Tag Archives: John Wayne

Pre-Code Hollywood #12 – Baby Face (1933)

Baby_Face_1933_film_posterBaby Face (1933)
Directed by: Alfred E. Green
Written by: Gene Markey, Kathryn Scola, Mark Canfield (story by)
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent

Alfred E. Green’s Baby Face is undoubtedly one of the most “Pre-Code” movies we’ve covered during this marathon, portraying Barbara Stanwyck’s main character Lily Powers as a woman who happily sleeps her way to the top. Baby Face makes bluntly comments on the power of human sexuality, and the influence that it holds over men and women, making it truly one of the first films of its kind. Green’s film takes themes that were previously explored in Pre-Code projects like Red-Headed Woman and Blonde Venus, and ramps them up – Baby Face is an empowering, if somewhat unfortunate, tale of a woman doing what she must to break the mold.

Baby Face follows Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck), a young woman who has been prostituted throughout her life by her father. After her father is killed, Lily is free to do as she pleases for the first time in her life. She and her friend Chico (Theresa Harris) hop on a train to New York, where Lily eventually finds work in a skyscraper that houses a large bank called Gotham Trust. Once there, Lily coldly and methodically sleeps her way to the top, having affairs with numerous coworkers. The most notable of which are the company’s Vice President J.P. Carter (Henry Kolker), and Courtland Trenholm (George Brent), the elected President of the bank. Eventually Lily and Courtland marry, which can only end one way unless the young woman undergoes a drastic lifestyle change.
Baby Face
Few actors had a screen presence that could rival that of Barbara Stanwyck, who absolutely carries Baby Face and raises it to be more than just a somewhat memorable Pre-Code film. Stanwyck’s turn as Lily Powers starts as being incredibly sympathetic – a young girl whose father has exploited sexually for years – and ends as a nearly unlikable, but empowered, female in a corporate position of power. Only a versatile actress like Stanwyck could pull off such an incredible transformation and make it entirely believable. While only 26 years old at the time, Barbara Stanwyck shows off the skills that would turn her into one of the most legendary actresses in Hollywood history. Without her as Lily Powers, it’s likely that Baby Face may have been a tremendous failure in regards to resonating with its audience.

Another highlight of Baby Face comes in its brisk pacing and a plot-driven screenplay. Writers Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola adapted the story by Mark Canfield, turning it into a powerful, subtle, and effective drama about sex and the early days of feminism. The screenwriters make it clearly almost immediately that Lily is an intelligent and highly capable person, but is being held down by her gender. Instead of shaming Powers for the actions that follow, the script treats them as necessary evils on the way to becoming powerful. Baby Face is oftentimes quite funny in its use of clever innuendo, and when paired with Alfred E. Green’s subtle direction makes the film stand out from many of its contemporaries. An recurring example of this happens everytime Lily successfully seduces somebody within the Gotham Trust bank – we are shown an exterior shot of the bank as Green’s camera pans upward, closer and closer to the top. Subtle touches like these make Baby Face a constant joy to watch, and establishes Baby Face as an intelligent and progressive project.

Baby Face is credited as being one of the films that helped to solidify the need for the Hays Code in Hollywood – no film before it had ever been so straightforward about the power of sexuality and the barriers met by women of the time. I can absolutely imagine how the content found within Baby Face may have been shocking to audiences in 1933. Even without showing any actual explicit sexual content, the suggestive comments and subtle direction make the film seem just as shocking as it would with actual scenes of sexuality. Some of the examples of Pre-Code content found in the film include Lily being told by her mentor to take advantage of men in order to attain a position of power, and the subsequent use of sex to move up the corporate ladder. Barbara Stanwyck appears scantily clad in more than a few scenes, using innuendo and her obvious sexual appeal to her advantage. It’s difficult to sum up the reasons why Baby Face was so controversial without spoiling the film’s best moments – you’ll just have to see them for yourself.
Annex - Wayne, John (Baby Face)_01
Few of the films I’ve reviewed during the marathon have taken more than one watch to connect with me, at least not until Baby Face – the power of its message did not fully resonate with me until a second and third watch. Alfred E. Green’s film is much more than a shocking drama about sex, it’s a progressive, clever film that makes the absolute most of its short runtime and controversial subject matter. Come for Barbara Stanwyck’s excellent early performance, stay for the smart screenplay and clever direction. Baby Face is highly recommended.

