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Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Unexpected Beauty in SHANE (1953)

To celebrate the Oscar season, I'm pleased to be adding this post on George Stevens' Shane for the 31 Days Of Oscar Blogathon -- The Motion Pictures, hosted by Paula's Cinema ClubOutspoken and Freckled, and Once Upon a ScreenThe film, based on the book by Jack Schaefer (1949), won the Oscar for Loyal Griggs' cinematography, and garnered another five nominations: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Palance), Best Supporting Actor (deWilde), Best Director (Stevens), and Best Screenplay (Guthrie).

Not unlike the way the mysterious title character rode unexpectedly into the lives of the Starrett family in late 18th century Wyoming, Shane, the film, sneaked up on me. As a relatively new enthusiast of classic film, I had focused most of my attention on the black and white era--the silents, the pre-codes, some screwball comedies, etc.  Yet, here was this 1950s technicolor Western, previously unknown to me, that after I first watched on a whim due to a recommendation from Netflix (!), I found myself watching multiple times.  Why?  After reflecting on this I came to the conclusion, as I'll share here, that it possesses varied elements of unexpected beauty that make viewing it a great pleasure, and no doubt contribute to its being an enduring classic.

Visual Elements

The film's lone Oscar win was for Loyal Griggs' cinematography.  Certainly the location setting in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, with the rugged Grand Tetons in the background, made for many beautiful vistas in the film.  In several of the outdoor shots, Griggs used a long focal-length lens that brought the mountains forward into crisp focus while keeping attention on the foreground action.
Joe and Joey Starrett in foreground, Marian Starrett doing laundry in rear,
and a wagon approaching, all set against the gorgeous Grand Teton range
near Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
Beyond this, though, director Stevens' choice of focus on the earth with the muddy trenches, plentiful wildlife, and rushing streams, shown at eye or ground level, created the breathtaking beauty for me -- it was as if I were in the picture, and the picture was not a fairy tale  place but a real locale, with flesh, blood, joy, death, and new life, all commingled.  What was going to happen in the film, then, was real, and then really mattered.
Great shot using natural (stormy) lighting, and highlighting the muddy
trench at the showdown between Palance's and Elisha Cook Jr's characters
Wildlife, streams, plains and mountains from eye level
In the DVD audio commentary, George Stevens Jr. quotes comments made by his father that unlike most westerns of the time, the costumes (Edith Head) were not out of some "Western Costume Corporation" all crisp and robust, but were worn and weathered to enhance the realism.  George Stevens had worked extensively with technical adviser Joe DeYong, a deaf-mute authority on Western history, to get this as well as other details of the period exactly right--how ropes were hung, knots were tied, saddles were designed, etc (1).  From the way the film was shot, you, as viewer, felt you were there, and thus naturally had a greater emotional investment in the story.

Music
Long-time Paramount contract musician Victor Young must have reached his apex in his creating and sustaining the varied moods of the film with his music, a blend of new composition and folk tunes.  The primary theme of Shane, "Call of the Faraway Hills", is introduced during the title sequence with a short four-note trumpet fanfare, placed over the Paramount logo, that suggests a bombastic story, yet then unexpectedly relaxes into a quiet chord, followed by woodwind arpeggios, and then the strings that lead into the gorgeous plaintive melody.  The melody becomes the theme of the movie, and for the title character.  We know right away that the character seen riding his horse down into the valley is going to have an element of sadness to his story--he's not going to be the bombastic hero some may expect.  The title scenes and the accompanying music can be seen here:

Similarly, the character of Marian Starrett has her own theme, a soft melodic (3/4 or waltz time) line from the folk tune "Put Your Little Foot", indicating her essential goodness and gentility, and symbol of home and hearth.  This melody is played early in the film, when Marian is making dinner for Shane and her family, and in those interactions between her and Shane that indicate an unspoken mutual attraction.  Marian's theme (2):
This attraction is underscored in a key scene in which Shane and Marian dance together briefly at a 4th of July picnic to a melancholy western folk waltz called "Goodbye Old Paint--I'm Leaving Cheyenne."  The few times I've seen the film I found this tune stuck in my head at the end, even though it lasted less than one minute in the score.  I discovered that it's a fairly well-known cowboy tune--for a sense of this beautiful melody check this out, as performed by Roy Rogers & Dale Evans:

The Actors
Montgomery Clift, star of PLACE IN THE SUN, was an early choice of George Stevens for the role of Shane; while he would arguably have been an excellent choice, it's now hard to imagine anyone other than Alan Ladd embodying this character. Ladd was a major star at Paramount at the time, and was chosen without much hesitation by Stevens when Clift was not available. Along with his resonant baritone, Ladd had a talent for conveying his characters through evocative facial expressions--and projecting both a sinewy toughness and a melancholy tenderness, critical for many of his noir roles.  Those talents are used to great advantage for the character of Shane. There is a scene early in the film, at the dinner table, when suddenly startled by a loud noise -- Ladd goes from a sudden fear to embarrassment from what he knows is an overreaction, in about 2 seconds -- masterfully portrayed in his face and body.

Ladd was also gorgeous, and Stevens was not afraid to highlight this in the film--the camera illustrated something about this character that was perhaps a little other worldly.
The Lone Gunman after the final battle --
wistful that he won't be able to escape his past.
Stevens had the ability to create the right conditions to allow Ladd to fulfill his potential as an actor, and as a result the actor and director developed a strong mutual respect and friendship. Ladd was at a turning point in his career when he made Shane (3).  After filming wrapped, he signed up to make a few movies in Europe, and Shane was not released until two years later, Stevens working over that time to edit the film and Paramount not sure what they had.  (Widescreen was also just coming into vogue and this caused a controversy at the time of the film's release, and beyond--read about that here.)  By the time the film was released to great acclaim, Ladd had committed to leave Paramount for Warner Bros., where he hoped to exert more control over his film choices as well as to command a greater salary.  It is largely accepted that such were the politics that resulted in Paramount not promoting Ladd for a best actor Oscar nomination for Shane.  For these reasons Ladd's career really didn't benefit from his exceptional turn in Shane, but there were positives.  He gained a long-term friend in Van Heflin; and, with his entire family on location, 16-year old son and future award-winning producer Alan Ladd Jr. relished the opportunity to see a first class production up close, and was an avid student (3).

At the beginning of the film
Jean Arthur was perhaps an odd choice to play the role of Marian Starrett -- she was nearly 50 at filming, eight years older than Van Heflin and 13 years older than Ladd.  Once again, Stevens recognized her potential to demonstrate the right blend of pioneer-woman ruggedness and loveliness.  With the right make-up, and soft focus close-ups, and despite a poor wig choice, Arthur was radiant as Marian.  Over the course of the movie, she is shown in progressively more feminine clothes, perhaps highlighting the feelings that Shane stirred in her.  This was the last film Arthur made, retiring to periodic stage and television appearances.
Wearing her wedding dress later in the film (with Heflin)
Academy award nominee Jack Palance was terrific as the personification of evil, and perhaps the only two-dimensional character.  Dressed in mostly black, was he meant to be the devil?  Nine-year-old Oscar nominee Brandon deWilde, as the Starrett's young son, Joey, from whose eyes much of the story is presented, is also wonderful.  In common criticisms of the film many find his portrayal too cloying (his adoration of Shane) or two annoying (he often runs around yelling "bang! bang!" over the adult dialogue).  Well, that IS annoying, but what nine year old kid isn't going to annoy, or hero-worship? A breakthrough performance for someone who went on to have a solid career, though one cut short by a death in car accident at age 30.

Speaking without Words 
For me particularly, one of the most satisfying pleasures in this movie is the conveyance of character and relationships with elegant understatement:  The nature of Shane's past is conveyed only obliquely--for example, the reaching for his gun defensively when startled by a loud sound; his references to young Joey that 'you can't live with a killing'.  In fact, only intuition drives Joe and Marian Starrett to trust and accept Shane into their home without knowing anything about him, other than his apparent strength, need for companionship, willingness to help them in domestic tasks and to stand up to the antagonists.  Roger Ebert, in his Great Movies essay on the movie, shared his fascination with the psychological complexity of Shane, and observed, "Looked at a certain way, the entire story of "Shane" is simply a backdrop against which the hero can play out his own personal repression and remorse" and "Shane is so quiet, so inward, so narcissistic in his silent withdrawing from ordinary exchanges, that he always seems to be playing a role.  A role in which he withholds his violent abilities as long as he can, and then places himself in a situation where he is condemned to use them, after which he will ride on, lonely, to the next town."

There is beauty in portrayal of the chaste relationship between Shane and Marian.  Not a single word or touch passes between them beyond what is necessary, but rather, only looks, and later, motivations for action, can convey the depth of their feelings.  Because of the need to establish their feelings without words, Stevens set up some gorgeous shots of the two of them.  This is one, in two mirror image shots the two contemplate each other:
Marian  (Arthur) and Joey (deWilde) look at Shane from the inside (we see this from Shane's POV)

The mirror image shows Shane's upper body almost ghost-like outside, from Joey's POV
.
The two men working to remove the troublesome stump
Much is made, and rightly so, of the relationship between Shane and young Joey, but I'd like to highlight the kinship that forms between Shane and Joe Starrett, played warmly and affably by Van Heflin, which comes to life mostly with looks and actions. The two men are bonded in work, in family, and in mission against the antagonistic ranchers. Early on, Shane takes it upon himself to start chopping away at a tree stump that has been in a troublesome location on the homestead. Starrett joins him and the two men succeed, together, in accomplishing this goal, with almost no dialogue.  Later the two men join forces with their fists against the enemy mob -- there is a great shot where the two glance at each other with broad smiles as the tide of the brawl begins to turn their way, but only as a result of their teamwork.  When Shane rides away at the end of the film, we are sad that his relationships with all three Starretts, young Joey, Marian, and Joe, will now be relegated to the past.
A brief moment to relish their teamwork during the big brawl
The familial relationships among the Starretts, and the strength of the relationships among the settlers in the valley, are similarly established with expert understatement, but are felt strongly by the audience, especially in contrast to the unease and wariness between the families and the ranching cohort.

The Message

On the surface the plot of Shane pits the 'good guys' vs. 'bad guys' and conflict is resolved by intimidation, fists, and then guns, in conventional Western fashion.  But rather than glorifying the use of weapons or violence, the film surprises in that it is arguably an elegy for the inability of humans to find other solutions.  Director Stevens experienced guns in war during his time in WWII, and came back disturbed that afterward German children idolized American soldiers and cowboys with their rampant gunplay.  He said about this film "I wanted to show that a .45, if you pull directly in a man's direction, you destroy an upright figure....we wanted to indicate the violence of the West for what it was.... (the film) was a Western, but it was really my war picture.  When you ask a man to fight and to take a life, you not only ask him to risk his own life but you ask him to make a great sacrifice of his moral ideals." (1)
A bit of dialogue illustrates this:
Marian Starrett: Guns aren't going to be my boy's life!
Shane: A gun is a tool, Marian; no better or no worse than any other tool: an axe, a shovel or anything. A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it. Remember that.
Marian Starrett: We'd all be much better off if there wasn't a single gun left in this valley - including yours.
near the end of the film...
Shane (to Joey):  Tell your mother...that there aren't any more guns in the valley.

I attribute my enjoyment of Shane to the beauty inherent in so many elements of its film-making.  Others have called it poetic --perhaps a different way of naming the concept--, notably Woody Allen, for whom it is a favorite film.  He said about the film: ''If you were asking me, I would say that 'Shane' achieves a certain poetry ...for whatever reason, probably because Stevens himself had some of the poet in him.'' (4)  Still others find many other reasons to connect with the film, and perhaps it leaves others flat.  I just know that I'm thrilled to have discovered it, and mark it among my growing list of favorites on this classic film journey of discovery.
Director George Stevens (center) with his actors Ladd and Heflin
Ladd, Arthur and Heflin on set
Shane will air on TCM on Sat., April 2nd at 8:00 PM Eastern.

