On the “Gold Diggers” Series

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Playwrights, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , on May 28, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Jazz Age playwright Avery Hopwood (1882-1928). Hopwood was long legendary for the feat of having four successful plays up on Broadway simultaneously, a feat later equaled by Neil Simon.

We have already done an extensive blog on one of the plays Hopwood was associated withThe Bat (1920), although that was primarily a Mary Roberts Rinehart work (Hopwood was called in to finish the third act and doctor the play overall). Today it seems apt to talk about what is now by far Hopwood’s best known legacy: the many versions and incarnations of The Gold Diggers. The best known one Gold Diggers of 1933 has a zillion fans even to this day; but folks may not realize that there was much that came before and much that came after.  


Original Broadway Play (1919)

The concept of the “Gold Digger” was a major part of the zeitgeist during the Jazz Age, when prosperity made for much gold to be dug. The phrase seems initially to have been applied to Peggy Hopkins Joyce, whose many marriages just happened to be to wealthy husbands. It’s not like such scheming isn’t as old as humankind. What was new about Joyce was the unprecedentedly open and frank way that she pursued her goals. Welcome to America! This was a new phenomenon. It inspired many writers, from Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925), to several characters in Fitzgerald.


Ina Claire and Bruce McRae

Hopwood’s The Gold Diggers was early in this cycle. It gives us the familiar kernel of the story: a chorus girl and a rich young man want to get married. Relatives disapprove and try to put a stop to it. Hypocrisy is exposed through funny stratagems, and it is demonstrated that the chorus girl really loves the rich young man (thus proving she is not a heartless monster). The original lead was played by Ina Claire, and the production was a smash hit thanks in part to rave reviews by Alexander Woolcott. 

Hope Hampton

Hope Hampton

The Silent Film (1923)

David Belasco, original producer of the play, also produced the first film version, starring Hope Hampton and Louise Fazenda. Like later versions it was made by Warner Brothers. Sadly the film is now lost.


Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929)

This is the unkindest cut of all. This one is partially lost yet just enough has survived to drive us crazy wishing we could see the rest of it. The earliest years of talkies left us some really incredible documents because of all sorts of factors which capture their moment in a way that Hollywood films which came before and after would be unable to do. Sound (Vitaphone)! Color (Two Strip Technicolor)! More realistic dialogue (Pre-Code)! For the first time Broadway spectacle could be brought to the screen in a way that made sense — and so they went at it, whole hog. Here’s a fragment:

It was the top grossing film of the year and made a screen star (for a time) of Winnie Lightner. Also in the film were Ann Pennington, Nick Lucas (who sang the version of “Tip Toe Through the Tulips” that later inspired Tiny Tim), Lee Moran, and Louise Beavers. It was directed by Roy Del Ruth, who was to marry Lightner a decade later.


Gold Diggers of 1933

Not a sequel per se, but yet another re-make with a new added poignancy (and sympathy for the heroines) because it is the depths of the Great Depression and the girls are literally starving. This (as far as we know) is the apex of the series, though one dreams about Gold Diggers of Broadway. 

Co-directed by Mervyn Leroy and Busby Berkley (musical numbers), and produced by Warner Brothers in much the same style as 42nd Street, which had been released just a couple of months earlier, and with much of the same cast (Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Ned Sparks, Ginger Rogers, and Guy Kibee). Sparks plays a producer who needs cash to put on a musical about the Depression (1933 was the very worst year of that worldwide financial disaster). Songwriter and juvenile Powell turns out to be a Boston Blueblood and underwrites the show — which (thanks to Berkley’s amazing staging) turns out to better than anyone’s wildest fantasies of a live stage show could ever be. Unfortunately Powell’s conservative brother and trustee (Warren William) and family lawyer (Kibee) want to break up his romance with Keeler. As they try to do so, gold-diggers Joan Blondell and Aline McMahon kick into action and eventually get both fuddy duddies to marry them. And a pre-Astaire Ginger Rogers is yet another gold digger. Happy ending, roll credits.


Gold Diggers of 1935 (film)

Some but not all of the luster is lost here. Here Dick Powell is a hotel clerk hired by miserly millionairess Alice Brady to escort her daughter Gloria Stuart. They fall in love though she is actually engaged to a doofus who is writing a monograph on the use of snuff (Hugh Herbert). Meanwhile, because this is a musical, the millionairess is bankrolling an annual charity show for the milk fund, and hires a wacky Russian stage director played by a very funny Adolph Menjou. It’s Busby Berkley’s first film as credited director, though of course he had choreographed many times before. The big number is “Lullaby of Broadway”: it’s brilliantly staged and shot, even surreal—it all takes place in her head, and has an amazing fantasy interlude. Of course it’s all apropos of nothing connected with the movie we’re watching!


Gold Diggers of 1937

This one has the morbid plot of producers and cast taking out a life insurance policy on hypochondriac moneybags Victor Moore so they can finance a show. With the now married team of Dick Powell and Joan Blondell returning, the picture also features Glenda Farrell and even more notably Susan Fleming (better known as Mrs. Harpo Marx). Busby Berkley staged the production numbers once more and Lloyd Bacon directed.


Gold Diggers in Paris (1938)

It’s always been an axiom of mine that you know your franchise has jumped the shark when you have to transplant it to another country for an angle. By these last couple in the series, it is becoming quotidian and a little tired (reminds me of the plots of some of the Fred and Ginger movies). The meat of the farce is that Hugh Herbert is sent to New York to bring back a certain ballet company to Paris. He accidentally books a bunch of chorus girls who work for Rudy Vallee and Allen Jenkins. Learning the truth too late, he hires Fritz Feld and Rosemary Lane to teach the girls ballet on the ship back to France. The fly in the ointment is that one of the French bookers (Melville Cooper) wants to watch rehearsals, and the company has to keep diverting him. The stakes in a scenario are too low to interest me. Give me the early “Gold Diggers”! Seems like the public felt the same way.


Anyway, ya wanna see some LIVE chorus girls? Our revue I’ll Say She Is has a dozen great ones, and first preview at the Connelly Theatre is TONIGHT! I don’t know if there are any gold diggers in the bunch — we should be so lucky that there will be gold BEARERS in the audience, in which case I’ll put on a dress myself! Information and tickets here. 


“I’ll Say She Is” in WSJ & Jewish Week: Opens Tomorrow!

Posted in Comedy Teams, Indie Theatre, Marx Brothers, ME, My Shows, PLUGS with tags , , on May 27, 2016 by travsd


Preview performances for I’ll Say She Is, our revival of the lost 1924 Marx Brothers Broadway musical begin tomorrow! If you didn’t get your ticket yet, the more fool you! But there’s still a chance, just go here. 

The hoopla has already begun with two major preview features, one in the Wall Street Journal and one in Jewish Week.  I’m very excited that the production got this coverage; much less thrilled with my own representation in the pieces. Despite my daily protestations to the contrary, people will persist in identifying me as a “vaudeville historian.” Look at the masthead of this blog, created three years AFTER No Applause was written. Is “historian” among that long list of job titles? It lists everything BUT that. For me, personally, it’s getting dire, and know that I will be taking major steps over the next several months to disabuse people once and for all that I want anything to do with such a role. I have a handful of “Stars of Vaudeville” posts to get out (I do them to publicize my book; for no other reason), and then, my dears, I am stepping the fuck away from that role I never wanted, never asked for, and detest.

Above this, the Jewish Week guy used only my most irrelevant remarks, misrepresented what I said, and then shoe-horned them into some pre-existing point he wanted to make. But I guess the press have always been monsters, and I’m sure there are plenty of you that would include me under that umbrella. At any rate, feel free skip over the parts that have to with me in both pieces. They are rubbish. But I’ll Say She Is is great! Tickets and way more info are here. 

The Governor’s Island Explorer’s Guide

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, PLUGS, Travel with tags , , , , on May 27, 2016 by travsd


A thought occurred to me the other day: New York is such a large, complex and amazing city that events that would be earth-shaking elsewhere can go relatively unnoticed here. Case in point: over the past decade or so, New York has seen the creation of a public park/ tourist destination every bit as eye opening, rewarding and enjoyable as Central Park, Prospect Park, or Ellis Island. I try to get over to Governor’s Island at least once a summer because it offers several things I really love all in one fell swoop: history education, natural beauty, arts and New York craziness (there’s always something going on there), recreation (hiking and biking mostly), a fun boat ride, and above all, it’s a CHEAP day trip.

And now my buddy Kevin Fitzpatrick has come out with THE tourist guide for Governor’s Island. Honestly, I wouldn’t go out there again without this tome in my grubby paw. You may have noticed that I listed “history” first in my litany of things that make me enjoy Governor’s Island. Fitzpatrick’s book is especially good at giving you the run-down on the island’s many incarnations over the centuries (defensive forts, military bases, hospital complexes and the like). He even gives you a breakdown on the history of the fascinating but mysterious-looking buildings that grace the island. When I’m out there, I always go, “”I wonder what that was?” This book tells it. And Kev is a former Marine. He knows whereof he speaks. We don’t usually think of NYC as a military town (apart from Fleet Week), but it certainly has a military past, and Governor’s Island played a major part in it.