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Top 100 Films #17 – The Searchers (1956)

 

07_the_searchers__Blu-ray#17. The Searchers (1956)
Directed by: John Ford
Written by: Frank S. Nugent (based on The Searchers by Alan Le May)
Starring: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond, Natalie Wood

John Ford’s epic, trailblazing The Searchers is without a doubt my favorite discovery that I can accredit to my time blogging here at Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Film Club. The Searchers tells the story of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), a Civil War veteran returning home for the first time in eight years.  Ethan is very soon forced to seek vengeance for the murder of much of his family by a Comanche tribe.  He and two other men set out to find the tribe responsible, and to bring back young Debbie (Natalie Wood) at any cost necessary.  John Ford’s film is undoubtedly one of the great western films ever made, creating a complex and multidimensional character in John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, and at the same time exploring chilling themes about revenge and prejudice.  Ethan is at all times blinded by his hatred of the Comanche people, and hell-bent on revenge, never stopping to mourn the loss of his family members or second-guess his own brutal actions.  John Ford has created a character who is very difficult to root for, essentially making Ethan one of cinema’s most effective anti heroes.  While I never felt bad for John Wayne’s Ethan, it’s easy to see the immense pain and pressure that he is under – I’ll maintain that John Wayne’s performance in The Searchers is his greatest performance.  On top of the incredible character study director John Ford has managed to craft, his classic western action set-pieces are incredible as usual.  Ford’s wide-angle cameras capture entire battlefields, with his unflinching directing style never pulling too far away from the action.  The most memorable moment in The Searchers comes very early on, seeing Ethan and company stumble upon the charred remains of the Edwards home.  This scene has been the subject of more than a few homages and tributes, most notably George Lucas’ iconic Star Wars.  Ford’s film is far ahead of its time in terms of themes and resonance, and will go down as the great director’s most complex narrative feature.  The Searchers is a challenging and poignant western that still feels relevant and exciting more than sixty years later.  To read my full thoughts of John Ford’s The Searchers, check out my review here.

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Noirvember II #4 – Call Northside 777 (1948)

call-northside-777Call Northside 777 (1948)
Directed by: Henry Hathaway
Written by: Leonard Hoffman, Quentin Reynolds
Starring: James Stewart, Lee J. Cobb, Richard Conte, Helen Walker, Betty Garde

Without a doubt my favorite thing about film noir as a genre is its versatility – with the exception of usually featuring a few trademark elements, the classics of the genre are all so different in scope and size.  Henry Hathaway’s 1948 film Call Northside 777 is a perfect example of this – blending common noir elements with the structure and pacing of a procedural crime investigation. Henry Hathaway directed numerous film noirs during his career, with Call Northside being the most successful of the bunch.  Hathaway is probably most notable for directing one of Adolf Hitler’s favorite films, the Oscar-nominated The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, as well as his work with legendary tough man actor John Wayne, directing him in North to Alaska, Circus World, The Sons of Katie Elder, and his Academy Award-winning performance in 1969’s True Grit.  The legendary director’s filmography consists of more than 60 feature films, featuring some of the greatest American actors to ever live, and spanning a wide variety of genres.

Call Northside 777 stars the always charming James Stewart as P.J. McNeal, an ambitious and brash reporter for the Chicago Times.  McNeal unexpectedly becomes involved with a ten year old murder case involving a young man named Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte), who is serving 99 years in prison for the alleged murder of a Chicago police officer.  Wiecek’s mother has put up a $5,000 reward for whoever can present information about the “true” killer’s of the officer, effectively proving her son to be innocent.  After learning of the reward, McNeal’s Chicago Times editor Brian Kelly (Lee J. Cobb) quickly assigns P.J. to the case. Though McNeal believes Frank Wiecek to be guilty of the killing, the young reporter reluctantly accepts the job in order to prove himself as an investigative reporter.  Not wanting to be embarrassed or exposed by the investigation, Chicago police and state attorney’s become involved in the case – giving the skeptical McNeal more resistance than expected.  Will P.J. McNeal crack the case and prove young Frank Wiecek innocent, or will resistance from law officials prove too much for the young reporter?  Find out in Henry Hathaway’s Call Northside 777!

