Mike’s Picks: ‘Wagon Master’ and ‘Pittsburgh’

Wagon Master

Available via Warner Archive
Warner, Western, $21.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Ben Johnson, Joanne Dru, Harry Carey, Jr., Ward Bond.
1950.
For a Western that’s in all ways modest (quality excepted), Wagon Master is rated extraordinarily high in the John Ford canon by people who know or knew.
Extras: Harry Carey Jr. joins Peter Bogdanovich on an invaluable voiceover commentary carried over on this Blu-ray from the original DVD.
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Pittsburgh

Street 9/10/19
Kino Lorber, Drama, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Marlene Dietrich, Randolph Scott, John Wayne, Frank Craven.
1942.
For me, there’s at least semi-irresistible symmetry this week in pairing a John Ford movie not starring John Wayne with a John Wayne movie not directed by John Ford, but let’s not go too overboard about it. Pittsburgh, directed by Lewis Seiler, is a trashy wartime potboiler through and through.
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Wagon Master

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via Warner Archive;
Warner;
Western;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Ben Johnson, Joanne Dru, Harry Carey, Jr., Ward Bond.

For a Western that’s in all ways modest (quality excepted), 1950’s Wagon Master is rated extraordinarily high in the John Ford canon by people who know or knew. Joseph McBride, author of Searching for John Ford (the definitive bio, though there are multiple really good ones), says he currently rates They Were Expendable and Wagon Master as his two favorite Fords from a directorial career that merely spanned 1917 to 1966 (longer if you count his 47-minute, barely and posthumously released, Chesty Puller documentary). And when he was alive, my late NYU prof William K. Everson used to rate it close to the top of the entire genre, an extraordinary accolade given how many Westerns there’ve been, maybe half of which were in Everson’s apartment (an exaggeration, but sometimes I wondered).

In lieu of superstars like John Wayne or Henry Fonda, who usually had the leads in Ford’s output from the immediate postwar period, top billing here goes to Ben Johnson — who two decades later would win a supporting Oscar for Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show but at this point was basically an extraordinary horseman who proved to be a natural actor when Ford first put him in front of the camera. If Wagon Master proves nothing else, it’s that Johnson was probably the definitive actor in screen history when it came to saying “I reckon” with full precision and authority.

Johnson and Harry Carey Jr. play two young horse traders hired by a small group of Mormons to lead them out of a forced exit from town (read: prejudiced locals) to Utah’s San Juan Valley. Aside from comely Kathleen O’Malley as a forced trekker who catches Carey’s eye, the cast of Mormon principals is much less suggestive of a future Mitt Romney gene pool than it is of Ford regulars with lived-in faces: Ward Bond, Russell Simpson, Jane Darwell and Francis Ford (another case of Francis’s kid brother casting him as either a drunk or someone playing with a 32-card deck). Bond’s character is subordinate to, or at most a kind of co-equal of, the more geographically savvy Johnson, but he’s unquestionably an authoritative figure. Enough so, in fact, that it’s been noted that this picture later inspired NBC to launch TV’s “Wagon Train” in 1957 with Bond, an enormous success (even Ford himself directed one episode) that continued with John McIntire as lead when Bond died suddenly of a heart attack in the fall of 1960 (for trivia types, the same day as the deaths of Mack Sennett and singer Johnny Horton).

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For just short of half of its running time, the movie is mostly gentle Ford-ian good humor, good nature and good spirits, photographed to the max in Monument Valley and relatively near-about points by Bert Glennon, whose work for the director spanned The Prisoner of Shark Island to Sergeant Rutledge and included Stagecoach. But as we’ve seen during the film’s very opening scene, trouble looms thanks to a fatal bank robbery committed by a clan that’s even more idiosyncratic (and certainly more imbecilic) than Walter Brennan’s Clanton “family unit” in My Darling Clementine. This stickup is the only pre-credits sequence I can recall ever seeing in a Ford movie, and it serves the purpose of keeping us from getting too comfortable with Ford’s narrative deviations.

The key subplot here, which becomes a major one, deals with the Mormons’ on-the-trail meet-up with some affable grifters who operate a traveling medicine show — a small array led by Alan Mowbray as an amusingly effete type who appears to do as little work as possible and treats standing up as a strain. They, too, have been asked to leave town by so-called community leaders, which gives them an odd affinity with their unlikely new acquaintances. Joanne Dru, direct from Howard Hawks’s Red River and Ford’s own She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, supplies the troupe’s glamour but probably won’t for long if she keeps slurping the bottles of the so-called elixir that Mowbray pushes to gullible locals.