The timing of this post isn’t accidental. We’re entering Memorial Day Weekend. To observe the occasion, Kevin Fitzpatrick is having a signing of his great new book at Governor’s Island on Saturday and Sunday. Get all the details here. 

30 % Off Our Books!

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Broadway, Comedians, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Indie Theatre, Marx Brothers, ME, PLUGS, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , on May 27, 2016 by travsd


This just in — and don’t be caught snoozin’! Bear Manor Media has announced a Memorial Day Sale, staring tomorrow May 28, 2016 and running through the end of the month. 30% of all paperback titles! This can’t be beat! Just go to their website (http://www.bearmanormedia.com/) starting tomorrow and use the discount code MDthirty. It’s just that simple!

Now, whenever I go through their catalog, I find I want to own every single book they carry. (e.g.., a new one about Ed Wynn by Garry Berman caught my eye this morning. ). But here’s three in particular I’d like to flog for obvious reasons:

chain of fools cvr front only-500x500

Yes, I know I hustle my book about silent comedy Chain of Fools every day, but here’s your chance to get it at a whopping discount! Order it here. 


Gimme a Thrill, Noah Diamond’s excellent new book about the Odyssey of realizing his dream of getting I’ll Say She Is on the boards. I’m in it, too! Buy it here. 

This is the book that convinced me Bear Manor was A-OK. Steve Stoliar’s amazing testimony about Groucho Marx‘s final days, written by a guy who had front row seats at the car wreck. It’s currently being made into a movie directed by Rob Zombie! To get your copy of Raised Eyebrows, go here.

For these three and much more go to Bear Manor Media, but wait until tomorrow (if you can, that is) because that is when the sale starts, you see.

Century of Slapstick #98: Charlie Chaplin in “Police”

Posted in Century of Slapstick, Charlie Chaplin, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , on May 27, 2016 by travsd


Today marks the 100th anniversary of the release date of the Charlie Chaplin comedy Police.

Police was Chaplin’s last short for Essanay Studios. Rather spitefully, after he left the studio, they later incorporated some of the unused footage from the film in the comedy Triple Trouble.

In Police, Charlie is a burglar just getting out of prison. The meat of the story happens when his character falls in love with Edna Purviance when he and his cohort (Wesley Ruggles) are robbing her house! Edna proves herself a rare angel. She feeds the men a meal (granted it’s to stall them until the titular police arrive). She also courageously tries to stop them from climbing the staircase because she is afraid they will upset her sick, old mother who is sleeping on the second floor. Later, after Charlie takes her side and turns against his own partner, Edna rewards him by shielding him from the police and sending him away with a little grub stake. This time when he walks down the road alone, it is with a spring in his step. We get the feeling that his jubilation is not because of the cash, but because he has just met the first person who’s ever been nice to him.

For more on comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etcchain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500To find out about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

The Duke Since Stagecoach: Wayne’s Westerns 1939-1976

Posted in AMERICANA, Hollywood (History), Westerns with tags , , , , on May 26, 2016 by travsd

It’s John Wayne’s birthday! Why aren’t you having a party? You what? You don’t like John Wayne!? Haha, funny joke! I didn’t hear that! Now I’ve already done a post on Wayne’s early B movie work in westerns of the 1930s. Today I thought I’d do the rest. Obviously, we’re omitting all his non-western work. And remember: we always include spoilers


Stagecoach (1939)

Nowadays John Ford is so much associated with westerns that it is odd to consider that for around a decade they were thought of as part of his past. He’d made his reputation making westerns during the silent era, but when talkies came in his movies tended to be comedies, sea stories and tales of Ireland. Westerns weren’t considered appropriate for A-list directors in the thirties. After the failure of Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail in 1930 (which starred Wayne), the major studios shunned them, although little outfits like Monogram Pictures churned them out as B movies by the bucketload. Stagecoach marked Ford’s return to the genre, and the start date of its rehabilitation as mainstream, serious entertainment. The great period will last another twenty years, then tapering off in the sixties.

I consider Stagecoach one of the best, most perfect movies ever, western or no, bar none. Its screenplay (by Dudley Nichols, with uncredited work by Ben Hecht) has become a sort of a template that has been copied countless times since and in many genres: the little microcosm of misfits trapped in a dangerous situation.

The film (like most of Ford’s westerns) was shot in Arizona’s gorgeous, iconic Monument Valley.  The stagecoach, run by Andy Devine, is set to make its usual run, but the cavalry rides up to inform him that Geronimo is on the warpath so the army will be providing an escort. The passengers include a prostitute (Claire Trevor) and the drunken town doctor (Thomas Mitchell), both forced to leave town by a morality committee. Also on board is an oddly religious whiskey salesman (Thomas Meek) and a pregnant lady (Louise Platt). At the last second, three others get on board: the sheriff  (George Bancroft), for protection; the town banker, because he has just stolen the contents of the bank’s safe (Berton Churchill); and a gambler (John Carradine), who is a son of the South and is chivalrously drawn to protect the pregnant lady, also of the south (whom he recognizes as the daughter of his old Confederate general). Just outside of town, they pick up Wayne as the Ringo Kid, an escaped convict with a heart of gold. Stagecoach was to be the breakthrough film for Wayne, who’d starred in the ill-fated The Big Trail, and had been relegated to low-budget B movies ever since.

Soon, the cavalry bails on them (“we have our orders”, a constant theme in westerns: the letter vs. spirit of the law) and they are on their own. Another major theme is honest goodness vs. hypocrisy. Very Christian in the real sense. The downtrodden, though “bad” by society’s standards, are stripped of pretension and therefore free to be honestly good. The characters in this camp are the doctor, the prostitute (who cares for the pregnant woman’s baby even though the pregnant woman shunned her) and the Ringo Kid (who treats the prostitute like a lady when everyone else treats her like a pariah. Unlike the other men, here the Kid is the REAL gentleman). The gambler is sort of in the middle. He lives by the code of chivalry, the letter rather than the spirit of the law. Though he is a gambler, we approve of his single-minded protection of the pregnant lady. Yet, he is among those who are cruel to the prostitute, and — in a beautiful, terrible moment at the climax, when it looks like they will be captured by Indians, he is about to shoot her in the head rather than let her be raped. Ford clearly disapproves of this impulse, and lets us off the hook when Carradine gets an arrow in him at the last second. The cavalry arrives anyway, but if she had been captured by Indians…well, he comes back to that question in The Searchers. The other major hypocrite is the banker, a blowhard who speechifies about the American economy, etc, while he is nothing more than a cowardly thief.

Great touches in the film : Andy Devine calling out to his team of horses (“yah!”) as they speed along: it’s magical, reminds me of Santa Claus and his reindeer. The team running (especially against the backdrop of the gigantic mesas) is a beautiful sight. And then there is Yakima Canutt’s famous stunt that made it look like the Ringo Kid crawled under the rig as it charged along — a spectacular moment.

Following the hair-raising climax, with the stagecoach chased by Indians and nearly caught, then rescued by cavalry. At this stage, you’d think the movie is over, but there’s an added prize, a climax after the climax. A showdown between the Ringo Kid and the three brothers he wants to kill. How do you think it turns out?


The Dark Command (1940)

A story about the Confederate bushwhacker Quantrill (here rendered as “Cantrell”, and played by Walter Pidgeon at his most wooden) pretending to be a solid citizen by day while doing his evil deeds by night. We know he is evil right off the bat when he makes his mother (Marjorie Main) masquerade as his housekeeper because it looks better. The more interesting angles to the film are meta, though. A) it reunites John Wayne with director Raoul Walsh, who’d starred him in his first western ten years earlier. 2) it reunites him with Claire Trevor, with whom he’d starred in Stagecoach  the year before. 3) there are certain little touches that seem thrown in to take advantage of the success of Gone with the Wind, also released the year before—a manse, a rich Scottish southern patriarch, slaves, bits about chivalry etc.

It is the eve of the Civil War—Kansas is divided among Northern and Southern sympathizers. Wayne, a Texan rides into town with Gabby Hayes, his partner, a traveling dentist and bearer of comic relief. Their usual scam is for Wayne to get in scraps with locals so “Doc Crunch” can fix their teeth. Wayne wins the election for Marshall in Laurence, Kansas—beating out Cantrell who vows and delivers bloody revenge. Claire Trevor is the socialite whom the two butt heads over. Cantrell wins, but we know he’ll die bloody so Wayne will get her in the end. Trevor’s kid brother is played by Roy Rodgers in a rare real role. This was Republic’s biggest and most successful picture til that point. This despite that ridiculous title, which says nothing!