The addition of Call Northside 777 into this year’s Noirvember schedule was a last minute decision based entirely on two things – the film’s star, James Stewart, is one of my all-time favorite actors, and the fact that I had never seen a Henry Hathaway film.  After finding out about the movie’s procedural and investigative nature, I knew that I had made the right decision.  Call Northside 777 is nowhere near as stylistic or suspenseful as other, more-revered classics of the genre, but Hathaway’s film is a highly intriguing and graceful effort.  Northside lacks most of the trademark elements that make film noir such a captivating genre, but makes up for it with solid, uncompromising film-making, and an intriguing true story adaptation.  The procedural style of storytelling (which I have an unabashed love for) works wonders for the film’s mystery, which is small in scope but grand in its implications.  It’s often said that Hathaway never had a distinct style as a director, being known rather as something of a journeyman filmmaker. His apparent lack of a “trademark” style ultimately works in Call Northside 777’s favor – with Hathaway delivering an intriguing, concise, uncomplicated, and grounded investigation in realistic, documentary-like fashion.  James Stewart turns in a typically solid performance as P.J. McNeal, who is incredibly easy to get behind as an investigative journalist.  McNeal remains skeptical for much of the film, completing the job mostly out of obligation to his editor.  Once he’s thrown up against the resistance given by the law, he begins to question his own morals and proves that he is unafraid to go over the heads of those above him. Stewart’s performance goes against his stereotyped “golly-gee” personality, with the veteran actor instead coming off as hardened and sardonic.  All in all, Call Northside 777 isn’t a perfect film by any means, but it’s certainly quite a good one.
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What I Liked:

  • The opening minutes of the film are presented in an unflinching, documentary style that lays the groundwork for the film’s mystery.
  • James Stewart ventures slightly out of his comfort zone, giving a rock solid performance as P.J. McNeal.  
  • Henry Hathaway’s lack of a distinct style allows for the director to focus on what is most important about this film – the storytelling.
  • The pacing is slow, but deliberately so.  Stewart’s McNeal follows all possible leads, reports back to his superiors multiple times, and thwarts resistance efforts by Chicago law enforcement.  Not a minute feels wasted.
  • The scene in the final act with witness Wanda Skutnik (Betty Garde) adds some effective and much needed suspense to the story.

What I Didn’t:

  • Lee J. Cobb’s character feels undeveloped to a fault.  At times it feels like he has ulterior motives for assigning McNeal to the case, but this point is never really clearly presented or followed up on.
  • The film’s conclusion, while unique, feels a little too rushed and convenient for my liking.  
  • With the convenient conclusion comes an odd and out of place tonal shift from stark and cynical to suddenly much more hopeful.

With it being a last minute addition to this month’s lineup, I couldn’t have been more surprised with my experience with Call Northside 777.  It’s no doubt a flawed film – largely due to some of its overly-convenient writing – but Henry Hathaway’s focused direction and the attention and respect paid to procedure and investigation makes this a more than worthy film noir.  James Stewart brings a good performance to the film, serving as the perfect leading man in a performance-driven piece.  It won’t ever be considered to be one of the greats of the film noir genre, but it is a solid crime film with an incredibly intriguing mystery at its core.  Henry Hathaway’s Call Northside 777 is recommended.

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John Ford Feature #10 – The Wings of Eagles (1957)

Wings_of_Eagles_1957The Wings of Eagles (1957)
Directed by: John Ford
Written by: Frank Fenton, William Wister Haines (based on the life & writings of Frank W. Wead)
Starring: John Wayne, Dan Dailey, Maureen O’Hara, Ward Bond, Ken Curtis, Edmund Lowe

It’s hard to believe that the same man who directed a tried and true masterpiece just one year earlier had anything to do with a picture like The Wings of Eagles.  Ford’s 1957 follow-up to The Searchers is unlike anything the great director ever put to film.  Instead of being reminiscent of his romanticized westerns, wartime films, or his period dramas, The Wings of Eagles more closely mirrors the so-called “Oscar-baity” biopics of today.  The film features many members of the John Ford Stock Company, and yet manages to feel nothing like any of his films I’ve seen to date.  It bears no resemblance in its style, music, cinematography, or even performances to the previous decade or so of his output, and just feels like an oddity in a career of never pandering to the masses.  The Wings of Eagles barely managed to make its budget back at the box office, and from everything I can tell received a very mixed reaction from critics and audiences alike.  Released the same year as massive hits (and later historically appreciated films) like Oscar-winning The Bridge on the River Kwai, Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution, Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, Frank Sinatra vehicle Pal Joey and more, The Wings of Eagle was completely ignored by the awards circuit and has been more or less lost to time.  Ford’s film stars John Wayne as Frank Wead, known better as “Spig” to those close to him.  Sharing the screen with Wayne are Maureen O’Hara as his wife Min, Dan Dailey as Jughead Carson, Ward Bond as John Dodge, and Ken Curtis as John Dale Price.