You’ll note that Ford almost always photographs Dru in interesting ways, slightly off angle or displaying unexpected body language. It’s less a case of sexual provocation in mind but merely in ways that never fail to surprise the eye — which kind of synchs up with what Carey Jr. tells Peter Bogdanovich on an invaluable voiceover commentary (punctuated by the latter’s old audio interview tapes with Ford) carried over on this Blu-ray from the vintage original DVD version. With outstanding recall, Carey talks about how Ford would frequently take the time to rearrange actors’ costuming (hats, in particular), and that messing with adjustments after Ford had the visual effect he was after was a great way to die.

The outlaw leader is played by Charles Kemper, an actor whose comic dimension might have made him a subsequent natural for Ford’s stock company were it not for his death in a road accident a couple months after Wagon Master’s release (Kemper is also memorable in his final film: Nicholas Ray’s incessantly haunting On Dangerous Ground). Compared to the fruit of his loins on full display here, Kemper’s characterization is almost urbane. The actors playing his sons include Hank Worden, later “Mose” in The Searchers, so you know right there that no one is going appoint him as Ambassador to the Court of St. James. Another is a pre-Thing James Arness in full contrast to the authority he later brought to Matt Dillon — in other words something of a vacant dunce who may not even have the intelligence of The Thing. There’s also one son who looks fairly normal and presentable. He’s a rapist.

Wagon Master was the last film Ford made under his Argosy Pictures production deal with RKO, though 1953’s equally personal The Sun Shines Bright would carry the Argosy banner over at Republic Pictures. Along with an occasional documentary and slightly more frequent TV work, Sun and The Rising of the Moon and Gideon of Scotland Yard would be the remaining times that Ford could go off and make a movies just for himself, and I’m not even certain that the last qualifies in this category given its status as a “surprise” project. The remainder were major productions with generally major stars, which makes Wagon Master something to be savored — an 86-minute low-budget effort that isn’t the obvious grabber other Fords are but which offers something hitherto obscured every time you see it. Career advice to any online movie journalists who can watch any bite of it for 10 seconds and not figure out the identity of its director: The carwash down the street can always use a few extra hands.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Wagon Master’ and ‘Pittsburgh’

Mike’s Picks: ‘A Man Alone’ and ‘The Last Hurrah’

A Man Alone

Kino Lorber, Western, $19.99 DVD, $29.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Ray Milland, Mary Murphy, Ward Bond, Raymond Burr.
1955. A Man Alone is the movie that finally satisfied lead Ray Milland’s long-gestating desire to direct, with him playing a weary ex-gunfighter who unknowingly rides into a dusty town to be immediately accused of several robberies.
Extras: Includes a bonus commentary by historian Toby Roan.
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The Last Hurrah

Available via ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time, Drama, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Spencer Tracy, Jeffrey Hunter, Dianne Foster, Pat O’Brien.
1958.
Both an unusual and natural project for John Ford to have taken on (and with enthusiasm at that), adaptation of Edwin O’Connor’s durably relevant bestseller about politics is instantly recognizable as carrying the Ford stamp.
Extras: Julie Kirgo and Lem Dobbs enjoy some spirited back-and-forth on the Twilight Time bonus commentary, with colleague Nick Redman wisely electing to relax and mostly just listen to the passing parade.
Read the Full Review

The Last Hurrah

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via ScreenArchives.com;
Twilight Time;
Drama;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Spencer Tracy, Jeffrey Hunter, Dianne Foster, Pat O’Brien.

Both an unusual and natural project for John Ford to have taken on (and with enthusiasm at that), the director’s Fenway double-to-triple adapted in 1958 from Edwin O’Connor’s durably relevant bestseller is instantly recognizable as carrying the Ford stamp, notwithstanding the book’s own significant following. If it isn’t the subject matter — male members of Ford’s own family had been involved in New England politics — it’s the idiosyncratic humor he brought to nearly every set-up here, most evident in a wake scene that’s as much of an emblematic set piece as the Dodge City hijinks in Cheyenne Autumn or the twisted Nativity Scene in Donovan’s Reef. Then, there’s casting that pretty well cleaned out the roster of the industry’s Irish character actors, which is not to say that flinty WASPS (they lunch in the “Cotton Mather Room”) don’t get their licks in as well.

This is major Spencer Tracy, career-wise, though Ford had actually considered James Cagney (another automatic natural) and even John Wayne (who might have been surprisingly interesting in this Wings of Eagles stage of his career, though hardly a natural) in the role of Frank Skeffington, a four-time mayor of a city who’s running for one more term in an Eastern city coyly not identified as Boston. The character was famously modeled on Boston mayor James M. Curley, who like Skeffington, had also been governor of the state. Curley was less of a pure Robin Hood than his fictional counterpart, so it was something of a joke when he balked at the book’s publication and later sued producing Columbia Pictures for basically putting him on the side of the angels. Everyone should be lucky enough to rate the big-screen legacy that the tough if benevolent ward-heeler Curley ended up with here. Tracy’s Skeffington is a Catholic prince (and prince of a Catholic), even if his big-stick-right-up-there Brahmin adversaries are ravenous to throw their support behind a transparent dufus in the coming race.