The Spoilers (1942) 

This is magical film. Feels like it ought to be a classic and I’m at a loss as to why it isn’t. Maybe because it has the word “spoil” in the title? Set in Nome Alaska in 1900 (and a remake of earlier films). John Wayne and Marlene Deitrich are a couple. He’s sort of a rough character, a miner with the largest mine in the area; she is a dance hall girl. They are passionately in love with each other. Then strangers come into town and upset everything, both putting a wedge into their relationship but also scheming to take their money. The beautiful part is the construction. Wayne and Dietrich are superficially “bad”, but that just means sensuous and wild. They are actually good people. They are both momentarily distracted by newcomers who are superficially solid citizens Randolph Scott as a mining commissioner; Margaret Lindsay is the judge’s daughter. But both of these characters are schemers and part of a crooked plan to take over the gold. Wayne breaks up with Diterich and his partner but in the end it all gets sewn up together. Great art direction and great staging of action. Dietrich’s dance hall girl is clearly based on her one in Destry Rides Again. (“Little Joe” is even on the soundtrack). Having her, Wayne and Scott in the same picture is a rare confluence of western icons.


In Old California (1942)

John Wayne plays against type as a pharmacist dude from Boston who moves to California to set up a shop. Any doubts about his manhood are quickly dispelled when he bends coins in his fingers. This character is my favorite kind of hero. Cheerfully unmoved by threats. Does what he sets out to do, apparently oblivious to intimidation. On the boat to Sacramento he runs afoul of the territorial extortionist when he dares to treat a man he has just shot in the hand. He and his comical sidekick Edgar Kennedy (whom he earlier befriended when, Androcles-like, he cured his tootheache) are thrown overboard, but they press on to Sacramento anyway. He is partners with the boss’s girlfriend in the shop; then encourages the whole town to band together against the boss’s intimidation. The boss schemes to get rid of him: poisons the medicine in his shop. The town blames Wayne’s incompetence and are about to lynch him when he is saved by the announcement of gold at Sutter’s Mill. Later, as he is about to close up shop for good he learns of a typhoid epidemic in the mining camp. He convinces everyone to help him deliver medicine. The bad guy schemes to steal the medicine so he can sell it at high prices. But he and his men all get sick during the gunfight. Meanwhile, Wayne hooks up with his dance hall partner who has turned out to have a heart of gold; the proper lady he was going to marry turned out to be coldly indifferent to the plight of the sick. Kennedy marries the love interest’s comic sidekick, Patsy Kelly.


Tall in the Saddle (1944) 

The forties seem to be John Wayne’s (and the western’s) awkward age. Movies like this want to, and ought to, be more than kiddie matinee idol fare, but they still are somehow. This one is all about a land grab — a convoluted plot wherein Wayne is sent for by a cattle baron and arrives only to learn that the man has been killed. Gabby Hayes, the drunken stage coach driver who takes him to this remote part of the desert becomes his sidekick. He becomes torn between two women: a hotheaded spitfire who runs her own ranch and a protected and helpless Eastern niece of the dead cattle baron, whom the whole town seems to be preying upon, including her own aunt. The bulk of the plot concerns an apparent scheme to defraud the niece of her property. In the end, we are given three surprising twists: Wayne is the actual heir to the ranch; the mastermind of the scheme is the mild-mannered, bespectacled stepfather of the spitfire; and Wayne chooses the spitfire over the Eastern girl. How we get there is convoluted and torturous. the sort of plot best spread out over a serial. The movie has several memorable scenes, though, and is plenty enjoyable.


Flame of Barbary Coast (1945) 

John Wayne as a Montana cattleman who shows up in San Francisco to collect a debt. He gambles at a casino and wins big and the opens his own casino. There is plenty of light comedy as Wayne romances a singing dance hall girl. William Frawley plays a professional gambler who teaches Wayne his tricks. There is a spectacular staging of the San Francisco earthquake and fire, which appears as a sort of deux ex machina, after 60 minutes of rivalry and tension. This film is one of an interesting subgenre that lies right in the middle of westerns and gangster pictures: movies set in San Francscio, old Chicago or New York City in the 19th century. There aren’t many of them .  I would think they’d be expensive to produce.


Fort Apache (1948)

Fort Apache is the first in Ford’s so-called “Cavalry Trilogy”, the other two pictures being She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande. It is one of the first Hollywood movies to acknowledge that Native Americans actually have a perspective and that they may often (probably more often than not) be in the right.

The story is essentially a fictionalization of Custer’s Last Stand, transplanted from Sioux country to Apache Country. Wayne is a seasoned cavalry officer with much experience in Indian relations who is passed over for promotion to commander of Fort Apache, an army outpost in the middle of the desert. The job goes to a political appointee, a by-the-book, vain martinet played by Henry Fonda, in one of his best performances. Fonda considers the assignment to be a type of exile — he’d rather be fighting “great nations like the Sioux or Comanche”. Wayne’s character knows better — he respects the Apache. The film is all about class distinction, prejudice, and the military life. Fonda’s character is a snob who won’t let his daughter (Shirley Temple) date one of his young officers (John Agar) because he is Irish, and the son of a colorful sergeant at the post (Ward Bond). And in a dispute between the Indians and the crooked federal agent with whom they have a grievance, he sees it as his duty to side with the agent. It inevitably ends in a massacre, one in which Fonda redeems himself somewhat by choosing to die with the men he has incompetently sent to their deaths.

It’s hard to pick my favorite Ford film, but this one is way up there — I think every American schoolkid should see this movie. My only quibble is a coda at the end where Wayne’s character pays lip service to duty, probably obligatory to keep the movie from seeming too seditious. But this is a Hollywood movie after all — our eyes are wide open to the politics that inform and complicate its products.


 Three Godfathers (1948)

This one is a remake of his own 1919 silent Marked Men, and is dedicated to one of the stars of the original film Harry Carey, who had died the previous year.

This is one of my favorite Ford films, yet I had never heard of it til I started my westerns project in 2007. It seems to me vastly better than the better-known Cavalry Trilogy or My Darling Clementine for example. Full of breath-taking, jaw dropping photography, it is a tale of redemption, based on the story of the Three Kings in the Gospels, but with a twist.

John Wayne and his two buddies (a Mexican played by Pedro Armendariz and a kid played by Harry Carey, Jr.) are cattle rustlers. They decide to rob a bank in a small town. Before they do, they meet a guy (Ward Bond) tending his flowers in the front yard and tease him about his name: “B. Sweet”. But they hit it off with him. His wife (Mae Marsh) makes them coffee. Just as they leave, they learn that he is the sheriff. He is suspicious, but just as he digs out their wanted posters, he hears them rob the bank. The sheriff and his men shoot at the departing crooks, winging the kid.

The three hightail it into the desert. They don’t have much water. What little there is they reserve for the kid. They elude their posse of pursuers for awhile, but wherever they expect to find water, they can’t get it. At a certain stop they find a wagon that has met distress. It happens to have been the wagon of some relatives of Ward Bond. The husband was a greenhorn who accidentally destroyed the water hole with dynamite, lost his cattle, and killed himself. His suffering wife (Mildred Natwick) is now going into labor. With the men’s help, she delivers the baby. Then she dies, making the men godfathers and giving them the responsibility of caring for the baby.

There is a brief comical section that seems to be the inspiration for Three Men and a Baby. But it gets quite serious. They have a tiny amount of water and condensed milk. Their horses were lost during a sandstorm. They seem likely to die. But the kid believes a passage in the open Bible will give him direction. So they start to head out on foot for New Jerusalem. They literally follow a star.

It is a tough ordeal. First the kid collapses and dies. Then the Mexican trips and breaks his leg. As Wayne departs with the baby, the Mexican shoots himself, the only option. Wayne is really dragging at this point. He lets himself give up. But the ghosts of his friends (whether they be angels or hallucinations is left up to the viewer) rally him. He makes it all the way to town and goes into the saloon where the piano player is playing “Silent Night”. Then he collapses. The sheriff catches up to him here. Along the way he has gone from admiring Wayne’s ingenuity to being ready to kill him on sight (he thinks he murdered the family and dynamited the water hole). But the story of the baby changes everything. The two men become buddies as he originally predicted. But Wayne will have to do some time (about a year). And he will get custody of the kid when he comes out. The town (Welcome, Arizona) is ready to welcome him with open arms, and he even has a girl waiting for him. Not bad!


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. 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.


The Fighting Kentuckian (1949)

Wayne self-produced this one for Republic. Surprisingly, a love story is at the heart of this one, too. This is less a western than a “southern”. A very strange milieu. A small colony of post-Napoleonic French live in Alabama as refugees. A regiment of Kentucky soldiers marching back from New Orleans battles with General Jackson (War of 1812) passes through. Wayne falls in love with a French girl who is engaged to marry a businessman with a mustache (tell-tale earmarks of villainy in a western). Lots of shenanigans about land swindles. A bunch of sharks have moved the stakes marking out the land that was granted to the Frenchmen by the U.S .Government, invalidating their claims. Wayne straightens it all out and wins over the girl’s parents (he’d already won over the girl in the first 15 seconds).

Oliver Hardy is predictably terrific as the sidekick, a job he took reluctantly while Stan Laurel was laid up with an injury. Everyone ought to see this.


She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

This is the second film of Ford’s so-called Cavalry Trilogy. To me, the human drama is less strong in terms of conflict than in the other two (Fort Apache and Rio Grande), but it has some of the prettiest color cinematography I’ve ever seen (indeed TCM is showing it tonight in salute to the 100th anniversary of the advent of Technicolor). The film, shot in Monument Valley, won an Oscar for Best Cinematography in 1950.