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The Wings of Eagles takes place in the aftermath of the first Great War.  We meet Frank “Spig” Wead (John Wayne), who seems to be a relatively carefree Navy man.  After a reckless stunt to prove the worth of aviation combat to Navy officials, his opinions on the matter are heard.  He urges the Navy to hone their skills through the use of races and endurance competitions, which will help develop pilots and create an aerial force to be reckoned with.  After spending the majority of his time and energy on the Navy’s aerial program and on general mischief, Spig and his wife Min (Maureen O’Hara) find tensions growing between them. Eventually Spig is promoted to the position of Commander for his contributions to the effort.  While attempting to celebrate with his wife and two daughters, Spig falls down a flight of stairs in his home and breaks his neck.  The accident has left Commander Wead’s lower body completely paralyzed, leaving him in long-term hospital care.  After rejecting his wife’s affections in the hospital, the only person Spig will see are his colleagues, “Jughead” Carson (Dan Dailey) and John Dale Price (Ken Curtis).  Jughead is more dedicated than most anybody and visits the hospital on an almost daily basis in order to help with Spig’s morale.  Carson tries to get Frank to regain the use of his legs through repeated use of the motivational sentence “I’m gonna move that toe!”.  Carson also helps Spig battle his depression and recommends the use of writing in order to cope.  After finally finding success in all three areas, Spig goes on to accomplish great things in the rising empire of Hollywood.  With new found success, he returns to the Navy during World War II in order to help develop escort and transportation vessels and vehicles.  After an ill-timed heart attack, Spig is sent back home before he can see out the end of the war.  Will Frank Wead be able to mend relations with his family during the last years of wartime, or will he die without them knowing just how much they meant to him?  Find out in John Ford’s The Wings of Eagles.

I can’t help but feel that I made a poor decision when scheduling The Wings of Eagles to be the final film of my John Ford marathon.  Not only does it feel incredibly anti-climatic, but also feels like I robbed myself of seeing a truly great Ford film.  I hope to continue the marathon next year and cover all the underrated movies I chose not to cover this time around (and maybe some of the ones I feel might require a rewatch), so I won’t beat myself up too much.  The Wings of Eagles isn’t the worst film I’ve any seen by any means, but it’s so incredibly mediocre in every way that it just isn’t memorable.  The moment the end credits started rolling on screen, I could feel the film already fading from my memory.  Ford’s 1957 film is so tonally confused that I was never quite sure whether to laugh or feel bad for the characters, especially Spig.  At times dramatic, and at other times almost veering into slapstick comedy, I was never quite able to understand how Ford felt about his subject.  There’s no doubt in my mind that he certainly admired Spig as a character and as a man, but it’s hard to tell his motivations for making an entire feature about it at any given moment.  His direction throughout just feels so uninspired, which is kind of heartbreaking coming off making literally one of the greatest American films ever made.  John Wayne’s performance as Spig isn’t exactly on the level of previous performances seen during the marathon, but the role isn’t exactly demanding either.  His performance is completely one-note, and especially doesn’t work during the hospital scenes where Spig is supposed to be depressed and at his absolute lowest point.  Maureen O’Hara’s performances as Mrs. Wead is an even bigger shame, as her single point in being in the film is essentially to serve as Spig’s estranged wife.  I never felt the on-screen chemistry between the two that I did in something like The Quiet Man, and instead just felt bad for the two legendary actors.  The cinematography is another aspect of the film that just couldn’t possibly live up to previous ones, this time featuring that ugly and washed out early colour look.  The film would probably be better suited to a black and white film, which probably would’ve detracted nearly as much as the harsh colouring did.  The one positive about the film is that the hospital scenes with Spig and Jughead are quite fun, and the “I’m gonna move that toe!” sequence is actually quite inspiring despite everything I’ve said about the film.  Some of the comedic moments work well towards the film, while some of the more elaborate gags just make The Wings of Eagles feel like a joke.  On a film note, Ford casting Ward Bond as “John Dodge” is tremendous, and I’m glad that even the curmudgeonly old director could poke fun at himself at times.   

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I’m not upet that I saw The Wings of Eagles, but I can’t help but feel that John Ford was capable of so much more.  It would be another five years until he would direct The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, another tremendous effort by the legendary director.  I wish that Ford had at least made the story of Frank “Spig” Wead compelling to see on screen, because I kind of feel that the way it was depicted was a pretty big missed opportunity for all parties.  While not all bad, it’s certainly tough to pick out the very good moments of the film, which come all too sparingly.  John Ford’s The Wings of Eagles is not recommended.

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John Ford Feature #9 – The Searchers (1956)

SearchersPoster-BillGoldThe Searchers (1956)
Directed by: John Ford
Written by: Frank S. Nugent (based on The Searchers by Alan Le May)
Starring: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond, Natalie Wood, Harry Carey Jr.

