Tomorrow on TCM: Dawn to Dusk Westerns #1

Tomorrow Turner Classic Movies will be launching what amounts to a survey course in the Hollywood western. Every Tuesday and Wednesday in July they will  be showing westerns the entire day, for a total of 100 movies in all. A rare opportunity to bone up on your cinematic education: Westerns 101! The times below are all Eastern Standard Time, and beware that I always include spoilers.


6:15am (EST) The Great Train Robbery (1903)

Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery is considered by some to be the first recognizable Hollywood-style movie (though it was shot in New Jersey) because it contains 21 set ups (a lot for its time) and isn’t stage bound. The film’s most famous shot is the bandit in MS shooting directly at the camera, which caused actual terror on the part of the unsophisticated audiences of the time. The movie is a twelve minute account of a train robbery–nothing more. The methodical crooks, wearing the obligatory cowboy gear and bandanas, rob the station, blow a safe in the baggage car, stop the train and pick all the passangers clean, unhook the locomotive, take off on that, then switch to horses. They are caught by a posse as they are burying their loot. The most antiquated element is that some props and furniture (a lamp, a stove) are actually painted on backdrops. A couple of scenes through windows (a train pulling in, rushing scenery) are definitely either a matte shot, or projected film. This is also the film that made a film industry player of Broncho Billy Anderson.


02_1914 Squaw Man, The (Farnum)

6:30am: The Squaw Man (1914)

The Squaw Man started out as a hit stage play written by Edwin Milton Royle in 1905. The play starred William Faversham and William S. Hart (later to become a great star of western pictures.) It was so popular on Broadway it was subsequently revived in 1907, 1908, 1911 and 1921. The 1911 revival starring Dustin Farnum only ran eight performances, but it wasn’t a total loss. Cecil B. DeMille was to make it his film directing debut in 1914. It was to be the first feature length film to be shot in Los Angeles; as well as the first feature length western. This is an important Hollywood movie; everyone should know it.

The story: a pair of aristocratic cousins are entrusted with an orphanage’s charity fund. One gambles the fund away; the other takes the blame to save the family honor. He flees to America where he becomes a rich rancher and marries a Ute squaw, who bears him a child. The transition is unintentionally amusing in its abruptness: A guy in New York tells him, “You should come West with me”, and then the next title is “Jim arrives at Maverick”. Things zip right along. The squaw kills a bad man as he is about to shoot her husband. It stays quiet for six years, until a guy running for sheriff decides he needs to solve the crime. The sheriff comes for the squaw right after her son has been to sent to England for boarding school. She kills herself. The movie ends abruptly there, which is somewhat unsatisfying.

A cloud of racism hangs over the movie. Rather strongly implied is that our hero will wind up back with the with the white woman he has loved all along, the widowed wife of the ruthless cousin who wronged him (who dies while climbing in the alps and confesses all). DeMille couldn’t leave this one alone either. He remade it in 1918, and again as a talkie in 1931.


8:00am: The Vanishing American (1925)

Fairly amazing film for its day. The twenties were  amazing years for big budget western epics. This one, based on a Zane Grey novel, purports to look at the story through the eyes of an Indian, but is of course mired in the attitude of its own day. It begins with a Herbert Spencer quote about Survival of the Fittest. Then it goes through a sort of pre-history of the American Southwest: cavemen, basket-makers, the slab-house, the cliff-dwellers. This latter seems inaccurate, and seems to conveniently mix up this culture with that of Aztec, Olmec,  and Mayan civilizations…so it has that “Babylon” flavor which was so popular at the time. A strange thesis: “long years of peace made the people grow decadent”. Invading Indians come down from north on foot and do battle (defense of the cliff dwelling has the sophistication you would expect of the Siege of Troy or a medieval castle). The Spanish come and terrify them with their horses. This is all shot on location, by the by. Beautiful photography of Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon.

Fast forward 300 years. Kit Carson comes in and is about to make a humane treaty with the natives but dies. Now we are on a reservation in the 20th century.  Unprincipled agents for the governments Bureau of Indian Affairs led by Noah Beery steal all the Indians’ good horses and sell them for money. The hero, an Indian, played by Richard Dix, is also his rival for the reservation’s schoolteacher, who is white. Now we KNOW that one can’t work out. We get a glimpse of how the film-makers will wiggle out of this story conundrum (given the timbre of those times) when Dix discovers a message about “dying nobly” in the Bible. There follows a whole segment about World war I, where an Indian band serves nobly. They return to find that Indian agents have stolen their land for “agricultural experiments”. There is a big melee. Dix’s character tries to make peace and is killed. The schoolteacher marries the white soldier who came to recruit the Indians for the battle. From a modern perspective we are left to wonder, “Why tell a story about Native Americans when the only surviving victors are the whites?” But the title of the film gives the clue. The word “vanishing” contains a connotation of regret.