In this film, John Wayne does something he almost never does — play a character other than John Wayne.  He dons make-up, mustache (and occasionally eyeglasses) to age himself 20 years to portray a retiring cavalry captain. This character is mellower, even nicer than most of his famous roles. He is a beloved figure at the frontier outpost where he’s stationed. It’s 1876, we are in the southwest someplace, in the wake of Custer’s Last Stand. All the major Indian tribes of the west are banding together for one last decisive battle. Wayne is supposed to take his unit out for one last patrol, on which he is also escorting two ladies (his commander’s wife and niece, playued by Mildred Natwick and Joanne Dru) from the post to the stagecoach to get them to safety. But there is peril all along the way; he must return to the fort with them. Wayne wants to return to the detachment he left out in the field and finish the fight with the Indians, but his commander (George O’Brien) doesn’t let him as he is technically retired. Wayne does it anyway and receives a promotion to chief of scouts.

The title of the film comes from song of course, and the cavalry tradition of sweethearts wearing a yellow ribbon for their soldiering beaux. The niece in the story is a coquette, playing one young lieutenant (John Agar) off another (Harry Carey, Jr), and even flirting with Wayne. She wears the ribbon for all three. (Eventually she chooses the worthier of the two lieutenants). The story’s human drama is supposed to come from that triangle, but with the exception of Wayne the actors are all too weak. This is a frequent weakness is Ford’s films. He seems either not to give a hoot about casting, or to know or care too little about the actor’s art, in comparison with his genius for shooting, editing and story construction. Very few of his films don’t have that flaw. To offset his trio of generic mannequins, however, the film at least gives us Ben Johnson as Tyree, a knowledgeable and humble southern sergeant, and Victor McLagen as the usual Irish drunken comic relief.


Rio Grande (1950)
A terrific movie. The third in the so-called “Cavalry Trilogy”.  Like all the best ones, is not just a movie about Indian fighting, but is also a drama about the people in that situation. And not just a drama, but an INTERESTING DRAMA, an INTERESTING situation, otherwise why bother to write and film the damn thing? In this one, John Wayne is the commanding colonel of a very rough cavalry fort in West Texas Apache country. The post is undermanned. The men live in tents inside the stockade. A new group of recruits shows up. There are 18 of them; Wayne had asked for 180. One of them turns out to be his son, very young and recently thrown out of West Point for having flunked math. Wayne hasn’t seen him in 15 years. This is the compelling hook for this whole film, and feels surprisingly grown-up, the way it is handled. Wayne and the boy’s mother (Maureen O’Hara) split up during the Civil War. She was a Virginian. He, a Union officer, under Sheridan. His worst crime in her eyes was, under Sheridan’s orders, participating in burning everything in the Shenandoah Valley, including her family plantation. Now she comes to the fort and tries to get his son out of the army. Both father and son refuse to comply. One of the many strands of the story is the father-son relationship, which we admire. Neither father nor son believe in privilege. Wayne treats the boy like any recruit, talks to him the same, doesn’t break up a fight he has having with another man. We admire this. This is American–democracy. And the absence of this spirit is un-American!

The action plot is a little more run-of-the-mill, but interesting enough, the way Ford handles it. The Apaches are preparing to go on the warpath. They keep attacking and retreating into Mexico over the Rio Grande where the American army can’t pursue them. Now Sheridan gives Wayne’s character unofficial permission to take the fight over into Mexico. Wayne sends the women and children out in a separate wagon train to safety, but this wagon train gets attacked. The Apachees take the children as hostages. (The scene is sanitized of course. No massacre, no deflowering of women, and only four troopers dead.) Wayne’s troops arrive. They send three men including Wayne’s to infiltrate the Apache camp and protect the children for the main camp. They are successful. The kids are rescued. Wayne is shot by an arrow. The son pulls it out. Wayne now — finally — calls him “son”. Then they all get medals pinned on them by Sheridan.



Angel and the Badman (1951)

A Republic picture, much better than their usual fare, because produced by and starring a now powerful and well-seasoned John Wayne. The plot anticipates the better known High Noon, the tension between Quaker pacifism and Western style justice with a gun, tension brought to the fore because a gunslinger loves a Quaker woman. In this story, Wayne plays Quirt Evans, a former deputy of Wyatt Earp and now somewhat-fringe-character, who collapses, gunshot, on the property of a family of Quakers on their Arizona farm. They nurse him back to health for several weeks, with help of cynical and atheistical but good-hearted doctor. The completely foxy Quaker daughter (Gail Russell) falls in love with him, despite the fact that he talks about other women in his sleep.

A Quartet of bad guys, led by one “Laredo”  comes looking for him. A stand off. He sells his claim to them. Quert stays on at the ranch at the instigation of the girl. He convinces a mean neighbor to release the water he’s been withholding. When the mean neighbor meets the Quakers (who heal his boil and give him pie) he becomes nice. This influences Quert. Two inciting incidents cause him to backpeddle and flee. When he goes to meeting with the family though and meets a rival suitor who is just the sort of milktoast he doesn’t want to become. Also, his old buddy has shown up with a proposal to foil Laredo in a cattle rustling. This they do, then go to a saloon, get in a big brawl and cavort with chippies. But this strikes him wrong, too. He goes back to the Quaker farm. He proposes to the girl, and stops carrying a gun. Of course the gang comes after him then and chases him and the girl on a wagon, and drive them over a cliff into the river far below. She seems to be dying of pneumonia. Quert goes to kill the gang in the center of town. At the last second, the Quakers drive up in their wagon, with the girl very much alive. He puts down his gun. The bad guys are about to shoot him anyway—then out of nowhere, the marshall shoots them. Quert will now be a farmer.


 The Searchers (1956)

John Ford’s masterpiece. Texas 1868. John Wayne is a Confederate vet (and outlaw). His family is massacred by Comanches. (The film’s most memorable scene: the horrible tension when the family realizes Indians are coming and they’re all alone. They put the lights out. The daughter screams, goes into hysterics. They hide). Wayne takes a large posse out to look for her, led by Ward Bond, who is both a reverend and a captain in the Texas Rangers. Also along is Wayne’s adopted nephew (Jeffery Hunter), who is an Indian or half-breed.

They keep on the chase long after the rest of the posse quits. One niece is raped and killed. (Wayne is called upon to do some of the most emotional acting of his career in the scene where he finds her. He doesn’t quite pull it off but he gets an A for trying). Another niece (Natalie Wood) is kidnapped. Wayne is mean to the boy the whole time though he has more reason to want his sister back than Wayne does. Wayne is merely an angry man who wants blood payment. In time, the posse drops out and it’s just Wayne and the young man. When they finally reach the girl, several years later, she is now a squaw, the wife of a chief. Wayne wants to kill her. The kid won’t let him. They bring the girl back to live with another family. The film has a lot in common with Red River: an epic cross-country quest led by Wayne with an Ahab-like obsessiveness, and countered by a younger, more reasonable young man, who’d been raised as a son from infancy as an adopted foundling. Wayne’s catchphrase: “That’ll be the day”. The film has Ford’s most famous shot, going from the inside of the cabin to the gorgeous outside of Monument Valley. And the reverse, at the end of the picture. The theme song puts a chill up my spine. This picture makes me wanna bawl just thinkin’ about how great it is.


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?


The Horse Soldiers (1959)

I give this one honorable mention here, though technically it is a Civil War story as opposed to a western. John Wayne (doing some of the best acting of his career) is a Union colonel, leading his troops deep into Confederate territory to meet up with Grant’s army at Vicksburg. There will be no support the whole way; they are completely on their own. William Holden is an army doctor who’s been assigned to the unit. Wayne has an irrational hatred of him, which we later learn is because a sawbones had killed Wayne’s wife years ago, and she hadn’t even been sick. At one point Holden loses a patient and the two men have a terrific fistfight. At another point, Holden removes a bullet from Wayne’s leg without anesthesia and Wayne actually acts the moment well! Denver Pyle and Strother Martin play a couple of reb deserters.  Hoot Gibson also has a role as an elderly soldier. Terrific movie.


North to Alaska (1960)

A sort of remake of the Spoilers. Less a western than a romantic comedy with a Far North setting. John Wayne and Stewart Granger are partners in a gold mine near Nome Alaska in 1900 (Alaska had just become a state when this film was made, perhaps arguing for the bankability of this setting). Fabian plays Granger’s kid brother (naturally, he is a terrible actor, and the song he sings is boring.). The partners have struck it rich, are millionaires. Granger sends Wayne down to Seattle to retrieve his bride so he can marry her. But Granger has taken too long to summon her. When Wayne gets there, his girl is already married. So Wayne brings back another french girl from the whore house, played by the gorgeous Capucine. Of course, the movie is about how Wayne and Capucine are actually in love but don’t admit it. They eventually do.

