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’

 

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’

A Man Alone

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Kino Lorber;
Western;
$19.99 DVD, $29.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Ray Milland, Mary Murphy, Ward Bond, Raymond Burr.

As the latest Kino Blu-ray of an under-appreciated sleeper shown at this year’s two MoMA Republic Pictures tributes under Martin Scorsese’s imprimatur, 1955’s A Man Alone is the movie that finally satisfied lead Ray Milland’s long-gestating desire to direct. It’s also a childhood and early adolescent favorite that I used to watch every time it aired on TV — though as recently as a year ago, I would have thought its chances of getting its own Blu-ray were as remote as a guy attempting to bump off his wife when she was played by Grace Kelly. Of course, the actor had done quite well with that impossible concept just a year before Alone’s original release when he had the lead in Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder.

Milland was pretty polished in that one, but in Alone, his Western character eats so much sand that in one scene (the first, in fact), it really looks as if he’s spitting some out for real after his horse takes a fatal desert fall. Maybe this is what you’re willing to do when acting in your own picture, though I doubt if Republic’s famously parsimonious chief Herbert J. Yates (who managed to hack off Roy and Gene and John Wayne) gave him a piece of the gross. This said, bonus commentary historian Toby Roan quotes Milland as saying Yates’s word was ultimately solid once financial bandying was completed, and the actor returned to Republic just a year later to direct the also new-on-Blu-ray Lisbon — another movie I’ve always liked and one that felicitously traded in on Nelson Riddle’s possibly unexpected chart buster of Lisbon Antigua in early ’56 as counter-programming to the Elvis boom.

Though it would be a stretch to describe Alone as an attempt to fashion something of an art film out of a well-worn genre, the picture remains an intriguingly curious mix of backlot jawboning involving a lot of familiar-looking Western character actors and a shaky-‘A’ that largely pulls off an attempt to do something different starting with a long opening without any dialogue. Milland (speaking of “alone”) commands this section by himself, and it’s roughly 30 minutes in — or nearly a third of the running time — before there’s any conversation. Perhaps this was all laid out neatly in a script and story credited to John Tucker Battle and Mort Briskin, but it’s worth noting that just three years earlier, Milland had headlined Russell Rouse’s The Thief, an espionage drama that utilized sound effects and nothing more for its entire running time.

Working from a theme for which Henry King’s The Gunfighter is still the final word, the movie poses Milland as a weary ex-gunfighter who unknowingly rides into a dusty town (and I mean dusty town) to be immediately accused of past robberies and now the latest and most heinous: a stagecoach stickup in which a young girl known to all was slaughtered. Barely given enough time to utter “what the hell?” to himself, Milland takes cover in the first available basement — but not before finding himself just feet away from an opaque conversation that has a bad smell to it. As coincidence would have it — and there are a few of them here — it’s information that comes in handy down the road when he can attach names and faces to their community standing. Which is to say that a lot of the town heavyweights — and in Raymond Burr’s case, you can take this literally — have been up to no good.

Stuck in the basement with a cat, some peach preserves, and gritty pores, Milland is secretly situated well enough in to witness a young woman (Mary Murphy) coming down the stairs to interact … well, hopefully … with her hope chest. Maybe this is why Murphy remains surprisingly sanguine throughout at having a) a strange man and also b) accused killer, on the premises. This is one of those burgs where all the men are either over 50, younger hired-gun creeps or the world’s most ineffective sheriff’s deputy (“Gilligan’s Island” star Alan Hale Jr., and yes, you read that right). It’s also one of those familiar movie-Western towns where the women must be hiding out making peach preserves of their own: the only other female role of note goes to character actress and biddie specialist Minerva Urecal, who was just as aptly cast around this time in a TV version of Tugboat Annie that I used to watch as a kid. Well, it’s a way of controlling the population, though from all appearances, it could use a fresh influx.

Murphy not only doesn’t live alone, but her father is the town sheriff (Ward Bond) — though one helpfully out of commission because he’s quarantined upstairs in bed with a case of yellow fever, another coincidence. Even so, the narrative grips surprisingly tightly despite abundant dialogue, playing out a lot better than it should due to the conviction the leads bring to their roles; even the stock villain (Burr) gets brownie points because the role is so ideally cast. This was about two years before TV’s “Perry Mason” changed Burr’s image and forced him to drop significant weight (maybe Milland sent along a few cases of the fresh cactus juice his parched character is glad to have out in the desert during the film’s opening). Here, Burr looks as if he’s wearing about a 96-long playing the transparent phony his character is — transparent, that is, to everyone except the townsfolk who matter.

Commentator Roan, who seems less enthusiastic than I about the film, notes that reviewers at the time had a tough time accepting Murphy as a blonde, given that she was a natural brunette during her undeservedly short heyday on the screen (I love her as the negliged schemer in Phil Karlson’s VistaVision/Technicolor toughie Hell’s Island, last in the director’s fruitful noir trilogy with John Payne). It’s true that her makeup is distractingly heavy for one just hanging around the house caring for pop, and if the goldilocks look as if they’d had some “help” from the makeup department, they still look pretty good. Murphy also played the coffee-shop/bar counter-babe who reforms Brando’s hood in The Wild One and basically turns him into a “Whatever. You. Want. Comma. Honey” type, no matter what pigment she brandishes. Murphy’s Alone character is, by the way, no sweet-ums pushover but a attractive mix of tough analytical logic and vulnerability. Bond’s sheriff isn’t boilerplate, either; there’s something of a surprise in store.

Though it’s in some ways a psychological or “adult” Western — which, in Republic terms, means that there’s no shoehorned-in song break with Lee Van Cleef, who has a small part — the old-school fan base is rewarded with some gunplay when matters are on the line. There’s even a particularly brutal fistfight between Milland and Burr (stay down till the 9-count, Mr. Burr, you look a little winded breadbasket). During which, Milland (or his stunt double) flips Burr (or another stunt double) off his back. Hernia City.

As Variety used to say, technical credits are “pro” — though even with 4K scanning, cinematographer Lionel Lindon obviously doesn’t have as much to work with here as Jack Marta had shooting on-location Portugal locales in Lisbon (which was also shot in Republic’s in-house anamorphic process: Naturama). There’s also a very good score by workhouse Victor Young that illustrates the degree to which film artists must hop around and go where the work is. One year, it’s a Republic Western. The next it’s Lindon and Young laboring on the extravaganza that won them their Oscars: Around the World in 80 Days.

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

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’