Canyon Passage

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Kino Lorber;
Western;
$24.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Dana Andrews, Brian Donlevy, Susan Hayward, Ward Bond, Hoagy Carmichael, Patricia Roc, Lloyd Bridges.

So it’s sometime in the mid-late 1960s, and one of the local TV stations was giving my adolescent self his first chance to see Canyon Passage, a Walter Wanger-Jacques Tourneur Western that sounds as if it has a lot going for it even beyond its status as a generously budgeted undertaking by Universal Pictures in 1946 — shortly before the merger that transformed the studio into Universal-International for close to 17 years. I notice that an unexpected curiosity in Passage’s fairly pressure-packed cast is brilliant songwriter, surprisingly engaging singer and sometimes actor Hoagy Carmichael, which inspires the broadcast’s host to ask during one of the commercial breaks (yes, kids, this is how they did it until the dawn of the 1980s), if anyone knows which Carmichael movie was the one where he sang the Oscar-nominated “Ole Buttermilk Sky,” which was among his best compositions.

That’s the setup. Later, my host came back sheepishly to admit that just as it said in the opening credits, Carmichael sang it in this one — though in a way, he could be forgiven. Here’s a song that ended up going No. 2 Billboard for Hoagy himself and No. 1 for Kay Kyser (a super-catchy rendition with future talk show host Mike Douglas as vocalist). Even so, the movie throws it away just before the end credits roll. I’m going through all this because it’s indicative of an impressively budgeted production that always seems to be a little “off,” though you can make a case that some may regard its idiosyncrasies as a plus. Plus, in addition, as noted, it has a lot of ‘A’-list components.

Set in pre-Civil War Oregon amid a settlement that’s pretty isolated even by Northwest standards of the day, Passage was, I think, only the second Technicolor Western Universal made following the previous year’s Frontier Gal. That one was no more ambitious than the usual Rod Cameron picture, but Passage had no lack of casting cred (note the actors listed up top here); Edward Cronjager (Heaven Can Wait, The Gang’s All Here and Desert Fury) behind the Technicolor camera; Ernest (Stagecoach) Haycox providing the original literary source; and director Tourneur taking his first stab at color in any genre between his black-and-white masterpieces of Cat People and Out of the Past. Of course, the visual component meant nothing on early ’60s TV showings because mass purchasing of color sets was a couple years off, and stations weren’t yet even running color prints. Thus, this Kino Lorber release makes for a fairly stunning visual experience, though you can’t tell at first because the opening shot is set of muddy streets during a monsoon.

Dana Andrews is the lead, from during that remarkable three-year run in which he also starred in Laura, State Fair, Otto Preminger’s Fallen Angel, A Walk in the Sun (if you like), The Best Years of Our Lives, Boomerang! and Preminger’s Daisy Kenyon. More interested in conquering the new frontier financially than getting serious about romance despite his definitely enjoying the company of women, he’s part of a situation that we don’t usually see in Westerns, at least as a major subplot: the inability of its protagonist to decide which comely lass in the territory (there’s more than one) he might want to wed, despite not exactly being awash in passion. The same is true of the women as well, which can sometimes threaten to induce viewer whiplash.

Andrews’ ostensible sweetheart is played by Patricia Roc, a major screen star in Britain seen here in her only Hollywood film, though she did reunite with Tourneur back home a few years later for the sleeper Circle of Danger, opposite Ray Milland. Though she and Andrews seem to have an “agreement” of some sort, he also has a repressed attraction to buddy Brian Donlevy’s semi-betrothed (Susan Hayward), who is much more obvious about a yen that’s more obviously reciprocated, though she mostly maintains decorum. Adding further complications are: a) a younger man in town who’s really crazy about Roc; and b) the fact that Donlevy is a very flawed and self-destructive character, albeit one of some sympathy. This is the kind of role underrated Donlevy knew how to play, though he could also do through villainy (Oscar-nominated for Beau Geste); comedy (The Great McGinty); military brass (Command Decision and playing Gen. Leslie Groves in The Beginning or the End) — all top an array of Westerns and sci-fi, some of it memorable. To say nothing of The Big Combo (now, there’s a movie).