There really isn’t much more to it than that. The more conventional western elements are just kind of tacked on. Ernie Kovacs is terrific as a swindler. It isn’t until an hour into the film that we hit some conflict about claims jumpers. And the film is bookended by two huge, epic shameless slapstick brawls complete with cartoon sound effects and sight gags. It’s not as embarrassing as it should be. It comes across more as perplexing, even intriguing. What was the genesis of THAT choice? At any rate, the VERY best part of the film is the theme song at the top of the film. If one saw no more of it then that, one would not have wasted ones time.


The Alamo (1960)

Boy, if you think about it, how ballsy, to make your first directorial effort this large scale, big budget epic about an important chapter in American history. I feel like it paves the way for later guys like Mel Gibson, George Clooney, Kevin Costner — nothing to do but to do it, so they do it. The quality of this film and those more modern stars to me is similar. It is not disgracefully executed, but it is somehow impersonal. As though it is the Hollywood machinery that is truly getting the job done; the actor turned director is just barely, breathlessly, keeping his hands on the wheels and grateful in the end to be able to park this complicated vehicle without crashing.

The sets are gorgeous and realistic, and we are — not surprisingly — reminded of Ford. An all star cast: director/producer/star John Wayne as Davy Crockett (who shows up with a band of drunken Tennessee volunteers), Richard Boone as Sam Houston (general of the Texican army), Laurence Harvey as Col. Travis (the martinet commander of the Alamo whom I happen to be named after), Richard Widmark as Jim Bowie, and Frankie Avalon, as yet another young 50s pop singer who can’t act but is stuck into a western anyway.

The three hour plus length is appropriate to this subject, but Wayne doesn’t make the best use of those hours, sending us down detours about fictional love interests and some fairly embarrassing speechifying about ideals. The battle scenes are quite impressive, though, and worth waiting for. In the end, though, we are curiously unmoved about this amazingly heroic and somewhat quixotic act by a handful of men. The emotional heart of the story feels somehow neglected even as the events are technically depicted. A lesson there.


The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

One of Ford’s best films — a literal argument about justice: guns vs. laws. You might say it’s a little TOO literal, the characters overtly have the conversation many times. It might be more rewarding and more cinematic to just tell the story and have the audiences draw their own conclusions. But that’s a tricky business. I have found that you cannot underestimate the obtuseness of audiences. Sometimes the way of the sledgehammer is best.

The story is told in flashback. Jimmy Stewart, as an important senator (rehearsing the way he’ll actually talk in 15 years), and Vera Miles, his wife, return to the fictional town of Shinbone for a funeral. The editors of the local paper are perplexed that this important man has come back for a pauper’s funeral for a man they never heard of, so Stewart tells his story. The bulk of the film takes place in flashback.

A stagecoach robbery. Stewart, as Ransom Stoddard, a young lawyer is among the passengers. He defends a young lady and is brutally beaten for his pains. He vows to put the men who did it in jail. The crooks literally rip his lawbooks, in one of the film’s many symbolic gestures. John Wayne as Tom Donovan, a healthy, good-natured (and good hearted, but tough) rancher, finds Stewart and brings him to his sweetheart Hally’s (Miles) house. Hally and her Swedish parents nurse Stoddard back to health. Stoddard is appalled that everyone knows that the robber is Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), and that this Valance character is allowed to roam about to commit his crimes with impunity. He vows to try him in a court of law. Wayne insists that guns are the only way to deal with Valance. Stewart vows not to carry a gun. [Sidenote: the actors are both about 50 here, playing men 20 or 30 years their junior. This makes it singularly strange that in only 7 years Wayne will play Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, as though he’d aged 6 times that span in the intervening time.]

The name “Liberty” seems symbolic. Invariably spoken of as a good thing in our culture, in its pure form it can also be a negative: anarchy, crime. And Valance (which you must admit is a weird name) sounds awfully like “violence”.

To earn his keep, Stewart helps in the restaurant. In the old west this is woman’s work. Liberty and his gang come in, and steal some other guy’s meal. Liberty is one of the best (i.e., worst) villains in movie history. A mean son of a bitch who never has a single redeeming moment. Every gesture is rude and violent, he literally smashes every object he touches. His gang is also the best (worst) gang ever, including Lee Van Cleef (later a major star in spaghetti westerns) and Strother Martin as a loathsome, sadistic, giggling weirdo. They call Stewart a “waitress”, then trip him for sport. Unfortunately, he was carrying John Wayne’s meal, which allows Wayne to defend Stewart without seeming to. There is a standoff between Donovan and Valance. Stewart yells at them both and picks up the steak. He is good and humiliated.

At the same time, Stewart becomes a prominent citizen in the town. He strikes up a friendship with the drunken newspaper editor (Edmond O’Brien) and hangs his shingle as a lawyer there, and also teaches school to both children and grownups, merging lessons in reading and writing with civics. He is an idealist and a born politician. Now it emerges things are getting worse. There is a looming political battle between big free range cattle ranchers who want to maintain territorial status (in this fictional, unspecified territory), and small farmers with fences who want statehood and law and order. The cattle ranchers hire Valance to terrorize the little guys. Nevertheless, the town elects Stewart and the editor to be their delegates. Valance vows to kill them both. It looks like Stewart will escape (Wayne encourages him to do so but he may have an ulterior motive beyond goodness. He’d like to get him away from Hally, his girl). The bad guys beat up the editor and destroy his office. This enrages Stewart, giving him courage to stay. He takes a gun and intends to shoot it out with Valance. Valance plays with him, shoots around him, shoots him in the arm. Just as he is about to kill him, Stewart shoots, apparently killing Valance.

On the reputation of this, combined, almost superficially, with his gifts for law and politics, Stewart is renowned throughout the territory and going to be made a congressman. (He runs against John Carradine as a hilarious windbag of the old school). Stewart is in a bind. He doesn’t want to glorify killing, or be highly regarded for being a killer (he wants the law to prevail). Furthermore, he is open to criticism, justifiable if true, for being a killer. He is about to bow out when Wayne puts him right. He himself had killed Valance from the shadows. Ironically, now Stewart feels it’s alright, and goes in and excepts the nomination. But most importantly (a point Ford doesn’t stress enough til later) he doesn’t announce he wasn’t the real killer. He lies. He uses the reputation to become an important man. Meanwhile, Wayne, heartbroken at his loss of Hally (which he perceives as she tenderly tends the wounded Stewart in the earlier scene) gets drunk and goes and burns down the house he was building for them to move into when they are married. There is great irony here. Somehow every good gesture Wayne does enriches Stewart and hurts himself. This is what makes it a great, rich story and not just an argument about justice. At any rate, in the end, Donovan (Wayne) dies unknown in the town he helped save, and Stoddard (Stewart) is one of the most important men in the country, and a bit of pettifogging fool, besides. His wife knows the truth and so does he. And the lie will go on: “When the legend becomes truth, print the legend”.  Irony– “Nothing’s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance”.


How the West Was Won (1962)

This is a movie that I have great affection for, despite many failings. For my full write up on it, go here. The portion that Wayne is in occurs during an interlude when the film detours from the west, where it has hitherto been focused: (America also has a “north” and a “south”, as the narration helpfully tells us) for a digression to the Civil War. We have a single shot of Raymond Massey as Abraham Lincoln, sagely signing a paper. We catch up with Carol Baker on her farm. Jimmy Stewart is with the Union Army as a Captain. Andy Devine comes around as a neighbor now in uniform and encourages her son George Peppard to join. Stewart dies at Shiloh. Peppard kills confederate Russ Tamblyn at Shiloh when he is about to assassinate General Grant (Harry Morgan) while he talks with Gen. Sherman (John Wayne, in a cameo). Then he returns home and learns both parents are dead so he will re-enlist and fight Indians.


McLintock (1963)

I am tempted to call this movie best non-spoof comedy western. 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.



The sons of Katie Elder (1965) 

A cool film for the simple reason that it manages to have an original story–so few of them do. Four ne’er-do-well brothers return to their mother’s funeral in a southwest (Texas) town: John Wayne (a gunfighter), Dean Martin (a conman and gambler), Earl Holliman (just a loser I guess), and the always irritating Michael Anderson (a college student who was supposed to be the mother’s hope, but doesn’t want to be in college). Most people in the town revile them for not having been worthy of their sainted mother–never wrote, never sent money. They learn that the father (a sort of lowlife whom they all take after) was also killed, shot in the back after being swindled out of his ranch in a card game. The four get to the bottom of the mystery (whom everyone in town is reluctant to divulge). The always excellent James Gregory is the villain, with Dennis Hopper as his son. It ends with massive shootout as always. Earl Holliman is killed. Dean Martin shot in the back, and the bad guy killed.


El Dorado (1967)

One of Howard Hawks’ last pictures. It’s about two warring ranchers, one of whom is an evil cattle baron played by Ed Asner. John Wayne is a hired gun. On the advice of his old friend the sheriff (Mitchum) he decides not to work for Asner. On his way back, he accidentally shoots the young son of the neighbor. In retaliation, the daughter shoots Wayne. The bullet lodges near the spine, threatening paralysis. Wayne leaves for a time (to Mexico), where he hooks up with one “Mississippi” (James Caan) who is adept with knives, but can’t shoot. They hear that Mitchum has become a drunk, and Asner has hired some very bad killers. Wayne and Caan ride back to help the sheriff.

