April 23, 2018
$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray;
Stars Jennifer Jones, Charlton Heston, Karl Malden, Tom Tully.
Preceded by Duel in the Sun, The Fountainhead and Beyond the Forest during just the six years leading up to it, swampy Ruby Gentry capped the quartet of potboilers that formed what some later termed as “King Vidor’s hysterical period,” which I suppose puts the silent-to-talkie pioneer in a special club. Which is to ask, did Robert Bresson have a hysterical period? Did Fred Sears, even if you can probably argue that his entire career could be termed as one? The Vidor quartet is made up with movies for which one must have a special taste, or at least be in a special mood, which means that only auteurists more rigid than I will ever call them great. Though one does come out of them all wanting to yak after spending 90 minutes or more (and in Duel’s case, a lot more) on a trek into places where angels fear to tread.
Actually, Ruby clocks in at a suspicious 82, sloppily held together by its weakest feature: a clunky, spoon-fed narration by a newcomer Yankee doctor played by Bernard Phillips, a familiar-face actor who later became slightly better known as Barney (as in The Sand Pebbles). Yankees are held with suspicion in the movie’s “Carolina” setting — which, unless I missed it, isn’t specified as either North nor South, possibly because the coastal burg that backdrops Vidor’s wall-to-wall lurid heavy breathing isn’t the stuff of chamber of commerce brochures. The provincialism also extends more than even normally to the social-class snobbery toward the less pedigreed of its citizens, for which Ruby (Jennifer Jones) is the poster sex-bomb. Her prowess with a rifle would look good in NRA literature but not at the local country club’s Julep Hour, where she lack the essential cotillion gene. Unfortunately, Ruby’s longtime lust object Boake Tackman (Charlton Heston in just his fourth Hollywood feature) is part of this very set — which isn’t to imply that he’s against fooling around with her in his convertible (Cadillacs are practically supporting cast players here) or in secluded marshes far away from the 19th hole.
As with Duel, this is another movie in which Vidor — probably taking a cue from Jones’s real-life husband David O. Selznick, who gets one of those amorphous “presentation” credits here — tried to turn her in to a sex bomb. This was a marketing attempt that never really came off, even though the actress certainly had the looks to make one consider the possibility (maybe it was a slight lisp). Not un-alluringly photographed in Russell Harlan’s best nocturnal doorway shadows to resemble the cover art in the kind of certain trashy, down-and-dirty paperbacks I used to sneak-read as a kid, Jones-as-Ruby, turns out, is more natural as the hunter-shooter-boat-pilot she mostly is during daylight hours. He frustrating truth is that no one quite knew what to do with her in this period when David O. Svengali was probably telling her what brand of toothpaste to use — and who would have thought that her best role of this period would be in John Huston’s eccentric-plus Beat the Devil? But this said, Jones is, overall, a major plus here and probably the No. 1 thing Ruby has going for it — especially when the movie becomes something of a love triangle and, in particular, a revenge piece after the character’s social fortunes change.
It’s fun, at least mild fun, seeing Heston in those early roles where he played standard humans and not someone always hauling around Tablets. Heston was only four years younger than Jones in real life, which means there isn’t nearly the age differential I assumed. And if there really have to be movies where the main male character is named “Boake,” you have to say that Boakes were a lot more grounded in Chuck’s wheelhouse more than they would have been in, say, Clifton Webb’s.
Despite the moniker, Heston is kind of a normal character here (something of a crud, but normal) — which is more than you say for her brother, played by that specialist in twisted rural creeps: James Anderson. In real life, he was the brother of actress Mary Anderson, who played the cute nurse in Hitchcock’s Lifeboat before curtailing her career after marrying four-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Leon Shamroy (who shot both The Robe and The Girl Can’t Help It for a full career right there). James is best known for later playing the main heavy and Atticus Finch adversary in the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird, and I’m pretty certain I recall Gregory Peck saying in a Mockingbird doc that Anderson didn’t like him personally. Uh, not like Gregory Peck? So if I’m recalling this right, Anderson must have come naturally to the posterior boil he has here — shouting the Gospel, strumming a guitar around the house, repressing homicidal thoughts and, to give him needed points, being right when he warns Ruby about trying to get above her social station.
Released in limited fashion as a so-called prestige project on Christmas Day of ’52 for apparent Oscar consideraton, Ruby was an independent project co-produced by Vidor and distributed by 20th Century-Fox, though I’ve never seen it shown (going back several decades) with a Fox logo. We’ve all seen too many prints of vintage indies that look as if the original negatives were stored in some Mojave-based UPS box — but except for some significant image specking on a light visual background (during a key scene, alas) that looks a little like microbes under a microscope, this is a cleaner and also sharper-looking copy than I expected to see.
Andrew Sarris suggested in The American Cinema that Vidor was a greater director of individual scenes than sustained movies, and there are redeeming bits here and there that transcend what is at heart an amusingly trashy time at the movies — one of them a honey where Boake’s convertible speeds along the beach and into the surf (in a floating manner that would worry me) so that the lovers can do what lovers do to relax Boake’s golf putting finesse on the club links. One major bonus here is the backdrop theme (“Ruby”), which became a significant harmonica hit for Richard Hayman in spring of ’53. Later, after lyrics were added, Ray Charles made it his own around Christmas of ’60 for one of his most indelible recordings.