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’

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Kino Lorber;
Adventure;
$24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Tommy Kelly, Ann Gillis, May Robson, Walter Brennan.

The story’s familiar to you, right? I figured.

Produced by David O. Selznick in the still young three-strip Technicolor process and sparked by a memorable “cave” designed by the immortal William Cameron Menzies, the capable if never really stirring The Adventures of Tom Sawyer gives a good sense of the famed producer’s deep pockets when it came to cosmetics. James Wong Howe shot it (his first color film), and judging from the quality of threads Tom sports when he’s slumming around (nearly all the time), there must have been a Sy Devore outlet store in the fictional town standing in here for Hannibal, Mo. All the better when it comes to getting them muddy, which happens maybe two or three times a reel.

In CliffsNotes fashion but with few substantial changes — for one, “Jim” is now a wide-eyed youthful foil, not an adult — this almost immediate Selznick precursor to Gone With the Wind packs many of Mark Twain’s key events into 91 minutes, though Kino Classics has also included a 77-minute re-issue version from the 1950s that’s purely academic. Huck Finn is kind of a nondescript glorified walk-on, and one can argue that there’s too much time devoted to the hot love triangle between Tom, Amy Lawrence and that new redhead in town, Becky Thatcher. But generally speaking, this classy 1938 production with only a handful-plus of non-cave sets has fairly engaging fun with the episodes and characters most folks remember: whitewashing the fence, dastardly “Injun Joe” committing murder that’s hung on another and young Tom’s daily dustups with Aunt Polly and especially half-brother Sid.

As much as for publicity purposes as anything else, Selznick mounted a publicity campaign for someone to play the lead role, and the more or less one-hit-wonder-Tommy Kelly got the part. He was an attractive kid, but, in general, the child acting is directed here a few beats too broadly for my taste — by Norman Taurog (much later of Jerry Lewis and Elvis pictures), who’d already taken one of those suspect early directing Oscars for doing a good job with Jackie Cooper in Skippy the same year the academy totally skunked Chaplin’s City Lights. Uh-huh.

This said, I do like David Holt’s very broad performance as unctuous Sid, the kind of pie target and worse that one imagines Stephen Miller was when he was of single-digit age — though in Miller’s case, it would have been more satisfying to douse him not with pies or tomatoes but maybe some of those killer red aunts that attacked Chuck Heston in The Naked Jungle. Interestingly, from his IMDb.com bio, Holt was apparently a good kid in real life, and through circumstances, got Max Baer Sr. to teach him how to fight so he could pop a few would-be oppressors on the playground. You never know.

To give the young actors protection, if not exactly sex appeal, Selznick surrounded them with an array of solid character actors: May Robson, Walter Brennan, Victor Jory, Donald Meek and more. And though she only has a very small worried-mom role and maybe one decent close-up, this is somehow a movie that you just know Margaret Hamilton is going to be in, though her hallmark role as the Wicked Witch of the West was still a year away. Say, why do all the authoritarians in these period Hollywood movies, most of whom are parental figures, look as if they last had sex when some social mixer at Plymouth Rock got out of hand after someone broke out the hard cider?

As early Technicolor Selznicks go, I prefer the print here to what I’ve seen in my lifetime of Nothing Sacred and the ’37 A Star Is Born, titles that have always made me wonder just what kind of shape the Selznick archival holdings are in (and one reason, perhaps, why I’ve never been crazy about either movie). There are flashes of bad registration here, but the worst examples only last a few seconds at a time, some early muted pigments give way to some striking colors on some of the costuming. According to the late Ronald Haver’s all-timer oversized volume (David O. Selznick’s Hollywood, a treasured present to me from my ex-wife), the movie was actually designed to be in black-and-white before a Technicolor camera suddenly became available. Per usual, Selznick managed to shuffle personnel with Clive Owen Croupier finesse, which is how Taurog took over from original director H.C. Potter and (per Haver) George Cukor ended up directing a few scenes, including what was likely a crowd-pleasing capper.

The long climactic cave sequence — was Menzies the best, or what? — turns the total rendering into something of a net plus, as Tom (for once) turns fully responsible attempting to finesse his escape with also-trapped Becky from Native American Joe’s (as he’ll someday probably be called) hideout. It’s genuinely gripping and well-staged by a filmmaker who usually had no personality — though, given that it’s at least tangentially on subject — I have to say that I do prefer Taurog’s Nothing Sacred remake, Living It Up, to the original by a healthy margin.

According to Haver, the picture didn’t cover its substantial cost too well; these were not punk artisans Selznick employed. But Tom Sawyer is the kind of endeavor one can milk for a number of years, and sometime in my earliest teens (I’ve read 1959, though I remember it more as ’60), it got a national or nationally syndicated TV showing that the movie’s Becky Thatcher — the by then adult Ann Gillis — emceed. (I’m guessing it was probably the 77-minute version in a 90-minute slot because I remember a lot of commercials for some kind of bread product being included.)

This is interesting because according to her IMDb.com quote section, Gillis didn’t like Taurog and got totally sick of the picture after watching it “hundreds of times” during the original promotional tour. In general, it appears, Gillis wasn’t shy about voicing her opinion, given what she said of her last screen appearance — as Gary Lockwood’s mother in 2001: A Space Odyssey. “Kubrick was a real jerk,” she said. “It shows you what can happen when a director is given a blank check.”

