dean. The premise is that Ford is the fastest gun alive, but he is secretly living a double life. He has been living in this small western town with his beautiful wife for four years. As far as anyone knows he is a meek storekeeper. We see him chafe and squirm in this metaphorical straight-jacket. He is jumpy and irritable. Hides his gun, which has six notches in the handle. There are hints in arguments with his wife that gunfights have caused them to move all over the country. Finally, his customers are driving him up a wall, he blows a gasket and runs over to the saloon, gets a drink, and reveals to all the men that he is a fast gun, and demonstrates that fact by shooting two thrown silver dollars out in the street. Meanwhile, we have been watching Broderick Crawford as a mean outlaw who needs to be the fastest man alive — we have already seen him shoot a man just so that could make the claim. (An earlier scene seems to echo both Oedipus and Snow White: a blind soothsayer tells Crawford: “There is ANOTHER, faster than you”). Crawford and his gang (John Dehner and Noah Beery Jr) ride into town just as the entire town is pledging before God in church never to reveal Ford’s secret (otherwise he and his wife were prepared to move on since he has told his secret and trouble has followed such admissions in the past). But it’s too late. A kid tells Crawford that Ford is the fastest gun alive. Crawford demands to see Ford for a showdown. The town won’t say who he is. Crawford holds the kid hostage, then starts to burn down the town. Then the twist: Ford has never fought a man. He simply has a reputation for being the fastest. He is actually scared. He goes out and has the showdown with Crawford. We see a funeral and a tombstone for each of them. But it is a great device. Ford is alive, he is simply burying his reputation. Now maybe he and his wife can finally live in peace.
Inserted gratuitously into all of this is a spectacular dance by Russ Tamblyn, set at the barn dance. Mighty entertaining but grafted into the thing with maximum inorganic crudity. Ah, Hollywood!
8:00pm: Red River (1948)
Howard Hawks’ best western without a doubt, and one that would rate inclusion on a very short list of best westerns ever. It is an epic, “true story” describing the first cattle drive along the Chisholm trail. John Wayne plays Thomas Dunson, an Ahab-like figure (one of many he played in his career) insanely driven to finish the drive. Montgomery Clift is his adopted son Matt. Walter Brennan is of course the sidekick — in a characterization so out-there and indelible it would remain hugely in demand for the next quarter century.
The three are the sole survivors of an Indian attack on a wagon train. They get to Texas and usurp some land from its rightful Mexican owner and start a ranch. 15 years pass. Much has changed. Dunson has built a huge ranch. Matt has just returned from the Civil War where he fought for the Confederacy. Since the South is destroyed, Dunson is cash poor and has no place to sell his beef. He decides on a cattle drive all the way to the railhead in Missouri: 1000 miles. Many have tried but no one has succeeded. But he is uniquely driven. He has changed. he is no longer the young man who loved a girl in the wagon train. He is hard, relentless, uncompromising. A couple of things jar us right away. One is his relationship with Walter Brennan. In the earlier scenes they seemed to be partners of a kind. Now the status has changed dramatically. Brennan is now just the cook for the huge ranch. To him, the John Wayne character is now “Mr. Dunson”. The gulf between them now seems huge. Second, Dunson’s new ruthlessness becomes apparent when we see him brand cows belonging to other ranches that have gotten mixed up with his herd — an expediency of unqualified moral dubiousness. Its just plain theft. The meat of the story seems influenced by Mutiny on the Bounty. Dunson as the cruel Captain Bly figure. Matt as the Fletcher Christian figure or the Brutus. Eventually Matt ousts Dunson, who vows revenge — and tries to get it. It was Hawks’ trusting of this serious part to Wayne that convinced Ford to start devising much better roles for him.
10:30pm: Rio Bravo (1959)
In essence this is Howard Hawks’s last truly great film. The next one, the African safari picture Hatari (1962) is okay, but badly dated, and his last two westerns El Dorado (1966) and Rio Lobo (1970) give diminishing returns.
Rio Bravo isn’t perfect either, but what it lacks in formal perfection it makes up for in chemistry. This is the ultimate multi-generational male bonding picture, with Wayne as a sheriff, Dean Martin as his alcoholic deputy, Walter Brennan as his old, gimpy other deputy and Ricky Nelson as a kid named “Colorado”, a hired gun who comes in to help out when his boss Ward Bond is murdered. Angie Dickinson is Wayne’s naughty love interest, so all the bonding isn’t male (really, without her the picture would be downright gay).
Claude Akins is a bad guy whom Wayne has placed in the pokey. The bulk of the movie is spent in preparation for a showdown with Akins gang, which is going to come free him. The easiest thing for Wayne to do would be to let his prisoner go free. But well, he’s the Duke. He just can’t do that. The majority of the film is about the tension of waiting for the big showdown, with our small handful of heroes hunkered down in the tiny jail, waiting for an army of bad guys to ride in.
And while they wait, they have conversations. This is the aspect its hard to have patience with. To the modern sensibility it feels way too talky, the film feels downright padded with talk. I’ve heard it said that Hawks was responding to the challenge of television and its more intimate aesthetics. TV, with its smaller screen is much more dialogue based than cinema. A lot of the dialogue feels sparkling and magical, and kind of the capper on the Hawksian tradition of playful screen banter, but I still find myself wanting to snip about a half hour out.