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This is a mining boom town, and Donlevy is kind of a banker of the miners’ gold holdings, shelling out crystal dust (same as money) to customers whenever they need it for day-to-day expenses or reveling. But because he’s in heavy gambling debt to the town’s professional gambler, Donlevy has started filching a little here in there from the bags left in his care, and you know that’s not going to have a happy ending. Meanwhile, we have Ward Bond playing the town’s utter slug — one so lacking in a single virtue that I sensed that Blu-ray commentator Toby Roan (who knows Westerns as well as anyone) couldn’t get over it. Yet Bond was such a great actor despite having the most odious politics in Hollywood that the character seems real and not a cartoon stereotype.

He and Andrews have longtime bad history, and the entire town (not just the local goons) keeping egging them on to settle things with a fist-fighting so they can place bets for pure entertainment — not unlike the way the Irish villagers do during the John Wayne-Victor McLaglen climax to John Ford’s The Quiet Man. The only one above all this is Carmichael’s town songbird on a mule; has there been a bigger market for them, he could have cornered the market on all Ichabod Crane parts. When the two adversaries finally do mix it up big-time, the result is one of the most brutal brawls I’ve ever seen in a vintage movie; Roan says that that both actors needed stitches at its conclusion, and I can believe it. The other major issue is attacking Indians (more often than, egged on by worthless whites), and Bond naturally has to be a major catalyst here as well.

According to Roan, Wanger and Tourneur had diametrically opposed ideas on the movie’s tone: producer Wanger wanted more emphasis on punched-up characters, while Tourneur (who won out) preferred distancing the story to make it more about the land and the era. Roan thinks Tourneur was right, but I don’t agree because that approach makes the picture just chilly enough to make it highly watchable but without that ultimate oomph that enables it to break from the historical pack.

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Not too many years later, Andrews’ heroic battle with alcohol started hurting the quality and certainly budgets of his pictures— intermittently at first and then permanently, though some cult movies remained here and there including his Tourneur reunion on Night of the Demon. By the time the actor reunited with Hayward on 1949 for My Foolish Heart, he still commanded top billing, but she’s the one who got an Oscar nomination (her second since Passage). Life comes at you fast in terms of Hollywood careers, something that’s never changed and still true today. For a while, at least, Andrews came pretty close to being a superstar.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Beau Brummell’ and ‘Canyon Passage’

 

Reap the Wild Wind (Les Naufrageurs des mers du sud)

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

All-Region Import;
Elephant Films;
Adventure;
$45 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Ray Milland, John Wayne, Paulette Goddard, Raymond Massey, Susan Hayward, Robert Preston.

My most educated guess is that Cecil B. DeMille’s Reap the Wild Wind may have been Paramount’s third-highest grosser of Hollywood’s entire World War II era, given that the starry mountain’s productions of For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) and Going My Way (1944) were close to the top performers released by any studio in those two respective years (with a nod to Warner’s This Is the Army). But with more assurance, I can tell you that for pushing 60 years now, Reap has been my favorite DeMille movie except for his The Ten Commandments swan song — which, after all, does boasts Edward G. Robinson’s gonzo Dathan and the chance to see hot couple John Derek and Debra Paget falling under the Golden Calf’s pernicious influence and upping their boogie quotient. Plus, one must concede, the artful constipation Charlton Heston brought to every role he played, and in this case, beneficially.

On the other hand, 1942’s Reap has a fabulous cast delivering in the goods via (in some cases) admittedly 19th-century theatrical acting styles — and this is before we even get to the best giant squid the studio could cough up for the industry’s No. 1 cash-cow director. I do wish that this seafaring blockbuster with an occasional julep twist didn’t overextend the footage allotted to an un-blamable Louise Beavers in another of those “wasn’t slavery fun?” roles — but this was an inevitable by-product of the 1840’s Dixie setting (by way of the Florida Keys) and Paramount’s desire to fashion Reap as its answer to the Margaret Mitchell/Selznick/MGM Gone With the Wind. At least Beavers, a la Wind’s Hattie McDaniel, gets to make with the sass while futilely trying to turn the sometimes tomboy-ish babe of the house (here, it’s Paulette Godard, who’d been a finalist for the Scarlett O’Hara role) into a lady. And for that matter, you know going in (or should) that DeMille wasn’t, just on general principles, the most racially sensitive filmmaker who ever lived, though I have always dug the showmanship chutzpah he exhibited by casting Boris Karloff as a Seneca chief in Unconquered.