We are now at the very same formula that made a success of Rio Bravo. In fact, it’s almost exactly identical to that earlier picture. Asner gets thrown into jail and the bad guys are going to spring him (just like in Rio Bravo). And we have the same quartet of good guys. A drunk (now Mitchum as a sheriff, instead of Dean Martin as a deputy), John Wayne, a kid (now James Caan instead of Ricky Nelson), and the sidekick — here an old Indian fighter (Arthur Hunnicutt) in buckskin and carrying a bugle, instead of Walter Brennan. The movie sort of unravels and becomes dull. Lots of business about trying to sober up the sheriff. Lots of shoot outs. But Wayne’s paralysis keeps kicking in, gumming up the works. The end looks hopeless (Mitchum has been shot, too), but they manage to pull it off anyway.


The War Wagon (1967)

A fairly dumb movie. Wayne for once is cast a little against type as a guy who gets out of prison to seek revenge on the man who swindled him out of his ranch and framed him. To do it, he devises an ingenious caper . (this is what’s against type. The Wayne we all know would just walk right up to his enemy fearlessly and call him out right then and there. Stealing is sneaky — and somewhat cowardly, when you think about it). To help him with his plan, he enlists Kirk Douglas, a top gunslinger AND safecracker (a rather unlikely combination); Keenan Wynn as a cranky, thieving old nut who’s the “inside man”; Howard Keel as a half-breed who enlists the help of some Indians; and the always terrible Robert Walker Jr. as a drunken young (another unlikely combination) explosives expert. (where did he get such expertise at age 18? And a teenage alcoholic is unqualifiededly sad — no shoehorning that into a light comedy as they try to do here). They devise a plan to steel the robber baron’s gold shipment (gold on Wayne’s property is what prompted the swindle). The bad guy’s pride and joy is a special armored stage coach, the real star of the film. The ironclad coach has a gatling-gun turret and is guarded by 33 armed guards. The film’s ostensible reward is seeing how these five mildly amusing misfits take the stage. In the end, they do. And that’s about it!

There is a really hokey theme song — hokey enough that you wonder if it’s for real. Since this movie is semi-comical, makes me wonder if they were trying to do a bit of a Cat Ballou. (the fact that it’s about a good guy doing a crime in order to right a wrong also reinforces that idea). Bruce Dern has a bit part as a lackey but is shot dead early in the picture.


True Grit (1969)

An absolutely terrific movie in nearly every respect. I believe it has the best written dialogue of any western.  I’m not aware of any better. It has that incredible 19th century music to it, and is written with a wit and charm–almost every line is somehow priceless. This is the film that defines late Wayne. His last few pictures will be variations on this character, Rooster Cogburn. An old man, but still vigorous and tough (although in this case with a drinking habit and a patch over one eye).

There is a bit of social commentary in it, an acknowledgment that times are changing, and so is the audience. The engine for the plot is a single-minded girl, played by Kim Darby. Her father has been murdered and she wants to get the killer at whatever cost. Hard to tell how old this short-haired tomboy is supposed to be — maybe 15 or 16. But she has been her father’s book-keeper and business manager on the ranch. She is a tenacious and uncompromising negotiator and always gets what she wants. It is a terrific character, extremely likable because of how unlikable she is. We admire her although we would not want to have to deal with her, and there is much comic business about how she bests everyone she encounters, mostly men of experience who begin to regard her as a kind of plague. (most hilarious is a horse dealer, played by Strother Martin). With feminism in the air, there is a kind of statement here. The girl is as strong as the men (“She reminds me of me!” says Wayne). It’s neither good nor bad, it’s just a fact. It’s a far cry from the usual painted damsels who adorn most westerns. She hires US Marshal Rooster Cogburn, reputed to be fearless, to find her father’s killer. Cogburn — like Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, originally written for Wayne, as well — is a statement. A courtroom scene makes it plain. He is a shoot ‘em up guy, and the courts are getting too liberal. But we know he’s an alright guy—his room-mate and best friend is Chinese: again, just a fact. Also along for the ride is Glenn Campbell as a vain, self-important Texas Ranger. (Campbell is a terrible actor but he sings the title song).

They start out in western Arkansas and head into Indian territory (Oklahoma) where the killer has hooked up with a band of outlaws led by Robert Duvall. They trail the men (much violence) with a climax in which Cogburn single-handedly rides up to the remaining four outlaws, guns blazing, and kills them all. Meanwhile, Campbell has been killed and the girl has a broken arm and a rattlesnake bite. Cogburn rushes her back to safety.


The Undefeated (1969)

A new phase John Wayne western. More violent than its predecessors. It’s the end of the Civil War. Wayne is a colonel who musters out out the ten men left in his outfit, to round up some horses to sell to the army at a profit so they can return to their native Oklahoma to start their new lives with some capital. Among his men are Ben Johnson and Dub Taylor as the cook. Parallel to this, Rock Hudson is a Confederate colonel who is taking what remains of his regiment, along with their families down to mexico to regroup and to continue the war. The two groups cross paths during the journey when Wayne decides to sell his horses to the Mexican emperor rather than the U.S. (the bureaucrats wouldn’t meet his price). Unfortunately, rebel Juaristas kidnap Hudson’s people and threaten to kill them unless Wayne gives them his horses. He does. A kind of uninteresting (if nice) ending to a rambling story. You could probably cut 20 minutes out of it. Interminable scenes of “bonding”, and a yawn inducing brawl at the Fourth of July picnic. In addition to more graphic violence, the film is also racy in depicting a romance between a white girl and Wayne’s full Cherokee ward.


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.


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.

big jake 800x600

Big Jake (1971)

A great movie, well constructed and entertaining — yet really out of step in the era of Little Big Man and McCabe and Mrs. Miller. As they had been in Rio Grande and McClintock, John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara play an estranged couple who really love one another, but have a hard time admitting it. It is Texas, near the Mexican border in 1909. O’Hara’s ranch is attacked by a gang of bad guys (hilariously introduced at the top of the movie by a voice-over) and led by the always terrific Richard Boone. Several people are killed: ranch-hands, servants, even women and children. O’Hara’s grandson is kidnapped. Also her son, played by Bobby Vinton is injured (he has about four lines — I speculate that he gave a terrible performance and wound up on the cutting room floor). O’Hara sends for her estranged and famously difficult (ex)husband Big Jake (Wayne) whom she hasn’t seen in ten years.

The town marshall has a plan to bring several automobiles into the desert and cut the bad guys off at the pass. Wayne’s two young sons (one of them is Patrick Wayne, the Duke’s son)  decide to go with the marshall, while Wayne is independent and declines to use these new-fangled inventions. Big Jake’s partners are a very well trained dog named dog, and an Indian named Sam (western veteran Bruce Cabot). Of course the fleet of cars is attacked and made worthless. Jake’s two sons now come with him (and learn manhood along the way). The government people walk home with their tails between their legs — excellent! And Big Jake saves the day by breakin’ a lot of rules.


 The Cowboys (1972)

A film with much personal meaning for me.  I saw it many times on television as a kid. A great (if far fetched) movie about the rite of passage from boyhood to manhood and the role of elders in instructing young people. John Wayne (doing some of the best acting of his career) plays a cattle rancher who has to drive his herd to market but all his hands have fled to a gold rush, as have all the other men in town. Slim Pickins, who runs the saloon, suggests they get kids from the one room schoolhouse (Wayne’s character had only been 13 on his first cattle drive). Visiting the class, and seeing their immaturity, Wayne dismisses the idea, but the boys show up the next day anyway. He figures to let them down easy by giving them a test: having them ride an unbroken horse named Crazy Alice. They all manage to stay on for the required ten seconds. So he takes them on.

Several scenes of training: roping, branding etc. The film sets a sort of template, a possible model for The Bad News Bears, for example: a group of misfits with broad character traits: fat, slim, small, stuttering, eyeglasses, Jew, juvenile delinquent. (Robert Carradine is “Slim-“, the juvey is named Cimarron).  He also hires a black cook, played by Roscoe Lee Brown,  a terrific character, poetical, philosophical, every bit as manly but a little less hard than Wayne’s character — an Anthony Mann character to balance the John Ford character as it were, a good cop alongside the bad cop.

Then, just before they start, Bruce Dern and his pals show up looking for work as hands. Wayne catches him in a lie and sends them on their way. This is one of Dern’s best performances ever — completely psycho. The drive starts and there are many “growing up” adventures along the way: hard work, first taste of alcohol, first encounter with prostitutes (although this is tastefully done, the kids are too scared to cross the threshold of Colleen Dewhursts’ wagon), first encounters with death (one kid gets trampled retrieving another kid’s glasses). The stuttering kid overcomes his stuttering problem with a little ass kicking from ayne. But psycho Bruce Dern and his rustlers are never far away. He finally shows up and has a showdown with Wayne.  Watching their confrontation, we get a clear illustration of the different models of characters. Dern, though he has the upper hand, is still weak. He is mean, out of control, vindictive, needlessly cruel (even destroys a kid’s eyeglass frames after hearing they’ve been in his family a long time). Wayne never gives in to him.