John Ford is considered one of the great trailblazers in the early days of film, one who paved the way for early sound films to go on to become what they have today.  His influence is so indescribably far-reaching that his work still fascinates audiences, critics, and filmmakers and is continually studied by young and old alike.  The Searchers is perhaps considered to be his greatest film, and in a career full of truly remarkable films, that’s saying a great deal.  Though his 1956 classic earned no Oscar nominations that year, it is widely considered to be one of the greatest American pictures ever made, and has earned just about every retrospective accolade that historians can throw at it.  The Searchers is truly epic in its scope, taking place over a number of years and featuring terrific set pieces, breathtaking cinematography, and one of the most engaging performances ever given by a man who was once considered to be a bad actor.  Ford’s masterpiece would prove to be one of his final “traditional” westerns, and is considered to be the pinnacle of the director’s collaborations with actor John Wayne.  It wouldn’t be a great film without its fair share of controversies, and this film features them in spades.  The Searchers is most notable for its interpretation and examination of the racist attitudes towards Native Americans by early Americans.  Ford’s film depicts Native people as being ruthless and bloodthirsty, not because of any prejudice held against them by the filmmakers, but in order to justify the brutal actions of its main characters in the final act of the film.  Despite some of these dated and controversial themes and features, the film has more than endured the test of time and is even more poignant for its brutal examination of tough ideas and themes.  It has influenced and paid homage by great film directors like David Lean, Sam Peckinpah, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Martin Scorsese.  The Searchers stars the great John Wayne as Ethan Edwards, who is considered to be one of the most compelling characters in a film of its time.  Also featured are Natalie Wood as Debbie Edwards, Jeffrey Hunter as Martin Pawley, Vera Miles as Laurie Jorgenson, and regular John Ford Stock Company regulars Ward Bond as Rev. Capt. Samuel Clayton and Harry Carey Jr. as Brad Jorgenson.  

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Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) and Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) in 1956’s The Searchers.

The Searchers begins with Civil War veteran Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returning home to his brother Aaron (Walter Coy) and his family after an eight year wartime absence. It’s clear that Uncle Ethan has been missed, as his influence is immediately felt in the Edwards household as well as in the community. Edwards is soon visited by the Rev. Capt. Samuel Clayton (Ward Bond) and his band of Texas Rangers. Clayton and the Rangers report a herd of stolen cattle, and suspect Comanches in the area as the thieves.  Ethan and his adopted nephew Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) ride off with the Rangers to find the cattle, but instead find an obvious ploy to lure the men away from their homes.  They immediately turn around and head for the Edwards home, but it’s too late, as the home has been burnt to the ground, and Aaron, his wife, and their son have been brutally murdered by the Comanches.  No sign Ethan’s nieces Debbie (Lana Wood) and Lucy (Pippa Scott) can be found in the destroyed home, so the men ride off in search of the two young girls.  After an intense firefight with the Comanches, the Rangers are left with too few men to effectively fight the enemy combatants, and head home. Without the Rangers at their disposal, Ethan, his nephew Martin, and Lucy’s boyfriend Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carey Jr.) are left to carry out the search.  After Ethan finds his niece Lucy brutally raped and murdered in a canyon clearing, an enraged Brad charges into the Comanche camp and is quickly killed.  After the two survivors lose the trail during the tough winter season they take refuge with the Jorgensen family, and Martin falls for their young daughter Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles).  Ethan and Martin are eventually tipped off as to Debbie’s whereabouts, and set off once again to find the last remaining Edwards child. Will Ethan and Martin be successful in their hunt for their young family member, or have they been chasing a ghost all along?  Find out for yourself in John Ford’s masterpiece The Searchers.