You also know (or should surmise) that John Wayne had to be hitting the top of the Big-Time when the movies’ most successful director (DeMille’s name on a marquee was more potent than that of most stars) in one of his most lavish productions just three years after the Duke’s breakthrough in Stagecoach. As it turned out, the picture gave Wayne one of the most interesting roles of his career (though maybe not as interesting as his Genghis Khan camp-fest turn in The Conqueror) in that it was the closest time that he ever came to playing a villain. In the truth, the picture kind of splits the difference: Though Wayne plays a wronged sea captain successfully tempted by circumstances to perform a dastardly act, he remains a sympathetic figure and certainly a co-equal to dandy lawyer Ray Milland for the hand of Goddard, who impetuously plays one against the other with a level of guile that’s never totally clear (which makes it interesting).

We open in the Keys with Wayne knocked cold under the orchestration of his first mate — a covert lackey, turns out, of Raymond Massey’s crooked lawyer (think a more WASP-ish version of Roy Cohn in the pre-Civil War South) who’s gotten financially fat from a ship-salvaging business whose services include wrecking the vessels in the first place. The busted-up ship currently in question is owned by Goddard, who’s inherited the business and immediately falls hard for Wayne after rescuing him amid his on-board stupor and protestations that he hasn’t a clue what happened. This is all true enough, and Wayne’s perfidy comes later — but not until after he gets embroiled in said love triangle after Goddard subsequently visits her aunt in Charleston and meets company attorney Milland, whom she initially despises because he’s understandably casting a wary eye at Wayne’s sailing prowess. The two men have some history.

The movie positions Milland as the lace-favoring type who’s good at tony social affairs where sopranos entertain but is actually a pretty accessible guy. In fact, when he throws the movie’s first punch (of many), he actually decks Wayne. The two make fairly civil adversaries, and it’s fun to watch them, as is enjoying a remarkable supporting cast (Lynne Overman in whiskers, not long before his death?), round out the package. In one of those remarkable casting breaks that can add to a movie’s currency with passing years, two of the key subordinate roles go to actors who later became very big stars: Susan Hayward and Robert Preston. This packaging of this All-Region disc, which is among the most beautiful I’ve ever seen of a vintage Technicolor movie, reflects the changing fortunes of its actors, billing Wayne, Hayward, Milland and Goddard in that order. It’s the same order they appeared in when Reap was re-issued in (pretty sure) 1954, and I marveled at the ads in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, when I would have been 6 or an early 7. This is a movie I wanted to see very early on, and it did not let me down (even in black-and-white) when I saw its local TV premiere on a late, late show in 1960.

The climactic squid mayhem probably ensured the smash box office, though if ’54 was indeed the re-issue year, I wonder how Walt Disney felt about its impact on that coming Christmas’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea — whether, that is, it would diminish the newer picture’s key selling point or whet audiences appetites to see additional name actors battling those tentacles. Like Jaws the shark, DeMille’s creature looks mechanical yet cool all the same — and, in fact, Reap was kind of the Jaws of its day. Though even before this “money” climax, there’s a long and outlandish late-movie trial scene which, by comparison, makes the jurisprudence in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance look as dignified and legally stable as, say, the white-wig stuff in Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case or Robert Donat in The Winslow Boy.

As mentioned, this is one beautiful print, and I say this as one who saw UCLA’s 35mm archival copy of Reap maybe three times as programmer for the AFI Theater and a couple times via a collector’ friend’s 16mm IB holding. At long last, though not yet in the U.S, some of these Universal-controlled DeMille Paramounts are making their way to Blu-ray, albeit just in time for most of the director’s biggest fans to be dead. Reap distributor Elephant Films has itself recently brought out the uncut Sign of the Cross and Technicolor Unconquered, the latter featuring the sight of Goddard tumbling down a monster waterfall in a canoe with Gary Cooper. A Big Drink tumble, a squid, the Golden Calf, a lion’s lunch of Nero-offending Christians: in his day — which I concede isn’t always to-day — DeMille knew what audiences craved even more than their Milk Duds and the theater’s free air-conditioning.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Heroes of Telemark’ and ‘Reap the Wild Wind’