The two have a long, brutal fistfight, and it comes out about even (replicating an earlier scene where we watched an old bull and a young bull fight: vigor vs. experience). Wayne walks away but Dern cruelly shoots him to death,  in the cruelest way possible: one arm, one leg, the other arm, then the stomach. It takes him several hours to die, allowing Wayne a moving death speech. The cook and the kids bury him.

Now comes the most far-fetched part of the movie. It nearly spoils it for me now that I watch it as an adult, but I guess it didn’t bother me as a kid. The cook and the kids go after the rustlers. They devise an elaborate plan to pick a bunch off one at a time and then have a shoot out with the rest. It is one of those miraculous shoot-outs in which every single bad guy (about 9 of them) is shot and killed, and not a single child is even shot. I think there must be a better way to solve the last act than this. Anyway, they show that they have absorbed the Wayne way rather than the Dern way when they catch Dern alive (his leg is broken under his horse). They don’t vindictively kill him, but they do watch on with amusement and satisfaction as another horse drags him all over the place with one foot caught in the stirrup. (The ghost of Wayne’s character hovers over the last half hour, much as Katie Elder does the film of the same name) Then the cowboys bring the herd in and use some of the money for a tombstone.

One of the best parts of this film: John Williams amazing harmonica driven soundtrack, one of his best.


The Train Robbers (1973)

An almost completely uninteresting, undistinguished movie. John Wayne leads a gang of guys who help Ann-Margaret with a plan to retrieve some stolen gold in Mexico in order to clear her dead husband’s name. She is the only one who knows where it is hidden. The actual robbers are also after it, however. Wayne’s gang includes Ben Johnson, Rod Taylor, Christopher George and singer Bobby Vinton. The bad guys who chase them through the desert number about two dozen, making the predicament dire, but somehow still boring. You see the western dying in a film like this. It is quite simply, tired. At the end, a twist. After the men generously give the reward money to Ann-Margaret and she departs on a train, Ricardo Montalban as a Pinkerton man informs them that she was never married to the guy, she was just a whore  and the whole thing was a swindle. They chase the train.

Cahill, United States Marshall (1973)
This movie deserves a better title, something that indicates the story content is a little different from the usual “lawman catches bad guys” scenario. This film actually has a very nice and interesting angle to it. Wayne plays a marshall who spends a lot of time away from home catching crooks. Meanwhile, his two young sons start acting out because they want attention. Unfortunately, this is the old west: “acting out” can go pretty far. The boys (17 and 11) end up aiding and abetting a gang of bank robbers, freeing them from jail (by setting a barn on fire as a diversion) and burying the stolen money. The one person who sees them rob the bank (the town sheriff) is killed, so there are no witnesses. The boys feel guilty and want to tell their father what happened and put everything right, but the gang (led by George Kennedy) threaten to kill them. Meanwhile, the older son is actually deputized and helps Cahill bring back four innocent men for the crime of the robbery/murder. This makes the kid feel even more guilty. But he feels he must face the bad guys by himself. In the end, the boys confront the gang near the mountain hideout (with the aid of Cahill and his Indian tracker cohort). The gang loses the fight, of course, but the boys will still have to face justice. While it’s become far too overdone these days, that story (the children acting out while the busy parent works) was especially timely and new in the early 1970s, when young people seemed to be going crazy. The film seems very much a comment on contemporary times. Wayne gives a heartfelt performance. You see his softer side. And there is nice chemistry with the kids, who plainly adore him.


Rooster Cogburn (1975) 
A rather disappointing sequel to True Grit. Even more Dirty Harry-like than the previous: a bit ridiculous. By now Cogburn has killed 60 men. Wayne is noticeably older and fatter and wearing a hair piece. The production values are much reduced. There are no exteriors of the town as in True Grit, and the courtroom looks about one tenth the size. The character is more comical, old, pathetic, drunken. The judge takes away his badge because he has “gone to seed”. Yet he returns five minutes later and gives the badge back because there is a job “only he can do”. This inconsistency is indicative of the quality of the crappy screenplay, which not only lacks the sparkling dialogue of the first film, but is convoluted and boring, besides. It is shot in that perfunctory way that characterizes TV shows rather than Hollywood feature films. Instead, they try to get by on the presence of the two stars: Wayne, and Katherine Hepburn, who plays a missionary from the Indian reservation, whose father was killed by the outlaws Cogburn is tracking (they have stolen nitroglycerin from the army). There is an assumption of “magic” here, a sort of attempt at a revisitation of her relationship with Humphrey Bogart in African Queen, but the magic doesn’t exist. The dialogue is crappy and there’s no chemistry. Rather than wait for a promised posse, the 75 year old Wayne, Hepburn and an Indian kid head after an army of bad guys. Only a blind, deaf and dumb audience member would be okay with this. Along the way, Cogburn behaves as no Wayne character has before, like some kind of greenhorn idiot, loudly shooting his gun off for fun and falling down drunk and needing help to stand again. This is punctuated with long stretches of dialogue designed to show us that Wayne and Hepburn are drawing together. A good screenplay would accomplish this with little or no dialogue on the subject, just glances and gestures. In the end they kill the remaining bad guys by blowing up their nitro. Hepburn attempts an emotional goodbye but the scene is completely unearned.


The Shootist (1976) 

An emotional epitaph on the western genre and star John Wayne: for fans only. Made my old man cry. Makes me cry. Wayne’s last film, in which he is dying of cancer, just as he was in real life. Jimmy Stewart, his co-star from Liberty Valance, is the crusty old town doctor. The love interest and owner of the boarding house where he stays is Lauren Bacall, not normally identified with westerns but also a holdover from classical Hollywood. It is as though they are repeating the formula of the previous year’s Rooster Cogburn by having Wayne play opposite another mature female Hollywood star, but this is a far better film. (Bacall was a foxy 60 year old, but her character is supposed to be about 40). Her son is played by Ron Howard, which has nice Opie-echoes.

It’s Carson City, Nevada, 1901. a period of transition: trolly cars, telephone poles, automobiles. Wayne’s an old gunfighter, J.B. Books. (wears a mustache, unusual for Wayne). Comes into town and gets the diagnosis from Stewart. He’s going to die a painful death over the next two months. He checks into the boarding house. The kid figures out who he is and tells his mother. She wants him out. He wont leave. She tells the marshall (Harry Morgan, in a hilarious role). Soon it is all over town. Wayne just wants to die quietly but no one will let him. Killers try to make a name by killing him. Vultures show up: a journalist who wants to make a name writing about him, an old flame who wants to marry him just so she can sell a tell-all book; an undertaker (hilariously, inevitably played by John Carradine). Even the barber sweeps up his hair and saves it. Meanwhile, he has two decent, real relationships. The boy, whom he teaches a few things; and Bacall, with whom he builds a friendship, which might have been a romance if there had been enough time. (This is an interesting relationship. Books is a gentleman with her at all times. Was he always? Or is it only his vulnerability at this time which makes him someone who could be acceptable to her? It’s academic, and yet worth asking. Makes for a rich story).

In the end, prompted by Stewart, Wayne opts not to go the undignified route, but to die the death he is uniquely qualified to die. He arranges to meet 3 men he knows would like to kill him. Richard Boone, who wants revenge (Books killed his brother), Hugh O’Brien, a gambler and gunfighter, who would merely like the chance to try himself against Books, and a third man, Howard’s boss, who is just a lowlife. The great part of this is, he’s not just going there to get shot. He likes fighting. He gets to die having his own kind of excitement; indeed he kills the other three men, and is ironically left standing at the end. Then the bartender comes out of nowhere and shoots him fatally. The kid, who has been watching, then kills the bartender. We see that he has grown up all at once. The romance he has had about gunfighting is now gone. He sobers up.




On “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”

Posted in American Folk/ Country/ Western, AMERICANA, CULTURE & POLITICS, ME, Music, My Family History, Rock and Pop with tags , , , , , , , , on May 26, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of the late, great Levon Helm (1940-1912), the only American in The Band, but I think most of his fans will agree that he had enough America in him for a million Americans.

Now, I’ve already blogged about his last years and the documentary about them here. Today, it seems timely to talk about his best known song and its deep personal meaning for me. I call it “his”, though technically it was co-written with The Band’s leader and guitarist Robbie Robertson. But really — come on. Robertson pursued his interest in rural American culture as a fascinated alien. Helm on the other hand, drove and encouraged the process from the INSIDE. He’s the one who sings the song for a reason. He owns the song, spiritually and artistically, if (clearly) not legally. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is about Helm’s culture and history. Robertson helped raise the barn, but it’s Helm’s lumber and nails.


I’ve known and loved this song almost my entire life. Ironically, along with millions of other Americans I’m guessing, I knew the Joan Baez hit single version first. She released her version in 1971 and it went all the way to #3 on the pop charts. Though the original version by the Band came out in 1967, I don’t imagine that I ever heard it until some time in the early ’80s, through the agency of my best friend who was a big fan of the group. I am fond of both versions of the song; I’ll compare and contrast them directly.

