December 16, 2019
Available via Warner Archive
Stars Virginia Mayo, Robert Stack, Ruth Roman, Raymond Burr, Alex Nicol.
By the year Great Day in the Morning was released, owner Howard Hughes had finished ruining RKO Pictures to the point where he now could sell it — thus enabling him to pursue worthier pursuits like, say, seeking out the right size of Kleenex-Box loafers that folklore says that he would sport in his lair from time to time. The new 1955 purchasers had been the General Tire and Rubber Company, which wasn’t quite the final word in Dream Factory glamour, so I suppose it was something of a miracle that a movie as respectable as 1956’s Great Day in the Morning made it into theaters during this final period before almost immediate studio extinction.
As its year’s Westerns go, this pre-Civil War love triangle is hardly The Searchers (which opened 10 days later) or 7 Men from Now; it’s not even an impressive second-tier achievement like Delmer Daves’s Jubal, which still remains formidable enough to have rated Criterion treatment. But as an assignment for director Jacques Tourneur, who rarely was given break-the-bank budgets, it merits the “mid sleeper” accolade if you can get over the once de rigueur Indian shoot-out that opens the action and then a Confederate point of view. We’re basically talking something the Tourneur level of, say, Anne of the Indies, Circle of Danger and Wichita — all of them movies I like to a relaxing degree yet ones that wouldn’t get anyone to say, “Let’s go the mat defending them.”
Still, if you like electric color schemes photographed for the wide screen — here the process was the initially short-lived Superscope, which much later evolved into todays’ Super 35 — prepare to indulge. This opportunity doesn’t arrive, though, until after some exposition that finds a Confederate loner (Robert Stack) smelling the aroma of elusive gold in 1861 Colorado. Until some angry Native Americans interrupt the journey, he’s working his way toward what turns out to be Denver, though a Denver strikingly humble in appearance. One cannot conceivably imagine the John Elway of merely a century-plus later lobbing forward-pass bombs — and in a stadium where beers probably cost even more than what Morning’s shifty saloon owner (Raymond Burr, once again corpulent enough to earn his character’s name: “Jumbo”) is charging to thirsty prospectors.
Stack is rescued unexpectedly by a blonde looker (Virginia Mayo) traveling with protective males, his life saved thanks to a shot fired by Leo Gordon (in glorified cretin mode) who immediately regrets his act upon learning that the apolitical Stack nonetheless harkens from North Carolina. Gordon is a “former” sergeant in the Union army, and one can only imagine just how transgression turned him into the past tense, though the other bodyguard (Alex Nicol, smitten with Mayo) is more agreeable. Her goal in Denver, by the way, is to open a women’s store full of intimate wear to service the two women in town who wouldn’t be mistaken for Marjorie Main or Minerva Urecal.
Actually, the only other obvious town looker besides Mayo herself is saloon associate Ruth Roman — she of an amazing turquoise dress that is so dramatic a visage that some fan of this Warner Archive Blu-ray posted a representative still (and in the correct aspect ratio) on my Facebook newsfeed page. Roman takes one look at Bob’s bare chest, determines that boss Burr isn’t the way to go and rigs a poker game to enable Stack to take over the joint. Burr was at the tail end of a villainous tenure that served him (and the movies) so well from about 1947-56 — about a year-and-a-half away from premiering in somewhat slimmed-down fashion as TV’s “Perry Mason.” You can effortlessly envision the CBS purchase order to whatever the Costco of the day was, ordering him 800,000 water pills.
Colorado, thus far noncommittal, is full of both Yankees and Rebels, but the situation won’t last long, and Stack needs to get what he can get from a ton of now-dead claims before more Northern military arrives and makes away with all territorial spoils this side of Mayo’s lingerie. The last situation plays out in ways that result in perhaps predictable fatalities, especially when Stack finds life in one of the deceased mines; as a result, the original burned-out prospector, working side-by-side, balks at paying Stack an agreed-to 50% share for having received a grubstake for a second try. This all makes it tough on the local priest (Regis Toomey), who has to maintain peace between factions — kind of like the way that that clergyman did between invading aliens and earthlings in George Pal’s version of The War of the Worlds. Of course, you may recall that he ends up being melted by death rays.
Adapted from a Robert Hardy Andrews novel that had been kicking around a few years, the screenplay by Lesser Samuels (hey, I thought he was blacklisted in the ’50s) has some pretty fair dialogue (occasional zingers included) for a borderline A-picture from the era. Morning is a type of picture that has always interested me: One where the parties involved tried to go an extra half-mile when one cared or was looking (certainly not General Tire and Rubber). Of course, this one had more resources than others in its situation had: Tourneur, who had cult favorites Nightfall and Curse of the Demon coming up next; Colorado locations around Silverton; 2:1 framing for theaters that wished to show it that way; Technicolor (not the discontinued three-strip kind but at least with stable IB printing, which was more than Warner Bros. could boast at the time, The Searchers aside); and that Ruth Roman dress, of which I can’t say enough or more, other than to add that Roman is pretty good in the role.
To use his oft-employed highly expressive Trump adjective, I wasn’t “nice” to Roman recently by taking a mild swipe. I still think she leaned toward the overwrought, and Hitchcock himself is said to have been perturbed that Warner forced her on him for Strangers on a Train. Here, though, she’s less icy than usual while co-offering an undeniable workable contrast in personality against the more outgoing Mayo. The movie’s key problem is that a key character gets killed off a little too early (no spoilers), and we’re forced to root when Stack locates his inner Confederate for the big action conclusion. The last probably plays better with regions where even fast-food joints serve juleps than it does with a lot of 2019-ers, myself included.
Still, it’s gratifying that Warner Archive has elected to give a picture this relatively obscure the full treatment, including four much earlier Tourneur MGM short subjects as well. However, it’s worth mentioning that at the time, Morning was popular enough to get held over for a second week at one of my hometown’s downtown theaters (co-feature was Bill Williams in Wire Tapper, which couldn’t have done much for the gate). This wasn’t all that common at the time unless the picture was a commercial blockbuster — which leads me to note that two of the other competing theaters weren’t running Bowery Boys movies but the Burt-Tony-Gina Trapeze and some minor piece of change called The King and I. This all correctly indicates that audiences really used to love their Westerns once they veered away from the coasts.