Jesse James (1939)- Henry King

 ★★★★

 

In John Ford’s perfect western film,“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962), a newspaper man (Carleton Young) given the opportunity to set the record straight says, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” This one brief, but thought-provoking statement can basically sum up the story for Henry King’s western “Jesse James” (1939). Jesse James (1939)This is not a film based on the facts surrounding the life of Jesse James- it’s entertainment based off of legends and myths about one of America’s most notorious outlaws. With that being said, who cares? It doesn’t matter if any of the facts are accurate or truthful. It doesn’t even matter if it comes close because Tyrone Power is our hero. He can’t be an outlaw, he must be misunderstood. Aside from Tyrone being our “hero”, it still doesn’t matter how factual this film ends up being because this is one hell of an enjoyable western.

The film opens as crooked railroad man, Barshee (Brian Donlevy), and his gang of “businessmen” are harassing and coercing farmers into selling their land to the railroad. When they arrive at the James Farm, however, they encounter more than they expected when the family matriarch (Jane Darwell) refuses to sign anything. Barshee is even more shocked when he tries to get physical with Frank James (Henry Fonda), and Frank easily overpowers him. Banshee tells his gang to jump Frank, and that is when Frank’s younger brother Jesse (Tyrone Power) emerges, using his pistol as a way to keep the fight between Frank and Banshee a fair one. You see, he only gets violent to keep things fair and even.

Later Banshee returns for revenge, but when he doesn’t find Jesse or Frank, he becomes angry and somewhat accidentally kills their mother, thus enraging the brothers further, and subsequently creating an enemy for himself… and for the railroad.

Jesse James (1939)Jesse, Frank, and their band of outlaws begin robbing trains in order to “teach the railroad a lesson”, but it begins to wreak havoc on Jesse’s personal life, including his relationship with future wife, Zee (Nancy Kelly). She wants Jesse to give up these evil ways, and even convinces a local Marshall (Randolph Scott) to bring him in peacefully, with a reduced sentence on the table. Of course there is a double-cross instituted by another despicable railroad man (Donald Meek), and after a jailbreak, Jesse and Frank are back to a life of crime, now expanded from trains to banks. But the real drama of the story isn’t a conflict between the James boys and they powers that be, it’s Jesse’s internal struggle between being a “normal” man with his wife and son, or a vengeance seeking outlaw, always trying to get ahead.

Tyrone Power is a magnificent choice in the role of Jesse James, especially when he is portrayed as a hero. His striking good looks and picturesque persona make his mere presence something romantic and inviting. He truly captivates the screen in every frame, and if Jesse James himself would have been given his choice of actors, I don’t think he would have gone with anyone else. Jesse James (1939)Power has the ability to have everyone rooting for him even when his characters go outside the law, which is why he made such a good pirate in numerous films, and even why his portrayal of Zorro is still the best. When he wants to keep things light, he smiles, when it’s time to get serious, he uses his smoldering eyes to glare into your very soul. Just a look from Power says more than pages of dialogue, which works rather well when portraying a quiet western outlaw with just as many internal struggles as external. Teamed with Henry Fonda, these two screen legends could have an entire scene completely void of lines and it wouldn’t matter. They are true actors who can deliver, no matter what stands before them.

Director Henry King and his film have their fair share of highs, including the two stars, some spectacular action sequences, and glorious location shooting. Other than that, “Jesse James” runs into a few problems. Nancy Kelly gives a performance that is way over the top, dragging down her scenes with overly emotional dialogue and endless (seeming) speeches about right and wrong. All of these scenes just pull the pace of the film from a quick-paced trot to a crawl. It’s not even her fault, she is just overused and unnecessary. Randolph Scott makes a good Marshall, and fits nicely into the picture, but there isn’t much for him to do except stand there and look the part, which he can do (and does) in his sleep.Jesse James (1939) If you’re looking for a real stand-out supporting performance in this film, look no further than John Carradine as the infamous Robert Ford. In a very small role, Carradine is perfect.