There are few better feelings in the life than knowing that you’ve just finished watching one of the greatest films ever made, especially when it manages to live up to the tremendous amount of hype and acclaim it has built up over nearly sixty years.  John Ford’s The Searchers is a masterpiece in every sense of the word, and has very easily become one of my all-time favorite films.  It’s presence alone has made December’s John Ford marathon more than worth the time and effort put into it.  There are so many highlights throughout the film that it’s difficult to single out my favorite elements.  The first thing I’ll address is the performance of Ethan Edwards by John Wayne, who is an incredibly complex and multifaceted character.  Edwards is very difficult to root for in The Searchers, between his need for brutal revenge, his apparent hatred of the Native American people, and his old world “take no prisoners” attitude towards all things in life.  Yet even without a protagonist to truly get behind and support, The Searchers makes you feel the immense pain felt deep inside of Ethan.  Wayne’s performance is unblinking and stiff in the best way possible, and is easily the greatest performance I’ve seen the old cowboy give to date.  The cast of supporting characters don’t stick around too long with the exception of Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) and the Jorgensen family, but every single performance is impressive in how they handle the gravity and seriousness of the situation at hand.  Hunter’s Pawley is the protagonist we yearn for in Ethan’s worst moments, and it is quite the experience to see the young man grow in front of our very eyes. John Ford’s direction of the films terrific action set pieces is remarkable, never opting to pull his camera away from the most important points of interest.  He handles the racism and moral ambiguity found throughout the film with a deft hand, keeping his camera motionless and letting the audience be the judge of Ethan Edwards’ actions.  The scene where Ethan Edwards and company discovers the burning remains of the Edwards home is one of the most heartbreaking moments ever captured on film, and clearly had a tremendous influence on a similarly moving scene in the Star Wars franchise.  Complementing the veteran director’s skillful camerawork is the photography by the Academy Award winning Winton Hoch.  Hoch once again shot the film in beautiful Technicolor, this time filming it entirely in VistaVision, one of the many film formats that would eventually lead to the modern day IMAX experience.  It’s a wonder how Hoch wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award for The Searchers, but the Academy’s ignoring of the film as a whole is even more shocking.

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Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) and Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) in 1956’s The Searchers.

Ford’s The Searchers holds up in a way many classic films simply can’t, from its unflinching analysis of historical racism that nearly led to a genocide in the United States, to its epic scope and beautiful photography.  Everything about the film still feels relevant and pressing, even sixty years after its release.  The Searchers features an incredible cast propped up by one of the most impressive performances of all time in John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, remarkable cinematography by the godfather of Technicolor, and impeccable direction by the great John Ford.  This is truly one of the greatest films ever made, and no amount of praise I can give it will ever be able to do it justice.  The Searchers earns my highest recommendation, and I implore that everybody reading gives it a chance.  You might just discover your new favorite film.

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John Ford Feature #8 – The Quiet Man (1952)

Poster_-_Quiet_Man,_The_01The Quiet Man (1952)
Directed by: John Ford
Written by: Frank S. Nugent (based on The Quiet Man by Maurice Walsh)
Starring: John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Barry Fitzgerald, Victor McLaglen, Ward Bond

As you may have read in my brief summary post about why I chose to cover the films of John Ford for an entire month, the man still holds the record for most Academy Awards won for Best Director.  He won the award The Informer in 1935, The Grapes of Wrath in 1940, How Green Was My Valley in 1941, and finally for 1952’s romantic drama The Quiet Man.  The John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara starring film would be released to tremendous critical acclaim and box office success, and is still widely recognized as one of Ford’s greatest films.  It’s perhaps most notable for being such a departure compared to the violent westerns that filled most of his career, and might just shock you by how light and playful it initially comes off.  Instead of focusing on common Ford settings like the desolate western plains or the Pacific, the film takes place entirely in a small Irish community and features a cast full of Irish descendants.  It brings with it John Ford’s subtle sense of humour (perhaps more overt here), impeccable eye for photography, and a cast full of lovable and recognizable faces.  The Quiet Man once against featured the incredible cinematography of the great Winton Hoch, who would once again bring home the Oscar for Best Cinematography in 1952.  On top of bringing home awards for Directing and Cinematography, Ford’s drama was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Art Direction, Best Sound, and Best Adapted Screenplay.  The inspiration for the film – much like those in the cavalry trilogy – once again came from a story in The Saturday Evening Post, this time written by Maurice Walsh.  On top of starring the team of John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, The Quiet Man also features John Ford company regulars Victor McLaglen (The Informer), Barry Fitzgerald (The Long Voyage Home), Ward Bond (They Were Expendable), and Francis Ford (The Informer).  Unfortunately for Ford, the film would prove to be his final movie to be nominated for Academy Awards, despite his career continuing on for nearly fifteen years.

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Sean Thornton (John Wayne) is an Irish-American former boxer who has just moved back to his native land in order to reclaim his family’s farm in this tiny community of Inisfree.  Upon his arrival he is met with warm greetings from a townful of odd and interesting characters.  He meets and very quickly falls in love with Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara), who has a reputation around town as a fiery young independent woman.  Mary Kate also happens to be the unfortunate sister of the loudmouth bully Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen), who had his sights set on Thornton’s family farm.  After the Widow Tillane (Mildred Natwick) sells the farm to Thornton, an angered and jealous Will Danaher refuses to allow him to marry his younger sister.  After some trickery by the townspeople, Will is led to believe that the Widow Tillane wants to marry Will, but only on the grounds that Mary Kate be out of the house.  After a whirlwind romance, Sean and Mary Kate are quickly married and Will finds out the truth about the Widow.  Enraged, he refuses to allow Mary Kate to take her dowry, which has been passed on to her by her late mother.  Sean, being American and not understanding Irish traditions, refuses to speak with Will on the matter and is branded a coward by his new wife.  The marriage quickly falls apart, and the locals conspire to have Will return Mary Kate’s rightful inheritance to her.  With a coward husband and no dowry, Mary Kate boards a train to leave for greener pastures, but is quite literally dragged away by her husband.  Will the foreign Thornton confront the traditional Will Danaher and get his wife what rightfully belongs to her, or will he stand by and watch his marriage crumble before it could ever even gain steam?  Find out in John Ford’s Academy Award-winning The Quiet Man.