At any rate, can these four dudes and one lady (each with their own vulnerabilities) take on ten times their number and emerge victorious? What do you think?
1:00am: Rio Lobo (1970)
This is the last movie Howard Hawks directed and the law of diminishing returns applies. The first act is okay: John Wayne is a civil war colonel on the Union side. A gold shipment he is responsible for is stolen off a train by a band of Confederates (the train heist is fascinating and the best part of the picture). Wayne chases them down, is kidnapped by them and then ingeniously tricks them into getting near his own troops, freeing himself, and taking their officers prisoner. Then the war is over.
Now the film just gets to be bad. It’s just a bad, rambling screenplay. Wayne and those Confederates have developed a mutual respect, even a rapport. He enlists two of them to help him locate the Union traitors in his unit who had helped the Confederates (and killed his young lieutenant). The trail leads to Rio Lobo, Texas. Coincidentally, these bad guys are now involved with a crooked sheriff and a rapacious cattle baron. There are three nearly identical but absolutely gorgeous damsels in distress, all of whom are terrible actors. (although one them is nearly topless in one scene, one of the few modern touches in the film, along with the close up of a hand playing a guitar in the opening credits). Jack Elam is an ornery guy who holds out against the cattle baron. As in Hawks’ previous films, there are endless, aimless scenes of people waiting, talking, wondering what to do, then planning what to do without much conviction about the outcome. There is no mystery to it. For the third time in a row in a western (Rio Bravo, El Dorado), he has a scene of John Wayne and his group of friends barricaded in a jailhouse. (what is it with this?). Interesting trivia: George Plimpton is an extra in this movie.
3:00am: Chisum (1970)
Wayne’s deification, percolating for three decades, has finally become complete. The picture begins and ends with Wayne actually posed in tableau on a horse like a Remington sculpture. He doesn’t have to do anything to be admired but EXIST. Set in New Mexico, 1878. John Chisum (Wayne) is a mighty independent rancher. Ben Johnson is his mumbling right hand man. Forest Tucker is the requisite crook who schemes to take over the whole territory: not just ranch land but the bank and the store too. Chisum and his friends fight him, legally at first, by starting their own bank and store. But finally it’s an all out war including a fistfight finale between the hero and the villain, in which the latter ultimately gets gored on a pair of ornamental bullhorns. The plot is paint by numbers, except for the interesting if ridiculous gimmick of introducing Pat Garret and Billy the Kid as characters and making the story partially theirs. But for a couple of tiny touches (the phrase “son of a bitch” and a couple of graphic deaths) the movie could have been made in 1955.
5:00am: McLintock! (1963)
I am tempted to call this movie best non-spoof comedy western ever. It’s definitely John Wayne’s best comic performance, although that’s not saying much. His comic scenes in John Ford’s and his own movies are usually irritatingly bad, just self-conscious and clumsy. Here it’s a bit of self-mockery and works really well. His comical foil is Maureen O’Hara, his traditional leading lady, also here at her best. Like Wayne, she is not really an actress but more a force of nature. Very little real subtlety. But neither does a freight train possess much subtlety and it can be beautiful nonetheless. O’Hara seems to me the person the phrase “you’re beautiful when you’re angry” was devised for.
In the film, Wayne plays the title character, and the founder of the fictional town that also bears his name. He is a big man in every sense of the word. The whole town loves him, not just because he is the most powerful man in town but because he is a straight up guy to boot — and nice. He lets Mexican kids climb up his trellis. His best friend is the Jewish merchant from town. His ranch is in the Cherokee Strip and they are about to let settlers in (it’s the 1895 run), but his run-ins with them are all humanitarian. Unlike a neighboring rancher he doesn’t vow to “run ‘em out”. He explains to them that the land they’ll be getting is bad. And he stops the lynching of an Indian by settlers. He even hires one of the young settlers (played by his actual son Patrick Wayne) for a cowhand, and his beautiful mother (Yvonne DeCarlo, va va voom) for a cook.
McLintock’s utopia is upset when his wife (O’Hara), from whom he has been separated for two years, returns to town from back east. She wishes to prevent their daughter (Stephanie Powers, again with the va va voom) from moving back home. The wife and daughter are both snobs, despite the wife coming from the same upbringing as McLintock did it. She puts on airs, bosses people around. The fact of the couple’s separation seems to recall their earlier film together Rio Grande, as does the fact that they really love one another. Bit by bit O’Hara starts to melt as she begins to remember who she is. (This is egged along by an astounding Taming of the Shrew scene, where McLintock pursues his wife through the town in her underwear. She and one of the town prostitutes are dunked in a water trough, in a somewhat problematic and sexist scene that climaxes with a good, hard spanking. Meanwhile the daughter falls in love with the ranch hand and they live happy ever after. There must be ten recognizable character actors from westerns in the film, including Strother Martin as a dude Indian agent in spectacles. Jerry Van Dyke as the daughter’s dude boyfriend from college who does a hilarious cakewalk “it’s the latest thing!” A minor classic of the genre.