There are better westerns than “Jesse James”. Then again, there are far worse ones, too. Henry King knows how to make an entertaining film, and with the legendary Jesse James as his leading character, it becomes almost too easy. It is Tyrone Power, however, that brings this one together, and despite a filmography filled with memorable and prolific roles, it is his turn as Jesse James that stands out. Perhaps it’s because he was able to take a legendary character, steeped in the myth and lore of the west, and once again, make him human.

This post is part of the Tyrone Power Centennial Blogathon, celebrating the 100th anniversary of this cinematic legend. A special thanks to Lady Eve’s Real Life and They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To for hosting such a wonderful event. Don’t forget to check out all the posts on Tyrone Power and his glorious career.

 

 

The Fastest Gun Alive (1956)- Russell Rouse

 ★★★★★

&

My Hall of Fame

 

Where is all the love for Glenn Ford westerns?! Seriously, if you were to research the best western actors, you will find many names worthy of being in the conversation, such as John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Jimmy Stewart, Will Rogers, Randolph Scott, Henry Fonda, Gary Cooper,  and Gregory Peck. The Fastest Gun Alive (1956)The name that’s missing (and with my strenuous objection) is the immensely talented Glenn Ford. Perhaps it’s because he is also remembered for his great film noir and crime movies as well, but to overlook the abundance of quality westerns that he made throughout his glorious career is an injustice to both him and yourself. Take for instance his 1956 picture, “The Fastest Gun Alive”.

This powerful and unlikely western story revolves around Geroge Kelby Jr., or rather, George Temple (Glenn Ford) as he is now known. He is the fastest gun alive, but nobody in his small town of Cross Creek knows about it because he has hidden that part of his past from them.The Fastest Gun Alive (1956) He, and his wife Dora (Jeanne Crain), are essentially taking refuge from his past in this small town- running a store and being treated as an outsider, afraid to act like a man. He is frustrated that he can’t reveal his abilities to the other townsfolk, but knows that if they knew, people would come from all over to challenge his abilities.

Everything changes when word of gunslinger Vinnie Harold (Broderick Crawford) and his most recent killing conquest reach the town. Everybody enjoys retelling the story they have heard, and interjecting their own thoughts on how to be a great gunfighter. The Fastest Gun Alive (1956)It is more than George can take and (after too many drinks) he tells (then proves) his quick-draw abilities. The next morning George decides to leave town, but Vinnie, along with his bank robbing sidekicks (John Dehner & Noah Beery Jr.), are already in town and looking for the supposed “fastest gun alive”.

Besides having a good foundation of a story, there are a couple of surprises that although take too long to develop, make for a highly engrossing tale with a perfect blend of suspense, drama, and action. Cinematographer George J. Folsey is best known for work on bright-colored musicals like “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944), “Million Dollar Mermaid” (1952), and “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” (1954), but “The Fastest Gun Alive” allows him to show off his underrated ability to set a mood and a feel for a film with masterfully planned and executed lighting and camera movements.

Glenn Ford is spectacular in a role that is quite different from his other western roles. He isn’t confident or outspoken. He has a timid approach to everything, and because of that, the character’s depth allows Ford to explore himself as an actor in a different way. The Fastest Gun Alive (1956)He doesn’t waste any time or energy, dedicating his entire performance to the “tortured soul” that he feels is always trying to burst out of him, and it works magically.

The supporting cast also adds quite a lot to the overall feel of this picture, headlined by Broderick Crawford as the loud-mouthed, quick to anger, villain. His role is small, but because of its importance to the “real” story, it takes a consummate professional to pull it off- and Crawford is the ideal man for the job. John Dehner is also quite entertaining, and gets the benefit of many comedic lines, even in serious situations. Jeanne Craine stays in the background in a part that is dialogue heavy, that in turn seems to drag out a few scenes, but it’s not any fault of her own. The Fastest Gun Alive (1956)Her real highlight is in her costumes. They are glorious, and although possibly seem a little too fancy and clean, still make each of her entrances exciting. Also of note is the supporting cast is a young Russ Tamblyn. His part is unimportant, his presence is unnecessary, but he gets a chance to show off his athletic dancing ability in an early scene at a hoedown. Although completely gratuitous, his talents are a physical wonder, and it gives an opportunity to smile, to a film that is quite serious.

I know that I can get a bit crazy, ranting about the quality of the westerns from the 1950’s, but “The Fastest Gun Alive” is one that is more than a film that is worth seeing, it’s a film that you should see. And while I’m up on my soapbox, how about some extra appreciation for every single one of Glenn Ford’s underrated, yet still amazing westerns?

Rancho Notorious (1952)- Fritz Lang

 ★★★★

 

Fritz Lang films are so serious- even his westerns. His colorful, energetic tale, “Rancho Notorious,” (1952) illustrates just that, as what you might expect to be a light-hearted western with a couple of musical numbers, is actually more of a gritty, heartless tale of murder and revenge… with a couple of musical numbers.

The story opens in a small Wisconsin town where cattleman Vern (Arthur Kennedy) is saying goodbye to his fiance (Gloria Henry), before heading out to drive a herd of cattle. Rancho Notorious (1952)Moments after he leaves, Kinch (Lloyd Gough) robs her store. While she is emptying the safe, however, Kinch becomes more interested in the girl’s body and he proceeds to have his way with her, and then kills her when she screams for help. Upon his frantic return, Vern watches his fiance die, and he vows revenge, heading off with the impossible task of figuring out the identity of the killer.

Through a series of fortunate circumstances, Vern follows a trail that leads him to an outlaw named Frenchy (Mel Ferrer), who proceeds to take Vern to “Chuck-a-Luck”- a hideout for outlaws that is run by Altar (Marlene Dietrich). He discovers that the man who has murdered his girl is there (or at least has been there) recently, having gifted Alter a brooch that was stolen from his girl’s body. Vern decides to warm up to Alter, to try to find out who gaveRancho Notorious (1952) her the brooch, even at the risk of aggravating Frenchy, who has always been Altar’s man.

Lang, somewhat unexpectedly, makes a good western director. His other films always have a darker side, and by incorporating that into a colorful early 1950’s western mold, he is able to create a film that is more than entertaining- it’s real. This isn’t a good versus evil story; it’s a human examination into how far someone will go in the obsession of revenge. In this story Vern doesn’t just want to bring his mystery man to justice- he wants someone to understand the pain and anguish that he has suffered. He’s not afraid of anything or anybody. He would do absolutely anything to achieve his final goal of finding, not redemption, but soul-blackening vengeance for what has transpired.

Arthur Kennedy is the very definition of an underrated actor. He is a five time Academy Award nominee, yet many people have overlooked his career almost completely, but not because he’s not talented. Rancho Notorious (!952)It’s because he so often excelled in supporting roles, without ever making a name for himself as a leading man. In “Rancho Notorious” he is perfectly cast, and he holds nothing back in a performance that showcases his ability to be dark and determined, while still keeping the audience in his corner.

Marlene Dietrich was also in an interesting place in her career when she undertook this film. Her leading lady days (whether she knew it or not) were done. After a few less than great performances, “Rancho Notorious” gives Marlene the chance to transition into a supporting capacity that would continue in “Witness for the Prosecution” (1957), “Touch of Evil” (1958), and “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961). These may not be her best films or performances, but they do showcase her range as an actress when her famous sex appeal was behind her. She (as the misguided matriarch) even gets the best lines in this film like, Rancho Notorious (!952)“I wish you’d go away, and come back ten years ago”. She makes everything feel and sound so genuine, and you can’t help but love her for taking a role that was completely different for her.

“Rancho Notorious” has some flaws, mostly coming from the sound stage landscapes, but push all of that aside and see the film for the character driven piece that is under the surface. It feels real, unfiltered, and even gives off a sense of dread and despair, instead of glorifying the west. Just in case that sounds like too much for an evening, don’t worry. There are a couple of light-hearted Dietrich songs, an opening credits “Chuck-a-Luck” number, as well as a barroom race scene, that all are quite funny, just to show that Lang has a softer, humorous side as well.

Colorado Territory (1949)- Raoul Walsh

 ★★★★★

 

Wes McQueen (Joel McCrea) is quite plainly, just no good. He’s a dirty thief, with a history of violence that follows him no matter where he travels. He lives his life in the shadows, avoiding the law who always seem to be bearing down upon him, waiting to punish him for his past sins. There is nothing Wes wants more than to be able to walk in the sunlight once again, with his head held high. Colorado Territory (1949)As the western film “Colorado Territory” (1949) open, Wes has finally been captured, and is awaiting sentencing for his latest robbery. He is busted out of jail by a villainous man, with a menacing mustache and name to match- Plunther (Henry Woods). Plunther informs Wes that he has come at the request of the “Old Man” (Basil Ruysdael), in order to pull a train robbery.

Wes heads out to the abandoned city of Todos Santos in the Colorado territory, where he is to meet his new “crew”, and meet with the Old Man. On the stage ride west, another gang of thieves attempts to rob the stage, and both the driver and the man riding shotgun are killed. Wes saves the stage, its payroll, and the other two passengers, Fred Winslow (Henry Hull) and his daughter Julie Ann (Dorothy Malone). Nobody recognizes Wes for who he is, and it is assumed that the thieves were in fact Wes and his gang. Colorado Territory (1949)Wes enjoys the idea of being the hero, and likes the way he looks through Julie Ann’s eyes, but he reluctantly parts ways with her and her father, but promises to visit them at their new ranch soon.

When Wes finally makes it to Todos Santos, he is not the least bit surprised to find two foolish thugs, Reno (John Archer) and Duke (James Mitchell), who are to help in the robbery, along with Homer (Ian Wolfe), who is the blundering inside man on the train. He is, however, surprised to find a half Indian former saloon dancer with them, named of all things, Colorado (Virginia Mayo).

The remainder of the film heads off in exactly the direction you might expect, with Wes being smarter than everyone else when it comes to crime, but failing to see or understand anything about women and their motivations. Colorado Territory (1949)It’s only after the film ends and you can reflect that this story and its characters begin to take flight, lifting the entire production to new heights.

The truth is that this is a masterfully told story by one of the all time great filmmakers, Raoul Walsh. And why shouldn’t it be- he had made the film once before. “High Sierra” (1941) was Raoul Walsh’s intimate and intensely powerful Gangster film starring Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino. It was based on the crime novel of the same name by legendary gangster author W.R. Burnett, and is an all around brilliant movie. Yet somehow, just eight short years later, when Hollywood was remaking Colorado Territory (1949)and re-releasing as many potentially profitable films as possible, someone had the foresight to see the potential that this story had when moved to the old west, and in the days of the lawless gunman.

Joel McCrea does astounding things with this role, where despite being a wanted man with a past filled with crime, we easily sympathize and attach ourselves to him and his attempt to right things for himself. He really seemed to understand the plight of Wes McQueen, and his performance comes off as completely genuine.

Colorado Territory (1949)Of course if McCrea is good in this film, than Virginia Mayo is downright perfect. She seems to completely embody everything that is needed here, with a rough, rugged exterior, although inside she’s just a jaded, hopeless soul searching for love and attention. Her abundance of sexual energy (and legs), is just a facade that she puts on to make men do what she wants (and to give the film that element), but when she finds herself entranced by Wes and his quiet soft-spoken demeanor, she drops the act and becomes a real person. This film should have propelled Virginia Mayo and her career to a new level. She is stupendous and reaches new heights in her acting, and when you combine this performance with another Raoul Walsh film from the same year, “White Heat”, Mayo really moved herself out of the “dancing girl-next-door” roles that had made her famous throughout the 1940’s. Unfortunately, reviews for “Colorado Territory” weren’t favorable upon Colorado Territory (1949)its release, making her performance go mostly unnoticed.

I don’t understand why others have been critical of this film. Perhaps during the late 1940’s and even into the early 1950’s (because there was an abundance of good western movies being released), film goers just weren’t able to fully appreciated what they were seeing. Today, when good western films are few and far between, “Colorado Territory” fulfills on every level. The acting is impeccable, Raoul Walsh reminds us again why he IS one of the greatest directors in history (with his beautiful location shooting and flawless story arc), and Sidney Hickox’s cinematography is dead on with a film noir style, once again perfectly placed in the western setting. I have a hard time finding anything about this film that is wrong, but perhapsColorado Territory (1949) it’s just me and my undying love of the western genre.

Westbound (1959)- Budd Boetticher

★★★

In the opening minutes of “Westbound” (1959), fans of these films, known as the “Ranown” movies might be discouraged. After all it’s the sixth of seven collaborations between director Budd Boetticher and western star Randolph Scott, but unlike the other six films, this one is different; so much so in fact, that Boetticher himself didn’t include it as a Ranown movie. Scott owed Warner Bothers a film, and being the good friend that he was, Boetticher volunteered to direct. The result isn’t anything special, but imagine how bad it could have been without Boetticher’s help.

The film opens during the Civil War, as Captain John Hayes (Randolph Scott) is pulled from active duty in order to run gold on the Overland Stage, from California to the Union troops. Westbound (1959)On his way out west he meets another Union soldier, Rod Miller (Michael Dante), who’s traveling back home to be with his wife, Jeannie (Karen Steele), after losing an arm in battle.

Upon arriving in his hometown of Julesburg, Colorado, Hayes discovers that the Overland stop has been deserted, as most of the town is sympathetic with the Confederacy. A former acquaintance of Hayes’s, Putnam (Andrew Duggan), informs Hayes that he intends to do everything in his power to prevent the stage from being successful in their efforts to aid the Union, including having hired a gunslinger, Mace (Michael Pate), to reek havoc whenever possible. Putnam also mentions that he has married Hayes’s former flame, Norma (Virginia Mayo), which surprisingly doesn’t seem to affect Hayes much.

Westbound (1959)

Without a stage post in Julesburg, the operation begins to struggle. Even the outlining posts are having their buildings burned and the horses run off. Hayes visits Rod and Jeannie, who are happy to help by offering their home to be the new post. Westbound (1959)This only enrages Putnam and Mace, who become obsessed with stopping the gold, leading to an inevitable confrontation.

It sure was nice of Boetticher to direct “Westbound”, despite the film’s obvious deficiencies. His directorial skills added so much to a production that was plagued with a mediocre screenplay and cheap overall values. The location shooting is virtually non-existent, with the typical Warner Brothers scenes filmed on the backlot, looking as fake and  easily designed as possible. Boerricher’s best films always seem to be the ones where he was able to express his creativity on a large-scale. “Westbound” was filmed with Boetticher’s hands tied, and it shows.

Westbound (1959)

The acting, however, saves the story from itself. Scott is so comfortable in western films that it seems like he doesn’t even have to try. Virginia Mayo and Karen Steele come through with great supporting performances that somewhat surprisingly avoid the clichéd female-western character flaws. Westbound (1959)Michael Pate does some overacting, but still pulls off a good combination of ruthless and slightly crazy.

The funniest part of “Westbound” is that I don’t think it could have been better. Some stories just can’t be great because they lack the potential upon their initial concept. This is a film that could have been really bad, but because everyone gave there absolute best, it ended up being a halfway decent film that stays entertaining throughout.
http://rcm-na.amazon-adsystem.com/e/cm?t=lasthemov-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&asins=B002DDIQX0&ref=tf_til&fc1=000000&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=E3E3E3&bg1=E3E3E3&f=ifrhttp://rcm-na.amazon-adsystem.com/e/cm?t=lasthemov-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&asins=B00BGP4RKM&ref=tf_til&fc1=000000&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=E3E3E3&bg1=E3E3E3&f=ifr

River of No Return (1954)- Otto Preminger

★★★★

“River of No Return” (1954) is an adventurous western/musical film directed by Otto Preminger. Set in the Northwestern United States during the late 1800’s, the film follows Matt Calder (Robert Mitchum), a new homesteader trying to find a place for himself in the every changing landscape of America. River of No Return (1954)Years before, Matt was sent to prison for killing a man, and he hasn’t seen his son, Mark (Tommy Rettig), since infancy. Now, Matt’s wife has died and the young Mark has come out west to help Matt with their homestead. Matt travels to a local town to meet Mark, who arrived earlier and has been staying with the local dance hall girl, Kay (Marilyn Monroe). Matt thanks Kay for her kindness and promises Mark a bright future, living and working on their land together.

Kay’s gambling fiance, Harry (Rory Calhoun), shows up with a deed to a gold claim that he says was won in a poker game. He tells her they must leave immediately, and travel by raft to Council City (there are no extra horses in town) in order to file their claim. Kay suspects something is wrong due to his urgency, but agrees to go along anyway.

River of No Return (1954)

During their journey Kay and Harry find themselves over-matched by the fast-moving river, but luckily Matt and Mark witness them struggling and help pull the raft to shore. Harry offers Matt money for his only horse and gun so that he can get to Council City faster, but Matt has seen Indians watching his homestead and refuses to be left stranded with his son. River of No Return (1954)When Matt won’t accommodate him, Harry takes matters into his own hands by knocking Matt out and stealing what he wants. Kay refuses to leave them alone, so Harry abandons her as well.

Right after Harry leaves, Matt wakes up and sees the Indians heading down the mountain. To escape their attack, Matt, Mark and Kay re-board the raft, leaving the homestead to be destroyed by the Indians. Floating down river, the unlikely trio encounters several struggles, including the rapid-filled water, more Indians, wild animals, and even a pair of men looking to find Harry and take back their deed. The biggest struggle, at least for Matt and Kay, is having to overcome their initial distaste for each other and stop fighting the undeniable spark between themselves.

 “River of No Return” is by no means a perfect movie, but it is a fun one- particularly for those who enjoy Marilyn Monroe. Her acting is not at its best, but she still lights up the screen with charm and personality.River of No Return (1954) The musical numbers are particularly great, some because of her, and some because of the costumes designed by one of Marilyn’s regular designers, Travilla. (The costumes might very well be the highlight of the film.) This is one of those movies that separates the Marilyn Monroe neigh-sayers from the fans. If you don’t like her normally then you will probably say that her performance lacks acting talent. On the other hand, if you enjoy her as an actress (as I do) then this film is made almost expressly for you (and me). She looks the part of a saloon gal with her breathy singing and skimpy, provocative clothes. Kay wants to be a better person, but has already given up hope for herself, resigning to forever being attached to no-good gamblers and drunks. Whatever someone might think about her (including Matt), she thinks even less of herself. One can’t help but see the unfortunate comparisons between Kay as a character and Monroe as an actress.

Mitchum seems a bit stale in his role, which doesn’t offer much anyway.  His best characters are the darker ones, and Matt doesn’t come close to resembling any of those. River of No Return (1954)Rory Calhoun is easily forgettable as the villain, but young Tommy Rettig, on the other hand, really brings a much-needed, emotional quality to the movie. All the characters seem to be in bad situations, but young Mark is the only one who didn’t make the choices that have brought him this far.

Much of “River of No Return” was shot on location, its breathtaking scenery and expansive landscapes helping to enhance every other aspect as well. The river scenes, however, suffer from too many long distance shots (to hide the faces of the stunt-workers), combined with the close-ups that were obviously (and I mean obviously in a painful way) done on a stage with some water splashing around. Instead of the white water scenes becoming the heart of the film, giving the audience thrill after thrill, they make it embarrassing and laughable.

River of No Return (1954)

Otto Preminger had his plate full on this shoot. Mitchum struggled with his drinking, Marilyn with her acting coach, the inclement weather conditions, and of course studio pressure to do things their way. As always, Preminger rose to the challenge and managed to pull everything together, creating a film that can still be enjoyed, despite all of its faults. He also came in ahead of schedule and under-budget, which is a huge accomplishment in itself. Always a professional, it seems there is nothing that Preminger couldn’t handle.
http://rcm-na.amazon-adsystem.com/e/cm?t=lasthemov-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&asins=B0089J290S&ref=tf_til&fc1=000000&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=E3E3E3&bg1=E3E3E3&f=ifrhttp://rcm-na.amazon-adsystem.com/e/cm?t=lasthemov-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&asins=B000FUH38C&ref=tf_til&fc1=000000&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=E3E3E3&bg1=E3E3E3&f=ifrhttp://rcm-na.amazon-adsystem.com/e/cm?t=lasthemov-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&asins=B0089J27VY&ref=tf_til&fc1=000000&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=E3E3E3&bg1=E3E3E3&f=ifr

Wagon Master (1950)- John Ford

 ★★★★

 

Nobody makes a western like John Ford. It almost seems as if he didn’t even have to try hard to excel in an area where so many others failed. How does he continually find ways to make film after film, full of similar themes with many of the same actors, often times situated in the same vicinity, without any of them lacking in any way? Wagon Master (1950)Seriously, each of his films brings something new to the western genre, while constantly raising the bar for all of those who would follow. Which brings us to his 1950 film, “Wagon Master”.

The story is fairly straight forward- two young horse wranglers, Travis (Ben Johnson) and Sandy (Harry Carrey Jr.), get hired to lead a wagon train of Mormons, headed by Elder Wiggs (Ward Bond), to their very own promised land in the San Juan Valley. Along the way, the wagon train first encounters the stranded traveling medicine show run by Dr. Hall (Alan Mobray), which prominently features the attractive and feisty Denver (Joanne Dru). Next, they run into a ruthless gang of cutthroats on the run from the law. This group is run by “Uncle” Clegg (Charles Kemper), and also includes several of his unsavory kin, causing trouble at every turn. The final obstacle in the journey are the Indians, although they cause less trouble here than they do in most other John Ford films.

Wagon Master (1950)“Wagon Master” doesn’t look like other westerns from its time- even John Ford westerns. “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” was released in October of 1948, with “Rio Grande” coming in November of 1950. Somewhere in between these two Ford legendary films, he managed to make the smaller looking (but not feeling) “Wagon Master”, not to mention his comedy, “When Willie Comes Marching Home”, released just two months earlier. The real question is, how did he find the time? The entire shoot took less than 30 days, and the budget was quite small comparatively. Ford actually seems to have made an entire film, from conception to completion, in his “spare” time. Unbelievable.

When watching “Wagon Master”, I can’t help but think that Clint Eastwood must love this film. Start with a couple of loners wandering aimlessly through the vastness of the west. They meet a group with which they have no connection or understanding, but are drawn toward them anyway, possibly because one of the girls catches Sandy’s eye.Wagon Master (1950) Then comes the Dr. and his crew, who are looked down on by the Mormons, but not by Travis. Clegg’s gang are unwelcome, but because the Mormons, and even Travis and Sandy, aren’t gunslingers, they let them stay out of a combination of kindness and fear. This must be one of the most unusual groups ever assembled in a western film, and my memory is instantly drawn to Eastwood in “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976), or even his modern-day spin on a cowboy in “Bronco Billy” (1980). Misfits who find a family in each other.

John Ford knows that any story can be great with the proper background, and he (and Bert Glennon’s cinematography) have transported us back to another time and place entirely. The black and white photography was an interesting choice at this point in Ford’s career, but it works wonders.Wagon Master (1950) The landscape looks great and compliments the film, but doesn’t take anything away from the characters or the performers- just the way it should.

As a final thought, I can’t help but notice how realistic “Wagon Master” seems. Ford takes out the clichés that so many other westerns fell into. Our “heroes” aren’t what you would expect, as their priority is on everyone in the wagon train’s safety, instead of law and order. The lawmen aren’t amazing trackers who easily find the Clegg gang, and the Indians don’t just attack because they see a white man. Everything moves at a slower pace, with many scenes being set by the beat of the song that the Mormons are singing. It is a true character western, dealing with the soul of the people more than the adventure they have undertaken.
http://rcm-na.amazon-adsystem.com/e/cm?t=lasthemov-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&asins=B002BIULMQ&ref=tf_til&fc1=000000&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=E3E3E3&bg1=E3E3E3&f=ifrhttp://rcm-na.amazon-adsystem.com/e/cm?t=lasthemov-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&asins=B0047BXR94&ref=tf_til&fc1=000000&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=E3E3E3&bg1=E3E3E3&f=ifr