The Quiet Man was a very difficult film for me to review coming off the heels of the thrilling cavalry trilogy that preceded it.  Luckily, what I found was incredibly charming (if old-fashioned), funny, and beautiful film with a great deal to love about it.  Maureen O’Hara once again steals the show, this time as the incredibly strong and independent Mary Kate Danaher, who is an incredibly progressive character for the era the film was made in.  John Wayne’s performance as Sean Thornton is equally impressive, showing off more of his newly recognized acting abilities and proving that he has more range than just playing cranky, cynical men of the old west.  Thornton isn’t exactly a romantic or strong-willed character, but he’s always interesting to watch on screen because the character is quite a mystery for most of The Quiet Man’s runtime.  The former boxer turned Irish immigrant character works well for Wayne, and his brooding, yet charismatic screen presence never fails to compel.  The true standouts of the film are the once again incredible technicolour cinematography from Winton Hoch, coupled with some very restrained direction from John Ford.  His tried and true method of not distracting the audience with overly-complicated camera maneuvers works wonders, and instead the film focuses purely on storytelling and getting the best performances possible out of its cast.  Hoch’s bright and colorful cinematography is perfectly suited to the Irish countryside, and there’s something to marvel at in nearly every frame of the movie.  The film is also very well-written, especially comedically.  It opens with a hilarious example of slapstick humour that still works today, and continues by giving its entire cast of oddball characters their own unique personalities and eccentricities.  I can honestly say that I laughed out loud more than once during my two viewings of The Quiet Man, something that has rarely happened during my Ford marathon.  It’s clear throughout that John Ford is proud of his heritage and very passionate about Ireland, and that passion and interest in the setting and traditions add a great deal of genuine atmosphere to the film.  Unfortunately, there are a few moments that just didn’t work for me throughout.  One scene in particular involves Wayne’s Thornton giving off some awfully rape-y and abusive vibes towards O’Hara’s Mary Kate.  Not only does Sean Thornton corner his new wife in her dark room, but he throws her onto her bed hard enough to break it, staring a hole through her the entire time.  Maybe I’m crazy, but the entire sequence added nothing to the supposed romance between the two leads, and instead felt out of place and old-fashioned in the worst way possible.  Luckily, these moments are few and far between and aren’t enough to derail what is largely a terrific and charming film.  

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The Quiet Man is a restrained deviation from John Ford’s usual work, and is surprising in how successful it is.  The comedy, terrific lead performances, beautiful Irish setting, and subtle direction make for a truly remarkable and memorable film, and one that has absolutely earned its reputation as being one of Ford’s best.  The Quiet Man was a tremendous surprise, and a film I can easily say comes highly recommended.

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John Ford Feature #7 – Rio Grande (1950)

Rio GranRio_Grande_posterde (1950)
Directed by: John Ford
Written by: James Kevin McGuinness (based on Mission With No Record by James Warner Bellah)
Starring: John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., Claude Jarman Jr.

Finally, the final film in John Ford’s epic cavalry trilogy is upon us. After returning to the western genre after a brief wartime hiatus, Ford would deliver a great many more terrific western films, all of which brought something new to the table.  Rio Grande is the final film in his trilogy, but far from the last good western that Ford would direct.  The film comes after both Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and features the only bit of continuity found in the entire thematic trilogy: John Wayne returns as Captain Kirby York, the progressive and forward-thinking main character in Fort Apache. The film was based on a short story found in the Saturday Evening Post entitled Mission With No Record, and written by James Warner Bellah.  Bellah’s short stories inspired the entirety of the cavalry trilogy, and he would even go on to co-write Ford’s terrific revisionist western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  Rio Grande would be released the same year as Ford’s now celebrated Wagon Master, and would be his final western until the release of the highly acclaimed The Searchers in 1956.  The final film in the cavalry trilogy stars the aforementioned John Wayne as the grizzled Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke (spelled differently in this film), and Maureen O’Hara as Kathleen Yorke, the estranged wife of the veteran.  O’Hara was often called “the finest actress in Hollywood” by Ford, but after a number of films together the working relationship between the two fell apart, and Ford came to resent O’Hara for reasons pretty much unknown. On top of the pairing of Wayne and O’Hara, the film stars Ford company regulars like Ben Johnson as Trooper Tyree, Harry Carey, Jr. as Trooper Daniel Boone, and Victor McLaglen as Sgt. Maj. Quincannon.  Rio Grande was a tremendous success financially, but as with many of Ford’s mid-career westerns, would be largely ignored by the awards circuit of the time.

