Great Day in the Morning

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via Warner Archive
Warner;
Western;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Not Rated.
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.

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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.

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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.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Glorifying the American Girl’ and ‘Great Day in the Morning’

The Far Country

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

MVD/Arrow;
Western;
$39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars James Stewart, Ruth Roman, Corinne Calvet, Walter Brennan.

Though his infectious smile directed mostly at Walter Brennan goes a long way to defuse this perception, 1954’s The Far Country surprises a little by casting James Stewart as a real hard-ass with some unattractive traits, given that his character hasn’t been personally wronged the way he is in some of the other Stewart-Anthony Mann Westerns. To be sure, he has his cattle taken away from him by an unusually colorful John McIntire in what is more precisely a “Northern” as genres go; the setting here is Seattle-to-Alaska. But this fourth of five collaborations that co-starred horses isn’t exactly akin to, say, the team’s concluder The Man From Laramie, in which the heavies do something dreadful to Stewart’s hand that the camera flinches from showing in full (and I thank you).

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Decked out in a distinctive stovepipe hat but no Abe Lincoln, McIntire channels his inner Judge Roy Bean to riff on that real life judge, ironically played for real and to a supporting Oscar by Brennan himself 14 years earlier in William Wyler’s The Westerner. McIntire, finessing a fictional version, is also jury and even hangman of Alaskan stop-off Skagway — to say nothing of taking a hefty cut from the general store (no Costco bargains at this place) and the local saloon where owner Ruth Roman is around to provide some glamour as well. For reasons at least partly physical, Roman becomes a surprise protector of Stewart after authorities try arresting him in Seattle on someone else’s past charge — offering him concealment in her room on the boat journey up to Skagway (a scene, as one of the Blu-ray’s bonus-section commentators notes, echoes Eva Marie Saint’s future help-out to Cary Grant in North by Northwest).

She ends up on the trail with Stewart as they trek supplies to Dawson City, though he’s really interested in sneaking back to Skagway to take back his seized (by McIntire) cattle. As suggested earlier, Stewart focuses on whatever goal he has at the time to the exclusion of everything else. Breaking with parties also making the journey, he elects to take one path through snowy mountains while rejecting an alternative, not bothering to tell these settlers that taking other route is tantamount to courting an avalanche. When the others elect to follow their preferred destiny, the result is a wipe-out by boulders of snow while Stewart basically shrugs it off with a “life’s tough” attitude because it’s no icicle off his nose hairs. This is basically his approach to life on all matters.

And yet. There’s a subplot here about plans for Stewart and Brennan to have their own spread together someday, complete with a bell on a door to announce visitors who’ve wandered in 20 miles off the trail. Of the two, Brennan seems to be more of the instigator for this, though Stewart seems to go along with the scenario. But any event, this all seems in keeping with the premise of Mark Rappaport’s cheeky The Silver Screen: Color Me Lavender (1997), which found coded gay subtext in everyday genre situations (think of all the Westerns where the grizzled sidekick brews coffee for the hero when they awaken in the morning down by the river). Of course, Brennan was such a notorious real-life reactionary that anyone broaching this subject really would have been asking for it. There’s nothing like having your an eye put out by a heavy flying projectile that turns out to be dentures.

For whatever reason, though, Stewart can’t seem to get all that worked up even by Roman’s smoldering availability — and especially not by a smitten tomboy played by onetime starlet Corinne Calvet, a most atypical role for the underachieving onetime Hal Wallis glamour-puss whose autobiography (Has Corinne Been a Good Girl?) is said to be one of the most salacious howlers of its genre. Actually, Calvet is not inadequate here and lot more animated than Roman — an actress who engendered the most drama during her heyday by surviving the sinking of the Andrea Doria. (I’ll reserve the right to change my mind after I see her in Warner Archive’s new Blu-ray of Jacques Tourneur’s Great Day in the Morning, a Civil War Western for which I harbor a minor sweet spot from many years back.)

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Mann peppers Country with what looks like a high school reunion of instantly identifiable Western character actors who specialized in playing affable drunks, not so affable heavies and others who also could use fresh longjohns. These would include McIntire, Jay C. Flippen, Harry Morgan, Robert Wilke, Royal Dano, Jack Elam, Chubby Johnson, Chuck Roberson, Kathleen Freeman, Connie Gilchrist and probably a few more males I’ve missed that Judy Garland wouldn’t have wanted to be on her dance card in Meet Me in St. Louis. A few of these find themselves here on the high side of their careers, and I definitely don’t think I’ve ever seen McIntire this memorable before, even if his small role as the sheriff in Psycho certainly resonates.

Country got its U.S. release in early ’55 when Hollywood was still tinkering with trying to turn non-anamorphic films into something like widescreen releases by cropping the image. Universal-International sometimes liked going with a 2.00:1 aspect ratio in those days, and Arrow’s two-disc release offers both the film as it was shot and as it played many theaters, one version on each disc. I chose to view the 2.00:1 rendering in full but thought the image somewhat “in my face” and much preferred the 1.85:1 when I re-looked at several scenes in that format. This is good (for convenience’s sake) because the 1.85:1 presentation is on the same disc as the bonus extras, which include a substantive Philip Kemp essay (nice still photos, too); a commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin; the always amusing Kim Newman on both the film and other Mann Westerns (he’s hip to the unconventionality of the Stewart-Brennan relationship); and another documentary on Mann and Universal with an A-team of Alan K. Rode, C. Courtney Joyner, Michael Preece, Rob Word and my fellow Buckeye Michael Schlesinger. Putting all these altogether, we get a pretty good explanation of the fissure over 1957’s Night Passage that destroyed the collaborative relationship forever (Stewart and Mann also did three other non-Westerns together).

Arrow seems to have gone all out here by showcasing a 4K makeover as well. The long shots look fuzzy, but the medium shots and close-ups are often striking, and fortunately, there are a lot of those. So with this release, MGM’s The Naked Spur is the only Stewart-Mann Western not yet released on Blu-ray, and I’m surprised Warner Archive hasn’t given it a go. Stewart is so good here in a role where he’s more disagreeable than he might have been that I realized that I had somewhat underrated Country, which a lot of people do. Blasphemous as its sounds, given its fan base, I’m rather amazed that I’d personally rate Bend of the River the least of the five, even though many good movie minds rate it as best of the bunch.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Far Country’ and ‘The Bells of St. Mary’s’