Well, that’s one way of looking at it, though her scene of hysterics in the cave still convinces. Poor thing: If it isn’t those damned stalactites, it’s being in a dark place with Victor Jory.

Mike’s Picks: ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ and ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’

Singing Guns

 BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Kino Lorber;
Western;
$19.95 DVD, $24.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Vaughn Monroe, Ella Raines, Walter Brennan, Ward Bond. 

If Frankie Laine could show up for a guest shot on TV’s “Rawhide,” albeit much later, then why not Vaughn Monroe in a Republic Western called Singing Guns? Or, for that matter, even a Vaughn/Republic follow-up called The Toughest Man in Arizona, which the singer/bandleader did a couple years later for the same studio, even though the title portended a far more severe content stretch. Hell, even Bobby Darin managed to make a Western: Gunfight at Abilene, opposite Leslie Nielsen (I’ll just let that one sit there).

As the studio chief who was also doubled as executive in charge of red-inked actress/spouse Vera Ralston’s romper room, Republic’s Herbert Yates was never one to ignore pop culture exploitation. And there are stories of how fast his staff got a movie (any movie) called Pistol Packin’ Mama into 1943 theaters after the Bing Crosby/Andrews Sisters Decca version of that song gave new life to one of the biggest pop hits of the wartime years once sales finally flagged some on Al Dexter’s initial version for Okeh Records. (Both are still great recordings.) For Yates, who apparently could work fast enough to make Sam Katzman look like David Lean when there were pennies on the line, Singing Guns would give Monroe the chance to sing “Mule Train” on screen for a February 1950 release after the tune’s smash jukebox reception toward the end of ’49.

Trouble is, it was Frankie Laine who had the No. 1 hit of the tune with a couple million in sales, and a Crosby version — think of Bing cracking whips on a mule train — did substantially better than Monroe’s as well. What’s more, Gene Autry, who knew a bit about song-to-screen exploitation himself, did one of his own quickie Westerns that was actually called Mule Train, and according to IMDb.com, it beat Guns into theaters by six days. This was such a competitive business that Spike Jones even did a recording called “Chinese Mule Train” — which, like the Laine version, I have on my iPod — but we will not go there in these more culturally sensitive times, even if Spike did.

Fortunately, Guns has a few things going with it, few of which have to with a plot that asks us to believe that a wanted outlaw (just by virtue of having shaved his beard) could be hired in dim bulb fashion as lawman by the same community that’s pursuing him. This would be Monroe, who reached me as a kid via his Billboard No. 7 hit “They Were Doin’ the Mambo (But I Just Stood Around)” and his TV spokesperson gigs for RCA Victor. He even has a second place in my heart because a decade later, in my hometown, my best friend was lifeguarding at the same golf course where Jack Nicklaus had learned to play on a night when Monroe royally blew a number in entertainment room. After a dramatic orchestral overture, he fumbled on the two-yard line with an “I Left My Love … er, Heart … in San Francisco” as he launched his Tony Bennett cover. On screen here, he’s no acting disaster but his scrape-through is nonetheless dependent on assists from Walter Brennan (“I’ve got three Oscars, and I’m subordinate to Vaughn Monroe at Republic?”) and, as the outside Law pursuing Monroe, Ward Bond in what is unexpectedly one of the better-to-best performances of his career.

Spiffily adorned Ella Raines is Bond’s mistress — the picture is fairly upfront about this — and she has always been a favored ’40s actress of mine by virtue of Hail the Conquering Hero, Phantom Lady and Tall in the Saddle (where, after stand-alone Maureen O’Hara, I’d have to say that she ties with Gail Russell as my second favorite John Wayne leading lady). Also around is Jeff Corey, who was a little less than two years but a dozen movies (he, uh, worked a lot) from a decade of political blacklisting. This must have made for some colorful jawboning in the commissary (in which famously stingy Yates no doubt stocked with all the beef jerky you could eat) given notorious reactionaries Bond and Brennan on the set.

Kino has brought back Republic encyclopedia Toby Roan back for another commentary, and he substantially helps out with location primers and backgrounders on the technical specs — the latter helping to explain why so many of the studio’s higher profile releases looked a lot more polished than their budgets would suggest. Compounding a lesson I learned with Kino’s previous release of Roy Rogers’ Sunset in the West, I will never again take any cheap shots at Republic’s in-house process Trucolor, now that I’ve seen it in intended ideal fashion (Roan says Guns’ source was from 35mm nitrate material). For the first time, I noticed how blue Raines’s eyes really were — a quality that Roan says was hard to photograph. The entire palate here is most soothing, even though in this case, we don’t even have one of Roy’s thousand-decibel shirts to serve as a test pattern.

Yet coincidentally, Kino also has a new release of the Roy’s Trucolor Trigger Jr. (also 1950), which played the Museum of Modern Art in February as part of MoMA’s two-part Republic series that carries the imprimatur of Martin Scorsese and Dave Kehr (could there be one any better?) I intend to look at TJ ASAP, particularly given that Roan is back for the commentary, but if memory serves from a mid-’80s showing on TBS, it’s the one where Roy goes skinny-dipping. This would presumably make it his one and only nude scene — but I won’t go there any more than I would for “Chinese Mule Train.”

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Awful Truth’ and ‘Singing Guns’