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Rio Grande sees Kirby Yorke (John Wayne) now on the Texas frontier, and promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.  Yorke and his cavalry have been posted in Texas to defend against the threat of Apaches, but has recently seen Apaches taking sanctuary in Mexico, away from the threat of the U.S. cavalry. Yorke’s diminishing forces are threatened further by the lack of troops sent by his superiors.  Kirby’s son, Trooper Jeff Yorke (Claude Jarman Jr.), whom he hasn’t seen for years, has recently been added to the troop.  The addition of his son puts further stress on Yorke, as does the arrival of his estranged wife Kathleen (Maureen O’Hara), who has come to pull her underage son out of the cavalry.  The Lt. Col. Yorke, not wanting to seem to favour his son, ends up treating the young man more harshly than the other troopers.  Jeff is taken in by two older cavalry members, Troopers Travis Tyree (Ben Johnson) and Daniel Boone (Harry Carey Jr.), who help him acclimate to the harsh conditions of the forces.  As both of young Jeff’s parents want something different for his future, they slowly begin to settle their differences and rekindle the love they once held for each other.  After a visit by the general of his department, Yorke and his motley crew are ordered to pursue the Apaches into Mexico and stop them from fleeing.  By crossing the United States border and chasing after the Apaches, Col. Yorke risks the careers and lives of himself and his young troopers.  The proud Kirby Yorke of course chooses to accept his new mission, despite the enormous odds working against his cavalry.  Will Yorke be successful by risking it all in order to save his marriage, get closer to his son, and protect his fellow countrymen?  Find out in John Ford’s installment in the cavalry trilogy, Rio Grande.

Trilogies are a funny thing, with even the best of them having a weak or flawed chapter or installment.  Unfortunately, Ford’s cavalry trilogy is no different, and Rio Grande ends up being closer in comparison to Return of the Jedi than Fort Apache’s Empire Strikes Back.  That’s not to say it’s a bad film by any means, just a disappointment after the tremendous highs of the previous two films.  Where Fort Apache felt progressive and modern and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon featured stunning cinematography and an amazing performance by John Wayne, Rio Grande features very few standout elements.  John Wayne’s performance is solid as usual by this point in his career, but absolutely nothing to write home about.  Everything I came to love about Kirby York(e) in Fort Apache seemed to disappear almost entirely in this film.  York(e) feels like a completely separate, and far more bitter and cynical man than he did just two years prior.  Luckily, we have a very good performance by Maureen O’Hara to give us what Wayne’s York(e) fails to do.  There’s clearly a reason Ford was so fond of O’Hara for so many years; her screen presence and natural charm are undeniable.  The chemistry between O’Hara and Wayne is obvious, and it’s no wonder the two were featured in so many films together after this effort.  Unlike the previous year’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande is once again shot in black and white, which I found to be an odd touch.  The cinematography features Ford’s trademark use of shadows against the bleakness of the western plains, but lacks the flourishes that Yellow Ribbon featured prominently (and picked up an Oscar for, too).  The soundtrack isn’t nearly as memorable as those found in previous films either, and I sorely missed whistling sixty year old tunes in the days following my viewing of the film.  On the very good side, the set-piece at the film’s climax is remarkable and intense, and I longed for more of the siege-style warfare featured here.  When it suddenly ended on a high note, I couldn’t help but be disappointed that it hadn’t gone further.  All of these jumbled thoughts sums up exactly how I feel about Rio Grande: It’s a frustrating and largely mediocre experience in a package that has so much potential for greatness.

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Rio Grande isn’t a bad film by any means, it’s just not particularly memorable when compared directly to its predecessors.  It features good performances by John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, as well as a tremendous action set piece to close out the film, but lacks the punch of the previous two films.  The story is unique when compared to the others in the cavalry trilogy, but it just doesn’t go far enough with the story for the audience to care much.  John Ford’s mostly great cavalry trilogy doesn’t end with a whimper, but more of a tremendous sigh.  If you’re interested, view Rio Grande at your own discretion.

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