10:00am: Cimarron (1930)

My guess is that, after Show Boat and Giant, Cimmaron is the third well-known Edna Ferber novel. It was adapted into films more than once, and fans of the western genre will know it best. It is an epic of the founding of Oklahoma, starting with the territory’s opening to settlers in 1889 through the Oil Boom in the (then) present. The hero is a lawyer/ newspaper editor and a slightly wild “Man’s Man”. And probably part Indian  (Cimarron means wild). He is kind to the black, the Indian, the Jew and the Wronged Woman, throughout the story. He also shoots a man while he is delivering a sermon. Gradually he comes to educate his wife, who is more prejudiced than he is.  She becomes a congresswoman. He has long since disappeared, becomes a drifter, and dies saving some people from an oil rig accident just as she is nearby, a melodramatic but effective device. The 1931 film version directed by Wesley Ruggles, was RKO’s biggest production to date (the scene where the Sooners race into the territory to make their land claims , riding every conveyance known to man, is most impressive for its time, a total spectacle). The film’s screenplay by Howard Estabrook won an Oscar (as did the art direction and the picture itself!); the cast included western star Richard Dix, Irene Dunne, Nance O’Neill, William Collier Jr, Edna May Oliver, and Rosco Ates.  The 1960 remake, directed by Anthony Mann is less memorable.


12:15pm: The Squaw Man (1931)

This was Cecil B. DeMille’s third film version of The Squaw Man, starring Warner Baxter (the original Cisco Kid) and Lupe Velez (when she was at the height of her stardom as a beauty, not yet a professional buffoon). He clearly wanted to make definitive version for the sound era (the feeling then being that even landmark and important silent films were “outdate”). But somehow this version feels less monumental than the 1914 one nonetheless. Rather than an epic masterpiece it feels like just another western of its times, such as The Big Trail or Billy the Kid.


2:15pm: Annie Oakley (1935)

This movie is pretty perfect. Despite her big city accent, Barbara Stanwyck is well cast as Annie Oakley , if for no other reason than that she came to be associated with westerns over the succeeding decades of her career. We are conditioned to accept Babs in a fringe jacket, a cowgirl hat rakishly cocked to one side, as she squints down the barrel of a rifle. As in the later musical Annie, Get Your Gun, the focal point of the movie is her romance with a fellow sharpshooter (in real life it was Frank Butler, but here he is fictionalized for some reason into one “Toby Walker”). Melvyn Douglas plays her manager, the equally fictional “Jeff Hogarth”. Pert Kelton and silent comedy vet Andy Clyde are in the cast; it was directed by George Stevens.


4:00pm: Three Godfathers (1936)

I am very much looking forward to seeing this: John Ford told this story twice; but this is the version he did NOT tell. This middle years version is directed by Richard Boleslawsk. The threesome is played by Chester Morris, Lewis Stone and Walter Brennan — incentive enough. DVR is set!


6:00pm: The Plainsman (1936)

Completely fictionalized, mythologizing story with Gary Cooper as Wild Bill Hickok and Jean Arthur as Calamity Jane, with other characters in the yarn being Buffalo Bill Cody and George Custer. It begins with an unintentionally hilarious prologue with Lincoln advising his cabinet: “Now that the war is over, we must give our soldiers new purpose. I know–let’s send them WEST. Well, I guess I’ll go to the THEATER now.”

Hickok and Cody are Civil War veterans and it’s in that context we first meet them, on the steamboat heading west. Cody is newly married and going to set up an inn. But the Indian wars quickly pull them both back into scouting. It’s a better picture than most of the era because at the crux of it is a moral dilemma for Jane. Watching Wild Bill being tortured (burned at the stake), she capitulates and tells Indians information that leads to an Indian attack. (She and Bill are an itemin the tale, but just barely. He scarcely acknowledges her and gives her no encouragement. His character is absolutely unlikable in this regard). Also, how strange to have a character called Wild Bill Hickok who’s grooming style more resembles Ward Cleaver’s? No long hair, no pointy beard. Aren’t these the essence of the man, and of the Wild West?



8:00pm: Stagecoach (1939)

Nowadays 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, 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 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 John Wayne, 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.

Then 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?


9:45pm: The Searchers (1956)

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.


12 midnight: 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. John 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.


2:15am: 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. 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, played 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.


4:15am: Three Godfathers (1948)

As we have said this one is a remake of Ford’s 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!

Tune in tomorrow for our post about Wednesday’s films!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: