Archive for the ‘John Wayne’ Category

Baby Face

05 Feb

Baby Face – directed by Alfred E. Green. Drama. 71 minutes Black and White 1933.


The Story: A speakeasy owner’s daughter and her negro pal take off to make their fortunes with two dollars between them and a plan for one of them to sleep to the top.

When Zanuck headed up Warner’s before he moved to Fox, he seldom allowed a female to carry a film. Instead, they were used as leading ladies opposite strong male stars. Baby Face is one of his few exceptions.

Zanuck thought up the story and worked on it with Barbara Stanwyck. We have full records of their sessions. They needed to get it into a form which would work with the censors, which in fact eventually it did not. Stanwyck is 25 at this time, and, since the Silent Era, she is making about four pictures a year. In some of them she plays the calico virgin, in others the hard-bitten dame. Or it might be better to say, she plays, as she did in The Lady Eve and Double Indemnity, a duplicitous woman. Here, she seduces and abandons one man after another on her way to the penthouse, which she actually arrives at. Over the bodies of John Wayne, Douglass Dumbrille, Henry Kolker, and Donald Woods she stalks, leaving them all pleading for more.

This is a wonderful ploy on the part of a script to make a star desirable in the eyes of both male and female audience. And Stanwyck is perfectly convincing at it up to a point. She’s great at flirting. But her technique is inconsistent and her choices sometimes unwise. For instance, the way to play telling lies is to be forthright, but Stanwyck plays innocent, she plays poor-me, she plays The Victim. But nobody would ever be convinced by it. At other times her line readings are flat. Both these things remained true for her all her long life as an actor.

But what is truer is her conviction. She is an actress of only surface emotional depth, but she is completely honest on that level, and that level is all that it takes to tell the story of a film, which is really what the audience has come to be satisfied by. Which is why so many B films were well attended: their stories were always more arresting than the performances of them.

Stanwyck had a good voice for film. Sound editors for early Talking Pictures had trouble with its range, but once they got used to that, it worked well, and we are speaking here of an actress who was only in movies at all because of that voice. There was a directness to Stanwyck’s delivery that her crews applauded and were moved by. She was a one-shot actress, so you didn’t get to rehearse with her, but she was an actress of immediate dispatch. She was on the mark, ready, go. In fact, she was go. It’s great to see it.

Stanwyck, like Katharine Hepburn and Joan Crawford, was a redhead covered with freckles, and was, like them, plastered under a mask of makeup to hide them. Here they wanted to dye her hair, but Stanwyck never let her hair be dyed. Instead Perc Westmore, head of makeup at Warners and scion of a family of expert wigmakers, produced (they’re something to behold!) seven wigs each one richer in effect than the one before. And Orry-Kelly puts her in one overdressed outfit after another until at last, when married to banker George Brent, she seems entirely clothed in gold.

Time lists Baby Face as one of 100 greatest films.


The Quiet Man

11 Nov

The Quiet Man –– directed by John Ford. Romantic Drama. An American returns to Ireland, falls for a beautiful woman and must fight to make her his own. 129 minutes. Color 1952.


We get three fairy tales for the price of one. To exploit them, John Ford loads us with his usual bunk. John Wayne plays the man Ford wished he were, and the movie gives us the Ireland Ford wished it were: instead of the starvation, dirt, and violence of it that drew his own forebears to Maine, we get The Emerald Isle and Ford’s St. Patrick’s Day parade of all its clichés before our eyes. Swathed in “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen,” “Danny Boy,” and “The Kerry Dancers,” we drown in the sentimental blarney of The Auld Sod – with one exception: the film was actually taken in Ireland itself and with actors who actually were Irish. For it is of such a green and such a melodiousness of tongue that one’s worst expectations are swerved by.

That’s the Ford’s first fairy tale, sentimental fantasy of Ireland that Shaw, Wilde, O’Casey, and Joyce deplored.

The second one is a real fairy tale, but one in modern dress, and that’s the one in which a wounded prince enters a kingdom and wins the heart of the princess. Naturally, the princess has a wild boar father-figure who won’t let her go. And the princess has a wound as well, which is that she is the immediate relation of that wild boar, and is one too. So it is a taming of the shrew story, to boot.

The fairy tale immediately before us, however, is the fairy tale of a Hollywood movie, which has its own regulations and sentimental holdovers, played out by actors of heroic mold and legendary beauty, force, and charm. And for this purpose Ford has placed his alumni before us. We have Barry Fitzgerald who takes us a long way into believing that alcoholism is cute. Mildred Natwick plays the spinster Goddess of the town. Ward Bond, as the local priest who actually narrates the fairy tale, and actually gives sporadic evidence of what a good actor he really was. George Ford plays the town sage. And Victor McGlaglen plays the dumb galoot Boar-King whom the prince must kill.

What draws us to this gallumfry? It is the fulfillment of the crazy idea that there actually could be before us a romance played by John Wayne in which, when he kissed the girl, we did not desire to crawl under our theatre seats in horror. He is never less masculine than when kissing. But, in fact, he and Maureen O’Hara seem to have something happening between them. He has wonderfully acted scene, for instance, in which a thunderstorm arises to symbolize the wild sexual passion of O’Hara – but instead of taking advantage of her, he takes responsibility for her. He’s just great. And their kisses are shameless and fun.

They are two handsome people to be sure. Maureen O’Hara, as usual, is called upon to play the fiery red-head, but she does not fall, as she often did, into the trap of being not just high spirited but bad tempered. This is partly due to the fact that anything you could scream at the moronic Victor McGlaglen sounds like a lullaby compared to what he really deserves.

She also comes up against and matches the force of John Wayne’s patience, which is a force of nature never to be overthrown. He also carries the fastest grin in the west. It’s fast because it’s perpetually internal. It presents him before us with a ready philosophy of life, one which is quizzical, kind, long suffering, and gentlemanly. His sense of humor and his patience are one single thing. He is sedate of movement and of speech, a peaceable person, slow to punch. He is an actor who does not fare well with longer than three sentences in a row. So he stands for a taciturnity and much else that we might admire in ourselves did we possess it to any degree worth taking credit for.

This grin and this patience and this deliberation of movement move this actor into scenes like a ploughshare – which is to say they give him genuine authority. And, while Wayne may be biased and stubborn, he is no fool. He weighs matters well. He was a quick study as an actor – and what did he do between takes? He played chess. From all this we made him a great movie star, and no one was more justified to be one.

So he and O’Hara well satisfy our curiosity and our desire for their romantic connection. They are neither of them in their first youth when they play this, but Wayne still has his fine figure and O’Hara is sufficiently messy to convince you that they are not too long in the tooth for such romance, but just at the right age after all.

The movie is less offensive than other Ford pieces. One looks for Ford’s famous eye, but that search is challenged by the brilliant green of the countryside and by the authenticity of the village itself, which was built on the Republic lot and the old Gene Autry ranch in the hills. You believe they are all in one place.

Ford blocks the movie like a musical without songs. His sense of comedy is from the silent film, and does not work in sound, for it is stagy, always forcing us to find it funny, but we never do. His notion that affection between males emerges only after fisticuffs is at once homoerotic and ridiculous. His sense of small group shots gives us his infallible tableaux, although his sense of crowds is non-existent, for he handles them as just a gaggle of people waiting to react when the stars ride by. And he uses eager Irish town folk as extras, a strategy by a director that invariably produces sudden shyness in them. But the narrative is brisk, and the fairy tale of the prince and princess moves along at a fine trot.

Wayne is set an impossible task –– to get the gold from the dragon, Victor McGlaglen. McGlaglen’s hold on it is as crazy as O’Hara’s refusal to relinquish her dream for it. So there are two crazinesses whose stories must be beaten to death here, since logic will not make them sound. It ends in a donnybrook, of course. Classically comedy ends with a marriage and a dance, but here the dance is between two males, which is odd, don’t you think?

Anyhow, as usual with Ford, whatever he does badly he does well, and we ourselves complete the film by putting down the greeting card it takes the form of as the expression of a black-hearted man pretending to a heart of gold, and our forgiveness that it is human after all for him to have wished that he had one.


Dark Command

22 Apr

Dark Command — directed by Raoul Walsh. Western. All Kansas is saved from the dread Will Cantrell by an illiterate con man. 94 minutes Black and White 1940.


Shall we consider the matter of John Wayne? Here he is ae. 32, handsome as all get out, slender of hip and tummy, tall in the saddle and looking good there, and with that brow even out-furrowing Gable’s. This director, Raoul Walsh, discovered him in 1930, changed his name from Marion to John and from Morrison to Wayne, and in his early 20s put him, in white buckskins, as the hero of one of the greatest Western ever made, The Big Trail. Now The Big Trail was shot in Cinemascope, or a thirty-years-too-soon wide screen version like it, but movie theatres refused to install the screens, so the film, although popular never remade its nut, and Wayne was relegated to B Western for ten years — until Stagecoach, after which he was an A-list star. Another ten years would go by until Red River when John Ford recognized that Wayne could actually act. But with Dark Command in 1940 he is re-united for the first time since The Big Trail with Walsh, and he is also reunited with Claire Trevor his costar in that hugely popular movie. She plays a lady of property, and Wayne plays the grifter sidekick of George Hayes who runs an itinerate dentistry. Wayne’ voice sidles through the film so unobtrusively that he steals every scene he is in. He really knows his business by this time, and is no longer the callow youth in buckskins. He has not yet become the taxidermied version of himself he sometimes arranged to be later nor has he developed that walk of a pigeon-toed panther. He is an extremely passive actor and a very good one. You can still see how beautiful his mouth is. He is sexy because he is sexually innocent. He’s a young man and a happy actor. Opposite him Walter Pidgeon, of all people, has been brought in to play the sociopath Will Cantrell. In a way it’s smart casting, because no one in town suspects that mousy schoolmaster is the dread raider. However, a vigilante is still not a part Pidgeon can craft, but fortunately the story takes care of him. It’s a role that succeeds by the reputation of what people say about him. His mother is movingly played by Marjorie Main, and Walsh gives full value to her. And the wonderful Claire Trevor, fresh from her success in Stagecoach, plays the mettlesome and sharp society girl who is the love interest of both men, another of Walsh’s terrific independent women. A young Roy Rogers with his beautiful mobile face plays her brother, and it’s fascinating to watch him at this boy-stage, although he is 29. Porter Hall plays the dithering foof who fouls up the denouement beautifully. Watch what happens when an actor simply lets his mouth hang open. Anyhow, it’s Wayne’s movie and an interesting one from the hand of Walsh, who knows exactly how to set up a shot, how to direct scenes of panic and mayhem so you think people are really going to get hurt, and how to ravish you with the sight of midnight horses.



The Greatest Story Ever Told

13 Feb

The Greatest Story Ever Told — directed by George Stevens. A prophet appears in the ancient Middle East and is believed and followed and then beset by political superstition.

3 hours and 19 minutes, Color, 1965.


It is not fair of me to review this film, for I have not seen it in a movie theatre, but only on my TV, which, while it is fairly large, cannot do justice to the size of the screen for which it was made. When Stevens was asked to choose between Panasonic and super-Panasonic, he chose the latter, although only two such cameras were available. Others were soon found. And the film was made as a story dependent upon its narration for a huge broad screen. Stevens had been a cameraman for years before he became a director, and he could combine the integrity of his material with the size of the canvas upon which he painted. The sort of the story and its telling were intrinsic to the size of the screen. The one had to do with the other, and to see this film on a TV screen is simply for most of it to fail to register as story. Or so I imagine. It may not be the Greatest Film ever made but it must be the most gorgeous. After research in the Holy Land, Stevens made it in remote Arizona settings which resembled that land of long ago. The flooding of Lake Powell was halted so it could be filmed as the Sea of Galilee. The settings are vast and panoramic and are meant, I believe to buoy up the power of the actions on the screen into a spiritual or at least other world dimension, and this I think they may succeed in doing. The individual scenes are made with Stevens’ unerring sense of beauty; he was inspired by famous paintings and their lighting; many interiors are dark and mysterious, lit for chiaroscuro and for effects which his simple camera setups were primed. Max Von Sydow is fine as Jesus as an actor, but no one else comes up to be as good as to be even bad. Great actors like Van Heflin look as uncomfortable in their sandals as everyone else; God, their feet must have hurt. The crowd scenes are just like all Hollywood crowd scenes, a lot of people shaking their fists in the air at the same time unconvincingly. No one is at home their costumes. The actors pause portentous eons between syllables, except for Jose Ferrer who mercifully picks up all his cues and for Claude Rains who gets on with it also. Charlton Heston is well cast as the humorless John The Baptist and delvers his lines through his stentorian teeth like a baleen whale in a vomitorium. Sal Mineo is marvelous as a cripple who is able to walk; his is the best performance in the film and probably of his career. Sometimes the old sermons are moving, but the picture does not seem to be, except once, when Sydney Poitier picks up the cross from Jesus’ stumbled back and helps him along with it. Much of the heart of the film seems to be kept at a distance, a beautiful distance, true. The miracles are all off to one side, never shown; only their effect is shown. The effect of Jesus on his apostles is never shown, always granted. Eventually, the film got out of control, and Jean Negulesco shot the Jerusalem street scenes and David Lean cast and shot the Claude Rains sequence. Alfred Newman scored it with ancient instruments, his own score, and Handel’s Messiah which is quite grating. Some day if I have the chance I will see this film in a movie house. William Mellor, Stevens’ favorite photographer shot it, and there isn’t a scene in it that isn’t rapturously beautiful. From a camera point of view. Whether from a human point of view and a narrative point of view, I wonder.


Red River

08 Jan

Red River — directed by Howard Hawks. Western. On a 1,000 miles cattle drive a domineering boss conflicts with his rebellious son. 133 minutes Black and White 1948.

* * *

A journey story, and like all journey stories (picaresque stories, road movies), the overriding suspense is how the journey will end, the parenthesis of the beginning and that end filled only with episodes. Actual drama between characters never has the force of this interest. So this movie is like Hawks’ Air Force, which has only one small drama, that of John Garfield’s change of heart– a change which leaves no more conviction to the character than that of Montgomery Clift finally taking on John Wayne. When he does so, Hawks’ camera closes up again and again on Clift’s facial beauty, which is considerable at this stage of his life, but scarcely has to do with anything. Hawks even has Joanne Dru even make love to that face. The film is made overlong not just by her presence in it but the presence of her character in it, which is called upon to say and do preposterous things and to crash the ending. She recites her lines monotonously, in imitation, I suppose, of Dorothy Mcguire, and she is all Hollywooded up in hair, makeup and costume. But she was a last minute replacement, poor woman, and the entire section of which she was a part should never have been shot. The film should have ended with the meeting of the antagonist Wayne and the protagonist Clift in a finale in which Walter Brennan deals Wayne the coup de grace. But Hawks rewrote the story every day as he shot it, and he got to dislike John Ireland pretty quickly. Ireland plays a defiant gunslinger named Cherry, but Ireland did not take his work as an actor seriously and also took up with Joanne Dru whom Hawks fancied. So Hawks more and more diminished Ireland’s role, and more and more built up Brennan’s role as comic relief, thus diluting its power, which is the power of telling the truth. He is the one who should teach Wayne his lesson at the end. The fistfight between Wayne and Clift is ridiculous. Clift is flaccid as a fighter and only five ten next to Wayne’s six four and beefy. No one goes up against John Wayne; it’s not just a question of roles or treatment or story; it’s a fact of nature. But the movie has fallen on evil days long before this. All the campsites of the cattle drive are shot on sound stages at The Goldwyn Studios, so they lack conviction, as do the frequent process shots. Once Hawks finished a film he walked away from it, even to its editing. He’d hired Dimitri Tiomkin for the score but Tiomkin offers vulgar triumphals intermixed with pone, which is quite disconsonnant with the down and dirty cowboy life shown us. The films’ interest lies in Hawks’ simple camera, one step above still photography, and his abilities with actors to make scenes happen and to train them up to their tasks, with the result that Clift is completely convincing on a horse. Once Red River was done, Clift went back to his New York actor friends and, knowing it was the last time he could dine anonymously, said, “Tomorrow I’m going to be a star. Let’s celebrate before it’s too late.” And he was right. What’s good about the movie is the location work with the huge herd of cattle on the drive, all of which did take place in Texas, and which gives the show its fascinating unpredictability. The cowboys are costumed and hatted distinctively (Hawks gave Clift Gary Cooper’s hat). Wayne, at 38, is given grey hair to play a man of 55, and when John Ford sees Red River he says, “My God, the son of a gun can act,” and Wayne is no longer teeter-tottering in B Westerns but solidly becomes the great star his presence and craft and well-justified popularity deserved.



Rio Bravo

31 Oct

Rio Bravo — Directed and Produced by Howard Hawks. Western. A sheriff, a teen-aged gunslinger, a drunken deputy, and a crippled coot hold out for justice while keeping the land baron’s brother captive. 241 minutes Color 1959.

* * * *

People often confuse an actor with the role he plays, and this was never more plainly illustrated than in the case of John Wayne. Because everyone could play cowboys and Indians when they were kids, they assumed John Wayne didn’t have to be a very good actor to do it too. Besides, they learned it from him. He pretty much all the time played a cowboy and never got killed and was the hero. And so everyone who liked him got caught up with those constant features of his roles. He shed the light of the role he played. He mesmerized males. Which means he was beyond examination. Which means he was beyond criticism. He was larger than life which means he was a God. But if you look at Wayne in this, or probably any picture after Red River, you can see what a good actor he was. How he listens to the other characters, how he restrains himself, how he gives over scenes to other actors. In this one he has some particularly effective scenes with Angie Dickinson, who is no relation to Emily Dickinson, and who plays an itinerant gambling lady of indeterminate virtue. Watch how he responds to her, how baffled he is, yet how well timed with his lines. Watch to see how well the scene plays, not because of her skill, although she is the aggressor, but because of his.  She herself was not well established in her craft as yet. And so she tends to perfume her part, although it is written as though it were written for Lauren Bacall, that is, for the sort of slim deep-voiced actress Hawks liked who could play sexual insolence without turning a hair. Another actor we take for granted is Walter Brennan. Hawks made many films with him. “With or without?’ he asked Hawks when he first turned up for work. “With or without what?” said Hawks. “My teeth,” said Brennan. This performance is without and it is a shack, one of  many he  erected in his long and beautiful career. Brennan is the only actor to win three supporting role Oscars, and those roles are well worth examination. What he brings here is Life! Ricky Nelson cannot do likewise because he is seventeen; he has not gelled as a male yet; he is not yet a thing. And Dean Martin cannot do it either, because he is inherently not an actor at all. He is a darling man, of course, but he only comes alive half asleep on a bunk singing a little song, comes alive because he is most natural when singing. The difference between a comic and a humorist was never so well illustrated as in Martin and Lewis. Lewis is a comic; Martin a humorist, but this shows only once in a moment when he laughs with delight at the foolishness of Brennan. But he is likable enough, and so is the picture, though it is tolerably long. For 2 1/2 hours it dawdles from episode to episode, each one taking place indoors, and each one either at the saloon, the hotel, or the jail. Wayne must carry it all. But look at him. Sex feet four, long of torso, pigeon toed, and toting a presence that no actor of the present day can even come close to.





Rio Lobo

29 Oct

Rio Lobo — Directed by Howard Hawks. Western. In tracking down a Civil War traitor, a man rescues the water rights from an evil land baron. 114 minutes Color 1970.

* * * * *

In Hollywood screenplays, big male movie stars never die. Instead they go on to make another film exactly like the one before, such as El Dorado and Rio Lobo – except there is a noticeable decline in the supporting players. Here we have an avenger quartet as before, except John Wayne no longer has Robert Mitchum or Dean Martin as his chums, nor does he have, as the boy, Ricky Nelson or James Caan. And once again Hawks has failed to manufacture an insolently sexy leading lady out of a newcomer. I guess there was to be only one Lauren Bacall. Here he breaks up that character into several parts and they all crumble. Ann Sheridan, Claire Trevor to the rescue! But no. Every piece of casting a subtraction, with the exception of Arthur Hunnicutt in the Walter Brenan role, who is better than ever. The established lack of threat to these big male stars routinizes these films, and no matter how much sweat they break  you know there is no danger to them. So there is no real story tension, and there is no real tension in the playing either. John Wayne is a grand master actor at this point. At 64 he is playing the part of a 30 year old. He is so aged in the wood you have to set aside the tropes of the Western medium as a sort of high kabuki rigmarole, a ritual in itself designed not to induce terror or sympathy, but rather a formal gesture meant to reveal the style and the humor and the humanity and the wisdom of the grand master himself, and these three films surely do that. Whatever Wayne’s politics were at the time, they have detached from him, and he stands clear and plain now like a cowboy in a Remington, a work of art after all. With the voice of a corral gate opening, the slit eyes of country-man, a face like an old saddlebag, and the rueful humor of a hand who has survived age itself, Wayne stands forth as one of the great entertainers, closer in tone to Will Rogers than to Randolph Scott. In this film he lands all his wise cracks, and also each punch. Indeed, over and over again, it takes only one Wayne punch to the jaw of a villain to deconstruct him forever. Down they go never to rise. These triumphs are feasted with swigs of whisky, as the next plot – I won’t call it twist – but 45 degree angle arrives. Wayne’s audience at this stage of his career is seeing a nostalgia. Much like the raving middle-aged fans of a pop singer who is no longer exciting, they palimpsest the performance before them with the 23 year old in white deerskin in The Big Trail of 1931 and the Ringo Kid of Stagecoach of 1939. Those beautiful young men have never aged and neither therefore has the audience. Wayne’s performance here is relaxed to the point of irony, as he sees the joke in his doing all this one more time. Indeed, certain scenes of this film he himself directed, since Hawks himself lay back in his hammock. Wayne still drives every scene with stalwart magnificence, a feat he accomplishes it would seems without lifting a finger – and there are some good scenes here for him – the return of the young man’s body to his parents’ farm, for one.  But Hawks did not lay back in the direction of the extraordinary opening sequence of the picture, which involved the witty and complex and never-before seen robbery of a runaway caboose. If not a runaway one, Rio Lobo is itself a caboose, for it was the last film the famed director  – His Gal Friday, Bringing Up Baby, Red River, To Have and To Have Not, Twentieth Century, The Big Sleep – ever made.






El Dorado

29 Oct

El Dorado – Directed and  Produced by Howard Hawks. Western. A quartet of gunfighters duels with the hired guns of a land baron out to rob a farmer’s water rights.  126 minutes Color 1967.

* * *

Hawks made four westerns with John Wayne, of which this is the third; it is also the next to last film Hawks made, and it copy-cats, embarrassingly, the two that surround it. The movie dawdles along rather existentially from episode to episode like a local that stops at every cow, but this provides part of its entertainment value. It might have been better directed by George Marshall (Destry Rides Again), but the real problem with the picture is in the casting. The film is a by-blow of Rio Bravo, the first film of the last three, and we have Arthur Hunnicutt in the Walter Brennan part and Robert Mitchum in the Dean Martin part. Hunnicutt does an honorable job but he cannot supply the deficiency of the brilliant Brennan, and Robert Mitchum as the drunken sheriff is a dead loss in the Martin role. Mitchum can’t act and never could, really. His self-possession is a pose. And he does not have a funny bone in his body, at least as an actor. Dean Martin was a warm and richly humorous man and along with Walter Brennan brought the natural humanity necessary to make Rio Bravo work to make it one of the classic maverick westerns. Here, however, we have the same set-up as Rio Bravo, with James Caan, a Hawks’ discovery, filling in the foursome for Ricky Nelson. Caan with his broad square shoulders looks terrific in his costumes, and you believe he can throw knives – thwack– like that – and handle cards at a gambler’s table. He’s just fine. He’s young and lush and virginal and a good mosquito to pester big man John Wayne. Wayne is just marvelous in the picture. He carefully listens to the other actors and his responses are always on the money. He has a habit of subtly shifting and swaying, which keeps him or a scene from going static. And he has a rich and humane humor. And what a presence! Of course, he never could kiss a woman worth a hoot, but the women in Hawks’ films at this time are pallid or perfunctory. Hawks’ sets were relaxed and cooperative, which gives his films a permissiveness which sometimes lapses into slumber. With the help of the entire crew, Hawks tended to rewrite his scripts every day, so, while he worked best with huge stars, they also had to be, like John Wayne, quick studies. Hawks had made Wayne a serious actor in Red River (John Ford never knew Wayne could act at all until then), so Wayne would accept Hawks’ hiring him with no script at all, as in Hatari; Wayne sat around and played chess. Leigh Brackett again contorted herself to write the screenplay, and Arthur Rosson, of Hawks’ silent film days, filmed it richly. The costumes by Edith Head encourage a willing suspension of belief, however, and the music would be ideal for a Peter Sellers’ comedy – but then, the film is an entertainment pure and simple, closer to a slowmotion Roadrunner cartoon than not, and satisfying on that level, if that level satisfies you. The value is the value of a superstar with all the merit in display that made him one.






10 Oct

Hatari – Directed by Howard Hawks. Wild Animal Action Adventure. A company of animal collectors snares big game in Africa. 156 minutes Color 1962.

* * * *

Howard Hawks had no signature visual style, even when he used the same photographer. Nor was he much of a director of actors. His films are plainly shot in simple setups. What he had was a freewheeling attitude about scripts which in the morning he would make up among the actors or who ever passed through the shooting, and then film it later in the day. This openness and casualness produced a big permission for actors, so sometimes wonderful performances arrived. John Wayne’s, for instance. He is an actor who often chooses to “come from strength”, but here he pretty much lets that slide, and what comes to the fore is his wisdom, forgiveness, and rueful wit. He does not have any other actors in the picture who are on his level of artistry or humor, save Red Buttons, which is a shame, because that and their variety of foreign languages slows things down to the level of competence, which is a local train not a superchief; John Wayne is a superchief. However, what results here is a very amiable party indeed, casual, agreeable, and fun. This is not a movie you intently watch; it is a movie you hang out with. The story line is flimsy and contrived, and it all takes place indoors on Paramount sound stages, and looks it, as do the actors slathered in thick tan pancake. The story involves, if that is the right word, a couple of unconvincing romances, one of them between Wayne and the Italian actress Elsa Martinelli who is of all things called Dallas, the name Claire Trevor had in Stagecoach. (One must cover one’s eyes when John Wayne kisses anybody.) But, in the long and beautiful African scenes, Elsa Martinelli has such a terrific rapport with wild animals that I took her to be a professional trainer. She is remarkable with three baby elephants, and seems to harbor a leopard as a watchdog. The episode with the monkey tree is fascinating – evidently all the actors did the animal work in the picture – and wildebeest and rhinos and cheetahs and ostriches are caught in long and very exciting sequences. The chasing down and capturing of the wild animals feels authentic and was the raison d’etre for the film. These are interspersed with drunk scenes, which are not funny (at what moment in history did drunk scenes in Hollywood cease to be funny) and with sophomoric hijinks, which are not funny either. Hatari means danger in Swahili and the relaxed and genial nature of the story with its foolish excesses is just a necessary relaxation from the real and intense excitement of the hunts. Henry Mancini has written a brilliant score.





The Big Trail

11 May

The Big Trail. Directed by Raoul Walsh. Western. A wagon train sets out for Oregon Territory in the 1840s. 110 minutes Black and White 1930.

* * * * *

One of the greatest films ever made, The Big Trail immerses us in the life of the wagon train, its dust, its details, its paraphernalia, its tasks, its structures, its problems, its suffering, the immense herds of livestock that accompanied it, the horrendous geophysical challenges it faced, the beasts of various kinds that hauled it, how the men and women slaved and, across half a continent, walked besides the wagons. In no scene do we find the film sitting still for a scene; there is always serious activity going on in the foreground and background, work, determination. No one is in fancy clothes or made up to look good. John Wayne in his first principal role is callow as an actor, intoning his lines but at least not overplaying them. He uses those tricks of his, scratching the back of his head for charm and flexing his jaw for determination, but he is aged 23 and in perfect figure, with slits for eyes and with a face carved for the camera. Tyrone Power Sr., the father of the most beautiful man you have ever seen, plays the ugliest man you have ever seen, Wayne’s nemesis. The drama, which is conventional, is dismissable next to the drama of the setting and movement of the film shot in dramatic scenery in ten states and originally in 5 versions, one of them in 70 mm Grandeur, making it the only wide screen film of its era to survive. What a masterpiece by a master! What a spectacle! And — all praise to the technical crew — what sense of verisimilitude, since it was made within living memory of those who had made such treks. Over three hundred in the cast, none of them looking like extras, but just folks slogging along the trail not yet even cut. A must. You are there.


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