Tonight on TCM: Olivia de Havilland in 3 Westerns and One Total Hoot
8:00pm (EST): In This Our Life (1942)
I am especially fond of the 1942 melodrama In This Our Life, in which de Havilland and Bette Davis play a pair of well-to-do southern sisters: de Havilland, dutiful, good and wise, and Davis in one of her most irredeemable characters, grasping, scheming, selfish, and in the end murderous. It’s almost a parody of their well established screen characters, as though one had cast them in a sketch sending up their own careers. It is a most entertaining film for that, and other reasons.
Next: three western pairings with de Havilland’s frequent co-star Errol Flynn:
9:45 pm (EST): They Died with Their Boots On (1941)
A preposterous concoction purportedly telling the life of George Custer but taking so many liberties as to be nearly completely fictional. The script is pretty awful, though Raoul Walsh’s direction is terrific. Errol Flynn plays Custer, but of course he plays him as Errol Flynn. He hits his marks, he says his lines, and he looks good. The script misinterprets Custer from every angle, making him a guy who loves to drink and fight, but simultaneously has all the military virtues and is full of honor. Custer was indeed brave, and did win several Civil War battles, but he was also vain, a publicity seeker and a careerist. The movie tweaks the vanity, but makes him out to be the opposite as far as the other foibles go. (In the end, as we know, his arrogance and self-delusion resulted in the blunders that resulted in the death of himself and his troops, dividing the troops and refusing extra men and weapons).
In real life, while Custer curried favor with many officers, the movies boils them all down to one: General Winfield Scott (Sydney Greenstreet) whom in reality was only in charge of the Union army during its early months. Olivia de Haviland plays Custer’s wife (and the romantic subplot bogs the movie’s progress down – its nearly two and a half hours in the unfolding). Gene Lockhart plays her disapproving father. Arthur Kennedy plays the fictitious villain, a guy who miraculously pops up to bedevil Custer at every stage of his career—hilariously so. Custer arranges to get his revenge by forcing Kennedy to die with him at Little Big Horn. (In the film, Custer knows he will die at Little Big Horn, but he is being “sacrificed by the army and war profiteers”. In real life, as we said, Custer rather foolishly thought he could easily whip the Indians.) Crazy Horse is played by Anthony Quinn – all the Indians that the real-life Custer had to deal with are boiled down to him. (in the movie Custer treats Crazy Horse with respect but heartily approves of his own mission of “clearing the plains of Indians”. It’s hard to watch that aspect now, a bit horrifying. It’s genocide).
And though Little Big Horn is on the grassy plains of Montana, the location looks arid and rocky, like Arizona. Bad history but a well-made film.
12:15am (EST): Santa Fe Trail (1940)
Less a western than a “mid-western” for most of the film. A most revealing movie, about Bloody Kansas for the most part largely taking the pro-slavery side. The hero is J.E.B. Stuart (Errol Flynn), the villain is John Brown (Raymond Massey)! To be fair, as presented, it’s the apolitical U.S. army vs. insurrectionists. Stuart’s circle of buddies and colleagues is half composed of future Confederate leaders and half future Union leaders. His buddy is George Armstrong Custer, played by Ronald Reagan with nary a hint of long hair, mustache or pointy beard. The love interest is Olivia de Havilland, and Van Helfin plays a former West Point colleague who has joined John Brown. The movie is often gorgeous to look at. Massey, with his crazy eyes and Biblical beard IS John Brown. Other than that, despite its important historical subject matter, it’s pretty routine adventure: a series of skirmishes. And it really does manage to seem not-so-subtly pro-South, putting halos over Jeff Davis and Robert E. Lee, making John Brown a simple villain, and presenting blacks as goggle-eyed darkies who would be just as happy remaining slaves. The title is rather misleading but technically justified. Apparently Fort Leavenworth was the last outpost before Santa Fe and the wilderness beyond. The railway stopped at Leavenworth. After that, the Santa Fe trail was the main way west. Three quarters of the film happens in that vicinity, but the rest happens at Harper’s Ferry!
2:15am (EST): Dodge City (1939)
The core cast of the previous year’s The Adventures of Robin Hood graces this Technicolor extravaganza. A wonderful entertainment. Erroll Flynn is a cowboy who becomes marshall of the lawless Dodge. Alan Hale is his humorous sidekick and Olivia de Havilland the love interest. The film starts, perhaps unnecessarily, with a prolog at the town’s founding which is given as 1866, when one Colonel Dodge rides the very first train out there and a Golden Spike is driven into the ground, despite the fact that we are not in Promontory Point, Utah. Flynn and his cohorts are buffalo hunters for the railroad. (His Englishness is explained away by saying that he is “Irish”, which, while perhaps more acceptable to American democratic prejudices is rendered implausible by his accent).
By the time Flynn and his buddies return in 1872 with a cattle drive from Texas, the town is a lawless Sodom, without a sheriff, and run, as such towns always are, by a crooked boss. A couple of events convince Flynn to step in as sheriff. Both events are brilliant and memorable cinema for totally different reasons. In the first, Hale (who has taken the pledge and vows to be good) goes to a temperance meeting and testifies to a bunch of old ladies. Meanwhile, his cohorts brawl with all the local toughs in the saloon next door in the wildest brawl ever. It is so wild it smashes through the wall of the temperance meeting, so Hale is obliged to join in. Later, he is caught by the locals and about to be hung. Flynn, who has already run afoul of the local boss by refusing to sell his beef to him, rescues Hale. The second sequence is one of the most harrowing I’ve ever seen. A shootout endangers a wagonload of children. A boy, who wears a toy sheriff badge, and with whom Flynn has already bonded, is dragged by horses through the streets, and dies, his little body broken. This is done unsparingly and is almost unbearable. Flynn instantly becomes sheriff. Now he passes a bunch of laws, confiscates the guns, even arrests one of his own crew in the sweep. Then, with the help of the newspaper editor and de Havilland, he gathers evidence that will break the boss. The bad guys kill the editor. Flynn catches the killer, gets him on a train. The bad guys free the killer, but Flynn and his men, catch and shoot them all. In the end, Dodge is totally cleaned up. and Flynn, who is about to marry de Havilland, gets an offer to clean up Virginia City. The little woman endorses the plan.