February 26, 2018
Available via Warner Archive;
Stars Gary Cooper, Maria Schell, Ben Piazza, Karl Malden, George C. Scott.
Gary Cooper made three more movies after The Hanging Tree before his death in the spring of 1961, but due to varied limitations in terms of conception and/or execution, none of them seem like the “real” Gary Cooper movie that this oddball 1959 Western (filmed in Yakima, Wash., but set in Cooper’s real-life home state of Montana) absolutely does. For some strange reason known only to my sometimes equally oddball-ish thought processes, I thought of this movie while watching Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri — for no obvious reason. Other than the fact, that is, that the tones of both couldn’t care less about adhering to any established norms of their respective genres on the way to establishing tones of their own, which are highly eccentric. In other words, each is borderline unique.
Though based on a novel by Dorothy M. Johnson, who wrote the short story on which The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was based, Tree also brings to mind a second Ford-Wayne masterpiece: The Searchers. Not in quality, to be sure — but due to the fact that this is another Technicolor superstar Warner Bros. Western from roughly the same movie era where nearly everyone in it ranges from being a little “tetched” to downright crazy. Notably, this off-center lineup doesn’t include Cooper’s character himself, who is stalwart and above it all; in fact, if you ever want to see what totally commanding superstardom was, here’s as good a place to begin as any. This said, the poker-loving physician Cooper plays has a rumored deep, dark secret in his past: something involving a not unintentional house fire that killed a man and woman — an event not explained at all until the end and even then with a key detail or two missing. One senses that it was traumatic enough to knock any involved survivor of it permanently off kilter, but Cooper is doing his best to stay above it all.
Meanwhile, there’s George C. Scott playing a phony frontier religious fanatic (think about it) in his big screen debut. There’s also Karl Malden, in a performance that’s broad even for him in those times when his directors let go of the reins, as a salacious creep whose underwear probably hasn’t been changed since the Crusades — which must make it pretty tough on Doc Cooper when he has to lance a boil on Malden’s behind (think: A Streetcar Named Retch). Cast as a near-lynching victim who’s blackmailed into indentured servitude after Cooper saves him, Ben Piazza (who was mostly relegated to TV after his movie debut here as well) has an acting style that seems more out of a subsequent century — though he still halfway fits in, given this crazy company. And co-lead Maria Schell, who always seemed fairly normal on screen other than her tendency to turn on her sunbeam smile too much, plays a character whose demons are built-in by the script. She’s been left badly sunburned and blinded (for a while, anyway) after barely escaping from a stagecoach robbery in which every other passenger was killed. Malden takes advantage by sneaking looks at her in stages of undress, which suggests Donald Trump’s braggadocio over walking in on Miss Teen USA contestants during costume changes. (Trump, you have to believe, probably has at least two boils.)
Cooper tries to take the high road by treating Schell’s burns and laboring to restore her sight, but the town crone (Jack Webb/“Dragnet” favorite Virginia Gregg) assumes the worst about the village newcomer’s necessary residence in the doctor’s shack — a rather strange target, given the fair abundance of gold-town prostitutes around who aren’t exactly trying to disguise their trade. And indeed, this makeshift burg does have gold fever, which is driving the supporting cast as loopy as the principals — enough, even, to make Scott’s preacher smell money, though one never gets the sense that he’s ever undergone any valid spiritual calling at any point in his life. Today, he’d be on some Sunday morning cable show hawking his new DVD for the temporary low price of $2,495, throwing in a 4-by-6 black-and-white of Charlton Heston (from The Pigeon That Took Rome because he got a bulk deal from the retailer) if you order now.
Tree was last in a cycle of really good Delmer Daves Westerns from the middle and late ’50s, and a wonderful live June 8, 1958, edition of Dave Garroway’s “Wide Wide World” (which aired in NBC’s Sunday afternoon TV ghetto; I saw it at the time) shows him directing Cooper out and around the doctor’s shack in a location that’s somewhere between hilly and mountainous. (Findable on DVD if you’re wearing a miner’s cap, the show also featured Wayne, Ford, Gene Autry, Walter Brennan and more — even The Great Train Robbery’s real-life tenderfoot Broncho Billy Anderson, who’d been a long time between gigs but had just gotten a special Oscar a couple months earlier.) The somewhat underrated Daves, at least until the very end, was about to undergo a massive career switch following the coming Christmas’s smash hit of A Summer Place, launching a series of soapers that half-promoted teenaged sex as long as it was with Troy Donahue.
Cooper’s man-in-black look here is one of the coolest I’ve seen, and it points up how much costuming that we don’t even think about can have such a potent effect on character and drama. The actor was probably sick by this time (cancer), but it doesn’t show to my eye, and I love that we have both this film and the even better Man of The West from so close to the end of his line. Even penny-pinching Jack Warner (see Alan K. Rode’s massive but panther-paced new Michael Curtiz bio for countless examples) had bailed on dribbly Warner Color by this time, so Tree was Technicolor (and on the higher side of that). The cinematographer was Ted McCord, who never seems to have gotten the due he deserves, though he shot Johnny Belinda, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, East of Eden and The Sound of Music.
For extra cosmetics, Marty Robbins gets the movie off to a great start by singing the Oscar-nominated title tune over the credits (it only got to Billboard No. 38 but deserved better). It’s also featured on the classic Hell Bent for Leather LP (I bought it in 1961, upon release), whose front jacket features Frankie Laine in a gun-belt. Truth to tell, Frankie was as much of a tenderfoot as Broncho Billy, but he looked the part and even once appeared in a “Rawhide” episode that I saw at the time. Though judging from how Clint Eastwood talked to the trees in Paint Your Wagon, Laine must not have given the show’s co-star any successful tips on how to song-belt.