O’Connor’s novel actually coined the term of “last hurrah” — which makes the casting here of so many actors like Pat O’Brien, Wallace Ford, John Carradine, Basil Rathbone, a spectacularly good Edward Brophy, Donald Crisp and four more mouthfuls of their like so aptly poignant. And all of them wearing suits, with the exception of Crisp, who plays the tough but objectively fair Cardinal Burke. This last gets back to why I noted earlier on that this was in some ways an unusual Ford project: You can exhaust a lot of hours looking over his filmography trying to find another contemporary-to-its-time project, much less one that takes place in a major metropolis. And someone enlighten me: is this the only Ford movie that acknowledges the existence of television? Possibly so, I think; I cannot recall what Gideon of Scotland Yard does at home beyond presumably drinking tea.

Not that we get much sense that we’re in a vibrant city, which is one of the movie’s drawbacks; for a film of its ambitions, it’s a little too cramped and possibly on the cheap (though the budget wasn’t puny, and there were all those actors to pay). Julie Kirgo and Lem Dobbs enjoy some spirited back-and-forth on the Twilight Time bonus commentary here: the hall-full glass vs. the half-empty (with colleague Nick Redman wisely electing to relax and mostly just listen to the passing parade). In his biography of Ford, Scott Eyman likens the movie to a fat pitch down the middle that’s manages to get popped up — too harsh, maybe, though this is a movie that’s a little bit less than the sum of its parts (but oh, what parts). I wish it were more expansive; even some of the music, as appropriate and occasionally affecting as it can be, is lifted from the Columbia vaults and the soundtrack to Ford’s The Long Gray Line (talk about a great Twilight Time possibility).

The commentators also give a fairly rough time to Jeffrey Hunter, who, let it be said, was more than respectable in Sergeant Rutledge after having kicked off his three-film relationship with Ford by delivering what I think is one of the era’s really undervalued performances in The Searchers (justly itself, the inflection he puts on Skip to My Lou by is …). I read and loved O’Connor’s novel twice as an early adolescent (but not since) and seem to recall that even as conceived, the nephew Hunter plays is mostly a foil for Skeffington’s quickie graduate course in rough-and-tumble electioneering, which results in a somewhat didactic narrative. Hunter (and Dianne Foster as his wife) aren’t given much to do in the movie, but you have to think that Ford could have given them at least a little more to play with (Hunter does get to carry around a pipe).

But Tracy and his predominantly old-folk supporting players really do shine (all 212 of them or however many there are). I crack up every time the camera captures John Carradine as the cantankerous Yankee newspaper editor Skeffington one-ups in humiliating fashion over the collaborative refusal of the city’s moneyed WASPs to bankroll public works; as I think someone once said of a character played by fellow player Basil Rathbone (also great here), a grapefruit wouldn’t dare squirt in his eye. And the director really must have had some fun decking out Wallace Ford (who had merely played the victim in The Informer) in something close to Buddy Holly glasses, rendering him near-unrecognizable as a fairly friendly political adversary.

This is not, however, totally an exercise in nostalgia. With the Richard Nixon Checkers episode still in recent memory, the movie was savvy enough to envision how media-manufactured personalities eventually would put the end to all the benevolent godfathers who worked the neighborhoods. Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd, which had come out just a year before, still holds the patent on this particular type of screen satire — but with Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump still to come, there was plenty of material to go around in anticipation. The movie is not — or does not choose to be — as savvy with much realization that once the formerly oppressed Irish entered the middle class (and also had official social programs to lend a hand), it was all over for the old school. For his part — and Tracy has dialogue to this effect — Skeffington knows it.

Like most political movies, and especially those of that day, The Last Hurrah lost money; in my hometown, it got booked into the most prestigious of the downtown movie palaces as a solo attraction and just couldn’t fill those seats. And in one of those hopeless lapses in judgment known only to Joan Vohs or whatever folks were placing that year’s ballots for in Academy voting, Tracy did get an Oscar nomination — but for The Old Man and the Sea. Which, by the way, also took home the year’s top honor for scoring in a year when Bernard Herrmann’s mammoth contribution to Vertigo wasn’t even nominated (I could have easily lived with Jerome Moross and The Big Country as a compromise.)

Well, you could spend the entire 121 minutes here just watching Tracy alone and listening to him when he takes his voice down really low with at times a near-mumble. His silver hair and anti-makeup look also cut a striking figure in late-career black-and-white (color, of course, would have destroyed the movie, and I’m talking to YOU, Millennials). As stated before, I wish Charles Lawton Jr.’s camerawork were a little more imaginative, but a lot of the images here are pretty searing on a large home screen, something noticed in particular during the memorable and extended vote-counting scene.

Mike’s Picks: ‘A Man Alone’ and ‘The Last Hurrah’