If I had to pick one popular American song of the post-rock era that means the most to me — more than that — is about me, illuminates me — this would be the one. Written in the style of a traditional American folk song, it’s a first person (fictional) testimony from an East Tennessee farmer about the last days of the Civil War when the North’s Total War, slash and burn tactics had reduced the people of the region to starving beggars, the 19th century equivalent of having been “bombed back to the Stone Age.” They’re not just dirt poor, but demoralized, so beaten in spirit that they won’t recover for at least a century.


For some Americans it is a kind of anthem, for others it can be thought of as a test of our humanity. I’m born and raised a Yankee, though culturally, through my father, there is much about me that is Southern. My entire life has been a sort of internal wrestling match to the death between both sides of my brain. Now, last year I wrote this piece about the Stars and Bars. I feel pretty strongly that museums and history movies are the only places it ought to be flown. The secret hope that “The South will rise again” has been the source of so much damage and hurt. It ought to have been a matter of settled politics over a century ago.

But this song isn’t about the cause of slavery. It’s about the cause of humanity. Men have been fighting wars since before there were men. This side or that one may be the aggressor, this cause or that one may be the more heinous. But in the end each individual soldier fights for his own reasons. A certain number of men who fought and died for the Confederacy neither kept slaves, condoned slavery or wanted secession, they were just doing their duty. And many others didn’t even take arms, but still suffered the same privations and so forth. On top of this it’s not like the North wasn’t also full of racists whatever their politicians and clergymen said (this is a topic I’ll be returning to in a post in a couple of weeks.) So who “deserves” what happened is really an open question.

Ultimately, I can and do step back and say…yes but at the end of the day, they served the cause of evil. There were numerous Southerners who made a different choice…either became Union soldiers (some of my Southern relatives did that!), or like my (4th) great uncle Levi H. Knight spied for the union, or didn’t serve at all. I’m not someone who sees unquestioning duty as an intrinsic virtue. I am more partial to the American tradition embodied by Thoreau. God gave you a brain and a heart to make choices with. Abdicating the use of them just because you’re told to is to be less than a human. But the ENTIRE South suffered during and after the Civil War, not just slave owners and racists.

And in the end, war sucks for everybody, including innocent civilians. Well, that’s putting it mildly, isn’t it? It’s the worst thing humankind can endure. Granted, as an entity the South was akin to a mean, cruel and arrogant bully, but in the aftermath the bully lay in the mud, his bones broken, his eyes gouged out, his flesh lacerated in a thousand places, his home burned, his wife raped, his children killed, and he’s howling and crying in pain. What’s next, Victor? Our first reaction is to say, “Good! You had it coming!”. But I like to think most of us would soon soften, to as Lincoln said, quoting the Psalm, “bind the nation’s wounds.” If, once healed, the bully turns into a monster again (as I think it can be argued that the South has collectively done on occasion, many times), you cross that bridge when you come to it. But when someone’s down, you don’t kick them.

The Second Inaugural

The Second Inaugural

It’s amazing to me that The Band wrote and recorded this song at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King had the kind of largeness of spirit this song appeals to, one of the million reasons his assassination was a major loss to the nation. Luke 6:27-28: “Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, Bless them that curse you, and pray for them that despitefully use you.” Easier said than done. But it’s exactly what Lincoln’s plan was for the post-war period, “Charity To All, Malice Toward None.”

Anyway, that’s my imaginary conversation with a Yankee who might be lacking in sympathy for the vanquished Rebel. I feel like I know how to have that conversation because, like I say, I grew up a Stranger in a Strange Land.  But as for those like me who are also children of the Rebels, I can attest that the memory of the wounds received lingered long, mostly because, yes, this is a stubborn and tradition-loving people, and they refused to let go. Culturally, many Southern people are Scots-Irish. They are a people given to multi-generational feuding. They don’t forget. Like, ever. They kept the loss and sense of grievance alive, nursed it, relived it every day. The culture of the South developed that beaten, fatalistic quality, that all the great Southern writers like Faulkner and Williams capture. My father absolutely had that quality. In some ways, it was as though the century behind us had never passed.

And a century isn’t such a long time anyway…the Civil War was four generations ago in my case. The children of that generation were my father’s grandparents, whom he knew well, and that knowledge was passed on to me. I was four years old when the Baez version of the song came out, so I was YOUNG when I first learned about the Civil War, as my dad parsed and interpreted this song for me. I generally have found myself confused and appalled to hear adults say they don’t understand what the song means…but that’s a wrong impulse. It ought to be a Teaching Moment. At bottom I find I can be a surprisingly crummy teacher.

Some nice person at www.traditionalmusic.co.ok posted the lyrics:


My great-grandfather’s name was Virgil Stewart, and this became one of my earliest connections to the song…it’s impossible for me to hear this without thinking of him, of thinking of this as my story. And Virgil was a farmer in Tennessee, just like the narrator. (My family, just like Levon Helm’s, were cotton farmers). Virgil Stewart was born after the Civil War, though. It was his dad’s generation that fought it. Virgil’s father Calvin sat it out (my theory is that because he had a newborn baby at the time of enlistment, and then Tennessee was soon occupied by the North after that). But Virgil’s uncle William Carrol Stewart did go and fight and was badly wounded at Gettysburg, so it is him and other relatives I think of when I hear the part about “a Yankee laid him in his grave”.

The choice of the name Caine seems significant, Cain being the Biblical inventor of murder. And not just murder: fratricide. “Brother against brother”. The South started it, there’s blood on their hands, and like Cain himself, they paid. Oh, how they paid.


Years later, I began to link Virgil Caine with Buster Keaton’s character in The General.  A train engineer? Union soldiers tearing up the tracks? As I’ve written elsewhere, I firmly believe that the melancholy historical echoes of the setting were what prevented Keaton’s masterpiece from being a hit in 1927. The ticket buyers were the kids and grandkids of the Civil War generation. Too soon? Yes — too soon.

Whose eyes indicate that he's crazy enough to harm women, children, old men and animals? Well Stonewall Jackson is dead, so how about THAT guy?

Whose eyes indicate that he’s crazy enough to harm women, children, old men and animals? How about THAT guy?

“Stoneman” in the song refers to Major General George Stoneman, who led one of the last of the Union raids through the South during the Civil War, which was launched in Mossy Creek, Tennessee and moved East into North Carolina. His mission was to lay waste to everything he saw, and demoralize the civilian population. Mission accomplished!


Like I say, lately I’ve been listening to both versions of this song, comparing and contrasting them. Baez’s and Helm’s voices couldn’t be more different. Her’s is pretty and polished, Helm’s is homely and real. Baez is interpreting something for us from the outside; Helm is re-enacting it from the inside. The Baez version is guitar-driven, the Band’s is driven by Richard Manuel’s piano. I am partial to the many voices on the chorus on the Baez version, which to me evokes the cries of the many. I feel like the Band’s version is marred by Robbie Robertson’s whiny high harmony, I’ve never been able to stand his weak, thin voice. But I love the haunting harmonica!

There are interesting differences in the lyrics in both versions, reportedly because Baez didn’t have access to the real ones (beyond listening to the record.). Why she didn’t try to obtain the real ones is a question. I know that things were clunkier in those days…it was just telephone and U.S. mail to conduct business, but that’s not exactly an insurmountable hurdle. There may have been a time crunch. But what is “The Night They Drove Old Dixie down” but a folk song? And all the great folk songs pretty much get rewritten every time they’re sung. That’s the way of oral tradition. What are the “real” lyrics of “Stagger Lee”? For that matter what is the real title of the song? There are none. It is a perpetually re-interpreted, protean cultural product.

One lyrical difference (to my ears): in The Band’s version it sounds to me like Helm is singing “You can’t raise a Caine back up when he’s in defeat.” On the Baez version that line sounds to me more like “You cant raise the cane back up once it’s in the feed.” I don’t know if that’s what she’s singing but that’s what it sounds like. I’d take it to mean something like…if you’ve already mixed sugar cane into the fodder (lucky livestock), you can’t pretend its still planted in the ground to inspire with visions of what you’ll do with your crop. This could be my own hallucination, but this metaphor also works for me. The deed is done and now all hope for the future is dead,

Also…I’ve always heard one of the lines as “There goes THE Robert E. Lee”. I always pictured it as a train named after the Confederate general and it’s being hijacked, just like in the Buster Keaton movie I mentioned above. As a kid, I also interpreted the”Dixie” of the chorus in the same way, as a train, literally being driven away. After all, Virgil “drove on the Danville train”. With Dixie of course ALSO representing the entire Confederacy being driven into the ground through the scorched earth tactics.


There was also a steamboat named “Robert E. Lee” but it wasn’t christened until after the war (so much for letting sleeping dogs lie, South!). Consensus (including a quote from Helm) seems to indicate that the song refers to the literal Robert E. Lee, but that sounds dumb to me. Like, what’s he doing over there? Near a Tennessee farm, when he’s closing in on Appomattox? At any rate, I despise literalism in poem and song interpretation. If there’s only one meaning to it, it ain’t much of a fuckin’ song. As opposed to this song — which is a hell of a fuckin’ song. It’s a hell of a fuckn’ song.


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