Numbered References:
(1) Mary Ann Moss, Giant:  George Stevens, a Life on Film;  (2) Timothy E. Scheurer, Music and Mythmaking in film: Genre and the Role of the Composer; (3) Marilyn McHenry & Ron DeSourdis, The Films of Alan Ladd; (4) Woody Allen on Shane: NY Times Article by Rick Hyman, Aug 3, 2001.

10 comments:

  1. Yes, you're right. There's a lot of unexpected beauty in Shane – in all the ways you mentioned. It's been a while since I've seen this film – thanks for prompting me to see it again soon!

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    1. I appreciate your comment - thank you. I was hoping that the post might inspire readers to take another look at a familiar movie. Of course, beauty is a subjective experience and each viewer may find different elements of beauty in it - or perhaps none. In any case, I do hope you'll see it again soon, and if inspired to do so, let me know what struck you the most.

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  2. Shane personifies everything that Westerns once were. Artistic, period pieces with a message. This film, Red River and High Noon are perfect examples of true, pure Westerns.
    I really enjoyed the way you came at this film in your post. Rest assured, I'll be looking at Shane with a different perspective the next time it crops up on tv.

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    1. Thanks so much for your reply! I do hope you enjoy it as much as you have in the past when you see it again. It's funny, I wouldn't count westerns among my favorite genre, but when a film is this well-made it just doesn't matter! I need to revisit Red River and High Noon. I really like Stagecoach as well. While it's not a classic, clearly, I recommend Branded as another good western with Alan Ladd. Cheers.

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  3. Great review of this classic western. Jean Arthur wasn't an obvious choice but maybe George Stevens wanted to work with her just one more time.
    I've just discovered your blog and look forward to reading more of your posts.
    My blog is Vienna's Classic Hollywood.

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    1. Hi Vienna, I agree that Jean Arthur wasn't an obvious choice. I expect another actress may have done as well or better, but for me, Jean just nailed it. SHANE is one of my favorites. I was reflecting just earlier today how at the beginning of the movie you as viewer are just set down in the middle of everything; no prologue, no exposition...everything just unfolds and it all makes perfect sense. Thanks for visiting and for commenting. I will check out your blog and add it to my blog roll :-)

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  4. Have you read the book? It is entrancing as well. Really, this is one of the best book-to-film adaptations I've ever encountered. I did a read-along of Shane earlier this year on my book blog, which led me to rewatch the movie for the first time in probably almost a decade, which led me to try out Whispering Smith, and by the end of that one, I was Alan Ladd's devotee. I see you mentioned Branded above -- also so, so good! I plan to review it later this month, or whenever I get the chance :-)

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    1. Hi! Thanks so much for stopping by. No, I didn't read the book but perhaps I will soon. This Is a film that doesn't get old - I can watch it so many times and discover new things about it. I've watched so many of Ladd's films now. I even wrote about BRANDED in my second post I believe. Check that one out. Anytime I can I tell people about that one I do -- it's really wonderful. It's great to find another Ladd devotee -- looking forward to comparing notes on some others :-)

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    2. I am also loving the soundtrack to Shane. Just lovely.

      I'm working my way through your posts, so I hope I find the one on Branded soon. It's kind of an unusual western, isn't it? I've only seen it once so far, but it's on my list of movies to rewatch and review this summer.

      And ditto! So cool to find another Ladd devotee. I do have a best friend who's willing to watch his movies with me, but she's not exactly nuts about him.

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    3. I look forward to your review of BRANDED :-). And for the record, I am nuts about Alan (there's a reason I put the world 'obsession' in the name of my blog. ;-)

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